Diplomacy

Pope Francis Praises China in Latest Effort to Thaw Chilly Relations

Image via REUTERS/Stringer/RNS

Pope Francis’ impassioned praise of China this week is the strongest sign of the pontiff’s ambitious agenda to use his personal and political clout to transform the historically fraught relations between Beijing and the Holy See. “For me, China has always been a reference point of greatness. A great country. But more than a country, a great culture, with an inexhaustible wisdom,” the pope said at the start of his interview with Asia Times, which was published Feb. 2.

Why I Wish Today's Republicans Were More Like Ronald Reagan

Image in public domain

President Reagan was not the Evil Emperor — even for progressives. He granted amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants, vocally supported federal gun control, and would probably be written off as a RINO by today’s conservatives for backtracking on his own tax cuts.

And while more flexibility on these issues among the Republicans of today would be commendable and a relief, I think Nov. 19 is the perfect day for the ghost of the Gipper to come haunt his party on an entirely different issue.

That’s because exactly thirty years ago today, on Nov. 19, 1985, President Reagan arrived in Geneva, Switzerland to meet with Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union, face-to-face. The event was carefully planned and statements meticulously edited for the press and the television cameras. It was the first time in six years that the leaders of the world’s two superpowers had met in person. Huge obstacles loomed between the two leaders. With the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the arms race, and Reagan's “Star Wars” missile defense program all causing tension, was it even worthwhile to meet?

The Power of Peacebuilding

THE PEACE MOVEMENT needs a stronger response to the threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. It is not enough merely to oppose deepening U.S. military involvement. We must also identify viable diplomatic and political options for countering the ISIS danger and reducing violence in the region.

President Obama has said there is no military solution to the crisis in Iraq, but his administration has relied heavily on bombing as its main response to ISIS. Since August, the United States and about a dozen other states have launched more than 1,900 air strikes against ISIS and militant groups in Iraq and Syria. Approximately 80 percent of the strikes have been conducted by U.S. forces, mostly jet fighters but also armed drones. The strikes have had the effect of halting further ISIS encroachments into Iraq and have enabled Kurdish fighters to regain some ground in the northern part of Iraq. In Syria, however, ISIS reportedly has continued to gain ground despite the U.S.-led attacks.

U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Syria is having unintended effects that could make matters worse. Battling the United States gives ISIS a transcendent objective beyond its political agenda in Iraq and Syria and distracts local attention from its brutal policies. It allows ISIS to portray itself as the victim and to claim that it is defending Islam from Western attack. After the start of airstrikes in August, support for the group increased. The strikes in Syria have also targeted the al Nusra Front and have generated pressure for rival groups to close ranks. Unlike al Qaeda, ISIS has not declared war on the United States, but it may now rethink its strategic focus and plan attacks on the “far enemy,” to use al Qaeda’s term.

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Wanted: A New Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom

RNS photo courtesy of U.S. State Department
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with Suzan Johnson. RNS photo courtesy of U.S. State Department

WASHINGTON — It’s been three months since the Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook resigned as the State Department’s religious freedom watchdog, and those who decry religious persecution in Syria, Sudan, and elsewhere are wondering how long it’s going to take the White House to name a new ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

Many in the field hope it’s someone with a more diplomatic background than Johnson Cook, a former Clinton administration official and popular Baptist minister whose international experience was mostly acquired on the job.

The other factor: the more than two years it took for the Obama administration to choose Johnson Cook and to get her confirmed by the Senate.

“A continued vacancy will confirm the suspicion that already exists among foreign governments, persecutors, victims and American diplomats that the issue is not a priority,” said Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

The White House has been tight-lipped about the timeline for a decision, as well as about any candidates it may be considering for the position, which Congress created in 1998 to highlight and alleviate religious persecution worldwide.

Here’s a short list of five names swirling around Foggy Bottom, culled from experts who work in the field and were asked who they see as likely to be under consideration, or as particularly qualified for the job.

Lessons from Afghanistan

AS THE U.S. prepares to officially (but not completely) pull out its military from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, some wonder whether it all was a waste. More than a decade of war has cost tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars. But the balance sheet of “lessons learned” shows some less-depressing calculations.

In the last several years, U.S. generals have repeatedly told Congress and the U.S. public that “there is no military solution” to the war in Afghanistan. This marks a significant shift in military thinking. In the early 2000s, the boastful, overconfident views that wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would be quick and easy outnumbered more cautious and skeptical military voices. If nothing else, more military leaders today are forthrightly speaking out against the fantasy of firepower solutions to complex political problems.

The U.S. and its Western allies are also learning a related lesson: The lack of legitimate governance is a fundamental cause of much of the world’s violence. Afghanistan’s political leaders who opposed the Taliban became de facto Western allies, even though many had ruled by force and racked up their own long list of human rights abuses. In the rush to set up a new government to replace the Taliban, the West propped up corrupt and tyrannical warlords as provincial governors, dooming hopes for an Afghan democracy and authentic leaders with popular support.

Counterinsurgency projects attempted to pull support from the Taliban and other insurgents by winning Afghan hearts and minds so they would trust their government. But Western military forces learned that free handouts of Western aid money could not fundamentally change the corrupt nature of the Afghan government or its public image.

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Congress Should Give the Interim Deal with Iran A Chance

Everett Collection / Shutterstock
Congressional hearing in session. Everett Collection / Shutterstock

After a decades-long standoff, Iran and the West (plus China and Russia) have signed an interim agreement to halt Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for modest sanctions relief. While some are calling it a historic breakthrough along the lines of Nixon’s visit to China, the U.S. media has been mostly skeptical. And in a rare display of bipartisanship, Congress is already looking for ways to derail the deal by passing legislation to impose new sanctions on Iran and tie the President’s hands for future negotiations. Despite the fact that President Obama has successfully passed tougher sanctions on Iran than any previous administration, the U.S. media in lockstep with Congress continue to thumb their noses at anything that resembles diplomacy when it comes to Iran. And while other U.S. allies in the region — primarily the Gulf States led by Saudi Arabia — have expressed their concerns over this deal, few Americans care about what the Saudis think. As representatives of the American people, what Congress really cares about is what Israel thinks.

That’s where things get dicey.

The Last Thing the World Needs Is Congress Thwarting Historic U.S.-Iran Nuclear Deal

Globe Turner and SoRad / Shutterstock
Globe Turner and SoRad / Shutterstock

The nuclear deal that the U.S. just struck with Iran is nothing short of historic. This agreement is a victory for everyone who wants to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran and a catastrophic war.

The deal is one of the many triumphs that have resulted from the great American tradition of negotiating with adversaries to advance U.S. interests. President Kennedy's talks with Premier Khrushchev delivered the world from the brink of nuclear war. Ten years later, President Nixon's visit to Mao's China revolutionized the U.S. role in Asia, and the world. A decade later, President Reagan's diplomatic engagement of President Gorbachev achieved historic nuclear arms reductions.

UN weapons inspectors are now on track to peacefully disarm Syria of its chemical weapons because Washington was willing to engage the Syrian regime through diplomacy with Moscow, rather than through Tomahawk cruise missiles. And under the deal reached in Geneva this weekend, Iran will stop advancing its nuclear program for the first time in nearly a decade.

Iran's nuclear program will now be under an expanded inspections regime to help ensure that Iran's nuclear program is used for purely peaceful purposes. In exchange, Iran will receive modest sanctions relief.

Make no mistake: this is a good deal, and it should be protected so that our diplomats have the space to negotiate a final agreement to prevent war and a nuclear-armed Iran once and for all.

Bridging the Persian Gulf

AT LAST, AFTER more than 30 years of isolation since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 overthrew the U.S.-installed Shah, American and Iranian officials are talking to each other. The late September telephone conversation between President Obama and Iranian President Rouhani was an important first step. If the two sides can reach an agreement on ending the nuclear standoff, it could pave the way for other forms of cooperation that could significantly improve regional and global security.

Because of the historical mistrust between the United States and Iran that goes at least as far back as the 1954 CIA-backed coup that overthrew Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, achieving progress will require diplomatic flexibility on both sides. The core objectives of the international community are to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and to guarantee that its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes. This can be accomplished by convincing Tehran to accept binding limits on its nuclear program and by robust monitoring mechanisms to guarantee the absence of military-related activities.

Iran’s objectives are to gain international acceptance of its right to develop nuclear energy, including uranium enrichment, and to obtain relief from crippling sanctions. If Tehran takes steps toward accepting limits and agreeing to enhanced transparency and monitoring, Washington should offer an initial partial suspension of sanctions and pledge to lift additional sanctions as progress proceeds. This would help jump-start the talks and strengthen President Rouhani’s hand in the face of hardliners.

The initial suspension might aim to ease prohibitions on the financing of exports to Iran of specified civilian goods, including medical supplies, agricultural products, consumer goods, and related non-military goods and services. The European Union and the U.N. Security Council could adopt parallel measures.

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A Dogged Pursuit of Middle East Peace

A young woman prays for peace at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Photo by Christine M. Anderson

GEORGE MITCHELL, the former U.S. senator who famously brokered peace in Northern Ireland, knows the path to peace is unpredictable. “Until it happens,” he said, “you can’t predict with certainty. ... You can’t take ‘no’ for an answer. ... You just have to keep at it until peace is achieved.”

After five years of stalled Middle East peace talks, Secretary of State John Kerry lured Israeli and Palestinian negotiators back to the peace table in July. Sadly, my desk is littered with articles by naysayers who seem more than willing to “take ‘no’ for an answer” when it comes to peace in the Holy Land.

Naysayers point to the expansion of Jewish settlements and the political power of Israeli hawks, as well as the divisions in Palestinian society that convince them there is “no true partner for peace.” Certainly years of disappointments and failed negotiations offer ample cause for skepticism.

But I agree with Faisal Abbas, who suggests that cynicism is a lazy option we can’t afford. “Negotiations may succeed or fail to achieve peace,” he writes, “but the alternative (not having these negotiations) is guaranteed to fail.”

He is not alone. For every pundit preaching pessimism, I find another betting on hope. “The deal is still workable. It is still politically viable,” writes Ben Birnbaum in The New Republic. He notes an increasing willingness to compromise in both Israeli and Palestinian public opinion, Kerry’s tenacity, as well as Arab League support for the peace process.

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Waging Peace in Syria

IN EARLY SEPTEMBER, President Obama told the American people that the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad of Syria was a moral atrocity that required international consequences.

Religious leaders agree with the necessity of a determined response to the Assad regime, which is responsible for the deaths of 100,000 of his own people, including the brutal use of chemical weapons on civilians. But many faith leaders are asking tough moral questions about what that response should look like.

We fundamentally reject the assumption that refraining from military action is “doing nothing.” We need more imagination and a deeper response than the traditional one of military strikes, which haven’t proven effective and almost always have serious unintended consequences, risk dangerous escalations, and consistently create more suffering for innocent civilians.

As religious leaders, we are called to peacemaking, not just peace loving, which requires harder and more imaginative work than merely falling into old habits of military “solutions.” Our priorities should be to mobilize global support for the many vulnerable Syrians—including the millions of refugees—and to do the hard work of conflict resolution that could lead to a political solution.

BUT THE CRISIS in Syria also gives us an opportunity to rethink how we respond to conflicts. The “war fatigue” in America is deeper than just the national tiredness of war. It is also the result of the failure of military responses in answering the real threats of terrorists and brutal dictators such as Assad.

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