Lowy Institute

Coming days may well see a de-escalation of the latest confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians. I say this more in hope than with real analytical conviction.

Despite the brutal familiarity of this latest confrontation when compared with previous episodes in 2012 and 2008-09, there is no reliable guide to how long these conflicts tend to last. In 2008 the violence lasted for over three weeks. In 2012 it went for eight days.

The Israeli Government may yet decide to mount a ground assault into Gaza. The traditional mediators in this conflict, the US and Egypt, do not appear to have begun a serious effort to negotiate a ceasefire (beyond urging both sides to exercise restraint), and this may lengthen the conflict. Indeed, until a ceasefire is either negotiated or emerges by default, every new casualty adds renewed momentum to the conflict.

But if all these factors make it difficult to know precisely when this confrontation will end, it is possible to predict with much greater certainty how it will end. At some point there will be another ceasefire, formal or otherwise, that both sides will claim as a victory.

Some observers are already asking what either side will have achieved.

Many Israelis will see it as a necessary response to both the callous murder of three teenagers and to the waves of rockets fired into Israeli towns and cities. More practically, the Israeli military will have used the opportunity to once again trim down Hamas' military infrastructure in Gaza and gain a measure of deterrence.

But as in previous episodes of this conflict, all of this will have been achieved at a heavy cost in Palestinian lives and yet more damage to Israel's international reputation, despite its effort to avoid both. At the end of this military operation Hamas will still be in power in Gaza. And, as was the case after 2008-09 and 2012, Israel's deterrence will prove to be relatively short-lived.

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Hamas will revel in its victimhood and 'steadfastness'. It will point in triumph at the increasing range of its rocket attacks and its ability to traumatise Israelis as far north of Gaza as Tel Aviv. But none of this will have done anything to shift the lives of Palestinians living in Gaza one centimetre in a positive direction. In fact, by firing its rockets from densely populated areas, Hamas will also bear a deep responsibility for the innocent lives lost.

At the ceasefire, when it eventually comes, casual observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will reach for the usual aphorisms about stalemates and the fruitless search for peace. Yet more bloodshed and nothing has changed, they will say.

But they are wrong. The status quo does change with each new conflict or crisis, albeit imperceptibly, like a sand dune whose movement across the desert can only be witnessed from a distance and over time.

Twenty years ago at the time of the Oslo Accords it was still possible to talk about what the two sides might be able to achieve together through a negotiated settlement of their conflict. In the decade after the failed Camp David Summit of 2000 and in the wake of the second Intifada it has only been possible to talk about what each will side do on its own, and usually to the other.

In the last decade the Israeli consensus coalesced around separation. It withdrew from Gaza and built a fence in the West Bank. More recently it added to these iron walls an Iron Dome, the military system now being used to shoot down or divert Hamas rockets fired from Gaza.

These measures allowed Israelis to develop an iron indifference to the Palestinians. After they built the wall, the suicide bombings stopped and the Israeli economy thrived (at least initially; times are more difficult again now). Support for political parties running on a peace process agenda collapsed. As Israeli journalists and editors noted to me, interest in the Palestinian question among their readers evaporated.

Of course, it seems difficult to imagine this right now as Israelis wake in fright to air raid sirens. But after the conflict ends, the Palestinian question will drift off the agenda once again. Israelis have succeeded in separating themselves both physically and mentally from the Palestinians, at least for now.

Palestinian unilateralism has been less successful. The second Intifada failed to bring Israel either to its knees or to more amenable terms at the negotiating table. Neither Hamas' rockets nor Fatah's diplomatic efforts to gain recognition for a Palestinian state at the UN, or its broader effort to further isolate Israel, have changed the equation in the Palestinians' favour.

Indeed it seems the only gains made in the last decade have been technical ones. It used to be that Hamas' crude homemade rockets made it little further than the towns neighbouring Gaza. Then they began reaching the cities of Ashqelon and Ashdod. Now it is Tel Aviv.

But if Israel's iron domes, iron walls and iron indifference are a necessary defence against the range-creep of Hamas' arsenal, they do not provide much of a future. Not for Israelis nor for Palestinians.

For one thing, domes, walls and indifference have sucked the vitality out of Israeli politics. There is no need to take risks, to use Israel's strength to take bold positions and ask even bolder questions about what it might mean to reach a negotiated end to the conflict with the Palestinians. Politics has largely become a race to the right, so much so that even an old hawk like Prime Minister Netanyahu starts to look cautious and statesmanlike relative to some of his cabinet colleagues.

Meanwhile, outside the dome and the wall, Palestinian politics is ossifying and failing. In the current environment the only two viable political positions seem to be apathy (if you have money and a job) or militancy.

Unless something changes it is only a matter of time before older-generation leaders like Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and groups like Fatah and even Hamas are replaced by more radical and more nihilistic alternatives. And there are plenty around, given the ferment in the Arab world at the moment. That too is happening gradually although, as with the seemingly rapid advances made by ISIS in Iraq, things can change quickly on the ground once momentum shifts decisively.

So no, things will not be the same after this conflict. Relative calm will return. Israel will put its Iron Dome system back in its silo. Hamas will lick its wounds and begin rebuilding its arsenal, this time aiming for rockets that can reach Haifa. The status quo will have shifted again slightly towards a future that is growing slowly bleaker for both sides.

Photo by REUTERS/Abed Omar Qusini

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Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed at court in Cairo, 23 June 2014. (REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih.)

In passing comment on the seven-year jail sentence handed down to Australian journalist Peter Greste, it would be all too easy just to join the swollen ranks of the indignant.

You would certainly be in good company. UK Prime Minister David Cameron has described the verdict as 'appalling'. US Secretary of State John Kerry said it was 'chilling and draconian'. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was 'dismayed'. On social media the less famous have also expressed their outrage and support for Greste.

The sentence is, of course, a howling miscarriage of justice and a tragedy for Greste and his family. But our indignation at what happened in Egypt yesterday should not have begun with Greste's sentencing, nor should it end with it.

In the first place, we should spare a little indignation for the treatment of Greste's co-accused Mohamed Fahmy, who also received a seven-year sentence, and Baher Mohammed, sentenced to ten years. Indeed, one wonders how much indignation their sentences would have provoked internationally had Fahmy and Mohammed not been standing in the same dock as Greste.

But even they, alongside Greste, are a small part of a much bigger story that has been playing out in Egypt for many months now. This is a point well made in an excellent piece by HA Hellyer on al Arabiya, published just prior to the sentences being handed down. Hellyer argues the implausibility of the charges against Greste, Fahmy and Mohammed, but also puts their arrest into the context of the 40,000-odd people detained in the last year.

This too is 'chilling and draconian', and yet our political leaders have been somewhat less appalled and dismayed at the dramatic crackdown on all forms of dissent since last year's coup. If anything, Western political leaders seem to be falling into old habits, turning a blind eye for the sake of building a stronger relationship with the new regime.

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As one Guardian pundit noted, this can have embarrassing consequences. Secretary of State Kerry was in Egypt just hours before the Greste verdict was handed down for a talk with the Egyptian president that apparently included a 'candid' discussion of human rights. The Greste verdict also follows hot on the heels of the Obama Administration's decision to thaw a considerable portion of the US$575 million in military aid to Egypt, frozen by Congress in the aftermath of last July's coup.

But what makes all of this embarrassing is not just that it presaged the Greste verdict but that it has followed months and months of arbitrary arrests and intimidation of ordinary Egyptians, who collectively don't seem to warrant the attention of the international community.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott's recent intervention also demonstrated the difficulty of trying to separate Greste's case from what is happening in Egypt more broadly. On the eve of the sentencing he called President Sisi to plead Greste's case, while at the same time congratulating Sisi 'on the work that the new government of Egypt had done to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood'.

Abbott may have been trying to show a bit of diplomatic nouse: show sympathy for Sisi's domestic agenda in the hope of extricating Greste from that agenda. Abbott reassured Sisi that Greste was 'reporting the Muslim Brotherhood, rather than supporting the Muslim Brotherhood'. But the new regime draws no distinction between the two, and its not just because Greste was working for al Jazeera, which the Egyptian military accuses of being the media arm of the Brotherhood. In fact, it matters little to the regime that Greste has no connection or sympathy for the Brotherhood. The crackdown goes way beyond the Brotherhood to include anyone, Islamist or secular, that threatens the regime, including journalists unprepared to toe the government line.

It is these arrests that make a mockery of the regime's claim that it is only fighting terrorists. Indeed, even if every charge the regime has made against the Muslim Brotherhood is true (and some of them are), this still does not explain or excuse the wider crackdown.

Journalists like Greste are being arrested or intimated precisely because, to use the words of the Prime Minister, they 'report the Brotherhood', or anything else the regime does not like. What the Greste case demonstrates is that both as a matter of principle, and on very practical grounds, the international community cannot turn a blind eye to the wider assault on Egyptian citizens while expecting special protections for its own.

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ISIS's dramatic seizure of Mosul last week has caused much geo-strategic hyperventilation. Commentators are variously predicting the collapse of Iraq and eulogising (once again) Middle Eastern borders as defined by Sykes and Picot. The prospect of the US – and perhaps allies such as Australia — going back to Iraq is being contemplated, and the wisdom of doing so debated.

The moment requires, however, a measured assessment of the problem, great modesty in evaluating policy options and even greater prudence in the execution of a response. 

There is no question that the problem is serious. Unless it is handled deftly – and the government of Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki has shown itself to be anything but deft – it could reignite a sectarian civil war in Iraq. Such a war will inflame already volatile sectarian tensions and conflicts around the Middle East.

An ISIS-led statelet straddling the Syria-Iraq border will be of enormous consequence to the regeneration of the global jihadist threat. Syria is already providing an easily accessible training ground for jihadists around the world. Its dramatic gains will both encourage jihadist groups elsewhere and, if they are sustained, provide new training opportunities for foreign fighters.

This matters to Australia. A significant number of Australians are already fighting just over the border in Syria, some with jihadist groups including ISIS. Indonesians are there too. As Sidney Jones tweeted over the weekend, many ISIS statements are being translated into Indonesian, underlining that events in Iraq are being closely followed.

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Having said that, Iraq is not about to collapse, Baghdad is not about to fall to ISIS and the borders of the Middle East will probably prove more durable than most pundits seem to think. ISIS will face a real challenge in controlling the territory it has taken – or more accurately, the territory ceded to it by a poorly-led Iraqi army.

It is true that ISIS's advance demands a swift response. But it also demands a cautious one. Rushing Shi'ite militias into Mosul and its surrounds could provoke the sectarian conflict everyone fears. If the US does launch air strikes it will need to exercise even greater care than normal about civilian casualties, as they would invariably be exploited by ISIS in its propaganda campaigns.

In fact, what the situation in Iraq demands of the US (and its allies) is sustained re-engagement, not knee-jerk responses. The Obama Administration is right to rule out sending ground troops (although it will be interesting to see if this also applies to special forces). But the situation in Iraq will still require a more serious Administration re-think of its policies in Iraq and the wider Middle East.

Since being elected, Obama has pursued his ambition to recalibrate America's Middle East policy with grim determination. He wants to be the president who ended America's wars in the Middle East and shifted its geo-strategic focus to Asia and a rising China.

Fair enough, but strategies and doctrines cannot be made in a vacuum. It is Obama's misfortune that he inherited wars he did not begin and a Middle East in the throes of its greatest turmoil since World War II. But it is his responsibility to look after American interests in the world as it is, not as he might wish it to be. Sometimes you've gotta do what you've gotta do, strategies and doctrines be damned.

Much has already been made of how the situation in Iraq is the fault of the Bush Administration's decision to invade. True to a degree, but it is also true that Washington took its eye off the Iraqi ball under Obama. It had the leverage to ensure the Maliki Government pursued a more inclusive politics and built a professional Iraqi military – both shortcomings are at the heart of the Iraqi state's failure to stop ISIS.

It is true that the Administration has cajoled the Maliki Government from time to time. But you get the impression that, as with the Administration's response to other crises in the Middle East, Obama's heart and the power of the presidential office was not really in it. It is as if, on the Middle East, the President has drawn himself red lines that only he fears to cross.

That has to change. The US has to go back to Iraq, not with boots on the ground but with a more focused and sustained engagement using all the wit and clout it can still muster. It needs to set aside pivots and rebalances and deal with the serious threats to its interests in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. Obama may have felt that America is done with the Middle East; the problem is that the Middle East is not done with America.

There is a lesson here too for Australian strategic planners. What is really interesting is that despite all the talk of how Australia is intently focused on the looming strategic challenges in Asia (and how this will be reflected in the forthcoming Defence White Paper), the Australian Prime Minister's instinctive reaction was to not rule out any Australian involvement in Iraq in support of the US.

This is not say Abbott was wrong to imply we might go back to Iraq. His cagey response might even be considered prudent and unsurprising, given the US probably has not yet even asked him for assistance. It is also noteworthy that since the Prime Minister's comments last week, Foreign Minister Bishop seems to have ruled out any participation by Australian ground troops.

In fact, if the immediate US response is airstrikes, there is little Australia could provide in support. More interesting, however, is what Australia could and in my view should provide to support the building of a more effective and professional Iraqi army (something we have done in the past). The fact that Indonesian jihadists are already traveling to the region for training underlines that we still have significant interests at play.

Abbott's instinctive response also highlights once again the need to avoid being captured by abstract strategies and doctrine. As the White Paper drafters beaver away in some airless bunker at Russell Hill, they need to keep in mind that good planning needs to allow for surprises, even if what is now happening in Iraq, or the fact that we might one day go back to the Middle East, is hardly surprising. To paraphrase John Lennon, life is what happens to you while you are making strategic plans.

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Tomorrow I begin a bleary-eyed month of World Cup watching. In part to justify my reduced productivity over the next four weeks, I wanted to identify some of the key points at which global politics and world football intersect.

…(cue crickets chirping)…

I know others have done it, I have done it, and over at Foreign Policy they have just set up a blog to do it for a whole month. But you know what? I have actually decided that this World Cup I am not going to try to combine my professional and personal interests.

So there will be no talk from me of football diplomacy. Nor will there be any discussion of how football power relativities relate to global power relativities. Nor will I be postulating on the international political economy of football or how football teams reflect their nation's culture (see photo above).

For this month I will be separating sport from international policy. And it seems I am not alone.

Partly as an act of football-inspired mischief, I insisted that this year's Lowy Institute Poll include in its annual 'Feelings towards other countries thermometer' the three nations Australia will face in the group stage of the World Cup: Chile, Spain and the Netherlands.

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It turns out that we don't hate our opponents, despite what they are very likely to do to us in the next couple of weeks. Netherlands has a high 72 degree rating (1 degree higher than the US); Spain is balmy 69 degrees; and only Chile is a more lukewarm 62 degrees (still a degree above China).

My thesis is further confirmed when you look at New Zealand's ranking. The country with whom we have some of our greatest sporting rivalries (at least in rugby and cricket, if not football) tops our thermometer ranking at a very warm 84 degrees. And while we did not have the UK, our other great sporting rival, on this year's thermometer, it too was a very warm 77 degrees in last year's Poll.

By this highly scientific evidence, it appears there is no correlation between sporting rivalry and international political enmity. Football does not cause wars, nor does it cause us to even mildly dislike other countries.

Of course, we may enjoy beating the countries we have least-warm feeling towards. So in the interests of international peace and harmony I suppose it is lucky that North Korea (29 degrees), Afghanistan (38 degrees) and Iran (39 degrees) are not in our group.

So there you have it. No more talk of football and diplomacy (unless, of course, I think of something good to pitch to Foreign Policy).

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It goes something like this: over the next two days, Egyptians will elect the former head of the military, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, as Egypt's new president. His sole challenger, Hamdeen Sabahi, may do a little better than expected, perhaps denying Sisi his landslide. But by hook or by crook, Sisi will win.

Sisi's supporters, both inside and outside Egypt, will proclaim the new president's democratic legitimacy. They will conveniently ignore parallels between Sisi and his predecessor, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, ousted in last July's coup; especially the one about how even democratically elected leaders can act in fundamentally undemocratic ways.

They will justify the widespread crackdown on dissent — both Islamist and non-Islamist — since July last year as a necessary evil to protect Egypt from an Islamist dictatorship. They will somehow explain that a religiously-conservative former general is a much safer custodian of Egypt's transition to a more open, more free and more democratic society than a religiously-conservative apparatchik of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Indeed, they will tell us, as former UK prime minister Tony Blair did a few weeks ago, that we have a choice. Choose Sisi and the military and the remnants of the old regime, as distasteful as this might be, or choose the Islamists, who are more distasteful and whose commitment to democracy is limited to 'one man, one vote, one time'.

Western governments, weary of dealing with a confusing array of new actors and new assumptions in the Middle East in recent years, may even succumb to the reassuringly familiar certainties that such a choice provides. Sisi may be no democrat, but he at least offers the virtue of 'one man, one phone call, one time'.

But anyone who believes that this is the choice today in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East is wrong. It is a false choice. The military and the Islamists are not on opposite sides of this choice, they are on the same side.

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They were certainly on the same side after the 2011 uprising against former president Hosni Mubarak. Whether by formal agreement or by a nod and a wink, the military and the Brotherhood colluded to protect each other's interests — right up until the moment in July last year when those interests collided.

The Brotherhood made sure, for example, that changes to Egypt's new constitution protected the rights and privileges of the military. And while not everyone in the military had great love for the Brotherhood, the generals tolerated its assent to power in the hope that Egypt's biggest political and social movement would run the country day-to-day, bringing stability and allowing the military to remain in its barracks, factories and farms.

Some military officers even benefited from the Brotherhood's ascendancy. Sisi (who distinguished himself during the uprising by defending the virginity test conducted on female protesters by military intelligence officers) was himself elevated to supreme command by former president Morsi.

It was only when thousands took to the streets to protest Morsi's misrule that the military moved against its erstwhile collaborator. The same military that released Muhammed al-Zawahiri, the brother of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, now condemned the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists.

But what the military feared last July, what the remnants of the old regime fear, and what the economic elites who benefit from the old system fear, is not the Brotherhood. It is change which they fear, and those who really represent it.

Behind the façade of a 'war on terror', the military has banned not just the Brotherhood, but the April 6 movement that was at the forefront of the 2011 uprising. It has cracked down on the free media and the right to protest. Through its repression it has forced many young activists either into jail, into the hands of radicals or out of politics altogether.

In fact, the disillusionment with politics spurred by the crackdown is more pernicious than the radicalisation caused by it. It is precisely these people, who have left politics because there is little space for peaceful activism and who draw a line at violent activism, who should be in politics. But only if you are interested in a new, more pluralist, more modern, less xenophobic, less polarised Egypt.

But that is not what the military and its backers want. They do not want the empowerment of these new, young and often secular actors who overthrew Mubarak even while veteran opposition movements like the Brotherhood were still preparing to negotiate with him. They do not want these activists who saw Mubarak's ouster as the first step in Egypt's revolution, not its last, and who want a thoroughgoing political, economic and social revolution that attacks the privileges of all those who still benefit from the old order. More than anything, the military and its backers do not want activists who are impossible to caricature as long-bearded religious zealots and terrorists.

These are the real choices in Egypt today: between true autocrats and true democrats; between those who want serious change and those willing to contemplate it only at the margins. When Egyptians go to the polls they can only choose between Sisi and Sabahi. But the real choice is between the old Egypt and a new one. The great shame is that in today's election, the new Egypt has not been allowed to run.

Photo by REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

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At the end of last week, Egyptian military chief Field Marshall Abdel Fattah el-Sisi announced that he would be resigning his military post to run for this year's presidential elections, expected to take place in May. It is a move that has been mooted for months now, and has at its origins the military's ouster of the Egypt's first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, last June.

Everyone expects Sisi to win. He is genuinely popular among older Egyptians who want a strong hand to restore stability. The opposition, both Islamist and secular, has been corralled – in large part as a result of the extensive military crackdown that has seen large numbers arrested, especially from the now banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Sisi will also have strong backing from outside the country. Israel is certainly happier that the military is back in charge after the brief reign of the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been pouring money into Egypt in support of the military since last year's coup.

I fear, however, that a Sisi presidency is not going to return stability to Egypt in the short-to-medium term. As I note in Next-Gen Jihad in the Middle East, published today, this has major implications for the region and even for Australia.

A return to authoritarianism may provide a short-term balm for those who feared the ascent of Islamists over the last three years. But as history has shown repeatedly, authoritarianism in the Middle East has also been a great incubator and amplifier for extremist ideas and activism.

As I explain in my paper, at the heart of the problem in Egypt is the conflict between the military and the Brotherhood.

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The military and the security services – or at least the most hard-line elements in each – seem to genuinely believe they can wipe the Brotherhood out. The Brotherhood, on the other hand, is more than happy to play the role of martyr to win back public support after its brief and incompetent rule.

But neither of these things is going to happen any time soon. And until Egypt's most important national institution reaches an accommodation with its largest opposition movement, there will violence, instability and radicalisation.

There are two main dangers. First, that the conflict will radicalise elements of the Brotherhood and other young Egyptians unhappy with the military crackdown. Some in the Brotherhood are already debating the wisdom of sticking to a non-violent approach to politics.

Second, that the turmoil will be exploited by more extreme jihadist groups which are already fighting a serious insurgency in the Sinai and since the coup have been mounting more attacks in the rest of Egypt.

It may well be that the military will prevail eventually. But it took the Mubarak regime almost a decade in the 1990s to tackle a major challenge from Islamist groups that saw, among other things, terrorist attacks against foreign tourists, the mainstay of the Egyptian economy. That regime was more coherent and stronger than the current one. But most importantly, that regime was not facing the economic situation Egypt faces today, with a collapse in tourism and foreign investment (real foreign investment, not just Gulf largesse).

All of this should concern countries outside the region. The regional tumult from Syria to Libya has already created fertile ground for jihadist groups. The immediate concern is obviously with those foreigners – including Australians – travelling to Syria, where they are gaining combat experience and military skills, and can form new connections with extremist groups from around the world.

An extended period of unrest in Egypt will add to the regional turmoil and swell extremist numbers in the region even further. Given Egypt's historic role as a centre of Islamist thinking, the conflict there will throw up new leaders as well. And while it is true that the current focus of jihadist groups is on the Middle East, recent history teaches us that this can shift quickly. Most of al Qaeda's leaders were veterans of domestic conflicts in the region in the 1980s and 90s.

Of course, there is nothing inevitable about the trajectory of events in Egypt. It may be that once Sisi wins the presidential elections and after any subsequent parliamentary elections, the military will feel confident enough to seek an accommodation with the Brotherhood and pull back from its crackdown on political dissent. But at this stage, the polarised and uncompromising atmosphere does not make this seem likely.

Photo by Flickr user Zoriah.

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Over the weekend Iran and the P5+1 (permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) reached what has been labeled as a ‘first step’ agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Three initial observations:

1. Interim but significant

The agreement essentially freezes those aspects of Iran’s nuclear program that most worry the international community (such as enrichment activities and work on the heavy water reactor at Arak) in return for limited sanctions relief.  The agreement is meant to last for six months whilst a more comprehensive agreement is negotiated. It might well be replaced by another interim deal that includes a further series of steps if the two sides can’t agree on a comprehensive deal.

Despite the limited nature of this deal it is nevertheless significant. It is the first agreement between the international community and Iran over its nuclear program in a decade. In 2003 Iran and the EU-3 issued a joint statement in Tehran in which Iran promised to cooperate with the IAEA and suspend enrichment activities with a view to reaching a broader agreement on the nuclear program. That agreement was never reached and the last decade saw Iran’s nuclear program, and in particular its enrichment activities, accelerate.

In response, the US led an effort to impose a harsh sanctions regime, and there has been regular talk of military action against Iranian nuclear facilities. This agreement represents a significant walking back from these tensions.

2. Both sides want a deal

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One key thing that is different about this agreement when compared to the 2003 deal is the involvement of the US. While the EU3 was in close consultation with Washington in 2003, America's absence from the negotiating table meant a comprehensive agreement was never likely.

But it is not just the fact that the US is at the table that has made the difference. It is pretty clear that both Tehran and Washington want an agreement. As I noted in my piece in Haaretz last week, the Obama Administration wants the nuclear file closed as it tries to reduce its footprint in the Middle East, particularly after a decade of war in the region.

Iran’s motivations are less clear. Many have argued that Tehran is desperate to ease the harsh regime of sanctions imposed over the last two years that have, among other things, reduced Iran’s revenue from oil exports by more than 50%. But while this is probably true, I also think that the regime feels in a relatively strong position in the region at the moment and is therefore more confident in its ability to extract a good deal from Washington. Indeed, in this deal Washington has made a significant concession to Iran by agreeing to the continuation of enrichment activities, albeit at levels much lower than those necessary to build a nuclear weapon.

Nevertheless, if it is true that both sides want a deal, it is not yet clear what Tehran, particularly Supreme Leader Khamenei, wants it for. It is clear that the Leader has given President Rouhani significant leeway to negotiate an agreement. The question is, why? Is it because the Leader is interested in resolving the issue once and for all, gaining Iran sanctions relief and ending its international isolation? Or is he simply pursuing the well-worn tactic of buying time and seeking to weaken international adherence to a sanctions regime that has been so strong and effective? Recent history would suggest the latter, although it does not entirely rule out the former.

3. The deal might be harder to derail than people think

Not unexpectedly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has condemned the deal as a ‘historic mistake’. Other American allies like Saudi Arabia will be unhappy as well. At the heart of their disquiet is a fundamental difference with the US in how they see Iran’s nuclear program.

For President Obama, the nuclear program is the issue. He sees it as a regional and global proliferation issue which he thinks can be resolved by diplomacy. Israel and Saudi Arabia see the nuclear question as symptom of a bigger problem: Iran’s aspiration to dominate the region. They doubt, therefore, that Iran will ever willingly give up its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability. In their view, even if Iran is willing to slow its nuclear program down, a narrow nuclear deal would not address the other aspects of Iran’s regional policy they worry about. Israel and Saudi Arabia don’t want a nuclear deal with Iran, they want the Islamic Republic cut down to size.

Israel and Saudi Arabia will be joined in their opposition to this deal by some in Congress. Hardliners in Iran will also be opposed. Indeed, the agreement is fragile and any number of things could see it fall apart. Yet despite the caution with which this deal should be viewed, it might be harder to derail than people think.

The agreement seems to reflect deeper and broader understandings between the two sides than are suggested by the text itself. It also suggests that the two sides know the general direction they are heading in with respect to a more comprehensive agreement. Moreover, having raised expectations of significant sanctions relief among Iranians, there will be some pressure on Tehran to deliver.

In the US, it is already clear that President Obama will invest a lot of effort to sell the deal to the American public over the heads of any Congressional opposition; he will probably find a receptive audience weary of America’s wars in the Middle East. This might mitigate to some degree efforts by Israel or Saudi Arabia to use friends in Congress to block the deal.

Of course, Israel could always decide to take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. But if that option was attractive or viable, Israel would have taken it already.

Photo by Flickr user US Mission Geneva.

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Today we said goodbye to one of the original Lowy Institute research staff members, the Director of our International Economy Program, Mark Thirlwell. There are several reasons why this is a sad day for me personally, and for the Institute. Here are a few.

First, Mark is the only economist I understand. It is not just that I am particularly immune to any ideas involving numbers, but Mark has that rare ability – among economists, but also among the commentariat more generally — to communicate complex ideas clearly and simply. It is something I know many readers of his fine and regular posts on The Interpreter came to appreciate.

Second, Mark is sensible and sceptical, in a way only Geordies can be. This has meant that, from the beginning, he was there to puncture large holes in some of the more half-arsed ideas we came up with, especially in the early years of the Institute, saving us considerable embarrassment.

Third, Mark is a football fan. Not some johnny-come-lately, bandwagon-jumping Manchester United fan, but a real fan of real football (that's soccer for the dummies). I know this because he is a die-hard supporter of Newcastle in the English Premier league and if you know anything about that club you know that you have to be a real football fan to support them. And if you think this is not relevant to the work of the Lowy Institute, I can tell you that the original idea for our work on football diplomacy originated from one of the many football discussions between Mark and I.

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Fourth, Mark likes pies. In the first year of the Institute, when we were located in our temporary headquarters in William St, he and I spent a lot of time at Harry's Café de Wheels. We came up with some of our best ideas there. Some of them even made it into research papers. (Unfortunately we also forgot many of them when we would move from Harry's to the Woolloomooloo Bay Hotel across the road).

Fifth, Mark is not a snappy dresser. This is not really relevant to the Institute, but it did mean that for a decade there were at least two of us here who were sartorially challenged.

You sometimes get the impression that when people look at the Institute today, from the grand building and the voluminous research output to the strong media presence and our regular engagement with government and business, they assume it was always thus. Those of us who were there at the beginning know this is not the case, and that our success was far from assured when we began. Today we bade farewell to one of the people who contributed disproportionately to building the Institute into what it is today.

Mark, I know it is not goodbye, but you will be missed.

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Watching the Syrian crisis in recent weeks has provided answers to two critical and interrelated questions that have hovered over the conflict since it began.

The first is: will the West ever mount a decisive military intervention into the conflict? The answer to that question now seems a pretty clear 'no'.

There may yet be a largely symbolic US strike on the Syrian regime, but the difficulty Washington (and London and Paris) has had mustering political support for even this limited operation underlines the fact that even something short of a Libya-style intervention is a remote prospect.

The one caveat I would put on this is the possibility that the Syrian regime does something so horrible that it jolts the Western moral conscience back into operation. But Damascus has already done very many horrible things and its seems it would take a lot to get a war-weary West out of neutral.

You would think therefore that this renders academic the second question hovering over the conflict since it began: would intervention or the threat of intervention work? There would seem to be no point debating the wisdom of doing something that is not going to happen.

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Yet the last few days have provided something of an answer to this question as well. The seeming willingness of the Syrian regime to play along with the Russian idea that it should give up its chemical arsenal in order to forestall military action suggests Damascus does fear such action.

Of course, the whole focus on chemical weapons is a distraction. The overwhelming majority of Syrians killed in the conflict have been killed by conventional weapons. Even if Syrian chemical weapons were now placed under international control it would not have the slightest impact on the blood letting. But even if the regime is not serious about the Russian proposal and is just playing for time, it still suggests that Assad is worried about where even a symbolic strike might ultimately lead.

Moscow seems to share this uncertainty. For the last two years it has both understood Washington's extreme reluctance to intervene and done everything to prevent even the remotest possibility of a change of heart. Hence Moscow's unwillingness to approve even a humanitarian resolution in the UN Security Council out of fear that it might become a back door to another Libya operation.

So there is the irony: Syria and Russia fear what the West plainly does not want to do.

This is not, however, an argument in favour of force. It is one thing to say that Syria and Russia fear the prospect of military action. It is another thing to say that they would capitulate in the face of it. Bashar al-Assad is unlikely throw his arms up in surrender as the first Tomahawk missile enters Syrian airspace. Like Saddam and Qadhafi before him, Assad will need to be literally dug out of the ground before he surrenders. Any serious military intervention in Syria would be as bloody and costly as the West fears.

Nevertheless, there is room for diplomacy between, on the one hand, the regime and its supporters' willingness to take some steps to avoid military action and, on the other hand, its unwillingness to totally capitulate, even in the face of that action.

It means the West needs a real diplomatic strategy that is calibrated to what is possible. The West continues to have a weak hand on Syria, but it could undoubtedly play it better. So while half-hearted threats of force will not make Assad step down, they could be used to grind out concessions he might be more willing (or be pushed by his international allies) to make.

The West should start with chemical weapons. Scepticism about the regime's intentions is justified, but it is an opening that needs to be thoroughly explored. More important would be to work for a ceasefire, as well as any other measures that would help deal with the humanitarian situation. In other words, focus now on dealing with the worst consequences of the conflict.

None of this will be as a satisfying as demanding Assad step down immediately. But for now, having ruled out the intervention that it rightly fears, the West needs to focus on what is possible, rather than what is preferable.

Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin.

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A US State Department seal hangs in front of the dessert table at the dining facility inside the compound of the US embassy in Baghdad December 14, 2011. Photo by REUTERS/Lucas Jackson.

Over the weekend the US closed many of its embassies in the Middle East and North Africa as a result of what was described as a serious al Qaeda threat.

Given the number of times US embassies have come under attack in the last decade or so, and certainly in the post-Benghazi era, it would seem hard to argue against such a dramatic move. Indeed, it says something that these days such precautions don't really seem that dramatic any more.

The problem is, they should. Closing all of your embassies in the Middle East raises the question of whether it is even worthwhile having embassies anymore.

It is not just the act of closing an embassy for security reasons that is an issue. Anyone who has had a meeting at an American embassy in the Middle East or South Asia knows the experience of going through multiple layers of security. The embassies have come to resemble fortresses and bunkers.

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This is both a symbolic and a practical matter. While I would not want to make too much of this, the size and disposition of an Embassy – whether it is open and accessible or hunkered down – does say something to the locals about the country the embassy represents. But far more serious is the practical problem caused by the pre-occupation with security, in particular the fact that diplomats leave their embassies a lot less than they used to.

You might argue that this only really happens in countries like Pakistan or Egypt where the security situation warrants it. In Australia, for example, American diplomats move around freely. But it is precisely in countries like Pakistan and Egypt, where there are problems in the bilateral relationship or where the political situation is in flux and it is difficult to understand what's going on, that you need embassies and where diplomats need to be out and about.

This is not just a recent development. I remember when I served with the Australian mission in Tel Aviv in 2000 after the outbreak of the second Intifada, my American colleagues would constantly lament how onerous and time consuming it became to organise travel to the West Bank and that when they eventually did go they were accompanied by so much security that it was intimidating for the locals.

Nor is it just an American story. Some of my former DFAT colleagues have complained of how security restrictions limited their ability to do their job in the post-9/11 era.

If, as a diplomat, you cannot actually spend time travelling in your host country and if you can't develop strong relationships with the locals, you might as well pack up and go home. You cannot effectively represent the country from which you have come, nor can you really develop an understanding of the country to which you are posted.

You could argue that maintaining such levels of contact are not worth a diplomat's life. Indeed, by closing embassies, even temporarily, and by bunkering them deep in multiple security perimeters this is effectively the judgement you are making. But if that is the case, then we need to ask what purpose embassies really serve anymore. Why have anyone in the country at all?

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Overnight in Egypt the military suspended the country's constitution and removed President Mohammed Morsi from power, following massive popular protests.

It is clearly a coup, even if the military has, I suspect, mounted it reluctantly: on the one hand not wanting to run the country again, on the other hand concerned by the instability and probably egged on by the old political and economic establishment.

The ironies and incongruities are obvious and multiple: Egypt's first democratically-elected president overthrown by protests that were probably bigger than those that overthrew the country's long time dictator, Hosni Mubarak; protesters celebrating a coup mounted by the very people whom many of the same protesters were decrying as thugs and dictators more than a year ago; and Egypt's democratic transition back in the hands of the same people whose original sins of commission and omission after Mubarak's overthrow bear a significant part of the blame for the current political deadlock.

As I noted in an earlier post, President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood's predicament was largely of their own making. While it is true that some parts of the political and bureacratic elite were never going to accept the Muslim Brotherhood in power, there is no question that Morsi and the Brotherhood undermined their legitimacy by failing to build a broad consensus across the political and social spectrum.

The fact that the Brotherhood either turfed out or lost some of its more moderate leaders who understood the importance of building political bridges, such as Abdel Moneim Aboul Futtouh (who went on to run for president), hampered it in this regard. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to count the movement out now. If it has demonstrated anything in the 80-odd years of its existence, it is the capacity for survival.

There is a broader issue here, however. The Brotherhood put its own political interests ahead of the nation's, but so far, so has pretty much everyone else, including the military. The failure to build a political consensus to consolidate the democratic transition is not just the Brotherhood's fault — every political actor bears responsibility for it.

Indeed, the challenge now will be for opposition forces to show magnanimity towards a politically-wounded Brotherhood and not force it out of politics altogether. But I would not be betting on it, so the political situation will probably become even more polarised.

Moreover, forcing Morsi from power, particularly in this way, is hardly going to solve the other problems that undermined the President. It is not clear, for example, that the military will be any better at re-booting the democratic transition than it was at managing it the first time. Nor is it clear that anyone will do any better at reviving Egypt's deteriorating economic fortunes. Sustaining popular support and legitimacy will be an enormous challenge for any successor to Morsi.

This is not merely a question of how you solve specific political or economic problems, but how you manage the politics and popular expectations of economic and political reform. The Brotherhood showed that it was bad at this, but I am not sure there is anyone on the political scene who would do a better job. How do you manage a political environment where everyone can agree on what they are against (at the moment it is the Brotherhood; who knows who or what it will be tomorrow) but where few can agree on who or what they are for?

While many are rightly lauding the current protests as a great example of people power, the cold hard reality is that you cannot run the country from Tahrir Square.

Photo by Flickr user TripleMs.

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On Sunday Egyptians marked President Mohammed Morsi's first anniversary in office by protesting — mostly against him. By many accounts the protests were larger than those that led to the overthrow of the Mubarak regime; in the millions according to some reports.

There were multiple demonstrations in Cairo, including some for the President, as well as demonstrations (and in several cases violent clashes) in Alexandria, Assiut and Ismalia. It is also clear that it is not just Morsi but the Muslim Brotherhood as a whole that has been targeted, with the movement's national headquarters in Cairo attacked.

It is a perverse sort of achievement for Morsi. Not only has he inspired Egyptians to return to the streets, but if it is true that these protests were bigger than those that overthrew Mubarak, he has also provoked many into turning out for the first time.

Some are demonstrating because they have never come to terms with the Brotherhood being in power, and never will. But the sheer size of the protests also exposes the hollowness of the President's claim that the demonstrators are simply remnants of the old regime. The protesters include those who were prepared to give Morsi the benefit of the doubt, but who lost faith in him as it became clear that the he was privileging his and the Muslim Brotherhood's narrow political interests over the consolidation of Egypt's transition to democracy. Indeed, it seems even some Egyptians who did vote for Morsi a year ago have taken to the streets.

So what does it all mean?

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First, it is clear from the scale of the protests that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood cannot simply ignore them. But it is not clear what they can do to restore their lost legitimacy. It is probably past the point where they can adopt a more consensual and inclusive approach to the political transition. Few trust them anymore.

So does this mean that Morsi will be forced to resign, as some are predicting, or even that this is the end of the Brotherhood, at least politically? Maybe the former, but probably not the latter. The Brotherhood have walked a long and torturous road, literally for decades, to get to their current position of power. They will not give it up easily and they are capable of reassessment and reinvention.

Morsi and the Brotherhood may also be helped by the fact that it won't be easy for the opposition to turn these protests into a coherent set of political demands or even a viable political alternative. This is what helped the Brotherhood win the elections after Mubarak's ouster and it may yet help them again.

Second, the military obviously remains the critical determinant of the outcome. Crudely, they have two options: stay out, which would help Morsi to ride out the current crisis, with some adjustment and concessions, or intervene to force Morsi to resign, replacing him with something else, effectively re-booting the political transition. The military will not be keen to do the latter, however. They want to retain popular support, but they also don't want to manage the day-to-day running of the country again, even for a short period, as they did after Mubarak's ousting. The first instinct therefore will probably be to tell Morsi to 'fix this' even if they have no idea how. They will probably only take the second option if things become — or if the military feel they are about to become — so violent or disorderly that they have no choice but to act.

Third, while I don't believe predictions that this may result in a civil war, parts of Egypt will witness sectarian conflict and political violence that will be difficult to control (as in fact we are already seeing in places like Assiut). Egypt is not Syria, but it is clearly a deeply polarised society right now with no sign of any new political actor emerging that might reconcile these tensions.

Finally, there is a bigger question here about what conclusion Islamists will draw if the Brotherhood are forced from power, despite winning Egypt's presidential and parliamentary elections, more or less fairly. The more sober-minded will realise that the movement made many political errors and largely has itself to blame for its current predicament. The risk is, however, that others will draw less thoughtful conclusions, with violent consequences not only for Egypt but also elsewhere in an Arab world struggling to cope with new political realities.

Photo courtesy of REUTERS.

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A few days ago the New York Times ran a rather breathless story about how China has emerged as the biggest beneficiary of Iraq's post-Saddam oil boom. The story prompted a bit of commentary on Twitter and a few follow-up pieces, including this one in the Washington Post which argued that China was indeed beating the US in an Iraq oil competition, but that this was not a bad thing.

The flavour of much of the commentary was summed up in a tweet by the usually sensible James Fallows: 'Would be crude & reductionist to say U.S. fought Iraq, and China won. But wouldn't be wrong.'

Fallows' comment fits within a view that US influence and power in the Middle East declining, while China's is rising. The problem is that while the former is undoubtedly true, the latter doesn't necessarily follow. There are at least three reasons why the NY Times' old-world strategic logic does not stack up.

First, the supposed competition for Iraq's oil is not much of a competition at all: put simply, China needs more of Iraq's oil than the US does. American oil imports from the Gulf have fallen from almost 900 million barrels in 2000 to just under 800 million barrels in 2012 – and not because the US cannot get the oil, but because it does not want it. In coming years, America's domestic shale oil production will reduce these imports further.

So there is a very good reason why, as the NY Times article concedes, American oil companies are not prepared to invest in Iraqi oil fields for minimal profits. These companies are not losing to China, they are simply making decision based on different economics.

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Second, there is not much competition for oil anywhere else in the Middle East either: by focusing narrowly on the gains Chinese national oil companies have undoubtedly made in Iraq's oilfields, the article gives the impression that this kind of competition is happening elsewhere in the region. But Iraq is one of the few Middle East oil producers that allow foreigners to have a stake in its fields. Saudi Arabia, by contrast, prevents any upstream investment, by China or anyone else.

This has not stopped Saudi Arabia from becoming China's single most important source of oil in the last decade. But it has been less a function, as some have argued, of a post-9/11 strategic turn by Saudi Arabia towards China and away from America than simple supply and demand. As this analysis noted a few years ago, in the 2000s there was a rapid and unexpected increase in Chinese oil demand. And as a Saudi oil ministry official told me, this forced China to turn increasingly to the one country that had the volumes to quickly meet that demand.

Third, Chinese foreign policy and energy policy remain disconnected in one important way. The NY Times article refers to Chinese oil companies as 'tools of Beijing's foreign policy' for securing energy supply in a new 'great game' sense. In fact, it is often the other way around. In Sudan, for example, CNPC invested heavily because of a lack of competition from Western oil companies, forcing Chinese diplomats into the uncomfortable position of defending Sudanese atrocities in Darfur.

China's position on the conflict in Syria is an even better example of the way China's foreign policy and its energy policy are not always in lock step. China has taken a position on Syria that is fundamentally at odds with its key Gulf suppliers. In fact, as Dr Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg, Assistant Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council, noted in his recent Australia-Gulf lecture here at the Lowy Institute, tension over this issue has caused the suspension of a number of political consultations between the GCC and China.

I am not suggesting that there are no strategic consequences of China's growing reliance on Middle Eastern oil. But it is a far more complex story, and frankly a more interesting one, than the increasingly dated, zero-sum, oil-and-realpolitik paradigm suggested by the NY Times.

Photo by Flickr user iAMiAN.

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One of the paradoxes of the Syrian crisis has been the way Russia and China have worked determinedly to prevent America from doing something that it clearly does not want to do.

I asked a diplomat from a P5 country about this in New York a few weeks ago. He said that while it was clear Obama did not want to intervene in Syria, Russia and China feared America would be forced into an intervention. This explains, he added, the lack of even a humanitarian resolution on Syria from the Security Council. 'We don't want to see an intervention via the back door', he argued.

Later, speaking to a range of Syria-watchers in Washington, I was told by most that eventually Obama would be forced by the spiraling consequences of the conflict to do what he fears most. 

Yet no-one I spoke to could easily point to a key moment or factor that would move the President's hand: not humanitarian reasons (80,000 already dead); nor geo-political ones (how much more ground can Iran, Hizbullah or the Jihadis gain?); not the spillover (which could get worse, but that is already obvious now, so why wait?); nor even, as we have already seen, the use of chemical weapons. 

A number of observers noted that Obama was rejecting almost every course of action recommended to him with an almost bloodless calculation of the statistical likelihood of success. Or, as one said, Obama is acting more like America's 'analyst in chief' than its 'commander in chief'. 

That quip wasn't intended as a compliment, but given the last decade of American policy in the Middle East, many would applaud Obama's more pointy-eared approach as a welcome change from the clench-fisted policies of his predecessor, George W Bush.

But here's the thing. Obama's coldly analytical approach may play out in a way so brutally pragmatic that it will make even his warmest applauders shuffle uncomfortably in their café chairs. In fact, if you understand that Obama's overwhelming imperative is to keep America out of the conflict, as it clearly is, then logically he would even be willing to settle for an Assad victory.

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The president understands that the longer the conflict goes on, the more likely that there will eventually be some unexpected calamity that will force a change of policy; or perhaps the weight of negative consequences from the conflict will grow so heavy that he can no longer ignore them.  Therefore, he needs the conflict to end, and to end by the most expeditious route. 

In the early days of the uprising, Obama undoubtedly pinned his hopes on Assad's rapid departure. With the regime showing great resilience and perhaps even some recovery of late, he may now secretly and reluctantly calculate that the best hope of avoiding an intervention is if Assad stays.

It is a harsh judgment to make of Obama and an even harder claim to substantiate. And I am not saying Obama would actively work toward that outcome — just that he might not work to avoid it either.

A key test of this hypothesis will come with the mooted Geneva II conference. Even as it was announced there were fears it was just a means for Obama to deflect growing calls for a more direct role in the conflict, in particular by arming the opposition.

In fact, the EU's mostly empty decision to lift the arms embargo on Syria is being portrayed, conveniently, as a first step in an effort to convince Assad that he needs to negotiate at a Geneva II. I am not sure Assad will be rushing to capitulate, not least given that so far he seems to have been the only beneficiary of the EU's decision (with the Russians using it as a pretext to announce they will go ahead with the long-mooted delivery of S300 missiles).

But it is also being argued that, if Geneva II fails, then the West will have no choice but to throw its military weight behind the opposition. Indeed, as this Ha'aretz piece argues, even the Israelis may now be less ambivalent about pushing Assad out, given that Israel's arch enemy Hizbullah has so unequivocally tied its fortunes to Assad's survival.

It is at this point where Obama's narrowly-focused determination to keep America out of Syria will be tested. He will either decide to keep to his current course or he will succumb to the interventionist chorus, placing America on an escalatory track towards even greater military involvement — precisely what it seems he is most seeking to avoid.

This does not mean I believe Obama's options are either military intervention or doing next to nothing. There is, I believe, a diplomatic, de-escalatory option, as this piece from the European Council of Foreign relations outlines. It would require, however, a deep and sustained investment of diplomatic effort, even while the fighting continues in Syria. This is an investment Obama has so far been reluctant to make. Allowing Secretary of State Kerry to scurry around the region on diplomatic mission to inter alia revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and find a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict is not evidence to the contrary.

But by choosing to avoid either a decisive military intervention in Syria or to make a decisive diplomatic intervention (however faint its prospects), Obama has largely settled for being led by events and actors in the region. And given the trajectory of those event, this may mean, in effect, settling for Assad.

Photo by Flickr user Bombardier

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A lot has been written about President Obama's equivocal response to the almost equally equivocal evidence (so far) that Syria has used chemical weapons against its own people. Having earlier drawn a 'red line' on this issue it seems that Obama is now hurriedly rubbing it out.

You cannot blame him. America cannot afford military intervention in Syria (even if, eventually, it might have to do it anyway). What's more, America and its allies aren't any good at intervention, as Iraq and Afghanistan (and Libya, if anyone cared enough to be still watching) underline.

And yet Obama's seemingly prudent avoidance of another military entanglement in the Middle East would be more compelling if there was a sense that he was investing in other less destructive means to bring the Syrian conflict to an end. But sanctions, some non-lethal military assistance, a little shepherding of the Syrian opposition and prodding of the P5 in the Security Council seem to be the limit of America's foreign policy imagination on Syria these days.

I am not suggesting America should start lining up the troops for intervention. But I would have thought that a little more diplomatic attention and political muscle now might help forestall military intervention later once the Syrian regime eventually does something outrageous enough – as it probably will — to compel Obama to act.

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It is, I know, easy to criticise America's handling of what is a diabolical problem. Nevertheless, it is hard to escape the conclusion that what is taking place here is not some cautious husbanding of American power for the right moment, but an almost reckless willingness to allow American policy to be dictated by events on the ground.

And it is being dictated: by the Iranians, by the Turks, by the Saudis and even by the little Qataris, all of whom are directing forceful energy and considerable treasure to feed their proxies and fuel the conflict's escalation.

Not only is such an abdication of responsibility ultimately damaging to America's interest in the region, it will accelerate the downward spiral of American influence. If Obama's current approach makes it seem to regional allies and enemies alike that Syria does not matter to America anymore, then why listen to, or fear, America anymore?

In that regard, perhaps the most disturbing thing about the last week was not Obama's shuffle back from his own red line on intervention, but the language he used to justify it. In particular, this response to a reporter's question during a press conference with King Abdullah of Jordan caught my eye (my emphasis):

And I think that, in many ways, a line has been crossed when we see tens of thousands of innocent people being killed by a regime. But the use of chemical weapons and the dangers that poses to the international community, to neighbors of Syria, the potential for chemical weapons to get into the hands of terrorists -- all of those things add increased urgency to what is already a significant security problem and humanitarian problem in the region.

Obama thinks that 'in many ways' a line has been crossed when 'tens of thousands of innocent people' have been killed. Really? 'In many ways?' I would have thought a line had been crossed, full stop. Likewise, he says the use of chemical weapons would add 'increased urgency' to a 'significant...humanitarian problem'. This is bureaucratic-speak from the great American orator. Is 'significant' really the limit of his descriptive eloquence to describe a conflict that by UN account has already killed over 70,000 people and has become one of the world's worst refugee crises?

One might find excuse for Obama in the fact that it was an unprepared remark; perhaps it was a little underdone, rhetorically. In other circumstances (say the Boston bombing) it would even be an appropriate withdrawal from the hyperbole that has come to characterise public pronouncements on national security matters.

Instead, what it seems to reveal is a new habit of mind and expression that will not be reassuring to those who still see an important role for America in the world – even a more prudent America.

As Owen Harries and Tom Switzer argue in the latest edition of The American Interest, Obama 'rightly' wants to focus on nation-building at home. 'But only when he articulates an approach that emphasizes prudence and modesty in the most forceful and eloquent manner will such a doctrine win public acceptance.' To which I would add – public acceptance, both in America, but also abroad.

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