Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Stop Reassuring Saudi Arabia, a Worse Threat to the Middle East than Iran

Secretary of State John Kerry recently traveled to Riyadh to reassure the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that the U.S. stood with them. “Nothing has changed” as a result of the nuclear pact with Iran, he insisted.

Washington’s long relationship with Riyadh was built on oil. There never was any nonsense about sharing values with the KSA, which operates as a slightly more civilized variant of the Islamic State. The royals run a totalitarian system which prohibits political dissent, free speech, religious liberty, and social autonomy.

At a time of heavy U.S. dependence on foreign oil a little compromise in America’s principles might have seemed necessary. Today it’s hard to make a case that petroleum warrants Washington’s “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia. The global energy market is expanding; the U.S. will soon become a petroleum exporter. The royal regime cannot survive without oil money and has continued to pump even as prices have collapsed.

In recent years Washington also treated Riyadh as an integral component of a containment system against Iran. Of course, much of the “Tehran problem” was made in America: overthrowing Iranian democracy ultimately led to creation of an Islamist state.

North Koreans Should Have Attended Davos

Admittedly, North Korean diplomats would have cut a curious figure in Davos, attending the just-ended World Economic Forum. Representatives of one of the few regimes which still professes to be communist might have had to close their eyes amidst the capitalist excess highlighting the conference.

Still, the North Koreans would have seen much new. And there was the potential of what the Wall Street Journal termed “awkward encounters,” which might have allowed some informal diplomatic discussions on the side.

Alas, while the DPRK was invited to attend the forum, WEF rescinded the offer after the North’s latest nuclear test.

North Korea may be the most isolated state on the planet. Much of that is by choice. Nevertheless, Washington and its allies have made isolation their tool of choice in dealing with the North.

Of course, frustration with Pyongyang is understandable. Yet the policy has utterly failed. The DPRK has enshrined a unique form of monarchical communism, created an extraordinarily brutal system of domestic repression, maintained a large conventional military poised within reach of Seoul, and developed a growing nuclear arsenal.

Kim Jong-un, who succeeded his father in December 2011, has not liberalized politically. Moreover, he has continued the North’s missile and nuclear research.

Yet the DPRK is loosening economic controls. While much more needs to be done, Pyongyang’s commitment to reform appears real.

Kim has promised higher living standards alongside nuclear weapons. The more the regime could be tempted to sample heretofore forbidden economic fruits, the better. Just taste the apple from the tree of capitalism, Jong-un.

Which is where the WEF could have come in. Late last year the WEF invited the North for the first time since 1998, “in view of positive signs coming out of the country.” After Pyongyang’s January 6 nuclear test, however, the invitation was revoked since “under these circumstances there would be no opportunity for international dialogue.”

Actually, after the latest nuclear test was precisely the time when international dialogue was most required. War would be a foolish response and sanctions have been applied without result. China is angry with its frenemy but unwilling to risk the regime’s collapse. So if not negotiation, then what?

Persuading China to Cooperate against North Korea

Another North Korean nuclear test, another round of demands that China bring Pyongyang to heel. Said Secretary of State John Kerry: Beijing’s policy “has not worked and we cannot continue business as usual.” Alas, his approach will encourage the PRC to dismiss Washington’s wishes.

The People’s Republic of China joined Washington in criticizing the latest blast. The PRC is the most important investor in and provides substantial energy and food assistance to the North. Beijing also has protected the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea by weakening past UN sanctions and enforcing those imposed with less than due diligence. If only China would get tough, runs the argument, the Kim Jong-un regime in Pyongyang would have to give way.

Alas, Chinese intervention is not the panacea many appear to believe. Contra common belief in Washington, the U.S. cannot dictate to the PRC. Threats are only likely to make the Chinese leadership more recalcitrant.

In fact, Beijing’s reluctance to wreck the North Korean state is understandable. If the administration wants to enlist China’s aid, it must convince Beijing that acting is in China’s, not America’s, best interest.

While unpredictable, obstinate, and irritating, so far the DPRK is not a major problem for China. The North disrupts American regional dominance and forces Seoul and Washington to beg for assistance in dealing with the DPRK. Even Pyongyang’s growing nuclear arsenal poses no obvious threat to China.

Why, then, should the PRC sacrifice its political influence and economic interests? A Chinese cut-off of energy and food would cause great hardship in the North. But a half million or more people died of starvation during the late 1990s without any change in DPRK policy.

Thus, the DPRK leadership may refuse to bend. The result might be a return to the 1990s, with a horrific collapse in living conditions but regime survival—and continued development of nuclear weapons.

Will China Accept Taiwan’s Political Revolution?

In one of the least surprising election results in Taiwanese history, Tsai Ing-wen has won the presidency in a landslide. Even more dramatically, the Democratic Progressive Party will take control of the legislature for the first time. Tsai’s victory is a devastating judgment on the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou.

With the imminent triumph of the Chinese Communist Party, Chiang Kai-shek moved his government to the island in 1949. For a quarter century Washington backed Chiang. Finally, Richard Nixon opened a dialogue with the mainland and Jimmy Carter switched official recognition to Beijing. Nevertheless, the U.S. maintained semi-official ties with Taiwan.

As China began to reform economically it also developed a commercial relationship with Taipei. While the ruling Kuomintang agrees with the mainland that there is but one China, the DPP remains formally committed to independence.

Beijing realizes that Tsai’s victory is not just a rejection of Ma but of China. Support even for economic cooperation has dropped significantly over the last decade.

Thus, China’s strategy toward Taiwan is in ruins. In desperation in November Chinese President Xi Jinping met Ma in Singapore, the first summit between the two Chinese leaders. Beijing may have hoped to promote the KMT campaign or set a model for the incoming DPP to follow.

Xi warned that backing away from the 1992 consensus of one China could cause cross-strait relations to “encounter surging waves, or even completely capsize.” While Tsai apparently plans no formal move toward independence, she also rejects the 1992 consensus of “one China, separate interpretations.”

As I point out in Forbes: “Washington is in a difficult position. The U.S. has a historic commitment to Taiwan, whose people have built a liberal society. Yet America has much at stake with its relationship with the PRC. Everyone would lose from a battle over what Beijing views as a ‘renegade province’.”

Washington should congratulate President-elect Tsai, but counsel Taipei to step carefully. Taiwan’s new government shouldn’t give the PRC any reason (or excuse) to react forcefully.

The U.S. should accelerate efforts to expand economic ties with Taiwan. Doing so would affirm America’s commitment to a free (if not exactly independent) Taiwan by other than military means.

America should continue to provide Taipei with weapons to enable it to deter if not defeat the PRC. At the same time, the new government should make good on the DPP’s pledge to make “large investments” in the military. It makes little sense for the U.S. to anger Beijing with new arms sales if Taipei is unwilling to spend enough to make a difference.

Washington should press friendly states throughout Asia, Europe, and elsewhere to communicate a consistent message to China: military action against Taiwan would trigger a costly reaction around the world. The mainland would pay a particularly high economic and political price in East Asia, where any remaining illusions of a “peaceful rise” would be laid to rest.

Finally, American officials should explore ideas for a peaceful modus vivendi. One possibility is for Washington to repeat its acceptance of “one China” and eschew any military commitment to Taiwan.

Taipei would accept its ambiguous national status and announce its neutrality in any conflicts which might arise in East Asia, including involving America and Japan. The PRC would forswear military means to resolve Taiwan’s status and reduce the number of missiles in Fujian targeting the island.

The objective would be to make it easier for both China and Taiwan to “kick the can down the road.” A final resolution of their relationship would be put off well into the future.

 The ROC’s people have modeled democracy with Chinese characteristics. Hopefully someday the PRC’s people will be able to do the same.

In the meantime, President-elect Tsai is set to govern a nation which has decisively voted for change. However, if the PRC’s leaders fear they are about to “lose” the island—and perhaps even power at home—they may feel forced to act decisively and coercively. International ambiguity remains a small price to pay to avoid a cross-strait war.

The Syrian Civil War Just Became Even More Complex

Just when you thought the Syrian civil war couldn’t get any messier, developments last week proved that it could.  For the first time in the armed conflict that has raged for nearly five years, militia fighters from the Assyrian Christian community in northern Iraq clashed with Kurdish troops. What made that incident especially puzzling is that both the Assyrians and the Kurds are vehement adversaries of ISIS—which is also a major player in that region of Syria.  Logically, they should be allies who cooperate regarding military moves against the terrorist organization.

But in Syria, very little is simple or straightforward.   Unfortunately, that is a point completely lost on the Western (especially American) news media.  From the beginning, Western journalists have portrayed the Syrian conflict as a simplistic melodrama, with dictator Bashar al-Assad playing the role of designated villain and the insurgents playing the role of plucky proponents of liberty.  Even a cursory examination of the situation should have discredited that narrative, but it continues largely intact to this day.

There are several layers to the Syrian conflict.  One involved an effort by the United States and its allies to weaken Assad as a way to undermine Iran by depriving Tehran of its most significant regional ally.  Another layer is a bitter Sunni-Shite contest for regional dominance.  Syria is just one theater in that contest.  We see other manifestations in Bahrain, where Iran backs a seething majority Shiite population against a repressive Sunni royal family that is kept in power largely by Saudi Arabia’s military support.  Saudi Arabia and other Gulf powers backed Sunni tribes in western Iraq against the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.  Some of those groups later coalesced to become ISIS.  In Yemen, direct military intervention by Saudi Arabia and Riyadh’s smaller Sunni Gulf allies is determined to prevent a victory by the Iranian-backed Houthis.

The war in Syria is yet another theater in that regional power struggle.  It is no accident that the Syrian insurgency is overwhelmingly Sunni in composition and receives strong backing from major Sunni powers, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey.  Assad leads an opposing “coalition of religious minorities,” which includes his Alawite base (a Shiite offshoot) various Christian sects, and the Druze.  But there is an added element of complexity.  The Kurds form yet a third faction, seeking to create a self-governing (quasi-independent) region in northern and northeastern Syria inhabited by their ethnic brethren.  In other words, Syrian Kurds are trying to emulate what Iraqi Kurds have enjoyed for many years in Iraqi Kurdistan, where Baghdad’s authority is little more than a legal fiction.  That explains the clash between Assyrian Christians and Kurds.  Both hate ISIS, but the former supports an intact Syria (presumably with Assad or someone else acceptable to the coalition in charge), the latter does not.

Such incidents underscore just how complex the Syrian struggle is and how vulnerable to manipulation well-meaning U.S. mediation efforts might become.  Our news media need to do a far better job of conveying what is actually taking place in that part of the world, not what wannabe American nation builders wish were the case.

The Mideast’s Problem Is Politics, Not History

Chaos and conflict have become constants in the Middle East. Frustrated U.S. policymakers tend to blame ancient history. Said President Barack Obama in his State of the Union speech, the region’s ongoing transformation was “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.”

Of course, war is a constant of human history. But while today’s most important religious divisions go back thousands of years, bitter sectarian conflict does not. The Christian Crusades and Muslim conquests into Europe ended long ago.

All was not always calm within the region, of course. Sectarian antagonism existed. Yet religious divisions rarely caused the sort of hateful slaughter we see today.

Tolerance lived on even under political tyranny. The Baathist Party, which ruled Iraq and Syria until recently, was founded by a Christian. Christians played a leading role in the Palestinian movement.

The fundamental problem today is politics. Religion has become a means to forge political identities and rally political support.

As I point out in Time: “Blame is widely shared. Artificial line-drawing by the victorious allies after World War I, notably the Sykes-Picot agreement, created artificial nation states for the benefit of Europeans, not Arabs. Dynasties were created with barely a nod to the desires of subject peoples.”

Lebanon’s government was created as a confessional system, which exacerbated political reliance on religion. The British/American-backed overthrow of Iran’s democratic government in 1953 empowered the Shaw, an authoritarian, secular-minded modernizer. His rule was overturned by the Islamic Revolution.

This seminal event greatly sharpened the sectarian divide, which worsened through the Iran-Iraq war and after America’s invasion of Iraq. Out of the latter emerged the Islamic State. The collapse of Syria’s Assad regime has provided another political opportunity for radical movements.

Nothing about the history of the Middle East makes conflict inevitable. To reverse the process both Shiites and Sunnis must reject the attempt of extremists to misuse their faith for political advantage. And Western nations, especially the United States, must stay out of Middle East conflicts.

America’s Invisible Wars: Event January 25th

On January 14th, the White House announced that Gen. Joseph Votel - the current head of U.S. Special Operations Command – will take over as the head of U.S. Central Command, a position which will place him in charge of America’s wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. The symbolism of the appointment could not be clearer. As Foreign Policy noted,

“With 3,000 special operations troops currently hunting down Taliban militants in Afghanistan, and another 200 having just arrived on the ground in Iraq to take part in kill or capture missions against Islamic State leadership, Votel’s nomination underscores the central role that the elite troops play in the wars that President Barack Obama is preparing to hand off to the next administration.”

The growing use of special operations forces has been a hallmark of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, an attempt to thread the needle between growing public opposition to large-scale troop deployments and public demands for the United States to ‘do more’ against terrorist threats, all while dancing around the definition of the phrase ‘boots on the ground.’ But the increasing use of such non-traditional forces – particularly since the start of the Global War on Terror – is also reshaping how we think about U.S. military intervention overseas.