As western leaders prepare to strike Syria, many ordinary people and observers, inside and outside the Middle East, are inevitably drawing parallels between this attack and the US-led war on Iraq a decade ago. Whether in its complicated ethnic composition and its prospects for further violence, in the weapons of mass destruction as a trigger for military action, or in the questions of legality and the likely diplomatic bypassing of the UN security council, a growing perception is that we are about to witness a repeat of recent history.
The Middle East is such a complicated place that these perceptions are not unreasonable. It’s not easy to make sense of Sunni versus Shia, Alawite versus Sunni, regime versus jihadis. Also complex is the debate over legality versus legitimacy of intervention. Western shifts of policy can be confusing, from watching tens of thousands of Syrians slaughtered to declaring the death of hundreds in an alleged gas attack a moral obscenity that cannot go unpunished. Read more
By Gideon Rachman
The pace of events in the Middle East has quickened once again. More than two years since the start of the Arab spring, the facts on the ground can still change so rapidly in the region that western governments struggle to keep pace. Last week Barack Obama had convened an emergency meeting to discuss the violent crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, only for the US president to find himself confronted with an even more dramatic challenge – a chemical weapon attack in Syria.
Video footage showing rows of children in burial shrouds and doctors desperately trying to save other victims shocked the world on August 20. What appeared to be a chemical attack on rebel-held suburbs of the Syrian capital was the latest in a series of allegations that the regime of Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons in its war against the armed opposition. Just over a year ago, Barack Obama, the US president, vowed that any use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war would be a ‘red line’ that would provoke US intervention in Syria’s conflict. But despite acknowledging that Mr Assad has used chemical weapons, the US has so far failed to take action. Here is a timeline of US statements on chemical weapons and allegations of their use in Syria.
July 23, 2012 The Bashar al-Assad regime confirmed for the first time it possessed chemical weapons, saying it would use them in the case of Western military intervention but never against the Syrian population.
August 20, 2012 President Barack Obama announces his “red line” for Syrian intervention, threatening “enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.”
December 6 2012 The White House expresses concern that the Assad regime “might be considering the use of chemical weapons” and that the Syrian authorities would be “held accountable by the United States and the international community if they use chemical weapons or fail to meet their obligations to secure them”. Read more
Protesters in Berlin compare US President Barack Obama with the former Eastern German secret police, the "Stasi" (Getty)
Washington would like to brush aside European indignation with a spot of Latin.
The Obama administration is coming under intense criticism from many parts of Europe after Der Spiegel reported the US has been bugging various European Union offices. European politicians have accused the US of treating the EU as an “enemy” and of a return to “Cold War practices”.
The reaction in Washington has been to invoke the international law doctrine known as “tu quoque”, which translates as “you, too” or as the Pentagon described it during a similar late-90s bout of European anger about US spying: “A nation has no standing to complain about a practice in which it itself engages.” Read more
The liberal hawks are back. That, at least, is the superficial reading of the shake-up in the Obama administration foreign policy team that was announced on Wednesday, with Susan Rice replacing Tom Donilon as national security adviser and Samantha Power taking her place as ambassador to the United Nations.
Two years ago, Ms Rice and Ms Power played an important role in persuading President Barack Obama to intervene in the conflict in Libya. Given that the administration is now agonising over whether to do the same in Syria, the obvious question is whether their promotions will shift the debate about US involvement in that conflict. Read more
As Barack Obama visits Israel and the Palestinian Territories this week, he will doubtless find that one issue tops all others for the Israeli government: the need to persuade him to make a firm commitment to take military action over Iran’s nuclear programme if negotiations to scale back Iranian ambitions eventually break down.
President Obama said recently that he does not think Iran will be in position to get a nuclear weapon for at least another year. But Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s PM, is still looking for a firmer commitment from the White House that if the Iranians take their nuclear capability beyond a certain point, the US will take military action.
Whether differences between the US and Israel will be closed on this trip – or at some other point – is far from clear. Although it says Iran must not get a nuclear weapon, the US administration certainly views the timeframe for the Iranian programme in a more relaxed way than the Israelis do. Read more
Photo by Getty
“If I had to do it over again, I’d do it in a minute.” Proud, unrepentant, unreflecting, these are the words of Dick Cheney in a new documentary to be aired on American television on Friday evening.
The film is being released a few days before the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, but it is not the place to go for a candid reassessment of the war. Mr Cheney admits that “we did not find stockpiles” of weapons of mass destruction, but he adds: “We did find that he had the capability and we believed he had the intent.”
He is equally unflinching in his support for torture and other controversial aspects of the war on terror. “It isn’t so much what you achieved as is what you prevented,” he says. Read more
Facing a grilling: Chuck Hagel (Getty)
Chuck Hagel’s keenly awaited confirmation hearing on Thursday to be the next US defence secretary is likely to be dominated by the hot-button issues that have already got him into trouble with some of his fellow Republicans (and a few Democrats) – his position on Israel, his opposition to Iran sanctions, his criticism of the Iraq war and his views on gays.
If so, that will be a shame, because it would be both interesting and important to hear him explain what his brand of “principled realism” actually means for US foreign policy. The hearing could provide a seminal debate on America’s global role. Here are ten questions he should be asked.
1) Defence budget. You said in September 2011 that the defence budget was “bloated”. That was before the Pentagon announced $485bn in cuts over the next decade. Is the budget still bloated? Are more cuts possible or necessary?
2) Pentagon cuts. To meet the cuts that have already been announced, will the Pentagon need to axe some important capabilities? Can the US still afford all of its aircraft carrier groups? Is the F-35 jet fighter too expensive to support? Does the US need such a large presence in Europe? Read more
Israeli politician Yair Lapid (Getty)
The cruellest but most revealing tweet about the Israeli election exit polls came from the American writer Jeffrey Goldberg: “I wonder if someone in the White House is right now researching the question, ‘who is Yair Lapid, and what exactly does he think?’”
Exit polls need to be treated with caution and Israel’s political system is particularly complex, but the early indications are that Lapid, a former television personality and leader of the self-described “centre-centre” Yesh Atid, has been the big winner of the elections.
The Obama administration had expected to be dealing with a Benjamin Netanyahu emboldened by a commanding electoral win and leading a coalition that was even more right-wing in its distaste for doing a deal with the Palestinians. According to the script, Nafatli Bennett of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, and not Lapid, was supposed to be the new star. Instead, the most likely outcome seems to be a more chastened Netanyahu looking to Lapid and the centre to help him form a new government. Read more