Opinion

The Great Debate

Reaching for a deal on Crimea

There is a disturbing air of inevitability in Western capitals surrounding Russia’s annexation of Crimea. A growing consensus views this scenario as a rough analogy to  Moscow’s recognition of Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia after the 2008 war — perhaps more severe, but still manageable.

Such complacency is misplaced, however. The consequences of the annexation of Crimea are not manageable. The moral high ground we currently occupy isn’t worth it.

Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s triumphalist speech on Tuesday, the United States and the European Union should not assume that Crimea is lost. Instead they should be working overtime to prevent annexation.

The odds are stacked strongly against this, but the alternative is so dire that every effort must be made immediately to make it happen. This means going beyond sanctions and reassurance from the U.S. to its East European allies — important steps, but not effective in the short term. The West instead needs to focus on negotiating with Moscow to stop or reverse the annexation — even if that means dealing in Putin’s objectionable terms.

If it were only about Crimea, this crisis might be manageable. Annexation of the peninsula would provide Russia with the security of controlling the fate of its Black Sea Fleet, perhaps limiting its perceived need to meddle in Ukrainian politics.

Assad’s terror farce at the Geneva talks

Just days before the most recent Syrian peace talks in Geneva began, a report detailing “industrial-scale” killing in President Bashar al-Assad’s prisons revealed the nature of his government. Despite this setback, the regime continues to claim that it is only fighting terrorists.

While their rhetoric is convenient, the reality is that only one side of the Syrian negotiations is actively fighting al Qaeda – the opposition. Though Assad has the capacity to attack extremists, from the spring of 2011 until today he has chosen to target civilians instead.

During two weeks I just spent interviewing Syrians in the southern border towns of Turkey, I found nearly universal opposition to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the army of foreign jihadists backed by al Qaeda that has now taken over many liberated areas across Northern Syria.

Is there a ‘right’ path for the U.S. in Syria?

Key parties to the conflict in Syria are meeting in Switzerland on Wednesday. The participants have been downplaying expectations that the “Geneva II” peace conference — which will bring together for the first time representatives from the Assad government and various rebel groups along with major international players — will resolve the conflict, or even bring about a ceasefire.

For the U.S. government, the crucial issue at this meeting and beyond is determining if and how to intervene and provide support in a conflict where there may no longer be real “good guys,” or supporters of U.S. national interests, to back. This is particularly important given Washington’s interwoven interests throughout the region — not only in Syria, but in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Turkey and beyond.

U.S. support of the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet Union during the Cold War teaches two valuable lessons for the current Syrian conflict. First, understand who we are helping, what their goals are and how these goals may differ from those of the United States. Second, think in advance about the endgame.

Broaden the peace process with Iran

 

High-level Geneva talks with Iran adjourned November 11 without reaching an agreement. Lower-level talks are to scheduled to reconvene Wednesday. The Western objective is a pause in Iran’s nuclear program — stopping the clock and allowing more time to reach a permanent agreement.

Is stopping the clock a good idea? It was done once before. In 2004-5, Iran stopped enrichment temporarily. President Hassan Rouhani was then secretary of the Iranian National Security Council and negotiated the pause. A permanent agreement proved impossible at that time. So Iran started enrichment again and has now expanded its capacity.

That could happen again. But a pause that provides time for negotiation of a more permanent agreement is necessary. If Tehran goes much farther in enlarging its enrichment capacity and beginning production of plutonium, it will be a very short step from obtaining all the material it needs for nuclear weapons.

Too many cooks in the Iran nuclear kitchen

Last weekend, after years of failed negotiations, the “P5+1” nations — the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China) plus Germany — finally appeared to be on the verge of a deal with Iran regarding curbs on its nuclear program.

All except France were ready to sign a stopgap agreement that would offer Iran limited sanctions relief in return for a freeze in its nuclear program. But Paris torpedoed the arrangement at the last moment — denigrating it as “a sucker’s deal.”

France’s torpedoing of the agreement appears less related to genuine nuclear proliferation concerns than with trying to curry favor with anti-Iranian countries — like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – who commission and buy expensive French military, satellite and nuclear hardware.  The lesson in this latest failure is there ought to be a single point of contact with Iran endowed with executive authority over resolving the nuclear issue.

The politics of Syria

Congressional Democrats are in a bind. If they vote to authorize a military strike on Syria, they could be putting the country on a slippery slope to war. But if they vote no, they will deliver a crushing defeat to their president.

What President Barack Obama did was call their bluff. Last week, more than 50 House Democrats signed a letter urging the president to “seek an affirmative decision of Congress” before committing to any military engagement. That was the Democrats’ way of going on record to express reservations about what Obama sounded like he was going to do anyway. Then, lo and behold, the president decided to do exactly what they asked. Now it’s their decision.

Anti-war sentiment is a powerful force on the left. It was nurtured by bitter experiences in Vietnam and Iraq. Obama himself comes out of that tradition. He is trying to keep faith with it by arguing, as he did at a meeting with congressional leaders, that his attack plan is “proportional, it is limited, it does not involve boots on the ground.” He added, “This is not Iraq, and this is not Afghanistan.” Secretary of State John Kerry tried to change the metaphor when he called it “a Munich moment.” Meaning, a “no” vote would be a vote to appease a dictator.

from David Rohde:

Tech, prosperity and peace on West Bank

Secretary of State John Kerry (C) shakes hands with Israeli President Shimon Peres (L) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at a meeting at the Dead Sea, May 26, 2013. REUTERS/Jim Young 

RAMALLAH, West Bank – At first glance, it is a tech utopian’s dream. For the last two years, several dozen Palestinian entrepreneurs have been getting training from Israeli high tech experts courtesy of the American firm Cisco Systems.

The sessions feature no talk of politics. Instead, Israelis coach Palestinians on the latest trends in software development processes, best practices and branding.

For Russia, Syria is not in the Middle East

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with (clockwise, starting in top left.) U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, British Prime Minister David Cameron, next Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. REUTERS/FILES

A string of leaders and senior emissaries, seeking to prevent further escalation of the Syria crisis, has headed to Moscow recently to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. First, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, then British Prime Minister David Cameron, next Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and now, most recently, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon These leaders see Russia as the key to resolving the Syria quandary.

But to get Russia to cooperate on any stabilization plan, the United States and its allies will have to take into account Russia’s significant interests in the Mediterranean region.

from David Rohde:

The devil who can’t deliver

Picture of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad riddled with holes on the Aleppo police academy, after capture by Free Syrian Army fighters, March 4, 2013.  REUTERS/Mahmoud Hassano

MOSCOW – After marathon meetings with Secretary of State John Kerry here Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov hinted that Moscow may finally pressure Syrian President Bashir al-Assad to leave office.

“We are not interested in the fate of certain individuals,” Lavrov said at a late night news conference. “We are interested in the fate of the Syrian people.”

A soldier’s national security dream team

President Barack Obama’s nomination of Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) for secretary of state, along with the potential appointment of former Senator Chuck Hagel for defense secretary, is an important step forward for the under-resourced State Department and the over-stressed Defense Department.

Kerry and Hagel share qualities and experiences sure to resonate with those who execute U.S. national security and foreign policy – on the battlefield and in the increasingly dangerous world of diplomacy.

Both men demonstrated great bravery in war and moral courage throughout their lives. Hagel, as an infantry sergeant and squad leader in Vietnam, was twice wounded, saved by his squad mate brother and then returned the favor. Kerry, not far away, operated riverine craft in an equally dangerous environment and sustained several wounds.

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