Weekly Foreign Affairs Roundup

04/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Week's Top Stories in Foreign Affairs:

Quagmire of the year: Hamas-Israel

There is an endless amount of news this week dealing with Israelis and Palestinians. The main points:

  • Gilad Shalit. Hamas and Israel failed to reach a deal on a prisoner swap that would have exchanged 250 Gazan prisoners for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Both sides blame the other for the failure and both sides have hardened their stance and increased their demands.
  • War crimes? Richard Falk, UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories announced Thursday that Israel's military assault on Gaza in December/January amounted to a "grave war crime". Meanwhile, Israeli Gaza war veterans' broke from military authority and related their stories of soldiers' killings of civilians, adding credence to the war crimes argument. Also on Thursday, the Palestinian Authority accused Israel of "ethnic cleansing" in Gaza.
  • New government. Prime Minister designate Binyamin Netanyahu is set to take control of the Israeli government. His nationalistic coalition is seen as less likely to pursue any Middle East peace deals than previous governments. However, Netanyahu is still trying to form a coalition with more left-leaning politicians like Ehud Barak. Some international commentators suggest that Israel will suffer from increased international isolation with its new government.
  • Palestinian reconciliation. Hopes for a interim unity Palestinian government were dashed after negotiations in Cairo between Hamas and Fatah broke down. Sticking points were: the recognition of Israel and the respect of past accords with Israel, the rebuilding of Palestinian security forces, and a new election law.

    SI Analysis: The breakdown in Palestinian unity talks will negatively affect the upcoming Arab summit in Qatar, stymie the possibility of the end of the Gaza blockade, hinder reconstruction efforts in Gaza and, of course, prevent any effective peace negotiation efforts with Israel.

France Rejoins the NATO Fold (and surrenders its exceptional status)

Facts: France's parliament follows President Nicolas Sarkozy's initiative and gives the green light for France to rejoin the military wing of NATO. Charles de Gaulle withdrew French participation in the military arm of NATO in 1966 while maintaining full participation in its political arm, citing what he thought was American domination of the international security organization. President Sarkozy first suggested a full return to NATO in 2007, seeking to forge a stronger united Western security apparatus.

SI Analysis: This is a political victory for Sarkozy who has met staunch opposition within France, where opponents take great exception to what they see as a profound change in French foreign policy. This action takes steps towards forming what Sarkozy and some others hope is a more solid and united Western security apparatus, none other than a European Army. Proponents say that this is part of a greater effort for France to engage with the world and to "stop excluding itself." Critics argue that France may lose its maverick position of independence in the international arena that has afforded it an exceptional position of being to negotiate with traditional "Western foes" and often assume moral leadership on hot-bed issues. Others say the French decision prompts debate as to what the purpose of NATO is. (e.g. Is it a global force? A Western one? Should it be a coalition of the willing? Or a League of Democracies?)

Pakistani Confusion Continues

Facts: Under great political pressure (domestically led by opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, internationally led by the US), Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari and PM Yusuf Raza Gilani begrudgingly reinstate controversial Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudry. Chaudry had been deposed by former president Pervez Musharraf. By reinstating Choudry the Pakistani government averts a likely crisis and more massive protests (for now).
Meanwhile, reports emerge that the Obama Administration is contemplating expanding its controversial air raids in Pakistan into the province of Baluchistan. The raids would seek out more insurgents in an area outside of the traditional stronghold for the Taliban and al-Qaeda: the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Waziristan and North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). Pakistan denies sanctioning any such action.

SI Analysis: Expanding raids into Baluchistan will intensify the 'War on Terror' to a region rife with Taliban and Islamist insurgents and previously left to its own devices. It is also a more densely populated area in places (Quetta is the capital of Baluchistan). The risk is that insurgents under pressure will be tempted to bring the war into city centers, prompting the onset of urban warfare. Moreover, the raids are already highly unpopular in Pakistan and could generate enough 'bad will capital' to topple the present leadership, provoke massive anti-Western protest, generate support for Islamists, and serve as an effective recruitment tool for militants.

Speculations of the Week:

Russian Military Build-up and the Czech Parliament

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev says he will spend $140 billion over the next three years on an ambitious rearmament plan. Russia also reconfirms that it will sell the advanced S-300 air-defense system to Iran. Meanwhile, the Czech Parliament withdraws treaties on hosting a US missile defense radar for fear that it will not pass in parliament.

SI Speculation: Russia's ambition to reassert itself as a world player is taking hold and provoking a range of consequences. These include:

  • speculation that a right-wing and more Hawkish Israel will precipitate an attack against Iran before Tehran receives the air-defense system;
  • speculation that Eastern European countries are reconsidering their Western alliances and their willingness to defy Moscow
...and this is despite analysts' convictions that dwindling energy prices have significantly diminished Russian ability to deliver on promises and threats.

Silver Lining: Iran-US quiet backchannel?

The US and Iran have a number of chances in the near future to speak. First, on March 27, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) will meet in Moscow. Iran is a permanent observer, and has tried to become part of the regional alliance. The US has announced that it is sending Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Patrick Moon to the event. On March 31, both US and Iranian representatives will attend an international summit on Afghanistan in the Hague. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announces she has no specific plans to meet with Iranian delegates, but does not rule out the possibility. In a show of unexpected good will to the US, and in a possible jibe against Turkey, Syrian President Bashir Assad announced that he would be willing to serve as an intermediary for talks between Washington and Tehran. All of this good news for Iran-US reconciliation could be moot as Iranian elections approach. This week, opposition leader and former President Mohammad Khatami withdrew from the race and put his support behind his ally Mir-Hossein Moussavi, seeking to unite the opposition against President Ahmadinejad.

Hodge-Podge or Under the Radar:

Spotlight of the Week: Madagascar's unexpected moment of controversy

After weeks of political crisis, Madagascar appeared to come to a resolution as President Marc Ravalomanana abdicated and handed power to the military and opposition leader Andry Rajoelina. The youthful Rajoelina was installed as president on Wednesday and dissolved Parliament on Thursday. Isolated, Madagascar is one of the world's poorest nations and in theory the regime change would have little effect on international politics. However, southern African nations have reacted strongly to the political crisis. The South African Development Community (SADC) has called for Madagascar's suspension from both the SADC and the African Union, calling Rajoelina's ascension undemocratic and unlawful according to the Madagascar constitution. France, the US and the UN have also expressed their disapproval. Besides worrying about the ethics of Rajoelina's installment, Madagascar's neighbors and the international community are also worried that the incident paves the way for more military takeovers in Africa, especially following other recent coups in Guinea, Mauritania and Guinea Bissau.

Polemica della Corea del Nord

North Korea has continued to work towards its planned launch of an alleged "satellite" for its nonexistent space program for early April. While sustaining a good deal of criticism from the US and Japan, and while closing its border with South Korea, Pyongyang has made an effort to increase its friendship with China. On Wednesday and Thursday, North Korean Prime Minister Kim Yong-Il (not to be confused with Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il) visited Beijing. China has proved critical to negotiations with Pyongyang and encouraged North Korea to return to 6-Party talks. On Thursday, 2 American journalists - Laura Ling and Euna Lee from Current TV - were detained by North Korean authorities for apparent border violations. Does Kim Jong-Il know about this? Perhaps he'll put the Americans to work in his new restaurant: Pyongyang's first-ever Italian eatery.

Resurgence of the Week: Al-Qaeda

This week, al-Qaeda made a few bold strides after months of what has seemed to be a decline, especially with Iraqi stability on the rise. First, al-Qaeda continues to assert itself in Yemen. On Monday, a bomb killed 4 South Korean tourists visiting the southeast Yemeni city of Shibam. The Yemeni government quickly blamed al-Qaeda for the attack. Then, on Wednesday, a suicide bomber attempted but failed to kill 6 more South Koreans in Sana'a on their way to grieve for the 4 killed in Shibam. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda's spiritual leader Osama bin Laden has increased his pronouncements of late. He released an audiotape on Thursday focused entirely on Somalia, praising for the hard line al-Shabaab Islamist militants while calling for the deposition of the government of moderate Islamist President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed. On March 14, Bin Laden had another audio recording released by al-Jazeera, criticizing Arab governments for their collusion with western powers. In addition, Gen. William Ward, the head of US Africa Command remarked this week that al-Qaeda has dramatically increased its activities in Africa during the past 3 years.

Under the Radar: World Water Forum

This week Turkey hosted the Fifth World Water Forum in Istanbul. The message from the summit: climate change will continue to make a large impact on potable water supplies. By 2030, up to half of the world's population will be living in "water-stressed" areas. In particular, Europe is seen as "living beyond its means" when it comes to water. Expect water to play an increased role in foreign policy and potential international conflicts.

Humanitarian Crime of the Week: the Pope in Africa

Pope Benedict XVI went to Africa this week, stopping in Cameroon to encourage Catholicism's spread there and on the rest of the continent. The Pope began his trip on a controversial note, encouraging the faithful not to use condoms, alleging that condom use has actually helped to spread the AIDS pandemic. The Pope's statements naturally received criticism from a variety of international voices, including the governments of France and Germany and a variety of humanitarian organizations. Catholic Spain announced it would continue to send condoms to Africa, despite the Pope's ridiculous announcement.

Voices from the Grave:

Former US VP Dick Cheney gave an interview with CNN during which he accused the Obama administration of taking actions that make America significantly less safe while increasing the risk of a terror attack against the US. The Obama Administration scoffs. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave an interview with Charlie Rose, during which she defended her position of setting pre-conditions for discussions with Iran. Critics of the Bush Administration say that both appearances are an attempt at a revisionist and defensive campaign launched by former Cabinet members desperate for a better legacy.

Silence from the Grave:

Former US President George Bush, on the other hand, refuses to comment of the current actions of the Obama Administration, saying that the current president "deserves my silence." Canadians were deaf to Mr. Bush's newly found humility and, on the occasion of his first public appearance since leaving office, greeted him with shoe-hurling protests in Alberta, Canada.

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