Julie Bishop to visit Myanmar; climate weighing on US business. By Hamish McDonald.

Holding Iraq together is taxing Obama’s skills

US secretary of state John Kerry and Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki meet in Baghdad this week.
US secretary of state John Kerry and Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki meet in Baghdad this week.
Credit: AFP
Barack Obama is floundering in the arc of Islamic discord stretching from North Africa to Pakistan, even his supporters are admitting. 

The mess left behind in the vortices of Iraq and Afghanistan by George Bush and Tony Blair, with John Howard as supporting actor, has turned out to need a lot more after-care than Obama ever imagined. The ready willingness of embattled Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to give legal immunity to the 300 military advisers Obama is rushing to stiffen up the Iraqi army suggests to some analysts Obama might have pushed harder for acceptable terms to leave a vestigial American support force after the last US combat units left in December 2011.  

Still, that is hindsight. Maliki was then being guided by the hardline side of Iran’s government, which is now back on the scene. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is jumping up and down at the idea of Maliki being replaced with a more conciliatory figure, which US secretary of state John Kerry is pushing. Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force, a secretive unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, has been spotted in Iraq, and a virulent Shia militia led by Muqtada al-Sadr has popped up again in the south of Iraq. The chances of a political-diplomatic deal to hold Iraq together are slim. 

For his part, the president of the autonomous Kurdish region, Masoud Barzani, has told Kerry his people want out. The Kurds have just sold their first tanker of oil, loaded from a pipeline through Turkey, to Israel, emphasising their disconnect from the Arab world.

The Iraq situation bodes ill for Afghanistan, where US combat forces are due to leave by the end of the year, without an agreement on the stationing of the 10,000 support force that US commanders think is needed to stand behind the Afghan National Army. Outgoing president Hamid Karzai refused to sign an agreement. His replacement from this month’s runoff election will be greatly weakened by the ongoing dispute between rivals Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani over the honesty of the ballot.

More egg is on Kerry’s face over the follow-up to his visit to Cairo on the way to Iraq, where he met the anachronistic figure of the new military-backed dictator, former field marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and opened up $US575 million in previously blocked military aid in return for Egypt’s help against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) insurgency. 

Egyptian courts had just reconfirmed mass death sentences on jailed members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, and Kerry came out saying Sisi had given him “a very strong sense of his commitment” to a re-evaluation of the judicial process and human rights legislation. 

The next day a court sentenced Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed to lengthy jail sentences on spurious charges. Sisi said he couldn’t possibly interfere with the independent judiciary. It will take a long campaign to free the journalists, working chiefly on Janus-faced Saudi Arabia, which is simultaneously bankrolling the Egyptian military against the Muslim Brotherhood but also funnelling billions to the extremist ISIL (also known as ISIS) in Syria and Iraq. 

1 . Bishop flies in

The basilisk stare of Julie Bishop, meanwhile, turns on the Myanmar military next week.

The foreign minister is to spend two days in Yangon and the bizarre capital, Naypyidaw, built by the last military strongman. Her self-initiated visit could not come at a more opportune time. When the former regime marched according to its own “roadmap to democracy” into a managed electoral system in 2010, it inserted a clause in the new constitution barring anyone whose spouse or children have foreign citizenship from becoming president or vice-president. 

It was tailor-made to exclude Aung San Suu Kyi, whose late husband was British, as are her two sons. But in elections due at the end of next year, and with Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy likely to sweep aside the military-bureaucratic party given a preferential run in 2010, the clause looks even more obviously designed to thwart the popular will.

Earlier this month a committee of the current, heavily stacked parliament voted against changing it. So Bishop is expected to lobby President Thein Sein to get the full parliament to overrule the recommendation, especially as the Myanmarese are hoping to get the Australian Electoral Commission to help with the elections. Constitutional amendments require a 75 per cent majority – and the military has 25 per cent of the parliamentary seats allotted to its representatives.

The president is a former general, as is the parliament’s speaker, so some top-down guidance would be highly persuasive. Another negative development Bishop is likely to criticise is new draft legislation seeking to bar women from marrying outside their own religious community, reflecting the aggravated relations between the Buddhist majority and the Rohingya Muslims.

2 . Climate weighing on US business

Carbon pricing is starting to get traction in unlikely places.

Money talks, and where more so than on Wall Street? Following the inundation of US coastal areas by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, New York is busy trying to floodproof its subway system against further sea-level rises and storm surges, including around the financial district. 

Now a heavy-hitter in the Republican Party, former treasury secretary Henry Paulson has weighed in, urging action before problems become too big to manage. 

“For too many years, we failed to rein in the excesses building up in the nation’s financial markets,” Paulson wrote in last Sunday’s New York Times. 

“We’re making the same mistake today with climate change. We’re staring down a climate bubble that poses enormous risks to both our environment and economy. The warning signs are clear and growing more urgent as the risks go unchecked … The solution can be a fundamentally conservative one that will empower the marketplace to find the most efficient response. We can do this by putting a price on emissions of carbon dioxide – a carbon tax.”

Paulson was among a cross-party line-up of US senior statesmen, including former secretary of state George Schultz, another ex-treasury secretary Robert Rubin, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and billionaire fund manager Thomas Steyer, who this week published a report, called “Risky Business”, which warned about the looming effects of unchecked global warming on the US. 

More than a million homes along the coast in places such as Miami would be flooded repeatedly and ultimately destroyed, with a total property loss of $US370 billion by the end of the century. States in the south-east and Midwest corn belt would lose most of their agriculture. Heat and humidity would keep people indoors.

These Jeremiahs provided a discordant backdrop to the Abbott government’s efforts to get the repeal of Australia’s carbon tax through parliament this week. Abbott will have to get his hand-picked consul-general in New York, former senator Nick Minchin, to go around Wall Street and persuade them how wrong they are.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 28, 2014 as "Holding Iraq together is taxing Obama's skills".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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