U.S.-Israeli Ties are Worth Salvaging

The Buzz

Few bilateral relations are as personally fraught on the leadership level as the current relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. Foreign leaders have rarely gone so far in modern US political history to directly interfere in the domestic affairs of an American President, most notably visiting Washington without consulting the White House to actively lobby Congress to oppose the President’s foreign policy initiatives and in the 2012 presidential elections, to all but embrace Obama’s electoral opponent, Mitt Romney.

At the same time, few US Presidents have publicly shown complete displeasure for a foreign leader of a long-standing ally (ironically, Netanyahu has been the ire of a few US Presidents in earlier stages of his career as TNI’s managing editor Zachary Keck illustrated). Such sentiments were summed up well when a senior administration official described the Israeli Prime Minister as a “chickenshit.” Ron Dermer, the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, is persona non grata with the Obama administration. Netanyahu’s campaign to fire up the far right reached its nadir in the final hours when the Prime Minister, ostensibly trailing in the flawed Israeli public opinion polls, rejected the two-state solution, a core plank of the U.S.’s decades old peace initiatives in the region. His use of racist overtones in his campaign and his embracement of controversial settlement developments further stoked the ire of the U.S. administration.

Herzog’s lead was welcomed in the White House with a sigh of relief that for the final years of Obama’s presidency, the president may have a leader who he could personally work with and one who would be more amenable to the administration’s negotiations with Iran and their stalled Israel-Palestine peace negotiations. Netanyahu’s surprise sweep of Israel’s elections, which all but guarantees him another term as Prime Minister, left many in the administration disappointed. This sour mood was publicly reflected when President Obama declined to call Prime Minister Netanyahu to congratulate him.

Administration officials suggesting that Obama may pursue a harder line against Prime Minister Netanyahu in his final years in office, including potentially supporting efforts in the UN calling for a two-state solution (in contradiction of the administration’s previous efforts to block international efforts to force a two-state solution, not in the context of negotiations with Israel and Palestine) and plans to delegate interactions with Netanyahu to his secretary of state or vice president, underscore the reality that Obama has become fed up with his Israeli counterpart and will likely not make any effort to improve this relationship. These differences will intensify if a P5 + 1 deal is reached that Netanyahu perceives as not compatible to Israel’s interests.

However, it would be a mistake to allow this relationship to be mired by personal differences and to loose sight of the larger strategic importance of the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Israel. Instead of finding new ways to antagonize the prime minister, Obama should seek to take the higher ground and keep the relationship from becoming mired by personal differences. Instead, it should be grounded on where the U.S. and Israel could more effectively cooperate on common strategic issues.

Importantly, such initiatives should back away from the temptation to use the UN to pressure Netanyahu to re-embrace the Two State Solution. As Netanyahu has accurately pointed out, Hamas isn’t committed to a peace process.  For negotiations between Washington, Jerusalem, and the PLO to find common ground, which takes in account the will of the Israeli electorate, would be a more effective strategy to preserve the Two State Solution and advance U.S. interests. While it’s unlikely that the peace process can be revived in any meaningful way in Obama’s last two years in office, a critical mistake would be to allow the Madrid and Oslo accords’ precedents unravel. Netanyahu’s own post-election statements about supporting a two state solution are a positive step, but have so far done little to ease the White House’s concerns about the prime minister’s commitment to this process.

Equally, while it’s unlikely the U.S. and Israel will see eye-to-eye on any Iran nuclear agreement that is signed, it would be a mistake to not invest diplomatically in efforts to try to reduce Israel’s concerns about any such deal. Their bilateral relationship will become even more consequential in the case that such a deal is not reached or falls apart. The U.S. and Israel also have common strategic interests in preserving the stability of the Jordanian monarchy, preventing the spread of Syria’s civil war out of its borders, and the security and stability of Egypt. Finally, both Israel and the United States have a common interest in countering-Iran’s efforts to advance its interests at the expense of their own interests and those of Egypt and the Gulf States.

The stakes in the region are too high for both leaders to allow a difficult personal working relationship to compromise a broader strategic relationship, which admittedly, is being by strained by deep differences on strategic issues. While U.S. and Israeli national interests may not always perfectly align, there are more common national interests than differences. Those differences shouldn’t be magnified to such an extent that they compromise this relationship and both states’ commitments to each other’s broader security and prosperity.

Andrew J. Bowen, Ph.D. is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest.


Can Greece Escape Germany's Golden Straitjacket?

The Buzz

Syriza’s electoral triumph in Greece earlier this year was dramatic evidence of ordinary Greeks’ exasperation with the politics of austerity. But since taking office, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has found it difficult to deliver on his campaign pledges to improve Greece’s lot. Popular at home, Tsipras has run into roadblocks abroad—particularly in Brussels and Berlin. His torrid time parlaying domestic success into an international agreement on Greece’s future reveals a lot about the limits of democratic decision making in an integrated Europe.

Feeling little responsibility for the imprudent decision making of their political leaders and financial sector, voters in Greece resolved in January not to pay the full price for their country’s mismanagement—or, at least, to take greater control over how the costs of the financial crisis should be borne. To ordinary Greeks, it is perverse that common people—who, after all, exercised little agency over their country’s erstwhile fiscal policies—should undergo a form of collective punishment for what is essentially an elite-driven economic crisis. Even a radical overhaul of the current economic and political order seems more reasonable to these voters than a system that penalizes the powerless for the mistakes of the powerful.

Such sentiment is not confined to Greece, of course. Instead, Syriza’s popularity is indicative of wider trends across Europe: a broad challenge—both intellectual and popular—to the elite consensus that currently underpins economic organization in Europe. For years now, the economic orthodoxy in European capitals has been that nation-states should entrust their futures to the invisible hand of globalization by (1) committing to free markets and open capital accounts as ways to drive economic growth and (2) abstaining from ambitious fiscal and independent monetary policies.

This brand of globalization was relatively popular among Europeans—celebrated, even—when the going was good. Only those on the political fringes saw fit to criticize the way that Europe’s states were committing to ever closer union. Since the onset of the so-called Great Recession, however, the naked impotence of Europe’s elected governments to alleviate the hardships of those on the losing end of economic liberalization has catalyzed criticism of globalization as a project and as an endgame—particularly in those places hit hardest like Greece, Spain and Ireland, but also in the wealthier corners of Europe. The human vulnerability endemic in the system has been laid bare, fueling the rise of anti-austerity and pro-democracy movements like Syriza.

Yet Syriza is not against all forms of economic cooperation—or even all forms of globalization. For as Princeton economist Dani Rodrik points out, globalization in its ultra laissez faire guise has never been the only brand of economic integration on offer. Instead, Rodrik describes globalization in the modern era as a choice (a “trilemma”) over which two of the following three goods should be prioritized: (1) deep economic integration (that is, unfettered markets and open capital accounts); (2) democratic politics; and (3) the nation-state as a viable political unit.

All three objectives are desirable in their own right, Rodrik explains. The problem is that only two of the three can co-exist at any given time; the trifecta is impossible to achieve in practice. In short, Rodrik points to three ideal-type responses to the structural trilemma: the “golden straitjacket” (when autonomous nation-states agree to cooperate in the name of deep economic integration, regardless of what democratic publics might desire); “global federalism” (the privileging of deep economic integration and democratic politics over the nation-state); and the “Bretton Woods compromise” (whereby democratic nation-states accept an international economic order characterized by only limited economic integration).

Syriza’s electoral success is a manifestation of popular antipathy towards the golden straitjacket brand of globalization. For Syriza and their fellow travelers, the short-term pain of austerity cannot be countenanced because it is fundamentally at odds with the popular will. Instead of passively accepting that the price of remaining inside a currency union and adhering to the fiscal pacts of the eurozone is to ignore what a broad cross-section of the Greek people wants, the correct response according to the left is to launch an active public-sector effort to revive a battered national economy.

Clearly, then, Syriza’s favored alternative to the hated golden straitjacket most resembles Rodrik’s description of Bretton Woods: a bargain that allows nation-states such as Greece to take “time out” from deep integration to cater to exigencies on the domestic front, but still preserves some basic level of state-to-state economic cooperation. And, indeed, Prime Minister Tsipras has enjoyed limited success at wresting control of Greek fiscal policy away from the supranational institutions of the European Union and International Monetary Fund.

Ultimately, however, Tsipras’ demands for national autonomy will run up against the structural constraints of the trilemma. At some point, exceptions for Greece become incompatible with the deep economic integration so cherished across Europe—especially if other hard-hit European economies begin to demand similar opt-outs for themselves. Angela Merkel and other defenders of the status quo recognize this, which is why they are resolved to keep Greece locked into the golden straightjacket as much as is diplomatically possible.

As Maria Margaronis has written in The Nation, “Syriza has a double mandate—to end austerity and restore lost rights while staying in the eurozone. These things may well turn out to be incompatible, but polls show that around three-quarters of Greeks still want them both.” This, in essence, is Alexis Tsipras’ own political conundrum: continue to fight for an international settlement that is practically impossible to achieve or admit to the national electorate that the country’s future is out of its hands for as long as it remains in Europe?

Image: Flickr/0neiros

TopicsPoliticsEconomics RegionsEurope

Unveiled: China's New Naval Base in the South China Sea

The Buzz

Recent reports talk about China’s possible establishment of a “fourth” naval fleet with jurisdiction over the Indian Ocean region (IOR), joining the existing North Sea Fleet, East Sea Fleet, and South Sea Fleet.

This mysterious fourth fleet will supposedly be based on Hainan Island—even though the island falls under the jurisdiction of the South Sea Fleet and is some distance away from the IOR. For that reason, many see a prospective Chinese fleet covering the IOR to be either entirely speculative or, at best, a hollow force existing in name only.

One should certainly be wary of overstating China’s military capabilities or, indeed, ambitions. Taking a worst-case view of a Chinese naval fleet in the IOR could overshadow more modest but also more plausible concerns about other possible roles for a fourth fleet based out of Hainan Island.

The island faces the South China Sea (SCS), over which Beijing has proffered expansive historical claims, such as the famous nine-dash line which encompasses nearly all of this maritime zone. Maritime incidents between China and its neighbors, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, are increasingly frequent.

The People’s Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN) is undoubtedly moving to buttress its presence on the island. On Yalong Bay near the island’s southeastern tip, China’s recently constructed Longpo naval base is a deep-water port complete with submarine piers, an underground submarine facility with tunnel access, and a demagnetizing facility to reduce the magnetic residuals on ship hulls.

This new nuclear submarine base is expected to be serve as a home for the PLAN’s new Jin-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). It also features long piers designed for surface combatants, making it a multi-purpose base. The PLAN has an existing base at Yulin, situated just west of Longpo and designed to service PLAN’s conventional submarines. Facilities for surface ships and construction of new piers have also been reported there.

The Hainan complex underpins the PLAN’s rapidly growing South Sea Fleet. Once the least important of China’s three fleets, the South Sea Fleet has since become the primary recipient of China’s more advanced naval warships, including the Shang-class nuclear attack submarine, conventional submarines (Kilo-, Song- and Yuan-class), the above-mentioned Jin-class SSBN, and a dozen of China’s more advanced guided-missile destroyers and frigates and three new amphibious warfare ships, bringing its total to 29 major surface combatants.

Moreover, according to John Patch (PDF), China’s fast-attack Houbei-class missile catamarans are also primarily based with the East Sea and South Sea Fleets. Those small, cheap vessels might have limited range and defensive capabilities but they have an impressive anti-surface warfare capability, each being armed with eight long-range anti-ship cruise missiles.

The South Sea Fleet may be based out of Zhanjiang on the Chinese mainland. But, given the new submarine and surface warship facilities on the Hainan naval complex, it’s clear the island plays an increasingly important role in its fleet operations. On one hand, it can be seen as a potential SSBN bastion for the undersea leg of China’s nuclear deterrent—in which attack submarines, fast-attack ships, and a surface fleet heavy with both anti-ship and air-defence capabilities would be geared towards providing a protective cover for its Jin-class SSBNs against potential anti-submarine warfare (ASW) assets.

On the other hand, this naval build-up could be construed in more offensive terms; less about protecting SSBNs and more about magnifying the country’s sea control. While allowing for greater power projection in the IOR, they’re more likely geared for operations in strategically vital locations like the dispute-laden SCS. Attack submarines provide a particularly formidable capability against both submarines and surface ships, while guided-missile destroyers/frigates could provide protection for China’s fleet of missile catamarans and amphibious warships.

Such a possibility puts a worrisome light to recent revelations about land reclamation and construction on numerous reefs in the disputed Spratly Islands. Reports indicate a possible airstrip and anti-aircraft tower being constructed, which could strengthen China’s capacity to operate around these disputed islands. That would be especially true if some of those facilities are capable of providing logistical support for the short-range Houbei catamarans, thereby eliminating one of the key weaknesses of this “thoroughbred ship-killer.”

It’s difficult to determine which interpretation of China’s naval activities is correct, and it’s possible (and likely) that both approaches are being pursued simultaneously. China would, after all, need protective cover for its SSBNs for its bastion strategy to succeed, requiring a capacity for sea control equally usable against other maritime claimants in the South China Sea. Indeed, an SSBN bastion near Hainan Island logically places a premium on China’s capacity to control the surrounding “near sea.”

Rather than being distracted by an unsubstantiated red herring, like a putative fourth PLAN fleet over the Indian Ocean, attention needs to be rightly placed on these more immediate and concrete developments. To do otherwise wouldn’t only be detrimental from a security perspective, but strategically foolish as well.

David S. McDonough is research manager and senior editor at the Conference of Defence Associations (CDA) Institute in Ottawa, Canada. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the CDA Institute. This article originally appeared on ASPI’s The Strategist, here.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Shannon Renfroe


Punishing Russia: The Dangers of the 'Mariupol Test'

The Buzz

Frustrated by European reluctance to arm Ukraine, two prominent former U.S. officials—Hans Binnendijk, formerly senior director for defense policy at the U.S. National Security Council, and John Herbst, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006—recently called in a New York Times piece for the imposition of what they have labeled “the Mariupol Test.” They argue that if and when the rebels move on the southeastern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, the West must punish Moscow and its minions by giving Kiev the military wherewithal to expel Russian forces from its territory, doubling down on sanctions and, perhaps most seriously of all, “suspending Russia from the Brussels-based Swift financial-messaging system,” a measure that, they assert, “could cripple the already reeling Russian economy.”

Mariupol lies on the land approaches to the isthmus linking Crimea to the Ukrainian mainland. If the rebels did capture the city, Russia would win an unofficial land route to a piece of real estate that, a year after its annexation, it’s still having trouble supplying. According to Binnendijk and Herbst, however, Mariupol would be just the beginning of a longer campaign by the Kremlin to reassemble the tsarist-era Novorossiya “one slender slice at a time,” taking Russia’s informal border back to where it lay from the end of the eighteenth century to the 1917 revolution: all the way to Odessa and the Russian-sponsored enclave of Transnistria.

If we conclude that the Kremlin’s aim is indeed a massive, if informal, increase of Russian power across the upper western arc of the Black Sea that would return Russian influence to the doorstep of the Balkans—then it’s possible to indulge the former officials’ twitching fingers. But, since dropping Novorossiya into an interview last April, Russian president Vladimir Putin has studiously avoided the term. And he pointedly refused to recognize Novorossiya’s Crimea-style referenda and declaration of independence last year.

(Recommended: The Ukraine Crisis' Scary New Twist: The Drive for Mariupol)

Instead, what the Russians have repeatedly said they want in Ukraine is regional autonomy for the Donbas, protection of the linguistic and cultural rights of Russian speakers across Ukraine, federalization of the country’s presently highly centralized political structure, and official acceptance of Ukraine’s formal neutrality, including a permanent commitment by NATO not to invite Kiev into the alliance. As Fiona Hill has recently argued, Putin doesn’t want to restore the Russian empire or the Soviet Union: what he wants is the revival of Russia’s prestige as a great power, including other powers’ respect for the primacy of its political interests in and longstanding historical and cultural ties with Ukraine and other former Soviet republics.

That doesn’t mean Mariupol isn’t a military objective for the separatists or the Kremlin. Nor can we be sure whether, having secured Mariupol, Russia won’t then turn its attention towards Odessa. But the Kremlin’s options are constrained by Russia’s parlous fiscal and financial situation. That, along with the mounting public discontent provoked by sharp inflation, ought to serve to keep Russia focused on the achievable in the Donbas and to discourage it from enlarging the zone of the conflict.

Any attempt on Mariupol, therefore, would probably have more to do with strengthening Moscow’s hand in pursuit of its more “limited” political aims than with spreading a neotsarist dominion across the Black Sea. (Certainly Turkey, Hungary and Slovakia all seem unfazed.) And that points to two things. The first is the relative weakness of Russia’s position; notwithstanding the Ukrainian army’s lackluster performance, Russia’s political aims in Ukraine far exceed its ability to coerce either Kiev or the West into accepting them. The second is each side’s mutually divergent views on what the Minsk Agreement means.

(Recommended: Why the West Should Be Ashamed about Ukraine)

In the West, many have interpreted the agreement as implying Russia’s capitulation. The Guardian recently quoted the new president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, former prime minister of Poland, as saying that:

The Minsk agreement makes sense only if fully implemented. Partial implementation would be very risky for Ukraine….First, we need full implementation including full control of Ukraine’s borders.

The problem is that Minsk ties control of the border to Kiev’s prior delivery of constitutional “special status” for Donetsk and Lugansk—something hardline Ukrainian nationalists in the Rada adamantly oppose. For Russia, Minsk is thus a step towards the creation of those conditions—genuine autonomy in the Donbas—which it considers preliminary to achieving the rest of its political goals in Ukraine.

The bad news, then, for those looking forward to a complete Russian backdown is that only old-fashioned diplomacy, however unpalatable, can bring an end to the war. The good news is that the conservatism of Russia’s political culture, that has seen it risk economic meltdown for the sake of defending what many in the West consider to be a nineteenth-century vision of its national interests, means that it is also open to the kinds of compromises that lay at the heart of old-style, Concert-of-Europe diplomacy. Not for nothing is the Kremlin celebrating the two-hundredth anniversary this year of the 1815 Congress of Vienna.

The human cost of an attack on Mariupol would be tragic. But Mariupol won’t change Russia’s fundamental aims; and getting sucked into a proxy war with Moscow over it won’t help the West negotiate a lasting political deal with the Kremlin that returns peace and stability to the whole of eastern Ukraine.

The only thing worse than trying to bludgeon Russia into defeat in eastern Ukraine and failing might be bludgeoning it into defeat and succeeding. If Putin did fall, nationalistic Russians would be unlikely to entrust their country to a liberal constructivist leader. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said that he’s willing to try diplomacy with Assad. He should do the same, just as belatedly, with Putin.

Matthew Dal Santo is a Danish Research Council postdoctoral fellow at the Saxo Institute, University of Copenhagen. Image courtesy of Flickr user CSIS. This article originally appeared on ASPI’s The Strategist, here.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Vitaly V. Kuzmin


Netanyahu's Latest Challenge to Obama

Paul Pillar

Faced with an unexpectedly tough electoral challenge, (at least according to Israeli opinion polls, however unreliable they later turned out to be) Benjamin Netanyahu in the closing days of his campaign decided that his best chance to stay in power would be to tack firmly to the Right—the hardest, narrowest, most intractable, and most prejudiced Right. After all the alarming and scaring that this prime minister has done, one of his final scares was to warn that Arab citizens of Israel would actually—you'd better sit down before you read this—vote. This was an even more blatant, and openly racist, approach to the subject of voter turnout among opposing parts of the electorate than the enactment of voter suppression laws in the United States. But Arab citizens constitute only 20 percent of the Israeli population, so if there was any negative effect on Netanyahu's re-election chances of this insult to those citizens it would have been less than the effect was, say, for Mitt Romney when Romney insulted 47 percent of the U.S. electorate.

In any event, Netanyahu's political calculation was correct; he won.

For the United States, the most significant of Netanyahu's statements in his appealing to the intractable Right of the Israeli electorate was to declare clearly and unequivocally his opposition to a Palestinian state. In so doing, and in affirming his determination to hold on to occupied territory, he offered no honorable alternative way to deal with the trilemma of how Israel cannot hold onto all that land and be a Jewish state and be democratic. Evidently he sees things the same way as his billionaire backer Sheldon Adelson, who said, “Israel isn't going to be a democratic state—so what?”

Of course, there is no surprise in the substance of Netanyahu's statement. It has long been abundantly clear from the conduct of himself and his government that he has had no intention of acceding to creation of a Palestinian state, and that past remarks suggesting that he did were only window dressing. But to move from window dressing and polite fiction to open declaration nonetheless has consequences, not only for the one making the declaration but also for others who have to deal with him. There is no longer any room for plausible denial about who is opposed to a two-state solution, or for proceeding with peace processing that is based on the presumption that both parties genuinely want a deal and it is just a matter of finding the right formula and a third party making the right guarantees.

No U.S. administration, including the current one, can dodge the reality that the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which multiple U.S. leaders have acknowledged is damaging to U.S. interests, is unresolved because one of the parties to that conflict—the one with the military power and with control of the land—does not want it resolved, and is now even openly admitting that it does not want it resolved.

The administration also needs to realize that this is not just a problem with Netanyahu. The prime minister's explicit rejection of a Palestinian state was part of a winning electoral strategy. With all due respect to the many Israelis who do understand the trilemma, who do want to live in a democratic state, and who accept the implications regarding resolving the conflict with the Palestinians, the Netanyahu/Adelson way of looking at things will dominate Israeli policy for the foreseeable future.

A big question for the Obama administration now is: what are you going to say, and more importantly do, about all this? How will you square the realities of the continued damaging effects of the unresolved conflict, the determination of the Israeli government not to resolve it, and the extraordinary relationship that government enjoys with the United States, with the many billions in aid and all those vetoes at the United Nations? (And remember, Mr. President, that you are in the final two years of your administration and will never have to run in another election.)

A more specific question the administration is going to face in the near term is how it will react to the Palestinians' effort to press their case for statehood. Netanyahu's admission strips away any remaining rationale for criticizing Palestinians for advancing that case at international organizations. The rationale wasn't valid in the first place; Palestinian endeavors in multilateral organizations to work toward self-determination never were “unilateral” moves that jeopardized bilateral negotiations in any way. Now it is clearer than ever that the Palestinians do not have a serious negotiating partner.

TopicsIsrael Palestinian Territories RegionsMiddle East