Archive for April, 2008


Negotiations and Carter’s Middle East Trip

April 14, 2008

By Mark C. Partridge

14 April 2008: Former President Jimmy Carter will be traveling in the Middle East and is expected to meet with leaders of Hamas this week-a move that has elicited strong reactions from parties in the U.S.

Politicians in Washington and on the campaign trail were quick to distance themselves from the trip. On the Democratic side, both the Clinton and Obama camps said they disagreed with the former president’s decision to meet with Hamas, while a spokesman for Senator John McCain called the 

move “a serious and dangerous mistake.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also voiced her concern about the trip: “I find it hard to understand what is going to be gained by having discussions with Hamas about peace when Hamas is, in fact, the impediment to peace.” Former Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, a strong supporter of the Jewish state, chimed in saying the move demonstrated “a lack of judgment typical of what [President Carter] does.”

Mr. Carter’s views on Israel have been criticized in the past. Last year, pro-Israel groups lambasted his book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, for what they saw as anti-Semitism.

Hamas, which won the Palestinian elections in 2006, has been designated a terrorist organization by the west for its avowed resistance to Israel’s existence, and isolated by the Bush Administration in favor for the more moderate Fatah movement and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas, which controls the Gaza strip, continues to launch rocket attacks against Israeli cities, such as Sderot, and there is evidence that it is building up its arsenal in case of a war with Israel.

Mr. Carter, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, defended his decision to meet with the group-including its exiled leader Khaled Meshaal-in Syria, pointing out that he has held previous meetings with Hamas and that he is not going in any official capacity on behalf of the U.S. government. The former president told ABC News:

“It’s very important that at least someone meet with the Hamas leaders to express their views, to ascertain what flexibility they have, to try to induce them to stop all attacks against innocent civilians in Israel and to cooperate with the Fatah as a group that unites the Palestinians.”

Furthermore, he stated that “if Israel is ever going to find peace with justice concerning the relationship with their next-door neighbors, the Palestinians, that Hamas will have to be included in the process.”

This episode raises a number of interesting questions, the foremost of which is whether to speak to one’s enemies. The U.S. has a track-record of cutting its diplomatic ties with a country or an adversary as the ultimate rebuke. Iran, as I have discussed before, is a case and point. However, what constructive gains are made by this move? On the one hand, the message is clear: We find your motives and actions to be wrong. But can the U.S. say the diplomatic isolation against Tehran or others has yielded results? I would venture to say no. (Importantly, that is not to say that gains do not come from other forms of isolation, including economic sanctions.)

The issue of talking to Hamas is a more complex one though as neither the U.S. nor Israel recognizes the group as the official government of the Palestinian people. Therefore, it is not an issue of speaking with or establishing relations with a foreign government. By speaking to Hamas, the U.S. and Israel would also be undermining Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas, whom they have been supporting thus far. Even so, there are a growing number who believe that talking to Hamas would be beneficial, including a former head of the Mossad.

The other major issue is the importance of maintaining a consistent policy towards adversaries. If the decision has been made to hold a government in isolation, it is essential that as many nations and groups as possible also pursue this policy. Here, the old adage holds: A united front is only as good as its weakest link. The crisis in Darfur illustrates this truism better than anything else; no matter how hard the West presses, China’s oil purchases relieve any pressure on the Sudanese government.

In the case of Hamas, the Palestinian group has been able to turn to Iran and Syria for support, arms and funds. Simply ignoring a group or enemy not only does not produce positive results, but actually offers one’s adversaries opportunities to advance their own ambitions.

Would talks between the West/Israel and Hamas end this relationship? It’s difficult to say, but there is no doubt that the calculus of the Middle East would change.

So what do you think loyal readers? Should the West hold talks with Hamas, and other declared enemies? Is President Carter overstepping his bounds by speaking to a group his government does not recognize? And interestingly, if isolating a government is counterproductive, what tools are there to punish and weaken one’s adversaries?

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Arab Summit 2008: Arab States Snub Syria and Resolve Nothing

April 8, 2008

By Michael Kofman

8 April 2008: The end of March saw another annual summit of the Arab League, which concluded with a failure to resolve any of the serious issues on the agenda, but was successful in making clear the already visible political divisions in the Middle East.  Although normally a highly politicized event, this year’s summit transpired with attendance itself being a political play by several Arab countries intending to embarrass the host, Syria, and send a message regarding who they blame for the continuing deadlock in Lebanon. Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia did not send high level delegations and Lebanon chose not to attend at all in protest of what it claims to be Syrian interference in its domestic political situation. 

Only eleven heads of state were present for an event that largely revolved around the current situation in Lebanon and the country’s failure to elect a President since November 2007, or select a cabinet, due to the deadlock between the current government and the opposition. Syria, viewed as the chief supporter of the opposition led by Hezbollah, is widely blamed by the pro-Western Arab countries for this ongoing state of affairs.

The Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, Saud al-Faisal, suggested that Syria has not abided by the Arab consensus on the issue and is preventing a resolution in Lebanon. President al-Assad opened the summit by denying Syria’s involvement in Lebanon and stating that Syria is “fully prepared to cooperate with Arab and non-Arab efforts… on the condition that they are based on Lebanese national consensus, the basis for stability in Lebanon.”  Syrian officials also laid blame on the U.S. for attempting to prevent the summit from occurring altogether by encouraging Arab leaders not to attend to embarrass Syria as the host of the summit.

The voiced division among Arab states originates from the January summit of Arab foreign ministers where the consensus plan for Lebanon called for the election of the army chief, Michel Suleiman, as president and a unity cabinet. Syria has accepted this compromise in principle, as have the major stakeholders in Lebanon. However, the current pro-West government in Beirut and the opposition took differing interpretations of whether this plan allowed the opposition a veto over cabinet decisions-no political progress has been made since this breakdown. 

The broader argument over Lebanon originates from the long ongoing proxy war between two political camps in the Middle East with Syria, Iran on one side (supporting Hezbollah and Hamas) and the pro-Western Arab states on the other (Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia). The summit showed that American influence in the region, along with its clear opposition to the current regimes in Iran and Syria, continues to loom over Arab affairs.

Although Lebanon was the largest issue in question, the summit did not conclude without addressing several other concerns, where traditional bickering quickly ensued. Iraq was opposed to the original summit declaration because it did not properly recognize Iraq’s efforts towards national reconciliation while also failing to condemn terrorists and insurgents to the extent desired by the Iraqi government. Iran blistered at the overall summit support behind UAE’s territorial claim on three small islands, long in dispute between the two countries. Perhaps the one visible point of agreement was the situation in Palestine, although here too, the debate resulted in a watered down statement warning Israel regarding its continued policy towards Palestinians and threatening to review the previous 2002 offer of “land for peace” issued by the Arab League. This declaration did not note that the long standing offer was never seriously accepted by any Israeli government since 2002, as it would mean complete withdrawal of control and settlements to the 1967 line.

The summit concluded in a final declaration, which was simultaneously a consensus document, resulting from the input of each Arab delegation, and inherently compromised to the dissatisfaction of all involved. States from both sides of the political divide left without achieving significant progress on any of the issues, which is not an uncommon result for an event that is widely viewed as political theater for Arab leaders rather than a serious forum for resolving differences. 

Despite shortcomings, the summit continues to have practical value as a barometer of the political state of the Middle East and where the various leaders’ interests lie. This year’s gathering was no different and it proceeded in surprisingly cordial manner compared to previous occurrences, punctuated with humor and debate. Perhaps most summative of the feeling was a comment from Moammar Gadhafi, as quoted by The Washington Post during a debate on the proposed joint Arab nuclear program: “How can we do that?” he said, “We hate each other.”


U.S.-Russia Relations

April 7, 2008

By Mark C. Partridge

7 April 2008: Following the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Bucharest, Romania, President George W. Bush spent the weekend in Sochi, Russia, at the summer house of Russia’s outgoing president, Vladimir Putin. This meeting is one of the last tête-à-têtes between the two leaders with Mr. Putin stepping aside for his protégé and president-elect Dmitry Medvedev in May. Mr. Bush’s administration comes to an end in less than a year.

The encounter highlights how much relations between the leaders have changed since the two came to office at the turn of the millennium-particularly when looking at Eastern Europe.

The organization and alignment of Eastern Europe was one of the defining characteristics of the twentieth century. Eastern European countries struggled with the problems posed by sitting at Europe’s edge-with Russia to their east and Europe to the west. The tug-of-war by their larger neighbors has left its mark on the region, which was embroiled in wars for German living space and later slipped behind the Iron Curtain. During the cold war these countries, whether by choice and/or by diktat, very much followed the beat of Moscow’s drum.

Yet, following the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the centripetal forces of western integration increasingly gained traction with the European Union (EU) expanding to include former-Bloc countries like the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, and Poland in 2004. Bulgaria and Romania became full members of the alliance in 2007. NATO also made inroads with the inclusion of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. From the Kremlin’s perch, it appeared that the West was not only ignoring Russia on important issues like NATO’s air strikes against Serbia, but was encroaching on Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. However, given the country’s fragile economic state, Moscow could offer little resistance.

Then oil prices began to climb. Russia’s economy went from being in debt to posting massive surpluses. The Kremlin began to centralize economic power in the hands of a few monopolies-the most important of which is Gazprom, the natural gas giant-and pushing out foreign companies that stood in the way. As analysts have pointed out, Mr. Putin was the chief architect of Russia’s revival and placed particular importance of energy resources.

Now it is Russia that is in the ascendancy and the old Bear is assertively pressing back against the West’s advances-most notably in Eastern Europe. Gazprom has signed pipeline agreements with a number of Eastern European states in an effort to undermine the EU’s plan to diversify its energy portfolio; Russia currently supplies 40% of the EU’s natural gas. Moscow has also used its “energy whip” to put the squeezed on Ukraine and Belarus to ensure that they heel to the Kremlin’s demands.

The Kremlin still sees the alliance, which was created to counter Soviet influence, as one of its primary antagonists. At the NATO summit last week, it was anxiety over Russia’s reaction that blocked the memberships of Ukraine and Georgia, as Germany and France were both wary of invoking Moscow’s ire. During his speech at the summit Mr. Putin acknowledged that “our concerns have been heard.”

The more pressing issue, though, is the U.S.’s plan for a missile defense system, which has the stated aim of neutralizing the threat of rogue states like North Korea and Iran. NATO endorsed the U.S.’s proposal to place parts of the systems in the Czech Republic and Poland, over Russia’s objections. During the two leaders’ meeting in Sochi, Mr. Putin again pressed his concerns about the proposed system, pointing out: “Our fundamental attitude to the American plans has not changed.”

The Bush Administration has acknowledged these concerns and made attempts to assuage them by implementing “confidence-building measures” that would give Moscow some observational or oversight role. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has even hinted that the system could be built, but remain offline until the threat of a nuclear Iran was realized.

These developments stand in stark contrast to how the U.S., and the West more generally, treated Moscow during the 1990s and Mr. Bush’s first years in office. Mr. Putin has realized his goal by making Russia one of the world’s “great nations” again largely through the use of its energy resources. The country is no longer a side note or an irritation, but a true power whose interests and concerns must be taken into account. The West looks to have come to terms with this fact and is in the process of determining how to proceed with its relations with Russia, both on a country-to-country basis and as a group.

Accordingly, will the West continue to press its advantage in Eastern Europe when the new leaders take their places in the Kremlin and Pennsylvania Avenue, respectively? Or has the eastern advance of NATO and the EU reached its extreme?

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Taiwan and Tibet have similar causes but choose to deal differently with China

April 2, 2008

By Kyle S. Erickson

2 April 2008: Last week was eventful in Chinese “domestic affairs.” The handful of journalists who were finally allowed into Lhasa last Wednesday reported that “the anti-Chinese riot which convulsed Tibet’s ancient capital was far more aggressive, long-running, and inflicted far more damage than any outsiders had previously realized.” This revelation will likely do little to lessen the outrage among those sympathetic to the Tibetan cause in the West, especially in light of accusations that, even with journalists on the ground, Chinese authorities are successfully exaggerating the violence of the riots and concealing the amount of force used to quell them.

Meanwhile, in the midst of this latest spike in anti-Chinese sentiment in Tibet, the people of Taiwan, 98% percent of whom are ethnic Han Chinese, elected Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT in presidential elections on Saturday, March 22. While this is the same KMT that fled to Taiwan to escape the CCP in 1949, Ma rode to victory on a platform that advocated renewed engagement with the mainland. Choosing to “shelve” rather than press the issue of Taiwanese independence, Ma hopes to create closer economic ties by opening up travel across the Strait and making it easier for Taiwanese businesses to invest in China.

Although both regions have long-standing grievances with the PRC, it is understandable that the public sentiment in Lhasa would differ from that in Taipei. The Tibetan position, as articulated by the Dalai Lama, is a desire for greater autonomy, not independence. Additionally, although their land has been officially part of China for over 50 years, Tibetans identify themselves as ethnically distinct from Han Chinese. Reports of human rights abuses perpetrated by the PRC authorities on Tibetans have been rampant, and many monks fear for the destruction of Tibetan culture. In the case of Taiwan the water that separates the island from the mainland has largely prevented the violent expression of long-held resentments. Additionally, Taiwan’s economic success and the support it enjoys from powerful Western nations made it easy to defy the CCP.

But times are changing. If Taiwan wants to keep pace with Hong Kong and Singapore it can no longer afford to forego the Chinese market. And so in nations with developed economies, self-interest trumps historical or ideological disagreements. Note how consistently this theme plays out amongst all parties involved. America has phoned its largest creditor not to deliver condemnations or threats of boycotting the Olympics, but to encourage engagement with the Dalai Lama. This is a decidedly softer approach than that taken by many nations in Europe. But the rapidly expanding EU contains countries that will depend on strong Chinese markets if traditional trading partners continue to flounder. Don’t be surprised if the Olympic boycott never materializes. Meanwhile in Tibet, where development lags, the rioters stand to gain very little by cooperating with Chinese authorities.

As long as China proves to be a market of limitless demand, expect to see more than the usual suspects lining up to supply. If Taiwan, sworn enemy of the PRC, can perform an about-face amidst the crackdown in Tibet and China’s continued military build up, is there anything the CCP could do that would provoke a global economic shunning like we saw after Tiananmen Square?

My prediction: expect more moral outrage from individuals and organizations without geopolitical or economic liabilities and more tepid responses from Washington and anyone else who’s too beholden to China to force their hand. And, oh yeah, book your ticket for Beijing 2008.