Though many are wondering why both sides don't simply stand down now to avoid further loss of innocent life (since, after all, it's fairly clear that a major shift in the status quo will be the outcome of the bombardments that are now in their third day), the grim logic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is convincing men on both sides that more death is what's needed now to secure their own interests.
For Hamas, the Islamist militant group and political party that has governed Gaza separately from the West Bank based Palestinian Authority since 2007,the pressure comes in weighing its reputation of resistance and endurance against the mounting human cost to civilians. Standing down completely, capitulation, would look weak to many of its supporters, perhaps opening a door for other militant groups in the Gaza Strip, like Islamic Jihad, to accrue more power for themselves.
For Israel, the costs in life to its own side are lighter than for its much weaker foe, but still serious enough. Three Israeli civilians died when a rocket hit their apartment building in Kiryat Malachi in southern Israel on Thursday morning. (See the Monitor's report from Kiryat Malachi Thursday.) Meanwhile, 19 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli mortar and air strikes, the balance of them civilians, since the war began on Wednesday.
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet have in some ways locked themselves into a broader conflict, based on the public logic they have provided in the past few days: Rockets from Gaza are intolerable, and force must be used to stop them. Since there have now been 500 or so rockets fired at Israel since the assassination of Hamas military leader Ahmad Jabari on Wednesday, compared with 723 in total fired in the first 10 months of the year, that logic of escalation of force calls for yet more escalation.
Further, Hamas fired long-range Fajr rockets, known to be in their arsenal but never used before, in response to Israeli's bombing raids yesterday. Those longer-range rockets struck within eight miles of Tel Aviv, Israel's business and cultural capital, and both yesterday and today, air raid sirens wailed throughout the coastal Mediterranean city for the first time since 1991, when Iraq's Saddam Hussein lobbed scud missiles at Israel during Gulf War precipitated by his invasion of Kuwait. And in the late afternoon, the first air raid sirens in memory were reported to be going off in Jerusalem.
Hamas being able to threaten Tel Aviv from the air is, as they say, a game-changer. The Tel Aviv metropolitan area is home to about 40 percent of Israel's 7.7 million people, and its cafes and beach life have long provided a comfortable cocoon, far from conflicts over Israeli settlements in the West Bank or the threats of Hamas in Gaza.
The residents of southern Israel, near Gaza, have long lived with the terror of rocket attacks, and in many ways have grown used to it. The residents of teeming Gaza, hemmed in by both Israel and Egypt, are likewise used to the terror of far more powerful Israeli bombs that rain down on towns and cities in response to Palestinian rocket attacks.
Where the red line lies
But a permanent extension of that envelope of fear to Tel Aviv, which attracts foreign investment to its high tech industries, would be intolerable for Israel. It could have an impact on both investment in the country and on the immigration of Jews to Israel, who are often urged to make aliyah (return) to the Jewish state under the argument that it's the only place where Jews can be truly safe.
That's why 16,000 Israeli army reservists were called up this morning. If more long-range rockets strike deep into the center of Israel, the argument for a ground incursion will grow stronger for Netanyahu. The IDF says most of the 300 bombs it has fired into Gaza have targeted long-range launching sites and warehouses for the Iranian made Fajr rockets. But has it got most of them? Or just a few?
The costs of escalation are also clear, beyond the casualties. The last Israeli war with Gaza was in 2008, then as now within weeks of the election of President Obama. The war, which Israel called Operation Cast Lead, claimed 13 Israeli lives and more than 1,200 Palestinian lives. Yes, Israel now has the Iron Dome defense system, which has shut down about 100 Israeli rockets so far at a cost of $40,000 a pop (the least expensive of the Palestinian rockets cost about $500). But all missile defense systems are prone to being overwhelmed by sheer numbers, if the opponent has sufficient supply.
Damage to international image
While Israeli's political support from the US remains staunch -- the Obama administration has placed responsibility for the outbreak squarely on Hamas's shoulders and repeatedly said that Israel has the right to defend itself -- the enormous imbalance in casualty rates when Israel fights Palestinians always does damage to the country's international image, which in the long term can extract a political toll.
And the region is a far different place than it was in 2008, when Hosni Mubarak led Egypt and could be counted on to quietly back Israel against Hamas. Now, Egypt is led by the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi. Hamas was originally an offshoot of the Brotherhood, and they are ideological kindred spirits. Today, Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil briefly entered Gaza at the Rafah border, an unprecedented visit at a time of conflict. He toured Shifa Hospital in Gaza City and met with Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.
"We are all behind you, the struggling nation, the heroic that is presenting its children as heroes every day," Mr. Qandil said at the panicked hospital, filled with casualties. The LA Times reported that an emotional Qandil held up a blood-stained sleeve, saying it came from one of the wounded, as Haniyah said ""That's Palestinian blood on Egyptian hands."
This is not to say that Egypt is going to break its longstanding peace agreement with Israel or get directly involved in the conflict. But the Morsi government will be under pressure not to be as reliable a guardian of its Sinai border with Gaza as Mr. Mubarak was after this latest outbreak of hostility. That border is, after all, where much of the weapon and financial resupply of Gaza passes through. Mr. Morsi warned today that Israel should stop offensive operations now or "it won't be able to stand up to" Egypt's anger.
And there were already signs that Gaza was better armed and prepared this time around than in 2008. Then, about 600 missiles were fired at Israeli during three weeks of fighting before a truce was called. So far, 500 missiles have been fired in three days, 80 percent of the total four years ago.
To be sure, peace could still break out. Perhaps the Egyptians, or the Turks, can convince Hamas that their point has been made. Perhaps the US can convince Israel of the same.
But why the logic of peace seems obvious to outsiders, combatants run along different logic. This crisis will run for days yet.
(This has been updated/corrected since first posting. Thanks to Ben McCombe for pointing out that I conflated "incidents" with raw claims of rocket and mortar fire in the Shabak's reporting).
There's been some confusion over the frequency with which missiles are fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip, the official reason the Israeli government gave for launching its offensive on Gaza yesterday, which started with the assassination of senior Hamas militant Ahmed Jabari in Gaza City.
Palestinian officials in the Gaza Strip have reported 13 dead in the violence. On the Israeli-side, the first three Israelis of the year to be killed by rocket fire, which has intensified substantially in the past 30 hours.
We're seeing the old adage that violence begets violence. Israel says there have been 275 rocket and mortars fired (updated total at 12:45 US eastern time on Thursday) from Gaza since Mr. Jabari was killed yesterday. That's a huge proportion of the total so far this year, prompted by the very thing that it was officially designed to stop it. How big? At least 25 percent, and probably more. Israel's Shin Bet internal security agency reported 451 total mortar and rocket "attacks" this year through Oct. 31 (though in some of these cases the "attacks" contained more than one rocket fired). The past week, however, has seen nearly that many.
The escalation cycle, so far, in brief:
On Nov. 5, an unarmed Palestinian man was shot and killed by Israeli forces as he crawled near the heavily armed Israeli border fence with Gaza. His family said he was mentally ill. On Nov. 8, Palestinian militants from one of the Popular Resistance Committees (not under Hamas control) engaged with an Israeli military unit that had entered Gaza. An Israeli miltary spokesman said the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) responded by firing at "suspicious locations" and in the process killed Palestinian 12-year-old Ahmed Abu Dagah.
On Nov. 10, Palestinian militants fired an antitank missile at an Israeli military jeep near the border, wounding four soldiers. The Israeli reprisals for that attack left five Palestinians dead that day: two teenagers playing soccer, two attendees at a funeral where the mourning tent was hit by an errant Israeli tank shell, and one Palestinian militant who was trying to fire a missile at Israel. Israeli officials claimed at least 100 more rockets were fired at Israel on Nov. 10 and 11.
I distilled the numbers of mortar and rocket attacks published by the Shin Bet in its monthly reports for January-October (sample report here.) I share them below because I haven't found a handy link to these totals, and there are lots of claims and counter-claims about the real numbers. (Update: I've added the individual rockets and mortars fired below.as well as the "attack" totals).
Month Rocket and mortar "attacks" Total rockets and mortars fired
Oct. 92 171
Sept: 18 25
Aug. 16 24
July: 19 27
June: 94 218
May: 6 6
April: 8 8
March: 156 192
(This March surge followed a series of Israeli strikes on Gaza on March 9, one of which assassinated Zuhir al-Qaisi, a top leader of the Popular Resistance Committees. Another 14 Palestinians were killed in the Israeli airstrikes. On March 9, and March 10, Palestinian militants fired at least 95 rockets at Israel in retaliation.)
February: 28 37
January: 14 15
Total: 451 723
THIS IS A TEST: How well do you know the Middle East?
Israel's air offensive on the Gaza Strip today is a response to rocket fire from the coastal Palestinian enclave. Hamas, which governs the strip, has borne the brunt of the assault. The action began with a missile that targeted Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari as he drove through Gaza City today (the IDF quickly shared a video of that attack) and was followed by dozens more.
Here's how Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren explained the Gaza strikes this afternoon: "The scope of the IDF's defensive operation depends on Hamas and whether it takes the decision to cease firing missiles on our homes."
But Hamas has not been the principal one firing the rockets at Israel, at least not lately. Other, smaller militant groups in Gaza like Islamic Jihad and the popular resistance committees in the strip do much of the shooting, though the Al Qassam Brigade that Mr. Jabari headed until his death has taken credit for some attacks in recent weeks.
This may be a distinction without a difference to Israeli officials. They frequently argue that Hamas is the governing authority in Gaza, and therefore is de facto responsible for all rocket fire.
But Hamas has in fact been trying to keep rocket fire under control in the years since Israel's Operation Cast Lead in the territory in late 2008/early 2009. One of their most important men in keeping militancy under wraps? Mr. Jabari, who was powerful enough and respected enough to prevent a major outbreak of violence from Gaza that could have invited powerful reprisals.
Here's how veteran Israeli columnist Aluf Benn put it today:
Ahmed Jabari was a subcontractor, in charge of maintaining Israel's security in Gaza. This title will no doubt sound absurd to anyone who in the past several hours has heard Jabari described as "an arch-terrorist," "the terror chief of staff" or "our Bin Laden." But that was the reality for the past five and a half years. Israel demanded of Hamas that it observe the truce in the south and enforce it on the multiplicity of armed organizations in the Gaza Strip. The man responsible for carrying out this policy was Ahmed Jabari.
Now Israel is saying that its subcontractor did not do his part and did not maintain the promised quiet on the southern border. The repeated complaint against him was that Hamas did not succeed in controlling the other organizations, even though it is not interested in escalation. After Jabari was warned openly (Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff reported here at the beginning of this week that the assassination of top Hamas people would be renewed), he was executed on Wednesday in a public assassination action, for which Israel hastened to take responsibility. The message was simple and clear: You failed - you're dead.
Hamas control of the strip was never ironclad, and it could well get worse from here on out. Under the best of conditions, Hamas has had a politically understandable reluctance to target Palestinian militants who seek to strike out at Israel. A majority of the strip's population are descendants of refugees who were forced out of their homes in 1948, and the rocket-fire now falls in the areas where their ancestors formerly lived.
Hamas's rise to power there was thanks in equal measure to the widespread corruption of Fatah and to Hamas's image as a more serious and committed resister of Israel than its secular rival. So there are political costs to shutting down the militant groups that fire rockets at Israel, not to mention that such efforts could escalate into a civil war. Though Israel publicly seems to assert that Hamas can simply turn of the rocket attacks if it chooses too, the reality in Gaza is a bit more complex.
Now, Hamas will be mulling whether it should retaliate with some of the longer-range rockets from their arsenal. The argument against that would be Israel's overwhelming military advantage, which would be brought down hard on Hamas leaders, the rank and file, and average Gaza residents alike. The Hamas deal with Israel in recent years – restraining rocket attacks – has been to its own advantage. While taking a tough stance against Israel is generally popular, provoking the powerful neighbor with tactically useless rocket-fire, is not, particularly since Israel's response cause so much misery among Gaza's population.
That logic still holds, as furious as the group must be about the attacks today. So far, the message from Hamas has been fairly restrained.
Spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in a statement: "I warn those who violate all laws and accords of grave consequences if they persist in this unprovoked aggression. The resistance has the full right to respond, to provide security and protection for the Palestinian people in the face of these repeated murderous raids." Declaring a right to respond is something different than promising a response.
(Since this story was published on November 14, a lot has happened. Some of the Monitor's latest stories include a consideration of the effectiveness of Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system, Israeli preparations for a possible ground assault on Gaza, a look at the propaganda war, an analysis of the costs and benefits of escalation for both Israel and Hamas, and sympathy for Gazans and doubts about a ground war from Israel's south, the region of the country most vulnerable to rocket fire.)
Israel's assassination of senior Hamas militant Ahmed Jabari on Wednesday appears to be just the start of the farthest-reaching offensive on Gaza for years. Various Israeli officials had been agitating for days for serious retaliation to rocket fire from Gaza, never mind Hamas promising to stop the rockets on Tuesday. Today, those officials' wish was granted.
But how serious will the retaliation be? That is the question that has yet to be answered. There have been at least two dozen airstrikes in Gaza so far today, and there are unconfirmed reports coming out of the territory that other senior Hamas officials have been targeted.
Will there be a ground incursion? Israeli Home Defense Minister Avi Dichter seemed to call for one when he said Tuesday: "There is no precedent in history of destroying terror by air power alone. It hasn't happened and it won't happen. Thus it is necessary to reformat Gaza altogether."
Or will the guns soon go silent, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refocusing on his country's January election, having bolstered his "tough on terror" credentials without a messy and uncertain ground action?
Israeli spokesmen say more than 750 rockets fired from Gaza have hit southern Israel this year. The rockets sow real and deep terror in Israeli communities. But that's about all they can do. The vast majority of the rockets from Gaza are like C-minus high school science fair projects, carry limited amounts of explosive, and are impossible to aim. For all that rocket fire, not a single Israeli has been killed by one this year.
Israel's overwhelming military superiority to all the armed groups in Gaza (Hamas may be the biggest, but it's not the one that usually fires the rockets) means that when it retaliates, lives are lost on the Palestinian side of the fence and substantial damage is done to the enclave's infrastructure. That's what happened in the last major assault on Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, which ran for three weeks starting in late December 2008. The toll was more than 1,100 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead, along with devastation of Gaza's electricity system and other basic infrastructure.
Then, as now, the precipitating issue was the firing of rockets from Gaza. And then, as now, there are potential costs for Israel in an aggressive response to the Gaza militants. Hamas has an arsenal of Fajr rockets from Iran, that have much longer ranges than the rockets typically fired from Gaza. Israel says it has been targeting launch sites for the rockets in the attacks today, but has it gotten them all? Unlikely. Will Hamas decide to unleash the weapons on Israel in retaliation? Possibly.
Impact on Israel-Egypt ties?
Egypt, now led by the Muslim Brotherhood, was already edging away from its longstanding cold peace with Israel. A major offensive in Gaza will accelerate that process, and perhaps cause the Egyptian government to rethink its cooperation with Israel in sealing up Gaza's borders. State TV in Egypt is reporting that the country has recalled its ambassador from Israel.
Cast Lead's extensive civilian casualties delivered a major blow to Israel's standing, and a repeat of 2008 will likely drain additional international sympathy for the Israeli side of the conflict with the Palestinians.
And an Israeli assault in Gaza will make it much more politically costly for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to back off his promised push for Palestine to be given the status of nonmember observer state at the United Nations. He would look like an appeaser of Israel while the true Palestinian "resistance" in Gaza was suffering under Israeli weapons. (For more on the Palestinian bid at the UN, see the Monitor's briefing today.)
Causing Mr. Abbas to harden his UN stance is clearly not what Israel wants. Reuters reported today on a proposed policy document from Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's office that suggested driving Mr. Abbas from power and "dismantling the Palestinian Authority" as a possible response to a successful UN bid.
Would Israel really do that? Well, all things are possible. But events in Gaza suggest why that's not a very attractive option for Israel, either. The government of Mr. Netanyahu may not be happy with Abbas and the Fatah party he represents, but the Palestinian government in the West Bank has largely given up armed struggle and Abbas has been committed to the creation of a Palestinian state through negotiation. Taking him out would leave his rivals in Hamas, with whom Fatah fought and lost a brief civil war in Gaza in 2007.
Hamas, of course, takes a much harder line toward Israel than Fatah, and it now has rivals of its own in Gaza like the Islamic Jihad, who are more militant still. In the 1980s, Israel viewed the rise of Hamas as a rival to Fatah with some favor. Today, Israeli military spokesmen were calling Hamas an "Iranian proxy" on social media sites. The odds of any group that replaces Fatah being more favorable for Israel look poor.
To be sure, if Israel believes it can stop or seriously diminish the threat of rockets from Gaza, perhaps by frightening surviving Hamas leaders into suppressing rocket fire, that's a benefit that would outweigh all potential costs. But Hamas, for its own prestige, will feel the need to strike back.
General David Petraeus was the most lionized general of his generation. General John R. Allen, the marine who replaced him as head of the Afghan war when Petraeus went to the CIA, was likewise the subject of near unanimously fawning press.
That is all over. St. David's halo has been permanently dented by the revelations of his affair with Paula Broadwell, the army reservist who he anointed as his personal biographer. And the strange tale of sex and secrets is only growing stranger, with Ms. Broadwell's North Carolina home thoroughly searched by FBI agents last night.
General Allen, who was expected to fly through a pro-forma confirmation hearing on his appointment as the head of US forces in Europe on Thursday, is now caught up in the middle of it all, though it's hard to say precisely how with any certainty, with contradictory reports flooding from unnamed "officials" and "sources" to various DC-focused reporters.
Last night, an unidentified "senior defense official" told reporters that Jill Kelley, a married Tampa Bay socialite who complained to an FBI acquaintance that she was receiving anonymous and threatening emails over her relationship with Gen. Petraeus, was linked in some way to Allen. Ms. Kelley's complaint led to the FBI probe that forced the public revelation of Petraeus' affair with Broadwell.
What's the link to Allen? Well, The Washington Post originally reported that, according to the Pentagon official, "the FBI was looking at 20,000-30,000 pages of email between Allen and Kelley that contained "potentially inappropriate" content."
That claim has been partially walked back by the same reporter in a followup in the Post this morning, The Post now reports the original allegation as: "According to a senior U.S. defense official, the FBI has uncovered between 20,000 and 30,000 pages of documents — most of them e-mails — that contain “potentially inappropriate” communication between Allen and Jill Kelley."
The distinction might seem subtle, but it isn't. The first suggests 20,000 or more emails between the two, a staggering volume that's suggestive more of forwarding on floods of email from his inbox rather than personal communication. The second refers to 20,000 or more "documents" that might contain "inappropriate" email between Kelley and Allen. That is, any contact between the two, inappropriate or not, is a subset of a large number, not its entirety.
The Post also quotes another unnamed "senior" official who appears to take Allen's side in this confusing tale. According to the second anonymous source, Allen and Kelley exchanged “'a few hundred e-mails over a couple of years,'” beginning when Allen was the deputy commander at the Central Command, this senior official said. But “most of them were about routine stuff. 'He’s never been alone with her,' the senior official said. 'Did he have an affair? No.'"
What's going on here? Well, welcome to the "wilderness of mirrors," as legendary CIA counter-intelligence boss James Jesus Angleton once called the world of deception and counter-deception in intelligence. In this case, the wilderness is the happy hunting grounds of national security reporters and the anonymous sources who love them, with self-serving spin, efforts to undermine rivals, and leaks made by concerned whistle-blowers all echoing through the hills and valleys daily.
For those of us on the outside, great care should be taken in assessing each new "reveal." For the moment, Allen's appointment to Supreme Allied Commander Europe is on hold, and if it turns out his emails with Kelley were about more than charitable balls and base dances, he will never take up that post.
So what of it? The politics of this scandal will reverberate for months, and is particularly messy given that Petraeus was also originally due for questioning this week on the large CIA operation in Benghazi that was targeted by a militia on Sept. 11, leaving four US government employees dead. But has a blow been dealt to the US military or to its intelligence capabilities?
Probably not. For each general appointed to a high post, there are other candidates just as qualified who didn't get the job. As for the leadership of the CIA, Petraeus was far from indispensable there.
The Afghan war will continue to sputter along, and the debates over the role of the CIA in the government's drone assassination program abroad, which has been championed by President Obama, will continue. Much as they were with Petraeus and Allen in harness.
Rarely has a country been brought back into the American fold as fast as Myanmar (also known as Burma) has.
Starting in late 2010, the military junta that has run the country since 1962 stunningly reversed course.
Not only did it release Aun San Suu Kyi, whose political party won the 1990 elections that the military promptly ignored, from almost two decades of imprisonment and house arrest, but allowed her unprecedented freedom of movement and political organization.
Last year the country swore in a civilian government – though still tightly controlled by the military – released hundreds of political prisoners, and rescinded its ban on Ms. Aun San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD).
This year, the country again released hundreds of political prisoners, held parliamentary by-elections the NLD won in a landslide, and promised elections for a new parliament in 2015.
The pace of change in Myanmar, a country whose ruling generals implacably resisted outside pressure for change for decades, even as the country descended into penury under the weight of US sanctions and the corrupt and capricious rule of the military, has been matched by American and European overtures.
This summer the EU rescinded almost all of its sanctions on Myanmar. This June the US suspended many of its own sanctions, particularly allowing US firms to invest in the government-controlled oil and gas industry, and sent Derek Mitchell as the first US ambassador to Myanmar in 22 years.
Now President Obama is making Myanmar a stop on his first international trip since winning reelection. The visit will be the first time a sitting US president has ever visited the country (when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited last year, she was the most senior US official to visit the country in five decades). Obama's trip, slated for Nov. 17-20, will also include stops in Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar, as part of his ongoing push for an increased US policy focus on Asia.
Has there ever been faster restoration of US relations with a country it had once worked so hard to isolate, in the absence of either a US invasion or a revolution? I can't think of one.
The once-maligned leaders are being brought in from the cold. The US even indicated in October that Burmese officers would be invited to the annual Cobra Gold military exercise between the US and Thailand as official observers.
The Obama administration's motivations are clear: Demonstrate the benefits of the generals’ political opening and turn toward democracy.
But with the breathless rush to friendship comes a country where ethnic tensions still dominate, and ethnic violence, specifically against ethnic Rohingya Muslims, that the generals have been either unwilling or unable to stop.
To much criticism, Aung San Suu Kyi has avoided both condemning and condoning the specific violence against the Rohingya, which saw 75,000 displaced in Rakhine state this June.
While she's a hero to many for her principled opposition to the military junta – at great personal cost – she's first and foremost a politician with a nationalist constituency that looks askance at many of the country's minorities, perhaps the Muslims chief among them.
So, is the US moving too fast?
The International Crisis Group (ICG), which is publishing a report on the country next Monday, says all is not well in the Southeast Asian nation. An advance copy of the report, "Myanmar: Storm Clouds on the Horizon," details a host of worries, most pressing; the violence that started out targeting Rohingyas but has apparently spread to the country's Muslim minority in general.
In the last two weeks of October, a further 89 people were killed in the communal fighting. And in a separate ethnic clash along the Thailand border, 32,000 more were driven from their homes in the Christian Karen state.
The ICG argues that the very lifting of decades of oppression can create communal violence as new freedoms lead to political jockeying.
Unquestionably. In Indonesia after the fall of Soeharto in 1998, small ethnic and religious wars flared across that sprawling nation, costing thousands of lives.
Myanmar, like Indonesia, is a patchwork of ethnicities that have spent much of the country's modern history in a tense relationship with the central government, when not in open revolt. Even new media freedoms, often seen as an antidote to violence, could have been part of the problem.
"The transition has opened up unprecedented space to organize that has been denied for decades, including for long-suppressed nationalist causes," the ICG writes. "It has allowed sub-national groups to air bitter grievances and issue a call to arms without moderation or censorship. Access to the internet has only aided the spread of these ideas."
The Rohingya people are classified as illegal migrants, although many of them came from modern day Bangladesh to Myanmar during British rule. And some 800,000 of them do not have official Burmese citizenship, despite having lived in the country for generations.
The issue surrounding the Rohingya minority, and Islam in general, is a powder keg in the majority Buddhist country.
In the ICG's words: "The experience of others in the region and the country’s own past suggest that communal tensions can be exploited and inflamed for political gain. In particular, there is a real risk that the violence in Rakhine State will take on a more explicitly Buddhist-Muslim character, with the possibility of clashes spreading to the many other areas where there are minority Muslim populations. This would have very serious consequences for stability and reform."
READ MORE: Monitor Staff Writer Peter Ford's Why deadly race riots could rattle Myanmar's fledgling reforms
The real test of change in the country will be in 2015, when full parliamentary elections are held.
Until now, all change has largely been at the pleasure of the military, which remains political powerful.
"There is a serious risk of instability if existing power holders feel threatened by their inevitable loss of political power (which is different from a serious risk of a return to authoritarianism, which is unlikely), or if important constituencies are marginalized," argues the ICG. "It will be necessary for the NLD to ensure that its expected electoral success in 2015 does not come at the expense of the broad representation needed to reflect the country’s diversity and ensure an inclusive and stable transition – whether by introducing some form of proportional representation, reaching a transitional national unity agreement with the current government, or building coalitions with other parties."
If all goes well, the Obama administration’s overture toward Myanmar will go down as a major foreign policy achievement, and more importantly signal a brighter future for Mynmar’s 48 million people. But there are challenges and pitfalls ahead, and with each concession the US and other major powers make before 2015, a potential carrot to offer for positive change is spent.
Hopefully, Obama will not have gone to Myanmar too soon.
But one point that I failed to consider is the impact of two approved US ballot measures on Mexican policy. It turns out that incoming Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto may adjust his country's approach to tackling marijuana production in his country in response.
The AP reports that the head of President Pena Nieto's transition team Luis Videgaray told Radio Formula that:
... the Mexican administration taking power in three weeks remains opposed to drug legalization. But he said the votes in the two states complicate his country's commitment to quashing the growing and smuggling of a plant now seen by many as legal in part of the U.S.
"Obviously we can't handle a product that is illegal in Mexico, trying to stop its transfer to the United States, when in the United States, at least in part of the United States, it now has a different status," Videgaray said. "I believe this obliges us to think the relationship in regards to security ... This is an unforeseen element."
Videgaray stopped short of threatening to curtail Mexican enforcement of marijuana laws, but his comments, less than three weeks before Pena Nieto travels to the White House days before taking office, appeared likely to increase pressure on the Obama administration to strictly enforce U.S. federal law, which still forbids recreational pot use.
The AP also quotes Alejandro Hope, a former senior Mexican intelligence official who helped author a paper arguing that Mexican drug gangs would be damaged by the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington (summarized here) as saying that if the US federal government cracks down on the marijuana trade anyways, the impact in Mexico will be negligible. What will the Obama administration do? We'll see.
And if the Mexican government becomes less interested in enforcing anti-marijuana laws, will that make much difference? On the one hand, probably not. The big drug traffickers move cocaine as well, and remain a violent threat to government authority in multiple Mexican states. But if it does, the marijuana business could become a less dangerous, and therefore less expensive, business for Mexican traffickers to engage in. It's not inconceivable that could lead to much cheaper Mexican marijuana entering the US than currently.
It has long been a popular argument among campaigners for reform of America's marijuana laws that legalization would strike a major blow against the violent Mexican drug gangs that have brought so much misery to parts of that country and, increasingly, along the US border.
The logic is simple. Marijuana smuggling is a major earner for drug gangs, so a legal crop in the US would have a dramatic impact on their operations, lowering the amount of money available to them to bribe cops and hire killers south of the border.
Fairly typical of the tone of such reporting was a nice piece for the Monitor earlier this month by Sara Miller Llana, titled "Biggest blow to Mexican drug cartels? It could be on your state ballot."
The piece summarizes a paper from a Mexican think tank that argued legalization in any of the three US states considering legalizing recreational use of the drug – Oregon, Washington, and Colorado – could do major damage to organized crime south of the border:
A “yes” for any state would have huge implications for the US, but the referendums would also have ramifications south of the border. A new study released by the think tank Mexican Competitiveness Institute (IMCO) shows that if the referendums do pass, proceeds for Mexican drug trafficking organizations could be cut by up to 30 percent, depending on which state goes forward with the referendum. (Read the report here in Spanish.)
“The possible legalization of marijuana at the state level in the US could provoke a considerable loss in proceeds of drug trafficking for Mexican criminal organizations,” the report concludes. In fact, it says, ballot initiatives Tuesday could represent the biggest blow to Mexican criminal syndicates in decades.
Well, yes, it could. But with Washington and Colorado now having passed their measures (voters rejected legalization in Oregon), the theory of "more legal pot = less drug violence in Mexico" is about to be put to the test of experience, with a whole host of assumptions made about its salutary effect coming up against facts.
Color me skeptical. While any student of American history knows that Prohibition creates the opportunity for big profits for criminal syndicates, and violence always follows that, the prediction of a big hit in the cartel pocketbook relies on a set of uncertain assumptions: That marijuana production in Washington and Colorado will surge; that this additional supply, without the expense and danger of crossing an international border, will be cheaper and bleed out into the 48 other states, displacing Mexican imports; and that the malign influence of drug gangs on Mexican society will therefore be reduced.
The Mexican think tank estimates that $6 billion a year is derived from marijuana exports from Mexico. Is this estimate accurate? Hard to say. It's not as if we can crunch the numbers from excise tax rolls. But let's assume that's a fairly accurate picture – what portion does that represent of cartel income? Well, nobody knows.
The US Justice Department has estimated that drug shipments from Mexico are worth a total of $18 billion to $39 billion a year, a staggeringly wide range that shows how hard it is to quantify the economics of the overall trade. Is the $6 billion assumption one-third of overall illegal drug shipments? Or is it one-sixth? Or some other number entirely?
Then there are the assumptions of what legalization will cost the drug gangs. The think tank suggests that roughly $2.7 billion in cartel income will be lost as a result of legalization in Colorado and Washington, as new legal production comes on line. But Washington is already one of the top 10 producers of marijuana in the US (as is Oregon).
While surely some additional acreage will come on line in response to legalization, the Feds will be watching closely for evidence that Washington state's marijuana is flooding its neighbors, and growers will still face the risk of seizure of property under federal laws by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Any businessman thinking about a major marijuana operation in Washington or Colorado, particularly one that will rely on markets where the drug is still deemed illegal, will think long and hard about how much capital to risk. The Obama administration has been fairly aggressive in going after major pot businesses in states that already have legalized medical marijuana.
Finally, there is the fact that cocaine and heroin are far more profitable ounce for ounce for drug traffickers than marijuana. A kilogram of Mexican pot wholesales for about $1,200 in the US. Meanwhile, drug gangs are thought to buy a kilogram of cocaine in South America for about $2,000, and the wholesale value of that kilogram is about $30,000 by the time it makes it to the other side of the Rio Grande (and ends up retailing for as much as $100,000). There are enormous expenses in transporting the drugs compared to legal goods, what with bribes, violence, "taxes" charged by other gangs to cross their territory, the loss of product to seizures, and the fuss of smuggling across the border.
But within that 15-fold markup, there's a lot of pure profit, surely enough that it could make sense for Mexican drug gangs to try to make up for lost revenue with a volume strategy: Cut their profit margins on the US side of the border to stimulate demand, and increase overall profits (potentially leading to an increase in the use of a far more dangerous drug). And a kilogram is still a kilogram. Moving a high-value good per weight makes a lot more sense than moving a low-value one, when the risk of seizure and prosecution is about the same.
Don't get me wrong. I dearly hope that lives are saved, in Mexico and the US, because of the current, uncertain legalization experiments about to begin in Washington and Colorado. A total end to marijuana prohibition in the US would kill stone-dead illegal marijuana imports, much as it killed illegal liquor imports from Canada after the 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933.
But the US is a long, long way from that. And the thirst for illegal profits is never slaked. Sadly, the grim toll of Mexico's war with drug gangs (with an estimated 55,000 people killed in the last six years) is likely to lurch on.
Mr. Nakoula, a Coptic Christian and Egyptian immigrant to the US, was jailed for violating the terms of his parole over an earlier fraud conviction stemming from a scheme he ran to steal money from ATM machines. He's far, far better known as the author of the script that became the YouTube clip that prompted a brief takeover of the US embassy in Egypt, and continues to feed much confusion around what exactly happened in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11.
Why has he gone back to prison? Given the nature of his financial fraud, the terms of his release required him to use only his legal name, to tell the truth to his parole officers. In the making of the YouTube clip, he told actors hired for the film that his name was "Sam Bacile." The actors themselves were misled about his plans for the movie, with the most virulently anti-Islamic content dubbed in over their lines later.
In conversations with reporters after the controversy erupted in September, he continued to claim his name was "Sam Bacile" and also lied in claiming that he was an Israeli citizen. His lies, not the content of his video, finally caught up with him.
I wrote about the film as a small cog in the outrage machine between anti-Islam activists in the West and chauvinistic and intolerant Muslim clerics and followers in the East at the time. For a few days, it looked like another major outbreak of mob violence was coming on the heels of the movie, much like what happened after Denmark's Jyllands-Posten newspaper published cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in 2005.
But as it turned out, the violence subsided far more quickly. The US embassy breach in Cairo was alarming, but more for what it said about the competence of Egyptian security and perhaps the attention of its new Muslim Brotherhood-led government than of some swelling wave of anti-Americanism. The murder of four US government employees in Benghazi, among them the ambassador to Libya, was at most opportunistically linked to the video, if that. The jihadis who attacked the US government intelligence gathering and diplomatic operations in Libya's second-largest city had planned their attack for some time, and hardly needed extra encouragement to attack Americans.
What's most interesting now is how little notice has been taken of Nakoula's return to prison. While some have expressed suspicion that the push to prosecute Nakoula is more about punishing his speech than his parole violation, there is no evidence to support that, and US officials have not drummed up attention to his punishment as would be expected if this were about mollifying the Muslim world. And so, what seemed like one of the biggest stories in the world for a few days in September is of almost no public interest today.
That's the key foreign policy takeaway from the US reelection of President Barack Obama last night. Mitt Romney had surrounded himself with neocons and other hawkish advisers, eager to regain the influence they lost when John McCain fell to Mr. Obama in 2008. Now, it looks like four more years in the wilderness for them.
The chance that the US will start a new war has decreased, and Obama and like-minded officials will continue to put their realist stamp on US foreign relations as they wind down the Afghanistan war and try to use sanctions, rather than combat, to slow Iran's nuclear program. The dreams of transforming the world with US troops and tanks that inflamed so many of President Bush's advisers at the start of the Iraq war, will now be dreamt a long way from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Mr. Senor was a key political player for the Bush administration in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, advising Paul Bremer on how to run the country in 2003 and 2004. The frequent Fox News commentator emerged as Mr. Romney's main adviser for the Middle East, squiring him on visits to the UK and Israel. John Bolton, the Bush-Cheney ambassador to the UN (who is famous for hating the UN, among other things), also had Romney's ear and was rumored to be under consideration for Secretary of State in a Romney cabinet. Mr. Bolton has openly mused about going to war with Iran and Syria, and continues to insist the Iraq invasion and occupation was the right course of action.
In all, 17 of Romney's 24 foreign policy advisers served under President Bush, according to Democratic Congressman Adam Smith, and the US approach to both war and peace abroad would have taken on a decidedly more Bushian cast if Romney had won. While Americans mostly voted on pocketbook issues, the fact that most American voters dislike the Bush approach certainly didn't help Romney at the polls. Among the small number of voters who said they cared deeply about foreign policy, Obama had a 56-33 edge over Romney.
That more hawkish orientation was the reason that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was so eager for a Romney victory, since he expected the a Romney White House could be easier to talk into going to war with Iran than an Obama one.
It will be interesting to watch how Obama handles the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the years ahead, given his chilly relations with the Israeli prime minister. While it is unlikely that Obama will make any dramatic overtures to change the nature of US-Israeli relations, Mr. Netanyahu may find an administration that isn't as wholehearted, for instance, in arguing Israel's case at the United Nations.
But in the broad strokes we'll be getting more of the same, with Obama promising to end the Afghanistan war by the end of 2014. The president was reluctant to get directly involved in the civil war in Syria before the election, and that reluctance is likely to persist.
But while there will be fewer boots on the ground, that doesn't mean Obama doesn't have an aggressive foreign policy of his own. It's just of a different style. The president seems as fond of using drones to kill America's alleged enemies abroad as ever, for instance. Obama has ordered alleged Al Qaeda-style militants killed by the hundreds on his watch in Pakistan and Yemen.
This undeclared drone war probably won't abate, with reports from Washington that Obama officials have been working on ways to justify the killings as legal, even when they involve the assassination of American citizens. There is simply no constituency in Washington against it. And the neocons, as they retreat back to their think-tanks and analyst positions on cable news shows, certainly won't complain.