Opinion

David Rohde

Dooming the Syria talks before they begin

David Rohde
Jan 22, 2014 20:55 UTC

The United States won a short-term diplomatic victory over Iran this week. Under intense pressure from American officials, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon withdrew an invitation for Iranian officials to attend the Syria peace conference.

Disinviting Tehran is the latest example of the Obama administration’s continual search for easy, risk-free solutions in Syria. As the conflict destabilizes the region, however, Washington must finally face the hard choice: Either compromise with Iran, or decisively support and arm the rebels.

The lack of an Iranian presence in Switzerland today dooms the talks’ prospects. Whether Tehran’s actions are depraved or not, its comprehensive efforts to supply troops, munitions and funding to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad makes the Iranian government the key foreign player in the conflict.

“Iran is the sine qua non of the solution,” said an American analyst, who closely follows Syria and spoke on condition of anonymity. “They have to feel comfortable with the outcome — if there is going to be a solution.”

As fighting enters its third year, the dynamics in Syria increasingly resemble those of Afghanistan in the 1980s. During the Cold War, the United States, the Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan each backed various factions in Afghanistan for its own gain. The result? Thirty years of proxy war that killed an estimated 1 million Afghans and created one of the world’s most impoverished, fragmented and radicalized societies.

Newest victim of congressional wrecking ball: Iran policy

David Rohde
Jan 15, 2014 16:37 UTC

By design or accident, it is increasingly clear that the centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s second-term foreign policy is a nuclear agreement with Iran. Whether Obama can succeed, however, now depends on Congress staying out of the negotiations.

Over the last few weeks, 16 Democratic senators have supported a bill that would impose new sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program. They have defied the White House’s intense campaign to block Congress from adding new conditions to any deal.

In this way, Obama is the victim of an increasingly craven Washington — where members of his own party are abandoning him out of political expedience. At the same time, the White House is also a victim of its sometimes erratic responses to events in the Middle East.

Gates, Obama and denying reality in the Middle East

David Rohde
Jan 8, 2014 23:11 UTC

The talk about former Defense Secretary Bob Gates’ blistering new memoir “Duty” has focused on the description of President Barack Obama’s tense 2011 Situation Room meeting with his top military advisers. A frustrated Obama expresses doubts about General David Petraeus, then U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and questions whether the administration can do business with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

“As I sat there,” Gates wrote, “I thought: The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”

Republicans quickly seized on these criticisms as proof Obama was a dithering commander in chief. Democrats, in turn, hailed Obama for standing up to the Pentagon brass.

From Cairo to Geneva, Obama steps back from Mideast

David Rohde
Sep 16, 2013 19:36 UTC

It started as “a new beginning” and ended as “America is not the world’s policeman.”

Between President Barack Obama’s historic 2009 address to the Islamic world in Cairo to his address to the American people on Syria last week, Obama has zigged and zagged on Mideast policy, angering supporters and detractors alike.

But he has stuck to a clear pattern: reduce American engagement, defer to regional players and rely on covert operations to counter terrorism.

Kerry’s triumph may not last long

David Rohde
Jul 19, 2013 19:11 UTC

AMMAN, JORDAN – Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement that Israeli and Palestinian officials had reached an agreement that “establishes a basis” for the resumption of direct peace talks is a badly needed foreign policy achievement for the Obama administration.

The talks are not yet finalized and seem unlikely to eventually succeed, but six months of shuttle diplomacy by Kerry is the first example of successful American diplomacy in the Middle East in several years.

The difficulties Kerry faced in simply getting the two sides to resume talks three years after the last round collapsed shows how difficult the path ahead will be. The negotiations are so sensitive that he and other American officials refused to release details of the agreement on Friday.

Republicans betray their foreign policy tradition

David Rohde
Sep 19, 2012 18:20 UTC

The release on Tuesday of Mitt Romney’s surreptitiously recorded comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict confirmed a sad truth about today’s Republican party. The GOP has gone from the party of strategic foreign engagement to the party of simplistic chauvinism.

The problem goes beyond Romney’s private comments at a Florida fundraiser in May. Repeatedly over the last week, his surrogates laid out a view of American foreign policy at odds with the party’s tradition of sophistication in foreign affairs.

It started with Liz Cheney. A day after four Americans were killed in Libya, Cheney accused the Obama administration of abandoning allies around the world and failing to intimidate Islamic militants.

The Islamist Spring

David Rohde
Apr 5, 2012 20:50 UTC

TUNIS – Like it or not, this is the year of the Islamist.

Fourteen months after popular uprisings toppled dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, Islamist political parties – religiously conservative groups that oppose the use of violence – have swept interim elections, started rewriting constitutions and become the odds-on favorites to win general elections.

Western hopes that more liberal parties would fare well have been dashed. Secular Arab groups are divided, perceived as elitist or enjoy tepid popular support.

But instead of the political process moving forward, a toxic political dynamic is emerging. Aggressive tactics by hardline Muslims generally known as Salafists are sowing division. Moderate Islamists are moving cautiously, speaking vaguely and trying to hold their diverse political parties together. And some Arab liberals are painting dark conspiracy theories.

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