Archive for April, 2009


Thailand in Turmoil: has Democracy Rended the Country in Two?

April 17, 2009
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva traveling in convoy is intercepted by protesters of the redshirt opposition. Protesters appear to be giving the Prime Minister the finger. (Getty Photo)

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva traveling in convoy is intercepted by protesters of the redshirt opposition. Protesters appear to be giving the Prime Minister the finger. (Getty Photo)

Seven governments, two constitutions, one military coup, and a partridge in a pear tree. Well, not a partridge in a pear tree, but the first three have all been defining features in recent Thai politics.

The country is seized by political division. One faction, the yellowshirts, are united by their disdain for the former Prime Minister Thatskin Shinawatra—who was unseated by coup in September 2006. The membership of this group is eclectic, but it seems to be composed mostly of urban and middle-class of the Thai population. The other faction, the redshirts, are strong supporters of Thatskin. They rally around his former party in Thai politics. And instead of hailing from the cities, particularly Bangkok, they come instead from the more rural districts of Thailand.

The two factions are completely polarized. And over the past two and a half years the rift has widened. After Thatskin was deposed by coup in 2006, the military rewrote the constitution, banned Thatskin’s party, and organized a new anti-Thatskin government. But an election was held in 2007, and Thatskin’s supporters brought a new pro-Thatskin party to power, the PPP. The PPP tried to undo the work of the coup, and bring Thatskin back from exile. But the yellowshirts and their cadre blocked the efforts. Tensions escalated, and the Government House, the seat of rule in Thailand, was captured by yellowshirt protesters. Next, the PPP Prime Minister was forced by the Thai Supreme Court to relinquish his ministry for the high crime of appearing on a cooking TV show. And if these defeats to the pro-Thatskin party were not enough, the yellowshirts paralyzed international traffic in Thailand by blockading the airport in November of last year, followed soon after by another Thai Supreme Court case that banished the PPP party in whole.

With the PPP gone, the yellowshirt party assumed power. But their coalition was weak. And over the pasta several days the redshirts took to the streets to protest their rival government, bringing havoc to the streets of Bangkok, and sabotaging the East Asia Summit scheduled for the weekend.

Arrests, counter-arrests, rolling protests in the tens of thousands, and violence that is taking a general form—the state of Thailand looks to be in serious trouble. Long heralded a representative of democracy in Asia, and a developing country in particular, Thailand is quick earning a reputation as a basket-case country.

Question is: what are the lessons of the Thai experience? Is democracy the culprit? Or should blame instead be assigned elsewhere?

Defenders will say that Thailand is a special case. The country has had 17 constitutions since 1932—an extraordinary number. Even France, which is ridiculed for its fifth republic since the French Revolution, does not even come close to that amount. Thailand is inherently unstable, and blame for the current crisis lies with history rather than the democracy.

The point is a good one. But the occasion now is different. The turmoil is Thailand is civil in nature; the politics have truly factionalized the country. Where before Thailand changed constitutions due to military intervention or because lawyers and scholars wanted to introduce legal innovations, this time the populace is starkly divided. Factionalism is a famous byproduct of democracy. Some of the most famous writers on politics, from Plato and Aristotle, to Hobbes and Burke, all denounce it. It may be a moral government, but it is also self-destructive. And it often rends societies, rather than strengthens them. In the past this has caused democracies to do terrible and stupid things. And for that reason it was long considered one of the worst forms of government, not the best.

Many of those faults can be perceived in Thailand. Thatskin pushed his reforms hard, and he was answered vociferously by his domestic enemies. The divide in Thailand is so sharp, it has become manifest by the distinction in colored shirts. Steps that otherwise would be unthinkable have been readily employed. Arrests of politicians en masse. Trials of ex-Prime Ministers in abstentia. Courts disbanding entire political parties. Even when communist parties worked to monopolize their control of eastern European governments, the maneuvers were not so flagrant.

The experience of Thailand is new, but the story is old. In modern times democracies have proven they are the most capable form of government. Nevertheless, they are not infallible. The example of Thailand reveals the old rule that they also can degnerate into mobocracy with fierce and savage speed. And when they do, they become prey to the intrigues of their neighbors. Watch what happens to Thailand next.


Does the Indo-Israeli Trade in Arms have Strategic Consequence?

April 15, 2009
File photo. Israeli Primister Ariel Sharon (left) being received by Indian Prime Minister Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee (right) during the first visit by an Israeli head of government to India, September 2003.

File photo. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (left) being received by Indian Prime Minister Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee (right) during the first visit by an Israeli head of government to India, September 2003. Neither man still occupies his respective Prime-Ministership.

Sometimes an arms deal is just an arms deal. The US for example has maintained a steady sale of weapons to Brazil the past ten years. The agreement is predicated on good relations between the two. It does not however imply a closer political partnership, or reveal a strategic bond. It’s just business.

On the other hand an arms deal sometimes is more than just an arms deal. Some of the biggest purchasers of US arms articles in recent years are Australia, Turkey, Egypt, the UAE, and Iraq, et al. It is no coincidence those same countries are also intimate security and political partners of the US. Arms are often the outward manifestation of political alliance. Much of the Cold War map could be drawn based solely on who was supplier to who. Before the Yom Kippur War Russia supplied Egypt and Syria, the US Israel. When the war came, partners by trade became partners in war. Concerned for the fate of the Egyptian army, the Soviets threatened to intervene. Only threat of US retaliation and Kissinger’s insistence to Israel it desist and negotiate a ceasefire averted a Super Power conflict.

Commerce in arms can therefore be an important sign of emerging security partnership or implicit alliance. In recent years India and Israel have been rapidly growing their traffic in arms. Question is: is this traffic more than just business? Does the trade in arms imply a growing strategic relationship between the two?

The answer is somewhat uncertain. Until recently the trade appeared to be expanding. Israel had sold India several billion worth of arms. So much so in fact, Israel had overtaken Russia as the single largest provider of weapons to India. Israel sells India advanced RADAR, missile, missile defense, and automated aircraft technology. The two cooperate in joint exercises. The two train troops together. And Israel is building munitions factories in India in an effort to fortify the relationship under the guise of development assistance.

This week however that commerce, and perhaps also the relationship, came under tough scrutiny. A 2 billion dollar deal that was just concluded is alleged to have involved corruption on a grand scale (read here). True or not, the bad press may cause a rethink of the trade.

Gandhi famously rejected Israel’s existence because he forswore the notion a state could be constituted on a religious basis. India instead was a historic sympathizer and ally of Arab states, not Israel. More recently, it has become a major customer for Iranian oil, and sends engineers to assist Iran construct a nuclear reactor—assistance that Israel strongly disfavors. India has also been a longtime patron of Soviet military equipment. Conversely, Israel has been a customer of the US. The military hardware of the two—Russia and the US—is not designed to be interoperable.

The two nations therefore seemed oriented in almost opposite direction. But in spite of their differences, India and Israel have both found mutual convenience from the trade in arms. There is some strategic affinity. Both possess nuclear weapons. Yet both were denied nuclear power status and have been ostracized for remaining outside the NPT. Both have suffered a long history of conflict with Islamic extremists. Both have come to the aid of one another. Israel to India during the Kargil war in 1998. India to Israel by granting diplomatic recognition in 1991. So many similarities, does the relationship have true strategic depth?

The answer is probably no. Besides the few peculiarities of geopolitics, the common interests of the too is slight. India and Israel reside in very different parts of the world. The threats each face share little in common. They are different in size and different by wealth. With little to bind them, there is a lot that can separate them. India has historically been partner with Egypt, not Israel. Though Egypt and Israel coexist by treaty, it is an unnatural arrangement—they are two states in one land. If the peace fails, it is doubtful India could keep sides with Israel. And in any case, Israel is a notorious merchant in arms. It will sell to most anyone who is willing to buy, like Georgia or China, with little scruple and less political purpose. Assertions of strategic significance would project illusions onto the Indo-Israeli relationship that are not there. The trade in arms to be just that: trade, and little more.

by an Avaricious Arms Merchant Envious of Israel’s Clientele


Is Zero too Great a Goal?

April 13, 2009

President Obama last Sunday addressing a crowd in Prague during his visit with EU officials. In his speech the President set a goal of dismantling all nuclear weapons. He delivered it just hours after North Korea tested a ballistic missile. (Getty Photo)

President Obama last Sunday addressing a crowd in Prague. In his speech the President set a goal of dismantling all nuclear weapons. He delivered it just hours after North Korea tested a long-range ballistic missile. (Getty Photo)

Has President Obama made nuclear disarmament one of his highest policy priorities?

His trip to Europe last week, which was ostensibly about the global economy and the US-European alliance, instead produced more commitments to disarmament and dismantlement than it did stimulus or financial regulation. In his meeting with President Medvedev of Russia, the two released a communique promising to extend the START treaty that limits the number of nuclear weapons (read here). They promised also to begin a new treaty to reduce the nuclear arsenal even more. Speculation abounds, but some think the new ceiling for deployed weapons could go as low as 600—an amount not seen since the 1950s. The President promised to seek ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. And in a major speech in Prague Obama declared his ambition to one day eradicate all nuclear weapons (read here).

...As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it. So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. I’m not naive. This goal will not be reached — perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, “Yes we can.”

Inspiring words. The US of course was already committed by treaty, in the NPT, to pursue complete and total disarmament of nuclear weapons. But over the last sixteen years the policy has drifted. President Clinton notably failed to get the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. And President Bush took several steps back from disarmament. In his first months in office he abrogated the ABM treaty with Russia. He refused to extend the START treaty and agreed instead to the SORT treaty in its place, a document widely ridiculed as without substance and ineffective. And he sent a very junior representative to the 5-year NPT conference in 2005, a signal the US had little appreciation for the treaty.

President Obama then has injected new life into the debate over zero—zero nuclear weapons. The question is: is it really an attainable goal? Or is Obama guilty of lofty rhetoric divorced from reality?

Critics argue that whatever the true intention of the US, many other states would never disarm. Russia, Pakistan, and Israel are all states known to have weapons and face serious issues of security. The thought is that no matter how much they are enticed, they could never be convinced to renounce and dismantle their weapons entirely. Either for the fear of war, or for prestige, they would need to retain a small arsenal of weapons.

In fact, there is only one state that ever assembled a nuclear weapon and subsequently choose to give it up: South Africa. And in that case it did so not because it was convinced for security reasons, but because the Apartheid government didn’t trust its successor, which would not be an Apartheid government, with responsibility for the bomb. Hatred, it seems, is the only proven method of disarmament.

In the US critics complain that many allies rely on the US nuclear arsenal to deter potential enemies on their behalf. Countries like Germany, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Japan, et al, all might elect to build their own bomb if it was believed the US would fully dismantle all its nuclear arsenal. The result would then be the reverse: a proliferation, not diminution of nuclear weapons.

And if by some feat of statesmanship all the nuclear powers did agree to dismantle their weapons, is it believable that come wartime those same states would not have recourse to have the weapons reassembled? Disarmament seems therefore only a figment of peacetime diplomacy. And because of this fear, no state would dare relinquish their weapons. In the one instance of there use, in WW2, which Obama alludes, the Japanese surrendered unconditionally within one week of the bombings, even though Japan had obstinately refused surrender before that. Nuclear weapons therefore have proven they are capable of singularly deciding a war. Perhaps a weapon too powerful ever to truly forgo.

Besides, the US is not perceived to be totally forthright in its aspiration. Its newfound conventional superiority with guided-weapons and tradition of overwhelming airpower mean nuclear weapons are more a threat to US power than a benefit. As one Indian General, Sundarji, famously described after the 1991 Gulf War, the lesson of the conflict was to never fight the US unless you have nuclear weapons.

If that’s right, then Obama was on the mark about one thing: he likely will not see full nuclear disarmament in his lifetime.

by a Nuclear Weaponeer Nervous Obama will Disarm them of a Job


Will Azerbaijan’s Isolation Compel it to Choose Sides?

April 11, 2009
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (left), meeting with Ukraine President Yushchenko (center) and Georgian President Saakashvili (right) at a conference in Batum last summer. Since then Ukraine and Georgia have been beset with political turmoil and confrontation with Russia. Only Azerbaijan has scooted by. (Getty Photo)

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (left), meeting with Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko (center) and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (right) at a conference in Batum last summer. Since the conference Ukraine and Georgia have been cowed by political turmoil and confrontation with Russia. Only Azerbaijan has survived unscathed. (Getty Photo)

If there was an award for a country most important but least well known, Azerbaijan would win it. It is positioned nervously at the juncture of three big powers: Russia, Turkey, and Iran. It is also happens to be a major hub for exporting oil and gas out of the Caspian Sea. Several large pipelines that trace their way into Europe, either through Turkey or Russia, all start in Azerbaijan. This gives the country enormous strategic value. A major energy corridor and point of intersection for three powerful states—states all notorious for conquest and empire. Azerbaijan resides in a tough neighborhood. And its small size multiplies the vulnerability.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union President Aliyev has tried to maintain a kind of tense neutrality. On the one side not to upset Russia; on the other side try and draw closer to the West and profit from oil. But Aliyev’s policy has always teetered on a razors edge. The question is: has the balance been lost?

The defeat last summer of the Georgia at the hands of a marauding Russian army signaled that insubordination in the Caucus will not be tolerated. Azerbaijan shares a border with Russia. So it is among states like Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, and Estonia, that are immediately exposed to reprisal from Russia. Azerbaijan also hosts Russian troops within the country at a Soviet-era base in Gabala. With hopes fading that Ukraine or Georgia will be admitted to NATO, there is now little thought that it would also accept Azerbaijian (read here). Could be that the war forced a rethink of Aliyev’s strategy.

The EU too has sent unfriendly signals. In its newest budget it has programmed little money for the large Nabucco pipeline project across Turkey (read here and here). Belief is that the markdown is the first in a move to kill the deal. This would end a major ambition of Aliyev’s to serve Europe with Azerbaijani oil and gas. Even more, the projects death would likely chill possibilities for future pipeline designs.

If all this weren’t enough, developments between Turkey and Armenia may be the most significant of all. Azerbaijan and Armenia are historic enemies. Turkey’s opening to Armenia to thaw a hundred years of frosty relations seems to have left Azerbaijan isolated. Before then, Turkey and Azerbaijan cooperated to contain Armenia and withhold relations while Armenia persisted in support for the breakaway Azerbaijani region, Nagorno-Karabakh. But with Turkey busy normalizing relations with Armenia, Azerbaijan has been left in the lurch, and with less hope of ever restoring control over its mutinous province. Raw from Turkey’s reversal, Aliyev has refused to meet with Turkish leaders or even come to Turkey while President Obama was visiting (read here).

Combined, these three developments put Azerbaijan in the weakest, most isolated position its been in since the end of the Cold War. The country is too small to persevere alone. In such an exposed position, what will Aliyev do?

Early sign is he will court Russia. Last week news was Azerbaijan agreed on the outlines of a deal to sell large amounts of oil and gas to Russia (read here). The deal is not final. Nor is it reversible. But it does suggest the tilt Aliyev will take to mitigate the effects of his isolation.

If he does, it would be the end of an era. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Georgia, Ukraine, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan all tried to turn the fortune of their states a new direction. Georgia and Ukraine’s outreach to the West was squelched by Russia. Turkmenistan tried to chart a neutral course, but Putin shrewdly enticed them back. Azerbaijan was the last independent country.

In the 1990’s, Eastern European states escaped successfully from the orbit of Russia. Compared with them, the Black Sea states appear to have failed. Could be the difference is explained by Russia outmaneuvering the US and EU. Or could be the Central Asian states have nowhere else to go. Watch for how Azerbaijan wheels and deals its way out from isolation.

by an Anxious Azeri Alarmed by Azerbaijan’s Isolation


Has the Pirate Menace Overwhelmed the World’s Navys?

April 9, 2009
Ships of the multinational fleet Combined Task Force 150. Ships from Germany, New Zealand, Japan, India and the US are represented in the photo.

Ships of the multinational fleet Combined Task Force 150. The fleets original mission was to assist in the War on Terror and search vessels suspected of weapons proliferation. Since then its focused has shifted to counter-piracy efforts. The photo above features vessels from Germany, New Zealand, Japan, India and the US sailing in formation.

Perhaps the biggest combined naval operation ever. The effort to suppress piracy off the Horn of Africa has become a major multilateral mission. All the largest naval powers in the world are represented. The US, France, Britain, Russia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, Greece, Australia, et al. Against an armada so broad and so powerful, one would think the pirates have not even a prayer of success.

Nevertheless piracy in the Gulf of Aden is thriving. This week, within the span of 48 hours, 5 ships have been captured. The amount does not include the Danish vessel piloted by Americans that apparently repelled a pirate attack (read here). The total almost equals the 6 captures in March. The pirates seem well on their way of surpassing 2008’s record of more than 100 attacks and 42 captures.

Question is: is the naval mission to combat the pirates a failure? And does it demonstrate the inadvisability of organizing military endeavors by using broad multilateral coalitions?

The historic example of successful anti-pirate action was Pompey the Great. In the year 67 BCE Rome was unquestioned master of Europe, and the Mediterranean was known as a Roman lake. But pirates issuing from Cilicia (southeastern Turkey) proved a serious menace to the maritime commerce. They had seized so many grain ships traveling between Egypt and Rome, it was feared the food shortage at Rome could precipitate a famine. The Senate, impressed by the circumstances, charged Pompey with extraordinary authority. To combat the pirates, his command was given a blank check to draw money from the treasury. He was assigned total jurisdiction over the Mediterranean as well as the sea coast up to 50 miles inland. And the forces he assembled to discharge his mission number no less than 500 ships and 120,000 infantry. With such overwhelming force, Pompey crushed the Cilician pirates in a time period of less than three months.

How does this compare with today? The Naval task force off the coast of Somalia does not operate with anywhere near the same authority or jurisdiction. Russia and China have chosen to remain outside the NATO-led taskforce. China has assigned its warships to convoy missions, not to chase pirates. Among the taskforce members the rules of engagement vary widely. Some, like the US, have been given full authority to pursue and attack pirate ships; other states, unless attacked, may only observe and deter. Some states, like the US, France, and India, may enter Somalia territorial waters in hot pursuit of pirates; some other states however may not.

There is also the absence of any land-side efforts to disperse the pirate nests, which has blunted the effects of the mission. When Ethiopian forces invaded Somalia in 2006, and drove out the Islamic Courts, the subsequent vacuum of power enabled pirates to find safe haven along the sea coast and prosper. Officials in Puntland have complained that their district is a major haven for pirates, but they are powerless to deal with it (read here). They accuse western officials and the UN of pursuing interdiction policies at the expense of assisting local governments.

The takeaway so far is that the size of the navy task force is too small for the mission, and that interdiction alone is not enough to achieve success. The pirate menace requires a more holistic solution. But the inefficacy of the counter-pirate policy is not only a failure in its own right. It signals weakness on the part of NATO-led security efforts. And more worrisome, it suggests genuine multilateral missions are incapable of delivering on security. It is a bad day for peace on the high seas, but it may be a worse day for the aspirations of multilateralism.

by a Scurrilous Sailor Seasick from the Pursuit of Pirates.


Why are the Chinese Reluctant to Lean on North Korea?

April 7, 2009
China's UN Ambassador Zhang Yesui on his way to a UNSC meeting Monday. On the left China's Deputy Ambassador Liu Zhenminat who has played a large role in the negotiations for China. (AP Photo)

China's UN Ambassador Zhang Yesui on his way to a UNSC meeting Monday. On the left China's Deputy Ambassador Liu Zhenminat who has played a large role in the negotiations for China. (AP Photo)

The common explanation is the Chinese fear an exodus of North Korean refugees. That at least is the conventional reason offered for why China refuses to sanction North Korea. It probably has some truth to it. Nevertheless at its core the explanation for China’s motives is wrong.

The Chinese themselves never cite the concern of refugees. No doubt they fear the possibility. But in speeches and conversations it is not what their diplomats actually say. And if the Chinese wanted to intercept a large egress of North Korean refugees crossing the Yalu River they could. Nevertheless Chinese diplomats are happy to perpetuate the myth of their fear. It excuses them for giving real reasons for China’s positions. And western audiences are willing to uncritically accept it.

The question however is not why the false front. Instead the real question is this: what are the true motives underlying Chinese policy towards North Korea? Do they have other unspoken ambitions? Or is their policy best explained by timid, uncertain leadership?

The reasons cannot be known for certain. But there seem to be five factors that count for more than others.

First, North Korea is a historic partner of the Chinese in Northeast Asia. The two fought together during the Korean War. And North Korea sided with China at the time of the Sino-Soviet split. The nations then share long historic ties with one another. Of course the China-North Korea partnership has not always been steady, nor has it always been strong. But it does trace its origins back to the Revolution in China and the infancy of the PRC. If Beijing withheld assistance it would be tantamount to reversing longtime Chinese foreign policy. That’s a big change. The inertia of sixty years of policy can be quite a force to affect.

Second, North Korean eccentricities are a new phenomenon, not an old one. It was the assumption of leadership by Kim Jong-il in 1994 that North Korea began to degenerate into the erratic and provocative state it is known as today. It may be then a change in leadership will itself be enough to cure the problem. China may be banking on the belief that Kim’s poor health will finish his tenure as leader soon, and that a harder line is not required.

Third, the Chinese calculation could be that depriving North Korea of food and fuel aid will not help the problem, it will only hurt it. North Korea is desperately poor, but it is not clear that China can truly leverage its assistance to convince Pyongyang. What might happen if China withheld aid? It might be that Pyongyang capitulates. However it is not the only possibility. If Kim’s government survived the effort it could cause a dramatic souring in the relationship. Or it could be his government does fall, in which case there is no telling what might happen. These alternatives do not appeal to China. Sanctioning North Korea presents China with a lot of risk, but little promise of reward.

Fourth, China clearly wants to preserve the peace that exists in Northeast Asia. It does not want to give Japan reason to rearm. It does not want to give South Korea reason to draw closer with the US. North Korea’s bellicose actions certainly agitate the situation, but so far they have not proven to be a game-changer. In 2006 North Korea fired another ballistic missile and even tested a nuclear device. That didn’t cause a rush to rearm in Japan or South Korea. China is probably betting the most recent missile test will not either. No reason then to react with punitive measures.

Fifth, it may be China thinks the North Korea problem cannot really be solved. Nevertheless it might be that the issue can be managed. That means maintaining an even keel so the boat of diplomacy can sail steady. If China were to start reacting to North Korea with a heavy hand it could poison its ability to lead the Six Party Talks. It might also bruise its reputation as a benign power. Leaning on North Korea would be incongruent with this approach.

The lesson: don’t expect China to change its North Korea policy soon. There are too many reasons, strategic and tactical, why not to lean heavily on North Korea. A true marvel of international politics: one of the weakest, poorest, most wretched places on earth, the Hermit Kingdom, trapped between five of the most powerful nations in the world, can flagrantly defy them all. And without consequence.

by a Mandarin Miffed by North Korean Ingratitude


What Explains the Explosion of Middle East Mediators?

April 5, 2009
From left: King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia; President Qaddafi of Libya; Emir al-Thani of Qatar. The three leaders meet privately along the sideline of the Arab League summit last week. (Reuters Photo)

From left: King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia; President Qaddafi of Libya; Emir al-Thani of Qatar. The three leaders met privately along the sideline of the Arab League summit last week. Abdullah and al-Thani have been hyper-active in their diplomatic efforts. (Reuters Photo)

The Egyptians, the Turks, the Saudi’s, and most all the Qatari’s—these days the Middle East appears to have no shortage of mediators. Nearly every head of state, or their deputy, appears to aspire to the heights of statesmanship.

Egypt’s focus has been centered on the Palestinians. The collapse of the Palestinian Authority and the stern policies of the Israeli’s have driven Egypt to try and mediate a power-sharing agreement with Fatah and Hamas. No agreement, however, so far has found much footing. Egypt was central to the negotiations during the Israel-Hamas war this past winter. And they tried to head-off the ICC warrant on Sudan’s President Bashir.

The Turks too have been busy, but in the north. Last summer it was revealed the Turks were overseeing secret talks between Israel and Syria. The disclosure ignited a flurry of speculation about new possibilities for Middle East peace. Turkish minister have expressed interest in mediating talks between the US and Iran. The day after Turkey’s foreign minister met with Secretary Clinton, he flew to Tehran and met with Ahmadinejad and Mottaki. Turkey has also been active warming relations with Armenia, as well as with Talabani’s faction of the Kurds in Iraq.

The Saudi’s, not to be outdone, have had their share of mediation. King Abdullah at first tried, with Egypt, to form a unity Palestinian government after the Hamas elections. That effort failed. They also tried to bring together warring factions in Lebanon over the contest for the next President. That effort failed. Not entirely put off, they set about to organize Gulf states and Egypt into a bloc to resist Iranian influence. They appear to have succeeded soliciting Morocco, and appear also to be courting Syria.

Last, but most interesting of them all, Qatar, one of the smallest Middle East states, has been the most proactive and successful mediator. In a triumph of mediation, Emir al-Thani reconciled the several contending factions of Lebanon, which has kept the interminably stormy Lebanese politics quiet for almost a year. Qatar also brought together Khartoum and Darfur rebels in a peace agreement where UN efforts had repeatedly failed. The tiny state has also tried to bridge the “gulf” between the Arabs and the Iranians, and invited Iranian representatives to the Arab League summit the other week.

Question is: why the sudden burst of mediation? What explains it? A few possibilities.

First, it could be that Middle East leaders are covetous of reputation, and are jealous of the diplomacy of their counterparts in other countries. Diplomats watch the success of Qatar and they see an opportunity for statesmanship, so they all rush to act. Even more, it may be they fear being left out, and that a good deal will be struck without them.

Second, it might be that Middle East states have seen the writing on the wall, and now is the time to make peace. Times are hard, oil prices are low, and the epic wars that characterized the region, like the Iran-Iraq war, or the US-Iraq war, seemed to be past. The moment now may offer more respite than any other in thirty years to make peace.

Third, it could be that the hardline taken by the US during President Bush’s tenure created an opening. The Bush administration helped to isolate Arafat, and offered little help to Abbas. The US position then moved so close to Israel it could do little to mediate a two state solution. They made the decision to isolate Bashar’s Syria, which foreclosed any possibility of mediating a peace with Israel. They took a hardline in Lebanon and a hardline in Darfur. The US therefore deprived itself of any opening in the Middle East where it could act as a mediator. The vacuum left behind then was filled eventually by other four states mentioned above.

Which ever of these three explanations is best, or combination thereof, is hard to say. But the overall observation is noteworthy. At no time since the First World War has the Middle East been as alive with diplomacy and mediation. The trend augurs well for the future.

by an Unemployed Diplomat in Desperate Search for Work