Two U.S. diplomats drugged in Russia last year, deepening Washington’s concern

RFE/RL reports: Two U.S. officials traveling with diplomatic passports were drugged while attending a conference in Russia last year, and one of them was hospitalized, in what officials have concluded was part of a wider, escalating pattern of harassment of U.S. diplomats by Russia.

The incident at a hotel bar during a UN anticorruption conference in St. Petersburg in November 2015 caused concern in the U.S. State Department, which quietly protested to Moscow, according to a U.S. government official with direct knowledge of what occurred.

But it wasn’t until a dramatic event in June, when an accredited U.S. diplomat was tackled outside the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, that officials in Washington reexamined the November drugging and concluded they were part of a definite pattern.

The State Department suggested the harassment has become a particular concern in the past two years. [Continue reading…]

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Russian hostility ‘partly caused by West’, claims former U.S. defence head

The Guardian reports: The current level of hostility in US-Russian relations was caused in part by Washington’s contemptuous treatment of Moscow’s security concerns in the aftermath of the cold war, a former US defence secretary has said.

William Perry, who was defence secretary in Bill Clinton’s administration from 1994 to 1997, emphasised that in the past five years it has been Vladimir Putin’s military interventions in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere that have driven the downward spiral in east-west relations.

But Perry added that during his term in office, cooperation between the two countries’ militaries had improved rapidly just a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union and that these gains were initially squandered more as a result of US than Russian actions. [Continue reading…]

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For Sanders — unlike Clinton — there is no such thing as a noble cold war

Peter Beinart writes: In the final days before she and Bernie Sanders face the voters of Iowa, Hillary Clinton is leveling the same attack she leveled against Barack Obama. She’s saying that on foreign policy, she’s the only adult in the race.

In their January 17 debate, Sanders declared that, “What we’ve got to do is move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran. … Can I tell you that we should open an embassy in Tehran tomorrow? No, I don’t think we should. But I think the goal has got to be, as we’ve done with Cuba, to move in warm relations with a very powerful and important country in this world.”

When the debate ended, Team Hillary pounced. Ignoring the second half of Sanders’s statement, the campaign released a video of foreign-policy advisor Jake Sullivan asking, “Normal relations with Iran right now? President Obama doesn’t support that idea. Secretary Clinton doesn’t support that idea, and it’s not at all clear why it is that Senator Sanders is suggesting it. … It’s pretty clear that he just hasn’t thought it through.” Hillary herself added that Sanders’s comments reflect a “fundamental misunderstanding of what it takes to do the patient diplomacy that I have experience in.”

The language echoes Clinton’s attack on Obama after he pledged in a July 2007 debate to meet leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea without preconditions — a pledge she called “irresponsible and frankly naive.” That attack, like this one, was contrived: Obama wasn’t planning to rush out to meet Iran’s supreme leader any more than Sanders would rush to build an embassy in Tehran. [Continue reading…]

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Out of touch: U.S. diplomacy shackled by security concerns

Peter Schwartzstein writes: The U.S. embassy in Cairo is a forbidding-looking fortress. Its imposing concrete blast walls are visible for miles, and cast an ugly shadow over a cluster of surrounding villas. Flanked on all sides by edgy soldiers in body armor and camouflage uniforms, the atmosphere can scarcely be called welcoming.

For diplomatic personnel posted across the Middle East, the security protocols are often no less daunting. Many are shuttled from their offices to their homes in armored vans with tinted windows. When the U.S. ambassador to Cairo’s car emerges onto one of the capital’s main drags, city police block lanes and back up traffic as they hustle to facilitate the convoy’s passage.

Given recent events, the U.S. instinct to wrap its foreign representatives in cotton wool is somewhat understandable. The mission in Cairo — considered relatively safe by regional standards — was attacked by a mob and the site of the stabbing of a U.S. citizen in the last four years alone. The list of assaults on State Department posts around the world runs long and lethal.

But to those who puzzle over Washington’s erratic foreign policy in these parts, this safety-centric tack has much to answer for. [Continue reading…]

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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.

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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…]

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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…]

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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…]

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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…]

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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…]

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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…]

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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.

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