Archive for category Egypt

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.

iransyriamap

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.

2 Comments

Don’t Panic Over Egypt

Back in 2011 the Arab world started a process of change that was long overdue, and hindered by the way the US and oil rich Arab states had helped keep in place obsolete political structures that embraced authoritarianism, nepotism, corruption, and brutality.   While some cynically defended such support as being “in our interests” – Mubarak may be a son of a bitch, but he’s friendly to us – that is an incredibly short sighted and naive world view.

There is no way the Arab world of the late 20th Century could be reproduced well into the 21st Century.   Globalization, changing world dynamics, and the information revolution meant that anachronistic regimes had to perish.  To persist they’d have to engage in increasingly brutal measures, such as those being undertaken by Assad in Syria.   The world is changing, including the Mideast.

Yet others took an equally naive view in thinking change would be easy.    To expect a country that has been ruled by authoritarian means for decades, built on centuries of the brutal Ottoman dictatorship, to change to a modern democracy in a short period of time would be a pipe dream.   The world doesn’t work that way.

The option was never democracy or dictatorship, it was an increasingly brutal dictatorship vs. a slow difficult decades long process of modernization and change.    Consider how long it took the US to build a democracy of the kind we expect others to leap to overnight.   We had slavery for 80 years, women couldn’t vote for 120.   We only changed as fast as our culture changed, we didn’t have 1813 America being pressured to create institutions acceptable to 2013 America!

That said, it won’t take that long for the Arab world to change.   Globalization is forcing an increased pace of change, within a generation or two I expect a modernized yet still Islamic and culturally unique Mideast.   Yet that means there is likely to be 20 to 40 years of continued flux, perhaps with terrorism, extremism, and conflict.

That’s how the world changes.   As much as I prefer peace, would love it if we’d all just understand each others’ perspectives and empathize, power is a corrupting drug.     Power is to the political system what cocaine is to an individual’s system.  It creates a belief in ones’ invincibility and a willingness to take absurd chances and not recognize ones’ own limitations.

Assad and his cadre in Syria are playing that game, unable to comprehend that the power they enjoy can dissipate in a moment.  Mubarak learned that lesson, and though he may be under House arrest rather than in prison, it’s unlikely that the process of change will go backwards.

So for all those whiny pundits who think that somehow problems in Egypt are the fault of America (or in the case of manythe right, all the world’s problems can be laid at Obama’s feet), it’s time to relax.   The dynamic underway in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world is in its early stages.   We can’t and shouldn’t yearn for a return to anachronistic dictatorial thugs.  We shouldn’t pick sides or choose enemies, but instead put forth principles we’ll support.

Fifty years ago Martin Luther King gave his historic “I have a Dream” speech, an event being celebrated this weekend.  Let’s not just keep that dream as a unique part of the American past, but find a way to communicate the principles involved into foreign policy.  With globalization, it’s no longer a Realpolitik world of myopic self interest without regards to morality and principle.   Principles matter, and its our principles, not our guns, that will provide positive influence on others.

12 Comments

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.

10 Comments

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.

19 Comments

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.

Leave a comment

Gaddafi Dead

Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi is dead 42 years after he took power.   Having already lost Libya he was holed up in Sirte, his stronghold, fighting to the last minute.    Gaddafi was the Osama Bin Laden of the 1980s for Americans.    He was an organizer of state sponsored terrorism, a supporter of radical anti-American movements around the globe and had ambitions to control all of northern Africa.

The only bad news in this is that he lasted so long.  He was one of the most heinous criminals on the world stage and while there is justifiable celebration over his demise, his brutal criminal regime terrorized the Libyan people for over four decades.     In 1986 the US attempted to kill Gaddafi in bombing raids, seeing him as the most dangerous dictator on the planet.  This was a response to Libyan backed terrorism in Germany in which the LaBelle nightclub in West Berlin was bombed, killing three and injuring 229.   That was a nightclub known to be frequented by US military personnel so the US felt justified in trying to take out Gaddafi.    It failed because he was warned (either by the Italian or Maltese Prime Minister) ahead of time.

Two years later, on December 21, 1988 Gaddafi got his revenge as Libyan agents caused a bomb to go off on Pan Am Flight 103, which went down over Lockerbie, Scotland.    259 passengers and crew members died as well as 11 people on the ground who got hit by falling debris.    Calls for Gaddafi’s ouster intensified, but he hung on.

But his geopolitical ambitions were already on the wane.   Libya had lost a war to Chad in 1987 and within a year of downing Pan Am 103 the Soviet bloc disintegrated.    The world was changing, and Gaddafi’s influence declined.   After having tried to become a nuclear power in order to cement his leadership position in northern Africa, his WMD programs became a drain on the economy and increasingly meaningless.    As his political ambitions waned his family became more liked an organized criminal syndicate running a state. They siphoned wealth from Libya’s oil revenues, controlled economic relations internally, and ruled with an iron fist.

In 1999 they gave up their WMD program as part of a strategy to gain favor with the West.    It was a cynical shifting of position in recognition to the fact that Gaddafi and his family now had more to gain as a friend of the West rather than a foe.  They then settled the Lockerbie bombing case and promising to work with the West against its newest foe, al qaeda.   Unfortunately leaders in Europe and the US were all too willing to “forgive and forget” Gaddafi’s past.  By 2001 he had been weakened but now used better connections with the West to enhance his grip on power and buy support.

Yet he remained what he always had been: a ruthless tyrant.

Then on February 15, 2011 the arrest of human rights activist Fethi Tarbel sparked a riot in Benghazi.   The unthinkable happened – the Libyan people rose up and defied Gaddafi, starting a revolt.   They had early gains; emboldened by events in Tunisia and Egypt they hoped to bring down the repressive regime.   Gaddafi, seeing how Mubarak folded and was humiliated, decided to do everything in his power to defeat the rebellion.   He used ethnic rivalries, his control of resources, and the Libyan military to strike back.   Soon the rebels were losing ground.  Gaddafi, believing that the West would simply stand back, promised “no mercy” as he moved his military in position to crush the rebellion completely.   Most observers were expecting harsh retribution against those who had dared challenge his authority.   Gaddafi’s sons, once seen as reflecting hope that perhaps the next generation would bring more enlightened rule, echoed the threats.

On March 17th after Gaddafi’s forces took back most of Libya and were advancing no Benghazi the UN Security Council ordered a no fly zone over parts of Libya and authorized air strikes against Gaddafi’s forces.  On March 19th those airstrikes began and the government offensive was halted.   Slowly the rebels started to regain ground.    At first there was intense criticism of the UN action, enforced mostly by NATO airstrikes.  President Obama was criticized by some for acting too slow, but by many for doing anything at all.     As the fighting dragged into summer people accused the President of entering a conflict that could not be won.

NATO leaders knew that it was a matter of time.    With NATO air support the rebels would defeat the government, and it would be months rather than years.  They were right.   In August rebel forces entered Tripoli, and with Gaddafi’s death the rebellion is complete.

Gruesome image of Gaddafi after he was killed

Was this a success for President Obama?  Undoubtedly yes.   A dictator just as heinous and brutal as Saddam was overthrown, yet by his own people thanks to assistance from the West.  No American lives were lost, and the cost was far less than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.   This proved that the West will not always side with oppressive regimes if their people rise against them, and that the West is powerful enough and patient enough to offer effective assistance to those fighting oppression.   Moreover without western help it was clear that Gaddafi was going to crush the rebels with brutal force.

This also showed that the US was still relevant in the region; many thought that after the Iraq war’s high cost and ambiguous conclusion (still being played out), the US would be sidelined for quite awhile.  No way would the public support another foreign intervention.   Perhaps more important is the message this sends to other dictators.   The times are changing.   Being pro-western in your policy does not buy you a free pass to oppress your people without mercy.

President Obama’s foreign policy is a mix of realism and idealism.   He doesn’t sacrifice democratic principles for raw self interest, but he’s been willing to act even if it goes against international law.    Such “principled realism” has marked American foreign policy at its most effective, and for all Obama’s economic woes at home, his foreign policy has been strong.   Gaddafi and Osama are dead.  Clinton and Karzai are in Afghanistan planning how to end NATO involvement there, while there is serious talk of the US being out of Iraq completely by next year (except for military guards at the US embassy).   US status abroad is much higher than it was in 2008, and relations with important powers such as China and Russia have been smoother than expected.

Recent US allegations of Iranian plots to assassinate the Saudi ambassador have led to Iranian bombast against the US and Saudi Arabia.   But the Iranians know that Obama is not one to be pushed around, and instead of provoking an Iranian challenge to the US, there has been an internal challenge to Iran’s hardline leadership.   It’s not inconceivable that Iran’s hardliners will be pushed aside by a more moderate faction.  The patient but real successes of Obama’s foreign policy have been a relatively untold story thanks to economic woes, but it appears that one area where Obama will not be vulnerable next year is on foreign policy.

2 Comments

A Better Kind of Regime Change?

When President Obama called on President Assad of Syria to leave office last week it was a sign that Gaddafi was the verge of losing Libya.  Obama made clear that the West would continue the strategy of aiding popular uprisings through diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions and low levels of military support.   His message to the Syrian people was clear: Don’t give up.   President Obama, like President Bush before him, has a strategy designed to promote regime change.   It’s less risky than the one embraced by Bush, but can it succeed?

President George W. Bush went into Iraq with a bold and risky foreign policy.   He wanted regime change led by the US, so the US could shape the new regional order.   The Bush Administration understood that the dictators of the Mideast were anachronistic — out of place in the globalizing 21st Century.  Surveying the region directly after 9-11-01, while the fear of Islamic extremism was still intense, they reckoned that the benefactors of the coming instability would be Islamic extremists.   This would create more terror threats and perhaps lead to an existential threat against Israel.

Emboldened by the end of the Cold War and the belief that the American economy was unstoppable, they gambled.  What if the US went into Iraq, ousted Saddam, and then used Iraq as a take off point for further regime change throughout the region?

The formula was clear: invade, use America’s massive military to overthrow a regime, and then pour in resources to rebuild the country and make friends.    The Bush Administration thoroughly under-estimated the task at hand and over-estimated the US capacity to control events.     Their effort to reshape the Mideast failed.   By 2006 Iraq was mired in civil war, and President Bush was forced to change strategy.   Bush’s new realism was designed to simply create conditions of stability enough to allow the US to get out of Iraq with minimal damage to its prestige and national interests.   President Obama has continued that policy.

However, when governments in Tunisia and Egypt fell in early 2011, and rebellions spread around the region creating the so called “Arab Spring,” it became clear that the dynamics the Bush Administration noticed a decade earlier were still in play.   These dictatorships are not going to last.   Some may hold on for years with state terror against their own citizens; others will buy time by making genuine reforms.   But the old order in the Mideast is starting to crumble, and no one is sure what is next.

President Obama choose a new strategy in 2010, much maligned by both the right and left.   Instead of standing back and letting Gaddafi simply use his military power to crush the rebellion, Obama supported NATO using its air power to grant support for the rebels.    That, combined with diplomatic efforts to isolate Gaddafi and his supporters, financial moves to block Libyan access to its foreign holdings, and assistance in the forms of arms and intelligence to the rebels, assured that Gaddafi could not hold on.

Gaddafi’s fall creates the possibility that NATO assets could be used against Syria in a similar effort.   Moreover, it shows that the argument that those who use force will survive while those who try to appease the protesters will fall is wrong.   Survival is not assured by using force, the world community does not ‘forgive and forget’ like it did in the past.

The strategy is subtle.  Like President Bush, Obama’s goal is a recasting of the entire region; unlike his predecessor, Obama’s chosen a lower risk,  patient, longer-term strategy.    If Bush was the Texas gambler, Obama is the Chicago chess master.   But will it work?    Is this really a better form of regime change?

President Bush’s policy was one with the US in control, calling the shots, and providing most of the resources.   President Obama’s approach is to share the burden, but give up US control over how the policy operates.   It is a true shift from unilateralism to multi-lateralism.   While many on the left are against any use of the military, President Obama shares the Bush era view that doing nothing will harm US interests.   The longer the dictatorships use repression, the more likely that Islamic extremism will grow.   The more friendly the US is to dictatorial repression, the more likely it is that future regimes will be hostile.

So the US now backs a multi-faceted multi-national strategy whereby constant pressure to used to convince insiders within Syria (and other Mideast countries) that supporting the dictator is a long term losing proposition.   Dictators cannot run the country on their own.   Even a cadre of leaders rely on loyalty from top military officials, police, and economic actors.   In most cases, their best bet is to support the dictator.   This gives them inside perks, and can be sustained for generations.  However, if the regime falls, these supporters lose everything.

The message President Obama and NATO are sending to the Syrians and others in the region is that they can’t assume that once stability is restored it will be business as usual.   The pressure on the regime, the sanctions, the freezing of assets, and various kinds of support for the protesters will continue.   As more insiders decide to bet against the regime a tipping point is reached whereby change becomes likely.

For this to work a number of things must happen.   First, a stable government must emerge in Libya.  It needs to be broad based, including (but co-opting) Islamic fundamentalists.   The West has to foster good relations with the new government, building on how important western support was in toppling the Libyan regime.  Second, the pressure on Syria cannot let up.   There has to be the will to keep this up for as long as it takes.    Third, the possibility of NATO air support has to be real — the idea is that if it appears that Syria might launch a devastating blow against the revolt, NATO will do what is necessary to bring it back to life.   Finally, the costs and risks of the operation must be kept low so the dictators cannot expect to wait out the West.

If this works, there could be a slow modernization and ultimately democratization of the Arab world, perhaps even spreading into Persian Iran.  If it fails the costs won’t be as monumental as the failure of the US in Iraq, but it will be a sign that Mideast instability in the future is unavoidable, and we have to be ready for dangerous instability.  Has President Obama found a better style of regime change?   Time will tell — and it may take years to know for sure.

4 Comments

Where is the Mideast Revolt leading?

Tunisia and Egypt are looking like success stories early on.   Libya is a mess.   Syria looks like it could be the next to fall.  Pressure in Iran is growing, and the small statelets of Bahrain and Yemen face on going unrest.  Yemen’s President Abdullah Saleh has already said he’s stepping down, but unrest continues.    This will take awhile to play itself out, and before it’s over even Saudi Arabia is likely to experience regime change.

All of this is good news in the sense that the old order was obsolete and doomed to fall.   The Arab people have been victims of governments bolstered by oil hungry powers willing to enable corrupt and ruthless tyrants in exchange for their black gold.   That can’t last forever, and the mix of the information revolution and demography have pushed the region to the tipping point and I suspect there is no going back.   In 1982 Assad could kill tens of thousands to maintain authority, but now images and angry flow across the country and world in a way that undermines the capacity for dictators to engage in the most severe atrocities.

The bad news, of course, is that the region does not have a tradition of stable democracy, and if anything the authoritarian rule of recent years has reinforced the tradition of ruthless power politics inherited from the Ottomans.   And while Turkey had Attaturk, leadership in the Arab world is diffuse.    So where will this unrest lead?

1.  Those who fear too much, and those who hope too much are probably wrong.    One view is that this will be a peoples’ revolt leading to stable modern democracies throughout the region.   Another view is that al qaeda and Islamic extremists will use this to grab power and that this will be a victory for Islamic extremism.    Both views are naive.   The former is naive about the difficulty in having a culture shift from pre-modern practices to a functioning democracy, the latter naively fears a force that does not have the hearts and minds of the people of the region.   Some people are very comfortable fearing Islam and thus enjoy imagining it as an existential threat.

2.  Iran is the most likely to succeed.   Some might think it odd that the one theocracy is most likely to end up with a modern democracy, but Iran is already half way there, with a culture more modern and with less of a tradition of ruthless oppression than the states of the Arab world.   Iran (which is not Arab) was never part of the Ottoman Empire, and had a period of secularization under the Shah.   It was a modernization done too quickly, too ruthlessly and with too little respect for existing traditions, but it has left its mark.   The Shah failed where Attaturk succeeded because he never had Attaturk’s popularity and was seduced by the West to serve as a pawn in the Cold War and energy games.    This made him feel comfortable with personal power, and focused less on his country than his own rule.

But anyone watching the 2009 protests know that the Iranian people want change.  Anyone who has followed the history of post-revolutionary Iran know that modernization has been continuing despite theocratic rule, and that democratic elections do take place, and are hotly contested.  The Guardian Council has been keen to avoid pushing the public too hard, and has shown a capacity in the past to reform.   At some point an internal coup could push less conservative clerics to the top and usher in a transition that could be gradual and popular.   An Islamic democracy may not be like a western democracy, but it can be truly democratic.  Iran may be closer to that point than a lot of people think, and the changes now are more threatening to Iran’s leaders than people realize.

3.  This process will take decades with numerous ups and downs.  Gaddafi could leave Libya tomorrow, Syria’s government could fall, or Gaddafi could hang on for years and the son of Assad could channel his father’s ruthlessness in asserting Baath party control.  Likely there will be dramatic successes like Egypt’s and major disappointments.   Authoritarian regimes will cling to power as long as they think they can win– and most remain in denial of the forces conspiring against them.

This means that it will be a long time before we can truly judge the efficacy of NATO policy, the UN or the US.   It also suggests that oil price increases will continue, forcing us to move more quickly on alternative energy sources, as well as developing domestic oil and natural gas (especially from shale natural gas fields — a potentially very rich source).   It also means that those who espouse hope and those who convey fear will each find a lot of evidence for their beliefs.   You can see that in Egypt where both sides find ample evidence to prove that their hopes/fears are legitimate.

Standing back, though, one has to recognize that the old corrupt authoritarian tyrannies of the Arab world have to go.   No transition will be smooth.  Tunisia and Egypt are doing probably as well as one could hope for, but expect controversy and messy situations in each country for years.   Look at how Nigeria is 12 years into its 3rd Republic and elections are still marked with charges of rigging and some post voting unrest.   These transitions take time.   If the transitions going well take time with numerous ups and downs, places like Libya and Saudi Arabia face the potential that their transitions could take over a generation.   Once the Saudi government starts to lose control, oil crises will be likely.   It will be tempting to think there is something we can do to “fix” things:   Either prop up the old tyrants or intervene to create a new democracy.

The former would be a mistakes because the tyrants are being overthrown by their own people thanks to the force of the information revolution and ideas imported from the West.   It would be wrong to help the dictators stay in power, and ultimately self-defeating.   They will fall, and we don’t want to be seen as being on their side.  The latter simply is beyond our capacity.   We’ve seen that in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Libya is a fresh example.  Libya may be a more realistic way to help — give assistance to indigenous freedom fighters — but it risks sucking us in to a difficult long term quagmire which will likely lack closure.   Even after Gaddafi goes it will be a long time before the transition is complete.

In short, we are watching a major historical event, the start of a transformation of the Arab world away from authoritarian corruption towards modern democracy.   It won’t be the same as the West, but it’s almost certainly not likely to revert to Islamic extremism.   It’s a new era, and we need to have 21st century thinking.   Perhaps the most dangerous thing to do is look at all this through 20th century political perspectives.   A world in motion requires that our thinking be in motion too.

6 Comments

Hypocrisy no Longer Feasible?

I’ve been watching events unfold in Libya with a mix of fascination and horror at the violence and the complexities of the situation.   It also makes clear a fundamental hypocrisy of the foreign policy of western states: We claim to promote freedom and democracy, when we really support and encourage dictatorship and repression.   If that hypocrisy is no longer feasible thanks to new media and globalization, foreign policy may become much more difficult — but perhaps also more principled.

In Libya it appeared clear the rebels had the upper hand early on — Generals were defecting to the other side, the international community was almost unanimous in condemning the Libyan leader, and Gaddafi’s rambling speeches seemed out of touch with reality.    His efforts to stoke western fears by blaming al qaeda or threatening Europe with a massive influx of African immigrants appeared pathetic and desperate.

However, whenever a state decides to fight back against a rebellion (rather than give in as Mubarak did), the state has considerable power and resources at its disposal.   Sovereignty grants the state a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, meaning that it can amass a large array of weapons and information to combat a rebellion.   It isn’t easy to overthrow an entrenched dictator, and enough people are implicated in Gaddafi’s regime and its crimes that he has many allies willing to risk it all to try to save the government.   They know that even if Gaddafi ends up in control of a “rump” Libya, they are protected from prosecution and retribution.   And if Gaddafi can create the impression he’s going to win, fence sitters will refuse to join the revolt, fearing a brutal retribution Gaddafi has proven he has no qualms about delivering.

For all the condemnations from the West, the fact is that a choice to engage in a “no fly zone,” targeted air strikes, or some kind of military assistance to the rebels could lead to an increasingly complex and difficult military operation.   At a time when Afghanistan seems to be as far as ever from stability, NATO and the US do not want to find themselves fighting a war in Libya, potentially supporting rebel groups that could ultimately have an anti-western agenda.   Libyan oil and investments are also considerable in the EU, especially for its former colonial ruler, Italy.   Even if the Saudis can keep oil flows stable (thereby demonstrating to the West the importance of Saudi Arabia avoiding strife — something most people prefer not to think about, despite the fact the Saudi regime is more oppressive than any other in the world save North Korea), short term ramifications could be painful, especially if the fighting goes on.

Yet it will be impossible to backdown from the condemnations of Gaddafi, the call for democratic change in Libya and a desire to make sure that war crimes do not go unpunished.

The essential dilemma is that during much of the 20th Century western calls for democracy and markets to spread have been rhetorical ploys, not truly embraced by its leaders.    The West has had no problem being cozy with dictators, as long as the dictators didn’t create international instability or engage in embarrassing human rights failures.   France even stuck with the Rwandan government well into a genocide witnessed by UN peace keepers on the ground!   The US overthrew democratic governments in Guatamala and Iran early in the Cold War, replacing them with brutal dictatorships.   We used repression and lack of freedom as a rationale to overthrow Saddam, even while maintaining our embrace of the Saudi royal family, whose rule was no less repressive.

For a long time we could maintain this bit of hypocrisy.   Most people in the US don’t really know much about the rest of the world, and the media has shown little interest in reporting about despotism and abuse elsewhere.    Every once in awhile a case will become a cause celebre, such as the Darfur region of Sudan, but most of the time third world wars and abuses get ignored.   The longest and most brutal war since World War II has taken place in the Congo, but how much coverage has that generated (and how many people even know about it)?    When we need an excuse to try to get rid of someone a problem for the national interest, such as Saddam Hussein or Manuel Noriega, then our leaders trot out the rhetoric for freedom, democracy and human rights.   The American people, appalled at the abuses of power by those dictators tend to support action to “help the people over there,” believing that we’re engaged in a virtuous and even selfless act of trying to promote our values.

The hypocrisy in that policy is glaringly obvious (and noticed outside the US), but tends not to make it into the consciousness of most Americans.    The fact is most leaders don’t believe third world countries are ready for democracy, and secretly accept and even support repression by leaders if it prevents instability.   Instability may lead to a growth for extremist groups rather than promoters of democracy after all.

But with al jazeera live streaming video and keeping blogs and constant reports from hot spots in the Arab world, and NGOs increasingly able to penetrate where once only governmental agencies could tread, western leaders may have to make an overt choice:  do we simply accept repression elsewhere and say it’s none of our business as long as our interests aren’t harmed, or do we put principle first?

And if we put principle first, what does that mean?   Does that require military action, or perhaps simply refusing to do things that help dictators?   And what about a case like Saudi Arabia, where we need their oil?   This is the dilemma President Bush was trying to solve when he went to war with Iraq, hoping US power could push the region to democratize, thereby serving both the national interest and principle.    The lesson from that war is humbling.   Even when we spend half the world’s military budget and are the dominant superpower, the ability to use that to shape politics on the ground is severely limited.   That lesson has to be considered when we think about Libya.  It sounds easy to say “impose a no fly zone, strike Gaddafi’s strong points” but defeating Saddam’s military was easy too.  Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to achieve the desired ends.

If hypocrisy is no longer feasible, that’s bad news for leaders and diplomats who embrace a realist approach that emphasizes stability over all else.    It may, however, force us to confront the actual dilemmas of engaging a world where democracy is a process difficult to achieve and maintain, even as it seems the best way to try to hold power accountable and protect human rights.    Ultimately if dictatorship is to give way to democracy, then at some point the West has to stop enabling the dictators.    It may not work to use military power to force change, but perhaps acting a bit more on principle by refusing to deal with or help those who abuse power and repress/abuse their citizens a step can be made towards positive change.   That will bring its own dilemmas and difficulties, but I’d rather approach those openly than fear standing up for what we believe in.

1 Comment

The trouble with Peak Oil…

Most indications are that world wide oil production is at its peak.  A recent Wikileaks document suggests that the US believes the Saudis are overstating oil reserves and are already at their peak.  If that’s true, the world may be producing more oil now than it ever will in the future.  This could last a few more years, but at some point production will start to drop off.

If you’re an optimist you can hope that oil sands, off shore finds, and alternative energy can pick up the slack.  That’s not very likely.  Oil production drops off relatively rapidly and its not easy to replace the amounts of oil Saudi Arabia produces.  At the time of the Iraq war there was hope that Iraq might have more reserves than thought (Saddam had been inefficient at discovering/drilling for oil, thanks to all his foreign policy adventures), but continued sabotage and instability there assure that any significant Iraqi oil won’t be on line for probably a decade or more.  Off shore finds are modest, and oil sand production is actually down from its highs.  It will take a lot of investment to have enough production to alter the trends.  Even if we opened up Alaska and off shore areas to unrestrained drilling it won’t change the fact that oil production will slow.

The long term problems that could cause are numerous, but right now we’re dealing with the short term. The trouble with peak oil is that any slight change in demand or concern about supply can turn into a major price shift.   Nothing illustrated this better than the price run up of 2008, followed by a massive collapse of oil prices when the recession hit.  Oil prices leaped to over $145 a barrel, though a portion of that was due to the weakness of the dollar.   When the recession was in full bloom after the financial crisis hit, the price went down to about $30 a barrel.   Now with unrest in Egypt and Libya, the price is hovering at near $100 a barrel.   That sounds cheap compared to 2008, but as recently as five years ago people were alarmed by the prospect of $100 a barrel oil.

Consider this graph of oil prices:

From 1996 to 2005 we hovered between $20 and $40 a barrel.  That price indicated that production was still easily meeting demand, as those prices were historically still quite low adjusted for inflation.  Even during the late nineties boom years the price stayed low.   That helped the economy boom, and was one reason the US budget could be balanced for a short while.   Between 2005 and the summer of 2007 price started rising up to consistently around $60 a barrel.  This was considered high, and reflected the increased demand for oil caused by the economic boom – especially continued growth in India and China.  Then in 2008 the price soared.   Some of this was simply increased demand, and some of it was due to factors like unrest in Nigeria, the kinds of oil produced, etc.   But if we’ve hit a peak, this is how it would look.

Because demand for oil will stay pretty much the same if price changes are minor or moderate, a slight imbalance between supply and demand will require significant changes in price to reach a new equilibrium.   For example, if due to stagnant supply or high demand the desire for people to buy $70 a barrel oil increases by 2%, it might require the price to double in order to cut some of that demand so that demand ultimately equals supply.   If a recession causes a drop in demand (which it did), then the price will fall dramatically as suddenly supply easily meets demand.

You’d expect this kind of behavior at peak because if production can increase, states would do so at prices well over $100 a barrel — there are huge profits to be made.  If production were actually dropping, however, decreases in demand would not yield such a dramatic drop in price — the decline in supply would factor in.   Note that even though the world economy did not revert back to the boom years of the early 00’s, oil prices started to climb back to over $80 a barrel by mid-2010, before the unrest in Egypt and Libya.    An increase in economic growth will start a quick and significant increase in oil prices.   That in turn causes recessionary pressures, as money going to pay for oil does not go into the economy.  This will make it much more difficult to grow out of this recession.

In the past when a recession hit you took your lumps, the economy adjusted, and then it was back to onward and upward.   Yet since 1900 our economic health has been increasingly dependent on cheap energy.   The last 100 years has been an era of incredibly cheap, plentiful and easy to transport energy via oil and coal.  Oil has been essential to increased transportation of goods and services, and without it the economy would collapse.  If we’re hitting a peak, high oil prices aren’t only here to stay in the long run, but while we’re at the peak price fluctuations will be common, and higher prices are likely to undercut nascent economic recoveries.

Now add in Libya and Egypt — or other unrest in the region.  A lion’s share of the oil comes from the Mideast and an Arab world that has seen dictatorships and corruption blossom due to oil revenue.  Citizens were paid off with the money that came in, while leaders grew corrupt and spoiled.   Gaddafi could play military games throughout Africa, and fancy himself an anti-western Arab nationalist.  The Saudi Royal family could act like a mafia family, but with the protection of sovereignty and royal titles.   As the youth rise up against those practices, any unrest or shortfall in oil production (Libya’s production is down 50%) can cause significant price increases.   The current $100 a barrel is due less to that than fears of what might yet be to come in the region, but clearly events in the Arab world directly affect our economy.

We’re going to have to get used to this volatility.  It reinforces the fact that this recession can only be cured by restructuring our economy, and ultimately by preparing for much more expensive (and perhaps hard to get) oil.   From behavioral changes to policies designed to create a more energy efficient economy, the need for major adjustment cannot be ignored.   There’s no magic spell either — “drill baby drill” won’t cut it, and just investing in alternatives isn’t enough either.   We have to question policies, regulations, and our very way of life.

Because, even though things still seem normal now, this challenge is coming just as sure as change is coming to the Mideast.  The ride has just begun.

12 Comments