U.S.-Iran Negotiations: Parallel Dilemmas

Commentary No. 373, Mar. 15, 2014

For the last month or so there have been formal negotiations between the United States and Iran on nuclear questions. Actually, the negotiations had been going on unofficially and secretly for over six months. Technically the group negotiating with Iran is the so-called P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany). But the P5+1 is largely a cover for the key negotiator, the United States.

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Saudi Arabia: Besieged and Fearful

Commentary No. 372, Mar. 1, 2014

The Saudi regime has long been considered a pillar of political stability in the Middle East, a country that commanded respect and prudence from all its neighbors. This is no longer true, and the first ones to recognize this are those who are important internal players in the regime. Today, they feel besieged on all sides and quite fearful of the consequences of turmoil in the Middle East for the survival of the regime.

This turn-around derives from the history of Saudi Arabia. The kingdom itself is not very old. It was created in 1932 through the unification of two smaller kingdoms on the Arabian peninsula, Hejaz and Nejd. It was a poor, isolated part of the world that had liberated itself from Ottoman rule during the First World War, and came then under the paracolonial aegis of Great Britain.

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The Geopolitics of Ukraine’s Schism

Commentary No. 371, Feb. 15, 2014

Ukraine has been suffering a profound internal schism for some time now, one that is threatening to become one of those ugly civil wars that are occurring in more and more countries. The boundaries of present-day Ukraine include an east-west cleavage that is linguistic, religious, economic, and cultural, each side being close to 50% of the total.

The present government (said to be dominated by the eastern half) is accused in public demonstrations by the other side of corruption and authoritarian rule. No doubt this is true, at least in part. It is not however clear that a government dominated by the western half would be less corrupt and less authoritarian. In any case, the issue is posed internally in geopolitical terms: Should Ukraine be part of the European Union, or should it knit strong ties with Russia?

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Panic About World Deflation

Commentary No. 370, Feb. 1, 2014

Not so long ago, the pundits and the investors saw the “emerging markets” – a euphemism for China, India, Brazil, and some others – as the rescuers of the world-economy. They were the ones that would sustain growth, and therefore capital accumulation, when the United States, the European Union, and Japan were all faltering in their previous and traditional role as the mainstays of the world capitalist system.

So it is quite striking when, in the last two weeks of January, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), Main St, the Financial Times (FT), Bloomberg, the New York Times (NYT) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) all sound the alarm about the “collapse” of these same emerging markets, worrying in particular about deflation, which might be “contagious.” It sounds like barely contained panic to me.

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Syria: Intractable Dilemmas for Everyone

Commentary No. 369, Jan. 15, 2014

There was a time when all, or almost all, actors in the Middle East had clear positions. Other actors were able to anticipate, with a high degree of success, how this or that actor would react to any new important development. That time is gone. If we look at the civil war in Syria today, we will rapidly see that not only are there a wide range of objectives that different actors set themselves, but also that each of the actors is beset by ferocious internal debates about what position it should be taking.

Inside Syria itself, the present situation is one of a triad of basic options. There are those who, for varying reasons, essentially support keeping the present regime in power. There are those who support a so-called Salafist outcome, in which some form of Sunni shar’ia law prevails. And there are those who want neither of these outcomes, working for an outcome in which the Baath regime is ousted but a Salafist regime is not installed in its place.

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South Africa after Mandela

Commentary No. 368, Jan. 1, 2014

The icon is dead. Long live what? The world was treated in December 2013 to a celebration of Nelson Mandela’s funeral that was incredible. The elegies were never-ending. More heads of state and government, past and present, came to pay homage than any other funeral in history. There were to be sure some dissenting voices among commentators, but really very few. There was no doubt quite a bit of hypocrisy in the celebration, but there were also expressions of genuine grief and real appreciation for an extraordinary person. It was the last hurrah for someone that South Africans called Tata Madiba.

But now what? The reality for South Africa is that, whatever role Mandela played in the struggle against apartheid, then in the (re)construction of a nation, then in the passing of political power to others, he can play these roles no more. South Africa is now on its own, for better or worse – without the special grace afforded by a living icon. What are its present internal conflicts and its present geopolitical position? And what can we expect it to be in the coming decade or two?

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Karzai Demands Respect

Commentary No. 367, Dec. 15, 2013

Pres. Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan is not taken very seriously in the United States – not by the government, the media, or the general public. One good piece of evidence: On December 10, he gave a long interview to Le Monde that the journal published in full both in the original English and a French translation, and this quite detailed interview merited only one quote (of less than one sentence) in The New York Times.

This is all the more remarkable in that Karzai makes some very strong statements, quite at variance with what one reads in the American press. It is as though everyone assumes that Karzai’s statements are foolish or wrong-headed or inconsequential or mere negotiating tactics. No one seems to entertain the possibility that U.S. government statements can be foolish or wrong-headed or inconsequential or mere negotiating tactics.

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France’s Aggressive Foreign Policy

Commentary No. 366, Dec. 1, 2013

In the last few years, France has asserted herself on the international scene in a very active way – first under President Nicolas Sarkozy and then even more under President François Hollande. She led the way among Western powers to intervene in Libya in order to oust Muammar Khaddafi. She has pushed the hardest line of all Western powers on Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. She has intervened unilaterally in Mali to stop the downward sweep of Islamic armed movements. Hollande was received virtually as a hero when he came recently to Israel because of his hard line on negotiations with Syria and with Iran. And now she has sent troops to try to restore order in the Central African Republic.

This is the same France which, ten years ago, was being pilloried by the United States Congress for its refusal to go along with U.S. intervention in Iraq, to the point that the food term “French fries” was publicly rejected in the United States. This is the same France that was regarded as far too pro-Palestinian by the Israelis. This is the same France that not so long ago publicly renounced the concept of “Françafrique” – France’s presumed duty to keep order in its ex-African colonies – as no longer appropriate behavior. What has happened to explain this turnaround?

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