Month: April 2011

I don’t get it

Why is the Obama Administration so hesitant about supporting the demonstrations in Syria?

Yesterday’s UN Human Rights Council resolution on Syria was good: it clearly and unequivocally condemned the mistreatment and killing of protesters. The Administration understands the difference between right and wrong in this matter. Russia and China opposed the resolution, which signals why the UN Security Council is having such a hard time making a statement. I can’t really fault the Administration for that, and I imagine Susan Rice is working hard to get around their opposition.

But why does the Administration impose sanctions targeted on just three Syrian officials? Why does the President not speak out more forcefully? What more would Bashar al Assad have to do to get on the wrong side of history? Are 400 deaths not enough?

Talking to a U.S. government official yesterday, I got some hints: the Administration is worried about sectarian chaos that might spread to Iraq, it wants to maintain stability in Syria’s mutually hostile but nonviolent relationship with Israel, it has its hands full with Libya (not to mention Yemen and Bahrain) so doesn’t want another problem. It is trying hard not to raise expectations among the Syrian protesters that will likely be disappointed. It is especially important that the demonstrators understand that no military intervention is going to happen, so they had better keep their protests nonviolent.

All of that is fine, but it is creating a moral hazard on the other side:  Bashar al Assad feels he can do as he pleases because no one will really try to stop him. He is likely also hinting that if only left in place he’ll be more forthcoming with Israel once things calm down.

It is hard for me to credit this hint, as there have been so many disappointments in the past. Nothing about Bashar’s past behavior suggests that he is a true reformer, or a leader capable of an historical advance in relations with Israel. Those who believe he is–Senator John Kerry most explicitly among them–have a burden of proof that has not been met.

The crackdown in Syria has been so pervasive and effective that there are few good first-hand accounts and interviews with protesters. This piece from the New York Review of Books is the best I’ve seen.  I’ve also confirmed independently the report therein that at Deraa, an epicenter for the protests, the fourth division of the Syrian Army fired on the fifth, because of its refusal to fire on the demonstrators.  The fourth is an elite group led by Bashar’s brother while the fifth is mainly conscripts, like most of the army. But it will take more than an incident or two to bring the security forces around to the realization that Bashar is leading the country in the wrong direction.

The NYRB piece cites these as the protesters’ immediate demands:

the lifting of emergency law; the release of political prisoners; the right to form new political parties and to protest peacefully; the right of freedom of speech and of the media; an end to corruption; permission to exiled dissidents to return to Syria; and the bringing to justice of those responsible for killing, arresting or torturing protesters and political opponents.

Longer-term goals are also being prepared. They may not be calling consistently for the end of the regime, but the regime is certainly making it clear that the objectives sought are incompatible with the continuation of Ba’athist rule.

Which side is history on?

PS: I hope on this guy’s side:

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Get Syrious: something besides the wedding

Yes, something else is happening today:  the Syrian protesters are going to discover whether they can bring around their brethren in the army and thereby shake the foundations of the regime.  Protests are just beginning today as I write this–no clear results so far.

I asked my bit of the twittersphere yesterday whether they thought the army would continue to fire on protesters.  The smart money (or at least most of the money) said “yes.”  One tweep even suggested it was “in the nature of Ba’athist regimes” to survive this kind of thing.  I’m not sure what that means, but Bashar al Assad is definitely putting up a strong fight, if that is the right term for when you shoot an unarmed demonstrator.

The protest leadership is appealing to the army and defense minister to play a role in the transition, following the Egyptian precedent.  If Wikipedia is to be believed, the Syrian armed forces are 646,500 strong when fully mobilized, but more than half are reservists and the bulk are conscripts who serve only 18 months.  Hard to believe they are well trained or equipped, and most will not want to fire on fellow Syrians.  But so far there is little sign of resistance to the regime from within the armed forces.  We are hearing about local resignations from the Ba’ath party, but few soldiers have joined the demonstrators and none so far as I know have refused to fire on them.

The issue is not one only for the security forces.  The protesters will have to maintain nonviolent discipline and reach out to the uniformed military, making it clear that they are not the enemy and will not be attacked.  This is best done with such large numbers of people in the street that the military and police will not want to precipitate chaos.  The demonstrations in Syria have been widespread but not large.

The international community, such as it is, has done little to warn off the Assad regime or protect the demonstrators.  The UN Security Council seems unable to agree to a statement, never mind a resolution.  U.S. and EU sanctions are still under preparation.

With the internet and phone service largely cut off and foreign journalists barred, today is going to be a difficult day for the protesters.  But no one ever suggested that getting rid of the autocratic regime in Serbia was going to be easy.

This video purports to be today in Damascus, where demonstrations are said to have broken out even in the center of the city:


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You make peace with your enemies

News of Hamas/Fatah rapproachement–that’s diplomatese for kissing and making up–has agitated Israel and the United States, which found it more convenient to deal with divided Palestinians and pursue peace only with the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank.  Washington and Tel Aviv say Hamas, which controls Gaza, is a terrorist organization that targets Israeli civilians and is therefore not a legitimate negotiating partner.

This is odd.  You make peace with your enemies.  Israel is well within its rights to defend against Hamas and otherr attacks, including by attacking Gaza (as it has repeatedly).  But to refuse to negotiate with the people doing the most harm condemns Israel to perpetual war.  And to expect the Palestinians to remain divided so that Israel can deal with the ones it likes and not with the ones it doesn’t like is unrealistic.

The vital question is whether there is any hope for peace with Hamas.  Opinions differ on this important issue.  A former head of the Mossad and national security advisor to Ariel Sharon  suggests it is worth a try.  Three years ago most Israelis agreed. Many others say no.  Hamas says peace talks with Israel are not on the agenda of the interim government it is to form with Fatah in preparation for Palestinian elections.

So Israel and the United States have something like eight months to think about this issue.  Unfortunately, Israel will do so with a government that seems not to want peace on terms that are even remotely acceptable to the Palestinians.  We’ll hear more about this side of things directly from Prime Minister Netanyahu when he addresses the U.S. Congress next month.  The Americans have had little luck with the so-called Middle East peace process so far.  Will they, and the Israelis, be prepared to talk with a new, post-election Palestinian Authority that will likely include Hamas participation in some form?  And will Hamas be prepared to talk with Israel and the United States?

The flux in the Arab world makes it really very difficult to imagine the conditions under which such decisions will be made eight months hence.  Let’s hope they improve the likelihood of a serious peace process.




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Preventing political violence

My problem with the second of my lunch time events yesterday at Brookings, “Defusing the Bomb:  Reversing the Process of Radicalization and Preventing Political Violence,” was not so much what was said but the need to continue saying it.  The study, undertaken for the Qatar International Academy for Security Studies by the Soufan Group (as in Ali Soufan, formerly of the FBI), looked at strategic counter-terrorism approaches in France, Indonesia, Northern Ireland, Singapore and Great Britain.

While none of the programs “had systematic ‘outcome’ data that could be used to evaluate them,” the takeaway was clear enough:  comprehensive (psychological, social, religious) community-based approaches that rely on former militants work better than law enforcement alone, especially if the law enforcement is not of the community policing variety.  The French approach was the exemplar in this study.

Why?  Because it is not really about theology or ideology.  Recruitment is about identity and relies for its effectiveness on finding (mostly) young people who feel stereotyped, marginalized, misunderstood and unfairly stigmatized.  Countering this requires offering a new narrative that enables people to re-engage their critical thinking skills and disengage from a narrative that they have found highly compelling in the past.

The process of recruitment is similar to recruitment into gangs in the U.S.–no one yesterday was parepared to say exactly how it differs.  Of course we have largely failed to prevent gang recruitment, and the prospects for preventing radicalization don’t seem much better, at least in the U.S.  Singapore has powers to detain and treat that don’t exist here, and it is difficult, especially at the local level, for the U.S. to mobilize the kind of comprehensive approach that even the UK and Indonesia are able to mount. Particularly notable in Indonesia is the individual and respectful treatment of detainees, which the Indonesians believe elicits more and more reliable intelligence information.

That said, it seems to me more than time that we start to do what Soufan Group, Quilliam Foundation and others suggest:  engage in a comprehensive way, preferably using at least in part former radicals, with people and communities for whom political violence is a way of asserting identity with a bang.  This will not be easy either at home or abroad, but it is what is needed to reduce a threat against which military force has proven ineffective and law enforcement is essential but not sufficient.

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America the exceptional

Lunch today was another double header, but a somewhat disappointing one.  The Center for American Progress event on American exceptionalism and the Brookings event on preventing political violence were solid reminders that American analysts do not always get it right.

At CAP, the issue was not so much whether America is exceptional–Bruce Jentleson, Robert Kagan and Nina Hachigian agreed it is–but what that should mean in today’s world.  Jentleson was at pains to emphasize that American exceptionalism should not be an anesthetic, as he implied the Republicans use it, but a stimulant.  We need less boasting (an “end to arrogance”) and more “besting,” that is less glorification of the past and more effort to compete in a more multipolar context.

Kagan, in the strangest statement of the event, said America is the only country whose nationalism is based only on ideology–in particular the ideology of the Declaration of Independence.  That may be true in the Foreign Service I served in, but not in a country where birthers question where the president was born and patriots fly the Confederate flag.  The question, he suggested, was not so much whether America is exceptional but whether it wants to continue to play the central role in the world order that we took on after World War II.

Hachigian, whose unflagging optimism is on good display in the book she wrote with Mona Sutphen, also asserted that America is exceptional geographically, economically and in the realm of ideas, but it is not infallible.  It has to find new ways to lead, getting others to take on more responsibility and divising ways in which rivalry can lead to positive sum outcomes.

The panel gave the Obama administration a B in its efforts to find a new form of American exceptionalism, under the slogan “winning the future.”  Jentleson thought the aspirations to get cooperation from others have been often disappointed, and that Washington is still not listening to others enough.  Kagan thought it a big challenge to get cooperation in a period in which we are returning to greater nationalism and interstate conflict.  Hachigian gave the Adminiistration credit for learning as they go.

Why was I disappointed in all this?  I confess I left early and maybe it got better.  I personally am strongly attached to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, but I don’t really think America is in any absolute sense exceptional.  We need to remember that the document was written by a slave owner who didn’t even free his mistress on his death.  We are imperfect practitioners of our fabulous ideals.

And sometimes other people are practitioners of them.  Kagan was comfortable asserting that nothing in the world really happens without us.  I think he must be living in a universe different from mine.  The only Arab  rebellion going really badly at the moment is the one we are engaged in.

The fact is that much of the world is adopting our ideals and even practicing them.  And other parts of the world are doing well without adopting American ideals.  We are in relative economic, political and likely military decline.  Our geographic advantages mean less than they did 200 years ago, and our cultural and educational supremacy is long gone, if it ever existed.  No presidential candidate can talk that way, but any president will have to deal with the consequences, which have broad policy and budgetary implications.  More on that when I get to the Defense Department budget, hopefully tomorrow.

Read the next piece up for my second lunchtime event on preventing political violence.

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Sweet Mickey comes to Washington

It is always a mistake to forget Haiti, which never forgets to pose big questions for the United States.  President-elect Michel Martelly, getting ready for inauguration May 14, has already shocked human rights advocates by suggesting he is inclined to amnesty for former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, provided the victims don’t object too much.  He has invited both Baby Doc and former President Bertrand Aristide to the inauguration.

Sweet Mickey, as he is known from his days as a pop singer, had serious thoughts on his mind while visiting Washington last week:  cholera, tent cities and fuel costs in the short term, education, agriculture and rule of law in the longer term.  He wasn’t bad on the need for partnership with Haitian citizens and the international community either.  And he has been making nice with incumbent President Rene’ Preval, whose votes in parliament he will need to get much done.

But he won’t please everyone in this serious guise.  Click here if you prefer the oulala version.  And for the version without pants, click  here.


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