Weekly Foreign Affairs Roundup

Weekly Foreign Affairs Roundup
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The Week's Top Stories in Foreign Affairs :

What the Lebanese Election Results Mean

Facts: Saad Hariri, the son of assassinated Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, seemed the likely next Prime Minister of Lebanon following the victory of his March 14 Coalition in recent elections. The March 14 Coalition took 71 out of 128 seats. Hezbollah, surprising to some, quickly acknowledged the election results and thus the defeat of the March 8 Coalition, which includes Hezbollah and a Maronite faction FPM led by Michel Aoun among others. The victory came thanks to Lebanon's obscure electoral system (which reserves seats for all its religious factions and relies on outdated census data to ensure representation for all) which, though the opposition received 54% of the vote, gave key seats to the March 14th majority.

SI Analysis: Though the Western press likes to claim a moral and ideological victory over the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, all is not said and done in Lebanon. Hariri will have to form a government, which will require forming alliances with rival factions and making certain concessions to the opposition. Hezbollah and the FPM will certainly demand veto power, something it secured following its violent uprising in May last year. Since Hezbollah actually made gains in the election, Hariri and President Suleiman will be wary to use a heavy hand with regards to Hezbollah's independent militia and will walk a fine line so as to avoid a restart of violent conflict. Many hope that Michel Aoun will ride off into the sunset. However, this is unlikely and he may cause a stink trying to secure an important role in the new government. There is a chance that Lebanon could indeed emerge out of the political stalemate that has paralyzed it for the past four years (which would allow if to focus on rebuilding its very fragile economy, improving state stability, bolstering security and building up the army... and when the time is ripe, disarming Hezbollah and possibly integrating some of the militia into the security apparatus), but it will take smooth and very savvy maneuvering to do so.

Urban War in Pakistan... New Strategies for Afghanistan

Facts: Another deadly bombing in Peshawar is the latest Taliban response to the Pakistani Army's effort to definitively regain power from the violent Islamist insurgency in the northwest. The Army offensive continues from Swat and Waziristan into Bannu and FATA. Displaced refugees pass the 3 million mark and aid agencies say they are short funds and supplies, while expressing fears that the number of displaced people could rise to 4 million. Meanwhile, violent political infighting in the sourthern city of Karachi prompts PM Yusuf Raza Gilani to call an emergency meeting there to stave off further violence. The new US commander in Afghanistan General Stanley McChrystal will travel to Afghanistan, after just receiving confirmation from the US Congress on Wednesday, to formulate a new strategy for Afghanistan. He is said to plan to focus on counter-insurgency and anti-narcotic activities. And though many are optimistic of the current turn in the region (though US CENTCOM Commander David Petreaus says violence in Afghanistan has not been this bad since 2001), McChrystal was quick to warn that it will take 18-24 months to see sustainable and real change in the region.

SI Analysis: Public support is essential to the Pakistani Army's campaign because the Taliban's main tool for retaliation is presently urban terror attacks, which exact a large toll on civilians. The Pakistani people must accept the risk of being directly attacked in exchange for (hopefully lasting) security; also tribal leaders and regional heads, who have historically cooperated or collaborated with the Taliban, are turning on the Taliban and in some cases even taking up their own arms against them. The lasting success of the Pakistani Army's campaign bears heavily on the future success of US/NATO efforts in Afghanistan, now to be led by McChrystal. An expert in counter-insurgency, McChrystal has been given great freedom to map out a new plan. One hopes that McChrystal will consider the growing number of Pakistani refugees in his calculation (who are a perfect breeding pool for extremism if they are not well cared for) as well as helping the Afghan state create a reliable and viable alternative for security, education and justice from the Taliban.

Responding to North Korea

Facts: North Korea sentenced two American journalists to 12 year prison sentences for "hostile acts". Meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a new resolution to increase sanctions against North Korea in response to its most recent nuclear test and rocket launches. Moreover the US said that it intended to re-list Pyongyang as a state sponsor of terror and planned to beef up patrols off the coast of North Korea under the aegis of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) to intercept suspicious cargo ships. North Korea's bellicose rhetoric reached new heights this week when it threatened, "a merciless offensive" if it was further provoked.

SI Analysis: Analysts are quick to state that there is little means to effectively punish North Korea; it is already isolated, its people are already starving and it enjoys very little maneuverability of its finances or trade. These latest sanctions try to put pressure on what little international interoperability Pyongyang still has. A military response is highly improbable in light of North Korea's credible threat to attack South Korea. Furthermore, it is unclear what is actually transpiring in North Korea itself. Some argue an internal struggle for succession is taking place and that the international posturing is being used mainly for domestic political positioning; others suggest North Korea is trying to put itself in a better bargaining position with a new US administration. In any case, presently there appears to be little grounds to negotiate with Pyongyang. Further tightening sanctions against North Korea may lead Pyongyang back to the negotiation table as it will be ever more desperate for international engagement, but desperation could also provoke very volatile results. Many are worried that either a paranoid leadership or a coup-minded army chief could be pushed, under growing pressure, to respond with force, particularly against South Korea.

Iranian Elections

Facts: Iranian Presidential elections take place today, June 12. In the running are incumbent and hardliner President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his main opponent, reformist and former Prime Minister, Mir Hossein Mousavi (who has the ardent support of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani). Former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi and former military commander Mohsen Rezaei are also candidates. Pundits all over the world have speculated on who the victor will be and predictions run the whole gambit of possible results: some suggest that young and reform-minded voters will turn the tide towards the vaguely pro-Western Mousavi; others speculate that Ahmadinejad, with support from Ayatollah Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard, will rig the elections in his favor and then stamp out any show of discontent from the opposition.

SI Analysis: Iranian elections are not so much a referendum on Ahmadinejad's stark opposition to the West coupled with his unbridled nuclear ambition and unapologetic antisemitism. They are more about the Iranian economy. Western media pundits can spin it as they like but most Iranians are pleased with their rising influence in the region and support the moral claims of rights to nuclear technology and a Middle East free of American influence. This is not to say that Obama's speech last week and the Iranian people's desire for greater (economic and cultural) openness will play no role in the electoral outcome. But whatever the result, the Ayatollah remains firmly in control and though he hopes Ahmadinejad will win, he will make do with Mousavi as well (as he did with both Rafsanjani and Khatami). However, a victory for Mousavi could perhaps lay the grounds for Iran to engage with the US and the West on its nuclear dossier without losing face. If the economy continues to falter however, whatever the election results, both President and Supreme Leader will have to contend with an ever-more dissatisfied populace.


Mitchell in Middle East

SI Analysis: On the heels of President Obama, US Middle East Envoy George Mitchell visited Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. While in Israel, he pressed PM Netanyahu to accept a two-state solution and to curb settlement activity. Netanyahu is set to give a speech outlining his position on the peace process this weekend, where he is expected to say yes to a peace process but rebuff a settlement freeze. This is about the best possible response the US can expect at this point as this is all Netanyahu is in a position to give (his coalition is very fragile and relies on the far-right). The question is whether the US is posturing to bring Arab and Palestinian actors into the process or whether it will immediately respond to Israel, thus affecting US-Israeli relations. Mitchell also met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Leaders of Hamas and Fatah pronounced themselves in favor of American initiatives. This is a happy and easy position for the Palestinians and the Arab world in general as they know that Israel is not in a position to accept their offers of compromise presently.

New Hope for Russian crackdown on Iran

SI Analysis: US Defense Secretary Robert Gates tells a Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee that Russia has come around to share the same feelings as the US about the urgency of the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program. Putin has reportedly acknowledged that Iranian nuclear weapons capacity could hit Europe and much of Russia by 2020. So, in Gates' book, Moscow is coming closer to Washington over the issue of nuclear threats than it has before. The real questions are: Will this purported change in position help in the renegotiation of the START 1 Treaty (which is set to expire at the end of this year)? Will it help to forge nuclear defense/proliferation partnerships across the board, changing Russian and US positions on the eastern European defense shield in Czech Republic and Poland? How will this affect other disarmament and anti-proliferation efforts in North Korea and elsewhere?

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