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Washington’s World: October 20th – October 26th, 2014

Ebola lies at the intersection of domestic and foreign policy. On neither front is the news good for President Obama. There are credible reports of anger on the President’s part at what is widely perceived as the Administration’s confused messaging about the virus. The appointment of a new “Ebola Czar” has received mixed reviews. With the consensus of independent analysis pointing to a Republican takeover of the Senate in the November mid-term elections, there is little to cheer the Administration on the domestic front. Externally, the picture is not much better. While the commanding general of the anti-ISIL operations in Iraq and Syria is reporting optimistically about progress, the two major open questions – the deployment of US ground forces and the long-standing dilemma over Syria – remain unresolved. On the latter, the US finds itself being drawn deeper into Syrian politics in the form of a meeting with the Kurdish PYD party. Its armed wing the YPG is providing the main body of opposition on the ground to ISIL in Syria, but its links to the PKK in Turkey, which the US regards as a terrorist organization, is complicating relations with Ankara. A State Department official put it this way in a comment to us: “We know we have to grapple with the question of whether we are going after ISIL or Assad or both, but for the present we just want to postpone the decision.” The ground troop question is becoming ever more urgent in the light of ISIL’s consolidation in Anbar province from where it can threaten Baghdad airport. As a Democratic strategist commented to us: “The logic of war is forcing the President in a direction to which he is profoundly resistant.” On other subjects, following last week’s high level talks with Iran, a top State Department official is due to clarify the US position in a major speech on October 23rd. Our sense is that US officials feel that an agreement is within grasp – albeit far from assured. As US officials like to repeat: “even if the deal is 98% done, the final 2% could see it fall apart.” Finally, for some light relief, we hear that analysts at the Pentagon and State Department are examining photographs showing the reappearance of North Korean leader Kim Jung-un to determine whether a body-double was used. We understand that this possibility was not raised at the October 17th inaugural session of the US Joint Staff - PLA General Staff Strategy Talks where more serious issues were on the agenda.

Key Judgments

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