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Even the pros of attacking Iran are bad ideas

Conservative British journalist and historian Paul Johnson has a rambling op-ed in Forbes, supposedly on the possibility of an Israeli "surgical strike" on Iranian nuclear facilities. What's worth pointing out is this error in logic that Johnson makes, which is similar to a flawed assumption made by many Iran commenters:

Knocking out Iran's nuclear capability would be much more difficult because of the distance to be covered by Israeli aircraft and because the plants are underground. These difficulties must be weighed against the fact that the Iranian regime is unpopular everywhere because of its recent crooked election and the savagery with which protests against the results were put down.

The implication here is that, while the "con" to launching an attack on Iran is that it would be logistically difficult for Israel to do, the "pro" to this debate is that the Iranian government is unpopular and not very legitimate. Wait a minute. Wouldn't bombing Iran be very unpopular with Iranians? Couldn't this, just maybe, undo the very unpopularity and illegitimacy with which the Iranian regime is now saddled? Further on in the piece Johnson admits as much:

What we don't know is if a successful Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would discredit the regime to the point that it would be forced out of power or if such an attack would be used to discredit the opposition, causing Iranians to close ranks behind their extremist leaders. [emphasis mine]

Generally, when bombs fall on people, they get mad at the people doing the bombing. It's a simple enough lesson, but one that many, in their unconsidered haste to bring about the regime's downfall, miss quite entirely. The second of Johnson's possibilities, or a version of it at least, seems much more likely to result from a missile attack; this would only enhance the government's hardline posture, and give needless credibility to its attempts to focus attention on outside "enemies."

Plus, who in their right mind would suggest a bombing campaign if we don't even know what the results of a successful attack would be? Missiles fired by armchair hawks tend to do a lot less damage than those that actually create the messy carnage of reality.

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Bill Clinton chooses diplomacy over nuclear self-destruction

On Bill Clinton's successful diplomatic trip morally repugnant capitulation to North Korea, Spencer Ackerman's satirical take is all you really need to consult:

In an unforeseen turn of events, Bill Clinton strapped himself with nuclear weapons and detonated during a meeting with Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang. The former president's inability to free imprisoned American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling ended in carnage, the only diplomatic language the North Koreans understand. Clinton, recognizing that diplomacy was useless, bit his lip sorrowfully and expressed regret that so many had to die in the name of American prestige, according to a suicide note obtained by this blog.


Back in the United States, conservatives expressed relief that Clinton chose an honorable end to his life. "Diplomacy with the North would be the worst of all possible options," said Rep. Guy "Whitey" Corngood (R-Ark.), a longtime Clinton critic. "Bringing those two Americans back without incident would have represented an unacceptable humiliation for this country." Attempts to reach John Bolton, a former undersecretary of state and U.N. ambassador in the Bush administration, were unsuccessful, but associates said Bolton credited Clinton for posthumously vindicating his worldview and that the former diplomat was considering a courtesy call to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to express condolences.

What makes this morbid telling (Bill Clinton did not actually blow himself up, and did successfully negotiate the release of the American journalists) even funnier is that John Bolton could be reached, and, predictably enough, still thought that Clinton's visit did nothing but "reward[] bad behavior" and "legitimize the [North Korean] regime." That, and, well, accomplish the only goal that he had in going over there.

I'm consistently struck by how ironically similar the likes of John Bolton are to Kim Jong Il and North Korea's power-obsessed cadre of leaders. The only ones who think that an insignificant sop to the latter's silly sense of pride amounts to a serious concession by the United States are the North Korean leaders themselves and, well, Boltonites. Only these two groups of dolts take what Bolton calls "gesture politics" as a matter more serious than actual politics and policy -- which, once again, resulted in North Korea releasing two wrongly imprisoned journalists and the United States giving up nothing more than a day of face time with Bubba.

(image from flickr user Creative+ Timothy K Hamilton under a Creative Commons license)

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With North Korea, two can’t work without six

I've been on vacation for the past week-plus, so I missed the (admittedly not very "new") news that North Korea wants to join "a specific and reserved form of dialogue" -- in other words, the bilateral talks with the United States that Pyongyang has long sought.

Is this business as usual with North Korean diplomacy, is it the strategic counterweight to its past couple months of brazen missile launches, or is it, as FP's Brian Fung suggested, "a unique opportunity" for making progress?

I respect Brian's points -- that the six-party talks haven't been too successful, that the resulting stalemate may have benefitted North Korea's cause, and that the specific aims of the other five parties have been frustratingly divergent -- but I'm not as open to his conclusion. Not that I support the misguided notion that meeting with the leaders of nefarious countries should be held out as some kind of "reward;" that's nonsense, as I've blogged previously. But one should be a bit suspicious before acceding to exactly what North Korea wants -- particularly when, as in this case, the issue is actually one of excluding other parties, not whether or not to conduct diplomacy.

Going at the North Korean nuclear issue through the six-party talks is the only acceptable option here for precisely the reason that the relevant actors -- China, the United States, South Korea, Japan, and Russia -- are "working at cross-purposes" on seemingly everything else. In other words, North Korea's nuclear program is the only thing they do agree on -- namely, that Pyongyang should not be in possession of nuclear weapons. North Korea, of course, feels differently, but backing out of the six-party talks would be as short-sighted as has been the U.S. policy of insisting on North Korean disarmament before any concessions are made. Bilateral negotiations aren't a concession, but the only way I see them working is as part of a communicative regional strategy.

(Maybe North Korea's real purpose in seeking bilateral talks with the United States is to gain the know-how to upgrade its fastfood offerings from "minced beef and bread" to a verifiable hamburger.)

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Diplomats accuse Congressional Coup Caucus of stoking Cold War fears

To mark the one month anniversary of the military coup that deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, select press, think tankers, members of the diplomatic (including at least a dozen ambassadors "from Canada to Chile") gathered at the Argentine Embassy in Washington for a reception for the Minister of Communications for the "Constitutional Government of Honduras" Enrique Reina.  

Reina is actually a bit more than the minister of communication for the deposed Honduran government.  When the military launched its coup, it had an ally in the Honduran ambassador to the United States, Roberto Flores Bermudez.  This caused a schism within the embassy, with about half the Honduran foreign service loyal to Zelaya and half following the ambassador.  The United States revoked the former ambassador's visa, and since then Reina has acted as the "constitutional government's" representative in the United States. 

I had the opportunity to talk to Reina and a number of other South American diplomats and gauge their reaction to the machinations of certain members of congress, led by Connie Mack of Florida, that are supportive of the de-facto Honduran government.  Mack recently returned from Honduras. And, via The Hill upon his return he had this to say:

"The Organization of American States, State Department and Obama administration got it wrong," Mack said. "We're siding with the OAS and Chavez and Castro and that group over an ally." Mack said Zelaya "is playing a game here and Hugo Chavez is pulling the strings."

Reina and nearly all of the South American diplomats with whom I spoke made the similar point that sentiments like this harken back to the bad old days of the Cold War -- a time when the United States viewed Latin American governments in clear dichotomy between left and right. Left bad. Right good.  End of story. 

But in this case, the entire world (save a handful of Republican members of the United States congress) have united around Zelaya.  Left wing Latin American governments like Venezuela find themselves on the same side of the debate as right wing governments of Columbia. This suggests that the coup transcends politics.  As one Latin American diplomat told me, "We have all seen what a coup is.  When you wake the president up at five in the morning with a gun to his head and kick him out the country that is a coup!"   

The one place where the coup has apparently not transcended regular politics is the United States Congress. 

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The power of 1874

One of the snippets from Hillary Clinton's ASEAN speech in Thailand tomorrow, as obtained by Laura Rozen:

We are also asking every country to join in demanding transparency from the North Koreans.  A recent incident involving the North Korean ship, the Kong Nam, led the United States to conduct intensive conversations with states in the region to avert North Korea's efforts to send shipments abroad without declaring their contents.  We were pleased that the ship turned around and returned home. The bottom line is this: If North Korea intends to engage in international commerce, its vessels must conform to the terms of 1874, or find no port.

1874, of course, is UN Security Council Resolution 1874, which carries with it the remarkable power to make North Korean cargo ships cryptically turn around before they can deliver any nuclear material (to Burma or elsewhere).  Well, okay, maybe the U.S. destroyer following the North Korean ship had something to do with it.

Still, the resolution, which also tightened sanctions on top North Korean officials, has certainly brought some pressure to bear, and it's good to see that it forms the crux of the U.S. position on the matter.  1874, agreed to by even frequent Pyongyang ally China, represents the best leverage the international community has right now, both because of its own strengths, and, more importantly, because of the consensus that it brought together.

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Abyei loses an oil field, Sudan gains better prospects for peace?

As Mark forecasted, The Hague's Permanent Court of Arbitration handed down a ruling today on Abyei, the contentious border area that could prove the tinderbox for renewed civil war in Sudan.  A bit surprisingly, the ruling effectively favored the North, shifting the borders of Abyei to award valuable oil fields to the government in Khartoum.  Even more surprising, though, is that -- for now at least -- everybody seems happy with the decision.

Mutrif Siddig, the Sudanese foreign ministry under-secretary, said that Wednesday's decision was a "step forward".

"We respect this decision. And this decision is final and binding because all the parties agreed from the beginning that the decision of the court was binding and final," he said.

Riek Machar, a representative of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), which heads an autonomous regional government in the south, said that he hoped that the ruling would increase the chances for peace.

"We want peace. We think this decision is going to consolidate the peace," he said. "We came to see justice and it's a decision we will respect."

Such punctiliousness is nice and all -- particularly on the part of the South, which could be aggrieved at the ruling -- but I don't exactly share U.S. Sudan Envoy Scott Gration's robust optimism at these rhetorical promises.  It's worth remembering that a deal was reached four years ago, through an objective commission that determined fair boundaries for Abyei, and that that ruling was also supposed to be "binding and final."  Diplomatic niceties were followed up to -- and no farther than -- the point of actually implementing the agreement.

One of the authors of the previous Abyei commission report, the very knowledgeable Douglas Johnson, says that "each side can come away feeling that they have been given something from this arrangement."  If that's all it takes to get a viable resolution of the border dispute, then an oil field or two seems worth trading for peace.  Let's hope both North and South Sudan agree.

(image from UN Photo)

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North Korea sanctions

Those sanctions that were tightening (ahead of schedule) on North Korea -- they are tight indeed.  The asset freezes and travel bans hit the officials and companies most directly responsible for the country's nuclear program.  Pyongyang won't react well verbally, to be sure, but they have to be feeling this one in their pocketbooks.

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Amnesty for everyone in Honduras?

Because there is a unified international front (aside from, ahem, a handful of members of the United States Congress) it is almost assured that Honduran President Manuel Zelaya will return to office.  What's being hashed out in negotiations, overseen by Costa Rican president Oscar Arias, are the precise terms of his return. 

According to news reports, it seems that amnesty is in the offing for both Zelaya and the coup leaders. This is obviously an expedient solution, but there is a down side to letting everyone off the hook.  The coup was a subversion of the rule of law. Any long term solution to the crisis in Honduras must include efforts to bolster the rule of law.  Amnesty has exactly the opposite effect. 

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Cooperative foreign policy

I disagreed with Peter Scoblic Beinart on another point earlier, so but I have to give him Peter Scoblic credit for nailing the essence of Hillary Clinton's speech yesterday:

If the speech was long, the key point was simple: Essentially, the secretary seemed to be saying that, despite the grave dangers we face--indeed, because of the very character of those threats--the emphasis in U.S. foreign policy today must be on cooperation rather than conflict. Not because the world is suddenly a friendlier place, but because meeting threats bluntly may be ineffective or even counterproductive.


(I also agree with his colleague Michael Crowley on why the media seems determined to interpret everything that Clinton does into a silly Obama vs. Hillary storyline.)