The escalating rhetoric on Iran is converging this week with a high-profile visit from Israeli PM Netanyahu and AIPAC's annual conference. Israeli hard liners and their American supporters have been pressuring the President for weeks to toughen up his position on Iran, emphasize military options, and to articulate concrete "red lines" - Iranian actions that would spur a military response from the US. The President took the stage at AIPAC to reassure the audience that he stands with Israel and is working diligently to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The President's two-track strategy--which led with the option of diplomatic rapprochement and then pivoted to tough sanctions--has been credited by many analysts as causing significant economic turmoil in Iran and isolating them internationally in unprecedented ways. The fact remains that while no one can guarantee that the Administration's strategy will prevent Iran from developing nuclear capability, the hawks calling for air strikes certainly have not made any kind of compelling case for what that end game looks like and how we would deal with the massive regional instability that would result.
Daniel Levy penned an interesting piece analyzing some of the behind-the-scenes politics and strategy on the Israeli side and concludes that Bibi probably won't attack Iran. It's a great read for some background on the closed-door debates likely to be happening in Washington this week. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney has seized the opportunity to try and criticize Obama's Iran policy and cast him as weak on the Middle East. His argument, however, seems unlikely to resonate when his characterization of what a Romney foreign policy would look like is virtually identical to the one advanced by President Obama. Romney's suggestion that he "will have those military options...and will take those crippling sanctions and put them into place," could be verbatim from any White House press release. In trying to contexualize all of the noise on Iran, I highly recommend this radio clip from last week's On The Media, in which New York Times reporter Scott Shane explains the way that media coverage of Iran is impacting public opinion. Interesting stuff.
Putin Claims Third Term
Sunday night saw Vladimir Putin shed tears as he claimed a third term as Russian President amid a backdrop of protests and allegations of electoral fraud. This result is anything but shocking, with international election observers promptly issuing a report revealing that the entire election left much to be desired: “Although all contestants were able to campaign unhindered, the conditions for the campaign were clearly skewed in favor of one candidate. Also, overly restrictive candidate registration requirements limited genuine competition. While all candidates had access to media, one candidate, the current Prime Minister, was given clear advantage in the coverage… The process deteriorated during the count which was assessed negatively in nearly one-third of polling stations observed due to procedural irregularities.” After the results were announced, police arrested more than 500 protestors and Putin reportedly paid $10 a head in order to fill the seats at a dramatic victory party.
The details of Russia’s rocky experience with democratic governance is less important in the short term, however, than how Putin chooses to play his cards on other regional and strategic issues. The Secretary-General of NATO issued a statement expressing his confidence that the organization will continue to collaborate on issues of importance—such as missile infrastructure and Afghanistan. The continuity of government in Moscow will also have important implications for the ongoing international response to the crisis in Syria. Russia recently vetoed a Security Council resolution on the subject, seeking to protect their long-time ally and warm-water naval base. US and European officials will have to wait and see whether the security of a six year Presidential term will make Putin more or less inclined to come to the table and engage with the West.
Today we're launching a regular feature called Foreign Policy Chat. I'll be highlighting a few daily stories that are driving the chatter in foreign policy circles, providing interesting links, and offering some brief analysis. I welcome your feedback and comments. Stay up to date throughout the day via Twitter by following @BradEEB and #FoPoChat.
As the Syrian rebels have been forced into a “tactical retreat” from Homs and the SNC struggles to establish the ability to effectively represent the Syrian people, debate continues in the US about aid and possible intervention. GOP presidential candidates have criticized the President’s failure to act militarily, but proponents of intervention have failed to confront the stated logistical concerns of nearly all top policy makers from the White House, Capitol Hill, and NATO. A CNAS report by Marc Lynch, published last week, convincingly argues that intervention or arming the rebels stands little chance of improving the situation on the ground and would likely make the conflict far more bloody. Until the hawks can articulate a reasonable path forward that addresses all of the tactical and strategic problems, their position simply isn’t credible.
Foreign Policy and the 2012 Election
With the economy slowly improving and polls trending positively for Democrats, GOP operatives are beginning to suggest moving the national debate onto issues of foreign policy. Two of the political architects behind George W Bush’s failed foreign policy misadventures, Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, recently penned an article arguing that the President is weak on security issues and vulnerable on foreign policy. The irrationality of their arguments, however, has been exposed by two compelling rebuttals: One by Stan Greenberg and Jeremy Rosner; the other by Michael Cohen. While Rove and Gillespie’s assertions about Obama’s vulnerability are largely baseless, this debate suggests that we’re going to be hearing a lot more about foreign policy between now and November. NDN’s own Simon Rosenberg recently explored how Obama’s Middle East strategy will likely fit into forthcoming Republican attacks.
This week saw a surprise announcement that the US had struck a deal with the North Koreans to freeze their nuclear program, discontinue missile tests, and allow UN inspectors in exchange for significant food aid. Secretary Clinton characterized the move as a “modest step forward,” while North Korea experts Victor Cha and Ellen Kim argued that this may be a bad-faith ploy from a Pyongyang leadership with no real intention to make lasting changes. Critics are right to be skeptical. The long-running pattern of North Korean behavior suggests that the cat and mouse game over their nuclear program is far from over. This latest move occurring so closely on the heels of Kim Jong Un’s ascension, however, is almost certainly positive. Many analysts were afraid that the younger Kim would feel compelled to flex his military muscles in order to earn the respect of the military establishment. The fact that he feels comfortable enough to make any nuclear deal with the US seems to suggest that it’s unlikely the regime will aggressively lash out in the near term.
- Apple reached a deal with China Unicom-- China's second largest cell phone operator-- to sell the iPhone in China. Seems like a good move for China Unicom-- they have less than a third the number of customers as China Mobile (the biggest mobile operator in the world, by that metric), but offer a faster, more mature 3G network better suited to the data-intensive iPhone. This should help China Unicom solidify and grow their market share among China's urban elites, letting China Mobile keep their 500 million (!), mostly low-cost, low-bandwidth customers.
-Safaricom, Kenya's biggest mobile operator,has just introduced the first solar-charged mobile phone into the Kenyan market. The solar technology is about a lot more than being green-- for people in rural areas, beyond the reach of the electrical grid, electricity is perhaps the biggest obstacle to mobile use. Charging a phone means sharing a generator, or travelling to a town with reliable electricity. This solar phone will give millions of rural Kenyans a new way to join the global information network.
- The government of Ghana will not grant licenses to any more mobile network operators, to preclude further crowding of the industry, and to attempt to raise quality of service standards for all operators. Limiting competition doesn't seem like the best path forward here. A better policy solution would be to force operators to allow customers to keep their phone numbers if they switch carriers-- this would give mobile phone users the power to vote with their Cedis and migrate to the operators with the best service. (via Appfrica)
- In other Ghana news, Globacom, a new mobile phone carrier, is the process of laying high-bandwidth cables that will run from Europe, through Ghana, to Nigeria. Though very few Ghanaians have landline access to the web, the cable will make internet access faster and more readily available.
- Yesterday, I wrote that Nokia is getting into the mBanking space with a new service. Now, Facebook is beating a path in the same direction, with an early experiment to allow users to pay for services using their cell phones. This seems to be the first step toward a whole new currency traded largely by mobile... Exciting stuff. (via Mobile Active)
- While we were up at Netroots Nation, another convention was going on in Accra-- Maker Faire 2009-- where African innovators and inventors gathered to show off their work-- everything from cassava crushers to mobile apps. Here's a video about the proceedings:
- A 2 1/2 year investigation by the House Judiciary Committee into the Bush Administration's dismissal of federal prosuectors in 2006 ended yesterday, with the release of thousands of pages of once-secret testimony and internal e-mails. Karl Rove and Harriet Meiers don't come out looking too good.
- Rep. Adam Schiff, who was involved in the investigation wrote about it on HuffPo.
- President Obama is taking on the lies around health care with his own series of town halls.
- Seyward Darby at TNR looks forward to the 2010 census, and sees twelve kinds of trouble brewing.