By Tom Perriello, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Tom Perriello is Center for American Progress Action president. He recently returned from the Turkish side of the Syria boarder, where he conducted interviews with Syrian leaders and refugees. The views expressed are his own.
Expectations were low for the Syrian peace talks that started in Geneva late last month. Indeed, during dozens of interviews with Syrian leaders before talks began, the two words I heard most in reference to the conference were “trap” and “fake.” And I was among the skeptics, concerned that the Geneva process reflected more of a desire by the international community to look like it cared than an actual strategy.
Yet while the initial talks produced no major breakthroughs, they have faltered in surprisingly constructive ways that clarify and advance the difficult choices the international community must face to address the crisis in Syria. And, with the announcement today that Syria will join a second round of peace talks next week, consideration of a course correction on U.S.-Syria policy could prove to be one of the outcomes.
By Tyler Cullis and Jamal Abdi, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Jamal Abdi is policy director for the National Iranian American Council. Tyler Cullis is a recent graduate of the Boston University School of Law, where he specialized in international law and the U.S. sanctions targeting Iran. The views expressed are their own.
For all the problems with the new push for sanctions against Iran in the U.S. Senate, one is hardly new: the growing efforts to place limits on the president’s authority to lift sanctions.
Increasingly, Congress has circumscribed the executive’s negotiating leverage by providing only limited authorities for the president to waive sanctions, upping the political cost of doing so, and requiring Congress’s approval before any permanent sanctions relief is granted.
Some in Congress see this ploy as part of the good cop bad cop routine, arguing that President Obama will be able to strike a harder bargain if Iran's negotiators see what awaits the collapse of negotiations. But in this case, limiting the president’s authority to lift sanctions actually weakens the leverage of U.S. negotiators. It is a simple contract dilemma: if one party is perceived to have difficulties in holding up their end of the bargain, the other party can raise the cost of performance to cover that risk.
By Bessma Momani, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Bessma Momani is a professor at the University of Waterloo and Balsillie School of International Affairs, and senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and the Brookings Institution. The views expressed are the writers’ own.
Yes, Syria is a mess. When the uprisings started, things seemed clear – an authoritarian regime, run by the same cronies for some four decades, was suppressing the rights and freedoms of its citizens. The Syrian people, like their brethren in the Arab world, were longing for a more accountable government.
Simply put: Syrian government, bad. Syrian people, good.
For Westerners, moral clarity for a conflict zone is necessary. Like a Lonely Planet guide book to “the other,” we want mental shortcuts. “Just tell me who the good guys are in this fight,” is the perennial request that political analysts are asked.
It’s not that easy, and our Western palate may not like the dish being offered. Make no mistake, the Syrian regime has blood on its hands as it continues to ruthlessly suppress its people. Generations of Syrians will remember the Assad family for the years of death and destruction it has caused on its people.
By Gregg Andrew Brazinsky, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Gregg Andrew Brazinsky is an associate professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University and advisor to the North Korea International Documentation Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The views expressed are his own.
Japan can sometimes be wrong, a basic fact that Washington sometimes seems to have a problem understanding. American officials have long seen Japan as a staunch U.S. ally, one that former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone once suggested could become an unsinkable aircraft carrier in the Pacific. But while this may be true, since securing power in December 2012, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has done far more to undermine American strategic interests in Asia than to support them.
Regrettably, the Obama administration’s response to this unfortunate shift in Tokyo’s foreign policy has been weak and confused. It’s time for the U.S. to get serious about reining in Japan.
GPS speaks with Duncan McCargo, a professor of Southeast Asian politics at the University of Leeds in the UK and author of 'Tearing Apart the Land,' about the ongoing protests in Thailand, what the demonstrators are hoping to achieve, and whether the military is likely to intervene.
Anti-government protesters in Thailand have launched a campaign to “shut down” Bangkok. What are they so unhappy about, and what are they trying to achieve with this latest demonstration?
The protesters are unhappy about the political direction which Thailand has taken for more than a decade. In the past, Thailand was run by a relatively small Bangkok-based elite which I term “network monarchy,” centering on the palace, the military, the bureaucracy and major business groups. While electoral politics have been the norm for more than 30 years, elected governments needed the blessing of this network in order to remain in office. Without this endorsement, governments quickly collapsed – or were removed by military coups. Conservative groups in Thai society, including the Bangkok middle classes and voters in the upper South – stronghold of the Democrat Party – have normally backed the ruling network.
Since the 2001 general election, however, most Thai voters have consistently supported parties linked to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Pro-Thaksin parties with strong backing in the populous North and Northeast won solid majorities in the 2001, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2011 general elections. The Democrat Party squeaked a narrow election victory in 1992, but has not won convincingly since 1986. Protestors are furious that Bangkokians no longer have veto power over election results; indeed, they feel they are no longer in control of “their” country. They claim that Thailand has been held hostage to the corrupt financial interests of Thaksin, his family and his cronies. The real picture is much more complicated. Voters in the North and Northeast are no longer poor farmers, content to be marginalized and patronized by their “betters” in Bangkok. Thaksin has not created the wave of electoral resentment against the Democrats and the power of the capital city. He has simply tapped into that resentment for his own ends.
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 Michael Rubin, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, recently returned from Morocco and the Western Sahara where he interviewed former Polisario Front members and Sahrawi officials. Follow him @mrubin1971. The views expressed are his own.
Against the backdrop of North Korea and the conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, and the Palestinian territories, it is understandable that within the United States, the Western Sahara is largely forgotten. It should not be. Across North Africa and the Sahel, political chaos reigns and stability is in short supply. Nature abhors a vacuum, but terrorists love them. Fueled by loose weapons from Libya, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other offshoot terrorist groups have destabilized wide swaths of the Sahel. Freedom House once categorized Mali as the most free Muslim majority country in the world, but now it teeters on the brink of state failure, victim of weapons smuggling, terrorism, and its own porous borders. Across North Africa and the Sahel, from the Red Sea to the Atlantic, the only truly stable country is Morocco, a country whose sovereignty over the Western Sahara remains at the center of a decades-long diplomatic dispute.
It has now been almost 40 years since Spain left what was then called the Spanish Sahara, a territory that it had administered for almost a century. Conflict erupted quickly after Spain left. Morocco occupied nearly the entire territory. But Algeria, a reliable Soviet ally in the context of the Cold War, had other plans. It supported the Polisario Front, a group that claimed independence for the former Spanish territory and declared itself the rightful government of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. The subsequent guerilla conflict continued until 1991, when Morocco and the Polisario Front reached a ceasefire. The two sides initially agreed that a referendum would determine the Western Sahara’s future, but that vote was never held because they could reach no consensus about who qualified to vote. Today, the Sahrwi Arab Democratic Republic exists on paper only although thanks to Algerian largesse, which sees the Polisario as a useful wedge against rival Morocco and so bankrolls its diplomatic missions.
By Andrew Liepman and Philip Mudd, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Andrew Liepman is a former principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center and a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Philip Mudd, former Senior Intelligence Advisor at the FBI and Deputy Director of the CIA Counterterrorist Center, is the director of Global Risk at SouthernSun Asset Management. The views expressed are their own.
The recent New York Times investigation into the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi has reignited the debate over the nature and trajectory of al Qaeda. The conclusion of the report – that there was no evidence of an al Qaeda role in the attack – reinforces our view that the organization that attacked the United States more than 12 years ago is in decline. But it also serves as a reminder that the threat has not disappeared. Rather, it is morphing into a new, more dispersed, less predictable, but still lethal enemy.
The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon showed al Qaeda at its deadliest. At the same time, though, 9/11 also represented the beginning of al Qaeda’s decline as an organized terror enterprise that would ultimately lead to its emergence as a decentralized, factious amalgam of freelance groups, each with its own methods and agenda. This new organization may lack the infrastructure to plan and carry out attacks like the one that occurred in Benghazi (and certainly attacks like 9/11), but today’s al Qaeda remains a threat to strike where and when it can and to fan the flames of extremism.
The decade that followed the 9/11 attack saw the gradual decline of bin Laden’s core al Qaeda. The architects of 9/11 were largely killed or detained, the remnants were in hiding in Pakistan, and the revolutionary message had lost ground globally in the face of relentless al Qaeda killings of Muslims across the Islamic world. Some of its most promising potential successors experienced similar declines, from Jemaah Islamiyya in Indonesia to al-Shabaab in Somalia, along with al Qaeda cells in Saudi Arabia and Europe.
Watch ‘India at a Crossroads,’ a GPS special, this Sunday at 10 a.m. & 1 p.m. ET on CNN
The United States walked into a skirmish this past week. Not with China, not with Iran…but with India.
Why are Indians so angry at America? Well, they say that the United States mistreated an Indian consular worker, who was arrested for allegedly falsifying a visa application for her live-in maid, and for paying that maid less than a third of the U.S. minimum wage.
The facts of the case continue to emerge. But the incident highlights that for all their similarities – big democracies, Asian partners – India and America are very different societies.
Despite its impressive growth, India remains quite poor. Even if the consular worker’s maid was being paid only $300 a month, she was still making two-and-a-half times the national average. Second, India has a recent history of diplomats being involved with visa fraud. This shouldn't be surprising, unfortunately. India ranks 94th in the world for transparency. You encounter corruption every day in India.
And lastly, why are Indian politicians feeding all this outrage? Well, Indian politicians have always been masters of self-righteous indignation. But also, they're up for elections next year. With some 700 million eligible voters, this will be the greatest exercise in democracy the world has ever seen.
By Michael Rubin, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Michael Rubin is author of Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes, forthcoming in February 2014. The views expressed are his own. This is the latest in the '14 in 2014' series, looking at what the year ahead holds for key countries.
The past year was a time for change in Iran. Iranians went to the polls and elected Hassan Rouhani who, after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s eight year interlude, returned Iran’s presidency to the reformists. Rouhani’s diplomatic charm offensive, telephone call with President Barack Obama, and tentative nuclear deal suggested a new international posture. But just as important were Rouhani’s domestic actions.
During the Ahmadinejad years, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) had gained unprecedented political and economic power. More parliamentarians, governors and deputy governors, ministers and deputy ministers were veterans of the IRGC than at any time in the Islamic Republic’s history. Ahmadinejad himself was the first president who gained his legitimacy from time spent in the military during the Iran-Iraq War rather than in revolutionary clerical circles. The past became present, as informal networks of battle buddies from the Iran-Iraq War trenches trumped the formal political wire diagram in Islamic Republic decision-making.
Herein lies the challenge. While expectations are high that Rouhani will transform the Islamic Republic at home and on the diplomatic stage, it is not clear that he can or even wants to do so. True, Rouhani quietly moved to unravel the IRGC’s chokehold on Iranian politics, but he has replaced ministers and fired governors whose backgrounds were in the IRGC in many cases with veterans of the intelligence service, equally despised by ordinary Iranians. Indeed, extricating the IRGC from the economy will be difficult: Khatam al-Anbia, the IRGC’s economic wing, controls up to 40 percent of the economy and Ahmadinejad awarded the group billions in no-bid contracts in the energy sector alone during his administration, a position the IRGC is unlikely to abandon and which effectively gives the elite military budgetary autonomy.
By Matt Stumpf, Special o CNN
Editor’s note: Matt Stumpf is director of the Asia Society’s Washington office. The views expressed are his own. This is the fourth in the '14 in 2014' series, looking at what the year ahead holds for key countries.
If diplomacy is at times the act of building ladders for your opponent to climb down, rarely has a country needed it more urgently than North Korea today. The leadership in Pyongyang spent 2013 destroying the last rungs of the teetering ladder built by the Six-Party Talks in the mid-2000s. So, it enters 2014 on a ledge, and there are no obvious ways down.
North Korea finds itself in an ever-more precarious international situation after a disastrous series of decisions in 2013. Not long ago, reasonable analysts saw inklings of North Korean interest in economic reform. As early as the first days of the new leadership in January 2012, North Korean officials reportedly said: Kim Jong Un was “focused on a ‘knowledge-based’ economy and looking at economic reforms enacted by other nations, including China.” As late as January 2013, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt’s visit suggested that North Korea might believe the country could not prosper while isolated.
By Scott Flipse, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Scott Flipse is the deputy director for policy at the U.S. Commission in International Religious Freedom. The views expressed are his own.
John Kerry is finishing up his first visit to Vietnam as Secretary of State, a trip billed as a chance to “highlight…a growing partnership” against a backdrop of increasingly intertwined bilateral interests. Yet despite the progress over the past decade, Vietnam’s sometimes fierce suppression of free speech, religion, ethnic minorities and independent labor unions complicates closer cooperation. It’s time for the U.S. to use its considerable influence with Vietnam to press for change.
Few Secretaries of State can draw on the kind of goodwill Kerry has built up through his efforts to improve ties between the United States and its former adversary. This, coupled with Vietnamese concerns over China and Hanoi’s need to further develop U.S. economic and security ties, means there is space for U.S. diplomatic efforts to have small but significant impacts on the lives of ordinary Vietnamese, particularly in the area of human rights.
True, the question remains of how realistic it is to hope for such a push given the administration’s insistence that democracy and human rights are no longer “core interests” of the U.S. globally.
Kerry should start by securing the freedom of Le Quoc Quan and fellow dissidents. Quan is a human rights lawyer and blogger who represents a new generation of dissident in Vietnam. It is the third detention for this lawyer and former fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy (and, full disclosure, a friend of mine). Over the past five years he has become an irritant to the Communist Party leadership, repeatedly defending dissidents in court, demonstrating with fellow Catholics at confiscated Church properties, and posting articles online about needed legal reforms.
Le Quoc Quan is a priority case for both the Vietnamese-American community and Reporters Without Borders, which organized an appeal signed by a dozen international human rights groups. But he is only one of hundreds of dissidents locked up in Vietnamese jails, and many other prisoners are in poor health.
Like their Communist brethren in Beijing, the Party in Hanoi faces popular dissatisfaction due to lagging economic performance and corruption. Also like Beijing, Vietnam has sometimes restive ethnic and religious minorities – making up almost 20 percent of the population, Khmer, Hmong, Montagnard, Hoa Hao, and Cao Dai communities face persistent racism, discrimination, religious persecution and abject poverty in part because they sided with the French or U.S. powers in the past.
Over the past several years, Communist Party leaders have become increasingly sensitive to public criticism and challenges to its political dominance, expanding efforts to silence dissidents and other critics of government policies. They believe that free speech, internet freedom, independent labor unions, and freedom of religion will eventually erode their legitimacy and political power, as it did it with the Communist parties of Eastern Europe.
It is probably too much to ask of U.S. diplomacy to halt all arrests of dissidents, censorship the Internet, or marginalization of minorities when Vietnamese leaders sees such actions as critical to their political survival. Still, the U.S. should be asking Hanoi to pay some price for improved relations. After all, Vietnam depends on U.S. export markets and security cooperation to survive China’s growing economic and military footprint.
Also, Hanoi is actively seeking admission to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) a trade regime that will include the likes of Chile, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, and Malaysia. Vietnam is the clear outlier among largely democratic TPP members. With this in mind, bipartisan coalitions in the U.S. Congress are moving to block Vietnam from TTP membership and additional U.S. trade benefits without measurable human rights improvements.
Hanoi also seeks U.S. military and diplomatic assistance for its conflict with China over territorial jurisdiction in the South China Sea. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, along with a bipartisan groups lead by Senator John McCain, have reportedly conditioned expanded military-to-military ties on human rights improvements. It is unclear whether the second term White House, along with new Secretaries Kerry and Hagel, share this stance, but the U.S. should make clear this linkage to the Vietnamese while promising further backing for Hanoi’s maritime claims.
Ultimately, the leverage exists to encourage meaningful reforms that marry U.S. interests in prosperity and principle. The question, then, is whether Vietnam will simply be allowed to jail hundreds of dissidents, expand internet controls, and marginalize millions of religious and ethnic minorities when the leverage and goodwill exist to stem the rising tide of rights abuses?