Archive for category 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.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
“We don’t want the world to be paralyzed. And frankly, part of the challenge that we end up with here is a lot of people think something should be done and nobody wants to do it. And that’s not an unusual situation, and that’s part of what allows over time the erosion of these kinds of international prohibitions unless somebody says, ‘No.’”
– President Barack Obama, August 30, 2013
“This kind of attack threatens our national security interests, further threatening friends and allies like Israel and Turkey and Jordan, and it increases the risk that chemical weapons will be used in the future. … I have said before, and I meant what I said, the world has an obligation to make sure that we maintain the norm against the use of chemical weapons.” – Secretary of State John Kerry
The world watches and wonders what the United States will do about Syria. Many people are critics in advance. Two groups have arguments we know well. The anti-war left considers military action to be wrong headed. It will hurt civilians more than it will stop the Syrian government, it again risks US moral authority, and is likely to do more harm than good. Some see the US as simply doing Israel’s bidding.
On the right, the critics are all over the place. Obama is doing too much, Obama isn’t doing enough, what Obama plans to do reflects incompetence (though I’m not sure how they know what he plans to do) and all this is Obama’s fault anyway. These are the same people who were indignant about “blaming America” for global problems when a Republican is President, but with Obama, well, all the world’s problems can be laid at his feet.
So what should be done about Syria? President Obama and Secretary Kerry are both correct in their statements. Yet this does not mean that the US should take military action. Indeed, one could argue that if the US acts unilaterally or with few willing participants, as was the case in Iraq, this would undermine the effort to create international action to support important norms like the prohibition on the use of WMD. If the US fails, then Syria has shown the US (and UN) are impotent. If the US succeeds then the rest of the world figures the US will handle everything, so why bother?
There is also concern that the UK’s desire NOT to participate makes it even harder for the US to act – and criticism of Obama for not being able to get Cameron on board. The reality is quite different; Cameron is facing hostile public opinion from a country that still thinks it was duped into supporting the US in Iraq and doesn’t want to get fooled again. Moreover, China and Russia, also angry about past US unilateralism, wants to make sure they give no “blank check” like they were fooled into giving on Libya.
President Obama is in a tough position. This may be a case when WMD was clearly used (unlike Iraq) but the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have weakened both the US strategic position and moral authority to a point that the US is no longer a unipolar power, and no longer able to inspire fear or respect. That’s been true since 2003, when American policy makers were shocked that the French, Germans and Russians would conspire against the US to embarrass the Bush Administration in the UN. Obama has regained some of what was lost, but with public opinion world wide against intervention, there is no reason for other countries to join us.
Right now President Obama should recognize that unilateralism is a no-win situation. He should reject military action against Syria if he doesn’t get Congressional and international support. He should reject the kind of thinking that has defined US Presidents and foreign policy for most of the Cold War and beyond. He needs to act in a way that recognizes the way the world has changed since the 20th Century. Does that mean Assad will “get away” with murder? Yes. But Saddam used chemical weapons in the 80s and the US blocked UN action against Iraq. That doesn’t mean its a good thing, but its also not as damaging to the US as Secretary Kerry suggests.
If the US does nothing and chemical attacks continue, pressure will be on the international community, not the US alone to find a way to act to support international law and strongly held norms against WMD. I’m not sure what Obama is thinking. You can’t believe leaks to the press or reports – that is as likely disinformation as information.
But now is the time for the President to continue the US policy shift from “our way or no way” to leadership in forging an international community willing to act together. That will require patience.
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.
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.
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.