Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Biden’s speech not reassuring

THE early reaction to US Vice President Joe Biden’s Munich foreign policy speech has been one of mild disappointment. This was the first opportunity for the new Obama administration to set out its stall before a high-powered international audience. Much was expected — even an announcement that Bush’s provocative missile defense shield was to be scrapped. In the event, as one commentator noted, the Biden speech could very well have been delivered word for word by the former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

All the talk of a “new tone” was fine as far as it went but in one particular area the tone was anything but new. Biden parroted the old carrot-and-stick Bush approach to the Iranians. Being willing to talk, as Obama said in his campaign for the White House is a start, but it is how Washington chooses to talk to Tehran that is important. If as Biden also said, the new administration is pressing the reset button on foreign policy, then that reset ought to apply across the piece. Moderate opinion in Iran, according to some US observers, has become concerned at the militant and uncompromising approach of the Ahmadinejad administration. They also claim the Iranian president’s widespread economic failures have added to discontent. Now that former President Mohammad Khatami has announced he will run again this June, there is a chance that Obama will have a less strident Iranian leader to deal with in five months’ time. It, therefore, might seem foolish to give Ahmadinejad the same belligerent Bush rhetoric for the Iranian president to push back against. Biden was equally disappointing on Gaza. Obama intends to keep the Bush policy of excluding Hamas from talks. Indeed Biden even echoed Bush ignorance when he stated blithely “Hamas represents a small — and I believe a very small — number of violent extremists (who) are beyond the call of reason”. Does he not know that just over three years ago, Hamas won an outright majority in a free and fair election throughout the Palestinian territories? Despite this disappointingly tentative start elsewhere, Biden’s speech clearly did chime with the Russians. The warmth with which Biden and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ivanov greeted each other yesterday seemed testimony to this.

Maybe too much was expected of this first exposure of White House foreign policy intentions. Of considerable interest, however, is the fact that it was the vice president, not the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who came to Europe to deliver the message. Biden is clearly not going to be a sleeping partner in the administration. Clinton, meanwhile, has yet to define her role. Obama has appointed George Mitchell as his special Middle East envoy and Richard Holbrooke has the same job with Pakistan and Afghanistan. US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is reportedly fighting to maintain his department’s long-standing control of Chinese relations. The US foreign policy portfolio does not, therefore, rest entirely with Clinton. Given Clinton’s views on Israel (or Palestinians) and Iran, the people in the Middle East may welcome this. But a softer version of Dick Cheney is not going to reassure them.

West’s next move in Zimbabwe

THE West should do what it can to hasten the success of Zimbabwe’s unity government, said the Christian Science Monitor in an editorial yesterday. Excerpts:

A sliver of light is shining in Zimbabwe, once a star nation in Africa that’s been brutally mismanaged by dictator Robert Mugabe. This week, Mugabe’s rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, is expected to become prime minister in a new power-sharing government. Few give the deal much hope, yet it must be given the opportunity to succeed.

How big an opportunity? Africa’s leaders, as voiced by the 53-member African Union, say the new unity government is cause for the international community to lift sanctions on Zimbabwe. Now’s the time, it argues, to help to its feet a country staggering under hyperinflation and near-total joblessness, hunger and severe health problems — including a cholera epidemic. Not so fast, caution the United States and European Union. They’re lukewarm to the new political arrangement, and want to see proof of power-sharing and effective governance before they’ll ease sanctions. But doing nothing also leaves Tsvangirai with nothing — no leverage to succeed.

What the West can and should do is publicly offer limited humanitarian assistance to Tsvangirai, channeled through the ministries that the opposition in theory will control. Food, medical assistance, and temporary shelter could be funneled through the Health Ministry, for instance. The West should demand accountability along with this help, then be willing to pull the plug if the aid is blocked by Mugabe and his supporters, or diverted to them — as it has been in the past.

With such a strategy, Tsvangirai has something to work with, and, if he can deliver, perhaps show even Mugabe’s supporters that he’s the one to back.

A unity government in Zimbabwe may last only weeks. But the West should do what it can to hasten success — not failure.

Arab News

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