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#SOTU 2015: Balancing Pragmatism and Aspiration

Like many Americans, I have often been thrilled and frustrated by the lurching foreign policy efforts of the Obama administration—often times on the same issue. It appears there is a tension in US foreign policy. On the one hand, we as a nation continue to struggle, desiring to be seen as an aspirational and exceptional nation. This adherence to the idea of America as the indispensable nation means the First Lady participates in the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, and we send soldiers to Uganda to help fight the Lord’s Resistance Army. On the other hand, we are a nation of interests; this leads us to sometimes deal with unsavory characters ranging from China to Saudi Arabia. So how do we square this circle—the challenge of defining our engagement in the world? I can think of no finer place for President Obama to articulate a vision than his State of the Union address.

US Reliability Depends on Europe's Contribution to NATO

“The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the US Congress—and in the American body politic writ large—to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.” That’s Secretary of Defense Bob Gates on his way out of office, back in 2011. Secretary of State John Kerry, too, has called on America’s NATO allies to increase their defense spending to the agreed 2 percent of GDP. Here’s the grim picture: apart from the United States, at 4.4 percent, only Britain (2.4 percent), Greece (2.3 percent), and faithful Estonia (2 percent) meet this target. Needless to say, the European NATO members also remain far from “serious and capable partners in their own defense.”

Obama SOTU Address Should Focus on Iran, Syria

After a year in which the global threats and tragedies facing the United States seemed to multiply, President Obama’s State of the Union address this week will be a good way to remind Americans that international engagement is a strategic imperative and that commitment abroad can and will take many different forms in 2015. The president should specifically highlight how he hopes to improve his record on two related foreign and security policy priorities—Iran’s nuclear program and the situation in Syria.

Son of Notorious Hezbollah Commander Killed in Syria

Jihad Mugniyeh, son of notorious Hezbollah commander Imad Mugniyeh, was just killed by an Israeli airstrike in Syria near the Golan Heights.

Hezbollah is fighting against Sunni jihadists in Syria on behalf of the Iranian and Syrian regimes, but that doesn't mean it has abandoned its war against Israel. If the Syrian regime doesn't survive, Hezbollah won't be able to receive high-grade weapon systems from Iran anymore. It already has a formiddable missile arsenal and can now—unlike during the 2006 war—inflict signinificant damage on Tel Aviv and even Jerusalem if it dares. But with Assad out of the picture, once those missiles are gone, they're gone, and Hezbollah would be downgraded from the quasi state-conventional actor that it is now to a mere guerrilla and terrorist organization again.

It's not clear how important the now-deceased commander Jihad Mugniyeh was, but his father was a bloodthirsty psychopath with the blood of hundreds of people under his fingernails. Many of us have forgotten, but he was the most notorious anti-American terrorist in the world before Osama bin Laden usurped the position.

Mugniyeh orchestrated the bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut in 1983 that killed 63 people, as well as the suicide truck bombings against French paratroopers and US peacekeepers that same year that killed 299 in one day. The attack against the Marine barracks was the single deadliest strike against the US Marine Corps since the Battle of Iwo Jima. He hijacked TWA Flight 847 from Athens to Rome in 1985 and executed US Navy diver Robert Stethem and dumped his body onto the tarmac. The rest of the passengers were held hostage for weeks in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war.

Argentina charged Mugniyeh with murdering 114 people in Buenos Aires in 1992 by blowing up the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish community center.

He is also believed to have masterminded the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 20 people and wounded 372.

He was car-bombed to death in Damascus in 2008, presumably by Israeli intelligence. No one else was hurt in the incident.

And now his son, aptly named Jihad, is dead too.

Jihad was working near the Golan Heights alongside infamous child-murdered Samir Kuntar whom the Israelis released in 2008, along with four Hezbollah members, in exchange for the return of the bodies of IDF soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser who had been captured and tortured to death at the start of the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

On April 22, 1979, in the northern Israeli town of Nahariya, Kuntar killed policeman Eliyahu Shahar, civilian Danny Haran, and Haran's four year old daughter Einat by placing her head on a rock and smashing her skull with the butt of his rifle.

Trading that guy for two soldiers who were already dead was a raw deal for Israel.

“If we thought the enemy was cruel to the living and the dead,” former Chief Rabbi of the IDF Yisrael Weiss said, “we were surprised, when we opened the caskets, to discover just how cruel. And I’ll leave it at that.”

Mugniyeh's son may be dead, but Kuntar is an at-large recidivist psychopath who's planning more attacks. The Israelis erred in releasing him, but if they can whack Mugniyeh they can correct it by next whacking Kuntar. The last thing they should do is arrest him again.

Mysterious Men Linked to Russia Target Lithuanian President

Last month a peculiar thing happened at the European Parliament. Four men were observed placing books with the title Red Dalia in members’ pigeonholes. Nothing unusual, you say: pigeonholes are for putting missives in. But it wasn’t just any book, and the four men distributed it without permission. The eponymous Dalia in the book of 200-plus pages is none other than Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, and the book alleges that she used to be involved with the KGB.

Grybauskaite has repeatedly warned of Russian aggression. That, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vasily Nebenzya warned last month, would have consequences for the Iron Lady of the Baltics. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich went farther, complaining that Grybauskaite had “belched out a new set of rude verbal assaults on Russia in an interview with a local radio station.”

What to Expect from Russia, Ukraine in 2015?

What should we expect from Ukraine and Russia in 2015?

My guess is: more of the same. And that’s both the good news and the bad news.

Ukraine will consolidate its democratic institutions, while Vladimir Putin’s Russia will consolidate its fascist regime. Although Ukrainians will complain more than Russians, their country will actually be getting stronger, while the hypercentralized state structure centered on Putin’s cult of the macho personality gets weaker. Democratically ruled peoples whine publicly; dictatorially ruled peoples whine privately. The fact that 80-plus percent of Russians are likely to continue to support Putin won’t mean that 80-plus percent are happy with life in Putin’s crumbling realm.

The ISIS of Africa

Boko Haram galvanized activists all over the world last year when it kidnapped hundreds of school girls in Nigeria and threatened to sell them into slavery, but hardly a peep has been uttered since the Al Qaeda-linked army massacred as many as 2,000 people near the Chad border last week.

“I walked through five villages,” a survivor told The Guardian, “and each one I passed was empty except for dead bodies.”

The attack in Paris at the Charlie Hebdo office sucked up most of the Western media and political oxygen—understandably so since France is a Western country—but it’s also unfortunate because it diverted out attention from the fact that Boko Haram is rapidly turning into the ISIS of Africa. These guys are not mere terrorists anymore. They’re behaving more and more like a regular army, and they now control a swath of territory in northeastern Nigeria the size of Belgium.

“The United States needs to recognize we have a problem that's second only to the problem we have with ISIS (Islamic State),” the Atlantic Council’s Peter Pham told USA Today. “We have a group holding territory and shooting down jet fighters. ... If Nigeria collapses — it is the strong state in the region — there are no strong states to contain what would happen if Boko Haram succeeds in carving out an Islamic state in that area.”

Radical Islamists are immeasurably more dangerous when they organize themselves into states or state-like entities than when they hide in the shadows and strike like serial killers with bombs. Terrorist organizations are bad enough, but radical Islamist state-like entities such as ISIS, the Taliban, Hamas, and Hezbollah are menacing enough to start wars.

The United States isn’t directly involved in all these wars—Israel battles Hamas and Hezbollah, and the French took out the proto-Islamic state in Northern Mali—but if a huge swath of Africa collapses and Boko Haram metastasizes fully into an ISIS-linked entity with staying power, what happens in Sub-Saharan Africa may no longer stay in Sub-Saharan Africa.

China Pledges $35 Billion to Latin America

With relatively little fanfare, China has taken over the inside lane of economic development in Latin America with an ambitious 10-year regional investment plan on the scale of the Marshall Plan. China’s support for a $250 billion fund for largely infrastructure investments in Latin America was announced by President Xi Jinping at a summit meeting in Beijing last week of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which represents 33 countries. China has already pledged $35 billion for the fund, which will also require financial inputs from multilateral development banks and contributions from host countries. To coordinate this, CELAC and China will create a forum to design the partnership with the goal of unifying Latin America as a regional economy.

Mr. Putin’s Word is Void of Value

MOSCOW — “Mr. Putin does not want to annex eastern Ukraine. I am sure of it. He told me so,” French President François Hollande affirmed in a recent radio interview. Whether this was an unfortunate turn of phrase or genuine naïveté, Western leaders should be reminded of what Russian citizens have long known—that Vladimir Putin’s promises are rarely worth the paper they are written on.

Here is but a short selection of prominent “he-told-me-so’s” from the Kremlin leader.

“To take away the people’s right to elect their regional leaders would be wrong… and would constitute an element of disrespect for the voters.” (May 6, 2000)

“I believed and continue to believe that the leaders of the regions of the [Russian] Federation should be elected by the people. This order has become established and has become a part of our democratic state system.” (May 17, 2000)

Gotland Island, the Baltic Sea's Weak Link

Dear Russian military planners: In the Baltic Sea, about 50 miles from Sweden and 80 miles from Latvia, there’s a large island that would perfectly suit the interests of a country like yours. Let’s speak entirely hypothetically. By occupying Gotland, even temporarily, you could prevent NATO from sending reinforcements of troops and equipment to the Baltic states, should you decide to invade them. You’d also prevent NATO air missions in aid of the Baltic states, and the alliance wouldn’t be able to use the island as a base from where to hunt your submarines or interfere with your activities in the air.

Sri Lankans Boot Pro-China Government

Friday, Sri Lankan voters decisively turned out President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Asia’s longest-server leader. By the end of the day, his former ally and health minister, Maithripala Sirisena, had taken the oath of office. Sirisena, 63, had defected from the government camp only in November, just as the election was called.

The 69-year-old Rajapaksa had called the poll two years before the end of his second term, and it looked like a smart move because, even in the days before the balloting, many expected him to win. He had, after all, ended the civil war by crushing the Tamils and in recent years presided over a period of fast growth.

'The Russian Army Has Huge Problems'

The following is an interview with Rajan Menon, a professor of political science at the City College of New York and a senior research scholar at the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.

* * *

MOTYL: You and Eugene Rumer of the Carnegie Endowment have just completed a book about Ukraine. What is its central argument?

MENON: The Russia-West relationship has collapsed. Russia stands isolated and damaged. But an isolated, nationalistic, and authoritarian Russia isn’t what Europe needs—and it’s certainly not good for Ukraine. Ukraine cannot afford to be in a perpetual state of war with Russia, if only because no Western soldier will ever be dispatched to die for Ukraine.

MOTYL: Do you expect Kyiv to launch radical reforms?

A War for the Soul of Islam

Another terrorist attack, another 12 people dead, most of them journalists, increasingly a high-risk profession. And another wave of principled, necessary, but in the end rhetorical condemnation. We all are Charlie. We will not bow to murderous terror. We will not compromise on the freedom of speech and expression. We will not be cowed. Until the next attack, which will now surely come, we don’t know when, we don’t know by whom, but we know it will happen. Does that mean we are now condemned to live with terror as a fact of life, something like air crashes, or industrial accidents? And if so, how long will it take before, to lessen the risks, we will unwittingly start mincing words, skirt over issues, and hide our true convictions? And if so, how long can liberal democracy last after that? Is the choice now between a securitized state, in which liberal freedoms will be subordinated to security considerations in the hunt for the fanatics, and a police state, in which freedom of expression is sacrificed in the hope that this might somehow mollify them?

Millennials Make the Case for American Leadership

Over the past year, Americans were reminded that the United States remains an indispensable global leader. Given America’s capacity and reach, only the US can lead the response to threats like the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and emerging threats as varied as cyber warfare and pandemic disease. At the same time, America is uniquely positioned to reap the benefits of a peaceful, stable, and interconnected world. Meeting new challenges and capitalizing on unprecedented opportunities in the coming years will require a new generation of Americans willing to make the case for, and implement, an engaged and principled US foreign policy.

This is why the Foreign Policy Initiative and the Truman National Security Project are so excited to partner with World Affairs to relaunch “Millennial Letters.” This blog will feature contributions from members of our respective leadership networks on the major challenges and opportunities facing the United States, including:

Christopher Hitchens on Today’s Paris Massacre

Gunmen shouting “Allahu Akbar” attacked the offices of French satirical newspaper named Charlie Hedbo and killed twelve people, including journalists and two policemen.

Radical Islamists apparently don’t share the paper’s sense of humor.

What good is legal freedom of speech if violent enforcers of a different, older, and foreign set of laws take it upon themselves to punish you extrajudicially?

This is not a new problem, not in the Middle East and not in the West. A few years ago I spoke with Christopher Hitchens about it and here’s what he said.

Hitchens: Let's do a brief thought experiment. I tell you the following: On New Year's Eve, a man in his mid-seventies is having his granddaughter over for a sleep-over, his five-year old granddaughter. He is attacked in his own home by an axe-wielding maniac with homicidal intent. Your mammalian reaction, your reaction as a primate, is one of revulsion. I'm trusting you on this. [Laughs.]

MJT: Oh, yes. You are correct.

Hitchens: Then you pick up yesterday's Guardian, one of the most liberal newspapers in the Western world, and there's a long article that says, ah, that picture, that moral picture, that instinct to protect the old and the young doesn't apply in this case. The man asked for it. He drew a cartoon that upset some people. We aren't at all entitled to use our moral instincts in the correct way.

[…]

MJT: The current president of Ireland said Muslims have the right to be offended by Westergaard's cartoons. I suppose that's true as far as it goes, that everybody has the right to be offended by anything, but why…

Hitchens: Ah yes. This is not new. I've written about this many times. It's reverse ecumenicism. It first became obvious to me when the fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie in 1989. The reaction of the official newspaper of the Vatican was that the problem wasn't that the foreign leader of a theocratic dictatorship offered money, in public, in his own name, to suborn the murder of the writer of a book of fiction in another country, who wasn't an Iranian citizen. The problem was not that.

You and I may have thought, bloody hell, this is a new kind of threat. But it's an old level of threat. Blasphemy is the problem. That was also the view of the archbishop of Canterbury. The general reaction of the religious establishments to that and to the Danish case—and, by the way, of our secular State Department in the Danish case—was to say the problem was Danish offensiveness. A cartoon in a provincial town in a small Scandinavian democracy obviously should be censored by the government lest it ignite—or as Yale University Press put it, instigate—violence.

Instigation of violence can only mean one thing. I know the English language better than I know anything else.

MJT: Instigate means it's on purpose.

Hitchens: These people are saying the grandfather and granddaughter were the authors of their own attempted assassinations. These are some of the same people who say that if I don't believe in God I can't know what morality is. They've just dissolved morality completely into relativism by saying actually, occasionally, carving up grandfathers and granddaughters with an axe on New Year's Eve can be okay if it's done to protect the reputation of a seventh century Arabian man who heard voices.

MJT: It's hard to psychoanalyze other people, but I sometimes suspect that blaming Salman Rushdie and Kurt Westergaard, as many writers have, for bringing down the wrath of these maniacs from Somalia and Iran, may be a way of convincing themselves they'll be safe as long as they don't cross the same line. Any writer or graphic artist must, at least for a second, think oh fuck, they could come for me if I don't watch out. They can say to themselves they'll be fine if they don't cross that line.

Hitchens: But the line will never stop shifting.

Postscript: My latest collection of dispatches, Tower of the Sun: Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, is now available in both trade paperback and electronic editions.

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