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Washington’s World: August 18th – August 24th, 2014

After a torrid period of successive foreign policy crises during which former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched a thinly disguised attack on his policies, President Obama is emerging with at least a temporary lightening of tensions. The White House has welcomed the departure of Prime Minister Al-Maliki in Iraq as providing the opportunity for a more consistent and effective opposition to the Islamic State (IS) now covering large territories in Iraq and Syria. The apparent easing of the Yazidi humanitarian crisis has enabled both Obama and the Pentagon to claim credit for the policy of limited airstrikes.  The open question now facing the Administration concerns the future of Iraq as a unitary state. While this remains official policy, the multilateral military assistance being now supplied to Kurdistan without reference to Baghdad is strengthening the former’s status as an emergent independent entity. With the intelligence community in Washington issuing increasingly stern warnings about the potency of the IS and former high Administration officials lobbying on Kurdistan’s behalf, the former resistance to any break-up of Iraq is weakening in the face of the more urgent IS threat. This trend is likely to strengthen. US officials are also cautiously optimistic that the worst of the fighting in Gaza is over and that a new agreement to be brokered by Egypt will strengthen the role of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza at the expense of Hamas. Once again, they ascribe this breakthrough as the result of US diplomacy, while underplaying the Egyptian role. One lasting outcome of the latest Gaza conflict may, however, be significant damage to relations between Washington and Tel Aviv. On the Russia/Ukraine front, the US and Russian defense ministers are in frequent contact to seek ways to control what US officials see as malign Russian intentions. One result of the way the Ukraine crisis is being handled in Washington is that Russia has absolutely no friends in official circles. Finally, in setting out a new US vision for Asia-Pacific Engagement, Secretary of State Kerry has reinforced that the underlying driver for US policy in the region is competition for influence with China.

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