February 22, 2012

Egypt's military plays to win on US NGOs.

If Egypt's military-backed government follows through on criminalizing routine activities by American and other Western NGOs:

1. US aid could be held up or completely cut off.

2. Western tourism will fall off, as vacationers start to worry that they too could be arrested as fits the regime's diplomatic and domestic agenda.

3. Investors will be scared off by politically motivated and seemingly arbitrary prosecutions, much as has been the case with Russia over the past several years.

But, the same military leaders who still rule Egypt may calculate that standing up to America -- even in a way that sets back democracy AND may cost $1.5 billion a year -- is worth the risk, even the price, especially if it somehow keeps them in power and revives the U.S. role as bogeyman. The next step will be if Moscow decides to move back in after a 40-yet absence... The real losers continue to be the Egyptian people.

February 16, 2012

Gaming Iran, Europe, US, and Israel

For the past decade, Israeli and American officials -- and even Europeans -- have offered differing and changing estimates of when Iran might achieve a nuclear weapons capability, or even just when it will cross the threshold of having everything it needs on its own. Has Iran's program been so uneven, that these estimates keep changing? Yes, and no.

It's true, sanctions and other distractions (see under: Stuxnet) may undermine Iran's abilities to proceed, but the fact that different politicians and intelligence officials from different countries can't seem to agree, reflects something more tactical. If Iran is perilously close to a breakthrough -- say, less than one year away -- the Europeans can argue that it's already too late for further sanctions. On the other hand, if Iran is more than two years away, then what's so urgent about sanctions, anyway?? Part of the variation in U.S. and Israeli estimates is geared toward this sweet spot of European urgency.

Washington has an interest in delaying -- or determining -- the timing of a hypothetical Israeli attack against Iran's facilities, so better to say Iran isn't even close. Maybe Iran hasn't even yet decided whether to really go all the way... Of course, it's continuing the program, "just in case".

The Israelis will never be satisfied that any U.S. President is really on their side with this issue, so they need to keep us guessing.

Whatever any government or individual says, it stands to reason that Iran is pursuing its nuclear program as fast as it can. It's suffering mightily -- financially and politically -- so it may as well.

February 13, 2012

Iran already reaps nuclear benefits

Iran already enjoys a degree of nuclear prestige in its confrontation with Israel and around the Middle East.

How is Israel supposed to respond to the ongoing effort to attack Israeli and Jewish targets, including today's car bombs in New Delhi and Tbilisi? Since Israel needs to hold its fire, pending an all-out assault (as advertised) should Iran attain nuclear weapons status, it will be limited to responding in kind, or via proxy by attacking Hezbollah targets in Iran or elsewhere. And the mysterious assassinations of specific Iranian physicists and engineers will continue as needed.

Israel and the West may have little choice in the matter, given the very real implications of a nuclear Persia, and the difficulties of holding together a rough coalition of Europeans, Russia, and China. But it may be noted that, as part of our strategy against that nuclear contingency, we must limit our responses to threats or attacks that fall below the nuclear threshold.

In this sense, and only in this sense, the fact that Israel is deterred from responding in full force is analogous to the Cold War-era constraints of limited response. To avoid introducing all-out Soviet and/or Chinese intervention, the United States had to limit its own intervention in Korea and Vietnam, as well as Czechoslovakia and East Berlin.

Sanctions definitely bite, but -- by virtue of "almost" having nuclear weapons -- Iran today already has a freer hand to pursue its terrorist and other adventures, fairly secure in the knowledge that the punishment will never exceed what it can bear. The regime in Tehran can definitely taste the regional supremacy and impunity that await its full nuclear membership.

February 9, 2012

On Syria, Obama & Putin can afford to arm-wrestle

It's campaign season all around the world, and time to start picking fights.

At the United Nations, the U.S. and Russian ambassadors are openly disparaging each other over Syria, probably because they can afford to. The plight of thousands of Syrians is distressing, but neither country has a major stake in military intervention over there, especially as the United States is just catching its breath from the Iraq withdrawal and still trying to figure out an Afghanistan wind-down.

Iran is a different story. Washington truly needs Moscow's support or disinterest in order to impose effective sanctions and other forms of containment to turn back or limit Iran's nuclear defiance of the international community. In Iran, the United States sees fundamental national interests -- balance of power in the Middle East and protection of U.S. assets as well as defense of our borders. We also see a clear and present danger, if Iran achieves nuclear capability. Sure, we're very rah-rah on human rights and democratic agitation in the Islamic Republic, but it's all about stopping Iran from getting The Bomb.

In Syria, though we sincerely want to stop Assad Jr.'s bloody crackdown, we're not about to commit boots on the ground to stopping him. A UN Security Council resolution ordering him to restructure his own government, along with ever tighter sanctions, ought to suffice for now -- as long as we don't really need him to step down. And neither Washington nor Moscow wants to place bets on the political turmoil that would return to Syria after the Assads leave the building -- within line of sight to the Israeli border...

Whether intentionally or not, the "I know you are, but what am I" barbs being traded around the UN help boost Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin. Both men are seeking to repeat their past election victories and continue in leadership; in Putin's case he's sat out the past four years as Prime Minister and now seeks to return as President. Obama has regained much of the international influence we last enjoyed when Bill Clinton was in the White House, but it has come at the cost of appearing to get along with foreigners. As the Republican Presidential contenders compete over whether U.S. foreign policy should be either triumphalist or isolationist, it doesn't help President Obama to be seen as courting Russian cooperation where he doesn't really need it (e.g., Syria). For Putin as well, defying the United States on Syria (including sending his foreign minister to Damascus for an Assad pep rally) shows the Russian people that they still rate in the Middle East, and that he can still be a thorn in the side of the U.S. President.

In the grand scheme of things, nothing that happens in Syria is likely to activate the countdown to Armageddon. The future of the Middle East, and of the world's oil supply, will largely turn on Iran. The Israeli-Palestinian impasse is also impactful, but it remains in a vegetative state and there's little political value in Obama or Putin engaging there right now. Syria is safe ground politically, otherwise everyone would be behaving. And that's too bad for the Syrians.

February 4, 2012

On Syria, Russia & China are acting logically

I blogged some months back on why the Syrian people should not bank on international intervention to support their fundamental rights. Impressively, much of the international community has rallied to their cause. Not surprisingly, Russia and China have not. Without Russia and China, the United Nations Security Council cannot act decisively, and there are few feasible options absent Security Council authorization.

Russia and China continue weapons sales (cash) and oil deals (cash) with the second-generation Assad regime. For Russia, this is both a relationship inherited from Soviet days and a useful property stake in the Middle East. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia's global influence has been on the defensive. Thanks to Washington's own adventurism in the region during the last decade, Moscow has been able to promote its role as a Big Power protector of the "sovereign rights" of Syria, Iran, and even Libya -- a bulwark against the American bulldozer. How nice for them.

Beyond all the economics and expanding its markets in every region of the world, China has an abiding interest in discrediting any international intervention in domestic affairs. This applies to everything from human rights and the status of Tibet, all the way to Taiwan as a province of One China. The best way to remind the world to "Keep Out" is by drawing a line at any UN efforts to hold dictators to account.

The fact that the Arab League is suddenly falling over itself to demonstrate concern for victims of Arab dictators definitely complicates matters, but both Russia and China are acting in support of their regime interests -- and their national interests -- both with regard to Syria relations and to their respective goals in the region and globally. They certainly have little to gain by allowing Security Council authorization for any steps to rein in the Assad regime, especially in a way that bolsters the U.S. role and affirms U.S. support for the emergence of a new Arab League doctrine.