The Buzz

America's Palestine Refugee Policy Is Insane

The Buzz

One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. By any measurement, Western policy towards United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the internationally funded agency for Palestinian “refugees,” meets that definition. One example is the newly released 2015 State Department Framework for Cooperation Between UNRWA and the U.S.

This exercise in repetition occurred in the wake of a war that again exposed UNRWA’s unsavory and illegal activities, from being “shocked” that its schools were used to store Hamas’ rockets and rote condemnations of Israel, to its employees cheering the murder of Israelis. The framework nevertheless represents the American commitment to prolong the existence of UNRWA, established almost exactly 65 years ago.

The bulk of the document deals with UNRWA management. For example, there are the “15 objectives of the Medium Term Strategy” and the “Development of Strategic Response Plans for each of UNRWA’s five fields of operation through a consultative process.” The document also speaks of the “Continued implementation of ongoing management reforms, particularly in the areas of results-based management, resource mobilization, human resources, transition to and management of a new enterprise resource planning (ERP) data management system, and internal communications.”

These reflect the professionalization of UNRWA from a temporary relief organization into a multifaceted international organization dealing with Palestinian “basic education, health, relief and social services, microcredit, camp improvement and infrastructure and other assistance,” and “human development of Palestinian refugees by improving living conditions, economic potential, livelihoods, access, and human rights.” In other words, all the things that a Palestinian state should be doing for its citizens at home and outside its borders.

They also take for granted that UNRWA will not only continue to exist through at least 2021 (the end of the next five year planning cycle,) but will also grow in both scope and size, then and beyond. There is no talk about limiting UNRWA’s operations, or turning responsibilities over to the Palestinian Authority or to countries that host Palestinian “refugees.” In fact, the only talk about an end to UNRWA is the boilerplate statement that “The goal of U.S. support to UNRWA is to ensure that Palestinian refugees live in dignity with an enhanced human development potential until a comprehensive and just solution is secured.” Left unsaid is the fact that only the United Nations General Assembly can dissolve UNRWA, and that body’s definition of a “comprehensive and just solution” to the Arab-Israeli conflict is unlikely to be realized anytime soon, if ever.

The Framework does make a sideways nod to the reality that the 2014 Gaza War generated some bad publicity for UNRWA, during the course of which American legislators demanded investigations into how Hamas weapons found their way into UNRWA schools. For the State Department the matter is pressing particularly given that Section 301(c) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (amended) states that “No contributions by the United States shall be made to (UNRWA) except on the condition that (UNRWA) take all possible measures to assure than no part of the United States contribution shall be used to furnish assistance to any refugee who is receiving military training as a member of the so-called Palestine Liberation Army or any other guerilla-type organization or who has engaged in any act of terrorism.”

Thus the new Framework states:

“The United States and UNRWA share concerns about the threat of terrorism, including within the context of the United Nation’s firm commitment to counter terrorism and the conditions on U.S. contributions to UNRWA under section 301(c). To this end, UNRWA is committed to taking all possible measures to ensure that funding provided by the United States to support UNRWA is not used to provide assistance to, or otherwise support, terrorists or terrorist organizations.

The United States and UNRWA intend to continue to work together throughout 2015 to enhance collaboration and communication on issues related to conformance with conditions on U.S. contributions to UNRWA as detailed in section 301(c). The United States supports UNRWA’s policy to take all possible measures to ensure that staff members understand and fulfill their obligations, under Agency Rules and Regulations, to refrain from prohibited outside activities.”

This constitutes an UNRWA commitment to update its human resources manuals, nothing more. There is no mention of UNRWA’s refusal to use U.S. or Israeli terror watch lists to ensure any commitment to combat terrorism.

The unreality is compounded by the still more ludicrous statement that the U.S. “notes with appreciation efforts taken by UNRWA during the course of 2014 to strengthen the Agency’s neutrality compliance, including but not limited to the development of social media guidelines for official UNRWA communications…”

Whether the UNRWA spokesman crying on camera while being interviewed constitutes “neutrality compliance” is unclear, as is the celebration of the recent Jerusalem murders of rabbis on the Facebook pages of UNRWA teachers. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect UNRWA employees, the vast majority of whom are Palestinian, to express neutrality. But if that is the case, then the Framework’s endorsement of “UNRWA’s human rights, conflict resolution, and tolerance education program” may also be questioned, or at least its implementation.

But a deeper look at the document and the background of the American commitment to UNRWA suggests another vast disconnect. The framework states “All U.S. foreign assistance programs are required to demonstrate performance and accountability, and clearly link programming and funding directly to U.S. policy goals.” How prolonging the Palestinian “refugee” issue through the permanent institutionalizing of UNRWA serves U.S. policy goals is mystifying.

Beyond that, UNRWA officials at the top continue to defend the Palestinian “right of return,” in speeches as well as on official web pages, not to mention its pervasive promotion in UNRWA schools. How does promoting the Palestinian ideology that they are entitled to return to places once occupied by parents, grandparents and great-grandparents which are now in Israel, and in the process transform Israel into a Jewish minority state, serve U.S. policy, much less the cause of peace?

The new U.S.-UNRWA Framework is foreign policy by inertia. In 2013 that inertia cost $294,023,401, the amount of the U.S. contribution to UNRWA (in addition to $356,700,000 in aid to the Palestinian Authority). U.S. support to UNRWA kept Palestinians in stasis, promoted Palestinian rejectionism, and did not advance the cause of peace, or U.S. policy.

Asaf Romirowsky is an adjunct fellow at the Middle East Forum. Alexander Joffe is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow of the Middle East Forum. They are co-authors of the book Religion, Politics, and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief.

Image:Wikimedia/DFID/ CC by 2.0​

TopicsPolitics RegionsMiddle East

The Most Dangerous Nuclear Threat No One Is Talking About

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While Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs are all the rage these days, the most dangerous nuclear threat facing the world continues to go largely unnoticed.

Namely, China and India are both on the cusp of deploying multiple independently targetable reentry (MIRV) vehicles on their ballistic missiles, a development that is likely to have profound, far-reaching consequences for the region and beyond.

MIRVed missiles carry payloads of several nuclear warheads each capable of being directed at a different set of targets. They are considered extremely destabilizing to the strategic balance primarily because they place a premium on striking first and create a “use em or lose em” nuclear mentality.

Along with being less vulnerable to anti-ballistic missile systems, this is true for two primary reasons. First, and most obviously, a single MIRVed missile can be used to eliminate numerous enemy nuclear sites simultaneously. Thus, theoretically at least, only a small portion of an adversary’s missile force would be necessary to completely eliminate one’s strategic deterrent. Secondly, MIRVed missiles enable countries to use cross-targeting techniques of employing two or more missiles against a single target, which increases the kill probability.

In other words, MIRVs are extremely destabilizing because they make adversary’s nuclear arsenals vulnerable to being wiped out in a surprise first strike. To compensate for this fact, states must come up with innovative ways to secure their deterrent from an enemy first strike. This usually entails increasing the size of one’s arsenal, and further dispersing to make it more difficult for an enemy to conduct a successful first strike. For example, when the U.S. first deployed MIRVed missiles in 1968, the Soviet Union had less than 10,000 nuclear warheads. A decade later, however, it had over 25,000 (of course, the Soviet Union deploying its own MIRVed missiles incentivized expanding the size of its arsenal since more warheads were needed per missile).

With regards to China and India, then, the introduction of MIRVed missiles could have profound consequences of both of their nuclear postures. One of the most remarkable aspects of every nuclear state not named Russia or the United States is they have relied on an extremely small nuclear arsenal to meet their deterrent needs. This is especially true of India and China who have generally maintained minimum deterrence and no-first use doctrines. With the introduction of countervailing MIRVed missiles, however, there will be strong incentives on both sides to vastly increase the size of their arsenals if any to guard against the threat of a first strike by the other side.

Of course, the consequences of China and India acquiring MIRVed missiles would not be limited to those states alone. Most obviously, India’s acquisition of MIRVed missiles would immediately threaten the survivability of Pakistan’s nuclear forces. In the short-term, this will probably result in Islamabad further dispersing its nuclear arsenal, which in general will leave it more vulnerable to Islamist terrorist groups in the country. Over the long-term, Pakistan will feel pressure to expand the size of its arsenal as well as acquire MIRVed capabilities of its own.

The same pressures will be felt in Moscow. Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia has relied on its vast nuclear arsenal to compensate for its relative conventional weakness. In the eyes of Russian leaders, this will only grow more necessary as China continues to modernize its conventional military forces. Currently, Russia holds vastly more nuclear warheads than China, which is a source of relief for Moscow. As China MIRVs its missiles, however, as well as likely builds up the size of its arsenal, Moscow will see its nuclear superiority over Beijing rapidly erode. It can be counted on to respond by abrogating its arms control treaties with the United States, and expanding its own arsenal as well. In such a situation, a U.S. president would come under enormous domestic pressure to meet Russia’s buildup warhead for warhead.

Thus, while the prospect of North Korea and Iran acquiring operationalized nuclear arsenals may be concerning, China and India’s MIRVed missiles present far greater threats to the world.

Zachary Keck is the managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

Image: Wikimedia

TopicsSecurityNuclear Weapons RegionsAsia-Pacific

Turkey's Strategic Choices

The Buzz

Over the last few weeks, a number of prominent world leaders have called on Turkey.

Late in November, for example, Vice President Joe Biden was in Turkey to discuss cooperating against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. His visit was followed by that of Russian President Vladimir Putin. This month it was Frederica Mogherini’s turn, the European Union’s new foreign policy chief. Her visit coincided with ones by Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskite, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who also holds the presidency of the European Council.

Clearly, Turkey is in high demand, but which way will Turkey actually go: East or West. East represents a world with an emphasis on sovereign democracy, state capitalism, authoritarianism, populism and the rise of religiously driven nationalism, in contrast to a West traditionally associated with liberal democracy and markets predicated on the rule of law, transparency, and accountability. Here Putin’s Russia offers a good approximation of the East compared to the transatlantic community which represents the West. It will be important to sustain the pace of these visits from members of the transatlantic community and match them with deeds to revitalize Turkey’s relations with the West, especially economic ties.

It is no surprise that Turkey is in high demand. It sits in the midst of a neighborhood in a chronic state of upheaval. Across the Black Sea, Putin’s Russia has annexed Crimea and continues to destabilize eastern Ukraine. Furthermore, Russia continues to perpetuate frozen conflicts of the post-Soviet space from Transnistria in Moldova to Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia and Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan.

However, no challenge has been greater for Turkey than the instability in Iraq and Syria. Turkey is hosting a refugee population fast approaching two million and is far from seeing the moderate opposition gain the upper hand and replace Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. Instead, the emergence of IS has further exacerbated the situation and led to Turkey being portrayed in Western media as both a key player in efforts to “degrade and ultimately defeat” IS as well as a spoiler of these efforts. The latter portrayal is often based in part on Turkey’s reluctance to support the Kurdish resistance to IS’s onslaught on the Kurdish town of Kobani located on the Syrian-Turkish border.  Some have gone so far as to accuse Turkey of directly assisting IS.

The need to improve relations with Turkey and better coordinate the fight against IS brought Biden to Turkey. The visit came on the heels of deep policy differences between the U.S. and Turkey over how to deal with IS. The U.S. emphasized the immediate threat from IS and the need for Turkey to be more forthcoming in its support to defeat IS militarily. For his part, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted on the need to create no-fly zones along the Turkish border to increase pressure on al-Assad and bring about regime change.

These differences brought bilateral relations to a new low when Biden claimed publicly that Erdogan had privately recognized Turkey’s failed policies in Syria. This remark precipitated denials and calls for an apology from the Turkish side. Nevertheless, the threat from IS and the growing instability in the Middle East elicited a more pragmatic approach from both sides, as was captured by Biden when he stated, “We need Turkey. And I think Turkey believes that they need us, as well.” Time will tell whether his remarks will translate into action on the ground and if these two allies will be able to transcend their differences and achieve greater strategic cooperation.

Russian President Putin’s visit to Turkey occurred within a week of Biden’s departure, against the backdrop of Turkey minimizing its criticisms of Putin on Crimea and Ukraine.  Such a response is very puzzling, particularly because “territorial integrity” has long been a sacrosanct principle of Turkish political culture. Turkish citizens have long been warned about conspiracies threatening Turkey’s territorial integrity and unity. Turkey’s silence is all the more puzzling considering that there is a large minority of Tatars in Crimea with close ethnic, historical and religious ties to Turkey. Much more conspicuously, in Syria, Russia and Turkey hold diametrically opposed policies: Putin has been unrelenting in his support for al-Assad, while Erdogan has been a virulent opponent and considers any attempts to compromise with him as amounting to treachery.

Turkey’s silence on Crimea is likely due in no small part to its massive dependence on Russian energy, especially natural gas. Prospects of Russian gas, coupled with Russia’s capacity to interrupt gas and petroleum flows through the South Caucasus, clearly weighs heavily on Turkey’s stance on Russia. Furthermore, Turkey runs a massive trade deficit with Russia and can only balance it partly with income from Russian tourism in Turkey and with Turkish companies doing business in Russia. Thus, maintaining good relations with Russia has become an economic sine quo non for Turkey.

There is much to be said about Putin’s leadership style and anti-Western rhetoric, which endears him to Erdogan and, to some extent, the Turkish public. One fascinating manifestation of this came at a previous meeting between the two leaders in St. Petersburg in November 2013. During a press conference, in response to a comment by Putin that “Turkey [had] great experience in EU talks,” Erdogan said, “You are right. Fifty years of experience is not easy. Allow us into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and save us from this trouble.”

Clearly, Putin has been clever in exploiting Turkey’s grievances. For example, following recent EU economic sanctions on Russia, Putin offered Erdogan the possibility of greater exports to Russia, allowing him to mitigate the impact of sanctions on consumer goods while simultaneously whetting the appetite of Turkish businesses that have lost markets in the Middle East. This has been accompanied by a promise to replace the cancelled South Stream natural gas pipeline project with an alternative one to carry gas to Europe via Turkey. As can be seen, then, Putin is trying to entice Turkey away from the West and increase its dependence on Russia.

It is against this backdrop that Mogherini’s visit becomes strategically important. Turkey’s problematic relations with the EU have been captured by a standstill in accession negotiations. Technically, for Turkish accession to be completed, 33 chapters representing the EU acquis, the corpus of EU laws and policies, have to be negotiated and closed. Croatia, which began accession negotiations together with Turkey in 2005, completed them in late 2011 and became a fully-fledged member of the EU in July of this year. In Turkey’s case, eight chapters were suspended in December 2006 by the EU while another nine chapters are being blocked by France, Cyprus, Germany and Austria. It was only last summer that the 14th chapter was finally opened for negotiations after stalling back in 2010.

However, the chaos surrounding Turkey is pushing both sides closer together. This fall, both sides expressed their will to revive relations.  Ahead of her visit to Turkey, for instance, Mogherini emphasized the strategic importance of EU-Turkish relations while Johannes Kahn, the Commissioner for the EU’s Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement, stressed the EU’s determination to get accession negotiations with Turkey back on track. Similarly, an October 2014 EU document stated that, “active and credible accession negotiations provide the most suitable framework for exploiting the full potential of EU-Turkey relations.” A similar sentiment came from Ankara when Erdogan announced that 2014 would be the year in which the EU and Turkey committed to revive the accession process. Subsequently, Minister for EU Affairs and Chief Negotiator, Ambassador Volkan Bozkır, announced “Turkey’s New EU Strategy” in Brussels in September 2014, and detailed the measures to be taken to improve ties.

Economic factors and public opinion in Turkey are also favorably disposed for an improvement in relations with the European Union. Until 2013, Turkey’s economy maintained robust growth. Since then, however, it has encountered myriad challenges, including a general slowdown in emerging economies around the world and regional instabilty. Democratic regression and a weakening of the rule of law are also frequently cited as has having an adverse impact on the Turkish economy.

Closer relations with Russia are unlikely to remedy these problems. Turkey’s exports to the EU are almost tenfold of those to Russia and nearly 70 percent of Turkey’s foreign direct investment (FDI) comes from the EU. Mogherini’s visit comes at a time when public opinion in Turkey has begun to turn in EU’s favor. According to the 2014 Transatlantic Trends published by the German Marshall Fund, after consecutive years of decline since 2006, those among the Turkish public who looked at membership favorably increased by 8 percentage points to 53 percent from 2013 to 2014. The Turkish public senses that economic, political and strategic considerations make it quite clear that Turkey needs to re-anchor itself to the transatlantic community.

The EU and the U.S. need to reinforce this trend. Mogherini’s words should be matched with action. Thus, it is paramount that the EU opens a number of new chapters for negotiations. Turkey has expressed interest in the opening of at least three chapters calling for domestic political and economic reforms. While Turkish membership is not likely to happen anytime soon, maintaining a credible process is crucial. In the meantime, it is important to take up the World Bank’s recommendation to upgrade the customs union between the EU and Turkey. The customs union helped make Turkey the 6th largest trading partner of the EU and the 16th largest economy in the world. There is also the need for greater recognition from the EU that it benefits from economic relations with Turkey, especially at a time when the EU economy is still struggling to come out of recession and sanctions on Russia are adversely impacting exports.

The strategic value of Turkey’s EU ties continues to be of great importance, particularly in light of the heightened contest between the West and Russia and deep instability throughout the Middle East. In 1995, the U.S. played a key role in supporting the negotiation and signing of Turkey’s customs union with the EU as well as Turkey’s EU membership vocation as a means to deepening Turkey’s transatlantic relations.

The U.S. should reinvigorate these efforts. Additionally, the U.S. should explore the idea of enlarging the TTIP to include Turkey or sign a bilateral free trade agreement with Turkey. This would help re-anchor Turkey to the transatlantic community, enlarge the business community with a stake in liberal market values, make Turkey a net contributor to the transatlantic economy, help with employment creation, and increase strategic cooperation. In turn, stronger and deeper relations with the West would help revive Turkey’s democracy and economy, as well as its soft power in its neighborhood. This would not necessarily mean Turkey’s relations with the East would weaken. Relations with Russia could be maintained and even expanded but without making Turkey vulnerable to Russian influence. Similarly, in the Middle East Turkey could return to the days when it was hailed as a model for the region, economically as well as politically.

Kemal Kirişci is the TUSIAD Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Program at Brookings, in Washington, DC.

Image: European Commission

TopicsDiplomacy RegionsEuropeMiddle East

Beware of Chinese Hegemony

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Amidst misguided campaigns to make the world safe for Western liberal democracy, the global community has forgotten that authoritarian countries, too, are guilty of hegemony. Soon after Russia’s October Revolution, the Comintern billed itself as the savior of post-colonial societies looking to emerge into modernity from the yoke of Western exploitation. The price for such delivery? Adopting a Soviet system of government.

China is in danger of reviving that tradition of exporting its take on authoritarianism. Granted, its methods are much more subtle. In place of the Soviet demand for twinning, China requires loyalty in matters of foreign affairs, which often means foregoing true democracy. The country has (sincerely) insisted that, unlike the West, it is opposed to interference in the internal affairs of others.  However, a bet that China will succeed in bringing about true multilateralism where the Pax-America order has failed will prove to be a fantasy.

Last month was the culmination of China’s yearlong announcement that it will take up its own mantle of global governance. Since the lead-up to the APEC summit, Beijing has rolled out a veritable alphabet soup of multilateral organizations to challenge the much-maligned preeminence of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization.

China’s most credible claim to leadership is in the area of infrastructure development. Not surprisingly, the most developed of its multilateral initiatives is the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Twenty-one countries have subscribed to the $50 billion bank to make a dent in Asia’s $3 trillion infrastructure funding need. Significantly, South Korea and Australia did not join due to American and European diplomatic pressure. The Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, China’s bid to transform Asia into the EU lite, met with even more intense resistance. Still, the APEC nations have agreed to explore the idea.

Nor Beijing is neglecting alliance-building outside of Asia. The New Development Bank (more commonly known as the BRICS bank) was established earlier this year and is the most mature of China’s multilateral engagements outside the region. Beijing is also actively building silk roads to Central Asia, East Africa, the Middle East and Europe to facilitate trade and investment. Even the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an anti-terror security body comprised of Central Asia and China, is looking to expand and strengthen economic ties between its members.

In its new leadership role, China is promising it will avoid the traps of Western multilateralism. Namely, it will not demand that countries meet conditions for financial aid that disregard local input and circumstances. In a key foreign policy speech given late last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping rebuked the Western order and pledged that China will “respect the independent choice of development path and social system by people of other countries."

This is obviously pretense. First, China’s overseas development projects to date have often disregarded local considerations. True, its bilateral investments have filled a gap where developing countries in Latin America and Asia fail to meet the free-market, liberal requirements of organizations like the IMF and WTO. For example, the China Development Bank and China Export-Import Bank provided approximately $110 billion to developing countries in 2009 and 2010. Latin America received $79 billion from these two Chinese banks from 2003 through 2011, far outpacing the World Bank’s $57 billion. Africa, the largest beneficiary, has reportedly received approximately $170 billion in foreign investment over the last nine years. () While avoiding the political chaos and economic instability of Western-style globalization, many Chinese investment projects have nevertheless led to vast local environmental destruction. Unemployment remains untreated or worsens since China prefers to use its own workers. Local laws and regulations may remain untouched, but Sinification persists.

Second, even without explicit economic coercion, China is starting to mold its patron countries into its own image of authoritarian capitalism. This is especially pronounced in Central Asian governments, particularly the regimes of Nazarbayev’s Kazahstan and Karimov’s Uzbekistan. And despite their democratic ambitions, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Venezuela Argentina and many other recipients of Chinese dollars are all leaning towards statist models of development.

Most importantly, China’s largest foreign policy goal is to realize the China dream. Echoing Xi, Li Keqiang, China’s premier, has stated that China must pursue the “strategic goal of achieving the great renewal of the Chinese nation.” While many Asian countries are still happily signing trade agreements with the Middle Kingdom, they remain concerned about a return to the Imperial tributary system. The emperor rarely interfered, but there was an understanding that China was owed deference and political loyalty.

To be sure, China's ambitions should be encouraged if the calculus that much of the developing world has made is correct. Economic development comes before any other considerations. Being part of the Beijing sphere of influence is a small price to pay if it means importing the success of the China model.

The devil, however, is in the local details. Whatever large-scale trade agreements are agreed upon in principle, the individual member nations determine implementation. It is eminently sensible that they would want a voice in how economic investments will be used. Their fears of losing sovereignty will not be assuaged simply because a new global power is at the helm.

China has already begun to discover this with the BRICS bank. Despite being far and away the largest economy in that acronym, China made many compromises unbefitting its relative stature to share decision-making control with the others. It remains to be seen whether China will have to make similar concessions with respect to its newest multilateral ventures. While there is room for optimism given the early stages, China should beware the temptation to believe it can succeed where its Western counterparts have tried and failed.

Rebecca Liao is a corporate attorney, writer and China analyst based in Silicon Valley. Her writing has appeared in Financial Times, Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic and Bloomberg View, among various other publications. She tweets at @beccaliao.

Image: Flickr/APEC 2013/CC by 2.0​

Topicsgeopolitics RegionsAsia-Pacific

McCain and Graham Play Mad Libs for Hard-Liners on Cuba

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Consider the following statement, released yesterday by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham:

We agree with President Obama that he is writing new chapters in American foreign policy. Unfortunately, today’s chapter, like the others before it, is one of America and the values we stand for in retreat and decline. It is about the appeasement of autocratic dictators, thugs, and adversaries, diminishing America’s influence in the world. Is it any wonder that under President Obama’s watch our enemies are emboldened and our friends demoralized?

Unfortunately, we fear the most damaging chapter to America’s national security is still being written. We dread the day President Obama takes to the podium to announce a nuclear deal with the Iranian ayatollahs which does little, if anything, to deter their nuclear ambitions, placing our nation and our closest allies in even deeper peril.

This criticism, of course, came in reaction to President Obama’s dramatic announcement that he would pursue normalized relations with Cuba. But look again at McCain and Graham’s words. Notice how none of them actually have anything to do with Cuba. There is not a single fact or analytical conclusion about Cuba that explains their opposition to having diplomatic relations with that country. Rather, the two senators provide a familiar litany of clichés and buzzwords: “Retreat,” “decline,” “appeasement,” “diminishing America’s influence.” It reads more like a game of Mad Libs for hard-liners than a policy statement.

Moreover, the few more concrete assertions that McCain and Graham do make seem to simply be wrong. They assert that “our enemies are emboldened and our friends demoralized” by Obama’s policy reversal on Cuba. Which friends, exactly? McCain and Graham don’t say. And it’s hard to imagine who they might be, given that just two months ago at the UN General Assembly, that body voted for the twenty-third time to adopt a nonbinding resolution condemning the U.S. embargo on Cuba. 188 out of 193 nations voted in favor of the resolution this year, with only the United States and Israel voting against it, and Palau, the Marshall Islands and Micronesia abstaining.

The reality is this: while the embargo made sense throughout the Cold War, the end of that long struggle left Cuba “strategically irrelevant,” as Doug Bandow wrote here at TNI in 2012. It is “a poor country with little ability to harm the United States,” in Bandow’s words, and “its survival has no measurable impact on any important U.S. interest.” The regime in Havana is a nasty, repressive one—but it’s certainly no worse than any number of other autocracies, such as Saudi Arabia, with whom we have diplomatic relationships. And while engaging with Havana through trade and diplomacy probably won’t lead to human-rights improvements in Cuba, it’s not as if the current policy was doing that either. As Daniel Drezner put it at the Washington Post, “Anyone who tells you that the sanctions just needed more a little time to work is flat-out delusional. After more than a half-century, they were never going to work.”

McCain and Graham’s framework for assessing the Cuba shift assumes that any act of diplomatic engagement with a hostile country is by definition an act of “appeasement.” It’s the same mentality that led McCain, in December 2013, to react to the news that Obama had shaken hands with Raúl Castro by saying, “Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler.” This is precisely the wrong way to look at foreign policy. Rather, America should strive to maintain normal relations with as many countries as possible, unless the country in question is such an extreme security threat that doing so is impossible, or so implacably opposed to us on every issue that doing so is pointless. Obama’s decision on Cuba yesterday was a welcome and long-overdue step in that direction.

TopicsDiplomacy RegionsCuba

Obama’s Cuba Calculus

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As a rule, President Obama has tended to make his foreign policies subservient to domestic political ends.  That is, as a leader primarily concerned with pushing through domestic reforms—healthcare, economic recovery, immigration—Obama generally takes care to limit his administration’s exposure to risky foreign endeavors.  To do otherwise would be to jeopardize success on the home front.  Viewed in this light, the president’s announcement of a rapprochement with Cuba stands out as an anomaly.  What explains the shift?

Obama always evinces a mindfulness of what the U.S. public and political system will withstand when it comes to foreign policy.  Like Bill Clinton before him, President Obama appears to be in line with public opinion—or, at least, reflexively distrustful of any sort of foreign policy behavior that would risk upsetting the domestic apple cart.  This sensibility was evident in Obama’s first-term decision to wind down the U.S. presence in Iraq against the advice of senior military advisers and in his parallel move to “surge” troop numbers in Afghanistan, for example.  It also informed Obama’s reluctance to sanction U.S. leadership in removing Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi (with the administration instead preferring to “lead from behind”) and his consistent opposition to broad involvement in the Syrian civil war.  The bottom line for President Obama has been that, while foreign policy catastrophes should be avoided, offering the least line of resistance to foreign threats usually is the best course of action.

The president’s opening to Cuba stands apart from this general pattern of statecraft.  It is difficult to divine the domestic political ends that will be served by the plans to ultimately normalize diplomatic relations with Havana.  To be sure, U.S. businesses will stand to benefit from any future investment opportunities in Cuba, but such interests have never succeeded in persuading former presidents to lift the embargo.  Average Americans might also be tempted by the prospect of visiting the Caribbean nation, yet there has been no groundswell of support for a rethink of U.S.-Cuba relations.  In fact, the groups that care most about U.S. policy towards Cuba—that is, groups representing Cuban exiles—can be counted upon to vocally oppose the move.  Nor will the policy do anything to improve President Obama’s relations with Congress, with lawmakers already lambasting the White House for once again using executive powers to institute sweeping changes in national policy.

Far from hewing to domestic opinion on the matter, then, pursuing rapprochement with Cuba might well end up hurting President Obama’s domestic standing.  So why has Obama seen fit to announce what he describes as “the most significant changes in our policy [towards Cuba] in more than fifty years”?  One explanation would be if there were pressing geopolitical reasons for reconciliation.  Yet whether Cuba is mollified or ignored makes little difference to the safety and security of the U.S. homeland.  Nor does a rapprochement with Cuba serve any broader geopolitical ends—as, for example, Obama’s earlier rapprochement with Myanmar clearly did (in that instance, as a way to tacitly balance against the rise of China).  Cuba is a small nation that lacks a superpower patron.  While Havana has much to gain from improved relations with the U.S., the relative gains for Washington, DC are hard to discern.

If not done in response to domestic or geopolitical exigencies, however, what might explain the decision to usher in a thawing of relations with Cuba?  Two factors stand out as chief culprits: opportunity and legacy.  First, the negotiations to release Alan Goss likely presented President Obama with a readily available and, presumably, well-exercised channel of communication with Havana that, one might reasonably assume, was not difficult to exploit in service of broader diplomatic ends.  Especially if it was the Cuban government that took the initiative in proposing a broad package of conciliatory reforms, it would have been easy for the administration to see (and difficult for it to reject) such a deal as low-hanging fruit, a diplomatic achievement to buffer criticism that Obama has presided over nothing but failures in terms of foreign policy.

This leads to the second factor.  As a second-term chief executive with few clear-cut achievements to show for his six years in office—whether in terms of foreign policy success or domestic political accolades—President Obama may well have concluded that rapprochement with Cuba was worth pursuing simply as “the right thing to do,” a prudent (if unpopular in some quarters) reversal of a decades’ old policy that has done nothing to produce tangible benefits either for the U.S. or for the Cuban people.  Obama might reasonably have concluded that a policy of openness towards Cuba will be judged favorably by historians as a long overdue chapter in the troubled story of U.S.-Cuban relations.  After all, it is almost axiomatic in the study of American politics that “anticipated future opinion” is perhaps the most important type of public opinion there is.

President Obama will incur some short-term domestic-political backlash over his opening to Cuba.  That much is clear.  But, merits of the policy aside, Obama arguably has acted like a true leader on this issue.  That is, he has made a far-reaching and wide-ranging foreign policy decision without any obvious deference to the domestic repercussions that he or his co-partisans will face, and has instead focused upon implementing what he views to be the most sensible and level-headed course of action for the country.  In this sense, Obama’s Cuban policy might be remembered as his first bona fide foreign policy: a decision made in blissful ignorance of the domestic political milieu above which it hovers.

Image: Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

TopicsDiplomacy RegionsAmericas

The Philippines Wants Submarines to Deter China

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The Philippines is seeking to procure three submarines a senior Philippines naval official announced on Wednesday.

According to numerous local media outlets, Caesar Taccad, the vice commander of the Philippines Navy, said that the navy has begun laying the decade-long groundwork necessary to build an effective submarine fleet.

“Submarines take a lot of gestation period,” Taccad was quoted as saying. “The rule of thumb in the development of support facilities, the people and technology of operating such a force is 10 years. Now when should we start? We can start now so we can [acquire them] 10 years from now.”

Taccad also revealed that the Philippines Navy had created a submarine office last year to help facilitate this process. “Actually we already formed a submarine office in the Philippine fleet,” he said.

The rear admiral said that the country was ultimately hoping to acquire at least three submarines but that financial constraints might limit them to only two vessels. “If you cannot afford three, get two just like we're getting two frigates and two strategic sealift vessels so they can replace each other during maintenance. If you only procure one and continuously use it, it will only last for 5 years,” he explained.

Amid ongoing disputes with China over overlapping claims in the South China Sea, the Philippines has spent PHP41 billion ($925 million) on modernizing its military platforms since President Benigno Aquino took office in 2010. Still one of the weakest military powers in the region, last month President Aquino pledged to devote an additional PHP91 billion ($2.01 billion) to modernizing the country’s defense by 2017.

Much of this, including the submarines, will go to procuring platforms to counter China in the disputed waters. “We need submarines for deterrence,” Taccad explained at the press conference.

It is not the only one, as states throughout Asia have been looking towards submarines to counter China’s growing military might. Japan has long fielded a capable undersea fleet, and is in the middle of procuring ten Soryu-class subs. It also seems increasingly likely that Australia will purchase its own Soryu-class subs from Tokyo. South Korea has also long maintained an undersea fleet, which it is rapdily expanding, and Taiwan is seeking to build new subs indigenously.  

Even before the Philippines’ decision, Southeast Asian waters have become increasingly crowded with various submarine fleets over the years. All three nations that sit atop the Malacca Strait-- Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia-- operate submarines and, perhaps most notably, at least with regards to China, Vietnam is spending $2.6 billion to acquire six Kilo-class submarines from Russia.

No word yet on which country the Philippines might turn to when it comes time to purchase its own undersea fleet.

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. He can be found on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

Image: Flickr/Official U.S. Navy Page/CC by 2.0

TopicsSecuritymilitary RegionsSoutheast AsiaSouth China Sea

Turkey’s War on Rule of Law: One Year On

The Buzz

On the morning of December 17, 2013, Istanbul police launched a massive anti-corruption operation. They detained 52 people, including the sons of three ministers, several bureaucrats, and some of Turkey’s most prominent businessmen. Within a week, on December 25, a second, even larger, probe was unveiled. This was a scandal of historic proportions, implicating the upper crust of Turkey’s ruling elite dating back to 2012. The crimes included gold smuggling and money laundering that spanned Turkey, Iran, Dubai, and China, totaling some €87 billion (appx. $108 billion) in illicit transactions.

One year later, it is clear that the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) has managed to stifle the probes through mass firings, the near-destruction of the rule of law, manipulation of the parliamentary process, and blocking the free flow of information. The AKP clampdown raises troubling questions about Turkey’s future as a democracy and a NATO ally, as well as its faltering candidacy for the EU.

At the time, Turkey’s then-Prime Minister (now president) Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed that a network of individuals had been plotting to overthrow his government. He was referring to the Gulen movement, headed by the AKP’s one-time ally, the U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan denounced what he called the Gulenists’ “parallel structure” to the Turkish state, and promptly deemed all police officers, prosecutors and investigators involved in the case as agents of the exiled cleric.

The AKP-government began to fire and re-assign Turkish policemen that were involved in the graft investigations. Within two months, the number had reached thousands. Key suspects of the probes were released from prison by the first week of March.

The AKP also abused its power to both reshuffle and restructure the Turkish judiciary. Between December 2013 and January 2014, the newly appointed chief prosecutor of Istanbul fired all of the prosecutors who had been involved in the corruption investigation. One prosecutor said that his arrest orders for key corruption suspects were never carried out and his files were confiscated. Meanwhile, nearly 100 prosecutors and judges were removed from their posts. The newly appointed prosecutors were asked to revise the original indictments to reflect the view of the AKP government, and by October, every last case in the probe was officially dropped.

The AKP government in January also introduced a proposal for structural changes to Turkey's top judiciary council, the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (known by its Turkish acronym HSYK), which appoints the country’s judges and prosecutors. The bill called for the politically appointed justice minister to replace members of the HSYK, effectively subordinating the judiciary to the executive branch. The bill passed in mid-February but was partially annulled by the Constitutional Court two months later. However, in October the AKP pushed back by promoting a list of its own candidates for the body’s new round of elections. The candidates won 8 out of the 10 seats available.

The AKP also passed several key amendments to the penal code over the last year that makes the wiretapping and tracking of corruption suspects more difficult, with the provisions applicable to only certain crimes. This undermined the original evidence collected during the graft probe, as the main method of evidence- gathering had been wiretapping. Other amendments made it mandatory for judges to seek consent from government officials before moving forward with certain cases, including those tied to the corruption scandal. Earlier this month, the Turkish government pushed through new legislation to restructure Turkey’s two top courts, the Court of Appeals and the Council of State, with judges more to its liking.

The AKP has also successfully inhibited the parliamentary process. At a special meeting in March to address the graft charges, the deputy speaker of parliament rejected proposals by all three opposition parties to formally acknowledge the allegations against the former ministers, and instead only read a summary of the charges. In May, six months after the scandal, the parliament finally set up a commission, but one whose composition was skewed, with 9 out of 15 members hailing from the AKP. The commission was supposed to conclude its inquiry within two months but has yet to do so. Last month, an Ankara court officially banned Turkish media from reporting on the parliamentary inquiry.

While the AKP has done irreparable harm to Turkish institutions, it rightfully charges that there has been an illegal campaign conducted against the ruling elite. Officials’ phones were tapped in violation of the law, and the targets even included Erdogan and his family. But instead of investigating and prosecuting these violations through due process, the AKP government has launched a hasty, messy, and unlawful prosecution of the Gulen movement. The government has also denied itself the opportunity to challenge the charges leveled during the corruption probe through legal means.

The deterioration of the rule of law in Turkey is now undeniable. Several EU officials have raised alarm about the judiciary bills, while the European Commission criticized the AKP’s moves against its police force. According to a Transparency International report released this month, Turkey’s 2014 corruption-perception rating dropped from 50 to 45 -- the largest drop for any country this year.

Nonetheless, AKP appears indifferent to the damage it is causing to Turkey’s international image. Just this weekend, the government launched a new attack on the Gulen movement, detaining at least 24 police officers and journalists without cause and, drawing even more international criticism. While these moves may have helped the Erdogan government further consolidate power, the AKP can only ignore the diplomatic consequences of its actions for so long. More importantly, it is impossible to know how much damage this will cause to the foundations of Turkey’s democracy for years to come.

Merve Tahiroglu is a research associate focusing on Turkey for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Image: Flickr/World Economic Forum/CC by 2.0.

TopicsDemocracy RegionsMiddle East

Diego Garcia: A Potential Casualty of the CIA Torture Report?

The Buzz

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s so-called “torture report” has hardly precipitated the kind of political earthquake that its authors might have hoped for.  Public reaction to the report’s contents has been muted, and it seems unlikely that any prosecutions will result from its publication.  The report’s release has been more of a damp squib than a catalyst for change because—although this truth might be difficult for some to accept—it has only succeeded in revealing details about a practice that most Americans already knew was taking place in general terms.

The domestic political fallout of the committee’s report is thus likely to be fairly well contained.  Yet the blowback might still be significant abroad.  In particular, the report has the potential to empower overseas critics of U.S. foreign policy, its myriad details of CIA wrongdoing constituting a surfeit of “facts on the ground” to bias national conversations against U.S. counterterrorism policy.  In countries where pro- and anti- American forces are pitted against each other, the Senate Intelligence Committee report offers both moral and tactical advantage to those who would like to see the U.S. global footprint curtailed.

The United Kingdom is one such potential battleground, where MPs and members of civil society alike are calling for a rethink of the U.S. military presence on Diego Garcia, a British territory in the central Indian Ocean that plays host to one of the Pentagon’s most strategically important military installations in the world.  As well as being an important staging post in America’s recent wars in the Middle East, Diego Garcia has been named as a CIA “black site” by international organizations such as the United Nations and Council of Europe, as well as human rights groups like Reprieve, who have pointed to the presence of so-called “prison ships” moored offshore as well as detention facilities on the island itself.  Coupled with the mistreatment of the island’s indigenous population as part of the base’s creation in the 1960s and 1970s, these allegations have muddied the name of Diego Garcia in the British public consciousness.  If this is the true face of the Anglo-American special relationship, is it really a love affair worth pursuing?

The CIA’s torture report was ominously silent on the topic of Diego Garcia, however, prompting accusations that the British government lobbied for its removal from the final text.  It is already a matter of public record that Diego Garcia was at least used as a fueling stop for two “rendition” flights in the 2000s.  Why, then, the pretense that Britain’s association with the rendition and/or torture programs is non-existent?  Parliamentarians in London are demanding not only answers but also access to the Senate committee’s documents.

The mounting pushback against the supposed cover-up of Anglo-American collusion could manifest itself in dramatic fashion, particularly with regards to Diego Garcia.  It is at least possible that MPs could move to block the renewal of the agreement governing U.S. access to the base, which is due to be discussed this year for renewal by 2016.  Less exceptionally, MPs could demand enhanced British oversight of what takes place on Diego Garcia or else impose limits on what the island can be used for.

Any such development would be a diplomatic headache and embarrassment for the British government, which prides itself on being a reliable ally of the United States, but losing Diego Garcia would be much more of a bombshell for the United States.  Prized for its seclusion, stability and strategic location, Diego Garcia means a great deal to military planners in the Pentagon.  It would be an upset if this prized asset was placed in jeopardy because of backlash from one of America’s closest allies.

The fact is, however, that a clandestine program of torture is rightly a tough sell—if not always at home, then certainly in some foreign quarters.  As such, the effects of the Senate report cannot be expected to be wholly ephemeral.  Political entrepreneurs abroad—especially those with an ax to grind—will make certain of that.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Master Sgt. John Rohrer

TopicsSecurity RegionsSouthwest Asia

Fixing the Mess in Syria

The Buzz

Everyone except Bashar al-Assad agrees that the only way out of the Syrian conflict lies in a negotiated political solution. Known for refusing to compromise on his objective of total victory, Assad will not bend unless other nations force him to do so. The failure of the Geneva II talks, and the success of the chemical weapons deal (agreed to in the face of U.S .air strikes) underscore how Assad responds to pressure.

Presently, the U.S.-led coalition possesses enough power to draw the Syrian regime to the negotiation table, but the coalition also finds itself in a complicated position. On the one hand, since Assad will attempt to test U.S. readiness, the United States remains unwilling to issue any threats it is not prepared to act upon. On the other hand, any major military intervention against Assad could very likely bring about a sudden regime collapse, which would greatly empower radical Islamists. 

During the last few months, three major factors have developed simultaneously that present the international community with a unique opportunity out of this dilemma. If acted upon, they could signal a potential breakthrough in the long-standing Syrian civil war.

The first factor is the increasingly accepted belief that ISIS is a symptom of the Syrian conflict. That is, it was the ongoing fighting in Syria that allowed ISIS to position itself as a potential regional force. This likely worries Assad given that Washington is currently crafting a new strategy that is expected to devote more resources to the opposition versus the regime part of the conflict, which will deny Assad the time he needs to crush the rebels.

A second factor is Assad’s failure to ally himself with the United States in the war against ISIS, unlike his main opponents (moderate Syrian rebels). If the U.S.-led coalition sends a strong signal of dedication to protecting their Syrian allies on the ground, Assad will be paralyzed for the first time since the beginning of the conflict. Of course, he will test America’s commitment to the moderate fighters by conducting minor attacks, but even a measured response from the U.S. will stymie those attempts. 

Assad will not want to escalate things with the US-led coalition because that would risk losing the support of his Alawite-dominated military. The Alawite community is currently fighting for its survival, and it will therefore desert Assad the minute them puts them on the path towards fighting a war with the U.S. in which they stand no chance at victory. Undoubtedly, in this scenario they would choose to go back home and protect their families from Islamists.

The third and final development is a “conflict freeze” proposal by the new UN mediator Staffan de Mistura. In the plan, Mistura calls for "freeze zones" to halt fighting and improve aid, and many see it as a potential first step towards a larger peace process. Notably, this proposal has already been supported by Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally.

From a military point of view, a non-escalation deadlock on the ground will translate into an unofficial ceasefire zone. From a political point of view, being unable to attack moderate rebels and fearing that he will lose his own fighters will make Assad choose a “second best” – face-saving option. Furthermore, it will motivate him to cooperate with the UN on the “freeze zones” initiative, especially since, in practice it will already exist.

Deadlock on the ground will empower the UN special envoy and this "conflict freeze" proposal could, in the long term, be a first step towards relaunching Geneva peace talks between the opposition and regime (this time in a stabilized and firmly controlled environment, where there is an equal balance of power between the two sides). At the very least, in the short term, the ceasefire zones will deny ISIS the unstable environment in which it has thus far thrived, and consequently bringing much more unity and focus into the war against the Islamic State.  

Rami Nakhla is 2014 Yale World Fellow, and member of the Syrian National Council. 

Vera Mironova is Research Fellow at Harvard Program on Negotiations and a PhD candidate at University of Maryland.

Image: Flickr/Foreign and Commonwealth Office/C.C. by 2.0.

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle East

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