Archive for category Arab Spring

The Saudi Problem

US President Barack Obama speaks alongsi

President Obama will soon be in Riyadh, visiting King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and no doubt hearing a litany of complaints about American policy towards the Mideast.   While the stated purpose of the trip is to soothe the feelings of Saudi leaders who feel neglected and are discontent with American policy, one reality cannot be denied:  The US and Saudi Arabia are seeing their interest diverge, and nothing the President can say will alter that.   The Saudis have become more of a problem than a trusted ally.

One issue Saudi leaders will push involves Iran.   The United States is trying to solve the Iranian crisis, on going since 2003, by improving relations with Iran’s moderate President Rouhani and working towards an agreement on Iranian nuclear weapons.  The Saudis see Iran as their major rival in the region – a view they’ve held since Iran’s 1979 revolution – and would prefer that Iran remain a pariah state.

Iran has four times the population, a stronger military and a more modern economy than Saudi Arabia

Iran has four times the population, a stronger military and a more modern economy than Saudi Arabia

Both states straddle the Persian Gulf.   Iran could threaten the strategic and economically vital straits of Hormuz, a narrow passage way through which most Persian Gulf oil flows.  With Iraq now developing closer ties to Iran – Saudi leaders openly distrust and will not talk to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – they feel the balance of regional power is shifting away from them.  In fact, the Iraqis complain that the Saudis are arming and funding Sunni groups fighting against Iraq’s central government.   Some would argue that Saudi Arabia is at war with Iraq!

In that light, closer US – Iranian ties would cause the Saudis to worry about not only their regional power, but also the royal family’s hold on government.   As the region changes, their traditional and very conservative rule becomes harder to maintain.   And, as much as the West relies on Saudi oil, it may be in our interest to slowly sever the close alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia.

First, compare life in Iran with life in Saudi Arabia.   Most Americans assume Iran is a bit of a hell hole.  Run by an Islamic fundamentalist government, people conjure up images of the Taliban or al qaeda.  The reality is quite different.  Iran is not only far more democratic than any Arab state (though Iraq is working towards democracy), but Saudi Arabia is where living conditions are defined by a fundamentalist view of Islam.   Women cannot drive, they cannot go out publicly without their husband, they cannot work in office where men are present.   They can’t even shop in stores which have men!   Indeed, if we went by human rights concerns, we’d clearly be on the side of Iran over Saudi Arabia!   The Saudis are second only to North Korea in terms of oppression.

After the 2009 elections Iranians took to the street to protest the result; in 2013 a moderate was elected President

After the 2009 elections Iranians took to the street to protest the result; in 2013 a moderate was elected President

In Saudi Arabia not only would such a protest not be allowed, but the woman pictured above would be arrested for simply being out of the house, head not fully covered, and in the company of men.   In short, the Saudis have an archaic system that should dissuade us from doing business with them.  We do business with them because they have oil.  Lots of oil.

Yet Saudi oil isn’t as important as it used to be.    The Saudis were the world’s number one producer of oil for decades.  Last year, the US took their place.   Thanks to natural gas development in the US, as well new oil finds, the United States is producing more domestic oil and gas than people thought possible just a decade ago.  That doesn’t mean our troubles are over, but as we shift towards alternative energy sources and develop our own fossil fuels, the utter dependency on Saudi Arabia is weakened.  We can afford to have them a bit upset.

The US has surpassed Saudi Arabia in oil production last year - which combined with natural gas makes the US the world leader in fossil fuel production.

The US has surpassed Saudi Arabia in oil production last year – which combined with natural gas makes the US the world leader in fossil fuel production.

Beyond that, they have no real alternative.  Oil is a global commodity so they can’t punish only the US by cutting oil supplies.  That affects everyone, especially the Saudis!   They need to sell their oil to keep their economy afloat.   They have not used their oil wealth to build a modern economy, they’ve simply spent it or bought off their population.   When the oil runs out, they’ll have squandered an unbelievable opportunity – with our help.

The Arab Spring of 2011 was the start of a regional transition that will take decades.  The Saudis, despite the brutality and repression of their secret police, are not immune.   Their anachronistic Kingdom has persisted decades longer than it should have.   It will not last deep into the 21st Century.

Therein lies the dilemma for the US.   Actively supporting a dying Kingdom only makes it likely that the successors will be more fervently anti-American.   That’s why Iranian-American relations have been so sour, the US had supported the brutal regime of the Shah of Iran from 1954-79.  Yet as tensions continue with that other major energy producer, Russia, the US doesn’t want to needlessly anger the Saudis or risk some kind of crisis.   So while our actions will reflect interests that are our own, and not those of the Saudis, expect friendly talk from the President.

Our interest is to mend relations with Iran, the true regional power, settle the dispute over Iranian nuclear energy, and work to support change in the Arab world.   The Saudis would love to have us help overthrow Syria’s pro-Iranian government, but that is not in our interest.   Change in the Arab world will come about over decades as the culture shifts, it won’t be achieved with just a change in government – look at the troubles Egypt has had since 2011.

So President Obama’s response to Saudi complaints should be to smile, say he understands, and that he’ll take Saudi suggestions seriously.  He should have his advisers take vigorous notes about Saudi suggestions, promise his full attention, and then simply say goodbye.  If there are symbolic gestures that can soothe their discontent, by all means, soothe.  But overall the US should extricate itself from its close relationship with Saudi Arabia, and work to address the new realities of the Mideast.

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Iran and Syria

 

Carnage and destruction continue unabated in Syria

Carnage and destruction continue unabated in Syria

Right now 30 countries are meeting in Geneva, Switzerland to talk about the future of Syria.    It’s dubbed Geneva II, as it seeks to find a way to implement the path towards an end to the Syrian civil war and transfer of power outlined in the Geneva Communique of June 30, 2012.   The impetus for this meeting came from increased Russian and American cooperation about Syria after the historic agreement to force Syria to give up its chemical weapons, one of the major victories of Obama’s foreign policy.

100,000 have been killed in fighting that has lasted almost three years.   9.5 million people have been displaced within Syria, a country of just under 23 million.   The Syrian government and main opposition parties are taking part in the talks, though the rebels doing the fighting so far refuse.

The war is unique.   First, it appears deadlocked, neither side has a true upper hand.  The government has some nominal advantages, but the rebels are strong enough to resist.  Second, the opposition forces are themselves splintered, with extremists alongside secular forces and no obvious alternative to Assad.   It’s not clear what a democratic election could yield, many fear that the winner might be friendly to al qaeda.   In that context, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon invited Iran to join the talks.  It was hoped that the Iranians might help bring some realism to the Syrian governments stubborn refusal to hand over power.

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In the politics of the Mideast, one of the most important and troubling alliances has been that of Iran and Syria.  On paper they look like they should be rivals.  Syria is majority Sunni Muslim led by a former Baath party (now renamed the National Progressive Front).   The Baath party is a secular Arab socialist party, originally was aligned with the Soviets in the Cold War.   Saddam Hussein’s ruling party in Iraq was a Baath party.  Meanwhile Iran’s Islamic fundamentalist government is completely opposed to Baath party ideology.   So why are the two so closely allied?

Although 74% of Syria’s 23 million people are Sunni Muslim, they do have a sizable Shi’ite minority.  This includes the Assad family, which is Alawite Shi’ite.   That’s a different Shi’ite sect than the leaders of Iran, but it’s a connection.   Still, up until 1979 Syria’s biggest ally was Egypt – indeed, the two countries merged from 1958 to 1961.   But once Egypt made amends with Israel, and Iraq’s regional ambitions grew, Syria forged an alliance with post-Revolutionary Iran.    The Syrians feared Saddam’s regional ambitions and were loathe to make peace with Israel, which still held a part of Syria, the Golan Heights.

During the Iraq-Iran war from 1980 to 1988 Syria sided with Iran, earning the ire of the Saudis who supported Saddam Hussein.   The Syrians and Saudis found themselves on the same side after Iraq invaded Kuwait; both participated in President Bush’s coalition to remove Iraq from Kuwait in 1991.   Meanwhile, Syria’s proximity to Lebanon made it possible for Iran to build up Hezbollah, the Lebanese terror organization, pressuring Israel and contributing to Lebanon’s disintegration.

Bashir Assad follows in his father's footsteps of brutality against his own people.

Bashir Assad follows in his father’s footsteps of brutality against his own people.

Bashir Assad took over leadership in Syria when his father Hafez Assad died in 2000 and the Syrian-Iranian alliance deepened. When it was done the US was the net loser, while Iran and Iraq became moderate allies – something which drew Syria even closer to Iran.   Going into 2011 the Assad regime looked stable and effective.   Then came the Arab Spring.

Mubarak resigned in Egypt, NATO assisted the rebels in Libya, but in Syria the uprising led to a drawn out and bloody civil war, full of complexities.   Early on, with Russia and Iran both siding with Syria, international pressure was limited.   After the landmark agreement between the Russians and Americans, the tide seemed to be swinging against Assad.

Inviting Iran to the talks was a masterstroke.   The Iranians, who recently agreed on a plan to limit and allow oversight to their nuclear energy program, could be further drawn into the diplomacy of the region.   In realist terms, they could be brought to become a status quo power rather than a revolutionary one, learning that there is more to gain by working with the international community than being a pariah.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon arrives in Geneva

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon arrives in Geneva

In so doing, it was hoped that Iran could help the Syrian government find a way to give up power gracefully.   Iran would be there as Syria’s ally, and could aid the negotiations.   Alas, it is not to be.    The US criticized the Secretary General, arguing that Iran should not be there unless it agrees in advance that Syria’s government must step down.   That, of course, could not be Iran’s position going into the talks; it’s certainly not the Syrian government’s position!

The reality is that there is so much anti-Iranian bile within the US government and Congress that any sop to Iran would lead to a backlash that could harm the nuclear energy agreement, or induce votes for more sanctions against Iran.  As it is, the removal of sanctions in exchange for that agreement is yielding billions of dollars of new Iranian trade with the West.   Still, Iranophobia runs deep in the US and Israel.   Moon had no choice but adhere to the wishes of the US; the Secretary General is not as powerful as permanent members of the UN Security Council.

In so doing, the job of creating a  peaceful transfer of power in Syria has become more difficult.  It would not have been easy if Iran were there, but Iranian participation created new options.  Moreover, Iran’s public is increasingly opposed to their hard line rulers, and increased trade will bring Iran closer to the West.  Right now there is a chance for a game changer in western relations with Iran, one that could save lives in Syria.   It appears, sadly, that too many in the US are far too comfortable with the image of Iran as a permanent enemy.    And the Syrian civil war drags on, with the extremists growing stronger as the fighting continues.

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An Iran Breakthrough?

Iranian President Rouhani

Iranian President Rouhani

Fresh off a diplomatic victory concerning Syria, the United States may be on the verge of making significant headway in solving the most vexing foreign policy problem of the last 34 years – what to do about Iran?   From the 1979 hostage crisis to near war over Iran’s alleged nuclear program, the ability of Iran’s clerics to plot a Machiavellian course to expand regional power has given American policy makers headaches.   President Obama, whose foreign policy successes are growing, may have another victory in reach.  If so, this will go further in turning around the narrative on Syria.   Rather than being outplayed by Putin, Obama may have one of the most significant diplomatic victories since the end of the Cold War.

Many people were surprised when Hassan Rouhani won the June 2013 Presidential election in Iran.  A moderate, he espoused closer relations with the West, more civil liberties and economic reform.   Gone are the days of bombast from former President Ahmadinejad.   No more talk about wiping Israel off the map; instead, Rouhani went to the United Nations to proclaim that no state should have nuclear weapons, and there was no room in Iran for nuclear arms.   This clears the way for a deal to end the tense stand off that’s been brewing for over a decade about Iran’s alleged arms program.

Ayatollah Khamanei, Iran's Supreme Leader, still holds most of the power

Ayatollah Khamanei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, still holds most of the power

That election was proof that however powerful the Iranian clerics are, Iran is still an emerging democracy.  Rouhani was not the choice of Supreme Leader Khamanei, yet he won narrowly in the first round.  If the elections were rigged, he’d have at least fallen short of the 50% to prevent a second round of voting.   Moreover, Iran’s clerics realize that they could lose power in a heartbeat if the Iranian people rebelled against their authority.   From 1979 to 2004 there was a gradual liberalization of Iranian life allowed by the clerics because they didn’t want to foment dissent.

In 2004 that all changed; conservatives gained a majority for the first time in the Majles (parliament), and conservative Ahmadinejad won the Presidency.   It appeared Iran had changed course and was on a dangerous anti-western trajectory.   In hindsight that may have been a short term boost to the conservatives by anger at the US invasion of Iraq.   As that ill fated war fades into history, the Iranians appear to be moving again towards becoming a more liberal Islamic Republic.

So what next?

Unmeet

With high level talks between Secretary of State Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif already underway at the United Nations Security Council, the path will be a gradual easing of tensions alongside trust building agreements that could ultimately yield an agreement for Iran to not only end its nuclear program, but allow inspectors to verify its conclusion.   That has not yet happened of course, things could still go south.   Still, this is a major breakthrough and there is reason to think it’s the real thing.

If so, it’s a very good thing that the US did not choose to attack Iran back in the heyday of Ahmadinejad’s bombast.   He’s gone, Iran’s gradually changing as its large youth population ages into adulthood, and the consequences of going to war with Iran could have been catastrophic.   The Pentagon thought so – they war gamed it out, and saw considerable danger in attacking Iran.  The hawks on Iran will be proven to have been wrong.

The agreement to force Assad of Syria to give up chemical weapons is also important.  Iran saw Russia and the US work together, and recognize that despite rivalry between the two former Cold War foes, both share an interest in not allowing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.   This is far more effective than a US strike against Syria which would have probably done more to show post-Iraq impotence on the part of the Americans than anything Iran would fear.

Most important, though, is the changes taking place in Iran itself.  The country has a population with a strong pro-Western streak, well educated and modern.   The youth are demanding change.   The same dynamic is taking place in Iran as in the Arab Spring, except Iran already has an emerging democracy and more liberal population.   It’s clerical class has proven less extremist than pragmatic.

In short, a thaw in the tension with Iran may be a sign that Muslim extremism is also on the wane.    Iran is a model of an Islamic Republic, mixing religion and democracy.   A stable Iran could help the Iraqis get their democracy back on track, and ultimately be extremely important for the entire region.

We aren’t there yet, but the fruits of Obama’s foreign policy are starting to become evident.   He didn’t really deserve the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, but by the time he leaves office the world will likely in much better condition.

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Gates Smacks Down Obama Critics

Gates served as Secretary of Defense under Bush when the President altered his Iraq policy

Gates served as Secretary of Defense under Bush when the President altered his Iraq policy

Gates was harsh on Republican critiques of the President, ridiculing the idea that we could have flown planes overhead so “apparently the noise” should scare them.   Not only would they be undeterred by noise, but Gates noted that given all the missing anti-aircraft weapons, it would have been a stupid decision.

Gates said that he would have made the same choices the President did, and defended former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.   There was no military alternative, he insisted; Republican critics that imagine some group could have been flown in on the fly have a “cartoonish” view of what military action is all about.

Of course.

There is no scandal around Benghazi except for the fact that some Republicans are shamelessly trying to use an attack on America to fish for some kind of partisan jab at the President.   Or perhaps they want to hurt Secretary Clinton’s chances to be elected in 2016.

We should come together to learn about what went wrong or right on a tragedy, but not turn it into a political partisan circus – something that the hearings last week obviously became.   With wild hyperbole (Sen. Jim Inholfe  R-OK, said it was worse than Watergate, Iran Contra and Clinton’s scandals) and claims of a cover up, they use noise and accusations to hide that they have nothing.   It is a fishing expedition designed for partisan purposes, nothing more.

The only claim they really have is that maybe some talking points right after the attack didn’t call it terrorism when they knew it was terrorism.  They claim it was to somehow protect Obama’s re-election campaign; but given how quickly he came out and labeled it terrorism and got the information out there, that’s a pretty lame argument.  It’s also one that has no traction.  In the early days after an event when so much is still uncertain, and when the Administration is weighing responses, there are limits to what you want to be public.

So they have that non-attack, absurd claims that the military could respond, smacked down by Secretary Gates who has served for both Obama and Bush, and who knows Obama’s character.

The bottom line is that many Republicans didn’t think Obama would be re-elected, they thought they’d have the Senate, and they don’t like how the media is focusing on how out of touch their message is right now.   As pragmatic Republicans try to wrestle power away from the extremists, many want to construct a scandal where none exists.  They hope to use that to weaken the President, take the public’s mind off both the pressing issues of the day and how dysfunctional a divided Congress has become.

It will backfire – it already has.   The story is old and despite all the hype FOX and the GOP are trying to create,  more columns are being written critical of the Republicans in Congress than the President.   It has given the late night hosts plenty to mock.   Jon Stewart skewered FOX for playing up the hype of yelling fire when there’s not even smoke!
But sadly, this circus is indicative of the political dysfunction that paralyzes the country as our problems mount.  Rather than recognizing that the attack was a tragedy that should bring us together and learn how to better defend our embassies, politicians search for partisan gain (and Democrats are not blameless, some claiming that Republican cuts to embassy security allowed the attacks).

This is why we can’t reach compromises and deal with the difficult issues facing the country.  It’s spectacle and posturing, rather than hard work and compromise.   It is a sign that our democratic institutions are starting to buckle at the hands of ideologues who don’t understand that the founders designed a system to inspire compromise.  They were divided t00 – the founders had a variety of different views, and they know that would always be true in a democracy.   They compromised, and created a system that requires compromise to function.

Thank you,  Secretary Gates for pointing out the absurdity of the charges being made.   I hope within the GOP leaders look at the lack of evidence of even a whiff of scandal and recognize that this absurd circus is hurting them, and that real issues facing the country need serious attention.

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The Hard Truth in the Mideast

Protests in Egypt

A mantra when I teach Comparative Politics is that democracy is an extremely difficult system to implement and maintain.   It seems “natural” to us only because we have a culture that has built it over centuries.   It is in fact a system that requires sturdy cultural support and efforts to build democracy often flounder and fail before achieving success.

Last year as we discussed the results of the Arab spring, students speculated on what the region would have to go through.   Most figured it would take 20 to 30 years before we could even hope for a stable democracies across the region (I’m more optimistic about some states).   All predicted anti-American violence and clashes between secular and religious factions.

Alas, we still have a lot of people in the US who seem to think that if bad things happen somewhere else, the United States should get the blame.    Mitt Romney says the President has been too weak, others say a film portraying Muhammad in a bad light riled things up.   Both charges are self-serving and wrong.

Clearly people are mad about the film, but how many Christians in the US go on murderous rampages over a film?   It’s not that Christianity is any more peaceful at its core than Islam — it’s not.   These events are caused by cultural and political instability that will continue for some time.

As offensive as the film may be, the cause of this is a history of oppression, dictatorship, and lack of opportunity

Moreover, this isn’t something to bemoan or regret.   It’s better to have instability than to still have Mubarak or Qaddafi in power.    Donald Trump infamously tweeted that the US embassy wasn’t attacked when those two were at the helm, apparently suggesting that we’d be better off with authoritarian thugs in charge of those countries.    But that view is myopic on two levels:  a) it only considers the short term; and b) it neglects the human rights of the Egyptian and Libyan people.

One thing George W. Bush got right was that the authoritarian power structures in the Mideast are anachronistic and inevitably will fall.   That goes for the Saudi royal family as well — they are out of place in the 21st Century and the longer they stay in power the more angry the forces they suppress will become.   The more it appears that the US is enabling the authoritarians, the stronger anti-American sentiment will become.

Dictators like Mubarak, Saddam, Asad and Qaddafi follow in the footsteps of similar regimes of the Ottoman Empire, defining for 700 years the political culture of the region.

What Bush got wrong was the idea that the US could simply overthrow the bad guys and then quickly build a stable democracy in its place.   He overthrew Saddam within a few weeks, but democracy building…that takes decades and can’t be done by outsiders.   So despite money, effort and a strong will to make it work, Iraq descended into chaos and civil war, with the US only able to leave by abandoning most of the original goals for the war.

Egypt and Libya are going through the same kind of turmoil.   Iraq is still in disarray.   When Asad falls in Syria, expect instability to persist there as well.    It’s not something the United States can stop, it’s not something we can blame the President for, nor is it surprising.   In fact, it’s necessary and inevitable.

Continued support for dictators would only delay the inevitable and increase the level of anti-Americanism

We in the industrialized West are used to stability.   The wars of Europe are nearly seven decades in the past.   We transfer power with pomp and ceremony, and despite the vicious attack ads, the loser is gracious after the election.   But the West didn’t become what it is without violence, sometimes horrific violence directed against innocents.   We fought tremendous battles over slavery, ideology, and land.    By today’s standards of what a democracy is, ours took over 150 years to build.   Egypt, Libya and other Arab countries cannot be expected to leap to a stable future in a few short years.  The world doesn’t work that way.

John McCain, no doubt driven by good intentions, thinks we should use our military to help out in Syria and elsewhere.   But we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan that even the world’s most potent military power can’t shape this process.    The pent up anger and suppressed interests after centuries of authoritarian rule assure that there is more violence to come.   The lingering rage over past American/European influence assure we will be targeted.  No President can prevent that, no policy can fix it.

In the long run these extremists have no chance, history is against them. But the process has to play itself out.

Ultimately, it’ll be worth the pain.   Trade, technology and economic interests will, over time, overcome the reactionary extremists from al qaeda and other such groups.   It’s better to be on the path towards that future, then simply kept in an authoritarian pressure cooker that will inevitably blow.

The US can’t shape the result, but we need to avoid over reacting.   We should support democratic values as effectively as possible, and recognize that while there was a vicious attack in Libya, the next day brought out far more people protesting in support of the United States.

Extremists tend to see the world in stark terms — it’s either their way or the destruction of their civilization.   That’s how they rationalize such violence.   It only serves their interests if we treat the entire region as if they were all extremists, or if we yearn for a return of dictatorial thugs.   Their future is not ours to make.

In our consumer society it’s easy to forget that much of history was forged through bloodshed and violence.   We want to think the people in the Mideast should be able to go vote next Tuesday and happily embrace democracy and markets.   But change follows its own path, and often that path includes violence.   We should help the victims, do whatever we can to positively aid those who want peace, and we should try to prevent the violence from escalating out of control.   But the cold reality is that this is the start of a long process, one we should welcome, even if we know the transition will be difficult.

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Does Romney even WANT to be President?

Romney launches a bizarre partisan attack in the wake of a national tragedy

Mitt Romney is a deep undercover agent for the Democratic party.   See, he used to be pro-choice, test drove a health care reform in Massachusetts, and overall until about a decade ago had pretty moderate, even liberal positions on most issues.

Here’s what I think happened:  Mitt realized he had no future in a Republican party drifting right.   So he talked with leading Democrats and hatched a plot.   It was brilliant – Romney would change all his policy positions to the far right, use money to crush his Republican opposition, and then siphon off hundreds of millions of dollars from rich GOP donors to fund a campaign designed to fail.

In 2008 the operation got underway, but it was a test run — the Democrats felt they could win it on their own, especially against McCain, and used that election to set Romney up for the 2012 campaign.   Now they’re reaping the benefits of that strategy.   Romney has the Republican nomination, massive amounts of money are flowing his way, and he’s doing his best to bring down the Republican ticket top to bottom.   I’m not sure what Romney will get in return, but don’t be surprised if after the election President Obama gives him a plumb job “in the spirit of bi-partisanship.”

No, I’m not serious, but given how ineffective his campaign has been, today’s bizarre and inept response to the terror attacks in Libya make it a plausible theory!    The 9-11 attack at the US Embassy killed US Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three embassy staff.   The attacks appear to have been planned in advance and were not simply a protest gone out of control.   Libya’s President has apologized, and President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have condemned the attacks.  The President called on Americans to hold the victims “in our thoughts and prayers,” vowing that justice would be done.   He ordered the flags flown at half mast.

President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton call on the nation to come together in response to the terror attack in Libya.

Governor Romney decided that this was the perfect event to use to launch partisan broadsides at the President.    He called the President’s response “disgraceful” and said “When our grounds are being attacked, and being breached, that the first response of the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation. And apology for America’s values is never the right course.”

Get that – President Obama responded to attacks on US grounds and the killing of American diplomats by apologizing for American values.   Wow, what a horrible President Obama must be to do that!   Except, of course, he did nothing of the sort.   Not even close.

Apparently the Egyptian Embassy, when protests grew over an anti-Muslim film, put out a statement condemning religious bigotry (and Mitt should recognize the need not to have religious bigotry!)   That statement was released before the attacks in Libya.   It is to that statement that Mitt responded, and since then he’s doubled down his response, blaming President Obama for the terror attacks.

Attacks in Libya underscore the fact that the Mideast remains a dangerous place.

I realize Romney’s weak on foreign policy, but the idea that someone would use an attack on Americans in a dangerous part of the world for partisan purposes on the day of the deaths is shocking.    At a time when he should be showing himself to be Presidential, rising above the partisanship, recognizing the difficulties in that part of the world, and helping the country heal from this latest terrorist wound, he simply goes for the sound bite.   Moreover, in keeping with other recent tactics, it’s not even a true claim – Obama never apologized and no such statement about the attacks was released.

He also tried to weave in an attack on Obama over Israel, saying he’d always find time to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.   Apparently Obama chatted with him for an hour by phone while he was in the US rather than planning a meeting.   Why Romney connected this to the Libya attack is incomprehensible.

Now the Romney camp has put out talking points that were leaked to CNN, presumably by a disgusted Republican surrogate.   The document urges Republicans to spin this to be about Obama’s weakness, and when pressed on Romney speaking too rashly before checking the facts, to simply say only “it’s never too early to stand up for American.”

Oh, come on.   This is over the top.

No.  No.  No.

Governor Romney, you say this: “Earlier I criticized the President based on a belief that his first response to the attack in Libya was to apologize that a film had offended their values.   I was mistaken, the President did not do that, and I apologize for my inappropriate criticism.   There will be time to discuss and debate what policies United States should have in the Mideast, but right now it is time to come together, pray for the victims and their families, and show the world that what unites us is far more powerful than our political differences.”

Get it?   You actually act Presidential.   You show that you can stand up for something more than campaign spin, but for the country as a whole.

But he can’t.   The people in his campaign cannot admit a mistake, they see it as a sign of weakness.    They’re so caught up in the campaign that they are taking every event as something to try to use for political advantage.

Or, perhaps, Mitt is indeed an undercover agent, trying to secure a Democratic victory.   That would also explain the refusal to release tax returns as well as his unbelievable omission of any mention of the troops and the US military in his convention acceptance speech.   In fact, Clint Eastwood may be in on this too!   Because if Romney is not part of some grand Democratic scheme to secure Obama’s re-election, he is proving himself to be one of the more incompetent Presidential candidates the US has had in a long time.

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Islamophobia Receding?

Huma Abedin, aide to Secretary of State Clinton and, according to Michelle Bachmann and a few other extremists, a potential threat

If the charge had been made in early 2002 it may have gained traction.   Michelle Bachmann and others claimed that Huma Abedin should be investigated for possible links to Muslim Brotherhood.   The warning: perhaps she and other Muslim “extremists” have infiltrated the highest ranks of the State Department and US government, putting the country in danger.

Bachmann had no evidence, and ultimately only could point to the fact that back in Saudi Arabia her late father had connections with people who had connections with people who were in an organization with connections with the Muslim Brotherhood.   So clearly, she’s a threat.  She also probably knows Kevin Bacon.

But in the emotion-laden post-9-11 days, just the hint of the fact a Muslim was high up in the State Department and could potentially be linked to extremists would have had the country atwitter.    There probably would have been a series of calls for investigations and warnings of Muslim infiltration of the apparatus of the US government.   Unfortunately for Bachmann her call came ten years too late — it was like warning of Communists in the State Department in 1963.

Bachmann followed the game plan of former Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy – make wild claims backed by no evidence and hoping fear would take hold

Instead Republicans from John McCain to Jim Sensenbrenner called Bachmann out for her outlandish claim, defending Abedin and noting that it was un-American to make such accusations based solely on her religion or vague ties of acquaintances of her family decades in the past.   The Muslim Brotherhood itself professed puzzlement at the charge, noting that it’s having trouble infilitrating even the Egyptian government!

After mocking Bachmann’s flimsy evidence of Abedin’s “link” to the Muslim Brotherhood, Stewart shows how easily Bachmann could be similarly accused due to her campaign contributions from HSBC, which is accused of providing banking services for Islamic extremist groups including al qaeda. Ooops.

Hopefully this is a sign that the Islamophobia that seemed to grab the country in the 00′s has given way to recognition that Muslim Americans are not all would-be terrorists out to destroy the western way of life.   Indeed, the Arab spring has shown Americans that Muslims in the Mideast want freedom and democracy as well.

Still, the fear remains.   Behind Bachmann’s outrageous charge is a nefarious organization called the Center for Security Policy, headed by hard core neo-con Frank Gaffney, which has as its primary goal the promotion of a neo-conservative foreign policy.    Such a policy seeks to spread American ideals through force if necessary, and sees any indigenous Islamic movement in the Mideast as dangerous.    However, even Gaffney has to know that Abedin is no inside threat.   What really bothers him and those who still cling to the neo-con dream of an American dominated Mideast is the fact that the US increasingly recognizes that the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist groups in general are not the enemy.   Indeed, they are important actors in moving the Islamic world towards modernism.   Gaffney and those of his ilk would prefer we see any Islamic organization not overtly embracing western values as a threat.

During the era of knee jerk Islamophobia after 9-11 it was assumed that political Islam was all a variant of Osama Bin Laden’s ideology and al qaeda.    Evidence for that claim could always be found using quotes of members of different organizations, even if the quotes were decades old and not aimed at the US.   This led to support for a US effort to dominate the region to both bring in an American style democracy and have friendly regimes in control of Persian Gulf oil.   That was considered the best way to undercut future terrorism.    The Iraq war has shown that such a strategy was folly – it didn’t work and was based on false premises.

As they strive for political acceptance and power, groups like the Muslim Brotherhood realize that a ‘war with the West’ and extremism are against their self-interest. There is no need for enmity with the West.

Now, however, a more nuanced view dominates.   Groups like the Muslim Brotherhood have a wide range of views, and some quotes and ideas do sound radical.   That’s to be expected given the oppression and violence used against them by dictatorial regimes in the past.   But these organizations are evolving in a reality where politics is becoming more open.   They are no longer just a small group competing against powerful corrupt regimes, but have become a large organization needing public support to try to remake the politics of the region.

As such there is no reason to expect them to be hostile to the US and the West, so long as we are not hostile to them.  Indeed, it is in our interest to cultivate a solid relationship with such groups to help them make the transition from being on the outside fringe to governing.   This isn’t a new process either.   Ever since Robert Michel put forth his view on the “iron law of oligarchy” in 1911, it’s been well known that radical groups moderate when they become part of the system.   The Greens in Germany, for instance, went from being radical pacifists and anti-NATO/anti-growth to being part of a German government that fought in Kosovo and embraced pro-market policies to increase growth and competitiveness in Germany.

The neo-cons and other fear mongers will point to parties like the Nazis in Germany and say “see, they didn’t moderate.”   But there is no reason to expect the Muslim Brotherhood or other such organizations to behave that way – quite the opposite, in fact.

Which one is crazier?

Change in the Arab world will be gradual, a culture dominated by Ottoman style repression and dictatorship for 700 years doesn’t blossom into a stable functioning democracy overnight.   Some states like Saudi Arabia have yet to start the inevitable transition.   But with the almost universal rejection of the McCarthy like Islamophobic “warning” of Michelle Bachmann, there is cause to believe that the US can be a positive influence in assisting change, working with a variety of groups in the Mideast to develop a path to democracy rather than fearing our lack of control over the process.

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President Obama: One of the Greats?

This image is taken from the Washington Monthly which has a story The Incomplete Greatness of Barack Obama.   I’ve been puzzling my liberal friends and annoying/shocking my conservative buddies by repeating my prediction that President Barack Obama will likely be remembered as one of the great Presidents in US history.

Liberals believe that Obama has somehow not been strong enough, some claim he’s been “GOP Lite.”  He caved on the debt ceiling, extended the Bush tax cuts and hasn’t stood up to the GOP.   They see his efforts to make deals with Speaker Boehner as having been weak and foolish.  To many on the left Obama is a militarist who has continued US policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, doing what he needs to to curry favor with the Pentagon.   Moreover, he’s too close to Wall Street, having used advisors like Summers, Geithner and other “insiders” instead of embracing radical reform.   Instead of pushing change, he’s trying to be liked by Republicans who want only to destroy him.

Republicans think Obama has been dangerously radical, weak on defense, and unfriendly to business.   They see the modest compromise ridden health care reform the Democrats see as sometimes worse than doing nothing as some kind of radical dangerous burst of socialism.  Sometimes the criticism is bizarre.   Newt Gingrich warns that Obama has been “pretending” to be reasonable for four years in order to slam his agenda down our throats after his re-election.

The often bizarre beliefs his opponents hold about him is indicative of Obama being a transforming President - when the country is in transition, many people don't like it!

In short, the extremes of each party have tended towards seeing anything not in line with their perspective as bad.  They are in two parallel universes, showing the depth of the partisan division over Obama’s Presidency.

Given tea party noise, continuing unease about the economy and the partisan divide it’s easy to miss all that the President has accomplished.  That list of fifty accomplishments is pretty substantive, and beyond what most Presidents do in their first four years.  Now some on the right might think some of these accomplishments are mistakes — policies we shouldn’t have engaged in.   But that’s a different issue.   In terms of getting things done, Obama has been an effective activist President.

Rather than put together an argument about why he may be destined for greatness, I’ll channel an historian from the year 2050…hold on, turning out the lights, starting the seance…OK….

“Why do we consider President Obama to have been one of America’s great Presidents?  Well, in 2008 the United States slipped into a severe recession caused by thirty years of deficit spending and current account deficits as the country binged on cheap consumer goods produced elsewhere and bought with borrowed money.  Many said the US was in collapse, and predictions ranged from complete breakdown in authority to a weakened state groveling to the Chinese to keep them from dumping dollars and treasury notes.   Two dubious wars had divided the country, harmed the economy, tarnished America’s image and seemed to symbolize US decline.

President Obama came into this horrible situation and arguably prevented the Great Recession from becoming a depression.  Forging a compromise heavy on tax cuts to help please Republicans, the stimulus package of 2009 helped save the US and arguably the globe from a spiraling depression.   Obama also continued President Bush’s policy of rescuing the credit markets with the Troubled Asset Relief program, which also staved off depression and prevented a banking collapse.

His first years were rough, even as he engineered major changes like a health care reform program that over time has cut US health care costs and which now enjoys immense support.  He supported the civil rights movement of that era by ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” carefully bringing the Pentagon on board to undercut opposition.  In foreign policy he not only patched up relations with the rest of the world (being more popular abroad than at home during his first term), famously getting along with leaders of diverse views, but he also took a stance for freedom, helping push out dictators in the Arab Spring.

When the global economy turned around his second term, his popularity grew, and many now credit President Obama with saving the US from decline as a superpower.  He recast US policy as one of working with like minded states to pragmatically solve problems, beginning the alternative energy cooperative that has allowed a smooth shift from fossil fuels to alternatives in a way that did not bring about a feared oil catastrophe.   As one biographer put it, ‘President Obama is a major reason why ‘peak oil’ became simply a transition, not a disaster.’

His shift of emphasis from hard power to soft power, as well as limited American involvement won support at home from a public weary of middle east wars, and caused other countries to recognize the need for cooperation – America isn’t going to do it alone. It paid dividends when diplomatic pressure forced Iran to give up its nuclear program and gave room to Iran’s dissidents who ultimately forced the clerics to move towards a truly democratic and modern Iran.  Obama’s shift also turned the US into a kind of hero to the Islamic world, credited with helping end the regimes of Mubarak, Gaddafi and Assad.   Without a mix of US pressure and support the Saudi Royal Family would have never ceded power without a fight.

Historical causality is often hard to label.   Things had gotten so bad by 2008 that perhaps any leader would have become great, the times can make the man.   But President Obama’s pragmatism, willingness to compromise, and recognition that the US could no longer say “we lead, you follow” helped guide the US from its unipolar moment to its position of multipolar cooperative shared leadership.   It was in his second term that the initial plans were created to recast the power grid, restructure the American tax code (which had become byzantine in its complexity by 2008) and ultimately put the US on a path of sustainable success…”

Bringing about "change you can believe in" doesn't happen overnight.

The reality is that President Obama took charge at a time when the country was in transition, and at this point, if you see above the noise and uncertainty, there are real signs that we’re making progress.   We’re not only starting to restructure the economy but recast our role in the world and set up policies with an eye on a very different future than the world of the 20th Century.

Yes, his foes will never accept that — many still hate FDR, and no one denies his greatness.  But President Obama is in the midst of a transformative Presidency, starting the country on a new direction.   That is a recipe for greatness.

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I Ran like a Rock?

The future of Iran - as long as war doesn't mess things up!

The title of this post is a musical pun — I ran was a hit from Flock of Seagulls back in the early 80s (I’m listening to it as I type), and “Like a Rock” was a Bob Seger classic from that same era.   Those songs still come into my head when I think about Iran and Iraq.

But the question now seems to be whether the US is nearing war with Iran.    If so, will Iran be like Iraq?  Or should we “run so far away” from even thinking about another military engagement?

Many signs indicate that something is brewing, as Sean at Reflections of a Rational Republican points out.  He notes how Defense Secretary Leon Panetta claims there is a “good chance” that Israel will strike Iran between April and June, and speculates that this could be the start of an Obama administration sales pitch of war with Iran.

Foreign policy “realists” argue that as long as states are “status quo” states — ones that don’t want to alter borders or change the essential nature of the system, diplomacy can be effective and war should be avoided.  If revolutionary states arise to threaten systemic stability, war may be necessary.

They key is to figure out what a state is.   German Fuehrer Adolf Hitler insisted that once the Versailles treaty had been brushed aside Germany would be a status quo state, firmly protecting Europe from Bolshevism.   Britain’s conservatives and their Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain gambled that Hitler was telling the truth with their appeasement policy — appease legitimate German interests in order to get them to support the system.   Chamberlain himself thought war likely, but saw that policy as at least buying the British military time to prepare for war.

In any event, Hitler’s Germany was a revolutionary power, bent on changing the system.   However, in the Cold War many Americans thought the Soviet Union a revolutionary power focused on spreading Communism.   Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon bet that it was actually a status quo power wanting to maintain its systemic role, and the policy of detente brought some stability to the system and helped end the Vietnam war.   In this case, Kissinger and Nixon were right, the Soviets were not focused on spreading communism.

Many say Iran is more like Hitler’s Germany, citing anti-Israeli comments and painting Iran’s leaders with the same brush as Islamic extremists.   Others point out that Iran has been rational in its foreign policy since the revolution, and is simply trying to expand its regional influence than bring war to the Mideast.

The reality is probably inbetween, more like Bismarck’s Germany in the 1860s.  Iran believes that although it is situated to be a major player in the region — larger than any other state, situated on the Persian Gulf between China and the Russia — US and Israel have prevented it from playing the regional role its power should allow.   Support for Hezbollah is designed not out of psychopathic antipathy for Israel but to try to blunt Israeli power and send a message to the Arab Sunni states.   Indeed, the Saudis are as scared of Iranian power as are the Israelis.

As with Bismarck’s Germany, nobody wants to see Iran move into a role of being a stronger regional power.    The Saudis and Israelis want regional stability, and the US worries about Iran’s capacity to disrupt Persian gulf oil.  Another US concern is that if Israel were to attack Iran the entire region would be destabilized, with oil prices likely doubling (or worse, depending on how events unfold).   China and Russia are more friendly with Iran, perhaps seeing a partnership with Iran as a counter to what has been western dominance of the region.    Accordingly, China and Russia have been vocal in warning against an attack on Iran, even hinting that they’d be on Iran’s side.

So what’s going on?   First, I think the US wants to avoid a military strike on Iran at all costs.   The rhetoric from Panetta is not the kind of thing we’d say if a strike were planned (you’re going to be attacked, and here’s when the attack is likely).   It is designed to increase pressure on Iran, and perhaps even generate opposition within Israel against an attack.   The Israeli military is not unified in thinking attacking Iran would be a good idea, even if Iran had nuclear weapons.

War in the region would be extremely dangerous and could yield global economic meltdown.   The benefit of stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons is not worth that risk.   Moreover, it’s not clear that a war would be successful.

The US is well positioned to contain Iranian regional power

US policy instead has been to use covert means to slow Iran’s nuclear progress while increasing pressure on Iran by expanding sanctions and boycotts.  The EU has gone alone even more than they would otherwise wish out of a belief that’s the best way to avoid war.   If the sanctions fail, the next step would be to contain Iran by expanding US presence in the region and connection with allies.

Another reason war would be disruptive is the Arab spring.   The last thing the US wants when change is sweeping through the region is another war against an Islamic state.   This would play into the hands of extremists.   Iran can be contained, however, and internal change is likely to come sooner rather than later.   One reason Iran’s leaders might be courting a crisis is to “wag the dog” – create a foreign policy event that  brings the public together through nationalism, thereby undercutting the growing and increasingly powerful Iranian opposition.

Iran's internal opposition is real and powerful - and does not want the US to act against their state.

I think the US government believes that patience, economic pressure, and if necessary containment will ultimately assist internal efforts for change within Iran.

In Iraq the US learned a very important lesson.    One may think a war will be easy, have it planned out, and even achieve military success, only to have the political costs overwhelm any benefit of the victory.   Moreover, the American public is much less tolerant of war now than it was in 2003, shortly after the emotion of the 9-11 attacks.    It would be foolhardy for the US to pick a fight with a larger and much more powerful state than Iraq.   The costs of war could be immense, the benefits uncertain, and the costs of not going to war even if Iran does not back down would be tolerable.

So war with Iran in 2012?   I doubt it.  I think we’re seeing a policy designed to minimize the likelihood of war rather than to prepare for one.

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A Retrospective of 2011

TIME magazine’s naming of  “the Protester” as person of the year in 2011 captured what clearly is the defining aspect of the year gone by.   Whether it was the Arab Spring, the Russian winter or the Occupy Wall Street movement (which spawned imitations across the globe), 2011 was a year in which people started to more strongly question both authority and conventional wisdom.

This is made all the more poignant by how unexpected it was.   I challenge you to find me any pundit or psychic who predicted the events in Egypt (which began in January 2011) or the force of Occupy Wall Street.    Much like how no one saw the fall of the Berlin Wall coming when we went into 1989, experts and pundits are again shown to be narrow minded fools by the people on the street.   The Tunisian protests were growing when 2010 ended, but the idea that this would start a process ending with the overthrow of multi-decade stalwarts like Mubarak and Gaddafi?  Pshaw!

Moreover, in the US the talk still was of the “tea party” and the surge of the GOP.   The idea that the left would strike back with its own grass roots movement that would rise as suddenly and with force didn’t seem possible.   Not only didn’t the left have FOX News and especially Glenn Beck, primary proponents and builders of the Tea Party, but they were a spent force after 2010 — dissatisfied with Obama but nowhere else to turn.

No one knows where all this will go.   The Arab Spring is a good thing, the dictators had to go.   As bad as things may get, postponing change would have been worse.   The only alternative would have been to defend dictators doomed to fall in any event.    The path towards a better future will be rocky and often violent.   Such is how history unfolds.

New protests against Putin in Russia show promise; will the Russian state assert dominance as it always has, or do the protesters have a chance?   OWS is certain to gain strength again when the weather is warm.  Will they focus their protests on making a political difference in an election year, or will they be angry and aggressive against the status quo?   The right wing predicts the latter, inside the movement they’re confident of the former.   We’ll see.

All of this reflects a fact I’ve blogged about many times: the information and technology revolution is changing politics in a fundamental way.   By fundamental I don’t just mean that now candidates solicit via e-mail or tweet their responses to world events.   I mean the nature of sovereignty, power, economic relations and world order are being altered.   The process is only beginning, but the result will be a world very different than the one we’re used to at the start of the 21st Century.

2011 gave us a taste of what this may entail.   No matter how powerful, brutal or apparently invulnerable the leader, politics in the new era make it harder to hang on to power when the people rise up.    It’s a good thing as it is a start of a shift of power away from elites towards the people.   But it was a good thing when the reformation challenged Church dominance in 1517.   After that Europe was at war until 1648.   Change may be necessary, but it can be violent and difficult.

It’s hard to find other ways 2011 stood out.   The world and especially Japan suffered an immense tragedy in March with an earthquake and tsunami that brought home the possible dangers of nuclear power, limits of human engineering and resilience of human heroes, as many in Japan gave their lives fighting to prevent absolute catastrophe.   I don’t think this means nuclear power should be taken off the table; rather, as with anything, we can’t say there is zero risk of disaster.

President Obama had a good foreign policy year, with the killing of Osama Bin Laden and an end to the Iraq war.  Obama’s diplomacy abroad has been effective, though a continually lagging economy at home makes him still vulnerable to defeat in his re-election bid.   That said, he leads any Republican challenger in head to head p0lls, though is pretty even against Mitt Romney, the strongest and most likely GOP candidate.

2011 has seen a late year bit of economic hope, but  the economy slogged through year four of a crisis that started with the bursting of the housing bubble in 2007 and then went into near melt down with the financial blow out in the fall of 2008.   The global economy is still resettling, deleveraging, and working out the structural imbalances the grew from 1981 to 2007.

For me personally it’s been a very good year.   I again participated as one of four faculty for a travel course to Italy in May with 42 students.   The weather was great and the students superb!   We installed our geothermal heating system, the boys excelled with skiing early in the year, Dana at age 5 skied from the top of Saddleback in April (he turned 6 this week).    The new Mallett School opened, a wonderful building with great teachers and staff.   I’ve been involved in the PTA and that’s been rewarding.   Work has been excellent, I’m even doing an online winter term course right now that is off to a good start.

The new Mallett school, built in 2011

My intuition says that 2011 has set us up for major events in 2012 (and no, I don’t mean the Mayan end of the world!)   In the US it will be an election year, and the world economy will come into clearer focus.   Right now there is optimism that the US economy is finally starting to improve, that the EU is on a path to overcome its crisis, and that we’re past the worst.  Yet debt remains a huge issue, and China is facing internal and external economic challenges that could be the first real threat to thirty years of constant 10% a year growth.  Events in Syria, Iran, Russia and elsewhere could all create real upheavals.

These changes aren’t new to 2011.   I think this has been building since the mid-eighties when the personal computer took off, globalization shifted the meaning of international relations, and the Cold War drew to a close.   So maybe it’s appropriate that a song written in 1990 captures my mood.   Glen Burtnik’s title song (co-written with Bob Burger) of the Styx album Edge of the Century reflects what I feel heading out of a very interesting 2011 and into what might be a consequential 2012:

See the world in revolution
Spinning faster all the time
We’re heading for the end of something
Just about to step across that line
Oh, can’t you see?
We’re staring in the face of reality

Can’t turn off the information
Can’t sit back in your easy chair
Can’t ignore a generation
Better get ready cause we’re almost there

We’re moving at the speed of life
Into a brave new world where the strong will survive
The dawn’s gonna break and I’ll meet you
On the other side

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