Moderator rehabilitation therapy

Whom should President Obama appoint as his emissary to Iran, to take on what may be the most important diplomatic mission in decades? The right person (or persons) would have the stature and experience to engage Iran at the highest level — and to explore what Obama in his inaugural address called “a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”

My nominees are Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, former national security advisers for Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, respectively. They would elevate the Iran mission, connecting it to the tradition of bipartisan strategic thinking that shaped America’s role in the modern world. And, like our youthful new president, these two octogenarians understand the need for America to “turn a page” in its foreign policy and to connect with what Brzezinski has called a “global political awakening.”

I know Brzezinski’s and Scowcroft’s views about dialogue with Iran because I spent many days with them last spring, moderating a discussion that yielded a book, “America and the World: Conversations on the Future of American Foreign Policy.”

The book was an experiment to see whether a prominent Democrat and a prominent Republican could find common ground for new approaches to the world. Indeed they did: On nearly every issue, from the Arab-Israeli dispute to the war in Afghanistan, the two had similar insights about how to use diplomacy better to align America with a changing world. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — After Davos, there are those of us who think that David Ignatius is not only a ham at moderation but he can arguably be blamed for singlehandedly elevating Middle East tensions.

A column — “What I learned in Davos” — would be welcome. Instead we’re getting: Why I’m really a whiz moderator. Fair enough, but maybe a grand master of reconciliation of the Democratic-Republican tensions that rock the cozy corridors of Washington’s foreign policy elite could also concede that his old-colonial touch doesn’t play well in the Middle East…

That said, the idea of a Brzezinski-Scowcroft overture to Tehran is well-conceived. It wouldn’t just send the right message to Tehran but also Jerusalem, Europe and Washington itself.

The unthinkable option

…the U.S. military option is not an option. It is unthinkable.

This is the poisoned chalice handed Obama by Bush, who responded to Iranian help in Afghanistan in 2001 by consigning Iran to the axis of evil, rebuffed credible approaches by the former moderate president, Mohammad Khatami, and undermined European diplomacy.

No, the real “Red Line” will be set by Israel.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s leading candidate to become prime minister after elections next week, has said “everything that is necessary” will be done to stop Iran going nuclear. I believe him. [continued…]

Hamas ‘more popular’ since Israeli action

Israel’s war on Hamas in Gaza, which killed more than 1300 people and left large swathes of the territory in ruins, has boosted the popularity of the Islamists, an opinion poll has found.

Hamas would get 28.6 per cent of the vote compared with 27.9per cent for the rival Fatah faction of Western-backed President Mahmud Abbas if elections were held this week, according to the survey by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre.

It marks the first time that an opinion poll has placed Hamas in front of Fatah, which it ousted from the Gaza Strip in deadly fighting in June 2007. [continued…]

Israel impounds Lebanese aid boat

The Israeli navy on Thursday intercepted a ship delivering 60 tons of supplies from Lebanon to the Gaza Strip. An investigation of the ship revealed it contained no hidden weapons and it has been docked in the port of Ashdod.

Israeli sources said that the aid the ship was carrying would be transferred to Gaza via land. The passengers, who attempted to dock in Gaza illegally, were transferred to security forces for questioning.

The ship set sail from the Lebanese port of Tripoli Tuesday in a bid to defy Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Reporters from Arab TV stations Al-Jadeed and Al-Jazeera who were on the vessel said the Israelis fired at the ship before boarding it and beating those on board. [continued…]

Religious groups are ‘penetrating’ Israeli army

Extremist rabbis and their followers, bent on waging holy war against the Palestinians, are taking over the Israeli army by stealth, according to critics.

In a process one military historian has termed the rapid “theologisation” of the Israeli army, there are now entire units of religious combat soldiers, many of them based in West Bank settlements. They answer to hardline rabbis who call for the establishment of a Greater Israel that includes the occupied Palestinian territories.

Their influence in shaping the army’s goals and methods is starting to be felt, said observers, as more and more graduates from officer courses are also drawn from Israel’s religious extremist population. [continued…]

Waltzing with Ariel: Will Obama, too, indulge Israeli rejectionism?

What do we call leaders who reject a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whose manifestos deny their adversary the right to sovereign statehood, and who oppose a final agreement, instead offering only long-term truces? Rejectionists… if they’re Palestinian… If they’re Israeli, they’re more likely to be called “Mr Prime Minister”.

Consider Benjamin Netanyahu, who looks likely to head the next Israeli government after the elections on February 10. “Bibi” has made clear that he won’t be bound by any undertakings given by his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, to the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The basis of his government, Bibi says, will be no sharing of Jerusalem, and no return to the 1967 borders: ie, a rejection of the Arab Peace Plan praised last week by President Barack Obama, and of the generally accepted terms of a two-state solution. [continued…]

Arab hope, Arab change

The stark juxtapositions within the Arab World — and the wider Middle East-South Asia region — were brought home to me one morning this week in Kuwait. I am here participating in a global gathering that seeks to increase the production of indigenous research in the Middle East in order to better influence policy-making. But our noble endeavor contrasted sharply with the morning newspaper headlines of suicide bombings in Somalia and Afghanistan, continued military strikes in Israel and Palestine, and even the provincial elections in Iraq, happening during a lull between a string of suicide bombings in that country.

Where, in this range of events, is the center of gravity of the Arab world? It is in none and all of these things simultaneously. For the Arab World is defined by both rampant violence — home-grown and foreign-instigated — and a deep desire to become democratic, productive, vibrant societies, intellectually and culturally.

A key to moving in that direction is understanding the main constraint and the common denominator in all these events. I believe it is the legacy of autocratic, top-heavy, centralized Arab governments, which range from relatively gentle monarchies on the one hand to hard police states on the other. [continued…]

Secret report recommends military shift in Afghanistan

The Pentagon is prepared to announce the deployment of 17,000 additional soldiers and Marines to Afghanistan as early as this week even as President Barack Obama is searching for his own strategy for the war. According to military officials during last week’s meeting with Defense Secretary Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon’s “tank,” the president specifically asked, “What is the end game?” in the U.S. military’s strategy for Afghanistan. When asked what the answer was, one military official told NBC News, “Frankly, we don’t have one.” But they’re working on it. [continued…]

Russia puts a price on its cooperation in Afghanistan

The U.S. badly needs Russia’s help in Afghanistan, and Moscow can’t afford to let the NATO mission there fail for the sake of Russia’s own security. But Russia will extract a geopolitical price for its cooperation — and the resulting bargaining process can be lucrative for those caught in between. That’s the message of Tuesday’s bombshell dropped by Kyrgyzstan: President Kurmanbek Bakiyev ordered the U.S. to close down an airbase in his tiny Central Asian country used to provide key air support for NATO forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

The Kyrgyz leader’s announcement came on the same day that militants in Pakistan blew up a key Khyber Pass bridge, cutting NATO’s main supply line into Afghanistan and highlighting its vulnerability. And, of course, he happened to be standing alongside Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev at a Moscow news conference when he served notice on the U.S. to vacate the Manas air base. Moscow, in fact, had just promised to give Bakiyev a vital $2 billion economic bailout package. Russia’s motivations, and its intentions, are ambiguous. [continued…]

Torture row: Judges accuse US of cover-up

Britain succumbed to “blackmail” from America by suppressing details of the torture of a British resident held at Guantánamo Bay, it has been claimed.

Two High Court judges issued a scathing attack on the White House after it emerged that the US threatened to withdraw all intelligence co-operation from Britain if details of the treatment of Binyam Mohamed were made public.

The row threatened to damage relations with President Barack Obama’s administration after the Foreign Office confirmed that the US’s stance on the issue had not changed since his inauguration last month.

The dispute stems from a High Court case in London.

Two High Court judges, Lord Justice Thomas and Mr Justice Lloyd Jones, had intended to order that the documents on Mr Mohammed’s alleged torture be published.

However, they decided reluctantly to block the release of the information after being told that the withdrawal of American co-operation would lead to Britons facing a “very considerable increase” in the risk from terrorists. [continued…]

Bailouts for bunglers

Question: what happens if you lose vast amounts of other people’s money? Answer: you get a big gift from the federal government — but the president says some very harsh things about you before forking over the cash.

Am I being unfair? I hope so. But right now that’s what seems to be happening.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about the Obama administration’s plan to support jobs and output with a large, temporary rise in federal spending, which is very much the right thing to do. I’m talking, instead, about the administration’s plans for a banking system rescue — plans that are shaping up as a classic exercise in “lemon socialism”: taxpayers bear the cost if things go wrong, but stockholders and executives get the benefits if things go right. [continued…]

Is America going the way of Japan?

William Pesek, a savvy Asia columnist for Bloomberg, reports, in his latest column, views about the structural crisis faced by Japan that I first outlined in a 1996 paper, “Japan’s Economic Crisis.” Thirteen years later, Japan is entering another severe slump, one that looks like even worse than that of other advanced economies. In the U.S., Europe and some other advanced economies, along with China, the second derivative of growth and of other economic indicators is approaching positive territory (i.e., growth is still negative, but GDP may be falling at a slowing rate). In Japan, it is still highly negative. There, the fall is accelerating, resembling a free fall–a severe case of stag-deflation.

The sad case of Japan’s free fall is a cautionary tale of what happens when a high-flying economy has a real estate and equity bubble that goes bust, avoiding (for too long) doing the painful structural reforms and clean-up of the financial system that is necessary to avoid a lengthy, L-shaped near-depression. Japan had over a decade of stagnation and deflation, then a mild, sub-par growth recovery that lasted only three years, and is now spinning into another severe stag-deflation.

Keep alive zombie banks and zombie corporations with balance sheets and debts that haven’t been restructured, as in Japan, and you end up in an L-shaped near-depression.

Let me explain why the U.S. and the global economy face the risk of an L-shaped near-depression if appropriate policy actions are not undertaken. [continued…]

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