Past FP contributor Dmitri Trenin has an interesting piece in the Moscow Times sketching out some of the early Russia challenges President Obama will face. While he urges Obama to make a more serious effort to engage Russia on issues of mutual concern, he doesn't see a close relationship between leaders of the two countries as being all that important:
President George W. Bush's jovial camaraderie with then-President Vladimir Putin simulated -- rather than stimulated -- the relationship between the United States and Russia. The promise of a strategic partnership in the wake of Sept. 11 was mindlessly neglected because at the time preparing for the invasion of Iraq became the sole focus of the Bush White House. [...]
You will not need to aim for a close working relationship with your Russian counterpart. All too often, these attempts are treated suspiciously by the public and not adequately supported by the bureaucracy. You would do wise, however, to appoint an informal "Russia tsar" to direct U.S. relations with Russia.
Aside from the unfortunate title "Russia tsar," I think this is good advice. While world leaders should probably be able to work together constructively, it doesn't actually seem all that advantageous when they become personally close.
Bush always seemed frustrated that Putin, who he got along great with personally, was such a thorn on his side politically. On the other side, the close relationship between Bush and Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili seems to have given both leaders unrealistic expectations about how the other would behave in the run-up to last summer's war.
When Jon Stewart pressed Tony Blair about his continued support for Bush on the Daily Show, the former prime minister somewhat meekly responded, "I like him." In hindsight, many Britons would probably prefer that Blair hadn't gotten along so swimmingly with his American pal.
When leaders think a personal bond can be the basis of a bilateral alliance, they tend to wind up disappointed. Harry Truman's first impression of his Soviet counterpart at Potsdam was, "I think I can do business with Stalin. He's very honest, but he's also smart as hell."
Obama doesn't need to be friends with Putin. They don't even have to like each other. What the citizens of both countries should be hoping for is that they're clear with each other about national interests, especially when these interests are competing. And as Trenin points out, dialogue at the head of state level is of limited usefulness if its not backed by cooperation in the bureaucracy.
To my eyes at least, Obama's basketball-playing regular Joe act has always seemed a bit forced and at odds with the pricklier personality in his early writing. That's not necessarily a bad thing. After eight years of gregarious Texas charm which never led to particularly effective diplomacy, a bit of cerebral Chicago cool might be a welcome change.
Photo: Artyom Korotayev/Epsilon/Getty Images
A table-tennis match on Jan. 7 in Beijing marked the 30-year anniversary of the establishment of normalized diplomatic relations between China and the United States on Jan. 1, 1979. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, center left, and China's Vice Foreign Minister Wang Guangya, center right, attended.
In April 1971, China invited the U.S. table-tennis team to visit in what Time magazine called "the ping heard round the world." One of the Americans was then 15-year-old Judy Bochenski Hoarfrost, right, who returned today to play veteran Chinese player Qi Baoxiang, left. The 1971 visit launched an era of "Ping-Pong diplomacy," and according to Time, "Probably never before in history has a sport been used so effectively as a tool of international diplomacy." Obviously, with the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it hasn't been the only time China has used sports to try to improve its image.
Having bid farewell to the Green Zone last week, U.S. forces today opened the brand new Baghdad embassy, which will house "1,200 employees, including diplomats, troops and staff from 14 federal agencies."
For a detailed look at America's new digs in Iraq, it's worth revisiting architectural historian Jane Loeffler's analysis of the structure from the September/October, 2007 issue of FP, written before it was constructed:
It will be six times larger than the U.N. complex in New York and more than 10 times the size of the new U.S. Embassy being built in Beijing, which at 10 acres is America’s second-largest mission. The Baghdad compound will be entirely self-sufficient, with no need to rely on the Iraqis for services of any kind. The embassy has its own electricity plant, fresh water and sewage treatment facilities, storage warehouses, and maintenance shops. The embassy is composed of more than 20 buildings, including six apartment complexes with 619 one-bedroom units. Two office blocks will accomodate about 1,000 employees. High-ranking diplomats will enjoy well-appointed private residences. Once inside the compound, Americans will have almost no reason to leave. It will have a shopping market, food court, movie theater, beauty salon, gymnasium, swimming pool, tennis courts, a school, and an American Club for social gatherings. To protect it all, the embassy is reportedly surrounded by a wall at least 9 feet high—and it has its own defense force.[...]
If architecture reflects the society that creates it, the new U.S. embassy in Baghdad makes a devastating comment about America’s global outlook. Although the U.S. government regularly proclaims confidence in Iraq’s democratic future, the United States has designed an embassy that conveys no confidence in Iraqis and little hope for their future. Instead, the United States has built a fortress capable of sustaining a massive, long-term presence in the face of continued violence.
Yeah, it's safe to say there's going to be a sizeable U.S. presence in Iraq for a while.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy is hitting all the Middle East power centers in a two-day tour of the region. First, he held talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at Sharm el-Sheikh. Then it's off to Ramallah to meet with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, before landing in Jerusalem in time for dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. On day two, Sarkozy jets off to Lebanon and Syria.
The French president has tasked himself with the modest goal of negotiating an immediate ceasefire to the carnage in Gaza. Even if he fails to score a diplomatic victory, his whirlwind tour will no doubt represent a triumph of travel booking.
Sarkozy's extremely personal brand of diplomacy has taken him to over 40 countries in the first year and a half of his Presidency. His hyperactive travel schedule has spawned a long list of diplomatic initiatives: he went to Damascus to meet with President Bashar al-Assad, and attempted to enlist the Syrian president in joining his Union of the Mediterranean. He traveled to Moscow and Tblisi during the Russian invasion of Georgia, attempting to arrange a ceasefire.
He visited Abu Dhabi to sign a deal establishing a French naval base in the emirate, making it the only Western power other than the United States to have a permanent military installation in the Gulf. He paired with Gordon Brown to launch an initiative aimed at ending the genocide in Darfur, caused a diplomatic row with its traditional ally Morocco by first visiting its regional rival Algeria, and enraged many Africans by highlighting the positive aspects of European colonialism during a speech in Senegal.
All this travel has caused France's 2009 travel and entertainment budget for Sarkozy to balloon 29% over the previous year, to $55 million. The French taxpayers are getting precious few diplomatic victories for their money, but many headlines. And that seems to suit them just fine. Sarkozy's trips have raised France's international profile, much to the pleasure of many French voters. Whether the people of Gaza will reap any of the benefits of Sarkozy's diplomacy, however, remains to be seen.
Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Peace talks opened in Nairobi today between the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the rebel group led by General Laurent Nkunda. There is one reason -- above the many other good ones -- that I am unfortunately a skeptic: the U.N.-appointed moderator, Olusegun Obasanjo.
At first glance, Obasanjo is a great pick. He's an African statesman who helped bring democracy to Nigeria after a history that included a brutal civil war, a string of military dictators (he was one of them), and years of economic decline. "Baba," his nickname meaning "Papa', aptly characterized his ruling style: a benevolent elected dictator who -- for the most part -- had control over an unwieldly country.
But then there are the details. Obasanjo managed those various parties through patronage -- granting monies here and there, favoritism or punishment to this and that. He was the master of holding peace summits with little goal other than the summit itself. Behind the scenes, the governors under his watch paid off militants, sometimes supported them, and skimmed oil wealth off the top. The status quo was stable only so far as everyone could be paid off. Today, without his personality to manage the situation, the delta is on the brink of exploding.
Then there are the elections. In Obasanjo's last days as president, he tried (unsuccesfully) to change the constitution so that he could run for a third term. In the neighborhood I used to live, rumor had it that truckloads of money were delivered to the homes of skeptical senators. When elections did take place, they were so massively rigged that the ruling party easily won.
So can Obasanjo bring the two sides together in the DR Congo? I sure hope so. Perhaps his wiley personality can do just that. I just hope his example isn't the one they follow.
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
A hoax telephone call almost sparked another war between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan at the height of last month's terror attacks on Mumbai, officials and Western diplomats on both sides of the border said today.
Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani President, took a telephone call from a man pretending to be Pranab Mukherjee, India's Foreign Minister, on Friday, November 28, apparently without following the usual verification procedures, they said.
The hoax caller threatened to take military action against Pakistan in response to the then ongoing Mumbai attacks, which India has since blamed on the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), they said.
Mr Zardari responded by placing Pakistan's air force on high alert and telephoning Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, to ask her to intervene.
But when Dr Rice called Mr Mukherjee, he said that he had not spoken to Mr Zardari and that his last conversation with Shah Mahmood Qureishi, the Pakistani Foreign Minister, had been quite civil.
"It's unbelievable, but true," said a Western diplomat familiar with the frantic diplomatic exchanges that eventually resolved the misunderstanding.
"It was a little alarming, to say the least."
UPDATE: Sherry Rehman, the Pakistani information minister, says the call was "processed, verified and cross-checked under an established procedure":
Without naming [leading Pakistani newspaper] Dawn, which carried the story in its edition of Dec 6 titled ‘A hoax call that could have triggered war’, a statement quoted the federal minister as having said, while commenting on reports in a section of the press, that it was not possible for any call to come through to the president without multiple caller identity verifications.
The Nov 28 call by someone from New Delhi who posed himself as Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, she insisted, had also been processed, verified and cross-checked in accordance with an intricately laid down procedure.
“In fact the identity of this particular call, as evident from the caller line identification device, showed that the call was placed from a verified official phone number of the Indian ministry of external affairs”, Ms Rehman said.
There seems to be a consensus in Washington about the United States' need to engage in talks with Iran. But how and when? Peter Baker reports on the debate brewing over this latter question:
Two leading research groups plan to issue a report Tuesday calling on him to move quickly to open direct diplomatic talks with Iran without preconditions.
The report by the groups, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations, urges Mr. Obama to put all issues on the table with Iran, including its nuclear program. The proposal calls for "swift early steps" to exploit a "honeymoon" period between his inauguration and the internal political jockeying preceding Iran's presidential elections in June.
The report breaks with experts on Iran who say Mr. Obama should wait until a clear winner emerges in Iran and calls instead for "treating the Iranian state as a unitary actor rather than endeavoring to play its contending factions against one another." The report also calls on him to back Israeli peace talks with Syria.
Karim Sadjadpour, a prominent Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has been arguing that the United States should "refrain from any grand overtures to Tehran" until after the Iranian elections. Sadjadpour worries that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the current president, would otherwise be able to say that his hardline policies brought the Great Satan to its knees.
The trick, then, is to show enough leg that you help bring a more responsible government to power in Tehran, but not so much that the United States looks weak. A delicate task, no doubt.
UPDATE: The report is here.
It's amazing how quickly India appears to be falling into the terrorists' trap.
It seems obvious that Pakistan's civilian government, led by President Asif Ali Zardari, has no interest in stirring up trouble between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. And it seems equally obvious that any elements of the ISI, Pakistan's notorious intelligence service, who might have been in some way involved in the attacks in Mumbai would have done so in order to undermine rapprochement between Islamabad and New Delhi.
As for Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Kashmir-focused militant group has made clear that it aims to provoke conflict between India and Pakistan and stir up a pro-Islamist backlash among Muslims in India.
Yet one can already see public anger in India leading political developments in a direction the terrorists wanted. Some Indian politicians have been less than careful in saying the terrorists were sent by Pakistan, the state, rather than that they came from Pakistan, the country (which hasn't even been confirmed yet, anyway). India is considering halting talks over Kashmir and ending the five-year cease-fire along the Line of Control. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has vowed to "go after" those responsible for the attacks, which could box him into the dangerous step of taking action against Lashkar-e-Taiba within Pakistan-held territory.
Meanwhile, Pakistan's hackles are up, its military leaders raising the alert levels of their forces and threatening to divert troops from the Afghan border to the eastern border with India. Zardari's about-face on sending ISI chief Ahmad Shuja Pasha to New Delhi is clearly a response to domestic pressure after Indian newspapers said Pasha was being "summoned." Similarly, the more vocally India calls on Zardari and Army Chief of Staff Ashfaq Kayani to crack down on militancy, the tougher politically it will be for them to do so lest they be seen as doing New Delhi's bidding.
In India, the same sort of perverse dynamics are at work. Already, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is making political hay out of the terror in Mumbai. The party has been running newspaper ads saying, "Fight Terror. Vote B.J.P." Instead of rallying behind Singh's government, the BJP has instead called for its resignation and accused Singh of being soft on terror. These tactics may well backfire, but based on the BJP's history of populist, anti-Muslim rhetoric, we should be concerned about its return to power.
Cranking up the pressure on Pakistan may fit the public mood in India -- and it may be smart politics for Singh and his ruling Congress Party -- but it is folly as policy.
Who benefits in Pakistan when tensions with India rise? Precisely the anti-democratic hardliners in the military and intelligence services, and the Islamic hardliners who are their sometime allies, that India should want to see marginalized. As one South Asia analyst told Reuters, "The forces that are threatening the West, the forces that are threatening the civilian democracy in Pakistan and the forces who are acting against India are all interlinked to each other."
We should pray that Singh has the wisdom and the political acumen to navigate this minefield more skillfully than he has thus far.
The Bush administration once planned to announce the opening of an interests section in Tehran this month. That won't happen now, and the story illustrates the broken connection that is the U.S.-Iranian relationship.
An announcement set for September was delayed because of the Russian invasion of Georgia. But the proposal was back on track until a few weeks ago, when the administration became concerned about Iranian interference in negotiations with Iraq over a status-of-forces agreement. It seemed the wrong time for an opening to Tehran that Sunni Arab allies warned would be seen as a concession.
So now the issue of U.S.-Iranian relations will be handed over to the Obama administration. "We ran out of time," says one administration official. It's the most frustrating and dangerous bit of unfinished business the new administration will inherit.
In a Politico piece on the formulation of Barack Obama's Russia strategy, Ben Smith brings up an episode from Campaign '08 that could make things awkward his presumptive secretary of state:
But he's also surrounded himself with people who consider themselves realists on the dangers posed by Russia's leadership, and he chose as his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who attacked Putin personally on the campaign trail, saying at one point that then-President Vladimir Putin "doesn't have a soul." (He shot back with the suggestion that she lacks a brain.)
I'm sure Clinton and Putin are more than capable of being civil when they inevitably meet. But given how often Clinton is described as a "realist," she certainly has a record of making bombastic statements about the foreign countries that Obama most wants to engage. For instance, if Obama is successful in initiating negotiations with Iran, Clinton will likely be speaking with representatives of a country that she onced mused the U.S. could "totally obliterate" any time it wanted.
Obama and Clinton have shown they're willing to put the bitter Democratic primary behind them. Will the rest of the world?
In what is being billed as an "historic" agreement, Chinese and Taiwanese officials concluded a pact today that increases the number of cross-strait airline flights and establishes new trade and postal links. The goal is to eliminate the hassle of making travelers stop in Hong Kong on their way between the mainland and Taiwan and to ease similar restrictions on cargo and mail. To be sure, the lead-up to today's deal was a gradual process. Direct charter flights first took off in 2005 and regularly scheduled direct flights began in July of this year.
What all this means for Taiwanese sovereignty, though, is unclear. Does breaking down barriers between Taiwan and the Mainland increase Taiwan's stature as a sovereign state? Or does it expose itself to greater control from Beijing should the Communist Party leaders ever decide to use new economic ties as leverage? Some half a million protesters took to the streets of Taipei a week and a half ago, fearful that Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou's engagement policies could lead the small island state right into Beijing's hands.
This is a relationship built on ambiguity though. So long as Taiwanese politicians aren't beating the drum for independence and economic ties continue to strengthen, it is hard to imagine what kind of catalyst could induce Beijing to demand immediate reunification. Taiwan's independence would be a humiliating defeat for Beijing, but forcing its hand on reunification would spark a major, and needless, international incident. Thus, a continuation of Taiwan's muddled identity with ever closer economic ties to the mainland seems to be viable indefinitely.
Photo: SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images
It makes sense that the British government would want to smooth over relations with Russia by sending a cabinet minister to visit Moscow, the first such visit in over a year. But couldn't the Brits have sent someone -- anyone -- other than Business Secretary Peter Mandelson, who is currently at the center of a scandal over his relationship with a Russian oligarch?
Mandelson's friendly overtures to the Kremlin have been entirely overshadowed by questions from the British press. At issue is whether favors from metals magnate Oleg Deripaska played a role in Mandelson's decision to reduce aluminum tariffs while he was EU trade commissioner, a decision that greatly benefited Russia's richest man. Months after the change, Deripaska entertained Mandelson and other VIPs on his yacht in the Mediterranean.
Mandelson angrily brushed aside a question about the scandal during a press conference Wednesday, telling the reporter, "You have wasted your question." Mandelson has been cleared by the British government of any wrongdoing, but during a BBC interview, also yesterday, he noticeably failed to deny that he and Deripaska had discussed lowering the tariffs prior to the decision being made.
The tabloids have been having a field day with the $9,000-a-night hotel suite where Lord Mandelson is staying during his Moscow visit, a questionable PR move during an economic crisis. The Daily Mail proclaimed the room, "Fit for an Oligarch." It also can't help Mandelson that Deripaska is back in the headlines for the $4.5 billion bailout he received from the Russian government this week.
The Brits might want a do-over on this one.
Photo: Alexey SAZONOV/AFP/Getty Images
Joe Biden's advice to Americans to "gird your loins" because Barack Obama is going to face "an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy" is being treated as yet another gaffe by the lead-tongued Delaware senator.
But is he right? I mean, if I were a "bad guy" leader like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad whose reelection bid is looking shaky, I might try to gin up some sort of situation to embarrass the new American president.
On the other hand, I might try to ingratiate myself by making some kind of overture. The North Koreans, for instance, might be holding back on a diplomatic breakthrough until George W. Bush is out of office, thinking a President Obama will give them a better deal.
Readers, what do you think?
UPDATE: McCain weighs in.
Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman's "well-placed sources" are telling him that Barack Obama might be thinking of an outside the box pick for ambassador to London... Oprah Winfrey.
Rachman acknowledges the idea sounds ridiculous, but there is a tradition of major campaign donors being rewarded with ambassadorships. I have to say, though, this would probably be a worse career move for Oprah than for Obama. If the world's most-powerful celebrity really wants to get involved in international diplomacy, there are probably more effective and enjoyable ways she can go about it on her own.
Rachman is one of the 10 foreign-policy experts FP enlisted to choose a "dream team" for the next U.S. president's cabinet. While all of the experts gave well-reasoned and thought-provoking choices, he seemed to have the most fun with the concept. Check out his pick for ambassador to Russia.
Think you can put together a better team than these out-of-touch political elites? Go for it. There's a write-in space, so feel free to nominate Oprah for any cabinet position you'd like.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued a decree on Tuesday that will pave
the way for full diplomatic relations between
But rather than a sign of their success, some Lebanese
commentators view the planned Syrian embassy as a threat. A Syrian embassy “would
be an axis point for Syria’s allies in the country, a very useful means of
allowing the Assad regime to exert its political influence in Beirut on a
day-to-day basis in a way it cannot do so today,” writes
Michael Young in Beirut’s Daily Star. While
diplomatic recognition is a step in the right direction, it still does not mean
At last Wednesday's United Nations Association 50th anniversary gala, rapper Jay-Z was honored for his work with the project Water for Life. Getting a bit too into the spirit, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon delivered a rap, which includes shout-outs to his homies Jay-Z, Ted Turner and Bill Luers, president of the United Nations Association of the United States of America. UN Dispatch's Mark Leon Goldberg passes along video and lyrics:
Global Classrooms are a cinch
With the help of Merrill Lynch
When you put the org in Google
Partnerships go truly gloooobal
There is hope for Earth's salvation
With the Cisneros Foundation
With Jay-Z there's double strife
Life for children and water for life
Human health will get ahead
With the valiant work of (RED)
For the poor and doing good
Stays the job of Robin Hood
UN stays on the front burner
Thanks to our champ Ted Turner
And whole revolutions stem
From the work of UNIFEM
But tonight my special shout-out
Goes to one I can't do without
We have traveled up and down
Frisco, Atlanta, Chicago town
Yes, the king of all the doers
Is my trusty friend Bill Luers
Bill, I cannot say goodbye
So take the floor and take a bow.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Ambassador Bill Luers"
Okay, so he's no Biggie. I'll take him over MC Rove any day, though.
Britain's outspoken ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, has gotten himself into some hot water over comments made in a meeting with France's Amb. François Fitou. A memo about the meeting from Fitou to President Nicolas Sarkozy has been leaked to the press:
According to Mr Fitou, Sir Sherard told him on September 2 that the Nato-led military operation was making things worse. "The foreign forces are ensuring the survival of a regime which would collapse without them ... They are slowing down and complicating an eventual exit from the crisis, which will probably be dramatic," the Ambassador was quoted as saying.
Britain had no alternative to supporting the United States in Afghanistan, "but we should tell them that we want to be part of a winning strategy, not a losing one," he was quoted as saying. "In the short term we should dissuade the American presidential candidates from getting more bogged down in Afghanistan ... The American strategy is doomed to fail."
Cowper-Coles went on to state that an "acceptable dictator" was probably the best that the world could hope for in Afghanistan.
The Foreign Office denies that the memo is accurate, though Sir Sherard does have something of a reputation for going off his talking points. For a while, he was also maintaining one of the Internet's best diplo-blogs. I interviewed Cowper-Coles about the blog for FP's Seven Questions a year ago. The ambassador sounded quite a bit more optimistic about the coalition's progress and the Karzai government during that conversation.
If Cowper-Coles did make the comments, I certainly understand why his bosses in the FO might be ticked off. But as others have noted, his tendency to say things that others might not want to hear is both refreshing and needed when Western politicians have pretended for far too long that it was possible to just muddle through in Afghanistan.
I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was getting awfully tired of reading about Russia's strongly worded but vague "warnings" to its neighbors. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski agrees, and expressed his displeasure yesterday in the politest way imaginable:
"Of course we don't like it when the Russian president or Russian generals threaten us with nuclear annihilation. It is not a friendly thing to do, and we have asked them to do it no more than once a month."
Who could say no to that?
“I am honored to meet you,” Ms. Palin said.
“You are even more gorgeous than you are on the (inaudible),” Mr. Zardari said.
“You are so nice,” Ms. Palin replied. “Thank you.”
“Now I know why the whole of America is crazy about you,” Mr. Zardari continued. At which point an aide told the two to shake hands.
“I’m supposed to pose again,” Ms. Palin said.
“If he’s insisting,” Mr. Zardari said, “I might hug.”
Yes, Zardari's a sketchball, but unfortunately, I have a feeling that Palin would face a lot of this sort of thing if she became vice president. Palin had exactly zero international recognition until this month so as long as she is being so closely guarded by the McCain campaign, a lot of world leaders aren't going to know much about her besides how she looks and the less tactful ones are going to let her know it.
Haaretz reports that Israel's ambassador to Egypt, Shalom Cohen, has had his term extended for three months because no one else wants to take his job:
[Foreign Minister Tzipi] Livni had hoped to replace Cohen with another prominent senior diplomat, or barring that, a well-known public figure or politician. She had also hoped the selection process would send a message to Egypt that its relationship with Israel was a priority for Jerusalem.
However, she soon discovered that eligible candidates were hardly jumping at the vacancy. She and Abramovitz offered the position to four of the ministry's deputy directors general, and all four turned it down.
The problem is that most of Israel's communication with Egypt is handled through the defense ministry or the prime minister's office, so the ambassador is little more than a symbolic representative in a country where, despite 30 years of peace, Israel still isn't all that popular with the general public. It's not that hard to understand why prominent Israeli diplomats aren't jumping at the opportunity.
It will be interesting to see if the foreign ministry will take a more prominent role if Livni succeeds in becoming prime minister.
I somehow missed this story about how Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov allegedly swore a blue streak in a recent phone conversation with David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, on the subject of South Ossetia.
According to the Telegraph, Lavrov berated his boyish British counterpart, asking at one point, "Who are you to f------ lecture me?" The Daily Mail has it as "Who the f--- are you to lecture me?" and quotes a Whitehall source saying, "It was effing this and effing that. It was not what you would call diplomatic language. It was rather shocking."
The Russian foreign minister vehemently denied the report and said he was quoting a European diplomat referring to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, according to Kommersant:
'F------ lunatic' were the words that Lavrov quoted in an attempt to convince his British counterpart that it had been Saakashvili that had started the war for South Ossetia.
Lavrov promised that a transcript of the conversation would be posted on the ministry's Web site, but it has yet to materialize.
The one-year anniversary of the Annapolis Conference is fast approaching and the forecast for peace between Israel and Palestine is looking cloudy at best.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's quick retreat from the scene (he announced he would resign this month to deal with corruption charges) has stalled movement. And Palestinian President Authority Mahmoud Abbas told Ha'aretz that he is not happy with the lack of progress.
Further complicating matters, Abbas's presidential term is up on Jan. 9, leaving the two-state solution table without its key players. The Palestinian media reported that Abbas plans to dissolve the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), set up temporary government, and extend his term by a year.
But Hamas has already said that it will not accept his leadership after Jan. 9. Without elections, under Palestinian law Abbas would be succeeded by either the speaker or the deputy speaker of the PLC. Both men, conveniently enough, are members of Hamas.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may be waxing optimistic that Annapolis's goals will be met in the coming months, but hearing that the IDF is already training units in the West Bank to prepare for the fallout in Abbas's absence, I'm thinking things are going to get worse before they get better. Memo to the next U.S. president: Don't wait until your seventh year in office to get things moving.
While everyone has been dissecting whether Obama called Palin a pig, or whether Palin insulted Obama's community organizing, we've missed some rather massive mud-flinging in the United States' backyard.
Last night, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez told the United States to "Go to hell a hundred times." In front of an applauding crowd, he yelled "We have had enough of so much s**t from you, s**t Yankees!" as he expelled the U.S. ambassador, giving him just 72 hours to leave. Watch him here:
I know: Chávez has always been something of a loose cannon (he enjoys calling President George W. Bush a donkey, the devil, and other colorful names). But to think this is nothing more than his usual Yankee-bashing would be a mistake. Minor crisis would be a better interpretation.
The Venezuelan strongman's outburst comes after his neighbor and left-wing soulmate Evo Morales expelled the U.S. ambassador earlier this week, accusing him of backing conservative opposition movements now protesting in the streets. The United States in turn kicked out Bolivia's ambassador.
Bolivia is in far more trouble than just having a few picketers on the street. Morales has proposed drastic energy and government reforms, to be voted upon in December, that would consolidate his power and allow him to redistribute agricultural land. Protesters, demanding a greater autonomy from the government in the natural gas industry, have shut down much of the country and dozens have been killed in street fighting. Perhaps emboldened by joint exercises with Russia, Chávez promised to militarily intervene if his buddy Morales is lifted from power.
But the U.S. government is in no mood for such funny business. Not only has the State Department sent the Venezuelan ambassador packing, but the Treasury Department today called out Venezuelan officials for helping the cocaine-trafficking rebel group FARC in neighboring Colombia.
"Today's designation exposes two senior Venezuelan government officials and one former official who armed, abetted, and funded the FARC, even as it terrorized and kidnapped innocents," said Adam J. Szubin, director of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, in a toughly worded press release. Interpol accusations that Venezuela -- and even Chávez himself -- aided the FARC first surfaced this summer after Colombia got its hands on a FARC laptop, but this is the first time the U.S. government has formally charged any Venezuelan officials.
No doubt Chávez has a response up his sleeve.
Anticipating round five in a series of peace talks with Israel, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad announced that his country submitted a six-point proposal to Turkish mediators during a summit in Damascus today, which brought together leaders of France and key Middle East peace brokers, Qatar and Turkey.
As Syria and Israel gear up for their first face-to-face meeting since 2000, conditions appear to be warming. When Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Assad joined President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris in July, their meeting was chilly -- no hand shake or even eye contact was exchanged.
Yet Sarko was clearly undeterred. His visit this week makes him the first Western leader to come to Syria since the country was blamed for the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri.
While Turkish facilitators are "very happy" with previous talks, potential obstacles loom. Olmert's July resignation leaves Israel without its chief negotiator and as a result this fifth round, initially set for this week, has been postponed to later in the month.
Assad, who already wants to wait for a new U.S. administration before elevating talks to the next level, made it clear today that real progress also banks on whether or not Israel's new prime minister will, as he put it, move in the same "direction Olmert had followed."
The general proposal Syria offered today concerns the "withdrawal line" and the degree to which Israel would withdraw from the Golan Heights. It's a touchy subject -- the same point collapsed negotiations in 2000.
While Olmert's office has yet to comment, some, like Israeli writer Ari Shavit, are calling for leaders to work fast while the iron is hot:
But if there is any step that could at present become a trend in the entire region, it is an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement. Such a treaty would bring about a positive strategic change: It would isolate Hezbollah, cause difficulties for Hamas, threaten Iran and provide support for the concerned moderate forces in the Sunni Arab world."
It's a smart move. Let's hope the peace train, however, keeps moving.
It's been a busy couple of days for Muammar el-Qaddafi. In addition to embracing capitalism and accepting an apology from Italy, the Libyan leader will host Condoleezza Rice later this week. It's the first visit by an American secretary of state to Libya since 1953:
"It is a historic stop," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. "It certainly does mark a new chapter in U.S.-Libya relations."
McCormack said the decision to visit Libya was also "tangible evidence" the United States did not harbor permanent enemies and served as an example to nations such as Iran, which has refused to give up its sensitive nuclear work that the West believes is aimed at building a nuclear bomb.
Libya's transformation from a corrupt, authoritarian sponsor-of-terror into a corrupt, authoritarian non-sponsor-of-terror is just one of accomplishments that David Frum attributes to the Bush administration in his FP cover story on Bush's legacy.
Qaddafi is known for having what some might call a unique style when it comes to diplomacy so this meeting should be interesting to watch.
Dmitry Medvedev may have hoped the Shanghai Cooperation Organization would evolve from a loose security bloc into an anti-NATO counterweight, but so far things don't look like they're going in the Russian president's favor.
On Thursday, Medvedev asked the group, which also includes China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, to back Russia's response to Georgian "aggression." Instead, while the group welcomed "Russia's active role in contributing to peace and co-operation in the region," it condemned the use of force and reaffirmed its support for the sovereignty of the countries involved:
The SCO states express grave concern in connection with the recent tensions around the South Ossetian issue and urge the sides to solve existing problems peacefully, through dialogue, and to make efforts facilitating reconciliation and talks," their statement said.
That China and the others spoke of respecting territorial integrity should come as no surprise. From its relations with Sudan abroad to its concerns with seperatists in Tibet and Xinjiang at home, China has long expressed a policy of non-intervention.
Russia, too, was often a strong opponent of Western interventions -- in Iraq and Kosovo, among others -- which makes its military action in Georgia all the more galling. Its Asian allies, though, haven't jumped on board. That, at the very least, should be a comforting sign for the West amid cries of a new Cold War.
For more on how Russia's recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia may backfire, check out FP's interview with regional expert and CIA veteran Paul Goble.
It seems increasingly clear that Russian troops are not, in fact, pulling all the way out of Georgia:
Russian units said they had orders only to fall back as far as South Ossetia and some platoons were still dug in near roads outside Gori, while Russian troops bearing new peacekeeping badges dominated the main east-west highway, a key trading artery. A senior Russian official said Russian military checkpoints ringing South Ossetia would be permanent.
Moreover, it seems the Russian high command hasn't put much thought into the whole public diplomacy thing. Here are two more shots of Russian peacekeepers flipping Getty photographer Uriel Sinai the bird:
Last month, I blogged about the roundball diplomacy during the NBA's summer league in Utah, where Iran's national team was invited to participate as part of its preparations for the Olympics. The gesture was, by most accounts, a success, even though the squad subsequently went winless in Beijing.
Along the way, Iranian center Hamed Ehadadi piqued the interest of NBA scouts. The 7-2 Ehadadi averaged 16 points and 10 rebounds during the Olympics, capping the games with a 21-point, 16-rebound performance against a strong Argentina team, which faces the United States in the semifinals tomorrow.
Of course, as with all things Iran, there was a catch: The NBA informed its teams last week that it had "been advised that a federal statue prohibits a person or organization in the United States from engaging in business dealings with Iranian nationals." Ehadadi's NBA dreams had been dashed -- and it seemed like another missed opportunity for more roundball diplomacy.
Not so fast, however. The U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control has now offered its stamp of approval, and NBA teams are free to sign Ehadadi, pending final approval from the league and OFAC. Ehadadi expects to sign with the Memphis Grizzlies:
I will undoubtedly join Memphis Grizzlies by the end of next week. I met Memphis' officials yesterday to discuss joining the team… I received many offers from European teams but just playing in the NBA is my dream. Hopefully, I can join Memphis as soon as possible without any problem.
Ehadadi may not turn out to be a star in the NBA, but chalk up another victory for roundball diplomacy. David Stern is far from a perfect commissioner, but his emphasis on making basketball a global game appears to be paying off. Even if, in some cases, it works too well.
Earlier this month, the International Criminal Court charged Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir with genocide for atrocities committed in the ongoing Darfur conflict. Proclaiming his innocence, Bashir responded in the way that any peace-loving leader concerned over his citizens would -- by threatening to murder even more people.
The ICC's announcement was by no means binding. The United Nations Security Council has split over a proposal by Libya and South Africa to prevent Bashir's indictment. The United States, Britain and France appeared to be quite skeptical of this plan, but South Africa has argued that prosecuting Bashir would jeopardize African Union efforts at peacekeeping in the region. South African President Thabo Mbeki explained that the peace process "require[s] very serious input by Bashir" and said "it doesn't help at this time to be considering these indictments."
The only thing less surprising than South Africa's president trying to give a free ride to someone who has committed war crimes against his own people is that they're joined on this mission by the humanitarians in Beijing. China's envoy to Sudan warned last week that the ICC's steps and Bashir's indictment could imperil the peace process in Darfur.
This logic actually makes sense. Bashir, China, and passive African leaders have been instrumental in the implementation of Darfur's genocide, so it follows that they play an active role in solving it, and it's even more important that they avoid repercussions for their actions.
When Nicolas Sarkozy appointed Medecins-Sans-Frontieres founder and lefty human rights activist Bernard Kouchner as his foreign minister, it seemed to many like an odd fit. But the Times' Charles Bremmer's report from an afternoon spent with the minister at the Quai d'Orsay makes it clear what the two men share: hyperactivity bordering on attention deficit disorder and a massively inflated sense of their own importance:
Ever passionate in his speech, Kouchner says working for Sarko is "exaltant" -- thrilling -- and fulfilling even if he does not always agree with him. He believes that he and Sarko have revolutionized French diplomacy. Gesturing across the lawn at the grand ministry, he said: "We have broken with the immobilisme -- the passivity -- of the past. We have imposed deep change on the state of mind of this great house... The era of diplomacy without policy is over."
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