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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Civil War Nearing End in Colombia

Commentary No. 365, November 15, 2013

There has been civil war in Colombia more or less continuously since 1948. It seems it may finally be coming to an end. It is ending the way most other long-lasting civil wars end. A changed geopolitical context combined with a deep sense of exhaustion on both sides is permitting an uncertain and imperfect compromise arrangement to prevail. This ending is comparable to similar endings in Northern Ireland and South Africa. It is what is not yet happening, and may not happen for quite a while yet, in Afghanistan, Syria, or Egypt.

Colombia’s civil war started with the assassination of the Liberal Party’s candidate for president, Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, who was thought likely to win the 1948 election. Colombia was at that time a largely agricultural, largely Catholic country. There were two mainstream political parties, the Colombian Liberal Party and the Colombian Conservative Party. The very names replicated a classic left-right split. They also reflected a classic split between freethinking and Catholic forces.

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Consequences of U.S. Decline

Commentary No. 364, November 1, 2013

I have long argued that U.S. decline as a hegemonic power began circa 1970 and that a slow decline became a precipitate one during the presidency of George W. Bush. I first started writing about this in 1980 or so. At that time the reaction to this argument, from all political camps, was to reject it as absurd. In the 1990s, quite to the contrary, it was widely believed, again on all sides of the political spectrum, that the United States had reached the height of unipolar dominance.

However, after the burst bubble of 2008, opinion of politicians, pundits, and the general public began to change. Today, a large percentage of people (albeit not everyone) accepts the reality of at least some relative decline of U.S. power, prestige, and influence. In the United States this is accepted quite reluctantly. Politicians and pundits rival each other in recommending how this decline can still be reversed. I believe it is irreversible.

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The Samson Complex

Commentary No. 363, Oct. 15, 2013

In the Bible there is a famous story of Samson, who is a hero. There are many interpretations of the meaning of the tale in which Samson, an Israelite, and someone of God-granted strength, pulls down the temple of the (also very strong) enemy Philistines, dying himself in the process. I take it to mean that an act which seems irrational (Samson dies in the process) is both heroic and quite sensible in that it becomes the way (possibly the only way) in which the strong enemy is defeated and his “people” saved.

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Heroic Leniency: Iran and the United States

Commentary No. 362, October 1, 2013

In the diplomatic negotiations that are now quite unexpectedly blossoming between Iran and the United States, one has to say that the Iranians have shown the greater capacity for verbal formulas that catch popular imagination.

When the new President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, suggested that Iran would be willing to engage in diplomacy with what the Iranians used to call the Great Satan, everyone held their breath until we all knew if Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would endorse these efforts.

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U.S. Military Strike in Syria on Hold

Commentary No. 361, Sept. 15, 2013

For the past month at least, the world seems to have been discussing nothing but whether, how, and when the United States will engage in a punitive air strike of some sort against the Syrian regime of Bashir al-Assad. Three things stand out about this discussion: (1) It has been full of endless surprises in every aspect of the affair, including and perhaps especially the latest Russian proposal that Syria’s chemical weapons be turned over to some international agency. (2) The degree of worldwide opposition to U.S. military intervention has been extremely high. (3) Almost all the actors have been giving public statements that seem not to reflect their true concerns and intentions.

Let us start with the so-called unexpected Russian proposal, which Syria’s Foreign Minister has endorsed. Was this really the result of an off-hand, unserious remark of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, cleverly seized upon by the Russians the day before President Obama was scheduled to make his plea to the American people to endorse a military strike? It seems not. Apparently, Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have been quietly discussing such a possibility for over a year.

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Armies in Power

Commentary No. 360, Sept. 1, 2013

It is almost always bad news when armies are in power. In Egypt, the army has been the deciding force since 1952. The recent destitution by the Egyptian army of President Mohamed Morsi was not a coup d’état. One cannot commit a coup d’état against oneself. What happened was simply that the army changed the way it was governing Egypt. For a short period, the army had allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to make some limited state decisions. When they began to feel that the actions of the Morsi government might lead to a significant increase in Muslim Brotherhood power at the expense of the Egyptian army, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi decided that enough was enough, and acted ruthlessly to increase the day-to-day power of the army.

Armies in power are in general highly nationalist and very authoritarian. They tend to be very conservative forces in terms of the world-economy. Furthermore, the senior officers not only permit the army to have a direct entrepreneurial role, but they also tend to use their military power as a mode of personal enrichment. This has certainly been the case for most of the time since the Egyptian army assumed direct power in 1952 – or shall we say, at least since 1952.

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