Tag Archives: united nations

Koreans look to 2017 after Park’s governing party loses seats

South Korean president Park Guen-hye met with US president Barack Obama in Washington soon after taking office in 2013. (White House)
South Korean president Park Guen-hye met with US president Barack Obama in Washington soon after taking office in 2013. (White House)

Though it’s only been two weeks since South Koreans upended polls to deliver a shock verdict in parliamentary elections, the country is now pivoting toward its next presidential election — which is nearly 20 months away. northkorea

Taking place nearly two-thirds of the way through the five-year term of president Park Guen-hye (박근혜), the election was an opportunity for Park to solidify her grip on the National Assembly, as well as her own party, the conservative Saenuri Party (새누리당, ‘New Frontier’ Party) by winning a more solid majority in South Korea’s 300-member unicameral legislature, the National Assembly (대한민국 국회). 

Despite poll predictions that Saenuri would take advantage of a split opposition and win an even wider majority, the party instead lost ground, falling further away from an absolute majority, winning just 122 seats, 24 fewer seats in the National Assembly than the party held before the elections. Park, like all South Korean presidents, is limited to a single term in office and, in some regards, she became a lame duck president from the first days of the 2013 inauguration of the country’s first female president. That hasn’t stopped Park from wielding power through a very strong executive branch.

SK elections 2016 SK national assembly (1)

Saenuri’s defeat, however, and Park’s failures in particular, mean that the country is now shifting towards the posturing among Park’s opponents, including those within other Saenuri Party factions, to plot a path to the presidency in an election that will not be held until December 20, 2017.

The results will give hope to the traditional center-left opposition party, the newly renamed (as of last December) Minjoo Party (더불어민주당), a successor to what used to be called the Democratic United Party, which won 123 seats — one more than Saenuri. That could embolden several top figures within the party to mount a 2017 presidential bid, including Moon Jae-in (문재인), the party’s former leader and its 2012 candidate against Park.

But the results will give even more hope to the newly formed, as of February, People’s Party (국민의당), an alternative liberal party that has pulled supporters away from Minjoo. Its leader is Ahn Cheol-soo (안철수), a software entrepreneur, businessman and academic, who burst onto the political scene as a potential presidential candidate in 2012. He will now almost certainly be a contender in the 2017 election. Though the People’s Party only won 38 seats, it actually won more votes than Minjoo.

So what does South Korea’s election mean for the rest of Park’s administration and for 2017? Continue reading Koreans look to 2017 after Park’s governing party loses seats

16 in 2016: Sixteen global elections to watch in 2016


Of the most important elections in 2015, it’s a safe bet to argue that three of them took place in Greece: the January parliamentary elections, one insane roller-coaster of a referendum in July and another snap parliamentary vote again in September.

So what is the world to do in 2016, when no one expects Greeks to return to the polls? (Though, Athens being Athens, it’s impossible to rule the possibility out.)

Fear not. The new year will bring with it a fresh schedule of exciting elections on all seven continents, including in the United States, which after a marathon pair of primary campaigns, will finally choose the country’s 45th president in November 2016.

But following American politics only begins to scratch the surface.

At least two world leaders in 2016 will put ballot questions to voters  that could make or break their careers (and legacies).

New governments could emerge from elections in Taiwan, the Philippines, Morocco, Georgia, Peru, Jamaica, Ghana, Zambia and Australia.

Former president Nicolas Sarkozy will either advance or flame out in his bid for a French political comeback in 2016.

Semi-autocratic leaders in Russia, Uganda, Congo and Vietnam will seek endorsements from their voters while hoping that the veneer of elections doesn’t unleash popular protest.

An opaque series of votes in Iran could determine the country’s future Supreme Leader.

A mayoral election in London (and regional elections outside England) could reshuffle British politics with an even more important vote on the horizon in 2017.

One very special election could change the international agenda of world peace and global security altogether.

Without further ado, here is Suffragio‘s guide to the top 16 elections to watch in 2016. After a short break in the new year, your attention should turn to the South China Sea… Continue reading 16 in 2016: Sixteen global elections to watch in 2016

Why the ‘brosé summit of 2015’ was more about Russia than the United States

US president Barack Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin share a toast Monday at the United Nations. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
US president Barack Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin share a toast Monday at the United Nations. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The way the US and international media portrayed Monday evening’s meeting between US president Barack Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin, you might think that the diplomatic maneuvering at the United Nations General Assembly over Syria’s civil war amounted to a fight-to-the-finish struggle for the two countries, both of which are permanent members on the UN Security Council. UNSyria Flag IconRussia Flag IconUSflag

But that’s just not true because the stakes in Syria for the United States are far, far lower. It is tempting to view every disagreement between the United States and Russia as a zero-sum game, with a clear winner and a clear loser, but that’s false.

Here’s why.

Why Syria matters so much to Putin

Consider how important Syria and, in particular, Bashar al-Assad, is to Russia. Assad, these days, doesn’t control much of Syria’s territory, but he does retain power throughout many of the coastal cities where most of Syria’s weary population still resides. That’s important to Moscow because the Syrian coast hosts the only warm-water port for the Russian navy at Tartus.

A look at which groups control Syria, as of September 2015. (Wikipedia)
A look at which groups control Syria, as of September 2015. (Wikipedia)

But it’s so much more.

While the United States continues to project influence on a global basis and while China has expanded its regional reach into south Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and even parts of Latin America, Russia’s post-Soviet influence is more limited. The battle lines between Russia and the ‘West’ are no longer Vietnam or Afghanistan or even Poland or Hungary, it’s skirmishes within former Soviet republics like Ukraine and Georgia or fights over influence in central Asia.

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RELATED: One chart that explains Obama-era Middle East policy

RELATED: The idea of a nuclear war with Russia is absolutely crazy

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Syria, however, retained the strong ties with Moscow that it developed under Assad’s father Hafez in the 1970s. Outside the former Soviet republics, there is virtually no other country that you could consider anything like a Russian ‘client state,’ with the exception of Syria. That’s a big deal for a country resentful that it has gone from a truly global player — culturally, technologically, politically and economically — to regional chump with fading commodity exports, crumbling physical and social infrastructure and an economy one-tenth that of the US economy.  Continue reading Why the ‘brosé summit of 2015’ was more about Russia than the United States

Winners and losers in the Iran nuclear deal

lausanne15Photo credit to AFP / Getty Images.

Today’s announcement of a deal between Iran and the ‘P5+1’ countries, with a final June 30 deadline looming, is being met with cautious optimism today as the European Union’s chief foreign policy official Federica Mogherini, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif and US secretary of state John Kerry all make statements about the deal from Lausanne, Switzerland. USflagIran Flag Icon

The key to the deal? Iran will be permitted to enrich fuel for its civil nuclear energy program, including the use of centrifuges, though not to the level necessary to build a nuclear weapons program. Furthermore, Iran has agreed with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to monitor and diligence all current and past nuclear operations to uncover the extent of any Iranian determination to build a nuclear weapons program.

It will certainly rank, if it’s finalized, as one of the top foreign policy accomplishments of US president Barack Obama.

From The New York Times:

According to European officials, roughly 5,000 centrifuges will remain spinning enriched uranium at the main nuclear site at Natanz, about half the number currently running. The giant underground enrichment site at Fordo – which Israeli and some American officials fear is impervious to bombing – will be partly converted to advanced nuclear research and the production of medical isotopes. Foreign scientist will be present. There will be no fissile material present that could be used to make a bomb.

The deal is sure to bring howls from its opponents, including many skeptics in the United States, including Congressional Republicans and many Democrats as well, and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has said that any deal must preclude Iran from any enrichment. But as negotiators from the P5 + 1 — the five members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany — and Iran work through the details of the deal in the next three months, it seems more likely than not that the deal will be finalized, opening the way to lifting international sanctions against Iran imposed by the United Nations (if not exactly all the sanctions currently in place by the United States).

So who ‘wins’ and ‘loses’ in this deal? Here’s a look, starting with the winners:  Continue reading Winners and losers in the Iran nuclear deal

Photo of the week: Cameron meets Rowhani

379932_Cameron-RouhaniPhoto credit to PressTV.

In Iran, the United States may be the ‘Great Satan,’ but it’s the United Kingdom has an even longer and more complicated history with Iran.Iran Flag IconUnited Kingdom Flag Icon

It’s not uncommon, among the most conspiratorial Iranian politicians, to hear fulminations against British plots, even today. And to be fair, there’s some basis for Iranian antipathy toward nearly two centuries of antipathy between the Persian and British empires.

The British increasingly sidelined the Persian empire in the 19th century during the so-called ‘Great Game,’ as the Russian and Turkish empires increasingly encroached on historical Persia. In 1908, with the discovery of oil, British interests quickly swooped in to negotiate favorable terms for themselves, to the detriment of the Iranians. During World War II, though Iran was officially neutral, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union jointly invaded Iran in 1941 as part of efforts to secure Iranian oil, installing the young Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as the country’s new shah. The resulting chaos led to famine, economic mismanagement and starvation throughout Iran for the rest of the war. Though the United States Central Intelligence Agency carried out the 1953 ouster of prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, British intelligence greatly facilitated the operation.

More recently, a mob invaded the British embassy in Tehran in 2011, setting fire to the British flag, which caused the United Kingdom to cut relations with Iran.

So it’s no exaggeration to say that the United Kingdom might today be even more hated in the Islamic Republic of Iran than the United States of America.

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RELATED: As Rowhani takes power, US must now move forward to improve US-Iran relations

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All of which makes this week’s bilateral meeting between Iranian president Hassan Rowhani and British prime minister David Cameron so fascinating. Continue reading Photo of the week: Cameron meets Rowhani

Kosovo, Crimea and Putin’s ‘всех нагнули’ theory of foreign affairs


In his wide-ranging speech announcing the Russian Federation’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, president Vladimir Putin had some choice words for the West: If you don’t like what Russia did in Crimea, you only have yourselves to blame — on the basis of the precedent in Kosovo in 1999.kosovoRussia Flag Icon

Though the officially translated remarks smooth over Putin’s salty language, it appears he used the slang term ‘всех нагнули,’ which, as Masha Gessen describes in Slate, is fairly graphic:

“It was our Western partners who created the precedent; they did it themselves, with their own hands, as it were, in a situation that was totally analogous to the Crimean situation, by recognizing Kosovo’s secession from Serbia as legitimate,” said Putin. And then, as he cited American statements on Kosovo, he got more and more worked up until he said, “They wrote it themselves. They spread this all over the world. They screwed everybody—and now they are outraged!” (The Kremlin’s official translators, who are forever civilizing the Russian president’s speech, translated this sentence as “They wrote this, disseminated it all over the world, had everyone agree, and now they are outraged!” The expression Putin used, however, was “vsekh nagnuli,” street slang for having had nonconsensual anal sex with everybody, rather than for having everybody agree.)

Gessen, in an otherwise fabulous essay that starts with her own days as a war reporter in the late 1990s in Serbia and Kosovo, retells the story of the Primakov loop — a moment that Gessen argues represents a key pivot point in US-Russian relations, when the NATO governments essentially left Russia out of the loop with regarding its campaign against what was then still Yugoslavia and the regime of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević.

Ironically, even as the 1999 Kosovo precedent has increasingly become a flash point in the current war of words between Moscow and Washington, Serbians went to the polls on the same day as the Crimea referendum. They elected a majority government under  center-right Progressive Party leader Aleksandar Vučić, a government that will be firmly focused on accession to the European Union, which has dangled the economic incentives of EU membership to advance a political settlement between Serbia and Kosovo.

Nonetheless, to understand the Putin doctrine of the 2010s, it’s worth revisiting the origins of the Primakov doctrine of the 1990s, which defined US-Russian relations and European-Russian relations in the same ‘zero-sum game’ terms.

Yevgeny Primakov is one of the more fascinating figures to emerge out of the presidency of Boris Yeltsin.  

Continue reading Kosovo, Crimea and Putin’s ‘всех нагнули’ theory of foreign affairs

A treasury of comments about Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill

uganda gay rights

How much do Ugandans hate gays and lesbians?uganda

A lot, as it turns out.  My post from last week, which recounted the final enactment of Nigeria’s anti-gay law and the decision by Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni to veto the anti-gay bill passed in December 2013 by the Ugandan parliament, attracted more attention than nearly any post I’ve written since I started Suffragio in early 2012.

So I thought it was worth sharing some of the reactions — and they’ve been jarring.

In the past month alone, I’ve argued that the United States is engendering sympathy for al-Qaeda forces in Yemen, that the US Senate would commit policy malpractice by enacting a new Iran sanctions bill and that the late Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s most enduring legacy is empowering Hezbollah.  Just yesterday, I entertained the notion that the United States and Canada should merge into a superstate.  These aren’t easy issues, and others won’t always share my  interpretations and conclusions.

But nothing has caused quite as much blowback as a relatively straightforward piece examining Museveni’s veto in the context of a rapidly worsening climate for LGBT rights throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

The (unintentionally hilarious) Anel Tunes, who’s from Kampala, shared my post on Facebook — with the following preamble:

All homosexuals need to be shot dead on site. We don’t need to spend tax payers money by taking such beasts to court. We just need to slay their throats without a question.

He’s not alone — the comments on both my blog and on Facebook run very heavily anti-gay.  I’d expect that because Uganda’s culture is relatively conservative.  There are plenty of good people in the United States who oppose same-sex marriage and believe, for religious or other reasons, that same-sex relationships are wrong, and the battle for wider acceptance of sexual minorities (including, for the record, transsexual and transgender individuals) can’t be legislated or enacted by judicial fiat.  I can understand that.

What I can’t understand is the desire to kill fellow citizens.  The virulence of hatred is staggering.  I’m used to a hostile or critical comment (or dozen) from time to time, but these comments are extraordinarily hateful.

Rogers Mover M adds simply:


From Ssebbaale Henry Wise:

rubbish !!!! it doent matter whether he voted other wise, remember this is africa, we act as we please, we will contiue to kill the Gays until when they are totally finished

From Tonny Bulletslinger Tomeeo Lazyeye:

Homo??? you even have time to debate on that??? we have machetes

Jjemba Mathew disapproves of the Ugandan parliament’s decision to reduce the penalty from ‘death’ to merely life imprisonment:

Life imprisonment can not end gay habits.They need Gun fire in the stadium.

Black Panther argues that Ugandan gays should be fed to the crocodiles:

 This is abusing our President.Its such a shameful act that it shldnt hv even been discussed in our Parliament.They shld hv just rounded up all homosexuals at night and thrown them into River Nile for our more honourable and profitable crocodiles to feast on as they are more useful at least they attract tourists and earn the country the much needed foreign currency.

Continue reading A treasury of comments about Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill

Ten reasons why the Iran sanctions Senate bill is policy malpractice

Iran nuclear talks: Kerry and Zarif meet at the UN

Iran is quickly moving to the front of the ever-shifting foreign policy agenda in Washington at the end of this week, with 59 members of the US Senate, including 15 Democratic senators and the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, supporting the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013.Iran Flag IconUSflag

The bill would impose additional sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran in the event that the current round of talks fail between Iran and the ‘P5+1,’ the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China and Russia), plus Germany.  US president Barack Obama met with the entire Democratic caucus in the US Senate Wednesday night to implore his party’s senators not to support the bill.  Senate majority leader Harry Reid opposes the bill, and he hasn’t scheduled a vote for the new Iran sanctions — and even some of its supporters may be backing off as the temporary six-month deal proceeds.

But with 59 co-sponsors, the bill is just one vote shy of passing the Senate, and it would almost certainly pass in the US House of Representatives, where the Republican Party holds a majority.  In the event that the Congress passes a bill, Obama could veto it, but the Senate is already precariously close to the two-thirds majority it would need to override Obama’s veto.

The Obama administration argues that the bill is nothing short of warmongering, while the bill’s supporters argue that the sanctions will reinforce the Obama administration’s hand in negotiations.  Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister (pictured above with US secretary of state John Kerry), has warned that the bill would destroy any chances of reaching a permanent deal, and it’s hard to blame him.  Under the current deal, reached in November, the P5+1 agreed to lift up to $8 billion in economic sanctions in exchange for Iran’s decision to freeze its nuclear program for six months while the parties work through a longer-term deal.  The deal further provides that Iran will dilute its 20% enriched uranium down to just 5% enriched uranium, and the P5+1 have agreed to release a portion of Iran’s frozen assets abroad and partially unblock Iran’s oil exports.

So what should you make of the decision of 59 US senators to hold up a negotiation process that not only the Obama administration supports, but counts the support of its British, German and French allies?

Not much.

And here are ten reasons why the bill represents nothing short of policy malpractice.   Continue reading Ten reasons why the Iran sanctions Senate bill is policy malpractice

Who would win a South Sudanese civil war? Khartoum.


Even as the government is allegedly calling for a ceasefire, the capital of South Sudan, the world’s newest country continues to teeter on the brink of civil war.southsudansudan

The political differences between South Sudanese president Salva Kiir and former South Sudanese vice president Riek Machar, which far outdate South Sudan’s independence, now threaten to destroy South Sudan’s fragile institutions, including its armed forces and the independence movement-turned-political party Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) into dueling factions.  Last week, fighting broke out in the streets of Juba after Kiir announced that Machar tried to mount a coup against him — Kiir dismissed an increasingly critical Machar as vice president in July 2013.

The key for South Sudanese leaders is to keep what remains mostly a fight between dueling elites from crossing the political equivalent of the blood-brain barrier — transforming into a wider conflict based on ethnicity.  With reports of mass graves of Nuer victims and fighting that’s spread from Juba to the majority of South Sudan’s ten states, crossing that barrier will become increasingly easier. 

I wrote last week that South Sudan isn’t destined for civil war between Kiir’s Dinka ethnic group and Machar’s Nuer ethnic group, and I outlined steps that could ameliorate the situation — regional moves like South Sudan’s admission to the East African Community or an African or United Nations peacekeeping force, as well as national steps that would include Kiir’s reinstating Machar to the vice presidency, creating stronger checks and balances to the presidency and establishing a firm timetable for 2015 elections.

But the best incentive that the South Sudanese have in avoiding a civil war is the most obvious impetus of all — the winner of a South Sudanese civil war would be neither Kiir nor Machar, but Sudan, the country from which South Sudan split after a half-century independence struggle.  If South Sudan’s leaders continue to turn on one another, you can be sure that Khartoum will take advantage of it.

That’s all the more devastating for South Sudan because so many issues remain unresolved following South Sudan’s 2011 independence.  Those issues include financial matters like how to allocate Sudan’s pre-2011 national debt as between Sudan and South Sudan, but it also includes trickier aspects like territorial disputes and difficulties over sharing oil wealth that comes largely from wells in Unity state in the north-center of South Sudan and Upper Nile state in the northeast.  There are reports that rebels loyal to Machar now control Unity state, oil production of around 45,000 barrels per day has now ceased in Unity state, and Machar loyalists also says they control Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile state.  South Sudan’s government, as well as its economy, overwhelmingly depends on oil sales, so if the turmoil is starting to affect output, the conflict is reaching yet another critically damaging stage.


Meanwhile, the status of Abyei, a region immediately west of Unity state, remains disputed by both Sudan and South Sudan.  It’s not difficult to imagine that Omar al-Bashir (pictured above, right, with Kiir) could take advantage of a drawn-out civil war in South Sudan by moving to take control of Abyei, despite the latest indication that the vast majority of Abyei’s residents preferred in an October 2013 non-binding referendum to become part of South Sudan.  Abyei’s fate is connected to a revolt in South Kordofan, a state that lies just north of the Sudan-South Sudan border — while both countries agreed that it would remain under Khartoum’s administration, many of its inhabitants identify with South Sudan, and Bashir has been engaged in a two-year local rebellion to retain control of South Kordofan. Continue reading Who would win a South Sudanese civil war? Khartoum.

Why Menendez is such an awful Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair


Was Jesse Helms a better chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee than Bob Menendez?  USflag

Menendez, who took over the committee earlier this year when former senator John Kerry was appointed as US secretary of state, is making headlines this week for a bill that would largely derail a still delicate US-Iranian rapprochement.  He introduced a Senate bill yesterday that, if enacted, would mark a serious setback in the nuclear negotiations between the United States (and the other members of the ‘P5 + 1’ team that includes the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany) and Iran.  The bill would institute a new round of punitive economic sanctions on Iran on the heels of a six-month deal between negotiators and the administration of Iran’s new moderate president Hassan Rowhani that all parties hope could lead to a more permanent accord.  On Thursday, ten Democratic committee chairs sent a letter to Senate majority leader Harry Reid in opposition to Menendez’s bill, and the White House has warned Menendez that his legislative efforts aren’t helping negotiations.

Though Menendez’s bill, co-sponsored with Republican senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, is called the ‘Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act,’ there’s no firm evidence that Iran even wants to build a nuclear weapon, though plenty of US policymakers suspect that Iran has secret designs on building one.  Rowhani and his foreign minister Javad Zarif have disclaimed interest in nuclear weapons, and Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei has argued that nuclear weapons are a violation of Islamic law.

The bill would introduce new sanctions if Iran violates the terms of the current agreement or fails to come to a permanent agreement with the ‘P5 + 1’ team.  In essence, it would put an economic sanctions gun to Iran’s head — the bill demonstrates no respect for a process of negotiation between two sovereign states.  It seems more designed to score low-hanging political points for conservative Democrats than to engage seriously on finding a mutually acceptable path for Iran’s energy program that also makes the Middle East more stable.  Menendez, a longtime ally of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), is siding with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has attempted to derail the Iran deal at every turn.

As James Traub wrote in Foreign Policy earlier this week:

 The reason why Menendez and others really are marching on a path to war is that they are demanding an outcome which Iran manifestly will not accept: zero enrichment. As Daryl Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association, puts it, “This is a strategy based upon hope that is not supported by the evidence of Iranian actions over the past decade, its past statements, or common sense.”….

I have no idea why Menendez and other Democrats believe that more pressure will make Iran abandon a core tenet of the revolution and thus undermine their claim to rule. (I asked for an interview, but the New Jersey senator was not available.) Maybe they believe it because [Netanyahu] has made zero enrichment his own bottom line.

So who is Menendez, and how did he rise to become the preeminent foreign policy official in the legislative branch of US government?

Menendez is the son of Cuban immigrants who came to the United States in 1953 for economic opportunity (not, as you might believe, to flee Fidel Castro, who was in 1953 still six years away from overthrowing the US-supported dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista).  Menendez spent his childhood in New Jersey and rose to political prominence in the Democratic machine politics of Union City, which was once known as ’10 Percent City,’ and not because its residents were tithing Christians.  Initially a protégé of Union City mayor and New Jersey political powerbroker William Musto, Menendez broke with his mentor only after Musto’s indictment for skimming.  Though Musto was ultimately convicted and served five years in prison, he still managed to defeat Menendez when the future senator challenged him for the mayorship in 1982.  But Menendez eventually won the office in 1986, then became a member of the New Jersey State Assembly, the New Jersey State Senate and in 1993, a member of the US House of Representatives.

For nearly as long as he’s chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez has been under investigation by a Florida grand jury in connection with potential misconduct with respect to one of Menendez’s top donors, Salomen Melgen, a Miami eye surgeon who moved to Florida from the Dominican Republic in 1980.  Though the nastiest rumors about Melgen and Menendez cavorting with underage prostitutes were probably false, Menendez admitted to violating Senate ethics rules when he forgot to reimburse Melgen for two private jet flights to the Dominican Republic in 2010.  Other accusations are less salacious but potentially illegal — Menendez is accused of intervening on Melgen’s behalf in respect of a billing dispute between Melgen and the federal government’s Medicare offices and in favor of a port security contract in the Dominican Republic that would have benefitted Melgen financially.  

The grand jury hasn’t issued any charges against Menendez, and prosecutors may ultimately choose to drop the matter, but it’s not best practices for the Senate’s top foreign policy voice to be implicated in an abuse of power scandal that involves, in part, international contracts.

The Iran bill follows Menendez’s push earlier this autumn to goad US president Barack Obama into a more hawkish position on Syria that would have seen US military attack on Bashar al-Assad.  Menendez actually made the following analogy in his push to win support for an attack earlier this year: Continue reading Why Menendez is such an awful Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair

How to prevent South Sudan’s impending civil war


Around 48 hours ago, South Sudanese president Salva Kiir announced that his government had halted a hazy coup attempt against Kiir’s government, which took power in July 2011 after the country emerged as an independent nation from Sudan.southsudan

But Kiir’s announcement seemed less like the end of the matter than the start of the worst ethno-political rupture since South Sudanese independence, pitting Kiir’s Dinka ethnic group against the Nuer ethnic group of his fiercest rival, former South Sudanese vice president Riek Machar.  Instead of stability in the capital city of Juba, the past two days have brought sporadic rounds of gunfire as armed forces allied with either Kiir (pictured above) or Machar clash in the streets, and there are reports of at least 500 people dead in Juba.

Kiir reshuffled his cabinet in July 2013, which led to Machar’s dismissal from the South Sudanese government.  For his part, Machar has criticized Kiir as increasingly ‘dictatorial.’

sudan-mapHopes ran high in the aftermath of the January 2011 referendum, in which 98.83% of the South Sudanese voted in favor of separating from Khartoum.  But since July 9, 2011, the country’s first 29 months have not been good ones for the world’s youngest country.  Aside from oil, the revenues of which South Sudan shares untidily with Sudan (which controls access to the oil pipelines that pump petroleum from South Sudan to the Red Sea coast), the country has been described as the world’s most underdeveloped.

It’s difficult to understand just how difficult the challenge is for South Sudan.

When it separated from Sudan, it was a country with virtually no institutions — don’t think of it like the pushes for Scottish or Catalan independence, where the sub-national units have experience with regional governance.  To the contrary, southern Sudan had essentially been engaged in a resistance struggle against its northern rulers in Khartoum for all but 10 years of the 55 years between Sudanese independence from the British and South Sudanese independence from Sudan.  It’s a landlocked country with no access to ports.  Oil wealth has proved a source of wealth, but also nearly unbelievable corruption.  Its GDP in 2012 was just $9.4 billion, and its GDP per capita is around $860.  Its literacy rate is around 27%.  Though its past is linked to Sudan in the north, and its leaders largely agree that its future lies with east African neighbors, such as Uganda and Kenya, its present is marked by rupture with the former and a lack of durable links with the latter.  It faces a long slog in terms of simply building roads and delivering fresh water to its citizens.  Infant mortality is 105 per 1,000 live births and the maternal mortality rate is 2,054 per 100,000 live births — these are some of the worst mortality statistics in the world.

Facts remain relatively dodgy, and it’s not certain if the ‘coup’ attempt on Sunday and Monday was a genuine plot or Kiir’s response an oversensitive reaction — Machar, speaking to the Sudan Tribune Wednesday, argued that the ‘coup’ itself was a misunderstanding between South Sudanese soldiers before calling Kiir an ‘illegal president.’

But with the US embassy in Juba evacuating all of its non-essential personnel and with thousands of South Sudanese seeking refuge at UN compounds in Juba, the situation seems to be worsening.  As South Sudan appears to move closer to the point of civil war, it’s important to remember that its chief ethnic groups have much more in common with each other than with the Khartoum elite that once ruled Juba from afar — and who would love to take advantage of internal South Sudanese strike in order to gain firm control of the Abyei region and, potentially, launch incursions to other oil-rich areas.  Though the Dinka (about 15% of the South Sudanese population) and the Nuer (about 10%) represent the two largest and politically strongest ethnic groups in the country, around three-fourths of South Sudan’s 11 million people belong to one of over five dozen other ethnic groups.

Speaking of its past, you can lay many of South Sudan’s woes at the feet of Khartoum, which for so long simply ignored what used to be southern Sudan, or even the British colonialists who so curiously fashioned the failed state that would later become Sudan.   Continue reading How to prevent South Sudan’s impending civil war

Nobel by elimination: OPCW was the only worthy recipient


The committee awarding the Nobel Peace Prize historically doesn’t shy away from making political statements through its award — and this year was no different.nobel-peace-prize

In retrospect, despite the Western media swoon over 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Pakistani Taliban and recovered in the United Kingdom to become a living symbol of the fight for women’s rights in the Muslim world, it makes a lot of sense that the Nobel committee would want to highlight the fight against chemical weapons, given that the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war in August earlier this year was the worst chemical weapons attack since their use in the 1980s by Iraq.

Upholding the international ban on chemical weapons drew a very reluctant US president Barack Obama to the brink of military engagement in the Middle East.  In terms of war and peace over the past 12 months, there’s no denying that chemical weapons have playing a tragic starring role:

“The conventions and the work of the OPCW have defined the use of chemical weapons as a taboo under international law,” said Thorbjoern Jagland, the head of the Nobel Peace Prize committee, in announcing the award. “Recent events in Syria, where chemical weapons have again been put to use, have underlined the need to enhance the efforts to do away with such weapons.”

(Honorable mention should go to Denis Mukwege, the Congolese doctor who’s risked his life to fight rape in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.)

Even if the Nobel committee’s goal should have been clear in retrospect, it was always going to be a challenge to identify an individual worthy of receiving the award.

Maybe Russian president Vladimir Putin, who took up an offhand comment from US secretary of state John Kerry to broker a United Nations Security Council deal whereby Syria would identify and begin eliminating its chemical weapons stockpiles.  But it may have been the US threat of force that pushed Putin to make the offer more than Putin’s natural instinct for peace.

Moreover, Putin presides over an awfully authoritarian state, and his record on press freedom, LGBT rights, civil rights for minorities and the Chechnya conflict hardly screams out ‘Nobel laureate.’  It was always more likely that Alexei Navalny, the crusading opposition figure, would win the prize.  Or Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the human rights activist and chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group. Or Lilia Shianova, the director of Golos, Russia’s independent voting rights organization. Or Svetlana Gannushkina, who’s been a leading figure in providing humanitarian and legal aid in Chechnya.

It certainly couldn’t be Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who’s leading one side of an increasingly intractable civil war and whose regime was responsible for the August sarin attack on the outskirts of Damascus.  Despite Assad’s apparent and swift cooperation with chemical weapons inspectors, he’s still engaged in a bloody fight against a mixed force of Sunni rebels and other opponents who want to end his family’s Alawite regime, which has governed Syria with an iron fist since 1971.  It also couldn’t be any of Syria’s rebel forces, some of whom are aligned with the most radical Islamist terror networks in the world.

Nor could it be US president Barack Obama, who already won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, and his administration’s response to the chemical weapons attack in Syria was bumbling at best.  That may be the nature of realpolitik, and the end result is probably beyond what Obama and Kerry ever expected would be possible.  But it was hardly a shining moment for US foreign policy.

Moreover, both the United States and Russia have so far failed to destroy their own chemical weapons stockpiles, a fact that the Nobel committee acidly noted in awarding the prize.

So who was left? The chemical weapons inspectors themselves.

Through the process of elimination, the Nobel committee decided to award the prize to the entity whose very job is the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria and throughout the world.

That’s the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (Ahmet Uzumcu, the OPCW’s director-general pictured above), a 16-year-old organization based in The Hague in the Netherlands and the watchdog tasked with keeping the world’s countries in compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention — and which is now playing the crucial role of effecting a deal that should eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons capability by mid-2014, if all goes according to plan.  The challenge in Syria represents the most high-profile challenge for the OPCW since its creation but, so far, the OPCW is rising to the task.

Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to an organization sometimes falls like a wet blanket, even though it’s happened 24 times since 1901.  This year’s award follows the decision last year to award the prize to the European Union for its role in becalming the European continent over the past seven decades.

Giving the award to the OPCW instead of Malala (or even Putin or another individual) didn’t necessarily provide a picture-perfect, feel-good catharsis.  But it rightly shines a spotlight on an unheralded protagonist at a time when the OPCW’s work is far from complete — even if it succeeds in Syria, the world won’t be rid of chemical weapons.

Photo credit to AFP / Bas Czerwinski.

Sharif, Singh meet in New York, agree to cooperate over terror attacks


Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif and Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh met as planned in New York Sunday morning to discuss bilateral relations — even after 12 Indians were killed by suspected Pakistani terrorists in Kashmir last week. Pakistan Flag IconIndia Flag Icon

Accordingly, the resulting understanding between the two was far wider than a mere handshake of the kind rumored last week to be in the works between US president Barack Obama and Iran’s new moderate president Hassan Rowhani:

The leaders agreed that their military chiefs should meet and investigate any attacks in disputed border regions in order to prevent a recurrence, Pakistani Foreign Secretary Jalil Jilani told reporters after their one-hour breakfast meeting, held three days after the latest deadly raid in Kashmir. Jilani didn’t specify when the military officials will meet.

The two also invited each other to their respective countries, Indian National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon said after yesterday’s meeting.  “We have actually achieved a new stage and now have some understanding of how to improve going forward and I think that is an advance on one and a half years ago,” Menon said.

It’s important to note that both sides downplayed the significance of the meeting, but there’s reason for optimism — if such a strong statement resulted as a formal matter from the meeting, there’s reason to believe that Sharif and Singh could have discussed and agreed on much more.  Sharif, in addition, agreed to ‘movement’ on Pakistan’s role in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks.

Sharif only began his third term as prime minister in June 2013, but he has indicated he wants to strengthen relations that have been strained since Partition in 1947 — primarily over India’s control of the provinces of Jammu and Kashmir along the Pakistani-Indian border, over which the two countries have gone to war twice.  In an address earlier this week to the General Assembly, Sharif said that the nuclear arms race between the two countries was a waste of massive resources.

Singh, who has been hesitant to embrace Sharif’s overtures and claimed earlier this weekend that Pakistan is an epicenter of south Asian terrorism, is in his final months after what will be a decade as prime minister in India, and he’ll be succeeded by May 2014 by either the Indian National Congress (Congress, or भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस) standard-bearer Rahul Gandhi, the fourth-generation scion of the party’s (and perhaps India’s) leading political family or the chief minister of Gujarat state, Narendra Modi, who will lead the conservative, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, or भारतीय जनता पार्टी) into next spring’s elections and whose plucky style could mean a tense period for the bilateral relationship, given his alleged role in anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002.

So even though the meeting’s potential was always limited, there’s good reason to welcome it — for at least five reasons, as I argued over the weekend in The National Interest:

  • Boosting regional security will be even more important as the United States draws down troops from the Af-Pak theater in 2014.
  • Aside from Pakistan’s election in May, Iran’s election in June and India’s elections next year, Afghanistan will elect a president next spring and Bangladesh will hold elections in January.  That means we could see five new leaders in the span of one year in southwest Asia, in addition to this year’s leadership transition in the People’s Republic of China.
  • Greater ties between India and Pakistan could boost both countries’ underperforming economies.  Freer trade is low-hanging fruit.
  • The meeting can cement Sharif’s credentials as a strong — and democratic — leader as he contemplates who will succeed Ashfaq Parvez Kayani as the next army chief of staff.
  • Finally, while the world cares more about the potential of a nuclear-armed Iran, it’s easy to forget that both Pakistan and India have had nuclear weapons for a decade and a half.  Cooperation between the two countries not only improves regional stability, but global stability.

Forget Obama-Rowhani — this weekend’s about the Singh-Sharif meeting


While we still bask in the glow of tectonic movement between the United States and Iran, as well as an apparent resolution among the Security Council over Syria’s chemical weapons, there’s a third diplomatic front to keep an eye on.Pakistan Flag IconIndia Flag Icon

For all of the hype over the potential meeting between US president Barack Obama and Iranian president Hassan Rowhani earlier this week at the United Nations General Assembly, tomorrow’s meeting between Pakistan’s new prime minister Nawaz Sharif and India’s outgoing prime minister Manmohan Singh comes at a crucial time — in the wake of an attack by Pakistani militants earlier this week in contested Jammu that seemed designed to keep the two south Asian neighbors at odds.

Sharif is just barely 100 days into his third term as prime minister and Singh is a lame-duck who will leave office no later than May 2014 after India’s next elections.  While there’s a limit to what the meeting can accomplish, it’s important for at least five reasons, I argue this morning in The National Interest:

  • Boosting regional security will be even more important as the United States draws down troops from the Af-Pak theater in 2014.
  • Aside from Pakistan’s election in May, Iran’s election in June and India’s elections next year, Afghanistan will elect a president next spring and Bangladesh will hold elections in January.  That means we could see five new leaders in the span of one year in southwest Asia, in addition to this year’s leadership transition in the People’s Republic of China.
  • Greater ties between India and Pakistan could boost both countries’ underperforming economies.  Freer trade is low-hanging fruit.
  • The meeting can cement Sharif’s credentials as a strong — and democratic — leader as he contemplates who will succeed Ashfaq Parvez Kayani as the next army chief of staff.
  • Finally, while the world cares more about the potential of a nuclear-armed Iran, it’s easy to forget that both Pakistan and India have had nuclear weapons for a decade and a half.  Cooperation between the two countries not only improves regional stability, but global stability.


Obama-Rowhani call a historic first step in securing better US-Iranian relations


Today, for the first time since 1979, the leaders of the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran held a bilateral discussion when US president Barack Obama called Iranian president Hassan Rowhani to discuss a potential solution to the international stalemate over Iran’s nuclear energy program.USflagIran Flag Icon

It wasn’t the handshake that everyone thought might have been possible earlier this week in New York at the United Nations General Assembly, but it’s still a remarkable step — and could result in real movement between Iran and the ‘P5 + 1’ countries over the future of the Iranian nuclear program and crippling UN sanctions.

It’s important to remember that there’s a long history of misfires on US-Iranian relations, with former Iranian presidents like Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammed Khatami making overtures to the United States that went unrewarded — everything from Iranian assistance to Bosnian fighters in the 1990s to Iranian assistance to bring the Northern Alliance to support the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Even Rowhani, as Iran’s first nuclear negotiator in 2003, was burned when he offered a moratorium on further Iranian enrichment.  That concession led to nothing but the empowerment of anti-American hardliners, who came to power with the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president in 2005.

It follows a relationship that, even before the 1979 revolution that brought Shiite ayatollahs to power in Iran, was troubled — Iranians, even today, haven’t forgotten the role that the United States played in toppling former Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 and boosting the repressive regime of the Iranian shah through the 1979 revolution.

As I wrote shortly after Rowhani’s staggering election as president in June 2013:

The Obama administration’s challenge is to forge a strategic path with Iran’s new president that undermines the hardliners in both Iran and in the United States.  Whether Iran likes it or not, it has to demonstrate to the world that it’s not pursuing clandestine nuclear weaponry.  But whether the West likes it or not, it must ultimately acknowledge that Iran — a sovereign nation of 75 million people — has a right to its own nuclear energy program on terms that respect the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic, and Obama will have to back up his weekend olive branch with substantive alms that show the United States is serious.

The discussion follows a potentially even more historic meeting between US secretary of state John Kerry and Iran’s even more moderate, English-speaking foreign minister Javad Zarif (pictured below) over a potential breakthrough in the standoff over Iran’s nuclear energy program.


One telephone call between presidents and one meeting between foreign ministers doesn’t exactly mean that Iran and the United States will have solved all of their issues.  Rowhani’s reluctance to meet with Obama in New York earlier this week demonstrates that, while Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (who remains the most powerful leader in Iran) may have blessed Rowhani’s diplomatic initiatives, strong opposition remains within the Islamic Republic, including within the conservative ‘principlist’ camp and from within the Revolutionary Guards.  The Obama administration will also face opposition — from its Middle Eastern ally Israel (which boycotted Rowhani’s largely conciliatory speech to the UN on Monday) and from neoconservative hawks from within the Republican Party in the United States.

But there’s a deal here: the United States doesn’t want to go to war with Iran, Iran doesn’t necessarily want nuclear weapons (and it especially wants Israel to give up its not-so-secret nuclear weapons) and Iran desperately wants an end to the sanctions that have harmed its economy.

This week’s diplomatic advances also follow the surprisingly moderate response from Iran over the Syrian chemical weapons crisis, even as the United States was considering a unilateral strike Bashar al-Assad’s regime at the time:

Although Iran has become a pariah state in recent years over its nuclear energy program (and the corresponding US and European fear that Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapons program as well), many Iranians were the victims of the last major chemical weapons attack in the Middle East when Iraqi president Saddam Hussein deployed mustard gas and sarin against Iran during the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s — with the knowledge and acquiescence of the United States, which wholeheartedly supported Iraq in the 1980s.

Rowhani made clear through his presidential Twitter feed this week that he condemned the use of chemical weapons, in Syria or elsewhere.

Rowhani, a former Rafsanjani aide who united both the moderate camp and Khatami’s more liberal camp (including the ‘Green movement’ supporters from the contested 2009 election), was elected in large part for the perception that he could negotiate an end to international sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.  He handily defeated five other challengers to win a first-round victory in the June election, including two principlists — Iran’s former hardline nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and populist (and popular) Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf:

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