Archive for category Mideast

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 Saudi Problem

US President Barack Obama speaks alongsi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Iran and Syria

 

Carnage and destruction continue unabated in Syria

Carnage and destruction continue unabated in Syria

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

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

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

iransyriamap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon arrives in Geneva

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon arrives in Geneva

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

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

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

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John Kerry, an American Hero on a Mission

youngkerry

John Kerry first became a household name when he had the courage to come home from Vietnam, a decorated hero, and tell the truth about what was happening there.    Protesting a meaningless war, he helped form “Vietnam Veterans Against the War,” which included testimony to Congress and a protest wherein veterans including himself threw their medals over a fence at the Capital building.  Kerry said:  “I’m not doing this for any violent reasons, but for peace and justice, and to try and make this country wake up once and for all. ”

Young John Kerry was even the subject of mocking by Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau

Young John Kerry was even the subject of mocking by Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau

Later, of course, he went into politics and became a highly regarded Massachusetts Senator, and the 2004 Democratic candidate for President.   Though he was slandered in that campaign with false allegations about his military service, he fought a close election, losing to President George W. Bush 50.7% to 48.3%.  In losing, he still garnered more votes than anyone else in history at the time, except for President Bush.

Kerry was active in the Senate, maintaining his principles.  He and Iowa Senator Tom Harkin flew to Nicaragua shortly after his 1984 election to the Senate, visiting Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega.   The US was actively engaged in policies against Nicaragua, and Kerry along with Christopher Dodd investigated and helped bring to light the illegal activities of the Iran-Contra affair.   He did vote to authorize military force against Iraq, but was critical of the way President Bush handled the war.   Still, that vote represents a blemish on his career.

On February 1, 2013 Senator Kerry became Secretary of State Kerry.   The man who was once seen as a dangerous critic of US foreign policy is now the primary architect of that policy.   He has shown that he intends to be active and true to his principles.

Kerry being sworn in as Secretary of State

Kerry being sworn in as Secretary of State

This has generated criticism.  His efforts to broker a deal with Iran have been criticized in France and Israel.   His work with Russia has been dismissed as being naive.   But the critics all share one trait: they assume diplomacy can’t work.    Many people have a very black and white view of reality.   Certain countries are the “bad guys” and “our enemies,” so only naive fools will engage them.

Such a view is absurd.  Mao Zedong was vehement in his hatred for the US and threats against American hegemony.   His rhetoric made the anti-Israel barbs of former Iranian President Ahmadinejad look mild.  Yet President Nixon and Henry Kissinger opened relations with China, allowing China to replace Taiwan on the UN Security Council, which helped lead to positive change in China.   That was heavily criticized, but Nixon’s credentials as an anti-Communist helped him mollify the critics (hence the colloquialism ‘only Nixon could go to China’).

Nixon and Mao

Nixon and Mao

Former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was once the most hated man on the planet by the American government.  He masterminded terrorist attacks which killed Americans, and the Reagan Administration tried to eliminate him in an attack on his house.  Later, though, diplomacy led him to abandon his nuclear program and try to get on the good side of the West.   Many on the right were critical of UN efforts to help the Libyan rebels, preferring Gaddafi stay in power.

The point: diplomacy is about trying to turn enemies into, if not friends, at least people we can deal with.

John Kerry has logged 250,000 miles as Secretary of State, visiting 35 countries.  His desire to try to find solutions to long standing problems in the Mideast and elsewhere have caused many in Washington to criticize him.    Unlike his predecessor, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Kerry goes less for the showy displays and more for substance.   One gets the sense that she never wanted to do anything that would later harm a Presidential bid, such as being seen as too open to an agreement with Iran.   Kerry is not limited by political ambition, he can go where his principles lead.

President Obama has given Kerry considerable latitude in pursuing his foreign policy goals, largely because the two share similar principles.   Since Kerry doesn’t have to worry about what Washington insiders say, he can take their shots, working on extremely complex issues.   If he can’t succeed, he gets blamed.  If he does manage to reach agreements, the President can step in and get the glory.   That’s the job of a Secretary of State, and Kerry understands it.

John Kerry could deliver foreign policy successes to enhance President Obama's legacy

John Kerry could deliver foreign policy successes to enhance President Obama’s legacy

Yet while his efforts have been rather quiet, mostly underneath the media radar screen, he appears to be on a mission to do good – to be true to the principles that led him to speak out against atrocities taking place in Vietnam.  Who knows?  In the next three years he might be able to accomplish more as a hard working Secretary of State getting into the diplomatic trenches than he would have as President had he won in 2004.

And if so that would be fitting closure to his career.   His began by protesting against a pointless war that killed over a million people, with the major consequence being a decline in US power and moral authority.   Perhaps it might end with him guiding US foreign policy in a way that promotes peace and works to limit human suffering.   At this point in time John Kerry is the right man for the job.

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Obama Critics Are Misguided

The President addresses the nation on September 10, 2013

The President addresses the nation on September 10, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama’s Wise Choice

obamasyria

Up until a few days ago I was convinced I’d write a blog entry fiercely critical of Obama continuing the abuse of executive power that has been on display since WWII – a President going to war without Congressional approval.   To be sure, in legal terms he could have done it according to the provisions of the War Powers Act, though even that would be a murky case.

The Constitution gives the Congress the power to declare war.   The War Powers Act of 1973 does allow a President to use force in cases of an emergency and then get approval from Congress.   All Presidents since Nixon have claimed the act to be unconstitutional, although only Presidents Reagan (aid to the Contras) and Clinton (Kosovo) have ignored Congressional opposition and thus clearly violated the act.   When force is used, the President is required to notify Congress within 48 hours, and then must get approval for action within sixty days.  If approval is not given, the President has 30 days to remove the forces.

While over a hundred reports to Congress have been given, in line with what the act requires, only one (President Ford and the Mayaguez incident) involved a direct threat to Americans.   In Syria there is no direct threat to the United States.

Practically the War Powers Act has actually strengthened the executive.   Once military action is under way, Congress is loathe to revoke it, least it get painted as having undermined America’s military.   Still, most Presidents have insisted it is unconstitutional — that as Commander in Chief the President does have the power to use the military, even absent a Congressional declaration of war.   This grabbing of power for the Executive branch reached a pinnacle under President George W. Bush, who used 9-11, the Patriot Act, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to amass more executive power without regard to the will of Congress.

Former UN Ambassador John Bolton claims Obama is weakening the Presidency by going to Congress

Former UN Ambassador John Bolton claims Obama is weakening the Presidency by going to Congress

Up until a few days ago, most people thought that President Obama would follow in Bush’s footsteps, refuse to involve an especially gridlocked Congress and simply act in an international coalition that he could forge.   This would defy the UN, since the Security Council has not approved action (Russia and China at this point would veto it) and to the chagrin of the anti-war activists who supported Obama, make Obama seem not much different than Bush.   So much for that Nobel Peace Prize!

Obama still may go that route.   But after British Prime Minister Cameron had to withdraw British support for a strike thanks to opposition in Parliament, it appears Obama recognized the need to slow down.   That is a very wise decision.

My hope is that this represents a move away from amassing more power to the Executive and is setting a precedent.   Going to war without Congressional approval (absent an emergency) is simply wrong.  It violates both the spirit and letter of the Constitution, and makes fiascoes more likely.    Yet even if the President isn’t ready to embrace a (for me to be welcomed) weakening of the Presidency, it makes sense.   Going to Syria in even a limited role is controversial.   To do so with minimal international and domestic support risks his Presidency.

Senator Rand Paul represents a new breed of Republican isolationists

Senator Rand Paul represents a new breed of Republican isolationists

Moreover, the country needs a true debate about the role of the United States foreign policy.   America and the world are fundamentally different in 2013 than just ten years ago.   After Iraq and Afghanistan there is real question about how eager the US should be to use military power.   The Republican party has a new breed of isolationists, still a minority in the party, but gaining clout.   Many Democrats (and some Republicans) are convinced we need to learn the hard lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan.    Finally, with 90% of all casualties of military action being civilian these days, would a limited strike make a difference?    Would it be moral?

This debate – what to do about Syria – should take place both at home and abroad.   There are big issues at stake.   Can the UN act – is it possible for Russia and China to find a way to work with NATO and other states to support norms that trump sovereignty?   What kind of role do Americans want their country to play in this new world where the US is no longer as dominant, and traditional military power seems unlikely to yield desired political results?

Hillary is no longer Secretary of State, but many fear US military action is more likely to harm Syrians than help

Hillary is no longer Secretary of State, but many fear US military action is more likely to harm Syrians than help

And though Syrians suffer daily from the acts of their own regime, would American action only make things worse?    Would Assad use international controversy to increase his terror?    If Obama acts without domestic support, would this weaken the United States on the world stage?    Yes, Syrian civilians are suffering, and John McCain makes a good point when he says the world should not tolerate that and should help.    But going in with guns blazing and no international consensus may do more harm than good.

The issues in play here go far beyond just the Syrian case and cut to the core of how world politics is changing.    This is a time both at home and abroad for real reflection and discussion – patience rather than imprudence.

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Don’t Panic Over Egypt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Hard Truth in the Mideast

Protests in Egypt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Does Romney even WANT to be President?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, come on.   This is over the top.

No.  No.  No.

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

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

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

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

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Islamophobia Receding?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which one is crazier?

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

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