With the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland concluded, Vladimir Putin -- one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's few remaining allies, and the main obstacle to achieving international consensus on a way out of the Syrian civil war -- appeared before the media Tuesday to take some questions. A reporter asked the Russian president whether he felt "lonely" among other world leaders at the gathering.
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Though Qatar is small -- tinier and less populous than the state of Connecticut -- it has established itself as a rising power in the Middle East. Its state-owned news network, Al Jazeera, influences the entire Arabic-speaking world (and beyond -- its American venture is slated to launch by the end of the year). And it's also become a destination for diplomats -- from the Afghan Taliban, which is looking to open an office in Doha, to the Brookings Institution, which is hosting its annual U.S.-Islamic World Forum with Qatari sponsorship there this week.
And now, Qatar appears to be coming under new management. Diplomats are reporting that the country's 61-year-old monarch, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, is preparing a leadership transition that will begin with the prime minister stepping down and will culminate in Al Thani passing power to his fourth son, the Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
The young crown prince -- he just turned 33 -- attended boarding school in Britain before graduating from Sandhurst Military Academy in 1998. He was named the next in succession in 2003, quietly replacing his older brother, Sheikh Jasim. In Qatar, he's taken on a diverse portfolio of issues -- his personal website lists titles from president of the Qatar National Olympic Committee, to chairman of the Board of Regents of Qatar University and chairman of the Supreme Education Council, to deputy commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
By May 2005, U.S. diplomats in Qatar noted that Sheikh Tamim "has been increasingly invested with oversight and authority in the area of internal security," according to secret cables released by WikiLeaks. The cables paint a portrait of Sheikh Tamim as a conciliatory negotiator, eager for increased counterterrorism cooperation (including the extradition of U.S. citizens despite the absence of an extradition treaty between the two countries, and help investigating a car bombing in Doha in 2005), though later cables note that "Qatar's record of sharing intelligence with [the United States] is the worst among" the Gulf countries. As the Sunni Awakening began in Iraq in 2006, he offered Qatar's network of ties to Sunni tribal leaders, telling U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Welch, "They still can help."
Sheikh Tamim appears to have been involved in many of Qatar's regional diplomatic initiatives, including moderating talks in Darfur, Lebanon, and Yemen. He personally headed the delegation to mend Qatar's strained diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia in 2010. In diplomacy of another sort, he was also accused of exercising undue influence on French officials to sway the vote for the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup -- a vote that Qatar won. His efforts haven't always been successful, though -- in 2008, he described Bashar al-Assad as "a good person" and believed that Qatari investment could pluck Syria from Iran's sphere of influence. (Today, Qatar is one of the largest suppliers of weapons to the Syrian rebels.)
According to reports by Reuters and the Telegraph, analysts have speculated that Sheikh Tamim's close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood could push Qatari policy in a more conservative direction, possibly straining ties with the United States. Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, Qatar has strengthened its ties with Egypt and Tunisia, where Islamist political parties have swept to power.
Nonetheless, Sheikh Tamim has stressed Qatar's shared interests with the United States. In his private conversations with U.S. diplomats, he's expressed an interest in a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, telling Rep. Allen Boyd in 2007, according to a WikiLeaks cable, "that progress in the peace process requires relations with Israel.... Whether or not they agree with Israel, he said, the whole region should negotiate with Israel." He has also cited Qatar's potential role as an intermediary in U.S. talks with Iran. Doha maintains cordial diplomatic relations with Tehran and shares access to a lucrative gas field, but Sheikh Tamim has also expressed wariness about Iran's nuclear ambitions and influence in the region -- something U.S. diplomats have characterized as "a necessary balancing act."
Qatari officials have reportedly briefed foreign governments -- including U.S. and Iranian officials -- on the planned transition, which could occur before the end of the month.
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In his inaugural remarks as prime minister on Wednesday, Nawaz Sharif called for an end to U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. "The chapter of daily drone attacks should stop," he told the Pakistani parliament. "We respect sovereignty of other countries but others should also respect our sovereignty."
Sound familiar? It's hardly the first time Pakistan has called for an end to U.S. drone strikes:
It's worth noting that these quick snippets from news stories only scratch the surface when it comes to the convoluted politics of U.S.-Pakistani security relations. For example, despite the public outrage, some Pakistani officials were still quietly green-lighting U.S. drone operations in February 2009, when Sen. Dianne Feinstein publicly noted that some of the strikes were being launched from bases in Pakistan.
Pakistani political opposition to U.S. drone strikes grew as the number of strikes increased -- though the first strike took place way back in 2004, there were no more than a few strikes each year until 2008, when there were 37. That number grew to 122 in 2010 but has been declining since. Still, the decreasing number of strikes hasn't extinguished Pakistani opposition, and calls for an end to U.S. drone strikes were a rallying cry for populist candidates in Pakistan's recent election.
It's unclear if the country's new prime minister will make much headway on this front, or if he'll even try. The New York Times suggested that Sharif's comments today may be more political doublespeak, noting that "Mr. Sharif's rhetoric may have been driven by political considerations, with some suggesting that he may be more pragmatic toward the United States once I office." But Sharif has also positioned himself as a counterweight to the Pakistani military establishment -- which forced him from office when he was prime minister in the 1990s -- and might challenge the cadre of generals who have been more permissive of U.S. strikes than elected officials. Today's announcement, though? It's nothing new.
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
Drinking at work: it's an ancient and venerable tradition, and one that enjoyed a great deal of popularity in the United States not too long ago. While the practice is still popular in continental Europe, American office culture has in recent decades largely succumbed to the influence of the teetotalers. Many have lamented this shift to sobriety, but another nation of Anglophones is demonstrating why it might not be such a bad idea.
On Monday, the Finance Minister of the Australia's New South Wales province, Greg Pearce, was asked to leave a parliamentary session for being too drunk to participate in debate. The Sydney Morning Herald reports:
Mr. Pearce was reportedly so inebriated during a marathon sitting of the upper house to debate changes to victims' compensation laws, which concluded at about 4.30am on Thursday, [that] he had to be excused from Parliament.
Though Pearce has denied the charges, the Parliament is currently mulling proposals to institute a code of conduct governing responsible alcohol consumption.
The problem of drinking on the taxpayer dime is not limited to Australia. The Telegraph reported in March, after the arrest of a Tory MP for a drunken assault, that British MPs spent a total of £1.33 million in 2011 on alcohol in the nine different bars located in the House of Commons. Lest we think this is merely a problem for English-speakers, drunken ministers, presidents, and even colonels have appeared all over the world. Some highlights:
The New South Wales Parliament has indicated that it will not move for a blanket ban of alcohol use while in session, but it is probably wise that they institute some restrictions rather than let the problem ferment. As for Pearce, he maintains that he was merely sleepy.
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World leaders don't always have the liberty of choosing their allies, but they do get to pick their friends. And while Barack Obama has been criticized for his Vulcan-style diplomacy, the U.S. president has made a few buddies in office. Now, as anti-government protests grip Turkey, one of them is embarrassing him.
In an interview with Fareed Zakaria in January 2012, Obama spoke candidly about the world leaders he had befriended, as The Cable reported at the time (emphasis ours):
Obama replied that he couldn't compare his relationships to those of past presidents, but "the friendships and the bonds of trust that I've been able to forge with a whole range of leaders is precisely -- or is a big part of what has allowed us to execute effective diplomacy."
Obama then went on name the five world leaders he feels especially close to and explained that he isn't exactly shooting hoops with them, but they at least have good working relationships.
"I mean, I think that if you ask them -- Angela Merkel, or Prime Minister Singh, or President Lee, or Prime Minister Erdogan, or David Cameron would say, we have a lot of trust and confidence in the President. We believe what he says. We believe that he'll follow through on his commitments. We think he's paying attention to our concerns and our interests," Obama said. And that's part of the reason why we've been able to forge these close working relationships and gotten a whole bunch of stuff done."
When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Washington last month, Obama mentioned that, in addition to discussing developments in Syria and peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the leaders had also exchanged parenting tips. An administration official told Politico that Obama and Erdogan's friendship has helped them weather a series of diplomatic challenges in Obama's first term -- though a New Yorker profile of Erdogan chalked that cooperation up to American desperation to maintain allies in the Middle East as much as to Obama and Erdogan's personal relationship:
President Barack Obama has developed a close relationship with Erdogan, whom he regards as a dynamic and democratically minded leader. A White House official told me that Obama has regularly voiced his concerns about the treatment of religious and ethnic minorities. On the rare occasion that an American official has made his criticisms public, Erdogan has easily dismissed them....
One explanation for American passivity, repeated by a number of Turks, is that Obama is desperate for allies in the Muslim world and is determined to hold on to Erdogan as a friend in an increasingly combustible region. When I mentioned this to a Western diplomat, he said that Erdogan had proved to be a positive leader for Turkey. As the diplomat told me, "Turkey is Muslim, prosperous, and democratic. There isn't another country like that." And yet some Turks compare Erdogan's Turkey less to the democracies of the West than to the Russian and Chinese models, in which free-market economics are championed and domestic dissent is repressed.
Obama speaks to Erdogan frequently (in 2011, the Los Angeles Times reported that the president had placed more calls to Turkey's prime minister than to any world leader except British Prime Minister David Cameron) -- enough for Mark Kennedy, writing for FP's Shadow Government blog today, to suggest Obama ring him up again to discuss the recent unrest in Turkey.
So far, though, Obama has left discussion of the protests to the State Department. "I have no calls to report," Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Monday, in explaining the administration's assessment of the protests. "Turkey is a very important ally. And look, all democracies have issues that they need to work through and we would expect the government to work through this in a way that respects the rights of their citizens." Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters yesterday that the State Department has been working through the U.S. ambassador to Turkey to communicate the administration's position to Turkish officials. It's a roundabout way for the president to send a message to one of his closest friends on the world stage.
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Barack Obama's counterterrorism speech on Thursday has drawn mixed reviews here in the United States (here at FP, Rosa Brooks gave the address an A-, while Emile Simpson found it to be a "conceptual car crash") -- and reactions have been similar in the countries that may be most affected by the president's proposals.
In the Pakistani press, the takeaway from the speech was the Obama administration's position on drone strikes, which have targeted militants in the tribal areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. With a touch of optimism, Pakistani reports listed the revised criteria for drone strikes described in the speech and new "presidential policy guidance" as a major shift in U.S. policy. The reports also took special note of Obama's acknowledgement of the "thousands of Pakistani soldiers [who] have lost their lives fighting extremists."
For some in Pakistan, though, including the government's Foreign Ministry, the speech was too little, too late. The ministry issued a statement saying that, while officials agreed with Obama's comment that "force alone cannot make us safe," the Pakistani government "has consistently maintained that the drone strikes are counter-productive, entail loss of innocent civilian lives, have human rights and humanitarian implications and violate the principles of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and international law." In an op-ed in Dawn, Pakistani author Rafia Zakaria wrote that the speech would have been better two years ago. In the time since the May 2011 Osama bin Laden raid, she pointed out, terrorism in Pakistan has metastasized as groups like the Pakistani Taliban have been emboldened by airstrikes:
The United States delegitimised the Pakistani state by continuing its onslaught of drone strikes year after year. Unheeded by both Parliamentary resolutions that denied any tacit agreement on drones and the statements of UN Rapporteurs calling them illegal; the Predators continued to fly, releasing Hellfire missiles over Pakistani territory and treating Pakistani borders as arbitrary impediments to American strategy.... The Tehreek-e-Taliban made the same point as the Americans, that the Pakistani state was not able to protect its own people, that their invasive capacity to kill was greater than the government's capacity to protect and that the writ of the state simply did not apply.
Meanwhile, in Yemen, despite the prevalence of U.S. drone strikes in the country, the reaction has focused on Obama's comments about the Guantánamo Bay detention center, where Yemeni nationals make up the majority of remaining detainees. The most-read article on the Yemen Post website on Friday, titled "Gitmo detainees could be heading home to Yemen soon," led with:
Following weeks of an intense political debate between Yemeni and American officials regarding the fate of Yemen 56 cleared terror detainees in Guantanamo Bay prison, America's infamous terror penitentiary, US President Barack Obama said he is ready to resume the transfers of prisoners, hence ended his self-imposed moratorium. In a speech on Thursday at the National Defense University President Obama made clear he wished to reduce Guantanamo "detainee population" ahead of the potential closure of the facility altogether.
The article also noted the looming political fight in Washington, stating, "While the news will come as a relief to many Yemeni officials and the families of detainees, not all American officials agree with their president's decision." The Yemeni government issued a press release and the Yemen Post article quotes officials from the country's Human Rights Ministry confirming U.S.-Yemeni cooperation on a new rehabilitation program in Yemen for repatriated detainees.
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Egyptian activist Ahmed Maher, a co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, was arrested at the Cairo International Airport on Friday, according to Egyptian press reports. He was returning to Egypt from a 13-day trip to the United States hosted by the Milken Institute and the Project on Middle East Democracy, during which he met with officials from the State Department, the Obama administration, and Congress, and spoke at universities and the Milken Institute Global Conference. "The goal of Maher's trip," according to a press release from POMED, "was to highlight the many challenges to democratic progress in Egypt, including a widespread crackdown on freedom of speech, assembly, and association."
Egypt's Ahram Online reports that Maher's arrest is in connection with a March 28 protest outside the residence of the Egyptian minister of the interior in which activists waved women's clothing and banners claiming the ministry had "prostituted" itself to the government of President Mohamed Morsy. Maher tweeted a picture from the protest, "Now in front of the house of the minister of the interior."
?? ???? ???? ???? ???????? ???? twitter.com/GhostyMaher/st…— ?Ahmed Maher (@GhostyMaher) March 28, 2013
Four members of the April 6 Youth Movement were arrested and then released last month for their involvement in the protest. At the time, a spokesman for April 6 told Ahram Online that no arrest warrant had been issued for Maher. But today, an Egyptian official told AFP that "the prosecution has decided to jail Ahmed Maher for four days as part of the investigation."
Maher and April 6 supported the candidacy of Mohamed Morsy. But since the country's constitutional crisis in November, he has felt disillusioned by the new government. "This regime is the same old regime, but has a religious atmosphere or shape," he said at an event at the New America Foundation on Monday. It has "the same rules, the same constitution ... the same behavior, the same strategy, the same politics -- so we need to keep the struggle until step down all of that regime."
Maher also knows the potential consequences of his protests. "Our members are arrested now and in the jail, and sometimes are tortured. So our role now is to keep the struggle," he said Monday. It's not his first arrest, either -- in fact, Maher was arrested for organizing protests as early as 2008, years before the January 2011 revolution.
"Opposition figures and protestors being arrested isn't new, unfortunately," Marc Lynch, director of George Washington University's Middle East Studies Program and an FP blogger and columnist, told Passport by email. Lynch met with Maher during his visit to Washington. "What is striking is that Ahmed would be arrested after returning from the US where he spoke (I understand) to a variety of US officials as well as academics and think tankers. It just points to the ongoing urgency of real reform of the security sector in Egypt," he wrote.
Maher's arrest also demonstrates the government's unwillingness to work with even receptive members of the opposition, according to Nancy Okail, Egypt director for Freedom House, who also met with Maher during his visit to Washington. "The arrest of any activist is worrisome, but Maher's arrest is particularly significant as he was one of the strongest supporters of President Morsy before and after his elections," Okail told FP by email. "He repeatedly expressed his willingness to extend a helping hand to the government to solve Egypt's problems -- especially with regard to reforming the police. The current repressive approach of the Egyptian government is stifling constructive discussions at the very time it should be expanding dialogue with different segments of Egyptian society."
At the State Department's daily press briefing this afternoon, Acting Deputy Spokesperson Patrick Ventrell told reporters that the State Department was still trying to confirm reports of Maher's arrest, saying "of course, if it were true, we'll express our concerns, but at this time we're still seeking more information." Representatives from the Egyptian embassy did not respond to requests from FP for comment.
KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
Peru and Ecuador agreed Tuesday to recall their respective ambassadors and name new individuals to the posts amid a diplomatic row that erupted after the Ecuadorean ambassador to Peru managed to get into a fight with two women in a supermarket checkout line.
As my colleague Ty McCormick noted, it initially seemed that Rodrigo Riofrío would survive the debacle -- that, inexplicably, an ambassador could retain his post after swatting citizens of his host country with a rolled-up magazine. But it wasn't meant to be. Peruvian news stations have been playing clips of the fight non-stop, and the country's first lady even weighed in, saying that "aggression against women should not be tolerated." Ecuador's Foreign Ministry announced today that Riofrío, who had enjoyed a "distinguished diplomatic career," will be assigned to "another country" -- presumably one far, far away from Peru and its supermarkets.
Here's footage of the incident in question:
The real victim in all of this, however, seems to be the Peruvian ambassador to Ecuador. He's now out of a job because his counterpart got too feisty while trying to pick up some groceries.
Thos Robinson/Getty Images for LVMH
The Egyptian government is promoting a new blog showcasing the work of the Egyptian Foreign Policy Forum, a state-sponsored think tank. But the target audience isn't just Egyptians -- the first few posts indicate that officials are looking for an audience abroad as much as at home.
That's because almost all of the articles are translated into English. They include big-picture think pieces with titles like "Egyptian Foreign Policy, a New Vision," and more specific policy outlines like "Egypt and Russia, Horizons of Cooperation." What's more: They're translated verbatim.
Maybe that shouldn't be a surprise. But over the past year, Egyptian officials have made a habit of saying one thing in English and something very different to their constituents in Arabic. There was the Twitter sparring last September, when the Muslim Brotherhood's English-language feed tweeted after the protests on Sept. 11, "We r relieved none of @USEmbassyCairo staff were hamed & hope US-Eg relations will sustain turbulence of Tuesday's events," while praising the protests, which breached the embassy compound, in Arabic. "Thanks. By the way, have you checked out your own Arabic feeds? I hope you know we read those too," the U.S. Embassy account shot back (the tweet was later deleted). More recently, there was the Brotherhood's consolatory message to the U.S. government in the wake of the Boston marathon bombing, and, in stark contrast, a bizarre, conspiracy-laden rant posted to Facebook in Arabic.
The blog's sole Arabic-only posts so far are on Egyptian-Sudanese and Egyptian-Libyan relations, and they don't delve into anything scandalous -- both are pretty bland discussions of border economic zones and, in the case of Sudan, water-sharing rights.
There are a couple interesting tidbits tucked away in the English articles. Specifically, "A New Vision" states Egypt's intention to achieve a position of "regional leadership and special international status," including "a permanent seat in the UN Security Council." (Egypt's been swinging for the fences lately -- in March, it proposed joining the BRICS as well.) In "Egypt and Russia," the Egyptian administration expresses its interest in "achieving balance, independence, and political influence in foreign relations," breaking free of "the shackles of subordination and occupation." "This can be realized through the development of relations with different countries across the globe including Russia," the policy paper states.
All in all, it's not that provocative (though maybe a bit grandiose). But is it sincere? There's no reason to think these bland policy pronouncements aren't expressed in good faith -- but they're just a few more data points amid Egypt's many mixed messages.
ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images
Fraying cooperation in the drug war will surely be top of mind as President Obama meets with his counterpart Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico this week. And perhaps nothing encapsulates Mexico's growing impatience with America's heavy-handed approach to combating drug trafficking than this nugget from a New York Times report on Tuesday. Apparently, the United States has been subjecting Mexican security officials to regular polygraph tests in an effort to identify rotten apples. But that could soon change:
Shortly after Mexico's new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, took office in December, American agents got a clear message that the dynamics, with Washington holding the clear upper hand, were about to change.
"So do we get to polygraph you?" one incoming Mexican official asked his American counterparts, alarming United States security officials who consider the vetting of the Mexicans central to tracking down drug kingpins. The Mexican government briefly stopped its vetted officials from cooperating in sensitive investigations. The Americans are waiting to see if Mexico allows polygraphs when assigning new members to units, a senior Obama administration official said.
While the practice is not widely publicized, it has been an element of the two countries' security relationship for some time. In a 1997 article on U.S.-Mexican plans to join hands in the drug war, the Associated Press noted that Mexican counternarcotics agents would undergo the "kind of extensive background, financial, and polygraph tests required of U.S. drug agents." The plans came after the arrest of Mexico's drug czar, Gen. Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, for taking bribes from drug traffickers.
What's more, the United States hasn't just applied this policy to Mexico. In 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported that Washington has given elite Colombian counternarcotics agents polygraph tests as well.
The bad blood over polygraph tests isn't the only sign that U.S.-Mexican cooperation on the drug war is deteriorating. In an interview with the Spanish news agency EFE on his new book, the Mexican journalist Jesús Esquivel claimed that the Mexican military recently waved off a U.S. offer to capture famed drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Gúzman. The United States had the Sinaloa cartel chief's location and said the operation would take only 15 minutes. So why the hang-up? Mexican military officials reportedly didn't want the American military to lead the operation.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
Sen. John McCain sounded a civil note at the beginning of his remarks at a Center for a New American Security event on Thursday, April 18. "What Republicans need now is a vigourous contest on ideas on national security and foreign policy," he told a group of military, foreign policy, and business professionals. "This contest can and should be conducted respectfully and without name-calling, which is something an old wacko-bird like me must remember from time to time."
Though he didn't resort to epithets, the rest of the speech featured a series of broadsides against isolationists and non-interventionists of both parties, but especially senators on McCain's own side of the aisle. "When it comes to the politics of national security," McCain said, "my beloved Republican Party has some soul-searching to do."
In particular, McCain singled out his "libertarian friends" who participated in Sen. Rand Paul's filibuster against John Brennan's confirmation as CIA director. "Rather than debate the very real dilemmas of targeted killing," McCain said, "my colleagues chose to focus instead on the theoretical possibility that the president would use a drone to kill Americans on U.S. soil even if they're not engaged in hostilities. As misguided as this exercise was, the political pressures on Republicans to join in were significant, and many ultimately did -- including many who know better."
As a compromise, McCain suggested revising the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which provides the legal justification for the targeted killing program, and codifying drone policy "to preserve, but clarify the commander-in-chief's war powers, while insisting on greater transparency and broader congressional oversight of how these war powers are employed."
He inveighed against the "emergence of a military-industrial-congressional complex that has corrupted and crippled the defense acquisition process," though his critique focused on the runaway costs of projects like the F-35 and Littoral Combat Ship rather than the defense budget writ large, which he has pushed to maintain. He also went after colleagues who have tried to slash foreign aid, pointing out that, "It now seems that every piece of legislation that the Senate considers faces an inevitable amendment that would cut off all our assistance to Egypt or some other critical country. And unfortunately, these kinds of provisions keep winning more and more votes." McCain sounded downright weary as he described "explaining" and "reminding people" of the purpose of foreign aid. "While foreign aid might not make its recipients love us," he noted, "it does further our national security interests and values."
McCain went after colleagues' knee-jerk opposition to the United Nations as well. When asked about the Law of the Sea Treaty, he said, "It's probably not going to come up. Not with the makeup of this Senate, that's the reality. We couldn't even do a disabilities treaty, for God's sake." The problem? Here, McCain got sarcastic. "It's just, you know, it's the 'U.N.' It's the 'U.N.,'" he exclaimed, making air quotes and shrugging.
Despite the critiques of sequestration and U.S. policies on Syria and Iran, President Obama got off pretty easy by comparison. "Right now, the far left and far right in America are coming together in favor of pulling us back from the world," McCain observed. "The president and I have had our differences, many of those differences will persist, but there are times these days when I feel that I have more in common on foreign policy with President Obama than I do with some in my party."
And while McCain seemed uncomfortable with the many rounds of nuclear negotiations with Iran, he said he didn't envy the president's decision on the use of force. "It's going to be probably one of the most difficult decisions the president of the United States has ever had to make," he argued, "and it's very rarely that I'm glad that I'm not the president of the United States, but this is one of [those times]."
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Journalists have had their hands full this week with reports of Iran's fake time machine, not to mention the 6.3-magnitude earthquake that shook the country's south. But somehow, in all the excitement, an Iranian proposal to annex Azerbaijan went largely unnoticed.
On Tuesday, Iran's Fars news agency reported that Azerbaijani-speaking lawmakers in Iran had introduced a bill to re-annex their neighbor to the north. Iran lost Azerbaijan in 1828 -- "The most frustrating chapter in the history class!" Fars laments -- when it was forced to sign the Turkmenchay treaty, ceding the territory to Russia. The legislators propose revisiting the terms of the treaty, which, according to Fars, means "the 17 cities and regions that Iran had lost to the Russians would be given back to Iran after a century."
For its part, Azerbaijan has told Iran to "bring it" -- diplomatically speaking. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports that Siyavush Novruzov of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party has declared that revisiting the treaty would result not in Azerbaijan being annexed to Iran, but rather in Tehran ceding its northwestern territory to Azerbaijan.
While all this may sound like the makings of an international showdown in a strategically sensitive region, here's the comforting part: in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, both sides have repeatedly brandished the treaty as an empty threat. Take a look at this January 1992 edition of one Kentucky daily:
Screenshot of the Kentucky New Era
Or a December 2011 headline from Azer News that reads, "MP wants to 'annex Azeri territory to Iran.'"
On the other side of the border, Azerbaijan has threatened more than once to reclaim the region in Iran known as "Southern Azerbaijan." And as we wrote in February 2012, minority lawmakers in Baku have even provocatively suggested changing the country's name to "Northern Azerbaijan," implying ownership over the Iranian territory to the south.
Writing in Foreign Affairs in January, Iran expert Alex Vatanka explained why, despite significant cultural and linguistic overlap, the two countries remain tense neighbors. After securing independence in 1991, Azerbaijan failed to become the close Shiite ally that Tehran wanted, he notes. And since 2003, Vatanka adds, "Baku has grown both considerably richer -- thanks to revenues from energy exports -- and noticeably bolder in its foreign policy."
This boldness -- which includes the purchase of weapons and technology from Israel in exchange for granting the country a foothold on the Iranian border -- has driven an increasingly substantial wedge between Azerbaijan and Iran. In other words, don't be surprised if we see this headline crop up again ... and again and again.
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo's Twitter feed disappeared for about an hour today following an online sparring match with a feed operated by the office of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy over Jon Stewart's impassioned defense of Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef. When the embassy's feed returned, a tweet linking to the Daily Show clip had been deleted, and State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland told reporters that embassy officials "came to the conclusion that the decision to tweet it in the first place didn't accord with post management of the site."
There's bad diplomacy, and then there's the Twitter fight that followed this afternoon between the Muslim Brotherhood's English-language Twitter account (@IkhwanWeb) and American radio show host and media personality Rick Sanchez (@RickSanchezTV). The improbable feud started when the Muslim Brotherhood tweeted an Al Jazeera report featuring a comment Sanchez made in 2010 that was widely reported as being anti-Semitic and led to his firing from CNN. The Muslim Brotherhood pointed to the incident as an example of the West's "double standards" about free speech:
The Muslim Brotherhood's confusion about the government-ensured rights of an individual vs. the rights of private employees notwithstanding, Sanchez came looking for a fight this afternoon. Armed with a loose understanding of the situation, Sanchez eagerly began trolling @IkhwanWeb.
The Muslim Brotherhood responded, and from there, it was a good, old-fashioned troll fight. @IkhwanWeb was right that Sanchez didn't have his facts straight, but their defense of Egypt's freedom of speech rang a bit hollow given the circumstances:
.@ricksancheztv Mr. Shanchez, we value freedom of speech, it's what Egyptians fought for & no power can take this fundamental right away— Ikhwanweb (@Ikhwanweb) April 3, 2013
.@ricksancheztv perhaps u shld get facts first. He wasn't arrested, but questioned and released re complaint brought by pvt citizen, not us— Ikhwanweb (@Ikhwanweb) April 3, 2013
.@ricksancheztv absolutely false, we've nothing to do w investigations, it's a fact & if u ve evidence to contrary plz announce to the world— Ikhwanweb (@Ikhwanweb) April 3, 2013
Sanchez then declared victory. Several times.
And that's today's installment of how Twitter is making politics weird. Remember, folks: Don't feed the trolls.
The United States and Pakistan have not had the greatest year -- or decade -- from a diplomatic perspective. Just today, for instance, Pakistan and Iran launched a natural gas pipeline that Washington has vigorously opposed. Reflecting on the state of U.S.-Pakistani relations at the end of 2012, one senior State Department official told reporters:
Obviously, if you sort of step back a little bit, for us, 2011 was as hard a year in U.S.-Pakistan relations as you can imagine.... And so we tried in 2012 to sort of get back into some sensible business with them. Our philosophy has been that it ought to be possible between Pakistan and the United States to systematically identify our shared interests and act on them jointly.
Apparently, 12-year-olds have no trouble doing just that. Through the Marshall Direct Fund's Global Kid Connect program, Aspen Country Day School in Colorado has been taking part in a pen pal exchange with Lahore Grammar School in Pakistan. In their letters, which the organization has posted online, the elementary and middle schoolers go beyond identifying "shared interests" (Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift), broaching some touchier subjects as well.
Audra, a seventh-grader, writes:
Not many of the Pakistani students' letters have been posted online. But judging from the responses by Aspen students, terrorism is a recurring theme in the exchanges, Here's Tristan, 13:
To answer your question. We don't think your country is all terroriscs [sic] but we think that your country has terrorists in it. Are there terrorists in your country?
Meanwhile, Sarah, a seventh-grader, unequivocally states her lack of an agenda when it comes to Pakistan:
Here's my personal favorite, from Andrew, 13, and Mat, 9:
You have to give these kids credit. It might be time for the State Department to recruit some junior ambassadors.
A Dead Sea's worth of water has disappeared from the Middle East. It sounds like something out of Carmen Sandiego, but it's actually the finding of a joint study by scientists from NASA, the University of California, Irvine, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, published today in the journal Water Resources Research.
Using gravity-measuring NASA satellites -- which allowed them to bypass political boundaries and gather data from space -- the scientists learned that between 2003 and 2009, the Tigris and Euphrates river basins lost 117 million acre feet of stored freshwater. Jay Famiglietti of UC Irvine described the findings:
GRACE data show an alarming rate of decrease in total water storage in the Tigris and Euphrates river basins, which currently have the second fastest rate of groundwater storage loss on Earth, after India.... The rate was especially striking after the 2007 drought. Meanwhile, demand for freshwater continues to rise, and the region does not coordinate its water management because of different interpretations of international laws.
According to the researchers, the countries directly impacted by this trend are Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran -- not exactly the world's most politically stable states.
So how will this play out? While "water wars" are often forebodingly cast as the next big source of global conflict, water security researcher Peter H. Brooks, writing in Foreign Policy, has dismissed some of the hype as alarmist and not all that new, citing Mark Twain's own observation that "Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fightin over." But, he adds that the Tigris and Euphrates basins -- which are ripe with border disputes, conflict over Kurdish minorities, and now major conflicts in Syria and Iraq -- might be more prone to the insidious effects of water instability than other places around the globe.
In 2009, responding to severe water shortages, Iraqi parliament demanded an increase in the share of Turkish river waters. Despite this and continued droughts, Turkey has continued building dams. As broader regional instability permeates into Syria and Iraq, expect water to play an increasingly important role in future local and international disputes between these three countries.
Already, there have been pitched battles over dams in the Syrian civil war, and regional dynamics could shift as Iran seeks water from Afghanistan. As if countries in the Middle East need something new to fight about.
BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
The more I think about it, the more I think John Kerry was a great choice for Obama's second-term secretary of state. Granted, he wasn't the president's first choice. But Obama may have stumbled into a pretty good decision.
The main reason is that Obama's second term is going to involve a number of lines of sensitive, patient diplomacy that could be politically unpopular at home, or at least easy to attack. Let's take them one by one.
First, there's the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, which may or may not involve serious discussions with the Taliban. If it happens, and depending on the parameters of that conversation, that's going to be hugely politically risky, and controversial even within the Obama administration itself. I'm not as optimistic as David Ignatius, but there are already signs that at least some factions of the Taliban are willing to come to the table, if only to explore their options. Kerry knows this terrain well, having managed to develop good relations with both Karzai and the Pakistani leadership.
Second, Iran. Kerry has long thought that the United States needed to find a way to strike a deal. He's skeptical that military action will work. He understands all too well the limits of sanctions. I think he's willing to get creative, and really try to exhaust all options before he signs on for a bombing campaign. He won't just check the diplomacy box -- I think he will really give negotiations a chance to play out.
Third, North Korea. The Obama administration's approach has been "strategic patience" -- a fancy way of saying do little and hope for the best. There were some good arguments for waiting out the North Koreans, chief among them that the South Koreans wanted to take a different tack. But it hasn't worked, and now even the conservative president-elect, Park Geun-hye, wants to explore engagement once again. The United States will be under pressure to join in.
Fourth, Syria. If the administration is serious about brokering some kind of negotiated solution (and it's far from clear this is the case), it will require some pretty deft multidimensional diplomacy with the regime, various factions of rebels, the neighbors, the Europeans, the Iranians, and the Russians. File this one under "mission impossible." But Kerry has been out ahead of the administration on Syria, at least. Maybe he'll be able to make the case for a more less terrible strategy.
Finally, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is a dog of an issue, and it seems very far from solvable at the moment. Obama would be foolish to have another tilt at a peace deal. But the Middle East has a way of dragging you in against your will. As long as it is propping up the Palestinian Authority and sending hundreds of millions of dollars in annual aid to Israel, the United States won't be able to walk away from this mess. Kerry will need to find a way to at least credibly pretend that the Obama administration has a strategy -- and above all, work to prevent things from getting worse.
These are hard problems, and they are exactly the sorts of thankless tasks that Kerry excels at -- the kind that Hillary Clinton was either too busy thinking about 2016, spread too thin, or too disempowered by the White House to do much about. Remember: She wasn't a diplomat when she took the Foggy Bottom job; she was a politician. Yes, she has excelled at public diplomacy -- "townterviews" and the like. That was important in the wake of the Bush years. And yes, the State Department has done some solid diplomatic work in Asia under Clinton's watch. But there are only a few episodes (that we know of) where the secretary's personal, private involvement was crucial to a deal. In one of these cases, the blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, she had a strong incentive to get involved -- because not to give her all to get Chen released would have been a stain on her legacy. But on the really tough issues, she's worked through envoys, a tactic that minimized the risks to Clinton herself. (And it worked: Nobody, for instance, seems to blame her for the administration's spectacular failures on the Israel-Palestinian front, or for its less than vigorous Syria policy. Even Benghazi hasn't really affected her reputation.)
Kerry is of course also a pol, but he has nothing left to lose. He's already run for presidency and lost. He seems at peace with himself. He'll shrug off personal attacks. Yes, he can be pompous and long-winded at times. But I think he's going to throw himself into this task, and the arc of his career shows a man willing to take risks when the moment demands it. And the moment certainly demands it now.
If Sen. John Kerry is confirmed as secretary of state, one of the first issues to cross his desk will be Iran's nuclear program. Kerry has discussed the issue before. We've poured over the WikiLeaks cables, which paint a broad portrait of Kerry's diplomatic style. In those classified documents, he discussed how he might approach the issue.
The first reference comes from a conversation in February 2005 with French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier. Kerry told Barnier that "his conversations in the region had convinced him that Iran remains committed to a nuclear weapons program, but agreed that there were no good alternatives to negotiating." Though he did not rule out a military option, he did point out it "would be difficult," and pointed to U.N. sanctions, which have since been put in place and periodically ratcheted up, as an alternative. Still smarting from his defeat in the presidential election in 2004, Kerry remarked that "his own intention, had he been elected president, was to pursue front channel and back channel contacts with the Iranian regime."
Five years later, Kerry got the opportunity to open some of those back channel contacts. In a February 2010 meeting with Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, Kerry commented that Washington's behind-the-scenes signals to Tehran had gone unanswered. He "observed that the Iranians are scared to talk...Our instinct is that we need to find a way to talk to him." Al-Thani then reportedly offered to be an intermediary. "What if I talk to the Iranian President. What would you have me say?" he asked.
Senator Kerry responded, "The U.S. seeks serious discussion and sought to create a new foundation for a relationship based on Iran's non-confrontational compliance with IAEA requirements and other mutual interests." Those interests include dealing with drug-running, the Taliban, and illicit trade. The Chairman told the Amir he feared that Iran still thinks it is dealing with the 1953 America that tried to overthrow the Iranian government.
The United States recognizes Iran's ambitions to be a regional player, Kerry told al-Thani, and wants a dialogue about what sort of power it will be.
Of course, that conversation took place nearly three years ago. A lot has changed -- or, maybe very little has changed, and as a result patience in Washington is running low. Kerry's views may have shifted since then, but he'd probably still agree with the comment he made then to al-Thani: "It is crazy to continue on this collision course."
KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images
Fifty years ago today, President John F. Kennedy learned that the Soviet Union had deployed nuclear missiles to Cuba, thereby beginning the most dangerous nuclear standoff the world has ever known. Popularly known as the "13 days in October," Oct. 16 marked the beginning of some of the most tense diplomacy in U.S. history. To mark the event, Foreign Policy and award-winning journalist Michael Dobbs, author of One Minute to Midnight, have created the Cuban missile crisis + 50 project, looking at what happened then -- and what we know now.
To keep track of events, follow Dobbs as he live-tweets the crisis. For a detailed look at what's coming next, you can also see our comprehensive blow-by-blow of the events of those days. And want to know how these dramatic events changed America forever? Leslie Gelb explains the myth that ruined 50 years of foreign policy -- and Stephen Sestanovich explains why he's wrong.
You can also get a sense for what was in the nuclear arsenal at that time, as well as read secret documents from the National Security Archive that show why the crisis was much, much scarier than you think.
Finally, you can browse the entire project here.
AFP reports that Belarus has formally expelled all Swedish diplomats, giving Stockholm until August 30th to remove all diplomatic officials from Minsk. Swedish Ambassador to Belarus Stefan Eriksson was forced to leave Minsk first after "a decision was made not to renew his credentials."
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt attributed the eviction to his country's active stance on human rights, warning that Belarusian President Aleskandr Lukashenko's "fear of human rights is reaching new heights." Blidt doubled down an hour later, tweeting "We remain strongly committed to the freedom of Belarus and all its citizens. They deserve the freedoms and the rights of the rest of Europe."
The sudden timing has many speculating that it was the recent"Teddy Bear Drop" by Swedish activists that incited the expulsion. In an original act of protest, Swedish advertising agency Studio Total flew a small private plane over Belarusian airspace, dropping stuffed toy bears with messages of free speech. In an interview with FP's Elias Groll, pilots Hannah Frey and Thomas Mazetti elaborated upon their "campaign of laughter" to highlight the regime's political and security weaknesses.
Though Belarusian officials initially denied that the teddy bear drop had even happened, two high ranking generals were fired shortly afterward for "failing to ensure national security." Belarusian blogger Anton Surapin and entrepreneur Syarhey Basharymau were later arrested on charges of involvement in the "illegal intrusion" of airspace.
Packing should be easy for the Swedish embassy. The current round of evictions comes just months after Sweden withdrew officials from its embassy in February in protest against Lukashenka's authoritarian administration. All 27 EU member states removed diplomatic envoys after new economic sanctions were imposed, with Sweden, the Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania, and Estonia not returning until late April. An emergency meeting of European Union ambassadors has been called for Friday to discuss the situation.
TATYANA ZENKOVICH/AFP/Getty Images
As regional powers fight for control of the China Seas, one family wants out. With the lease to the Japanese government expiring in March 2014, the Kurihara family are scrambling to sell four out of the five resource-rich and much-disputed Senkaku Islands, known as Diaoyu in China, "as early as we can."
Tokyo's inflammatory governor Shintaro Ishihara leads the bidding war after the Kurihara family today refused Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's offer, explaining, "It is not our family's idea to suddenly switch partners just because someone else has appeared on the scene." Though Ishihara's offer has not been made public, the islands' estimated value tops $19 million.
Unsurprisingly, Beijing, who claims the islands on "indisputable historical and legal grounds," has not been invited to the negotiating table and has instead renounced the sale from afar, warning in a press statement released Saturday that "no one will ever be allowed to buy and sell China's sacred territory."
The Kurihara family's sudden eagerness to sell is unsurprising. Tensions between Beijing and Tokyo peaked earlier this month after Chinese vessels repeatedly entered Japanese waters in an incident eerily reminiscent of the Scarborough Shoal affair. Claiming they were protecting Chinese fishing rights, the Chinese patrol ships refused a Japanese Coast Guard patrol's request to leave the area, instead insisting the Japanese forces leave "Chinese territorial waters" immediately. Tokyo promptly lodged two formal complaints against China before withdrawing its ambassador from Beijing in protest on July 16th. Heads butted again at Cambodia's failed ASEAN conference when Chinese Foreign Minister Yang "reaffirmed China's principled position" and stressed that countries "indisputable sovereignty."
Emotions run high on both sides as the islands have sparked dramatic conflict in the past. In 2010, Japan arrested a Chinese trawler for ramming Japanese coastguard vessels repeatedly, sparking a diplomatic row that lasted weeks and inspiring a 'Defend Diaoyu' video game. Meanwhile, the Japanese public has donated nearly $1 million to Tokyo's island fund, with the officials of the municipal government citing 197 calls of assistance in recent days in a display of widespread public support.
Though the world remains focused on the southern Spratly Islands, it may be time to look a little further east.
eng Li/Getty Images
Chinese officials were caught Friday with their pants down when the Defense Ministry was forced to admit in a brief statement that a naval frigate has run aground on the south eastern edge of the Spratly Islands-- waters the Philippine government claims exclusive sovereignty over. Though Chinese officials described the vessels as a part of a "routine patrol," the incident comes barely two weeks after the Philippine navy openly accused China of ignoring a June agreement to withdraw all ships from the Scarborough Shoal.
The "thoroughly stuck" grounded ships are an awkward reminder of growing aggression in the South China Seas. The Chinese Defense Department's terse statement Friday was released just as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) failed to reach agreement in Phnom Penh and were forced to conclude without a customary joint statement for the first time in the organization's 45 year history.
ASEAN officials are pointing fingers at China, who they accuse of blindly denying the organization the right to mediate maritime disputes and refusing to participate in negotiations at large. In open defiance of the five-day conference, 20 Chinese shipping vessels returned to disputed waters Wednesday as state papers reminded readers that "China is considering setting up a legislative body in the newly established city." Accordingly, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's seemingly innocuous proposal that "the nations of the region should work collaboratively and diplomatically to resolve disputes without coercion, without intimidation, without threat, and without use of force" was decried by the state-run China Daily as "inappropriate and ill-intentioned."
Despite the harsh words, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi concluded the conference by reminding reporters of his desire to establish "win-win" U.S.-Sino cooperation. Considering their actions this week, it might be at another state's loss.
Panda diplomacy has become a pillar of China's soft power strategy, but the death of a week-old baby panda in Japan -- the first born to Tokyo's Ueno zoo in 24 years -- stands to disappoint those who hoped that its birth would motivate "people-to-people sentiment" and help overcome the strained China-Japan relationship. The unnamed cub, who died of pneumonia, had already become a national sensation. As AFP reported, "Newscasts had dedicated a nightly segment to the male cub's daily activities since his birth on July 5, with retailers unveiling a host of panda-themed products in celebration." A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said Wednesday that the country laments Tokyo's loss.
This may be a major blow, but the legacy of the 5-ounce panda is not without controversy. On June 29, Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara drew the ire of China's foreign ministry for suggesting that the zoo name the unborn baby cub after the Senkaku Islands, a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea controlled by Japan, but whose sovereignty is disputed by China. The Chinese foreign ministry responded with a statement calling Ishihara's "scheme to undermine China-Japan relations" a "clumsy performance" that "will only tarnish the image of Japan and Tokyo."
Hopefully, China's panda diplomacy gesture toward Malaysia will chart a smoother path.
YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images
Saudi Arabia's "Barbie" is striking back. In a far call from the extravagant upbringing that earned her the nickname, Princess Sara bint Talal bin Abdulaziz publicly filed a request for political asylum in Britain on July 6, claiming a threat against her freedom. As the granddaughter of Saudi Arabia's founding king and the daughter of the influential Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, Princess Sara is the first high-ranking Saudi to seek refuge abroad.
In a royal family renowned for its control, the princess is no stranger to controversy. After breaking from her father over an unknown dispute, she moved to Britain in 2007, where she successfully sued for full custody of her four children. Despite pleas from the regime to return to Riyadh to discuss the matter in private, she remains engaged in a brutal inheritance battle with her older brother, Prince Turki bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, over their deceased mother's fortune.
These legal battles pale, however, in comparison to her current claims. Her British visa expired and her application for a new passport denied, the princess now faces the threat of deportation. Though initially willing to consider a return to the kingdom, a February 2011 incident during a meeting with Saudi officials heightened her fear of kidnapping. Malicious rumors have circulated, challenging the princess's mental stability, political loyalty and -- in an accusation she fervently denies as "baseless and malicious" -- collaboration with Hezbollah and Iran against the regime. She recently told the Sunday Telegraph:
"I've been physically abused. I've been mentally abused. My assets have been frozen. They've accused me of being in opposition...they haven't left anything. I've been crucified in every way."
Though a Saudi Embassy official reminded the Telegraph that the visa issue was a personal, not political, matter, the princess's claims reveal the extent of broader problems facing the House of Saud. As Michael Stephens argued in FP last month, the death of Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud on June 16, 2012- an uncle and close ally of Princess Sara who shared her animosity toward her father -- has challenged the kingdom's stability. The dangers of royal succession have been exasperated by growing economic and political tensions, and the kingdom's crown princes will have to suppress domestic and familial fractures in order to survive. In a time of uncertainty, Sara's request defies more than her father's wishes: "They know I can't go back now. There is a threat. That's a slap in the face of the kingdom," she said.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn't choose his foreign visits lightly. On May 31, Putin makes his first trip abroad since being inaugurated for a third term as president on May 7, to neighboring Belarus. The visit is highly symbolic of Russia's desire to be the leader in the post-Soviet space, as well as Putin's continued support for the authoritarian president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko (also known as "Europe's Last Dictator"). Afterwards, Putin will head to Germany and France, Russia's major trading partners in the EU. After the European visits, Putin will fly to speak with Uzbek ruler Islam Karimov in Tashkent, to Beijing, and finally to Astana, Kazakhstan, to meet with long-time ruler Nursultan Kazarbayev; countries central to Putin's vision of a Eurasian Union.
Earlier in the month, Putin suddenly declined to attend the G8 Summit in Camp David, under pretext that he was too busy forming a new Cabinet of Ministers, sending instead Prime Minister Medvedev. The move was widely seen as a snub to President Obama, as Putin avoided a meeting with the president, and sidestepped making the U.S. his first foreign visit. A few days later, Obama announced he would not be able to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Vladivostok this September, because it conflicted with the Democratic Party convention.
Putin has now also taken the opportunity to snub the UK, by announcing he will not attend the opening of the London 2012 Olympics, even though the 2014 Winter Olympics will be held on Russian territory in Sochi. Likely, Medvedev will once again be sent in his stead. Russian-British relations have been tense since the 2006 poisoning of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London. Moreover the West has been pressuring Russian officials over the 2009 death of anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky while he was detained in prison. Putin's foreign trip destinations are by no means accidental.
Peace between Israelis and Palestinians depends on coordinated unilateral actions, not negotiations, former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon explained during a panel discussion at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars on Thursday. Ayalon, who also served as a member of Knesset for the Labor Party, said that "the idea of negotiations does not exist anymore."
Ayalon presented his own plan for a two-state solution, authored by Blue White Future, a non-partisan political movement he founded. The plan, based on the Clinton Parameters, first calls for Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians based on the 1967 lines and a territorial swap, should the Palestinians decide to come to the table. Second, it insists on the security fence as a provisional line and states that annexing the eastern side of the fence is not in Israel's interest. Third, the plan calls for the Knesset to pass a law enabling those settlers living on the eastern side of the fence to return to the western side, should they wish to do so. Fourth, it states that the Knesset should create a strategic plan to bring back all 100,00 settlers so as not to repeat the mistakes of the Gaza Strip pullout. Fifth, it demands that the Israeli Defense Forces remain on the eastern side of the fence to prevent any security risks. Finally, the plan requires that the Knesset pass a law that any agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians be put to a national referendum.
Robert Malley, who served as special assistant to President Clinton on Arab-Israeli Affairs, agreed that the concept of unilateralism is profound, compared to prospects for future negotiations, particularly the plan of the Quartet:
"I can't remember the last conversation I've had with a an official member from the Quartet ... who genuinely believed what they were mouthing everyday.... They don't believe it and the argument that they give for maintaining the fiction is that if you discard the fiction then you're going to leave people in a state of hopelessness and create a vacuum that bad things will fill."
Wilson Center fellow and Foreign Policy columnist Aaron David Miller, who moderated the panel, cautiously praised the plan:
"What Ami is offering is logical, it's credible. I like it because it's unanchored and unmoored to an American role in this negotiation right now or for the foreseeable future, and I also like it because it's self-directed.... Whether it will work or not is another matter."
Ayalon, meanwhile, is also putting his faith in the Israeli government:
" We understand for the time ... he cannot blame his coalition today. His coalition.... I know that in this Kensset and in this coalition, this program, this paradigm, is acceptable."
Netanyahu may have just assembled a coalition of 94 out of 120 Knesset members, a considerable mandate, but there's no guarantee that the coalition will stay intact. If history has anything to say about Israeli unity governments, nothing is ever for certain.
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
While the United States has only recently made tentative efforts to engage with Myanmar, India has, controversially, had decent relations with the country's government for quite some time. Human rights activists criticized Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's meeting with Than Shwe in 2012, calling it "unbecoming" for a democracy to welcome the Burmese military ruler.
At a time when relations are being renewed between Myanmar and the West, there's been a flurry of recent activity along India's 1,019-mile northeastern border with the country. The seven states of northeastern India are currently at their lowest period of insurgent violence in decades, and the shift in relations with their neighbor across the border could have enormous socio-economic implications for India, China and Southeast Asia.
On Feb. 22, India's foreign minister met with Myanmar's construction minister in New Delhi to speak about expanding both aviation and highway transportation between the two countries. The bridge in question would pass through the Naga region, inhabited by the tribal Naga people in the hilly district of Tamenglong in Manipur. For months, the United Naga Council -- an organization based in northeastern India -- had resisted such developments.
According to Samrat of the New York Times, several old routes cross the border between northeastern India and Myanmar. Some, like the World War II Stilwell Road, built under the U.S. Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell, had become "ghost roads," used mainly by Naga and Kachin insurgents to transport weapons and drugs, chiefly poppies to make and smuggle heroin across the border. But these roads have gradually returned to relatively law-abiding uses. Nonetheless, Indian officials claim Burmese authorities do not actively work to curb the flow of drugs and weapons into India.
In 1991, India's central government implemented a ‘‘Look East Policy'' to forge closer ties with the country's eastern neighbors. Critics say that Indian officials have made little attempt to put the policy into practice, but now the government is clearly looking to pick up the pace. During its many years of self-imposed isolation, Myanmar's only major economic partner was China, giving Beijing a strategic advantage in a nation that borders five countries.
It's been almost two weeks since Foreign Policy released its Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2011, and while the year is nearly up, many members of the list are continuing to make headlines.
Russian anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny was arrested on Monday, the day after Vladimir Putin's United Russia -- which Navalny has famously dubbed "the party of crooks and thieves" -- saw losses in an election widely thought to have been less than free and fair.
In a historic trip to Myanmar last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Aung San Suu Kyi, whose opposition movement recently announced it will reenter the political system, paving the way for her possible candidacy for parliament.
Pakistan lawmaker Sherry Rehman has been selected as her country's new ambassador to the United States. The move followed the controversial departure of Husain Haqqani, who resigned in connection with a memo sent to former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen.
Syrian political cartoonist Ali Ferzat, who was seized and attacked by security forces in August, has been named one of two recipients of the 2011 Press Freedom Prize, awarded by Reporters Without Borders and Le Monde. Fellow Syrian activist Razan Zaitouneh recorded a video message for Foreign Policy, speaking from hiding in Damascus.
Democracy activist Mohamed ElBaradei has expressed concern about religious extremism in Egypt, following the results of the country's November parliamentary elections. ElBaradei is scheduled to give a speech about Egypt and the Arab Spring on Saturday, Dec. 10, at the Cisco Public Services Summit in Oslo.
In other media coverage, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff and Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker both recently got the big profile treatment, in the New Yorker and the New York Times, respectively. Reuters has also filmed video interviews with several Global Thinkers, including economist Esther Duflo, former Al Jazeera director-general Wadah Khanfar, and social media guru Clay Shirky.
With the news of Gilad Shalit's release from five years of captivity at the hands of Hamas, we found ourselves talking about the remarkable changes over the past half decade -- and what he's missed. It's not quite Charlton Heston waking up in a room full of talking apes, but there's a lot that Shalit might find surprising. Upon his release, he said during an interview that he looked forward to "not doing the same things all day long." There's certainly plenty to keep him busy.
1. The iPhone
Remember that morning in January 2007, when Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone? For many people, life has been divided into pre- and post- iPhone since that moment. No word yet if Shalit was a Nokia man or a clamshell guy, but we're betting that he's never unlocked a smart phone with the swipe of his finger, never beheld Google Maps in the palm of his hand, and never tapped out a text message on a touch screen. Apple, get this man a 4S.
Back in the dark days of 2006, people still relied on phone calls and email to communicate. How anything was accomplished is lost to history, now that Facebook and Twitter have changed the manner -- and speed -- with which information is delivered. Facebook launched in 2004, but it was still a limited network when Shalit was abducted: Facebook did not open its doors to everyone over the age of 13 until Sept. 26, 2006. Twitter launched just one month after Shalit was detained, in July of 2006, and now boasts over 200 million users. Indeed, the platform was used extensively to spread word of Shalit's capture and any news of his release. The hashtag #GiladShalit spread around the globe, with the Jewish Week arguing it eclipsed the fame of the soldier himself.
3. Barack Obama
When Shalit was imprisoned, George W. Bush was president. Two years later, the U.S. elected its first black president, Barack Obama. In 2006, Obama was a senator from Illinois, arguing against the war in Iraq and raising the debt ceiling. After two years in office, Iraq is peaceful and U.S. debt is under control. Just kidding! Shalit actually didn't miss much here.
4. The Beatles
In all fairness, Shalit most likely knew a few Beatles tunes. However, he wouldn't have seen them play in his native Israel: The group was barred from the country -- over fears that they would corrupt Israel's youth -- until 2008, when the government apologized for the national ban, instituted in 1965, and invited the surviving members to play a concert for Israel's 60th anniversary. In Sept., 2008, Paul McCartney finally took the stage in Tel Aviv. That said, it was only McCartney, so it doesn't really count.
5. Economic Collapse
In 2006, when Shalit was taken hostage, the global economy was humming along, buoyed by a strong real estate market and easy credit. By 2008, the boom was over and a recession was sweeping the globe, shifting international power, both politically and economically, perhaps irrevocably toward the developing world. The United States was hit hard by the slump, as was Europe, both of which continue to be plagued by protests and government infighting. China, on the other hand, saw its economy boom, while other emerging economies, including Brazil and India, avoided the worst of the dip and recovered relatively quickly. Shalit doesn't need to worry too much, though: While Israel did feel some of the effects of the recession in 2009, its economy has more than bounced back as its technology sector continues to grow.
What other major milestones did Shalit miss over the last five years? Let us know in the comments.
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
South Sudan's independence celebrations tomorrow look set to bring leaders from the world over: 30 African heads of state, plus Ban ki-Moon and a number of other senior Western diplomats. The presence of so many global bigwigs is wonderful news for the world's youngest country, but it has already made arrangements for the event a little more complicated. The Washington Times reports:
Sudanese President Omar [al]-Bashir's decision to attend South Sudan's independence celebrations in Juba on Saturday has created potentially awkward situations for delegations from countries that have been pressing for his arrest on a war crimes indictment...
A senior Western official in Sudan, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said southern officials have assured the diplomatic corps in Juba they will do everything to avoid any embarrassments.
"The government is sensitive to these concerns and is going to do everything possible to make sure there are no embarrassments of any sort, on any side, on that day," the official said. "They are conscious that this might be awkward to Bashir as well."
A special seating arrangement has been worked out to minimize the possibility of blushing faces.
The International Criminal Court's March 2009 indictment alleged that Bashir was responsible for war crimes in the ongoing conflict in Darfur. Recent violence in border states Abyei and South Kordofan hasn't endeared him to the international community either. Bashir and rebel leaders pledged in late June to pull troops out of Abyei before the referendum, but Bashir's ambassador to Kenya reaffirmed yesterday the north's claim to the region. Bashir also backtracked yesterday on the June 29 peace accord between government officials and pro-southern rebels that promised to quell the fighting in South Kordofan.
Meanwhile, Jacob Zuma will be donning his superhero cape again on his visit to confront Bashir about recent violence in Sudan.
ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images
In 2008, Yu Keping, the head of China's Central Compilation and Translation Bureau and a professor at Peking University, published an attention-grabbing collection of essays called Democracy is a Good Thing. Coming from a Chinese Communist Party official said to be close to President Hu Jintao, Yu's bold assertion that "democracy is the best political system for humankind" was striking. But so was the fine print: Yu argued in the book that while "it is the inevitable trend for all nations of the world to move towards democracy ... the timing and speed of the development of democracy and the choice of the form and system of democracy are conditional." Among other things, he has resisted the idea that a multi-party political system would be appropriate for China. All of which is to say that Yu is something of a sphinx: As a New York Times profile observed last year, "Even China experts have a hard time determining whether Mr. Yu is a brave voice for change or simply a well-placed shill."
Which makes Yu -- who is in Washington this week -- a particularly interesting person to ask about the current moment in Chinese politics, in which the Communist Party is managing the transition from Hu to his presumed presidential successor, Vice President Xi Jinping, while watching the sudden explosion of anti-government, pro-democratic sentiment in the Arab world with palpable unease. The Chinese government began cracking down on human rights activists, artists, and writers in March, and barred another prominent writer from leaving the country this week.
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
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