Sunday, June 29, 2008

Terrorism against Iran gets a boost

Renown investigative reporter Seymour Hersh has an important piece in this week’s edition of The New Yorker magazine titled “Preparing the Battlefield,” in which he exposes a recent increase in clandestine operations by the CIA and US special forces in Iran. While it is a long, rich piece of reporting that deserves to be read in its entirety, three main items stand out:

(a) While a Presidential Finding granting increased budgets for covert operations against the regime in Tehran ostensibly aims to legalize — and therefore provide appropriate oversight for — the activities of the CIA, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which falls under the military, is not bound by the limitations set in the Findings and therefore falls outside its ambit, which pauses serious questions about accountability and represents nothing less than a break in the chain of command.

(b) Preparations for the Findings and the extra budget it set aside were made around the same time as — and in spite of — findings in a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that downplayed the threat of the Iranian nuclear program, which the US and much of the international community suspect may conceal a weapons program. In other words, the conclusions reached in the NIE — a consensus view of the US intelligence community — were either insufficient to effect a change in policy, or, as was the case with the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, were simply ignored by the White House and the presidential advisers who are calling for military intervention against Iran.

(c) Part of the clandestine operations include funding organizations that oppose the Islamic regime in Iran, some of which, analysts say, are comprised of extreme Sunni elements with proven ties — brace yourselves — to al-Qaeda and who have committed acts of terrorism not only in Iran but also Turkey, a US ally and a member of NATO. Washington's paying one faction against another risks alienating regional allies of the US and, ironically, could very likely bring Baghdad and Tehran closer together.

Hersh’s piece is worrying, to say the least, as it shows how opponents to what increasingly looks like an inexorable march to war against Tehran within the US defense establishment (and in Israel) have been cast aside, much as happened during the Vietnam War and, more recently, in the Iraq fiaso. What’s also alarming is the fact that, in the words of one source interviewed by Hersh, regardless of which presidential candidate wins in the November elections, ongoing covert operations would continue for another year, with no apparent means to stop them.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Sarkozy tells half the story

French President Nicolas Sarkozy found himself in Israel this week, where he sought to bolster is credentials with Jerusalem. While his call for the creation of a Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as a shared capital, is laudable, as was his criticism of the illegal Israeli settlements, his comments are certainly no longer original, as many world leaders have voiced similar views. In fact, it is not even risqué to say these things anymore, as such headline-grabbing catchphrases have reached the point of abstraction and never include the more important detail of making the call a reality. In other words, absent a commitment to a date, calls for the creation of a Palestinian state are just empty rhetoric and only legitimize the Process — e.g. “peace talks — which is soaked in the blood of two peoples and has led nowhere, except deeper into reciprocal violence.

Were Sarkozy’s failings limited to that, he could be forgiven for his lack of imagination or risk-taking. Sadly, however, other comments made during his visit belie his biases. For one, while he claims to support the creation of a Palestinian state, he could not refrain from stating that France is a “staunch supporter” of Israel (where are the staunch supporters of Palestine?) and that Palestinians themselves must fight terrorism, as if terrorism were only committed by one side in the conflict. Again, this shows Sarkozy’s — and many others’ — failure, or refusal, to understand that terrorism is not solely the remit of sub-state groups but that professional armies, too, can engage in the method, as the Israel Defense Force certainly has, what with its indiscriminate attacks on civilian neighborhoods, collective punishment, use of banned weapons, and assassinations. A more balanced comment would have stated that both sides, Palestinians and Israelis, must be committed to combating terrorism used in their respective names. But, as always, the word terrorism is only tagged to Muslims, while professional armies are merely acting in self-defense, defending democracy and so on.

Then Sarkozy met with the parents of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier (who has French nationality) who was abducted by Gaza militants two years ago. “Gilad,” Sarkozy said (note the first-name basis), “must be released,” adding that “one does not build peace by holding hostages.” True though this comment may be, Sarkozy simply cannot not be aware of the hundreds of Palestinians and Lebanese abducted by Israeli security forces, many of whom have been held incommunicado, with no means to defend themselves in the court of law, for years in Israeli jails (which played a major, if rarely discussed, role in Hezbollah’s abduction of Israeli soldiers in July 2006, prompting Israel’s massive attack on Lebanon). By failing to mention this, Sarkozy was giving the impression that Palestinians alone engage in abductions and are therefore solely responsible for undermining peace. Here again, a more even-handed — and certainly more helpful — comment would have been to clearly state that both sides in the conflict have engaged in such activities and to call such conduct illegal.

But fairness was not on Sarkozy’s mind during his Jerusalem visit — political points were, as he is only the second French president to have visited the country in 12 years. Still, as he continues his tour of the region and makes his obligatory visit to the West Bank, Palestinian leaders will be all politeness, silent in their knowledge that the man in the spotlight is not even a true friend.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The incredible shrinking Ma

All those international reporters who during the presidential campaign swooned at the “charismatic” and “charming” Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) must be wondering nowadays what happened to the photogenic politician. Where in diyu (“hell”), indeed, has he been? No only has he made precious few public appearances since his inauguration on May 20, but when he did, it was a gaunt-looking Ma who gazed back at the camera, a shadow of his former media-hungry self. And in a marked departure from his whirlwind of a predecessor, who like him or hate him could not be faulted for lack of energy, Ma has limited his activities to hedonistic attendances at exhibitions, trade shows and visits to friends down south. In everything he has done and said since he took the helm, he has given the impression that he is part of a plan to steer well clear of anything that could spark controversy.

As the country faces floods, rising commodity prices and attendant discontent, and while top officials engage in crucial negotiations with officials in Beijing, our president is on cruise control and has failed to give any indication that he is on top of things.

Perhaps Ma contents himself with delegating on the domestic front — such as on the devastating floods in central Taiwan a few weeks ago — which, in his view, may not be overly important. Aloof though this position may be, he may be of the opinion that such matters are not the remit of a president and that more crucial issues, such as foreign policy, are what heads of state should occupy themselves with. He certainly would not be the first leader to hold such a belief — to wit, former US president George H.W. Bush, who to a large extent lost the presidency because of his inattention to and lack of interest in domestic matters.

If Ma, like Bush, were foreign-policy oriented, then surely the Diaoyutai (釣魚台) islands incident would have prompted him to jump on stage and take the lead — especially after government officials utter the “W” word during official deliberations on a minor incident involving a longstanding ally. In a cascade of events since the collision at sea last Tuesday, recriminations have been made, Taiwan’s representative to Japan has been recalled, the Japanese flag has been stamped upon in public and relations between Taipei and Tokyo may have reached their lowest point in decades. Surely, amid all this, a national leader would intervene and call for calm, if not pick up the phone and contact his counterpart in Tokyo.

And yet, nothing. Here Ma has been offered a chance to make up for the damage he did to Taiwan-Japan relations when he failed to acknowledge the Japanese delegation during his inaugural speech, not to mention help avoid a minor incident from being blown out of proportions. His failure to intervene puts the nation’s very security at risk, as irreparable damage to our relations with a strong ally may be in the making.

If this had happened a year ago, Chen (no softie on the Diaoyutais) would have been all over TV mending fences. So would former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝). This time around, Ma cannot hide behind a supposed constitutional clause that bars him from doing his job. He must grab the wheel and show leadership. If he doesn’t, some may begin to wonder if he might not be nothing more than a mannequin, with a puppeteer hiding backstage.
What’s behind the Diaoyutais Incident?

During his presidential campaign, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) always emphasized how, if elected, he would strive to achieve better relations with Beijing and the US. Now that he has been elected, the first half of his promise appears to be underway while the second remains to be determined. But what about countries? Surely, any self-respecting country would seek to improve relations with as many governments as possible.

Sadly, it would appear that Japan is of little importance to the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) administration. First, its large delegation was snubbed in Ma’s inaugural speech and now, following the collision between a Taiwanese fishing boat and a Japanese patrol boat off the Diaoyutai islands, what should have been a minor incident is being turned, somewhere, into a disproportionate row, with Taiwan’s representative to Japan being recalled on Saturday. This is not to mention, of course, the abominably irresponsible —and dangerous — remark by Premier Liu Chao-shiuan (劉兆玄) that he could not rule out going to war against Japan over the contested islands, words that, even if discredited by their sheer idiocy, will nevertheless be picked up in Tokyo and cannot but strain relations. Allies do not use such language when talking about one another; China did — still does — over Taiwan, but then again, we’re supposed to be friends now.

All of this points out to a two-pronged strategy of rapprochement with Beijing and distancing from Japan. A new regional divide may be in the process of being created, and the ramifications for Taiwan’s sovereignty are serious.

The danger in alienating Tokyo (aside from the risk of losing an ally who has made assisting Taiwan in case of a military invasion by China part and parcel of its security arrangement with Washington) is that it risks creating unnecessary complications with the US, whose Asia-Pacific security strategy finds its center of gravity in Japan. A Taiwan that, through its rhetoric as much as its actions, integrates the Chinese circle at the expense of other allies will have direct repercussions on Japan’s sense of security and wariness vis-à-vis Beijing’s intentions. Forced to choose between Taiwan and Japan, the US would undoubtedly choose the latter, which would risk pushing Taipei ever deeper into China’s embrace. Without US help, security guarantees for Taiwan would be nil, and its sources of weapons procurement would dry up. Without these, and absent a diversity of strong allies, formal or nominal, Taipei would no longer be in a position of strength to negotiate with Beijing. Nor could it defend itself if those negotiations failed.

These events also dovetail with the almost complete disappearance of President Ma from public view, which lends credence, as I have argued before, to the theory that he serves as a front for unelected officials, for a select few whose objectives certainly do not coincide with the interests of Taiwanese and of the millions who voted for the KMT in March. When an international incident such as the Diaoyutai one occurs, and when such an incident risks being blown out of proportion, any president would intervene and make public statements or get on the phone with his counterpart in the other country. Ma hasn’t. Images of Taiwanese stepping on the Japanese flag in anger — behavior of a type rarely seen in Taiwan — is also strikingly reminiscent of state-managed “spontaneous” demonstrations in China, as occurs whenever a Japanese prime minister visits the Yasukuni shrine or when the US “mistakenly” bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999. Might not these demonstrations also have been stage-managed to exacerbate tensions and, with help from pro-KMT media, create a public consciousness of adversity toward Japan?

It may be too soon to make such assertions. Perhaps all of this is just coincidence and incompetence. Even if this were the case (and let us hope that it is) diplomacy involves as much error and unintended consequences as it does well-crafted policy. It would be disheartening if an unfortunate, albeit not uncommon, incident at sea prompted a divide between Taiwan and a country that has been a staunch ally in the past fifty years.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Why Tehran won't budge

Whether economic sanctions against states are a useful instrument to compel governments is a question that remains to be answered. A frequent criticism is that unless sanctions are surgically implemented to target specific individuals or firms, they usually do not have much of an impact on a regime and rather the deleterious consequences are felt by the population, as happened in Iraq in the 1990s. In Iran’s case, the sanctions put in place by the UN, the US and the EU have largely failed to dissuade Tehran to abandon its sensitive nuclear program, which certain states believe serves as a front for a nuclear weapons program. Even news of a second round of US-EU sanctions, which would go beyond those already put in place through the UN, appear not to be overly worrying to Tehran.

Why? Three reasons come to mind.

First, the more heated the war of words becomes between Tehran, Washington and Jerusalem, the higher the price of crude, which in recent months has proven a windfall for Tehran’s coffers. Just last week, comments by Israeli Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz to the effect that an Israeli attack against the Iranian nuclear program was virtually “unavoidable” drove up oil prices by nearly 9 percent to a record US$139 a barrel. Consequently, the more the US (John McCain, Hillary Clinton, conservative think-tanks) and Israel (Mofaz, Ehud Olmert, AIPAC) threaten war against Iran, the higher Tehran’s ability to mitigate the impact of economic sanctions becomes. It’s simple. As a major oil producer—the world’s fourth-largest — Iran stands to gain from high oil prices, let alone record-high ones like the one we have experienced in recent weeks.

The second reason why the sanctions probably won’t work is that despite its isolation, Tehran still has important allies — mainly Russia and China. As news broke out on Tuesday of a possible new round of US-EU sanctions, Tehran was withdrawing assets from European banks. It would not be too far-fetched to imagine that it will move them to Chinese or Russian financial institutions instead. As long as the international community remains at odds over Iran, or as long as some states like China and Russia refuse, for various reasons, to follow the US’ lead, countries like Iran will have the means to weather economic sanctions.

The third, less obvious reason, is that Iran’s position is becoming increasingly untenable, so much so that some decision-makers may have reached the conclusion that conflict is not only inevitable but desirable. It would not be the first time that a government has appeared to act irrationally (Japan before World War II, or North Korea, readily come to mind) in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds; in fact, when a government comes to see a status quo as untenable, its threat perception and assessment of cost and consequences becomes distorted. While, from the outside, its chosen path seems only to lead to unavoidable defeat or destruction (again, Japan pre-WWII, or Palestinian militants versus Israel), for the actors anything other than the status quo is desirable. In Iran’s case, this could mean that war with Israel and the US would be better than an agreement that forces it to abandon its nuclear work but leaves the Middle East unchanged, which is likely what would happen if peace came under Israeli and US terms (and explains why the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” has availed to nothing, as it always reflected Israeli, rather than Palestinian, or more equitable, conditions). Also at play are the ramifications of a Shiite resurgence in neighboring Iraq following the US invasion in 2003, which cannot but give Tehran hope of greater regional clout.

Given this situation, the international community can impose any set of sanctions it wants and the end result will be the same. Unless leaders come up with a new Middle East that distributes power more evenly and looks less like a proto Israeli-US empire (or aUS-led Sunni axis), war with Iran at some point will be a likely, if not inevitable, scenario. Mofaz may have made his comment for different reasons, but deep down he was right. It is, perhaps, unavoidable.