Thursday, June 21, 2007

Foreign Policy Notes

Here's a few interesting stories in the NY Times today. First, this article on the divide among Shiites in Southern Iraq:

The Shiite heartland of southern Iraq has generally been an oasis of calm in contrast to Baghdad and the central part of the country, but now violence is convulsing this city. Shiites are killing and kidnapping other Shiites, the police force is made up of competing militias and the inner city is a web of impoverished streets where idealized portraits of young men, killed in recent gun battles with Iraqi and American troops, hang from signposts above empty lots.

Underlying Diwaniya’s troubles is a fight between factions allied with rival Shiite clerics, Mr. Sadr and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who leads the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. Mr. Hakim, who has close ties to the Americans, is allied with an older generation of middle-class, more educated Shiites, many of whom spent some of the Hussein era in Iran or Syria. By contrast, Mr. Sadr blames the Americans for the havoc in Iraq and refuses to meet with any representatives of the Bush administration. Mr. Sadr is linked more closely with the young, impoverished Shiites who stayed in Iraq during the years of Mr. Hussein’s rule. Mr. Sadr’s movement has only 5 members on the 40-member provincial council but enjoys wide local popularity. Both clerics have ties to armed militias, which local residents say have infiltrated the local police and security forces.

I know for a lot of people it's probably hard enough to keep track of the differences between the Sunnis and the Shiites, Al Qaeda, the Kurds, and so on. The division among the Shiites is really no mystery to anyone who follows the situation in Iraq carefully, but it bears reminding that Iraq is a vastly divided country; even as the Shiites battle Sunni insurgents and Al Qaeda, so do they openly fight amongst each other for leadership of the country. Sorting this mess out is the task we gave ourselves when we uncorked Iraq by force, and it's the primary reason why there will be no peace in Iraq until these groups are done fighting with each other for power.

And elsewhere in the Middle East, we have another "victory" for political Islam in Gaza, the repurcussions of which are spelled out nicely in this analysis:

Once again, as in Lebanon last summer, the fight pitted a Western-backed government against a newly empowered, radical Islamist group aligned with Syria and Iran. And, once again, the Western-backed group lost and the Iranian-Syrian group won.

The outcome demonstrated the rising threat to the status quo in places like Cairo; Amman, Jordan; and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, posed by political Islam. And it gave Iran yet another foothold on Arab borders.

“There are two constants in the Arab street: hatred toward Israel and hatred toward the U.S.,” said Hassan Abu Hanieh, a Jordanian researcher who has specialized in Islamist groups. “These are two firm facts. They don’t change, and anybody who cooperates with Israel and the U.S. is automatically hated.”

These are facts Arab leaders know all too well. In Egypt, for example, the government has traditionally played a double game, offering itself to Washington as a strategic partner while publicly castigating American interference in the region. But the Palestinian conflict threatens to lay bare the common alliance with the United States, and Hamas supporters are quick to point that out.

Now with the exception of Egypt, which borders Gaza and has been humiliated by Hamas’s refusal to accept Egypt’s mediation efforts, Arab leaders are supporting Abbas — while being cautious not to openly rupture relations with Hamas. A bit of hedging is going on, part of the race, as one side hopes that a prosperous West Bank will lead to peace and the other hopes that a stable Gaza will continue to erode the footing beneath those allied with the West.

As well they should. Another fact that bears reminding is that all too often we have sided with these repressive regimes against political Islam, which has a considerable amount of support on the "Arab street." Rudy Guiliani would rebuke me for saying so, but it's a simple fact that we are as widely distrusted and despised as we are because we've shown a perfect willingness to tolerate and support brutal authoritarian governments who repress democratic initiative, imprison and torture activists, fail to provide for the basic needs of their people, and cynically use Israel as a target for their people's rage. And we've done so at the exact same time that we've crowed about "democracy" this and "freedom" that, which makes us not only hypocrites, but stupid ones at that (then there's that whole invasion thing.) The only way we could possibly worsen this situation would be to try to isolate Hamas politically and economically, and punish Palestinians in Gaza for having the misfortune of being ruled by Hamas. I'm desperately hoping our President and his advisors are befuddled enough by the issue to simply leave it alone until we can get a responsible Democrat in office, but that may be asking too much.

And finally, in some moderately good news, we're once again holding direct talks with North Korea:

In the first visit to Pyongyang by a senior American official in nearly five years, the envoy, Christopher R. Hill, was scheduled to meet senior North Korean officials, including his counterpart, Kim Kye-gwan, for one-on-one talks.

Mr. Hill’s trip came just hours after the United States found a way to return to the North roughly $25 million in funds that were frozen for several years. The United States had frozen the money, saying it came from counterfeiting and trade in missiles and nuclear equipment.

It took months for Washington to clear obstacles preventing the money’s return, a move that hawks in the administration had argued was deeply mistaken.

My not-so-new rule of thumb for American foreign policy is that if the hawks want something, we should do the opposite. The Bush administration screwed up badly by pulling out of the agreement with North Korea, but there's still a chance to make it right. Or at least, not make it worse and hold out for that Democratic President.

UPDATE: North Korea, so far so good?

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