Iran nuke deal delayed. Netanyahu bill controversy in Israel. Cracks in Sri Lankan Freedom Party. Modi's wife comes forth. By Hamish McDonald.

Hagel’s toast as holes in US policy worsen

Barack Obama flanks Chuck Hagel as the US defence secretary announces his resignation this week.
Barack Obama flanks Chuck Hagel as the US defence secretary announces his resignation this week.

The forced resignation of United States Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel this week was widely seen as underscoring the “incoherence” of Barack Obama’s foreign policy.

Hagel was the latest and maybe weakest of Obama’s appointments at the Pentagon, drawn from Republican backgrounds to provide political cover for the retreat from George Bush’s costly adventures in the Middle East and Afghanistan, a shift in focus back to Asia and the necessary cuts in defence spending.

It’s all been a lot harder than Obama could have imagined. But the remedy taking shape this week − a hawkish new defence secretary while Obama draws his existing National Security Council advisers closer − could make the incoherence even worse. The council, headed by Susan Rice, is widely seen as dominated by campaign-manager types thinking more about how foreign strategies play in domestic politics than how they might work out on the ground. Obama needs to bring together all the main players in foreign and national security policy, and get them reading off the same sheet.

The most dangerous inclination will be to think there’s some quick solution to the new challenges that have diverted attention from the defence makeover and Asian pivot: the upsurge of the Islamic State movement in Syria and Iraq, the long goodbye in Afghanistan, and Russian encroachments in Ukraine. Limited air and training support seem to be containing the Islamic State and will gradually wear down its morale.

The new president in Kabul, Ashraf Ghani, is getting consensus on a transitional force of 12,000 American and European troops to back up his own military next year. The Germans and French are starting to make Vladimir Putin pay for his aggression.

1 . Nuke deal delayed

Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement, if it comes off, will be the nuclear limitation deal with Iran, a game changer that could help a political settlement in Syria and perhaps boost the moderate centre
in Israeli politics.

The failure to reach an agreement by last Monday’s deadline, with the extension of talks for another seven months, makes the process more vulnerable to derailment by hardliners
in both the US and Iran.

The US (along with Russia, France, China, Britain and Germany) has gone about as far as it can go in leaving Iran with a uranium enrichment program while achieving a minimum “breakout” time of about a year. John Kerry, the US secretary of state, had modified the previous demand that Iran reduce its operating centrifuges from 10,000 to 1500, to allow up to 4500 of the enrichment devices. This was on the proviso the Iranians shipped the 20 per cent enriched product to Russia to be turned into fuel rods for power stations (rather than be retained potentially for further enrichment to weapons grade).

The ball is now in the court of the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It became clear in the recent negotiations that the moderate President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had no negotiating authority to go this far. It may be that Khamenei thinks time is on his side, with the bonus of $US700 million a month in eased economic sanctions while the talks continue. Yet the recent slide in oil prices has more than outweighed this gain, and even Khamenei must realise Iran needs Rouhani’s economic skills and access to Western markets. Words such as symbolism, humiliation and pride are used by Iranians such as Zarif to explain the drive for nuclear weapons. Their task is now to persuade the ageing theocrat that staying at the nuclear threshold is symbolic enough.

2 . Bill controversy

With young Palestinians simmering on the brink of a new intifada, outside the control of their seniors and marked by random attacks on Jews after zealots upset the delicate status quo on worship at Jerusalem’s holy mount, Benjamin Netanyahu has chosen an inflammatory moment to introduce a new bill titled “Israel – Nation-State of the Jewish People”.

It’s all about politics, of course, as Netanyahu’s Likud party soon holds primary elections. So this is a sop to his party’s right and some of the coalition partners who are even more right-wing. The draft bill emphasises the state’s Jewishness over its democratic character, tilting the balance set in the national charter since modern Israel emerged 66 years ago. As approved by the cabinet last Sunday, it would relegate Arabic, spoken by the largest religious minority of Israeli citizens, down from an official language to one with a “special status”. This language provision was to be dropped after the first reading in the Knesset, and Netanyahu promises equal rights for all individual citizens will be upheld. So in its final form it might change little in practical application.

But it’s dismaying symbolism. It will play badly in Western Europe, where several governments have stepped up recognition of the Palestinian Authority in response to expansion of Jewish settlements in the territory occupied by Israel since the 1967 war, and sanctions including visa restrictions are being talked about.

3 . Colombo cracks

Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa thought he was going to have an easy ride to a third five-year term in elections set for January 8, having earlier had the constitution’s two-term limit lifted.

But in the past week his coalition and the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party have split, with the Bandaranaike dynasty of the country’s independence leader throwing its weight behind a breakaway challenger, Maithripala Sirisena, the party general secretary and health minister.

While Rajapaksa still enjoys considerable support for his crushing defeat of the Tamil Tigers and restoration of peace, his excuse that the risk of a Tiger resurgence justifies his continued emergency powers is wearing thin five years on. Sirisena is turning attention to the subversion of Sri Lanka’s institutions and governance under Rajapaksa, his family cronyism, plus his alleged turning of the country into a client-state of China. From a mainstream Sinhala background, an old boy of one of Colombo’s two elite colleges modelled on English public schools, and with a firm grasp of party organisation, Sirisena will give Rajapaksa a run for his money.

4 . Trouble and strife

With Narendra Modi as prime minister, India thought family perks were the least worry.

The former apparatchik of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu-nationalist movement, and then chief minister of Gujarat state, has lived a monkish life for decades. He sleeps little, works immensely long days, has no vices except for a fondness for nice clothes, and has no life partner.

That has oddly been the choice two times for his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in government, though its policies are strongly supportive of traditional social institutions including arranged marriage. Its only previous prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was a life-long bachelor. But it emerged during Modi’s election campaign this year that he had been married, in an arranged marriage as a teenager, a common practice among lower-caste Hindus at that time.

It seems he and his bride, Jashodaben, never set up together. She has lived in a Gujarat village, working as a teacher. Now she’s emerged, asking what are her entitlements as prime minister’s wife. She’s irked that the police guards, assigned to her since Modi took power, ride around in cars while she has to take public transport.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 29, 2014 as "Hagel’s toast as holes in US policy worsen".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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