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Georgia Started the South Ossetia War

Map of GeorgiaOver a year after the fact, that is the central conclusion of a report commissioned by the Council of the European Union, which was released today. To a fair amount of international attention. The BBC has a write-up, including a pdf of the report. And even the Wall Street Journal, which has published a fair amount of columns by the Georgian President Saakashvili, had a headline that reads 'Report: Georgia Triggered War With Russia' (via Jerome).

The report itself is readable, and contains a useful timeline of the events. It is also critical of Russia, which is found to have reacted disproportionally to the attacks. In fact, no one comes away well from the report. It even ventures into some muted criticism of the support for the buildup of the Georgian army by the United States, which it calls a 'sensitive issue', while calling for such military support to 'stay within the boundaries set by common sense and due diligence'.

But, wait a second, no one? Well, there is one French President...
After five days of fighting, a ceasefire agreement was negotiated on 12 August 2008 between Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the latter acting on behalf of the European Union. An implementation agreement followed on 8 September 2008, again largely due to the persistent efforts of the French President. This successful political action stood in contrast to the failure of the international community, including the UN Security Council, to act swiftly and resolutely enough in order to control the ever-mounting tensions prior the outbreak of armed conflict.
That is actually clear language. Continue reading "Georgia Started the South Ossetia War"

Is it just Joe?

That is what the Russians must be wondering these days. Let's recap.

Three weeks ago, President Obama goes to Moscow and holds a speech saying that he recognizes "the future benefit that will come from a strong and vibrant Russia", talks about Russia's "rightful place as a great power", and states: "The pursuit of power is no longer a zero-sum game". He offers a few words about the right of Russia's neighbours to set their own foreign policy, but follows up by saying that NATO seeks "collaboration, not confrontation" with Russia.

To the ever-suspicious Russians, this should have sounded like an actual attempt to improve relations.

Cue Joe Biden. The VP was sent on a quick tour to Ukraine and Georgia to assuage fears that the US would change its stance on their possible future membership of NATO. Biden did that part of the job well enough, giving some combative language that the US would "stand by" Georgia, but also making it clear that there was no military way for the country to regain control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, Biden then decided to give an interview to the Wall Street Journal in which he managed to insult just about everyone - even the Georgians - but most of all the Russians. The WSJ headline 'Biden Says Weakened Russia Will Bend To US' is hardly an exaggeration.

When Biden recently made some silly remarks about Israel striking Iran, Mickey Kaus pointed out that this might be a useful form of strategic ambiguity. You might want that kind of thing with regard to Iran, but don't think strategic ambiguity would be useful with regard to Russia, especially in the context of trying to improve relations. So if the White House was ever serious about that, it will have to find a way to communicate that its really only Joe, you know.

Kos Poll: Americans love France and Europe

The left-wing US blog Daily Kos has let Research 2000 do a poll on some of the purported 'boogeymen' of the right, including France and Europe. It turns out that France and Europe are almost universally loved by Americans. France has a 66 to 26 favourability rating, and for Europe the rating is 63 to 29. Favourable opinions of France and Europe exist across ethnic groups and party lines, but there is some regional difference: southerners have an evenly split opinion of both France and Europe.

This is quite a dramatic shift in opinion among the American population from four years ago, when the (more conservative) pollster Rasmussen reported that 57% of Americans held an unfavourable opinion of France.

Opinions of France have probably improved as a result of the improved political relationship that started with the election of Sarkozy, and were reinforced by the election of Obama. At the same time, they might deteriorate again if there is another major diplomatic disagreement between the two countries. Right now, the French and Americans have important reasons to stick together as they are both threatened with 'revenge' by Somali pirates...

NYT on Europe's 'Tepid Troop Commitment'

Harmony isn't a very interesting reporting item, and so from the NATO summit in Strasbourg-Kehl, we mainly get to see video images of burning hotels, and reports exaggerating the scope of disagreements. The New York Times report by Steven Erlanger and Helene Cooper provides a quite clear example. They write:
For Mr. Obama, in many ways, the two months since he took office have been a reality check on the difference between Europe’s vocal support and action.
But was there loud vocal support in Europe for a surge in Afghanistan in the first place? I haven't heard it. In any case, the Obama administration has long been playing down expectations of additional troops from Europe. In public it moved to asking European countries for more aid instead. In that sense, the 5,000 added troops European countries have now (temporarily) committed are a decent result for Obama to take home.

The size of the added money for the Afghan National Army and civilian aid, at 100 million and a pledged 500 million for aid, on the other hand, are not very impressive, although Obama says that it is 'signficant'. Perhaps he expects that he will get more in the future?

The NYT report also plays up the tension with Turkey over the nomination of Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen as NATO Secretary General. It seems that the negotiations took a long time, but at the end of the day, there was agreement. Turkey got a few concessions, and Rasmussen got the post.


The difference with the report in the French paper Le Monde is striking. Le Monde writes that this summit has managed to achieve consensus, and focuses on the agreement existing on Afghanistan, the new Secretary General, the reinitiated dialogue with Russia and the return of France to the military command.

Perhaps that is a bit too rosy, but consensus seems to dominate at the end of this conference. Whether the consensus is right and whether everything that has been promised will also be delivered are other questions.

Europe Surging in Afghanistan?

That's what Daniel Korski notes in his latest ECFR policy brief. Factually, a lot of European countries have already sent more troops in Afghanistan, and still more are on the way there. Between November 2006 and March 2009, European troop levels increased by nearly 9,000, and European troops now make up nearly half of the ISAF mission. This has been the result of a set of (mostly) quiet revolutions in national policies on Afghanistan. At the same time, Europe still has not delivered a clear common strategy on Afghanistan, which is lamentable.

Korski makes some considered recommendations for an EU policy, which is very welcome, considering the lack of consideration on the official levels. At the same time, his ideas call for a critical review. Korski offers a list of seven policy recommendations, which are:
  • A twin process of reconciliation with the Taliban and constitutional reform to be launched
  • EU to field a large election observer mission and NATO to deploy the NATO Response Force for an election-focused boost to ISAF
  • NATO allies to improve training of the Afghan army by setting up a Military Advisory Force, a Military Advisory Centre and launching a NATO training mission for non-basic army training
  • EU to grow its police mission by hiring 500 officers on the open market, including from third states, like Ukraine, Moldova, Morocco, Serbia and Turkey, while reconciling the roles of the US CSTC-A and EUPOL
  • EU states to support the establishment of a special UN-backed serious crimes tribunal, located in Kabul or elsewhere in the region, to take on drug kingpins
  • US and EU to call for a new UN “assistance envoy” for Pakistan and to organise a donors’ conference
  • EU to launch a “capital reconstruction team” for Kabul to guarantee a concerted focus on security and reconstruction
The notion of starting a tribunal for drug traffickers as a form of nation building is an innovative idea, and a temporary boost in troop numbers in the weeks leading up to the elections also sounds like a good plan that could bring real results as well as goodwill for an effort that is managable for Europe's militaries and can be sold to the domestic electorate. Continue reading "Europe Surging in Afghanistan?"

The Emerging Afghanistan Strategy

In a long piece for the NYT, Dexter Filkins writes that the US is done propping up the mayor of Kabul:

The world has changed for Mr. Karzai, and for Afghanistan, too. A White House favorite — a celebrity in flowing cape and dark gray fez — in each of the seven years that he has led this country since the fall of the Taliban, Mr. Karzai now finds himself not so favored at all. Not by Washington, and not by his own.

In the White House, President Obama said he regarded Mr. Karzai as unreliable and ineffective. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said he presided over a “narco-state.” The Americans making Afghan policy, worried that the war is being lost, are vowing to bypass Mr. Karzai and deal directly with the governors in the countryside.

At the same time as Karzai finds himself out of favour, NATO is facing a difficult situation over its high commander, General Bantz John Craddock. The German weekly SPIEGEL has reported on an order of his to kill drug traffickers, which was refused by German general Egon Ramms, head of the Afghanistan command centre, and the American Afghanistan command general David McKiernan.

Continue reading "The Emerging Afghanistan Strategy"

Cheese Wars and Strong Coffee

Americans will soon pay more for a precious piece of French Roquefort. The American government has as a last, petty gesture in its trade policy decided to raise tariffs on the product from 100 to 300 percent. This is part of a more general round of retaliatory tariffs in response to the ban the European Union maintains on beef produced with growth hormones. But it is clear that Roquefort has been targeted for political sensitivity, as the Independent writes:
There was a violent reaction in France when import duties were first raised on roquefort cheese 10 years ago. The small farmers' leader José Bové – then a roquefort producer – began his rise to international celebrity by attacking a McDonald's restaurant at Millau, near Roquefort, with mallets and a bulldozer in August 1999.
The main effect this will have is making Roquefort more exclusive. And, perhaps, something of a political statement among Michael Pollan fans and the like. I do hope the French embassy will react appropriately at societal events. If the new administration does not dial this back... Continue reading "Cheese Wars and Strong Coffee"

Ground War in Gaza

The Washington Post's Grif White reports that Israeli troops have moved into the Gaza strip. Some notes:

Two weeks after the start of Israeli operations in Gaza in 2006, Hezbollah launched a strike into Israel that killed three soldiers, and two were taken hostage, purportedly to swap for Lebanese hostages still held by Israel. This set off the 2006 Lebanon War. Israeli ground forces did not have their best day in that war, but Hamas is no Hezbollah. Meanwhile, the AFP has a report in which various analysts predict that Hezbollah will not get itself involved in the current conflict.

Israel is signalling that this will be a longer operation. From the Post piece: One spokeswoman, Maj. Avital Leibovich, said on CNN that it would be a "lengthy operation" because "we have many, many targets."

These targets could include others than Hamas. In a Terrorism Focus series on the fall-out of the Iraq war, earlier in December, Michael Scheuer wrote about the growing foothold of Salafists in the Gaza Strip:
In Palestine, there seems to be a minor Salafi presence in the West Bank but a steadily growing military and proselytizing presence in Gaza. The above noted “Army of Islam” and several other Salafi organizations have created training facilities in Gaza and have displayed them to the international media, defiantly proclaiming, “We are coming Jews!” (Reuters, September 2; see also Terrorism Focus, September 24; for other Salafi groups active in Gaza, see Terrorism Monitor, April 17). They have, to date, conducted some attacks on the Israeli army when its units were engaged in raids in Gaza, and have attacked Christian and American targets in Gaza (Reuters, September 1; Jerusalem Post, October 21). The Salafi groups in Gaza claim they receive funding locally and “are linked to the brothers of the al-Qaeda organization only from an ideological point of view” (adnkronos.com, September 2). That said, their members have been reported chanting slogans supporting bin Laden and al-Qaeda while they are undergoing training activities (al-Arabiyah TV, September 3).
For the times when the road to Jerusalem went through Baghdad...

What are your thoughts?