Is Obama a Middle East ‘splitter’?

Historians are sometimes divided into lumpers and splitters. The splitters like to chop problems up into lots of small bits. The lumpers like to link them altogether.

Would-be Middle East peacemakers can be categorised in the same way. The lumpers want a “comprehensive peace settlement” that links together all the problems in the region – Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Israel-Palestine, even Iran. The splitters want to deal with all these problems separately….

I think, as a matter of practical politics, Mr Obama will have to be a splitter. The state of the American economy is going to eat up most of his working day. When he turns to foreign policy, the Israeli-Palestinian problem will come fairly low down his list of priorities – behind, in rough order of urgency, Iraq, Afghanistan, climate change, Iran, international economics and Russia. He will see the Iranian nuclear issue as too important to await progress on Israel-Palestine. Withdrawal from Iraq is a central pledge of his administration, regardless of what is happening with Israel. If an Obama administration sees chances to make progress on Lebanon, or with Syria, it will take them as they arise.

European diplomats who have dealt with the new American team say that they have been assured that Mr Obama does regard the Israel-Palestine problem as a priority and something that the new administration intends to start work on quickly. (It is generally held that President Bill Clinton left the Middle East peace process until too late in his second term and that this mistake has been repeated by President George W. Bush.) A “serious” commitment by Mr Obama need not mean launching immediately into an important global conference. Simply appointing a high-profile envoy would be regarded as a good earnest of intent.

Mr Obama may well oblige on the envoy front. But I doubt he will want to spend much political capital and time on the Middle East peace process when there are so many other priorities clamouring for his attention.

A decision to put the Israeli-Palestinian question on the back burner would, however, be a shame. That is not because it necessarily holds the key to solving all the other problems of the Middle East. It is because the situation – although relatively quiet at the moment – remains dangerous, unstable and a disaster for the population. Ignore the Palestinian problem when things are quiet and it is liable to force its way back on to the agenda – by blowing up at an even more inconvenient time. [continued…]

Top Obama aide denies report president-elect will back Arab peace plan

A senior adviser to Barack Obama on Sunday denied reports that the U.S. president-elect plans to throw his weight behind the 2002 Arab peace plan, which calls for Israel to withdraw from all territories captured during the 1967 Six-Day War in exchange for normalized ties with the Arab world.

The British Sunday Times said Obama expressed this sentiment during his visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories last July.

Dennis Ross, Obama’s adviser on Middle East policy, issued a statement Sunday, saying “I was in the meeting in Ramallah. Then-senator Obama did not say this, the story is false.” The Times cited a senior adviser who quoted Obama as telling Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas: “The Israelis would be crazy not to accept this initiative. It would give them peace with the Muslim world from Indonesia to Morocco.”

According to the Times, Obama, who is due to take office as the U.S. president on January 20, has been urged by leading bipartisan figures in the American foreign policy establishment to embrace the plan, which was first proposed by Saudi King Abdullah in an interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — The multipronged lobbying effort that is clearly underway right now is not necessarily aimed at trying to push the Middle East peace process to the top of Obama’s foreign policy agenda — a goal that would be unrealistic when Iraq and Afghanistan require so much attention. Rather, this seems like an attempt to grasp the opportunity to set aside Oslo, the Road Map, and Annapolis and reframe the peace process in terms of a comprehensive solution. In and of itself, this is a useful exercise because it implicitly acknowledges that the current process is dead without undiplomatically declaring its failure.

Hamas, Israel trying to rewrite truce

A June truce between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers comes up for renewal next month and it looks like both sides are trying to dictate more favorable terms.

That would explain why Israel and Hamas have been trading rocket fire and air strikes for two weeks, even as they keep saying they’re interested in a continued cease-fire. But the attempt to establish new ground rules could easily spin out of control, especially if there are civilian casualties.

Domestic concerns further complicate the situation.

Israel is holding general elections Feb. 10 and the cross-border violence has become campaign fodder. [continued…]

When will Obama give up the Bin Laden ghost hunt?

In a talk to the Atlantic Council this week CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden said Osama bin Laden is alive. I’ll take his word for it. But bin Laden’s strange disappearance makes one wonder what exactly happened to him. The last relatively reliable bin Laden sighting was in late 2001. A video that he appears in last year shows him with a dyed beard. More than a few Pakistani intelligence operatives who knew bin Laden scoff at the idea he would ever dye his beard. They think the tape was manipulated from old footage, and that bin Laden is in fact dead. But then again, they would have an interest in making us believe bin Laden is dead, since it would relieve American pressure to find him by any means necessary, including going into Pakistani territory.

And what about all the other audiotapes bin Laden has put out since 9/11? Experts will tell you that off-the shelf digital editing software could manipulate old bin Laden voice recordings to make it sound as if he were discussing current events. Finally, there’s the mystery why bin Laden didn’t pop up during the election. You would think a narcissistic mass murderer who believes he has a place in history would find it impossible to pass up an opportunity to give his opinion at such a momentous time, at least dropping off a DVD at the al Jazeera office in Islamabad.

I asked a half dozen of my former CIA colleagues who have been on bin Laden’s trail since 9/11. What surprised me was that none would say for certain whether he is alive or dead. Half assumed he is dead, the other half assumed he is alive. I suppose a lot of their timidity has to do with the still open wounds about the CIA’s missing an event like Saddam’s destruction of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. It would be so much easier to miss the death of a single man. [continued…]

Russia to cut oil export duty by third

Russia plans to cut its oil export duties by a third next month, offering much-needed relief to companies that have been making a loss on their crude exports.

Exporting oil from Russia, the world’s second biggest producer, has become unprofitable as a result of the fall in the price of crude and heavy taxation.

Oil companies had been warning they were being forced to cut their exports, intensifying the financial crisis engulfing Russia.

The Russian government has been calling on the companies to sustain their exports, and indicated on Monday that there would be a steep cut in oil duty to reflect the fall in oil prices. [continued…]

The tribal fallacy

The Pakistani government has flirted with divide-and-conquer tactics in the past by taking sides in internecine squabbles in the tribal areas. But rather than siding with tribes against the Taliban, Pakistan often tries to play one Taliban faction off another. It distinguishes between “good” and “bad” Taliban: the “good” ones focus on fighting U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and the “bad” ones target Pakistani troops and politicians. Baitullah Mehsud and Maulana Fazlullah of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan are both “bad.” In April 2007, a mini-civil war in South Waziristan pitted “good” Taliban fighters from the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe, under the command of Maulvi Nazir, against several hundred “bad” Uzbek militants belonging to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and to al-Qaeda. The Uzbeks had killed scores of Pakistani tribal chiefs. When the fighting began, the Pakistani army sided with the Taliban and provided helicopter- and artillery-fire. The ranking general later told me that he ordered soldiers to strip off their uniforms, don a shalwar kameez, and lead the “good” Taliban to victory. (The incident, while encouraging, highlighted the degree to which Washington and Islamabad’s security priorities are mismatched. Among the rash of recent drone attacks in the tribal areas, several missiles have targeted “good” Talib Maulvi Nazir and his associates in South Waziristan.)

Meanwhile, the Pakistanis have had little success enlisting ordinary tribesmen to rebel against the Taliban. Their failure should be worrying. Without the support of ordinary tribesmen in Iraq, the Anbar Awakening and the defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq would have been unthinkable. The same holds true in northwestern Pakistan. Yet the Pashtun tribes have been understandably reluctant to join the government. During Musharraf’s regime, sporadic, overhyped military offensives failed to dislodge the Taliban, and any malik, or tribal chief, suspected of sympathizing with the government was branded a spy and slaughtered. Khalid Aziz, a former political agent in North Waziristan, told me that, in the past, “If a malik or his family was attacked, we used to do everything to redeem the malik’s honor. The current administration has unfortunately disowned these policies.” [continued…]

A pact with the devil

The big bang is not that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s majority Shi’ite/Kurdish 37-member cabinet in Baghdad has approved the draft of a security pact with the George W Bush (and Barack Obama) administrations allowing the US military to stay in Iraq for three more years; it’s that the 30-strong Sadrist bloc will move heaven and Earth – including massive nationwide protests – to bloc the pact in the Iraqi National Assembly.

The proposed Status of Forces Agreement not only sets a date for American troop withdrawal – 2011 – but also puts new restrictions on US combat operations in Iraq starting on January 1 and requires a military pullback from urban areas by June 30. The pact goes before parliament in a week or so.

Sadrist spokesman Ahmed al-Masoudi stressed this Sunday that the pact “did not mean anything” and “hands Iraq over on a golden platter and for an indefinite period”.

Masoudi is right on the money when he says the overwhelming majority of popular opinion is against it and the Sadrists and many Sunni parties insist a popular referendum to approve it is essential. [continued…]

Iraqi and American critics of security pact speak up

Iraqi and American critics of a security agreement governing American troops in Iraq voiced their objections on Monday, a day after the Iraqi cabinet approved the pact and sent it to Parliament for ratification.

In Iraq, opposition has created an unlikely association between the followers of the anti-American Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who rejected the agreement out of hand, and some Sunni politicians, including ones who support the deal but are trying to wrest concessions from the Iraqi government.

Ghufran al-Saadi, a Sadrist lawmaker, said opponents had collected 115 signatures, primarily from Sadr supporters and members of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, demanding that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and several cabinet members appear in Parliament to answer questions about the agreement, which governs the presence of American troops in Iraq through 2011. Parliament has 275 members. [continued…]

Government near to collapse, says Somalia leader

President Abdullahi Yusuf of Somalia has admitted that his government is on the verge of collapse and that Islamist groups now control most of the country.

In a speech to Somali MPs gathered in the Kenyan capital Nairobi at the weekend, Yusuf said that the government only had a presence in the capital Mogadishu and in Baidoa, “and people are being killed there every day. Islamists have taken over everywhere else.”

His frank admission confirms what is known but seldom publicly acknowledged by those with a stake in Somalia’s future, from Ethiopia, whose continued occupation unites the different Islamist groups against a common enemy, to the UN and western countries, which have backed the warlord-heavy government for years. [continued…]

Turkey could be good mediator with Iran: Erdogan

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday Ankara could play a positive part if it were to act as a mediator in the stalled negotiations with Iran over its suspect nuclear program.

“If Turkey plays such a role, it could have a positive impact on the process,” Erdogan told a press conference in Washington after arriving to take part in the summit of G20 leaders on the economic crisis.

He said Turkey would be able to exert some influence on the dragging dossier because it was Iran’s neighbor. [continued…]

Bill’s $500,000 Kuwait lecture

The National Bank of Kuwait (NBK) has paid $500,000 to Bill Clinton for a single lecture he delivered in Kuwait City on Sunday on his assessment of Barack Obama’s foreign and economic policies. It was delivered the day after the Kuwaiti stock market resumed trading after it was suspended by order of a Kuwaiti court on Thursday to avoid a total collapse.

Without mentioning reports that Clinton’s finances were coming under close scrutiny as his wife, Hillary Clinton, is being vetted for the job of secretary of state, the Arab-language Kuwaiti newspaper Awan published a front-page story under the headline “Clinton’s lecture at NBK cost $500,000.” [continued…]

Cabinet post for Clinton roils Obamaland

Barack Obama’s serious flirtation with his one-time rival, Hillary Clinton, over the post of secretary of State has been welcomed by everyone from Henry Kissinger to Bill Clinton as an effective, grand gesture by the president-elect.

It’s not playing quite as well, however, in some precincts of Obamaland. From his supporters on the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, to campaign aides of the soon-to-be commander-in-chief, there’s a sense of ambivalence about giving a top political plum to a woman they spent 18 months hammering as the compromised standard-bearer of an era that deserves to be forgotten.

“These are people who believe in this stuff more than Barack himself does,” said a Democrat close to Obama’s campaign. “These guys didn’t put together a campaign in order to turn the government over to the Clintons.” [continued…]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email