Archive for category Iraq

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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I Ran like a Rock?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The US is well positioned to contain Iranian regional power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Political Pendulum

After the 2008 election Democrats were on a high.    President Barack Obama had been elected as the first black President, the Democrats controlled both the Senate and the House, and demographics seemed to indicate that if anything, their future  was brighter than ever.   President Bush left office as one of the least popular Presidents in history, being blamed for a dubious war in Iraq and an economic crisis that hurled the US into recession.

Yet the pendulum swung.   The depth and severity of the recession proved greater than the Obama White House had anticipated, and with the Democrats in control of government they were blamed for anything that went wrong.   After health care reform was pushed through just barely, yielding a compromise that angered conservatives and many liberals alike, President Obama found the honey moon over.   The tea party movement achieved amazing success at shaping the political discourse, and a new narrative took hold.

This narrative said that President Obama’s policies were hindering the recovery, that the stimulus was a waste of money and a failure, and that the raw politicking of the health care deal showed the shady side of Democratic politics.    Republicans said the real solution to the problems the country faces is smaller government and fiscal conservatism.   The hope and change promised by the Democrats was just more tax and spend — more government programs.

In 2010 the GOP achieved dramatic success, something unexpected after two election cycles dominated by the Democrats.   Without the drag of the Iraq war and with President Obama “owning” the economy (even though neither he nor Bush ever could control it) the public swung right.   Some of it was fear that change was going too fast; others thought the Democrats simply moved farther and faster than the public wanted.  President Obama’s approval ratings dropped down below 50%.

Yet even as the Republicans start to lick their chops over electoral prospects in 2012, the pendulum may be swinging again.   The President’s approval ratings are still bad, but they are picking up slightly.   Don’t forget, President Clinton had 40% approval in early 1995, and Reagan dropped to 38% for awhile in 1983.   President Obama is now at about 43%.

The mood seems to be changing.  E J Dionne notes this “narrative change,” citing Paul Ryan’s somewhat bitter speech to the Heritage Foundation as evidence that Republicans recognize that the argument is slipping away from them.   Occupy Wall Street has shown itself more popular and resilient than anyone expected, and the efforts to paint them as a bunch of spoiled hippies and malcontents has failed.     President Obama’s “new populism” is hitting a chord.   Americans don’t want massive redistribution and high taxes, but the idea that the system is unbalanced in favor of the wealthy is gaining traction.

Moreover, the Republican party doesn’t seem to have a clear leader, and their primaries have been dominated by sometimes extreme rhetoric that scares independents.   Herman Cain wants an abortion ban with no exceptions, not even for rape and incest.   That kind of talk scares people.   Michelle Bachmann’s call to bring taxes back to the level they were under Ronald Reagan is illustrative.    Taxes were much higher under Reagan than they are now; as she had to retreat from that statement it reinforced the idea that Reagan would be far too liberal for today’s GOP.    The narrative of an extremist Republican party is building.   Rick Perry’s assault on social security addsto that as the GOP Presidential field tries to capture the tea party electorate that vote in early primaries.

Mitt Romney should be a strong candidate.  He is clearly a moderate who shouldn’t scare anyone, but his Mormonism and moderation might actually decrease conservative enthusiasm in 2012.   He’s benefited from the turmoil in the GOP field, but the Republican party has lost control of the conversation.   Instead of Reaganesque optimism the tune from the right is increasingly antagonistic.

Meanwhile, Democrats in the House start whispering that there are a lot of vulnerable Republicans, especially first termers, who are having trouble raising money and whose ideological voting records don’t play well at home.    All Democrats expect gains in 2012; the idea of winning back the House is not as far fetched as it used to be.

Right now the conventional wisdom remains that President Obama is, if not the underdog, in a difficult position heading into the re-election fight.   But at this point in 2009, when Obama was still above 50% in approval, few people realized that the pendulum had already started a decisive swing away from the Democrats and towards the Republicans.

It’s still too early to know for sure if the pendulum is swinging back in the Democrat’s direction.   Obama is getting kudos for success in Libya, he announced the end of the Iraq war, and there may be an end in Afghanistan sooner than people expect.   The economic news has become slightly more optimistic.    Occupy Wall Street has stolen the attention that the tea party used to enjoy and has spread across the country, gaining a lot of support from Iraq veterans.    In states like Ohio, Wisconsin and even here in Maine conservative causes have led to dissatisfaction — ballot initiatives in both Ohio and Maine might be very telling about the way the mood is changing (Ohio’s involves public labor unions, Maine’s is an effort to undo Republican legislation removing same day voting registration).

It feels like the pendulum has switched directions.   It feels like 2012 could be for the Democrats what 2010 was for the Republicans.   It feels like Obama may join Presidents Clinton and Reagan in the catagory of having their political obituaries written too soon.   Time will tell — there is still a lot that could go right or wrong for both parties.     The good news about the political pendulum is that if you’re on the losing side of an election, it won’t be that way forever.   The bad news is that if you’re on the winning side the same applies.

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The Iraq War, RIP

Shock and awe, March 20, 2003

President Obama’s announcement that all US forces would be out of Iraq by the end of the year, thereby ending the longest and one of the most divisive foreign policy actions in US history.

I still remember the spring of 2003.   I was finishing up my book on German foreign policy.   Gerhard Schroeder had won re-election as German Chancellor by actively opposing the US decision to go to war in Iraq.   I was adding the final pieces to my last edit when the war started on March 20 (19th if you count the attempt to take out Saddam the night before), and on April 3rd I finished for good, sending back the last changes.

I know it was April 3, 2003 because as I was making my final edits my wife came to let me know that it was time to go to the hospital.   “Five more minutes,” I said, finishing up.    We left at about 5:00 PM, and at 11:47 PM that same day our first son Ryan was born.   In that sense, I’ve always had a measure of how long the war dragged on by the growth of my son.   He’s now in third grade; the US has been in Iraq his whole life.

I was also teaching American Foreign Policy with a delightfully talkative class which debated and argued with each other in a way that never got mean or nasty.   Lance Harvell, now a GOP representative for my state district and neighbor was there, a non-traditional student who’d been in the military.   There was Sam Marzenell, Joonseob Park, Christine Rice, Sev Slaymaker and others, debating current events as they unfolded.

I opposed the war, arguing that Iraq’s political culture was not conducive to democracy and rather than be a quick, easy victory enhancing the US role in the region it could turn into a disaster dragging out over years and helping al qaeda recruit.  At least one student from that class who disagreed with me has since contacted me to tell me that they had to admit I was right.    I think most people who study comparative politics were skeptical of the idea of making Iraq into a model democracy, you don’t just remake societies.   This wasn’t like Japan and Germany after WWII, this was a divided pre-modern society with an Ottoman heritage.

Yet what I really remember from that class is how I felt like a good professor in that students were willing and able to debate me using real foreign policy arguments about policy, not fearing that I would somehow punish them for disagreeing (as one told me, some students suspected I gave higher grades to those who disagreed), and making really excellent points.    Why can’t all political disagreements be so heated in substance but friendly in form?    The day Saddam’s government fell I remember coming to class, tired because of our newborn son, and asked by delighted conservatives what I thought now that Iraq fell so quickly.   “Now comes the hard part,” I said, admitting that the war itself had been faster and more effectively than I had expected.

At that point support for the war was high.  It was just two years after 9-11, and Afghanistan was seen as a done war, with troops staying just to help the new government get off and running.   The next year, in 2004 when Dr. Mellisa Clawson from Early Childhood Education and I taught the course “Children and War” for the first time (we’re teaching it again, for the fourth time next semester) many students were nationalistic and reacted negatively sometimes to our clear skepticism about US policy.

In 2005 for me the tone changed after Vice President Cheney’s “last throes” quote describing the Iraqi insurgency on June 20, 2005.    On June 24, 2005 I wrote:

Cheney claimed (still believing his propaganda, perhaps) that the insurgency was in its ‘last throes’ (he defended that by talking about the dictionary meaning of ‘throes’) and — most absurdly — tried to compare this to the Battle of the Bulge and Okinawa.  That is the point where the propaganda becomes so absurd that it really had morphed into comedy.  This is not a battle against another military superpower where there can be a turning point or where they throw all they have at one battle hoping to turn things around.  This is a battle against an insurgency that is building, and which can choose targets, play the time game, and score political victories despite successes in the American/Iraqi military offensives.  If they are comparing this to Germany and Japan, they are grasping at whatever they can to try to convince themselves that things will get better.  They are out of touch with reality. 

By 2006 Iraq slipped into civil war, public opinion shifted against the war, the Democrats took the House, and President Bush’s approval ratings began an inexorable slide to some of the lowest in history.   Yet, in 2007 he made the right call. He dumped the original goal of defeating the insurgency and setting up a pro-American government with whom we would be allies and have permanent bases, and embraced a realist notion of making deals with the insurgents, focusing instead only on al qaeda and trying to create enough stability so we could declare victory and leave.  It was a retreat from the grandiose vision of the neo-cons, but for me it increased my respect for President Bush.  He did something that LBJ couldn’t do in Vietnam:  he changed course.

President Obama has taken that policy to it’s logical conclusion.   By the end of the year the US will be out completely, and efforts to leave Afghanistan are growing as well.    There will be time to reflect on the lessons learned from this war, and how it changed both the US and the Mideast.   The challenge of counter-terrorism remains.   The Arab world is at the start of a long transition which will no doubt have peaks and valleys, Pakistan and Afghanistan still represent uncertainty, but at least we’re not caught in a quagmire.

For now, it’s a time for a sigh of relief that this traumatic and costly conflict is now truly entering its last phase.   President Obama disappointed the anti-war crowd by a cautious winding down of the war rather than a quick exit, but combined with Gaddafi’s death in Libya yesterday, he’s piling up foreign policy success after foreign policy success.   And as bad as the economy is, I’d rather the economy be the main issue on the minds of voters than a foreign war.

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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.

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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.

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