Assertive Saudi King Salman visits Washington

King Salman is visiting Washington for the first time since ascending the Saudi throne. DW‘s US correspondent Spencer Kimball reports that the US faces a kingdom that has become very assertive in its foreign policy.

For decades, a simple quid-pro-quo formed the basis of US-Saudi relations. Riyadh provided the oil, Washington provided the security.

“It’s become infinitely more complicated than that,” James B. Smith, the American ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2009-2013, told DW.

On Friday, US President Barack Obama welcomes Saudi King Salman to Washington for the first time. Salman, 79, ascended the throne last January after his half-brother Abdullah passed away.

When the two leaders meet, President Obama will represent a nation that’s become increasingly self-reliant in energy production, while King Salman will represent a nation that’s become increasingly self-assertive in its foreign policy.

Last March, Riyadh launched a military intervention in neighboring Yemen after Houthi rebels drove the US-Saudi backed government from power. Though the US has provided intelligence and logistical support, Washington is largely on the sidelines, according to Smith. For the first time, Saudi Arabia is clearly in the driver’s seat.

“Traditionally they’ve operated in the shadows, using money or influence,” Smith, now president of C&M International, said of the Saudis. “The Yemen campaign indicates a much more muscular foreign policy. I don’t know if this is an aberration or a trend, it’s too early to tell.”

Continue reading

Iran showdown in Congress damages US credibility

(Deutsche Welle) The White House has secured enough support in the Senate to successfully veto a resolution that would “disapprove” of the Iran nuclear deal. But it’s a hollow victory. A presidential veto could damage US credibility.

The votes have been tallied. At least 34 US Senators will support the Iran nuclear deal and back President Barack Obama’s anticipated veto of a resolution that disapproves of the agreement. To put it simply, those in Congress who oppose the nuclear deal have been defeated – for now.

There’s a good chance that Congress will pass the disapproval resolution. After all, both the House of Representatives and the Senate are controlled by the Republican Party, which is bitterly opposed to the nuclear agreement. At least two leading Democrats, Senators Robert Menendez and Charles Schumer, are also opposed. They have until September 17 to vote on the resolution.

Should the disapproval resolution pass, President Obama would issue a veto. In order to override a presidential veto, opponents of the deal would then need two-thirds support in the House and the Senate. Senator Barbara Mikulski’s decision on Wednesday to support the nuclear agreement ensures that opponents will not have the 67 votes needed in the Senate to override the president’s veto.

According to Jeffrey Peake, many opponents of the Iran nuclear deal knew from the beginning that they would probably lose the showdown with the president. But the impending vote gives them the opportunity to state their opposition to the historic agreement on the record.

“They knew the writing was on the wall,” Peake, an expert on the role of Congress in American diplomacy, told DW. “It was pretty to clear to everyone involved that the veto would be sustained.”

“It allows them a vote where they can go home to their constituents and say, ‘I voted to oppose this deal. It’s on the record,'” Peake said. “They have capitulated basically, but it’s so convoluted and complicated that most observers and constituents aren’t going to see that.”

Continue reading

US-Saudi alliance stays strong after Iran nuclear deal

Will the Iran nuclear deal strain ties between Saudi Arabia and the US? Hardly. The alliance between the world’s largest absolute monarchy and its oldest constitutional republic remains strong, Spencer Kimball reports.

One is an officially Islamic nation ruled by the same family for 83 years, where religion dictates who drives (men) and what women may wear (abayas, or full-body cloaks); the other is a mostly, but not officially, Christian country where voters pick their leaders and often even enact local laws.

Enemies and interests may be the only two things Saudi Arabia and the United States do have in common, and these have proved the basis for a long and largely loyal strategic partnership.

“It has survived every possible provocation that might have brought it down, including [US President] Truman’s recognition of Israel in 1948,” Thomas Lippman, a former Middle East bureau chief for the Washington Post, told DW.

Lippman believes that the relationship will also survive its latest test: the deal world powers signed in July to ease sanctions on Iran in exchange for international monitoring of the country’s nuclear program.

On Sunday, US Secretary of State John Kerry left for Qatar, part of his first trip to the Middle East since he and fellow negotiators reached the historic agreement with Saudi Arabia’s main rival for regional influence.

Before and after the deal, Kerry repeatedly reaffirmed the US’s commitment to the security of its Gulf partners. Just last week, the State Department approved the sale of 600 Patriot missiles, worth $5.4 billion (4.9 billion euros), to Riyadh.

The Patriots will help counter Iran’s missile program, Lippman said, though he doesn’t believe that the sale is necessarily related to the nuclear deal.

“I have no doubt that the Saudis despise Shiites and are nervous about the Iranians and are unhappy about Iran’s activity around the region – that’s no secret,” Lippman said.

“They also understand perfectly which side their bread is buttered on, and that’s the US side,” he continued. “Nobody else is going to sell them 600 patriot missiles.”

Continue reading

The ‘War on Terror’ after Mullah Omar and Bin Laden

(Deutsche Welle) Taliban leader Mullah Omar provided sanctuary to Osama bin Laden. Both men are now dead. But with the rise of Islamic State, there’s no end in sight to America’s 14-year-running “War on Terror.”

He had a $10 million bounty on his head for more than a decade. But the justice of the Old American West didn’t translate to South Asia. Mullah Mohammed Omar died in a Pakistani hospital more than two years ago, apparently from tuberculosis. Washington will keep its $10 million.

The US pulled no punches after 9/11. Its constitution was no obstacle. Yet through more than a decade of war, surveillance, detention and torture, the Afghan Taliban leader was ever elusive to the long and often merciless arm of American vengeance.

“Mullah Omar has protected himself not only from the public, but even from his own comrades in the Taliban,” Anand Gopal, author of “No Good Men Among the Living,” told DW. “There are very few members who’ve had access to Mullah Omar since 2001. In last four or five years, he has essentially vanished.”

Like Osama bin Laden, the Taliban leader probably crossed the porous Afghan-Pakistan border and found sanctuary on the territory of an ostensible American ally.

“Given the inadequate efforts by the Pakistani state to go after these kinds of individuals, and in the case of Mullah Omar, the enormous number of Afghan refugees made it relatively easy for him to find haven inside of Pakistan,” Daniel Markey, author of “No Exit from Pakistan,” told DW.

Continue reading

US caught between Turkey, Kurd rivalry in war against ‘IS’

They’re both key to US goals in the Middle East, but they’re bitterly opposed to one another. Turkey has bombed Kurdish positions in Iraq. The airstrikes could hamper Washington’s war against ‘IS.’

According to the Turkish government, there’s no difference between “Islamic State” and the Kurdish militant group PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). They’re both terrorist organizations.

“Whichever terrorist organization poses a threat to the borders of the Turkish Republic, measures will be taken without hesitation,” said Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu after Turkey launched operations against both groups. “No-one should have any doubt.”

But the secular PKK has proven one of the most effective adversaries of the “Islamic State” group, according to Michael Gunter, who’s written several books on the Kurds. So effective, that there have been calls in the US to remove the PKK from the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.

“The US should do it,” Gunter, a professor at Tennessee Tech University, told DW. “The US has been in effect supporting the PKK by supporting the affiliate of the PKK, the PYD [Kurdish Democratic Union Party], in Syria.”

Continue reading

Obama’s prison: last-ditch push to close Guantanamo

(By Deutsche Welle) US President Barack Obama’s new Guantanamo envoy has 18 months to close the infamous prison. Lee Wolosky will face election-year politics and a deeply skeptical Congress. Mission impossible? Spencer Kimball reports.

He was inaugurated on a Tuesday. The following Thursday, President Barack Obama signed an executive order to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Leading Republicans and Democrats agreed that the prison had become a propaganda tool for America’s enemies and a distraction to her allies. The plan was to shut Guantanamo down within a year.

But a president sets priorities and the candidate of change had more immediate concerns. The economy was a wreck and nearly 50 million Americans had no health insurance. After Republicans took control of Congress in 2010, they refused to allocate money to close Guantanamo.

Six years and two special envoys later, the detention facility remains open. Last Tuesday, the administration appointed Lee Wolosky as the State Department’s Special Envoy for Guantanamo Closure. The position had been vacant for six months.

Wolosky, an attorney, was the director of Transnational Threats under the Clinton administration and early in the Bush administration. John Bellinger, who served on President Bush’s National Security Council, has known Wolosky for two decades.

“Lee Wolosky has experience inside Washington with counterterrorism on the White House staff and ought to be able to – if anyone can – persuade a very skeptical Republican Congress that he and the president have a plan to close Guantanamo,” Bellinger told DW.

Continue reading

US allows families to pay hostage ransoms

(By Deutsche Welle) Under pressure from relatives of slain Americans, the US has permitted families to pay hostage ransoms. But experts say that as long as European governments pay large ransoms, the kidnapping epidemic will continue.

Could James Foley, Steven Sotloff, Warren Weinstein, Abdul-Rahman Kassig and Kayla Mueller have been saved?

The United States has long maintained a policy of not negotiating with terrorists. Sort of. In the case of Weinstein, the FBI advised his family on how to make a ransom payment of $250,000 to his al Qaeda-affiliated captors, according to The New York Times.

“Helping with a ransom…is not tantamount to paying a ransom,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said at the time.

The American contractor was ultimately killed by a US airstrike targeting militants on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. An Italian aid worker was also inadvertently killed.

The Foley family, on the other hand, claims they were threatened with prosecution by the State Department if they tried to pay a ransom for their son’s release.

Though the United States staged a military operation to rescue Foley, the 40-year-old freelance journalist wasn’t at the location of the raid. Weeks later, he was beheaded by the Islamic State in a gruesome video, the first of many.

“The families don’t feel supported; they don’t feel like they’re given the information they need, and that’s clearly become a political issue for the Obama administration,” Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told DW.

Continue reading

President Obama’s unauthorized, incomplete Iraq war strategy

(By Deutsche Welle) More than nine months, 2,000 airstrikes and 3,000 military advisers later, Congress still has not authorized the US war against the “Islamic State.” The White House now wants to deploy 450 advisers closer to the front.

The American bombs falling on Iraq and Syria barely make headlines anymore. Over the past four days alone, the US and its allies have launched at least 70 airstrikes against “Islamic State” (IS) targets.

The public and Congress have largely backed Washington’s third Iraq war. According to the Pew Research Center, 63 percent of Americans support the US military campaign against IS.

Forty-seven percent of the country would even support sending ground troops back to the Middle East. That’s an eight-point increase over last year, according to Pew.

Though the president has ruled out sending combat troops back to the Middle East, he has deployed a growing number of advisers. On Wednesday, the White House announced plans to send 450 additional US troops to train Iraqi forces, bringing the total number to more than 3,500.

The advisers will be stationed at Taqaddum airbase in Anbar province near the city of Habbaniyah, which is just 33 kilometers (20 miles) from two cities controlled by IS.

“Habbaniyah is sandwiched between Ramadi and Fallujah, now both Islamic State strongholds,” Wayne White, a former senior Iraq analyst at the State Department, told DW. “The Islamic State has made several efforts to move against Habbaniyah.”

“The personnel in Habbaniyah will be in greater danger,” White said.

Continue reading

Tentative Iran nuclear deal reached in Lausanne after marathon negotiations

 (By Deutsche Welle) World powers and Iran have agreed to a framework that could end the standoff over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. In exchange for limitations on enrichment, sanctions targeting nuclear research will be lifted.

Iran and world powers have reached a diplomatic breakthrough that could lead to a final settlement of the 12-year-long confrontation over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. That’s the clear message that emerged from marathon talks in Lausanne, which ran two days past a self-imposed Tuesday deadline well into Thursday evening local time.

“Today we have taken a decisive step,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told reporters after eight days of talks. “We have reached solutions on key parameters of a joint comprehensive plan of action. The political determination, the goodwill, and the hard work of all parties made it possible.”

Iran, the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany would now move to draft the text of a final settlement by June 30th, according to Mogherini. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif subsequently read the same statement in Farsi.

A diplomatic breakthrough in Switzerland wasn’t a foregone conclusion. During the eight days of talks, stubborn differences had emerged over how long limitations on Iranian nuclear research should last and the pace at which sanctions should be lifted.

“In essence, it’s about trying with one single agreement to overcome not just differences over a nuclear issue, but fundamentally beyond that overcome almost four decades of suspicion between Iran on the one hand and particularly the United States on the other hand,” Alex Vatanka, an Iran analyst at the Middle East Institute, told DW.

Continue reading

Netanyahu alienates Democratic allies with US Congress address

(By Deutsche Welle) Unyielding support for Israel has long been a bipartisan pillar of US foreign policy. But Prime Minister Netanyahu’s planned address to Congress has further strained his already tense relationship with the White House.

Israeli leaders normally receive a glowing bipartisan welcome in Washington. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Congress in 2011, he received 29 standing ovations from both Democrats and Republicans.

But this time around it will be different. More than two dozen lawmakers, mostly Democrats, have vowed to boycott Netanyahu’s speech on Tuesday. Vice President Joe Biden will be skipping town for an impromptu trip to South America, and President Obama has declined to meet with Netanyahu during the Israeli leader’s visit to Washington.

The controversy started in January when House Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu to address Congress on “the grave threats radical Islam and Iran pose to our security and way of life.” Boehner, a Republican, did not consult the White House before extending the invitation. He criticized President Obama for devoting too little attention to Islamic fundamentalism in his state of the union speech. Netanyahu would fill in the gaps for the American people, according to Boehner.

“I frankly didn’t want them getting in the way and quashing what I thought was a real opportunity,” America’s third most senior elected official told Fox News, referring to the Obama administration.

Leading Democrats were outraged. Not only had the president been rebuffed, but Netanyahu was scheduled to address Congress just two weeks before parliamentary elections in Israel. Susan Rice, the White House national security adviser, suggested that the invitation was motivated by political partisanship, calling the move potentially “destructive” to the “fabric” of the US-Israel relationship.

“Much of the controversy has been over whether this was a deliberate political maneuver by Boehner to put the Democrats in a defensive position of either appearing to be critical of Israel by not coming to the speech, or showing up and giving legitimacy to what will certainly be a critique of the Obama administration,” William Quandt, who served on the National Security Council in the Nixon and Carter administrations, told DW.

Continue reading