Month: January 2012

At best a rough transition

Reidar Visser has the details, but what it amounts to is just this:  Prime Minister Maliki has outmaneuvred Iraqiyya–the political coalition led by Ayad Allawi that once had the most seats in the Iraqi parliament.  Its boycott of parliament has lost it a few seats.  Its ministers never really implemented its boycott of the government.  Maliki has managed to strengthen his hold on the reins of government, which is increasingly a majoritarian one.  Power sharing is evaporating.

The question is whether democracy can survive Maliki’s efforts to protect and enlarge his hold on power.  Iraq’s institutions are weak.  The courts haven’t dared challenge him.  The Supreme Court has been particularly submissive.  Those provinces that have wanted to hold referenda on becoming regions have so far been blocked from doing so.  Iraqiyya, having joined the governing coalition, is getting few of the benefits promised but cannot play a serious opposition role either.  Having gained full control of the security forces, Maliki has been cracking down on the press, on protesters and on prominent members of Iraqiyya, including a vice president of the country and a deputy prime minister, who are hiding out in Iraqi Kurdistan.  There is even a crackdown on women’s dress in government offices.

I don’t think there is any doubt but that Maliki’s instincts are not entirely democratic.  How could they be?  He spent a lifetime protecting his Dawa party from Saddam Hussein’s attempts to wipe them out.  He sees conspiracies everywhere he looks.  Even paranoids have enemies.  It would be surprising if Maliki did not.  Knowing Saleh Mutlaq, his hyperbolic deputy prime minister, he gave Maliki ample reason to doubt his loyalty, even if there was likely little substance behind the words. Ambassador Jeffrey should stop claiming that Iraq is still the most democratic country in the Middle East–ignoring Israel, you now have Tunisia and even Libya contesting that position.

But Maliki’s self-protective instincts will not necessarily win the day.  Even in Baghdad, it is going to be hard to put the genies of free speech, competitive elections and free association back in Aladdin’s lamp. The key to realizing Iraq’s democratic potential lies in its parliament.  It is there that Allawi needs to find a way of playing a more serious game by at least occasionally blocking Maliki from marshalling a majority.  This will require more effective wheeling and dealing with the Sadrists and the Kurds than Allawi has managed so far.  The budget, amnesty, referenda on new regions–there are lots of opportunities to develop coalitions of the willing that can counter Maliki’s worst instincts, which are not so different from those of many American politicians.

What holds autocratic instincts in check in the U.S. are institutions and political competition.  Those are things that need strengthening in Iraq.  Maliki is clearly tending to the needs of the army, police and other security forces, with lots of help from Washington.  The Americans would do well to focus what remains of their civilian assistance on making sure pluralism and the institutions that protect it are strong enough to weather what is going to be at best a rough transition.


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Albanian dignity and values

The mayor of Tirana, Lulzim Basha, stopped by Johns Hopkins/SAIS this morning to do a public presentation, moderated by Mike Haltzel.  Still well under 40, he has already served as Public Works, Transport and Telecommunications Minister, Foreign Minister and Interior Minister.  Soft-spoken and low key, he nevertheless wasn’t shy about mentioning main achievements in each of these positions:  a big jump in foreign and infrastructure investment, NATO membership and the Schengen visa waiver, which allows Albanians to travel visa-free in the European Union.

He also wasn’t shy about saying he thought his predecessor as mayor, Edi Rama, had paid too much attention to national politics (Rama is also head of the Socialist Party) and too little to the citizens of his city.  Lulzim says he wants to focus on citizen needs, not national issues.

This above all means the economy, employment, and transparent governance.  Municipal expenditures will all be available soon on line.  City hall, which at the beginning of his mandate was absorbing 87% of revenue, will by the end of it absorb only 50%, with the rest spent on citizens and services to them.  The margin for discretion by city officials is being reduced, so as to limit opportunities for corruption.  Tax collection will be improved, the burdens lowered and the tax base expanded.  Public/private partnerships and concessions to the private sector will be used to the maximum extent possible.  There will be one stop shopping for licenses and permits.  The mayor and his staff are meeting regularly with citizens in town hall meetings and individually.

I confess this sounded pretty good to me, but I liked what I heard from Edi Rama too, when he spoke at the U.S. Institute of Peace a few years ago.  What do I know about Tirana and its politics?  Precious little.  I suppose the only way to judge Mayor Basha is to wait a few years and see whether things have improved, or not.  I hope they do:  Tirana was a pretty wretched place when I first visited in 1997.  It had improved dramatically when I was there a few years later, but that’s not saying much:  there was a lot of illegal construction. If Lulzim can meet some of the citizens’ demands and improve the quality of life, I suppose he could be mayor for life.

But he won’t be.  Prime Minister Sali Berisha is presumably grooming him for bigger and better things (if Berisha doesn’t decide that Lulzim has gotten too big for his britches and needs taking down a peg).  So I asked him about national and regional politics:  why are we all hearing much more about Greater Albania than at any time I can remember?  What does it signify and how does he regard this talk?

Lulzim conceded that there is much more “red and black” nationalist talk than in the past.  It started in Kosovo with Albin Kurti.  Now politicians in Albania are trying to attract votes by appealing to “Albanian dignity and values,” which would only be fully realizable they claim in a unified Albanian state.

This idea will not, Lulzim thought, gain much traction.  Albanian dignity and values are European.  Albanians in the Balkans have understood that the deal they got was a good one:  a serious Albanian state, Kosovo independence, and equal rights for Albanians in Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro.  Unification will come within the European Union, not before.   That will serve Albanian dignity and values best.

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This week’s peace picks

Far too much this week.  I’ve pared it down, but not enough:

1.  A Discussion on the Obama Administration’s National Security Policy, Center for American Progress, January 30, 12-1 pm

Streaming Video

Watch the event live.

About This Event

Please join the Center for American Progress for a discussion of the Obama administration’s national security policy and the new challenges we face around the world with Benjamin Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications. Neera Tanden, President of the Center for American Progress, will lead a session examining the first three years of the Obama administration’s record on foreign policy and looking ahead to the emerging national security challenges in 2012.

Distinguished Speaker:
Benjamin Rhodes, White House Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications

Neera Tanden, President of the Center for American Progress

A light lunch will be served at 11:30am.


Center for American Progress
1333 H St. NW, 10th Floor
Washington, DC 20005

2.  Briefing: Egypt One Year after the Revolution (AAI Event), 2168 Rayburn, January 31, noon-1 pm

A discussion hosted by the Arab American Institute featuring:

Ashraf Khalil – Journalist & Author, Liberation Square

Dr. James Zogby – President, Arab American Institute

Lunch will be served

Ashraf Khalil is a journalist and author of the recently-published book Liberation Square: The Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation. Ashraf has reported for numerous publications including the Los Angeles Times, The Times of London, and Foreign Policy, among others. Liberation Square has received excellent reviews. Foreign Policy listed Liberation Square in its 21 books to read in 2012. Salon calls it a “thrilling account of Egypts revolution” and Publishers Weekly says, “Khalils account is essential reading, evoking the urgency and vitality of the Arab springs Egyptian chapter.”

Dr. James Zogby is the founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington D.C.-based organization which serves as the political and policy research arm of the Arab American community. Since 1985, Dr. Zogby and AAI have led Arab American efforts to secure political empowerment in the U.S. He is the author of Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why it Matters.

RSVP to Samer Araabi at or 202-652-4984

3. Nigeria on the Edge, Atlantic Council, January 31, 2-3:30 pm


Map of Nigeria

The Atlantic Council’s Michael S. Ansari Africa Center is pleased to an invite you to a panel discussion, ‘Nigeria on the Edge’ on January 31. In recent weeks, the murder of almost three hundred Nigerians by the mysterious Boko Haram sect have begun to spark reprisal attacks, an alarming development that could signal a reprise of the deadly “ricochet riots” that haunted northern Nigeria through the 1990s. Boko Haram claims it is avenging Muslims killed by police brutality and communal violence, and its attacks have targeted both Christians and Muslim supporters of the Nigerian government. Whether the violence committed by Boko Haram is ultimately attributed to jihadis, disgruntled politicians, or criminal gangs – or is found to be a haphazard combination of the three – the group has emerged as a powerful disordering force, one that threatens the non-violent coexistence of Christian/Muslim and north/south populations in Nigeria.

The government, grappling with an ill-timed credibility crisis of its own making, has been unable to restore any sense of security to the nation. On the contrary, President Goodluck Jonathan’s sudden removal of a long-standing subsidy has abruptly doubled the price of fuel, sending shockwaves through Nigerian society. Days of panic-driven national strikes paralyzed the country, as thousands of cash-strapped Nigerians took to the streets, and the country’s primary oil union threatened to shut down output and plunge the economy further into chaos. Jonathan has managed to subdue the unrest – by partially backtracking on the subsidy, deploying soldiers against the crowds, and threatening to jail protestors – but will his inconsistency and show of force ultimately do more harm to his administration’s credibility than good?

How alarming is the crisis and what does it mean for Nigeria? In the words of Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka: “When you’ve got a situation where a bunch of people can go into a place of worship and open fire through the windows, you’ve reached a certain dismal watershed in the life of that nation.” The question is whether Nigeria, under President Goodluck Jonathan’s leadership, will manage to pull back from the brink, or descend further into regional, civil, and religious conflict.

A panel discussion featuring

Ambassador John Campbell
Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies
Council on Foreign Relations

Peter Lewis
Director, Africa Studies
Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced Studies, Johns Hopkins University

Phillip van Niekerk
Former Editor, Mail and Guardian
Managing Partner, Calabar Consulting

Moderated by

J. Peter Pham
Director, Michael S. Ansari Africa Center
Atlantic Council

Tuesday, January 31, 2012
2:00 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.
LOCATION: Atlantic Council
1101 15th Street, NW, 11th Floor
Washington, DC 20005

RSVP with name and affiliation (acceptances only) to
. Photo credit: Total-facts-about-nigeria.
4. U.S. Leadership in the 21st Century, GWU Lindner Family Commons, January 31, 6:30-8 pm
Lindner Family Commons, Room 602
1957 E Street, NWJake Sullivan, Director of Policy Planning, U.S. Department of StateReception: 6:30-7:00 PM
Lecture: 7:00-8:00 PMRSVP at: by the Security Policy Forumand the Elliott School of International Affairs5. Peace Corps 50th Anniversary: A Celebration of Service, CSIS, February 1, 10-11:30 am

President Kennedy Greeting Peace Corps Volunteers in 1961
Framing Remarks:
Harris Wofford
Former Senator (D-PA), U.S. Senate
Panel Discussion Featuring:
Aaron S. Williams
Director, Peace Corps
The Honorable Sam Farr
Congressman (D-CA), U.S. House of Representatives
The Honorable John Garamendi
Congressman (D-CA), U.S. House of Representatives
The Honorable Thomas Petri
Congressman (R-WI), U.S. House of Representatives
With Introductory Remarks by:
John J. Hamre
President and CEO, CSIS
Moderated by:
Johanna Mendelson Forman
Senior Associate, Americas Program, CSIS
Wednesday, February 1, 2012
B1 Conference Center
CSIS 1800 K St. NW, Washington, DC 20006
Over the last fifty years, the Peace Corps has played an important and evolving role in U.S. foreign policy and development objectives. Peace Corps volunteers undertake the vital work of grassroots development with projects ranging from information technology to small business development, education to health and HIV/AIDS awareness. Through their service, volunteers not only help achieve development goals, but also promote peace and understanding between the United States and the communities in which they serve. As the Peace Corps enters its next half century of service, we will discuss the agency’s achievements, lessons learned, and its role as part of U.S. international engagement.Please RSVP to

6. Stopping the Clock on Iran’s Nuclear Development, 902 Hart Senate Office Building, February 1, 10-11 am

Preventing Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability is one of the most urgent national security challenges facing the United States. Despite enduring 15 years of sanctions, a cyber attack on its nuclear facilities and other setbacks, Iran is fast approaching the nuclear threshold. Stopping the clock on Iran’s nuclear development requires demonstrating resolve and a triple-track approach of diplomacy, robust sanctions, and credible, visible preparations for a military option of last resort. Join the Bipartisan Policy Center for a discussion on these important recommendations being released in its fourth Iran report, Meeting the Challenge: Stopping the Clock.



Senator Dan Coats (R-IN)

Former Senator Chuck Robb (D-VA)
Co-Chair, BPC’s Iran Initiative

General (ret.) Chuck Wald
Co-Chair, BPC’s Iran Initiative

John Tanner
Vice Chairman, Prime Policy Group
Member, BPC’s Iran Initiative

Opening Remarks by

Michael Makovsky
Director, BPC’s National Security Project


7. Shifting Sands: The Future of the US-Egyptian Relationship, Center for National Policy, February 1, 12-1:15 pm 


Gregory Aftandilian
Former Middle East analyst at the U.S. Department of State

Nathan Brown
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Michele Dunne
Atlantic Council

Paul Sullivan
National Defense University

With Islamist parties dominating the new parliament and the powers of the yet undetermined president uncertain, what changes can we expect in Egyptian foreign policy?  Will the military continue to have an instrumental political role after it returns to the barracks post-June 2012?  Join CNP President Scott Bates and an expert panel to discuss how Egypt’s new political map might affect the future of the US-Egyptian relationship.

*A light lunch will be served*

Center for National Policy
One Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Suite 333

Washington, DC  20001

Click here

8. North Korea After Kim Jong Il: The Future of Inter-Korean and US-DPRK Relation, Kenney Auditorium SAIS, February 1, 2-4 pm


Join us for a discussion about the future of North Korea under Kim Jong Un, and the policy implications for inter-Korea and and US-DPRK relations. Featuring:

Venerable Pomnyun Sunim
Chairman, Good Friends and the Peace Foundation

Dr. Alexandre Mansourov
Visiting Scholar, US-Korea Institute at SAIS

Feburary 1, 2012
Kenney Auditorium at SAIS
1740 Massachusetts Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20036

Venerable Pomnyun Sunim, a respected Buddhist monk and activist, is the chairman of The Peace Foundation in Seoul, which supports policy research and analysis aimed at Korean unification and humanitarian issues in North Korea. He concurrently serves as the chairman of Good Friends for Peace, Human Rights, and Refugee Issues, whose weekly publication “North Korea Today” provides detailed, up-to-date information about conditions on the ground in North Korea. Venerable Pomnyun is also chairman of the Join Together Society, an international relief agency with offices worldwide, including in North Korea. He has worked extensively to supply humanitarian aid to famine victims in North Korea and defend the human rights of North Korean refugees in China, and is a Zen master with the Seoul-based JungTo Society, which he originally established in 1988 to facilitate self-improvement through volunteerism. In recognition of his efforts, Venerable Pomnyun received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Peace and International Understanding in September of 2002.

Dr. Alexandre Mansourov is a Visiting Scholar at the U.S.-Korea institute at SAIS, John Hopkins University, founding member of U.S. National Committee on North Korea, and Senior Associate of Nautilus Institute.  He is a specialist in Northeast Asian security, politics, and economics, focusing primarily on the Korean Peninsula.  Dr. Mansourov worked as Full Professor of Security Studies at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies from 2001 to 2007. Dr. Mansourov received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Columbia University, New York.  He edited three books, including A Turning Point: Democratic Consolidation in the ROK and Strategic Readjustment in the US-ROK Alliance (2005), Bytes and Bullets: Information Technology Revolution and National Security on the Korean Peninsula (2005), and The North Korean Nuclear Program: Security, Strategy, and New Perspectives from Russia (2000), as well as published numerous book chapters and academic articles on Korean and Northeast Asian affairs.

9. Burma’s Changing Political Landscape:  A Conversation with Three Leading Activists, NED, February 2, 9:30 am-2 pm

Featuring remarks by
Zaganar, comedian, founder of Thee Lay Lee and the Multi-Colour Troupe and former political prisoner
Khin Than Myint, leading advocate for women’s rights and member of the National League for Democracy
Bauk Gyar, Kachin activist and member of the National Democratic Force political party

and a luncheon address by
Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Thursday, February 2, 2012
9:30 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.
1025 F St, NW 8th Floor
Washington, DC 20004

via e-mail with name and affiliation by January 30.

About the Event:

Since it released Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in November 2010, the Burmese government has embarked on a series of unprecedented and dramatic steps that appear to recognize both the need for political reform and the role of the political opposition in the process. Towards this end, the government allowed the National League for Democracy to register as a party and to contest in the upcoming by-elections; relaxed restrictions on the press; invited back exiles; suspended construction on a Chinese-financed dam; announced cease-fire deals with a number of ethnic nationality forces; and released hundreds of political prisoners, including 88 leaders Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, Shan leader Khun Htun Oo, and Saffron Revolution leader U Gambira.

The international community has responded accordingly – ASEAN awarded Burma the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014; and the United States and the United Kingdom dispatched their top diplomats to the country for the first time in over 50 years.

To make sense of these developments, three civil society leaders from Burma will offer their perspectives on the changing political dynamics in the country. In addition, Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor of the U.S. Department of State, will share the U.S. government’s perspective on developments in Burma.


9:30 – 10:00:  Coffee and introductions
10:00 – 12:00: Conversation With Three Burmese Activists

  • Zaganar
  • Khin Than Myint
  • Bauk Gyar

12:30 – 2:00: Luncheon Speaker: Michael Posner

About the Speakers:

Maung Thura, aka “Zarganar,” is widely considered to be the most popular comedian and satirist in Burma. Known for his sharp wit and criticism of the government, Zarganar is also a popular actor, director, and social activist. In September 2006, the government banned Zarganar from performing publicly or participating in any kind of entertainment-related work due to his pointed criticism of the regime. In the immediate aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in May 2008, Zarganar organized more than 200 volunteers to provide aid and assistance to victims of the devastating storm that killed an estimated 130,000 and left millions homeless. Zarganar provoked the regime by speaking to foreign media about the dire situation of millions of Burmese living in the devastated Irrawaddy delta region. For this, he was arrested in June and handed a 59-year sentence in November. He was released on October 11, 2011, as part of a mass amnesty of prisoners. Zarganar is the recipient of numerous international awards, including the Fund for Free Expression’s Lillian Hellman and Dashiel Hammett Award and PEN Canada’s One Humanity Award.
Khin Than Myint is a member of the National League for Democracy (NLD), teacher, and women’s rights activist. Khin Than Myint joined the NLD in 1995 and is a close associate of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. She is active in the NLD’s youth and women’s wings. Khin Than Myint was arrested in September 2000 for helping to arrange Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to Mandalay. She was released from prison in January 2001.

Daw Bauk Gyar
is a member of the National Democratic Force (NDF) and a founder of Vision of Peace. Daw Bauk Gyar is a Kachin activist dedicated to promoting peace and democracy in Burma particularly in Kachin State. Daw Bauk Gyar contested the 2010 general election in the Pha Kant Township Constituency in Kachin State as a member of the National Democratic Force but lost to a member of the regime-backed party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Daw Bauk Gyar filed a complaint with the Election Commission alleging fraud. Despite her experience in 2010, she is planning to once again run for a seat in the by-election, scheduled for April 1, 2012. Daw Bauk Gyar is also a co-founder of Vision of Peace, a group of ethnic leaders dedicated to working for a nationwide ceasefire and peaceful negotiations between the Burmese government and ethnic armed groups as well as combating illegal land confiscation by the authorities and private companies.

Michael H. Posner was sworn in as Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor on September 23, 2009. Prior to joining the State Department, Mr. Posner was the Executive Director and then President of Human Rights First. As its Executive Director he helped the organization earn a reputation for leadership in teh areas of refugee protection, advancing a rights-based approach to national security, challenging crimes against humanity, and combating discrimination. He has been a frequent public commentator on these and other issues, and has testified dozens of times before the U.S. Congress. In January 2006, Mr. Posner stepped down as Executive Director to become the President of Human Rights First, a position he held until his appointment as Assistant Secretary.

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How bad could Syria get?

It is hard to be optimistic about Syria.  The question is, how bad could it get?  The possible scenarios are essentially driven by two factors:

  • the degree of success Bashar al Assad has in repressing the protests;
  • the effectiveness of international efforts to weaken the regime and protect the protesters.

These two factors yield four scenarios:

  1. Divided sovereignty:  Bashar is successful in repressing protests in some areas, but the international protection efforts are successful in others.  Syria is effectively divided between areas loyal to a weakened regime and liberated “safe” areas.  A lengthy struggle for predominance ensues.
  2. The regime wins:  Bashar is successful in repressing the protests and international efforts to protect protesters fail.  The regime regains its predominance and strengthens its ties with Iran.
  3. Protesters win:  international efforts to protect protesters are effective and repression is not.  The regime loses control of the country and has to yield.  Iran/Syria alliance is broken.
  4. Civil war:  Repression is ineffective, but so is international protection.  Fighting escalates, organized mainly along sectarian lines.  Iran, Iraq, Turkey and the Gulf states align with their sectarian favorites inside Syria, creating regional havoc.

1. and 3. are what most of us the West would regard as preferred outcomes, though divided sovereignty would likely create continuing problems and even a clear win by the protesters will leave Syria with many transition problems.

2. and 4. are what we would like to avoid.  Some people ask, as Marc Lynch did yesterday on Twitter, why diplomats are attracted to an Arab League proposal for transition that starts with Bashar passing power to his vice president and creation of a broad unity government.  The answer is that they are trying to avoid 2. and 4., because they know full well that international protection efforts are not likely to be effective enough to ensure 1. and 3.

2. and 4., a regime win or civil war, should be our biggest concerns.  We can try to avoid them not only by tracing a path forward that weakens or eliminates Bashar’s hold on power, but also by tightening sanctions and strengthening the protest movement, which still seems divided and at times incoherent.  But in the past few days it seems to have found its voice in the appeals to the Security Council.

The “defensive action” of the Free Syria Army, which others see as strengthening the protest movement, I see as more likely to take it down the path to 2. or 4.  Only if it stays in a strictly defensive posture–keeping order at demonstrations, outing agents provocateurs, conducting counter-intelligence operations–can it really help.  If it guns down the regime’s army and police, that and the regime’s reaction will discourage people from taking to the streets.

Let there be no doubt:  “regime wins” and “civil war” are still real possibilities.  Either one would be a big setback for Europe and the United States, which need to invest a bit more diplomatic oomph in making Syria come out closer to “divided sovereignty,” or better:  “protesters win.”  For the moment, this entails a concerted effort with the Russians to get a decent resolution denouncing the violence and projecting a political path away from the Assad regime through the Security Council.






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Syria is coming to a head

The Arab League has suspended its human rights monitoring mission.  The UN Security Council is discussing seriously a resolution on Syria.  The anti-regime Syrian National Council is looking for international intervention to establish a safe zone. The Assad regime has amped up its violent repression, and the Free Syria Army is amping up its response. Civil war is in the air.   This is a truly dangerous situation, but also one that could turn in a good direction.

The danger lies in further escalation of violence:  the regime still holds the advantage in firepower and manpower.  Increased violence will solidify support among regime loyalists and reduce the numbers of protesters in the streets.  Frightened Alawite, Christian and other minorities will rally around the regime, dreading the consequences of a Sunni majority victory, especially one in which the Muslim Brotherhood plays a strong role.

Opportunity lies in the UN Security Council resolution.  It needs to define a clear transition path away from the Assad regime that has the support of Moscow and no objection from Beijing.  The Arab League is proposing a handover of power to Bashar al Assad’s vice president and formation of an inclusive government, followed by elections.  This is vaguely similar to the Gulf Cooperation Council plan for Yemen, where its effectiveness has been less than 100%.  The devil is in the details:  how inclusive the government is determines whether it has real legitimacy, but broad inclusiveness is difficult to achieve (neither regime nor protesters will want to sit in the same room with their antagonists) and will likely limit its ability to make decisions.

The key to the UNSC resolution is Russian support, which depends on convincing Moscow that it stands to lose more by backing the Assad regime rather than abandoning it.  Above all, Russia will want guarantees of continued access to port facilities in Syria.  It is distasteful no doubt to the Syrian opposition to provide any guarantees to Russia, which has backed Assad shamelessly.  But that is the price of the UNSC resolution, which takes priority right now.

It is not easy to follow the evolution of a UNSC resolution, but the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect is trying.  It looks as if the European/Arab initiative will only come to a head next week, likely not before Wednesday.  If they can get a resolution passed that defines a clear political path forward, along the lines of the Arab League proposal to be presented on Tuesday, that would be a tremendous step forward.

In the meanwhile, we can expect further escalation of violence in Syria, with the regime taking advantage of the suspension of the monitoring mission to do its dirtiest work and the Free Syria Army responding with the limited means at its disposal.  I see no sign yet of an appetite for an international intervention like the one in Libya.  While NATO may be doing some quiet preparations, the Alliance is not buzzing the way it normally does before taking action.  The Russians will ensure that any UNSC resolution cannot be interpreted to authorize military intervention.

I continue to believe that nonviolent action is the best course of action for the anti-regime forces.  A further slide to civil war is not to their advantage, both because they lack firepower and because it will discourage passage of a satisfactory Security Council resolution, defined as one that outlines a political way forward.  I understand perfectly well the impulse (and justification) for self-defense and even for offensive maneuvers.  But violence will lengthen the process of bringing Bashar down and reduce the odds of a peaceful and democratic outcome.  For those who doubt this, consult Chenoweth and Stefan.

Some readers may ask, why should the U.S. care?  The short answer is that sectarian civil war in Syria could create real difficulties in Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and elsewhere, destabilizing a part of the world that is already requiring an inordinate amount of American attention.  And just about any imaginable post-Assad regime is likely to be less friendly to Iran.  The fall of Assad could be a big plus for American diplomatic efforts to weaken Hizbollah and Hamas as well as block Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

Next week could be crucial.  Neither the regime nor its opponents can endure much more.  Syria is coming to a head.



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Unworthy would be a kind word

Last night’s CNN-sponsored Republican candidates’ debate is still ringing in my ears.  It is certainly not a surprise that the overwhelming focus was on domestic issues, except for a few international issues with domestic resonance.  In Florida, this above all means Cuba and, for Rick Santorum, the threat of Muslim extremism installing itself in socialist countries in Latin America. It also means immigration and of course Israel (and Palestine).

So what did they say?  Except for Ron Paul, they endorsed a strong embargo policy on Cuba.  This is the policy we have kept in place until very recently.  For more than 50 years, it has produced no results.  Newt Gingrich went a step farther and endorsed bringing down the Castro regime (I guess we can still call it that).  I’m for that too.  But he gave no hint how he would do it.  Arguably increasing person-to-person contacts, which is what the Administration is doing, will move things in that direction.

Santorum’s concern with Latin American jihadis is laughable, even if it is impossible to exclude that a suicide bomber may some day make his way from Mexico or Venezuela into the U.S.  Santorum’s fix is even funnier:  he advocates more trade with Latin America, which is pretty much what Obama has pushed by making free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama.

On immigration, there was a strong consensus in favor of enforcing current laws, without the government deporting anyone.  This is a significant weakening of current policy–Obama has deported a lot of people.  But the candidates claim enforcing existing laws could provide an incentive for undocumented immigrants to go home because they would not be able to work.  The trouble of course is that repeated efforts to enforce the ban on undocumented immigrants working have not been successful.  So the bottom line is no deportations and no effective incentives for people to “self-deport.” The candidates have managed to offend many Hispanic (and non-Hispanic) voters without getting any credit at all for suggesting a major weakening of immigration policy.

A Palestinian questioner–on Twitter someone suggested he was the only Republican Palestinian in existence–got it between the eyes from Newt, who claimed “Palestinian” was an identity invented in the 1970s.  This is worse than inaccurate:  before the founding of the state of Israel, all residents of Palestine were known as Palestinians, including Jews.  I know this in part from a visit to the Irgun museum in Tel Aviv, which is hardly the place to find perspectives sympathetic to the Palestinian narrative.  Newt’s line about the non-existence of Palestinians is a common line among right-wing Jews both in Israel and the U.S.  No self-respecting history professor would repeat it unless there were a few $5 million checks in the bargain.

Romney was hot last night, effectively wiping the floor with Gingrich, who at times seemed uncharacteristically at a loss for words.  But Mitt was also disingenuous.  His defense of Romneycare, the Massachusetts health care scheme he put in place, applies word for word to Obamacare, which he said he would repeal.  But the only part he disapproved of was the Obama part, not the scheme itself.  Romney also claimed that Obama had thrown Israel under the bus and that only the Palestinians are standing in the way of a two-state solution.  I can’t buy either of those propositions.

Wolf Blitzer, who used to be a serious guy, was spotty at best.  Asking candidates why their wives would make good First Ladies is unworthy of him.  But in a funny kind of way that was consistent with the tone of the whole evening:  unworthy would be a kind word.

Gingrich’s poor showing last night should enable Romney to exploit his advantages in money and organization to win the nomination.  It would be ironic if the most polarized political atmosphere in many years leads to a contest between Romney and Obama, both of whom are regarded as excessively moderate in their own political camps.  If that happens, it won’t be the worst result the American political system has generated.

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