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“The worst day in Western diplomatic history”

The Obama administration’s actions and inactions in Syria have undermined the global chemical weapons regime.

The Telegraph has called September 9, 2013 the “Worst day in Western diplomatic history.”

A series of rather spectacular gaffes on Syria have hurt the Obama administration’s credibility at home and abroad. Syria, however, only represents a microcosm of the Obama administration’s disastrous handling of affairs in West Asia since the beginning of popular uprisings in the region in 2010.

Perhaps swayed by public sentiment or by a desire to not be seen as being interventionist, the Obama administration watched as despot after despot was dethroned in the Middle East.  This was good, many people argued, because “democracy” was an idea that had finally arrived in the Middle East.  The people had spoken.

Except that the institutions for democratic governance weren’t there in the Middle East nor could they be built overnight.  Thus, those who rode momentary popular waves of support to assume leadership in these countries simply carried on in the ways of the last usurper by accumulating power, subverting law and silencing opposition.  Three years on, not only is there no democracy in the Middle East, the region is now significantly more volatile than during the last three decades of rule by U.S.-allied strongmen.  Large swathes of Syria and Libya are now controlled by Islamist militias, many of whom are allied with al-Qaeda.  Egypt is on boil as the Muslim Brotherhood spars with the Deep State.

In Syria — like in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya — the Obama administration chose not to intervene militarily when uprisings against the regimes broke out.  Choosing not to intervene then in Syria made sense.  U.S. interests in Syria are limited and Syria has never been a U.S. national security priority.  But the humanitarian crisis that resulted from the battle between insurgents and Bashar al-Assad’s regime concerned many, including the U.S., which pushed for a Coalition of the Somewhat-Willing to provide arms and ammunition to the Free Syria Army and other rebels, but not intervene directly in the conflict.  Two years on, the battle for Syria is still inconclusive and the civilian death toll is well over 100,000.

Having decided against direct intervention in 2011, Mr. Obama erred in declaring an arbitrary “red line” for U.S. military action in Syria to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.  The red line is arbitrary because a precedent for intervention on the grounds of the use of chemical weapons by one party in a conflict simply does not exist.

In fact, as this piece from The George Washington University’s National Security Archives tells us, Saddam Hussein’s “almost daily use” of chemical weapons against Iran and Kurdish insurgents were “known-knowns” to the U.S. when Donald Rumsfeld met with Mr. Hussein in 1983 to discuss, among other things, their mutual antipathy towards Iran and potential alternate routes to transport Iraq’s oil to the U.S.:

The U.S., which followed developments in the Iran-Iraq war with extraordinary intensity, had intelligence confirming Iran’s accusations, and describing Iraq’s “almost daily” use of chemical weapons, concurrent with its policy review and decision to support Iraq in the war [Document 24]. The intelligence indicated that Iraq used chemical weapons against Iranian forces, and, according to a November 1983 memo, against “Kurdish insurgents” as well [Document 25].

Following further high-level policy review, Ronald Reagan issued National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 114, dated November 26, 1983, concerned specifically with U.S. policy toward the Iran-Iraq war. The directive reflects the administration’s priorities: it calls for heightened regional military cooperation to defend oil facilities, and measures to improve U.S. military capabilities in the Persian Gulf, and directs the secretaries of state and defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to take appropriate measures to respond to tensions in the area.  It does not mention chemical weapons [Document 26].

Soon thereafter, Donald Rumsfeld (who had served in various positions in the Nixon and Ford administrations, including as President Ford’s defense secretary, and at this time headed the multinational pharmaceutical company G.D. Searle & Co.) was dispatched to the Middle East as a presidential envoy…

Rumsfeld met with Saddam, and the two discussed regional issues of mutual interest, shared enmity toward Iran and Syria, and the U.S.’s efforts to find alternative routes to transport Iraq’s oil; its facilities in the Persian Gulf had been shut down by Iran, and Iran’s ally, Syria, had cut off a pipeline that transported Iraqi oil through its territory. Rumsfeld made no reference to chemical weapons, according to detailed notes on the meeting [Document 31]. [National Security Archives]

So having committed to a “red line” which had no precedent,  the Obama administration was put in a fix when intelligence reports recently emerged of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian insurgency.  Mr. Obama’s enthusiasm for a limited military strike against the Assad regime wasn’t shared by all.  Many in the U.S. questioned the value of a limited strike, while the UK voted against participation in a military operation against Syria.

Even as momentum towards a military strike against Syria was being built,  U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry bizarrely ad-libbed his way into declaring that military operations would be put on hold if Syria turned over its chemical weapon stockpile.  The Russians and Syrians capitalized on Mr. Kerry’s statements; U.S. military operations against Syria are now on hold, pending U.S.-Russian discussions in Geneva on the logistics of negotiating the Assad regime’s surrender of its chemical weapons stockpile.

These events have effectively left in tatters both the Obama administration’s credibility in the region as well as the collective efforts of the last thirty years towards an international regime against the use of chemical weapons.

Deterrence works only if punitive responses to non-compliance are credible.  In this case, either the Assad regime calculated that its use of chemical weapons would go undetected or that detection would not matter because the U.S.’s ability to make good on its threats was not credible.  This has proven to be the case.  The Obama administration’s handling of the situation in Syria undermines the Chemical Weapons Convention and sets a poor precedent on the future use of chemical weapons.

Others might rightly conclude that the costs of using chemical weapons will be insignificant and can be absorbed.  As long as promises are made to the effect that any existing stockpiles of chemical weapons — post-use — are relinquished, no harm will come of them.  Considering the logistical challenges inherent in both verifying the destruction or surrender of chemical weapons stockpiles, and the ease through which new chemical weapons stockpiles can be built (relative to, say, nuclear weapons), this is a bargain most countries will take.

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Burning the Quran is a bad idea

Turn up the heat on Terry Jones.

News media in the U.S. is inundated with reports about Terry Jones, the pastor from Gainesville, Fla., whose church, the Dove World Outreach Center,  intends to burn copies of the Quran on the ninth anniversary of 9/11.  Visible support for Dr. Jones is limited (unsurprisingly) to the likes of Ann Coulter, who once said, “we should invade [Muslim] countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.”

Thankfully, saner voices have come out in condemnation of what Dr. Jones and his church propose to do.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the pastor’s plans “distasteful,” while commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus advised against burning the Quran.  Even former Alaska governor, Sarah Palin, who spent much of August 2010, campaigning against the construction of the Park 51 mosque near Ground Zero, asked the pastor to “stand down.” Social networking sites such as Facebook have been awash with supporters and opponents alike. Understandably, this is an emotive issue.

But the question here is not about freedom of expression.  Were it so, this would have been an open and shut case.    Dr. Jones’s objectives and the manner in which he seeks to execute them confirm that he is less keen on testing the boundaries of constitutionally guaranteed freedoms than he is on  inciting a particular community.

I do not disagree that Dr. Jones and his group have the “right” to burn the Quran.  I am also less interested at this point in the narratives of tolerance and morality. However, American citizens and the U.S. government ought to be concerned about how such acts will be perceived in the Islamic world.  Acts such as these, could potentially incite violence against U.S. citizens or U.S. interests, including its embassies and companies, in other parts of the world.  These could be perpetrated in countries where the U.S. is not directly engaged in war, and by people who would not normally be perceived by the U.S. as combatants.  There is no reason any of them should suffer on behalf of Dr. Jones or his political motivations.

This also has the potential to inflame passions against minority communities in the U.S. itself, similar to those incidents that occurred in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, where there was a spike in racially motivated attacks in the U.S.

The State Department has sent cables to U.S. diplomatic posts internationally instructing ambassadors to emphasize that the event, if it does go through, does not reflect the views of the U.S. government.  State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley hoped that these actions would be seen as those of “a small fringe group.”  News media commentators in the Islamic world, however, have no time for such nuances, largely because they would be against their own interests.  This event, if it goes through, will be painted as having been blessed by the White House — many in the Islamic world will not want to see a difference between Terry Jones and Barack Obama. In fact, as if on queue, Nawa-i-waqt already unleashed a preemptive editorial (اردو) on the issue.

In an offline conversation, my INI colleague JK pointed to me this quote from Heinrich Heine — “when they burn books, they will ultimately also burn people.”  Very apt, I thought, and advise that Dr. Jones and his church will hopefully heed.

 

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Salaam, Washington

Navigating the nuances of the Indo-US relationship.

Much has been written about the impetus being given to the Indo-US partnership in the context of the strategic dialog between Secretary Clinton and Mr. Krishna in Washington, D.C.  For her part, Mrs. Clinton has tried to stay on message, terming Indo-US relations an “affair of the heart, not just of the head.”

As a precursor to the SM Krishna–Clinton moot, U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs William Burns spoke at the Council for Foreign Relations on Indo-US relations, attempting to dispel the notion that the Obama administration had “downgraded” ties with India or that the U.S. was attempting to “re-hyphenate” its relations with India and Pakistan.  Truth be told, while U.S. articulations are perhaps needed to temper the noise being generated by sections of the media, they may not have been altogether necessary for those studying Indo-US relations in the context of a rapidly changing world.  And despite the statements made by Secretary Clinton and Mr. Burns, a few points need elaboration.

First, while there is broad, bipartisan consensus on expanding Indo-US ties in the United States (a rarity in and of itself), there are differences on the specifics of what this should entail and how they should be operationalized. The Obama administration defines this partnership within the constructs of leveraging India’s growing global economic profile to tackle regional and global issues — climate change, nuclear non-proliferation, energy and trade security and ensuring checks and balances to China’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean.  In this respect, Mr. Burns’ comments on dialog between India and the U.S. on East- and Southeast Asia is important.

Second, it is important for India to understand the limits to this engagement, at least as far as the Obama administration is concerned.  Some of these limits are imposed by ideology and some by compulsion.  While sharing India’s concerns on jihadi terrorism emanating from Pakistan, the U.S., however, is constrained by its own involvement in the region and on how much it can prod Pakistan into taking any meaningful action on terror originating from its soil. The Obama administration is similarly unable to engage with India in a manner that would appear provocative to China.  And many will argue that given China’s importance to India’s own economy, neither would India.

What this means for India is that it cannot expect the U.S. alone to fully address its security concerns in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the larger region.  The folly of throwing your lot in with a singular power should be more apparent to India now than ever before. Affairs of the heart notwithstanding, securing India’s strategic interests in the region must be driven through multilateral engagement with like-minded regional actors, and not by blind faith in any one power.  In this regard, working with the Russians and Iranians on balancing power equations in Afghanistan is imperative.  It remains to be seen if Mr. Krishna’s recent visit to Iran helped in arresting New Delhi’s diminishing goodwill in Tehran.

Next, on defense procurement, India must be clear about where its defense gaps are best addressed by technical expertise possessed by U.S. companies and must resist the temptation to be over-enthusiastic in trying to please Washington.  Across the services, our weapons are primarily of Russian origin and there isn’t an immediate need to drastically alter this.  Russia is able to offer Indian defense companies opportunities that perhaps the U.S. is unable to — from Technology Transfer Agreements (TTAs) to joint production.  However, U.S. technology and systems can play a pivotal role in the development of India’s power projection capabilities –  from refuellers to transport and surveillance aircraft — and it is here that a meaningful and mutually beneficial partnership can be forged.

That the Obama administration appears to be redoubling efforts to engage with India is encouraging (providing access to David Headley is an important first step); but this is no different from either the Clinton or George W. Bush administrations in their initial years, where preoccupation with the economy and the war on terror allowed for limited bandwidth on Indo-US relations.  This has, in the past, resulted in the necessity to “re-boot” (to borrow an IT expression) Indo-US relations each time a new president took the oath of office in the White House.

Even today, U.S.’s India policy is being driven by people who are not India-experts; indeed, officials in the Obama administration charged with policy formulation and operational aspects relating to Indo-US relations are mostly either experts on East Asian affairs or on Af-Pak.  As India and the U.S. aim to significantly upgrade co-operation on regional and global issues, U.S. administrations must ensure that their India policy teams are appropriately staffed.  Neither India nor the U.S. can afford the extended learning curve each time a new administration comes into office.

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Sauce for goose

The China-Pakistan nuclear deal: where have all the ayatollahs gone?

The Guardian carried a rather sensationalist piece by Chris McGreal on how Israel had, at one point, offered to sell nuclear weapons to South Africa.  Some in the United States are fuming at the idea that a U.S. “proxy” considered selling nuclear weapons to an “autocratic, unstable state” (South Africa was under apartheid at the time) — somehow, apparently, this undermines the U.S.’s “moral authority.”  It is another matter entirely that this report had little factual basis.

In fact, the outrage that is non-story has generated has largely obscured the very credible, and potentially significant story coming out of Beijing:

Chinese companies will build at least two 650-megawatt reactors at Chashma in Punjab, the Financial Times said.A statement posted on the website of the China National Nuclear Corporation on March 1 said the financing for two new reactors at Chashma was agreed by the two sides in February.

“Our Chinese brothers have once again lived up to our expectations,” the Financial Times quoted an unidentified Pakistani official as saying of the deal, which would help Pakistan cope with a crippling energy crisis. “They have agreed to continue cooperating with us in the nuclear energy field.” [Dawn]

Some sources indicate that the U.S. is unlikely to broach this issue with the Chinese.  In some ways, the Obama administration may feel that this alleviates its own moral burden, faced with increasing pressure from Pakistan for a civilian nuclear deal.  Of course, the administration would be missing the point — Pakistan’s desire for civilian nuclear energy is subordinate to its desire for parity with India in the eyes of the U.S. In that regard, Pakistan’s quest for a nuclear deal with the U.S. has nothing to do with its need for nuclear energy.

The implications of  specific aspects of the China-Pakistan deal will need to be further examined when more information is made available.  If their previous track records are any indication, these reactors will not be subject to IAEA safeguards or inspections.   Other questions exist — will China seek to “grandfather” the new reactors with those it built in Pakistan prior to joining the NSG?  If not, how could China possibly  ensure that an exception is made for Pakistan at the NSG in the event that the reactors are kept out of IAEA’s purview?

Purely from the perspective of strategic balance in South Asia, this deal may not alter much.  However, a couple of issues need to be considered in light of this deal. First, the impact of this deal is of greater consequence to the Middle East than it is to South Asia — particularly to Saudi Arabia and Iran.  Saudi Arabia’s “nuclear-capacity-by-proxy” strategy has paid rich dividends via Pakistan’s frantic acceleration of weapons production on its behalf.  Two 650 MW reactors will give this cozy arrangement fresh impetus, if any was needed.  By extension, this puts considerable strain on Iran’s own nuclear program.

Second, what does the deal say about non-proliferation ayatollahs in the Obama administration? Clearly, altered dynamics after the economic crisis, and China’s importance in negotiating through the nuclear issue with Iran leaves the U.S. with minimal leverage over China.  China, for its part, is using the opportunity to violate the spirit of those existing non-proliferation regimes on a technicality.  Of course, it has been doing this for ages, rather clandestinely.  Now, it does so brazenly.

There may be little that India can do to prevent the deal from going through.  In this context, the 2010 UN NPT RevCon directive to India (and Israel) to sign the NPT is absurd and deserving of contemptuous dismissal. A world order where global nuclear non-proliferation regimes attempt to shackle, curtail and impose significant costs on those willing to abide by established norms, but lack the capacity to punish those who willfully violate them in letter and spirit is unacceptable.   The necessity for India to be at the forefront of defining a new world order where verifiable, non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament is the objective, is felt more acutely now than ever.

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