Foreign policy professionals and the reporters who cover them have a natural bias towards seeing the world as a dangerous place. After all, if your assessment of a country or an issue is "mostly harmless" (as the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy famously described our planet), you're going to lose your audience and some of your funding. I'm not saying this is a conscious decision (at least not in most cases), but fear is to foreign policy as sex is to advertising and Hollywood: It sells.
They point to a survey that shows that 69 percent of the members of the Council on Foreign Relations (the definition of the foreign policy establishment) feel the world is as or more dangerous for the US than it was during the Cold War and recent statements from politicians. Near-certain Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney says the world is growing ever more perilous and President Barack Obama's Defense Secretary Leon Panetta appears to agree, saying in a speech last year that "security, geopolitical, economic, and demographic shifts in the international order (are making) the world more unpredictable, more volatile and, yes, more dangerous."
Yet by every objective measure the world at large is remarkably safe by historical standards. Why the love of fear? Zenko and Cohen argue:
"The disparity between foreign threats and domestic threat-mongering results from a confluence of factors. The most obvious and important is electoral politics. Hyping dangers serves the interests of both political parties. For Republicans, who have long benefited from attacking Democrats for their alleged weakness in the face of foreign threats, there is little incentive to tone down the rhetoric; the notion of a dangerous world plays to perhaps their greatest political advantage. For Democrats, who are fearful of being cast as feckless, acting and sounding tough is a shield against GOP attacks and an insurance policy in case a challenge to the United States materializes into a genuine threat. Warnings about a dangerous world also benefit powerful bureaucratic interests. The specter of looming dangers sustains and justifies the massive budgets of the military and the intelligence agencies, along with the national security infrastructure that exists outside government -- defense contractors, lobbying groups, think tanks, and academic departments."
They write that in the past 20 years, war and terrorism have become much less prevalent and that when the world does fight, it does so with much less ferocity. Al Qaeda is scattered and weakened, and fears of a nuclear Iran are highly exaggerated, particularly when the country does not have a single working warhead or delivery system yet, compared to the thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at the US by the Soviet Union (and vice versa) during the Cold War. As for the "war on terrorism"? "Of the 13,186 people killed by terrorist attacks in 2010, only 15, or 0.1 percent, were U.S. citizens. In most places today -- and especially in the United States -- the chances of dying from a terrorist attack or in a military conflict have fallen almost to zero," the authors write.
The next time you turn on the television and get a dose of a "we're all doomed" screaming from a politician or commentator, read the Foreign Affairs piece as an antidote.
This year, Mali's restive Tuareg minority has erupted into rebellion after four years of relative quiet, the army has mutinied and seized control of the capital city of Bamako, and today Tuareg separatists declared an independent republic in the country's vast north.
Is this all NATO's fault?
Not exactly. But the law of unintended consequences is (as usual) rearing its head. In this case, the successful popular uprising against Muammar Qaddafi's regime in Libya, which was substantially aided by the air power of NATO members, has sent Mali tumbling back into chaos, something that neither France nor the US (two of the major backers of the war to oust Qaddafi) are happy about. Far from it.
The traditionally nomadic Tuareg and their independence aspirations were championed off and on by Qaddafi for decades. During his desperate and bloody war to hang on to power, Tuaregs that had settled in Libya fought on his side. And there are claims that even more Tuaregs were recruited to come to Libya and fight as mercenaries on his behalf.
With Qaddafi's defeat and the seething rage of the Libyan victors against the "African mercenaries" who fought against them – a rage which has also been vented on multiple occasions on people simply guilty of being "in Libya while black" – armed and trained Tuaregs returned home. A renewed insurgency in the north followed.
The first domino to fall in Mali was a coup by a young army captain, Amadou Sanogo. The new ruling junta's initial complaint was that the government wasn't spending enough money and manpower in the fight against the Tuaregs. But the result of the coup has been to throw the military – trained extensively by the United States and France in recent years, largely because of fears of Islamist militants in the region – into disarray. This in turn has created more space for the Tuaregs' National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and today's independence declaration. ("Azawad" is a territorial term whose precise meaning is unclear, but includes much of the desert region where Tuareg live.)
The declaration has been rejected from almost every quarter that matters. The African Union, which opposed the intervention to depose Qaddafi, joined France and the European Union in dismissing the notion of a new independent nation.
And an AFP report indicates that the independence declaration is already dividing Mali's Tuareg. Ansar Dine, a smaller armed group led by a Tuareg but with declared pan-Islamist aims that had made common cause with the MNLA in recent months, came out against independence.
"Our war is a holy war. It's a legal war in the name of Islam," Ansar Dine military boss Omar Hamaha said in a videotape obtained by AFP. "We are against independence. We are against revolutions not in the name of Islam." Ansar Dine ("Helpers of Religion") appears to have seized control of the desert cities of Timbuktu and Gao, in the east.
Reports from Gao and Timbuktu suggest Mr. Hamaha's group is already imposing its rough-and-ready ideas about Islamic justice, and he said they have 120 men in custody, some of whom he described as thieves. "We have tied them up and taken their weapons. We beat them well and it's likely we will slit their throats," AFP quotes him as saying. Algeria says that seven of its diplomats working in Gao have been taken hostage.
The MNLA has been in a loose partnership with Ansar Dine, an Islamist group led by Iyad ag Ghali, a Tuareg who led a major rebellion in the 1990s. Ag Ghali's career is a testament to the tangled web of alliances in the region: His most recent gig was in Libya, where, according to reports, Libya's transitional government encouraged him to lead a large-scale defection of Tuareg fighters from Muammar al-Qadaffi's security forces. Ag Ghali obliged, but the Libyan rebels' gain was the Malian government's loss when he brought several dozen men in arms into a situation in which a rebellion was already simmering in the Malian Sahara. Since then, he's fallen in with the MNLA, and he seems to have a productive working relationship with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The warriors of Ansar Dine care less about an independent Azawad than they do about an extreme Islamist program.
Mr. Mann points out that Mali's central government was remilitarizing its northern reaches for the past 15 years and that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb had extended its kidnap for ransom activities into the area since 2010.
"Did the Libyan conflict – and NATO's intervention in it – light this long fuse? Did Mali lose Timbuktu because NATO saved Benghazi?," asks Mann. "Informed observers disagree. Some think the conflict was virtually inevitable, with or without men and arms from Libya. Others see a direct knock-on effect from Libya that upset a delicate balance."
What seems clear is that the timing of all this is inextricably linked to events last year in Libya. But it's also true that tension between the Malian state and the traditionally nomadic Tuareg is longstanding. The Tuareg and related Berber cultures became dominant in North Africa's caravan trade after domestic camels were introduced about 1,700 years ago, with items like gold, salt, and slaves transported across the Sahara to Africa's Mediterranean coast. In modern times, the Tuareg practice a pastoral life style, herding goats, camels, and cattle, and traveling long distances to find fodder and water for their animals.
The Tuareg maintain a fierce independence to this day, with an estimated 600,000 living in Mali. Today's independence declaration comes almost four years to the day since the last peace agreement they signed with Mali's central government – in 2008, brokered by none other than Qaddafi.
Qaddafi had a long history of reaching out to Tuaregs, both to fight in his own causes and to use as leverage against his North African neighbors. In the 1970s, drought gripped North Africa, and poor Tuaregs and other Saharan groups poured into oil rich Libya in search of work. Many of them, and not all voluntarily, ended up in Qaddafi's new "Islamic Legion," a regional fighting force that Qaddafi hoped to use to expand his territory and influence.
The legion is most associated with fighting on Qaddafi's behalf in Chad during the 1980s, a conflict that helped ignite ethnic conflict in Darfur and Sudan. After giving up on the bloody effort in Chad in 1987, Qaddafi decommissioned the legion. Some stayed in Libya; others, with arms and encouragement from the self-styled "king of kings," went home.
Qaddafi had long supported ethnic-based separatists in his neighbors, and it was unsurprising that Tuareg rebellions had broken out in both Mali and Niger by 1990. Those fights burned fitfully, and inconclusively, until 1996, when another peace was made. But Tuareg resentment, it seems, never went away.
"What we expect on April 10 is that the Syrian government will have completed its withdrawal from populated centers ... and then we begin a 48-hour period during which there will be a complete cessation of all forms of violence by all parties," Mr. Annan's spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said in Geneva earlier today.
This prediction should be taken with a very large grain of salt.
Mr. Assad is in a fight for regime survival. While large chunks of his country have fallen out of central government control, and the opposition has defied his military for over a year now in towns like Idlib, Homs, and Hama, his security establishment has largely hung together and hasn't suffered the sort of mass defections that undermined Muammar Qaddafi's forces during the uprising in Libya.
The application of force against his opponents is Assad's go-to means of keeping control, just as it was for his father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad. With at least 9,000 Syrians dead from the fighting, and scores in detention, where many have been tortured, it's hard to see the calls for his overthrow dying down. And if he really does give up the use of political terror against his enemies, the chorus demanding his demise will probably grow louder still.
There are already strong signs that Annan is not going to get his way on the cease-fire. The daily Al-Watan, linked to Syria's government, quoted an unnamed government official as saying "there is no... deadline" for pulling troops out of cities. Opposition activists said that tanks remain active in Deraa today, despite government claims to the contrary, and said dozens have died in ongoing fighting. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 62 Syrians were killed across the country yesterday.
Syrian opposition figures aren't the only ones who don't share the UN's optimism. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said Assad "is deceiving us" and warned of a push for tougher international action against Syria. The UN is currently trying to negotiate the dispatch of 250 or so unarmed military observers to determine if a cease-fire is achieved. Mr. Juppé said further steps will be considered at the UN Security Council if Syria doesn't allow observers in soon.
Action at the Security Council is something that Assad may fear, and may push him to accept the measures being sought now. But his government has been shielded from tough action there until now by permanent members Russia and China, who have vetoed two Security Council resolutions on Syria to date. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters that his country might consider voting for a resolution now, but his comments came with a major caveat.
"When we consider a document at the Security Council, we shall proceed from the principle of not doing any harm," Mr. Lavrov said. "It would be good if we are able to reach a consensus aimed at helping Kofi Annan's mission and not use ultimatums that would escalate tensions."
For now, sadly, fighting looks set to continue in Syria next week. Annan's career is littered with over-optimistic public assessments of the situation in violent regions, and of the impact of his own diplomacy.
I remember attending the press conference in Dili, East Timor, given by Jamsheed Marker, Annan's personal envoy to the territory, shortly after voting closed in the Aug. 30, 1999, referendum on independence from Indonesia. I and others in the months before the election had chronicled how the Indonesian military was distributing weapons to street gangs and appeared to have a plan in the drawer to punish the territory's people if they chose independence as a warning to other restive parts of the sprawling nation.
Indonesian special forces officers were providing logistical help and training to pro-Indonesian Timorese, while the Indonesian Foreign Ministry had dispatched diplomats to work with the militias on the political side. This was all pretty much out in the open – there are few secrets in a place as small as East Timor.
Yet the UN had waved off concerns about widespread violence or suggestions that perhaps the vote should be postponed until better security arrangements could be made. In the run-up to the vote, Mr. Marker and Annan repeatedly told reporters they'd received Indonesian "assurances" that the vote could go ahead safely. That evening, as reports streamed in of violent outbreaks around the countryside (a UN worker was being stabbed to death as Marker spoke), Marker intoned: "The eagle of liberty has spread its proud wings over the people of East Timor.''
The eagle of violence was also spreading its wings. Within days, what was left of the foreign press was cowering in the UN's Dili compound (I made my way there past the bodies of Timorese hacked to death by machetes) and much of the country's paltry infrastructure was on fire. In the roughly two weeks until an Australian peacekeeping force landed in Dili, at least 1,000 Timorese were killed and more than 100,000 of the country's than 700,000 were driven across the border into Indonesian West Timor.
I dig into this history because it's a reminder that Annan has taken the word of governments involved in conflict in the past. And been badly wrong.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as is his habit, sought to pour cold water over the notion that US-led international sanctions on Iran are having an effect on its controversial nuclear program.
Sure, the sanctions have undermined the Iranian currency, resulted in the expulsion of Iran's central bank from the international system that facilitates interbank transfers, and squeezed Iran's oil exports, the government's major revenue source. The rial has lost about 40 percent of its value against the dollar since December, and is now trading on the informal market at about 20,000 rials to the dollar. In the latest sign of the pain being inflicted on Iran's economy, a newspaper there today reports that the government has banned the import of 600 products.
But Mr. Netanyahu told reporters yesterday that he sees no evidence of any impact on Iran's calculations about its controversial nuclear program. Israel insists Tehran is seeking a nuclear weapon, but Iran says its program is for peaceful purposes only. (A report from the United Nations nuclear watchdog last fall estimated that Iran stopped the bulk of its weapons-related work around 2003, but continued some modeling and design work until 2009.) The Israeli prime minister also indicated that he hopes sanctions lead to regime collapse.
"The sanctions are painful, hard .. but will this bring about a halt or a retreat in the Iranian nuclear program? Until now, it has not happened," he said. The Iranian government "is struggling financially and it still hasn't turned back by even one millimeter from its nuclear program," he told reporters in Israel.
Not everyone agrees with Netanyahu, among them Ron Prosor, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations. On Friday, Ambassador Prosor told reporters that the sanctions have a good shot at changing Iran's behavior.
"I think the international community at this stage has really moved forward and have made at least clear to Tehran that there is a certain price tag for continuing," he said. "The decision on SWIFT [the global system for interbank transfers], the issue of the sanctions by the EU, are important and have an effect on Iran... I do see really a movement on the international stage, especially on the economic side.... It's much more effective than people think and it might change, hopefully it might change behavior patterns if we continue with it."
"SWIFT" is the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, which coordinates millions of secure communications and money transfer information between the world's banks every day. Last month, Iran was unplugged from the system in a highly unusual move, creating major obstacles for the country's banks, including the central bank.
Netanyahu has consistently insisted that Iran is moving implacably toward a nuclear weapon and characterized the country as an existential threat to the Jewish state, leading to speculation that he may decide to unilaterally attack Iran.
Recently there have been some hints, however, that Israeli's defense establishment is backing away from talk about attacking Iran, particularly as the Obama administration has sought to cool the war talk to give sanctions a chance to work. A story in the hawkish Jerusalem Post yesterday, for instance, reported that "a possible military confrontation with Iran may be postponed until 2013, senior defense officials said in recent weeks amid growing signs that the West’s economic crackdown on Iran is bearing fruit."
Currently the only nuclear power in the Middle East is Israel, with a minimum of 100 warheads.
The Muslim Brotherhood, after months of denials of interest in the presidency, nominated one of its own for the presidency of Egypt this weekend. In Cairo yesterday, rumors were flying that Omar Suleiman, the retired general who emerged as one of Hosni Mubarak's closest confidants in the final years of his rule, was priming for a run of his own.
Meanwhile, secularists have all but abandoned the body tasked with writing Egypt's new constitution (with a hard-to-believe deadline of one month from now – don't bet on it), angry that the committee is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and their uneasy Islamist allies from the salafi Nour Party.
Egypt's political transition has gotten even messier and more dysfunctional (hard to believe) in recent weeks, and takes real expertise to untangle (for an excellent piece looking at some of the complexity of the presidential race, start here).
But there's one solid fact that will confront whoever wins the presidency and that won't be addressed by the most brilliant and fair constitution in human history: Egypt's economy is in really, really bad shape.
Both foreign and domestic investment has dried up in the past year, while the economy stagnates and the population continues to grow. Millions of Egyptians rely on subsidized bread and fuel to just get by from day to day, and those subsidies put massive strains on government coffers. The latest reminder of that was the release of foreign reserve figures yesterday. Bloomberg reports that Egypt's foreign reserves fell to $15.1 billion in March from $15.7 billion at the end of February. The good news is that was the smallest month-on-month decline since Mubarak was ousted in February 2010. But that's still a 3.8 percent decline, and less than half of the $36 billion Egypt's central bank had in December of 2011, before the uprising against Hosni Mubarak began.
The country currently has enough foreign cash on hand to cover about three months of imports. And this isn't about imports of foreign cars or Hollywood movies. Egypt is the largest wheat importer in the world, with about half of the country's grain coming from outside. For nationalistic reasons, Egypt rebuffed a $3 billion loan offered by the World Bank on really sweet terms last June. The country's current military-backed cabinet is now seeking the same amount of money from the International Monetary Fund.
The hitch? The deal probably won't be signed until June – and even then, the IMF is seeking broad statements of support from political forces like the Muslim Brotherhood in exchange. The Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, which won the most seats in parliamentary elections, has been leery of outside forces and have occasionally launched broadsides against foreign interference. (And some of its leaders have expressed a desire to strictly limit alcohol sales, something that could take a bite out of the country's $3 billion tourism industry.)
Hostility to foreign lenders like the IMF and World Bank is quite popular in Egypt, so that makes political sense. But the country is in desperate need of cash. And that's a reality that's going to confront Egypt, no matter who wins the presidency.
Last week, the United Arab Emirates banished the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the Konrad Adeneur Foundation, two international democracy promotion groups that recently, along with others, ran into trouble in Egypt.
Les Campbell, NDI's regional director, told CNN: "Our office was simply a regional hub which supported programs in places like Qatar and Kuwait ... While we are disappointed at this turn of events and disturbed by the arbitrary behavior in Dubai, we do not have programs in the UAE, so it has no serious ramifications for our work."
The actions in the UAE were handled far more deftly than in Egypt, where armed police raids were conducted on those and other NGOs and arrest warrants issued, leading to a US government standoff with Egypt over the more than $1 billion in annual military aid that Washington sends to Cairo. Egypt finally backed down, with a number of American NGO workers who had been holed up in the US Embassy allowed to depart the country for home.
But the cancellation of the licenses for the groups in the United Arab Emirates are reminders of two things. First, despite all the change wrought by the Arab uprisings of last year, anti-democratic impulses run deep. And second, the missions of these groups are threatening to many regional regimes.
Over the weekend, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defended the groups. "We are ... strong believers in a vibrant civil society, and both NDI and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation office play a key role in supporting NGOs and civil society across the region, and I expect our discussions on this issue to continue."
But countries like the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, and Egypt under its current military rulers, are hostile to "vibrant civil society" groups. And for good reason: They want to maximize their ability to control their populations.
In March, according to Reporters Without Borders, the UAE took steps to silence democracy and civil society activists. Saleh Al-Dhufairi, an activist who has taken up the cause of the "UAE 7," a group of activists who had their citizenship cancelled for calling for freer elections and political reform, was arrested last month. Mr. Dhufairi was held for 11 days, then released on bail, facing charges of "inciting sedition" for posts he made on the social-networking site Twitter.
"The continued close monitoring of the Internet is evident from the immediate reprisals against anyone posting content that is not to the government’s liking. The police do not hesitate to intimidate opposition bloggers and netizens using social networks," Reporters Without Borders charged.
The US has close ties to the UAE. After a US request, authorities in Dubai recently shut down dealings between a government-linked bank and Iran. The bank had emerged as a major financial conduit for Iran in response to US-backed sanctions designed to open up Iran's nuclear program to greater scrutiny. And the country is a major US weapons customer, placing $14 billion in orders in 2010 and 2011.
It will be interesting to see if other regional countries will follow Egypt and the UAE's lead in shutting down foreign NGOs.
An intriguing, but hardly surprising, report from CNN in Iraq about Sunni tribal support for rebel fighters in Syria is a reminder of the ways in which Syria's civil war could spread, and of the strange bedfellows created by a year of upheaval and change in the region.
The CNN report contains an interview with a man described as tribal leader of the Dulaim, one of the largest tribes in Iraq whose members also spread into Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. Members of the overwhelmingly Sunni Arab tribe formed the backbone of the fight against the US occupation of Iraq, and the rise of the country's Shiite-dominated government during the height of the war in the country.
In the middle of the last decade, arms and fighters flowed across the Syrian border to aid Iraq's Sunni insurgents, inspired by a combination of tribal loyalty and religious piety. Now, the sheikh tells CNN, the Iraqi Dulaim are returning the favor.
"You've all seen what the Syrian government is doing. It's time for us to return our debt. It's our duty."
What debt? He said Syrian members of the Dulaim came to fight along with Iraqis against the US-led assaults on Fallujah in 2004. In April and November of that year, two separate attacks on the Sunni insurgent stronghold left about 90 coalition troops dead, most American, and over 1,500 residents and fighters dead.
The civilian casualties from the assault remain unclear, though the Iraq Body Count website estimated that 600 civilians died in the first assault in April on the ancient city along the Euphrates. Dozens of buildings in town were destroyed, and the vast majority of civilian inhabitants fled in late 2004, returning later.
The Dulaim leader told CNN that many of the skills developed in fighting the US are now being exported to Syria. He says expert IED makers have been sent to Syria (improvised explosive devices were the prime killer of US troops during the Iraq war), as well as 35 heavy machine guns, "hundreds" of AK-47 assault rifles, and about 30 Iraqi fighters. Most of that aid has flowed to Syria's Deir al-Zour Governorate, the eastern Syrian province that borders much of Iraq's Anbar province.
The fighters' goal is to drive Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power. That's the current objective of the United States, their old enemy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Sunday that "Assad must go," though the US remains opposed to outside military intervention in the country.
Iraq's Sunni Arabs remain fearful of the new Shiite-dominated order they now live under, and the fact that Assad's principal external backer is Shiite Iran, which also has far closer ties to Iraq's government since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, should be kept in mind. If large numbers of Iraqi Sunnis begin fighting in Syria, insurgent talents will be imparted to a new generation that, if they survive the fight, will come home with those skills. (Consider that a 21-year-old fighter today would have been 12 when the US invaded Iraq in 2003.)
And oil-rich Saudi Arabia, a conservative Sunni monarchy hostile to both Iran and Assad, is becoming increasingly assertive in helping the Syrian opposition. Saudi recently led a group of Gulf monarchies in creating a fund to pay Syrian rebel fighters. If it decides to provide covert weapons assistance, the old smuggling routes across Anbar will be available.
The stance of Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to all of this?
"They are calling for sending arms instead of working on putting out the fire, and they will hear our voice, that we are against arming and against foreign interference," Maliki told a press conference over the weekend (forgetting, perhaps, that it was foreign interference that enabled him to come to power).
But he, and everyone else involved, is right to be nervous about the spread of conflict. For now, former Sunni insurgents in Iraq share the same overall goals of the United States, while the Iraqi leader the US helped install is siding with Iran.
All the recent data points in the "will they, won't they" speculation about an Israeli strike on Iran point to this: The already slim odds have gotten slimmer.
Sure, a long piece in Foreign Policy this month, sourced entirely to unnamed US officials, makes the case that Israel has extensive influence in Azerbaijan, which could make a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran easier.
But that story appears to be but one salvo in a broader Obama administration strategy to signal through the press that it doesn't want Israel to strike Iran's nuclear program, even as it seeks to assure Israel that it is committed to its defense.
At every turn, the US has hemmed Israel in (probably the reason so many "anonymous" officials fed the Azerbaijan story to FP). They have made it clear that they will truly be on their own if they attack unilaterally (read: You won't force us into a war of your own choosing).
John Bolton, the hawkish former US ambassador to the UN, characterized the story as an intentional Obama effort to undermine Israel. "Clearly, this is an administration-orchestrated leak.... it's just unprecedented to reveal this kind of information about one of your own allies,” he told Fox.
Mr. Bolton is wrong about the "unprecedented" part; the US has frequently acted to hem in close allies, like Britain or France, when it deemed their military activities a threat to its interests, as the Eisenhower administration did against the joint Israeli-French-British invasion of Egypt during the Suez Crisis in 1956.
But he's certainly right that the Obama administration is worried about the damage to US interests that could be done by a solo Israeli attack on Iran.
BOLTON'S OP-ED: Israel is not the threat, Mr. Obama. Iran is.
In that context, it's hard not to see the Foreign Policy piece as anything other than an Obama administration attempt to stave off an Israeli attack through highlighting growing Israeli ties with the country. (Israel has certainly been seeking warm relations with Azerbaijan; in February, Israel said it had signed a $1.6 billion deal to provide drones and missile defense systems to the country.)
No carte blanche for Israel in Azerbaijan
The piece didn't say that Israel has been given bases of its own in Azerbaijan, or that it has been given carte blanche to use Azeri bases when it sees fit. The piece's central claim is that "four senior diplomats and military intelligence officers say that the United States has concluded that Israel has recently been granted access to airbases on Iran's northern border. To do what, exactly, is not clear."
The FP story led to immediate denials from Azeri officials. An Azeri defense spokesmen told a press conference on Friday that Israel will not be allowed to use the country's territory to attack Iran and said that unspecified press reports were designed to increase tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan.
That makes sense. While Iran's conventional military is puny compared to the US military, it dwarfs Azerbaijan's. Iran is a major trading partner for the country, and has a variety of means at its disposal to make life difficult for its northern neighbor in retaliation for an attack.
The story generated plenty of heavy breathing in the press. The Sydney Morning Herald says: "Unlikely alliance between Israel and Azerbaijan raises heat over Iran." Haaretz writes: "Azerbaijan granted Israel access to air bases on Iran border." A headline in this paper asks "Did US just torpedo Israeli deal for a base in Azerbaijan?"
The FP story is far from the first emanating from unnamed US officials that appear designed to push Israel farther away from war. On March 19, The New York Times reported that the US military had just finished a secret war game to test the repercussions of an Israeli attack, and concluded that the chances were high that the US would end up drawn into a broader regional war that would leave hundreds of Americans dead.
"The results of the war game were particularly troubling to Gen. James N. Mattis, who commands all American forces in the Middle East, Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia, according to officials who either participated in the Central Command exercise or who were briefed on the results," the Times wrote. "When the exercise had concluded earlier this month, according to the officials, General Mattis told aides that an Israeli first strike would be likely to have dire consequences across the region and for United States forces there."
The message was clear: The US is highly unlikely to support an Israeli strike.
Amir Oren, writing in Haaretz, concludes that that war-game, coupled with renewed American promises to fund Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system (mostly deployed with great success against the unsophisticated rockets fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip), guarantees that Israel won't attack Iran until the spring of next year, at the earliest.
"Israelis may be the world champions of chutzpah, but even biting the hand that feeds you has its limits when the bitten hand is liable to hit back," he writes. "When [Israeli Defense Minister Ehud] Barak thanked the Obama administration 'for helping strengthen Israel's security,' he was abandoning the pretension to act against Iran without permission before the US presidential elections in November."
The US spent $204 million on Israel's Iron Dome system in fiscal year 2011, and last week the Pentagon indicated that more money should be provided in the current budget year, a plan that has bipartisan support in Congress. The Pentagon says the system successfully shot down 80 percent of rockets recently fired from Gaza. The continued US commitment to Israel's defense can be seen as the carrot in this scenario.
Why the US is worried about an Israeli strike
Gary Sick, who coordinated the White House response to the Iran hostage crisis in 1979-80 and who served on the National Security Councils of presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan, made the case for why the US is worried about unilateral Israeli action in an opinion piece Friday. He says it could lead to the collapse of the sanctions regime that President Bush and President Obama have constructed against Iran, and leave the US on the hook for the aggression in the eyes of much of the world.
Whether the US gave the green light or not, "for Iran and just about everyone else, the fact that most of the Israeli aircraft and bombs were made in the US would be all they needed to know," Sick writes. "On that first morning, the UN Security Council would convene in emergency session to consider a resolution denouncing the Israeli raid. If the United States vetoed the resolution, that would remove any lingering doubt of U.S. complicity.
"Perhaps more significant, however, would be European support of the resolution. This would signal the beginning of the collapse of the sanctions coalition against Iran that had been so laboriously assembled over the past several years. Both the Europeans and the Americans had operated on the tacit belief that crippling sanctions were an alternative to war. With the outbreak of war, that assumption would no longer be valid."
Everything is tea-leaf reading at the moment. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many on the country's right insist that Iran is a major threat to the Jewish state's existence, and fear can push people to do surprising things. But the leaves are almost overwhelmingly telling us no war soon.
Attacks in three Iraqi cities last week killed 46 citizens, with the targets Shiite pilgrims and government security forces. The Islamic State of Iraq, a Sunni insurgent group that has styled itself as a local Al Qaeda affiliate, claimed responsibility. Given the targets and methods deployed, that's probably true.
Iraqi security officials said they weren't surprised by the attacks. An Arab League meeting is scheduled to begin in Baghdad tomorrow – the first in Iraq's capital since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1991 – and forces have been on alert against insurgent efforts to embarrass the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
That anticipation did little to save the lives of this week's victims. More than $1 billion has been spent sprucing up Baghdad ahead of the meeting, and the country's government has been getting the word out that Iraq has put its war in its rear-view mirror and the country, as the saying goes, is open for business. But violence has been steadily rising.
The reason why is due to the same problem that the US-led occupation authority had in coming to grips with terror-style attacks at the height of the war in the country between 2004 and 2008: Lots of Iraqis were passively supportive, because they resented the new order, resented the presence of foreign troops, or simply feared retaliation.
The great success of the US "surge" in Iraq was creating conditions that made Iraqis more likely to inform upon a neighbor who, say, suddenly had a strange influx of guests and a lot of banging and welding sounds coming from his garage. Former insurgents were put on the government payroll (financed by the US) when the Sons of Iraq was formed to act as a Sunni counterinsurgency. Promises were made that they'd be integrated into the police or the Army, and that a pluralistic Iraq would emerge that would protect Sunnis from being lorded over by the country's newly empowered Shiite majority.
But in the past few years, Mr. Maliki has accrued more and more power. The Sons of Iraq, also known as the "Sahwa," or "Awakening," have been financially cut off by Maliki's government. And since the US military departed the country at the end of 2011, Maliki has been moving against Sunni politicians.
Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi is currently in self-imposed exile in autonomous Kurdistan, dodging what he says is a politically motivated warrant for his arrest on terrorism charges. One of Mr. Hashemi's bodyguards, Amir Sarbut Zaidan al-Batawi, died in Iraqi custody. His body was released to his family last week. Human Rights Watch on Friday called for an investigation into Mr. Batawi's death.
“The statements we heard and photos we saw indicate that Iraqi security officers may have tortured Amir Sarbut Zaidan al-Batawi to death while he was in their custody," Joe Stork, the group's deputy Middle East director, was quoted in the statement as saying. The Iraqi government insisted that Batawi died of a natural ailment and that he had refused treatment.
Whatever the exact circumstances may have been, his death – the latest in a string of events alienating Sunni Arabs from the predominately Shiite government of Iraq – has stoked already soaring sectarian mistrust. The more alienated Sunnis feel as a community, the more likely it is that people will take up arms again.
Becca Wasser, a researcher at the International Strategic Studies Institute, has tracked violence in Iraq for the past year. What she's found is a surge in deadly attacks. She writes there were at least 204 bombings in the country from Dec. 19 to March 18 this year, a 70 percent increase over the same period last year, when there were 120. In January, there were 81 bombings, up from 45 in January 2011.
"We’re not arguing the US military should have stayed in Iraq – far from it," Wasser writes. "What the figures do show, along with the information on bombing targets, is that insurgent groups in Iraq are adapting to the new status quo, and that the security and political situation in Iraq remains tenuous."
Gen. John Allen, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, gave a typically upbeat assessment of the war's progress to Congress yesterday. He urged lawmakers to "stay the course," claimed that "the campaign is on track," and that the multibillion dollar effort to train and expand the Afghan military is going well.
Perhaps. But his remarks, which come after US troops burned Qurans at an airbase outside Kabul and the apparent murder of 16 Afghan civilians in their homes in the south of the country by a US sergeant, also acknowledged the increasing toll on NATO troops in the country from their erstwhile Afghan partners.
Allen said 60 NATO troops from six countries, most from the US, have been killed in Afghanistan this year. Of those, 13 have been killed by Afghan security forces, he said. That's 22 percent of the total. Allen said some of the Afghan soldiers and police who killed foreign troops "were motivated, we believe in part, by the mishandling of religious materials.”
Allen said the war in general is going very well. “I can tell you, unequivocally, three things. First, we remain on track to ensure that Afghanistan will no longer be a safe haven for [Al Qaeda] and will no longer be terrorized by the Taliban,” he said. “Second, as a coalition … we are well along in our progress to meet our 2010 [NATO] commitments to transition security lead to the Afghan national security forces by December 2014. Third, our troops know the difference they are making, and the enemy feels it every day.”
But there was little in the way of hard metrics to measure that progress. “I wish I could tell you that this war was simple, and that progress could be easily measured,” Allen said. “But that’s not the way of counterinsurgencies. They are fraught with success and setbacks, which can exist in the same space and time, but each must be seen in the larger context of the overall campaign. And I believe that the campaign is on track."