News in Brief

March 5, 2012 By Mac Stoddard

Who’s in the News

In AIPAC speech, Obama urges Israel to give diplomacy a chance (Scott Wilson, Washington Post)

President Obama urged Israel and its most ardent American supporters Sunday to refrain from bellicose rhetoric toward Iran and to allow time for stiff economic sanctions to work against the Islamic republic’s nuclear ambitions.  As threats of an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear program increase, Obama argued that a military operation now would only strengthen Iran’s fragile diplomatic position and would fail to end its uranium enrichment program permanently.  Acknowledging that Iran’s clerical leadership may not respond to economic pressure, Obama assured the large audience of concerned Israeli supporters that he is willing to use “all elements of American power” to prevent the Islamic republic from developing a nuclear weapon. But, he said, diplomacy must first be allowed to run its course.   “For the sake of Israel’s security, America’s security, and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster,” Obama told the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, a powerful lobbying group. “Now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in, and to sustain the broad international coalition that we have built.”

Smart Power

Egypt’s Small Concession (Washington Post)

On Thursday, six U.S. citizens and seven other foreigners were allowed to leave Egypt after bail of more than $4 million was paid. This will presumably allow them to avoid imprisonment on trumped-up charges of illegal political activity. Yet the trial continues; more than two dozen Egyptian NGO employees remain in jeopardy. The Egyptian government has not retracted its absurd allegations that groups such as the National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute and Freedom House plotted to overthrow the government and partition the country.  The generals may suppose that freeing the Americans will be enough to preserve their aid money. It must not be. The Obama administration appears to recognize this: On Thursday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the administration remained concerned about “the ultimate outcome of the legal process” and wanted to see the NGOs registered. Importantly, officials say that no decision will be made on continuing aid until April and that it will be based on a broad assessment of whether Egypt is moving toward democracy, as required by Congress.  The Obama administration has demonstrated that aid to the Egyptian military is not inviolate; it can and should be used as leverage to achieve a transition to democracy. Now the administration must see that transition through.

Politics/Foreign Policy

Egypt’s lawmakers begin process of appointing group to write constitution (Leila Fadel and Ingy Hassieb, New York Times)

Egypt’s new lawmakers on Saturday began discussing the makeup of an assembly responsible for rewriting the country’s constitution, embarking on their most consequential task so far.

The process could drastically change the way the Arab world’s most populous nation is governed and determine the role of Islam in policymaking. Also at stake is the balance of power between the new president and the judicial and legislative branches, an issue that looms large after three decades of autocratic rule under former president Hosni Mubarak and the turbulent months that followed his ouster last year.  “For the first time, real sections of Egypt’s society are participating in writing the nation’s constitution,” said Ziad Akl, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo. Akl said the most important debates will focus on the nation’s identity as an Islamist state, the role of the powerful military and social issues, such as freedom of speech and religion.

Talks falter for US-Afghanistan post-2014 agreement (Alissa J. Rubin, New York Times)

The prospects for a long-term American strategic partnership with Afghanistan appeared to be dimming over the weekend, as negotiations foundered despite a new American willingness to move up the transfer of detention centers to the Afghans to as soon as six months from now, Afghan and American officials said.  In public statements, Afghan and American officials avoided saying that the talks were dead. But in the past few weeks, statements have taken on an increasingly last-chance tone as outrage over the burning of Korans by American soldiers has appeared to harden the differences between the longtime, if always wary, allies.   The strategic partnership talks have sought to lay out an American commitment to continue aid and support to the Afghan government for the next 10 years. It has been expected that it would be followed by a status-of-forces agreement that would define a potential long-term troop presence in Afghanistan after the 2014 withdrawal deadline.   In a carefully worded statement, however, the Americans raised for the first time the possibility that there would be no partnership agreement at all.

Putin’s Pyrrhic victory (Leon Aron, Los Angeles Times)

Vladimir Putin is poised to win more than 50% of the vote Sunday and thus be “elected” president of Russia again. That’s not surprising: He has barred every pro-democracy opposition leader from running and limited the overwhelming majority of Russian citizens, who get their news mostly from the national television channels, to government propaganda. And after the spectacular and well-documented falsification of the results of the Dec. 4 parliamentary election, no one doubts that the wholly-owned Kremlin subsidiary that is the Central Election Commission will “draw,” as they say in Russia, any number that the boss orders.  However, this will be a Pyrrhic victory. Far from enhancing the Putin regime’s legitimacy, the election will diminish it further in the eyes of a significant part of the Russian population. How significant? According to a February poll of eligible voters by the most reputable of Russia’s polling firms, the Levada Center, 35% of the respondents thought that the election would be “dirty.” Furthermore, 13% of the adults polled said they were ready to participate in public protests.