World

Syria Turns into a Political Story

President Obama announcing his intention to seek congressional approval for strikes on Syria. (White House video)
So last night I was watching NBC News, and a report on Syria came on, in which Andrea Mitchell spent five minutes talking about whether going to Congress for affirmation of his decision to attack the Syrian government makes Barack Obama "look weak." Mitchell is the network's "Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent," which is what you call someone who stays in nice hotels and gets talking points from top officials when she travels with the secretary of State to foreign countries. The news is full of this kind of discussion, about whether Obama is weak, whether he "bungled" the decision-making process, how this might affect the 2014 elections, and pretty much anything except whether a strike on Syria is genuinely a good idea or not. Here's The Washington Post 's Chris Cillizza talking up the "massive gamble" Obama is taking—not a gamble on what will happen in Syria, mind you, but a political gamble. Here's Chuck Todd and the rest of the NBC politics crew gushing that this is "a great...

No Empire Strikes Back

The days of unilateral imperial action are gone—American power is not enough to solve the conflicts in Egypt and Syria.  

AP Images/British Official photo
AP Images/British Official Photo A story from the Middle East's past to help understand its present: One evening in Cairo, British Ambassador Sir Miles Lampson arrived at the royal palace accompanied by the commander of the British army in Egypt and "stalwart military officers armed to the teeth." While he waited to meet King Farouk, Lampson heard "the rumble of [British] tanks and armoured cars, taking up positions round the palace." It was February 1942 ; Nazi general Erwin Rommel's Afrikakorps threatened to conquer Egypt, and the British wanted a government firmly in the Allied camp. Lampson demanded that the young, Axis-leaning king abdicate, but accepted a compromise: Farouk appointed the head of the Wafd Party, Mustafa al-Nahhas Pasha, to head a pro-British government. "So much for the events of the evening, which I confess I could not have enjoyed more," wrote Sir Miles, reporting to London on his coup d'état. In the days of empires, superpowers could deal with Middle Eastern...

Let's Avoid the Fog of War

The benefits of a U.S. military strike against Syria don't outweigh the costs.

AP Images/Manuel Balce Ceneta
As the Obama administration considers military action against Syria as retaliation for its alleged use of chemical weapons, it’s important to consider what such strikes could actually accomplish, and at what cost. As I understand them, the two main arguments for strikes are: 1) Having set a red line, the credibility of the United States now requires that the Bashar al-Assad regime be punished for crossing it; 2) Military action is necessary to uphold the international norm against chemical weapons and to deter future use. The first case is fairly easy to dismiss. Supporters of military intervention tend to place a great deal of weight on “credibility,” which is almost exclusively defined as “a willingness to bomb something.” As this argument goes, the United States needs to use deadly force to maintain its table image, to use a poker term. If we get caught bluffing, other players will be more likely to call or raise us in the future. But there’s just not a lot of real-world evidence...

The Chemical-Weapon Taboo and America's Next War

A Canadian World War I soldier with mustard gas burns. (Wikimedia Commons)
Back in December, when the White House first declared that any use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would constitute a "red line" whose crossing would produce some kind of response (they never said what kind), I wondered why the taboo against chemical weapons exists. Now that it looks like we're about to start bombing Syria , it's worth revisiting the question of what lies behind the taboo and how it is guiding our feelings and actions. Why do we have this international consensus saying that while it's bad for someone like Assad to bomb a neighborhood full of civilians and kill all the men, women, and children therein, it's worse for him to kill that same number of civilians by means of poison gas than by means of "conventional" munitions that merely tear their bodies to pieces? Indeed, we act as though killing, say, a hundred people with poison gas is worse than killing a thousand or ten thousand people with conventional weapons. After all, the Obama administration (not...

Back to the Future in Egypt

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
It’s too soon to say whether the Egyptian coup that overthrew the elected government of Islamist Mohamed Morsi—and the ensuing crackdown that has now killed more than a thousand people—has squashed any chance for democratic reform in Egypt. I think it’s safe to say that its short-term prognosis is grim. What seems clear, however, is that the Egyptian military crackdown has ended talk of George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda.” At the very least, it has revealed that many of its supporters weren’t that serious about it to begin with. One of the great (and little-noticed) ironies of the post-9/11 era is that, in an effort to justify its grandly transformative policies in the Middle East, the Bush administration and its supporters latched upon a leftist critique of U.S. foreign policy. For decades, America’s interest in stability in the Middle East had led it to support a set of undemocratic, authoritarian regimes that promised to keep the peace if we didn't bother them about human rights. The...

Mind Eraser: Israel Forgets Its Own Border

The country's leaders and much of its public have repressed memories of where pre-1967 national boundaries lie.  

AP Images/Sebastian Scheiner
I stood on the silent street that circles a hilltop industrial park called Har Hotzvim in Jerusalem. The name means Stonecutter Mountain, but nothing as loud or low-tech as cutting stones happens there. Intel has a plant in the park, and the giant Israeli pharmaceutical company, Teva, has two. Software and biotech firms fill office buildings. I turned my back to the buildings and looked at the steep slope descending to the north. Below the street, unmarked on the hillside, runs the Green Line, the pre-1967 border of Israel. The City of Jerusalem's veterinary institute, hidden by trees in the valley below, is past that border, in land Israel conquered in June 1967. The tech companies and Teva's pharma factories are within pre-1967 Israel. Keep this in mind: dog doctors over the Green Line; pill production inside. It's not difficult if you have a map that shows the line, but the government of Israel got it wrong—top government agencies are accusing each other of publicly labeling the...

The Unsettling Question of Israeli Settlements

AP Images/Uriel Sinai
A s if the challenges to productive Israeli-Palestinian talks—set to begin today in Jerusalem—weren’t already monumental, over the past several days the Israeli government has announced the building of over 3,000 new settlement units, and has identified a number of settlements located deep in the West Bank as “priority areas” for future development. If Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s hesitance to return to direct talks in the absence of a publicly declared Israeli settlement freeze was ever really confusing, it should no longer be. No sooner did he agree to come back to the table than the Israelis seemingly go out of their way to make him look like a fool for doing so. The building announcements, certainly not welcomed by the Palestinians and the United States, are not exactly a surprise. Briefing reporters upon the restart of talks in July, a senior State Department official warned , “I think it would be fair to say that you are likely to see Israeli settlement...

Fashioning Justice for Bangladesh

AP Images/Ismail Ferdous
AP Images/Ismail Ferdous O n April 24, the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,129 workers and injuring at least 1,500 more. Most were young women earning about $37 a month, or a bit more than a dollar a day. The collapse was the worst disaster in the history of the global garment industry, evoking the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City. The Rana Plaza factory made apparel for more than a dozen major international fashion brands, including Benetton, J.C. Penney, and Wal-Mart. This was the third major industrial accident in Bangladesh since November, when 112 people were killed in a fire at a garment factory producing mainly for Wal-Mart. At Rana Plaza, cracks appeared in the eight-story building the day before it collapsed. Police ordered an evacuation of the building. But survivors say they were told that their pay would be docked if they did not return to the factory floor, and most did. Bangladesh, a nation of more than 160 million, has...

There's No Nate Silver in Middle Eastern Politics

AP Photo/Israeli Army Photo, File
Sipa via AP Images T wo months ago, no one was forecasting that Egyptian democracy activists and generals would join forces to overthrow the country's president. Two months ago, sensible experts all knew that Kerry's Folly—the secretary of state's attempt to renew Israeli-Palestinian peace talks—would never succeed. The Middle East is not kind to expectations. It has no Nate Silver who can scientifically calculate the odds of when war, revolution, or even peace will break out. Morsi is gone; the talks have begun. Viewing the two events through the same lens leads to—well, let's not call it a prediction, but a word of caution: The toughest issue for the Israeli, Palestinian, and American negotiators could be what to do about Hamas-ruled Gaza. With Morsi's fall has come the reversal of Hamas's standing in Cairo. It's not just that the deposed president represented the Muslim Brotherhood and that Hamas, born as the Brotherhood's Palestinian branch, is tarred by association. The Egyptian...

Kerry's Heavy Lifting Begins on Israel-Palestine

Preliminary peace talks begin in Washington next week amid hopes that the U.S.'s efforts will engender much-needed change in the region. 

 

AP Images/ Fadi Arouri
Defying the skeptics, Secretary of State John Kerry announced last Friday that Israelis and Palestinians had “established a basis” to return to peace talks, which have stalled since 2010. Kerry is wisely keeping a close hold on details so as not to create opportunities for spoilers in advance of negotiations actually taking place, but the latest is that preliminary talks, in which the Palestinians will be represented by longtime negotiator Saeb Erekat and the Israelis by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Netanyahu’s “personal envoy” Yitzhak Molcho , will begin in Washington next Tuesday . Now that new talks are imminent, critics are hard at work detailing the challenges ahead. As Daniel Levy noted in a recent piece, “Predicting the difficulties for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations is about as challenging as predicting the media interest in a British royal birth.” The more important question now is whether, having successfully brought the parties back to the table, Kerry will be...

Our Passivity Surplus

As recent calamities show, change takes empathy—plus insisting on making yourself heard.

AP Images/A.M. Ahad
AP Images/A.M. Ahad O nce in a while, disparate news events make visible a thematic convergence, something wonderful or disturbing that had been coursing unseen through the culture. Since the mass murder of 26 children and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the nation’s attention has frequently been riveted by events that call into question what we owe to one another and what we owe to ourselves. Can we, like the inspiring, relentless parents of those dead kids, rouse ourselves to care about our fate? Recently, two terrible yet at least partially hopeful episodes occurred: one in a familiar American city, the other thousands of miles from the U.S. We were horrified to learn of the kidnapping, torture, and sexual assault of three girls (now women) over a ten-year period by Ariel Castro, a middle-aged man seemingly as nondescript as his house in Cleveland. Charles Ramsey, a generous, charismatic neighbor in a down-on-its-heels neighborhood, heard a cry for help and helped kick...

Obama's Silence on LGBT-Rights Abuses in Russia

AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell
AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell President Barack Obama at a joint press conference with Senegalese President Macky Sall last month R ussian President Vladimir Putin wasn't kidding about cracking down on LGBT rights. On Sunday, four Dutch filmmakers were arrested under the country's new "gay propaganda" law. Signed by Putin on June 30 after passing unanimously in the State Duma, the measure bans both private and public expressions of support for gay rights deemed to be accessible to minors and prescribes fines of up to 100,000 rubles ($3,000) for violations. The filmmakers, who came to the country earlier this month to shoot a documentary about gay life in Murmansk, were taken into custody after police went through their footage and found an interview with a 17-year-old gay man (a minor under Russian law). While the foursome was fined for visa violations and let go, it is the first instance of the anti-gay law being enforced against visitors to the country. The gay blogosphere and...

Netanyahu versus the EU

EU sanctions against Israeli settlements are a warning from friends that their patience has run out.

Sipa via AP Images
AP Photo/Ariel Schalit, File "T his is the chronicle of a crisis foretold years in advance," said the Israeli ex-ambassador to Germany, in that petulant tone of a diplomat working very hard not to sound infuriated. Shimon Stein was trying to explain new European Union sanctions against Israeli settlements. Neither journalists nor politicians should sound so shocked by the EU move, he lectured the anchor of state radio's morning news program. He was right, but he was trying to outshout a hurricane of public anger and disbelief. The anchor herself had begun the show with a riff of indignant surprise that the EU considered her Israeli neighborhood in East Jerusalem to be a settlement. Of course, the EU position has consistently been that the country called Israel is defined by its pre-1967 borders, or Green Line—and that anything built beyond those borders is not part of Israel. The sanctions are designed to give more teeth to that position. Under new budget guidelines, EU bodies must...

Transatlantic Trouble

How much has America's spying on European allies damaged the transatlantic trade deal once thought to be one of Obama's best opportunities for shaping his foreign policy legacy?

AP Images/Charles Dharapak
Recent revelations that the U.S. government had been spying on European allies continue to rile public sentiment on the continent, just as officials from both sides of the Atlantic sit down for talks in Washington on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a wide-ranging deal that the Obama administration has been pushing as a key foreign policy initiative. If successful, TTIP would deepen the economic ties between North America and the European Union and represent the biggest trade deal in over two decades. But with public trust in the United States ebbing throughout the core countries of the European Union, President Obama will probably have to do more than simply downplay the scandal as a hyped-up, misunderstood policy detail. Old school Atlanticists have long touted the wisdom of deeper economic integration between the United States and the European Union, which is already vast and significant. U.S.-EU trade in goods and services totals about one trillion...

Drawing the Wrong Lessons from Egypt

AP Photo/Hassan Ammar
AP Photo/Hassan Ammar T he military coup that removed Egypt’s elected President Mohamed Morsi from power last week marks a significant setback for Islamist movements in the Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood—to which Morsi belonged—is the most prominent and important. But, the coup also returns the Brotherhood to a position they are quite used to, that of the unfairly marginalized voice of the silent, oppressed majority. Egypt’s military government has signaled that it would move relatively quickly to new elections and a constitutional referendum. (It would probably be the first coup-led government in history to actually do so.) As for the future of the Muslim Brotherhood, as analyst Michael Wahid Hanna writes in Foreign Policy , “In the end, no functional political order can emerge, let alone a democratic transition, without the free, fair, and full participation by the Muslim Brotherhood.” Despite being removed from power, the Brotherhood remains a deeply rooted political force in...

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