NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP & EDITOR’S COMMENT: November 23

Some in Arab world wary of Clinton

There is possibly no person President-elect Barack Obama considered for secretary of state who is more reliably pro-Israel than Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), the woman to whom he appears likely to give the job sometime after Thanksgiving.

During the Democratic primary campaign, Clinton said the United States could “obliterate” Iran if it launched a nuclear attack on Israel. She said the United States should not negotiate with Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, unless it renounced terrorism. “The United States stands with Israel, now and forever,” Clinton told AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, at its conference in June.

Yet Clinton is also the former first lady who famously broke with her husband’s administration in 1998 and said Palestinians should have a state of their own. Ten years later, the comment seems unexceptional, but at the time it prompted the White House to make clear she was speaking only for herself.

Clinton’s foreign policy views will be scrutinized closely in the weeks ahead, but as her past statements on the Middle East illustrate, she has a considerable track record that provides evidence for several plausible explanations of how she might try to focus U.S. diplomacy. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — Much of the debate around the wisdom (or lack of it) in selecting Hillary Clinton as secretary of state seems to imply that by putting her in that position Obama will be delegating foreign-policy making to her. In other words, as Bob Woodward claims, Obama has been persuaded to “give Hillary and Bill the world.” I find this highly implausible. Moreover, the gaping hole in much of this discussion so far is the fact that we simply do not know why Obama has picked Clinton, but maybe some context can shed some light.

A campaign is underway to make the Saudi-initiated Arab League peace plan (first presented in 2002) the central framework upon which a resolution to the Middle East conflict can be negotiated. It’s too early to tell whether this campaign is aimed at persuading Obama to put this at the top of his foreign policy agenda, or whether he’s already on board and the efforts of Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft, Shimon Peres and others are simply groundwork in preparation for a presidential initiative.

If it’s the latter, then it’s reasonable to assume that when Obama offered Clinton SoS, he alerted her to the fact that she would have an important role to play in pushing the Arab peace plan forward. The fact that she’s perceived as a hawk and strongly pro-Israeli would then become assets — not deficits — if she fully supported Obama’s initiative.

So much for the speculation. What should not be lost sight of is that, as The Post says: “she would be responsible for implementing a foreign policy established in the end by Obama.” The Clintons are not about to be given the world.

Obama to take on torture?

Despite the hopes of many human-rights advocates, the new Obama Justice Department is not likely to launch major new criminal probes of harsh interrogations and other alleged abuses by the Bush administration. But one idea that has currency among some top Obama advisers is setting up a 9/11-style commission that would investigate counterterrorism policies and make public as many details as possible. “At a minimum, the American people have to be able to see and judge what happened,” said one senior adviser, who asked not to be identified talking about policy matters. The commission would be empowered to order the U.S. intelligence agencies to open their files for review and question senior officials who approved “waterboarding” and other controversial practices.

Obama aides are wary of taking any steps that would smack of political retribution. That’s one reason they are reluctant to see high-profile investigations by the Democratic-controlled Congress or to greenlight a broad Justice inquiry (absent specific new evidence of wrongdoing). “If there was any effort to have war-crimes prosecutions of the Bush administration, you’d instantly destroy whatever hopes you have of bipartisanship,” said Robert Litt, a former Justice criminal division chief during the Clinton administration. A new commission, on the other hand, could emulate the bipartisan tone set by Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton in investigating the 9/11 attacks. The 9/11 panel was created by Congress. An alternative model, floated by human-rights lawyer Scott Horton, would be a presidential commission similar to the one appointed by Gerald Ford in 1975 and headed by Nelson Rockefeller that investigated cold-war abuses by the CIA. [continued…]

The ‘good war’ isn’t worth fighting

Afghanistan does not matter as much as Barack Obama thinks.

Terrorism is not the key strategic threat facing the United States. America, Britain and our allies have not created a positive stable environment in the Middle East. We have no clear strategy for dealing with China. The financial crisis is a more immediate threat to United States power and to other states; environmental catastrophe is more dangerous for the world. And even from the perspective of terrorism, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are more lethal.

President-elect Obama’s emphasis on Afghanistan and his desire to send more troops and money there is misguided. Overestimating its importance distracts us from higher priorities, creates an unhealthy dynamic with the government of Afghanistan and endangers the one thing it needs — the stability that might come from a patient, limited, long-term relationship with the international community.

We invaded intending to attack Al Qaeda and provide development assistance. We succeeded. By 2004, Afghanistan had a stable currency, millions more children in school, a better health system, an elected Parliament, no Al Qaeda and almost no Taliban. All this was achieved with only 20,000 troops and a relatively small international aid budget.

When the decision was made to increase troops in 2005, there was no insurgency. But as NATO became increasingly obsessed with transforming the country and brought in more money and troops to deal with corruption and the judiciary, warlords and criminals, insecurity in rural areas and narcotics, it failed. In fact, things got worse. These new NATO troops encountered a fresh problem — local Taliban resistance — which has drawn them into a counterinsurgency campaign. [continued…]

Militants and military brace for a winter of war in Afghanistan

In recent years, the first snow falling on the jagged mountain peaks of Afghanistan has ushered in a seasonal slowdown in fighting between insurgents and the Western forces that overthrew the Taliban in 2001.

This winter looks to be different. Snow and icy terrain aside, both sides have made it clear that they plan to keep fighting, each contending that the harsh conditions favor them more than their enemy.

“We’ll be pursuing them, and pursuing them aggressively, whatever the conditions, and they know this,” said Canadian Brig. Gen. Richard Blanchette, chief spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, a vow amplified by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, in a speech in Washington on Tuesday. [continued…]

Ringed by foes, Pakistanis fear the U.S., too

A redrawn map of South Asia has been making the rounds among Pakistani elites. It shows their country truncated, reduced to an elongated sliver of land with the big bulk of India to the east, and an enlarged Afghanistan to the west.

That the map was first circulated as a theoretical exercise in some American neoconservative circles matters little here. It has fueled a belief among Pakistanis, including members of the armed forces, that what the United States really wants is the breakup of Pakistan, the only Muslim country with nuclear arms.

“One of the biggest fears of the Pakistani military planners is the collaboration between India and Afghanistan to destroy Pakistan,” said a senior Pakistani government official involved in strategic planning, who insisted on anonymity as per diplomatic custom. “Some people feel the United States is colluding in this.”

That notion may strike Americans as strange coming from an ally of 50 years. But as the incoming Obama administration tries to coax greater cooperation from Pakistan in the fight against militancy, it can hardly be ignored. [continued…]

In Somalia, piracy and state breakdown

You know we’re in trouble when much public sentiment in the Arab world probably backs the Somali pirates who recently captured a Saudi Arabian supertanker carrying $100 million of crude oil. If there is a single incident that captures the strange dynamics that have defined our region for the past 50 years or so, this is it: Lawless brigands of a collapsed, poverty-stricken and often violent state grab the paramount symbol of the modern Arab world – an oil tanker heading for the West! – and the rest of the Arab world remains mostly silent and indifferent.

This week in Beirut and on a working visit to Jordan, I asked people for their views of the seizure of the Saudi tanker. I heard three striking and frightening responses: mostly shrugs of the shoulder, some perfunctory expressions of distaste for criminal piracy, and an occasional wicked sense of glee by a few stressed people whose daily lives were increasingly becoming a losing battle to make ends meet, and who experienced vicarious thrills in the daring defiance of the pirates.

Somali piracy has suddenly captured international attention, because global sea-borne assets are now threatened, though the suffering and death of Somalis remain strangely invisible to the outside world. The global response has been a colossal failure in understanding what all this really means. Most comments I have heard focus on the need for greater security cooperation, a sort of “surge-at-sea” strategy to defeat the pirates militarily. This is probably futile in the long run if it only focuses on defeating criminality without addressing the underlying causes of state collapse that gave birth to the piracy phenomenon in the first place. [continued…]

To do: Somalia

The fraught 1992-93 U.S.-led humanitarian intervention, U.S. backing for Ethiopia, and civilian casualties caused by recent American counterterrorism strikes have eroded Somali respect for the United States. But Obama’s singular status as the first African American president substantially renews American diplomatic credibility with all Africans, including Somalis.

Expending political capital on such a knotty problem–over a dozen transitional governments have tried and failed over the past 17 years–might seem imprudent at first blush. But the Somalis’ very recalcitrance has yielded such low expectations that very little would actually be at risk. Moreover, an earnest attempt at conflict-resolution in Somalia would enable Mr. Obama to showcase the differences between him and his predecessor.

Mr. Bush was a self-described “gut player,” uninterested in the cultural subtleties of other peoples, and it showed in a foreign policy that was often ineffective on account of its insensitivity. By contrast, Mr. Obama is surrounding himself with true regional experts, including Africanists who have made it their business to understand Africans and their politics in all their complexities. Somalia’s notorious clan system makes for extreme political atomization, and makes any power-sharing solution an especially daunting prospect. Yet the clan network also disperses power from the bottom up, and, properly harnessed, could systematically limit the trajectory of a top-down movement like radical Islamism. [continued…]

Somali Islamists ‘hunt pirates’

Somali Islamist insurgents have begun searching for the pirates who hijacked a giant Saudi-owned oil tanker last Saturday, reports say.

A spokesman for the al-Shabab group, Abdelghafar Musa, said hijacking a Muslim-owned ship was a major crime and they would pursue those responsible.

The pirates are thought to be trying to obtain a multi-million dollar ransom. [continued…]

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1 thought on “NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP & EDITOR’S COMMENT: November 23

  1. Carol Elkins

    Will somebody please tell me why the law doesn’t go after the pirates with planes rather than boats?

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