A Week in Foreign Policy – Trends for 2012

It has been a busy week in the international arena; an assassination in Iran, Syria descending further into civil war, results of elections in Egypt, alleged US war crimes in Afghanistan and Burma(Myanmar) coming in from the cold. We are but fourteen days into the new year and we are already seeing the seeds of new crises, conflicts and political tensions – not to mention the continuation of old rivalries and problem cases. The last seven days could give an indication of future trends in international politics for 2012 and the complexities that western policy-makers will face.

More positively, we are seeing potential glimmers of hope; democratic movements are gaining a foothold across the world, especially in the Middle East and Asia. Policy-makers and global strategists will be keenly watching events as they unfold, trying to predict just what 2012 may have in store for us. Their lack of foresight in 2011 and their failure to predict events – especially the Arab Spring movement – will lead to a greater push to be proactive rather than reactive.

Iran – A New Decade, A New War

On 11 January Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan was assassinated while driving his car down a Tehran street. He died from wounds inflicted by a complex explosive device designed to attach to a moving vehicle, kill the occupants and keep collateral damage to a minimum. Roshan’s crime? He was a nuclear scientist likely to be involved in Iran’s secretive nuclear programme. He is the third scientist to be killed in two years, his murder is likely another act in a covert war being played out in Iran. This year could be the year that light is shone on the war being played in the shadows. Iran is already pointing its finger at its natural enemy Israel, but on January 14 it laid blame directly on the CIA.

Of course, many would argue that the covert war taking place in Iran has actually been an overt war for some time. Aside from the two scientists killed before Ahmadi Roshan, mysterious explosions have occurred at military bases on two previous occasions (one attack killing the founder of Iran’s ballistic missile programme). In 2010, industrial software used inside Iran’s nuclear reactors was targeted by a specially designed computer virus known as ‘Stuxnet’. It is widely believed that the sophistication of the virus – and the resources required in order to create it – are made possible only by state (or a number of states) intervention.

The last twelve months has also seen a stepping up of diplomatic action against the Iranian state. President Obama began his term in office ‘carrying an olive branch’, determined to engage with a regime that had been vilified under the George W. Bush presidency. Yet three years on, the US and the West are now imposing some of the harshest sanctions Iran has ever been burdened with. Clearly, the relationship has deteriorated to a point where western policymakers are willing to build pressure on the Ahmedinejad regime. New sanctions have targeted Iran’s Central Bank as well as Iran’s oil exports to Europe and Asia.

How the regime – and the country as a whole – will respond to the significant escalation in coercive activity is unknown. Western governments are hoping the harsh sanctions regime will result in gradual regime change from within, but others are less positive. Some analysts have suggested that the opposite could happen and the regime could in fact be strengthened from what is perceived as western meddling. We will not see a repeat of a politically suicidal Iraq-style invasion, but as it stands now, the possibilities for an escalation in covert activities is almost a certainty. It will likely be the first true ‘21st Century War’ we will see this century.

Alleged US War Crimes in Afghanistan

This week saw the release of a video purporting to show a number of US marines urinating on Taliban corpses in Afghanistan. The video was uploaded anonymously to YouTube on 12 January and was soon condemned by both US and Afghan officials. Leon Panetta, the US Defense Secretary, and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton were quick to release their statements of condemnation. Damage limitation was obviously a top priority for those inside the administration. Understandably so, the video comes at a critical juncture in Afghanistan as time is slowly ticking towards the 2014 withdrawal date.

There are mixed reactions from those within Afghanistan to the video, especially from the Taliban. Many say it could affect peace talks with the Taliban and lead to greater violence and political collapse in the country. In the last few weeks an initiative to set up a Qatar-based Taliban office was given backing by the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai. The office would be a conduit for speedier reconciliation talks, which have remained stagnant over the last year. The video, however, called into question whether the Taliban would still be willing to engage in these talks.

One Taliban spokesperson said that the group would continue with the peace process and would not let the video derail any process. In the words of one former civilian advisor to General Stanley McCrystal, ‘the die has already been cast…in Afghanistan’. There lacks any serious backlash to the incident and it has not spiralled into a deep scandal for the Obama administration. This is surprising as the video is shocking and offensive.

This may be a result of a wider societal desensitisation occurring in both the US and Afghanistan. After a decade of war, people of both countries are fatigued by the conflict and are happy to see the end. Afghans have seen their fair share of death, destruction and lack of progress. Similarly in the US; a decade of false hopes, dashed dreams and declining power has done much to dent the American psyche, Obama has failed to re-energise this. Only a small group of people cling onto the failed ideals of exporting democracy and freedom; but in reality that disappeared when the Abu-Ghraib skeletons came out of the closet.

Coming in from the Cold – Myanmar Reforms

The incremental steps being taken by the Myanmar government towards democratic reform continued this week with the release of over 600 political prisoners and dissidents. The amnesty occurred on 13 February, a week after a visit by the British Foreign Secretary William Hague. The issue of political prisoners was ‘repeatedly raised’ while Hague held discussions with Myanmar officials. The reform process began last year when a nominally civilian government was appointed, Aung Sang Suu Kyi – the long-time democracy campaigner – was freed from house arrest and censorship was partially lifted.

Western policy-makers are now hoping that the administration will continue this process, leading to the lifting of strict sanctions by both the US and EU. The conditions for the lifting of sanctions include the release of all political prisoners, free and fair elections and reconciliation with all ethnic groups in the country. Hilary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, welcomed the news of the release of political prisoners calling it a ‘substantial and serious step forward’ on the road to reform. Additionally she announced that the US would exchange ambassadors with Myanmar, reaffirming the US’ intention of meeting ‘action for action’. But the reform process remains in its infancy and the lifting of sanctions still remains a distant goal for both Myanmar and those who wish to see it reform.

Of particular concern will be the internal tensions and conflicts that remain unresolved in Myanmar. These conflicts have shaped modern Myanmar and have been fought continuously since, what was then, Burma gained its independence in 1948. The country has the unenviable distinction as having one of the longest running civil wars in modern history. It has scarred the country and its people. On 12 February the Myanmar government signed a ceasefire agreement with ethnic Karen rebels. The fighting between both groups over the last six decades has seen widespread human rights abuses and political repression; one of the main reasons behind the sanctions imposed by the west. Therefore, it is with the greatest priority that western diplomats will want to see reconciliation between these ethnic groups.

Myanmar provides hope in an otherwise bleak outlook for 2012. Since 2008 and the election of President Obama, US diplomacy has appeared relatively weak and ineffective especially in dealing with problem regimes such as Assad’s Syria and Ahmedinejad’s Iran. In his Inaugral Address in 2009 Obama indicated that the US would ‘extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist’. Myanmar is indeed unclenching its fist, and it now up to US and Western policymakers to capitalise on the regime’s willingness to come in from the cold. It will require patience, perseverance and importantly the willingness on both sides to stay the course and encourage the administration to continue on its path. If it is successful then we may see other regimes follow and reverse the trend towards failing diplomacy.

Final results for the elections in Egypt

Egypt’s parliamentary elections, which began in November, finally came to a conclusion on 13 January. According to Alastair Beach, the Independent’s Cairo correspondent, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party ‘won a colossal victory’ with over 40 per cent of the vote. The success of the party raises serious questions about the future direction of Egyptian politics. The balance of power has shifted away from the largely secular politics that have dominated Egypt for the last three decades under Hosni Mubarak. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood was a banned organisation up until last year’s revolution in the country.

Middle Eastern analysts are closely watching events in Egypt as they unfold. Of particular concern will be Egypt’s internal stability, especially as the Muslim Brotherhood try to contend with the immense political power the military holds in the country. Since the fall of Mubarak in February, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces – or SCAF – headed by Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, has been a de-facto military junta ruling Egypt. The army was hailed as heroes of the revolution for not firing on protesters during the uprising, but a deep distrust has developed between the population and the military after the latter began introducing limits on political freedoms. The killing of twenty-six Coptic Christians on 9 October in Cairo was a clear sign of the military’s ‘mismanagement of the country’, according a Washington Post editorial.

As well as concerns over internal dynamics, the direction of Egypt’s foreign policy will be the biggest concern for regional actors and Western diplomats. Egypt has been the ‘lynchpin’ of Western foreign policy in the Middle East since bilateral relations were cemented during the 1970s between President Jimmy Carter and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat. In terms of regional security, the ongoing peace treaty signed with Israel in 1979 could be in jeopardy. It is still unknown whether the Muslim Brotherhood will honour the treaty or whether it will turn its back on Israeli ties. The cost will be high if it reneges on its treaty obligations. It would likely lose millions of dollars in US and foreign aid as well as trade agreements including the sale of high-grade military equipment from the west.

The West will hope for a ‘business as usual’ approach to Egyptian politics by the Muslim Brotherhood. But policymakers, both western and regional, will have to take into consideration a population in Egypt that has been deeply disaffected with the status quo ante. Change will inevitably occur in the country to satiate the population and prevent a repeat of the circumstances around the 2011 revolution that overthrew Mubarak. The west will have to assist Egypt in building a fragile economy that has suffered from years of corruption and rebuild a damaged tourism industry, one of the mainstays of local economies. Close cooperation and determined political relations will be vital.

The opportunities for true democratic reform in the Middle East and Asia are still balanced by regimes who refuse to cow to international pressure. The aim of Western policymakers will now be to make concerted efforts to make reforms bear fruit and reward regimes who take those steps. It may not end well, who can forget Tony Blair’s visit to the Libya desert to meet Colonel Qahdafi in 2004? But offering no incentives is counterproductive and must be avoided. Yet there remain states who, despite the economic and military support of the US and the West, cannot properly manage their own affairs; Afghanistan is a case in point. What is certain is that 2012 will require ever more nuanced diplomacy with policy-makers attempting to lead the agenda rather than the agenda leading them. The myriad of different events in the last week could give policy-makers a hazy view into the crystal ball of 2012.



Posted on January 15, 2012, in Foreign Affairs, General, Weekly Round-up and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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