Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Archive for February, 2015

US Israel relations: bump in the road or terminal decline?

On the face of it relations between Israel and US have not been this bad since the Suez crisis of 1956 when President Eisenhower opposed the Israeli invasion of Egypt.

Before Prime Minister Netanyahu delivered his address to Congress in Washington at the invitation of the Republicans, National Security Adviser, Susan Rice, said his intervention in American partisan politics would be destructive of relations and other senior US government figures have openly criticised him.

Mr Netanyahu is using his speech to criticise the US approach to the nuclear talks with Iran which are coming to a crunch with a deadline of the end of March for an agreement and signs of progress is being made.

For the Israeli leader a deal with Iran which allows Tehran to retain any nuclear technology seems to be a red line. He believes Iran wants to destroy Israel and is developing nuclear weapons, although intelligence leaks this week indicate his own spy agency doesn’t see it this way.

The US on the other hand seems willing to accept a peaceful Iranian nuclear programme in return for safeguards it will not be used to make weapons. Something Iran is entitled to do under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Back in 1956, Israeli reasoning was not that different. The government of the time regarded President Nasser as bent on the destruction of Israel and decided to attack Egypt before Cairo was able to build up its armed forces.

The French and their British allies wanted to reverse General Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal and secure control of the strategic link to their colonial and commercial interests further east. So they had common cause with Israel and sent troops to take control of the Canal by force – ostensibly to secure international access.

In Washington, President Eisenhower saw things differently. The US wanted stability in the Middle East as it was becoming increasingly dependent on oil imports from the region. The Cold War was also intensifying and the Americans wanted to prevent Egypt, the key Arab power, from going over to the Soviet camp.

So, not only did the US condemn the invasion, it took active diplomatic and economic measures which forced Tel Aviv – as well as the British and French – to withdraw their troops from Egyptian territory.

As history shows, relations between the US and Israel recovered and Israel has gone on to become the largest recipient of American aid of any country since 1945. The US has also spent a lot of diplomatic capital over the years wielding its veto – or the threat of it – at the UN to protect Israel from international censure over its military action against Palestinian groups and continued occupation of land captured in the 1967 Six Day War.

Of course there have been ups and downs since Suez – notably under the first President Bush who had a frosty relationship with another Likud Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, when Mr Bush wanted to get the peace process moving.

So will relations recover this time?

Mr Netanyahu’s visit is controversial because he is involving himself in partisan American politics by giving succour to Republicans opposed to Mr Obama’s approach to Iran. But it is also contentious because Mr Netanyahu is in the middle of an election campaign and the Obama Administration says the US has a long-standing policy of not hosting foreign leaders so close to polling day.

Relations between Washington and Tel Aviv have been on a downward trajectory ever since President Obama launched his ill-fated attempt to revive the peace process in his first term by calling for a freeze in Israeli settlement building in the Occupied Territories.

Back in 2010, Mr Netanyahu went as far as attempting to humiliate a visiting Vice-President, Joe Biden, by announcing the expansion of settlement housing in occupied East Jerusalem while Mr Biden was still in town.

Mr Netanyahu has also repeatedly tried to outflank the White House by appealing for support from the US Congress, despite the danger of a backlash from Americans who could see it as interference in their internal affairs. Before now, he has worked with both Democrat and Republican supporters of Israel, but this time he accepted the invitation from the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, and a substantial number of Democrats have said they will boycott next Tuesday’s speech.

However, Mr Obama will not be president in two years’ time and Mr Netanyahu may also have passed from the stage by then, so the likelihood is relations will improve again whatever happens in the Iran nuclear talks.

Although polling evidence in recent years suggests younger voters in US, including Jewish Americans, are less supportive of Israel than their parents’ generation, Washington’s support for Israel is based on solid foundations.

The much cited influence of pro-Israeli lobby groups, like AIPAC, is one reason American politicians will continue to push any US government to support Tel Aviv. And although the US shale revolution has made Americans much less dependent on Middle East oil imports, Washington still sees Israel as an important ally in an unstable region.

But most importantly, there is a strong ideological and emotional basis for the relationship.

When Americans look at Israel many see a reflection of their own national myth – a democratic state built by a hardworking people who migrated in the hope of creating a new country and society for themselves.

Given this deep well spring, it is difficult to envisage any US President turning his back on Israel.

It is also instructive that in spite of the antipathy between Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu, Washington has kept its financial and military support to Tel Aviv going, even in the face of international criticism of Israel’s military actions, such as last summer’s Gaza conflict which cost the lives of around 2,200 Palestinians and 71 Israelis.

Is democracy really where Burma is heading?

With much media attention focussed on the conflicts in Ukraine and the Arab world in recent months, Burma’s troubled reform process has taken up far less airtime and column inches.

But the Burmese government led by former General Thein Sein has been accused for more than a year by pro-democracy campaigners of backtracking, so asking where the military intend to take Burma is a pressing question.

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, now very much the politician rather than the democracy icon – and ever mindful of her ambition to be president – has said reforms stalled in 2013. She is still keen to see the government approve the constitutional change needed to allow her to stand in this year’s presidential election so, despite strong indications they are not going to do this, she has been quite restrained in her criticism.

Two events over the past ten days have highlighted where there has been little evidence of substantive change – the treatment of the Muslim Rohingya minority in western Burma and the army’s repressive approach to ethnic unrest that has beset the country since independence from Britain in 1948.

After having passed a measure that would have allowed the Rohingya to vote – even if it still refuses to give them full citizenship – the government did an immediate u-turn after protests by Buddhists. Then, earlier this week, President Thein Sein imposed martial law in Kokang region after fighting erupted between the army and Kokang fighters. The Kokang are a Han Chinese ethnic group and 30,000 have fled across the border into China to escape the fighting.

Western governments, including the US and the UK, rewarded the reforms started in 2011 by quickly relaxing their sanctions on Burma. President Obama has even visited the country twice and received Thein Sein at the White House.

These early reforms included legalising an independent press, releasing political prisoners and allowing Aung San Suu Kyi and others from the National League for Democracy to be voted into parliament in by-elections.

The motive for the reform process and opening to the West arose partly from the military’s realisation that isolation from the US and Europe had seen the country fall far behind its neighbours economically and technologically. There was also Rangoon’s desire to avoid becoming too dependent on its huge neighbour China which had become its main political and economic backer.

But even though there are now independent media in the country, journalists are still being jailed for what they write and say. Political prisoners have been released – but not all of them as was promised – and others arrested.

Criticism of Thein Sein is usually couched in language aimed at encouraging a reform process intended to turn the country into a free market, democratic state. During his visit to Burma last November, Mr Obama told local media “I’m determined that the United States will remain a partner with those who seek greater freedom, prosperity and dignity.”

But is the Burmese government really such a partner?

A well informed observer of the Burmese military told me the former dictator, Than Shwe, had mapped out a process of constitutional change twenty years ago and it is possible to see what has happened since as fulfilling that plan.

For instance, he points out, Burma’s Defence Services Academy has trained many more officers than the armed forces really need and after serving for a few years many of these graduates have now taken off their uniforms and gone into business or sit in parliament as MPs for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party.

So the objective may not be – as western governments seem to assume – to eventually turn Burma into a liberal democracy.

Rather the endgame may well be a country, balanced between Washington and Beijing, governed by an oligarchic authoritarian system legitimised by regular multi-party elections in which the military caste can continue to run things while benefitting from the economic modernisation and growth that flows from better relations with the West.

If this is indeed the case, western policy is supporting an outcome at odds with its stated aim of encouraging democracy to take hold in Burma, even if weakening Chinese influence may still be seen as win in the US and Europe.

Clash of the Totems? Greek democracy and EU technocracy

This coming Monday, Eurozone Finance Ministers are gathering for what is being billed with that well-worn cliché as a ‘make-or-break’ meeting on the future of the Greek bailout.

The newly elected Greek government led by the left wing Syriza Party of Alexis Tsipras won a convincing victory in last month’s election on a promise to end the bailout programme altogether and roll back the austerity measures its predecessor had put in place in order to get the 240 billion euro bailout from EU member states, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Syriza argues the country is basically broke and the debt burden it carries simply too great to be paid back. In the party’s eyes endless austerity will not enable Greece to pay off its debts to the EU and IMF.

Athens argues that in order for the country to recover two things are needed – at least some of its debt needs to be written off and cuts to public spending need to be reversed in order to get people back to work and stimulate growth, some of proceeds of which could be used to pay off the remaining debt.

Germany, the major EU creditor nation, is insisting there can be no more debt forgiveness and the economic reforms and spending cuts agreed to by the previous Greek government must be continued. The ECB and many other EU governments are backing Berlin.

So the stage is set for Monday’s key meeting where the Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, will face his counterparts. Monday is seen as so crucial because it is the last Eurozone Finance Ministers’ meeting before February 28th when the current bailout programme runs out.

Greece wants a temporary extension of the bailout so it can continue to pay its bills while it negotiates a new agreement on a debt write off.

Markets and observers are nervous that the showdown could reignite the Eurocrisis.

The Greek bailout deal of 2010, which was extended in 2012, has been credited with helping to stabilise the Euro by preventing a Greek exit from the common currency which many feared could have caused more countries to follow and currency to collapse.

After a couple of meetings between Mr Varoufakis and EU officials there seemed to be little sign of compromise on either side. But going into the weekend, there have been more positive noises with Germany’s Chancellor Merkel saying compromise is possible and Mr Tsipras saying he is confident a new deal can be reached.

EU officials have also been telling the media the Greeks could make changes to the original deal if the effect is the same which seems to suggest room for manoeuvre in talks.

But whatever the outcome of the talks, this clash between Athens and its partners can also be seen to highlight a broader tension in the EU between democracy and technocracy.

Syriza has a clear democratic mandate to renegotiate the bailout.

But for the creditor nations like Germany and the EU institutions, it is technical more than political – they believe there is no alternative to Greece abiding by the agreement it made because it is the only way the Greek economy will be revived, regardless of what Greek voters and Syriza might want.

This isn’t to say there isn’t a healthy dose of politics involved on both sides.

The German and for that matter other EU governments know their voters are sceptical of lending any more to Greece and they also want the existing loans – which faced a lot of media and popular criticism, particularly in Germany, in the first place – to be paid back eventually.

Syriza based its election campaign on the claim that they could and would end the bailout and the austerity that has driven Greek unemployment over 25%, so they stand to lose credibility with voters if they make too many compromises.

But at root the clash remains one between what the Greeks voted for and what the EU institutions and its most powerful member state are insisting on.

Does democracy automatically lead to sound economic policy?

Clearly not; as countries like Greece and Portugal seemingly lived beyond their means after adopting the Euro – taking advantage of the stability of the common currency to borrow more than they could afford. Debts which were cruelly exposed by the global financial crisis of 2008.

However, democracy is the political system the EU has elevated to totemic status. In order to be a member of the Union countries have to meet democratic standards and the EU bases much of its international prestige on its democratic credentials.

So how does the EU reconcile its commitment to democracy with its rejection of what the Greeks have voted for?

Some have argued the Eurozone leaders, especially those in other debtors countries like Spain, need to Syriza to fail or they could face being voted out of office and replaced by parties, like Podemos, advocating similar policies.

Some form of face saving compromise between democratically elected governments in Berlin and Athens would be an answer.

But if Berlin continues to attach totemic value to austerity and the rest of the EU backs it and refuse to offer the Greeks concessions, the danger is not only economic in the form of a return of the Eurocrisis, it is also political.

As parties – of both right and left – critical of the EU could use it to reinforce their accusation the Union despite all its talk of democratic values suffers from a democratic deficit and doesn’t respect the voters’ choice.

EU leaders face a dilemma.

Be too hard on Greece and risk undermining the bloc’s political stability by fuelling populist parties opposed to the EU or compromise too much and encourage voters in other debtor nations to vote for an end to the reforms and austerity they believe stabilised the Euro.

Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

About the writer:

Alistair Burnett is a journalist and analyst with 25 years of experience in BBC News. From 2004-2014, he was Editor of The World Tonight on BBC Radio 4 and before that was Editor of Newshour on BBC World Service.

He has also worked on several other leading BBC programmes, including Today.

He has a particular interest in international relations and the implications of the shifting power relations in the world which are challenging the traditional western dominance of global affairs.

Alistair studied history at The University of Edinburgh and has worked in several countries, including Italy and China.

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