In Shocking Move, Saudi Arabia Declines Security Council Seat

Most of the 193 countries that are part of the United Nations consider winning a temporary spot on Security Council a great honor. As the body’s sole authority on debating issues of international peace and security, countries in every region of the world are often quick to put themselves in the running in hopes of joining the exclusive club.

Not, it seems, Saudi Arabia. Read more “In Shocking Move, Saudi Arabia Declines Security Council Seat”

Egypt Aid Suspension Worries America’s Arab Allies, Israel

An Egyptian army tank rolls through the streets of Cairo, January 30, 2011
An Egyptian army tank rolls through the streets of Cairo, January 30, 2011 (Darkroom Productions)

With a civil war raging in Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process at a deadlock and Iraq returning to sectarian violence, the last thing the United States seem to need is another diplomatic headache in the Middle East. Yet now the Obama Administration has announced that it will suspend hundreds of millions of dollars in yearly military aid to Egypt, this is precisely what America may get.

After a lengthy and at times confusing process that was designed to review America’s assistance to Egypt after the military removed Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi from office in July, the administration finally rolled out its new policy: most of the aid for Egypt’s armed forces is suspended until an inclusive democracy is restored to the country.

The decision caught many lawmakers in Washington DC off guard, some of whom had vocally pressed the administration to continue sending Egypt’s military the equipment and funding it has received since it signed a peace accord with Israel in 1979, despite the ongoing crackdown against Muslim Brotherhood activists and officials.

Others, including Vermont senator Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the committee responsible for funding the State Department, complained that the policy shift did not go far enough.

Even Israel, America’s closest partner in the Middle East, appears to be cagey of the aid cutoff. Some Israeli officials, speaking without attribution, voiced their concern that the suspension might send exactly the wrong message to Egypt’s interim government at a time when the Egyptian-Israelian peace agreement is as vital to regional security as it has ever been. Gilad Erdan, the Jewish nation’s civil defense minister, acknowledged as much on Israel radio a day after the announcement was made. “Certainly it can be confirmed that we had been troubled by how decisions of this kind were liable to be interpreted in Egypt and of course the risk of consequences for relations with Israel,” he said.

It should be noted that while the United States have scaled back their military assistance, other aid will continue to stream into the coffers of Egypt’s military. Counterterrorism assistance, for instance, is left untouched, as is the American-Egyptian training program that has solidified the defense relationship between the two countries through the last thirty years. Senior American officials have been adamant that the bilateral relationship remains crucial for the security of both nations and that the suspension will be lifted once the interim government takes the necessary steps toward democratic reform.

In the short term, President Barack Obama’s decision to cut military aid to Egypt will no doubt rankle officials in Cairo who are quite sensitive to the impression that innocent civilians are being arrested and killed by the security forces. Egyptian defense and foreign affairs officials have repeatedly referred to those arrests as part of a nationwide counterterrorism campaign against those in the Muslim Brotherhood and the wider Islamist movement who are attacking police officers and soldiers.

In the long-term, the suspension is unlikely to hurt broader ties between Egypt and the United States, nor will it sever contacts between the militaries of both countries. Defense secretary Chuck Hagel will continue to consult with Egypt’s army chief General Abdul Fatah Sisi on a variety of security issues that concern both governments, such as border security and ongoing counterterrorism operations against militants in the Sinai Peninsula. The relationship will survive, regardless of some harsh back and forth language in the press.

The real ramifications for the United States could come from their Arab allies in the Persian Gulf, many of whom are already questioning whether the Obama Administration truly appreciates the political turmoil that is going on in the region. Saudi Arabia is effectively working against American policy in Egypt, having promised to compensate the interim government in Cairo for whatever financial assistance the United States might cut. While America and its European allies want an inclusive Egyptian democracy that is tolerant of individual and minority rights, the monarchies in the Persian Gulf want a solid and reliable ally in Cairo that they can work with.

Authorities on Edge After Al Qaeda Leader Captured in Libya

Al Qaeda’s core network of operatives was struck another dramatic blow on Saturday when American commandos executed a flawless operation in the Libyan capital against a man that has been on the United States’ most wanted list for the past fifteen years.

Nazih Abdul-Hamed Nabih al-Ruqai’i, known by his alias Abu Anas al-Liby, may not be a household name like the terror network’s former chief, Osama bin Laden, or its current head, Ayman al-Zawahiri, but he is held responsible for plotting the 1998 bombings of two American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The attacks, which claimed 224 lives, including twelve Americans, marked the beginning of what would become America’s war on terrorism. For Americans, it was Al Qaeda’s most audacious and brutal terrorist attacks until September 11, 2001, when it crash three commercial airplanes into New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington DC. Read more “Authorities on Edge After Al Qaeda Leader Captured in Libya”

Hardliners Let Obama-Rouhani Diplomacy Play Out, For Now

The recent rhetorical goodwill between Iran and the United States seems to have dampened the animosity and mistrust that existed between the two nations for 34 years. But unless the diplomatic opening achieves clear results, hardliners may yet close the door on talks.

A relatively conciliatory speech from Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, before the United Nations set the stage for a preliminary discussion between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on the sidelines of the annual General Assembly meeting last week. Rouhani’s first trip to New York as Iran’s leader ended in a dramatic fashion — with a brief but historic phone call with President Barack Obama on his way to the airport.

However, as commentators and officials keep repeating, words are one thing; actions and concessions are something else entirely. Read more “Hardliners Let Obama-Rouhani Diplomacy Play Out, For Now”

Obama, Rouhani Try Telephone Diplomacy, Lawmakers Skeptical

Barack Obama
American president Barack Obama speaks on the phone in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, January 5, 2011 (White House/Pete Souza)

After their respective speeches to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Hassan Rouhani of Iran returned to their own corners without the historic handshake that observers were hoping for. Given the constant speculation in the media of an informal meeting between the two leaders, the news that a handshake would not occur came as a disappointment. Some saw Rouhani’s refusal to meet Obama as a snub. Others labeled it a missed opportunity.

It appears that Obama and Rouhani had something else in mind. Just as an American-Iranian détente threatened to unravel, Obama stepped behind the White House podium and stated, to everyone’s surprise, that he had spoken directly with Iran’s new president on the phone. “Going forward,” Obama said, “President Rouhani and I have directed our teams to continue working expeditiously to pursue an agreement” on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.

More so then a public handshake, the phone call between Obama and Rouhani is an historic moment. As Susan Rice, Obama’s national security advisor, later reiterated on CNN, this was the first direct American-Iranian contact between heads of state since the 1979 revolution that deposed the shah. Read more “Obama, Rouhani Try Telephone Diplomacy, Lawmakers Skeptical”

Iranian Leader Expected to Urge Dialogue in United Nations Address

While thousands of international diplomats are attending this week’s festivities at the annual United Nations General Assembly, American officials are squaring most of their attention on Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani.

Since his surprising victory in Iran’s presidential election this summer, the former nuclear negotiator and cleric has generated his fair share of excitement in world capitals, talking of moderation, coming together in pursuit of shared goals and expressing a willingness to become more transparent about his country’s nuclear enrichment efforts.

Compared to his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rouhani comes across as a wise sage who understands the nuances and sensitivities of international politics. The president himself criticized Ahmadinejad’s administration for speaking in bold, black and white terms and conducting a foreign policy that, he said, resulted in nothing but global sanctions preventing Iran from exporting its oil.

With an economy in tatters, Rouhani recognizes that he needs to change how Iran does business if there is any hope for those sanctions to be relaxed. Read more “Iranian Leader Expected to Urge Dialogue in United Nations Address”

Intense Diplomacy Required to Disarm Assad’s Chemical Arsenal

When asked by a CBS reporter during a press conference if there was anything Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad could do to avert a military strike, Secretary of State John Kerry casually suggested that his regime could hand over all of its chemical weapons to international monitors.

“Sure,” Kerry said. “He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow a full and total accounting for that.” To demonstrate just how unrealistic he deemed the possibility, Kerry quickly added that Assad was unlikely to even consider the idea. “He isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done, obviously.”

Forty-eight hours later, Kerry’s offhand remark has turned into a major diplomatic initiative led by the Russians to postpone or cancel outright an American airstrike on Assad’s military bases. Read more “Intense Diplomacy Required to Disarm Assad’s Chemical Arsenal”

Obama’s Time Running Out for Syria Strike Authorization

President Barack Obama and his national security advisor, Susan Rice, brief Republican senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina on the situation in Syria, September 2
President Barack Obama and his national security advisor, Susan Rice, brief Republican senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina on the situation in Syria, September 2 (White House/Pete Souza)

If President Barack Obama has any chance of winning congressional approval for using limited military force in Syria, his national-security team will need to make a better case for action in the next several days. That seems to be the collective judgment of millions of Americans and dozens of members of Congress, most of whom are still on the fence as to whether they should allow the resolution to pass.

constitutionally, the president has the power to act militarily against the regime of his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad without Congress’ approval. Yet in a sign that Obama does not want to plunge his nation into yet another Middle Eastern war without some support at home, he decided to bring the matter up to the legislature last weekend. However, Congress has often disappointed his administration by underachieving or failing to come together to get legislation through.

Using force against Assad in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack last month, which is believed to have killed hundreds of civilians in a suburb of the capital Damascus, is supported across party lines. A substantial number of Democrats are worried about their own president’s plan for military action while a significant number of opposition Republicans appear to be moving closer to approving the use of force.

Yet the president is nowhere near receiving the votes he needs for his resolution to pass in both chambers of Congress. While it is assumed that the Senate, where Democrats are in the majority and a few hawkish Republicans have called for military action in Syria for years, will vote in favor of authorization, lawmakers in the House of Representatives are anything but convinced that responding to a chemical weapons violation in Syria is worth the money and risks. According to the latest whip count from the political newspaper Tbe Hill, just 31 congressmen are likely to vote “yea.” This is a dismal number compared to the number of lawmakers who are not persuaded: 138, including 32 Democrats.

A count from The Washington Post paints a similar picture; 226 members in the House are either opposed or leaning against approval, whereas 25 are solid votes for the president.

The Obama White House is clearly concerned by the numbers which is why the president will himself be involved in persuading legislators. Obama and members of his national-security team will be making phone calls to individual congressmen, hoping that a personal touch will sway enough votes to their side. Additional intelligence briefings and caucus meetings will be held for House Democrats, most of whom will need to vote “yes” if the president’s strategy has a shot at succeeding.

More importantly for Obama, however, is using his power of persuasion to get the American public behind him. A vast majority is still opposed to American involvement in Syria’s conflict. The president is scheduled to appear on six television networks on Monday, before delivering a national address from the Oval Office on Tuesday — suggesting he is running out of time to win domestic support for his policy.

Obama to Face Skeptical Congress Before Launching Syria Strikes

More than a week after hundreds of Syrian civilians were allegedly gassed by their own government in a suburb of the capital Damascus, it looked as if the United States were finally about to respond to the crisis in a determined and forceful manner. Five warships were deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean, stocked with dozens of cruise missiles in the event President Barack Obama ordered retaliatory strikes. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to the American public and the world twice in a week, arguing for a resolute response to a savage attack that he called a “crime against conscience.”

An American attack against Syrian regime targets seemed a foregone conclusion. So much so that Syrian commanders ordered their troops to evacuate their bases and head into the dense, civilian areas of Damascus. Read more “Obama to Face Skeptical Congress Before Launching Syria Strikes”

America Condemns Syrian Gas Attack, Seen Preparing Strikes

The American aircraft carrier USS Enterprise sails alongside the United StatesS Dwight D. Eisenhower during an exercise in the Arabian Sea, September 27, 2012
The American aircraft carrier USS Enterprise sails alongside the United StatesS Dwight D. Eisenhower during an exercise in the Arabian Sea, September 27, 2012 (USN/Scott Pittman)

After nearly a week of internal deliberations and international debate over what appeared to be a chemical weapons attack in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry made it clear on Monday where America stands — and where it believes the blame rests.

In a short statement at the State Department in front of reporters, Kerry delivered by far the most forceful message that has come out of the Obama Administration since the Syrian regime allegedly gassed hundreds of civilians in a suburb of the capital Damascus.

“Let me be clear,” he Kerry. “The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders, by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. There is a reason that President Obama has made clear to the Assad regime that this international norm cannot be violated without consequences.” Read more “America Condemns Syrian Gas Attack, Seen Preparing Strikes”