We’re pleased to announce that just yesterday, the Center’s Senior Diplomatic Fellow, Ambassador Peter Galbraith, was appointed U.N. deputy envoy to Afghanistan. His new appointment undoubtedly will be a challenging one as Amb. Galbraith will handle p…
NOTE: TRANSLATION AFTER JUMP
President Obama “has shown himself to be a man of his words,” Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad told the Italian center-left newspaper La Repubblica. Syria is open to mediate between the West and Iran, he added.
Earlier this month the Obama administration sent a senior diplomatic envoy to Damascus, hoping to find common ground on “a number of issues,” which probably included Syria’s diplomacy with Israel, its role in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, and its relationship with Iran.
The United Sates has long tried to increase Iran’s political isolation in the region by driving a wedge between Damascus and Tehran. Assad, though, is playing his cards carefully.
On March 17, Syria’s foreign minister was behind the microphones gushing over Syria’s “excellent” relationship with Iran. The day after, Assad told Italian journalists that he hopes to meet president Obama “to talk.”
By seeking to position itself as a mediator, Syria seems intent on preserving the alliance with Tehran without wasting an opportunity to warm up to Washington.
Here is my translation of excerpts of Assad’s interview (here’s the original in Italian):
On President Obama
“With the withdrawal from Iraq, a commitment to peace, the closing of Guantanamo, [President Obama] has shown himself to be a man of his words. If this will be a historical turning point, though, it’s too soon to tell. This is for sure: after the night-like years of the Bush administration, we have reason to hope again.”
“First, I would like to make it clear that countries act according to national interests. That said, if we want to calculate American and Syrian interests, well, I can say that 80 percent of them coincide, and I give myself a 20 percent safety margin…An example? Here’s the first one: Iraq. The U.S. pullout takes away the main issue at the center of our differences with Washington, that is, the [U.S.] occupation of that country… We can work together for the stability of Iraq, without which the pullout cannot succeed.”
“A meeting [with Obama]? Yes, in principle, it would be a very positive sign; though I’m not looking for a photo opportunity. I hope to see him – to talk.”
“With Iran, I stand ready to mediate.”
“When talking about Iran’s influence in Iraq we ought to make a distinction: Influence is not a negative when it is based on reciprocal respect. Interference is another thing. Rather, if we are talking about facilitating the dialogue with Iran, we need a concrete proposal to submit to that government. For now, I’ve only received an invitation to play a certain role. And that’s fine, but it is not enough: There are still no plans, rules, specific mechanisms to submit to Tehran.”
“We have been inches away from sealing an agreement with Israel.”
“I see the goal [of renewed negotiations] becoming more distant. I’m not worried at the thought of Netanyahu, but of a turn to the right by the Israel society, which Netanyahu’s ascent to power mirrors. Here’s the biggest obstacle to peace.”
“Only Washington can put pressure on Israel.”
On Democratic Progress in Syria
“The pace of reform has slowed down a lot, it’s true, but it has not come to a halt. Now that external pressures have diminished, it will go forth, for example adding a freely elected Senate to the Parliament, to make room for the opposition; increasingly liberalizing the media and the Internet and, after that, political parties, through an appropriate law. However, everything must proceed gradually, at our own pace.”
On November 27, 2008, the Iraqi parliament approved a landmark security agreement with the United States. More than half of the parliament voted for the agreement, which now must be approved by the Iraqi people in a nationwide referendum to be held by July 30.
In Washington, however, neither a “yea” nor a “nay” has been heard from Congress on the agreement. Insisting it had the authority to negotiate unilaterally, the Bush administration engaged Congress only symbolically (briefings, etc.) while working out the details with Iraq.
The persistent failure to consult Congress on an agreement that affects U.S. involvement in Iraq threatens the constitutional balance between the executive and legislative branches and sets a dangerous precedent for future American military engagement abroad.
The Obama administration should immediately redress this institutional deformity and submit the agreement to Congress for a vote, even if it is only a symbolic resolution.
Any peacetime U.S. troop presence on foreign territories usually is regulated through Status of Forces Agreements (SOFA) between the United States and host countries. We currently have 115 such agreements. They usually deal with unexciting things, such as how supplies should be delivered and the legal status of military personnel, and come into force upon approval by the President only.
The U.S.-Iraq pact, however, is quite different. The “Agreement on the Withdrawal of the United States Forces from Iraq and the Organization of Their Activities during their Temporary Presence in Iraq,” as the tongue-twisting name reveals, reaches much further than a regular SOFA would. It says U.S. forces should withdraw from Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009, and from all of Iraq by the end of 2011. It requires that U.S. combat troops coordinate with the Iraqi government; deliver prisoners to Iraqi custody; and leave to Iraqi authorities the primary responsibility for monitoring Iraq’s airspace.
Bypassing Congress on the agreement has sent the United States into “a legal no-man’s land,” potentially offering a legal precedent for the President to extend future military occupations without Congressional consent, wrote constitutional experts Bruce Ackerman and Oona Hathaway. As Senators Ted Kennedy (D-MA), Bob Casey (D-PA), and Jim Webb (D-VA) have noted, Americans have a right to know that their elected representatives get to weigh in on any agreement that demands as much blood and treasure as the Iraq war.
Even some prominent conservatives have expressed concern about the lack of Congressional involvement in the agreement. For example, as the Washington Post’s George Will recently wrote, “This deal … covers questions at the center of far-reaching policy debates that rightly require congressional participation – the timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops central among them.”
In their Senate days, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden all supported legislation requiring that the President consult with Congress on any agreement involving commitment or risk for the nation. The Bush administration turned a deaf ear, but the new tenants in the White House and Foggy Bottom ought to know better than that.
On March 6, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met in Geneva for the first time. As is customary at diplomatic meetings, Clinton presented Lavrov with a gift.
So far, so good.
In a play on language used by Vice President Biden during his February speech in Munich, Clinton gave Lavrov a red button with what the U.S. delegation thought had “reset” written on it in Russian. The word was mistranslated, however, and the button actually said “overcharge.”
Despite the initial foible, Clinton and Lavrov had a productive meeting. The two ministers discussed “the negotiation of a follow-on agreement to the START treaty, and broader areas of cooperation to reduce the number of nuclear weapons and prevent further proliferation,” according to Clinton.
Lavrov also emphasized the prominence of nuclear arms reduction in the meeting. “Special attention was paid to nonproliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass…destruction, strategic offensive and defensive weapons as well,” he said.
These remarks are particularly encouraging because the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) is set to expire in December 2009. If START elapses without a follow-on agreement, the treaty’s key verification procedures would disappear since they were not included in the 2003 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT).
Hopefully, when the United States and Russia next meet they will continue to discuss arms control with the goal of reducing their strategic nuclear stockpiles to 1,000 or fewer per side.
The first meeting between Russia and the new Obama administration was promising despite the language mix up. Russia and the United States have many areas in which they can collaborate. Let’s hope they can build on their vital partnership and make significant progress on pressing security concerns in 2009.
The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) expires in December. While much will need to be done in order for a replacement treaty to be signed and ratified by then, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov got off to a great “start” earlier this month.
Even the reset button mistranslation faux pas could be a positive (no hard feelings, both sides have a laugh, take vodka shots, reduce nukes – simple).
Ideally, the START follow-on treaty will reduce stockpiles to 1,000 or fewer warheads per side with an accompanying comprehensive verification regime. Russia and the United States currently possess around 16,000 nuclear weapons. Nuclear experts Sidney Drell and James Goodby previously have outlined what a 1,000-per-side force structure might look like for the United States.
Much domestic support exists for a new arms reduction treaty. Across the political spectrum, prominent politicians and policy wonks have supported mutual, transparent steps by the United States and Russia to reduce their nuclear arsenals. Especially encouraging is the large number of moderates and conservatives who have spoken out in favor of reducing nukes.
Concluding a replacement to START, however, will require more than vocal support from moderates and conservatives. It will require a two-thirds (67 votes) majority in the U.S. Senate. That means lawmakers will have to put their money where there mouths are.
Getting politicians to do what they say they want to do: not impossible, just challenging. Thankfully, a number of sitting Republican Senators have supported previous arms reduction treaties, as noted in this new chart.
Other than Arlen Specter, Republicans still in the Senate today voted along party lines on the last three nuclear arms treaties. Thus, achieving a two-thirds majority on the replacement to START will prove difficult even with Democrats controlling so many seats in the Senate.
Obama will need to present the treaty to the Senate with well-researched military, political, and economic arguments for ratification in order to garner the broadest possible coalition for approval. The administration should reach out to Senators Lugar, Specter, and McCain during negotiation of the treaty to build bipartisan support. Lugar and Specter are long-time supporters of nuclear arms reductions, and McCain supported reductions during his presidential campaign.