A year from now, looking back over everything that will have happened during the period, we may very well judge that the seven-day period that began on 29 February and ended on 6 March will be one of the most important times for international political developments in years. By J. BROOKS SPECTOR.
Within this short, seven-day stretch of time, the US and North Korea apparently achieved agreement over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for large shipments of foodstuffs, the Russians have re-elected Vladimir Putin to become their near-permanent president – before and after the Medvedev interregnum – and the Iranians will have replaced parliamentary support for the astonishingly obdurate Ahmadinejad regime with another grouping that bodes to become even more obscurantist and inward looking than before. If that were not enough to focus attention, the Israeli and American administrations will either have come up with some serious common ground and purpose in dealing with Iran’s presumed nuclear ambitions – or the Israelis may well decide to go it alone – with everything that may entail for global peace and stability.
In this same short period, too, in the Super Tuesday primary elections in 10 different states takes place in the US, the Republican Party will have either coalesced around a lacklustre but front-running candidate – or continue onward with its internal struggle over what kind of political movement they will be for the years to come. Put another way, the question is whether they going to be a political party whose strongest desire is to win elections and govern or whether it is one that places the revelation of ideological purity well ahead of the goal of most political organisations – opportunity to govern.
The North Korean–American agreement came on 29 February, after years of back and forth, stop-start, frozen-unfrozen negotiations between the US and North Korea and with the larger Six Party group. Former American defence secretary Roberts Gates had publicly complained of being “tired of buying the same horse twice” as Pyongyang would extract payments of one type and another for promises – only to have to go back up the mountain again and negotiate all over again. Meanwhile, North Korea would continue to stockpile fissile materials, occasionally test a rocket or nuclear device and the whole dance would begin anew.
Photo: North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (2nd R) visits the facilities in the Strategic Rocket Force Command of the Korean People’s Army in this undated picture released by the North’s KCNA news agency in Pyongyang March 3, 2012. REUTERS/KCNA.
This time around, though, it appears to be an actual breakthrough. As the Economist reported, “On February 29th North Korea and America announced that the North would suspend its enrichment of uranium at its plant in Yongbyon and impose a moratorium on tests of weapons and long-range missiles. Crucially, the North has agreed that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency will check that enrichment really has stopped. In return America will ship at least 240,000 tonnes of food aid to feed North Korea’s starving people, organise a few cultural exchanges, and work towards six-nation talks about a comprehensive settlement. Despite North Korea’s record of caprice and outright deceit, this is a good deal for America. It could even turn out to be a great one.”
Why did the DPRK change its course? Well, frankly, no one really knows, but it can be reasonably speculated that with the shift in leadership to Kim Jong Un, the government’s promise of – finally – delivering its long-suffering population an era of prosperity becomes a leadership test the younger Kim may well be eager to embrace. Lots of American foodstuffs can be a major help too. Maybe too, the times are right for other reasons. China has been pressing Pyongyang to undertake the kinds of reforms China itself began some thirty years ago and there is also the example of Burma’s growing embrace by the West, now that it is beginning to open up its political system.
Of course this American food may well end up in the pantries of the favoured party elite, the army brass – or even sold overseas to fund who knows what. But if this new deal slows the rate by which the North grows its nuclear arsenal, the deal may well become something useful, especially since it has been so elusive for so many years. And there is even the possibility it may lead to more contact as Kim Jong Un begins to angle for a different foreign posture than his late father – or his father before him.
Those so-far less than salutary Six Party talks may yet be the way the outside world figures out how to invest in North Korean power stations and other desperately needed infrastructure – even as the North freezes its weapons programme – or better. And with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu poised to meet Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House and likely to insist upon a clear “red line” of what Iran can not do or trigger aerial attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities to forestall its nuclear ambitions, Obama now has a new card to play in demonstrating that, sometimes, somehow, diplomacy (and tonnes of Iowa’s finest wheat and corn) can also have a real role to play – if one just has enough patience and fortitude.
Meanwhile, in one of two important elections taking place during this seven-day period, Russian voters have cast ballots in their presidential election, and returned Vladimir Putin to the top position after four years as Dmitri Medvedev’s prime minister and two terms of the presidency before that. Analysts note that, assuming he runs and wins again, he will have been in power longer than any Russian ruler since Stalin.
Photo: Russia’s current Prime Minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin (L) has tears in his eyes as he addresses supporters, while President Dmitry Medvedev stands nearby, during a rally in Manezhnaya Square near the Kremlin in central Moscow. REUTERS/Mikhail Voskresensk.
Even as the election was still ongoing, election observers were reporting a higher voter turnout than in the 2008 election – even as Putin’s opponents have been charging widespread electoral violations. Putin held off four challengers and won an absolute majority of the votes (more than 58%, according to exit polls) to forestall what would inevitably become a rowdy runoff election. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, observers have reported so-called carousel voting as busloads of willing Putin supporters carry out the Russian version of the venerable Chicago machine politics technique of “Vote early and vote often.”
The BBC’s Steve Rosenberg reported that at every one of the country’s 95,000 polling stations there are webcams to monitor the day’s events and some 30,000 Russians have volunteered to be election monitors as well. Rosenberg said “already there have been reports of thousands of violations across the country – including examples of so-called carousel voting – that’s when people are bussed from one polling station to another to cast multiple ballots.”
This election took place in the wake of fraud charges in the December parliamentary election and anti-corruption campaigners like Alexey Navalny now insist “A huge number of people will not recognise Putin as president and will continue to protest against him in different ways, including through street protests. Those will not stop. They will only increase.”
Nevertheless, the Putin camp prevailed against an unwieldy spread of opponents: Communist Party leader Gennandy Zyuganov; ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky; millionaire businessman and independent Mikhail Prokhorov; and former upper house speaker Sergey Mironov, on a centre-left platform. The liberal opposition, meanwhile, the white-ribbon movement that was the promoter of those big mid-winter protests in cities throughout the nation, didn’t appear on the ballot. The West – and others – will now have a clear understanding of who they will be dealing with for a decade to come, although commentators are already saying Putin’s governmental ride will not be as easy this time around as it was the last time he sat at the head of the table as economic issues and the spread of corruption will give him a rougher ride than previously.
In Iran meanwhile, Iranian interior minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar said that the preliminary totals of Friday’s balloting showed that 64% of the Iranian electorate showed up there. This despite a boycott of the election by the reformist opposition that had been so prominent in major demonstrations during and after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed election victory in 2009. Najjar said that this turnout meant “the great Iranian nation slapped the enemies in the face… and that “The Americans, the Zionists, and the enemies of the system made some claims. People slapped them by this action.” Definitely not a peace overture, that, especially since the US and Israel didn’t have a single candidate or favourite on the ballot. The Iranian population – and the world – will get to see the final results that will determine the new parliamentary makeup on 5 March – just in time for the Benjamin Netanyahu – Barack Obama’s big meeting in Washington.
Because every candidate was vetted by the ultra-nationalist Guardian Council, the election was effectively between those who supported President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad versus the supporters of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. These two have been in a kind of public mud slinging that Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney should really appreciate from their own recent experiences. The opposition Green Movement was barred from taking any part in the balloting – and its leaders remain under house arrest dating back to charges from the demonstrations in 2009.
Photo: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s identification lies on a desk as he visits a mosque, using as a polling station, to cast his vote during Iran’s parliamentary election in Tehran. REUTERS/President.ir/Handout.
While this wasn’t a presidential election, the new balance of power in the Iranian parliament will clearly set the scene for the 2013 presidential vote. And of course it is less than clear if this election’s results will have any effect on the Iranian government’s position on its nuclear programme – the program that will be the top topic in the briefing memos prepared for that Obama-Netanyahu tête-à-tête.
Now that meeting takes place on 5 March, right in the midst of a major public effort by Netanyahu’s supporters in the US to press President Obama to be more aggressive towards Iran over its nuclearisation drive, and to be more supportive of Israel in this regard, in response. This is in addition to the Obama administration’s own efforts so far to use diplomacy, a visiting aircraft carrier or two, and economic and financial sanctions to isolate Iran.
Netanyahu’s visit comes in tandem with the coming together of some 14,000 people at the annual national gathering of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. As the New York Times reported it, “While defenders of Israel rally every year at the meeting of the pro-Israel lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, this year’s gathering has been supercharged by a convergence of election-year politics, a deepening nuclear showdown and the often-fraught relationship between the president and the Israeli prime minister.”
Obama has been trying to reassure Israel and its supporters. In an extensive interview published on Friday in The Atlantic online, Obama restated his insistence he’ll do everything necessary to stop Iran from going nuclear – including force, if needed. And he ruled out accepting and then trying to contain a nuclear-armed Iran. “I don’t bluff,” he said.
The choice of interviewer – Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for the magazine The Atlantic – was obviously a calculated one. Many American Jews closely read Goldberg’s articles and two years ago, an earlier article by him explored the circumstances under which Israel would attack Iran. Of course, American Jews are not a monolithic group in support of the Netanyahu position. Some public advocacy groups like J Street have been trying to make the case against a pre-emptive Israeli strike. But for the next few days, AIPAC will set the tone – and likely grab the headlines – in the debate over the Iranian nuclear threat.
In fact, Netanyahu, Obama and Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum will all speak to the meeting – the latter three by satellite TV hook-ups while they are working to squeeze in yet more events in preparation for the Super Tuesday primary elections and caucuses in 10 American states. Republican candidates – save for Ron Paul – have been using this very crisis to bludgeon the Obama administration as weak on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, weak on support for Israel and strong on taking an apologetic tone to the Islamic world – as witnessed by the Obama apology over the accidentally burned Quran texts in Afghanistan that provoked rioting and Nato forces deaths there.
And the four Republican contenders are now spread out across the nation trying to gain at least tactical advantages in the ten state-by-state contests that are part of this year’s election campaign. With Romney slowly building a lead in the actual delegate count and with over 400 delegates at stake in the ultimate counting and apportioning of delegates from the 6 March primaries and caucuses, in most other election years, this would have been the day when a candidate like Romney could clearly claim an insurmountable frontrunner position.
But this is not any other year. Romney won the Washington state caucus over the weekend and he should do well in Massachusetts where he was governor, he is set to win in Virginia (Santorum and Gingrich didn’t even qualify for the ballot there) and should also do well in Vermont, adjacent to Massachusetts. Gingrich, meanwhile, is poised to take his home state of Georgia and he and Santorum are going head-to-head in Tennessee and Oklahoma. The latter is a state where Paul may even surprise by the time all the ballots have been cast. And Paul may gain Alaska as well.
But it is Ohio that has become the focus of intense candidate and media attention – and money. Originally a Romney stronghold, for the past several weeks it has been the site of a seesaw contest between Santorum and Romney. Ohio is more than just a little like a bellwether of things to come. It represents a big delegate haul, it has the kind of diversity that mirrors the country as a whole and it has usually been in the winner’s column, come the general election in November. A rust belt state – at least in cities like Cleveland and Gary, Ohio also mimics the demographics of Michigan and it has, in fact, become a battleground between Santorum and Romney as they try alternative strategies. The Romney camp continues to emphasise economic management and a torrent of anti-Santorum TV commercials portraying him as a Washington insider and special interest wheeler-dealer. Santorum, on the other hand, has been hammering away with his crusading religiosity, hoping pro-life/anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-liberal education social attitudes are the key to the votes of the so-called Reagan Democrats.
It is possible Romney’s deep staff, bags of money and some serious advance planning will help him pull out a win in Ohio, together with the states already considered to be safely in his column. However, as things stand now, it is more likely Super Tuesday will simply mean the candidates now have to go at it all over again, one state at time, until Romney finally finishes ahead of the pack.
As a result, the Republican candidates will continue to make their run to the right to rack up activist support. In turn, this means readers should watch for more heated rhetoric on Iran in this run up to America’s election – unless there is that million-dollar picture taken in the White House Rose Garden with Obama and Netanyahu – arm in arm, all smiles, announcing their full agreement on how best to deal with Iran. Wouldn’t that be something? What a week this one is. DM
Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) meets Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations in New York September 21, 2011. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque.
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine