Foreign Affairs: Glancing About for Hints of Good News

I have been writing this blog for over two years and have never felt so overwhelmed by trying to understand international events as I have lately.   Secretary of State John Kerry is hopping around the world dealing with hot spots so frequently I wonder how he can recall what he is supposed to be doing at any given moment.   I get confused just rushing  to the next room.

John Kerry - Saving Face

John Kerry – Saving Face (Photo credit: DonkeyHotey)

I’m not even positive where he is right now, maybe Washington, but a couple of days ago he was in Vienna trying to finish up that nuclear deal with Iran by this Sunday deadline.   He said there are “real gaps” in the negotiations but we have  a few days to hope.

Some good news came when Kerry was in Afghanistan late last week.  He brokered a deal between presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani who had both contested election voting results to agree to abide by the results of an audit.  We’ll have to see how well the loser and his followers abide by that recount, but at least we no longer have Hamid Karzai bugging us at every call.

While Kerry is busy elsewhere, the Egyptian government has tried to broker a cease fire between Hamas and Israel, but from the hope perspective I should have written this sooner as Hamas has refused the deal and Israel seems to be ramping up its attacks on Gaza (tired as they are of Hamas lobbing hundreds of missiles at them for months).

The one positive I see here is that Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is no friend of Hamas, unlike the Muslim brotherhood who formed the government before him.   That means they have less access through Egypt for various forms of support.   On the other hand, that may be one reason Hamas did not approve their deal as they don’t think of Egypt as an “honest broker”.   Hard to find a ray of hope here.

Where I do see hope is in the Ukraine.   True, Russia and Ukraine are exchanging heated words about cross border shellings and that might get out of hand, but I still doubt Putin wants to send his troops across the border.  The Ukraine is an economic mess he doesn’t want to own.  I think he would rather deal with Ukrainian President Poroshenko’s than make war against him, but all of his bravado about protecting Russians everywhere has put him in a bind as Poroshenko’s troops have shown a willingness to fight now and they are squeezing the rebels.   A delicate situation, but my sense is this will be worked through without Russian troops pouring across the border (if I’m wrong, I’ll get back to you).

A more chaotic situation than Ukraine at the moment is Iraq, though yesterday the parliament finally elected a speaker. a Sunni moderate.   This is the first step to then finally forming a new government in six weeks (details here).   Real slow p9key I know, what with ISIS doing its best to threaten Bagdad, but there are signs of infighting between ISIS and other Sunni militants that is a plus for the government.

Also, given all the enemies ISIS has developed as mentioned in a previous post, I find it hard to believe they can actually succeed in their quest to establish a new Muslim empire.   Unless, of course, they are destined by Allah to do so.   Whatever, they can cause a hell of a havoc while trying.

Finally, while Syria remains the problem from a hell, it seems worth mentioning that the deal struck months ago between the Russians, Assad and us about the destruction of chemical weapons there has actually accomplished the destruction of most of them, at least the worst.  That achievement doesn’t get the attention it deserves because  “crises” grab more attention than solutions.

It also points to the necessarily fragmented nature of our foreign policy these days in response to an increasingly fragmented world.   Necessary because while at times we seem close to playing bullets and bombs with Russia in one spot, we are working with them in many others.   With other countries as well, as is likely happening in Iraq in quiet ways now.    In a future post I will say something about the tension between a foreign policy based on a desire for international stability, and other ways to serve self-interest as well as democratic values, a tension difficult for us to deal with which also makes policy erratic, which is not always a bad thing, yet is always lambasted as such.

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IRAQ: Who is Nouri al-Malaki?

Yes, Prime Minister of Iraq.  But who is he as a man, a man our government did much to promote to his present position and continued to back through the G. W. Bush and Obama administrations, but now is commonly seen as the biggest stumbling block to any real effort to unify the country.

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Iraqi...

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki after a joint press event on Camp Victory, Iraq, April 7, 2009. Obama spoke to hundreds of U.S. troops during his surprise visit to Iraq to thank them for their service. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I read that the Iraqi Parliament,  scheduled to meet tomorrow, Tuesday, has put off meeting until August 12.   Basically it seems they have not found a way to move forward and select a Prime Minister.  More deals and arm twisting seem in order.

Al-Malaki has asserted that they first must deal with the ISIS threat and then deal with national unity issues, but there is much opposition to his remaining PM, even within the Shia community.

While the ISIS campaign to conquer the country has stalled somewhat, much of that seems to be a matter of their just not having enough warriors – usually estimated at around 10,000 – to continue to expand their authority.  Of course, they receive some military support from various Sunni tribes, and what seems tacit support from many more (all of which is impossible to sort out), but the government forces are holding their own better right now.  Even taking back some territory.

However, none of that really addresses the basic issue of Iraq unity, which the Kurds are quite willing to do without, as both them and the Sunnis are fed up with unity meaning a centralized al-Malaki government marginalizing them into second class citizens, especially the Sunnis.

Given the centrality of al-Malaki’s role in what’s next and to help clarify how we got to this point, I recommend reading this editorial by Ali Khedery:  Why we stuck with Malaki and lost Iraq in the Washington Post.  From 2003 to 2009, Khedery ” was the longest continuously serving American official in Iraq, acting as a special assistant to five U.S. ambassadors and as a senior adviser to three heads of U.S. Central Command.”

In short, he’s been a veritable fly on the wall over years of key American diplomatic discussions on Iraq.  Also, he knows al-Malaki well, even considering him a friend whom he backed early to become Prime Minister.  By 2010, though, he came to see him as the biggest stumbling block when it comes to Iraqi unification.   Khedery was part of the Bush administration that basically plucked al-Malaki from obscurity and boosted him to his present position, but then argued in 2010 with the Obama administration, albeit in vain,  that they must find someone other than Malaki to back.

In short, Khedery, unlike so many other commentators, seems most interested in telling what happened rather than trying to score political points.   He blames himself for helping the Bush administration promote al-Malaki to power and blames the Obama administration for continuing to back that unwise choice:  “By looking the other way and unconditionally supporting and arming Maliki, President Obama has only lengthened and expanded the conflict that President Bush unwisely initiated.”

The editorial is quite long, so you might want to skim some of it, but it offers numerous interesting insights, such as the dominant role Iran has attained in shaping the politics of Iraq.  The piece is an antidote to the spin from both parties blaming each other for the failed state that Iraq has become.

IRAQ: Parliament Procastinates on Selection of Prime Minister

Today I thought we might have a new prime minister in Iraq, but the parliament wound up not having a quorum and putting off meeting for another week.   Parliament had a quorum when they began to meet, but after a 30 minute break, they lost it as 90 members did not return.   According to CNN the speaker of the parliament said:  ‘”We are going to postpone because of an urgent matter,’…..  (but) he did not say what the urgent matter was, and it was not immediately clear what happened.”

Map of Iraq, where Yahya ibn Umar conducted hi...

Map of Iraq   (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Clear as mud, right?  But clearly not a  good sign, with the possibility of a decision as to prime minister dragging on and on.   How can a united front be developed to oppose ISIS when they can’t even form a government?

Government sources report successes of the military against ISIS, but these reports have often conflicted with reports of individuals on the ground, so the actual success of al-Malaki’s forces is open to question.

They did receive about a dozen fighter jets from Russia recently and expect them to join the fight over these next few days.   But while the ISIS tide might be stemmed for now, a likely lame duck al-Malaki is not someone who inspires troops to risk their lives while facing fanatics as their frequent collapse in recent weeks reflect (yes, I know that many of them were soldiers of Sunni ethnicity, the least likely to want to fight, but troops of all stripes fled right along with them).

While Baghdad is shilly shallying an ISIS  spokesman declared themselves the  rightful leader of all Muslims Sunday.  You have to be impressed by their audacity if nothing else, as this puts them squarely at odds with all sorts of other Muslims, including many Sunni’s who might hate al-Malaki but are not ready to submit to this new caliphate, meaning a Muslim empire like in the good old days of Mohammed.  And then there is what once was their parent organization Al-Queda, which disowned them back in February because they would not follow orders.

Imagine this:  Al-Queda and the U. S.  have a common enemy.  It almost seems it has become ISIS, or the Islamic State, what they want to be called now, against the world.    With Russia supplying jets to Baghdad, Syrian jets attacking some of the ISIS strongholds, Iran sending munitions and and I don’t know what else, and also a little help from us, with likely more to come if they could form an inclusive government……  Can you imagine a meeting somewhere between a CIA guy with representatives of all of those entities to establish some sort of communication so at least they don’t trip over each other in their efforts to crush ISIS?   Well probably not including Al-Queda, but we are reaching bizarro world at this point.

On the surface one would think the “Islamic State” has bit off more than it can chew, but while its actions have produced many enemies, they undoubtedly are  attracting many true believers willing to die for the grand vision of a restored caliphate.  With a chaotic government situation in Baghdad and the odd assortment of backers indicated above, much havoc seems likely in Iraq’s near future to say the least.  And where might it spread?

Check out this CNN report for more details on the current situation including links to other sources at the bottom of the article.  One is to a series of maps which help clarify the struggle.  And one of the maps shows where oil is distributed throughout the country, mostly in Shia and Kurd territories, which would be a sticking point if the three major groups could come to the conclusion  of breaking the country apart.