Belmont Club

Clouds on the Horizon

Two things to watch in the coming days are the resurgence of heavy combat in Ukraine and the uncertain situation in the Arabian peninsula following the fall of the administration backed Yemeni government to Iranian-backed rebels and the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah.

In Eastern Europe, Russia is on the offensive.  The problem is how to call it something else.

The Business Insider has a photo spread and map depicting the recent loss of Donetsk airport to Moscow’s forces.  Those are the basic physical facts.  The political facts are another matter.  The Washington Post says the administration and its European allies are trying to keep characterizing events as a mere hiccup in Western-Russian relationships and are at pains to avoid any appearance of regarding it as a belligerent situation because of all that would entrain.

By Tuesday, the Ukrainian government and the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine were reporting that fresh Russian army units were crossing the border and attacking Ukrainian positions north of the city of Luhansk and at the Donetsk airport. “The situation,” European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told us shortly after arriving in Washington, “is not going in the right direction.”…

The episode illustrates a pervasive disconnect in Western thinking about the regime of Vladi­mir Putin. As Kadri Liik of the European Council on Foreign Relations pointed out recently , many Western leaders persist in seeing the Ukraine invasion as a hiccup in relations with Russia that can be smoothed over, rather than as a demonstration that Mr. Putin’s agenda is fundamentally at odds with Europe’s security interests and its values. Because of their attachment to the hiccup theory, governments — including the Obama administration — have refused to take steps, such as providing the Ukrainian government with defensive weapons, that could help stop Mr. Putin’s aggression. Instead, they concoct futile schemes for “reengaging” the Russian ruler.

At the same time, Washington is also facing a crisis in Yemen where its counter-insurgency strategy has collapsed. Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post writes “Yemen chaos threatens U.S. counterterror efforts, including drone program”.

The White House’s strategy for fighting al-Qaeda in Yemen — repeatedly presented as a model by President Obama — was left in tatters Thursday by the resignation of the manwho personally approved U.S. drone strikes in the country and the collapse of its central government. U.S. officials struggled to sort out a melange of reports about who, if anyone, is in charge in Yemen.

The prospect of continued chaos cast doubt on the viability of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism policy for Yemen and whether it can still count on local help against al-Qaeda. “A dangerous situation just went from bad to worse with grave implications for our counterterrorism efforts,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee. “Our relationship with the Yemen government has been vital in confronting [al-Qaeda] and keeping the pressure on its leadership, and every effort must be made to continue that partnership.”

As recently as September, Obama had cited his Yemen strategy as a template for confronting jihadist threats in other places, including Iraq and Syria. Instead of sending large numbers of troops to fight al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the country directly, the Pentagon has limited its presence to a small number of trainers to teach and equip Yemen’s security forces.

Navy ships are moving into position to evacuate the US embassy, but so far this has not been deemed necessary. Yemen shares a long border with Saudi Arabia, whose King Abdullah died today. Consider that Iran is the Kingdom’s arch-enemy, his death and replacement by another aging Saudi Royal herald uncertain days for the Kingdom.

David Ignatius of the Washington Post has a long piece about “Saudi Arabia’s coming struggle”, which is twofold.   A struggle over how it will continue its existential conflict against Iran where it has been mostly worsted so far and a struggle over political succession and the future of the Kingdom itself.  Ignatius implies that the administration will soon have to decide what horses in that race to back and it is far from clear which has the best chances of winning.

Abdullah’s death comes as Saudi Arabia, and the Sunni world it leads, are vexed as never before by the power of Iran and its Shiite Muslim proxies. Iran’s allies control four key Arab capitals: Damascus, Baghdad, Beirut and Sanaa. The Saudis have raged against Iranian power, and tried to finance covert operations to counter it, but they have failed everywhere they have tried. Many in the kingdom blame the United States for these reversals, but they should be more self-critical: This has fundamentally been a failure of Sunni, and especially Saudi, leadership. …

The nightmare for moderate Saudis is that the extremists of the Islamic State have a significant following among young Saudis, say analysts who follow the Arabic Twitter and Facebook platforms. Young Saudis are among the world’s most active users of these social media, which indicates the pent-up desire in the kingdom for political and social involvement. Attempts to suppress this activism, in the uncertainty of the leadership transition, could be very dangerous. …

The next generation of Saudi leaders, symbolized for American officials by Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the minister of the interior, is talented and modern. But the paradox of Saudi Arabia is that the Western-facing kingdom has depended for its legitimacy on a pact with conservative Muslim religious leaders. Frightened now by the power of the Islamic State’s extremism, Saudi leaders may be tempted to repeat that bargain — and govern through the repressive power of the Muslim conservatives.

These crises come on top of ongoing events in Syria, Libya and Iraq, where US advisers are struggling to put together a campaign to retake Mosul from the Islamic state. Complicating the global challenge on the other side of the world are the perennial crisis in Af/Pak and an expansionary — but faltering — China.

Despite the happy talk in the SOTU, the fact is there’s a lot of potential trouble to look out for in the coming days. But the proximate flashpoints are in Eastern Europe and the Arabian Peninsula.


King Abdullah Dies, Disrupting Saudi Arabia at a Sensitive Time, “Plunging oil prices, the Islamic State, and a shadow war throughout the Middle East. The next ruler of the House of Saud has a full plate”

The Emerging Iranian Empire

Europe’s Eastern War

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