Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Israel, Hamas, and German Neutrality


Sometimes soft power comes from being seen as neutral.

In Richard Boudreaux's account of Israel's effort to retrieve a soldier captured by Hamas during the 2006 Gaza war, one item stands out: Both sides see a German as an adequately disinterested party.

Israel wants proof that Gilad Shalit is even alive. Hamas wants the release of 20 female Palestinian prisoners. Hamas has made an updated video of Shalit, but Israel doesn't trust that Hamas is providing adequate evidence of Shalit's well-being. Israel needs a way to know that the evidence is good enough without turning over the Palestinian prisoners and without seeing the video, which would generate expectations of a quid pro quo.

It's a classic prisoner's dilemma where Israel can't defect but is extremely reluctant to cooperate.

Here's what happens next:

Israel Radio reported that a German mediator had reviewed the recording in Cairo and would show it to Israeli officials. They would then decide whether it conveys enough information about Shalit's condition to go ahead with the release of the Palestinian prisoners.

It reminds me strongly of Martti Ahtisaari's role in brokering the peace in Northern Ireland. As I recall, Britain wanted proof that the Irish Republican Army's weapons had been destroyed; the IRA wouldn't do that but offered to put them "beyond use," whatever that was supposed to mean. Both sides turned to Ahtisaari, the former president of Finland and a man whose word is considered beyond reproach.

Apparently the IRA took Ahtisaari (and a South African counterpart) for blindfolded rides somewhere, and they indeed saw that the IRA's guns were permanently unusable—without ever specifying how. They reported back that the IRA was true its word, which cleared the way for today's largely peaceful Northern Ireland.

The idea that a mediator from Germany—with its Nazi past (however distant) and its troops in Afghanistan (however reluctant)—is acceptable to both Hamas and Israel is an impressive if unheralded part of German soft power. If the parties cannot trust each other, they have at least found a neutral who they can trust.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Brazil Steps In


On the whole, Brazil has kept a pretty low profile on the international stage in the past few years, letting Venezuela's President Chavez bang his shoe on the table of the Americas. Brazil has seemed content to let Chavez preen and posture, especially in the case of the ouster of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya.

Chavez has wanted Zelaya, a fellow constitutionally elected rabble-rouser, returned to power, presumably so that he can count another leftist-turned-autocrat in his corner. The Obama administration has straight-facedly insisted it also wants Zelaya back in power, remembering the soft-power carnage wrought by the Bush administration's quick embrace of a coup that briefly ejected Chavez in 2002.

Now, after being repeatedly denied reentry to Honduras, Zelaya has popped up at Brazil's embassy in the Honduran capital, causing near-apoplexy in the de facto Micheletti government.

Brazil has already protested Honduran security forces' actions against its mission--but the question remains: Why would Brazil take the dramatic step of using its embassy as Zelaya's staging ground in the first place?

(Readers who served at State in the 1960s and '70s can stop laughing at the idea of Brazil, then perennially under military dictatorship, upholding any constitution. Stop it. Right now.)

I'm tempted to say the answer is profile, profile, profile.

Brazil, South America's biggest country and largest economy, has surely chafed at Chavez's hijinks--particularly since President da Silva is also mildly lefty but has tried to run his country somewhere besides into the ground. Brazil has called for a prompt meeting of the UN Security Council to consider the Honduran crisis. And Brasilia has the political capital and all-around muscle to weather a lengthy disruption to its diplomatic activities in Honduras.

In short, Brazil takes a welcome turn on the side of law and order; asserts regional leadership while stealing Hugo Chavez's spotlight; gets to make that dramatic call to the UN; and is now owed a favor by the Obama administration which, despite efforts to broker a deal in Honduras, has been unable to pull it off.

Maybe there's some quid pro quo on Brazilian ethanol in our future. ...

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

James Fallows at Gov 2.0

John Podesta and The Atlantic's James Fallows did a nice let's-interview-each-other at Gov 2.0 today and Fallows provided a few scraps of wisdom, based largely on his past three years' residence in China.

He noted that Chinese impressions of the U.S. are not yet created by social media, but said that it's "still American movies and TV iving impressions of the U.S. ... Old media still tell more of America's story internationally than new media do."

Podesta said that "The role of English overseas is a marvel ... you see Poles speaking to Koreans [in English] and all the rest," meaning that English is now a true lingua franca in his experience; he sees an opportunity to engage ESL foreign audiences with English-language broadcasting across platforms.

He was hopeful about the idea of having conversations with foreign publics as opposed to issuing statements to them, noting that "this sweeping empowering steps may be one that the U.S. is better equipped to take than other countries."

On Chinese search-engine freedom, Fallows thinks Google remains a big improvement, in terms of sheer numbers of results returned, than Baidu or other Chinese-language search sites.

And not to end on a down note, but Fallows feels the "sense of American renewal" he says foreign audiences had immediately after President Obama's election has "evaporated completely."

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Heading to Gov 2.0

I'll be at Gov 2.0 to be among the twitterati for the next couple days, starting with tonight's reception at Google HQ. Please call rather than e-mailing if you're in town and would like to meet up: 818.749.2420.

Germany's Reputation

During the time I was in Afghanistan last year, it would have been a mistake to say that German forces kept a low profile in northern Afghanistan. They kept zero profile, by report of everyone I worked with at Bagram: no active patrolling outside their base, some daytime reconstruction activity, all in all pretty hunkered down.

Whether the German soldiers themselves wanted it this way was beside the point since civilian leadership back home told them to stay put. That's because Chancellor Merkel wanted a twofer: to get Germany credit for being a pillar of NATO, but ideally to sustain zero casualties in the process by playing it safe with a minimal mission in the safest part of Afghanistan.

Shh--the German electorate is sleeping.

And this scheme worked for years, as Germans generally seemed unaware that their soldiers were fighting, or fighting to stay out of, a war thousands of miles from home.

Now, Merkel has gotten the worst possible outcome: German commanders decided to destroy two hijacked fuel trucks; they ordered an air attack based on single-source intelligence; many civilians died; and through some near-mystical lack of cojones, German soldiers weren't ordered to secure the site of the attack until the next day. In a singular episode of what my boss at Bagram used to call the "self-cleaning battlefield," there wasn't a single body left.

U.S. commanders will see a familiar pattern here: We bomb, good and bad guys die, everyone gets buried before even a rudimentary investigation gets under way. It's a universal problem of this type of war, and not a big deal for electorates in the U.S. and Britain which have no problem referring to an "Afghan war."

The real problem is back home in Germany, where some members of Parliament are going bonkers and "prosecutors in Potsdam said Monday that they were considering whether to open a homicide investigation into the decision by a German military commander to order the airstrike. ..."

In other words, a Germany that's unaware it's involved in a war, or refuses to call it that or certify its military actions as such, may have to decide what it really thinks. On the fly. Right before German national elections on September 27. Anyone want to ask former Spanish President Jose Maria Aznar whether any of this sounds familiar?
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