2016’s Rocky Start

It’s only the first official workday of 2016, and already the year is off to a very rocky start.

In the Middle East, tensions are high because Saudi Arabia — where Sunni Muslims predominate — recently executed a prominent Shiite Muslim cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, for terrorism-related offenses.  That angered Iran, the Shiite power in the region, with protesters in Tehran setting fire to part of the Saudi embassy there.  Saudi Arabia has now given Iran two days to withdraw its diplomats from the Kingdom.  So, in a Middle East that is already aboil because of ISIS, fighting in Syria and Iraq, and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian disputes, we layer on a conflict between Saudi Arabia, the money power and home to Islam’s most holy sites, and Iran, the revolutionary religious state that has long sought to be the leading Muslim power in the area.  And that dispute will not only increase the political turmoil in the region, it also might affect the world’s oil markets, which have been plunging recently.

1904But that’s not all.  In China today, stocks tumbled 7 percent, triggering a premature end to trading.  It’s not entirely clear why China’s markets have plunged — China’s economy is a black box, and many of China’s economic decisions seem the product of manipulation, rather than the workings of the law of supply and demand — but signs point to the fact that the Chinese economy is headed for the rocks.  Given the size of the Chinese economy, that’s bad news for the rest of the economically interdependent world that seems to be teetering on the brink of another recession, and other Asian stock markets also fell today.  We’ll see whether European and American markets follow suit.

So, even more contentiousness in the war-torn, terrorism-addled Middle East powder keg, and bad signs from one of the world’s largest economies and a principal engine of growth in recent years.  What about America?  Oh, yeah — it’s a presidential election year, which means we’ve got a lame duck President, and according to the polls the two currently leading candidates to replace him are a blow-dried bumptious buffoon and a dissembling also-ran who couldn’t comply with basic email security rules.  And we’ve got months, and months, and months of electioneering and campaign commercials in our future, too.

You know, 2015 really wasn’t that bad.

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The President’s Speech About ISIS

Tonight President Obama will give a nationally televised address about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the group of murderous terrorists who have seized territory in those countries and intend to establish their own nation.  It’s an important speech for the President, and for our country.

It’s important for the President because he desperately needs to reestablish his credibility in the area of foreign affairs.  He has been dogged by ill-advised comments, like the one describing ISIS as a kind of “junior varsity” squad, that paint him as possessing a curious mixture of overconfidence, naivete, and ignorance about history and human motivation.

The President seems to believe that an inevitable historical arc will move us toward a world of eternal peace, diversity, and right-thinking people who inevitably will adopt every democratic liberal precept — without realizing that there are fanatics, like those who make up ISIS and Boko Haram, that are dead set on establishing an historical arc that bends in precisely the opposite direction.  In the past, President Obama has been unwilling to admit that he’s made mistakes, but if the brutality of ISIS at least causes him to shed his rose-colored glasses about the dangerous world outside our borders that’s a step in the right direction.

As for the country, it’s important that we recognize that ISIS is a different, and immensely significant, threat.  Unlike itinerant terrorist groups like al Qaeda that move from place to place depending on local conditions and shifting political winds, ISIS intends to establish a nation.  It has captured funds and an arsenal of weapons from Iraq and seeks to control oil wells and oil refineries that would provide long-term, ongoing funding for its terrorist aims.

There is an additional dangerous element to ISIS.  Any group that would videotape and publicize its beheading of innocent journalists obviously doesn’t subscribe to accepted social norms, and ISIS’ treatment of civilians and captured soldiers in Syria and Iraq further speak to its utter brutality and depravity.  ISIS actively seeks to recruit like-minded jihadists from countries across the globe, including the United States and Great Britain, and it’s not shy about describing its intention to take the jihadist fight to our homeland.  We should take them at their word.  No one should doubt that ISIS poses a grave threat to America, and if we don’t act to punish and defeat them the threat will only grow more severe.

According to the Washington Post, tonight the President will announce a plan to launch airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, and Secretary of State John Kerry is in the Middle East building support for broader action against ISIS.  This seems like a mirror image of the situation before the first Gulf War, when the actions of a rogue state threatened to destabilize an entire region and spread chaos on a much wider scale.  It’s time for the United States to form and lead a coalition, again, to defeat the latest rabid threat to the world to spring from ever-fertile grounds of the Middle East.

If President Obama is willing to accept that responsibility, I support him.  I don’t think we have any choice.

The Secretary Of State’s Security Screening

On Tuesday U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is in the Middle East trying to arrange for a cease-fire in the Israeli-Palestinian fighting in Gaza, met with the Egyptian President.  Prior to the meeting, Kerry’s aides had to go through a metal detector, and Kerry himself was scanned with a security wand.

Reuters reports that such a security screening of a high-ranking U.S. official is “unusual.”  I’d say it’s unprecedented.  I cannot remember any instance where the American Secretary of State was screened, or wanded down, prior to meeting with a foreign dignitary.  And, it’s hard not to feel a certain sense of schadenfreude at seeing a guy who is usually ushered from meeting to meeting by limo and subject to elaborate courtesies have to undergo a security scan like the rest of the masses. 

Obviously, though, there’s a more important issue at work here.  We know the Middle East is a place where symbolism is important and people are deeply sensitive to perceived slights; showing the sole of your shoe can be viewed as a deadly insult.  I’m confident that the security screening was an intentional effort to send a message; no one could reasonably believe that the Secretary of State was packing heat or posed a security threat.  The message therefore has to be that the Egyptian government doesn’t view representatives of the American government as needing special treatment, and they wanted Kerry and his aides to understand that new reality in a very tangible, personal way.  With the incident being widely reported, and with the groupthink mentality at play in the Middle East, the Egyptian view may well be shared by other governments in the region, too. 

If American diplomats are treated like security threats by governments in countries that we hope will help to keep the peace in that deeply troubled region and American power and influence in the Middle East in fact is waning, it is bad news for America and bad news for the world. 

Iran And Nukes

Today the United States and a group of other countries reached agreement on a proposal that addressed the Iranian nuclear program.  The agreement is a temporary one, apparently designed to freeze the Iranian program in place so that additional negotiations can occur.

According to the BBC, the key elements of the agreement are that Iran will stop enriching uranium beyond a certain point, allow inspectors increased access to its nuclear sites, and stop development of a plant that could create plutonium, and in exchange no new sanctions will be imposed for six months and Iran will receive billions of dollars in relief from existing sanctions.  U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says the deal gives the U.S., and Israel, “breathing space” for additional negotiations with Iran.  Iran says the deal recognizes its right to enrich uranium; Kerry denies that.

Is it a good deal?  I tend to trust Israel on Middle Eastern matters, because the Israelis have shown a very clear-eyed view of the realpolitik in that perpetually challenging region of the world.  They have to be clear-eyed, of course, because their very survival is on the line.  It’s fair to say the Israelis aren’t happy about this agreement, and neither are their supporters — both Republican and Democrat — in the U.S. Congress.  In fact, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “historic mistake.”  The Israelis and their supporters think the sanctions were working and should have been continued until Iran agreed to end its program.

I don’t trust Iran.  I don’t trust a government that has called for the obliteration of Israel, that still has a scent of fanaticism about it, that has cracked down on its own citizens as they have tried to exercise basic freedoms, and that has been a fomenter of terrorism and unrest in the Middle East for decades.  How do you negotiate with a country that you can’t trust?

A Shirking President, And An Army For Rent

I mentioned in my post this morning that the Obama Administration seems to be making up its Syria policy as it goes along.  Two things happened today that reinforce that conclusion for me.

First, President Obama said that he didn’t set a “red line” — rather, “[t]he world set a red line.”  And, to further display his apparent unwillingness to shoulder responsibility, the President said:  “My credibility’s not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line. And America and Congress’s credibility is on the line.”  I find myself spluttering at the incoherent arrogance of such remarks, and groaning at the President’s reflexive shirking tendencies.  So it’s the country that got us into this predicament, eh?  Why can’t President Obama act like a leader at a time like this, rather than someone who is figuring out what talking points will best position him to avoid any blowback for a blunder?

And then there is Secretary of State John Kerry, whose testimony yesterday was alarming because he refused to rule out the possibility that American troops might be sent into an angry, anti-American country that is sinking into chaos.  Today his reassuring comment was that the oil-rich Arab states have offered to pay for the entire cost of toppling the evil Assad regime.  Secretary Kerry depicts this offer as showing how “dedicated” to the cause the Arab states are.

Huh?  A more apt conclusion is that the Arab states have plenty of cash, and are perfectly happy to pay the American mercenaries to come once more into the Middle East and risk their lives to take out a tyrant.  Now we know how the Hessians must have felt during the Revolutionary War.

I’m not hearing anything that is changing my mind on this:  as bad as a use of chemical weapons is, our vital interests aren’t at issue.  The Arab countries, on the other hand, do have something at stake in what is going on in their own back yards.  Instead of pulling out their wallets, why don’t they send in their own troops and risk their own soldiers’ lives to do the dirty work for once?

The Embassy Closures

The United States closed 21 of its embassies and consulates in the Middle East and Africa on Sunday, and most of those facilities will remain closed this week.

As usual, our government seems incapable of speaking with one voice on exactly why it has taken such a step.  The State Department says the closures are “out of an abundance of caution” and not in response to a new threat, whereas talking heads on the Sunday shows said the closures were in response to the most serious threat identified by intelligence-gathering efforts in several years.  There also has been an apparent intelligence leak disclosing that the United States reportedly intercepted an exchange of messages between al Qaeda leaders about a plot against an embassy.

Although I wish our government could get its act together on messaging, I don’t see a viable alternative to closing the embassies.  If we have received credible intelligence information that our embassies and consulates in the Muslim world are targets of an impending attack, there are few options.  Physical security arrangements can’t be enhanced overnight; far better to get our people out of harm’s way until better information about the threat is developed.  Although some people may criticize that course as showing weakness, it seems like the only prudent option.  We don’t need another Benghazi-like situation.

The deeper issue here is what this apparent threat means about al Qaeda itself.  With the killing of Osama bin Laden and the publicized deaths of countless “high-ranking al Qaeda leaders” over the years, we’ve been led to believe that al Qaeda has been severely diminished.  If al Qaeda is capable of attacking an American embassy, that fact suggests a resurgent organization — or one about whom the reports of decline have been greatly exaggerated.  If the former is true, how much of the resurgence is due to the bad feelings generated by the continuing American presence in the Middle East and our aggressive use of drones?

The recognition of substantial al Qaeda capabilities that is implicit in the decision to close the embassies is sobering, to say the least.

Secretary Clinton Stands Down

Hillary Clinton has stepped down from President Obama’s Cabinet.  After battling health problems, she has been replaced as Secretary of State by John Kerry.

With so much of international diplomacy conducted behind closed doors, it’s very difficult to gauge the performance of any Secretary of State until the years pass and secrets become public.  In Clinton’s case, we know that the United States has managed to avoid become embroiled in any new wars during her tenure and that our roles in Iraq and Afghanistan are finally winding down.  We also know that efforts to “reset” relations with the Russians haven’t made much progress, North Korea, Iran, and Syria remain rogue states, and Pakistan seems to be teetering on the brink of chaos.  And the Holy Grail of American diplomacy — brokering a conclusive Middle East peace deal — eluded Secretary Clinton just as it eluded every one of her predecessors.  Her legacy as Secretary of State may be dependent, in significant part, upon what historians conclude about how, if at all, her stewardship affected the takeover of the American compound in Benghazi and the killing of the Ambassador and three other Americans.

What we can also say about Secretary Clinton, however, is that she was a good soldier for the President.  She didn’t make any trouble, didn’t try to upstage him, and by all accounts worked hard at her job and developed good relations with the career diplomats at the State Department.  She didn’t seem to let her ego get in the way — and in these days of celebrity politicians, that’s saying a lot.  When John Kerry’s tenure at the State Department has ended, I wonder whether we will be able to say the same thing about him?