Archive for September, 2009

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Stroking a Crocodile?

September 29, 2009
(REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)

(REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)

Over the last couple of months, President Obama has firmly established his foreign policy as engagement, engagement, engagement. His conciliatory measures towards Russia and the Middle East are now being extended to Sudan—in what some consider quite an alarming move.

Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, has been convicted on two counts of war crimes and five counts of crimes against humanity including extermination, torture, and rape.  He is the only incumbent head of state that is under warrant for arrest by the International Criminal Court. Yet, while Obama is on record stating that al-Bashir has “offended the standards of our common humanity,” his administration is currently pursuing eased relations with the regime.

President Obama’s special envoy, J. Scott Gration, recently returned from Sudan confident that al-Bashir’s government is improving. The official applauded the Sudanese government for permitting the entrance of some foreign aid groups and its willingness to meet with him. He further insisted that the best means of addressing the nation’s crises is to not estrange the men wielding power.

Gration compared his diplomatic dealings with rewarding a naughty child: “We’ve got to think about giving out cookies. Kids, countries—they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement.”  But many worry that in trusting a nefarious regime, it is the Obama administration that is playing the role of the child.

-Ellesse Sorbonne

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Chaos in Honduras

September 29, 2009
(Jose CABEZAS/AFP/Getty Images)

(Jose CABEZAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Diplomatic endeavors with Honduras are facing outright mayhem. Last week, Manuel Zelaya—the leftist president ousted in his pajamas earlier this summer—snuck back into his country. The deposed leader has taken refuge in the Brazil embassy in Tegucigalpa from which he is urging his followers to flood the streets demanding his reinstatement. Last night Zelaya delieved his U.N. General Assembly address via a cell phone held by his foreign minister at the podium.

The de facto government’s response has been anything but graceful. Its leader Roberto Micheletti ordered Zelaya’s immediate arrest, shut down the 2 pro-Zelaya media sources, threatened to close the Brazilian embassy, and barred the entry of Organization of American States (OAD) negotiators.

The OAS U.S. ambassador, Lewis Anselem, impugned the interim government for the “deplorable” acts. But Anselem’s censure wasn’t limited to Micheletti; indeed, he appeared more incensed by Zalaya’s return from exile before a resolution had been reached. Anselem knocked the re-entry as “irresponsible and foolish,” blasted Zalaya’s tendency to make “wild allegations,” and declared that he must desist from histrionic displays—“acting as though he were starring in a movie.”

Anselem also asserted that the U.S. will continue to promote the adoption of the San Jose accord, which restores Zalaya to office only for the remainder of his term ending in January. Late Monday the de facto government apologized for repressing the media and scheduled dialogue with the OAS on October 7th, however, it isn’t acquiescing as far as Zelaya goes and appears to be holding out for the November 29th elections. The U.S. and other nations have already warned that they may not recognize the vote as legitimate.

-Ellesse Sorbonne

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Quite a Day at the G-20

September 25, 2009
(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Economic forums are not known for being particularly lively, but today’s G-20 Summit in Pittsburg warrants a large popcorn and Milk Duds. The assembly convened with a dramatic joint statement by President Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The three heads-of-state declared that their intelligence sources have discovered a clandestine Iranian nuclear facility harboring some 3,000 centrifuges, which could be operational within months.  According to their informants, Iran has been blanketing this second nuclear enrichment plant for years, despite adamant avowals—including throughout this week at the U.N. Summit—that their nuclear development is completely transparent.

The decision to make the announcement at the G-20 and not yesterday’s Security Council—which was chaired by Obama and specifically focused on nuclear proliferation—seems odd, particularly since (according to a Senior White House Official) the U.S. has long been aware of the underground plant. But the official additionally disclosed that Iran had discovered the West’s intelligence of the 2nd plant and had run early Friday to reveal its existence first to the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency.

Humorously, a senior Iranian official has already professed that Iran’s informing of the U.N. nuclear watchdog of the 2nd plant this morning proves that it isn’t “a covert plant.” At the G-20, Prime Minister Brown impugned Iran for “serial deception,” and President Sarkozy echoed President Obama’s warning that Iran had two months to fully disclose its nuclear ambitions or face severe sanctions.

While the setting for the declaration was somewhat surprising, it may prove a valuable one. Throughout the last two days, the G-20 has flexed itself as the new, unquestioned economic order. Its bold draft communiqué has thus far included revamping the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to allot significantly greater voting power to the developing world, selecting IMF and World Bank leaders based on capacity and not nationality, and demanding stringent regulations on the banking sector by the end of 2012. With an atrophying G-8, the G-20 is the one to look for to exact effective sanctions on Iran.

-Ellesse Sorbonne

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Score One for Russia

September 17, 2009

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.The Obama administration has sent a shock wave through the international community today, announcing that the U.S.  is abandoning plans to set up a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. The move comes shortly after Poland and the Czech Republic declared their territory would not be used to house important parts of the proposed shield.

One can only imagine that high-fives are being exchanged in Moscow tonight. For years, the ballistic missile defense (BMD) system — a brainchild of the second Bush administration — has been a thorn in the side of U.S-Russian relations. Russian leadership had felt that the system was being designed not to thwart Iranian weapons (as the U.S. had repeated time and time again), but rather to contain and reduce the strategic importance of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

Now it looks like those concerns are old news. With the system off the table, there is the potential for growing cooperation between the two countries in the months ahead. Look for the Obama administration to use the diplomatic opening provided by today’s announcement to try to secure help from the Russians in confronting Iran’s nuclear ambitions — though Russia, for the moment at least, says it has no plans to scale back its support of Tehran.

Russell Sticklor

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Swine Flu Fears: Overblown?

September 14, 2009
(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

To hear some media outlets and health officials tell it, the impending arrival of the swine flu during the coming months could be 1918 redux. That year, at the close the First World War, a virulent flu strain swept the globe, its spread accelerated by troops returning from distant theaters of war. Within a few years, upwards of 20 million had died, in what remains one of the most deadly pandemics of all time. But is the flu strain in question — A(H1N1) — really capable of sparking another global pandemic that could kill millions?

According to the intelligence firm STRATFOR, it doesn’t look liked it. Today, the company released a report declaring  that while the bug will definitely place a burden on healthcare infrastructure around the world, the virus won’t be anywhere near as deadly as some of its predecessors. One of the reasons is that the elderly are thought to be relatively low risk for catching A(H1N1), which STRATFOR says should in turn help lower flu-related mortality rates.

-Russell Sticklor

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Pakistan Rolls the Dice

September 14, 2009
(AP Photo/APTN)

(AP Photo/APTN)

As the U.S. knows well, Pakistan’s military is unwilling to launch a full-scale ground offensive against extremist groups operating within its borders, including Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban. There have been a lot of reasons for Pakistan’s reluctance in recent years, but one thing is for sure — U.S. policy makers are not happy about it. Pakistan’s hesitance to confront local terrorist cells has essentially provided safe haven to those groups, complicating the ongoing U.S. mission in neighboring Afghanistan.

Now, however, Pakistan has decided to step up its efforts to dismantle the Pakistani Taliban. It is trying to take advantage of the fact that the group’s leadership was thrown into disarray after a CIA-orchestrated missile attack in August killed its leader, Baitullah Mehshud. But the problem is, Pakistan’s military won’t be the ones taking the fight to the enemy. Instead, the government has empowered a proxy to do it for them — a ruthless pro-government militia known as Abdullah Mehsud.

This development should be raising all sorts of red flags in Washington. Sure, Abdullah Mehsud is — for the moment, at least — an enemy of the Pakistani Taliban, whose terrorist attacks on civilians the militia opposes. But Abdullah Mehsud fighters also promote a brand of militant Islam similar to the Pakistani Taliban, and have encouraged (though not necessarily participated in) attacks on U.S. troops across the Afghan border.

Empowering this group is not a recipe for stability. The Abdullah Mehsud militia brags that it has killed or murdered about 70 Pakistani Taliban members over the past year. This sort of vigilante justice may help the Pakistani government curb the domestic terrorist threat in the short-term, but one has to wonder what new security problems the Pakistani government is creating for itself down the road. Your enemies’ enemy may be your friend — but for how long?

Russell Sticklor

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A Pivotal Relationship

September 11, 2009
(Xinhua/Pang Xinglei)

(Xinhua/Pang Xinglei)

Clinton has called China-U.S. interaction, “the most important relationship of the 21st century,” and last night at a dinner hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, she unequivocally maintained that conviction. Clinton stressed that the nations contain two of the world’s three largest economies, two of its largest populations, two of its largest militaries, and are also the world’s largest consumers of energy and producers of carbon emissions. Clinton insisted that since Chinese and American policies have such a staggering impact, the nations must shoulder the responsibility of not just their respective populations—but of the world at large.

The dinner was held in honor of His Excellency Wu Bangguo, Chairman of the National People’s Congress (NPC) of the People’s Republic of China. It has been over twenty years since a NPC Chairperson—essentially China’s chief lawmaker—has visited the United States. Clinton noted that it had been the largest gathering of top leaders from the two countries since their diplomatic beginnings some thirty years ago.

Both parties expressed that the interaction had afforded great progress in negotiating how to jointly-approach issues such as climate change, nuclear proliferation, pandemic, and the financial crisis. This past week of dialogue is one of many new initiatives spearheaded by the Obama administration to improve China-U.S. rapport. As Clinton eloquently expressed, “President Obama and I believe we are entering a new era in China-U.S. relations. Building a strong relationship with China is a central goal of the Obama administration and a personal priority of mine.”

-Ellesse Sorbonne