Richard Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of a number of books on American foreign policy.
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Richard Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of a number of books on American foreign policy.
The US Constitution gives considerable latitude to the president to make foreign policy and on Wednesday Barack Obama exercised it in a big way. Describing US policy towards Cuba as outdated and unsuccessful, he initiated a new approach to the island nation that sits just 150km off the coast of Florida.
The two countries will re-establish diplomatic relations, including opening embassies in one another’s capitals. Co-operation will expand on technical issues ranging from counter-terrorism to combating disease. Cuba will soon be removed from the list of countries accused by Washington of supporting terrorism. Many Americans will find it easier to visit Cuba, spend and remit money there and bring cigars and rum back home. Read more
The nuclear talks involving Iran and the P5+1 countries – the US, the UK, France, Russia, China and Germany as well as the EU – are heading into their second stretch of overtime. The announced intention is to resume talks on Iran’s nuclear programme, producing the outlines of a pact by March 1 and a complete accord by the end of June 2015.
You can almost hear the sighs of relief, not just in London but in Washington and throughout the US, over the resounding “No” vote cast in Scotland. Irony aside – the fact that Americans once put their lives on the line to break free of the British seems to have been forgotten – the sense is that one of this country’s most important friends and allies has dodged a bullet.
It did in fact. A “Yes” vote would have badly unsettled financial markets, generated a political crisis and created severe governing questions for the UK. Such an outcome also would have likely stimulated other separatist movements in Europe and beyond, in the process reinforcing the already widespread impression of a world coming apart. Read more
The US and much of the world have been rudely awakened to the fact that the group formerly known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant is both a dangerous terrorist organisation, and considerably more than that. The deadly reality of its capabilities and ambitions is captured in the latest title by which Isis styles itself: the Islamic State. It is a de facto government with evolving borders that seeks to impose its vision of society on the millions of people over whom it rules. And, as it has dramatically shown since the capture of the Iraqi city of Mosul in June, it seeks to expand its borders and the numbers subject to its control.
The biggest question now facing western states is what to do about Syria. Iraq’s neighbour is where Isis established itself and from where it directs its operations. The fact is that the world cannot defeat Isis in Iraq, or limit its potential elsewhere, if it continues to enjoy sanctuary in Syria. Yet this is a country whose president, Bashar al-Assad, stands accused by the west of war crimes as part of an onslaught against his own citizens that has fuelled a conflict costing almost 200,000 lives. Read more
What the world saw last Thursday evening was an American president torn between personal preferences and cold reality. The result is a US that is once more moving towards greater military involvement in Iraq – but only reluctantly and incrementally.
Describing himself as someone who ran for office “in part to end our war in Iraq and welcome our troops home”, Barack Obama announced a policy of dropping supplies to save thousands of members of the Iraqi Yazidi religious minority – and authorised but did not order air strikes on advancing insurgents from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (known as Isis). Read more
A century after the British and French foreign ministers sat down to draw the map of the Middle East, the region they created is unravelling by the hour. The potential for prolonged political-religious wars within and across boundaries, involving both local and foreign forces and militias and governments, is great.
There are several explanations for our arrival at this point. The US decision in 2003 to oust the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, followed by policies that reinforced sectarian rather than national identities, is one. This also helped to bring about a region in which Iran was left with few constraints on its ability to back Shia factions in Iraq, up to then its main regional rival, and elsewhere.
Barack Obama’s long-anticipated speech on Wednesday at West Point, the US Military Academy, was designed to answer a growing number of domestic critics of his foreign policy, who believe he is not doing enough to advance American interests around the world. It was also intended to push back against the growing tide of isolationism in a country preoccupied with domestic challenges and disillusioned with the results of long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the address was meant to reassure America’s friends around the world.
Not surprisingly so ambitious a speech, aimed at so many audiences, failed to meet any, much less all, of its goals. Read more
The champagne (or, under the circumstances, the apple juice) was chilled. The relevant foreign ministers beckoned. It looked as if all was ready to allow the signing of an interim or limited agreement that would freeze elements of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for a partial relaxation of much of the rest of the world’s economic sanctions. But then things unraveled. Is it time for a new approach, where all parties ditch interim negotiations and jump straight to final-status negotiatiobns? Read more
The most significant diplomacy surrounding the opening of this year’s UN General Assembly did not involve Syria but Iran. What was agreed with Tehran is potentially significant. Talks will focus on nuclear issues. The rationale was straightforward: if nuclear talks succeed, everything else is possible; if no nuclear deal is reached, nothing else will matter.
Once there is agreement on an end-game, the sides will negotiate the pace and sequencing for getting there. Thus implementation will be step by step, but the parties will know what the final step will require before they take the first one. Read more
Putin can fairly claim to have won this round of diplomacy, through his own cleverness and Obama’s multiple missteps, but he cannot assume it is the harbinger of a trend, much less an era of global politics Read more
Foreign policy is often difficult, as the crisis in Syria all too regularly shows. But the Obama administration has made a difficult situation much worse by articulating a series of objectives (“Bashar al-Assad must go”; “Chemical weapons use crosses a red line”) and policies (“we will arm the opposition”) and then failing to follow them through. Requiring authority from Congress at the eleventh hour introduced further undesirable uncertainty. Improvisation and policy making on the fly can be disastrous.
Adding to the difficulty is the reality that US interests are greater than Washington’s influence; the options that exist are few and in every case come with drawbacks. Nevertheless, the US does have real interests, some intrinsic to the situation and some of its own making. What is more, not acting is as much of a policy choice with consequences no less significant. Which is to say declaring Syria to be “too hard” and throwing up one’s hands in exasperation is not a strategy. Similarly unhelpful at this point are claims that if only the world had acted earlier there would be better choices now; that may be the case, but it is irrelevant. Read more
The British Parliament’s rejection of a motion endorsing UK participation in expected military action against Syria is nothing less than stunning – an event with a political significance that transcends the immediate debate over whether and how to respond to what appears to have been wide-scale use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces against civilians in their own country. Read more
With much of the world’s attention fixed on the drama playing out in the streets of Egypt, the civil war in Syria that has claimed as many as 100,000 lives grinds on in the shadows. But new allegations of massive use of chemical weapons by the regime of Bashar al-Assad have once more brought Syria into focus and raised anew the question of what more, if anything, should be done to stop what is going on there.
The US, France and the UK have called upon the UN Security Council to undertake an urgent investigation of this latest evidence of the possible use of chemical weapons that may have caused the deaths of hundreds. Meanwhile, Barack Obama’s administration is in a grave predicament, much of its own making. The US president has, on several occasions, declared that Syrian use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line”, constituting a “game changer” that would alter his calculus of what his country was prepared to do. Read more
Events are moving so far and fast in Egypt that it is difficult to follow, much less take stock of, what is transpiring. But stock-taking is needed all the same as what is said and done (and not said and not done) in the coming hours and days could prove crucial to developments there and beyond.
The just-ousted President, Mohamed Morsi, often spoke about how his legitimacy stemmed from victory at the polls. What he failed to understand is that legitimacy in a democracy transcends the ballot box; elections are necessary but hardly sufficient. In the way he ruled over the past year, Mr Morsi squandered his legitimacy and his opportunity alike. Millions of Egyptians protested in the streets as they felt excluded from meaningful political participation and fearful that Egypt’s first real election would prove to be its last. Read more
The tie to the US was for Thatcher an article of faith. It didn’t matter that this faith was not always reciprocated. American reluctance to back the UK fully against Argentina was more a source of disappointment for her than a cause for rupture. The same was true for the Reagan administration’s embarrassing failure to consult before introducing military forces into Grenada. Read more
John Kerry’s maiden voyage as US secretary of state includes four stops in the Middle East: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. As the saying goes, he has only one chance to make a first impression – and what is said and not said on this visit will have repercussions for years to come.
Stopping first in Egypt made sense given its centrality to the Arab world and its continuing turbulence. It is impossible to know with certainty the message Mr Kerry conveyed in private to his hosts. But one hopes he introduced a sense of strict conditionality into US policy. The aim should not be that President Mohamed Morsi and his government succeed no matter what. Rather, US policy should be that Washington is prepared to work with and on behalf of Mr Morsi and a Muslim Brotherhood-led government only so long as they demonstrate a sustained commitment to pluralism at home – and to acting as a reliable partner abroad, be it with regard to Israel, Iran or Hamas. Read more
The November election had many consequences, but few may be as profound as its impact on the likelihood of immigration reform.
Why? It has a good deal to do with domestic politics. One out of every six Americans is of at least some Hispanic heritage. The Republican party will not continue to be a national party able to compete successfully in presidential elections unless it embraces a more open approach toward immigrants and immigration. It doesn’t hurt that two potential Republican nominees in 2016—former Florida governor Jeb Bush and current Florida senator Marco Rubio—are strong advocates of just such change. Read more
Israel needs to put Hamas to the test. It can do this by putting forward the outlines of a fair and comprehensive settlement and a reasonable path for getting there. The US should work closely with Israel in framing this proposal. Secretary of state Hillary Clinton should use her time in Israel to urge this course at the same time she helps piece together a truce. Her goal should be to stimulate a debate in the Arab and Palestinian worlds that would pressure Hamas to change its ways or risk being caught between those who even more radical and those prepared to compromise. Read more
We are now a year and a half into what many persist in calling the Arab Spring even though there is no end in sight to the turbulence and it is hardly certain to have a happy ending.
Nowhere is this more the case than in Egypt, the most populous and by many measures the most important country in the Middle East. Read more
Asked at a recent press conference whether he still considered Iraq to be “a dumb war”, President Barack Obama carefully replied: “I think history will judge the original decision to go into Iraq.” Now that the last US combat soldier has departed Iraq, thereby bringing to an end almost nine years of American fighting, it is not too soon to take the president up on his challenge and to start writing history.
The fact that the 2003 Iraq war was a classic war of choice does not automatically make it a mistake; it does, however, raise the bar. Unlike wars of necessity, which by definition must be fought no matter what the costs given the stakes and the absence of alternatives, wars of choice are only justified when the benefits clearly outweigh the costs.
Like all wars, the Iraq war holds any number of lessons, but I would highlight one above all others. It is that local realities matter far more than global or geopolitical abstractions. This was true in Vietnam; it is no less true now in Afghanistan. What is called for is awareness of what we do not know and humility in what we try to bring about. Read more
Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya have had their turn; now Syria occupies centre stage. More than 1,000 people have been killed in recent fighting, while hundreds of thousands still risk their lives challenging the regime. Syria’s future rests on whether a handful of Alawite generals are prepared to keep killing their fellow citizens to preserve the Assad regime and, more fundamentally, Alawite primacy. The outside world, fearing the alternative and bogged down in Libya, is little more than a bystander. Syria’s violence is just one further sign that the promise of the Arab spring has given way to a long, hot summer in which the geopolitics of the Middle East are being reset for the worse.
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