Archive for the 'Geopolitics' Category

Guantanamo Will Close

Trends are moving regarding the situation in Guantanamo. President-elect Barack Obama had already signaled his intention to close the facility, but questions remained regarding the fate of the prisoners. Portugal’s offer to take in some of the detainees breaks European resistance to assisting the US deal with the problem, and can prelude a concerted European effort to help the incoming administration break the jam.

Assessment:
President-elect Barack Obama will announce Gitmo’s closure early on the mandate, capitalizing on the good-will generated by the measure to push diplomatic initiatives. The remaining detainees will likely be scattered across the globe.

There Can Be Only One

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The “team of rivals” concept is utter nonsense. Bringing Clinton to the State Department is a terrible idea, and it won’t take long before Obama regrets it bitterly.

Following intense speculation in the past couple of weeks, it was now confirmed that Clinton will be the new Secretary of State. This is a major event, and one that is bound to shape irreversibly the Obama presidency. In any administration, the Secretary of State is one of the most powerful figures, since it is assumed that the incumbent enjoys the absolute confidence of the President. In this case, the nomination assumes special significance, since it was over foreign policy matters that Clinton and Obama spat more bitterly.

Less than six months ago, Clinton was scolding Obama for wanting to engage in talks with Iran regarding its nuclear program, joining McCain’s line in depicting him as naive and dangerously inexperienced. Obama, on the other hand, was fast to point out the fact that Clinton supported the Iraq War (while he was strongly against it from the beginning) thus portraying her as a backer of Bush’s most loathed policy decision.

Could it be that they’re now seeing eye to eye on matters over which they were tearing each other apart during the primary trail? Or has Obama, despite all the idealistic platform on which we was elected, already succumbed to the real politik diktat, and felt the need to disarm Clinton by having her on the team? Is he living by Corleone’s maxim of “keep your friends close, but your enemies closer”?

Obama’s supporters call the move a “master stroke”, speaking about building a “team of rivals” that has the potential to make this the most accomplished Democratic administration since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. One can understand the argument: Clinton is, after all, an undisputed political powerhouse, and, thanks to her former role as First Lady, will be able to hit the ground running when she starts touring the world capitals.

So, by nominating Clinton to the State Department, Obama accomplishes two things: one, he ensures that she is kept on board with the administration, instead of being left loose on the Senate, where she could become a rallying figure for Democratic discontent over unpopular measures he will be forced to take. And two, he gets a Secretary of State with instant face recognition, who will be warmly welcomed in the chancelleries where (right or wrong) Clinton’s consulate is kindly remembered as the golden age of multilateralism.

All this, however, pale in comparison with the immense downsides of having a fake believer on the team. It’s true that, by having her on the State Department, Obama saves himself, and especially the Senate Democratic leadership, the trouble of having to constantly appease her over each and every measure expected to pass the Senate. On the other hand, he risks seeing barricades erupting at Foggy Bottom, with everything, from Israeli-Palestinian peace plans to withdrawal from Iraq to positioning towards Iran subject to endless and paralyzing bickering.

Given the present state of Brand America, and the dimension of the challenges ahead, the last thing the new president needs is to voice a dubious message through a staggering positioning. It is, however, very hard to see how a coherent strategy can emerge out of this “team of rivals”.

Turkey “not in any rush to join the EU”

In an interview published Monday on Spiegel, the Turkish President, Abdullah Gül, appears cool regarding Turkey’s horizon of accessing the EU, saying the country isn’t “in any rush” to join the bloc.

Gül seems conformed that the latest progress report from the EU, due to come out next month, will again spotlight Turkey’s shortcomings, namely the slow pace at which the reforms, demanded by the Union as a pre-condition to membership, are being undertaken.

The Turkish president concedes the argument, and pinpoints “domestic policy issues” as the reason for lagging behind. He seems nonetheless confident that the country will recover the lost ground next year.

Turkey, in fact, has had a rough ride lately. In February, the parliament, where Gül’s AKP holds an absolute majority, approved a constitutional amendment revoking the Kemalist law that expressly forbade the use of the headscarf in public universities.

The amendment was later overruled by the Constitutional Court, but the move generated a huge backlash among the Kemalist elite, already distressed by the AKP’s hold on the nation’s top posts. The Kemalists took the headscarf law as proof that the AKP had a secret Islamist agenda, and the chief prosecutor moved to outlaw the party, on the grounds that it was seeking to undermine the secular foundations of the state.

The case was later dismissed by the Supreme Court, but it served to show, once again, the deep fractures that are running in Turkish society, with the country seemingly caught in the grips of an open war between the old Kemalist elite and the upcoming Islamist elite. This war, however, is not restricted to the elite, and it has spilled over to the society at large.

Last year, hundreds of thousands took to the streets for and against Gül’s nomination for the presidency. More troubling, the Army made a point of saying that it still regarded itself as the custodian of the state – a Kemalist state, that is -, in a thinly veiled reminder that it wouldn’t be shy of, once again, removing a government that went too far in questioning the foundations of that state.

Eventually, Gül was elected, and the Army stayed in its barracks. But the Ergenekon process, which started this week, is a timely reminder that the underlying fractures are far from resolved.

Amidst all the commotion, one stabilizing factor has clearly been the prospect of joining the EU. With a GDP per capita of approximately 28% of the EU’s value, Turkey can clearly see the advantages of joining the bloc, and both factions are wary of doing anything that would close the door to Europe.

But the fact is that Turkey has been waiting at the door for almost half a century, and it’s getting tired of it. In 2007, the Pew Research Center global survey found that only 27% of Turks had a favorable opinion of the EU. In 2004, that number was 58%. Another study, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, found that only 26% of Turks believed the country would ever join the EU.

Gül still says that Turkey “expects the Europeans to honor their agreement” about allowing Turkey into the club. But, in a sign that the government is beginning to heed the growing wave of discontent regarding Europe’s misgivings about Turkish membership, he also says that, at the end of the negotiations process, Turkey “will have to make a political decision about whether it should join the EU.” The membership is no longer presented as a prize to be passively accepted by Turkey, but rather as a strategic decision that it may, or not, choose to take.

This is no mere bluff. With the economy growing solidly (although still far from European standards) and its diplomatic status raising  – it just got elected to one of the temporary seats in the UN Security Council, and it has been mediating talks between Israel and Syria that could pave the way to a peace treaty between the two countries -Turkey feels that it has choices. And it may well decide that it would do better to turn to places where it’s presence would actually be welcomed, and not merely tolerated.

The EU has been using the membership carrot to lure successive Turkish governments into modernizing the country. Which has proved to be an efficient tactic: reforms that would have been very hard to swallow for some sectors of the society were successfully pushed through because they advanced Turkey in its path towards Europe.

In fact, it can be said that the EU has been Erdogan’s insurance policy against more aggressive moves from the Kemalist elite. In the more critical times during the past year, the EU issued a series of blunt warnings that it regarded very negatively moves from the Kemalists to destabilize the government.

For instance, when the case to outlaw the AKP was moving to the Supreme Court, Olli Rehn, the EU Enlargement Commissioner, felt appropriate to issue a statement saying that “in EU member states the kind of political issues referred to in this case are debated in the parliament and decided through the ballot box, not in court rooms”.

The EU has held great leverage over Turkish policy, and it has used it fully. In 2004, it even got Turkey to persuade the Turkish Cypriots to vote favorably the UN plan to reunite the island. The only thing that prevented a unified Cyprus from joining the EU that year was the stubbornness of the Greek Cypriot president, Tassos Papadopoulos, who campaigned hard for rejection of the plan.

It would, however, be wrong to assume that it is Brussels who’s gaining everything it wants from Turkey. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the AKP is using the EU to outgun the Kemalist elite, enabling it to push through its reforms agenda without fear of a military coup, which would have been much more likely if Turkey were not on its eternal path to membership.

But once this structural reforms are sufficiently advanced, and the process of replacing the old kemalist elite for the emerging one reaches a point of no return, will the EU continue to hold much sway? Or will Turkey simply decide that, now that it is well on its way, it has no more use for an increasingly bitter carrot?

The EU strategy for the past decades appears to have been aimed at tiring Turkey on a seemingly endless road to membership, without actively alienating it. Now that it is about to succeed in the first account, it should start preparing for failure in the latter.

BBC NEWS | Europe | Russia fleet ‘may leave Ukraine’

Russia’s deputy PM has told the BBC the country’s Black Sea Fleet will vacate its naval base in Sevastopol in 2017 if the Ukrainian government demands it.

Speaking exclusively to Panorama, Sergei Ivanov said Russia would seek to renew its lease on the Crimean port, but will move the Fleet if it cannot.

The move will anger nationalists who consider Sevastopol a part of Russia.

It is feared the port could become a flashpoint in already strained relations between Russia and the West.

Asked if he could envisage the Fleet not being based in the Crimea – its home for the last 225 years – Mr Ivanov, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s number two who oversees Russia’s military and industry, said:

“Yes I can imagine that easily after 2017. Why not, if the Ukrainian government then in power decides not to prolong the lease?”

“We are not aggressive,” said Mr Ivanov. “We have recognised the territorial integrity of all former Soviet republics. That was in 1991. Russia, of course, has no territorial ambitions regarding any former Soviet countries.”

via BBC NEWS | Europe | Russia fleet ‘may leave Ukraine’

Israel Tries To Rebrand Itself

When you think of Israel, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? War? Terrorism? Bombs? Unless you just returned from a seminar at Tel Aviv University, I guess you wouldn’t say things like “science development” or “buzzing cultural life”.

But that’s precisely the kind of things that the Israeli government wants you to think about. So they recently engaged the services of Acanchi, a British firm specializing in nation branding, to conduct a major overhaul of brand Israel.

The rebranding passes for an effort to steer people away from all the negative perceptions associated with the Arab-Israeli conflict and getting them to develop a more positive image of the country, associated with its cultural heritage and scientific achievements.

This will be a truly titanic task. In 2006, the Anholt Brand Index found Israel ranking last across all categories. OK, the inquiry for the report was conducted right after the Lebanon War, which saw Israel’s image sink like a ton of lead all over the world. But the latest available data shows a consistently low image of the country among the general population, even in friendly countries like the US.

The Israeli government conducted its own research, and came to similar findings. Ido Aharoni, Israel’s assistant foreign minister responsible for the brand management unit inside the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, recently told Haaretz that “Israel’s brand is essentially the conflict”, with people seeing it as a “supplier of bad news”. As a result, even people (like most Americans) who are firmly on the Israeli side of the fence are not attracted to the country.

These findings dawned on the Israeli officials that a change of tactics was urgently needed. For years, a debate had been raging inside the Israeli Foreign Office over the best way to tackle negative perceptions of the country, tied with the Arab-Israeli conflict, and especially Palestine.

There were two main options: a) argue Israel’s point of view, portraying it as being “right”; and b) divert public opinion away from the conflict and into other more palatable areas, thus portraying it as “attractive”. Ido Aharoni came to the conclusion that “it is more important for Israel to be attractive than to be right.”

So, off with the old talk about “palestinian terrorists” and “justifiable military action” that peppered every official statement and press-release and, unwittingly or not, became the cornerstone of Israel’s brand image; on with softer talk of science and culture that, if all goes according to plan, will displace war scenes as the top-of-mind images whenever Israel is mentioned.

Having reached 60, Israel is preparing to shed its rhetorical body armor, replacing it with more appealing garments. Whether this will conflict with Israel’s internal image is what remains to be seen.

Acanchi believes that a nation’s brand “is always rooted in the reality and essence of the place”; Fiona Gilmore, Acanchi’s founder and director, argues that “if a brand is changed or built only on the surface and it’s not supported by deeper changes and values within a country, city or region, it will not engage people.”

So, the real question now is: has the Arab-Israeli conflict become an indelible part of Israel’s identity? Acanchi prepares to find out.

In Cash-Rich Japan, World’s Financial Woes Inspire a Grand Plan – washingtonpost.com

Kotaro Tamura, an investment banker turned Japanese lawmaker, has an immodest proposal for healing the sick global economy, making all Japanese richer and compelling the United States to be more deferential toward Japan.

“We are in a special position because we have huge money,” Tamura said, referring to about $950 billion in government foreign reserves, $1.5 trillion in public pension funds and $15 trillion in personal financial assets, about $8 trillion of which is on deposit at shockingly low interest rates in Japanese banks.

“We should send the signal that we are ready to save the world with this money,” he said in an interview.

Tamura leads a group of 65 lawmakers from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party who have proposed to Prime Minister Taro Aso that Japan treat the global financial meltdown “as a huge opportunity for us.”

They are urging the government to inject some of its abundant cash into troubled U.S. and European banks, in return for equity, and to purchase distressed corporate assets at fire-sale prices.

“The economy of every major power has crashed, and Japan has the least tainted market in the world,” Tamura said.

“Everything is very cheap right now [in world stock markets], and 10 years from now we would make very big money,” he said

Finally, Tamura said, Japan could gain much more than mere money by coming to the aid of the United States and its many distressed companies. “If we can save the United States economy, then the U.S. government will owe us in other ways,” he said.

A U.S. move that has offended many Japanese is the Bush administration’s decision last weekend to take North Korea off its list of states that sponsor terrorism.

The Japanese public vehemently opposes the delisting because North Korea has refused to provide satisfactory information about the fate of eight Japanese citizens who were abducted by North Korean agents during the 1970s and ’80s.

“If we make the proper moves with our money, we can gain diplomatic fruit,” Tamura said. “We can insist that the United States put more pressure on North Korea. As I said, this is a huge opportunity for us.”

via In Cash-Rich Japan, World’s Financial Woes Inspire a Grand Plan – washingtonpost.com

Neoconservative Threat: Elect McCain Or Risk War With Iran

OK, you aren’t buying the story that Obama is a “terrorists’ pal” or a “elections riggers’ pal”.  You don’t even seem to care that his middle name is Hussein and that “Obama” rhymes with “Osama” (both telltale signs of a dangerous, un-American terrorist).

But what if I told you that voting for Obama would increase (and not decrease, as you may naively believe) the chance of war with Iran? Ah, I bet that grabbed your attention.

But wait, didn’t Obama say that the was willing to talk to Iranian leaders, and not bomb them? Didn’t McCain showed almost an eagerness to confront them?

That’s true, but here’s the catch: Obama, being the girlie liberal that he is, might never have the guts to actually launch military attacks on Iran, as McCain gladly would. But Bush, or Israel, could.

Confronted with the prospect of a whinny liberal like Obama taking his place at the White House, Bush could feel tempted to launch military strikes in the waning days of his Presidency. On the other hand, if McCain were to be elected, Bush would feel less tempted to embark on this final folly, since he could rest assured that macho McCain would be willing to do the same at any time. A similar train of thought would be followed by Israeli leadership.

So, which one would you choose: Obama=War or McCain=No War? I bet that kept you thinking, right?

I know this argument is more surreal than many would think possible, but that’s what archconservative Bill Kristol, of all people, put forward last Sunday. Having labeled the McCain campaign tactics “stupid”, Kristol proposes the way forward: scare them in a more effective way.

As Kristol sees it, the problem isn’t that McCain has embarked on a smear campaign through an array of negative ads. The problem is they’re simply not working. Despite all of McCain innuendoes and Palin winks and nods, Obama keeps moving ahead on the polls. So it’s time for a change in tactics. Well, sort of.

If your scare campaign isn’t working, what do you need to do? Why, scare them more, that’s what you need. So you brandish your stick and say “vote McCain or Iran gets it”.

Nevermind that McCain recently sang “bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” in an election rally. Nevermind also Palin’s view that the US shouldn’t “second guess” Israeli policy towards Iran, thus providing a tacit endorsement for military action.

Nevermind, finally, that the economic turmoil all but invalidates any prospect of the US embarking on a new military adventure anytime soon. Bush might disregard the consequences, but there’s some sane people around him, not least the top brass in the military.

All you need to do is ignore reality and charge ahead with some preposterous, attention-grabbing thesis that will short-circuit the proceedings of rational thought. That’s the sort of shock and awe tactics that, hopefully, will turn white into black and black into white, herding the terrified voters into McCain’s military arms.

Kristol, after all, is an expert on this matter of ignoring reality in order to build a scary narrative. He was one of the main promoters of the Iraq War. And he still hasn’t given up on Iran.


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