Why U.S. government officials are so often viewed with contempt

“Public diplomacy – effectively communicating with publics around the globe – to understand, value and even emulate America’s vision and ideas; historically one of America’s most effective weapons of outreach, persuasion and policy.” Jill A. Schuker (former Senior Director for Public Affairs at the National Security Council), July 2004

To be persuasive, you have to be believable. But who, inside or outside the Syrian opposition, thinks that the following pledge holds an iota of credibility?

Syria is an issue on which the Obama administration has never been fully engaged. It has instead been an issue that refused to go away — however persistently it was ignored. Some officials inside the State Department might sincerely claim they are “with” the Syrian opposition, yet the support provided by the U.S. government as a whole, has proved to be less than worthless.

Following nine hours of talks in Vienna on Friday, Josh Rogin says:

European diplomats at the conference told me they were concerned the new U.S.-led diplomatic effort was an empty gesture, to allow the Obama administration to claim it was working in earnest to solve the Syria crisis.

If U.S. diplomacy rings hollow even among America’s closest allies, then it will predictably and reasonably be ignored by every party directly involved in the war in Syria.


How Pope Francis U.S. visit can help boost diplomacy and defeat militarism

Trita Parsi writes: Pope Francis’s visit to Washington DC could not have been better timed for the Obama administration. Relations with Cuba have been normalized and the Iran nuclear deal has survived the theatrics of the mandated Congressional review. Pope Francis has of course played an important role in many of these wins for President Barack Obama. He helped with the backchannel diplomacy with Havana, he has endorsed the Iran deal and the White House has reportedly also enlisted his offices to help secure the release of three American citizens imprisoned in Iran.

While the Pope’s assistance in what appears to amount to a prisoner exchange with Iran is both welcomed and necessary, there are two other interrelated issues that deserves some papal nudging.

On the broader level, the Obama administration should seek strong support from the pope on the matter of diplomacy as a principle. The Iran nuclear deal was above all a major victory for a foreign policy paradigm centered on the idea that international conflicts must first and foremost be resolved through dialogue and negotiations, rather than through militarism and coercion.

Many outside of the US may find it perplexing that this even needs to be debated, but the Congressional debate around the Iran nuclear deal revealed the profound opposition that remains within the Washington foreign policy establishment around the notion of negotiating and compromising with one’s adversaries. [Continue reading…]


Explainer: What diplomatic power does a pope really have?

By Luke Cahill, University of Bath

Pope Francis is part of the way through his much-anticipated visit to Cuba and the US, which he is visiting for the first time. He is following in the footsteps of his immediate predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who visited Cuba in 2012 and expressed his opposition to the US trade embargo.

Now Cuba and the US have dramatically thawed their relations, Francis’s visit to Cuba may well have included a behind-closed-doors push to edge the Castro regime toward greater political, economic and especially religious liberalisation.

The current pontiff has been credited as a central figure in the negotiations that ultimately restored US-Cuba relations. Pope John Paul II had called for the lifting of the embargo, but nothing was done at the time; other religious and humanitarian organisations pressed for the ending of the US embargo but to no avail.

It was probably Obama’s decision to accept the mediation of Pope Francis that allowed the Holy See to help broker the deal.

There were plenty of incentives for both sides to accept the Holy See’s mediation. Perhaps Obama thought he needed to piggyback on the pope’s popularity to break through; the president has mentioned Francis’s role twice, once in his December 2014 Cuba speech and again in his January 2015 State of the Union.

This is hefty stuff indeed, and a measure of the pope’s unique diplomatic position.

[Read more…]


Obama’s real failure: His reluctance to talk to the Taliban

Peter Beinart writes: There are three kinds of critiques of Barack Obama’s foreign policy. The first comes from the left, from commentators like Glenn Greenwald who claim Obama has embraced the architecture of George W. Bush’s war on terror: unlawful spying, unlawful detention, unlawful drone attacks, cozy relations with dictators. The second comes from the right, from hawks who believe Obama has appeased anti-American tyrants in Syria, Russia, and Iran, while retreating from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and thus weakening American credibility. The third, and least discussed, comes from foreign-policy professionals, including those within Obama’s administration. Ideologically, it’s harder to classify. These professionals argue that in his zeal to focus on domestic policy, and to avoid risky foreign-policy fights, the president simply hasn’t invested the time and political will to effectively wield American power.

One purveyor of this third critique is Obama’s former envoy to Syria, Robert Ford. When Republicans attack the administration’s Syria policy, they mostly focus on Obama’s decision to declare Syrian chemical weapons a “red line,” and then fail to act militarily when Bashar al-Assad crossed it, allegedly making America look weak. Ford’s critique is different. This week — in a public break with his former boss — he argued that by not aiding Syria’s rebels when they initially took up arms, before jihadists became a dominant force in the armed opposition, Obama squandered an opportunity to pressure Assad into a diplomatic deal. Unlike Republican politicians, who want to paint Obama as a wimp for not launching missile strikes in the country, Ford’s critique is that the president — in his desire to avoid getting sucked into a messy and risky civil war—proved too passive not only militarily, but diplomatically as well.

Ford’s criticism echoes one leveled by another former Obama State Department official, Vali Nasr, in his book The Dispensable Nation. In recent days, Republicans have flayed the White House for “negotiating with terrorists” in order to secure the Taliban’s release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. But Nasr, who worked under special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, maintains that Obama’s failure was to not negotiate with the Taliban enough. Like Ford, he thinks Obama’s main problem was not his refusal to stand up to America’s enemies, but his refusal to engage them the right way. [Continue reading…]


Why does America send so many stupid, unqualified hacks overseas?

o13-iconJames Bruno writes: When hotel magnate George Tsunis, Obama’s nominee for Oslo, met with the Senate last month, he made clear that he didn’t know that Norway was a constitutional monarchy and wrongly stated that one of the ruling coalition political parties was a hate-spewing “fringe element.” Another of the president’s picks, Colleen Bell, who is headed to Budapest, could not answer questions about the United States’ strategic interests in Hungary. But could the president really expect that she’d be an expert on the region? Her previous gig was as a producer for the TV soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful. She stumbled through responses to Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) like, well, a soap opera star, expounding on world peace. When the whole awkward exchange concluded, the senator grinned. “I have no more questions for this incredibly highly qualified group of nominees,” McCain said sarcastically.

For the purposes of comparison, Norway’s ambassador to the Washington is a 31-year Foreign Ministry veteran. Hungary’s ambassador is an economist who worked at the International Monetary Fund for 27 years.

The resumé imbalance, of course, owes to a simple fact: The United States is the only industrialized country to award diplomatic posts as political spoils, often to wealthy campaign contributors in an outmoded system that rivals the patronage practices of banana republics, dictatorships and two-bit monarchies. [Continue reading…]


Barack Obama’s on a diplomatic roll that shouldn’t end with Iran

Jonathan Freedland writes: There was no hesitation in pointing out the obvious loser from last weekend’s breakthrough deal between the world’s leading powers and Iran – and it wasn’t the scriptwriters of Homeland. True, the US drama has taken a blow: the current storyline centres on Tehran and its runaway nuclear programme, depicting a regime utterly beyond the reach of conventional diplomacy. Yet while Carrie and Saul plot and scheme, there’s secretary of state John Kerry shaking hands with his Iranian counterpart in Geneva – the actuality once again outdoing the talents of fiction, to paraphrase the great Philip Roth.

No, the obvious loser is Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu. His driving mission, the raison d’être of this, his second spell as Israel’s prime minister, has been the total removal of what he sees as Iran’s nuclear threat. To Bibi, Iran is the existential issue to which all other questions – including Israel’s relationship with its neighbours, the Palestinians – are secondary. For two decades he has warned that Tehran is within touching distance of acquiring nuclear weapons – in 1992, he gave it five years, max, before Tehran had the bomb – and he has been bent ever since on the total eradication of that danger, almost certainly by force.

But the Geneva deal does not guarantee total Iranian disarmament. The pact struck last week is interim and incomplete: Iran retains some limited ability to enrich uranium and the like. It is not an Iranian surrender. Which is why Netanyahu denounced the agreement as a “historic mistake”, making him a lone public voice against the international chorus of celebration and relief. (As it happens, the Saudis and the Gulf states also oppose the deal, which they think lets Iran, their great regional rival, off the hook: but only Bibi said so out loud.)

Bibi-watchers are focused now on how the Israeli leader will play the next six months, in which the Geneva agreement will either blossom into a lasting accord or break apart. But it prompts another question: what will be the impact on Israel’s conflict closer to home? Could the breakthrough with Iran somehow presage a breakthrough between Israelis and Palestinians?

The wisest bet would be on no. Peace talks are officially under way, Kerry having pushed both sides to the table in late July. What got Bibi there was, chiefly, Iran: participation in Kerry’s talks was the quid, US support for Israel on Iran the expected quo. But now that leverage has gone. Bibi no longer needs to make nice to Kerry or Barack Obama: as far as he’s concerned, they’ve betrayed him and he owes them nothing. One western diplomat sympathetic to Israel explains that no leader of that country will ever dare move in peace talks unless reassured that “the US president has his back”. Bibi, he says, has lost that confidence.

A similar dynamic could operate in reverse. Obama knows he has angered his Israeli ally and that might make him reluctant to do so a second time. The US president already has a job on his hands winning congressional blessing for the Geneva pact. Given the wide support Bibi enjoys on Capitol Hill, Obama will only make his task harder by demanding Israel concede to the Palestinians.

Add that Kerry’s “bandwidth” for the next six months will be consumed by closing the Iran deal, and that Israeli-Palestinian talks are said to be stalled anyway, and you can see why few expect a Geneva bounce. The safest wager would be on Bibi “managing” whatever pressure comes from Obama, going through the motions with the Palestinians and waiting for the US president to be a certified lame duck. Meanwhile, he’ll do what he can to undermine the accord with Iran.

But there’s another, riskier bet to make. It says that Obama now has momentum in the Middle East, using diplomacy to solve problems previously deemed soluble only through military action. [Continue reading…]


For Iran, peaceful diplomacy has delivered what sabre-rattling could not

Simon Jenkins writes: Good news so far on Iran. Western intervention in the Muslim world at the start of the 21st century has seemed nothing but the orchestration of failure. Yesterday’s Geneva agreement on Iran’s nuclear capacity hints at a chance that the onward march of nuclear armaments might be halted. Coming on top of the Syrian chemical weapons deal, diplomacy appears hesitantly ascendant.

The stumbling blocks remain what they always were: the opposition of Iran’s hardliners, and of their opposite numbers in Israel and the US Congress. Those blocks have always existed. What is exciting about Geneva is that they have, for the moment, been circumvented. Diplomacy’s “confidence-building measures” are to be given their head. One of the world’s great countries, Iran at least might be re-admitted to the community of nations.

There was always too much fantasy posturing in the west’s Iran policy. It was never possible to stop an Iranian nuclear arsenal by confrontation. There are too many arms salesmen around, too much money and too much Iranian pride for that. Only by Iran’s politics opening up to change, freeing its democracy and allowing its people to feel safe, would its leaders dare foreswear these weapons.

The west never had the power to conquer Iran or bomb it into submission. A military strike would merely speed an arms race and drive that country back into the embrace of its fundamentalists. Only soft power was ever going to de-escalate the conflict. [Continue reading…]


This bastardised libertarianism makes ‘freedom’ an instrument of oppression

George Monbiot writes: Freedom: who could object? Yet this word is now used to justify a thousand forms of exploitation. Throughout the rightwing press and blogosphere, among thinktanks and governments, the word excuses every assault on the lives of the poor, every form of inequality and intrusion to which the 1% subject us. How did libertarianism, once a noble impulse, become synonymous with injustice?

In the name of freedom – freedom from regulation – the banks were permitted to wreck the economy. In the name of freedom, taxes for the super-rich are cut. In the name of freedom, companies lobby to drop the minimum wage and raise working hours. In the same cause, US insurers lobby Congress to thwart effective public healthcare; the government rips up our planning laws; big business trashes the biosphere. This is the freedom of the powerful to exploit the weak, the rich to exploit the poor.

Rightwing libertarianism recognises few legitimate constraints on the power to act, regardless of the impact on the lives of others. In the UK it is forcefully promoted by groups like the TaxPayers’ Alliance, the Adam Smith Institute, the Institute of Economic Affairs, and Policy Exchange. Their concept of freedom looks to me like nothing but a justification for greed.

So why have we been been so slow to challenge this concept of liberty? I believe that one of the reasons is as follows. The great political conflict of our age – between neocons and the millionaires and corporations they support on one side, and social justice campaigners and environmentalists on the other – has been mischaracterised as a clash between negative and positive freedoms. These freedoms were most clearly defined by Isaiah Berlin in his essay of 1958, Two Concepts of Liberty. It is a work of beauty: reading it is like listening to a gloriously crafted piece of music. I will try not to mangle it too badly.

Put briefly and crudely, negative freedom is the freedom to be or to act without interference from other people. Positive freedom is freedom from inhibition: it’s the power gained by transcending social or psychological constraints. Berlin explained how positive freedom had been abused by tyrannies, particularly by the Soviet Union. It portrayed its brutal governance as the empowerment of the people, who could achieve a higher freedom by subordinating themselves to a collective single will.


Can Citizens United be rolled back?

Andy Kroll reports: On Thursday evening, residents of 83 towns and cities throughout the country—places like Marietta, Georgia, and East Troy, Wisconsin, and Anchorage, Alaska—will make their way to the home of a friend or neighbor or outright stranger for a night of partying. But these aren’t holiday parties. They’re the ground-level rumblings of a growing campaign to roll back one of the most game-changing Supreme Court decisions in recent memory, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

In a year packed with populist uprisings, in which Time named "the protester" its person of the year, the fight against Citizens United is gaining momentum with battle fronts in Congress, statehouses, city halls, and the homes of hundreds of Americans. The decision, handed down in January 2010 by the court’s five conservative justices, effectively gave corporations the same free speech rights as people, gutted key provisions of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, and green-lighted unlimited spending by corporations and labor unions in American elections. Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a pro-reform campaign finance organization, called it "the most radical and destructive campaign finance decision in Supreme Court history."

The campaign to counter Citizens United sprang to life immediately after the ruling was announced. Led by Public Citizen, the good government group founded by Ralph Nader, its goal is to pass a constitutional amendment that neutralizes the ruling’s effects. But the effort didn’t fully take off until this year—the public needed time to see what the decision had wrought. To influence the 2010 midterm elections, super-PACs and other independent spending outfits that sprung in the wake of Citizens United spent hundreds of millions of dollars.


Tony Blair’s nexus of Middle East conflicts of interest

“It’s easy enough to see what Tony Blair has got out of the Middle East peace process: introductions to Arab rulers; a nice address in Jerusalem; a continued presence on the world stage. What’s more difficult to see is what the Middle East peace process has got out of Tony Blair.”

The Associated Press reports:

Since stepping down as Britain’s prime minister, Tony Blair has built up a formidable work portfolio: He’s an international peacemaker, a consultant for investment bank JP Morgan, a pricey public speaker and a philanthropist.

He’s so many things to so many people that it’s starting to cause him trouble — with human rights groups, the Palestinian Authority, and even current British Prime Minister David Cameron, who described Blair’s deals with Moammar Gadhafi’s regime as “dodgy deals in the desert.”

Rights workers who have tried to track his activities find it’s sometimes unclear which job he is doing — or who is paying him to do it. Crucially, when he’s in the Arab world as the Middle East Quartet’s peace envoy some of the very parties he’s meant to be negotiating with aren’t sure whose interests he’s representing.

“The problem is a lack of transparency over how Tony Blair has organized his business affairs,” said Robert Palmer, a campaigner at pressure group Global Witness. “If former leaders are appearing on a public stage, it’s important that they do all they can to make sure they are seen to be open and clear over what they are doing.”

Blair’s effectiveness and impartiality in the Middle East are under attack from the Palestinian Authority, which accuses him of acting “like an Israeli diplomat” after he refused to support their decision to sidestep negotiations and to ask the Security Council for admission to the United Nations as a state. At the same time, the collapse of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in Libya has led to the discovery of documents that show that Blair maintained ties to the Libyan leader even after he left office.


Ambassadors as human shields in Syrian revolt

Julian Borger writes:

The American and French ambassadors to Damascus now have some company as occasional human shields for the Syrian protest movement. At the vigil on Sunday of Giyath Matar, a human rights activist tortured and killed in custody, Robert Ford and Eric Chevallier were joined by other western envoys, including the UK’s Simon Collis, and representatives from Germany, Canada, Japan, Netherlands and the EU.

British diplomats said that if Collis had been in the country at the time he would have joined Ford and Chevalier on their celebrated trips to Hama in July, which drew attention to the threat of a bloodbath in the opposition stronghold. Ford’s high-profile role in particular led to violent pro-government protests outside the US embassy and a ban on diplomats travelling without specific permission.

The measure of protection provided by the coordinated diplomatic presence is limited. The Washington Post’s Liz Sly tweeted that the funeral tent at the Matar wake was trashed by security forces an hour later. And the risk to the diplomats is real. It is an uncomfortable and somewhat bizarre position to be in being the diplomatic representative of a country openly calling for the toppling of the host regime. Ford has noted on his Facebook page that he has received death threats, but British diplomats say there will be more such public appearances at opposition events.

“We have said we will stand with the Syrian people, whether that means grieving with them or talking to the opposition,” a diplomat said. He added that it was critical that the Syrian protesters should not feel forgotten by the world while the focus is on Libya and the Palestinian resolution next week at the UN.


Is honesty the best foreign policy?

We live — as politicians frequently repeat — under the rule of law and there is nothing the legal system frowns on more earnestly than perjury. Hence during trials the solemn ritual that witnesses must swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

And then there is government, where the conduct of the people’s business apparently requires the economical expression of truth, the guarding of secrecy and a subtle contempt for honesty — as though only those who are ignorant about the way the world works would attach great value to truthfulness.

Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, asked HRW staff to canvass sources in Tunisia to gauge the impact of the revelations from WikiLeaks and how they influenced the revolution.

The candid appraisal of Ben Ali by U.S. diplomats showed Tunisians that the rottenness of the regime was obvious not just to them but to the whole world — and that it was a source of shame for Tunisia on an international stage. The cables also contradicted the prevailing view among Tunisians that Washington would back Ben Ali to the bloody end, giving them added impetus to take to the streets. They further delegitimized the Tunisian leader and boosted the morale of his opponents at a pivotal moment in the drama that unfolded over the last few weeks.

This point might not be worth dwelling on, except that it suggests something interesting about how the United States, and the State Department in particular, approaches the challenge of promoting human rights and democracy in countries like Tunisia. Consider the following proposition: None of the decent, principled, conscientious, but behind the scenes efforts the State Department made in recent years to persuade the Tunisian government to relax its authoritarian grip — mostly through diplomatic démarches and meetings with top Tunisian officials — had any significant impact on the Ben Ali regime’s behavior or increased the likelihood of democratic change. Nor did the many quiet U.S. programs of outreach to Tunisian society, cultural exchanges and the like, even if Tunisians appreciated them and they will bear fruit as the country democratizes.

Instead, the one thing that did seem to have some impact was a public statement exposing what the United States really thought about the Ben Ali regime: a statement that was vivid, honest, raw, undiplomatic, extremely well-timed — and completely inadvertent.

Had anyone at the State Department proposed deliberately making a statement along the lines of what appears in the cables, they would have been booted out of Foggy Bottom as quickly as you can say “we value our multifaceted relationship with the GOT.” [Continue reading…]


In Iraq, Turkey demonstrates the effectiveness of soft power

Anthony Shadid reports:

A Turkey as resurgent as at any time since its Ottoman glory is projecting influence through a turbulent Iraq, from the boomtowns of the north to the oil fields near southernmost Basra, in a show of power that illustrates its growing heft across an Arab world long suspicious of it.

Its ascent here, in an arena contested by the United States and Iran, may prove its greatest success so far, as it emerges from the shadow of its alliance with the West to chart an often assertive and independent foreign policy.

Turkey’s influence is greater in northern Iraq and broader, though not deeper, than Iran’s in the rest of the country. While the United States invaded and occupied Iraq, losing more than 4,400 troops there, Turkey now exerts what may prove a more lasting legacy — so-called soft power, the assertion of influence through culture, education and business.

“This is the trick — we are very much welcome here,” said Ali Riza Ozcoskun, who heads Turkey’s consulate in Basra, one of four diplomatic posts it has in Iraq.

Turkey’s newfound influence here has played out along an axis that runs roughly from Zakho in the north to Basra, by way of the capital, Baghdad. For a country that once deemed the Kurdish region in northern Iraq an existential threat, Turkey has embarked on the beginning of what might be called a beautiful friendship.

In the Iraqi capital, where politics are not for the faint-hearted, it promoted a secular coalition that it helped build, drawing the ire of Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, along the way. For Iraq’s abundant oil and gas, it has positioned itself as the country’s gateway to Europe, while helping to satisfy its own growing energy needs.

Just as the Justice and Development Party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has reoriented politics in Turkey, it is doing so in Iraq, with repercussions for the rest of the region.


The end of hypocrisy

Carne Ross has provided one of the most concise and cogent analyses of the impact of the WikiLeaks cables release and concludes that the challenge this event has thrown up can only be met with one solution: “that governments must close the divide between what they say, and what they do.”

A knee-jerk response to the prospect that diplomacy might not enjoy the confidentiality that it supposedly requires has been the assertion that this confidentiality is the basis of trust. Confidentiality, we are told, fosters candor. Behind closed doors, everyone becomes honest. Right.

On the contrary, what the cables actually reveal is what one might expect: that absent the political accountability that comes from publicly declaring ones objectives, confidentiality provides space for adventurism and for the promotion of policies that might be disowned if ever made public.

The cables reveal leaders across the Middle East — leaders all of whom have been blessed by the United States as “moderates” — whose overriding interest is the protection of their own autocratic power in the name of American-backed “regional stability.”

Even when it comes to candid assessments delivered by diplomats to their own government, such honesty often comes loaded with bias. Consider, for instance, this cable from Ambassador James Jeffrey while he served in Ankara. Referring to the foreign policy objectives outlined by Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu representing the ruling AKP, Jeffrey writes sourly:

[T]he AKP’s constant harping on its unique understanding of the region, and outreach to populations over the heads of conservative, pro-US governments, have led to accusations of “neo-Ottomanism.” Rather than deny, Davutoglu has embraced this accusation. Himself the grandson of an Ottoman soldier who fought in Gaza, Davutoglu summed up the Davutoglu/AKP philosophy in an extraordinary speech in Sarajevo in late 2009 (REF A). His thesis: the Balkans, Caucasus, and Middle East were all better off when under Ottoman control or influence; peace and progress prevailed. Alas the region has been ravaged by division and war ever since. (He was too clever to explicitly blame all that on the imperialist western powers, but came close). However, now Turkey is back, ready to lead — or even unite. (Davutoglu: “We will re-establish this (Ottoman) Balkan”).

If Hillary Clinton did not rely on her ambassador’s confidential opinion but actually read Davutoglu’s speech, she might have come to a different conclusion.

The Turkish foreign minister said: “We want to have a new Balkan region, based on political dialogue, economic interdependency and cooperation, integration and cultural harmony and tolerance.”

The thrust of his argument was that the Balkans had thrived not by virtue of Ottoman rule per se, but because of the dynamism fostered by “multicultural coexistence.” Likewise, he portrayed contemporary Turkey’s strength as being multicultural: “Turkey is a small Balkan, a small Middle East, a small Caucasus. We have more Bosnians living in Turkey than in Bosnia, more Albanians living in Turkey than in Albania, more Chechens living in Turkey than in Chechnya, more Abkhazians living in Turkey than in Abkhazia, and we have Kurds, Arabs, Turks together.”

Is this the perspective of a man enthralled by a romanticized Ottoman golden age, or is Davutoglu offering a glimpse at the kind of multicultural future on which the region and the world surely depends?

But enough of my preamble — here’s what Ross writes:

It will take a long time, perhaps many years, for the full impact of the WikiLeaks disclosure of thousands of US diplomatic cables to become known. Make no mistake: this is an event of historic importance — for all governments, and not only the US.

As politicians of all sides bellow their condemnation of WikiLeaks, governments are with some desperation trying to pretend that it’s business as usual. But the truth is that something very dramatic in the world of diplomacy has just taken place, and thus indeed in the way that the world runs its business. History may now be dated pre- or post-WikiLeaks.

The mainstream press has as usual missed the story, with their obsession with Iran or Qaddafi’s voluptuous nurse or Karzai’s corruption — which, incidentally, is reported by US diplomats in excruciating detail. But this event carries a much deeper significance than merely the highly-embarrassing and in some cases dangerous revelations in the enormous trove of documents. No one, and neither the US State Department nor WikiLeaks, can say with any confidence whether the effects of this massive disclosure will be good or bad, for in truth no one can know. There will be many and long-lasting consequences. That is all that can be known with any certainty at this point.

The presumption that governments can conduct their business in secret with one another, out of sight of the populations they represent, died this week. Diplomats and officials around the world are slowly realizing that anything they say may now be one day published on the Internet. Governments are now frantically rushing to secure their data and hold it more tightly than ever, but the horse has bolted. If a government as technically sophisticated and well protected as the US can suffer a breach of this magnitude, no government is safe. Politicians can demand the prosecution of Julian Assange or — absurdly — that WikiLeaks be designated as a terrorist organization, but the bellows of anger are tacit admission that government’s monopoly on its own information is now a thing of the past.

Hillary Clinton has described the WikiLeaks disclosures as an attack on the “international community.” But in truth this is something else: an attack on the governments that make up the current international system of diplomacy. The deep-seated assumption, both among the public and political classes, that governments have business that they should conduct in secret with one another has been shattered. Pause, incidentally, to observe the politicians and commentators declaring the need for governments to operate in secrecy, when they don’t even know what government is keeping secret. From this day forward, it will be ever more difficult for governments to claim one thing, and do another. For in making such claims, they are making themselves vulnerable to WikiLeaks of their own.

Why? Because the most damaging thing about the WikiLeaks disclosures is not the fact that they happened (though this is bad enough for the US government) but the revelation, long suspected but now proven, of the yawning discrepancy between US words and actions in that most contested area, the Middle East. Cable after cable details the extraordinarily intimate and co-dependent relations between the US and various despotic and unpleasant Arab regimes. One Arab intelligence chief plots with American officials to target Iranian groups, or confront Hezbollah. Another undemocratic Arab leader invites US bombers to attack targets in his own territory. It is this discrepancy — between word and deed — that will keep the wind in WikiLeaks’ sails, and others like them, for long to come.

Governments around the world are this week telling each other that nothing has really changed and that if they restrict the circulation of those really sensitive telegrams and glue up all the USB slots in their computers, that this won’t happen to them. But it will. There will be more such revelations, not about the US (which so far has been the main target of WikiLeaks’ somewhat arbitrary attentions), but others — British, Chinese? — for the reality is that electronic data is formidably difficult to protect.

The reason is simple. In order to be effective as organizations, governments and foreign offices are required to circulate sensitive data, so that their officials and diplomats actually know what’s going on. One reason why the UN is ineffective as an organization is because nothing is secret there, and as a result no one circulates anything sensitive. Don’t buy the argument that the really important stuff is kept Top Secret and hasn’t been compromised. Even a cursory perusal of the WikiLeaks archive reveals cables that are the very meat and drink of diplomacy — what foreign leaders and governments really think, and what they really want in their relations with the US.

Governments are therefore confronted with an insoluble conundrum. If they restrict and protect the data, and perhaps even stop recording the most delicate information (as no doubt some diplomats are now considering), they will inevitably reduce their operational effectiveness. If they circulate the data widely, as the US did before WikiLeaks, they will risk compromise on this devastating scale.

There is in fact only one enduring solution to the WikiLeaks problem and this is perhaps the goal of WikiLeaks, though this is sometimes hard to discern. That is that governments must close the divide between what they say, and what they do. It is this divide that provokes WikiLeaks; it is this divide that will provide ample embarrassment for future leakers to exploit. The only way for governments to save their credibility is to end that divide and at last to do what they say, and vice versa, with the assumption that nothing they may do will remain secret for long. The implications of this shift are profound, and indeed historic.


Israel’s hopeless quest for respect

Israel’s hopeless quest for respect

As Israeli-Turkish relations hit a new low with the threat that Turkey might withdraw its ambassador, Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman said he expects Israel to be treated with “dignity and respect” by Turkey.

The sign of respect Lieberman is looking for would be for the Turkish government to censor Turkish media by banning a TV show that depicts Israeli soldiers as war criminals. Israel’s war on free speech continues on many fronts without much success — other than in America.

The slide in relations between the two major regional powers began with Israel’s war on Gaza. In Davos, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stood up for Turkish dignity by refusing to be silenced after Israeli president Shimon Peres launched a bombastic tirade in defense of Israel’s right to wage war.

Though in the eyes of the Western media the Davos incident was seen as a “spat”, much more importantly in Turkey and across the Middle East, Erdogan was seen as a national leader unwilling to countenance disrespect from an Israeli leader — however much the latter might act out, used as he is to being coddled by the West.

Now we have Lieberman, whose diplomatic talent has been shaped by his experience working as a nightclub bouncer, endorsing a plan that was designed to teach Turkey a lesson. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon seemed to think that if the Turkish ambassador was forced to look up to him — literally — humiliation would deliver in its wake, respect.

This is how the meeting unfolded where the Israeli minister conveyed to Turkey’s ambassador Oguz Celikkol how offensive Israel finds “Valley of the Wolves”.

During the photo-op at the start of the meeting, Ayalon reportedly told the photographers in Hebrew: “Pay attention that he is sitting in a lower chair and we are in the higher ones, that there is only an Israeli flag on the table and that we are not smiling.” Celikkol’s associates told Israeli Army Radio on Tuesday that the meeting with Ayalon was the most humiliating event he had experienced in 35 years as a diplomat.

Those in Israel who understand something about the way diplomacy works know that Ayalon made a huge blunder. He now faces criticism even from inside his own party, Israel Beiteinu.

“He is finished politically,” an Israel Beiteinu official told The Jerusalem Post. “This ruins his reputation as a diplomat. It is a stain that cannot be erased. He damaged Lieberman and first and foremost himself.”

Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said: “The respect for Israel is not judged by how you humiliate an ambassador; humiliation doesn’t help, it only harms.”

While Ben-Eliezer and others indicate that political realism still exists in Israel, Ayalon’s mistake was less that of pure error of judgment than that of representing an Israeli mentality too faithfully.

Alon Liel, a former Israeli ambassador to Turkey, facetiously told Israeli Army Radio that “a new sort of diplomacy” had been invented, and that Lieberman had “made up a new way of reprimanding.”

“This time, they made him sit on a low chair, next time maybe they’ll make him crawl, and who knows, maybe the time after that they’ll beat him up at the entrance,” Liel said.

The former Israeli ambassador’s intention might have been to mock Lieberman, but the idea that contempt generates respect serves as a foundation stone for Zionism. Israel’s struggle to pacify its opponents has since 1948 been a relentless effort to demonstrate who stands above and who must crouch below.

Israel has placed all its bets on the effectiveness of coercion — an investment from which it is difficult to move away. There is no easy road that leads from contempt to mutual respect. Indeed, in those whose nature it is to treat others with contempt there is an underlying assumption that respect is something which will never be freely conferred.

What Danny Ayalon and those Israelis who are cast in the same mold repeatedly and unwittingly display is their own lack of dignity. They have no idea how profound a difference there is between demanding respect and being worthy of respect.


Israel is becoming a diplomatically crippled nation

Disengaging from Israel

The historic reconciliation agreement signed Saturday between Turkey and Armenia constitutes further testament to the positive changes undergone by Turkey in recent year. A government with an Islamic orientation was able to impressively promote two highly sensitive issues for Turkish public opinion: Recognizing the cultural rights of the Kurdish minority and normalizing ties with Armenia.

The strong sense of Turkish nationalism previously prevented any compromise with the Kurds, for fear this will open the door for boosting their national demands and in turn for a renewed territorial disintegration by Turkey.

Tayyip Erdogan’s administration realized that it is precisely openness towards the Kurdish minority that will prompt a greater sense of belonging among them and weaken their aspiration to join other Kurdish areas, mostly in Iraq.

Erdogan faced a similar choice vis-à-vis Armenia: Perpetuating the frozen status-quo in the ties with Turkey’s neighbor would have boosted the global Armenian campaign for recognition of the massacre committed by the Turks as an organized and methodical genocide. Turkey would have been faced with all the possible implications of such recognition, especially if it would have also been backed by the US Congress.

Erdogan decided to preempt this blow, and while taking advantage of the weak Armenian economy (which suffered gravely as result of the closure of its borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan) managed to secure (with Swiss mediation) a reconciliation agreement that is difficult for both for the Turks and for the Armenians – yet postpones to an unknown future date the question of addressing the Armenian holocaust and entrusts future research on its scope in the hands of historians. [continued…]

Editor’s Comment — The writer notes “the fact that precisely at a time when Turkey reaches out to its past enemies, the Turkish administration is adopting an increasingly hostile policy vis-à-vis its former great ally – Israel” and he cites this as a justification for Turkey’s entry into the European Union being blocked.

It’s interesting that an Israeli should be advising the EU who it should or should not be willing to consider as a future member. Of course Israelis who are concerned about keeping Turkey out of the EU merely need to do their bit in helping foment anti-Muslim bigotry across Europe to ensure that the Turks won’t get a fair hearing.

While Eldad Beck clearly admires Erdogan’s diplomatic successes, he falls back on an old cliche in assuming that the Turkish leader is merely taking advantage of popular hostility towards Israel in order to advance his political goals. The assumption, as always, is that such hostility would either not exist or be of minor proportions were it not being fomented. Israel remains the perpetual victim of a bad press.

The real lesson that Israelis should be drawing from observing Turkey is to note how stark the difference is between a diplomatically and democratically empowered nation as it pursues a policy of regional engagement, versus the inevitable isolation that Israel now faces as a diplomatically crippled nation.

It turns out that having just one friend isn’t enough.

Israel’s growing isolation

… we have to recognize the fact that should the trend of isolation continue, we shall have to pay a heavy price – first and foremost on the economic front.

More than ever before, Israel’s growth and employment situation hinge on exporting goods to the global market. In case of isolation, we will find it difficult to engage in international trade, attract foreign investments, and acquire the credit we need.

The isolation will also undermine us strategically, as it would encourage Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and Iran to provoke us. This is based on the assumption that the Israeli government will shy away from ordering the IDF to operate against them in full force, for fear of another Goldstone Report and possibly even UN Security Council sanctions.

Moreover, the isolation also serves to increase Israel’s depends on the American Administration to a dangerous degree; this dependence is too heavy as it is. [continued…]

(Part One and Part Two)


GUEST CONTRIBUTOR – John Robertson: Obama’s Cairo speech: a chance to make an historical difference?

Obama’s Cairo speech: a chance to make an historical difference?

President Obama is scheduled to make an address Thursday, in Cairo, directed at the “Muslim world” (as many have noted, a rather unfortunate locution, as it dismisses tremendous diversity under an all-encompassing umbrella). The site is both unfortunate and highly symbolic.

Unfortunate, in that Obama has selected as the venue for this address a country whose repressive leadership under President Hosni Mubarak epitomizes in the eyes of many across the Middle East one of the evils that have retarded the advance of democracy and human rights across the region. By making his address from there, Obama will be seen as at least implicitly sanctifying, rather than sanctioning, the US’s embrace of that regime. Many will be watching hopefully for any phraseology censuring that regime, but one of the central and most enduring values of traditional Arab society is hospitality: that it be offered to a guest, and that when it is offered, the guest accept it graciously and uncritically. Therefore, any criticism that Obama expresses will have to be sheathed in the most velvetized of gloves.

Symbolic, in that since the mid-10th century CE, Cairo has been one of the great political and cultural capitals of the Arab world (another umbrella concept, admittedly) – and the region of what became Cairo included the most ancient of Egyptian capitals, Memphis, founded around 3000 BCE by (according to ancient Egyptian legend) the unifier king known as Menes. The pyramids at Giza, which now lie within the confines of Cairo, were once one of several huge royal cemeteries devoted to Egypt’s earliest rulers. In 1798, on the eve of the Battle of the Pyramids, which ensured the French conquest (albeit a temporary one) of Egypt, Napoleon Bonaparte admonished his soldiers that thousands of years of history were looking down upon them.

Now, more than two centuries later, Mr. Obama would do well to take heed of Napoleon’s admonition. For, depending on what he says, his address may be about to assume for future generations the status of a major episode, even a turning point, in “histories” : the “(Middle) East” vs. the “West,” Israel vs. the Arab world, Jewish Israelis vs. Muslim and Christian Palestinian Arabs, and, within the United States, those who assume its prerogative of global hegemony as a righteous, militarized “Christian nation” vs. those who advocate its example of global leadership as a largely secular, tolerant democracy. These histories are, of course, hardly segregated from each other. Rather, they are intertwined – or perhaps, nestled within each other, like a series of Russian dolls. The scores of books and articles produced on each of them over just the last few years are too numerous to catalog here. But the vast majority of them show that those histories have been drenched in tension, conflict, and all too often, death, destruction, and the continual ramping-up of distrust and hatred.

Ever since his election – indeed, even during the months that led up to it – a mountain of expectation has been piled upon Mr. Obama’s shoulders by those who deeply hope that he might have an important impact on all these histories. Already, in some of his actions, he has moved to inaugurate a new era of US global outreach and partnership – specifically, in both improving international relations and combating global warming. It is perhaps too much to ask that Mr. Obama’s upcoming speech in Cairo will mark a turning point in each of the histories I’ve noted above. But seldom in recent memory has one man positioned himself so well to pull the planet away from the precipice at whose edge his predecessor’s policies poised it.

John Robertson is a professor of Middle East history at Central Michigan University and has his own blog, Chippshots.


EDITORIAL: Obama assists in the general atmospherics of Middle East diplomacy

Obama assists in the general atmospherics of Middle East diplomacy

Remember back on the campaign trail when Hillary Clinton said she helped bring peace to Northern Ireland? A bit of fact checking soon revealed that her rather minor role amounted to no more than assisting with “the general atmospherics.” That’s worth keeping in mind while Washington’s foreign policy elite smothers Obama with praise after his appearance on Al-Arabiya.

“It’s impossible to exaggerate the symbolic importance of Barack Obama choosing an Arabic satellite television station for his first formal interview as President,” gushed Marc Lynch in response to the implementation of his own recommendations.

“By most accounts, Obama’s decision — shocking to some, refreshing to others — to talk to the Muslim world in his first formal, sit down press interview hit the ball out of the park,” Steve Clemons said in an equally enthusiastic review.

“We support Israel’s right to self-defence. The (Palestinian) rocket barrages which are getting closer and closer to populated areas (in Israel) cannot go unanswered,” Hillary Clinton said in her first news conference at the State Department.

And there’s the rub. How does the US marry it’s “we can feel your pain” message, with “but it’s OK if Israel inflicts some more”?

For Obama to give his first interview to Al-Arabiya was a positive step in changing the tone of US relations with the Muslim world, but let’s not get carried away. Soothing words provide no relief to the victims of Israeli atrocities committed in Gaza.

Talking to a Saudi-owned television station no doubt went down well with Saudi Arabia’s rulers, but if Obama wants to engage with the largest audience he’ll need to have the courage to go on Al Jazeera. The response of the most widely watched network to Obama’s first step was quite telling. They barely mentioned it.

But if Washington wants to remain close to its old friends in Riyadh, it should also head their advice. Just a few days ago, Prince Turki al-Faisal directed a passionate plea at the new president:

Let us all pray that Mr Obama possesses the foresight, fairness and resolve to rein in the murderous Israeli regime and open a new chapter in this most intractable of conflicts.

It’s nice that Obama has had the experience of living in a Muslim country, that he has Muslim relatives, and that he wants to pursue relations with the Muslim world based on mutual respect. But beyond the atmospherics, the people of the Middle East are looking for substance from America’s new celebrity president. He has a receptive audience, but they’ll only remain open if he can deliver.

Prince Turki laid out what is expected:

President Barack Obama must address the disaster in Gaza and its causes. Inevitably, he will condemn Hamas’s firing of rockets at Israel. When he does that, he should also condemn Israel’s atrocities against the Palestinians and support a UN resolution to that effect; condemn the Israeli actions that led to this conflict, from settlement building in the West Bank to the blockade of Gaza and the targeted killings and arbitrary arrests of Palestinians; declare America’s intention to work for a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, with a security umbrella for countries that sign up and sanctions for those that do not; call for an immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from Shab’ah Farms in Lebanon; encourage Israeli-Syrian negotiations for peace; and support a UN resolution guaranteeing Iraq’s territorial integrity.

Mr Obama should strongly promote the Abdullah peace initiative, which calls on Israel to pursue the course laid out in various international resolutions and laws: to withdraw completely from the lands occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem, returning to the lines of June 4 1967; to accept a mutually agreed just solution to the refugee problem according to UN resolution 194; and to recognise the independent state of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital. In return, there would be an end to hostilities between Israel and all Arab countries, and Israel would get full diplomatic and normal relations.

What the Saudis know is that they — and the US — are running out of time. George Mitchell’s patience may be an indispensable negotiating skill, but what the Middle East is looking for is Obama’s “fierce urgency of now” — not just the borrowed slogan but words embodied in actions.