Chinese-Built Headquarters Towers Over African Union Summit

Posted June 3rd, 2013 at 5:28 pm (UTC+0)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addresses a meeting with students in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia May 26, during the 50th anniversary ceremonies for the African Union. Photo: AP

Chinese-Built Headquarters Towers Over African Union Summit

Kerry: U.S. Behind on Africa Investment, “We Need to Change That”


In the USA vs. China contest for influence in Africa, China was the clear winner at celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Organization of African Unity.


Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang spoke to heads of state at the African Union’s bright new (Chinese-built) $200-million headquarters: “not only a new landmark in Addis Ababa but also the latest landmark in the long friendship between China and Africa,” declared China’s state-run Xinhua news agency.


Beneath the 20-story tower now topping the skyline of the Ethiopian capital, Wang entered the paneled conference hall to hearty applause, praising the alliance for political self-determination and for pushing forward Africa’s fight against imperialism, racism, and colonialism.


Kerry bumped from telecast


Hours later, across town in a rain-soaked, near-empty warehouse of a Millennium Hall, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech was cut from the televised official program. With other speakers’ remarks running long, Kerry was bumped after Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff made headlines by writing off $900-million in African debt.


Given a few minutes off-camera during a late dinner at the Sheraton, Kerry spoke of working together on peace, security, trade, democracy, good governance, and human rights.


“The proverb tells us, ‘If you want to go quickly, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together,'” Kerry said. “In the coming days, Africa and the Americas will go farther than anyone could have imagined five decades ago. And I will tell you this: We are determined to do it together.”


But for Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, going farther clearly means going with China.


“It is encouraging to note that some of our friends and partners have given priority to infrastructure development in Africa in terms of their strategy partnership with our continent,” he told the AU summit. “In this regard I wish to take this opportunity to express my deepest appreciation to China for investing billions to assist us in our development endeavors.”


China’s six-fold increase in trade


Where Kerry talked about hopes for an AIDS-free generation, Vice Premier Wang talked about the past decade’s six-fold increase in China-Africa trade to more than $120 billion — a difference not lost on the secretary of state.


China has been cultivating its relations with Africa. Here Chinese leaader Xi Jingping greets African Union chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in Beijing last February 13. Photo: AP

“China and Brazil have frankly been investing more in Africa than we have. That has to change,” Kerry told students at Addis Ababa University. “But I’m concerned, though, that some of the involvement of some countries here is not as transparent as the United States is, and some of it can, in fact, undermine democracy depending on how it is done.”


Asked if he was talking about China, Kerry said: “I’m talking about some countries. And I think we need to be involved. We need to be thoughtful about how – what kind of standards are we living up to, because you don’t want to lose your sovereignty or lose opportunities depending on how that happens.”


Chinese officials at the AU summit responded by comparing commitment — contrasting President Xi Jinping’s visits to Tanzania, Congo, and South Africa during his first month in power with President Barack Obama’s 2009 day in Ghana and his approaching first extensive trip to Tanzania, South Africa, and Senegal in this, his fifth year in office.


Jennifer Cooke, Africa director for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says those presidential stops are an opportunity to re-engage in Africa at a higher level than the Obama administration’s first term.


“It didn’t have the resources that the Bush administration did for big splashy initiatives like PEPFAR (Aids relief program) and the Millennium Challenge Account,” Cooke says. “It has tried to do things on food security, on expanding and integrating global health.”


A more active, private-sector approach to trade and investment “speaks to a much more aspirational, positive engagement with Africa rather than getting mired into the kind of intractable, difficult, complex conflicts like DRC and Sudan and the Sahel.”


“Those kinds of commercial investment relationships really are much more partnerships of equals for the United States not to be looking at Africa as conflict, disease, and hunger but also as a place where partnerships are possible,” Cooke says.


“There’s an opportunity to say, ‘Look, we’re back and we are prepared to engage at a different level, in different ways than we did in the past, but in a much more positive way.'”


Joseph Kony and LRA in Sudan

Posted May 16th, 2013 at 5:37 pm (UTC+0)

Troops from the Central African Republic stand guard near a building where they confer with U.S. Army special forces on how to capture warlord Joseph Kony. Photo: Reuters

Joseph Kony and his outlaw Lord’s Resistance Army now have a chance to regroup, thanks to the collapse of government in the Central African Republic and new sanctuary in Sudan.


Kony is on the run from the International Criminal Court, which wants to arrest him on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, sexual slavery, and recruiting children fighters under the age of 15.


Ugandan troops with U.S. military advisers were hunting Kony and the LRA in the Central African Republic (CAR). But those operations were suspended after Seleka rebels took over the capital, Bangui.


“When the pressure is off, then the LRA goes on its business again and reorganizes,” said Sasha Lezhnev, a senior policy analyst with the Enough Project, a Washington-based advocacy group that works to stop genocide and crimes against humanity.


“Every day that this situation continues — that the Ugandans and the U.S. advisers are just sitting in their seats watching the game unfold — is creating danger for the LRA to set up new abductions, to set-up new safe havens, as they have done many, many times,” Lezhnev said.


A senior U.S. State Department official says it’s essential to find some way to get the Central African Republic back in the business of hunting down Kony and the LRA.


“CAR remains the center of gravity for this effort, where we are seeing the most significant LRA presence and LRA transit,” said the State Department official. “So if operations are not able to resume soon, then there is going to be a real problem.”


Jennifer Cooke, Africa program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says the situation is critical.


“With the collapse in CAR, I think the effort, the real sense of urgency and focus on getting Joseph Kony, has collapsed somewhat,” she said. “The Seleka coalition is very fractured. It’s a lot of very ambitious individuals and groups that have very different agendas. Governance and security broadly is probably not one of them.”


U.S. working with Seleka coalition


Eager to keep the pressure on, U.S. officials are working with Seleka leaders, who they say are more familiar with the LRA than the ousted government of Francois Bozize.


“What we’ve heard from the transitional leaders in Bangui has been very positive about wanting to collaborate with the Ugandans and the African Union and the United States,” said a senior U.S. State Department official. “But it’s getting through this period of uncertainty, so that operations are actually able to move forward, that’s key.”


U.S. Army special forces troopers are working with soldiers from the Central African Republic to develop tactics to go after the Lord’s Resistance Army. Photo: AP

Kony’s ability to move more freely for the time being worries Sarah Margon, deputy Washington director of the Human Rights Watch Deputy.  She is especially concerned about Kony’s experience exploiting instability.


“If nobody is particularly focused on the LRA as part of the larger regional issues, that is also another way in which they can regroup,” she says. “They sort of become invisible amongst all the other conflicts and crises, which has enabled them to persist for so long.”


A lot of that is based on Kony’s talent for evading capture.


“The terrain with the forest canopy makes it very difficult to track them, even with infrared technology,” Lezhnev says. “They move in groups of three to five. They’re now down to just a few hundred fighters. But Kony and his top commanders, but particularly Kony, has always been very, very resilient.”


Former altar boy rules absolutely


Kony is a former altar boy who now claims to speak directly with God. He rules his army absolutely.


“He controls who lives and who dies,” Lezhnev says. “I think he firmly believes — and judging by talking to his fighters — they believe at the beginning that he is a spiritual leader. But then when the powers don’t work, when his messages don’t come true, when he’s killing and abducting their brothers and sisters, they stop believing.”


Kony used a Christian cult in northern Uganda to launch the Lord’s Resistance Army against President Yoweri Museveni in the late 1980’s. Ambushes and abductions throughout the 1990s spread to Southern Sudan and Eastern Congo.


He agreed to peace talks in 2006 but didn’t show up when it came time to sign the final agreement two years later.

Joseph Kony, the elusive leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, talks with journalists in Sudan in 2006. Photo: Reuters


“He is not someone who has ever expressed any desire to negotiate or has shown any real capacity or interest in negotiating,” Lezhnev says. “It’s pretty much an all-or-nothing agenda. Or simply a survival agenda.”


Kony survived a coordinated assault by Uganda, Congo, Sudan, and the United States following the collapse of the 2006 peace talks, with LRA forces staging successive Christmas massacres in Congo.


“In Eastern Congo the security forces are really not up to the task,” Cooke says. “Central African Republic, they have never really been up to the task, but even less so now that the government in Bangui has collapsed and they are facing a calamity of their own.”


The Enough Project says satellite images show the LRA is also increasingly active in Sudan, setting up camps there as recently as February.


U.S. officials say Khartoum is likely aware of the LRA’s comings and goings in the Kafia Kingi enclave, but Washington has not yet seen sufficient evidence of “significant support.”


Lezhnev says the safe haven in Sudan is significant, especially now that there is new room to operate in CAR.


“Historically, the LRA has moved around to cross any international border in more-or-less failed-state zones, and that has enabled it, like a cancer, to survive,” Lezhnev says. “It’s very difficult to eliminate them in areas where governments frankly don’t care that much about controlling their territory and protecting civilians.”


Washington, Seoul Seek To Extend Nuclear Partnership

Posted April 26th, 2013 at 9:40 pm (UTC+0)

South Korea’ President Park Geun-hye, pictured here in December of 2012, visits Washington in May to talk about the threat from North Korea and a new civilian nuclear accord with the U.S. Photo: AP

The United States and South Korea are major partners when it comes to the manufacture and sale of civilian nuclear power equipment. But that partnership, and maybe much more, could come under pressure if the two can’t come up with a broader agreement on licensing nuclear technology.

A big part of the problem, not surprisingly, is North Korea and its already advanced nuclear weapons program.

South Korean politicians are wondering how their government can reconcile licensing limits on its nuclear technology sales when its outlaw neighbor to the north seemingly enriches uranium at will and openly tests nuclear weapons?

But the licensing of advanced nuclear technology is tricky business, even among close allies.

So far, Washington and Seoul have been unable to reach a broader nuclear technology licensing agreement. So they are extending their 1974 accord for another two years.

In doing so, they are scrapping what was supposed to have been a high profile event at the White House May 7 in which presidents Park Geun-hye and Barack Obama were to have showcased a next-generation civilian nuclear accord.

Here’s the problem:

South Korea is a leading producer of U.S.-licensed nuclear reactor technology. But it can’t become a full-service provider until it completes the nuclear cycle by enriching uranium at the start, and by reprocessing spent plutonium at the end.

U.S. licensing consent

U.S. consent to enrich and reprocess is what’s holding up the deal — a delay that could be felt by Americans as well as South Koreans.

“Not only is South Korea dependent on U.S. nuclear material for its emerging role in the market as a global supplier, but U.S. reactors are built with indispensable Korean components,” says Victor Cha, chairman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based research group.

Extending the current accord, known as the 123 Agreement, doesn’t solve the problem, but it does buy time.

“For President Park, some opponents will try to characterize the outcome as a defeat to U.S. strong-arm tactics, but the reality is that this is a highly complex negotiation that requires more time than was available in the run-up to the summit,” Cha says.

Reasons to delay

Delaying the negotiations on a new accord “benefits industry by creating some sense of predictability and is politically neutral,” according to Cha.

U.S. officials agree.

“Both sides decided that seeking an extension was appropriate in order to allow sufficient time to negotiate this complex and technical agreement,” says Patrick Ventrell, acting deputy spokesman at the State Department. “It’s a very highly complex and technical type of negotiation, and both parties felt that more time would be useful.”

He says it’s not any one thing holding up the extension but that “all the details are being looked at carefully.”

A constant issue between Washington and Seoul: North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, shown here in a 2008 file photo from North Korean TV. Photo: AP

Jack Spencer, a specialist on energy issues at the Heritage Foundation, says nonproliferation and nuclear advancement are not mutually exclusive and, in this case, could be self-reinforcing.

“A fair agreement will recognize South Korea’s emerging role as an international leader in the global commercial nuclear industry by allowing it access to the technologies it needs — such as proliferation-resistant used-fuel-management technology — while maintaining tighter controls on technologies such as enrichment, which the U.S. correctly understands as carrying a higher proliferation risk,” Spencer says

Failure “could stir nationalist feeling amongst progressives in South Korean society who rebel against any perceived U.S. pressure,” he says. “Contentious negotiations could be used to fuel anti-American emotions and cause unnecessary strains in the U.S.–ROK relationship.”

The North and its nukes

But another issue comes into play – North Korea and its nuclear weapons development.

National Assembly member Chung Mong-joon told a Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference that South Korea is facing an “extraordinary threat to national security” from Pyongyang and may withdraw from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty entirely.

“South Korea would then match North Korea’s nuclear program step-by-step, while committing to stop if North Korea stops,” Chung said. “South Korea should be given this leeway as a law-abiding member of the global community who is threatened by a nuclear rogue state.”

While members of the Park government were quick to reassure U.S. officials that Chung does not speak for his country’s leadership, his comments do show frustrations at the limits of six decades of post-war cooperation with Washington.

“The alliance has failed to stop North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons,” Chung said. “Telling us not to consider any nuclear weapons option is tantamount to telling us to simply surrender.”

Recognizing how closely Iran is watching the international community’s approach to North Korea, U.S. officials are mindful that a broader 123 Agreement with South Korea could further provoke North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

“We’re not asking for one country to be inferior or less capable of defending itself, or not capable of projecting its interests in the world. We’re simply saying the world does not need more nuclear countries and nuclear weapons,” Secretary of State John Kerry told the American Chamber of Commerce in Seoul.

“It is patently clear that if one country unilaterally moves into the nuclear status today,” Kerry continued, “it will force other countries to do the same because of the action/reaction nature of deterrence and threat perception, and the realities of populations driving their countries and putting them into nuclear corners that we don’t want them in.”


Kerry Team Incomplete For First Trip to Asia

Posted April 5th, 2013 at 5:12 pm (UTC+0)

On the road again. John Kerry is making his first visit to East Asia as U.S. secretary of state. China, Japan and especially South Korea are anxious to see him. Photo: AP

Secretary of State John Kerry makes his first trip to Asia facing an increasingly aggressive North Korea and new leadership in South Korea, Japan, and China without the help of an assistant secretary for the region.

“He will have an opportunity in Seoul, in Tokyo, and in Beijing to talk about our shared concern about the direction the DPRK is going in,” says State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

It’s a “very timely visit,” she says, because “the threats we share are common, and the approaches are more likely to be more effective if we can work well together.”

Normally, coordinating that diplomacy falls largely to the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

But Kurt Campbell left that job in February to start a business consulting firm for Asia. There’s a long list of possible replacements — including Harvard professor Joe Nye, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea Kathy Stephens, and the National Security Council senior staff director for Asia, Daniel Russel — but no appointment yet.

The principal deputy assistant secretary of state, Joe Yun, is the acting assistant secretary and Russel is handling many of the preparations for this trip from the White House. But Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Asia director Doug Paal says that’s no substitute.

“Not having an assistant secretary to provide the themes, to handle a lot of the meetings at the right levels, means the U.S. is not functioning on all cylinders,” Paal says. “We’re still coming up short.


Differences of opinion

That’s partly because of the regular staff turn-over in a second presidential administration. It’s also partly because of differences between Kerry’s people (many of whom favor Nye) and Obama people (most of whom are thought to favor Russel.)

The loss of Kurt Campbell as assistant secretary of state for East Asia complicates planning for Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to the region. Photo: AP

“The White House personnel process has slowed down,” Paal says. “It’s plain that the process has been slowing down through successive administrations, and it’s gotten exquisitely slow in this administration.”

During the first Obama administration, the Oxford- and Yerevan-educated Campbell had the only travel schedule to rival Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s. He brought much of the expertise in driving forward the so-called “Asia Pivot” in U.S. foreign policy and in boosting U.S. engagement with the Association of South East Asian Nations, especially over maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

Jim Schoff, the former U.S. Defense Department advisor for East Asia, says “part of what made Campbell and other past assistant secretaries effective is the relationship that they have or developed with the secretary. And when they have the secretary’s trust and when others know that he or she has their trust and confidence, it really makes them an effective player in the process.”

That’s especially so with new leaders anxious about the U.S. “pivot”, which has now been rebranded as more of a “rebalancing,” so it doesn’t suggest that Washington is turning away from the Middle East.

“Japan really wants U.S. support and wants to feel that it is a central part of America’s Asia strategy. And the fact that we have not named an assistant secretary for East Asia is concerning to some in Japan,” Schoff says.

“When this trip was being put together, you could see the relief on their faces: Kerry’s coming and we need to get him out here as often as possible so that he understands what’s going on here in the region.”

Kerry’s interest in East Asia

Paal says the absence of a regional assistant secretary for East Asia is more pronounced given concern about Kerry’s interest in the region, his history with Vietnam notwithstanding.

“When he’s had an interest it’s been towards Southeast Asia where he had personal experiences 40 years ago,” Paal says. “He has not been an activist on China, Korea or Japanese policy issues at his time in the Senate.”

Hillary Clinton, shown here visiting Japan in 2011, made East Asia a priority during her stint as U.S. secretary of state. Photo: AP

Hillary Clinton made a big deal out of making Asia her first trip abroad as secretary of state. Kerry went to Europe. Then the Middle East. Then Afghanistan and Iraq.

“There’s been some concern in Japan and Korea that maybe Secretary Kerry is not as committed to the rebalance as Secretary Clinton was, especially with all the budget challenges,” Schoff says. “And I think that will be part of Secretary Kerry’s objective and part of his message — that he is committed and that we have a plan to stay in the region — but it will be overshadowed to some extent by North Korea and all of its rhetoric.”

Pyongyang’s aggressive talk lately is an opportunity for Kerry to begin his relationship with the new Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on issues of agreement (including Iran), instead of contention (Syria, Tibet, cyber-security).

“The escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula may in fact require a new level of strategic discourse in the U.S./China relationship sooner rather than later if escalation is to be contained,” said former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, “particularly given the unpredictability and political inexperience of Kim Jong-un, the domestic political pressure on newly-elected President Pak in South Korea to respond in kind to any fresh military provocation from the North, and the absence of a Chinese ‘Plan B’ if hostilities were to erupt.”



An Awkward Moment for US in Pakistan

Posted March 27th, 2013 at 12:06 am (UTC+0)

Secretary of State John Kerry talks with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul Monday, March 25, but stayed away from neighboring Pakistan to stay out of its internal politics. Photo: AP

The Obama administration is at an awkward moment with Pakistan, eager to better secure the Afghan border and forestall an Iranian-Pakistan gas pipeline deal, but hamstrung by the temporary absence of an established central government in Islamabad.

Secretary of State John Kerry wanted to go to Islamabad following surprise stops in Baghdad and Kabul this past weekend, but U.S. officials decided against it as Pakistan’s caretaker leaders prepare for May’s first-ever civilian-to-civilian transition of power. Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf’s government stepped down in mid-March at the end of its five-year term.

“Given the kind of historic nature of where Pakistan is right now, we wanted to be holier than the pope on this one on staying away while the electoral process unfolds,” says a senior State Department official traveling with Kerry.

“Given the state of conspiracy theorists, given the state of anything else, we did not want to lead anyone to conclude anything about where our interests may lie,” the U.S. official says. “As soon as there’s a government in place, I think you can expect to see Secretary Kerry there.”

A lot to  talk about

U.S. Predator drones, like this one pictured in Afghanistan in 2010, are another sore point between Washington and Islamabad. Photo; AP

There’s a lot for Kerry to talk about: the Haqqani militant network that has attacked U.S. troops in Afghanistan, cross-border drone strikes from Afghanistan on Pakistani militants, recriminations over the Pakistani physician who helped lead Seal Team Six to Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan and the “peace pipeline” deal with Iran.

“Pakistan is at a very critical situation in terms of world politics,” says Akbar Ahmed, an author and professor at American University. “On the one side, it has China. In the south it has India, the north, Afghanistan and then Iran. How can the United States just leave this huge vacuum in a critical part of the world when, potentially, it has Pakistan as an ally? Good or bad it does have it on its side.”

While American diplomats say there is no trouble here as acting U.S. Special Representative David Pearce continues to meet with place-holding Pakistani technocrats, the crisis between executive and judicial authorities in Islamabad delays Secretary Kerry’s engagement with the country’s political class.

Using his personal ties

So he’s working through his considerable personal ties with Pakistan’s army, dining in Jordan during this trip with the Pakistani military chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, with whom he discussed security issues, including counter-terrorism and dealing with terrorist safe havens along the Pakistani-Afghan border.

Secretary Kerry had dinner in Jordan with Pakistan military chief, General Ashrag Parvez Kayani. Photo: AP

“Without the participation of Pakistan, any peace process will not see a fruitful end,” says Afghan President Hamid Karzai. “When we say ‘peace process,’ this is not to mean talking to the Taliban alone, unofficially, or as Afghan to Afghan, but a process whereby there is a recognized, official, publicly-announced process between the Taliban and the Afghan Peace Council on the one hand, and between the Afghan Government and the Pakistani Government on the other hand.”

Keen to encourage the opening of a Taliban office in Doha to pump life into reconciling the various Afghan factions, Washington and Kabul know they can’t get there without Pakistan’s help.

“It is inevitable that both the Pakistani government, in their own way, and the Afghan government, in their own way, would be acknowledging this reality and conduct dialogue,” Ahmed says. “As I am sure the United States also through its diplomatic channels would be having some kind of contact with the Taliban on the ground because that is a reality that cannot be ignored.”

And Karzai says the Taliban is just as important to Pakistan as it is to Afghanistan.

“We are equally worried about Pakistan, about the casualties, about the people that get targeted and killed and injured in Pakistan,” Karzai says. “So this is a call for the Taliban to grasp this opportunity and to use it to their best, to stop killing and violence in Afghanistan. And again, we are seeking the best brotherhood with Pakistan, and the best relationship with Pakistan, and their cooperation would certainly benefit all of us.”

Cooperation with Iran

Pakistan’s growing cooperation with Iran is especially troubling for the Obama administration, especially the progress on their long-delayed gas pipeline. Construction on the pipeline in Iran is nearing completion and construction in Pakistan is well underway.

Another U.S.-Pakistan issue to discuss is Islamabad’s growing ties with Iran, whose president is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, shown here in a 2011 picture. Photo: AP

It’s difficult for the U.S. diplomacy to compete on the pipeline issue. No matter how many hydro-electric dams the United States pays to refurbish, Washington alone cannot meet Pakistan’s crushing demands for more power.

“It’s in the interests of the Pakistani government to have access to energy, and Iran is promising that through this gas pipeline,” Ahmed says. “At the same time the United States is doing everything to block this.”

Chiefly through the threat of sanctions linked to Iranian’s nuclear program.

“We have serious concerns if this project actually goes forward that the Iran Sanctions Act would be triggered,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland says of the pipeline deal. “We’ve been straight-up with the Pakistanis about these concerns.”

As for other countries that have avoided the Iran Sanctions Act by reducing their dependence on Iranian oil, Nuland says the pipeline “would take Pakistan in the wrong direction right at a time that we’re trying to work with Pakistan on better, more reliable ways to meet its energy needs.”

At a pipeline ceremony earlier this month, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed the U.S. threats.

“There are people who are against the progress of Iran, Pakistan and other countries,” Ahmadinejad said. “They have found an excuse – called the nuclear issue – to exert pressure on Iran and to prevent its progress. I want to tell them the gas pipeline has nothing to do with nuclear energy. You can’t make an atomic bomb with natural gas.”

Ahmed says Iran hopes the pipeline triggers U.S. sanctions against Pakistan to push Islamabad even closer to Tehran.

“I don’t think the United States should be pushing Pakistan to the point that it’s at the brink,” Ahmed says. “It’s already at the brink in terms of the law-and-order breakdown in Pakistan, in terms of the economic crisis, in terms of really the sense of crisis that now envelopes Pakistan and the awareness in Pakistan that America is the root cause of most of its problems.”

“If the United States pushes Pakistan that hard, the danger is that an already fragile relationship will collapse.”


US Worries Over Baghdad-Damascus Links

Posted March 25th, 2013 at 2:59 pm (UTC+0)
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Secretary of State John Kerry confers with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad March 24, 2013, hoping Iraq would end cooperation with Iran and Syria. Photo: AP

Ten years after the invasion to oust Saddam Hussein, the United States has little leverage with Iraqi leaders who are allowing Iran to resupply embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Tehran’s support for Damascus topped the agenda of Secretary of State John Kerry’s surprise visit to Baghdad over the weekend. He was hoping to stop what U.S. officials say are near-daily flights of weapons and fighters to Syria.

“We had a very spirited discussion on the subject of the over-flights,” Kerry told reporters squeezed into the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Baghdad following talks with Prime Minister Maliki.

“I made it very clear that for those of us who are engaged in an effort to see President Assad step down and to see a democratic process take hold with a transitional government, according to the Geneva Communique, for those of us engaged in that effort, anything that supports President Assad is problematic,” Kerry said. “And I made it very clear to the prime minister that the over-flights from Iran are in fact helping to sustain President Assad and his regime.”

Iraq’s role no surprise

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has had close ties with Iranian and Syrian leaders. Photo: AP

Prime Minister Maliki’s role in that Iran assistance flights is no surprise to Johns Hopkins University professor Ruth Wedgwood.

“Maliki, I think, has always been under the sway of the Mullahs in Iran,” she says. “He has made no secret of that. And he has more or less gotten away with it.”

Especially with the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq.

“I think when we withdrew so completely, albeit leaving behind this carapace of an empty embassy behind, it really was taken by Maliki as a kind of “do as you wish signal,” Wedgwood says.

And it’s not only assistance flights to Syria that Iraq is allowing.

“They (the Iraqis) have been providing other kinds of support to the Assad regime and have turned something of a blind eye as Iraqi Shia — who are moving into Syria to support the regime — are crossing the Iraqi-Syrian border,” says U.S. Institute of Peace analyst Steve Heydemann. “On the other hand, Iraqi Sunni — many of whom are linked by tribal connections to counterparts across the Syrian border in the eastern part of Syria — are also becoming increasingly engaged in the conflict.”

Syria crisis threatens region

That makes Syria’s crisis especially dangerous for the region.

“It is beginning to spill over into neighboring countries,” Heydemann says, “and it is sharpening sectarian divisions within those neighboring countries in ways that could have very, very troubling consequences for stability in those countries. And I think Iraq is one of the countries most at risk of instability as a result of the Syrian conflict.”

U.S. officials want Iraq to end its cooperation with cooperation with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, shown here during a 2009 visit to Tehran, Iran. Photo: AP

U.S. officials traveling with Secretary Kerry say there are connections between some of the extremist groups in Syria and militants inside Iraq. And that security threat is part of their strategy for persuading Prime Minister Maliki to give up on President Assad.

“We want to be able to demonstrate that he has other friends in the region, and he doesn’t have to rely only on Iran for support,” a senior State Department official says of Maliki.

The spillover of Syrian fighting into Iraq puts the prime minister “on a dangerous track to think in terms of only working with Iran,” the U.S. official says. “His future requires integration — or reintegration — into the Gulf, into the rest of the Arab world.”

So the Obama administration is hoping to capitalize on Prime Minister Maliki’s interest in joining talks on Syria’s future as a way of getting him to stop, or at least inspect, Iranian flights.

“It wouldn’t be appropriate, make any sense, for Iraqi to participate [in talks on Syria] so long as it is facilitating Iran over-flights of fighters and weapons that support Assad,” says a senior U.S. official. “The key here is to discuss the political future of Syria, that Iraq should be part of that, but it should be on the basis that Assad has to go, not on the basis of permitting continued Iranian support for Assad.”

Iraq says flights are humanitarian

Iraqi officials insist Iranian flights to Syria are humanitarian, as proven by the two planes they have stopped in the last six months.

U.S. officials say Kerry’s goal in Iraq “is not to get into a tit-for-tat about how we know this or how we know that, but to explain that the number of the flights is, in itself, an indication that these can’t possibly be only humanitarian flights and that he, himself, as secretary of state, is convinced that they include weapons and fighters and that this is absolutely contrary to the international goals with Syria and is dangerous for Iraq.”

Kerry’s failure to persuade Prime Minister Maliki to do anything about Iranian flights was evident in both the secretary “taking some homework back to Washington with me” and in his remarks about growing unease in Washington over Baghdad’s role in Syria.

“We agreed to try to provide more information with respect to this, but I also made clear to him that there are members of Congress and people in America who are increasingly watching what Iraq is doing and wondering how it is that a partner in the efforts for democracy and a partner for whom Americans feel they have tried so hard to be helpful — how that country can be in fact doing something that makes it more difficult to achieve our common goals, the goal expressed by the prime minister with respect to Syria and President Assad.”


East China Sea Dispute Rocks Kerry’s Debut at State Department

Posted February 6th, 2013 at 1:32 am (UTC+0)

U.S. Trying to Preserve Status Quo, China Objects

John Kerry is in his first week as America’s top diplomat and already he has a problem – the East China Sea where Chinese frigates are locking on to Japanese naval and air force patrols with weapons-fire-control radar.

“Actions such as this escalate tensions and increase the risk of an incident or a miscalculation,” says State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, “and they could undermine peace, stability, and economic growth in this vital region.”

The possibility of vast oil deposits in the disputed area west of Okinawa have helped fuel the hostility over a group of tiny islands in the region, known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.


Secretary of State John Kerry, shown here at his Jan. 24, confirmation hearings in the Senate, faces his first major challenge on the job with the South China Sea dispute. Photo: AP

Secretary of State Kerry has already spoken separately with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi about the dispute. He hopes to contain the flare so that China can play “a much more significant role as a partner in any number of efforts globally.”

“We will be competitors in the economic marketplace, but we shouldn’t be viewed as adversaries in some way that diminishes our ability to cooperate,” Kerry says. “China is the other significant economy in the world and obviously has a voracious appetite for resources around the world, and we need to establish rules of the road that work for everybody.”

At the start of his second term, President Barack Obama also needs China to keep cooperating with the U.S. On issues such as Iran’s nuclear program, North Korea and Syria.

But it’s precisely these other global efforts that will suffer, says Chu Shulong, a professor of international relations at Tsinghua University. He says Beijing sees Washington’s position on the East China Sea dispute as “America increasingly standing with the other sides against China.”

Then comes North Korea

And that, he says, is making it harder for Beijing to help out Washington when it comes to North Korea.

Successive U.S. governments have said Washington’s only stake in the Senkaku/Diaoyu standoff is keeping the peace. But it’s this status quo to which Beijing objects. It says Washington’s transfer of administration over the area to Tokyo in 1971 puts the Obama administration front and center in this dispute.


A Japan Coast Guard patrol boat approaches a Chinese fishing vessel Feb. 22, 2013 southwest of the disputed islands group in the East China Sea. Photo: (AP Photo/Japan Coast Guard 11th Regional Headquarters)

Justin Logan, director of foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, says the American position “has been confusing and unhelpful.” He says the U.S. Claim of not taking a position on whether the islands are Japanese or Chinese comes as it insists that the islands are covered by a treaty with Japan.

“You’ve got really white-hot nationalism burning, I would say, to a greater extent in China and to a somewhat lesser extent in Japan,” Logan says. “So it’s not just a case that this is a sort of a realist, get-the-map-out, secure-your-sea lines sort of dispute.”

“There are real burning historical beliefs at stake here. But there also is a fairly straightforward military issue about whose boats get to go where,” he adds.

At the Center for American Progress think tank, senior fellow Nina Hachigian says Kerry “would be wise to devote considerable energy to determining how the United States can help diffuse” an increasingly dangerous situation.

“The United States and China have no shared vision for what their future bilateral relationship could or should look like,” she says. “They have not articulated a clear understanding of how they could continue to co-exist in peace a decade or two down the road, and they need to develop a shared, tangible idea for the future of the relationship.”

“Without a credible alternative,” Hachigian says, “the default prediction for the interaction between a rising power such as China and an established power such as the United States is based on what has come before: inevitable violent conflict.”

Gilbert Rozman, Northeast Asia sociology professor at Princeton University, says Chinese aggression in the East China Sea is part of a more assertive foreign policy.

Picking a fight?

“It’s China that’s picking a fight,” Rozman says, adding that Beijing “wanted the fight as part of the overall change in identity and aggressiveness that’s been going on for a few years and now is likely to be accelerated by the new leadership of Xi Jinping.

And that’s why I’m really disturbed about how to resolve these issues because I think China prefers to have the conflict than to go back to something like the old status quo,” Rozman says.

At Fudan University’s Institute of International Studies, professor Ren Xiao says Japan’s refusal to recognize the territorial dispute blocks any way out of it.

“The item high on the agenda is not who possesses sovereignty but rather what efforts they should make to soften the tension and prevent any military conflict. Washington has a responsibility to urge Tokyo to do so,” Ren says. “Erecting a protectionist umbrella is not favorable to getting beyond this crisis.”

Amid the recriminations, the Cato Institute’s Justin Logan says it’s “unnerving that you do hear both Chinese and Japanese sound an awful lot like they would fight a war with one and other over what — compared to the prospective costs of a shooting war — are worthless rocks.”

“People need to look very clearly into the abyss that is a shooting war between China and Japan, potentially with the United States roping itself in,” he says. “This is a very, very bad scenario.”

“So whatever people’s historical sensibilities, romantic ideas, or military aspirations may be,” says Logan, “they really need to square up to the costs and benefits of where the policies are headed.”

Kerry’s First Day As U.S. Secretary of State

Posted February 4th, 2013 at 8:55 pm (UTC+0)

John Kerry, the new U.S. Secretary of State, greets his fellow diplomats at the State Department Monday, Feb. 4, 2013, as he begin his new job. Photo: AP

He Talks About His Boyhood Bicycle Ride Behind Iron Curtain

Much has been made of the new U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s familiarity with the Foreign Service as the son of a former diplomat.

In his first day at the State Department, he spoke about the challenges of Foreign Service families “who have to uproot kids and uproot families and move from school to school and struggle with those difficulties.”

But Kerry has not always been so keenly aware of difficulties of diplomatic protocols, especially as a 12-year-old in Berlin.

Moving to Germany with his family in 1954, Kerry said he used to ride his bicycle up and down the Kurfurstendamm, and past the burned-out Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate.

Secretary of State John Kerry shows his new colleagues at the State Department his first diplomatic passport. Photo: AP

One day he used his diplomatic passport to cross into the East Sector, the Russian sector, where “I really noticed the difference between the East and West. There were very few people. They were dressed in dark clothing. They kind of held their heads down. I noticed all this. There was no joy in those streets.”

“And when I came back, I felt this remarkable sense of relief and a great lesson about the virtue of freedom and the virtue of the principles and ideals that we live by and that drive us. I was enthralled.”

His father, not so much.

“I got a tongue-lashing. I was told I could’ve been an international incident. He could’ve lost his job. And my passport,” he said raising a faded green diplomatic passport, “this very passport, was promptly yanked. And I was summarily grounded. Anyway, lessons learned.”

“If the tabloids today knew I had done that, I can see the headlines that say, “Kerry’s Early Communist Connections,” something like that. That’s the world we live in, folks.”

Living overseas as a boy was a great adventure, Kerry says. And 57 years later, he begins what he expects will be another great adventure at the State Department.

“What other job can you have where you get up every day and advance the cause of nation and also keep faith with the ideals of your country on which it is founded and most critically, meet our obligations to our fellow travelers on this planet?”

“That’s as good as it gets,” he told employees at the State Department. “And I’m proud to be part of it with you. So now let’s get to work.”



US Asia Pivot Facing Troubled South China Sea

Posted January 29th, 2013 at 10:13 pm (UTC+0)

China claims vast maritime areas in the South China Sea, including waters also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and others. Map: VOA

Where does President Obama Go in His Second Term?

Barack Obama’s decision to steer his foreign policy more toward Asia could face sharp challenges when it comes to the South China Sea. That’s where China is squaring off with some of its neighbors over who has sovereignty over the maritime region and its potentially vast oil and mineral riches.

So far the disputes have been relatively peaceful, even though China has sent naval patrols into areas its neighbors say is their sovereign territory. Now the rivalry enters a new phase as the Philippines takes its dispute with China to the United Nations.

Gilbert Asuque, assistant foreign affairs secretary of the Philippines, says the U.N. law of the sea tribunal should decide the issue. Photo: AP

“We want the [Law of the Sea] tribunal to establish the rights of the Philippines to exclusively exploit the resources in our continental shelf in the West Philippine Sea,” says Philippine Assistant Foreign Affairs Secretary Gilbert Asuque.

China says the dispute is strictly between Beijing and Manila and that the Philippines’ move only makes the issue more difficult to resolve.

“China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and adjacent waters,” says Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei. “The key and root of the dispute over the South China Sea between China and the Philippines is territorial disputes caused by the Philippines’ illegal occupation of some of the Chinese islets and atolls.”

China’s many maritime disputes

China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei all have conflicting claims across more than 3.5 million square kilometers of ocean from Singapore to the Strait of Taiwan.

Cato Institute foreign policy studies director Justin Logan says China is trying “as much as possible to keep this bilateral — between itself and all the disputed parties — and to prevent it from being internationalized in a systematic way. So what the Philippines have done is to move toward internationalizing it in a systematic way.”

The way Manila sees it, it might have a better chance in an international forum rather than butting heads with the regional superpower. But even if Manila wins at the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, who would enforce the ruling?

“If enforcing findings means a shooting war with China, you may see findings that go unenforced,” Logan says.

However the Beijing-Manila dispute works out, Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations says there is “no room for complacency” if President Obama is serious about pressing a new emphasis on Asia – what Washington foreign policy experts have called the “Asia Pivot.”

Unfinished business

Economy says the president needs to finish the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and restock the region with U.S. military personnel and hardware. If he doesn’t complete those tasks first, she says, Mr. Obama runs “the real risk that the pivot will prove without real substance and the naysayers―those who keep questioning the long-term commitment of the United States to the Asia-Pacific―will win the day.”

John Kerry, confirmed by the Senate Jan. 29, 2013, to become the new U.S. secretary of state, now inherits the South China Sea issue from outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Photo: AP

To complicate matters further, the president’s rivals questioned his handling of the South China Sea issue and China in general during confirmation hearings for Massachusetts Senator John Kerry to be his second-term secretary of state.

Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, said the Obama administration cannot let China go unchecked.

“China is being increasingly aggressive about their territorial claims and their neighbors are looking to the United States and U.S. leadership as a counterbalance,” Rubio warned.

But Kerry sought to counter that by saying he was “not convinced that an increased military ramp-up is critical yet.”

“We have a lot more bases out there than any other nation in the world, including China today,” Kerry said. “We have a lot more forces out there than any other nation in the world, including China today.”

Jacques deLisle, East Asia studies director at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, says part of the problem is that the United States and China have very different perceptions about their own actions in the South China Sea region.

Perception is key

“The U.S. views it’s doing stuff that is inoffensive, and China sees it as aggressive,” deLisle said. “So what China then does, the U.S. sees as aggressive — an attempt to acquire force-projection capabilities and area-access-denial capabilities — which the U.S. sees as trying to change a status quo in which there is an order that has worked for everybody.”

And Princeton University professor Gilbert Rozman believes tensions over the South China Sea could cause problems between Washington and Beijing in other areas as well.

China blames outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, shown here at an appearance in Washington Jan. 29, 2013, for stirring up opposition to its South China Sea claims. Photo: AP

“China is playing a very different game now,” Rozman says. “The struggle has really intensified. And if the U.S. doesn’t back down in its cooperation with Japan or the Philippines, the U.S. can expect a price to be paid on other issues including North Korea.”

Rozman says Manila’s decision to take the maritime dispute to the United Nations clearly escalates the standoff. He worries that it will put pressure on Washington to do something. As of now, he says, China is “blaming the U.S. for stirring up the trouble.”

Political science professor Chu Shulong of Tsinghua University in China says Beijing has reason to blame Washington, in part because of a speech outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made in 2010 focusing attention on the rival claims over the South China Sea.

“Yes, there always has been a troubled, disputed area, but the tension was not as high before Hillary [Clinton’s] speech in 2010,” he said. “And we certainly see that affect, that reality that the U.S. has caused the higher tensions by focusing on disputed issues in the South China Sea.”


Clinton: No “Retirement” After State Department

Posted January 15th, 2013 at 7:04 pm (UTC+0)
1 comment

Hillary Clinton, shown here at an event Nov. 16, 2012, will soon leave her job as Secretary of State, but speculation is growing that she is considering a run for the presidency in 2016. Photo: AP

Early Polls Show Her Leading Potential Challengers for 2016

The close of Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State will start one of the most watched political retirements since Richard Nixon.

When Nixon lost California’s 1962 governor’s race just two years after losing the presidency, he famously told reporters, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”

Clinton steps away with decidedly more sympathetic press, ending a widely regarded turn as America’s top diplomat. But at the same time, she’s keeping her supporters hoping for another run at the presidency by dismissing talk of “retirement.”

“Well, I don’t know if that’s the world I would use,” Clinton says. “Certainly stepping off the very fast track for a little while.”

Nixon used his time outside Washington to speak abroad, write a best-selling book, raise money for fellow Republicans, and campaign for party candidates in mid-term elections.

In 1968, that support made him the clear front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination and helped turn back primary challenges from three popular governors on his way to winning the White House.

Should she run for president in 2016, Clinton would likely pursue a similar path — speaking about social issues, including maternal and child health, while campaigning for Democrats much as she did ahead of her 2008 run for the presidency.


Candidates and their best-sellers

Already a best-selling author for It Takes a Village and the autobiography Living History, Ms. Clinton he could use another book (and the sure-to-be-hefty advance) to set up her campaign narrative, much as Barack Obama used his book,  The Audacity of Hope.

Clinton leaves the State Department more popular than she was four years ago, with near-universal name recognition, and with the gratitude of the president — both for her own diplomacy and for her husband’s 2012 convention speech and campaigning on his behalf.

If the Obama administration ends well, Clinton benefits from having helped shape its foreign policy. If the Obama administration ends poorly, Clinton benefits from having gotten out when she did.

Clinton also has an influential backer in husband Bill Clinton, the former president. They are shown here at her 59th birthday party in New York, Oct. 26, 2006. Photo: AP

Washington chatter about another Clinton presidential campaign grew louder with her decision to step down at the start of the president’s second term. She’s kept that buzz going while insisting that she presently has no interest in further elected office.

Publicly reminiscing with deputy chief of staff Jake Sullivan, Clinton recalls telling her husband about “this incredibly bright rising star – Rhodes Scholar, Yale Law School. And my husband said, ‘Well, if he ever learns to play the saxophone, watch out.’ ”

“Now we travel all over the world together and people say how excited they are to meet a potential future president of the United States.” Pause. “And of course they mean Jake.”

If Clinton does run, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich says his Republican Party “is incapable of competing at that level.”

“First of all, she’s very formidable as a person,” Gingrich told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “She’s a very competent person. She’s married to the most popular Democrat in the country. They both think [it] would be good for her to be president. It makes it virtually impossible to stop her for the nomination.”


A formidable competitor

In a hypothetical 2016 race, Clinton leads most prospective Republican opponents by double digits, according to Public Policy Polling. She is up 51 percent to 37 percent over former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, 51 percent to 37 percent over Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and 53 percent to 39 percent percent over Mitt Romney’s running mate, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan.

Only New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is within the poll’s margin of error, trailing Clinton by just two points. But Christie has problems with leaders of his own party for the common-man frankness that makes him popular, for praising the president’s response to Hurricane Sandy ahead of November’s vote and for criticizing lawmakers delaying relief funds.

Recent public opinion polls show Clinton defeating hypothetical 2016 presidential candidates, from left, Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Vice President Joe Biden and Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. Photo: AP

The poll of 1,100 American voters shows Clinton well out in front of Vice President Joe Biden for the 2016 Democratic nomination, 57 percent to 16 percent.

But as Clinton prepares to slow down, at least for the short term, the vice president is starting the second term with a decidedly higher-profile — stepping in to save negotiations with congressional Republicans over the so-called “fiscal cliff” and leading the president’s very public drive for tougher gun control.

Clinton loyalists don’t fear facing Biden again. (He got less than one percent in the 2008 Iowa caucus.) But they are mindful of his blue-collar appeal.

“As my dad has said publicly, that’s not something that he’s focused on for the next several months and years,” Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden told the MSNBC television network. “Look, would I think my dad would make a great president in 2016 and going forward? Of course.”

Leaving his polling station on Election Day last November, Biden was asked if that was the last time he’d vote for himself. His answer: “I don’t think so.”

If he chooses to run, Biden has some history on his side. The last time a sitting U.S. vice president sought his party’s nomination and lost was 1952.

Like Biden, Harry Truman’s vice president, Alben Barkley, was a long-serving senator in his 70’s who knew how to fire up a crowd. The Democratic Party dropped him from the ticket altogether, choosing instead the younger Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson and the more conservative Alabama Senator John Sparkman.

They lost badly to World War II general Dwight Eisenhower and the new California Senator Richard Nixon.



Scott Stearns

Scott Stearns

Scott Stearns is VOA’s State Department correspondent. He has worked as VOA’s Dakar Bureau Chief, White House correspondent, and Nairobi Bureau Chief since beginning his career as a freelance reporter in the Liberian civil war. He has written for the BBC, UPI, the Associated Press, The Jerusalem Post, and The Economist. Scott has a Bachelors and Masters in Journalism from Northwestern University.



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