Archive for category Mideast
The good news that Egypt has finally had free elections was for many people overshadowed by the preliminary results of the first round of voting. While the face of the “Arab Spring” had been young and modern, the elections are currently being led by overtly Islamicist parties with a history of fundamentalism and extremism.
The largest party, the PLJ, defines itself as moderate Islamist and won 36.6% of the vote so far. The El-Nour fundamentalist party got 24.3%, while the liberal Egyptian block gained 13.4% and the Nationalist party 7%. What this means, however, is not as bad as the alarmists would claim. First, this is the first round of elections; there are a lot more votes to count before we know what the make up of parliament ultimately will be.
These elections were to the lower house, where 332 representatives are elected through party lists, while 166 are elected on a majoritarian system, which includes run off elections. The party list system is a multi member district system, with each district containing 4 to 12 seats. More rounds of voting will be held before we know the actual make up of the parliament, and what kind of ruling coalition will take over. Most likely it would not be the PLJ and the fundamentalist al-Nour because the former does not want to be painted with the extremist brush the latter inspires (they want to ban alcohol and take a Saudi like approach to the law).
In February the upper house (Shura Council) will be elected, with Presidential elections in March. The new Parliament is to choose a 100 member council to draft a new Constitution, but the Military Council now running Egypt will limit the power of the new parliament and claims it has the authority to name 80 of the 100 members to the constitution council. Meanwhile, youth protests continue and any new government (including the military council) knows that if protests could overthrow Mubarak, they can overthrow a new government that tries anything radical. Those who want to write Egypt off over incomplete early results are over-reacting.
The Arab spring – probably the most important event of 2011, though part of a series of transitions going on globally – was all but inevitable. Like most historical shifts from the reformation to the fall of Communism, it could have happened at a different time or in a different way, but the mix of globalization and demography — half of the Arab world is under age 22 — meant that the old order could not survive. The fact that it rose in a completely unexpected manner in response to the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi after his humiliation by the Tunisian bureaucracy shows something was boiling under the surface. The speed at which it spread across the Arab world shows the region had become a powder keg ready to explode
Yet the transition from being part of the most repressive part of the planet towards some kind of democratic future is not easy. We in the west sometimes romanticize democracy as some kind of natural form of government that all should aspire to. Yet democratic political cultures are hard to construct and maintain. Until they really gain acceptance in the broad public, they easily can be undermined. The difficulties across the Arab world are immense.
In Egypt one can imagine a scenario where the Islamic extremists try to take full power. That would likely lead to a war of sorts between the Egyptian military and the Muslim brotherhood and other such groups, with the military winning. Such a result would lead to a kind of militarized democracy, much like Turkey experienced in its early years.
Of course, groups like the Muslim Brotherhood know that, and realize that they have to walk a fine line between pushing for their agenda and not angering the military or protesters. They are just as likely to ally with a liberal party and work for a unified Egyptian voice. That could ultimately isolate the extremists and allow the development of an open, moderate form of political Islam alongside secular parties. That would be the best result, as ultimately political Islam should be part of the future, not an enemy of change.
Moreover, while one can point to a lot of extremism within the Islamic parties in Egypt, there is also diversity and considerable moderate and even modern ideals. The battle within political Islam for the Arab mind and soul is intense. They can’t ignore the factors of globalization and demographics, nor can they simply grab control of the military. The military sees itself like the old Turkish military after Attaturk, a guarantor of Egyptian stability and a protection against extremism. Egyptian military officials have close ties with Israel, and are no doubt working to assure the Israelis that they have the situation under control.
A best case scenario is the Egyptian military brokering deals between various interest groups and winning over support from protesters who start to realize that idealism alone does not bring freedom and prosperity. Political Islam can define itself by rejecting anti-Western activism, accepting the legitimacy of Israel (even while demanding a Palestinian state) and rejecting the extremes of al qaeda and al-Nour. This would play itself out over years, with parliaments and even the President gaining more control and authority slowly, based on a new Constitution that would limit what the government can do.
So is Arab spring slipping to Arab winter? No, at least not yet. We should be applauding Egypt’s first free election and recognizing that the task they are undertaking is exceedingly difficult. Most important, we should not write off political Islam as an enemy or a threat. That could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead we need to quietly offer support where we can, help if asked, and recognize that this is an Egyptian and Arab journey — their reality to make, not ours. And, though naive optimism for a sudden rise of democracy is misplaced, so is a similarly naive pessimism that the region will collapse into some kind of extremist Islamic state ready to battle the West.
It is good that they’ve begun this journey, and ultimately history suggests that those who go against the course of history the way the Islamic extremists do tend to lose. The Egyptians are trying to do within a generation what it took the west centuries to do — with a lot of violence and horrors along the way. The start of this journey has been delayed too long; now thanks to young people willing to risk their lives for freedom, Egyptians have a chance for a better future.
The Obama administration is being faced with one of its most difficult foreign policy dilemmas yet: how should the US react to an IAEA report that Iran may be close to producing a nuclear weapon? Iran, of course, continues to insist their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. To be sure, it is rational for them to pursue nuclear power. Due to refining limits Iran often suffers energy and gas shortages, despite being one of the major producers of crude oil. Russia, Iran and other states have claimed the report to have been ‘politically motivated.’ But what if it’s accurate?
Pressure is growing on President Obama to do something. Sanctions haven’t worked, Israel is threatening to act on its own unilaterally (Prime Minister Netanyahu has accused former high level officials of leaking Israeli plans to attack Iran to the press in order to force him to scuttle attack plans), and Republicans on the Presidential campaign trail are sounding a hawkish tone. Sunni states in the region such as Saudi Arabia quietly urge action, and plans no doubt exist for precision strikes on suspected Iranian nuclear sites. However, President Obama would be wise to avoid such pressure; bombing Iran is not in our national interest for four main reasons.
1. The US would be acting virtually alone. China and Russia are almost certain to oppose any action against Iran. They’ve publicly warned against such action and reinforced that with criticism of the IAEA report. This means an attack would not be authorized by the UN Security council. European allies also oppose military action. If something goes wrong and the operation is anything but a clear success the US will be responsible for the consequences. If the UN Security Council were to approve action and there was a broad multi-national coalition that would would be a different situation, but that’s not going to happen.
2. The Risks are immense. Let’s face it, US power is not what it used to be. While America can project military powerthere is strong domestic opposition to anything that isn’t a clear and decisive cheap victory, and with domestic wrangling over debt the danger that Iran could lead to a budget busting barrage of spending is very real. US clout on the world stage comes from economic strength more than military power. Iran could push the US further into the economic abyss, while China might see it as a rationale to shift even more towards Euros from dollars.
Moreover, Iran could respond to the attack by unleashing a wave of terrorism in the region, perhaps evem in the US. They could try to block the straits of Hormuz in order to cause a major oil crisis at the very point the economy is pulling itself out of the depths of the worst recession since WWII. Any military action is sure to see a spike in oil prices, even if it were successful.
Iran could also increase weapons flow to Hezbollah in Lebanon, potentially creating another crisis between Israel and Lebanon. All of this could unravel into one of the worst geopolitical disasters of history. Now the odds for a worst case scenario may be low, but President Obama should recall how the optimistic assumptions made about Iraq by the Bush Administration turned out to be very wrong. In war you control only the first shot — after the bombs hit, anything can happen.
3. The risk of doing nothing is mild. Even if Iran produced a bomb, it couldn’t produce many and the weapons would have limited value. Both the US and Israel have enough nuclear weapons to deter Iran. Iran knows an attack on Israel would lead to destruction of the Islamic Republic. Iran’s decision makers have been rational (if also ruthless) in pursuit of their goal of having regional power, they are not suicidal. Deterrence works. Moreover, Iran operates in a regional framework that includes China and Russia, who have a goal of assuring Iran does not upset the balance. They already calculate that they can live more easily with a nuclear Iran than with a major war in the region.
Iran as a stronger regional power would be a nuisance to the US, but not a major threat to our national interests. We could contain Iran and work to maintain a regional balance at far less cost then trying to make the problem go away with bombs. The US will have to accept that losing prestige and influence in the region, but that’s already happened — US power and influence isn’t what it used to be. The remedy for that is more cooperative ventures with the EU, Russia and China to help maintain stability and the flow of oil. The US could even consider a diplomatic ‘charm offense’ with a post-Ahmadinejad Iran, remembering how the “evil communists” became more malleable after Nixon and Kissinger started to work with them.
4. Iran is changing anyway. Iran has had a growing movement against its authoritarian rulers for some time, and it remains nominally a democracy with contested elections. Due to the power of the Guardian Council it’s only semi-Democratic, but with half the population under 24 and change already sweeping the region there is reason for optimism. Even if Iran’s conservative regime doesn’t fall there is immense pressure to liberalize and be more responsive to the people. A war with the US threatens that process. It would allow Iranian leaders to demonize the US and create anger throughout the region. The Saudi Royal family might welcome it, but they’re increasingly out of touch and vulnerable anyway. It will play into the hands of the already weakening anti-American Islamic extremist movements and risk exponentially expanding threats to the US and the West.
The bottom line: an military strike would have high risks, the potential benefits are low, the risks of not acting are low, and the unintended consequences could include undercutting domestic change already underway in Iran. Indeed, the conservatives in Iran may be hoping for a US attack in order to deflect attention away from their growing domestic problems. A staggering virtually leaderless and weakened al qaeda could use US aggression to regain attention stolen by the “Arab Spring” movement!
With the economy the main issue at home, adventurism abroad is dangerous. The public would not rally to support such action, and Obama’s core supporters would feel once more betrayed by a leader who would be acting more like what they would expect from President Bush than the candidate who promised a new path. Electoral concerns can’t shape foreign policy, but domestic support is essential for any successful foreign policy venture.
So while speculation about a war with Iran may grow, the arguments against it are so strong that I find it extremely unlikely that President Obama would support unilateral US military action. Beyond any moral or political concerns, it simply is not in the national interest.
When I was in 7th grade I remember hearing about Islam for the first time, at least in an educational setting. Our teacher, Mrs. Gors, asked us what religion was closest to Christianity. Most people thought it was Judaism. She said that she thought it was Islam, and she explained the basics of the Islamic faith. I don’t remember much else, only that I was intrigued by the fact there were other religions that were well developed and had a considerable following. Perhaps it sticks in my memory because that opened my mind to the fact that perhaps I was Christian simply by dint of geography.
Of course the rise of Islamic extremism with the Iranian revolution caused the faith’s reputation in the West to take a hit, but not a fatal one. After all, there are Christian extremists as well. During the 90s brutality against Bosnian Muslims and later Albanian Muslims in Kosovo painted the picture of Muslims as victims, minorities in a culture that was defined by brutal nationalism.
Then came 9-11. Suddenly a man with an extreme, radical and bizarre interpretation of Islam launched an attack on the US. 19 of us followers managed to shock and anger (and awe) the country with the use of box cutters, hijacked planes and spectacular destruction. For Americans the Taliban and al qaeda became the face if Islam. Instead of being a great and popular faith spread over North Africa and down into Asia, it was seen by many as dangerous and scary.
Muhammad went from a prophet that people didn’t know much about to a demonized caricature, the most extreme forms of Islam became posited as the norm; the Koran was misinterpreted and taken out of context to make it seem like Muslims were commanded to kill all others. Out of fear and ignorance people constructed an “other” that was irrational, unreasonable, unwilling to change, and therefore an enemy that had to be defeated.
Islam is a great world religion that is not going to go away, and trying to repress Muslim political expression is not only futile, but likely to create more harm than good. The Ottoman Empire’s repression of peoples’ political voice and embrace of a very conservative form of Islam set up current difficulties. Those problems are real but can be overcome. The region has to start progressing, which means bringing all voices, including those of fundamentalists and extremists, into the mix. There is no other way.
The US can facilitate this with a clear message: We will not get involved in your internal affairs, we will assist you when our mutual interests make that possible, and we will respect our cultural differences. All we ask in return is not to be seen as or treated as enemies. For almost all Muslims that would be welcomed and start a path to a good relationship.
If not for the Israeli-Palestinian issue, that would be enough. There can never be true normalcy in the region as long as the Arabs (and to a lesser extent non-Arab Muslims) see Palestinians being humiliated and denied basic rights in the occupied territories. That doesn’t mean Israel is completely to blame, they’re in a tough spot with Hamas and Hezbollah kindling trouble: who can blame them for being hesitant? But there is hope.
The Arabs blew the first opportunity in 1948 when they could have had a state containing far more territory than what they now could possibly dream of when they rejected the UNSCOP plan (Israel accepted it and declared statehood on its basis). After losing the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 the Arabs could have accepted their defeat. They would have kept East Jerusalem and been able to construct a Palestinian state with no issues of Israeli territory. Not wanting to compromise kept them from results that now would be seen as major Israeli concessions.
Yet Israel has also proven unwilling to entertain ideas that could finalize Palestinian borders. My own view is that Arafat should have taken Ehud Barak’s 1999 proposals, but Israel could show some leeway on East Jerusalem and Palestinian borders. If they had done that in 1999 then Hamas might not have become a factor, Hezbollah would be easier to counter, and a main irritant in Mideast relations could have been avoided. Both sides are to blame, and neither side can “win” — the Arabs won’t push the Jews into the sea, the Jews won’t push the Arabs into the desert.
Though the positions there have intensified in the last decade, ultimately the two peoples’ destinies are linked. They’ll fight or they’ll make peace, but neither will make the other go away. One cannot be pro-Israel without being pro-Palestinian, or pro-Palestinian without being pro-Israel. That irony is the biggest obstacle to piece, neither side wants to truly accept their shared destiny.
Still, after a decade of pessimism there may be cause for optimism. As the Arab world changes, so to will change come in thoughts about Israel. One reason the issue has remained so hot is that it was useful for the dictators to have something to unite their people around. Now as Arab peoples slowly start moving into modernism and away from the old repressive regimes, they’ll need to rethink what is best for them and their respective states.
Islam is not anti-Jewish; the Koran commands respect for the other religions of Abraham, Judaism and Christianity. Muhammad had many Jewish friends and allies. Political Islam could actually hasten acceptance of a settlement in Israel by shifting the tone. After all, religion only entered the conflict late, before 1973 it was about European colonizers taking Arab land, not Jews taking Muslim land.
First and foremost is to make sure that the West does not fear political Islam in the Mideast, or treat it as an enemy, thereby setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy. Second, treating political Islam without fear does not mean ignoring our values. A Taliban like state will have to be opposed. If new leaders start acting like the old ones in denying people a voice, our support should be lukewarm. We shouldn’t fear them, but shouldn’t treat them different from other third world states where we reward democracy (or at least moves towards more openness) and refrain from supporting authoritarians (especially now that the Cold War is over). Finally, we need patience. Modernism came to Europe from 1300 to 1900, and during that time there were wars, plagues, holocausts, ideological extremism, slavery and sexism. Even in the last Century we had 11 killed by Nazis under Hitler, 20 million by Communists under Stalin.
Their transition need not be so messy, we’ve shown one possible path to modernism. The Arab world and other Muslim states will choose their own path, not exactly like ours, but we can help avoid the extremes. But we shouldn’t expect it to be smooth, nor should we give up on them because they don’t quickly leap into modernity. We’re entering a new era, full of danger and promise.
Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi is dead 42 years after he took power. Having already lost Libya he was holed up in Sirte, his stronghold, fighting to the last minute. Gaddafi was the Osama Bin Laden of the 1980s for Americans. He was an organizer of state sponsored terrorism, a supporter of radical anti-American movements around the globe and had ambitions to control all of northern Africa.
The only bad news in this is that he lasted so long. He was one of the most heinous criminals on the world stage and while there is justifiable celebration over his demise, his brutal criminal regime terrorized the Libyan people for over four decades. In 1986 the US attempted to kill Gaddafi in bombing raids, seeing him as the most dangerous dictator on the planet. This was a response to Libyan backed terrorism in Germany in which the LaBelle nightclub in West Berlin was bombed, killing three and injuring 229. That was a nightclub known to be frequented by US military personnel so the US felt justified in trying to take out Gaddafi. It failed because he was warned (either by the Italian or Maltese Prime Minister) ahead of time.
Two years later, on December 21, 1988 Gaddafi got his revenge as Libyan agents caused a bomb to go off on Pan Am Flight 103, which went down over Lockerbie, Scotland. 259 passengers and crew members died as well as 11 people on the ground who got hit by falling debris. Calls for Gaddafi’s ouster intensified, but he hung on.
But his geopolitical ambitions were already on the wane. Libya had lost a war to Chad in 1987 and within a year of downing Pan Am 103 the Soviet bloc disintegrated. The world was changing, and Gaddafi’s influence declined. After having tried to become a nuclear power in order to cement his leadership position in northern Africa, his WMD programs became a drain on the economy and increasingly meaningless. As his political ambitions waned his family became more liked an organized criminal syndicate running a state. They siphoned wealth from Libya’s oil revenues, controlled economic relations internally, and ruled with an iron fist.
In 1999 they gave up their WMD program as part of a strategy to gain favor with the West. It was a cynical shifting of position in recognition to the fact that Gaddafi and his family now had more to gain as a friend of the West rather than a foe. They then settled the Lockerbie bombing case and promising to work with the West against its newest foe, al qaeda. Unfortunately leaders in Europe and the US were all too willing to “forgive and forget” Gaddafi’s past. By 2001 he had been weakened but now used better connections with the West to enhance his grip on power and buy support.
Yet he remained what he always had been: a ruthless tyrant.
Then on February 15, 2011 the arrest of human rights activist Fethi Tarbel sparked a riot in Benghazi. The unthinkable happened – the Libyan people rose up and defied Gaddafi, starting a revolt. They had early gains; emboldened by events in Tunisia and Egypt they hoped to bring down the repressive regime. Gaddafi, seeing how Mubarak folded and was humiliated, decided to do everything in his power to defeat the rebellion. He used ethnic rivalries, his control of resources, and the Libyan military to strike back. Soon the rebels were losing ground. Gaddafi, believing that the West would simply stand back, promised “no mercy” as he moved his military in position to crush the rebellion completely. Most observers were expecting harsh retribution against those who had dared challenge his authority. Gaddafi’s sons, once seen as reflecting hope that perhaps the next generation would bring more enlightened rule, echoed the threats.
On March 17th after Gaddafi’s forces took back most of Libya and were advancing no Benghazi the UN Security Council ordered a no fly zone over parts of Libya and authorized air strikes against Gaddafi’s forces. On March 19th those airstrikes began and the government offensive was halted. Slowly the rebels started to regain ground. At first there was intense criticism of the UN action, enforced mostly by NATO airstrikes. President Obama was criticized by some for acting too slow, but by many for doing anything at all. As the fighting dragged into summer people accused the President of entering a conflict that could not be won.
NATO leaders knew that it was a matter of time. With NATO air support the rebels would defeat the government, and it would be months rather than years. They were right. In August rebel forces entered Tripoli, and with Gaddafi’s death the rebellion is complete.
Was this a success for President Obama? Undoubtedly yes. A dictator just as heinous and brutal as Saddam was overthrown, yet by his own people thanks to assistance from the West. No American lives were lost, and the cost was far less than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This proved that the West will not always side with oppressive regimes if their people rise against them, and that the West is powerful enough and patient enough to offer effective assistance to those fighting oppression. Moreover without western help it was clear that Gaddafi was going to crush the rebels with brutal force.
This also showed that the US was still relevant in the region; many thought that after the Iraq war’s high cost and ambiguous conclusion (still being played out), the US would be sidelined for quite awhile. No way would the public support another foreign intervention. Perhaps more important is the message this sends to other dictators. The times are changing. Being pro-western in your policy does not buy you a free pass to oppress your people without mercy.
President Obama’s foreign policy is a mix of realism and idealism. He doesn’t sacrifice democratic principles for raw self interest, but he’s been willing to act even if it goes against international law. Such “principled realism” has marked American foreign policy at its most effective, and for all Obama’s economic woes at home, his foreign policy has been strong. Gaddafi and Osama are dead. Clinton and Karzai are in Afghanistan planning how to end NATO involvement there, while there is serious talk of the US being out of Iraq completely by next year (except for military guards at the US embassy). US status abroad is much higher than it was in 2008, and relations with important powers such as China and Russia have been smoother than expected.
Recent US allegations of Iranian plots to assassinate the Saudi ambassador have led to Iranian bombast against the US and Saudi Arabia. But the Iranians know that Obama is not one to be pushed around, and instead of provoking an Iranian challenge to the US, there has been an internal challenge to Iran’s hardline leadership. It’s not inconceivable that Iran’s hardliners will be pushed aside by a more moderate faction. The patient but real successes of Obama’s foreign policy have been a relatively untold story thanks to economic woes, but it appears that one area where Obama will not be vulnerable next year is on foreign policy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.