07/06/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Weekly Foreign Affairs Roundup

The Week's Top Stories in Foreign Affairs :

Obama and the Muslim World

: US President Barack Obama completed his much-anticipated trip to the Middle East, stopping in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In Saudi Arabia, Obama traveled to Riyadh where he discussed with King Abdullah a host of regional issues ranging from oil to Iran to the Middle East peace process. The visit was viewed as a chance to reaffirm the close friendship between Saudi Arabia and the US and to gain support from other Gulf Arab nations for American policy. Next, he visited Cairo where he gave his much anticipated "speech to the Muslim world" wherein he emphasized honest relationships between the US and Muslim nations, tolerance, acceptance, and a "new beginning" to close the chapter of 9/11. Obama also struck an easier tone on Iran (encouraging reconciliation) and a stricter tone on Israel (regarding settlements) and on Hamas (regarding its terrorism and rejection of Israel). The speech largely received reviews ranging from excellent to mediocre. Now that positive ground has been laid in speech, many call for clear and determined action to follow. Obama then traveled to Germany where he met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to repair German-US relations. Obama also visited Buchenwald concentration camp, largely seen as a political gesture of support to Israel and a show of realism to Iran.

SI Analysis: The much anticipated speech showed a major change in form though US policy in the region will remain essentially the same: both realist and fraught with heavy obligations from Somalia to Iraq and from Afghanistan to Pakistan. This change in form, however, is not to be disregarded as an absence of substance and mere lip service to Muslims. On the contrary, the speech set a new tone of engagement and respect of the Muslim world from Washington recognizing that the war of ideas and ideals is equally if not more important than waging war on the battlefield. In his effort to recapture the hearts and minds of the "Arab and Muslim street", President Obama is seeking to disarm the greatest recruitment and empowering tool of Islamofascists (notably, he made no reference to the words terror or terrorism). By recognizing past American errors yet making the case for American concern about security, freedom and self-determination for all (and playing down American hubris and imperialist claims of democratization), Obama made an appeal to the common universal values that Muslims all over the world share with Americans of every ilk. Underscoring commonalities and common interests was also the strategy in appealing to Iran; and by recognizing the right to civilian nuclear power for all and stating the goal of universal nuclear weapons disarmament, Obama made a concerted effort to take the wind out of the sails of the Non-Aligned Movement's anti-American, self-interested campaign. The most notable and real change was with regards to Israel: by openly calling the Israeli presence in the Palestinian territories an "occupation," calling for a two-state solution and putting the issue of settlements on the same level and Hamas' refusal to recognize Israel, Obama indicated that American involvement in Middle East will be more balanced and critical of both sides than any previous administration.
All these points are key and savvy. The Obama administration however must be concerned with engaging the Israeli public just as much as it is concerned with winning the Muslim street; otherwise, it risks empowering the most extreme and belligerent political elements in Israel. Also, this must be the first of a continuous and real communication campaign throughout the region that pairs American goodwill with actions that promote American interests. It cannot be one-off speech. If concerted effort and real change on the ground is not felt (especially with regards to Palestinian-Israeli peace), then this speech will go down as the greatest act of American hubris and obtuse rhetoric. It is our belief that real new grounds have been laid by Obama for positive action; and that the ball is actually in Israel's court to defy the Arab world's expectations that it will not engage in peace negotiations.

North Korea's Power Transfer

Facts: North Korea ramped up its rhetoric and threats this week. Pyongyang's continued development and obscurity of its nuclear program following an atomic test, its planned test launch of yet another long range missile, its increasingly bellicose rhetoric toward its neighbors and the West, and the continued detention of American reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee are all factors that have brought North Korea a great deal of attention in the media. Over the weekend, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates set a firmer American stance toward Pyongyang: he stated that the US will not allow a nuclear-armed North Korea. Meanwhile, rumors of power transition in Pyongyang spread with many reports stating that Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il's third son Kim Jong-un will take up the mantle of leadership in the isolated nation.

SI Analysis: There are four likely reasons for North Korea's warlike gestures during this time of power transition:
1.) Increased military posturing insures that leadership stays in Kim Jong-Il's court. By dictating that the military take aggressive and risky positions, Kim Jong-Il reaffirms his absolute control thus disarming those who wish to leverage any existing internal tension for their own means. This is important as many analysts have suggested that the military is the real power holder in Pyongyang and that it could overthrow the Kim dynasty if it chose to do so.
2.) If power is transferred to a new divinely-mandated ruler, then a divine event is needed that canonizes the shift from Il to Un. The launch of missiles and the testing of nuclear weapons could incite euphoria in the beleaguered population of North Korea. And such euphoria generated on mass scale that gives stability to the state will allow for a smoother regime change.
3.) Continued military bellicosity serves as a message to the outside world that North Korean leadership maintains firm control of the country amid rumors that its population is disgruntled and starving. Furthermore, it emphasizes that any opportunity for conciliatory action is nil.
4.) Lastly, the flurries of short range missile launches that followed the recent nuclear test (in addition to camouflaging the strength of the nuclear blast) are a stark reminder to South Korea that with or without a nuclear weapon the North can destroy the South.

Pakistan and McChrystal's AfPak Strategy

Facts: Pakistan continues its military campaign against the Taliban in Swat and South Waziristan. Pakistani military officials reported that 5% to 10% of Swat remains under Taliban control and though Pakistan warned its campaign could last for months, many expect the momentum of the campaign to greatly slow in the coming weeks. The Taliban continued its campaign of bombings in city centers around Pakistan in retaliation for the offensive, most recently in Upper Dir, thus laying the grounds for a new type of urban jihad. Attention now turns to the 2.4 million refugees displaced by the fighting and how to avert a new sort of disaster. US Envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke asked the US Congress for $200 million in additional emergency humanitarian aid, before traveling to the region to NWFP to discuss the crisis. Meanwhile, the US Senate confirmed the nomination of General Stanley McChrystal as top US commander in Afghanistan. During the confirmation hearings, McChrystal discussed US strategy in the region, underlining the importance of counter-insurgency action, military accountability and mitigating civilian casualties.

SI Analysis: The Pakistani military is enjoying the favor of the public in its recent campaign against the Taliban. Politicians and strategists should recognize the rare opportunity to wrest political power from the Taliban and bolster military action with a follow-up of political reform and effective administration of humanitarian aid and reconstruction efforts. This is far easier said than done. The good news for the US is that Pakistan seems committed to a long-haul effort to undermine the Taliban and that the Pakistani public for the time being is weathering steadfastly the increased risk of terror attacks. McChrystal seems to have heeded the same lesson for Afghanistan: that much more can be accomplished when you have the will of the people and they believe your actions are aligned in promoting their interests. Much more needs to be done in politically disarming the Taliban and presenting both the Pakistani and the Afghan people with a viable political alternative.

Remembering Tiananmen

Facts: Today marks the 20th Anniversary of the violent crackdown of student democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Ahead of the anniversary, China outlawed any mention of the event and ramped up its censorship efforts with sophisticated technology savvy. It even blocked Twitter. While Western press have explored the legacy of the events, governments remain largely silent. Significant vigils and protests in Hong Kong are perhaps the only substantive show of discontent and commemoration.

SI Analysis: The silence of both Beijing and other world governments clearly shows how much control China presently holds over its domestic agenda. China learned its lessons from Tiananmen and has sought to curb dissidence from its source before it could ever gain similar momentum. Small crackdowns of the same ilk are seen every day throughout China according to human rights and democracy advocates. Moreover the recent dependency on China in light of the global financial crisis has discouraged foreign governments from making even symbolic reference to the tragic events.


Lebanese Elections

SI Analysis: The hype and "mudslinging" continues to ramp up as Lebanon's parliamentary election takes place on Sunday, June 7. Many analysts continue to view these elections as a "barometer" for sentiment and public opinion in the Middle East in general. Hezbollah and its coalition led by Christian leader Michel Aoun are prominent players, threatening to throw off the fragile balance of power while foreshadowing the potential to win over the Western-backed ruling bloc. Some suggest that the US will suspend military aid to Lebanon if Hezbollah wins a majority. This suspension could in turn throw of the balance of power in the region, by empowering Syria and imperiling US interests. However, such a situation is highly unlikely, as Washington views the maintenance of the balance of power with consistent funding to the March 15 coalition as paramount to regional stability. Attention is also drawn to the rise of marketing in campaign advertising and promotion.

Palestinian Infighting

SI Analysis: Tensions increased this week in the West Bank between supporters of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority and Hamas. One battle on Thursday in Qalqilya left 1 PLA security force member and 2 Hamas militants dead. This followed a larger scuffle over the weekend that left 2 Hamas gunmen, 3 PLA policemen and a civilian dead. This all comes as the World Bank released a negative report explaining that massive amounts of aid to Palestinians will only slow economic decline instead of helping growth. The stalling of reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah will only augment the impasse in Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, as any peace agreement will require Palestinian unity to bear any weight.

Mali Execution

SI Analysis: This week, UK authorities announced that they believed British Citizen Edwin Dyer to be murdered. Dyer was kidnapped in Mali by Tuareg nomads and then allegedly killed by Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Evidently his death is related to the continued detention of Abu Qatada, a Jordanian cleric and Osama bin Laden's deputy in Europe, who has been held in a British jail since 2005. Another reason given for the killing relates to a $14 million ransom demanded by AQIM. Malian officials announce that Algerian national Abdelhamid Abou Zeid is suspected in the killing. The event could be interpreted as a localized anomaly. However, it does point to the continued activity of radical Islamists in North Africa, and its possible spread south into Sub-Saharan Africa. With a large number of disenfranchised and poverty-stricken citizens in every African country, extremists could make great strides there.

Misguided Moldova

SI Analysis: Electoral instability continues in Moldova two months after violent protesters took over the capitol building to reject continued rule by the Communist Party. The deadlock this week in the parliament occurred when President Vladimir Voronin failed to secure the election of his ally, Zinaida Greceanii, as his successor. The stalemate proved to be a blow to Voronin's authority and further highlights the common roots of political instability in former Soviet states such as Ukraine and Georgia with the pull from the West and potential EU/NATO partnerships and the possible allure of returning to the Russian sphere of influence.

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