Opinion

Mark Leonard

On Iran, Obama’s bigger challenge is with his allies

Mark Leonard
Oct 15, 2013 17:07 UTC

The things that probably keep Barack Obama up at night — terrorist networks, covert nuclear programs and chemical weapons — can often be countered with off-the-peg reasoning: drones, sanctions, inspections, or even the threat of intervention. Much more difficult is working out how to stop allies from destroying what he hopes will be the signature achievement of his second term: a historic opening to Iran. When it comes to the Middle East, Obama’s thorniest problems come not from his enemies, but from his friends.

With the possibility of bilateral meetings between the U.S. and Iran in Geneva, and supported by the U.S.-Russian deal on chemical weapons in Syria, there is a tantalizing prospect that the Iranian regime could become a partner to the U.S., rather than a rival.

It is too early to know if Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is able to deliver, but as diplomats gather in Geneva for U.N. talks, it is not hard to see why President Obama would invest so much hope in a deal. A former Democratic congressman who knows Obama well explained to me that, like healthcare on the domestic front, it would be a bold, game-changing initiative. And, like healthcare, an alliance with Iran eluded President Bill Clinton.

Obama recognizes that there is the danger of a full-blown regional sectarian conflict in the Middle East. If diplomacy fails with Iran, Obama could find himself remembered as the president who took the United States into two new Middle East Wars — in Iran and Syria — rather than the one who ended two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Rouhani’s stated goals seem straightforward: reversing the crippling sanctions in Iran to improve the economic situation and elevating his country’s international standing. Javier Solana — Europe’s former top diplomat who opened nuclear talks with Rouhani when Rouhani was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator — told me that Rouhani “is a rational person who you can do business with.” Since coming to power, Rouhani has taken steps to change the mood. He appointed the intelligent and western-friendly Mohammad Javad Zarif to the foreign ministry, wresting control of the nuclear dossier from the country’s Supreme National Security Council and handing it to Zarif’s foreign ministry. Most intriguingly, he appointed Ali Shamkhani, an Iranian war hero of Arab origin, to be head of the Security Council.

Merkel’s anti-mandate

Mark Leonard
Sep 24, 2013 16:05 UTC

Rarely in politics has a landslide election produced so little clarity about the country’s future. Rather than provide a mandate for the direction of Germany or Europe, this week’s election has muddied the political waters.

“Merkel in 42 percent heaven” the Berliner Zeitung said on Sunday (the headline has since changed on the website). But for much of Germany and certainly the rest of the European Union, the results will be more like political and economic purgatory than heaven.

On being elected to her third term as chancellor, Angela Merkel received more support than any conservative leader since Konrad Adenauer in 1957. However, neither the Social Democrat Party (SPD) nor the Green Party is keen to share power with a politician who was nicknamed the “Black Widow” for the way that she chews up and decimates her coalition partners. In the last grand coalition, in which Merkel’s Christian Democrat Union (CDU) and the SPD shared power from 2005 to 2009, the SPD lost a third of its traditional voters. The party shrank from 35 percent to 23 percent during this time and it has not yet recovered. The Green Party, which has a lot of left-leaning voters, would probably suffer an even worse fate.

Syria and the politicization of British foreign policy

Mark Leonard
Aug 30, 2013 19:39 UTC

Syria’s population — at the heart of so many proxy battles for influence — last night found itself drawn into a different kind of conflict — this time over the future of British politics. After the British Parliament’s vote against action in Syria, the former Liberal Democrat leader, Lord Ashdown, tweeted that Britain is a “hugely diminished country” this morning: “In 50 years trying to serve my country I have never felt so depressed/ashamed.” But is he right to see this vote as a retreat into isolationism? I think it is rather a step into a more modern diplomacy, one where politics do not end at the water’s edge.

Once the dust settled on the vote, David Cameron’s closest ally, Chancellor George Osborne, said there will be a lot of “soul-searching” about Britain’s role in the world. There is talk about the shadow of Iraq, pacifism and anti-Americanism as a result of an unholy alliance between conservative little-Englanders and pacifists of the left. But though these tendencies were both represented in the lobbies of the House of Commons, they still represent a minority of the political spectrum. It is worth remembering that the Labour leader Ed Miliband did not argue against military action in principle, and even made a point of saying he could support intervention without a U.N. Security Council resolution.

The main reason that the Syrian campaign was voted down yesterday is not that Britain wants to retreat from the world — but that the case David Cameron put forward was incoherent, and the political management of the government was faulty. As my colleagues at the European Council on Foreign Relations Anthony Dworkin, Daniel Levy and Julien Barnes-Dacey argued in a thoughtful paper last night, the rush to intervene punitively leaves many unanswered questions about the purpose and consequences of military action. In making the case for British action, Cameron tried to separate the case of chemical weapons from the wider situation: “this is not even about the Syria conflict” he said, “it’s about the use of chemical weapons.”

Do democracies have the guts for diplomacy on Syria?

Mark Leonard
Jun 3, 2013 20:58 UTC

People used to ask whether democracies had the makeup for war. But when it comes to Syria, it seems that it is diplomacy rather than warfare that is most difficult for Western onlookers to digest. As the carnage, dislocation and suffering grow, Western leaders seem more comfortable talking about limited military intervention than embracing the morally awkward choices they would need to make to achieve a political settlement. The problem is that the logic of diplomacy and the logic of democracy seem increasingly at odds.

In the glaring light of a democratic age, governments are expected to deliver moral clarity, rapid action and ambitious objectives while dealing with friends and isolating enemies. But in the private world of diplomacy, officials deal in shades of gray. They play for time rather than precipitating action, they set limited objectives and they often engage their enemies. The iconic diplomat George F. Kennan wrote in an essay called “Morality and Foreign Policy” that, “the primary obligation of a government is to the interests of the national society it represents, not to the moral impulses that elements of that society may experience.”

Although Secretary of State John Kerry has calmed the drums of war and reached out to his Russian counterpart to develop a peace process, much of his subsequent rhetoric ‑ from calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s departure to supporting the lifting of the European arms embargo ‑ seems to be more motivated by the moral-politik of democratic politics than the realpolitik of diplomacy.

UK Independence Party renews culture wars

Mark Leonard
May 9, 2013 17:23 UTC

Over the past week, Britain has been shaken by a political earthquake. The previously marginal UK Independence Party (UKIP) burst onto center stage to capture almost a quarter of the votes in local elections around the country, threatening to upset the stable two-party system that has existed for the last century. Nigel Farage ‑ the Claret-quaffing, cigar-smoking former city trader who leads the party ‑ breathed life into abstract ideas of sovereignty by highlighting the inability of European Union member states to control their borders. He predicted “hordes” of Bulgarian and Romanian citizens legally migrating to the UK. The mainstream parties are struggling to respond.

UKIP is just a small part of a broader phenomenon spreading across the developed world that resembles a political backlash against globalization and interdependence.

A recent study showed that policy issues are secondary to potential UKIP supporters. (Only 7 percent of UKIP supporters say Europe is the single most important issue for them.) In focus groups, UKIP supporters reel off a litany of complaints, both imagined and real, about the cultural and social state of Britain. For example: Your school is not allowed to hold a nativity play; you cannot fly the flag of Saint George; you cannot call Christmas “Christmas” anymore; you cannot be promoted in the police force unless you are a minority; you cannot wear an England team shirt on the bus; you won’t get social housing unless you’re an immigrant; you cannot even speak up about these things, because you’ll be labeled a racist. “All of these examples,” says Lord Ashcroft, the study’s author, “make the point that the mainstream political parties are so in thrall to the prevailing culture of political correctness that they have ceased to represent the silent majority.”

Protests in France are more than a battle over culture

Mark Leonard
Apr 22, 2013 16:04 UTC

In many of the same French squares and streets that were occupied in the general strikes of 1968, a new generation has been re-inventing the art of protest for the age of Twitter. Their focus has been opposing a law that would legalize gay marriage, which is expected to pass a final legislative hurdle on Tuesday. Although the protests may be misdirected, they are a symptom of the crisis this generation faces in influencing its government and economy in France.

For a generation that is staring at a “lost decade” of economic stagnation and joblessness, this protest seems like a form of escapism to observers. With economic and political spheres surrendered to global markets and German politicians, the protesters may be trying to reclaim ownership of the cultural sphere by seizing on the gay marriage proposal. This desire for individuality within the euro zone was, in fact, the same effort that led the French government to introduce the proposal in the first place.

This predominantly Catholic revolution without leaders has spawned a new organization – le Printemps Français, or the French Spring – that compares the fight against gay marriage to the Arab Spring uprisings that began in 2010.

Revolt of the technocrats

Mark Leonard
Apr 17, 2013 20:37 UTC

BERLIN ‑ Of the most dangerous sentences a politician can utter, one must be, “There is no alternative.” Or, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel says, the situation is alternativlos.

A group of German political activists who gathered this weekend to launch an anti-euro party is betting that Merkel’s refusal to countenance change will provide fertile ground for opposition. Although most people in Berlin think Merkel will be re-elected in the general election in September, a growing number of political forces are lining up to define an alternative to her policies in Europe.

Merkel has managed to contain the threat to austerity represented by international leaders such as François Hollande, Mario Monti and Mariano Rajoy. At home, in spite of growing hostility to the euro among the public, none of the mainstream parties dissent from Merkel’s dedication to the euro. Merkel’s more dangerous opponents come from outside the established political terrain.

The Europeanization of America

Mark Leonard
Feb 25, 2013 20:52 UTC

For her first overseas trip as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton went to Asia. For his first trip, John Kerry chose Europe. His choice is partly a result of his strong connections across the Atlantic and partly a move against the frustrations U.S. diplomats have faced in places like Beijing. Kerry’s choice also speaks to a remarkable narrowing of the Atlantic, which culminated in Obama’s championing of a transatlantic free-trade agreement in his State of the Union address this month.

Only 10 years ago, Europe and the U.S. were meant to be so different that not only did they have different views, but they viewed each other as if from different planets. Politically and militarily, the author Robert Kagan claimed, Americans were from Mars and Europeans from Venus. American commentators used to routinely denounce European economies for being closed, backward-looking and missing the wave of the future. Germany was still seen as the sick man of Europe, and it was the subject of ridicule for the way it was wedded to an industrial economy in a post-industrial age. What a difference a decade can make.

As a European in Washington, I have spent much of the past few weeks listening to pillars of the American foreign policy and economic establishments. I am struck by how many of today’s U.S. debates mirror those in Europe. These two giant economies are no longer as different as they once were.

The State of the Union and the end of persuasion

Mark Leonard
Feb 13, 2013 23:32 UTC

Children grow up learning that politics is the “art of persuasion.” Ideas, arguments and facts can clash through debate and lead to policy choices. Although Barack Obama’s prodigious oratorical skills recall politicians of centuries past, the purpose of his rhetoric is different. His goal is not to change minds but to identify all the people who already agree with him and painstakingly craft a governing majority out of their atomized preferences.

With his State of the Union address, President Obama combined the two most powerful tactics of modern politics – big speeches and big data – to spur political action.

President Bill Clinton’s aides once talked about a “permanent campaign,” but that seems laconic compared to Obama’s fusion of campaigning and governing. The group Organizing for America held  a conference call with Obama’s supporters after the speech, and Obama set  off on a three-city tour to North Carolina, Georgia and Illinois, all states that have Republican governors. The point of this flanking campaign is not to change minds but to mobilize voters.

Cameron’s backward-looking speech

Mark Leonard
Jan 23, 2013 21:33 UTC

Britain is at a fork in the road with a choice to make about what role it will play in the 21st century. Yet, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron’s long-awaited speech about Europe is a miscalculation that will leave everyone frustrated.

With the speech, British euro-skeptics are denied an immediate referendum on EU membership, and pro-Europeans in Britain will lose their voice in the debate about Europe’s future while their country’s energy is wasted on renegotiating existing powers. Meanwhile, the rest of the world will have to deal with a quest for special treatment rather than have a reliable British partner at a time of uncertainty. Worst of all, Cameron’s promise to go for a cosmetic renegotiation followed by a campaign to stay in the EU is designed to obscure rather than resolve the fundamental dilemma facing his compatriots – a choice between two radically different British futures.

On the one hand, the euro-skeptics, who have held Cameron hostage in parliamentary votes on Europe, have a clear agenda. They have set out a modern argument that is very different from the blimpish isolationism of past decades. In the place of old arguments about European super-states destroying British sovereignty, they have an entirely new narrative of a Britain “tethered to the corpse” of the euro zone. They claim that the single market ties British business in red tape; the Customs Union holds Britain hostage to the protectionist lobbies of all member states; and the free movement of people is flooding its labor market with immigrants. The EU seems a fossilized relic of the 20th century in a new digital world. What matters to the skeptics, in the words of conservative columnist Matthew d’Ancona for GQ, is “not post-colonial reach or the ability to fight alongside America in military interventions, but the real freedom to trade globally.” He concludes: “What is so bad about being a new Singapore off the shore of Europe?”

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