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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Steven A. Cook*

Turkey And Egypt: When Worlds Collide


Over this past weekend one of my Economist-devouring, Washington Post-reading, New York Times-gobbling buddies who does not work in the field of foreign affairs asked me, “Hey, what’s up with Erdogan and the Turks?”

I’ve been asked this question so many times this summer by so many people that I've lost count. It’s been a long summer in Turkey, starting in May with the Gezi Park protests that revealed a depth of anger toward Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which seemed to surprise the Turkish leadership. Then in early August there were the Ergenekon verdicts, which brought to a close a five-year investigation and trial in an alleged plot to undermine Erdogan and his government.

The trials may be over (excluding appeals), but the controversy around Ergenekon continues. In between these two bookends have been the deteriorating situation in Syria, the coup in Egypt, a slowing economy, and the beginning of a peace process with the Kurdistan Workers Party. The combined pressure of all of the events seems to have gotten to the prime minister, who has been bullying domestic critics, engaging in conspiracies about “interest rate lobbies” intent on bringing down the Turkish economy, and generally finger-pointing at everyone but himself for the difficulties Turkey now confronts at home and abroad.

As the Gezi Park-inspired protests have faded somewhat, the July 3 military intervention in Egypt that brought down Mohamed Morsi seems to be the issue that is currently consuming Prime Minister Erdogan. In language that was once reserved only for Israelis, the Turkish political elite is lashing out at the Egyptians. Prime Minister Erdogan is alone among world leaders in advocating forcefully on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi. He has blamed the coup on the Israelis and the Gulf countries while wrecking Ankara’s ties with Egypt as well as blowing Turkish soft power.

It would be a logical fallacy to suggest that because Erdogan is virtually alone (the Ecuadoreans recalled their ambassador in Cairo over the coup) in this issue that he is thus wrong, but the Turkish leader tends to have trouble with context, though more about that down below. Regime mouthpieces like Taha Ozhan of the unofficially AKP-affiliated advocacy organization/think tank, SETA Foundation, have gone so far as to link Egyptian Major General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in some sort of new axis of evil.

In the end, however, Egypt’s present tribulations are, according to Ozhan, the fault of the United States. What is new? On the face of it, Ozhan’s missive should not be taken seriously, but for the fact that it reflects the dominant political thinking within the AKP. There are any number of shills who are all too willing to explain away the convulsions in and around Turkey as some sort of “Zionist-provocateur, interest rate lobby, American conspiracy against Muslim democrats,” rather than a serious examination of the pressures, interests and issues that have led to a range of dramatic developments in the Middle East recently. The Turks, it seems, are the last Orientalists.

So why have the Turks reacted this way? Someone recently suggested — I can’t remember where — that perhaps Erdogan’s overwrought response to Egypt, which seems to serve no purpose other than alienating yet another major Middle Eastern country, was the result of an allegedly undisclosed health problem. This is the same kind of silliness some people used to explain Vice President Dick Cheney’s behavior during the Bush years. Allegedly, the vice president’s heart condition made him do it. A more analytically sound argument for the behavior of the Turkish prime minister and his minions revolves around three issues:

1) It should not be a surprise that Prime Minister Erdogan would react strongly and negatively to a coup d’état. Turkey’s history of military interventions is hardly worth repeating, but suffice it to say that in the coups of 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997 political forces representing pious Muslims suffered. The Turkish military was responsible for the development of a political system that was geared specifically to prevent the accumulation of Kurdish, Islamist and at one time Communist political power. The result was that many, especially in the West, saw the Turkish armed forces as a “moderating force” that ensured what people considered a democratic system.

To Islamists, however, the military enforced a Jacobin-like secularism that repressed them because they took their religion seriously and wanted to live in a truly secular system where government did not control religion, but rather protected religious rights. Even as Erdogan has become the sun around which Turkish politics revolves, bringing the military to heel, presiding over an economic boom, and bringing new prestige and influence to Turkey, he remains deeply concerned about the next coup even if circumstances suggest it is unlikely to happen. Against the backdrop of the Turkish Republic’s history, Erdogan could not possibly let al-Sisi’s coup go. He is correct that there is nothing democratic about the Egyptian military’s actions, but the Turkish prime minister seems to have willfully overlooked the fact that Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brothers hardly distinguished themselves as democrats over the course of the last year.

It was clear from what the Brotherhood-dominated Shura Council was doing that Morsi and the Guidance Office were seeking to institutionalize the power of their organization with little regard for the principles of democratic politics. Erdogan simply refuses to see the Egyptian dilemma or recognize that the Brothers had no intention of forging a democratic system.

2) As I have written elsewhere on any number of occasions, Tayyip Erdogan is an extraordinary politician. He has an innate capability to connect with the average Turk and the vital center of the electorate. Sure, he’s been in power for a decade and seems isolated from society, but he is still the guy from KasımpaÅŸa. When Erdogan rails against interest rate lobbies, blames foreign hands, blasts Gulf leaders, assails Egyptian generals, and ostentatiously weeps over Palestinian blood, he is connecting with his constituency.

Everything the prime minister does is directly related to domestic politics, so it does not matter that his rhetoric contributes to the erosion of Turkey’s strategic position in the region, because this type of rhetoric resonates deeply. The domestic turbulence as a result of the Gezi protests, in particular, has given Erdogan an opportunity to play on Turkish sensitivities about the predatory role of external powers. These ideas crystallized — for good reason — in the immediate post-WWI era, but remain potent almost a century later. The tough rhetoric also insulates Erdogan from setbacks because he has framed the terms of debate in a way that no matter what happens to the economy, it is not his or his government’s fault, but rather the responsibility of foreign bankers. In an unintended way, Turkey’s troubles may actually help Erdogan politically.

3) Erdogan’s visceral response to what has happened to Morsi is a function of the Turkish leader’s own (more successful) efforts to do what the former Egyptian president tried. If you strip away the lore of a politically and economically liberalizing Turkey, the AKP has done what the Egyptian armed forces did not permit the Muslim Brotherhood to do. The Justice and Development Party has consolidated its power and in the process has made it exceedingly difficult to challenge the party in the formal political arena. The party’s members and their allies have used the last decade to exploit economic opportunities that are recycled through the political system, further institutionalizing the power of the party. Coming on the heels of the Gezi protests, Erdogan cannot allow anyone to draw parallels, however abstract, between the dynamics that led to the coup in Egypt and the political-economic circumstances that prevail in Turkey. This is not to suggest that Turkey is ripe for a coup or even that the Turkish military could pull one off, but rather that the illiberal drift in Turkish politics renders the country’s political environment more like Egypt than, say, any of Ankara’s Western partners.

The end result is a Turkey that is more insular, less democratic and pricklier than at any time during Erdogan’s tenure. In other words, the new Turkey looks a lot like the old one.

* Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council On Foreign Relations.
The coronavirus epidemic has already killed 27 people in seven countries
Laurie Garrett

Why A Saudi Virus Is Spreading Alarm

Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, closed the annual World Health Assembly this week May 27 sounding alarm about a new SARS-like virus circulating primarily in Saudi Arabia.

"My greatest concern right now is the novel coronavirus," Chan warned the representatives of two hundred nations gathered in Geneva. "We do not know where the virus hides in nature. We do not know how people are getting infected. Until we answer these questions, we are empty-handed when it comes to prevention."

But impeding an effective response is a dispute over rights to develop a treatment for the virus. The case brings to the fore a growing debate over International Health Regulations, interpretations of patent rights, and the free exchange of scientific samples and information. Meanwhile, the epidemic has already caused forty-nine cases in seven countries, killing twenty-seven of them.

At the center of the dispute is a Dutch laboratory that claims all rights to the genetic sequence of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus MERS-CoV. Saudi Arabia's deputy health minister, Ziad Memish, told the WHO meeting that "someone"--a reference to Egyptian virologist Ali Zaki--mailed a sample of the new SARS-like virus out of his country without government consent in June 2012, giving it to Dutch virologist Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam.

"The virus was sent out of the country and it was patented, contracts were signed with vaccine companies and anti-viral drug companies, and that's why they have a MTA Material Transfer Agreement to be signed by anybody who can utilize that virus, and that should not happen," Memish said.

Though Memish referred to a "patent," the Dutch team has not patented the viral genetic sequence but has placed it under an MTA, which requires sample recipients to contractually agree not to develop products or share the sample without the permission of Erasmus and the Fouchier laboratory. Memish said that the Dutch MTA was preventing Saudi Arabia from stopping the MERS-CoV outbreak, which appears to have started eleven months ago in the Eastern part of his country. The Dutch team denies the MTA is slowing work on the outbreak, saying it has given virus samples to any lab that has requested it.

Courts in North America and Europe have ruled that it is possible to patent life forms or their genetic sequences, spurring the practice of claiming patent control on newly identified microoganisms. Such patents give owner rights over royalties on all products derived from the genetic sequence, including vaccines, diagnostics, and genetically targeted treatments. But they have spawned controversy outside of wealthy countries, since they are perceived as guaranteeing profits for Western pharmaceuticals at the expense of country-of-origin use and access.

A Mystery Virus

There is no cure, rapid diagnostic test, or vaccine for MERS-CoV, or for any of the class of coronaviruses, which includes SARS--the scourge that erupted from China in 2003.

Like the SARS virus, MERS ravages the lungs of infected people, causing pneumonia and acute respiratory distress. Also like SARS, it is previously unknown to human immune systems, so response to infection can include the classic "cytokine storm" reaction of an overresponsive immune system that hits the virus with all it's got, creating collateral damage all over the body. But unlike SARS, it also attacks the kidneys, causing renal failure.

Epidemiologically, MERS seems to be similar to SARS: It is spread by close contact, and can be airborne-transmitted between people. Both viruses can be dangerous for health-care workers and spread within hospitals. There is no rapid diagnostic test for MERS, which puts doctors and nurses at special risk since they cannot easily distinguishthe symptoms between early-stage MERS-CoV patients and regular pneumonia.

The new MERS-CoV is shrouded in mystery right now as Saudi investigators are unable to determine its reservoir species--where did it come from--how it is spread from that species to people, a method for rapid diagnosis, proper treatment, and best approaches to hospital infection control. Suspicions point to fruit bats in the eastern Al-Ahsa province of Saudi Arabia, where the bulk of the cases have occurred.

Eleven months ago, Zaki told the Guardian, he was called in as a consultant on a mysterious case in his Jeddah hospital. Zaki tried to identify the virus, but the patient died less than twenty-four hours after he received the sample. Soon, a second case came his way, and Zaki mailed a sample to his friend, Fouchier. Zaki sent a notice in September 2012 to ProMED, a disease alert system run by the Infectious Diseases Society of America. Under pressure from the Saudi government, Zaki's hospital in Jeddah fired him when the ProMED notice was posted, and he moved to Cairo.

Wider recognition of this new disease came with the case of a Qatari man who flew to London and came down with acute respiratory distress and kidney failure. Physicians at St. Thomas's Hospital saw Zaki's September ProMED posting, noted the patient had traveled in Saudi Arabia, and concluded they were dealing with a new virus. The London team isolated a viral sample and compared it to the genetic sequence Fouchier had prepared of Zaki's sample--they were a match. UK authorities went public with the news, spawning the first tier of worldwide attention to the existence of a new human virus. Fouchier, Zaki, and others co-authored an analysis that appeared in the November 2012 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Slow Information Sharing

Saudi Arabia's Memish complained at the WHO meeting that there was a lag of three months, between June and September 2012, "where we were not aware of the discovery of the virus." The WHO's Chan responded by calling on Assembly delegates to share specimens with WHO collaborating centers, not in a bilateral manner. "No IP will stand in the wayof public health actions," she said.

Memish last week agreed to send samples of the virus to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. It is clearly more difficult for the Saudis to work around the MTA directly with other governments' labs. Under one crucial arrangement with a nongovernmental U.S. lab, samples have been shared from Memish's office, and data analysis may soon be released. The arrangement is not public at this time, and the research is not completed.

In contrast to the complex and slow pace of MERS-CoV sharing, China shared H7N9 flu sequences with open source Internet sites within four weeks of the first patient cases in Shanghai, and sent viral samples all over the world within less than two months. Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory Director Francis Plummer told the CBC in mid-May that his Winnipeg lab had signed the Dutch MTA and obtained a research sample after prolonged legal negotiations. Plummer contrasted his difficulties in obtaining a sample from the Dutch to China's immediate and open sharing of H7N9 influenza samples with his facility.

In a press release, Erasmus Medical Center spelled out the terms of its original MTA and said it was the first to identify the new MERS coronavirus. "For shipment of the virus it is mandatory that a material transfer agreement MTA is signed by the recipient institution," the press statement said. "The MTA covers issues like liability and limitations to commercial use. Consequently the virus may not be distributed to third parties without permission."

Virus-hunter Dr. Ian Lipkin of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, who has worked on MERS, told me that "infectious agents that have implications for public health should be shared freely with any and all qualified investigators who are committed to working safely with those agents and are equipped to do so." He added: "Language that restricts basic or applied research or ties it to licensing fees has the potential to cripple global biosecurity."

But international health law expert David Fidler of the University of Indiana told Science, "The press release and the MTA preserve Erasmus's rights to seek IP rights for vaccines and medicines related to research done on the virus sample from Saudi Arabia. The MTA is a fairly standard agreement. There is nothing here that suggests to me that this needed a massive amount of negotiation."

"Viral Sovereignty" and Global Health

However, Chan called upon the gathered delegates at the World Health Assembly to stand against intellectual property blocks to epidemic responses. The question of ownership of discovery has become the top wedge issue in global health today, underscoring debate on everything from pharmaceutical safety/counterfeiting to availability of antibiotics for TB care.

Chan and WHO are especially sensitive to the issue because of the 2007-2008 battle between the agency and the Indonesian government regarding the H5N1 flu virus and then-minister of health Siti Supari's insistence on the existence of "viral sovereignty." Supari declined to share samples of the dangerous bird flu viruses that were then rampant in her country with outsiders, on the grounds that they would be used to manufacture patented products that would benefit foreign companies, and that the products they produced would be unaffordable to Indonesians.

Supari's contentions spawned a long, difficult period of negotiations that led to the 2011 PIP, the WHO's Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Framework. The PIP augments the International Health Regulations, creating a series of understandings that are flu-specific regarding sample sharing, patents, and profits from products derived from viral discovery. Chan's response to Memish's accusations no doubt stems from her concern that the Saudis could invoke provisions of the flu-specific PIP, demanding control over the MERS-CoV samples, patents, and products.

Brothers in arms? Morsi and Ahmadinejad
Steven A. Cook

Egypt: From Tehran With Love

TEHRAN - As Iran loses ground in Syria, Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip, expect Tehran to try to shore up its ability to influence the Middle East in the most unlikely of places: Egypt.

Over the last few years there have been numerous signs that Cairo and Tehran were making tentative steps toward changing their previously rather frosty relations, including the transit of Iranian warships through the Suez Canal, open discussion among decision-makers in both countries about normalizing ties, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s August 2012visit to Iran for a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement, and his Iranian counterpart’s reciprocal visit to Cairo this past February for the summitof the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. In addition, the current cause célèbre between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis of the al Nour party concerns whether to allow Iranian tourists to visit Egypt. The Brothers are for it, while the Salafis, fearing Shi’a proselytizing, are vehemently opposed.

These are tentative, largely symbolic steps most of which can be explained away—at least on the Egyptian end—by the domestic political need for Morsi and the Brotherhood to demonstrate that their “independent” foreign policy is more than just a talking point. Although the Iranians are likely interested in something much bigger than symbolism, the Egyptians may, out of a combination of desperation and shrewdness, take Tehran up on whatever overtures the Iranians have forthcoming.

Egypt and Iran seem more likely to engage in strategic competition rather than strategic cooperation. Egypt is a large, Arab, predominantly Sunni country. Egyptians are inheritors of a great civilization and there is a prevailing sense that given this history, its powerful army, long record as a center of culture and knowledge, as well as its strategic importance to the big powers, Umm al Dunya or “Mother of the World”—as Egyptians lovingly refer to their country—is naturally endowed with the assets that make it the leader of the Middle East. For its part, Iran is a large, predominantly Persian and Shi’a majority country. It is also an inheritor of a great civilization and Iranian foreign policy has long maintained that Tehran’s proper role is that of the region’s leader. Moreover, there does not seem to be much love lost between the Egyptians and Iranians. When Morsi was in Tehran, he was critical of his hosts’ support for the Assad regime and Ahmadinejad was assaulted with a shoe when he visited Cairo.

For all these reasons, rivalry and mistrust should mark ties between Cairo and Tehran, but at present, circumstances are aligning that provide opportunity and motive to make relations less competitive and perhaps decidedly more cooperative:

1. Both Egypt and Iran are desperate, albeit in different ways. The Egyptians need cash and fuel from anyone who is willing to give it to them. Despite the fact that the Obama administration and the European Union have been saying for months that sanctions on Iran have “begun to bite,” the Iranians have both. Why wouldn’t Egypt respond to overtures from Iran, offering to relieve the financial and economic pressures that are threatening the Brotherhood’s project? Tehran’s assistance would no doubt help the Egyptians cope. Yet the Egyptians probably would not even need to take a single Iranian rial. Just the fact that Cairo was contemplating accepting aid from the Islamic Republic might encourage the Saudis, who have heretofore been tight-fisted with the Egyptians, to provide some relief.

At the same time Tehran is facing the prospect of a major strategic setback in the Levant. If Bashar al Assad finally succumbs to the civil war that is engulfing his country, Iran’s position in both Syria and Lebanon will become significantly more complicated. Under these circumstances, it is plausible that Tehran might want to exploit Cairo’s interest in improving bilateral relations and its precarious economic situation as a hedge against potential losses elsewhere.

2. Tweaking Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh. The Iranians and Egyptians both have an interest in signaling to the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia that they will not be bought, intimidated, or manipulated. It was for these reasons that August of last year President Morsi proposed to include Iran (along with Turkey and Saudi Arabia) in a regional contact group on Syria. The Egyptian president was signaling to Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh that no matter what dire straights Egypt might find itself in at home, Cairo still intended on being a regional player with an independent view of how to fix the region’s most pressing problems. Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt was never as obliging of the United States as the revolutionary mythology of his long rule suggests, but that is less important than the perception that he willingly did Washington’s bidding in the region for three decades without exception; hence the importance the Brotherhood attaches to foreign policy independence and there is no better way for Egypt’s new leaders to prove that they will not be lackeys of the United States (and by association, Israel) than a dalliance with the Iranians.

The Iranians have never been shy about poking Americans, Israelis, and Saudis in the eye, but establishing cooperative ties with the Egyptians would be a geo-strategic trifecta. It would go a long way toward demonstrating, especially to the Saudis, that whatever trouble Iran is having in Syria, Tehran can still be influential in the Middle East—and in Egypt’s case, in the heart of the Arab world. There is a belief in the Persian Gulf and Turkey, not to mention influential public opinion in the United States, that Iran without the Assad family is out of options. The Iranians will no doubt be looking for ways to prove this notion wrong and opening up to Egypt is likely part of the plan.

3. Revolutionaries of a Different Feather Flock Together. Neither Egypt nor Iran is a status quo power in the region. Cairo and Tehran may want different things, but they do share one common goal—reducing as much as possible the exercise of American power in the region. This is why the Muslim Brotherhood talks about holding the United States “accountable” for its actions in the region and establishing a “partnership of equals.” Given the very real asymmetries of power between Washington and Cairo, the Egyptians are likely to be frustrated in these goals, but it suggests an area of common interest with the Iranians. Under the Shah and Hosni Mubarak, Iran and Egypt—in different eras—were leading players in a regional political order that made it relatively easier for Washington to pursue its regional goals. And while the changes in Iran in 1979 were far more dramatic than what has happened in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, like Iran’s clerical establishment, is not likely to accommodate themselves comfortably to American power.

The Iranians have a lot less to lose than Egypt and are thus more likely to pursue Cairo than are the Egyptians to go after upgraded and expanded relations with Tehran. The shoe throwing incident in February and the Salafist opposition to Iranian tourism in Egypt indicates that at least among some Egyptians, Iran is not all that popular. This is not 2006 when, in the aftermath of the Israel-Hizballah war, the Iranian leader was popular in Egypt. President Morsi would have to weigh whether foreign policy independence in the form of better ties with Iran is worth the domestic political fallout—something he can ill-afford if recent polling is accurate. In addition, it is hard to imagine how the Egyptians would go about busting sanctions on Iran without eliciting the ire of both the United States and Europe. Then again it is not like Washington has been generous with Egypt and Morsi may reason that he can benefit from a spat with the United States given the role that America played in supporting Hosni Mubarak and the importance of national dignity and empowerment as animating factors in the January 25 uprising.

Hooking up with the Iranians does fit in with Egypt’s overall “positive neutralist” approach, which in the 1950s was Nasser’s way of playing powers off of one another in an effort to extract resources from them. Morsi seems to be playing a similar game, but may overplay his hand when it comes to the Iranians. Other than some quick cash and subsidized energy, there is nothing that Tehran can offer Cairo that will, in the long run, be to Egypt’s benefit.

Former (and future?) Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif
Daniel Markey

What if Pakistan's 'Old Lion' Returns to Govern?

ISLAMABAD - If Pakistan's May 11 parliamentary elections unfold according to recent national opinion surveys, two-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif will once again take power in Islamabad. Deposed in a 1999 coup led by General Pervez Musharraf, Sharif fled for nearly a decade of Saudi-sponsored exile. Today, however, it is Musharraf who lives under house arrest just outside Islamabad and faces charges of treason. Even in the context of Pakistan's topsy-turvy politics, this latest role-reversal is nothing short of breathtaking.

Sharif is no stranger to Washington, and by all accounts, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) leader knows how to hold a grudge. The years of generous U.S. support to the Musharraf regime that sent him packing are bound to rankle. Time, along with a changed administration in the White House, may have started to heal that wound, but Sharif wouldreturn to power with little trust or affection for the United States.

Pakistan's political transition comes at a critical juncture for the region. The U.S.-led campaign in neighboring Afghanistan has shifted from surge to downsizing. The U.S.-Pakistan relationship has moved from the post-9/11 era to an uncertain new post-bin Laden era, and the Obama administration is busy reassessing how best to manage its long-term goals in South Asia, from counterterrorism to nuclear nonproliferation. In the midst of such flux, Islamabad's new leadership team will play an important role in setting the tone and direction of the bilateral relationship.

Sharif Versus America

Along with a bitter history, Sharif has other differences with Washington. Above all, he has publicly opposed the U.S. counterterror campaign in South Asia, and especially the CIA-directed drone war in Pakistan's tribal belt bordering Afghanistan. As Sharif has said numerous times, "We won't tolerate these attacks on our territorial jurisdictions."

It is possible that Sharif, if he returns to power, would never back up those words with meaningful action. Instead, like his predecessors, he could privately or tacitly permit U.S. drone strikes while criticizing them in public and leaving the details to be sorted out by Pakistan's military.

On the other hand, Sharif might actually try to end or curtail the scope of the drone program. Less likely, but still conceivably, he could offer a trade: his endorsement of a limited number of drone strikes in exchange for greater Pakistani control over targeting decisions. In any event, Washington should be prepared for the possibility that Sharif will seek to renegotiate the terms of Pakistan's counterterror cooperation.

A similar renegotiation may be necessary with respect to the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. To start, although the massive retrograde of U.S. military equipment planned for the next several years is possible without Pakistan's roads and ports, it would be faster and cheaper to flow containers and vehicles south through Karachi than north through Central Asia. A new Sharif government might try to hike the price of overland transit as a new source of revenue or as bargaining leverage to achieve other goals.

Beyond logistical considerations, there is the question of just how helpful (or harmful) Sharif's Pakistan would be as the United States seeks an exit from the Afghan war. The answer depends on (1) how Sharif and his party relate to the Taliban and other violent extremist groups, and (2) whether Sharif would exert control over Pakistan's foreign policy in ways the most recent civilian government could not.

Sharif and the Jihadis

Sharif's liberal Pakistani critics speak darkly of his associations withextremist networks in Punjab. Some say that he harbors ideological or religious sympathies for groups like the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), a political front for one of Pakistan's most violent Sunni extremist groups, the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP). The SSP and its affiliates are responsible for horrific sectarian carnage. Recently, a series of photos has made the rounds on the Internet, showing Rana Sanaullah, a top official in Sharif's PMLN party, palling around with AWSJ leader Maulana Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi.

Those more sympathetic to the PMLN tend to argue that Sharif's center-right PMLN simply cuts rational, politically necessary deals with a range of Pakistan's Islamist parties to win elections. At heart, they insist, Sharif and other top party bosses are Punjabi centrists and industrialists who appreciate that extremism, violence, and anti-Western ideologies are all bad for business.

Maybe so, but U.S. officials will recall the 2010 episode when Nawaz Sharif's younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, number two in the party and then chief minister of Punjab province,suggested that the Pakistani Taliban should have no cause to attack his province. As he explained, both the PMLN and the Taliban had rejected Musharraf's dictatorial rule as well as the "external dictation" of the United States, so they had little cause for quarrel. Even today, the PMLN's election manifesto mainly blames a combination of Musharraf's authoritarian rule and the post-9/11 U.S. war in Afghanistan for encouraging and emboldening Pakistan's militants. If the United States is hoping for a loyal partner or champion of anti-extremist causes in Islamabad, it will be sorely disappointed if the PMLN comes to power.

Over the past decade, Pakistan's violent extremists have shown a capacity to disrupt society with acts of terrorism, like the October 2012 attack on the young schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai. Fortunately, these vicious groups continue to lack political unity or a base of popular support sufficient to win power through the ballot box. One of America's chief concerns about a PMLN-led government is that its leaders seem too eager to temporize with Pakistan's home-grown extremists, too willing to offer them breathing space and even a share of political power that would turn them into an even more formidable threat to national stability.

Is there any silver lining for the United States? Actually, the PMLN's history of accommodating extremist groups might prove tactically useful at a time when Washington is energetically exploring reconciliation talks with the leaders of the Afghan Taliban insurgency. It is unlikely that Sharif's government would be able to bridge the divide between these warring adversaries, but U.S. officials should at least test the proposition.

Sharif and the Generals

More than the civilian president or prime minister, it is Pakistan's army chief who has always set Islamabad's stance on Afghanistan. How Sharif manages relations with General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani (and with Kayani's successor, since the chief is slated to retire in November) will have important implications for Pakistan's stability as well as for its relations with Afghanistan, India, and the United States.

Decades ago, Sharif and his party were the army's favorites, but their relations are now poisoned by a history of political confrontation and personal antagonism that goes well beyond Sharif's feud with Musharraf. If the two sides remain at loggerheads, their skirmishing will distract the country from necessary initiatives required for peace, security, and economic growth.The United States would then be hard-pressed simply to navigate between feuding politicians and generals.

Fortunately, many members of the PMLN are eager to overcome past grievances and find a stable working relationship with their military counterparts. If that effort were to succeed, the army and the PMLN might again prove natural partners, backed by Pakistan's "silent majority" of center-right nationalists. All have an interest in promoting economic reforms that would bolster industrial production. In addition, they seek a normalized relationship with India that permits greater trade, even if they are not ready to resolve underlying diplomatic disputes.

A Workable Relationship?

Many analysts predict that if Sharif returns to power, his party will sit atop a fractious coalition government that will tie the aging "lion of Pakistan" in political knots even if he escapes debilitating tangles with the army. No doubt, Sharif will find Pakistan a difficult country to govern; there is no telling how long his government would hold together in the face of severe stresses within and without. Sharif lacks at least some of the cunning and uncanny survival instinct that permitted President Asif Ali Zardari to keep his party in power for a full five-year term.

The United States, too, will find no easy solutions for many of its longstanding frustrations with Pakistan if Sharif assumes the helm.

U.S. officials should begin their dealings with a new Sharif government by actively encouraging his strengths, especially his economic and educational reform agenda and his openness to improved relations with India; quietly holding a firm line on areas of dispute, like drones; and exploring potential areas for tactical cooperation, such as the Afghan Taliban reconciliation effort. Under such circumstances, the best Washington can achieve would be a workable relationship: a far cry from the ambition of "strategic partnership" touted early in the Obama administration's first term, and yet not a complete disaster either.

John Kerry meets Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, April 2013
Bernard Gwertzman

A New Push For Mideast Peace

After a successful visit to Israel, President Obama has apparently turned the Israeli-Palestinian portfolio over to Secretary of State John Kerry, says Martin Indyk, a leading Middle East expert. Past secretaries of state Henry Kissinger, Cyrus Vance, James Baker, and Warren Christopher, distinguished for their work on Middle East issues, always had their president's complete support, Indyk says. "It remains to be seen if Obama is so committed," Indyk says. "Is the president committed to this, or is he pivoting to Asia? If he's committed to it then the Secretary of State's involvement will be potentially very important, but if he's just leaving it for Kerry to fail, or waiting to see if Kerry can succeed, then I don't think it's going to work."

It's been a couple of weeks since President Obama made his first trip to Israel as president, in which he gave a very well-received speech to an audience of students and touched upon the need for peace between Palestinians and the Israelis. Now Secretary of State John Kerry is apparently going to have to carry the peace-talks ball. Where do you think the United States stands after this trip?

In preparation for the trip, the White House wanted to remove any expectations that there would be any significant results, and the timing of the trip seemed to be structured in a way that would have the effect of lowering expectations because the president would be going only three days after the new government in Israel had been formed. But, in fact, the president was able to deliver what I consider to be two big things: the first was that he did win over that part of the Israeli public that is winnable. His popularity jumped in the first few days after his speech. He'd started from a low base of ten; now he's around forty, and that's very significant. And the fact that he took Israel by storm and won the hearts and minds of many Israelis had a direct impact on the second deliverable, which was the apology that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan leading to the opening of renormalizing relations between Turkey and Israel.

The two are directly related. The fact that the president had turned himself almost overnight from being an unpopular figure in the minds of most Israelis into somebody who they now understood did care about them meant that he managed to convince them to trust him more. The importance of that was that Netanyahu knew that the Israeli public would punish an Israeli prime minister who mishandles the relationship between Israel and a popular American president. Netanyahu had been able to exploit the fact that President Obama was very unpopular in Israel. When he famouslyupbraided the president in the Oval Office, Netanyahu actually went up ten points in Israeli public opinion. Obama in effect reversed that when he asked Netanyahu during the trip to call Erdogan and apologize to him. Instead of saying he couldn't do that, which is basically the position that Netanyahu had adopted for three years, he turned around and said okay, essentially understanding that the Israeli public would support him in doing so and would criticize him for not responding to a president who had gone out of his way to manifest his friendship to Israel.

And what does that leave us in coming days?

The president's speech was brilliant and very effective, but everything in the end depends on the follow-through--and that job has been left to Secretary of State Kerry. The secretary of state believes passionately in the need to try to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and he also believes that this needs to be done at his level, not at the level of envoys. So he's demonstrated with a third trip coming up to Israel and Ramallah that he intends to spend a lot of time on this issue.

So he wants to be another Henry Kissinger, who personally negotiated accords between Israel and both Egypt and Syria in the 1970s, and not a Senator George Mitchell, the special envoy of President Obama, who failed to achieve anything?

"Those secretaries of state that were engaged—whether it was Kissinger, Christopher, Vance or Baker--were backed by presidents who wanted agreements and were willing to engage with the Middle East leaders when asked."

The allusion to Henry Kissinger is appropriate. He introduced the concept of shuttle diplomacy to resolve Israeli conflicts, and I do think that John Kerry is going back to that mode of operation. He's not the only one since Henry Kissinger. President Bill Clinton's first secretary of state, Warren Christopher, made twenty-six trips to Damascus trying to achieve an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement. It was only in the days of President George W. Bush, when peacemaking in the Middle East was a very low priority compared to war-making in Iraq, that you saw a shift in the way peacemaking was handled. So Kerry's return to the old way of doing business is very important. When the other secretaries of state were engaged in this kind of intensive negotiation with the parties, it was absolutely essential to their success that their interlocutors in the Arab and Israeli side understood that the president was behind them 100 percent. Those secretaries of state that were engaged--whether it was Kissinger, Christopher, Vance, or Baker--were backed by presidents who wanted agreements and were willing to engage with the Middle East leaders when asked. And it remains to be seen if Obama is so committed. Is the president committed to this, or is he pivoting to Asia? If he's committed to it, then the secretary of state's involvement will be potentially very important, but if he's just leaving it for Kerry to fail, or waiting to see if Kerry can succeed, then I don't think it's going to work.

What about the Palestinians? What is their view right now? Are they encouraged?

From the face of it, they were quite discouraged by the president's visit. The stark contrast with the amount of time and exclusiveness with which he dealt with Israelis--whether it was the young people in the hall where he was doing a speech or the leadership, President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu--Obama was essentially conveying a message of love. The contrast with his reserve toward the Palestinians was quite noticeable to the Palestinians. I don't think in general that they really appreciated his visit. Obama did tell the Israelis that occupation is unacceptable. And he did tell Israelis that you need to put yourselves in the shoes of the Palestinians and imagine what it's like to be a Palestinian child dealing with a military occupation. That was a very strong pro-Palestinian statement. What that amounts to, either on the Israeli or Palestinian side, in terms of a willingness to engage in negotiations in a meaningful way, we won't know until we see what Secretary Kerry can produce.

You have a civil war raging in Syria and deep unrest in Egypt. How would you describe the Middle Eastern Arab World right now?

It's a region in turmoil, and it's going to go on for some time. Syria is in a process of descending into chaos, and there doesn't seem to be a will or a way to stop that. And that will, in short order, have an impact on our allies who are Syria's neighbors: Turkey, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon. We're already seeing it: large refugee flows, likely to rise to a million in Turkey, a million in Jordan, and probably half a million in Lebanon within the next couple of months. That's really going to create strains there. And then there's the violence that has been occurring almost on a daily basis now in the Golan Heights and in Lebanon. It's quieted down on the Turkish border, but it could easily flare up again. And so that's the trend line, combined with another very disturbing trend line, which is the way in which al-Qaeda under the pseudonym of Jabhat al-Nusra is entrenching itself in the liberated parts of Syria, not just as a fighting force but as a governing force, and the fact that the opposition that we are working with is deeply divided and disorganized. On top of all of that is the horrifying death toll, which is by now probably more than eighty thousand people.

That's just Syria. In Egypt we've got a democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood president, Morsi, who seems determined to impose majoritarian rule in which the rights of minorities--Christians, women, the opposition, and the free press—are being systematically denied. That's a very disturbing development, compounded by the inability of this democratically elected president to deal with Egypt's now dire economic situation by reaching an agreement with the IMF and getting the support from the international community that's waiting for that agreement. And instead we have a paralysis in terms of economic management and a polarizing approach to governance. The police are on strike, the military doesn't want to get involved, and the situation is deteriorating on all fronts quite rapidly.

If you're in Washington and you're looking at this whole picture, does this weaken your resolve to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian issue or does it make it more important? I'm trying to get some sense of priorities.

"In some ways, you've got a kind of specialization going on with the White House focused on Asia and the State department focused on the Middle East."

What you've got is a combination of a White House that is determined to end America's involvement in wars in the greater Middle East and focus on Asia, and a secretary of state who thinks you have got to do both, who's much more focused on trying to deal with Syria, with Egypt, and with the Palestinian issue as part of an intensive effort to protect and promote American interests in the Middle East. So in some ways, you've got a kind of specialization going on with the White House focused on Asia and the State department focused on the Middle East.

The Sao Paulo stock exchange
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Investing In - And From - The BRICS

In a recent interview, Goldman Sachs’ Jim O’Neill, whose pen gave birth to the concept of the BRICs —the constellation of emerging economic powers Brazil, Russia, India, and China (and now including South Africa) — said the countries’ combined growth had “exceeded all expectations.” Noted O’Neill, “in slightly over a decade the group’s GDP has grown from approximately $3 billion to $13 billion. The BRIC countries have the potential to avert a global recession and to grow faster than the rest of the world and to pull all of us along with them as a (growth) engine.”

As each of the BRIC economies has grown their combined economic strength has made an impact on Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) flows — both inward and outward. Indeed, they have helped to alter the map of global investment.

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(photo: Chesilu)

A recent report from the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) vividly illustrates this shift. “Since 2010,” it says, “developing and transition economies have absorbed more than half of global FDI inflows, and in 2012, FDI flows to developing economies exceeded those to developed countries for the first time ever—with US$130 billion more.”

The numbers tell the story of a collection of emerging nations that have evolved into a growth engine even while the global economy has sputtered, as I discussed in a post last week. In the past decade “FDI inflows to BRICS more than tripled to an estimated US$263 billion in 2012.” Even financial crisis and recession did not hit the BRICS as hard: flows fell by 30 percent in 2009 compared to 40 percent for the developed world. And the recovery also arrived in faster order: the BRICS’ share of global FDI reached 20 percent in 2012, “up from 6 percent in 2000.”

Serious heft

As the foreign dollars have piled up the investment dollars have poured out and the BRICS have become global investors of significant financial heft. Outbound foreign investment from the BRICS grew from “$7 billion in 2000 to $126 billion in 2012, rising from 1 percent of world flows to 9 percent.” Most notable among the investment stories is the growth of BRICS investment in Africa—and not simply in primary goods such as minerals or petroleum, but in the services and manufacturing sectors. In 2012 BRICS foreign investment accounted for a quarter of Africa’s inflows. According to UNCTAD, “the rise of FDI in manufacturing, which has positive consequences for job creation and industrial growth, is becoming an important facet of South–South economic cooperation.”

All of the BRICS minus Brazil now count “among the top investing countries in Africa on FDI stock and flows.” And even while the numbers are smaller, Brazil has had an impact on investment in Africa. The Brazilian Development Bank has helped to fuel the growth of the ethanol industry in countries including Angola and Mozambique. And other Brazilian banks have helped to fund housing developments.

As the BRICS continue to invest in Africa their funds raise important questions for policymakers and investors alike. Among them, as UNCTAD asks, is “what policies by BRICS could favor investment in Africa in sectors that can make a particular contribution to productive capacity building and employment generation?” And how can BRICS investors best link to local firms through supply chains and local procurement? These questions and more are sure to confront both business and the public sector as the BRICS become ever more central to global investment flows.

Hezbollah Flag
Bernard Gwertzman

The Hezbollah Connection in Syria And Iran

In recent days, U.S. and Mideast officials have reported that Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group, are making military preparations for the sectarian chaos likely to engulf a post-Assad Syria. Counterterrorism expert Matthew Levitt says that Hezbollah has closely aligned itself with Iran's Quds Force, an elite paramilitary group linked directly to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, while fighting alongside the Assad regime. In recent years, the partnership between Hezbollah and Iran has tightened to the point that the group's allegiance to Khamenei is paramount, he says. "What we see now is that Hezbollah is going to do things today that are in Iran's interest even if they expressly run counter to the interests of Lebanon and Hezbollah's own interest there."

Israeli warplanes recently bombed a truck convoy in Syria, reportedly carrying antiaircraft missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Why would Syria be shipping weapons to Lebanon instead of the other way around?

Hezbollah has long stockpiled weapons in Syria, and the Assad government has long provided some of these weapons to Hezbollah. In addition, Iran has often supplied weapons to Hezbollah through Syria. As events in Syria turn worse for the Bashar al-Assad regime, Hezbollah is going to--as we've already seen--try to move as much of its weapons to safer ground. Some of its stockpiles are in Lebanon where it has dug caves into mountains.

Both sides of this conflict, the more radical Sunni extremists embedded with the rebels and the Shiite extremists aligned with Hezbollah and Iran, are setting up militias who will be loyal to them after the fall of the Assad regime. What we're seeing is the stockpiling of weapons for that second phase of conflict.

So you think Hezbollah now has come to the conclusion that Assad is not long for the world?

They came to that conclusion a little while ago. They want to set things up so they are positioned to continue to have influence in Syria even after Assad is gone and a Sunni majority remains.

How has Hezbollah been helping out Syria in this civil war?

There's tremendous amount of evidence that Hezbollah has been aiding the regime, especially with training. There are also reports of snipers trying to hold key pieces of territory, especially along the border with Lebanon.

Hezbollah was designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. government in 1997; it's on the State Department's list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations and on the Treasury Department's list of global terrorist entities. It was re-listed by Treasury just a couple of months ago for its support of the Assad regime and for its undermining security and stability in Syria. When the State Department released that designation, it included --as State and Treasury always do in these press statements--a little bit of declassified intelligence. One of the snippets that almost nobody's picked up on was that the individual responsible for overseeing Hezbollah's activities in Syria is Hassan Nasrallah himself, the group's long-time leader.

Is Hezbollah still a jihadist group?

It still is, but Hezbollah is multiple things: Hezbollah is one of the dominant political parties in Lebanon, as well as a social and religious movement, catering first and foremost to Lebanon's Shiite community. The group is also Lebanon's largest militia. After the 1989 Taif Accords, which ended Lebanon's civil war, the group was rebranded as a kind of an Islamic resistance.

People tend to misunderstand the relationship between Hezbollah and Iran, which has changed over time but is now extremely close. The U.S. intelligence community has publicly described this as a "strategic partnership." But people don't fully appreciate Hezbollah's ideological commitment to the concept of "velayat-e faqih," or guardianship of the jurists, which holds that a Shiite Islamic cleric should also serve as supreme head of government. For Hezbollah, this means the Iranian leadership is also their leader--not for every foot soldier, but for Hezbollah's senior leaders absolutely.

So what we see now is that Hezbollah is going to do things today that are in Iran's interest even if they expressly run counter to the interests of Lebanon and Hezbollah's own interest there. At the end of the day, the group's commitment to Iran trumps its identity as a Lebanese political movement. Part of that has to do with the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh in 2008, who led Hezbollah's military wing.

What was the fallout there?

Mughniyeh led Hezbollah and is believed to have had close ties with the Iranian Quds force. Because of that, Iran had tremendous faith in him. If he was told to do something by Iran, he could hold them off a little bit. But his successors, his cousin Mustafa Badre al-Dine in particular, are nowhere near Mughniyeh in stature, so Iran doesn't have the same trust in him. Therefore, the strategic partnership has become even closer.

If you look at Hezbollah's attacks against Israeli tourists worldwide, there's no way they can be described as in Lebanon's interests in any way. Look back at Hezbollah's support of Shiite militants in Iraq during the Iraq war; look now today to Hezbollah helping to ferry Iranian weapons to houthi rebels in Yemen; look just recently to Hezbollah's flying a dronenear the Israeli nuclear reactor in Dimona. None of this is in Lebanon's interest.

And this bombing in Bulgaria?

The Bulgarians recently concluded that Hezbollah operatives carried out the July 2012 bus bombing in Burgas. A week before the Burgas bombing, an individual Hezbollah operative with dual Lebanese-Swedish citizenship was arrested in Cyprus for carrying out surveillance on Israeli flights and tourists. Six months earlier, there was another Hezbollah plot targeting an Israeli tour bus on its way to Bulgaria for a skiing trip --an attack that was thwarted.

So the Bulgarian investigation is only the first shoe to drop in Europe. There's a tremendous amount of activity going on and none of it can be described as being in Lebanon's interests, or in the interest of Hezbollah's political aspirations in Lebanon.

What's going on in Lebanon? Is Beirut a thriving city now? How evident is Hezbollah's presence?

Beirut isn't a thriving city; it's a divided city. The signs of Hezbollah are all over the place, especially where the group is dominant, like south of the airport. There's a lot of tension because Hezbollah has recently been accused of doing things that are not in Lebanon's interest. Just last week, a Hezbollah member was arrested for the July 2012 attempted assassination of Bourus Harb, a member of parliament; and the group has also been implicated in the killing of Wissam al-Hassan a few months later. Moreover, Hezbollah operatives, including Mustafa Badre al-Dine, stand accused by the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon at The Hague of assassinating former prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was the de facto leader of the Sunni community.

Does the United States have any role to play in combating Hezbollah?

Without question the U.S. has a role to play, especially when it has partners that are willing to work with it. That means pressing the Europeans to take Hezbollah more seriously. The European Union designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist group would be a shot across the bow, telling the group that it needs to make a choice to be either political or militant. It would also empower European countries to do more to prevent the travel of Hezbollah operatives to Europe, which Hezbollah treats as its near abroad, and to raise funds there, which Hezbollah does today hand over fist.

White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan made an excellent point speaking in Ireland last October, where he said one of the reasons Washington wants the Europeans to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist group is that some European countries cannot or will not open counterterrorism investigations into the group until this distinction is made.

But it's not just an American or European effort: the Yemenis right now are tremendously concerned about recent arms shipments from Iran that they have seized destined for houthi rebels. The Yemenis have said there's evidence that Hezbollah is involved. And we see Hezbollah's activities elsewhere as well. Some of the Shiite militant groups that Hezbollah trained to fight coalition forces in Iraq have now turned up in Syria, fighting alongside Hezbollah and supporting the Assad regime. So, there's a lot that can be done to a) counter Hezbollah's actual terrorist operations, and b) frustrate the group's ability to procure weapons and fundraise worldwide.

Israeli fighter jets during a 2011 demonstration
Stewart M. Patrick and Andrew Reddie

Israel's Preemptive Strikes On Syria: Self-Defense Under International Law?

Israel’s January 31 aerial attack on a Syrian research facility and arms complex has raised once again the thorny question of when preemption against a developing threat may be justified under international law—as opposed to simply strategic calculation. Predictably, the Israeli bombardment elicited a hail of criticism from some regional and global players. Syria has threatened to retaliate, while Iran has suggested that Israel would regret its violation of Syrian sovereignty. The Russian response, however, was particularly intriguing, since it highlights an ongoing disagreement over the circumstances in which the use of force may be warranted.

In the aftermath of the Israeli strike, Russia’s foreign ministry stated, “if this information is confirmed, then we are dealing with unprovoked attacks on targets on the territory of a sovereign country, which blatantly violates the UN Charter and is unacceptable, no matter the motives to justify it.”

Russia, of course, has a long history of defending the principle national sovereignty, particularly as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. In their complaint, Russian officials invoked paragraph four of Article 2 of the UN Charter, which reads, “all Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state….” In Moscow’s view, this uncompromising statement renders the Israeli attack on Syria unacceptable under international law.

In fact, international law contains greater ambiguities than Moscow admits. Article 2 must be read in conjunction with Article 51of the UN Charter, which reads, “nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations.” From a legal standpoint, the question is, was the Israeli attack a legitimate response to a perceived threat?

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Barak last month in Davos (World Economic Forum)

Judgement about the legality of armed force in instances of self-defense typically have to pass what is often referred to as “the Caroline test” of imminence. In 1837, British forces attacked a U.S.-flagged steamboat (the SS Caroline) being used to supply rebels in Upper Canada against the British colonial government. In his famous analysis of the incident, the U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster exculpated the British. “Even supposing the necessity of the moment authorized them to enter the territories of the United States at all, they did nothing unreasonable or excessive.” The act was justified, inasmuch as the “necessity of self-defense was instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation.” Subsequent international legal development has generally embraced this idea insofar as self-defense is allowed in anticipation of attacks that are imminent, though the precise contours of this standard remain contested.

Much more problematic is the launching of a “preemptive” attack against a threat that is developing but not yet imminent. A decade ago, in its 2002 National Security Strategy of the United StatesPDF, the administration of George W.Bush enunciated a right to “preemption”. The basis of this controversial doctrine was that in an age of catastrophic threats, the United States needed the leeway to launch armed attacks to protect itself from catastrophic threats that were emerging but not yet fully realized.

Israel has not acknowledged the strike, so it has not provided any legal justification, but its actions fall on the preemption side of the line. Experts speculate that it had three purposes. The first was to destroy Syrian heavy weapons, including SA-17 surface-to-air missiles, that Israel worries could be transferred to Lebanon, helping Hezbollah upgrade its offensive capabiltiies. The second was to warn Damascus not to use (or lose control of) its biological and chemical weapons, which had been the subject of research at the facility. The third was to signal to Iran Israel’s readiness to launch devastating attacks if the Iranians approach nuclear weapons capability.

As outgoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak said cryptically in Davos, the attacks provided “another proof that when we say something we mean it.”

From Israel’s perspective, the failure of the UN Security Council to act to stop the bloodshed in Syria—and prevent the spillover of weapons to its neighbors, mitigates the violation of Syrian sovereignty. The action should also be placed in the context of past missions targeting suspected nuclear facilities in Osiraq, Iraq, and Deir ez-Zor, Syria.

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Clearly, Israel holds a broad view of what constitutes its self-defense. This view is sustained by the fact that Israel and Syria have failed to sign a peace agreement following their most recent conflagration in 1982. For their part, Israel and Hezbollah have remained at odds following conflict in 2006 while Israel, along with the United States, has labeled them a terrorist organization. These geopolitical concerns explain the circumspect reaction from Washington. As Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta explained drily, “the United States supports whatever steps are taken to make sure these weapons don’t fall into the hands of terrorists.”

Israel’s use of force may be a prudent act of statecraft. Whether it is formally legal is another matter, and doubtless of secondary concern in Jerusalem.