Kabuki theatre comes to the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

I’ve spent a lot of time studying and writing about Middle East politics.  I care a lot about the issue.  And I find it quite impossible to register even an iota of interest in the talks proceeding in Washington now.

Does anyone think that the current Israeli government is prepared to make meaningful concessions on settlements and territory?

Does anyone think that the Palestinian Authority is prepared to make meaningful concessions on refugees?

And if the answer to either of these questions is no — which they must be — then why do we even care about this?

It seems to me that the Obama Administration is doing this not because of any chance of a breakthrough or even meaningful progress, but rather so it can show its Arab allies that it is “doing something” about the problem.  And these Arab allies want this, so that they can say that they are “doing something” about the Palestinians.  It’s all a cynical game, brought about by the obsolete view that direct negotiations can accomplish something.  I don’t blame Obama for this in the least: that’s the way that the diplomatic game is played. 

But no one else should be fooled.  This isn’t about peace: it’s about the peace process.  If anyone was serious about peace, they would have advanced Sari Nusseibeh’s Plan for taking the issue to Israelis and Palestinians.  They’re not, so they haven’t.  End of story.


Save the planet if not Gaza: fire Tony Blair as Middle East envoy.

Tony Blair, the Quartet’s Special Envoy for the Middle East since June 2007, has never set foot in Gaza.

This was always an absurd appointment. Brits are the wrong people: we have a long and unhappy imperial history in the region, leaving lots of unresolved issues with both Arabs and Jews. Having built a fine post office in Cairo doesn’t exactly make up for this. Britain has enough current interests in the region in the way of oil and arms deals to ensure suspicion, but not enough to provide useful leverage. That’s before Blair stepped off the plane: a politician with no knowledge of Hebrew or Arabic, little acquaintance with the history or the players, and a personal reputation damaged by his reckless support of G.W. Bush’s Iraq adventure.

What were they all thinking of? It you want a trusted neutral mediator, go for a discreet professional like Martti Ahtisaari. If you want to knock heads together, there’s no substitute for the President of the United States. If you want – like Bush – to do nothing, there are already diplomats on the payroll.

Ending Blair’s expensive junket will not make any difference in Gaza. But it will at least help save the planet by cutting unnecessary travel.

Pirates of the Arabian XI

How the UN can deal with the Somali pirates.

Everybody has sent warships to fight the Somali pirates: the United States, India, Russia, Malaysia and (now under the NATO and/or EU flags – I’m confused) France, Britain, Greece, and Germany, plus Italian planes.

Why has this high-tech armada failed to deal with a handful of low-rent thugs armed with Kalashnikovs and RPGs? The problem isn’t firepower: it’s command and control, and rules of engagement. The warships aren’t even allowed to board suspected pirates.

NATO has finally asked the UN Security Council to clarify this. My suggestions:

1. Set up a single ad hoc naval task force with a proper operational HQ in Mombasa. The commander should be American, his deputies European and Indian. Ideally the UN Military Committee should be activated, but this won’t happen, at least before January 20.

2. Create a security zone in which the task force can stop and search any ship whatever. The pirates store their speedboats on innocent-looking mother ships. There’s no legitimate reason for a cargo ship to carry a speedboat, so any ship that does can be seized as a presumptive pirate and impounded. If the pirates stopped using speedboats and reverted to slower vessels, the targets would have time to call for naval helicopters.

3. Impound all shore-based speedboats in the zone for the duration. Water-skiing playboys in Lamu can stuff it.

3. Set up an ad hoc maritime court to adjudge piracy-related civil and criminal claims as a fallback to national courts. The outcry from the owners of impounded ships would speed this up.

Sleeping Beauty

Obama can only partly restore America’s position in the world.

As the one actual foreigner® here, I must be the resident expert on the views of the 6bn of the world’s population who didn’t get to vote in the US presidential election. (But thanks for letting me butt in anyway.) So: will Obama undo Bush’s legacy and restore America to its previous prestige and hegemony?


Continue reading “Sleeping Beauty”

Who cares what they think?

Jon’s post (not, I think, representing his real views) implies that being respected, or even loved, by foreigners is only useful insofar as we can manipulate them into doing something for us. This recalls Calogero’s dad’s distinction between fear and respect (A Bronx Tale, 1993) and misses the important point that if a lot of people despise you, you may be doing something despicable, and might want to stop because despicable is a bad way to be even if you could profit from it.

When American crime TV shows were first shown in Europe, Europeans started asking about things like habeas corpus and a right not to incriminate oneself, that they didn’t have and had never missed. Good for them, no payoff for us; but still good. I had a much better experience in Europe these last four days than the last few times (I stayed up all night Tuesday with my laptop in a hotel room) because I felt better about myself and mine; I even got to poke my Italian friends about Berlusconi. On hearing my accent, strangers would tentatively approach me for reassurance that Obama would win. They clearly thought they were going to get something very important out of that outcome, a big non-zero-sum payoff.

John, a British reader, sent me the following email:

This morning, in our local coffee shop (in Islington, our version perhaps of the East Village or Park Slope in NYC, more investment bankers and barristers than trendy lefties these days—but definitely a touch of ‘Stuff White People Like’), my wife saw:

– A British woman whose face was painted with the Stars and Stripes

– an American woman who said for the first time in 8 years she could stop pretending to be a Canadian

The real historical significance of this will turn out to be, I think, that a Kenyan-American rose to the presidency of the world’s largest power. Only Americans (and ill-informed Europeans) thought this story was about ‘black’ America—what it really was about was immigrant America. The children of Africa, the demographic future of the human race (roughly speaking, c.10% of the world’s population, but approaching 20% of its under 25s, even with the depredations of AIDS) are beginning to make themselves felt in the world. 3 million years after Lucy left her footprint in Olduvai Gorge, a man of Africa, whose father was born a few hundreds of miles away from Lucy, is again leaving his footprints on the human race…

I sometimes think that Americans (or their media) didn’t ‘get’ this election, in that you could not grasp the degree to which the world’s image of you as a land of something other than rule by hypocritical incestuous elites (as Europe is so ruled) and irrational hicks (like GWB), was riding on what happened. I still don’t quite believe that you found the guts to make the right choice. This was the world’s election, that happened only to grant the franchise to Americans.

It felt a bit like the day Mandela was released from prison….

In Kenya they are saying:

Ndio Tunaweza, America.

Ndio Tunaweza

(Yes. We Can. in Swahili)

Does it matter if America is popular?

The LA Times’ Rosa Brooks celebrates the Obama victory today, arguing that the US will now rise in international public opinion and popularity. She is hardly alone in this, as several commentators are arguing now that an Obama presidency will enhance America’s “soft power.” The problem is that, perhaps because she only has a 700-word column to work with, Brooks never quite explains what concretely this new-found “popularity”, if it exists, it supposed to actually do.

I’m sympathetic to the argument, but we need to be more precise about the concept, and also what exactly we think it is going to get for us. And then be prepared to try to demonstrate that it has actually worked.

Neoconservatives, and many traditional realists, have long been skeptical about such notions as “international public opinion,” arguing with some force that it doesn’t necessarily carry any operational strength. “How many divisions does the Pope have?,” Stalin famously asked, and he had a point.

So what exactly will this enhancement of America’s image get for us? I can think of a few possibilities offhand:

1) When we want other countries to cooperate with us, or take a more flexible negotiating position to accommodate us, then politicians in those countries will be more likely to do so if we are popular (especially if they are democracies).

2) Greater American popularity will lead to the election of pro-American regimes and reduced support for Islamist movements.

3) It should also lead to the easier acquisition and development of human intelligence in other countries (as people in other countries might be more willing to cooperate with US intelligence efforts and turn in terrorists trying to melt into the population.).

4) We should have an easier time acquiring basing rights in nations in strategic locations.

Many of these overlap, of course, but the most important point is that we need to start demonstrating that these are not merely theoretical possibilities, but rather developments that we can point to through historical examples.

Pre-Second World War idealists too confidentally predicted that Hitler could never do what he wanted because “world public opinion” wouldn’t allow it, a fatuous argument that discredited the line of thinking. If it is to be resuscitated in rigorous fashion, we need to make the argument more rigorously.

What foreign policy?

McCain’s website has no section on foreign policy.

The issues page of John McCain’s campaign website doesn’t have a section on foreign policy. National security, yes; homeland security, yes; Iraq, yes. But global diplomacy, even of the shoe-thumping type practiced by Nikita Khrushchev and John Bolton, is too trivial to rate a mention. (Minor and vague exception on climate change negotiations.)

Why doesn’t he score points with the base by proposing to abolish the useless State Department?

Palace intrigues

Khalilzad is naughty, and somebody leaks it.

Meanwhile, back in the court of the wittering, dying king, a nasty spat has broken out at the State department. Richard Boucher, the man in charge of the SE Asia desk, and Anne Patterson, the Ambassador to Pakistan, are furious at Zalmay Khalilzad, the UN representative. Apparently Khalilzad, who is close to the Bhutto clan, has been chatting with its current leader, Benazir’s widower Asif Zardari, behind their backs.

A storm in a teacup? Normally it would be; but for two things.

Continue reading “Palace intrigues”

A beacon to an oppressed world

One of the really great things about being American is knowing your country is exporting the best of its political and artistic culture to places that really need it. In the sixties and seventies, for example, Europeans watching US TV shows started asking pointed questions about stuff like habeas corpus and refusing to answer questions on 5th amendment grounds, and why they didn’t have those rights.

Lately, the record is a little more mixed. Still, can our hearts not swell with pride at the entrepreneurs along the Mexican border doing well by doing good? Mexico has no Second Amendment and very strict firearms laws, obviously a culture with feeble moral underpinnings. But thanks to these gun dealers, who will apparently fill your trunk or your semi with anything you can pay for, they can still have the stuff they need to protect their freedom from government oppression, maybe enough assassinations and resignations to reach Grover Norquist’s dream of no (living) government at all. Not only that, any surviving soldiers and police get to hone up-to-date combat and survival skills against serious firepower, so it’s a win no matter which side you’re on.

This is not “strictly business,” make no mistake. This is business with a radiant moral purpose, partner in nobility with the whole American drug importing, marketing and enforcement enterprise that has shown Colombians, Mexicans, Afghanis, and so many more a road out of poverty, and perked up the boring lives of their people. We have every right to make them pay royalties to Quentin Tarantino to see this stuff in movies, but we give it to them free and live on the street.

Are you suffering some wussy concern that what goes around comes around? The sixth par of this story will reassure you, and note that actual paid professional experts are cited. (The rest of the story will just upset you, ignore it.)

Mutterschaft und Apfelkuchen

Obama’s Berlin speech without concrete proposals

“Motherhood and apple pie” was my reaction to Obama’s fine Berlin speech. He said the right things, in the right way, wowed the young Berliners, and gave Americans like Quincy here back some of their self-esteem. That will do fine for now.

Like most people in the world, Europeans will be hugely relieved when Obama takes office. An actual intelligent adult in the White House! And half-African as well! But there really wasn’t much beef. There didn’t have to be. Obama is under no pressure at all from the fumbling and ignorant McCain to articulate his broad foreign policy vision, and every reason not to give hostages to fortune. So no five-point plans on climate change, Islamic fundamentalism, nuclear proliferation, trade, Africa, or any other issue he mentioned. I’m sure Obama’s policy staff is beavering away on these (I trust they’ve not lost Samantha Powers’ e-mail address), but we are unlikely to learn more before the election.

Does the world actually need five-point plans from Obama?

Continue reading “Mutterschaft und Apfelkuchen”