Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Haass Talks in Northern Ireland Begin

This week former George W. Bush administration special envoy to Northern Ireland Richard Haass began what is slated to be twelve weeks of intermittent consultations with the five parties in Northern Ireland's Executive. The talks will be conducted in rounds with Haass flying in to Belfast from New York several times a month to conduct them. The talks will focus on three key stumbling blocks to progress in the peace process: parades, flags and emblems, and dealing with the past. 

As part of the Northern Ireland peace process in the late 1990s a quango (quasi non-governmental organization--a body financed by the government but with independence like an NGO) known as the Parades Commission was created to deal with the problem of parades regulation during the marching season. Every year it receives requests for parade permits stating the date, time, route, and details of a proposed parade. Local residents along the parade route are free to submit objections and the Parades Commission then makes a ruling. Only a few parades in Northern Ireland--those involving Protestants marching through Catholic areas--are controversial. At present these are mainly in North Belfast, which is an area of alternating nationalist and unionist neighborhoods criss-crossed with peace walls in order to protect the residents from missiles from the other side. The Orange Order has refused to hold dialogues with residents' groups contending that its members have an absolute right to march on the "Queen's highway." Since the mid-1990s when the controversies were at their height over the Drumcree Church march outside of Portadown in north Co. Armagh, in the Lower Ormeau area of South Belfast, and in Derry in Co. Londonderry, the number of controversial parades has been gradually reduced.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Syrian Deal?

Neo-Conservative, Conservative, and liberal interventionist commentators have been greeting the negotiations with Russia with Cold War attitudes. They act as if Obama traded in a sure chance to topple the Assad regime or to effectively deter any use of chemical weapons for a questionable joint effort with a former-KGB officer. Yes, Putin is a very shady character. But Putin does have some incentive to actually deliver. If he managed to disarm Assad of most of his chemical weapons he would gain status for himself internationally. He would gain Obama's gratitude as well as that of Assad and Iran. This is not the first time the United States has cooperated in the Mideast with the Russians. In the Soviet era the two superpowers co-hosted two peace conferences on the Arab-Israeli conflict, one in December 1973 and one in October 1991. The first was used by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to set up his shuttle diplomacy in the region the following year that moved Egypt from the Soviet camp to the American camp. But the Soviets were so eager for recognition of their status as a superpower from Washington that they did not notice what was happening. The second was taking place as the Soviet Union was unraveling and the Soviet diplomats looked like they had other things on their mind.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Which weapons are illegal?

As I have noted in previous posts, I think that intervening in the Syrian civil war is a bad idea. This is for several reasons but chiefly because no American interest is at stake. No vital economic resource is at stake; no ally is being threatened; there is not even genocide being committed in Syria. As a result of this the Obama administration is reduced to arguing for retaliation to defend the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1925, which Syria is not even a party to. This would be like attacking India or Pakistan or, God forbid!, Israel for violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968 that they are not signatories to.

Let's look at chemical weapons and why they were banned. They were first used in World War I by the Germans in April 1915 on a large scale, although the French might have used chemical grenades before then in the war. The Allies quickly developed their own chemical weapons--blister agents designed to burn the skin and tissues upon contact. Both sides experimented with various blister agents (mustard gas, chlorine, phosgene) and improved the effectiveness of the weapons. But simple gases masks rendered the blister agents much less deadly than conventional artillery. By 1918 chemical shells were almost half of the shells fired at the start of both the German spring offensive in March-April and the Allied offensive in July-August. But despite this chemical weapons accounted for only two percent of total casualties in the war and one percent of total deaths. Conventional artillery accounted for over three-quarters of all battlefield deaths with machine-guns accounted for the majority of the remainder. Britain suffered less than 6,000 combat deaths due to chemical weapons.  This was compared to over 180,000 total British casualties due to chemical weapons. Chemical weapons were mainly a psychological weapon meant to induce fear and a means of denying space to the enemy because of their persistence. It was like sowing a minefield by artillery and particularly useful in taking out the enemy's artillery at the start of an offensive. But because of shifting winds the use of chemical weapons could easily backfire on the army employing them.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Why Obama Went to Congress

Republicans and other critics of the president have alleged that Obama went to Congress with the decision on whether or not to punish Syria for the use of chemical weapons because his hand was weak and he sensed eminent defeat. I contend that it is not as simple as that. When it comes to foreign policy Obama is a multilateralist--he does not hold with unilateralism, particularly in the use of military force, and he is not a believer in American exceptionalism. As both Russia and China were likely to veto an authorization for the use of force in the UN Security Council, Obama was left with two possible venues for multilateral action: NATO and the Arab League. NATO provided the authorization and the force for the campaign against Serbia over Kosovo in 1999. But Kosovo is in Europe not the Middle East. NATO's Atlantic Treaty covers Europe and the North Atlantic region between North America and Europe--it does not cover the Middle East. 

This left the Arab League, the organization that provided the authorization for Western force against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011. Then it was individual NATO countries, primarily France, Britain and the United States, that provided the outside force in the form of air cover for the opposition rebels. But the Arabs are divided about Syria and wary of providing a precedent for Western intervention in Arab internal affairs. Libya was an exception, because Gaddafi had made so many enemies in the Arab world over the decades. And even if the Arab League were to vote to authorize force against the Assad regime, the vote in the British parliament not to authorize such force would have left the United States alone with France to provide it. While physically the United States Navy is capable of firing enough cruise missiles on its own that it does not need assistance from France or even the U.S. Air Force, more political backing from Western allies would be useful.

So Obama has decided to hold a debate on the issue in Congress. This will give him a chance to make his case not just to the Congress but also to his allies. He can wait until the UN inspectors have issued their report and present his evidence to Congress. If, and this is a big if at present, he wins authorization from Congress, he will be in a better position to request it from his European allies and possibly David Cameron could even request a second vote in the House of Commons. If not, Obama can then deflect the blame to Congress.