Archive for category Al Qaeda

Defeating ISIS

ISIS fighters in the Nineveh province of Iraq

ISIS fighters in the Nineveh province of Iraq

The rise of the genocidal Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as a major military force in Iraq has a silver lining.   To be sure, that doesn’t help the people already slaughtered by the Jihadists, or who are in the path of the group wanting to establish a reactionary Sunni Caliphate across the Mideast.   However, the brutality and danger of ISIS is internationalizing the conflict – and that makes it very possible to defeat ISIS.  Moreover, there is virtually no widespread sympathy for the group in the Muslim world – their acts violate the spirit and letter of the Koran.

When the US went to war with Iraq in 2003, it was against the wishes of most of the world.   President Bush’s advisors were shocked to see France and Germany work with Russia to undercut US policy.  So when Iraq proved beyond the capacity of the US to “fix” – especially when Sunni-Shi’ite civil war broke out in 2006 – the world was content to let the US deal with the mess created by an ill fated decision to go to war.

Realizing that the conflict was weakening the US and undermining the entire region, Presidents Bush and Obama followed a different path.   President Bush co-opted the Sunnis, and set up a “peace with honor” situation where the US could extricate itself by 2012.  President Obama continued that path, and the US managed to leave Iraq – humbled, but not completely humiliated.

Despite their efficacy in Iraq, ISIS is not an invincible military force - concerted action can defeat them.

Despite their efficacy in Iraq, ISIS is not an invincible military force – concerted action can defeat them.

When that happened, I thought a tripartite division of Iraq was likely.   It was clear that the Shi’ites and especially Prime Minister al-Malaki believed that Iraqi unity meant Shi’ite control.  The Sunnis and Kurds each exercised local autonomy despite the existence of a nominally national government.  Iraq seemed to heading down that path when ISIS emerged, almost without warning.  Yes, ISIS has been around for a decade, but only recently with the decline of al qaeda and the on going civil war in Syria have they managed to form a coherent leadership and a strong fighting force.   Without intervention, they could not only reignite a civil war with the Iraqi Shi’ites, but continue genocidal acts against minorities and anyone not following their interpretation of Islam.

Readers of this blog know that I am very skeptical of, and usually oppose, US military intervention abroad.  But this is a clear case in which the US can play a role in an international effort to stop genocide and save a region from complete collapse.

The US cannot defeat ISIS alone.   The cost would be so high the American people would rebel, and it would further hasten the decline of American power.   But the horrors of ISIS have shocked the world, and now Iraq is no longer an American problem.  The Pottery Barn rule (you break it, you own it) no longer applies.

Yazidis fleeing ISIS, which slaughters, rapes and tortures minorities they see as not being true Muslims

Yazidis fleeing ISIS, which slaughters, rapes and tortures minorities they see as not being true Muslims

The world must undertake a multilateral intervention that includes NATO bombing and referral of ISIS leaders to the International Criminal Court.   The world must also find a way to cut ISIS off from its source of funding – and only multilateral collaboration of intelligence agencies and other relevant actors can root out the ISIS money flow.

NATO bombing and logistical assistance along with rearming the already effective Kurdish Peshmerga fighters would turn the military conflict around.   Politically US-Iranian pressure on Iraq could force the Shi’ite government there to work to build a unity government that would again coopt Iraqi Sunnis, who have been helping ISIS out of anger at the inept government of al-Malaki.   Iran could play a major role – the Shi’ite Islamic Republic has a strong desire to see ISIS defeated.

The Justices on the International Criminal Court - the court was created to deal with cases like this.

The Justices on the International Criminal Court – the court was created to deal with cases like this, and can now prove its value.

The rest of the world needs to step up too.   Money and humanitarian aid is essential to save the minorities such as the Yazidis who are currently being hunted down by ISIS.  This requires creating safe zones for minorities, and then having learned the lessons from Bosnia, being in a position to assure that these havens remain safe.   Even after ISIS is defeated, the refugee crisis will be immense.  This will require a global effort, and should include contributions from China, other parts of ASIA, Latin America and any state that can afford to contribute at least a bit.

With such an effort, not only can ISIS be defeated, but good will can be built with the Arab world – good will that can help that part of the planet continue with the slow, painful but real transition of modernization and democratization.  Defeating ISIS could mean defeating the Islamic extremism.   ISIS is no more true to the values of Islam than the Westboro Baptist church reflects Christian principles.

So this crisis represents an opportunity – a chance for the world to come together, say “never again” to genocide, work cooperatively, make institutions like the ICC prove their value, and ultimately end the decades of crisis between the Arab world and the West.   That may sound overly optimistic as ISIS continues to advance and minorities are butchered.   But we have it within our power to turn this around – and if President Obama can build an international coalition to do so, that could be the crowning achievement of his administration.

In the future when I think of ISIS, I wanted to think of Archer!

In the future when I think of ISIS, I wanted to think of Archer!

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The Iraq Failure was Inevitable

The ISIS was founded in response to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003

The ISIS was founded in response to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003

The blame game is going in full force.  Pro-war enthusiasts like John McCain say that they had “won” Iraq but Obama lost it.  Others say Bush lost Iraq and there is nothing Obama can do.   But trying to blame Obama or Bush is to miss the real point: Iraq proves the limits of US power.  The US was never in a position to “win” in Iraq or reshape the Mideast.

The current crisis reflects the dramatic gains of a group known as the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS), which has seized control of most of the major Sunni regions in Iraq and threatens Baghdad.  Their goal is to create a Jihadist state out of the old Baathist countries of Syria and Iraq.  Their power is one reason the world doesn’t do more to help get rid of Assad in Syria – as bad as Assad is, his government’s survival prevents Syria from falling to extremists.   The ISIS has its roots in the US invasion of Iraq.

In 2003, shortly after the invasion began Abu Musab al-Zarqawi begin to recruit Sunni Muslims in Iraq and especially Syria to form what at first was called “al qaeda in Iraq.”  His goal was to create an Islamic state patterned after the beliefs of Osama Bin Laden.  He felt the US invasion gave his group a chance at success.   He could recruit extremists and use the Sunni’s hatred of the Shi’ites and the Americans to create a powerful force.

At first it worked brilliantly.  Al qaeda in Iraq and the Sunni insurgents were two separate groups who really didn’t like each other but had a common set of enemies – the Shi’ite led government and the Americans.   By 2006 Zarqawi achieved his dream of igniting a Sunni-Shi’ite civil war, throwing Iraq into utter chaos.  At that time the US public turned against the ill advised war, the Democrats took Congress, and President Bush was forced to dramatically alter policy.

Zarqawi, who founded ISIS as "al qaeda in Iraq" was killed by the US in 2006.  Unfortunately this has allowed a more effective leadership to take over.

Zarqawi, who founded ISIS as “al qaeda in Iraq” was killed by the US in 2006. Unfortunately this has allowed a more effective leadership to take over.

He did so successfully – so successfully that President Obama continued Bush’s policies designed to get the US out of Iraq.   In so doing President Bush completely redefined policy goals.   The goals had been ambitious – to spread democracy and create a stable US client state with American bases from which we could assure the Mideast developed in a manner friendly to US interests.  Instead, “peace with honor” became the new goal – stabilize Iraq enough so the US could leave.   In that, the goal was similar to President Nixon’s in leaving Vietnam.   The Vietnam war ended in defeat two years later when the Communists took the South.  Could the Iraq war ultimately end with defeat?   If so, who’s to blame?

The key to President Bush’s success was to parlay distaste Arab Sunnis had for Zarqawi’s methods – and their recognition that the Shi’ites were defeating them in the 2006 civil war – into a willingness to side with the Americans against Zarqawi’s organization.   When Zarqawi was killed in a US air strike, it appeared that the US was on its way to breaking the back of the organization, unifying Iraqi Sunnis against the foreign fighters.

Bush's choice to invade Iraq was disastrous, but President Bush did an admirable job in completely altering US policy in 2006 to reject the initial goals and embrace a realistic approach

Bush’s choice to invade Iraq was disastrous, but President Bush did an admirable job in completely altering US policy in 2006 to reject the initial goals and embrace a realistic approach

So what went wrong?  Part of the success of the ISIS is the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who seized the initiative when Syria fell into civil war and the eastern Syria essentially lost any effective government.  In conditions of anarchy, the strongest and most ruthless prevail.   Add to that the fact that the Iraqi government has never truly had western Iraq under control, this created the perfect opportunity to create a new organization.    With the Americans gone, Sunni distaste for Shi’ite rule grew, and with the Kurds taking much of the northern oil region, Sunni tribes found it in their interest to support ISIS – even if it is unlikely they share the same long term goal.

So what can the US do?  Very little.  Air strikes might kill some ISIS forces, but they could also inspire more anger against the government and the foreign invaders.   Ground troops are out of the question – the US would be drawn into the kind of quagmire that caused such dissent and anger back against President Bush’s war.   Focused killing of top ISIS leaders – meh.  Zarqawi was killed, but a more able leader took his place.  Focused killing also means killing civilians, these things are sanitary.  So it might just end up angering the public more and helping ISIS recruit.

Drones effectively take out dangerous terrorists - but the collateral damage often inspires anger against the US and helps groups like the ISIS recruit

Drones effectively take out dangerous terrorists – but the collateral damage often inspires anger against the US and helps groups like the ISIS recruit

The bottom line is that the US lost Iraq as soon as it invaded.  The US undertook a mission it could not accomplish – to alter the political and social landscape of a country/culture through military force and external pressure.  The US did win the Iraq war – the US won that within three weeks.  The US military is very good at winning wars – but it’s not designed for social engineering.  The idea that we could create a democratic pro-US Iraq and simply spread democracy to the region was always a fool’s pipe dream.

The fact is that the kind of military power the US has is not all that useful in the 21st Century.  We are not going to fight another major war against an advanced country, nuclear weapons would bring massive harm to the planet, including ourselves, and intervening in third world states sucks us into situations that assure failure.  We won’t be able to change the cultural realities on the ground, and the public will rebel against the cost in dollars and lives.   Moreover, as our economy continues to sputter, such foreign adventures do real harm.

The lesson from Iraq is that our power to unilaterally shape world events if far less than most American leaders realize.  Foreign policy wonks from the Cold War area are still addicted to an image of the US as managing world affairs, guaranteeing global stability and being the world leader.  That era is over.  Gone.  Kaputt.

Now we have to work with others in the messy business of diplomacy and compromise, accepting that other parts of the world will change in their own way, at their own pace.  The good news is that they are mostly concerned with their own affairs, and if we don’t butt in, we’ll not again be a target.   The real al qaeda condemns the ISIS for its brutality – without the US trying to control what happens, the different groups will fight with each other.  But that’s the bad news – change is messy and often violent.

But we can’t fix the world, or somehow turn other regions into little emerging western democracies.   That’s reality – and the sooner we accept and focus on what we can accomplish, the better it will be for us and the world.

 

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Benghazi is all about Hillary

Why beat a dead issue that most voters don't care about?

Why beat a dead issue that most voters don’t care about?

The weirdest thing about the GOP’s on going obsession with Benghazi is that it plays into the Democrats hands going into the Midterms.   The Democrats will mock Republicans about their obsession with an event from two years ago, trying to manufacture a scandal in defiance of the actual evidence.

The Democrats will talk about jobs, health care, inequality, immigration, education, the economy and issues that actually matter to the public.   Think back – Bill Clinton did give the Republicans a scandal over Monica Lewinsky.   Yet as they obsessed on it and thought that self-evidently this would help them, Clinton’s job approval ratings went up — while Lewinsky investigator Kenneth Starr’s went way down.  In this case, there isn’t even a real scandal!

So why do some on the right fixate on Benghazi in such a self-destructive manner?   There is no evidence of  a cover up, nothing remotely suggesting a scandal.  There is evidence of poor decisions being made, and a State Department slow to understand what motivated the events.   Therein lies the real reason – the State Department.   The Secretary of State at the time was Hillary Clinton.  She is now the leading contender for the Presidency in 2016.  Most Republicans privately concede that it will be very, very, difficult to defeat her.

Clinton angrily defended the State Department before Congress

Clinton angrily defended the State Department before Congress

As Secretary of State, Clinton was taken aback by the way in which Congressional Republicans quickly politicized the Benghazi tragedy.   On September 11, 2012, the US embassy in Benghazi was attacked by 125 to 150 armed insurgents, who were able to kill US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and one other person.   Protests were taking place against an anti-Islamic video that had been released, and initially the CIA thought the two events were linked.   As more information came out, it became clear that it was a planned terrorist raid.  The US has made some arrests, and investigations continue.

So what’s the scandal?  At first Republicans said that Susan Rice, US Ambassador to the UN, had lied in linking the video to the attacks in an interview shortly after the raid.  They claimed she wanted to mislead the public about the true nature of the attacks in order to help President Obama’s re-election.   That claim has been completely debunked, and in fact was absurd on its face.

Susan Rice, who has one of the best foreign policy minds in Washington, is now National Security Advisor; she might have been Secretary of State if not for the unwarranted attacks against her in 2012

Susan Rice, who has one of the best foreign policy minds in Washington, is now National Security Advisor; she might have been Secretary of State if not for the unwarranted attacks against her in 2012

Not only had President Obama called it terrorism, but Susan Rice was acting with the data at the time in a fluid situation, and indeed alluded to the possibility of terrorism.  Much like after 9-11, there was a lot of false information early on, though after a week a clearer picture occurred.   As documents were released, it was clear that various agencies were confused on exactly what happened and why, but that as soon as they put the pieces together, the information was made public.   Not only is there no evidence to support a cover up, but massive evidence to the contrary.

So then they tried to shift the scandal to saying the US didn’t reinforce the mission, or send help fast enough.   Quickly these were debunked.  The critics are left to imagine scandal by fantasy, hoping there is some new information out there.

So why suddenly jump on an innocuous e-mail uncovered, which doesn’t contradict any existing evidence, to bring the scandal back up?   Surely the GOP insiders know that this isn’t a winner for them with the voters – and they have to be smart enough to know that no scandal exists.   They are hoping that Clinton decides not to run for the Presidency, perhaps fearing that questions on Benghazi will haunt her.

In that, it is morphing from a GOP effort to find a scandal against Obama to an attack on Clinton’s competence.    Any hearings that are held will focus on picking apart what the State Department did and finding anything to criticise.  Even the fact she was not consulted on security before the attack is used against her – “in such a dangerous situation why weren’t you more engaged?” But it would be odd for the Secretary of State to be consulted on specific security details.

It won’t work.  The GOP will not convince Clinton to eschew running in 2016.   If anything this will get her more enthused; she’s not the kind of person to back down.   She’s also smart enough to know that if the GOP use this against her in 2016, it gives her openings to fire back in ways that would help, rather than hurt her campaign.

Hillary in 1996 before testifying on the Whitewater scandal.

Hillary in 1996 before testifying on the Whitewater scandal.

She’s also not afraid to confront scandal head on.  In the early years of her husband’s administration the far right tried to drum up a scandal about development deal called “Whitewater.”   They failed.   When she suffered personal loss when her attorney Vince Foster committed suicide, they said she had him killed.    When US Treasury Secretary Ron Brown was killed in a plane crash in Croatia, many said she was behind it.   Hillary’s dealt with the crazies before, and came out on top.

But that’s what this Benghazi side show is about – trying to pressure Hillary not to run.   When she does run, they’ll use it try to tear her down.   It won’t work – she’ll win or lose based on the larger campaign.

Yet it is sad that so many are willing to politicize the attack.   To me the correct response is to try to learn what went wrong and how to prevent a future attack than to use 20/20 hindsight for political gang.  Even more disgusting is the effort to try to turn this into a scandal.   That shows just how dysfunctional the political culture in Washington has become.

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Like a James Bond Plot

The plot of Air Force One - where Hijackers take over the President's flight and Harrison Ford (the President) gets back control, is only slightly less unrealistic than what seems now to be happening!

The plot of Air Force One – where Hijackers take over the President’s flight and Harrison Ford (the President) gets back control, is only slightly less unrealistic than what seems now to be happening!

When I first heard about the Malaysian airlines “missing plane” with 239 on board, I didn’t pay much attention.   Air crashes are actually rare, but when they happen everyone notices.   There are far more automobile deaths (if you fly, the most dangerous part of the trip is the ride to the airport) and almost nobody notices.

Then things went from dull to really bizarre.  The plane’s engines sent out signals that proved the plane was flying at least five hours after it disappeared from radar.  The signals didn’t give much data, only proof the plane was still in the air, somewhere.   Beyond that, the communication systems with the ground had been manually disengaged, something very difficult to do.

Then the reports said that the plane briefly rose to 45,000 feet, high enough to render the crew and passengers (anyone not prepared) unconscious.  That way the hijackers could easily confiscate cell phones from passengers and restrain them – or maybe even kill them.   They flew where there was little or no radar, and may have used “terrain masking” and other techniques to avoid detection.

To what end?

This is a Banacek style mystery!

This is a Banacek style mystery!

Two reactions.  The first is politically incorrect – WOW, I’m impressed!   The skill to implement such a plan, avoid detection and pull it off is really amazing.  This is something from a James Bond film – where the super villain manages some bizarre act of sabotage, like stealing nuclear missiles.   I can’t deny a little admiration for someone with the guts and cunning to pull off such a feat.  Friedrich Nietzsche would approve.

But of course I am deep down a humanist who does not want terrorists to use this in some nefarious plot, so my second reaction is to hope that, like in James Bond films, there is some 007 like team rooting out the villains, ultimately saving the day.

Theories range from the pilot doing this as an act of protest against the Malaysian government to the first step of some al qaeda like attack, perhaps focused on shutting down Saudi oil ports like Ras Tanura.

Hitting any of these oil ports, especially Ros Tanura, could be devastating to the world economy

Hitting any of these oil ports, especially Ras Tanura, could be devastating to the world economy

We just don’t know.   It’s creating a media drama unlike anything else recently.  A mystery!  Danger!  Lives at stake!  Conspiracy theories!  My favorite – some anti-terror expert in the UK thinks its possible someone with a mobile phone could have taken control of the plane.  Think what that would mean for airline safety!   Right now it’s a fascinating story to watch unfold.   Hopefully it’ll conclude with the passengers freed and little damage done.

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Obama Critics Are Misguided

The President addresses the nation on September 10, 2013

The President addresses the nation on September 10, 2013

President Obama’s patience on Syria is yielding perhaps the best policy outcome, even though the process is causing especially the far right to froth at the mouth in condemning Obama for “weakness” or “ineptitude” or a host of things.   Of course, within the GOP you have Senator Rand Paul saying that Obama wants to “ally with al qaeda” by opposing Assad, while Senator McCain wants to “help the anti-Assad rebellion.” That means that Paul says fellow Republican John McCain wants to “ally with al qaeda.”   And they criticize Obama?

A few points about the Syria case so far.  The core of the White House response has been consistent and clear:   1) the US and the international community should not tolerate the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government against civilians; 2) it is not in the US national interest to get involved in a bloody, on going war in Syria, nor is it in the US national interest to “go it alone” if the rest of the international community does not want to act in enforcement of the norms against WMD; and 3) the United States cannot act effectively if the country is not on board, meaning that Congress must approve any action taken.

The critics of Obama make the error of black and white thinking.   They think that if the US believes number 1 to be true, then the US has no choice but to act.   Not acting would be weakness, or sacrificing principle.   That’s the kind of “all or nothing” thinking that led us to the debacle in Iraq.   We may oppose the act of a foreign dictator but choose not to intervene – there have been horrific acts undertaken over the last century, rarely have we intervened.   The US has only intervened when it is in the US interest.

However in this case President Obama is dealing with a world that is much different than that of the past; instead of leading the “West” in a bipolar world, the US is major power in a multi-polar world which operates under different principles than before.   The Cold War world is past, both at home and abroad the US faces a fundamentally altered foreign policy reality.

McCain's not happy with the new GOP isolationists (Paul and McCain)

McCain’s not happy with the new GOP isolationists – Paul and McCain

The division between McCain and Paul illustrate the transformation.   Paul represents an “isolationist Republican” of the kind not seen since the early post-war years.   At that time anti-Communism morphed the party into a hawkish interventionist stance, one that has been pretty consistent through the Iraq War.   McCain represents a “Cold War Republican” whose view of the US is that of a global leader of the West, shaping world politics to fit American values and interests.   That role was possible in a bipolar world where other “western” states ad no real choice but to support the US.  They relied on the US for self-defense and for preserving the global free trade system upon which post-war growth was based.   The US could call the shots and expect others to jump.

Obama isn’t the first to realize the world has changed.   President Clinton found it extremely difficult to put his Kosovo coalition together, and President Bush had active opposition from France and Germany to his Iraq plans.   They colluded with Russia, something that obviously would have never happened in the Cold War.  The fact of the matter is the US is now a powerful player in a multi-polar world, with the East-West divide a thing of the past.  McCain’s Cold War mentality is obsolete.

Like it or not, the policies in Iraq and Afghanistan have weakened the US

Like it or not, the policies in Iraq and Afghanistan have weakened the US

The US cannot demand support from the “rest of the West” nor expect to receive it.   The debacle in Iraq shows the limits of US military power, and assures that other states neither fear nor worry about the consequences of opposing the US.  To be sure, Assad himself fears a US military attack, but also knows that the US no longer is a dominant world power.

Russia has been shielding the Assad regime from UN action; if Obama can bring Russia on board for some kind of action, it's a win

Russia has been shielding the Assad regime from UN action; if Obama can bring Russia on board for some kind of action, it’s a win

Moreover, politics at home are fractured, and it’s hardly Obama’s fault.  Assad’s ability to play the American right wing and get them to all but embrace him is an example of a domestic political situation where the far right oppose Obama so virulently that they do not want to have a united foreign policy.   McCain isn’t part of that group – he and others like Senator Graham, who have been harsh in their criticism of Obama on other fronts, are ready to support the President now.   They just find a party more extreme and virulent than in the past.

Mix the weakened state of the US on the world stage with the fractured and dysfunctional politics at home, and the US simply is not the world power it used to be.  It’s not Obama’s fault, or Bush’s fault or any one person’s fault – it’s a result of global and domestic political dynamics that have been building for over twenty years.

Yet despite that, Obama may end up with a real success on Syria – limited international action without risking US prestige and soldiers, advancing at least somewhat the norm against chemical weapons while pressuring the Syrian government.    He’s handling the situation with finesse, patience, and a dose of realism.   He understands the constraints, and seems to comprehend that the world of 2013 is part of a new foreign policy era.   The naysaying pundits can throw out their ad hominems, but the President appears immune to their sting.

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Blaming the Media

To the Romney campaign there is one reason their candidate is doing poorly: the media.

Perhaps the worst sign for Mitt Romney supporters is the obsession conservative pundits have with blaming the media for their candidate’s lack of popularity.  Blaming the media is always the last recourse of a campaign in distress, and on the right it’s been a kind of security blanket, helping them avoid confronting hard realities.  Rather than question whether or not their message resonates with American voters, they say it would if only the media would frame it correctly.

There’s a kind of disconnect when people who watch Fox news and listen to talk radio complain about media bias — indeed, what they’re really complaining about is that the media doesn’t share the Fox news bias!

Consider:  Mitt Romney’s leaked tape was a big story – one of the biggest in the campaign, coming just over six weeks before the election.   The attack in Libya was also big news, a small but deadly terror attack on the 11th anniversary of 9-11.   Both got play.   Tough questions were asked.

To the right: the media should be focused like a laser on Obama’s “crumbling narrative” about what happened in Libya.   At least that’s claim Mona Charen makes is an especially whiney and vapid article attacking the press as being pro-Obama.   So what is the “crumbling narrative?”   Well, to find that you have to read a right wing interpretation of the news, since it doesn’t come from the White House.

President Obama calls the attack in Libya a terrorist attack that was coordinated, and not a spontaneous response to a movie.    Beyond that they so far refuse to say more until they finish their investigation.    The White House has been pretty consistent on that, even if they did criticize the intolerance and dishonesty of a video which sparked protests in other parts of the Mideast.

But the right wants a crumbling narrative, so they construct it through a patchwork of quotes taken out of context, building an artificial narrative they then can ridicule.    Take a few quotes from the UN Ambassador, take another quote here or there from minor officials, ignore all the statements from the President and Secretary of State, and then claim that Obama says the attacks were purely in response to the video and weren’t terror attacks.

Huh?    Oh, it gets better.   They then take the President’s claim that overall this is a bump in the road in the process of change for the region and say Obama is heartlessly calling the death of a diplomat “a bump.”

To get the GOP narrative, you need The Onion!   Yet, Charen claims, that’s how the press should be focused.    Anything else is a pro-Obama conspiracy.

That’s it?   That’s proof the press is supporting Obama?   Oh, Charen says, there’s more – Obama made a gaffe in Poland a year or so ago by mistakenly saying “Polish death camps” on a visit.   I remember that, the press and conservatives skewered Obama for days.   But now, Charen whines, the press should be praising Romney for getting what was “basically” an endorsement from Lech Walesa, who stood up to Communism.   Instead, she complains, the press covered an outburst from a Romney aide.

If this is a vast conspiracy, why does she have to reach way back to July to find evidence?   And is she saying the press shouldn’t have covered the outburst?   Earth to Charen, you swear at reporters it’ll get covered regardless of who does it! But the press did cover Walesa’s comments.    She fails to mention that Walesa (who has some of his own scandals) did not have the support of his own party, whose leadership rejected Romney for his anti-labor stance.    That doesn’t fit the narrative Charen believes the press should follow.

It’s not just the right – critics on the left deride the media corporate shills

Either one of two things are happening.   If you’re a Romney supporter,  you better hope it’s the first.

1.   The Romney campaign knows things are going poorly so they’re trying to pressure the press to give them good coverage.   They want to get the press to tell things the way the Romney camp wants it told.

That’s fine, though Charen’s article makes a pretty poor case.   But if the perception gets created that the press is unfair, they might go more gently on Romney.   Can’t blame them for trying that – Kerry’s campaign made similar complaints in 2004.

2.   Romneyworld is so locked into its view of reality that it truly believes they are victims of a media conspiracy and don’t understand that their campaign is the problem.

If that’s happening, Romney is toast.    They’re getting poor coverage because they are running a bad campaign.   This is not controversial, pundit after pundit on the right has been saying the same thing.     They’re doing poorly because Romney is not a good candidate.   People don’t like him, he let himself get defined by the Obama team last summer and hasn’t done much of anything to define himself.

It’s a close race, but Obama has the lead.   If Romney’s going to turn it around he has to turn around his campaign.   A first move is to stop whining.   When you whine it reinforces the image that you’re losing.     More importantly, he has to show he’s a leader.   Right now Romney appears to be a follower – a moderate who has veered to the right because that’s what his campaign wants.   People don’t think he believes in anything or has clear principles.   He is, in essence, the anti-Reagan.

“Stop it. This is hard work. Do you want to try it?” Ann Romney’s words could also be said to defend the replacement refs in the NFL. It is hard. But right now the Romney campaign team is operating with the same quality of work that the replacement refs provide to the NFL.

Consider Romney’s own words:  “And I realize that there will be some in the Fourth Estate, or whichever estate, who are far more interested in finding something to write about that is unrelated to the economy, to geopolitics, to the threat of war, to the reality of conflict in Afghanistan today, to a nuclearization of Iran. They’ll instead try and find anything else to divert from the fact that these last four years have been tough years for our country.”

(Whichever estate?)

Get it – the media should ONLY write about the economy, geopolitics, the threat of war, or Iran.   Covering the campaign or what the candidates say, do or plan is a distraction.   It doesn’t work that way, Mitt – it never has.  The media cover a myriad of topics, and when an embarrassing tape is leaked, they’ll cover it.    They covered Obama’s and Biden’s gaffes too.  Remember all the play the Biden “in chains” comment got?   These same critics and the Romney campaign were all over Biden for a week on that!  And who made an out of context “you didn’t build that” quote the center point of their convention?

No matter how the right pushes the “media conspiracy” line, it’s a sure loser.    It’s the Romney campaign’s fault that they’re in the position they are in.   Only they can change it.

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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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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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The Folly of Striking Iran

Iran's Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Right now President Obama’s chances of re-election look good.    The Republicans are in disarray, he has no primary challenger and most importantly the economy appears on an upswing.   Taken together, the stars are aligning for the President better than any time since early in his Administration.   In politics, timing is everything.   However, lurking under the radar screen of most Americans is the possibility of an Israeli or (less likely) American strike on suspected Iranian nuclear facilities.

Already President Obama is being criticized for not giving Israel high tech bunker busting weaponry that could increase the chances (but not guarantee) that an Israeli strike would work.    The CIA has consistently said that they do not think Iran is close to possessing a nuclear weapon and many doubt they actually want to go through with producing one.   There are also serious doubts about Iran’s delivery systems.

The reason both Presidents Bush and Obama have tried to hold Israel back is that such a strike is not at all in the US national interest.   A nuclear Iran (like the nuclear North Korea) would be an irritant, but not a major threat.

If Israel or the US struck Iran, however, the results could be devastating.  Oil prices would certainly skyrocket putting the economy back into recession just in time for the election.    President Obama would likely lose, especially if his base was infuriated by him starting another offensive war.   The Euro crisis would deepen as well, and the world economy would be back where it was in 2008 – or worse.   And that’s a best case scenario!

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak: What are they thinking?

In a worst case scenario the bombing unleashes a series of attacks on US interests in the region.   The Shi’ites in Iraq radicalize and ally with Iran, the Taliban uses this to incite the youth in Afghanistan, Hezbollah and Hamas launch terror strikes against Israel, and the region drifts towards the worst regional war since 1973.

Hezbollah remains a threat - one that Israel underestimated in 2006

Oil prices could rise to astronomical heights, the straits of Hormuz could be closed, Saudi oil facilities attacked, and unrest against even stable regimes like that of Saudi Arabia could grow.

From the US perspective there is little upside to an attack on Iran.   The only interest the Iranians can directly threaten is the oil supply, but the risk is small.   Especially since prices are unlikely to drop precipitously, the US and Iran share an interest in keeping Persian Gulf oil flowing.   And the Carter doctrine still applies – nobody thinks that Iranian nukes would deter a US response to Iranian aggression threatening the flow of oil.  Iran would be loathe to escalate such a crisis to the nuclear level since that would mean the end of the Islamic Republic.

The Persian Gulf

Iran’s power would grow in a region includes the Arab states, Israel, Russia, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan.   All other things being equal the US would prefer Iran be a weaker rather than a stronger regional power, but there are many options to balance Iranian power and contain any effort to extend it.   There would be concerns of further proliferation, but there would be many ways to prevent that.

Another indirect threat would be that Iran would give nuclear technology to terror organizations.   That sounds scary, but a country that works hard to gain a nuclear weapon does not give up control of them to people they can’t control.    Even now Iran limits what it gives groups like Hezbollah – and the Iranians certainly don’t want Hezbollah hotheads provoking a nuclear strike on Iran!

Remembering how wrong the US was about the Iraq war it would be a mistake to assume an attack on Iran would be low risk.   The war in Iraq was supposed to be easy, cheap, and yield a stable, safe pro-American ally offering us permanent regional bases.   None of that turned out to be the case.

The main dangers in striking Iran:  1)  There might be no benefit at all as Iran may have successfully decoyed its program; 2) This could severely undercut the reform movement in Iran, whose success would do more than anything to support US regional interests; 3)  After years of decreased influence and appeal, al qaeda and other radical groups could benefit from the US launching another war of aggression and the terrorist threat could spike dramatically, undermining our counter-terrorism efforts; 4) An oil price spike could not only bring us back into recession, but if the crisis were to drag on global depression is quite possible; 5) Iran could respond to an attack by escalating the war to create regional instability.

In the case of number 5, the US would see no alternative but to try to create “regime change” in Tehran.   This would cause unrest in the US.   Strong, angry domestic opposition to such a war would be far more intense than the opposition to the war in Iraq – national stability would be jeopardized, especially if an unpopular war were to be accompanied by deep recession or depression.    In short, this could lead to a crisis far more severe than any yet faced by the US or perhaps the industrialized West in the modern era.

Protests against the Iraq war were relatively mild; a war with Iran could unleash far more division

To be sure, it is possible that a strike could succeed and Iran would refrain from responding.  That’s the best case scenario.    The best case scenario is probably more likely than the worst case scenario, though most likely is something in between.

I cannot imagine people at the Pentagon and in the Department of Defense seeing any persuasive rationale for a strike against Iran.   I can imagine they will pull all the stops to assure that Israel refrain from its own strike, perhaps even suggesting that US support for the Jewish state cannot be assured if they start the war.

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Arab Winter?

The good news that Egypt has finally had free elections was for many people overshadowed by the preliminary results of the first round of voting.  While the face of the “Arab Spring” had been young and modern, the elections are currently being led by overtly Islamicist parties with a history of fundamentalism and extremism.

The largest party, the PLJ, defines itself as moderate Islamist and won 36.6% of the vote so far.  The El-Nour fundamentalist party got 24.3%, while the liberal Egyptian block gained 13.4% and the Nationalist party 7%.   What this means, however, is not as bad as the alarmists would claim.  First, this is the first round of elections; there are a lot more votes to count before we know what the make up of parliament ultimately will be.

These elections were to the lower house, where 332 representatives are elected through party lists, while 166 are elected on a majoritarian system, which includes run off elections.   The party list system is a multi member district system, with each district containing 4 to 12 seats.   More rounds of voting will be held before we know the actual make up of the parliament, and what kind of ruling coalition will take over.   Most likely it would not be the PLJ and the fundamentalist al-Nour because the former does not want to be painted with the extremist brush the latter inspires (they want to ban alcohol and take a Saudi like approach to the law).

In February the upper house (Shura Council) will be elected, with Presidential elections in March.   The new Parliament is to choose a 100 member council to draft a new Constitution, but the Military Council now running Egypt will limit the power of the new parliament and claims it has the authority to name 80 of the 100 members to the constitution council.   Meanwhile, youth protests continue and any new government (including the military council) knows that if protests could overthrow Mubarak, they can overthrow a new government that tries anything radical.    Those who want to write Egypt off over incomplete early results are over-reacting.

The Arab spring – probably the most important event of 2011, though part of a series of transitions going on globally – was all but inevitable.   Like most historical shifts from the reformation to the fall of Communism, it could have happened at a different time or in a different way, but the mix of globalization and demography — half of the Arab world is under age 22 — meant that the old order could not survive.  The fact that it rose in a completely unexpected manner in response to the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi after his humiliation by the Tunisian bureaucracy shows something was boiling under the surface.   The speed at which it spread across the Arab world shows the region had become a powder keg ready to explode

Mohamed Bouazizi sets himself ablaze, igniting the Tunsian uprising

Yet the transition from being part of the most repressive part of the planet towards some kind of democratic future is not easy.   We in the west sometimes romanticize democracy as some kind of natural form of government that all should aspire to.  Yet democratic political cultures are hard to construct and maintain.   Until they really gain acceptance in the broad public, they easily can be undermined.   The difficulties across the Arab world are immense.

Almost the entire region is rated "not free," as the Arab world has been the most oppressive region of the planet

In Egypt one can imagine a scenario where the Islamic extremists try to take full power.   That would likely lead to a war of sorts between the Egyptian military and the Muslim brotherhood and other such groups, with the military winning.   Such a result would lead to a kind of militarized democracy, much like Turkey experienced in its early years.

Of course, groups like the Muslim Brotherhood know that, and realize that they have to walk a fine line between pushing for their agenda and not angering the military or protesters.   They are just as likely to ally with a liberal party and work for a unified Egyptian voice.   That could ultimately isolate the extremists and allow the development of an open, moderate form of political Islam alongside secular parties.   That would be the best result, as ultimately political Islam should be part of the future, not an enemy of change.

Moreover, while one can point to a lot of extremism within the Islamic parties in Egypt, there is also diversity and considerable moderate and even modern ideals.   The battle within political Islam for the Arab mind and soul is intense.  They can’t ignore the factors of globalization and demographics, nor can they simply grab control of the military.    The military sees itself like the old Turkish military after Attaturk, a guarantor of Egyptian stability and a protection against extremism.  Egyptian military officials have close ties with Israel, and are no doubt working to assure the Israelis that they have the situation under control.

A vision of a new Egypt: Coptic Christians surrounding Muslims at prayer time to protect them from Egyptian police last February

A best case scenario is the Egyptian military brokering deals between various interest groups and winning over support from protesters who start to realize that idealism alone does not bring freedom and prosperity.  Political Islam can define itself by rejecting anti-Western activism, accepting the legitimacy of Israel (even while demanding a Palestinian state) and rejecting the extremes of al qaeda and al-Nour.   This would play itself out over years, with parliaments and even the President gaining more control and authority slowly, based on a new Constitution that would limit what the government can do.

So is Arab spring slipping to Arab winter?   No, at least not yet.  We should be applauding Egypt’s first free election and recognizing that the task they are undertaking is exceedingly difficult.  Most important, we should not write off political Islam as an enemy or a threat.   That could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.    Instead we need to quietly offer support where we can, help if asked, and recognize that this is an Egyptian and Arab journey — their reality to make, not ours.   And, though naive optimism for a sudden rise of democracy is misplaced, so is a similarly naive pessimism that the region will collapse into some kind of extremist Islamic state ready to battle the West.

It is good that they’ve begun this journey, and ultimately history suggests that those who go against the course of history the way the Islamic extremists do tend to lose.    The Egyptians are trying to do within a generation what it took the west centuries to do — with a lot of violence and horrors along the way.   The start of this journey has been delayed too long; now thanks to young people willing to risk their lives for freedom, Egyptians have a chance for a better future.

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