Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A New President's Old Foreign Crisis Agenda

When the recently elected president descends to the West Wing basement and takes his place at the head of the table in the Situation Room, the agenda will look depressingly like the one that was there before the election. If there were no crisis there would be no crisis management and, thus, no meeting of the National Security Council. Crisis drives the top command, which has little time for more leisurely consideration of longer-term strategic thinking and planning. This is the dilemma of a US that feels automatically involved and still looked to for leadership in an increasingly leaderless world. Here are a few samples of probable agenda items, along with some modest policy suggestions that have little chance of being taken seriously.


The US will apply what pressure it still possesses for a cease-fire.  But Israel, wounded by Iran-supplied Hamas rocket fire on its territory after taking out Hamas’ military leader, is poised to deliver a punitive retaliatory blow on the tiny enclave aimed at both punishment and deterrence. The dilemma is that the more comprehensive Israel’s military response, the more alienated the Arab world and its new and fragile regimes will become.

This bloody drama has been playing itself out for well over half a century. The essence of conflict is unchanged since the 1947 UN partition of the British Palestinian mandate. Generations of American mediators have broken their picks on the stone face of resentment in an Arab world of what it regards as a further extension of Western colonialism into "their" region. The Israelis for their part assert their historic rights while seeing all external threats through the lens of the Holocaust. It is hard to be optimistic. But the time has long since come for the US to lay on the table a draft map of a final territorial agreement between the sides, and stop hoping that somehow the parties will do this themselves. That action can at least form the basis for a more realistic discussion of concrete terms, which may never happen otherwise.


The US has struggled for months to find a role that doesn’t involve American boots on the ground or aircraft enforcing a no-fly zone. Unlike Libya, Syria is a linchpin of the Arab Middle East and a still-powerful state. No good options have appeared so far, particularly for a US that is weary of ambiguous incursions into the Middle East.

More effective help is needed to finally topple the genocidal Assad regime. A new opportunity may have opened by the newly-formed “National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.” One lesson learned in the bungled planning for invading Iraq in 2003 was that President George W. Bush’s close-to-unilateral action would have fared much better with a broad multilateral backing such as that organized by Bush’s father in 1991 in Kuwait. Given the refusal of Russia and China to vote for a UN-sanctioned intervention, it is time to form a new Coalition of the Willing, based on NATO, to tackle the thankless but vital task of securing a cease-fire and the beginnings of a post-Assad Syria.

The suspected development of a nuclear weapons capability is what put Iran on the regular list. Israel’s redline warnings to Tehran portend a new Middle East war, this time uniting Shiite Iran with Sunni Arabia in solidarity against Israel and the US. The clock is ticking, and the prospects are dire if no diplomatic solution can be found.

US policy correctly considers preventing further nuclear weapons proliferation a high priority. But the costs of using force preemptively may outweigh the dangers of letting diplomacy run its uncertain course. One possibly promising approach may lie in a statement by Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak stating that Iran has delayed its ambition for nuclear weaponry and is converting some of its enriched uranium fuel rods to civilian use. The president’s diplomatic track should spell out more clearly the mutual benefits inherent in such an approach.


It is no accident that the crisis list begins with the Middle East in various forms. But the sharpening dispute over potentially oil-rich islands has already led to dangerous confrontations between China and Japan, threatening armed escalation. This conflict plays into other tensions arising in Chinese: Japanese relations, colored by memories of the cruel Japanese occupation of China in the 1930’s.

All one can say is that this is so 19th century. There are few signs of a peaceful solution. But I wonder if anyone in Washington even remembers something called the International Court of Justice. It seems unlikely, since it is never mentioned even though the United States helped establish the court in order to provide an impartial forum for resolving just such territorial and boundary disputes. The court did this some years ago in a conflict involving Atlantic fisheries, and sits there expensively ready to conduct an impartial analysis of conflicting claim and historic boundaries, hopefully rendering a judicious and impartial verdict that in a sane world would be accepted by the parties. For a country that preaches the rule of law, such a unique US initiative might astonish the rest of the world and give the US a renewed reputation for constructive leadership.


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