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Entries in Robert Gates (4)


Scott Lucas in The Guardian: Obama Administration's Battle over Iran and Israel

iran-flag8Since I wrote this for The Guardian, there have been further developments, notably Israel's stepped-up campaign to bump Washington into a hard-line Iran-first policy. The efforts have been more political than military, notably Tel Aviv's threat that it will not enter meaningful negotiations over Palestine unless the US commits to further pressure upon Tehran.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton struck back yesterday, telling Israel to back off on the threat. That indicates that the Obama line of engagement is still prevailing within the Administration, as does the silence of Petraeus and Mullen over the last two weeks.

Forgive the somewhat dramatic headline, which led to a lot of irrelevant comments. The issue is not whether the US backs an Israeli airstrike but whether it suspends the gradual but clear move towards discussions with Iran.

To bomb, or not to bomb, Iran

Just over a month ago, President Barack Obama broke a 30-year embargo on US relations with Iran: he offered goodwill not only to "Iranians" but to the country's government. Speaking on the occasion of Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, he said:

"I want you, the people and leaders of Iran, to understand the future that we seek. It's a future with renewed exchanges among our people, and greater opportunities for partnership and commerce. It's a future where the old divisions are overcome, where you and all of your neighbours and the wider world can live in greater security and greater peace."

It's no surprise that this message, given a generation of tension between Washington and Tehran, has been challenged in the US. What's more interesting is that the greatest threat to Obama's engagement comes not from media sceptics from Fox News to the Wall Street Journal or the foundations now packed with refugees from the Bush administration or even the Middle Eastern institutes putting a priority on Israeli security. No, Obama's most daunting opponents are within his own administration.

Less than two weeks after the Nowruz address, General David Petraeus, the head of the US military command overseeing Iran and the Persian Gulf, offered a far different portrayal of Iran to a Senate committee:
Iranian activities and policies constitute the major state-based threat to regional stability. … Iran is assessed by many to be continuing its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, which would destabilise the region and likely spur a regional arms race.

The next day Petraeus's boss, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, visited the offices of the Wall Street Journal, which has taken a consistent editorial line against dialogue with the Iranian government. Far from supporting his president, Mullen told the newspaper: "I think we've got a problem now. ... I think the Iranians are on a path to building nuclear weapons." Not even past enemies were as menacing: "Even in the darkest days of the cold war we talked to the Soviets. … [But now] we don't have a lot of time."

What's going on here? There are clear political goals behind Obama's approach of dialogue rather than confrontation. The hope is that Iran will not challenge the US approach to Middle Easten issues, in particular Israel-Palestine and Israel-Syria talks, through its connections with Hamas and Hezbollah. An easing of political tensions in turn may remove the motive for Tehran to reverse its suspension of research and development for a nuclear weapons – as opposed to civilian nuclear energy – programme.

Yet there are also military benefits from a US-Iran rapprochement. As Obama's envoy Richard Holbrooke has made clear, a partnership with Tehran could ease the American burden in Afghanistan, especially as the troop surge is being implemented. Better relations could assist with the political transition in Iraq as the US draws down its overt military presence. Eventually, an Iranian renunciation of nuclear weapons would finally remove a significant strategic question mark in the region.

In part, the calculation of Petraeus and Mullen is that Iran cannot be trusted in these areas. For years, US commanders in Iraq have alleged that Iran has been backing the insurgency, and Petraeus has also claimed that Tehran has supported the Taliban in Afghanistan. In his testimony to the Senate committee, the general expanded this into a grand nefarious Iranian scheme:
Iran employs surrogates and violent proxies to weaken competitor states, perpetuate conflict with Israel, gain regional influence and obstruct the Middle East peace process. Iran also uses some of these groups to train and equip militants in direct conflict with US forces. Syria, Iran's key ally, facilitates the Iranian regime's reach into the Levant and the Arab world by serving as the key link in an Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas alliance and allows extremists (albeit in smaller numbers than in the past) to operate in Damascus and to facilitate travel into Iraq.

Still, in their public opposition to Obama's Iran policy, the military commanders are playing one card before all others: Israel.

Petraeus's threat to the congressmen was far from subtle: "The Israeli government may ultimately see itself so threatened by the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon that it would take pre-emptive military action to derail or delay it." Mullen told the Wall Street Journal: "There is a leadership in Israel that is not going to tolerate" a nuclear Iran. This was a "life or death" matter in which "the operative word is 'existential'".

Are they bluffing? If so, it's a bluff that has been coordinated with Tel Aviv. Last summer, Israel asked for but did not get George Bush's support for an airstrike on Iran. It took only six weeks for the Israelis to revive the topic with the new Obama administration: the commander of the Israeli armed forces, General Gabi Ashkenazi, visited Washington with the message "that an Israeli military strike was a 'serious' option".

While Ashkenazi was told by Obama's political advisers to put his fighter planes away, the story of Israeli military plans continues to be circulated. Only last weekend, Sheera Frenkel of The Times was fed the story: "The Israeli military is preparing itself to launch a massive aerial assault on Iran's nuclear facilities within days of being given the go-ahead by its new government."

High-level Obama officials are fighting back. Aware that a frontal assault on the popular Petraeus would be politically dangerous, they have tried to curb the "Israel will strike" campaign. Vice-president Joe Biden told CNN that new Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "would be ill-advised to do that". Perhaps more importantly, secretary of defence Robert Gates said last week that an Israeli attack would have "dangerous consequences". Reading that signal, Israeli President Shimon Peres backed away from earlier tough talk and assured: "All the talk about a possible attack by Israel on Iran is not true. The solution in Iran is not military."

So, for this moment, Petraeus and Mullen appear to have been checked. However, they and their military allies, such as General Raymond Odierno in Iraq, have been persistent in challenging Obama over strategy from Kabul to Baghdad to Jerusalem. It is their manoeuvring, rather than Tehran's jailing of an Iranian-American journalist like Roxana Saberi or even Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speeches at UN conferences, that is Barack Obama's greatest foe.

Don’t Blink: Obama Administration Funds the Civil War in Palestine

Related Post: Gaza War - How the US Re-Armed Israel

President ObamaOn April 9, President Obama sent his 2009 supplemental budget request for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to Congress. Predictably, most of the media coverage was simply carried over and adapted from the previous battle over funding for the military.

For example, some attention has centered upon the stiff opposition to Secretary of Defense Gates' decision not to order additional F-22 fighters. While this discussion is important, particularly on the usefulness of F-22 fighter planes in Iraq, there was something else in this supplemental budget that seems to have escaped notice.

We find this on page 6:
$0.8 billion to support the Palestinian people, strengthen the Palestinian Authority, and provide humanitarian assistance for the crisis in Gaza.

Even compared to the $85 billion plus total of the supplemental budget, $800 million for Palestine is nothing to sneeze at. And assuming you stop reading here, almost a billion dollars to “support the Palestinian people” actually sounds like a pretty good idea. But that’s not the entirety of it. The money is broken down into several sections scattered throughout the budget.

A section called “Migration and Refugee Assistance” has $150 million, including:
$25 million for assistance to Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and $125 million to support emergency humanitarian needs in Gaza and the West Bank

Then we have a massive chunk of money in the “Economic Support Fund” section:
$556 million for West Bank/Gaza including $200 million for budget support to the Palestinian Authority; $93 million for institutional capacity building, and investments in education and social services in the West Bank; $12 million for humanitarian assistance in the West Bank; $60 million to promote West Bank economic growth; $30 million to support governance and rule of law in the West Bank; $95 million to support programs in Gaza to improve basic human needs, support economic recovery, create jobs, and restore some humanitarian essential services; $61 million for immediate humanitarian and food relief to Gazans through well-established international organizations; $5 million for contractor and locally engaged staff, program oversight, and related security and other support costs

And finally, hidden away in the “International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement” section, we find this gem:
$109 million to train and equip Palestinian security forces and to enhance security along the Gaza border [emphasis added]

What’s missing? There’s no mention of Hamas. That’s because:
This provision prohibits the use of Supplemental funds for assistance to Hamas, Hamas-controlled entities, or any power-sharing government of which Hamas is a member. Assistance may be provided to a power-sharing government acceptable to the United States if the President certifies to the standards in section 620K(b)(1)(A) and (B) of the Foreign Assistance Act. It is expected that such a power-sharing government would speak authoritatively for the entire Palestinian Authority government, including its ministries, agencies and instrumentalities. This provision also would allow the President to utilize the waiver authority provided in the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006 for the purposes provided. [emphasis added]

Got that? Let’s break it down.

First off, note that only a slice of the money is even allocated to the Gaza Strip, under the control of the democratically elected Hamas government, while the majority goes to the West Bank, held in the iron grip of Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority. While the Palestinian Authority, like Hamas, was also democratically elected, their electoral mandate expired long ago, and by the time this money reaches them, their term limits will be ancient history. The idea of any democratic government existing in the midst of Fatah’s repressive police state is a highly dubious proposition, but contrasted with the internationally certified elections that brought Hamas to power in the Gaza Strip, the notion of democracy in the West Bank is simply laughable.

Second, the budget essentially nullifies any diplomatic efforts being carried out between the leadership of Hamas and Fatah. Perversely, it does this by ensuring that any diplomatic arrangement would have to be absurdly unacceptable to both parties. Either Hamas accepts a “power-sharing” deal in which they have no power at all over the Fatah “government, including its ministries, agencies and instrumentalities”, or Fatah agrees to share power with Hamas at the price of losing $815 million a year in US funding, not to mention whatever the International Community is paying them.

Mahmoud Abbas, President of Palestinian Authority, with Ramadan Shallah, Secretary General of Islamic Jihad Mahmoud Abbas, President of Palestinian Authority, with Ramadan Shallah, Secretary General of Islamic Jihad

Finally, this funding ensures that there will continue to be violent confrontations in the Gaza Strip. Where does $109 million worth of paramilitary training go in Gaza if it can’t go to Hamas? It goes to Fatah, or more specifically, to their military wing. That would be the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, an internationally designated terrorist group responsible for at least 130 Israeli deaths, and that’s just counting the suicide bombings.

The Al-Aqsa brigades are also known to collaborate with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. They are the group fond of lobbing Qassam rockets at schoolchildren in southern Israel. So not only will this money provoke conflict between Hamas and these freshly equipped and trained Fatah militants, but these resources will undoubtedly be used in acts of terrorism against Israel, and we know how Israel usually responds to these things in Gaza.

There you have it: for the low price of $815 million, American tax-payers have propped up an oppressive dictatorship, intensified a Palestinian civil war, enabled acts of terrorism against Israeli civilians, and provided the excuses Israel needs to further pummel the Palestinian population.

And all this tucked away in a supplemental budget. No, not even the regular US government budget, this is the extra money they spend just on fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But hey, at least they’re not talking to Hamas. Those guys are terrorists.

You Think Blackwater was Scary? Wait til You Meet Northrop Grumman

Northrop Grumman is one of the biggest private contractors for the US military. To ensure they remain one of the biggest, they have released this promotional video.

After watching this, I'm not worried about Northrop's moneypot drying up; I'm more concerned that they could take over the US Government, let alone some tinpot regime, at any regime. I certainly think Secretary of Defense Robert Gates should watch his back as he's proposing cutting back missile defence and big-money toys like the F-22 fighter jet and Northrop Grumman's "DDG 1000 Zumwalt-class destroyer".


Afghanistan: The Problem of Military-Led Development

provincial-recon-teamsReaders will know of our concern over a "militarised" US approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan. While President Obama's declared strategy called for an increase in civilian participation, and while Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and General David Petraeus have declared the need for non-military involvement, the fundamental point remains: the Pentagon is, or is seeking to be, in control of American programmes in both countries.

Last week, a 25-page report by 11 non-governmental aid organisations (ActionAid, Afghanaid, CARE Afghanistan, Christian Aid, Cordaid, DACAAR, Interchurch Organisation for Development Cooperation,
International Rescue Committee, Marie Stopes International, Oxfam International, Save the Children UK) eloquently set out these concerns.

The report is available in full on the Oxfam website. Pertinent and troubling extracts include:

1. On the US emphasis on Provincial Reconstruction Teams, involving the military, State Department, and Agency for International Development:
When security and other conditions exist which allow specialised civilian development actors to operate, the military should not be engaged in activities in the development or humanitarian sector. PRT engagement in development activities is neither effective nor sustainable.

2. On the damage to the distinction between humanitarian and military operations:
There has been an increasing blurring of this distinction....Some military actors engage in relief activities for the purposes of force protection; and certain...contingents, such as the US and France, are failing to identify themselves as combatants by the continued use of unmarked, white vehicles, which are conventionally used by the UN and aid agencies. The expansion of PRT activities and the use of heavily protected contractors to implement reconstruction projects have also contributed to a blurring of the civil-military distinction. Ultimately, these practices have contributed to a diminution in the perceived independence of NGOs, increased the risk for aid workers, and reduced the areas in which NGOs can safely operate.

3. On the difficulties of building up local groups, the counter-insurgency strategy favoured by General Petraeus:
Through the Afghan Social Outreach Programme (ASOP) district councils are established by the
government purportedly to build local support, improve communications and gather information about
militant activities. The programme carries a high risk of failure and may even exacerbate local security
conditions....[We should] support the development of a civil society strategy to build the capacity of the central authorities in matters of local governance and justice.

The report concludes:
There is a need for a truly comprehensive strategy for the long-term reconstruction
and stabilisation of Afghanistan. However, NATO and other international military actors should
acknowledge the limits to the scope of activities which are suitable and legitimate for their engagement.
The military should focus on providing security, while civilian actors must determine and implement
policies that address the wide range of reconstruction, development and humanitarian challenges
currently facing the country.