By Anna Borshchevskaya, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Anna Borshchevskaya is a fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy. The views expressed are her own.
Russian President Vladimir Putin achieved perhaps his most desired goal in 2013: He successfully positioned Russia as indispensable to resolving key international problems. And nowhere has his success been more visible than in the Syrian conflict and Iranian nuclear negotiations. The Moscow-brokered deal to put Syria’s chemical arsenal under control of international inspectors helped avoid military strikes against the Syrian regime. Meanwhile, Russia also emerged as a strong voice in the P5+1 group, allowing Iran to avoid tougher sanction against its nuclear program upon reaching an interim deal in Geneva in December 2013.
But behind the scenes, Russia is playing an even more significant role, and is an increasingly assertive player throughout the broader Middle East. It’s a trend the West cannot ignore.
According to Russian press reports, the Kremlin struck a $2 billion weapons agreement with Egypt last month, the culmination of years of quiet Kremlin efforts to revive Russia’s Cold War relationships in the region.
By Fareed Zakaria
“There are still huge pools of private wealth sitting on the sidelines that can be rapidly mobilized to support productive infrastructure. The government needs to help with rights of way before construction, and with strong regulation to protect the public interest afterwards,” writes Ken Rogoff for Project Syndicate.
“In his first term in office, U.S. President Barack Obama suggested the creation of an infrastructure bank to help promote public-private partnerships. It is still a good idea, particularly if the bank maintained a professional staff to help guide public choice on costs and benefits (including environmental costs and benefits). Even if Keynesian multipliers are truly at the upper end of consensus, mobilizing private capital for investment has most of the advantages of issuing public debt.”
“Even as the Suez Canal has become a touchstone of Egyptian nationalism, the great power of today – the United States – tends to see the waterway in similar terms as the colonial powers of the past,” argues Steven Cook in Foreign Affairs. “Like Disraeli, U.S. presidents and strategic planners have long regarded the canal as a means to another end – a critical component of global trade and a vital conduit for U.S. warships between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. The question is no longer about control; Egyptian control of the canal is universally accepted. Yet as the debate about U.S. military aid to Egypt raged after the July 3 military coup, and as the subsequent low-level insurgency broke out in the Sinai Peninsula, analysts have begun to question just how secure the canal is – and whether that even matters anymore.”
By Fareed Zakaria
“It is hard to imagine any legitimate reason for not converting the Arak reactor into a light water reactor. The Iranians have enough enriched uranium fuel to power such a reactor, and surely it would be worth the while of the countries that are now negotiating with Iran to offer to help in this endeavor. If the IR-40 became a light water reactor, this would end all the suspicions about it,” argues Jeremy Benstein in the New York Review of Books.
“By going ahead with a heavy water reactor, Iran seems to be saying it is determined to have the capacity to produce plutonium—and leave open a path to making a bomb.”
Moving Syria’s chemicals “for destruction elsewhere is the only real answer. But where? Neither the U.S. nor Russia makes sense. U.S. laws make the import and transport of chemical warfare agents problematic. If that could be finessed, vocal groups representing residents near the demilitarization sites would certainly raise objections,” says Dan Kaszeta for Bloomberg.
“…One country, however, seems to have a ready-built facility that could be used for this purpose: Albania. In late 2002, well after it signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, Albania made the embarrassing discovery that it had 16 tons of chemical warfare agents squirreled away in a bunker from the era of Communist dictator Enver Hoxha. In subsequent years, the U.S. government, through its Defense Threat Reduction Agency, spent about $45 million building an incineration plant, which was eventually moved to Qafemolle, Albania, to dispose of the stores.”
By Fareed Zakaria
“If the White House and the Department of Defense really want the United States to focus more on the Asia-Pacific region, as they claim to, then it makes sense to shift resources toward maritime forces,” writes Cindy Williams in Foreign Affairs. “Wars in that region are more likely to be fought at sea than on land. Moreover, if the United States is planning to avoid future stability and counterinsurgency operations, like those in Afghanistan and Iraq, which require large numbers of boots on the ground over multiple rotations, then the military will need considerably fewer ground forces. Hagel suggested as much when he reported on the SCMR in July 2013.”
“Yet Hagel may find it difficult to deliver on that recommendation. At least since the 1970s, the Department of Defense has allocated budgets among the armed services according to the same formula every year, with the shares of the budget awarded to the army, the navy, the air force, and the Marine Corps rarely varying by more than one percent from year to year. Changing the mix of forces will be politically daunting.”
By Fareed Zakaria
“For a long time, ‘because the American people were the most educated in the world, they were in the best position to invent, be entrepreneurial, and produce goods and services using advanced technologies,’ Harvard professors Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz assert in their 2008 book, The Race Between Education and Technology,” writes Rick Wartzman in American Prospect.
“For those born from the 1870s until about 1950, the authors found, every decade witnessed an uptick of about 0.8 years of education. In other words, ‘during that 80-year period the vast majority of parents had children whose educational attainment greatly exceeded theirs.’ But then something happened: ‘Educational change between the generations … came to an abrupt standstill.’"
”The timing couldn’t have been worse. To perform practically any function in the Skechers warehouse, ‘you need to use a computer...‘It takes new skills.’ Yet relatively few people have them. Even fewer are prepared for the kinds of jobs that may come next."
“During China’s demographic explosion, maintaining job growth was the government’s paramount priority,” write Damian Ma and William Adams in Foreign Affairs. “Occupational safety, collective bargaining rights, and other costly labor protections were vastly less important, and summarily ignored. That started to change a little with the Chinese Labor Contract Law of 2008, the centerpiece of a stronger labor regulatory package that increased worker protections against layoffs, obliged employers to negotiate with the party-controlled unions over pay rates and benefits, and provided workers with new avenues to defend their rights against employers in courts.
“Fully enforced, the regulation’s provisions were estimated to increase the cost of employing Chinese workers by some 10–20 percent. But at the time the law was enacted, no one gave that much thought. After all, there were still nearly 200 million migrants in the cities and millions more waiting to move off farms. As long as the supply remained abundant, the employer’s paradise would endure. By 2010, however, cracks were starting to show.”
By Fareed Zakaria
The average literacy score for Americans ages 16 to 65 in a new OECD study “places the U.S. 18th out of 22 participating countries. In numeracy, the U.S. ranks 20th out of 22. In ‘problem-solving in technology-rich environments’ – a measure of the capacity to interact productively with computers – the U.S. comes in 14th out of 19,” writes Clive Crook on Bloomberg.
“Those results are actually quite good when compared with the performance of adults ages 16 to 24. In literacy, young Americans rank 20th out of 22; in numeracy, 22nd out of 22; and in problem-solving, 19th out of 19.”
“The only glimmer of good news in these figures, if you can call it good news, is that U.S. standards of literacy, numeracy and problem-solving aren’t falling in absolute terms as fast as the poor relative performance of U.S. youngsters might suggest. Young Americans have slid to the bottom of the rankings mainly because young adults in other countries are doing much better than their predecessors did, whereas their American counterparts aren’t. The fact remains, the capacities of the U.S. labor force are consistently well below average, and those of the youngest segment rank (on two out of three measures) dead last.”
By Fareed Zakaria
“Recent threats to shut down the government or, worse, default on the debt represent a revocation of the rules. In its nihilism, the Tea Party is closer in spirit to the nullifiers of the 1830s, who were willing to put the union at risk to defeat a national law,” writes Stephen Mihm for Bloomberg.
“‘Let it never be forgotten,’ Calhoun once said, that ‘where the majority rules, the minority is the subject.’ Perhaps, but nullification and secession, like the Tea Party tactics of today, elevated the minority into a position of terrifying power. One tyranny simply replaces another.
“These tactics have long-term costs. If the U.S. defaults on its debt because a handful of Republican legislators don’t like a law vetted by all branches of government, the damage will go beyond a much lower credit rating. Something else – a sense that the U.S. is, for all its differences, united – will have been lost.”
“Managing the congressional politics around sustaining Afghan forces after the transition was feasible back when Washington assumed that a troop surge before the transition would put the Taliban on a glide path to extinction,” writes Stephen Biddle in Foreign Affairs.
“The United States would still have had to give billions of dollars a year to the ANSF, but the war would have ended relatively quickly. After that, it would have been possible to demobilize large parts of the ANSF and turn the remainder into a peacetime establishment; aid would then have shrunk to lower levels, making congressional funding a much easier sell. But that is not the scenario that will present itself in 2014. With an indefinite stalemate on the horizon instead, the politics of funding the ANSF will be much harder to handle – and without a settlement, that funding will outlast the Taliban’s will to fight only if one assumes heroic patience on the part of Congress.”
By Fareed Zakaria
“As India’s most dynamic states post rapid and sustainable growth rates, the country is rediscovering its natural fabric as a nation of strong regions. States still growing at or near double-digit rates represent India’s secret weapon for competing with the other major emerging markets, from China to Brazil, Indonesia to Mexico,” writes Ruchir Sharma in Foreign Affairs.
“The only hitch is that despite the chief ministers’ high popularity in their home states, many of them are pushing rapid development with an autocrat’s haste. Nevertheless, if India is to come back as a success story among the emerging markets, New Delhi should find ways to encourage the rise of its breakout states and the spread of their success to India’s other states.”
“It isn’t clear to me why China’s economy must deteriorate next year,” writes Jim O’Neill on Bloomberg. “China’s slowdown to its current 7.5 percent growth rate was well signposted by a sharp slowdown in leading indicators. Those measures, including monetary growth and electricity usage, are no longer flashing red. Coincident indicators such as the monthly purchasing managers’ index have picked up. Unless you believe that China is somehow doomed to fail, these signs are encouraging. They suggest that the rest of this year and the first part of 2014 might see slightly stronger growth.”
“The more resourceful pessimists next argue that the better growth signals are coming from parts of the economy where growth is unsustainable - such as the urban housing market and government-directed investment - from excessive growth of credit extended by shadow banks, and not from a broadly based expansion of consumer spending. If this were clearly the case, I’d be a pessimist, too, because a buoyant China needs consumers to take the lead.”
By David Andrew Weinberg, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: David Andrew Weinberg is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He previously served as a Democratic professional staff member covering Middle East issues at the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. The views expressed are his own.
When Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Saudi counterpart Prince Saud al-Faisal in Paris this week, he likely got an earful of complaints over Syria. There was no public news conference after their meeting, which makes sense given that the Saudis often prefer that their sensitive consultations with the United States remain hidden behind closed doors. However, Kerry’s announcement earlier in the day of a conference to boost the Syrian opposition was probably intended in part as a sop to the Saudis.
Barely one week earlier, Kerry came out of another meeting with Saud al-Faisal trumpeting that the United States had Saudi Arabia’s support for military action against Syria. This was an understatement. Riyadh was downright aggressive in its push for an American-led intervention after the alleged August 21 chemical weapons attack that U.S. officials say killed more than 1,400 people in Ghouta, Syria.
The Saudis badly wanted to see a strike on Syria, and they have grown frustrated with America’s fitful diplomacy since then. Recently, they have seemed less willing than usual to submerge their disagreements with Washington from public view. And there is undoubtedly a real sense of urgency to their efforts.
By Fareed Zakaria
What Cuban missile crisis says about Syria
“The most useful lesson that our current president could draw from the Cuban missile crisis would be to emulate Kennedy in slowing down the seemingly inexorable rush to war. With his controversial move to include Congress and the American people in the debate, Obama laid himself open to charges of indecisiveness. But he succeeded in buying a little time. This has allowed a possible alternative to military action to emerge,” writes Michael Dobbs in the Washington Post.
“Next to popular support, time is the most valuable of all political commodities. Like Kennedy before him, Obama now has an opportunity to escape from the box that he created with his Syrian red line. But for the gambit to succeed, he will also have to maintain the credible threat of force against the Syrian regime. He cannot allow his bluff to be called. It is a delicate balancing act.”
By Fareed Zakaria
Syria shows limits of drones
“In a politically complex environment – one in which the United States is not at war and the targets are unclear – armed drones are really not all that useful,” writes Audrey Kurth Cronin in Foreign Affairs. “They might seem like a cool new tool to many observers and policymakers, but the horrible predicament in Syria reveals the sharp limitations of the technology - and the serious problem of relying upon it so heavily in the U.S. force structure. Rather than looking for a quick technological fix, U.S. policymakers should invest more in good analysis and robust human assets on the ground, so as to sort friend from foe.”
The biggest fear in Lebanon these days is car bombs exploding in residential neighborhoods, argues Rania Abouzeid in the New Yorker. “Here in Beirut, trying to predict which neighborhoods might be hit has become a dark parlor game. Will it be like 2005, when a string of small bombs were planted in mainly Christian areas? Or large-scale explosions in Sunni and Shiite areas that result in double-digit deaths? Will night spots be hit? Restaurants? Which ones?”
“The country’s center is holding for now, in part because it is serving as a ‘back office’ for the various parties in Syria, who are using its banks, its port, its airport, and its territory. Its border areas, however, are fraying. As in the seventies, some rebel groups have carved out safe havens that they also use as clandestine bases, and for logistical support. The relative stability of these areas serves their needs for now, but perhaps not for long.
“The big question is what, if anything, Hezbollah might do if there’s a Western strike against Syria.”