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A Dangerous Interregnum

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Authors: Zlatko Hadžidedić and Adnan Idrizbegović*

Less than two months are left for the transition of government in the United States of America. Not a long period, but sufficient to trigger processes that the next American administration would not be able to reverse. There are no reasons to doubt that President Trump, who still refuses to concede the election defeat, will try to make the future of the Biden Administration as difficult as possible. In this context, let us remember that President Trump hails the abandonment of the nuclear treaty with Iran as his highest achievement, so it would be reasonable to assume that he would do almost anything in his power to make this very step irreversible. The question of whether that includes the option of a military attack on Iran, therefore, hangs in the air.    

We are witnessing a current concentration of American air power in Iran’s neighbourhood. This particularly refers to strategic B52 bombers and F16s from American bases in Europe. Further arrival of F35s in the region would increase the likelihood of an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. This likelihood might also be increased with the announced arrival of the aircraft carrier Nimitz into the Gulf waters. As news agencies reported, the military option of that type had already been seriously considered by President Trump and his advisors, although it did not enjoy a high degree of support among the highest US military officers. In the forthcoming period, as long as Trump sits in the White House, it is realistic to expect that this dispute between the military and the Administration will gain in intensity, given the fact that President Trump’s team is well-known for its stubborn sticking to its original agenda.

In this context, it must be noted that the nuclear treaty with Iran was declared as one of President Obama’s greatest foreign policy successes. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is a detailed agreement with five annexes reached by Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany). The nuclear deal was endorsed by UN Security Council Resolution 2231, and Iran’s compliance with the nuclear-related provisions of the JCPOA was verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It was a groundbreaking agreement that satisfied security concerns of Americans, Iranians, Arabs, Europeans, as well as others, opening the gates for Iran’s readmission onto the global scene. By adopting this treaty, Iran left its position of a pariah state. By betraying the treaty, President Trump has transformed the favourite role of the US as a leader of the free world into that of a pariah state. Does that imply his willingness to go even further in his rejection of all norms of international law, by launching a military action against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, as a logical continuation of his unlawful withdrawal from the ratified international treaty? 

From President Trump’s perspective, such an action should prevent a quick and easy return of the US to the treaty in the post-Trump period. A war in the Gulf should lead to an instant rise of oil prices; consequently, it should also lead to the strengthening of the US dollar, linked to the prices of oil. In the times of the failing global economy, additionally burdened by the crippling effects of the pandemic, this would be the most favourable impetus to the withering economy of the US. The rise of oil prices would also have a negative effect on the manufacturing-oriented economies of American competitors in China and Europe. This rise would also strengthen the military industrial interests in the US, commonly backing the Republican Party, potentially at the expense of the financial ones, which traditionally stand behind the Democratic Party. 

A thorough, or even only partial, destruction of the Iranian nuclear programme would certainly be the most favourable outcome for hardliners on both sides, and President Trump probably sees it as a chance to either remain in power despite the election results, or to undermine the position of the future Administration. No doubt, that would trigger a robust return of Iranian hardliners to power in the forthcoming elections, which would probably close the door to negotiations with Iran for the President-elect. Most likely, it would give a strong push to the Tehran radicals to renew the nuclear programme, this time exclusively for military purposes. Since an attack itself would probably be launched from the US military bases in the region, it would also trigger an Iranian retaliatory attack on these countries. Such a development would probably strengthen homogeneity among the cornered Arab NATO countries, such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Jordan, Bahrain, and Qatar, pushing them further into Israeli arms. This would also bring the Sunni-Shiite rift beyond the point of repair. Needless to say, most hardliners, not only in the West, would be absolutely delighted with that result. 

According to President Trump’s orders, the ongoing withdrawal of the American troops from Afghanistan, Iraq, as well as Syria, must be completed 5 days before the transfer of power to the Biden Administration. The withdrawal itself (complete or partial) shall leave an enormous strategic gap, for which there is no alternative to fill the void. Such an exit strategy is without precedent in the American military history, especially given the monumental costs attached to the invading enterprise that took place in these three countries. President Trump’s orders, therefore, imply that another gigantic calculus may be at play this time, a calculus of lasting global significance. Let us remember that an absolute departure of all foreign troops from the region was, actually, Iran’s demand after the assassination of the commander of the Iranian Republican Guard, Kasseem Suleymani. Does that mean that President Trump has accepted Iranian rules, or even supremacy, in the Gulf? Does it mean that President Trump would abandon American allies in the Middle East, from Israel to Saudi Arabia? And what will happen with oil, hitherto controlled by American companies, which exploited it due to the American military presence? Of course, if President Trump is not abandoning literally all American positions, alliances and interests in the region, it is likely that he must have some other strategic rationale. Perhaps cutting the military expenditures sounds acceptable to the ears of the American public. However, it is not sufficient to justify the magnitude of the shift.

The hasty withdrawal of the US troops, however, serves one clear purpose: it deprives Iran of available American targets for its potential retaliation attempts, and inevitably redirects Iranian wrath at the American allies in the Gulf. Thus the withdrawal not only increases the probability of President Trump’s military adventure against Iran, but also leaves the Arab allies between Iran and Israel, to choose their strategic sponsor. The question is, whether the recent secretive meeting between the Saudi Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, and the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is to be interpreted in this context?

In any case, the heaviest weight of the American absence in the region will fall on Israel’s shoulders. The Israelis know that an attack on Iran would bean option that could provide Israel with a necessary timeframe to adjust to these new realities and acquire a projected control over their Arab neighbours. A strategic importance of the attack would, therefore, require participation of Israel’s military. As the Israelis know it too well, detrimental effects on the Iranian nuclear programme are essential for the very existence of the state of Israel, since the Islamic Republic Iran is finally in the position to capitalise its long-lasting struggle against American dominance in the Middle East and gain strategic control over the entire Levant and the Gulf, so as to be promoted into a global player. The level of communication between President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu suggests that certain promises may have been made to the Israelis that an American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities is imminent. However, the assassination of the Iranian main nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, attributed to the Israeli intelligence agencies, might be interpreted as an attempt to undermine the Iranian nuclear programme without a full-scale attack, either because the Israelis do not believe in its feasibility, or because they are trying to avoid it, given its long-term consequences that eventually might prove unfavourable for Israel’s position.

There might be one more option at play, bearing in mind President Trump’s favourite „art of a deal“ strategy: a secret deal between the current US Administration and Iran, that the US leaves the Shiite world (Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, plus control over Afghanistan in potential partnership with Pakistan) to Iranian domination, in exchange for Iranian tacit permission to have the plutonium generator in Arak – suitable for development of a military nuclear programme – bombed and temporarily destroyed by the US. That option would buy several years to both the US and Israel, with a significant postponement of Iran’s eventual production of a nuclear weapon. To the other side, it would give Iran a chance to improve its geopolitical position as one of the two main powers in the region, in interim coexistence with Israel as a de facto leader of the Arab NATO alliance. Under these circumstances, a Shiite bloc led by Tehran, separating Sunni Arab countries from Turkey and Russian influence, might be a favourable development for the US. The questions are, of course, to what extent it would be acceptable to Israel, and to what extent it would draw Iran into overstretching, and effectively, into economic weakening.        

Whatever the calculus of the outgoing Trump Administration, the incoming Administration of the President-elect Biden has no interest in allowing that such dangerous developments take place. If President Trump orders an attack on Iran in the last 5 days of his mandate, right after the departure of the American troops from the region, all its negative consequences will be attributed to the Biden Administration, crippling their announced initiatives to stabilise the world affairs. For, Its geopolitical consequences could be numerous: a takeover of the Middle East by the strengthened Iranian radicals; a possible nuclearisation of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and maybe Egypt; a further rapprochement between Iran and Russia, this time in the sphere of strategic nuclear cooperation, which would eventually terminate the Western influence in Eurasia. 

By going in that direction, President Trump would promote the strategy of „poisoning the well“ to the future Democratic Administration, depriving it of prospects for relevant foreign policy results in its next 4 years. Eventually, that might lead to the second coming of Trump; and then, to a burial of American democracy and implementation of an authoritarian one-party regime, as desired by the Republican radicals ever since the mid-1970s. 

*Adnan Idrizbegović, Independent researcher, Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina

Dr. Zlatko Hadžidedić is the founder and director of the Center for Nationalism Studies, in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina (www.nationalismstudies.org).

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Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn

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Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.

So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.

Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”. 

That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.

The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards

That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.

The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.

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Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer

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When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief. Finally — someone civil, normal, friendly. Jen Psaki’s entry this year was something similar. People were ready for someone well-spoken, well-mannered, even friendly as a much welcome change from the string of liars, brutes or simply disoriented people that the Trump Administration seemed to be lining up the press and communications team with on a rolling basis. After all, if the face of the White House couldn’t keep it together for at least five minutes in public, what did that say about the overall state of the White House behind the scenes?

But Psaki’s style is not what the American media and public perceive it to be. Her style is almost undetectable to the general American public to the point that it could look friendly and honest to the untrained eye or ear. Diplomatic or international organization circles are perhaps better suited to catch what’s behind the general mannerism. Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer, but a Sean Spicer nevertheless. I actually think she will do much better than him in Dancing With The Stars. No, in fact, she will be fabulous at Dancing With The Stars once she gets replaced as White House Press Secretary.

So let’s take a closer look. I think what remains undetected by the general American media is veiled aggression and can easily pass as friendliness. Psaki recently asked a reporter who was inquiring about the Covid statistics at the White House why the reporter needed that information because Psaki simply didn’t have that. Behind the brisk tone was another undertone: the White House can’t be questioned, we are off limits. But it is not and that’s the point. 

Earlier, right at the beginning in January, Psaki initially gave a pass to a member of her team when the Politico stunner reporter story broke out. The reporter was questioning conflict of interest matters, while the White House “stud” was convinced it was because he just didn’t chose her, cursing her and threatening her. Psaki sent him on holidays. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Psaki has a level of aggression that’s above average, yet she comes across as one of the most measured and reasonable White House Press Secretaries of the decade. And that’s under pressure. But being able to mask that level of deflection is actually not good for the media because the media wants answers. Style shouldn’t (excuse the pun) trump answers. And being able to get away smoothly with it doesn’t actually serve the public well. Like that time she just walked away like it’s not a big deal. It’s the style of “as long as I say thank you or excuse me politely anything goes”. But it doesn’t. And the American public will need answers to some questions very soon. Psaki won’t be able to deliver that and it would be a shame to give her a pass just because of style.

I think it’s time that we start seeing Psaki as a veiled Sean Spicer. And that Dancing with the Stars show — I hope that will still run despite Covid.

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As Refugees Flee Central America, the Mexican Public Sours On Accepting Them

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Authors: Isabel Eliassen, Alianna Casas, Timothy S. Rich*

In recent years, individuals from Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) have been forced out of their home countries by extreme poverty and gang violence. While initial expectations were that the Lopez Obrador administration would be more welcoming to migrants, policies have slowly mirrored those of his predecessor, and do not seem to have deterred refugees. COVID-19 led to a decrease in refugees arriving in Mexico, and many shelters in Mexico closed or have limited capacity due to social distancing restrictions. Now that the COVID-19 situation has changed, arrivals could increase again to the levels seen in late 2018 or 2019, with overcrowded refugee centers lacking in medical care as potential grounds for serious COVID-19 outbreaks.

Mexico increasingly shares a similar view as the US on this migration issue, seeking ways to detain or deport migrants rather than supporting or protecting them. For instance, Mexico’s National Immigration Institute has been conducting raids on freight trains to find and detain migrants. Public opinion likely shapes these policies. In the US, support for allowing migrants into the country appeared to increase slightly from 2018 to 2019, but no significant majority emerges. Meanwhile, Mexican public opinion increasingly exhibits anti-immigrant sentiments, declining considerably since 2018, with a 2019 Washington Post poll showing that 55% supported deporting Central Americans rather than providing temporary residence and a 2019 El Financiero poll finding 63% supportive of closing to border to curb migration.

New Data Shows the Mexican Public Unwelcoming

To gauge Mexican public opinion on refugees, we conducted an original web survey June 24-26 via Qualtrics, using quota sampling. We asked 625 respondents to evaluate the statement “Mexico should accept refugees fleeing from Central America” on a five-point Likert scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. For visual clarity, we combined disagree and agree categories in the figure below.

Overall, a plurality (43.84%) opposed accepting refugees, with less than a third (30.08%) supportive. Broken down by party affiliation, we see similar results, with the largest opposition from the main conservative party PAN (52.90%) and lowest in the ruling party MORENA (41.58%). Broken down by gender, we find women slightly more supportive compared to men (32.60% vs. 27.04%), consistent with findings elsewhere and perhaps acknowledgment that women and children historically comprise a disproportionate amount of refugees. Regression analysis again finds PAN supporters to be less supportive than other respondents, although this distinction declines once controlling for gender, age, education and income, of which only age corresponded with a statistically significant decline in support. It is common for older individuals to oppose immigration due to generational changes in attitude, so this finding is not unexpected.

We also asked the question “On a 1-10 scale, with 1 being very negative and 10 very positive, how do you feel about the following countries?” Among countries listed were the sources of the Central American refugees, the three Northern Triangle countries. All three received similar average scores (Guatemala: 4.33, Honduras: 4.05, El Salvador: 4.01), higher than Venezuela (3.25), but lower than the two other countries rated (US: 7.71, China: 7.26) Yet, even after controlling for general views of the Central American countries, we find the public generally unsupportive of accepting refugees.

How Should Mexico Address the Refugee Crisis?

Towards the end of the Obama administration, aid and other efforts directed at resolving the push factors for migration in Central America, including decreasing violence and limiting corruption, appeared to have some success at reducing migration north. President Trump’s policies largely did not improve the situation, and President Biden has begun to reverse those policies and re-implement measures successful under Obama.

As discussed in a meeting between the Lopez Obrador administration and US Vice President Kamala Harris, Mexico could adopt similar aid policies, and decreasing the flow of migrants may make the Mexican public respond more positively to accepting migrants. Lopez Obrador committed to increased economic cooperation with Central America days into his term, with pledges of aid as well, but these efforts remain underdeveloped. Threats to cut aid expedite deportations only risks worsening the refugee crisis, while doing little to improve public opinion.

Increasingly, the number of family units from Guatemala and Honduras seeking asylum in Mexico, or the United States, represents a mass exodus from Central America’s Northern Triangle to flee insecurity. Combating issues such as extreme poverty and violence in Central American countries producing the mass exodus of refugees could alleviate the impact of the refugee crisis on Mexico. By alleviating the impact of the refugee crisis, refugees seeking asylum will be able to navigate immigration processes easier thus decreasing tension surrounding the influx of refugees.

Likewise, identifying the public’s security and economic concerns surrounding refugees and crafting a response should reduce opposition. A spokesperson for Vice President Harris stated that border enforcement was on the agenda during meetings with the Lopez Obrador administration, but the Mexican foreign minister reportedly stated that border security was not to be addressed at the meeting. Other than deporting migrants at a higher rate than the US, Mexico also signed an agreement with the US in June pledging money to improve opportunities for work in the Northern Triangle. Nonetheless, questions about whether this agreement will bring meaningful change remain pertinent in the light of a worsening crisis.

Our survey research shows little public interest in accepting refugees. Public sentiment is unlikely to change unless the Lopez Obrador administration finds ways to both build sympathy for the plights of refugees and address public concerns about a refugee crisis with no perceived end in sight. For example, research in the US finds public support for refugees is often higher when the emphasis is on women and children, and the Lopez Obrador administration could attempt to frame the crisis as helping specifically these groups who historically comprise most refugees. Likewise, coordinating efforts with the US and other countries may help portray to the public that the burden of refugee resettlement is being equitably shared rather than disproportionately placed on Mexico.

Facing a complex situation affecting multiple governments requires coordinated efforts and considerable resources to reach a long-term solution. Until then, the Central American refugee crisis will continue and public backlash in Mexico likely increase.

Isabel Eliassen is a 2021 Honors graduate of Western Kentucky University. She triple majored in International Affairs, Chinese, and Linguistics.

Alianna Casas is an Honors Undergraduate Researcher at Western Kentucky University, majoring in Business Economics, Political Science, and a participant in the Joint Undergraduate/Master’s Program in Applied Economics.

Timothy S. Rich is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Western Kentucky University and Director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL). His research focuses on public opinion and electoral politics.

Funding for this survey was provided by the Mahurin Honors College at Western Kentucky University.

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