After President Obama delivered his speech in Cairo last week, some skeptics complained that he didn’t speak clearly enough about the importance of democracy in U.S. foreign policy. Of course, any such message would have been undermined by the mere fact of the United States’ decades long support for an undemocratic government in Egypt, and an even less democratic one in Saudi Arabia. Beyond that, the irony of delivering a speech in Cairo, and of Obama’s visit to Riyadh a day earlier, would have been too rich for most commentators to ignore. (For precisely this reason, several commentators both here and elsewhere questioned Obama’s choice of Egypt as a venue for his speech in the first place).
But the cognitive dissonance of those who would have the U.S. government actively promote democracy around the world, and who would have the President of the United States speak openly of his desire to overturn the established political order in dozens of places around the world, goes deeper still. Bush apparently never figured out that full-throated American support for would-be reformers often undermined their standing in the eyes of voters. Under the pro-democracy Bush, the relatively more pro-American politicians in, for example, the Palestinian Authority, Iraq, and, Lebanon, all fared poorly.
Bush speeches were often marked by sweeping assertions and moral clarity. Obama, however, is the master of subtlety. He mentioned neither Lebanon nor Hezbollah in his Cairo speech. Likewise, the name “Ahmadinejad” never passed his lips, and yet, when the president accurately characterized Holocaust denial as “baseless”, “ignorant”, “hateful” the obvious mental image in the minds of hundreds of millions of listeners was of a certain skinny, bearded man in a Members Only jacket, arguably the most famous Holocaust denier in the world.
While the news from the Annapolis conference has been mixed, there was one positive development for American foreign policy in the region. The attendance of Syria (even though it was at the deputy foreign minister level) signals a willingness on behalf of the Assad regime to perhaps work its way out of the Iranian orbit in the region (Iran wanted them to stay at home). This is welcome news for those who seek to reduce the influence of Iran and a more peaceful Middle East. Rapprochement with Syria would yield significant dividends in various arenas in the Middle East, and, if this opening is real, it is an opportunity to pry an ally away from Iran and make strategic inroads into Damascus.
The recent news from Beirut is also promising. The Syrians and Americans have apparently agreed on a presidential candidate for Lebanon, army commander Michael Suleiman. Apparently there has been serious cooperation on this front for some time and hopefully it can continue into other areas. The overlap between American policy and Syrian influence is considerable. Syria shares a large border with Iraq and has accepted a large number of Iraqi refugees. Unfortunately, refugees are not the only things crossing the Syrian border. Weapons and insurgents have been coming into Iraq from Syria since 2003, sometimes with tacit support with Syrian regime. (more…)
The upshot of Wednesday’s open letter from six PSA Advisory Board members and two other distinguished former officials to President Bush and Secretary Rice is to urge them to think hard if they’re going to bet the farm on Middle East peace at Annapolis next month. According to the authors, if the upcoming summit fails, there will be “devastating consequences” for the US and the region. In fact, Annapolis represents a dangerously big gamble on a very long shot for lasting peace.
The pressure on the Administration to call for a new round of top-level Middle East peace talks is substantial. A few of the main drivers are: (1) that the bipartisan Iraq Study Group correctly identified Israeli-Palestinian peace as a potential linchpin of a larger Middle East settlement, which could calm Iraq while effectively containing Iran; (2) that any serious conversation with Arab or Muslim leaders about the US role in the Middle East invariably includes a diatribe against our support for the “Israeli occupation;” (3) that the longer Palestinians live without a single, sovereign, responsible government, the more their political life comes to resemble Iraq’s civil war; and (4) that the Israelis themselves have for the first time put partitioning Jerusalem on the table.
I’ve blogged before about my skepticism about the effectiveness of foreign aid, especially to conflict-ridden countries: sending money often breeds conflict over who gets it, and parties to the conflict can use the money to fight harder. And in my last post, I questioned whether post-conflict reconstruction is a good strategy for building friendships, because the local politics of infrastructure investment are complex, fraught with over-promising and under-performance, and impossible for foreigners to understand and manipulate.
So one might infer that I would be pleased to hear that Representative Tom Lantos (D-CA) has placed a hold on the bill that would give $236 million in aid to Lebanon (for the story from Beirut, see the Daily Star; for the counterpart story from Jerusalem, see the Jerusalem Post). But there are big problems with what Lantos has done. M. J. Rosenberg at the TPM Cafe says he’s “speechless” in response, but I have a few comments to offer. (more…)
Major newspapers ran front-page stories today on the reconstruction of Lebanon. The New York Times and the Washington Post both emphasized details of Hezbollah’s efforts, while the Wall Street Journal mainly emphasized the Lebanese government’s official reconstruction investment. In each case, much of the story was about who would get political credit for taking care of Lebanon’s people — within Lebanon, would reconstruction strengthen weak government institutions or help Hezbollah’s informal government? outside Lebanon, would reconstruction help Iran or the United States? That political competition is surely important for many reasons. So far, the Lebanese government and Hezbollah seem to be cooperating although perhaps not coordinating their efforts, and maybe the “two parallel lines” of effort (to cite the Post‘s translation from Hezbollah leader Nasrallah’s speech after the cease fire) can help relax internal tensions that some people fear could renew the Lebanese civil war.
On the other hand, the Post also quoted a fighter from a rival (weaker) militia, Amal. The gist of what he said was that others (besides Hezbollah) helped the people displaced by Hezbollah’s fight while the war was going on, but now it’s time for Hezbollah to pay up. That is, at least some people in other groups expect Hezbollah to take care of fixing all the war damage, because Hezbollah owes the rest of Lebanon. That sounds to me like a recipe for dissatisfaction: when the government taxes other parts of Lebanon to pay for reconstruction, or concentrates its spending of new aid money in some parts of Lebanon (say, the war-damaged south) without giving a share to other groups, some people might start to complain about how Hezbollah gets “preferential treatment.” And if Hezbollah is not quick to compensate its political rivals, they may get upset. Even hoping for compensation seems forlorn: Hezbollah is probably less likely to happily “pay” Amal or to spend its Iranian money in Amal-controlled territory than the old American political machines were to spend civic funds on patronage for their partisan rivals. There’s still plenty of potential for division in Lebanon.
And in fact that’s the main problem with all post-conflict reconstruction: local politics. Local politics are likely to undermine the Lebanese effort, just as they have undone the American funding of Iraqi reconstruction. (more…)
Last week’s show of diplomacy by the United States in working towards a UN resolution for the crisis in Lebanon was impressive, both in and of itself, and in contrast to the earlier behavior of the administration. Although it is sad to consider how many things might have turned out differently had the administration utilized a more collaborative approach for the past six years, this new development provides an opening first step towards reestablishing a bipartisan foreign policy that seeks to strengthen rule of law and multilateral organizations instead of undermining and sidelining them. Building on this opening will require openness on both sides of the isle – from Democrats whose critique of the administration’s approaches to many foreign policy and national security issues have proven prescient, as well as from certain Republicans who might feel that shifting course now might make it look as if their earlier approaches were inadequate, always tough to do in a politicized environment.
I want to begin by saying that I support US engagement in the Middle East. However, I remain concerned about the impact, both intended and unintended, of our image around the world. I remain concerned, not only about the mood toward the US on the streets of Amman, but also on the streets of London.
It is obvious that the events of September 11, 2001 forced the Administration to be immediately reactive to the situation, and no one can fault us for that. However, since that day we have continued as principally a reactionary force in the Middle East, particularly in our reconstructive efforts in Iraq. Today, as we approach the 5th anniversary of 9/11 and find ourselves on a threatening front, it seems vital to US interests and the interests of that region to be increasingly proactive. Victory and success, as I would define them in this context, are all but impossible from a reactive position.
Successive administrations have found political will thwarted again and again with Iran, and now we find ourselves facing that issue once more. However, on this occasion the Administration has been more forward-thinking in its approach as it has sought to allow other countries to take the diplomatic lead and to maintain as much as possible within the context of the United Nations. This has led to headway in what would otherwise be a stalemate between East and West. In some ways, the recent activity of Iran and its engagement with Hezbollah may even reflect the ultimate frustration of the Iranian government as it seeks to derail not only a US initiative, but also a multi-national one. (more…)
Seth Green, in his post on Senators Schumer and Boxer boycotting the recent speech of the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, beat me to the punch. This was going to be my first point on how the ongoing Israeli-Hezbollahwar in Lebanon is bad for the U.S.
So let me just say this to the Democratic leadership. When Sen. Harry Reid, the minority leader says, “I will lose a lot of confidence in Maliki if he doesn’t denounce what Hezbollah has done,” he is being stupid, as in S T U P I D.
In case the senator had not noticed, Al-Maliki is facing the challenge of a lifetime trying to prevent Iraq from a full throated, utterly barbaric civil war, as opposed to the horrific, low level one it is now experiencing. Expecting him to act like a talking parrot, repeating the establishment line that everything Israel does is just dandy, is counterproductive, to say the least. The senator should remember that to date thousands of Americans have died, at least according to the last known Bush administration justification, to allow Iraq to become a democracy. That means the people there get to enjoy free speech. (more…)
In his blog yesterday on this site, former Senator Gary Hart called on President Bush “to explain to the American people what our policy is, why that policy is in our best interest, how that policy conforms with our traditional ideals and principles, and how we intend to pursue it.” That is a reasonable request, and Senator Hart is right that discussion of American interests has generally been drowned out recently. However, the Senator only posed the question — a challenge to President Bush, really.
Last week, though, Madalene O’Donnell blogged about the answer. Her post started from the premise that the President has, in fact, answered exactly those questions with the National Security Strategy document. But she still criticizes the administration. She takes the President to task for failing to implement the NSS: the NSS talks about failed states as a serious threat to the U.S., but, she argues, the U.S. has not invested much to fix the failed state in Somalia. The NSS talks about the importance of democracy, but the U.S. seemed surprised when Palestinians elected Hamas, voting against the corrupt Fatah government.O’Donnell would have preferred a more aggressive American anti-corruption campaign before the election. Presumably, she has the same view on Lebanon: stronger U.S. nation-building effort might have allowed the Lebanese government to suppress Hezbollah or to convince Hezbollah to disarm and join the democratic government. Overall, O’Donnell traces the failure of American foreign policy to insufficient nation-building. She thinks that the American national interest calls for an expensive plan to create well-functioning institutions all over the world — for example, using American aid in some (unspecified) way to fight corruption.
I disagree with both Hart and O’Donnell. (more…)
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The current crisis in the Middle East represents many things: a history of violence, failed peace negotiations, lost opportunities, and mistrust among the parties. But what it also represents, unmistakably, is a failure of U.S. foreign policy. The widening Sunni-Shia divide and the new empowerment of Iran simply could not have taken place without America’s missteps. These include not only our poorly thought-out and faltering effort in Iraq, but also our complete failure to make any meaningful headway towards making the US economy less reliant upon oil. Without the Iraq crisis and the current price of oil, the current situation would look far different, and far better. It’s too easy place the blame on one party for this situation, even though the foreign policy of the current administration has been nothing short of disastrous for US interests. Certainly all parties could and should have done far more to enhance our energy security starting long ago. Whatever the roots of the problem, only strong bipartisan action can help the United States steer towards a more effective foreign policy.
All blog posts are independently produced by their authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of PSA. Across the Aisle serves as a bipartisan forum for productive discussion of national security and foreign affairs topics.