Time for Europe?

31 juli 2006

It didn’t get any better in the Middle East today.

Rather on the contrary.

New images of civilian casualities of the Israeli bombing campaign came at the same time as Jerusalem said that they had no interest in any early cease-fire.

Exactly what they hope to achieve by some more weeks of war is increasingly unclear.

The simply thruth is that there are no clear-cut objectives that can be achieved with the chosen military strategy.

For the US the situation is obviously starting to become difficult.

One is increasingly aware of the damage done to the political position of the US around the world. I would guess that – among others – diplomats and military commanders in Iraq are sending clear messages on the effect Washington’s support for Israel’s war has on their position.

When Secretary of State Rice was informed that she was not welcome to come to Beirut for talks was that a snub of the first order. It also showed that the leverage the US has in the regions risks declining in a dangerous way.

I see no real alternative to an early cease-fire.

Prime Minister Olmert is saying that a cease-fire now will mean that the original problem will very soon come back. That’s a rather devastating indictment against himself.

But a cease-fire later will in all probability have damaged the credibility of the entire Western world even more than is already the case – and the delay will have achieved very little else.

So it’s really time for diplomacy.

It might even be time for a more active European role.

To shape a such will certainly not be easy in view of the differences of opinion that are there.

But to abstain from even trying would be to deny the diplomacy of the conflict the balanced voice that’s so obviously missing – and will be missed with increasing desperation.

A Deal With Hezbollah?

29 juli 2006

I was obviously wrong in assuming that Tony Blair in Washington would endorse the general European line of calling for an immediate cease-fire in the war.

He did not – and once again the European Union is split on a major foreign policy issue.

Tony Blair – once again – sees lining up with the US as the only way of having any influence on developments, opening him up to the charge of actually having no influence whatsoever.

And the rest of the Europeans are more or less left in the dust. Italian Foreign Minister D’Alema is off to Damascus only to underline the divisions.

A meeting of the foreign ministers on Wednesday next week is supposed to sort things out. We’ll see.

But pressure for a cease-fire is building up not the least because it is obvious to more and more people that Israel will not achieve its military objectives. Today’s editorial in New´York Times clearly points at the direction in which also US opinion is heading.

Focus is now on trying to get together a 10.000 – 20.000 strong military force to go into Southern Lebanon. A meeting at the UN in New York on Monday will look at the possibilities, although I guess very few would be ready to commit anything as long as there is no political agreement on what such a force could do.

The only thing that’s clear is that the two nations now pushing for the force have no intention of being part of it. The US considers it too dangereous, and the UK simply does not have the forces available at the moment.

Nothing can be achieved without an agreement with and inside Lebanon. That’s the key to everything. So far the Lebanese government is holding together – Hezbollah is part of the coalition – and there are evidently constructive although difficult talks going on.

As we are now in the third week of war – with app 700 000 refugess and massive destruction – the only positive thing that could be said is that both Washington and Jerusalem now seems to understand that there is no military victory in sight and that there has to be a political agreement.

But there is a long road ahead. There is virtually no possibility of the Israeli army clearing a sufficiently broad security zone in southern Lebanon quickly or easily. Fighting is fierce.

So an international force can only come in with the agreement of Hezbollah.

Such a deal will obviously have different elements. Some sort of prisoner exchange is highly likely. But also the recognition of Hezbollah’s political role in Lebanon.

It will be an interesting arrangement.

Pressure On Washington

28 juli 2006

With Tony Blair rushing to Washington for talks, there are bound to be increasing pressures on the United States to push for a cease-fire in the Lebanon war.

It’s difficult to see Secretary of State Rice’s recent trip to the Middle East, Rome and Southeast Asia as much of a success.

And that’s a very diplomatic way of phrasing it…

She seems to have been devoting most of her activities to resisting calls for an immediate cease-fire. She wants to give Israel more time for its military activities in the profoundly mistaken belief that these can achieve any reasonable objectives.

There is little doubt that the United States is paying a high price for this political stance.

In an OpEd piece in today’s Washington Post, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher joins those that are highly critical of her line:

Every day America gives the green light to further Israeli violence, our already tattered reputation sinks even lower. The reluctance of our closest allies in the Middle East even to receive Secretary Rice this week in their capitals attests to this fact.

Based on his own experience, he also argues forcefully for both an immediate ceasefire and for engaging Syria in order to achieve it.

Warren Christopher might not have been the most spectacular of Secretaries of State, but at critical junction – he himself mentions his Balkan experience – he demonstrated that he could be a man of sound judgment.

And he is not alone.

I would consider it highly likely that Tony Blair will argue along very similar lines when he sees President Bush in the White House. Whether he will be prepared to state his position openly is another matter.

We’ll see. In the meantime the war continues and the situation in the Middle East deterioates.

The guns of July will soon by the guns of August…

Meanwhile, Baghdad…

27 juli 2006

While Beirut burns, the situation in Baghdad deterioates.

The gloomy scenario seems to be playing out all over the region. It risks going downhill with dangerous speed.

A well-informed friend in Washington wrote this as part of his assessment of the situation:

I understand that the intelligence community is drafting a national intelligence estimate on the situation in Iraq, but the news is so grim that no one wants to take it to the President.

The working level analysts have concluded the civil war is on and that we have little opportunity to affect the course of events in coming months. Reports coming from U.S. intelligence and liaison offices in Baghdad indicate that the Iraqi leadership has concluded that, practically, the city of Baghdad must be divided—with Shia and Christian Iraqis living east of the Tigris River, and Sunni Iraqi’s living in west Baghdad. “Ethnic cleansing”—both involuntary and voluntary—is now rather extensive.

And one should not overlook the interconnection between the different areas.

When Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki was in Washington a few days ago he provoked a minor political firestorm – particularly among Democrats – because he failed to suport Israel and condem Hezbollah.

Hardly surprising. What the Israelis are doing in Lebanon is obviously undercutting support for what the US and their allies are doing in Iraq.

There is a risk of the one disaster feeding the other…

Time To Rescue Israel!

27 juli 2006

Slowly the absence of a coherent strategy is starting to seed divisions also inside the Israeli government on how to proceed.

When Prime Minister Olmert unleashed the air campaign as a response to the Hezbollah border attack and kidnappning, he obviously expected a rather quick and easy punishment operation.

The main aim of the very sharp counterattack was probably to restore the fear of the armed might of Israel that had started to weakened during the past few years. Now was the time to set an example, was the idea.

But two weeks into the war things are more complicated.

It’s increasingly obvious that an air campaign only can achieve very little apart from the counter-productive destruction of the infrastructure of Lebanon. The fighting capabilities of Hezbollah are certainly degraded, but not eliminated. It can probably easily be restored.

And the ground incursions into southern Lebanon are proving more difficult than anticipated.

At an emergency meeting yesterday evening and night as well as today, now with the entire Cabinet, it seems as if different alternatives were considered. The report in Haaretz is well worth reading.

A military proposal to make a massive call-up of reservist and launch a two-month campaign to clear the entire area up to the Litani river was obviouslu turned down. There were fears of large casualities – the 1982 war all over again – but also fear of stumbling into a major ground war with Syria.

So much for the talk over everything just being a question of some air strikes.

It seems as of Prime Minister Olmert is now instead aiming at the securing of an area in southern Lebanon that could be cleared of Hezbollah and then held until an international force could take over.

But that’s a debatable strategy.

If a proposal to clear the area up to the Litani has been rejected, we are obviously talking about a rather small area. While the genuine security perimeter of Israel now extends well north of the Litani – in view of the longer range of the rockets – this area would obviously end far to the south of the Litani.

It would not halt the most damaging of the rocket attacks of Hezbollah.

And to expect an international force to quickly just come in and take over the occupation operation of the Israeli army in this zone is in all probability a pipe-dream. Few would be happy with such a mandate and even fewer would be ready to provide the forces. And even under the best of circumstances it would take months to deploy anything of substance.

The irony of the situation might well be that the longer Washington provides political encouragement for the Israeli operation to continue, the greater is the risk of Israel being stuck in a quagmire that would risk a strategic defeat.

That’s certainly not in the interest of even those of us being – like myself – highly critical of the Olmert policies.

Israel needs to be rescued from the consequences of its policies. An agreed cease-fire as quickly as possible.

But as long as Washington doesn’t see it – it will not happen.

Voice of Lebanon

26 juli 2006

It’s worth listening to the voices from Lebanon on the war being waged against and in their country.

The online version of the Beirut English-language newspaper The Daily Star gives a glimps that’s certainly worth reading.

Its report from the Rome meeting of foreign ministers of a number of the key states gives a vivid description of how at the closed-doors meeting of the Rome conference Lebanese Prime Minister Faud Siniora asked ”what future other than one of fear, frustration, financial ruin and fanaticism can stem from the rubble?

A good question. Is there a good answer?

An Israeli Strategic Failure?

26 juli 2006

One of the most impressive analysts of strategic issues in general and the Middle East in particular is Anthony Cordesman at the CSIS in Washington.

And he has just published a brief assessment of the Israeli war against Lebanon which I take the liberty of quoting rather extensively from.

In essence, it’s a rather devastating critique of the entire thing – and it’s coming from one of the most well-respected observers in Washington.

His overall conclusion on Israel’s military performance, based on the information available, is that ”it does not seem particularly impressive either in terms of strategy or execution. Israel seems to have escalated without a high probability it could do critical damage to Hezbollah or coerce the Lebanese government, and the tactical execution of its air and land actions seems to be weak.

Hasn’t then the dramatic escalation of the air and artilllery campaign weakened Hezbollah? Well, Cordesman says that ”there is little sign that either the Israeli Air Force (IAF) or the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has done critical damage to Hezbollah. Israel’s claims about Hezbollah casualties are vague, and reports of 100 killed would mean little in any case.”

Blowing up Hezbollah buildings breeds anger and support for the Hezbollah, but there are no high value facilities filled with critical equipment. Destroying most Hezbollah armament means using high cost precision weapons to destroy a few very low cost systems that are easily replaced. The political and propaganda value to the Hezbollah of showing it can ride out IAF strikes, survive, and grow offsets any losses reported to date.”

But if the aim was to coerce the Lebanese government in taking action against Hezbollah, what has then been the performany? Here, Cordesman is no less critical:

The broad-based IAF attacks on Lebanese targets like infrastructure, and the creation of some 600,000 refugees, has bred some anger against Hezbollah. It also has bred anger against Israel.”

What it has not done is lead the Lebanese government to rush towards decisive action against Hezbollah or towards useful reactions from the Lebanese Army. If anything, the IAF has hit enough Lebanese military targets to cause a larger reaction against Israel. The fact that the Lebanese government would not accept Secretary Rice’s offer to aid the Lebanese Army in moving south reflects the lack of Israeli success to date.

It remains somewhat of a mystery that Israel could believe that such a strategy would work:

Lebanon’s confessional politics remain a powder keg, and taking on a movement with so much influence among the Shi’ites, Lebanon’s largest faction, is difficult to impossible for a government that does not have massive domestic support in doing so.”

Many Lebanese do tacitly or overtly support the Hezbollah in its fight against Israel, and not simply Shi’ites. The IAF has almost certainly increased this support by exacting what are at least reported to be large numbers of strikes that hit civilians and civilian facilities. Collateral damage normally only results in temporary fear, but it breeds lasting anger.”

Again, we seem to be confronted with one of those intelligence failures. For all its unlimited access to Lebanon’s clear skies, the Israelis seems to have an imperfect knowledge of what’s really happening on the ground.

It’s a story we have seen before.

AS far as the artillery campaign goes, it ”seems to have had little impact other than to create refugees and hurt Israel’s image abroad. Precision fire is relatively pointless, just as area fire is, unless there is something targeted. Blowing up Hezbollah buildings accomplished no more in the area in artillery range than the rest of Lebanon, and finding and hitting small, dispersed Hezbollah targets remained extremely difficult.

If this is the case, the Israeli campaign might be on the verge of running into very major difficulties as to its future:

So far, the image is that Hezbollah is standing up to Israel — scarcely the image Israel wants and needs — and the fighting will be meaningless unless Israel moves north in strength, or some combination of an international force and Lebanese forces actually occupy the area.

Although it is likely that the Israeli’s have had limited tactical successes, it’s increasingly obvious that they can’t win or achieve their objectives. It’s now only by some sort of international involvement that they can be extracted from what otherwise might develop into a major failure:

According to Cordesman, ”this leaves the option of pressuring the international community into making up for Israel’s military limitations by forcing it to react to Lebanese suffering on Israeli terms.

And that is of course effectively the Secretary Rice advanced in Beirut.

Whether this will work long-term is a completely different issue:

The international force will probably have to do the heavy lifting, be willing to fight, and become the focus of new Hezbollah attacks and ambushes. Non-Muslims will be seen as occupiers and crusaders, and Muslims as traitors. Ambushes, bombings, and foreign volunteers will follow. Can anyone spell IED?

IED, for those not familiar with the term, means Improvised Explosive Devices.

And it’s IED that’s really bringing the US Army down in the campaign in Iraq.

I guess this is what they call ”the new Middle East”.

Kosovo Issue After Vienna

26 juli 2006

It was hardly expected – and not even planned – that the talks in Vienna on the future of Kosovo would produce anything even resembling an agreement.

The big question is what happens now.

There are, in my judgment, some possibilities of patiently manoeuvring the issue slowly forward.

It will certainly be time-consuming and difficult, but it might produce part results that could then pave the way for further steps forward.

But the big question is whether the policy that the UN mediator Marti Ahtisaari follows will allow this or not.

In certain quarters all these talks are seen just as necessary preliminaries for a dramatic imposition of a pre-determined outcome: the full and immediate independence of Kosovo.

In those quarters, there isn’t really much interest in investing in the possibilities for even partial results.

A milder version of this approach has already resulted in the U-turn in policies on Kosovo from the previously sacrosanct “standards-before-status” to the now de facto-policy of “status before standards”.

Although not openly admitted, large parts of the international community have given up on achieving progress in Kosovo towards the stated goal of a multi-ethnic society. And everyone agrees that Kosovo is very far from that goal.

I fear that a hasty continuation of an approach that seeks a speedy imposition of a pre-determined outcome could spell tragedy for the region.

These are not the days of Milosevic, in which some high-level arms-twisting would do the trick and one could reply on authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes to use all their instruments to just “impose” things.

Dealing with democracies isn’t always as easy as dealing with dictatorships, and they do have a tendency to resent being dictated to.

An idea advocated is to offer Serbia the big bargain of losing Kosovo but gaining membership of the European Union and NATO. But that offer is often made by those who could possible dictate some sort of unilateral recognition of an independence of Kosovo, but have little influence over the enlargement strategy of the European Union.

And give the state of the enlargement debate in the European Union at the moment, it’s not hard to understand those in Serbia who question whether such an offer is really on the table.

To “impose” a solution of new states being created and international borders being changed on a region is hardly possible without a decision of the UN Security Council. That will then require an agreement between its five permanent members.

Whether that is a possibility or not remains to be seen.

Russia is signalling that it will demand a policy of parallelism between the Kosovo issue and the different secessionist issues in Georgia. It’s a position utterly unacceptable to the West – but it’s a position they so far are adhering to.

And then there is the question what it would actually mean. Even a Security Council resolution can’t alter sentiments and facts on the ground.

If Serbia refuses to recognize such a dictate and its election within the next year hands power to the nationalists again, it will be a very major setback for the region as a whole.

Massive new refuges waves will be a high probability, borders will be sealed again as hostility becomes the name of the game, Bosnia will become unpredictable and the entire European strategy of the past decade will be in tatters.

Whether there will be a stable and prosperous Kosovo in the middle of the ensuing mess is anybody’s guess – although I would not personally put too much money on it.

So there is much at stake –much more than many realize – in what happens after the talks in Vienna.

A NATO Force for Lebanon?

22 juli 2006

Will there be an international force going into Southern Lebanon?

The idea has been strongly pursued by both Kofi Annan and Tony Blair. And there are signs that it is slowly gathering ground.

If that is the case, it’s more a sign of the absence of other ideas than of the merits of this particular one.

It is often forgotten than there is already an international force there. Even Sweden was part of UNIFIL until the early 1990’s when we decided to pull out and put a battallion into Bosnia instead.

UNIFIL has probably done some good in the smaller scale, but it’s effect on the greater scheme of things has been distinctly limited.

It’s moment of ultimate humiliation was in 1982 as the Israeli army attacked towards Beirut right through the UN lines.

Any additional force would have to be far more robust, far more numerous and with a far more credible mandate.

I fail to see this as a UN force, and the EU Battle Groups are not really designed for these sorts of missions, apart from the fact that they are not big enough. I fail to see much of a realistic alternative to the deployment of the NATO Reaction Force to the area.

It has the numbers, the training and equipment as well as the command structure to give it at the least a fighting chance.

But it needs to be augmented with some US forces. I would not recommend any government to send its forces in there without the US being present on the ground as well. We know only too well what might happen otherwise.

And so far the US isn’t really part of the NATO Reaction Force.

It will certainly be argued that NATO is already stretched very thin. Kosovo will not become easier in the immediate future – possible the other way around. And the ISAF force in Afghanistan is already struggling with too low numbers and critical shortages.

Even more difficult will be the mandate of a force.

Should it go in and just disarm Hezbollah – something the Israeli army failed to do during its 18 years of occupation of the area? Should it go there are prevent a population driven away by the Israelis from the southernmost parts from returning to their homes?

The question vividly illustrate how difficult it will be to find the answers.

I fail to see a force going in without some sort of agreement that also includes, directly or indirectly, Hezbollah. If the Israeli army is reluctant to take on Hezbollah on the ground, it is difficult to see that anyone else will be overly keen to take on that mission.

Such an agreement would probably have to include an arrangement for gradually bringing the regular Lebanese army into these areas. But one should be under no illusions that this can happen fast, and that there accordingly will be a quick exit for an international force.

Attention is now under Condolezza Rice as she will travel to the region. Her past efforts there have however had a tendency towards quick fixes that disintegrate fairly fast thereafter.

We will have to look for signs of whether it will be more serious this time.

And the best sign to look for would be to see whether she is prepared to commit US ground forces to any international force in Southern Lebanon.

If not – it risks becoming just words in the wind.

A New Transatlantic Gulf?

21 juli 2006

Since the beginning of 2005, there has been a fair degree of harmony in trans-Atlantic relations.

With the Iraq war a fact of the past, there was a coming together of the different perspectives on the Middle East conflict.

Yasser Arafat was gone, there was a road map in place, the White House talked about a two-state solution and democracy was the catchword for the transformation towards peace and stability.

It all sounded pretty good. And it worked for a while.

But now there is the risk of a serious rift opening up. There is little doubt that attitudes to the ongoing conflicts are very different in the US and Europe, and the longer the fighting goes on, the deeper will that rift become.

An interesting article in Washington Post today elaborates on the distinct US reluctance to enter into anything that could lead to a ”premature peace”.

President Bush believes that the Israeli Air Force can inflict a significant defeat on Hezbollah, thus creating better conditions for a stable Lebanonm and ultimately reducing the influence of Iran in the region. That’s the theory.

But most Europeans would consider this a pipe-dream. And one which could well have dangereous consequences. Obviously, this is also the view of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and his experts after their tour in the region.

After eight days of intense artillery bombardment of the South of Lebanon and heavy air strikes against also infrastructure targets all over Lebanon there are no real signs of Hezbollag being significantly weakened.

The fact that they can still send their more long-range rockets against Haifa is rather remarkable – obviously Israeli intelligence has not been able to locate their basing areas and rocket stockpiles. That the more short-range Katusha’s are continuing is less surprising – there are likely to be a far larger number of these, and their size make them less difficult to hide.

In the meantime, the civilian consequences of the onslaught get worse and worse.

UN now estimates that app 500 000 people have been forced to flee inside Lebanon. There are now signs – according to Haaretz – that the IDF is starting a policy of deliberate cleansing of the southernmost parts of Lebanon. It might be that one wants to creata security zone of death and destruction by driving the civilian population away.

But with attacks against bridges and roads, all of the population of Lebanon is affected. Reports talk about increasing difficulties in getting food and fuel in all parts of the country.

Washington might believe that all of this will defeat Hezbollah and create democracy in Lebanon.

But all experience from this as well as other conflicts make it far more likely that it will strengthen the political position of Hezbollah and other militant organisations both in Lebanon and throughout the Arab and Muslim world. There will be more rather fewer people listening to the messages of hate coming out of Teheran

And this is where perspectives in Washington and Brussels are now very much different.

While the former might hope that more of this war will lead to more peace, most Europeans are firm in their fear that more of war will in fight produce even more of war.

Clear Words from Kofi

20 juli 2006

It is doubtful that Kofi Annan endeared himself to Washington and Tel Aviv by his presentation to the Security Council in the last hour.

While they both are busy trying to resist a ”premature peace”, Kofi Annan called for an immediate cease-fire.

And he was very clear on the damage done to the state of Lebanon. ”One can’t build a state on the ruins of a nation.

But his was also clear in his condemnation of Hezbollah and its kidnapping operation that initiated the fighting.

While Hezbollah says its actions aim to defend Palestinian and Lebanese interests, they ”in fact do neither,” he said. ”On the contrary they hold an entire nation hostage, set back prospects for negotiation of a comprehensive Middle East peace.

While acknowledging Israel’s right to self-defense, Kofi Annan accused it of ”excessive use of force.”

Whatever damage Israel’s operations may be doing to Hezbollah’s military capabilities, they are doing little or nothing to decrease popular support for Hizbollah in Lebanon or the region, but are doing a great deal to weaken the government of Lebanon,”.

In the first major attempt at a diplomatic initiative in the conflict, he called for the these ideas to be pursued in in parallel:

The kidnapped Israeli soldiers should be transferred to Lebanese government authorities, under the control of the International Committee of the Red Cross and with a view to their return to their country.

A larger international peacekeeping force should to be established on the Lebanese side of its border with Israel, and among its task should be working with the Beirut government to strengthen its army.

A ”mechanism” to be established of key regional and international figures to monitor and guarantee implementation of whatever agreement is reached.

And an international conference to delineate Lebanon’s international borders with Syria and with Israel, including the disputed Shebaa Farms area.

This conference would also discuss the difficult issues of ways to help carry out Security Council resolutions calling for the disarming of militias operating on Lebanese soil and for the Lebanese government to extend its authority across all its territory.

Following the Security Council discussions, Kofi Annan is heading for a dinner later today with US Secretary of State Condi Rice and EU High Representative Javier Solana.

In the meantime, commentators from Israel are doing whatever they can to undermine the message from New York, trying to delay and devalue any diplomatic iniative that might come out of the discussions that are now slowly, slowly starting.

Premature Peace?

19 juli 2006

Passing through Heathrow airport on my way back from the US, I try to get updated on the latest on the wars in the Middle East.

In an overview of the state of the diplomatic game at the moment in Financial Times, an anonymous US official let it be known to the world that ”we don’t want a premature peace.”

Premature peace? It’s a concept that could easily become infamous.

It’s certainly true that US policy in recent times has not been interested in any ”premature peace” in the region. But in its success in avoiding a ”premature peace”, it has stumbled into what in every respect is a serious conflict.

The idea now seems to be to give the Israeli Air Force and the heavy guns of the IDF another week or so to hammer Hezbollah in particular and Lebanon in general. The belief is – I guess – that this will make everything better thereafter.

I doubt. Damage to the physical, economic and political fabric and infrastructure of Lebanon is already massive. A country that was in the early stages of a gradual comeback after its past wars is now more than 20 years back in time. Another week of bombs falling will make things even worse.

A stable Lebanon will not emerge easily out of this carnage.

And the pictures of this carnage in Lebanon will not increase the standing of the Western world throughout the Muslim world.

Whether Hezbollah can be decimated enough to take them out of the picture is highly debatable. They will certainly see their military capability reduced, but their anger is highly likely to increase, and when the bombs start falling they might well initiate some sort of new phase.

It should not be forgotten that Hezbollah are masters in the art of terrorism. Many techniques of terror we have later seen elsewhere in the region and in the world originated with Hezbollah.

But – so far – they have not operated their terrorism outside their immediate area.

To stop the fighting and bombing is imperative. No cease-fire can be seen as premature.

Immediately, it will be the residents of Haifa and Beirut who will be paying the peace for Tel Aviv’s and Washington’s resistance to a ”premature peace”.

But in the longer term we all will.

Who Started?

18 juli 2006

Who’s responsible for the sudden deterioation of the situation in the Middle East?

The answer to that question has obvious policy implications – and we do see how different actors answer it very differently.

The latest escalation was undoubtedly initiated by Hezbollah with its border ambush that kidnapped two soldiers. It was this step that lead the Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defence Force to say that he was going to ”take Lebanon 20 years back.”

But this development can hardly be understood without the dramatic deterioation of the situation in and around Gaza – which in its turn can not be understood without going back to the confrontation that started with the Hamas election victory in January.

But the really missed opportunity was probably after the death of Yasir Arafat and the election in January 2005 of Abu Mazen as his successor.

Suddenly there was a ”partner for peace”, and I remember writing at the time that if that opportunity was not used for concrete steps forward we were likely to see the baton passed to Hamas.

It wasn’t. Israel was very reluctant to move forward on the general political front as it was concentrating on irs withdrawal from Gaza, which was a contensted move inside the country.

That was really the missed opportunity. That was the time when there might have been the possibility to start moving towards a more stable two-state solution.

But the opportunity was missed – deliberately or just by default. And the election meant that the baton passed to Hamas, that Western policy sunk down in just short-term economic retaliation and we entered the present cycle of highly dangereous escalation.

It was by missing that opportunity that the space was created for spoilers like Iran to start entering the game. And it wasn’t entirely unpredictable – I remember writing about that risk here months ago.

And now we are where we are. In tragedy.

The Nature of the War

17 juli 2006

It does matter how you see the nature of the war now underway in the Middle East.

I’m off vacation for a couple of days, and find myself in meetings in Washington and Baltimore.

The President is in flight back from St Petersburg – should be landing at Andrews Air Force Base more or less now.

Here, the war is seen very much as a war with Iran in the driving seat and Hezbollah as little more than an instrument in its designs. Whatever Israel does, it is seen as not only legitimate but also necessary, and ultimately in the long-term interest of the United States as well.

Whether information and intelligence backs up the assumption of Teheran in control of the escalation is unclear, but my impression is that what is available is ambigious at best. But it is clearly something that can’t be excluded.

Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard is all over the TV channels here proclaiming that what we are seeing is an Israel-Islamist war driven by Iran and at the end of the day aimed at the United States and the entire West. His editorial in the issue out today is well written and well argued.

But I would argue that the situation is slightly more complex, and that we would easily go off on the wrong track if we see it just as a coming conflict with Iran.

The immediate deterioation started with the Hamas victory in the January Palestine election and the international reaction to it. It was then that the downward spiral of events really started, with Hezbollah and its backers now joining with their attack, and the Israelis eager to strike back with a vengeance.

Accordingly, it will be important to go back to the Palestine situation as soon as possible. The choice is really between escalating chaos and conflict in the Palestinian territories, fueling terrorism throughout large parts of the Muslim world, and a return to a serious effort at building some sort of stable Palestinian state.

Over time, only a stable state of Palestine and a stable state of Lebanon can give Israel security. There might not be immediate love, but the absence of war and some sort of peace would be immense achievements.

But if it is all seen as part of a big war, with hammering of Hamas and Hezbollah as the opening shots in something that will eventually reach Teheran, we will be in for something very different.

We should not forget that Hezbollah is a product of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. It was then it was created – and eventually it made life so difficult for the Israeli army there than it had to be pulled out.

There are lessons to be learnt from this, one might think.

Early Days of World War III?

17 juli 2006

Are we in the early days of World War III?

That’s what former US House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich has been arguing over the weekend.

And he is calling for President Bush to speak out and ”connect the dots” so that people see the nature of the conflict that is emerging. When people realize that we are in the early days of World War III, Gingrich believes that people will immediately see that the key question is who wins that war.

But talk like this risks making things – bad as they are – even worse, since it will concentrate all thinking only on the military measures that allegedly are the only ones of relevance in a war. Political measures, not to speak about agreements, are mentally ruled out once it is all seen as ”the early days of World War III”.

So there is reason to be concerned over the effects of talk like that of Newt Gingrich.

It risks increasing the risk of everything spiralling even further out of control.

It risks becoming a self-fullfilling prophecy of the worst sort.

The Guns of July

14 juli 2006

Suddenly, the guns are blazing and the bombs are falling from Gaza to Beirut.

Israel responds to the kidnapping of three of its soldiers with all-out military offensives.

In the case of Gaza, there is little doubt that one is deliberately trying to destroy the Palestinian Administration there, counterproductive as that is likely to be.

In the case of Lebanon, the Israelis government is saying that it is making no distinction between the actions of Hezbollah and those of the government of Lebanon, thus proceeding to bomb Beirut Airport and all the country’s links with the outside world.

It’s difficult to see that the effects are going to be anything but highly damaging to the highly fragile political fabric of Lebanon. Israel is bombing the fruits of the celebrated Cedar Revolution into oblivion, with Washington hardly being able to do more than mutter.

It might well be that we are seeing the hand of Damascus and Teheran behind what Hezbollah did in its raid on Israel. It was an obvious strategic move to relieve pressure on the Hamas-lead government in Palestine due to the situation in Gaza.

If that is the case the risk of further escalation is very serious indeed. Damascus has every reason to want Lebanon to disintegrate, thus bringing its influence back. And there might well be elements in Teheran that might see the opportunity to use the obvious pressure points in Iraq and Afghanistan as well.

And Washington seems to be lost. There has not been much of coherent and long-term policy visible there since the Hamas victory in the Palestine Authority elections in January. It’s all been reaction to events – and reactions often without much of long-term purpose.

One has not been explicitly supporting everything coming out of Israel – but neither has there been much of a serious policy effort to fend off the deterioration that, the one way or the other, was in the cards. Policy has been seriously and dangerously drifting.

And now the guns of July are blazing.

Somewhat hidden by the noise of the guns and the bombs has been the decision to take Iran back to the UN Security Council as a reaction to its refusal to react to the package that the EU3 and the US put on the table a couple of months ago.

While there seemed to be a somewhat hopeful atmosphere then, things are very different now. One can well see the hardliners in Teheran arguing for their policies of confrontation.

They probably see the US as weak rather than strong – and with the policy drifting and the military seriously overextended, that’s not unfortunately too far from the truth.

I don’t think there is anyone daring to predict where we are heading. We have suddenly entered a cycle of escalating violence which could rapidly spiral out of control.

It’s a truly dangerous situation – and it affects the entire region from Kabul to Cairo.

Quo Vadis Russia?

14 juli 2006

As the G8 Summit gets underway in St Petersburg, the debate is on concerning the policies of Russia – and our policies towards the country.

The subject is important – and deserves some reflections somewhat longer than the usual.

We know more about where Russia is coming from than about where it is going.

Its recent history has been very dramatic.

It’s only 15 years ago since the political and economic collapse of the Soviet Union and its entire empire.

I remember our agenda then being dominated by issues like the need for emergency food shipment to reduce the risks for starvation in what was still Leningrad.

And there were well-founded concerns that we might be heading for military coups and military conflicts as the entire system come crashing down.

It has come a long way since then. And the worst of fears we had then have not come true.

During the Yeltsin period – chaotic as these years sometimes where – politics was driven by his firm belief that the establishment of a market economy must go hand in hand with the establishment of a Russian democracy.

And crisis by crisis, things actually moved in those directions.

The two Putin periods since 2000 have been different.

The first one was still in the shadows of the near death-experience of the Russian economy in August 1998. To restore stability – macroeconomic as well as political – was an obvious priority.

But it still went hand in hand with significant structural reforms in the economy. The introduction of the 13 % flat income tax is just one important example.

The second Putin period since 2004 has been different.

Economic reforms have slowed down, and are now approaching a standstill. And we have seen a very clear policy to transform the political system from an emerging democracy to an evolving semi-authoritarian system.

Economic growth is still impressive. Moscow is one of the true boom towns of Europe. Apart the vast wealth accumulated by some, personal disposable incomes have been rising fast for the majority of the Russians.

Looking ahead, I think three things are driving the policies being pursued by Putin and his team.

First and foremost, the concerns of the present Kremlin crowd to preserve power and protect – preferably also increase – their often very substantial private and semi-private assets beyond the 2008 presidential transition.

Second, the determination to fend off the “soft invasion” by the West of wider Russian space that the different colour revolutions, most notably in Ukraine and Georgia, were seen as, and to secure Russians dominating influence in these areas beyond its immediate boundaries.

Third, to restore respect for Russian power and policies in more general terms.

In early Soviet times, the aura of Communism was the instrument, in later Soviet times it was the shadow of military strength that fulfilled the function, and now it is its role as what they refer to as an energy superpower that is the instrument.

It is unlikely that there is an established and agreed succession scenario in place already, but practically all the political manoeuvring that we see inside the Garden Ring in Moscow is driven by this issue.

With the electronic media firmly under control, and a number of other steps taken, the Duma elections next year will be firmly controlled by the Kremlin and won by its United Russia party. The political process in Russia under Putin is substantially more controlled and less free than the political process in Serbia under Milosevic.

We can safely assume that Putin will promote one of his confidants as the next president, and that he personally will seek some position that will retain his influence.

In the immediate perspective this is highly likely to succeed, and we will get a smooth transition. In the somewhat longer perspective, I’m far less certain. The one way or the other, a new set of persons will start to set their own priorities and pursue their own private economic interests.

The true post-Putin succession will come some years after 2008 in the same way as the true post-Yeltsin succession come some years after 2000.

By that time the economic picture might look somewhat different from now.

The days of the boom in Russian oil production is clearly over. The spectacular increase we saw as the industry was privatized and opened to competition – production nearly doubled in a decade – has already ebbed out as roughly a third of oil production has been taken back in state hands with means that have been – at the very best – debatable.

And although Gazprom is a better managed company today than a decade ago, the priority given to securing its total monopoly on production, transportation, transit and distribution of gas in as wide an area as possible can only have a detrimental effect on supplies further down the road.

There is reason to be concern by the way Gazprom is not infrequently used by the Kremlin as a political weapon – or perhaps the other way around – but there is equal reason to be concerned with whether Gazprom will really be able to deliver on all its different commitments some years down the road.

As with Russia as a whole, the oil and gas industry is investing much too little.

There are vast investment needs wherever you look in the economy – energy, transportation, health, housing – but with only 18 % of GDP spent on investments, Russia is well below most other emerging and transition economies at around 25 % – not to speak of over-investing China with over 40 %. Also FDI in Russia is well below the level of other transition economies.

Critical is of course the development of the non-raw materials sector of the economy. And the conditions should be there – there is an industrial basis, and there is a desperate need to develop a service sector.

But while we see industrial production increasing with double digits in all other European transition economies, Russia remains in the single digit league. And while small and medium size businesses are booming in other economies – being the backbone also of employment generation – their share in Russia is still very limited.

Taking all these things together, and assuming that oil and gas prices don’t collapse, I believe that the post-Putin leadership some years down the road will be faced with a more difficult economic – and accordingly also social and political situation.

And it’s what happens then that will really answer the question of where Russia is heading.

Will it then see the need to return to a more liberal path of development, including more profound economic reforms, a true opening up to the West and a more democratic political system?

Or will the Kremlin of those days chose to handle the challenges by embarking on a road of more nationalism, more authoritarian rule and more of a petroleum-financed populism?

Up until then we are likely to witness a slow slide in the later direction – but all our policies must be geared towards encouraging a turn then in the first of these directions.

Big Sensation in Small Country

13 juli 2006

Back home in Sweden there are those trying to create some sensation out of the disclosure that the signals intelligence authority FRA during the Cold War acquired some equipment directly from the United States.

Great sensation. Great scandal. Calls for further investigation.

But hardly either news or remarkable.

Although Sweden had a rather competent defence industry during the past decades – including in sensitive electronic areas – we were obviously not manufacturing everything needed ourselves.

We were dependent on access to Western technologies in a number of different areas.

The air force and its extensive fleet of fighters was the most notable case.

After an initial attempt in the 1950’s we gave up trying to develop and manufacture jet engines on our own. And all the fighters designed and manufactured in Sweden since then have had engines from primarily the United States, although often heavily modified and improved.

And the same obviously applied in other areas, including signals intelligence.

It is certainly still the case.

The website of the FRA sigint agency portrays the US-made sigint aircraft that were imported in during the last decade only. We have two of those, and it goes without saying that a very substantial part of everything on them originates in the United States.

Sensation, sensation.

These Gulfstream aircraft replaced older Caravelle’s – French! – that in its turn replaced even older DC3’s – also American!

During the decades of the Cold War Sweden maintained a robust and competent intelligence establishment, with FRA as the perhaps single most important component.

It was essential in order to be able to have a national defence essentially based on mobilisation. We were extremely dependent on reliable information about the possible build-up of military forces in our vicinity so as to be able to react appropriately.

We were living in the shadow of the Soviet Union and its military power.

But knowing the facts about what was happening – or not – beyond its closed curtains also in military terms allowed us to be more relaxed than we might otherwise have been.

And that required a robust intelligence establishment – which in turn was dependent on cooperation with other countries in the West. Technical as well as in the exchange of information. There were things we could do that no one else could – and that gave us access to things we could not reach but had an obvious national interest in.

In terms of its own developed capabilities, it must be said that FRA in certain respect during these decades probably was second to none in the world.

Already during WW2 it cracked the German military code with the help of the famous Enigma machine. That was the achievement in Britain so central to the Allied war effort that it was kept secret for half a century.

But less known is that it was duplicated in Sweden.

And building on that, as well as an important infusion of experience from Finland in the late 1940’s, FRA developed into a world-class organisation in its field during the decades that followed.

It’s something to be proud of.

That’s the essence of the real story.

But the summer debate back home seems smaller than usual.

The Complex Future of Bosnia

10 juli 2006

At present, I’m sitting in the discussions in the Croatia Summit 2006 in wonderful Dubrovnik. Here, many of the leaders of this part of Europe – as well as from other European countries and Georgia – are coming together to discuss different issues.

Much has been achieved in the region – but much clearly remains to be done.

It’s only when Croatia is secured as a member of the European Union, and Serbia securely on its road towards that goal, that we can really say that we can look forward to the regions stability.

Bosnia is only a stone’s throw – almost literally – from Dubrovnik. And the past of beutiful Dubrovnik was intimately linked not only to its maritime trade with most of the world of those days, but also its position as a centre for the trade with the hinterland of what is Bosnia and Serbia today.

It was to a large extent the gold of Fojnia and the silver of Srebrenica and Novo Brdo that filled the coffers of medieval Dubrovnik.

There are those that believe that all of the problems of present Bosnia can be sorted out by just changing its institutions, perhaps going as far as abiolishing its two-entity structure.

I hear some shadows of that view in the discussions here as well – although far less than one sometimes find in discussions more far away from the Balkans and its challenges itself.

But that’s a pipe-dream – and in my opinion a rather dangerous one.

Political institutions in today’s Europe have to reflect – within firm frameworks of integration, democracy and the rule of the law – the feelings of identity of its different peoples.

Such feelings of identity do change over time – but it takes a long time. There are no quick fixes.

That applies to Scotland with the United Kingdom, Alto Adige within Italy, Catalonia within Spain, the Flemish region within Belgium or the Åland Islands within Finland – just to mention some of the many examples.

Bosnia is certainly no exception to this. It is a veru complex place – joining together people’s with different senses of identity. And that will remain the place for decades – perhaps generations – to come.

A sign of the situation on the ground is that most of the Bosnian Serbs back the secession of the Republic of Srpska from Bosnia and Herzegovina if Kosovo gets independence, according to a not particularly but nevertheless basically credible recent opinion poll.

According to it, 40% out of the total of 850 respondents have said they support the secession; 22.3% of the people partially agree with the idea that the Republic of Srpska should join Serbia.

It was only 28% of those asked that reject the idea. It is not entirely impossible thyat the number of people who support the idea about the Republic of Srpska’s joining Serbia will grow rapidly if Kosovo gets independence.

Over time, the dangers for Bosnia that these figures represent can only be handled by a clear European path of integration, a careful international handling of the region and a deliberate attempts by the politicians of Sarajevo – whichever their orientation – to win the true thrust of all of the citizens of their country.

We are not there yet – with the internal challenge of credibility and thrust perhaps being the most difficult of them.

How To Create Future Terrorism

08 juli 2006

The Israeli government is insisting that its operations in northern Gaza are just to stop rockets from being fired at Israel from there, and that the utmost care is taken so that the civilian population should not suffer unduly.

Not pleasant, but if that was the complete story it would be at least marginally understandable.

But the reality unfortunately looks very different.

Three years ago Israel agreed with the Palestinian Authority that the electricity supply should not be affected by the different conflicts due to its critical importance to the civilian population and economy.

But last week the Israeli Air Force attacked and destroyed the six generators of the only power station in the Gaza area. Following that, the Israeli Army tried to destroy the power lines as well, although that seems to have failed.

More than 700 000 Palestinians are since then without electricity. It’s not only that all air conditioning is gone, but also that 130 water wells operating with electricity and can no longer produce water. And since Israel is also blocking all deliveries of diesel, the reserve power generators at the remaining water wells are likely to stop soon as well.

In the hospitals all the equipment requiring electricity will soon not be able to work. Diabetics that require insulin injection will have to be without, since insulin needs to be stored cool. And any thought of eating any food that is not very fresh should be forgotten – refrigerators will no longer work.

How much of the economy is stopped by the absence of electricity is not clear. Numerous shops and small industries have been forced to close.

And nothing of this can be repaired very soon. Even if six new generators were to be delivered immediately, those knowing the technology are saying that it would take towards six months to get everything up and running smoothly again.

The deliberate destruction of the power system is only one of the examples of the way in which hardship is very deliberately inflicted on the civilian population. One has also bombed a bridge that also housed the main water pipeline between the North and the South of the Gaza area.

It would be very difficult indeed not to classify these acts by Israel as deliberate attempts to punish and destroy the ordinary lives of ordinary Palestinians, and to inflict humanitarian suffering well beyond what the laws of war could motivate.

I guess that if someone deliberately destroyed the power supply of New York it would immediately be classified as an act of terrorism, since the purpose could be no other than inflicting harm on innocent civilians.

As long as Israel acts like this – deliberately destroying civilian infrastructure of critical importance for the population – they deserve the condemnation of the world, and they gravely undercut the support that otherwise would be there for actions necessary against rockets fired at Israel.

Whatever it should be called – there is no doubt that acts like these are acts that breed and fuel terrorism.