The top myths in the press this weekend about Vice President Joe Biden are that he was rebuffed in Iraq when he offered his good offices with regard to effecting Arab-Kurdish reconciliation, and that he gave Israel a green light to attack Iran. Neither thing appears to be true.
So what really happened? Biden was given the job of working on Iraq reconciliation precisely because most elected Iraqi leaders want reassurance that the US is not abandoning the country to its fate.
Biden met with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, with Vice Presidents Adel Abdel Mahdi and Tariq al-Hashimi, and talked on the phone with President Jalal Talabani. The NYT reported Biden saying,
“To quote one of the four principals with whom I met: ‘With your concerns with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Korea, we were concerned we were moved to the bottom shelf,’ ” he said. “And so I said, ‘Well, you’re not. And evidence of that is, as the vice president of the United States I’m here talking to you.’ And it was clear that they – it was like, ‘Yeah, we get it.’ ”
On ABC This Week with George Stephanopolous, Biden explained what exactly his mission was in Iraq this weekend:
‘ one of the reasons I’m here, George, is to push the last end of that, which is the need for political settlement on some important issues between Arabs and Kurds and among the confessional groups. And I think we’re well on our way . . .
What we offered the prime minister, as well as the speaker, as well as the two vice presidents, was that to the extent — let me give you an example. The United Nations has started a process to deal with what they called the “disputed internal borders.” And that is the debate between the Kurds and the Arabs as to where the line is.
Kirkuk is probably the biggest flashpoint. And we were asked that we would — would we be helpful to the United Nations in doing this? I was further asked that would I communicate to the Kurdish leadership, who I have a close relationship with, that their passing a constitution through their parliament in Kurdistan was not helpful to the process that was under way. ‘
So the conflict over the disposition of the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, among Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, has heated up in recent months, as this detailed Observer report shows.
This conflict has the potential to provoke an Arab-Kurdish civil war in the north and to draw in Turkey (and maybe also Iran and Syria).
Biden’s task is to use diplomacy to settle this issue before it can tear Iraq apart.
On the one hand, Az-Zaman writing in Arabic maintains that Biden’s offer of mediation between the two sides was received lukewarmly and not in the way the Americans had hoped for.
On the other hand, Biden according to the NYT is seeking a new discourse that will underline the central Iraqi role in their security, downplaying the American connection.
The two reports seem contradictory because high Iraqi politicians are themselves sometimes at odds over the relationship with America. Or, as Biden suggests, some politicians may be aiming their talking points at the Jan. 2010 parliamentary elections, and so seeking to maintain an image in public of independence and sovereignty even as they behind the scenes seek US support and cooperation.
A complicating factor is the growing dispute between the Arab members of the federal parliament and the parliament of the Kurdistan Regional Government. The civil Kurdistan parliamentarians are working on a new constitution that Arabs see as threatening the unity of Iraq.
Biden was asked by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to lend his good offices to resolving those affairs. He initially had planned a trip to the Kurdistan capital of Irbil, but this weekend’s massive sandstorm knocked him out of it, and he had to speak to the Kurdistan leaders by phone.
As for the other news of the weekend, I think Biden’s remarks on Israel and Iran were aimed at underlining the independence of US policy-making toward Iran. He underlined twice that the US would not alter its own posture toward Iran, regardless of what others did. That he also said that the Israelis are sovereign and that the US could not stop them from launching a missile strike on Iran, is just the United Nations Charter. I.e. it is boilerplate. In my view the significant bit is this:
‘ BIDEN: Look, Israel can determine for itself — it’s a sovereign nation — what’s in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Whether we agree or not?
BIDEN: Whether we agree or not. They’re entitled to do that. Any sovereign nation is entitled to do that. But there is no pressure from any nation that’s going to alter our behavior as to how to proceed.
What we believe is in the national interest of the United States, which we, coincidentally, believe is also in the interest of Israel and the whole world. And so there are separate issues. ‘
So what Biden was really saying is that the Obama administration intends to engage Iran diplomatically, and that if anyone wants Iran attacked they will have to do it themselves. This is not a green light to the Israelis, who hardly need one. It is a tough message to the right wing of the Israel lobbies that the Obama administration is not going to launch any hostilities with Iran, even after the hard line power grab of three weeks ago.
Oh, and the statement may serve as a reminder to a recalcitrant Iran of what might happen to Tehran if it refuses to negotiate in good faith over its nuclear enrichment program. (By the way, that there is no good evidence that Iran is working on a nuclear warhead, and that its current technological capacity is too limited for it to dream of such a thing any time soon, was again underlined by incoming International Atomic Energy Agency head Yukiya Amano.
Meanwhile, the real administration position on hostilities with Iran was clearly stated by Adm. Mike Mullen, which is that they would produce enormous instability (implied is that such instability would be bad for US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan).
In my view, Biden watchers still for the most part haven’t gotten him right.
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