Month: September 2011

Whose side are we on?

While Admiral Mullen has been raising questions about whose side Pakistan is on in the Afghanistan war, it is fair to ask whose side we are on in Yemen and Bahrain.  Are we pressing for serious political change in these two very different but profoundly autocratic societies?  Or are we willing to back President Saleh because he helps us against Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa because Bahrain hosts the Fifth Fleet and helps us in other ways to counter Iran?

I don’t mean this as a rhetorical question.  The jury is still out.  The killing in Yemen today of Anwar al Awlaki, an American-born terrorism suspect, provides us with an opportunity to choose.  While there are surely other targets in Yemen, whack-a-mole is not a winning strategy over the long term.  We need to consider seriously whether our national security interests are better served by continuing our heavy emphasis on the drone war there, which requires that we help Saleh stay in power and tolerate a consequently chaotic Yemen, or by trying to push Yemen towards political change, with the hope that will eventually bring stability and stronger governance.

In Bahrain, the Administration has chosen to proceed with a substantial arms sale, which certainly implies trust and support for the king.  But it does not preclude a renewed effort in favor of political reform.  The Sunni monarchy has chosen to pursue a very tough line against its mostly Shia reform movement.  Yesterday its courts condemned doctors who had treated protesters to long prison sentences.  Will we use the leverage provided by the arms sale to get the King to move in the direction of political reform, or will we subordinate our interest in supporting reform to what Arabs like to call “the security file”?

These are the tough questions that should be on the minds of our diplomats today in Sanaa and Manama.  I suspect the sheer bureaucratic weight of the Pentagon will tip their judgment in favor of the more immediate security interests.  So I’ll push in the other direction:  with Awlaki gone, shouldn’t we take the opportunity to reassess and rebalance our approach, get Saleh to step down and start a serious process of political change?  Shouldn’t we make it clear that our ability to continue arms sales to Bahrain depends on the government there being perceived as legitimate by Shia as well as Sunni?

Getting the balance right with people who help us with security but mistreat their own populations is difficult.  But the lesson of the Arab spring is that tilting too far towards accepting autocracy, as we did for decades in the Middle East, does not ensure long-term stability.  Tilting the other way will not be easy or risk free, but it might well be more effective and less burdensome in the long term.

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Is the U.S. still enabling dictators?

Several of the Arab protest movements look set to fail: Bahrain’s already has, Yemen’s is engulfed in civil war and Syria’s faces long odds.  To what degree is the U.S. enabling outcomes that leave dictators in place?

The most problematic case is Yemen.  There the U.S. has armed and trained military forces that President Saleh and his son have used both against unarmed protesters and tribal rivals.  It is hard to believe that the U.S. could not do more to restrain the army, but Washington’s interest in continuing the effort against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has limited the constraints it is willing to impose on Saleh and son.  We keep mouthing off about the Gulf Cooperation Council plan for Saleh to pass power to his vice president, in preparation for elections.  That clearly is not going to happen.  Gregory Johnsen proposes a radical reset to prioritize getting rid of Saleh and reaching a political settlement.  It is hard to picture the intelligence community and the Pentagon concurring, unless they’ve learned a lesson or two from Pakistan’s relationship with the Haqqani network.  They should be worrying about whether we end up with Yemen looking much like Somalia or Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan:  a free fire zone for our drones with an increasingly radicalized population and little prospect of stability.

In Bahrain, the U.S. has essentially stood down from its early support of political reform and dialogue proposed by the Crown Prince.  We are now getting ready to sell arms to a monarchy that has dissed its Shia population, which it refuses to recognize as a majority (and won’t bother counting either).  The only remaining hope is the international commission of inquiry led by Cherif Bassiouni, which is supposed to report soon.  Some will object that the King is not really a dictator, and that both the economy and speech are relatively free in Bahrain.  I’d suggest talking with some of the protesters about that.  The issues in Bahrain have more to do with concentration and abuse of power, discrimination and prejudice than legal restrictions.  We should be continuing to press the monarchy for serious reform.

It would be unfair to accuse the U.S. of enabling Bashar al Assad, who is not a favorite in Washington, and President Obama has now said all the right things.  But well-informed commentators think we still haven’t done all we could to organize a concerted multilateral effort against him.  My own proposition is for diplomatic observers.  If Bashar doesn’t accept them, he embarrasses himself.  If he does, they are likely to embarrass him.  Meanwhile, the protesters seem increasingly to be taking up arms, a move likely to fail and also ignite sectarian and ethnic violence.  That’s a worst case outcome from the American perspective.

So whether by commission or omission, Washington is still not doing all it could to make things come out right.  I’m not one who denounces the Administration for leading from behind–the White House is correct to expect Yemenis, Bahrainis and Syrians to take point.  But especially in Yemen and Syria, where demonstrations continue daily despite ferocious repression, we should do more to lend a hand to those who have the courage to continue to protest nonviolently.


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Libya redux

Reuters published this piece of mine yesterday under the heading “What’s Behind Libya’s Fast March to Democracy?”  It would not have been my choice for a headline.  Because one of the commenters on the Reuters website claimed I had never been in Libya, I’ve included at the end some snapshots, which are so bad that it really is inconceivable that someone else took them and sent them to me. 

In a trip to Libya this month, just weeks after Muammar Qaddafi’s fall, I found peace coming fast to Tripoli, despite continued resistance in several Libyan towns.  Ten days ago, families with children mobbed Martyrs’ square, where Qaddafi once held forth, to commemorate the hanging 80 years ago of Libya’s hero of resistance against the Italians, Omar Mukhtar. Elementary schools opened last week. The university will open next month. Water and electricity are flowing. Uniformed police are on the street. Trash collection is haphazard but functioning.

This is the fastest post-war recovery I have witnessed: faster than Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq or Afghanistan. Certainly faster than Somalia, Sierra Leone or Rwanda.

Why this rapid recovery in a country marked by four decades of dictatorship? Why does Libya seem on track while Egypt seems to have gone off the rails?

Libya has at least three important advantages: good leadership and clear goals at the national and local levels, careful planning and adequate resources.

Libyans believe Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who leads the National Transitional Council (NTC), is uncorrupted and uninterested in continuing in power. He has pledged not to seek future office. He has visited the liberated cities to celebrate the single goal of freeing Libya from the Qaddafi regime. The NTC has replaced Qaddafi’s green flag with the red, black and green banner emblazoned with the star and crescent that was Libya’s flag at independence. The revolution in Libya was not interested in compromise or a managed transition. It wanted a clean break:  Qaddafi out and a new, more democratic regime, in.

The NTC and a clandestine Tripoli local council planned carefully for the military takeover of Tripoli and the restoration of services in the aftermath. With three hundred mosques playing CDs chanting “Allahu akbar!” Qaddafi’s forces on the evening of August 20 found themselves confused and then attacked from both inside and outside the city, which fell far more easily than anticipated.

In the weeks since, the new, unpaid local administration has achieved a great deal. It sent technicians hundreds of kilometers to the south with support from local tribesmen to reactivate the wells that pump water into Qaddafi’s “Great Man-made River,” which supplies Tripoli and other population centers. The national government is making the usual social welfare payments. Flour and oil subsidies have been maintained, so bread is cheap and available. Only partial withdrawal of salaries from banks is permitted, but Libyans are confident about the country’s economic future, based on its oil and gas resources.

Libyans know what to expect next. The NTC has promised elections for an interim assembly by April 2012 and presidential elections by April 2013. It has published a constitutional framework that establishes Libya as both Islamic and democratic.

The contrast with Egypt, where I spent a week earlier this month, is striking. Egypt is a much larger, more complicated and poorer country. There unity around the demand for President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation deteriorated quickly once he resigned. Little planning had been done.

The protesters asked the army to take over. Unprepared, it had to postpone elections even as the protest movement split, with secularists demanding a constitution, or at least constitutional principles, before elections and Islamists preferring it the other way around. Egyptians now do not know what to expect, though the first round of elections is now promised for November.

Some of the protesters have now targeted Israel, diverting attention from Egypt’s own problems and scaring off European and American tourists. The economy is in a nose dive. Resources are highly constrained.

Things could go wrong in Libya. We are still in the early days. Qaddafi’s forces could go underground and conduct the kind of insurgency that Saddam Hussein’s secret services ignited in Iraq. Fighting could erupt among the many militias that constitute the NTC’s military forces.  Many of them came from outside Tripoli. They may refuse to go home or to disarm.

But Libya is less than one-tenth the population of Egypt and has vast funds deposited abroad by Qaddafi that are beginning to flow to the NTC. If Qaddafi’s forces can be defeated soon and the militias either integrated into a new Libyan army or demobilized and disbanded, there is real hope for success. Libyans, who have lived under an idiosyncratic and cruel dictatorship for more than forty years, deserve no less.

A relatively quiet moment in Tripoli
About half the shops were open in mid-September.
This is the "independence" flag.About half the shops were open in mid-September
Streets are crowded, and not clean
Food supplies were ample in Benghazi, less clear to me how sales were going
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They lead, we support

The European Union Institute for Strategic Studies asked “what’s next and whose job is it?” for transformations in the Arab world.  Here is how I replied:

It is not for Europeans and Americans to lead. It is the citizens whose rights have been abridged who have to in the first instance lay claim to better.

First and foremost the next step is the job of the Arabs:  the Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans in the first wave, the Yemenis and Syrians in what I hope will be a second wave.  They know what they want better than we do, and judging in particular from the Tunisians and Libyans they are quite capable of setting the direction.  The situation in Egypt is much less clear, as the protesters settled for a military takeover and are now having second thoughts, even as others try to pull Egypt in a nationalist direction that most of the revolutionaries would not want to pursue.

That said, they are going to need help.  It seems to me that interests dictate that Europe take the lead on Libya and Tunisia while the Americans play a stronger role in Yemen and Egypt.  The odd one out is Syria; sustaining the protest effort there for long enough to bring about real change will require commitment from both the Americans and the Europeans.  In all these cases, Western influence will have to contend with Arab efforts that may sometimes pull in opposite directions.

Nor should the West forget the need for reform elsewhere:  Bahrain of course, but also Saudi Arabia.  The ageing Saudi monarchy (not just the ageing king) and the ferocious crackdown in Bahrain pose real questions about longer-term stability.  The Americans stand on the front line with both of these questions, as they also do with Iran.  There is no reason why the spring should only be Arab.

Barack Obama, like his predecessor, has made it clear that “all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights” does not stop at the water’s edge.  It is written in our political DNA and we carry it abroad, like it or not.  But the imperative does not stop at the ideal.  If we care about the long-term security of our energy supplies, we’ll have to be ready to support those who cry out for their rights and avoid being caught on the wrong side of history.

But it is not for Europeans and Americans to lead.  It is the citizens whose rights have been abridged who have to in the first instance lay claim to better.  We can only support their efforts.  And we’ll have our hands full doing even that much.

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Diplomatic observers for Syria

I’d like to revive an idea that I put forward more than a month ago:  diplomatic observers for Syria.

I think we are in for the long haul in Syria.  Bashar al Assad shows no signs of giving up.  The international sanctions will pinch with time, but Iran is doing its best to counter them.  While Bashar’s support has frayed in Damascus and Aleppo, that is only around the edges.  The protesters are under a lot of pressure and have been unable to do what the Libyans did so successfully:  put together a proto-government that could project a constitutional framework and roadmap to elections.

Military intervention is simply not in the cards.  The Arab League isn’t asking for it.  Russia has so far blocked all serious propositions in the UN Security Council.  Moscow’s naval base at Latakia guarantees this will continue.  I imagine Putin admires Bashar’s spunk and isn’t going to worry about what is done to the demonstrators.  Turkey may stiffen its position a bit, but Ankara hasn’t yet done anything that really pinches hard.

If the protest movement in Syria is going to survive, it needs some help.  We’ve been through this before.  In some of the darkest days of the Kosovar rebellion against Serbia in 1998, the international community provided a Kosovo Diplomatic Observer Mission that reported on who was doing what to whom.  It was too little too late and did not avoid war, but it was that mission that confirmed mass atrocities and helped to rouse the international community to its military intervention.

I don’t expect in Syria that there will be a military intervention, even if an observer mission were to confirm mass atrocities.  The Russians won’t sign on to it, and I doubt the Americans and Europeans have the stomach to do it without Security Council authorization, which is what they eventually did in Kosovo.

But an international observer mission would likely reduce the ferocity of Bashar’s assault on Syria’s citizens and give us a far better window on what is happening than we have at present.  Ambassador Ford’s visits to the protesters have clearly been a boost.  Multiply that 1000 times in quantity (hard to match Ford in quality) and you’ve got something that might make a difference.

Would Bashar agree to it?  At some point, he is going to be feeling the international pressure enough to make concessions.  It is unlikely he will make any serious political reforms, since those would put his hold on power at risk.  If he thinks that agreeing to international observers might eventually help him to relieve international pressures, he might do it.

In any event, I don’t see a downside to proposing it.  The protesters have been literally crying for international protection.  Civilian observers are not what they have in mind–some of them would like military intervention.  But if the Arab League were to press the case and recruit the observers, the time may come when Bashar will yield to the proposition.  If he doesn’t, all the worse for him:  it suggests he has a great deal to hide.

I fear that if we fail to get something like this in place, the Syrian protest movement may fail, as the Iranian one did.  That would be a big defeat for democratic forces in the Middle East, which are having a hard time elsewhere even if Libya and Tunisia seem to be proceeding more or less in the right direction.

In Yemen, the return of President Saleh to Sanaa has upped the ante and increased the violence.  In Egypt, it is no longer clear–if ever it was–that the country will end up with a significantly more democratic system than the one Hosni Mubarak reigned over for decades.  A Bashar victory in Syria would encourage reactionary forces elsewhere and help Iran to survive the Arab spring with its main client state still firmly attached.  We haven’t got a lot of cards left to play on Syria:  proposing international observers is a half measure that might be worth a try.

PS,  October 26:  The Syrian National Council is now calling for international monitors.

PPS, Octoer 28: Human Rights Watch likes the idea too.


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For the Balkanites among you

Matja Stojanovic of Danas asked a few questions again.  I understand my replies were published today.  Here is the interview in English:

1.      What instruments will the EU and the USA apply in order to try and push Serbia to stop blockades and barricades?

DPS:  I don’t really know, but I imagine they will tell Belgrade that it is embarrassing itself with support to efforts that are unlawful and counterproductive.  Serbia needs to settle the Kosovo issues, not make them worse.

2.      If Serbia remains firm at its current positions, what actions would the EU and the USA have at their disposal in order to avoid violence, or in other words, is the violence inevitable?

DPS:  Violence is certainly not inevitable.  If the day comes when NATO feels it has to use force, I imagine it will do so effectively, with a minimum of violence.

3.      Do you think the Ahtisaari plan is the only acceptable solutions for the EU and the USA? Is there any maneuver space for Serbia, in terms of gaining another kind of special status for the north (like shared sovereignty or something similar)?

DPS:  The first thing to be done is to sit down and discuss the Ahtisaari plan, which provides a large margin of autonomy to Serb communities in Kosovo, including those in the north.  I don’t think Belgrade is likely to convince Pristina to agree to something other than that, but I imagine there may be some aspects of implementation that could be usefully discussed and specified in more detail.  The best way to reintegrate the north with the rest of Kosovo—and maintain legitimate ties to Belgrade—would be as a cooperative project between Belgrade and Pristina.

4.      What is the reason, in your opinion, that those who organize trafficking at the north, represent criminal structures, organize barricades and incite violence are still at large and not arrested (having in mind that, for example, even Borko Stefanovic confirmed his life was threatened by a local strongman)?

DPS:  I think it is clear that there are elements of the government in Belgrade that support the people in the north who are causing difficulties.  And they likely use threats to ensure that support continues.

5.      Is Belgrade controlling the north, in your opinion, and to what extent?

DPS:  The day Belgrade decides to settle issues in the north, they will be settled.  I’m not sure it is correct to say that Belgrade “controls” everything that goes on there.  Moreover, there are different components in Belgrade, some of which may not be fully under control of the government.

6.      Could ambassador of Russia Alexander Konuzin’s appearance and his now well-known speech be seen as an intention to destabilize political circumstances in this important moment?

7.      Do You think Russia has interest in having the nationalist and war prone parties back to power in Serbia, and if so, why?

DPS:  I confess I really haven’t followed the Russian angle, but Konuzin has long been more Serb nationalist than the Serbs.  He is just trying to carry out his assigned task of keeping Serbia as far from NATO and the EU as possible.  Yes, he would like to see real Serb nationalists back in power in Belgrade—that would serve his purposes well.  Anyone in Serbia who thinks that would be a better route is entitled to his view, but I don’t think most citizens will agree.

8.      What could be the next EU move if Tadic says, at the meeting with Ashton, that Serbia does not want to remove the barricades?

DPS:  I think the EU would be glad to have an excuse to delay Serbia’s candidacy and date for negotiations.  There is no great need for the EU to move quickly on these things right now.

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