The rising tide of war in the Middle East is giving way to a rising tide of chaos. It is also making me think that my balanced appraisal of the Obama administration's Middle East strategy may have been too optimistic. I credited Barack Obama's "lead from behind" strategy with avoiding what Obama supporters like to call "another Iraq." What they usually mean by that is, as I put it: avoiding "a controversial decision for war that yields a bloody conflict that crowds out other national security priorities by committing the lion's share of our defense, diplomacy, and development tools to a venture with uncertain prospects."
However, Obama's strategy has yielded "other Iraqs," as defined thus: bloody sectarian conflicts that, unless resolved successfully, put in jeopardy American national interests, threaten wider regional conflicts, and hasten a global perception of American decline. Syria has long since passed that threshold. Egypt seems teetering on the edge. Iraq is inching back in that direction too. If Egypt and/or Iraq follow Syria over the abyss, can Jordan or Lebanon be far behind?
Is it fair to credit/blame these developments as the fruits of Obama's regional strategy? In political terms, perhaps not (yet) to the degree that George W. Bush's administration bears responsibility for Iraq. It is easier to trace a direct line of responsibility from acts of commission (invading Iraq) than it is from acts of omission (failing to intervene decisively as Syria, Egypt, or Iraq devolves).
The extent of Obama's culpability depends on whether alternative policy choices could have yielded better results. In that regard, I was intrigued by Thomas Pierret's detailed account (over on FP's Middle East Channel) of the effects of differential levels of external support on the Syrian insurgency. Pierret's bottom line is more bullish on Syria than I would be. Here is his rosy assessment:
In any case, recent military developments show that Syrian insurgents have become increasingly dependent on state supporters for their logistics. Gone are the days when rebels could storm lightly defended regime positions with assault rifles and a few RPGs. The retreat of loyalist forces on heavily fortified bases last winter has required a major quantitative and qualitative increase in the opposition's armament. This is something only foreign governments, not jihadi utopians, can offer. Given Saudi Arabia's apparent determination to lead the way in that respect, this situation will probably continue to favor mainstream insurgents over their radical brothers in arms in the foreseeable future.
But his analysis of the past contains a powerful, if implicit, critique of Obama's hands-off approach to Syria:
The radicalization of the Syrian insurgency has often been interpreted as a quasi-natural phenomenon, the inevitable outcome of a brutal sectarian conflict that has made Salafi-jihadi ideology increasingly appealing to Syrian Sunnis. This view is debatable, however, since the rise of radical Salafi groups throughout 2012 was in fact paralleled with the watering down of their rhetoric....The one main reason for the success of hard-line Salafists throughout 2012 was a matter of superior material resources. As illustrated in numerous press reports at that time, such resources made them inherently more appealing but also more disciplined compared with groups that sometimes had to finance themselves through looting and other criminal activities.
In other words, at the crucial early stage of the crisis, when Obama was resisting pressure to provide material support to moderate factions, the jihadi terrorist groups used this window of opportunity to skew the rebel movement in their direction. Of course, Pierret goes on to argue that moderate factions can regain the initiative -- and perhaps are already in the process of doing so -- because the underlying ideological distribution within Syria favors them.
If Pierret's prospective judgment is correct, Obama may yet dodge the Syrian bullet. But if only his retrospective judgment is correct, it is Obama's critics, not his defenders, who are right.
The historical debate matters in many ways, but one that has been comparatively less remarked upon is that if Pierret's retrospective analysis is right, it provides the outlines for Hillary Clinton's brief on foreign policy in 2016.
Clinton will have many things going for her in a 2016 presidential run, but it looks increasingly like the Obama foreign-policy legacy could be a net negative. Of course, many things could change between now and then, but if current trajectories hold, it may be hard to argue that the United States is in a better global position in 2016 than it was in 2008. Yes, the easing of the global recession will be a major positive factor, and the world is a better place without Osama bin Laden. But on most other foreign-policy lines, a fair-minded assessment could well be negative for Obama's legacy.
Clinton is tightly linked to that Obama foreign-policy legacy, so she'll look for ways to take credit for any good while blaming all of the bad on others within the Obama administration. In this regard, look for candidate Clinton to remind voters that she famously argued for a more muscular approach to Syria earlier in the crisis. Such an approach might have better positioned the moderates to resist the influence of the terrorist fringe. It might also have meant the toppling of Bashar al-Assad's regime before the sectarian civil war reached the horrific levels it now has reached. Of course, the case of Iraq shows that even a rapid regime change with substantial U.S. military force and influence on the ground is no guarantee of success. But Clinton will benefit politically if she can argue with some credibility that Obama's most dramatic foreign-policy failures are associated with times when Obama overruled his secretary of state.
It is harder to see what will be her line on Egypt. The Obama administration's Egypt policy has utterly collapsed, and perhaps Clinton has an explanation of her role in the crafting of that policy that puts her in a better light, but if so, it has yet to get much traction.
Of course, responsibility for repairing U.S. policy rests with the sitting administration, but the one who would like to shoulder that responsibility next -- especially one so closely tied to Obama's foreign-policy legacy -- has got some explaining to do.
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All presidents make serious mistakes. Presidential leadership comes not from avoiding mistakes, but from having the humility, wisdom, and courage to correct those mistakes. There are growing signs that President Obama and his senior team are now realizing that they have seriously mishandled the Arab Awakening, even if they are still unsure what to do now -- and even if their negligence has rendered their choices now much more difficult.
Two and a half years in, Obama still has not developed a coherent strategy for the region. The problems began further back, in 2009, when Obama's dogmatic commitment to outreach to the Iranian regime clouded his ability to see the significant shift taking place among the Iranian people as the Green Movement suddenly emerged. The White House's subsequent passivity towards the Green Movement protests deprived the United States of leverage at the most meaningful moment of Ayatollah Khamenei's political vulnerability in recent years. Obama's Egypt policy has consisted of embracing the Muslim Brotherhood and neglecting non-Islamist Egyptians like liberals and Coptic Christians -- all while President Morsy drives the Egyptian economy over the cliff, though he still finds time to support fatwas against Easter. Obama may have won the war in Libya but is scandalizing the peace, as the Benghazi consulate attack and the chaos in Mali reveal.
Obama's Syria policy has consisted of just wishing it would go away. The humanitarian costs of over 80,000 dead are a grim rebuke to the White House's Atrocities Prevention Board. Instead, Anne Marie Slaughter and Walter Russell Mead have now taken to calling Syria "Obama's Rwanda," as was suggested here a few months ago.
For those not moved by principle to take action on Syria, American interests alone make it compelling. The region is being further destabilized with Iraq and Lebanon facing internal turmoil, and American allies Turkey and Israel feeling increasingly threatened -- the latter so much so that it has undertaken its own bombing campaign in Syria. Iran continues to rely on Syria as one of its main sources of leverage and influence in the region, just as Hezbollah relies on patronage from both Iran and Syria. Potentially worst of all, Syria's chemical weapons stores -- among the world's largest and deadliest -- are in very real danger of falling into the hands of extremist groups. That is what happens when the Assad regime opens its weapons depots and begins mixing and using them, thus dispersing the stocks, loosening command and control, and giving the extremists even more incentive to try to seize them -- and giving potential Syrian military defectors a deadly bargaining chip. Assad seems to be pursuing a salami slicing strategy of gradually employing more and more gruesome tactics. In this way he is perversely acclimating the outside world to his barbarity, while testing American resolve. Yet instead of meaningful action, we get a quote like this from a senior Obama advisor to the New York Times: "If he drops sarin on his own people, what's that got to do with us?"
Yes, he really said that. Aside from the moral callousness of that statement, its myopia is stunning. The possible use of sarin also means that that the stocks have been loosened, dispersed, and much more likely to fall into other hands. One would think that the very real prospect of chemical weapons being acquired by Islamist extremists who hate America would convince those few remaining voices still insisting that the U.S. has no national interests in the Syrian civil war to reconsider their blind faith.
Meanwhile, Obama's hands-off approach for the past two years has deprived the United States of any opportunity to 1) build ties with the opposition and shape its composition, 2) prevent the preponderance of the opposition from getting radicalized, 3) tip the scales of the conflict in the opposition's favor, and 4) shape the post-conflict political order, whatever it might be and whenever it might begin to emerge. Walter Mead sums this up well:
Given those goals, White House Syria policy from the beginning should have been to do everything possible (short of major direct American military involvement) to ensure a quick rebel win. The quicker the win, the less time international jihadis would have had to hijack the Syrian revolution, the less funding would have gone to radical groups, and the better the chances that post-war Syria would have been relatively calm. That's all lost now and we have paid and will pay a high price for the hesitation and dithering since war began.
Meanwhile, the strategic mistakes mount, with the most recent being Obama's rhetorical "red line" on the use of chemical weapons turning out to be only that -- rhetorical. Credibility is one of a president's, and a nation's, most precious assets. The "red line" is only the latest in a series of credibility-squandering utterances, following on Obama's repeated demands that Assad "must go," backed up by nothing policy-wise. The mismatch between Obama's words and actions is creating a credibility gap of Carter-esque proportions. Dictators from Tehran to Pyongyang are taking note.
One of the more memorable moments in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary came when then-Senator Hillary Clinton challenged also then-Senator Barack Obama over his allegedly jejune foreign policy credentials with the "3 a.m. phone call" advertisement about an urgent global crisis. Her question was pointed: Would the callow Obama know how to respond in the crucible?
Looking back over the five years since, I wonder if Clinton was right in her main point, just wrong in her timing. In this case, perhaps the mistake is not that the phone rang just once at 3:00 a.m. and that President Obama botched the call. Is it possible that historians will one day decide that the phone was ringing incessantly for two years, and yet President Obama failed to answer it?
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President Obama seems to
have two options in assigning the top three national security spots (Secretary
of State, Secretary of Defense, and National Security Advisor): follow the
conventional beltway wisdom or go his own way and do what he thinks is best.
The conventional wisdom is that Obama should pick a Democratic "dream team." That would put Senator Kerry in the Secretary of State slot. He is the Democratic Party's acknowledged congressional leader on foreign policy and would be a shoo-in to be confirmed. He has certainly earned the president's favor, having rescued the administration from some tricky foreign policy predicaments, and he clearly wants the job. The Obama political operation appears willing to risk the Democratic Senate seat in the by-election to replace him. He will not have the celebrity star power that Hilary Clinton had, but there is no one (except her husband -- or perhaps Colin Powell) who could come close to matching that anyway, and Kerry probably is the biggest name available. Secretary Clinton's most important contribution to foreign policy in the past four years has been this high profile "face of America" role -- certainly she had a bigger impact in that role than in shaping key policy debates inside the interagency -- and so seasoned foreign policy hands recognize the importance of making a high-stature appointment.
For Defense, the conventional wisdom is that either of the top two underlings from the first term -- current Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter or former UnderSecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy -- would be strong picks. Neither would face a contentious confirmation fight or a steep learning curve. Both enjoy bipartisan respect and would be as capable in selling Obama's controversial defense cuts as anyone he could pick. Both would be trusted to do the best that could be done to mitigate the damage those cuts risk doing to national security.
That leaves Susan Rice looking for a spot to land, and the conventional wisdom is that she would make a fine National Security Advisor. She clearly has the trust of the president, which is the single most important criterion for success, and she would be seen as an equal by the other principals (another important criterion). This is also a non-confirmable post, so the Benghazi unpleasantness would pose no hurdle. There is the awkwardness that the job is currently filled by someone who wants to stay, Tom Donilon, but the conventional wisdom is that it would be no bad thing for President Obama to start the second term with a clean slate. Indeed, as one Obama insider put it, an "intervention" may be needed to repair the dysfunctions of the first term. The president could also consider many other worthy names for spots on the "dream team " that were also in circulation four years ago -- Richard Danzig, John Hamre, Jim Steinberg, to name just a few -- but they all have in common this "clean slate" feel.
The trial balloons floating out of the White House suggest that President Obama doesn't agree with the conventional wisdom. It appears he wants to put Susan Rice at State -- never mind that some Senators seem willing to serve the sauce for Rice's goose that she merrily served to their gander over the years. Even some Democratic voices have raised doubts (here and here) about whether Rice is a good fit at State.
And if Rice is at State, what to do with the loyal Kerry? The consolation prize appears to be Defense -- never mind the doubts that a Senate office is the wrong training ground for managing such an unwieldy bureaucracy. Or perhaps Kerry would be left at the altar altogether, which would mean that Obama's rocky relations with Congress would have one more unhappy boulder to contend with.
And if Rice is at State, that means Donilon is likely to stay as National Security Advisor, which leaves the slate uncleaned.
When facing similar choices in the past, Obama has tended to follow his own lead and ignore the conventional wisdom and so I guess the best bet is that he will do so again. But sometimes the conventional wisdom has a certain, well, wisdom to it.
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In my last post, I sketched out the strategic case for significantly deepening U.S.-Kurdish ties. While such a paradigm shift may take some time, a good start can be made simply by clearing out the underbrush of counter-productive policies that needlessly hinder our relations with the Kurds. During this week's visit to Washington by President Masoud Barzani, head of Iraq's Kurdistan regional government, the Obama administration would be well-served by focusing on several practical deliverables:
Stop Treating the Kurds as Terrorists. Incredibly, under existing immigration law, members of Iraq's two main Kurdish parties -- Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) -- are classified as terrorists when seeking visas to enter the United States. As modified after 9/11, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) uses a definition of terrorism so broad that virtually any resistance group that in the past engaged in armed conflict against its government is considered a so-called "Tier III" terrorist organization. Membership in such a group is automatic grounds for denial of admission to the U.S., treatment that extends to the member's family as well.
That's right: The KDP and PUK for years worked hand-in-glove with the United States to bring down the tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein. After 2003, they served as America's most faithful allies in efforts to stabilize Iraq. And for all their trouble fighting alongside U.S. forces they got . . . well, they got labeled as terrorists, of course. As Mr. Bumble famously says in Oliver Twist, "If the law supposes that . . . [then] the law is an ass -- an idiot."
In 2009, Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Homeland Security Napolitano exercised their discretionary authority to exempt members of the KDP and PUK from the INA's terrorism-related inadmissibility grounds on a case-by-case basis -- provided they were able to satisfy officials at State and DHS that they met six criteria meant to show they were not in fact terrorists and posed no danger to U.S. security. Needless to say, the process of qualifying for the exemption is frequently long, cumbersome and -- let's be frank -- humiliating for people who threw their lot in completely with America, and often risked life and limb to help it succeed. And even with the exemption possibility, the slanderous classification of the KDP and PUK as terrorist organizations remains, an undeserving and gratuitous insult to a proud people that have gone out of their way to align themselves openly with Washington -- an all-too-rare occurrence in a Middle East where anti-Americanism is, sad to say, always in fashion.
Small consolation for the Kurds, perhaps, that the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela were also once ensnared by the INA's overly-broad sweep. Thankfully, Congress acted in 2008 to pass a law that explicitly removed the ANC from treatment as a terrorist organization under the INA. Similar legislative relief has been provided to other groups who fought repressive regimes. Now, no less should be done for the Kurds. As has so often been the case when it comes to doing the right thing in matters of national security, Senator Joseph Lieberman is leading the way, crafting a possible fix to the Kurds' outrageous dilemma. The Obama administration is signaling that it will support Lieberman's effort and it should do so, wholeheartedly. A statement to that effect by President Obama when he meets Barzani would go a long way. Even better if the president in the meantime issued a directive to State and DHS instructing them to cease considering the KDP and PUK as terrorist organizations for purposes of issuing visas.
Allow Visas to be Issued From Erbil. A related problem is that the U.S. Consulate in Kurdistan is not yet issuing visas. Instead, Kurds wishing to visit the United States must either take their chances by going to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad (by all accounts, a nightmarish experience due to security precautions), or travel abroad to an American post in the Gulf or Turkey. On top of the hurdles already posed by the INA's restrictions, the additional time, expense, and hassle this process adds can quickly become prohibitive. The Obama administration should act soon to correct the situation, and fast-track a presidential decision to issue visas from Erbil.
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Secretary Clinton will testify tomorrow before the House Foreign Relations Committee, "Assessing U.S. Foreign Policy Priorities Amidst Economic Challenges: The Foreign Relations Budget for Fiscal Year 2013." Each year there are myriad advocacy groups lobbying for a robust foreign assistance budget and just as many saying enough with tax-payers' money going to corrupt governments, congressional earmarks, dubious special interest programs and long-standing civil servant pet projects that do nothing to address the challenges of the developing world or compliment U.S. foreign policy priorities.
This year, we can add to this annual procession of Republican candidates vying for the 2012 presidential nomination who still repeatedly call for a foreign assistance budget that starts at "zero." A position that still baffles me.
Americans may be more interested in domestic issues with gas prices rising sharply, unemployment still high, and continued instability in the market -- but a coherent message from Secretary Clinton that stresses the important role that foreign aid plays in an increasingly unstable democratic world is in dire need.
She should recognize the critical role that the U.S. plays promoting the ideals of freedom, democracy and human rights that we enjoy in the United States. Much has been said lately of Americans and other foreign nationals committed to democratic ideals being arrested in Egypt. These anti-democratic actions highlight the danger and challenges of countries transitioning from years of dictatorial regimes to elected governments that represent the will of the people.
In his testimony recently, IRI president Lorne Craner, stated that "one election does not a democracy make." He went on to say, "The second and third elections in transitional countries are more important than the first, because voters have by then had a chance to judge their satisfaction with initial winners, and the political space begins to consolidate in a manner reflective of the new democratic environment." As a former senior administration official, I agree. Congress needs to support and defend the work that is being done in many transitioning countries.
Tomorrow, much will be said about the turmoil and progress that has been made in the Middle East. In the Secretary of State's executive summary to Congress, she highlights the enormous changes we have seen in the Middle East and North Africa and the need for the U.S. to have a coordinated and strategic approach to foster (not control) peaceful democratic transitions. She states that the 2013 budget request provides a "blueprint of how diplomacy and development can sustain our country's global leadership and deliver results for the American people."
I note with some optimism, to this regard, The Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund; a new program within an austerity budget -- but still a big idea.
The budget request includes $770,000,000 to address democratic, economic, and institutional reforms in MENA -- the Middle East and North Africa. It also mentions how various bureaus within the Department of State and USAID will coordinate and provide incentives and conditions on how aid monies will be allocated and accounted for.
Congress will certainly look to hold funding until they are comfortable that monies being spent are not supporting those who are opposed to democratic transition. To be sure, this will be a challenge but it is also a strategic risk we should be willing to take.
The road to democracy around the world will continue to be hard and dangerous. The U.S. should not back away from promoting the ideals of self-determination that humankind is willing to fight for.
It is nice to have a big idea within an austerity budget.
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On Dec. 15, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rolled out the State Department's first ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) at an internal town hall meeting -- a year behind schedule. No surprise, it turns out to be more of a public relations document than a disciplined strategic review. Yet if it doesn't score a bull-eye, the QDDR at least hits an outer ring by describing an ambitious and needed reform agenda.
Quadrennial reviews -- used by the Department of Defense since 1993 and also adopted by the Intelligence Community and Department of Homeland Security -- are supposed to evaluate an institution's fitness for accomplishing expected missions and responding to crises. As guides for decision-makers, they should assess the continuing applicability of the agency's charter, the global operating environment, institutional strengths and weaknesses, and options prioritized by resources available.
I may have missed something in my speed read through the QDDR's 242 pages. But it seemed less an analytical assessment than a justification for steps the secretary had already taken. State's desire to coordinate a growing menagerie of interagency actors in its embassies got coverage, but its evolving relationship with them was brief. The operating environment lacked details on forecast challenges and regional goals. Moreover, the authors pulled punches on institutional strengths and weaknesses, shed little light on budgetary realities, and established no discernible priorities among a long list of to-do's.
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After rumors that the Obama administration might back down in the face of Chinese pressure, the Pentagon confirmed on July 14 that the United States and the Republic of Korea would in fact go ahead with joint naval exercises off both coasts of the Korean peninsula in response to North Korea's March 26 sinking of the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan. Time will tell, but this could be the moment that Barack Obama finally found his inner realist when it comes to China strategy.
From the beginning, the Obama administration has had a schizophrenic view of China's growing power and influence. On the one hand, realists in the administration continued the prevailing "Armitage-Nye" strategy (named after former Bush administration Deputy Secretary of State Rich Armitage and former Clinton Defense official Joe Nye) of engaging China while maintaining a favorable balance of power in the region through tighter relations with U.S. allies. Consistent with that strategy, Obama made a point of inviting Japanese Premier Taro Aso for the first bilateral summit in the Oval Office and Secretary of State Clinton made Japan her first overseas stop last March.
At the same time, however, other senior members of the Obama administration argued that balance-of-power logic was inimical to the kind of accommodation the United States would have to make towards China in order to deal with new transnational challenges such as climate change. They argued in a formula that undermined the realists' approach that no major international challenge could be resolved without China's cooperation -- a message that was internalized in Beijing as meaning that China had earned a veto on all major international issues from the Obama administration. When Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao issued a joint statement last November in Beijing, the two leaders acknowledged each others' "core interests." Since then, the Chinese side has steadily expanded the list of Chinese "core interests" to include U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and suzerainty over the South China Sea while yielding virtually nothing in terms of military transparency, human rights or curbing North Korea's nuclear program.
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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton isn't known for gaffes, but when she announced from foreign shores that the U.S. government will sue a state for helping to enforce federal laws, it was kind of a biggie.
The state is Arizona, of course. And at issue is the law it passed in April allowing police to query the immigration status of individuals following a lawful stop, detention, or arrest. As amended, it prohibits consideration of race, color, or national origin and specifies that those suspected of unlawful entry be turned over to federal authorities to determine their status. The bill was a response to Washington's paralysis in enacting meaningful migration reform.
In its response, the administration opted for a political brawl over the more difficult course of pursuing national reforms. On May 19, President Barack Obama stood next to visiting President Felipe Calderón of Mexico when he called for the law to be struck down. Soon after, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement chief John Morton said his agency would not necessarily process individuals referred by Arizona authorities.
Hillary's pronouncement came during the course of a TV interview in Quito, Ecuador following her appearance at the Organization of American States General Assembly in Lima, Peru. On June 8, she told interviewer Andrea Bernal that President Obama feels the federal government should be determining immigration policy, and that the Justice Department will bring a lawsuit against the act. Sounds reasonable enough, you say.
Yet as gaffes go, this is a three-fer. First, while most American citizens know it is the federal government's responsibility to determine and enforce immigration policy, no public servant should fan the flames of internal controversy from a foreign pulpit. If Arizonans are going to get sued by the feds, best they learn about it from officials closer to home.
Second, the Clinton got out ahead of the issue owner-the attorney general. In response, the Justice Department said it was still reviewing the law. Then administration sources scrambled to tell reporters that a decision had in fact been made, but the department needed time to build its case. The facts remain cloudy.
Third, there could have been a teachable moment here. Bad living conditions and porous borders are problems in various parts of the Americas. Just as desperate Ecuadorans seeking employment have found their way illegally to the United States through Central America and Mexico, Ecuador has felt the impact of Colombians fleeing drug violence and guerrilla bands from their native land.
Clinton could have discussed how the United States and its neighbors might benefit from multilateral cooperation to reduce illegal migrant flows, crack down on attendant trafficking, and attack the root problems that make people want to leave home, such as weak rule of law and rigged economies that make life difficult for job-supplying small businesses.
For now, it's hard to tell where Obama's migration policy will end up. It may be that he is developing a reasoned course. But you would never know by remarks that seemed to be mostly about U.S. politics, another agency's authorities, and little about the broader issues in which our neighbors play a major part.
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Through her bloody death on June 20, 2009, Neda Agha-Soltan, 26, galvanized the Iranian opposition protests. But she was not the first woman to play an important role in promoting freedom, democracy, and equality in Iran. The Iranian women's movement has a proud history of fighting for women's rights and has been a driving force behind the green movement's push for reform. Nobel Laureate, Shirin Ebadi, a prominent human rights lawyer and activist of many years, has represented many other women fighting for justice. Women's groups like Mothers for Peace and the One Million Signatures Campaign are grassroots Iranian women's organizations promoting peace and gender equality in law and practice. For years now, members have been beaten, harassed, arrested, and imprisoned for their work.
Authorities have systematically denied women permits to hold peaceful protests and while pressure on women leaders was increasing even before the broader protests began in June 2009 things have deteriorated further since. Women human rights defenders like Shadi Sadr, a lawyer who has campaigned against stoning and Shiva Nazar Ahari, a member of the Committee of Human Rights Reporters, as well as journalists and bloggers like Hengemeh Shahidi, Zhila Bani Yaghoub and a pregnant Mahsa Amr-Abadi were all arrested and imprisoned after the post-election protests began last June. Many other women from ethnic and religious minority groups have been detained and persecuted across the country after joining forces across ethnic and religious divides to stand for freedom.
My post here last month appealed to Secretary Clinton to emphasize human rights and freedom of expression in her speech on Internet freedom. She did and Iran was even highlighted. It was a good speech that also included the importance of online interaction for religious freedom. Secretary Clinton's longstanding support for women's issues is also well known. Iranian authorities censor dozens of websites and blogs, especially those covering women's issues, are disrupting communication technology today as protests mount, and have banned Google. They also severely persecute religious minorities, especially the Baha'i. Iran thus poses a diplomatic challenge as all the themes of the Secretary's speech come together there. But as protests are invigorated today, the United States must throw its support squarely behind the Iranian people, especially women seeking peaceful democratic change. This could be by making a strong and clear Presidential statement (or better yet an Obama webcast in Farsi), by naming and shaming perpetrators of the arrests, rape, and execution of political prisoners, or by turning some U.S. government websites green. Whatever is done, it's time to choose sides. One thing is certain. I'm voting green.
Follow Jean M. Geran on Twitter.
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By Jean M. Geran
On Jan. 21, Secretary Clinton is scheduled to make an important speech on new technology and 21st-century statecraft. After a year of weak U.S. leadership on human rights and democracy issues, this speech is an important opportunity to reiterate a strong U.S. commitment to freedom across the board. The latest Freedom in the World 2010 survey results from Freedom House highlight an overall decline in global freedom for the fourth consecutive year. Now is the time to redouble our support for human rights and democracy, not cut back as the Obama administration has done. As my colleague David Kramer pointed out, the Secretary began digging the Administration out of the human rights hole it was in last December with her speech at Georgetown University. She has a lot more digging to do. But the inherent link between new technology and freedom of expression, assembly, and association makes her upcoming speech an ideal tool.
There are promising signs that this will be a good speech thanks to some creative stars on her policy planning staff and others peppered around the administration. State has commendably been leading the use of new technology for the Haiti response with several initiatives. Mobile text giving, crisis mapping and database innovation have contributed to a transformation in how the international community is responding to a horrible natural disaster. I hope the administration continues to think big and in a bipartisan fashion on Haiti. They should do the same on human rights.
Creating innovative partnerships and delegations to Iraq and Afghanistan with leaders in the technology industry and asking Twitter to delay maintenance while protests were underway in Iran have been examples of creative diplomacy in the midst of an otherwise flawed foreign policy. But Iran also illustrates the limits of this kind of diplomacy when it is not backed by a robust commitment to human rights in U.S. policy.
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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came away from her visit to Moscow this week with mixed results. The two big ticket items involved Iran and the human rights situation inside Russia.
By all appearances, Clinton struck out on moving Russia closer to supporting sanctions against Iran should current negotiation efforts fail. "We did not ask for anything today," she said, in a rather stunning admission. "We reviewed the situation and where it stood, which I think was the appropriate timing for what this process entails."
That she would not try to push Russia toward supporting sanctions is hard to believe -- and, if true, frankly irresponsible. More likely, she tried and failed but was putting the best spin on it. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's comments after his meeting with Clinton clearly indicated continued Russian resistance to any sanctions push. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, never a supporter of getting tougher toward Iran, reinforced this position in comments from Beijing on Wednesday when he argued that discussing sanctions now against Iran would be "premature."
This contrasts with comments Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made in New York last month and that he reportedly reiterated in his private meeting with Clinton on Tuesday. The Kremlin, however, has not publicly challenged either the foreign minister's or prime minister's contradictory comments, even though the president is ultimately in charge of Russian foreign policy (the idea that Medvedev would slap down Putin is rather laughable). Yet these conflicting messages cause confusion about who calls the shots in Moscow. Then again, perhaps the situation is very clear: it is Putin and not Medvedev (more on this in a future blog entry). What a shame, then, that Putin was in Beijing, not Moscow, during Clinton's visit. All this is not a surprise to those of us who have been saying that Russia is unlikely at the end of the day to support tough sanctions against Iran -- even in exchange for the Obama administration's regrettable decision September 17 on missile defense (which, by the way, was handled abysmally).
In contrast to the bad news on Iran, Clinton's comments on the human rights situation inside Russia were a pleasant surprise. In spite of her short shrift of human rights concerns in the past (recall her comments on the way to Beijing in February when she said she didn't want those issues to "interfere" with other pressing matters), Clinton made clear the concerns of the Obama administration about the deteriorating situation inside Russia. Her meeting with human rights and civil society activists was a very good follow-up to President Obama's similar meeting in July. Her interview with independent radio station Ekho Moskvy and her remarks to students at Moscow State University (MGU) also touched on these issues in a strong way.
"I think all of these issues -- imprisonments, detentions, beatings, killings - it is something that is hurtful to see from the outside," Clinton said at MGU. "Every country has criminal elements, every country has people who try to abuse power, but in the last 18 months ... there have been too many of the incidents," adding that not enough was being done to "ensure no one had impunity from prosecution ... I said that this is a matter of grave concern not just for the United States but for the Russian people, and not just for activists but people who worry that unsolved killings are a very serious challenge to order and the fair functioning of society," Clinton said. In an innovative society, she observed, "people must be free to take unpopular decisions, disagree with conventional wisdom, know they are safe to peacefully challenge accepted practice and authority."
In her interview with Ekho Mskvy, she highlighted the attacks on journalists and human rights defenders, noting they are "of such great concern. ... in the last 18 months ... there have been many of these incidents. ... I think we want the government to stand up and say this is wrong."
Her strong statements on these issues were especially important given an unnecessary and unfortunate situation caused by an article in the Russian newspaper Kommersant earlier in the week based on comments made by NSC Senior Director Michael McFaul suggesting that human rights concerns would receive less attention from the Obama administration. The thrust of the Kommersant article seemed out of synch with Obama's handling of the issue in July, with Clinton's comments this week, and with McFaul's own passion for human rights over his career (and I've known him for some 16 years). Clinton stepped into the fray and allayed the concerns, at least for the time being, of those who were worry that human rights issues will fall down the list of priorities in the interest of the Obama Administration's overall "reset" policy with Moscow.
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images
By Peter Feaver
Catching up on some reading after multiple trips, I have just waded through Secretary Clinton's Big Speech -- capital letters are warranted because of the breathless promotion that attended it before, during and after.
I found the speech more familiar than newsworthy. The section on priorities read like the table of contents to President Bush's 2006 National Security Strategy: terrorism, regional peace efforts, trade, development, energy, supporting and encouraging democracy, etc. Even the caveats were familiar: democracy is more than elections (check), foreign policy must reflect the world as it is, not as it used to be (check), no nation can meet the world's challenges alone (check), no challenge can be met without America (check). Her Five Pillars are also remarkably evocative of the goals laid out by both of the administrations immediately preceding Obama's.
This is not a criticism of the speech. Indeed, as anyone who has worked
on a top-level speech or document will understand, it is rather like pop music:
there is a basic I-IV-V chord progression
that is detectable in almost every "new" effort. Some do it better than
others, to be sure, but it can't really be hidden from the attuned ear.
It would be unfair to label Clinton's speech a "Heart and Soul" effort, but it would be a reach to credit it as transformative.
To me the best part was its frank acknowledgement that the core of the
challenge of achieving better multilateralism was in overcoming collective
action problems -- a familiar insight to anyone who has taken an introductory
international relations course, but one that is all-too-often ignored in the
partisan commentary on foreign policy. While there were the
now-ritualistic swipes at those boors in the Bush administration, the Secretary
did not, in fact, pretend that the problem was simply Bush (or even American)
arrogance. I would have liked to see more discussion of how, in fact, she
will overcome those collective action problems, especially in achieving a
global architecture that met these desiderata, which she summarized so pithily:
in which states have clear incentives to cooperate and live up to their
responsibilities, as well as strong disincentives to sit on the sidelines or
sow discord and division."
This has been a priority challenge since before the 9/11 attacks. Indeed, a colleague of mine at Duke, Bruce Jentleson, has repeatedly talked about the "September 10th agenda," and uppermost on that was the mismatch between what the world asked of international institutions and what those international institutions were capable of doing.
Coincidentally -- or perhaps not -- Bruce Jentleson is coming on board the State Department to serve as a senior advisor to Anne-Marie Slaughter, the Director of Policy Planning. With Slaughter, her deputy Derek Chollet, and now Bruce Jentleson, Secretary Clinton will have at her disposal an impressive cadre of experts who have thought long and hard about this mismatch. I am hoping that the Secretary's speech was just the opening salvo and that in the coming months we will learn more about what her brain trust has in mind for addressing this serious problem.
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Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.