Archive for category Libya

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.


But I’ll take Silly over…

Focused on Italy and then the geothermal project, I’ve avoided following my usual websites for news and current events.  This is a rare luxury for me.   It’s not that I don’t enjoy following world affairs — I very much do, and feel privileged to have as my profession the task of helping students understand all this — but that it’s sometimes nice to change focus.

Much of what I have been hearing about seems silly.   Rep. Anthony Wiener sexting to young women?   Well, having worked in Washington DC my first reaction is a yawn — I don’t think most people realize the extent of the cheating and dishonesty that goes into DC family life (with neither party more pure than the other).   Then I think that it’s also symbolic of our modern information society.   He gets lured into social media, feels safe because apparently he’s not actually hooking up with these people, but ultimately gets caught.   Then he plays the usual “cornered politician” game — deny, lie, misdirect and when that fails (and only when that fails) offer a “heartfelt” apology, claim he needs to “heal” himself and hope for sympathy.

OK.   But that’s a pretty minor story in the grand scheme of things, what with wars in the Mideast, an economy still struggling and all.

But the political entertainment doesn’t end there.   Sarah Palin botches the Paul Revere story, and her fans try to change Wikipedia.   Yikes – a bit Stalinesque isn’t it — if history doesn’t fit what the leader says, then change history!   After all, it’s already past, no one can actually visit it again, so truth is what gets allowed in the history books.     But it doesn’t really hurt her, she’s reached Biden saturation point.   After so many gaffes, it ceases to be real news.

Then Newt Gingrich, whose treatment of his ex wives is far worse in real terms than anything Wiener did, has his campaign implode because, well, I guess he was just being himself.  Selfishness and arrogance can take you a long way in politics, but unless you learn to fake sincerity, they’ll do you in.

On top of that one of the GOP candidates, Herman Cain, vows never to sign a bill more than three pages long if elected.   There has never been any more convincing way for a candidate to say “I’m clueless about what the legislative process is really all about” than to say something like that.   He’s trying to get the populist “they don’t read the bills!” folk on his side, but it just sounds gimicky and silly.   But at least it’s not a scandal.

Meanwhile the 2012 match up looks likely to be Obama and Romney.     Obama should be able to defeat him if the economy recovers some; if not, Romney is well positioned to bring a lot of independent voters to the GOP.   His problem is the extremes of the Republican party, the so called tea partiers.   They vow to fight against Romney because he supported a Massachusetts health care plan and *gasp* he’s a Mormon!    Of course, they’ve also turned on Scott Brown, who they supported in his Senate run back in 2009.  Northeast Republicans and tea partiers generally don’t mix.

Yet Romney is the most electable Republican, and while the right wing of the party hated McCain back in 2007-08, he ultimately got the nod.  Contrary to some critics on the left, the far right doesn’t control the GOP yet.   Other solid contenders are John Huntsman and Tim Pawlenty.   For the caterwauling on the right about the poor GOP field, Romney, Huntsman and Pawlenty could be very strong candidates.

Team Obama is already on the ground planning the war of 2012.  Anyone who counts Obama out needs to take a look at the scope of the campaign.   This is political marketing at its highest level, with tactics and funds that dwarf anything that came before.   It won’t be enough if the economy is tanking by mid 2012, but if there is even a slight recovery, you can’t underestimate the Obama campaign.

In Libya NATO has apparently decided to give up the pretense of pretending to defend civilians and focus on regime change.   They may have lost the moral high ground, but they might be nearing an end game — and ultimately that’s going to help them most.   While Arab rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt have continued to go as good if not better than expected, Syria and Yemen face on going strife.  Syria’s army could be splitting, while Yemen’s President Saleh waits in Saudi Arabia, recovering from injuries.  He vows to return, says that al qaeda will take over if he doesn’t, but the situation in fluid.

It seems a bit surreal.  Silly scandals trump momentous stories of transformation in the Arab world.  The US campaign looks less like a serious discussion of issues and more like a grand marketing battle (Coke vs. Pepsi!), punctuated by ideological posturing.    Innocent people are killed by law enforcement officers routinely around the country, our prison systems are dysfunctional, and yet peoples’ ire is raised over alleged “groping” at airports.

It all seems so silly.  Yet I recall another time I thought the news had become extremely silly.   It was the “summer of the shark,” and despite reports that shark attacks are rare, the few that did happen were screamed across the headlines creating a kind of panic.   Meanwhile the murder of Chandra Levy caused a media frenzy around her boss, Gary Condit.  The US and China were in a stand off over a spy plane incident, with the Chinese demanding an apology for an air space violation and the US refusing.   It got solved by the US “expressing regret,” and the Chinese translating that as “the US apologizes.”   Both sides realized the incident wasn’t worth harming trade relations.

Such silly news in the summer of 2001.   But given the news that came later that year, I shouldn’t complain.  The news is sillier when the world is realtively boring.   And that’s a good thing.


Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya: Near the End?

I’ll go back to posting about the geothermal project later today, but I’ll take a quick foray into politics again.

In the last two days President Obama has hinted that the US pull out of Afghanistan would be faster than anticipated, suggesting it was time for the Afghans to take control.   Secretary of Defense Gates claimed that NATO was close to a decisive blow in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile in Libya NATO forces have pounded Gaddafi targets as the rebels, for awhile in a stalemate with Gaddafi loyalists, now appear to be taking more towns and heading towards Tripoli.   This, along with a flurry of diplomatic activity by China, may hint at a Libya end game.

If by the end of the year the US can point to success in Libya and Afghanistan, the electoral picture for President Obama gets brighter in 2012.   The economy is still the main issue, but successful ends to those conflicts could help bring down oil prices (which as of today are down below $100 again).   Oil price increases helped drag down job creation last month, and maybe one of the most important variables for job growth in the short term.

Iraq saw the deaths of seven American servicemen yesterday, but as bad as that news is, it accentuates the fact that such news has been extremely rare — Iraq is not a vibrant stable democracy, but it’s also not a hot bed of violence and unrest.   In the decade since 9-11-01 we’ve seen wars spread, conflicts go in unexpected directions, and unrest emerge in the Mideast.   Only a fool would suggest that is all about to pass.

But if the US can manage to end the decade by putting wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya into the past, allowing the President to campaign on a new foreign policy vision, it may be enough to help him overcome a slow paced recovery.   More importantly, if the US can finally put these conflicts behind us, it will allow a thorough re-thinking of US foreign policy rather than having to react to circumstances which leave us limited options.

Today the President is meeting with German Chancellor Merkel.   They have a lot to talk about.   Merkel’s approach to the recession appears to be working better than Obama’s, and perhaps the two of them can coordinate plans to improve the global economy.   They will also be talking about NATO, Afghanistan and Libya — Germany was one NATO country very skeptical of military action in Libya.   I may be overly optimistic,  but I get the sense that we’re nearing the end of a very difficult decade in US foreign policy.

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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.


Gandhi and Libya

Last night we watched the film Gandhi, the 1982 classic starring Ben Kingsley.  I haven’t seen the film since it came out almost thirty years ago, but shortly into it I recall how inspiring the person and message of Gandhi was to me when I first saw it, and then subsequently read more about the great spiritual teacher.

His message was clear:  love is truth, and truth ultimately is more powerful than hate, fear and anger, which are untruths.   When confronted with “untruth” it is best to respond with truth.   That is not passive resistance but active non-violent resistance.  Violence and anger only increases the scope and depth of the violence, and ultimately reinforces the problems one is trying to confront.

Gandhi also had real respect for all faiths.  He was close friends with Muslims, Christians and of course fellow Hindus.   He saw truth in the core teachings of each, even if the humans professing those faiths often veered from them.    He was fond of quoting the New Testament and when asked about Christianity at one point he said he only wished Christians were more like their Christ.

I’ve always believed that life is at base spiritual.   What matters is the spirit, the flesh is simply a vehicle which we are using in this limited existence to learn lessons and have some fun.    All of that requires cooperation — we learn with help from others, we help others learn.   We enjoy life and have fun with others.   That is a view that helps me stay grounded, especially if material and daily concerns get intense.  Ultimately the “stuff” of the world doesn’t matter, the spirit does.  I’ve internalized that view and believe that right or wrong it helps me live with a bit less stress, an easier time forgiving others (and myself) and perspective about the world in which I find myself.

Which brings me to Libya.  I’ve always found Gandhi’s notion of non-violent resistance to be powerful, and his argument that violence begets violence persuasive.   I’ve not supported US foreign policy, especially military actions, for as long as I can remember.   Whether Clinton in Bosnia or Kosovo or Bush in Iraq and Afghanistan, it seemed to me that violence did more harm than good.

I don’t believe in coincidence (that comes from my spiritual world view).   The fact that I’ve generally supported intervening in Libya coincides with the unexpected arrival of Gandhi from netflix.   That leads me to rethink my view on the conflict.

Ambiguity about the use of military action for humanitarian purposes has been something I’ve always grappled with.   As former German foreign minister Joshka Fischer said, “no more war, but no more Auschwitz.”    President Obama cited Bosnia, but to me Rwanda is the strongest case for intervention.  Ever since teaching about the details of that genocide, with students reading Romeo Dallaire’s book and myself obsessed for awhile with gathering the details and arguments around that event, it seemed to me that the international community simply let the Hutus slaughter 800,000 Tutsis when a well equipped international force could have ended the violence.

Following the news of the non-violent revolt in Egypt, and then hearing about protests growing in Libya, my reaction to the news that Gaddafi was using mercenaries to brutally terrorize citizens and then taking heavy military equipment to bombard them and promise that his attack on Benghazi would show “no pity and no mercy” was emotional.  My anger at a dictator who for over 40 years stole the oil wealth of his country to sponsor terrorism, train mercenaries, engage in foreign policy adventurism in Africa and brutally repress his people turned into contempt.  When someone of such obvious evil clings to wealth and power by threatening massive death and destruction, how can the world stand by?   When now Canadian Senator Romeo Dallaire called for intervention, comparing the case directly to Rwanda, that intensified my emotional desire to see NATO hit back.   When the UN Security Council approved military intervention, making it a legal action driven by humanitarian concerns, it seemed to me the right thing to do.

In terms of national interest it also seems to make sense; the region is changing, this will help get the US on the right side of change and undercut the ability of al qaeda or extremists to guide the future of the Arab world.  Moreover, it is a true multi-lateral action, while Iraq was clearly a US-UK action with small states going along in exchange for favors.  This might put the US on the side of cooperative efforts to secure the peace rather than what appears to be neo-imperial efforts to control world affairs.  It takes President Bush’s idealistic but likely accurate belief that democratic change and modernism is needed in that region and supports those in the region who want to make it happen.

Yet, thinking about Gandhi, I realize that as strong as those emotion beliefs are, they carry with them a veil of abstraction.  Military action is easy to talk about, but it kills people, including innocents — there has never been a clean intervention.   Moreover, if Gaddafi had subdued the rebels, perhaps a lot less life would be lost overall, and the international community could still do things like boycott Libyan oil, freeze assets, and essentially deny the Libyan leader the right to act effectively on the world economic stage, pushing him to choose to leave on his own — he is in his eighties after all.

Though my world view is essentially spiritual, I don’t think the material world is useless.   Even Augustine distinguished between what he called the “city of man” and the “city of God,” and the definition of violence is arbitrary.   Structural violence is as real in its impact as is actual use of force; to focus on only one as wrong is arbitrary whim.   Yet in this case I come to the conclusion that the emotional desire to strike led me to be too willing to rationalize military force, and that it would have been better to let Gaddafi take back the country and then use other means to try to bring about change.    The post-Ottoman world is still scared by 600 years of military dictatorship followed by corruption and ruthless leaders.   Adding more death and destruction may well do more harm than good.


The Obama Doctrine

President Obama’s speech on March 28, 2011 may go down as one of the historic Presidential speeches as he not only explained and defended a controversial foreign policy decision, but clearly enunciated a foreign policy doctrine.   It also was a forceful, unambiguous speech, resisting efforts to use vague slogans and unclear rhetoric to cover up tough issues.  For the first time in his Presidency Obama has had to show true foreign policy leadership and he has come through.

Rather than look again at Libya, I’m intrigued more by what the Obama doctrine indicates.  He rejects the notion of “Captain America” as world cop, intervening to stop all repression and violence.   Realistically, that’s not possible.  There will be cases where repressive dictators will act against their people, and despite our outrage, it would be contrary to our core interests to act.   In that, he certainly is correct.  US power and wealth are limited and recently under strain.  Interventions that would be costly and without a likelihood of success would do us clear harm.

However, that doesn’t mean we should never act.   The weakest argument against action is to point to other repressive regimes and say “why not intervene there?”   To be sure, that argument was often made against President Bush’s choice to go to war with Iraq.  But while President Bush did not fully answer that, President Obama gave guidelines on when US military power is to be used.

First, the US must have a coalition that supports military action.   The coalition must be broad based and willing to share the burden.  Interestingly he did not say UN Security Council approval was absolutely necessary, leaving open the possibility that at some point the US might act even if China or Russia threatens a veto.   Second, US action should be focused on a clear global interest – shared by us and others – ranging from protecting commerce (presumably including oil flows) to stopping genocide.   Finally, the US will have a limited role, using the unique power and capacity of the American military to support interventions aimed at specific goals (e.g., stopping Gaddafi’s assault on civilians) not for broader goals like regime change.

This backs down considerably from the kind of idealist (or ‘neo-conservative’) approach of spreading democracy that President Bush embraced, but borrows the core elements of Bush’s ideology.  Interestingly, Bush’s thoughts about the need to spread democracy and aid the rising youth in the Mideast are embraced by Obama.   Obama differs on the means to use.   We must not do anything that undercuts our own interests, or lead us down a path of ever growing costs and national trauma.

He also was clear to point out the effort to strictly limit military action, noting that regime change even by air power alone would require bombing that would lead to unacceptable civilian casualties.   At the same time Obama distanced himself form the pacifist wing of his party.   He rejected the idea that US military power was useless, immoral or only to be used in national defense.   Instead he argued that in an interdependent and linked world it would be against our interest not to use our power to try to maintain international stability and human rights.

Obama’s core principles differ little from those of Republicans like Reagan or Bush, or Democrats like Carter or Clinton.  In that sense he is clearly an establishment President, not breaking with long held values on how to use American military power.  Yet unlike other Presidents, he refines the conditions in which it will be used, rejecting the kind of unilateralism that has so often defined US foreign policy in the past.

In part this is a pragmatic reaction to historical circumstance.  Just as President Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger had to adopt detente in response to the cost of the Vietnam war and the rise of the USSR to nuclear parity (not to mention Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik), President Obama is dealing with a US rocked by the great recession, divided by partisan bickering, and still wounded from long and not yet complete wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.   Simply, the bipolar world of the Cold War and the unipolar world of the early post-Cold periods are gone.   The President has to adjust US policy to reflect US capacity.

In doing so he stresses the need for American leadership (weakened though the US may be, no other country has the same military capacity), but leadership of the sort that doesn’t say “do it our way or no way” but builds coalitions and requires international legitimacy.   In that he reflects the ideals of President Bush the Elder, who undertook a similar strategy in Iraq in 1991.  Yet unlike the elder Bush, President Obama situates US policy within a global framework in which the US voice is a leading, but not dominate one.

To some, that may seem weak.   To me it seems prudent.  The US cannot dominate, the Iraq experience shows us what the cost can be if we try.  But leadership can be exercised within the framework of international cooperation and burden sharing within the larger global community.

Time will tell what historical reputation the Obama Doctrine will earn (I’ve not read other reactions to the speech, so I’ll be interested if others will see this as proclaiming a doctrine), nor does this quell the arguments of the hawks and doves, between which Obama has crafted a well defined middle ground.   It has a typically American mix of idealism and realism, with a pragmatic recognition of our limits.  I have to say I’m impressed with both the speech and the policy.   A United States working in concert with allies to promote our interests and principles in a pragmatic and realistic manner may be the best way to navigate these uncertain times.


Libyan End in Site?

As rebel forces take town after town originally held by forces loyal to Gaddafi, a strange dilemma faces the international forces aligned against the dictator: if the rebels threaten Sirte, Gaddafi’s strong hold, would it not be the rebels rather than the Libyan army threatening civilians?   To be sure, Gaddafi’s forces have a track record of violence against civilians while the rebels arguably have had public opinion on their side and opposed the military.   There have been no complaints of rebels targeting civilians as they retook Ajdabiya, Brega, Uqayla, and Ras Lanuf.  Still, in Sirte these differences become problematic, and any video of civilian casualties threaten to undermine the international mission.

So far, those videos and pictures have been scarce to non-existent.  Tours arranged for international media in Tripoli to see civilian damage end up either coming back with nothing (“we couldn’t find the address”) or showing a site where any damage is ambiguous — perhaps it was caused by NATO, but perhaps not.  And with Gaddafi snipers and mercenaries in operation, it’s hard to pin any civilian deaths on the coalition at this point.

That means that right now the UN backed mission in Libya still holds the moral high ground, at least in relative terms.   All that could change if the rebels, not under clear control nor guided by one over-arching ideology or aim, start taking revenge on pro-Gaddafi civilians or turning on each other.

This means that it is imperative that the UN and NATO plan and execute an end game as soon as possible, perhaps in time to be announced Monday night when President Obama addresses the nation.    The end game must include: a) a cease fire on all sides; b) a way for Gaddafi to go into exile with a credible chance at avoiding persecution for war crimes; c) a peace keeping mission including and perhaps dominated by the Arab League and African Union; and d) a clear plan for moving to democratic elections.

If the UN can pull this off, the message to other dictators is clear: the international community will no longer allow an abstract  claim of sovereignty to protect their grip on power.   Even if Libya is sovereign, Gaddafi doesn’t necessarily get to claim the right to sovereignty just because he has power.   That notion of sovereignty is at odds with the principle of the UN charter.

The US wars against Iraq and Afghanistan have allowed dictators to breath easy.  The US certainly won’t get involved in another conflict after those have weakened the country and divided the public!  With the American economy still wobbly and still in danger of further decline, the US seems certain to become more isolationist.   Gaddafi certainly was thinking that way when he launched his counter offensive.

President Obama and Defense Secretary Gates were thinking that way early on too — it’s a rational position, one mirrored by the military establishment.   But French President Sarkozy and ultimately Secretary of State Clinton realized that if a truly international coalition — one without the US as the leader and motivator — were to be able to succeed rather easily, that would have the opposite effect: dictators would realize it’s risky to use force to stay in power.  Decisions like Mubarak’s to leave freely would seem more rational than those like Gaddafi’s to fight for power.   That’s why it was so important that Obama remain relatively on the sidelines and not highlight the US role (even if in practical terms US firepower dominated the response).

This also means that should Gaddafi finally be compelled to leave — and the pressure on him is mounting — a new Libya can be constructed on Libyan terms, without it seeming like the US or the West is imposing a government on the country just to control its oil or engage in neo-colonialism.  If that works it could have a chilling effect on other Arab dictatorships, especially in Syria where the government has already unleashed a crackdown.

The calculation is simple: the US wouldn’t be stupid enough to get involved in anything like Iraq again since once the bombing starts, you have to see it through.    The failures of the US in Iraq cause Syria’s Assad to believe he’s invulnerable as long as he can crack down on his population.   But if Libya proves that the international community can mount an effective low cost counter to dictatorial crackdowns, then the calculation changes.  In a best case scenario, dictators decide early on to leave freely in exchange for a relatively comfortable retirement.

Gaddafi, of course, could still fight to the end, meaning that the intervention becomes costlier and this model of countering dictators fails.   And who knows what kind of government might emerge in Libya after the fighting.  But whatever problems may come, it’s important now that NATO and the UN push for an end game so that this does not drag out.   There is reason to believe the end may be in sight.


Confusion on Libya

The pundit class in the US is all over the place on the Libyan intervention.   Some bemoan the fact that there is no exit plan and predict a bloody stalemate that will harm US interests and bring more problems to the region.  Others argue that this is the perfect strategy – a multinational attack to weaken Gaddafi’s forces so that rebels on the ground in Libya have a real chance to overthrow a tyrant.  Still others suggest we are taking sides in a civil war that will be deadlier and longer than if we had simply let Gaddafi do his dirty work.  Violence begets violence.

So who is right?

First, let’s define what this war is all about.   This is a United Nations operation, passed by the Security Council 10-0 (Russia, China, Germany, India and Brazil abstaining).   Gaddafi’s rhetoric that “there will be no mercy and no pity” on the residents of Benghazi no doubt helped sway nations to either support or at least not oppose intervention.   The Security Council clearly feared that Gaddafi would perpetrate a blood bath.   Moreover, the US is a reluctant participant.   Although Secretary of State Clinton seemed closer to the hawkish views of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the Department of Defense (including Defense Secretary Gates, who also served under President Bush) and President Obama worried about adding another military commitment to the US plate.

The plan seems to be one designed to inspire the Libyans to finish off Gaddafi’s regime.   Once mid-level Libyan elites see that the world community means business, and that even if they survive they’ll never be legitimate, never be able to act in the global economy in a profitable manner and sooner or later will fall victim to the rebels’ wrath, they’ll decide it’s better to switch than fight.   In that scenario Gaddafi loses support until either some kind of internal coup overthrows his regime or, recognizing the futility of his situation, he strikes a deal to go into exile.

Plans that rely on the success of others are always risky.  Gaddafi has been in power for 32 years; you don’t stay that long if you haven’t learned how to protect your back.   Moreover many Libyans around him are implicated in everything from terrorism to torture, and may see no alternative but to stick with the regime.  Finally the rebels themselves are an unknown quantity.  Despite his tyranny, Gaddafi was opposed to al qaeda and helped limit African migration to Europe.  What will the next regime be like?

On the other hand, those who fear the rise of Islamic extremism have to acknowledge that Islamicist voices have been mostly vacant from the rhetoric and face of the rebellion.  No one is holding up al qaeda signs or yelling “death to America.”   A knee jerk fear of the unknown is no more rational than a knee jerk idealist belief that after Gaddafi democracy will flourish.

Moreover, the US does see change sweeping the region.   Yemen is teetering on the brink at this moment, and the revolutions I speculated about back in January seem all too real today.   Both the Europeans and Americans want to be on the ‘right side’ of history, and have an impact on the changes taking place.   They also recall the price of doing nothing.   Canadian Senator Romeo Dallaire, who was commander of the UN Rwanda mission, early on called for the UN to use force to stop Gaddafi from slaughtering his own people.

The United States has also remained purposefully in the political background, even though military capabilities necessitate it being in the foreground of action taken.   President Obama has not been the leading voice calling for intervention, and embraced a limit to military activity.   This stands in marked contrast to the past roles played by Presidents Bush, Clinton and Bush the Elder, when the US President was front and center in trying to build international support for military action.   While some criticize this as “disengaged lack of leadership,” it is definitely done with purpose.   The US military is overstretched, we cannot afford another engagement that sucks us in deeper and deeper until there seems no way out.   Yet despite the subdued rhetoric, the US is wielding a big stick, hitting Libya hard in the early strikes.

More importantly, the US is signaling acceptance of the new multipolarity, something President Bush worked hard to avoid (and many Republicans and Democrats still refuse to acknowledge).    If military power is to be used to try to enforce human rights and protect civilians then others have to share the burden and be responsible to lead.   In some ways Obama’s policy harkens back to what President Bush the Elder hoped for with his “new world order.”   Even the US has to play by the rules now.

If Gaddafi falls in short order, the policy will be seen as a success and Obama vindicated.  If it turns into a stalemate dragging on and pulling the US in deeper, Obama may be looking for a new residence in two years.   If I had to bet, I’d say a middle ground result is likely, more like Kosovo than Iraq.   After a stalemate is reached, a peace accord between Gaddafi and the rebels will be hammered out, effectively splitting the country.   The rebels would be forced to sign this because if not NATO would withdraw its air cover and military support.    Gaddafi will realize this is the only way to stop the bombs and missiles.   After that support will shift away from Gaddafi, much like Milosevic found his authority in Serbia decline after the Kosovo war.   Either Gaddafi will weaken and ultimately be overthrown or he will die in office (either by natural or unnatural causes) with his son unable to assert authority.   At that point a new national unity government could be proclaimed.

Still, there is confusion.   This is new ground for the US and the international community.  If this is successful, it will demonstrate that the 21st century is more difficult terrain for brutal corrupt dictators.  If it fails, dictators will be emboldened and the West humiliated.   Was this policy a wise move?  I don’t know, I guess I’d say it’s an interesting move.  As a political scientist I find this whole process fascinating to observe.


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.

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Addicted to Power

Power is a strange thing.   Political power comes from having the capacity to control what others can say or do.  In the US, that power rests on democratic principles; if anyone goes too far astray in exercising political power they are punished at the ballot box.  In authoritarian societies power rests on a calculation: citizens must be satisfied enough and fearful enough to decide that going along with the regime in power is better for them personally than protesting or acting against it.

The leader has two major threats.   The most immediate is from other elites.   Having power in a country like Libya means numerous perks and advantages, thanks to the oil revenue the country brings in.   Other elites would like that power, power draws ruthless people like moths to flame.   So a dictator/authoritarian must make sure he is surrounded with security forces loyal to him, and that enough elites benefit from his largesse to the point that they would choose not to risk it all by challenging the leader.   Moreover, they would also oppose the challenge of another, since the other is not guaranteed to continue that largesse.  Job one, therefore, is to buy the loyalty of elites while maintaining a strong security force.

The other danger, that of popular rebellion, is easier to prevent.   Severe repression, including imprisonment, torture, beatings and even death, send a message that resistance bears a high cost.   A strong security force with an extensive domestic spying network can pretty much break up any challenge that might start to arise.   Individuals don’t resist because they know it will lead to no change in the system but could destroy their lives and families.   On top of that, leaders can make people feel comfortable enough — assure basic services, social welfare benefits, and security — that they citizens accept the rationale that the government means stability.   Without it, who knows what kind of chaos and horrors could ensue?

Gaddafi apparently had that calculation right for 42 years.  Building a cult of personality around himself, connecting with foreign leaders, and buying off the support of tribal chiefs he essentially eliminated the idea of a coup from within.   Keeping the public satisfied seemed easier.    He felt untouchable in his control of Libya, even after it became clear that his early dreams of uniting the Arab world under his vision of pan-Arabian socialism wasn’t going to happen.   He staked out a radical anti-West position, held out against pressure after it was discovered Libya was behind a terror attack against a Pan-Am flight that exploded over Scotland, and leveraged oil resources to bring the West to a grudging acceptance of his rule.

Like Mubarak, however, he didn’t see the domestic world changing around him.   This is also similar to the case of Communist leaders in the USSR.  Despite warnings from below that the economy was collapsing — in the 70s the Soviet KGB warned that their economy would disintegrate within ten to twenty years — the leaders felt comfortably in charge, buoyed by their international status.    In the case of Communism the change was brought by an economy that was fundamentally flawed and unable to innovate or grow.  In the Arab world demography and technology were key.

Gaddafi had controlled what his people heard or saw of the outside world.  State TV and the press told the government’s side of the story, few people looked elsewhere.   Moreover to his generation he was a nationalist hero, someone who overthrew the King and fought against the last vestiges of colonialism.  He kicked out the remaining Italians, and seemed to symbolize Libya for the Arabs rather than the Europeans.   A desire for security and stability was strong in that generation, and their docility was easy to buy and maintain.   Even if they soured on his leadership after awhile, they were used to it, and it seemed the norm.

The youth rising up, however, do not see Gaddafi as a symbol of anti-colonialism, but rather of corruption and repression.   They also realize that the vast oil revenues flowing in too often went to Gaddafi’s personal ambitions, be they building projects at home, adventures in African conflicts, or building a large military.  The oldest of this new generation led a push for more contacts with the West, something that seemed harmless enough, and would bring more money into the country.   The younger, however, embraced this alongside real information about the outside world.   As in Egypt al-jazeera brought images of what life could be like (Presidents can be elected rather than simply serve for life!), and laid bare the corruption and stagnation in the Arab world.    Resentment grew and all it took was a spark.

Tunisia was that spark; unexpected and sudden, it told the youth that apparently embedded dictators could be overthrown.   Technology helped overcome the state’s usual calculation that repression could thwart any protest.   Through social media such as facebook and twitter enough people could gather that would get notice — and not be easy to put down.   Once a critical mass is reached, such opposition becomes ever harder to put down.  The state starts crumbling.  That is where Libya is now.

Yet Gaddafi is unable to accept reality.  He is so used to power and authority that he and his family cling to it at all costs.   His honor and dignity, already sacrificed, seem more important than his country and the lives of Libyans.   Power has numbed him to ethical principles.   Power is all that matters, he is addicted to it, he’d sooner go down in sea of blood (he’s used that image) than recognize that the world is changing and his time is over.  42 years of power is an impressive run; he’s old, certainly he could find a place of refuge to live out the remaining years in relative comfort.

But no.  He can’t imagine that.   He sees himself as indispensable, entitled to lead Libya, and betrayed by foreigners and nefarious media organizations.   He likely doesn’t understand the youth dynamics, he’s been isolated from the common folk for four decades.  The Libya he thinks exists has changed.    His state media put out claims that al qaeda is controlling the East (to scare the Europeans) and tries to wrap itself in the anti-colonial symbols that played so well for him in the 1970s.   The people tune it out, they know state television is rubbish.

So now we watch as the body count rises, violence grows, and people try to figure out what to do about the situation.  Do we intervene, or would that make matters worse?  What about the rising cost of oil, and the chance this could spread?   One lesson is clear though: power not only corrupts, it addicts.