Memorial Day for all

I have little to add to what I said the past four years on Memorial Day, which this year is tomorrow. So I am republishing what I wrote originally in 2011 with slight updates and two short additional paragraphs:

I spent my high school years marching in the Memorial Day parade in New Rochelle, New York and have never lost respect for those who serve and make sacrifices in uniform.  Even as an anti-war protester in the Vietnam era, I thought denigration of those in uniform heinous, not to mention counterproductive.

It is impossible to feel anything but pride and gratitude to those who have  served in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention Kosovo, Bosnia, Panama, Somalia, Kuwait and Iraq during the previous decade.  Nor will I forget my  Memorial Day visit to the American cemetery in Nettuno accompanying Defense Secretary Les Aspin in the early 1990s, or my visit to the Florence cemetery the next year.  These extraordinarily manicured places are the ultimate in peaceful.  It is unimaginable what their inhabitants endured.  No matter what we say during the speechifying on Memorial Day, there is little glory in what the troops do and a whole lot of hard work, dedication, professionalism and horror.

That said, it is a mistake to forget those who serve out of uniform, as we habitually do.  Numbers are hard to come by, but a quick internet search suggests that at at least 2000 U.S. civilians have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus quite a few “third country” nationals.  They come in many different varieties:  journalists, policemen, judges, private security guards, agriculturalists, local government experts, computer geeks, engineers, relief and development workers, trainers, spies, diplomats and who knows what else.  I think of these people as our “pinstripe soldiers,” even if most of them don’t in fact wear pinstripes.  But they are a key component of building the states that we hope will some day redeem the sacrifices they and their uniformed comrades have endured.

We are losing that long war. Not because our soldiers lack courage or technology, but rather because our civilian instruments for preventing war and rebuilding afterwards are inadequate. There will be no victory in Libya, Syria or Yemen without the effective civilian instruments needed to restore some kind of inclusive governance to states torn apart by uncivil war.

Host country civilians killed in all these conflicts far outnumber the number of Americans killed, by a factor of 100 or more.  Numbers this large become unfathomable.  Of course some–and maybe more–would have died under Saddam Hussein, the Taliban or Muammar Qaddafi, but that is not what happened.  They died fighting American or Coalition forces, or by accident, or caught in a crossfire, or trying to defend themselves, or in internecine violence, or because a soldier got nervous or went berserk, or….

Memorial Day in this age of “war among the people” should be about the people, civilian as well as military, non-American as well as American, not only about the uniform, the flag or the cause.

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Macedonia hangout

I did a Hangout with Radio Free Europe yesterday on the situation in Macedonia. Here it is:

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We are losing the long war

SAIS commencement is today. I’m going, for the first time in my almost five years here. In fact, I haven’t been to a commencement for 10 years, since my sons graduated from Vassar College and Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in 2005.

The speaker at SAIS is former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. But that is far from good enough reason to attend. I didn’t even attend the awarding of my own master’s and doctoral degrees at Princeton or my master’s degree at the University of Chicago. But as I am taking over direction of the SAIS conflict management program on July 1, attending seemed appropriate.

The main pleasures at commencement in my experience are the personal and visual ones. If you know people who are graduating, it is a great satisfaction to see them line up and collect their degrees. I’ll enjoy seeing some of my students from this year and last “walk.”

The visual pageantry is always terrific. The faculty processions on a verdant hillside at Vassar (even if it was raining) and in the Yard at Harvard were a great riot of stripes, tassles and gowns. I expect nothing less today.

SAIS’s commencement will be indoors (good thing, as it is raining in DC today) at Constitution Hall, best known for the refusal of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) to allow soprano Marian Anderson to perform in 1939, because of her race. The DAR website informs that she performed there subsequently. That is what we call progress, which is a very good thing.

We can hope to see a good deal more of it, though not for right now in the two parts of the world I follow most closely: the greater Middle East and the Balkans. Violence is prevailing in large parts of Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. Only Tunisia of the “Arab spring” countries is managing something like progress. The Balkans are far calmer than they were 20 years ago, but it is hard to miss the instability in Macedonia, the unease in Kosovo and the continuing political struggle among ethnic nationalists in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

I joke with my students that turmoil is a career opportunity for them. If you study conflict management, you wouldn’t want peace and tranquility to arrive before you have a chance to practice your profession. There seems little risk of that. While I hope to see the Balkans calm down with some effort by the US and EU, the Middle East is posing truly wicked problems. Our military instruments can kill just about anyone they can find, but that hasn’t and won’t calm things down.

We launched the war against violent Islamic extremism in 2001 with the invasion of Afghanistan. There were then at most a few thousand jihadi fighters in a handful of countries. Almost 15 years later, there are at least several tens of thousands in a dozen countries or more. It is certainly arguable that things would be no worse had we never intervened. We win a lot of battles against extremists, but we are losing the long war.

That is one of the great challenges for this year’s crop of SAIS graduates, not only in conflict management but in other fields as well. Is military intervention making things worse? How can things be made better? What is wrong with what we are doing, and what can we do to improve our effectiveness?

Those are questions that will be on my mind today as I enjoy a great spectacle and wish the next generation more success than mine is enjoying at the moment.


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Half hearted

The Gulf leaders’ meetings with President Obama last Wednesday evening at the White House and Thursday at Camp David resulted in conditional, half-hearted pledges from both parties. The Gulf leaders recognized that if a verifiable and comprehensive (that’s one that cuts off all routes to a bomb) nuclear agreement with Iran can be reached, it will be in their interest. President Obama pledged to deter and confront any external threats to Gulf states.

But external threats are not the Gulf’s main concern. Iran’s efforts against its Arab neighbors are not overtly aggressive. Compared to the Gulf countries, Iran is strikingly weak in conventional military terms. It should not be able to win a force-on-force war with Saudi Arabia.

Tehran’s regional efforts are mainly subversive, aimed at undermining the internal security of their neighbors. Tehran supports non-state actors–Shia militias in Iraq, Hizbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and the Houthis in Yemen–who operate within weak states. This “asymmetric” strategy has produced good results at extraordinarily low cost.

The response has to be more than military. In what I regard as his most positive remark about state-building in a long time, the President said after his meeting with the Gulf states:

When you look at a place like Yemen, the issue there is that the state itself was crumbling, and that if we can do a better job in places like Syria, Yemen, Libya, in building up functioning political structures, then it’s less likely that anybody, including Iran, can exploit some of the divisions that exist there.

That makes a lot of sense, but we are a long way from doing the better job he says is needed. The Syrian state is collapsing. Yemen’s has already collapsed. Libya’s is hanging on by a thread. And there is no sign of a renewed effort to do much about any of them.

Nor are the Gulf states the ideal partners to join us in the effort. The President was at pains to articulate

core principles to guide our efforts:  respect for state sovereignty; recognition that these conflicts can only be resolved politically; and acknowledgment of the importance of inclusive governance and the need to respect minorities and protect human rights.

The Gulf states are big on state sovereignty, but they haven’t been as keen on political solutions, few of them practice anything like inclusive governance, and most of them are sorely lacking when it comes to respect for minorities and protection of human rights. The elaborate annex to the official statement on the Camp David talks is notably silent on these issues so far as the Gulf states are concerned.

Nor is the United States pristine in these respects, but it seems to me clear we embrace the ideals more than the Gulf does, with the exception of state sovereignty. That we sometimes honor more in the breach than in the observance.

The Gulfies would have liked a clear signal that the United States is prepared to do what it will take to get rid of Bashar al Assad. There too the President’s signal was half-hearted:

With respect to Syria, we committed to continuing to strengthen the moderate opposition, to oppose all violent extremist groups, and to intensify our efforts to achieve a negotiated political transition toward an inclusive government — without Bashar Assad — that serves all Syrians.

That would be nice, but it isn’t happening. Instead extremists are leading the opposition advances in northern Syria and UN mediation efforts have been reducedd to a slow-motion consultation in Geneva. The only really good news is the advance of moderate opposition forces on the southern front in Syria, where they have formed a joint command and seem to be coordinating well while marginalizing extremists. But President Obama clearly remains concerned that an opposition victory would open the door to an extremist takeover. Sometimes there are reasons to be half-hearted.


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Forget about it

My friends at Pristina daily Koha Ditore sent me some questions this week, mostly focused on Macedonia. They published my replies today:

Q: Macedonian police for two days fought with a group in the town of Kumanovo. How have you seen these developments in Macedonia?

A: So far, I see this mainly as a law and order problem, caused by armed people who allegedly wanted to rebel. The police reacted. That is what they are supposed to do. I can only regret that so many police were killed. But we need to await a full investigation, and trial of those arrested, to get a fuller understanding of what this is all about.

Q: Many residents claimed that this is just a game by the government, after the Gruevski wire-tapping scandal, published by the opposition. Can these developments be linked?

A: I hear people suggesting that somehow the government created the incident. Anyone who spreads that rumor needs to provide evidence. I haven’t seen any. The tapes are more than a little embarrassing, but are you really suggesting that the government killed 14 people to distract attention from them? And where would you find 14 Albanians dumb enough to dress up in battle dress uniforms and carry automatic weapons, to please the Macedonian government and get themselves killed?

I suppose it is possible that the police took action last weekend against a group it had known about for some time. But if someone thought that would distract attention they were wrong: two ministers and an intelligence chief have now lost their jobs. Prime Minister Gruevski is facing strong calls for his resignation, due principally to the material in the wire taps.

Q: Is there a danger that the tension created in Kumanovo will shift into other cities in Macedonia, where the Albanians are in the majority?

A: I hope not. Albanians in Macedonia can gain nothing by supporting an armed rebellion. And they have a good deal to lose. Nonviolent pursuit of rights—both in the streets and in the courts—is part of the normal democratic process. Automatic weapons are not.

Q: How do you see the role of the Albanian political parties in Macedonia. BDI led by Ali Ahmeti continues to be part of the government, despite requests to leave the coalition with Gruevski?

A: My understanding is that even if Ali Ahmeti were to leave the government, Gruevski would still be able to cobble together a majority. And even if Gruevski fell, he might do well in the next election. So what would leaving accomplish? It might even lead to another Albanian party joining the government. No matter how unhappy they may be with a political situation, most leaders will try to figure out how to gain, not lose.

If someone wants to bring Gruevski down, they need to find a majority in parliament to vote no confidence or convince him to resign. He does not appear inclined to do so, as he won big in an election just last year. But my understanding is that there is a demonstration scheduled for May 17. If that is very big and peaceful, it could have a serious political impact. So, too, could action by the courts, if they can find the evidence and the courage. There is a good reason why an independent judiciary is vital in democracy. Read more

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Dayton plus 20

We at SAIS are marking the 20 years since the Dayton agreements (as well as the Srebrenica massacre) with a two-day conference here in DC as well as other events during rest of the year. I was asked to speak yesterday, along with Dan Hamilton, about the situation before Dayton, when the Balkan fire was spreading. Here are my speaking notes, as well as my answers to a couple of questions:

1. Thank you, Marvin [Kalb], for that kind introduction. I confess that it is hard to believe more than 20 years have passed since I first started learning about Bosnia from the Italians.

2. I was deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Rome from 1990 to 93, when the Italians repeatedly tried to convince Washington that it needed to pay attention to the dissolution of Yugoslavia and prevent problems there.

3. Somewhere in the bowels of the State Department are my lengthy cables reporting the very detailed accounts the Prime Minister’s diplomatic advisor provided on the “spreading fire.”

4. Washington’s response was equivocal: yes, we would help get the issue onto the G7 Summit agenda, but Yugoslavia was “out of area,” which meant NATO would have nothing to do with it.

5. I accompanied Secretary of State Christopher in May 1993 when he tried to sell “lift and strike,” the policy of lifting the arms embargo and striking against Serb forces, to then Prime Minister Ciampi.

6. The Italians were unequivocal: they did not want gasoline poured on the fire next door.

7. Two more years went by before NATO struck decisively, in response to shelling of Sarajevo.

8. The August/September 1995 NATO bombing of Serb forces was triggered by a “trip wire.” Zepa and Srebrenica, Muslim enclaves in eastern Bosnia, had already fallen. It had been agreed in NATO that an attack on Gorazde, a third Muslim enclave, would trigger a NATO response. This “Gorazde rule” was extended to three other “safe areas,” Sarajevo, Tuzla and Bihac.

9. The sustained bombing was not limited to the Serb forces that launched a mortar against the Markale market in Sarajevo. I think it arguable that only when it got to the communications nodes of the Bosnian Serb Army did it have a really strategic impact, in combination with the rapid advance of Bosnian and Croatian forces on the ground in western Bosnia.

10. Those forces had vastly improved their capabilities and coordination over the previous two years.

11. The arms embargo was never lifted, but the US turned a blind eye to the violations Iran, Malaysia, Turkey and others indulged in.

12. One of my colleagues in Washington—a leading expert on Syria—is fond of asking me if waiting for action in Bosnia was as painful then as waiting for action on Syria is today.

13. I’m afraid it was. Maybe even more painful: the United States was then the world’s last remaining superpower, Russia posed no serious counterweight, half the population of Bosnia had been displaced and something like 100,000 would eventually be killed, out of a population of only 4.2 million or so.

14. State Department officers were resigning. There were demonstrations calling for action on Bosnia on campuses throughout the United States. Mo Sacirbey and Haris Silajdzic were on the network news and CNN virtually every evening, excoriating the US for failing to act. Congress wanted to lift the arms embargo, despite European hesitation. Read more