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May 28, 2013

Obama’s Myopic Myanmar Policy

May 25, 2013 by

President Barack Obama holds a bilateral meeting with President Thein Sein of Myanmar in the Oval Office, May 20, 2013. Lawrence Jackson/White House

In a recent meeting with Burma’s premier, Thein Sein, at the White House, President Barack Obama recognized his counterpart’s “genuine efforts” to assuage inter-communal tensions. Undoubtedly, Thein Sein was overjoyed to hear Obama refer to Myanmar instead of Burma. This symbolical approval of the former military state’s reforms underpins further nods for reforms that the country has undertaken.

Political and economic reforms in Burma, spearheaded by the ruling government, are aspiring vis-à-vis the country’s previous status of a pariah state. Democracy has taken root and the government has abandoned its long-standing policy of opposition suppression, in particular, silencing Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi along with 42 of her supporters from the National League for Democracy (NLD) won seats in the 2012 parliamentary elections.

Political and economic reforms have already started to pay off. One of the most significant moves by the Bank of Myanmar (the defunct Union Bank of Burma) is to float their already inflated currency, the Kyat. Under the previous exchange system where foreign currencies were devalued against the Kyat, the regime could cloak and appropriate the national revenues earned by exporting national resources like gas and wood. The government also enacted a Foreign Investment Law, which is considered investment friendly. Burma’s government is also allowing foreign institutions to lend money more freely.

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Syria as a Game-Changer

May 23, 2013 by

A young Syrian boy shows the peace sign in the Azaz refugee camp along the Syrian-Turkish border. Photo by Lee Harper

In an article published May 15, 2013, American historical social scientist Immanuel Wallerstein wrote, “Nothing illustrates more the limitations of Western power than the internal controversy its elites are having in public about what the United States in particular and western European states should be doing about the civil war in Syria.”

Those limitations are palpable in both language and action. A political and military vacuum created by past US failures and forced retreats after the Iraq war made it possible for countries like Russia to reemerge on the scene as an effective player.

It is most telling that over two years after the Syrian uprising-turned bloody civil war, the US continues to curb its involvement by indirectly assisting anti-Bashar al-Assad regime opposition forces, through its Arab allies and Turkey. Even its political discourse is indecisive and often times inconsistent.

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Diplomacy May Still Succeed in Syria

May 17, 2013 by

Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow

The Arab Spring that prompted the ouster of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya also led to the rise of Islamists who are bent on creating Islamic states that adhere to Shariah law — and that fate could await Syria after dictator Bashar Assad falls.  The democratically elected governments of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are either led or beset by Islamists.

Libyan President Mohammed Magerief, leader of the General National Congress, is at risk of being overthrown by the Islamist extremists.  Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki faces a similar challenge from radical Salafists — members of a fundamentalist Islamic sect.  Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood is pressing to create an Islamic state ruled under Shariah law.

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A Revolution in Digital Diplomacy

May 16, 2013 by

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey participate in a working dinner in the Red Room of the White House, May 16, 2013. Pete Souza/White House

The international system is in a rut and the archaic Westphalian global system of nation-to-nation dialogue is eroding. Short-term self-interest, sporadic technology attempts, and neo-realism appear to have divided the world. Country’s use diplomacy sparingly or in heavy handed ways. Cooperation is seen as a lost cause without hope. Militarism is on the rise and wars loom on the horizon.

Diplomats used to have face-to-face meetings with their counterparts in an embassy setting; replete with wood paneled meeting rooms. Today, diplomats enter a virtual world of international relations using avatars from thousands of miles away.  Prior to any agreements, dignitaries and envoys review their options together with open simulations, ensuring themselves the most peaceful outcomes and stable relations. Rival nations compete through the use of war games with their own strategists and military attachés as national players.

Nations evaluate the results of virtual diplomacy and virtual war with a sophisticated team of experts and artificial intelligence arbiters. Peace is achieved. The winners gain fame in annual competitions, prize money or real territory is exchanged—no human beings needlessly lose their lives in the process of international relations.

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Arab Spring’s Impact on Sub-Saharan Africa

May 11, 2013 by

Ethnic Tuareg in Northern Mali. Image via Foreign Policy

In 2011, the actions of a young street vendor in Tunisia initiated a movement that reverberated throughout the Arab world. Bouazizi’s startling act of self-immolation highlighted the subdued political dissatisfaction brewing within the modern Arab state. Within weeks, the leadership of Tunisia had fallen to dissident forces, and one by one other nations followed suit. Hundreds of people were left dead in what many considered political martyrdom while US policymakers struggled to react to the sudden change in this Arab state.

As the Center for Strategic and International Studies observed, “the fact that no one had even appeared to entertain the possibility of events unfolding in the way they did raises troubling questions about the assumptions made about countries and the strength of the contingency plans put in place to deal with unexpected events.”

With Africa’s increasingly potent ties to the Middle East under the southern spread of Islam, the extension of Arab Spring’s effects into its sub-continental region could threaten US influence in what has historically been a region of Westernized colonialism, a growing example of globalization, and a testimony to the effects of aid on influence. Should the events of Arab Spring cause a significant impact on Sub-Saharan Africa, the US would be faced with either setting a precedent for other Western nations, or remaining silent in what could be a massive allegiance sector for the Middle East.

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Time to Strengthen the Cuban Embargo

May 9, 2013 by

Street scene in Havana, Cuba. rickroma78/Flickr

When thinking of U.S.-Cuba relations, the trade embargo, or el bloqueo, is first and foremost on people’s minds. In 2009, President Barack Obama eased the travel ban, allowing Cuban-Americans to travel freely to Cuba, and again in 2011, allowing students and religious missionaries to travel to Cuba, as recently demonstrated by American pop culture figures, Beyoncé and her husband Jay-Z. Despite a history of hostile transgressions, the U.S. is inconsistent with its implementation of the embargo, which sends mixed signals to Havana and displays our weak foreign policy regarding Cuba.

Undoubtedly, Cuba is capitalizing on this weakness by using the embargo as a scapegoat for all of its woes without any immediate fear of reinstated restrictions. Because the goal is to promote Cuban democracy and freedom through non-violent and non-invasive means while refraining from providing any support to the current oppressive Cuban government, the current legislation regarding the embargo and travel ban against Cuba needs to be modernized and strengthened. The need for an embargo has never been more important or potentially effective, even considering the current human rights and economic arguments against the embargo.

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‘Imran Khan, Jewish agent’: Welcome to the Wonderful World of Pakistani Politics

May 7, 2013 by

International cricketer-turned-politician and leader of the opposition party Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice), Imran Khan speaks to supporters, during an election campaign in Lahore Pakistan, 05 May 2013. Rahat Dar/EPA

Imran Khan sustained head and back injuries due to a fall as he was preparing to address a rally in the posh suburb of Gulberg in Lahore on May 7.  With his fall the Pakistani election campaign assumed a more humane dimension, with all and sundry sending messages to Imran Khan and suspending any recriminations against him in campaign rallies. But the question has arisen as to whether Khan’s accident will significantly impact on the outcome of the elections on May 11.

The debates and discourse on Pakistan’s foreign policy in the election campaign provide some answers to this question.  Sitting at a strategic crossroads, with a long border with and history of involvement in Afghanistan, the international context plays a particularly important role in Pakistani politics.

The Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) party led by the well known cricketer-turned-politician (Khan), the Pakistani Muslim League led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam led by Fazal-ur-Rehman (JUI-F) are the main players in the current campaign.

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The Impeding Funding Gap in Afghanistan

May 2, 2013 by

Afghan President Hamid Karzai looks on as President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, May 1, 2012. Pete Souza/White House

One of the most pressing issues currently facing Afghanistan is the difficult economic transition set to occur at the end of 2014. Although security is the concern that grabs headlines, it’s the economy, and the ability of the Afghan government to afford itself, that will determine the long-term success of the Afghan state. Sadly, it is highly unlikely that the Afghan government will be able to domestically source revenue to cover the military and security expenses it faces, let alone finance development and the social safety net, thus far provided largely by NGOs and donors nations, that the population has come to expect.

Although significant funding has been committed by donor nations it falls well short of the $10 billion a year through 2025 that President Hamid Karzai asked for. The $10 billion request represents significant figure for foreign donors, between 61% and 78% of GDP depending on which GDP estimates are used. The $4 billion committed by the international community at the 2012 Tokyo Donors Conference is not even a sure thing, as donor fatigue and historic failures to live up to development aid commitments are likely. This means, in the best-case scenario, that the government of Afghanistan would face a budget shortfall of at least $6 billion a year starting in 2014, but odds are it will be far greater.

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The White House’s Flawed North Korea Strategy

April 24, 2013 by

President Barack Obama meeting with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in the Oval Office. Pete Souza/White House

In the current crisis on the Korean Peninsula the Obama administration is virtually repeating the 2004 Bush playbook, one that derailed a successful diplomatic agreement forged by the Clinton administration to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons. While the acute tensions of the past month appear to be receding—all of the parties involved seem to be taking a step back— the problem is not going to disappear and, unless Washington and its allies re-examine their strategy, another crisis is certain to develop.

A little history.

In the spring of 1994, the Clinton administration came very close to a war with North Korea over Pyongyang’s threat to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, expel international inspectors, and extract plutonium from reactor fuel rods. Washington moved to beef up its military in South Korea, and, according to Fred Kaplan in the Washington Monthly, there were plans to bomb the Yongbyon reactor.  Kaplan is Slate Magazine’s War Stories columnist and author of “The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War.”

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25 Steps towards a Smarter U.S. Foreign Policy

April 21, 2013 by

Pictured: Chuck Hagel answers a question during his confirmation hearing in the Senate Armed Service Committee in Washington D.C.

Major events like September 11th, the US invasion of Iraq, and the global financial crisis disrupted the Western-driven globalization process and revitalized a state-centric political model of the world. Although the US chose an economic-centered globalization strategy and relied on international political institutions in the 1990s, national sovereignty became the new norm and the global system shifted from globalist rationale to geopolitical realism. Fear, war, the threat of war, provocation, territory, regional influence and military build-ups weakened international institutions as nation-states countered each other to reassume power.

There is now an unfettered international political instability crisis as a result of stalled engines of globalization all stemming from this neglect of the “political” dimension in the international system. The decline of liberal international foundations did not occur because people no longer desired them, but because of the lack of a strong ideological commitment from the world’s declining superpower and partners. The consequences of rising authoritarian states present crisis conditions for international liberalism and stability. They are also now in direct proportion to the decline of the Western political influence. Thus, as the West weakens, other challengers will present and push their perception of what they desire the global system to become.

Smaller states through international organizations are gaining influence in uniting the world against the economic and political models of Western liberalism. Russia, China, Venezuela, Cuba, Iran, and Pakistan are making increasingly threatening advances, from warning and rhetoric, to alliance building. These states claim Western “aggression” is pouring into their regional spheres of influence. Regional organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the G77, and the Union of South American Nations are moving past the resistance of collective movements toward promoting an alternative global system. Other states like China and Russia are strictly engaging in increased bilateral diplomacy with smaller states to increase their influence, and these countries’ propaganda and public diplomacy initiatives are far more advanced than the US’s ability to counter it.

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North Korea: Enter Realpolitik

April 20, 2013 by

Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on April 13, 2013

Will President Obama become a late and unlikely convert to realpolitik and allow John Kerry to sacrifice America’s nuclear non-proliferation principles on the battered altar of North Korean diplomacy?  And will the fearsome pivot to Asia turn into a dainty pirouette, an American pas de deux with China as the two great powers search for a way to dance around the North Korean nuclear problem?

Potentially, the North Korean nuclear crisis is a good thing for the US and South Korea-and perhaps even for China!—if President Obama is ready to bend on some cherished non-proliferation beliefs.  That’s what the North Korean leadership is begging him to do, amid the nuclear uproar.

Obama’s Secretary of State, John Kerry, seems to be interested in getting, if not on the same page, in the same chapter with North Korea, and maybe pick up a geopolitical win (with Chinese acquiescence) similar to the successful effort to push Myanmar (Burma) out of its exclusive near-China orbit.

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Nuclear Disarmament Precedents

April 12, 2013 by

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Image via Iran’s Presidential Office

Last week’s nuclear talks between U.S. and Iranian officials in Kazakhstan stalemated, despite positive statements before the meeting. Negotiators could take a lesson from their hosts, who in the early 1990s surrendered their nuclear capability to Russia. Kazakhstan gave up 898 warheads and, by 1996 had destroyed its missile silos originally designed for the SS-18. Ukraine and Belarus also gave up its nuclear capabilities. Azerbaijan and the Baltic republics transferred their nuclear weaponry to the Soviet Union before its demise. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan moved their weapons to Russian territory by May 1992.

Anti-nuclear sentiment is strong in the post-Soviet Republics. The late President Heydar Aliyev of Azerbaijan declared nuclear weapons “a threat to mankind.” He told the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization that “The main goal of mankind is to stop the production of nuclear weapons, or at least the goal should be to stop testing them.” Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev closed the Soviet test site Semipalatinsk even before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. “Thousands of Kazakhstan citizens of different ages joined together in the anti-nuclear movement, which overwhelmed the whole country.”

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Turkey’s Unsustainable Middle East Politics

April 3, 2013 by

President Barack Obama participates in a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem, March 20, 2013. Pete Souza/White House

‘Confused’ may be an appropriate term to describe Turkey’s current foreign policy in the Middle East and Israel in particular. The source of that confusion - aside from the appalling violence in Syria and earlier in Libya – is Turkey’s own mistakes.

The Turkish government’s inconsistency regarding Israel highlights earlier discrepancy in other political contexts. There was a time when Turkey’s top foreign policy priority included reaching out diplomatically to Arab and Muslim countries. Then, we spoke of a paradigm shift, whereby Ankara was repositioning its political center, reflecting perhaps economic necessity, but also cultural shifts within its own society. It seemed that the East vs. West debate was skillfully being resolved by politicians of the Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, along with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, appeared to have obtained a magical non-confrontational approach to Turkey’s historic political alignment. ‘The Zero Problems’ policy allowed Turkey to brand itself as a bridge between two worlds. The country’s economic growth and strategic import to various geopolitical spheres allowed it to escape whatever price meted out by Washington and its European allies as a reprimand for its bold political moves – including Erdogan’s unprecedented challenge of Israel.

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Syria’s Multi-Sided Chess Game

March 31, 2013 by

Free Syrian Army fighter Mohammad Jaffar patrols a street in Bustan Al Basha, one of Aleppo’s most volatile front lines, Oct. 22, 2012. Sebastiano Tomada/Sipa USA

In some ways the Syrian civil war resembles a proxy chess match between supporters of the Bashar al-Assad regime— Iran, Iraq, Russia and China—and its opponents— Turkey, the oil monarchies, the U.S., Britain and France. But the current conflict only resembles chess if the game is played with multiple sides, backstabbing allies, and conflicting agendas.  Take the past few weeks of rollercoaster politics.

The blockbuster was the U.S.-engineered rapprochement between Israel and Turkey, two Washington allies that have been at loggerheads since Israeli commandos attacked a humanitarian flotilla bound for Gaza and killed eight Turks and one Turkish-American. When Tel Aviv refused to apologize for the 2010 assault, or pay compensation to families of the slain, Ankara froze relations and blocked efforts at any NATO-Israeli cooperation.

Under the prodding of President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoned his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and buried the hatchet. The apology “was offered the way we wanted,” Erdogan said, and added “We are at the beginning of a process of elevating Turkey to a position so that it will again have a say, initiative and power, as it did in the past.”

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John Kerry in the Middle East

March 26, 2013 by

  • Image via State Department

    Israeli students welcome U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry prior to President Obama’s speech at the Jerusalem Convention Center on March 21, 2013.

  • Image via State Department

    President Obama and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry are greeted by Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun, left, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, upon arrival at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on March 22, 2013.

  • Image via State Department

    Secretary of State John Kerry and Jordan’s King Abdullah II chat as Air Force One departs Amman on March 23, 2013.

  • Image via State Department

    Secretary of State John Kerry visits Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at his home in Amman, Jordan on March 23, 2013.

  • Image via State Department

    Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before their working dinner in Jerusalem on March 23, 2013.

  • Image via State Department

    Secretary of State John Kerry greets the flight crew that transported him to Baghdad, Iraq on March 24, 2013.

  • Image via State Department

    Secretary of State John Kerry steps off military transport in Baghdad, Iraq on March 24, 2013.

  • Image via State Department

    Secretary of State John Kerry greets Iraqi Council of Representatives Speaker Usama al-Nujayfi in Baghdad, Iraq on March 24, 2013.

  • Image via State Department

    Secretary of State John Kerry surveys Baghdad as he travels to meetings during an unannounced stop to Baghdad, Iraq on March 24, 2013.

  • Image via State Department

    Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iraqi Council of Representatives Speaker Usama al-Nujayfi in Baghdad, Iraq on March 24, 2013.

  • Image via State Department

    Secretary of State John Kerry flies over the Arch of Triumph in Baghdad, Iraq during his visit on March 24, 2013.

  • Image via State Department

    Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hand with U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James B. Cunningham after arriving at the Kabul Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on March 25, 2013.

  • Image via State Department

    Secretary of State John Kerry steps of a U.S. military helicopter upon arriving in Kabul, Afghanistan on March 24, 2013.

  • Image via State Department

    Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan on March 25, 2013.

  • Image via State Department

    Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai during a joint press conference at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan on March 25, 2013.

  • Image via State Department

    Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, Afghanistan on March 25, 2013.

  • Image via State Department

    Secretary of State John Kerry tours local businesses in Kabul, Afghanistan on March 26, 2013.

  • Image via State Department

    Secretary of State John Kerry (center), U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham (near left), and Senior Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan David Pierce (near right) participate in a roundtable discussion with elections stakeholders in Kabul, Afghanistan on March 26, 2013.

  • Image via State Department

    Secretary of State John Kerry looks out the window of a Blackhawk helicopter as he flies over Kabul, Afghanistan, March 26, 2013.

  • Image via State Department

    Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to U.S Embassy Kabul staff and families in Kabul, Afghanistan on March 26, 2013.

  • Image via State Department

    Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with U.S. Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, as U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James Cunningham listens, in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 26, 2013.

  • Image via State Department

    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry departs the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in a U.S. military Blackhawk helicopter on March 26, 2013.

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