The only thing I dislike more than admitting I'm wrong is admitting that Spencer Ackerman was kinda sorta right.
Cautiously in March and then more confidently in July, I predicted that new START was going to be ratified. Right now, however, Josh Rogin reports that the odds don't look so hot:
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ), the key Republican vote in the drive to ratify the New START treaty, said Tuesday he doesn't believe the treaty should be voted on this year.
"When Majority Leader Harry Reid asked me if I thought the treaty could be considered in the lame duck session, I replied I did not think so given the combination of other work Congress must do and the complex and unresolved issues related to START and modernization," Kyl said in a statement. "I appreciate the recent effort by the Administration to address some of the issues that we have raised and I look forward to continuing to work with Senator Kerry, DOD, and DOE officials." ?
Kyl spoke with Defense Secretary Robert Gates about it last week. A possible meeting between Kyl, Biden, Gates, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in the works and could happen on Wednesday. The treaty was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by a vote of 14 to 4 on Sept. 16, and is awaiting a vote on the Senate floor.
The Washington Post reported that the White House is offering an additional $4.1 billion for nuclear facilities. This latest offer comes on top of the other promises related to nuclear modernization, which have a price tag totaling over $80 billion, that the administration has offered in an effort to win over Senate Republicans.
I thought Kyl was making some not unreasonable requests back in the summer, but as near as I can read the Obama administration had pretty much given him what he wanted.
It's possible that the treaty will be ratified in the next Congress, though that's a tougher road, and there's now some bad blood between Kyl and the administration to work away.
Substantively, the treaty itself is not a nothingburger, but it's not that big a deal either. There are two implications that flow from Kyl's decision, however. First, he's given the Russians a great excuse to become even more obsteperous. As Bob Kagan pointed out earlier this month:
Few men are more cynical players than Vladimir Putin. One can well imagine Putin exploiting the failure of New START internally and externally. He will use it to stir more anti-Western nationalism, further weakening an already weak Medvedev and anyone else who stands for a more pro-Western approach. He will use it as an excuse to end further cooperation on Iran. He will certainly use it to win concessions from Europeans who already pander to him, charging that the Americans have destroyed the transatlantic rapprochement with Russia and that more concessions to Moscow will be necessary to repair the damage. There's no getting around it: Failure to pass START will help empower Putin.
Second, even if START passes eventually, this little episode, combined with the
endless ongoing negotiations over KORUS, are highlighting the massive transaction costs involved with trying to negotiate any hard law arrangement with the United States. The rest of the world is now recalculating the cost-benefit ratio of doing business with the U.S. government.
Anyway, the real point of this post is that I was wrong... again. Let the pillorying in the comments section begin.
FP's own Steve LeVine has an essay at The New Republic that notes the Obama administration's efforts to dial down U.S. intervention in Central Asia. LeVine is clearly ambivalent about this policy shift:
President Obama's public rationale for this shift is clear. He wants arms control agreements, victory in
Afghanistan, and the denuclearization of Iran -- and Russia has a role to play in all three. Reset has lubricated new agreements with Russia that enable, for example, the speedy overflight of U.S. military planes across the North Pole and on to Kyrgyzstan, in support of the war in Afghanistan; the sale of Russian military helicopters, to be paid for by the Pentagon, to the Afghan government; and a tighter financial squeeze on Iran. Meanwhile, on the domestic front, absent any other fulfillment of Obama’s campaign vow to win hearts and minds abroad through civility, the "reset" is Exhibit Number One that good manners work.
In addition, Obama officials believe that, while the great-power-rivalry strain of geopolitics in the region may have been necessary in the 1990s, it is now obsolete. When Heslin's policy was initially drawn up, its concrete objective was to provide the Caucasian and Central Asian states with a financial channel independent of
Moscow's grip. That meant the construction of energy pipelines to alternative markets, especially the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline from the Caucasus to Turkey. But that policy has largely succeeded: The full flow of oil Baku-Ceyhan began in 2006. The Central Asian states of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are not linked in -- and given their cautious nature, they are unlikely to risk Russia’s ire by agreeing to be connected by pipeline with the West -- but they have also developed alternate export routes through China, which has constructed its own pipelines that serve precisely the same function....
President Obama must realize that his new policy ultimately represents a trade-off. While the geopolitical gains from deemphasizing the Great Game have been substantial, the local costs of
America's hands-off approach have been quite high. In Kyrgyzstan, which is still embroiled in ethnic strife, deferring to Russia has meant leaving a largely powerless government to its own devices. Azerbaijan has nervously struck up negotiations over natural-gas with Russia’s Gazprom in order to forestall any possible trouble of its own with Moscow. And the United States has adopted a far different approach toward local leaders, swallowing Kazakhstan's backsliding on what they believed was the country's private commitment to release imprisoned opposition political activist Yevgeny Zhovtis, and deepening relations with Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov, probably the most brutal leader in the former Soviet Union. In other words, the reset has a serious downside: By deciding that the politics of Central Asia are what they are, Washington risks losing its justly earned reputation as the region's protector of political and economic independence.
From a U.S. perspective, this is fine. Let Russia and China jockey for influence. Geographic proximity and the 'stans' own geopolitical interests will prevent either great power from establishing hegemony over the region. This will allow them to maintain as much political autonomy as possible when bordering two civilizational entities.
I can't get too worked up about this. First, Central Asia is about as far away from the United States as one can get -- if there was any region in which a low U.S. profile was called for, this is the region.
Second, Central Asia is not being left to Russian hegemony. Indeed, my official U.S. sources tell me that the Russians don't care about the U.S. influence in the region. What freaks them out is China's growing regional influence. That's understandable. With a rapidly growing and energy-thirsty economy, China has a compelling interest in the 'stans.
Third, I'm not sure that the U.S. is sacrificing all that much. LeVine argues that the U.S. has played a constructive role by fostering human rights and political autonomy. I don't think the latter is going away. As for the former, to be blunt, the U.S. doesn't have all that shiny a track record. With the partial exception of Kyrgyzstan, the countries in this region have ranged from mildly authoritarian (Kazakstan) to wacky totalitarian (Turkmenistan). U.S. human rights interventions accomplished little in the 1990s, and have been even less effective since 9/11 -- indeed, Kyrgyzstan has backslid pretty dramatically.
There are a lot of regions in the world where I think a robust U.S. presence is a good idea. Central Asia is no longer one of them.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
I'm still getting all the cotton out of my head from my Israel sojourn, but what I find striking about the debate is how Middle-East-focused it is. Walt focuses on four key areas: Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel/Palestine. All important hot spots, to be sure -- but shouldn't a good realist be concerned about great power politics? (to be fair, Walt does link to Thomas Wright's intriguing essay in The Diplomat about how the Obama administration is rethinking its China policy).
As a global political economy person with a strong realpoliitik streak, here are the four issues I think should be given the largest weighting in any grading of Obama:
1) Great power politics: This is where Obama deserves his best marks, despite some occasional rocky patches. It's safe to say that relations with Russia have been on the mend for quite some time. Wright is correct to point out the ups and downs with China, but the administration has reacted quite adroitly to China's renewed confidence on the regional and global stage. U.S. relations with key Pacific Rim allies -- South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, India, and even Vietnam if you want to go that far -- have all been trending upwards. China now has to process these events, and whether its desire to throw its weigtht around is worth the price of a balancing strategy. This wasn't how Obama planned things to go with China, but given Beijing's behavior, I think they improvised and adapted quite well in this sphere. GRADE: A-
2) Correcting imbalances in the global economy: The last G-20 summit in Toronto demonstrated how poorly the Obama administration has done on this front. The administration went into that summit arguing that some countries need to continue priming the fiscal pump. The resulting communique did not reflect that assessment. Deficit hawks have won the war of ideas here -- which would be fine if surplus countries like Germany and China balanced that approach by consuming more. They ain't going in that direction, however. There's been minimal progress on yuan revaluation, and real foot-dragging in the Eurozone about fixing what ails that region. Given the high hopes Obama administration put on the G-20, this has been a thoroughly disapponting performance to date: GRADE: D
3) Trade: Blech. Let me repeat that -- blech. I understand that the administration is on barren political terrain when dealing with this issue. Still, the phrase "Obama administration's trade agenda" is pretty much a contradiction in terms at this point. The Doha round is dead, and the only trade issue that has the support of policy principals is the National Export Initiative -- and you know what I think about that. Unlike the other three issues, the administration hasn't even bothered to put much effort onto this one -- though the recent pledge to get the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) ratified is promising. GRADE: F
4) Nuclear nonproliferation: Even an IPE guy like myself appreciates the virtues of a world in which nuclear weapons are heavily regulated. The Obama administration's performance in this area has been mixed. START has been negotiated but not ratified, and the Nuclear Safety Summit seems like it was a success. Iran and North Korea seem unbowed, but at the same time the Obama administration has reinforced the multilateral arrangements designed to contain both countries (though this is interesting). At the same time, you can't just grade for effort at this level, and the results have been disappointing with both countries. There is also something of a strategic mismatch between the Obama administration's nuclwar ambitions and grand strategy ambitions. GRADE: B-
All grades are incomplete at this stage, but looking above, I'm more than a bit troubled. I don't see the rebalancing or trade grades impriving anytime soon. If Obamas was one of my advisees, I'd probably have him stop by my office hours for a friendly but firm chat at this juncture.
Question to readers: what important issues did Walt, Lynch, and I overlook ? And how would you grade Obama?
Peter Baker provides some lay of the land on START in his New York Times write-up:
With time running out for major votes before the November election, the White House is trying to reach an understanding with Senate Republicans to approve its new arms control treaty with Russia by committing to modernizing the nuclear arsenal and making additional guarantees about missile defense.
The White House pressed allies in Congress in recent days to approve billions of dollars for the nation’s current nuclear weapons and infrastructure even as administration and Congressional officials work on a ratification resolution intended to reaffirm that the treaty will not stop American missile defense plans....
The critical player is Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Republican whip, who has criticized the treaty but also signaled that his reservations could be assuaged. In particular, he has sought to modernize the nuclear force, and the administration has proposed spending more than $100 billion over 10 years to sustain and modernize some strategic systems.
“I’ve told the administration it would be much easier to do the treaty right than to do it fast if they want to get it ratified,” Mr. Kyl said Thursday in an interview. “It’s not a matter of delay,” he added, but “until I’m satisfied about some of these things, I will not be willing to allow the treaty to come up.”
Mr. Kyl sounded hopeful that he could reach agreement, ticking off three ways the White House could assure him that the proposed nuclear modernization program would be adequate: ensure enough first-year money in the next round of appropriations bills, include enough second-year money in a follow-up budget proposal and revise the long-range modernization plan to anticipate additional costs in later years.
“I’m not questioning the administration’s commitment to this,” he said, “but this is a big deal, and it needs to have everybody’s commitment to it at takeoff, and I really don’t see that the groundwork has really been laid.”
Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has met with Mr. Kyl once and invited him and other senators to talk about the treaty again next week. Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has likewise been talking with Mr. Kyl regularly and is trying to help resolve Republican demands to inspect at least some of the secret negotiating record.
For all the hand-wringing, this sounds like START is gonna get ratified. Kyl has been very careful to avoid boxing himself into a situation where he has to vote no. His asking price is not unreasonable, and it sounds like the Obama administration will meet it.
This would be good - not because START is all of that and a bag of chips, but because it suggests some Very Useful Conclusions:
1) Mitt Romney's Know-Nothing anti-START gambit failed to have any effect;
2) Republicans are being reasonable and constructive on arms control (Kyl's requests make a good deal of sense to me);
3) There can be bipartisan cooperation on important foreign policy questions.
4) Spencer Ackerman was wrong and I was right. Ha!! [It's all about score-settling with you this week, isn't it?--ed. It's the summer -- allow me my small, petty victories.]
Am I missing anything?
Mitt Romney wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post earlier this week calling the New START Treaty Obama's "worst foreign policy mistake yet." This prompted a fair amount of blowback. The New York Times' Peter Baker and Slate's Fred Kaplan
tore Romney a new one dissected the substance of Romney's argument and found it wanting. Senator John Kerry wrote a WaPo op-ed the next day that had a pretty contemptuous conclusion:
I have nothing against Massachusetts politicians running for president. But the world's most important elected office carries responsibilities, including the duty to check your facts even if you're in a footrace to the right against Sarah Palin. More than that, you need to understand that when it comes to nuclear danger, the nation's security is more important than scoring cheap political points.
Now reading through all of this, it seems pretty clear that Romney's substantive critique is weak tea. Objecting to the content of a treaty preamble is pretty silly. Claiming that the Russians could put ICBMs on their bombers because of the treaty indicates
Romney's ghost-writer doesn't know the first thing about the history of nuclear weapons some holes in the research effort.
Putting the substantive objections aside, there are some interesting implications to draw from this kerfuffle. First, START will be an easy test of the remaining power of the foreign policy mandarins. As Time's Michael Crowley points out, START has the support of former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and James Baker, former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, former National Security Advisers Brent Scowcroft and Stephen Hadley, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Senator Richard Lugar.
If the Obama administration can't get Senate ratification of START despite the bipartisan support of the foreign policy community, well, it suggests that the foreign policy community doesn't have the political capital it once did. I posited earlier this year that START would pass because it was pretty unobtrusive and wouldn't play a big role in political campaigns. If GOP senators think differently, however, then you can kiss any foreign policy initiative that requires congressional approval bye-bye.
This could seriously hamper U.S. foreign policy. Politically, Romney was wise to pick on START, because its importance is not in the arms control. Boosters like Kerry will talk about START like its the greatest thing since sliced bread, when in point of fact it's a modest treaty that yields modest gains on the arms control front. No, START matters because its a signal of better and more stable relations with Moscow (much in the same way that NAFTA was not about trade so much as about ending a century-long contentious relationship with Mexico).
So even if Romney gets chewed up and spit out by the foreign policy mandarins, there's a way in which he'll win no matter what. By belittling the treaty, Romney will get its defenders to inflate its positive attributes. This will force analysts to say that "both sides have exaggerated their claims," putting Romney on par with the foreign policy mandarins.
Developing... in a bad way for the mandarins.
UPDATE: Barron YoungSmith makes a similar point over at TNR. He's even more pessimistic than I am:
[T]he responsible Republican foreign policy establishment is not coming back. Mandarins like George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, and James Baker, who have all testified or written on behalf of the START treaty—calling it an integral, uncontroversial way of repairing the bipartisan arms-control legacy that sustained American foreign policy all the way up until the George W. Bush administration—are going to be dead soon (or they've drifted into the service of Democrats). The people who will take their place will be from a generation of superhawks, like John Bolton, Liz Cheney, and Robert Joseph, who are virulently opposed to the practice of negotiated arms control. Mitt Romney, though a moderate from Michigan, is not going to be the second coming of Gerald Ford.
Well.... this might be true, if you think Mitt Romney has his finger on the pulse of the GOP voter. Based on past experience, however, Mitt Romney has never been able to find that pulse.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
My latest bloggingheads diavlog is with The Atlantic's newly-betrothed Megan McArdle. The topics covered include Weigelgate, the Rolling Stone story on McChrystal, the Russian spy ring story, whether austerity or deficit spending is the thing to do right now, and the geekiest things we brought on our honeymoons.
There are many things that confuse me in life -- Manhattan parking rituals, the proliferation of rotaries in Massachusetts, the appeal of most reality television, and so forth. I think I'm going to have to add the Russian spy ring to this list.
Less than a week after Russian President Dmitri Medevedev's burger date with U.S. President Barack Obama, the U.S. Justice Department has busted eight Russkies in an espionage ring so heinous, they've been charged with.... "conspiracy to act as unregistered agents of a foreign government."
Um.... so, in other words, the Russians are accused of some combination of illegal immigration and impersonating Jack Abramoff?
Seriously, this story is the most bizarre foreign policy/international relations episode I've seen since the Sandy-Berger-let's-stuff--classified-documents-down-my-pants episode.
Here are the list of things that confuse me about this case:
1) What, exactly, were the Russian agents allegedly trying to do? According to the New York Times:
The suspects were directed to gather information on nuclear weapons, American policy toward Iran, C.I.A. leadership, Congressional politics and many other topics, prosecutors say. The Russian spies made contact with a former high-ranking American national security official and a nuclear weapons researcher, among others. But the charges did not include espionage, and it was unclear what secrets the suspected spy ring — which included five couples — actually managed to collect.
Let's ask a more basic question -- is there anything that the Russians gathered from this enterprise that a well-trained analyst couldn't have picked up by trolling the interwebs?
2) Why were the arrests made now? Back to the Times:
After years of F.B.I. surveillance, investigators decided to make the arrests last weekend, just days after an upbeat visit to President Obama by the Russian president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, one administration official said. Mr. Obama was not happy about the timing, but investigators feared some of their targets might flee, the official said.
Based on the actual charges, there's no justification for the timing -- this is chump change. One is forced to assume that the FBI and DOJ know that other stuff is going on but can't prove it. Which is fine if you're willing to make that assumption.
I normally think the Russians are being paranoid when they start devising conspiracies, but in this case, I have at least some sympathy.
3. Anyone else gonna re-watch No Way Out? Because this sounds like a low-rent, more boring version of that movie.
Seriously, I call on informed readers of this blog to offer some enlightenment on this episode, because it makes almost no sense to me.
SHIRLEY SHEPARD/AFP/Getty Images
So, in the past 36 hours there has been news about two deals involving Iran. The first one involved an arrangement brokered by Turkey and Brazil:
In what could be a stunning breakthrough in the years-long diplomatic deadlock over Iran's nuclear program, Tehran has agreed to send the bulk of its nuclear material to Turkey as part of an exchange meant to ease international concerns about the Islamic Republic's aims and provide fuel for an ailing medical reactor, the spokesman for Iran's foreign ministry told state television Monday morning.
Whether this was really a breakthrough or just a last-minute dodge by Iran to fend off sanctions, commentators mostly agreed on two things: A) This showed how Turkey and Brazil were new heavyweights in international relations; and B) This would complicate and delay a new round of United Nations sanctions.
All well and good, except that now there's another breakthrough.... on a new round of Security Council sanctions:
The United States has reached agreement with Russia and China on a strong draft resolution to impose new United Nations sanctions on Iran over its uranium-enrichment program, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced Tuesday.
Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a scheduled hearing on a new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia, Clinton shrugged off a surprise deal announced Monday in which Iran would swap a portion of its low-enriched uranium for higher-grade uranium to power a research reactor that produces medical isotopes. The deal, brokered by Turkey and Brazil during a high-level visit to Tehran, was meant in part to assuage concerns over Iran's nuclear program and discourage new U.N. sanctions.
"Today I am pleased to announce to this committee we have reached agreement on a strong draft with the cooperation of both Russia and China," Clinton said in an opening statement. She said the United States has been working closely for several weeks with five other world powers on new sanctions and plans to "circulate that draft resolution to the entire Security Council today."
Well, this is an interesting development. What's going on?
I think the key is that Russia was not persuaded by the Turkey-Brazil-Iran deal:
Sergei B. Ivanov, the deputy prime minister of Russia, was similarly skeptical at a lunchtime speech in Washington. He said he expected the sanctions resolution to “be voted in the near future,” and said that the new Iranian accord should not be “closely linked” to the sanctions effort. “Iran should absolutely open up” to inspectors, he said. That statement was significant because Russia had been reluctant to join sanctions several months ago. China, which has also been hesitant, issued no statement.
With Russia firmly on board, and China apparently unwilling to ge the lone P-5 holdout, Monday's Iran deal had no effect on the calculus of the Security Council.
Why was Russia unpersuaded? To date, Russia and China have taken advantage of any Iranian feint towards conciliation as an excuse to delay sanctions. What's different now?
I'd suggest three possibilities, which are not mutually exclusive:
1) Russia is genuinely unpersuaded that Monday's deal is anything more than marginally useful;
2) Russia is just as annoyed as the United States at the
young whipperrsnapper countries rising powers of the world going rogue in their diplomacy. Russia is, in many ways, more sensitive to questions about prestige than the United States;
3) Cynically, there's little cost to going along with the United States on sanctions that will have very little impact on the Russian-Iranian economic relationship.
Commenters are encouraged to provide additional explanations below.
Last week Russia used some economic coercion to get a friendlier government in Kyrgyzstan. This week, Russia uses some financial inducements to secure a strategic base in Ukraine, as Roman Olearchyk and Stefan Wagstyl report for the Financial Times.
Russia on Wednesday agreed to slash gas prices to Ukraine by 30 per cent in exchange for far-reaching economic and political concessions, including a long extension of the Russian navy’s lease of a strategic Black Sea port....
Mr Yanukovich agreed to grant permission for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet to remain in Sevastopol for an additional 25-30 years – far beyond 2017 when the current lease expires.
Mr Medvedev said Russian gas giant Gazprom would grant Ukraine a 30 per cent discount on gas, bringing the price down by about $100 per 1,000 cubic meter from a current rate of just above $300. “Our Ukrainian partners will receive a discount on gas. These funds will turn into a real resource for [Ukraine’s] business and economic aims,” he said.
The deal also appeared to secure lucrative contracts for Russian companies to build two nuclear reactors in Ukraine, and preserve their roles as monopoly nuclear fuel suppliers.
So, Russia is finally getting its way in the near abroad, which is bad for the United States, right? Well, not exactly. No question, the new governments in Bishkek and Kiev are an improvement for Moscow compared to the ones installed by the color revolutions of the past decade. On the other hand, the legality of the base deal remains murky under Ukrainian law.
More importantly, these new governments are not acting in an unfriendly manner towards the United States. Kyrgyzstan's interim president Roza Otunbayeva has told Western reporters that the U.S. lease on its airbase in Kyrgyz will be extended automatically. Meanwhile, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych gave Barack Obama his biggest deliverable at the Nuclear Safety Summit earlier this month when he pledged that his country would eliminate its stockpile of highly enriched uranium.
The familiar language in talking about the near abroad is whether a government is a friend of Russia or a friend of America. These governments are clearly more friendly to Russia than the previous ones, but there also appears to be no strategic loss for the United States. Which appears to be a win-win for both countries.
DMITRY KOSTYUKOV/AFP/Getty Images
Over at the Foreign Policy Association's website, Sean Goforth has ginned up a handy new acronym to describe the latest constellation of threats to U.S. national interests:
Ever since "axis of evil," broad characterizations of geopolitical threats have been considered impolitic, if not ignorant.... The hesitation to label a global threat as such is now sacrificing substance for political correctness. Venezuela, Iran, and Russia constitute a VIRUS of instability that threatens the United States and Western order. This recognition is needed, but the US should learn from past mistakes and avoid a hard-line path similar to the one that resulted from branding "axis of evil."
Clearly, there's some rhetorical tension in that paragraph. One the one hand, VIRUS is just an awesome acronym, and Goforth deserves some props for coming up with it. Seriously, it's catchy, it effectively captures the relationship between the salient actors, and it sounds quite menacing. I can already picture the cable news teasers and one-liners:
"After the break: can the Obama administration combat the VIRUS?"
"When we come back: is the VIRUS running rampant across Latin America?"
"Coming up: forget Tiger Woods, Sean Penn is in danger of spreading the VIRUS!"
The thing is, Goforth concludes with his recommended policy responses to the VIRUS coalition. And they appear to be.... pretty much what's being done right now:
[T]he VIRUS alliance is playing a sophisticated game of brinksmanship. Venezuelan government documents suggest that Chavez hopes to get the US to perceive an immediate threat and overreact, igniting a series of events that will eventually collapse "the empire." More realistically, if Colombia or Israel, key American allies, were to misstep and launch a limited-scale attack against Venezuela or Iran it would further boost anti-Americanism and add weight to claims of imperialism. A final objective appears to be presenting a dilemma that will drive a fissure between the US and Israel, a prospect that Iran's nuclear program may well realize.
Responding to the VIRUS needn't require one bold policy. Talk of regime change should be scuttled for sure-it only justifies more arms purchases and feeds anti-American rhetoric. And focusing just on Iran is feckless. Iran is embedded in an alliance that cobbles Russia's diplomatic protection with a network that spreads "business" investments across three continents to serve strategic purposes.
Instead of antagonizing the VIRUS the United States should seek inoculation through savvy diplomacy that breaks the bonds between its constituent members, which is a realistic objective because Venezuela, Russia, and Iran don't share deep-seeded cultural or economic ties. Luckily for Western security, the VIRUS' venom is being diluted by economic realities on the ground: unemployment is extremely high in all three nations, and Iran and Venezuela have the world's highest rates of inflation. If oil trades at moderate prices, Chavez and his "brother" Ahmadinejad will be left to account for their failure to bring development, though Putin's popularity seems assured no matter how badly the Russian economy sours.
So, according to Goforth, the proper U.S. response to VIRUS appears to be:
A) Don't overreact or overreach;
B) Try to split the constituent members of the VIRUS through assiduous diplomacy; and
C) Be patient and let these economies collapse under their own weight.
Is there anything different betwqeen these policy recommendations and what the Obama administration is currently doing? The only new thing here is the idea of letting oil prices stay relatively low to prevent new infusions of cash into the coffers of these regimes -- although, truth be told, this isn't really that new an idea.
I suspect, however, that Goforth's policy recommendations will not garner much attention. I expect the VIRUS acronym, on the other hand, to spread across the foreign policy community like... well, you know.
The Washington Post's Philip P. Pan had an excellent story today on the ways in which Russia used economic coercion to aid and abet regime change in Kyrgyzstan last week. This part stands out in particular:
After the opposition announced plans for nationwide protests, Putin provided a final spark by signing a decree March 29 eliminating subsidies on gasoline exports to Kyrgyzstan and other former Soviet republics that had not joined a new customs union.
When the tariffs kicked in April 1, Russian fuel shipments to Kyrgyzstan were suspended, said Bazarbai Mambetov, president of a Kyrgyz oil traders association. Within days, gas prices in Bishkek began to climb, enraging residents already angry about sharp increases in utility fees.
As the Kremlin leaned on Bakiyev, it also consulted the opposition, hosting its leaders on visits to Moscow, including in the days before the protests. On the eve of the demonstrations, the Kyrgyz prime minister accused one, Temir Sariev, of telling police that he had met with Putin and had won his support for efforts to overthrow Bakiyev.
What's interesting about this is that Russia didn't rely on "smart sanctions" that would only hurt the ruling elite. They clearly imposed sanctions designed to roust the mass public into action.
Sometimes, dumb sanctions aren't actually all that dumb.
[So you're saying that similar sanctions should be imposed against Iran?--ed. No. Iran is not Kyrgyzstan, and the United States is not Russia. There are too many differences between the two cases to make that facile comparison. I'm just pointing out that there is more than one way for sanctions to change a targeted state's behavior.]
Three Five quick thoughts on the Moscow subway bombing:
1) Who gets the blame? As Clifford Levy points out in the NYT, "Mr. Putin built his reputation in part on his success at suppressing terrorism, so the attacks could be considered a challenge to his stature." On the other hand, one could see Putin trying to shift the blame onto Russian president Dmitri Medvedev or Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov as a way to thwart future rivals. On the other hand, a lot of Russians are already unhappy with the government, and diversionary tactics might not work this time.
2) Is there an international dimension? Russia's neighbors in the Caucasus and Central Asia, along with the United States and China, are praying right now that the suicide bombers were entirely domestic in origin and execution. If there was an international link, one could easily envision nightmare scenarios about Russia's international response.
3) How screwed is the North Caucasus? They were already pretty screwed because of the Putin administration's attempts to crack down on secessionist groups in the region. I seriously doubt that this attack is going to cause Russian leaders to rethink their strategy. If anything, a doubling-down approach is the likely outcome.
4) Hey, Europe might be relevant again!! The New York Times' Steve Erlanger reported on the latest Brussels Forum meeting, at which European security and foreign policy officials kept saying, "we're relevant!!" Given that the highest-ranking U.S. attendee was an Assistant Secretary of State, I'm pretty sure that U.S. officials didn't think that dog would hunt ex ante. A Russia ready to lash out, however, is guaranteed to force more transatlantic consultations.
5) Obama's counter-terrorism policies don't look so bad in comparison. This is unfair -- the process matters just as much as the outcome, and it might be that the Obama administration is just luckier than the Medvedev/Putin administration. Still, the comparison will be made (though Michelle Malkin attempts to link the attacks to Obama's weaknesses on counterterrorism).
Over in Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich's apparent narrow victory over the Yulia Tymoshenko has had the anticipated effect inside the U.S. foreign policy community -- there's been an exercise in massive navel-gazing. I'm therefore going to make things worse by engaging in meta-navel gazing (usually something I only consider doing with you-know-who).
Let's start with the Century Foundation's Jeffrey Laurenti:
Yanukovych's election yesterday, narrowly edging out prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko in the run-off, spotlights the folly of Washington conservatives who pressed single-mindedly to lock Ukraine (and Georgia) into the Western military alliance during the Bush administration. They discounted deep ambivalence among Ukrainians themselves and sought to override overt opposition from NATO's leading members in western Europe.
Like insects trapped in Baltic amber since dinosaur days, American conservatives remained frozen in a comfortingly simple cold-war view of the world: Russia is incorrigibly suspect and must relentlessly be hemmed in by American power.
That sounds like a cue.... yes, let's click over to The American Interest's Walter Russell Mead:
The apparent victory of Viktor Yanukovych in yesterday’s Ukrainian presidential election is yet another setback to the idea that the world is rapidly becoming a more democratic place....
In hindsight, the choice that we made to extend NATO farther east in gradual steps might have been a mistake. Russia hates NATO expansion and always has. To some Russians it looks like the inexorable approach of a hostile alliance that endangers the motherland; to others it is a constant humiliating reminder of Russian weakness and the west’s arrogant presumption after 1989. The expansion was annoying when it was limited to the former Warsaw Pact Soviet allies; it was maddening and infuriating when it extended to territories that were once part of the USSR like the three Baltic republics of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. The prospect of a new wave of expansion to include Georgia and Ukraine, and push right up to the Russian frontier, was a worst case scenario nightmare for Russia.
If we were going to expand NATO eastward, we probably should have done it all at once, making agreements in principle and establishing basic interim security treaties with those countries whose actual entry might have to be delayed. What we’ve done instead is like pulling a bandage off tiny bit by bit, endlessly prolonging the agony. We should have ripped the whole thing off twenty years ago. (We should have also thought much more seriously than we ever have about the likelihood that expanding NATO probably ultimately entailed bringing the Russians in as the only way to stabilize the security situation across Europe.) Now the combination of Russian opposition (which, among other things, reduces European enthusiasm for expansion), geopolitical instability (do we want to get sucked into a new Russia-Georgian war?) and the general decline of US interest in Europe make a strong new push for expansion unlikely — even if the Yanukovych government wanted to join NATO.
So here we are: stuck with a security fault line in Europe, while the Russians will continue to fish where there aren’t any signs.
Both of these posts suggests way too much focus on the immediate implications of the election -- a president more favorably disposed towards Moscow.
I think this is one time when the mainstream media actually brings greater value-added to the table. The New York Times' Clifford Levy makes an intriguing suggestion in this news analysis -- that the process of Ukraine's election is more significant than Yanukovich's victory:
[T]he election won by the candidate, Viktor F. Yanukovich, was highly competitive, unpredictable and relatively fair — just the kind of major contest that has not been held in Russia since Mr. Putin, the prime minister, consolidated power.
On Monday, for example, European election monitors praised the election that was held Sunday, calling it an “impressive display” of democracy. Ukraine's election, in other words, did not follow the Kremlin blueprint and, if anything, seemed to highlight the flaws in the system in Russia. As such, it presented a kind of alternative model for the former Soviet Union....
[Analysts said] that while the public ousted the Orange government, it did not want to do away with all aspects of the Orange democracy. They said a backlash would occur if Mr. Yanukovich tried to crack down.
The Ukrainian model may have particular resonance now with recent rumblings of discontent in Russia.
Late last month, antigovernment demonstrations in Kaliningrad, a region in western Russia physically separate from the rest of the country, drew thousands of people and seemed to catch the Kremlin off guard. Some protesters chanted for Mr. Putin’s resignation, complaining about higher taxes and an economy weakened by the financial crisis.
And last week, a prominent politician from what had been perceived as a puppet opposition party unexpectedly turned on the Kremlin and lashed out at Mr. Putin’s domestic policies. “Is opposition and criticism dishonest?” said the politician, Sergey Mironov. “In a civilized society, this is the duty and goal of the opposition.”
It is highly unlikely that Russia will soon have Ukrainian-style openness. The question now is, what will be the long-term impact across the former Soviet Union if Ukraine can follow its successful election with a relatively peaceful transition to a Yanukovich administration?
That's far from guaranteed, if Tymoshenko's latest actions are any indication. And the past is not necessarily encouraging -- Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko won free and fair elections the one time they were held in Belarus, back in 1994.
Still, this is an outcome that should have democracy activists pretty pleased with themselves -- and members of the foreign policy community less obsessed with the international relations version of horse race politics.
Blake Hounshell highlights a tidbit from Henry Paulson's new memoir that caught my attention as well. According to Paulson, in the summer of 2008 Russia approached China to sell off their Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac debt. This merited stories from Bloomberg and the Financial Times. According to the FT:
Russia proposed to China that the two nations should sell Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bonds in 2008 to force the US government to bail out the giant mortgage-finance companies, former US Treasury secretary Hank Paulson has claimed....
Mr Paulson said that he was told about the Russian plan when he was in Beijing for the Olympics in August 2008. Russia had gone to war with Georgia, a US ally, on August 8.
“Russian officials had made a top-level approach to the Chinese, suggesting that together they might sell big chunks of their GSE holdings to force the US to use its emergency authorities to prop up these companies,” he said.
Fannie and Freddie are known as GSEs or government sponsored enterprises.
“The Chinese had declined to go along with the disruptive scheme, but the report was deeply troubling,” he said. A senior Russian official told the Financial Times that he could not comment on the allegation.
The Russians deny the story in the Bloomberg story, but Ashby Monk points out the possible implications:
Paulson’s report is pretty amazing. If true, it would appear that Russia was plotting economic warfare against the US during the summer of 2008; I don’t really know what else to call it. Their intention was to use their sovereign wealth to purposely weaken and damage the US economy. The fact that all this apparently occurred around the same time that Russia was engaged in a traditional war with Georgia, a US ally, lends some credibility to the idea.
This revelation–while unconfirmed–will not comfort those in the West that fear SWFs; it doesn’t help anybody if these funds are seen to be potential weapons of economic destruction…
Let's assume this is true for the sake of making life interesting. There's still a few more pieces of data I'd like to have before drawing conclusions.
Monk assumes that the Russians did this for geopoltical reasons. If memory serves, however, China and Russia were both concerned about protecting the value of their GSE debt. Forcing the U.S. government to intervene would have helped protect their remaining holdings. So this might have been an entirely commercial gambit.
Second, this really isn't about sovereign wealth funds per se but about official holdings of U.S. debt and equities. Some people think this is a real problem -- others don't. Readers should provide their thoughts in the comments.
Third, the fact that the Russians thought the Chinese would go along with them on this says a lot about the delusions Russian leaders had during the Russian-Georgian conflict. They really seem to have believed that China, other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the rest of the Collective Security Treaty Organization would be perfectly cool with Russia recognizing the independence of two secessionist states -- just because it would be an affront to the U.S.A. Whoops.
This raises my provocative but closing point -- that the Russian-Georgian war might have been the best thing that could have happened for the bilateral relationship. Despite all the doomsaying at the time, the conflict -- combined with Great Recession -- had a modest humbling effect on Russian ambitions. The commodity bubble - which had fuelled Russia's economic growth and self-confidence for the past decade - popped in the summer of 2008. The recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia abetted a capital outflow that had begun in reaction to the Russian government's heavy-handedness in picking winners and losers in the domestic economy. These trends, if nothing else, likely highlighted the opportunity costs of continued bellicosity to Russian elites and Russian policymakers.
At the same time, the invasion itself provided a moment of clarity to U.S. policymakers about the precise limits of their influence when dealing with balky republics in the Caucasus. Even as a candidate, Obama articulated a "realist internationalist" position towards the Russian Federation. This approach recognizes Russia's great power status and the utility of a great power concert in dealing with global trouble spots. Rather than prioritizing human rights, democratization, or even economic interests in the bilateral relationship, this policy position prioritizes great power cooperation on matters of high politics, such as nuclear nonproliferation and the containment of rogue states that transgress global norms.
You can argue about the priorities, but on the whole I think this policy has worked. The war allowed both sides to confront the costs of continuing down a very negative trajectory. They both stepped away from the brink.
This is worth thinking about whem mulling over a different bilateral relationship that's had a bad few months.
I, for one, am glad that the foreign press is brave enough to cover what America's mainstream media is not -- the U.S. government's complicity in causing the Haitian earthquake. Never mind that the foreign media echo chamber aparentluy started with a false rumor -- with luck, our MSM will now start asking the tough questions.
Why, you might ask? What is America's motivations to trigger Haiti's earthquake and then intervene with massive aid in the hemisphere's poorest country? Well, there are different theories bandied about.
Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez suggests that this was a practice "drill," designed to test the earthquake weapon before targeting Iran (though see the update below). Very clever!! It is unclear whether Chavez believes that this is a test of the "demonstration effect" variety or not. It is also unclear just how such an earthquake would actually destroy Iran's nuclear program -- the 2003 Bam earthquake certainly didn't.
This Canadian-based Centre for Research on Globalization's Ken Hildebrandt offers the following ingenious explanation:
You've likely guessed my suspicions about recent events. I'm not saying this is what occurred, though it's sure a possibility to be considered in my view.
This could hardly have happened at a more convenient time. The president's ratings are plummeting, and his bill to subsidize the insurance industry has essentially divided the nation in two.
What better way to lead the people into believing we're one big happy family than to reunite former Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush along with Obama in a joint humanitarian effort?
This is so convenient... and brilliant!! It makes perfect sense that the Obama administation would try to kill upwards of 200,000 Haitians in order to bring the country together as one! Because, clearly, in recent years, natural disasters have bolstered the standing of U.S. presidents!! Certainly, a calamity in Haiti would work even better! If only Rush Limbaugh had played ball....
What I love about conspiracies like these is the careful balancing of smart and stupid that the key actors have to possess in order for the plan to work as described.
Question to readers: how far and how wide will this meme travel?
UPDATE: I just received the following from a atrategic communications advisor to the Venezuelan Embassy in the United states:
In response to your recent post on Foreign Policy’s website, I just wanted to clarify that President Hugo Chavez never associated himself with the theory that a
U.S.weapon had caused the earthquake in . Haiti
The claim was made by a blogger on the website of a state-run yet independent television station. At some point thereafter, someone jumped to the conclusion that President Chavez had agreed or repeated the claim, which is absolutely not true. President Chavez did argue against an increased
U.S.military presence in , but at no point did he question what had caused the earthquake or aligned himself with any conspiracy theories to that effect. Haiti
If it's early January, then it's time for Russia to play hardball with one of its neighbors and put a mild scare into Western Europe:
Russia has stopped shipments of oil to Belarus following a dispute about pricing, oil traders said on Monday.
The move will set off alarm bells in Europe, triggering memories of last January’s natural gas war between Russia and Ukraine that left several eastern European cities without gas for days. Oil, however, is more fungible than gas, and easily made up with alternative suppliers, so the consequences of the dispute are unlikely to be as severe....
The cut-off follows the failure of negotiations between Minsk and Moscow in the closing days of last year on new tariff arrangements for transit of Russian oil onward to Europe.
On January 1 a spokesman for the Belarus government told Interfax news agency that “unprecedented pressure” had been put on their delegation during the negotiations. Minsk called on Russia to continue supplies to Belarus under the old terms, until a new agreement could be reached.
It warned that Russian demands would violate a customs union agreement signed last year by Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan, and “would undermine all agreements reached on the further integration of our states”.
The dispute is likely to present an?obstacle to closer ties between the two countries. Belarus is virtually Russia’s only ally among former Soviet republics.
In this bilateral relationship, Belarus is Charlie Brown to Russia's Lucy. Every time the Belarusian government believes it has embedded Russia into an institution that affords it some protection, Russia pulls away the football.
Belarus' geostrategic problem is that its a buffer state with no natural ally, no natural resources, and a human rights situation that is so God-awful that no one in the West likes the country very much.
A theme common to all social scientists in the United States is the complaints lodged at "human subjects committees" or "institutional review boards" (IRBs). These are committees set up to ensure that faculty research projects do not lead to the mistreatment of the human subjects that are the focus of said research. This is all to the good for those researchers who are giving human subjects experimental drugs and treatments, mostly to the good for researchers who are running psychological experiments on test subjects, and one whopper of an inconvenience for the rest of us who have to get IRB approval for completely unintrusive investigations.
In the New York Times, however, Ellen Barry writes about some new requirements for professors at St. Petersburg State University who wish to present overseas. Their new requirements will make me a little less likely to bitch about IRB procedures:
Word spread this month among the faculty members of St. Petersburg State University: According to a document signed on Oct. 1, they have to submit their work to administrators for permission before publishing it abroad or presenting it at overseas conferences.
The order, which was circulated internally and made its way onto a popular Internet forum, says professors must provide their academic department with copies of texts to be made public outside Russia, so that they can be reviewed for violation of intellectual property laws or potential danger to national security....
Though scientists have long been subject to export control rules, the St. Petersburg order applies to the humanities as well. It asks for copies of grant applications to foreign organizations, contracts with foreign entities, curriculums to be used for teaching foreign students and a list of foreign students, along with their plans of study.
Deans will clear the work for publication or submit it to an internal export control commission for review, said Igor A. Gorlinsky, the university’s vice rector for scholarly and scientific work. The order was issued to clarify a rule that has been on the university’s books for a decade, but that existed “only on paper,” he said. Dr. Gorlinsky added that the plan might be adjusted or streamlined in response to faculty feedback....
He said he doubted that work in the humanities would be affected unless it violated the university’s intellectual property rights.
“What state secrets could there be in the sphere of political science?” he said (emphasis added).
Seth Robinson has a interesting essay over at The New Republic that explains why Russia is loathe to sanction Iran over nuclear issues. The key part:
How does Russia benefit from its nuclear cooperation with
? Simple economics provides a compelling first answer: The Russian economy has not only reaped the benefits of the Bushehr deal, but it has also been bolstered by the sale of fuel and the potential sale of additional reactors. What's more, the nuclear project is only one of many economic agreements between the two countries. Total bilateral trade hovers around $2 billion, as Iran Russiasupplies with consumer goods, oil and gas equipment, and military technology. Iran Russiaalso enjoys privileged access (along with China) to 's Southern Pars gas fields.... Iran
Iranis still a powerbroker in the Caspian oil trade; its position on the Caspian Sea, which is estimated to hold more than 10 billion tons of oil reserves, makes it an important and influential partner for . Russia has been extensively involved in coordinating transnational oil and gas deals, arranging transportation of exports with a number of regional states. Tehran Russiais in a position to use its good relations with Iranto challenge 's efforts to create new pipelines and foreign direct investment in the Caspian region. Washington Iranhas already proven an effective regional ally for Russia--in addition to cooperating on energy deals, Tehranhas pointedly refrained from criticizing Moscow's Chechnyapolicy and has held strategic meetings with on the Taliban. Moscow
Finally, Russian nuclear cooperation with
Iranprovides the Kremlin with leverage over the . United States remains guarded against Western advances into its "near abroad," and has fought to keep neighboring states from being brought into the NATO fold. By dangling the Iranian nuclear issue in front of the Moscow United States, may believe it has a means to maintain regional dominance. Russian leaders have already extracted concessions from Moscow Washington, as the United Statesrecently altered plans for missile defense in Polandand the . Yielding on the Czech Republic Iranissue would strip Moscowof the ability to coerce the and damage its own ability to reassert local influence. United States
The first reason is both sufficient and compelling; I'm not entirely sure I buy the latter two. Iran's nuclear program gave the United States just cause to insert missile programs into Eastern Europe in the first place -- so Iran's nuclear ambitions have caused as many problems for Russia's near abroad as they have ameliorated. As for the Caspian argument, it's not clear how a Russian-Iranian axis challenges U.S. energy diplomacy in the region. If anything, that axis probably incentivizes the smaller energy producers to find a viable pipeline alternative that flows outside of Moscow and Tehran's orbit.
That said, the economic interest argument is pretty powerful. So, does this mean sanctions would be fruitless? Not necessarily. The paradox about economic sanctions is that although allies are more reluctant to coerce each other, they are also more successful once they make the decision to coerce. At the same time, successful sanction efforts almost always end at the threat stage. So if Russia ever signaled that it would seriously contemplate a cut-off in bilateral exchange, the Iranians would be likely to concede before implementation.
This is the outcome the Russians would prefer the most -- a mild threat from the P5 + 1 prods Tehran into taking just enough action to avoid further isolation, and any further implementation of sanctions.
But I could be wrong. Persuade me in the comments.
According to the Associated Press, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev wants to get outside of the DC beltway in his next trip to the USA:
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev says he would like to meet with "dissidents" when he visits the U.S. next week.
Russian news agencies quote him as telling a group of visiting foreign experts that "I believe there are dissidents in the United States."
ITAR-Tass quotes him as saying: "Let them tell me what problems the United States has. That won't be bad, considering the Soviet experience."
I think that this is a fantastic idea, when one considers the potential pool of dissidents. Fortunately, Andy Heil has come up with a list of possibile dissidents at RFERL's Transmissions blog. His list:
This is an excellent start, but I think we can add a few names to the old dissident list. Let me think.... who else is railing against the System these days?
I'm just trying to imagine Medvedev meeting this crew.
Commenters are encouraged to suggest additional names in the comments.
In a legen -- wait for it -- dary blog post, Belle Waring mentioned the pony problem in public policy. Namely, "an infallible way to improve any public policy wishes. You just wish for the thing, plus, wish that everyone would have their own pony!"
I bring this up because of David Sanger's New York Times story about the prospects of imposing a gasoline embargo on Iran:
The Obama administration is talking with allies and Congress about the possibility of imposing an extreme economic sanction against Iran if it fails to respond to President Obama's offer to negotiate on its nuclear program: cutting off the country’s imports of gasoline and other refined oil products....
But enforcing what would amount to a gasoline embargo has long been considered risky and extremely difficult; it would require the participation of Russia and China, among others that profit from trade with Iran. Iran has threatened to respond by cutting off oil exports and closing shipping traffic through the Strait of Hormuz, at a moment that the world economy is highly vulnerable.
The rest of the story is kind of irrelevant -- because without China and Russia, this is just a theoretical exercise. In fact, here's a good time-saver: if you read any story about a gasoline embargo o Iran, just scan quickly and get to the part where the reporter explains how and why Russia and China would go along. If it's not mentioned, the story is inconsequential.
If you want China and Russia to agree to sanctions, should you wish for the free pony as well? Here the growth of dissent in Iran complicates an already complicated picture. I'm betting that Moscow and Beijing have observed the "Death to Russia!" and "Death to China!" chants among the protestors. This is likely going to make them even more reluctant to do anything that undermines the current regime (even if this hurts their long-term interests). Which a gasoline embargo would most certainly do.
Do I think a gasoline embargo is a good idea? Absolutely. Do I think it will happen? No, I don't.
The reality is the Russians are where they are. They have a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years, they're in a situation where the world is changing before them and they're clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable.
If Biden was just shooting the breeze off the record, I'd be hard-pressed to disagree with anything in the quotes. I'm pretty sure, however, that part of "smart power" is not being gratuitously insulting to fellow members of the nuclear club. Maybe, just maybe, they'll take this kind of dumbass statement personally.
Don't take my word for it, though -- take Joe Biden's:
It is never smart to embarrass an individual or a country when they're dealing with significant loss of face. My dad used to put it another way: Never put another man in a corner where the only way out is over you. It just is not smart.
The word "stupid" has been thrown around a lot this week, but I think it applies pretty well to Biden's language.
This bit from the Los Angeles Times' account of today's Tehran protests is veeeeeeeeerrrrrry interesting.
At times the two camps appeared to be shouting directly at each other, exposing the still-festering election rift within Iranian society and the political establishment underneath both at the Friday prayer enclosure on the university campus and on the streets outside.
As Mousavi supporters chanted "Death to the dictator," against Ahmadinejad, his supporters chanted "Death to opponents" of Khamenei.
As hard-liners repeated their signature cries of "Death to America" and "Death to Israel," riled-up Mousavi supporters overpowered them with chants of "Death to Russia" and "Death to China," the Islamic Republic's powerful United Nations Security Council protectors.
This little exchange underscores the fact that the United States is not the only great power with a stake in the outcome of what happens in Iran.
That said, one wonders if Russia and China will respond by doubling down on the current regime -- i.e., aiding and abetting Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, and the Revolutionary Guards in order to ensure a friendly Iran.
If this happens, 2009 could be a bizarro-world replay of 1953, when the United States backed a coup in Tehran order to ensure a U.S.-friendly regime. That move gave the United States 25 years of a friendly Iranian government, immediately followed by thirty years of a hostile Iranian government.
Readers, does this analogy hold up?
During the transition, Barack Obama voiced numerous concerns about being trapped in the Presidential "bubble," cut off from the rest of the real world. Oddly enough, this is also a concern of 30 Rock.
If this New York Times story by Clifford J. Levy and Ellen Barry is any indication, the bubble seems to have completely enveloped Obama's White House staff:
Crowds did not clamor for a glimpse of him. Headlines offered only glancing or flippant notice of his activities. Television programming was uninterrupted; devotees of the Russian Judge Judy had nothing to fear. Even many students and alumni of the Western-oriented business school where Mr. Obama gave the graduation address on Tuesday seemed merely respectful, but hardly enthralled....
Some Obama aides said they were struck by the low-key reception here, especially when compared with the outpouring on some of his other foreign trips. Even Michelle Obama, who typically enjoys admiring coverage in the local news media when she travels, has not had her every move chronicled here.
Seriously? Seriously?! The President of the United States visits a staunchly nationalist country that has significant conflicts with Washington, and the charm offensive didn't take? Well, blow me down!!
When/if Obama visits China and India, his staffers might have some more rude awakenings in their future.
President Obama gave a speech today in Moscow outlining his view of the Russian-American relationship. This was the part that stuck in my academic IR craw:
There is the 20th century view that the United States and Russia are destined to be antagonists, and that a strong Russia or a strong America can only assert themselves in opposition to one another. And there is a 19th century view that we are destined to vie for spheres of influence, and that great powers must forge competing blocs to balance one another.
These assumptions are wrong. In 2009, a great power does not show strength by dominating or demonizing other countries. The days when empires could treat sovereign states as pieces on a chess board are over. As I said in Cairo, given our independence, any world order that -- given our interdependence, any world order that tries to elevate one nation or one group of people over another will inevitably fail. The pursuit of power is no longer a zero-sum game -- progress must be shared. (emphasis added)
If he had said, "The pursuit of prosperity is no longer a zero-sum game," I'd be fine with the passage. I still think power is a zero-sum concept, however. The two ideas are linked but hardly the same.
Obama is hardly the first president to mangle IR concepts in his speeches -- remember "a balance of power that favors freedom"?
Still, I hope that's a rhetorical flourish rather than a genuine belief of the administraion.
With Obama in Russia today, there are soome different blog takes on what to expect from bilateral relationship.
Dave Schuler thinks Russian and American interests are increasingly incompatible:
[T]here isn’t much basis for a good relationship between Russia and the United States. Russia’s population is dwindling, its economy languishing, it survives largely by selling its natural resources. Russia would be a difficult market for American goods and its natural customer for its oil and gas is Europe. We don’t really need Russia’s cooperation on pressing world issues like climate change.
Russia has had consistent and clear interests over the period of the last 200 years or more: annexing or at least neutralizing its neighbors.
The US-Russia relationship is multifaceted, and there’s plenty of stuff we disagree about. And within the category of “stuff we disagree about” there’s a particular sub-category of stuff that it’s exceedingly unlikely we’re going to agree about. Most notable among these is Russia’s relationship with the post-Soviet countries....
There’s a certain amount of sentiment in the United States that not only should the U.S. continue to disagree with Russia’s perspective on this, but that we ought to somehow elevate such disagreement to the very top of the U.S.-Russian bilateral relationship. The president should go over there, denounce the Russians, get denounced back, and then come back to Washington empty handed but full of self-righteousness. This is part and parcel of the phenomenon whereby people don’t grasp the difference between a pundit and a president. It makes a lot more sense to focus a visit on something like the nuclear issue, where U.S. and Russian interests are roughly in alignment and some high-level discussions stand a decent chance of bearing fruit.
I'm gonna side with Yglesias on this one, mostly because I don't think I buy Schuler's logic connecting Russia's strategic situation and the absence of any basis for a good relationship between Washington and Moscow. I agree with Schuler that the reservoir of anti-Americanism in Russia runs long and deep. That said:
Am I missing anything?
I'll be on the road most of tomorrow, so blogging might not be possible. Before I go, however, it's worth considering the ways in which the ongoing social uprising in Iran is tripping up great powers other than the United Ststes.
There have been some interesting developments here -- particularly with regard to Russia. Andrew Sullivan posts the following from a reader:
Famed film director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, on behalf of Mousavi's campaign, was on BBC just now, He accused Ahamdinejad of giving up Iran's rights in Caspian Sea and other areas in the last 4 years and now is enjoying Russia's firm backing. Then he called it a Russian Coup! He said he has information that high ranking Russian advisers are teaching Ahmadinejad's thugs as to how to oppress the opposition effectively. This is Mohsen Makhmablf, not just any director. Already Iranians are gathering in front of Russian consulate in Toronto.
Over at TNR, Julia Ioffe takes a look at Russian press coverage of the election -- and more intriguingly, the Russian government's rapidly evolving relationship with Ahmadinejad:
[T]he winds are changing. Obama has taken a less militant tone with Tehran and with Moscow. Medvedev, lately showing more sleight of hand than his predecessor, seems to have finally picked up on the world's extreme skepticism about the election results and the growing seriousness of the unrest in Iran.
Here's what happened: Slated to arrive in Yekaterinburg on Monday for the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit (Iran is an observer in the group, which is a sort of answer to NATO in Asia), Ahmadinejad postponed his trip because of the situation at home. When he finally arrived yesterday, Ahmadinejad found that his two-hour tete-a-tete with President Dmitri Medvedev had been canceled due to the president's "overly-saturated schedule." Instead, he shook hands in front of the cameras with Medvedev, whose spokesperson insisted that this fleeting encounter was nothing more than a flicker "on the sidelines." As Gazeta noted in its main headline on Iran of the day, "Ahmadinejad Can Wait."
I'm not sure this backtracking will be terribly adroit. If Ahmadinejad and Khamenei fall, methinks it's going to be pretty easy for the new Iranian leadership to Google this AP story:
"It's quite symbolic that the Iranian president arrived in Russia on his first foreign visit since re-election," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said at a briefing. "We see that as a sign that the Russian-Iranian relations will advance further."....
Ryabkov said the election was Iran's internal affair, but he endorsed Ahmadinejad as the victor.
"We welcome the fact that the elections have taken place, and we welcome the newly re-elected Iranian president on the Russian soil," he said. "We see this visit as a reflection of partner-like, neighborly and traditionally friendly relations between Moscow and Tehran."
A pure realist might argue that regardless of who is in power in Iran, the bilateral relationship with Russia will remain strong. A week ago, I would have agreed with this position. Now, however, we're talking about a regime transition, as opposed to the simple change in government that would have taken place with a clean Mousavi victory last week. And new regimes remember who helped their domestic adversaries in the past.
An Iran led by a representative government unfettered by the clerics is a game-changer on several levels. If a new Iranian regime wants to talk turkey with the Obama administration, then the United States suddenly needs Russia a whole lot less. Authoritarian states everywhere will become much more nervous about contagion effects. I'm not sure how the Sunni regimes in the region would react to a liberalizing Iran, but I'm betting that they wouldn't like it. Come to think of it, the effect on Iraq is unclear as well, but I'm pretty sure there would be some effect. I'm trying to game out how it would affect energy markets, and my head hurts from trying to weigh the cross-cutting effect on all of the variables.
As the previous paragraphs suggest, I'm pretty sure a Rubicon has been crossed in Iran that can't be uncrossed. This isn't 1999 and 2003 -- too many days have passed with the Khamenei regime on the defensive. The regime as it existed for the past twenty years -- hemmed-in democracy combined with clerical rule -- is not going to be able to continue. With the largest protests of the past week scheduled for tomorrow, I think this ends in one of two ways: the removal of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei from power, or bloodshed on a scale that we cannot comprehend.
Actually, come to think of it, those two outcomes are not mutually exclusive.
Not everything going on in international relations is about Iran. My latest column at The National Interest Online evaluates yesterday's BRIC Heads of State summit in Yekaterinaburg. The closing paragraph:
[T]hink of the BRIC grouping as an homage to other toothless international groupings. Indeed, most of the official BRIC communiqué consisted of pledges to do things that will clearly not be done, like finish the Doha trade round. In doing this, the BRIC coalition appears to be quickly learning from the grand tradition of fruitless G-8 and G-20 communiqués.
The New York Times' Peter Baker breaks a story about the Obama administration's efforts to engage in linkage politics with Russia:
President Obama sent a secret letter to Russia's president last month suggesting that he would back off deploying a new missile defense system in Eastern Europe if Moscow would help stop Iran from developing long-range weapons, American officials said Monday.
The letter to President Dmitri A. Medvedev was hand-delivered in Moscow by top administration officials three weeks ago. It said the United States would not need to proceed with the interceptor system, which has been vehemently opposed by Russia since it was proposed by the Bush administration, if Iran halted any efforts to build nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.
The officials who described the contents of the message requested anonymity because it has not been made public. While they said it did not offer a direct quid pro quo, the letter was intended to give Moscow an incentive to join the United States in a common front against Iran. Russia’s military, diplomatic and commercial ties to Tehran give it some influence there, but it has often resisted Washington’s hard line against Iran.
“It’s almost saying to them, put up or shut up,” said a senior administration official. “It’s not that the Russians get to say, ‘We’ll try and therefore you have to suspend.’ It says the threat has to go away.”
Three things of interest here:
The Times story has already been updated with Medvedev's reaction:
On Tuesday, a press secretary for Dmitri A. Medvedev told the Interfax news agency that the letter did not contain any “specific proposals or mutually binding initiatives.”
Natalya Timakova said the letter was a reply to one sent by Mr. Medvedev shortly after Mr. Obama was elected.
“Medvedev appreciated the promptness of the reply and the positive spirit of the message,” Ms. Timakova said. “Obama’s letter contains various proposals and assessments of the current situation. But the message did not contain any specific proposals or mutually binding initiatives.”
She said Mr. Medvedev perceives the development of Russian-American relations as “exceptionally positive,” and hopes details can be fleshed out at a meeting on Friday in Geneva between Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Mr. Obama and Mr. Medvedev will meet for the first time on April 2 in London, officials said Monday.
My hunch is that, in the end, the Russians will spurn this deal [UPDATE: Drezner gets results from Dmitri Medvedev!]. Russia has sizeable commercial and strategic interests in Iran, and will want to maintain as much flexibility as possible in dealing with Tehran. If Moscow is smart, however, they will try to parlay this as a means for acting as the interlocutor between Iran and the West.
On the other hand, it seems though the Obama administration can't lose. If the Russians say no, then Obama's hand is strengthened in both Western and Eastern Europe, and Russia loses some leverage in trying to get missile defense out of their backyard.
VP Joe Biden gave a speech at the Munich Security Conference today that made quite a splash.
The main themes of the speech were about American outreach to Iran and Russia, Still, the Washington Post's Craig Whitlock reported the following oddity:
Biden is scheduled to meet privately later this weekend in Munich with Sergei Ivanov, Russia's deputy prime minister. While he was conciliatory in his speech, Biden also signaled that the Obama administration would take a tough line when necessary.
For example, he said the U.S. government would not recognize the breakaway Caucasus republics of Abkhazia or South Ossetia, which seceded after the war in Georgia and has received strong Russian support.
This is Biden's example of a tough line? Well, whoa, blow me down!!
In not recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the United States has bravely aligned itself with... every other country in the world except for Russia and Nicaragua. This is a tough line like saying the U.S. government would also not recognize Vladimir Putin as King of the World.
We'll see how Tehran and Moscow respond to the outreach. I do like the fact that the "America will extend a hand to those who unclench their fists" line from Obama's inaugural address is now part of U.S. lexicon. It's a clever framing that puts the onus on Iran and Russia.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.