An Emerging Vacuum

There are a lot of crises brewing in June 2009. Obama doesn’t seem to be doing anything — or even thinking much about — any of them.

We need not blame or excoriate President Obama for every foreign development – and in fact we should not – to nevertheless recognize that there is a noteworthy number of crises brewing in the sixth month of his term.  In terms of practical diplomacy, and understanding or articulation of strategic context, Obama has so far evinced almost no detectable profile.  A vacuum of positive leadership appears to be emerging – and emerging at a very bad time.


One can hope that the Green Movement has not lost heart in Iran, and that the regime has not begun a comprehensive crackdown with lethal force yet.  But the signs are increasingly ominous, as we hear that the Guardian Council has pronounced the 12 June election outcome valid, and that there will be no rerun of the polling.  (Update:  I hear on the TV news now that the Council has decided to extend the deadline on election complaints for another five days.)

Fox News is reporting, as of 1:00 PM Pacific time, that camera pens sent by an Iranian broadcasting station to citizens have produced video of the first detected call of Iranian crowds – from about 12 hours ago – for “death to the Islamic Republic.”  This chant suggests an escalating demand for reform.  The size of the crowd, and its recent activity, indicate that the reform movement maintains momentum.

The Guardian Council’s uncompromising stance on the election, however, is less cause for optimism.  Allahpundit at Hot Air posted a remarkable video today, in, according to Farsi speakers, Ahmadinejad is speaking to a group of clerics in Qom (I also see a woman with a black headscarf in the video, on the right).  Reportedly, Ahmadinejad speaks “of pure Islamic theocracy and implantation of it into the society more forcefully.”  The relatively exact translation provided by a correspondent of another blogger, and quoted by Allahpundit, refers to the concept that “Islamic rule should not and cannot be limited only to Iran. Our efforts to expand it throughout the world are soon to be materialized with the help from God.”

It does not appear to allude directly to eliminating a right to vote for Iran’s people, as Iranian Twitterers are reportedly saying.  (They, I should stipulate, are in a better position than I am to recognize commonly-understood meanings in what sound, to a Westerner, like vague or elliptical phrases.)  But the substance of what it does say is one of the most direct windows I have seen into Ahmadinejad’s aspirations, and his relations with the clerics he is speaking to in the video.  Even without a time stamp on it – it is not clear when this video was taken – it suggests the Ahmadinejad faction will not go down easily.  It is likely, rather, to fight hard, and do what it has to, to stay in power.

President Obama spoke more forcefully today on the topic of the Iranian regime’s obligation to its people.  However, he has made no proposals for concrete action.  He has also sent an odd counter-signal, in affirming that representatives of the Iranian regime will still be invited to Independence Day barbecues at American embassies.  (Perhaps we’re going to take some hostages, if any Iranians show up?)

The situation now is that the opportunity to weaken the regime, so that it is unable or unwilling to crack down mercilessly on the people, is working its way toward the rearview mirror.  If the Iranian regime is not inside our OODA loop now, it is imminently so.  We have just about reached the point at which imposing tougher sanctions on Iran – e.g., enforcing an embargo on her imports of refined gasoline – can no longer interdict her regime’s ability to use force against the people.

A point I didn’t make in my last Iran post is that the measures outlined in it have a “Best before” date, beyond which taking action to sabotage and discourage the regime will only slow down, and perhaps prolong, a bloody crackdown that is already underway.  Each hour that passes gives the regime more time to organize and deploy the IRGC.  Each hour that passes without substantive opposition from the Western nations makes the regime more likely to settle the issue by making war on its own people.  Once that process is started, the carnage will be dreadful, and the people increasingly out of position to take advantage of regime vulnerabilities.

The people of Iran are unarmed.  This is essentially an urban revolution – which does not mean that it has no rural support, but does mean that the people don’t even have pitchforks or cattle prods, much less firearms.  Their tactical situation at the moment is not promising.  Their most realistic hope is that at least some of the Revolutionary Guard can be turned, so that there are arms on both sides.  (Some portion of the regular, conscript armed forces is likely to be in sympathy with the people already – but although the regular army is sizable in terms of personnel, its equipment is outdated and poorly maintained, and it has access to little air or air defense equipment, and none of the premier naval platforms.)

The prospect of outside recognition, in some useful forms, could encourage a factional split that divided the IRGC.  The most useful forms would be a US-led Western commitment to starve the regime of fuel, and a commitment to prevent Russia from giving it material support.  In the event of such commitments, an armed opposition inside Iran would find itself with natural tactical objectives:  to seize at least some of the nine refineries where gasoline is produced (at least one of Bandar Abbas, Tehran, or Esfahan, where aviation fuel is produced, would be especially significant), and to prevent any Russia material aid that makes it across Iran’s borders from getting to the regime-held IRGC garrison locations.

However, it remains unclear that the Iranian opposition has the organization and vision to pursue this option.  What is very clear is that President Obama will not signal the American commitments that would energize it, and give it parameters to count on.  He is, instead, sending an unwavering signal that he will await events in Iran, without any attempt at intervention; and that he is fully prepared, on 4 July, to invite Iranian diplomats to American cookouts, no matter who is in power at that point – and apparently, no matter what they have been doing in the interim.

North Korea

Obama does have a lot on his plate.  North Korea, holding two American journalists as hostages, is laboring hard to move forward on her nuclear and missile programs.  I assess that Pyongyang will not willingly give up its hostages until it has achieved the regime’s goals for those programs.  Testing has to be regular, and on an accelerated schedule, if progress is to be made, and Kim Jong-Il doesn’t have time to bluster and wait, bluster and wait, as during the previous 15 years, to set up each successive test.  Holding hostages to deter us from retaliating, and issuing summary threats against the region, are ways of getting us to check ourselves, and let the Kim regime get on with its plans.

It seems to be working.  North Korea is known to be planning a missile test, probably on or about 4 July, and the US response has been to deploy a radar platform off Hawaii, and perform system checks on our ground-based interceptor missiles in Alaska and California.  (The missile test, originally thought to be of a long-range missile, may be of a medium- or shorter-range missile instead, based on intelligence indicators reported by US intelligence.  This may relieve Hawaiians, but cannot be reassuring to the Japanese or South Koreans, who have had to watch a lot of North Korean missile launches this year.)

The bite of fresh UN sanctions, after Pyongyang’s nuclear detonation in May, has yet to be demonstrated as well.  In defiance of the sanctions, the regime sent a cargo ship, the Kang Nam, out of port on 17 June, reportedly to transport arms to Burma (Myanmar).  The US Navy has a destroyer, USS John S McCain, shadowing Kang Nam, but has attempted no interdiction of her passage while Kang Nam is transiting through China’s EEZ.  Opinion is split, in the US, on the advisability of attempting to stop and board the North Korean ship, because the UN sanctions do not authorize the use of force in this task.  Commentators point out that being turned down, in a request to board Kang Nam, would deal our credibility a black eye.

That certainly seems likely.  What I see fewer comments on is a key truth that puts in question our whole years-long approach to deterring North Korea’s nuclearization – a truth that the Kang Nam voyage is highlighting in 12-foot neon letters.  It is this:  China does not share common goals with us in this matter; and therefore, our policy of asking for China’s assistance in deterring Pyongyang is one doomed to ineffectiveness.

China is the principal patron of both North Korea and Burma.  Beijing is the Burmese junta’s arms supplier, and has routinely used North Korea to move the actual arms in the past.  Doing so enables North Korea to generate trade income, something she otherwise has very restricted options for, and that in turn relieves China’s burden in supporting Kim’s regime (which, as I laid out here, China does to prevent the Korean peninsula from being unified under a Western-oriented regime led by Seoul).

(As an aside, poor nations aspiring to become the clients of great powers would be well advised, as they make their pro-con lists, to seriously consider the condition of China’s:  North Korea, Burma, Sudan, Zimbabwe.)

In light of these circumstances, we cannot conclude anything but that the Kang Nam arms transfer has China’s blessing – even though it contravenes UN sanctions.  If China’s special relationship with both parties did not clarify it for us, the ease with which Beijing could have prevented the shipment ought to.  Beijing has higher priorities than preventing North Korea from developing a fully weaponized nuclear threat, and we would approach this whole issue on a better footing if we recognized that.

Russia and Georgia

The stakes for our national credibility, our allies’ security, and our own could not be higher, as Iranian unrest persists and North Korea gets away with everything we have said she would not.  As outlined here, Russia is systematically dismantling all outside, multinational recourse for Georgia in her bid to retain political independence – and a key step in that process was taken by Moscow, almost unnoticed on this side of the Atlantic, last week.  With Russia’s 16 June UN Security Council veto of a continuing mission for the UN observer force in the breakaway province of Abkhazia, two of the three multinational observer groups, which were originally intended to guarantee that the disposition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia would be decided peacefully, have been fully eliminated.  (The OSCE observers left last year.)

The third group, from the EU, and also operating in Abkhazia, is under increasing attack.  An explosion that killed one of the mission’s members on 22 June was the fourth one this month in which the EU mission was targeted.

The attacks have been staged inside Georgian territory, but it is highly probable that Russian agents are the perpetrators, since the EU presence is to the benefit of the Georgian government.  Russia effectively occupies and administers both Abkhazia and South Ossetia now – but remains motivated to achieve control over independent Georgia, through which run two major pipelines that carry natural gas from the Caspian Sea to Europe.

Pipeline Politics:  Same Song, 127th Verse

This motivation is particularly strong as Europe flops and twitches, looking for ways to extract Ukraine from the stranglehold Russia got on her in January.  Coming home to roost are the highly disadvantageous terms of the natural gas contract worked out on an emergency basis, during the gas shortage that coincided with an epic winter freeze on the Continent.  Ukraine now has to pay a high premium for the gas reserves she builds up from Russia, for further distribution to EU customers – and a predictable inability to meet those terms, on settling day with the Russians, is staring Kiev in the face.

Europeans, also predictably, are looking harder at ways to diversify their gas resources as this crisis builds.  And while this is good, Ukraine is in the position of being beholden to Russia, and to Russian proposals (e.g., IMF loans) for resolving the cash problem created for her by… Russia.  Neither Brussels nor the national capitals gave Kiev any backing, in her struggle with Russian negotiators in January, and the EU is dithering now on how much to help Ukraine settle this, and maintain her independence, and how much to let Russia take the lead.

Increasingly, there is a vacuum of US leadership, in these matters that are of import to our allies, and to our interests in regional arrangements and dynamics.  Asians and Europeans have no trouble drawing links between events in Iran, what Russia is doing on the Black Sea, and China’s watchful method of letting North Korea issue us a series of challenges, to see how far Obama can be pushed.  But except for Iran and North Korea, there is little notice of the gathering momentum of other developments, in popular media in the US.  And those developments are out there.


Somalia’s President, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, declared a state of emergency in the country yesterday, after requesting armed intervention from his neighbors late last week to help him combat the Al Qaeda-backed Al Shabaab movement that has seized power in parts of the south in the past six weeks.

Readers of The Optimistic Conservative will remember that Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed is the man who was the leader of the Islamic Courts Union when it seized power in Mogadishu in the latter half of 2006.  In this tangled, history, the West approved when Ethiopia intervened with force, to remove the ICU from power in December of that year, given its ties (including arms supplies) with Iran, among others.  By early 2009, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed had come to seem the least of several evils, and was actively assisted by the EU his bid for election by a hilariously stacked Somali parliament, which met, for safety reasons, in neighboring Djibouti.

The main difference between 2006 and today is the rise of Al Shabaab, or the Islamic radical “Youth” movement in Somalia, which is tied to Al Qaeda (and assisted in its current effort by several hundred foreign fighters).  Al Shabaab has gained control of parts of southern Somalia through force, and is administering shari’a justice in Mogadishu – although hot weather prompted an Al Shabaab court to postpone scheduled amputations yesterday, due to concerns that the convicted might bleed to death.  A bombing, probably by Al Shabaab, took the life of Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s security minister on the 18th, also killing at least 19 others in town near the border with Ethiopia.

Minister Omar Hashi Adan was there meeting with an Ethiopian delegation, in discussions about an armed intervention by Ethiopia to combat Al-Shabaab.  Shortly afterward, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed issued his call for intervention by willing neighbors, and reportedly, Ethiopian troops crossed the border into Somalia on Saturday the 20th.  Kenya’s Raila Odinga is undecided, as yet, whether to respond to Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s call, which has been endorsed by the African Union.  Uganda, however, has already signaled her willingness to send troops.

There was never much chance of a Sharif Sheikh Ahmed government turning into anything sympathetic to Western ideals.  It’s not like fighting for this guy – whose ouster the West cheered two and a half years ago – is a blow for anything other than opposition to Al Qaeda.  Al Shabaab has had a particular advantage in the last week, with Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s Iranian patron preoccupied internally.  It is not clear what nations like Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Libya – which also supported Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s ICU takeover in 2006 – will do, if anything

It appears virtually certain, however, that any near-term outcome in Somalia will be determined without US input – an interesting situation, given our leadership in the antipiracy effort off the coast, our regional task force in Djibouti, and our long involvement in the UN-sponsored Transitional Federal Government process.  Perhaps Obama’s links with Odinga of Kenya will be invoked at some point.  But does that “feel” right to any TOC readers?  Does it seem likely to happen, given the patterns of Obama’s first five months in office?


Americans who don’t follow the daily ups and downs of crude prices, or read the industry news, might not have been aware of a fresh campaign in the “Nigerian oil war,” to which analysts have attributed much of the relentless increase in oil and gas prices over the past two months.  The real “news” in this regard appears to be not so much that the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) set fire to a Chevron oil station on 10 June, as that it attacked two Royal Dutch-Shell pipelines on 19 June on the eastern side of the Niger Delta, where it has not operated before.

After weathering a rebel military campaign that started in early May, Chevron had already shut down its operations in a different part of the Delta in late May, and is among several oil companies that are evacuating personnel from Nigeria.  Italy’s Agip also lost production capacity at oil and gas sites in the past month, due to MEND attacks.  In all, the attacks have taken 133K barrels per day out of production, from a previous level of 700K.

The MEND offensive surged in the wake of Nigerian president Umaru Yar’Adua’s April 2009 decision to dissolve and reappoint a key political board, that of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC).  Dissolution of the board was an unexpected move, taken shortly after figures were publicized showing Nigeria’s oil profits down by a historic amount in 2008, due to the “oil war” in the Delta that has been raging since 2006.

 As one may imagine, appointment to the NDDC board is a tremendous political perk, and dissolving and reassembling it a method of political maneuver.  The April dissolution by Yar’Adua probably also envisioned it as a means of leveraging board seats to get the MEND conflict under some level of control.  The constitutional formula for the board is nightmarishly convoluted, and various factions in Nigeria have been signaling their enduring disappointment with Yar’Adua’s handing of the whole affair – which remains unresolved, with the new board not yet accepted by the Nigerian Senate.  Yar’Adua’s own Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) is increasingly in rebellion against him, in the Nigerian states, regarding the NDDC appointments.

So it is a good question whether the Nigerian government will be able to deal with the current MEND offensive any more effectively than it has over the past three years.  MEND is reportedly calling this whole campaign “Hurricane Piper Alpha,” after the North Sea oil platform that exploded in 1998.  The group has warned for the first time, in the spirit of this campaign moniker, that it intends to attack deep-water oil rigs off the Nigerian coast.  Meanwhile, its activities continue to function as “cover” for oil thieves, who mimic MEND militant tactics to steal oil and sell it with falsified documents.

The US got a little less than 10% of our imported oil from Nigeria in 2008, according to the Energy Information Agency.  This amount was down from 14% in 2005.  Militant attacks and outright oil theft have cost Nigeria an estimated $100 billion in revenues since the “oil war” began.  There do not appear to be signs at the moment that the Yar’Adua government is in jeopardy; but the loss since early May of a fifth of the Niger Delta’s previous oil and gas output, if it goes unrestored, can only promote dissatisfaction and unrest in West Africa’s most populous nation – as it continues to drive up world oil and gas prices.

Latin America

There are rarely enough explosions in Latin America to engage our attention as often as would be ideal.  The loss of civil liberties in a number of nations there – Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua – continues apace, but Hugo Chavez has not been in Manhattan recently to put his olfactory prowess to work.

Persistent and disquieting evolution there is, however, symbolized by the coming summit meeting of the Venezuelan-sponsored Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of our America (ALBA), a growing regional group eying trade and financial cooperation that would supplant the Free Trade Association of the Americas, and function in some ways as a political alternative to the Organization of American States (OAS).  Group currency cooperation is under consideration as well.  The meeting is scheduled to start Wednesday 24 June.

ALBA has its origins in a Cuba-Venezuela agreement concluded in 2004.  Since then, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Honduras, Dominica, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua and Barbuda, and – this month – Ecuador have joined the group.  Venezuela has also solicited Uruguay, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and St Kitts to seek membership.  Russia and Iran were given observer status in 2008, and frequent – one might almost say relentless – reporting on the activities of ALBA in Chinese press organs suggests Beijing has an interest in observer status as well.

We may suppose Iran will be absent from this week’s summit, but Russia is likely to be in attendance.  Venezuelan representatives inked a deal in Moscow today (23 June) to launch a bilateral Russian-Venezuelan bank, continuing a lengthening list of trade and financial agreements that, as many Americans are aware, includes a major arms deal cemented in late 2008, in conjunction with the visit of Russian warships and combat aircraft.

Chavez is diversifying his arms portfolio, however, having concluded a deal with China last week to begin buying military aircraft.  Iran’s inroads on Latin America are undoubtedly on the back burner in Tehran this month, but the competition between Russia and China for custom and influence there remains intense.

Situations that bear watching include the newly-elected president of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli, who has signaled his readiness to “work with” Venezuela – a policy change after five years of cool relations, following Venezuela’s recall of her ambassador to Panama in 2004, over Panama’s humanitarian pardon of Cuban exiles who were under indictment in Cuba, for trying to kill Fidel Castro.  Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega also plans to attend Martinelli’s inauguration on 1 July, another signal of shifting relations.  Panama runs the Canal, of course, but is also of particular geographic importance in surrounding Colombia, and increasing her vulnerability to regional pressures from Chavez and Ortega.

In Honduras, the country’s accession to ALBA has developed in conjunction with a move on the part of President Manuel Zelaya Rosales to get the people to change the constitution, as the voters of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador have all been induced to do.  Zelaya first announced this push in March 2009, and is continuing with it in spite of the Honduran courts declaring his effort illegal.  Fears in Honduras that his intention is to enable perpetual reelection for himself helped produce coup rumors in Tegucigalpa on 5 June.  The capital city’s La Prensa reported that Zelaya had ordered the military to support the referendum on replacing the constitution – again, in spite of the judicial ruling that his proposal was illegal.

Zelaya has reportedly committed to holding his referendum by 28 June, and it remains to be seen if the country will come through the crisis it may provoke.  News reports indicate a majority of citizens is opposed to holding the referendum.  But since early April, Zelaya has engaged in a spiraling series of strong-arm measures against his political opposition, including a brief period in which he arrogated to the executive a universal wiretapping privilege – along with delaying the presentation of a national budget, which has begun to dent the performance of various agencies’ daily obligations, and paying armed brigands to show up at political events and make threatening gestures, while proclaiming their intention to agitate for Zelaya.

Latin American politics as usual, right?  But as the Energy Publisher article points out, Honduras has been largely immune to this pattern.  Zelaya, a center-leftist, was not elected with any idea on the part of Hondurans that he would go on to mount a constitutional challenge, or associate Honduras with the revolutionary regimes in Venezuela and Nicaragua.

Nor has Martinelli of Panama been elected on that understanding.  We may hope that Martinelli, a center-rightist and supporter of Panama’s free trade agreement with the US, will refrain from becoming a path of least resistance for Chavez and Ortega.  But pressure may increase on him to do so.  At some point, someone is going to think it a clever idea for Panama to participate in the FTAA with the US, and hold observer status with ALBA.

One more disquieting news item has emerged from Venezuela in the last week.  It is best to simply quote El Universal of Caracas from 19 June:

“President Hugo Chávez praised his US counterpart Barack Obama for criticizing the hard-line editorial position of Fox News against Obama’s government and made a comparison between the case of the US network and the “attack” by some private media against his socialist revolution.

“Obama said this week that Fox Network, a conservative channel owned by media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, is “entirely devoted to attacking my administration” and seldom runs any positive stories about Obama’s administration, Reuters reported.

“’Obama decided to act and joined the fray. Let’s applaud Obama,’ said the Venezuelan president in an unprecedented gesture. His remarks came late on Thursday, when Chávez talked about socialism in a TV program broadcasted by state-run channel Venezolana de Televisión (VTV).

“A fierce critic of the “US imperialism,” Chávez however showed optimism about the attitude of the new US ruler, after years of insults against former president George W. Bush.

“’Obama is not talking about a revolution but I think he wants a change,’ Chávez said.”

If that doesn’t make us feel warm and fuzzy, what will?

5 thoughts on “An Emerging Vacuum”

  1. Thanks, A.Reader. That’s a great link. I’d encourage other readers to check it out.

    We’ll see if the “Rafsanjani wing” can make this go anywhere.

    Any outcome but restoration of the status quo would exclude Ahmadinejad, and he’s got the IRGC at his back, short of a split inside it. He has a strong motive to fight this thing with mortars and bullets.

    His “center of gravity,” though, is solidarity with Khamenei. If Khamenei waffles on the current governing structure, and implies the withdrawal of theocratic endorsement from Ahmadinejad, the latter could well begin to see his support in the IRGC start to break down.

    That implies a need, on A-jad’s part, to consolidate some power quickly. I’m not sure he can — if the Guardian Council starts to doubt itself.

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