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Washington’s World: May 25th, 2015 – May 31st, 2015

Two major issues dominate US foreign policy: first, the unfolding drama in Iraq, Syria and Yemen which many observers are saying calls into question the Administration’s entire Middle East policy and, second, rising tensions in the South China Sea where some think-tank commentators discern the potential for a sharp deterioration in US-China relations. On the former, after first seeking to play down the collapse of the Iraqi army in Ramadi as part of the ebbs and flows of war, President Obama has now acknowledged that it represented a serious set-back. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs was even more outspoken, saying that the Iraqi forces “were not driven out of Ramadi, they drove out.” There have been calls for a re-engagement by US ground forces in decisive numbers to defeat the Islamic State once and for all. From conversations with senior officials, we do not believe that this enters US thinking. Air power, urgent weapons replenishment, and accelerated training remain the preferred instruments. In parallel with Iraq, IS advances in Syria are equally alarming. Having willed the downfall of Assad for at least two years, the fact that this may now be closer than ever without any provision for a post-Assad polity is driving crisis-level exchanges with allies. Against this background, negotiations with Iran toward a nuclear deal have assumed extra urgency and, with it, extra scrutiny from Congress. In an address to mark Jewish-American Heritage Month, Obama has underlined full US support for Israel, but US officials also see that Iranian assistance and cooperation in Syria and Iraq will be unavoidable. How to reconcile exactly this nexus of goals has Pentagon and Congressional leaders exercised. With regard to China, Washington is balancing the right of the US Navy and US Air Force to patrol aggressively in the South China Sea with assurance to President Xi Jinping that US intentions are not hostile. Next month’s new round of the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue is assuming greater than usual importance. One significant by-product of the rising tensions in the Middle East and East Asia is a review of the US posture toward Russia. Successive visits to Russia by Kerry and the Assistant Secretary of State for Europe indicate a rising acknowledgement that the Ukraine crisis cannot be allowed to be the sole driver of Washington-Moscow relations. On a less frenetic note, negotiations about normalizing relations with Cuba are continuing. Early hopes about a quick breakthrough have not materialized.  While officials describe the talks as “highly productive,” the most recent meetings left many questions unresolved. Despite of this current impasse, most Administration officials believe that no fatal barriers to progress have emerged.


Key Judgments

This week's edition of Washington's World may be viewed at www.theswoop.net.
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