Inching forward

President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen has finally signed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) agreement that provides him with immunity in exchange for turning his powers over to Vice President Hadi, who in turn is supposed to form a new government that includes the political opposition and hold new presidential elections within three months.  This is good news, even if the protestors in Sanaa don’t like the immunity provision and are vowing that Saleh must be tried.  Their unhappiness is understandable, but they are going to have to win some elections to get their way.  I trust Saleh won’t hang around if they do.  When the postponed parliamentary elections are to be held is not yet clear to me.

Yemen still has a long way to go.  It faces continuing political protest,  rebellions both in the north and in the south, an active Al Qaeda franchise, severe water shortages, declining oil revenue, endemic poverty and a significant portion of the population addicted to qat.  But let us pause to thank Jamal Benomar, the UN envoy who helped negotiate the agreement and its signing, as well as the GCC for managing a difficult process and bringing it finally to fruition.  Not to mention the Saudis, the Americans and whoever else deserves some of the credit.

Meanwhile Egypt is in big trouble.  Its military government is clearly reaching the end of its useful life span as both Islamists and secularists have taken once again to the streets for the past week to protest its abuses and push for a quicker turnover of authority to civilians.  The authorities (it sounds more like the Interior Ministry and not the Defense Ministry to me) responded with clearly excessive police and secret service violence.  While some commentators have called as a result for postponement of the November 28 start to parliamentary elections, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is planning to go ahead and possibly to accelerate holding of presidential elections.

I won’t try to second-guess Egyptians on when they should go to the polls.  I would only note that the important thing, as son Adam Serwer said to me this morning, is that these be only the first elections and that once the new constitution is in place new elections should be held in a timely way.  Secularist Egyptians tremble at the prospect of an Islamist victory, but this is an illiberal sentiment, as Marina Ottaway has underlined.  The focus needs to be on putting into place a democratic system, one that can survive any election outcome and offer a next opportunity for those who lose the first polls.

Meanwhile, publication of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (Bassiouni) report on the February/March violence in Bahrain is providing a boost to the protest movement there.  King Hamad has acknowledged the excessive use of force and promised prosecutions and reforms.  This could represent a major turn in the Sunni monarchy’s attitude, which for months has inclined toward the more repressive, anti-Shia end of the spectrum.  In any event, the report finds no Iranian role in the initial protests and thereby removes the monarchy’s main excuse for its hard crackdown.

I don’t know whether to count as progress France’s apparent move towards consideration of military intervention in Syria.  Humanitarian corridors and human rights monitors without Damascus’ agreement are nonsense.  I am all for asking Bashar al Assad to cooperate in such efforts, knowing full well he is likely to refuse.  But there is no way even to begin talking about a non-permissive intervention without triggering more violence.  A false Western promise to help Syrians would be a cruel and destructive trick on people who are already suffering far too much.  Instead we need to think about how to help them sustain a protest effort that is flagging due to regime repression.  Syria still has a long, hard role ahead.

PS:  For one version of the Tahrir protesters’ demands from yesterday, see here.


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Giving thanks

Thanksgiving seems to me the most widely observed of American holidays.  It is also among the most American of our widely observed holidays.  Canadians do their own on the second Monday of October, but that is the proverbial exception that proves the rule:  Canadians are also “Americans”–inhabitants of North America–and some don’t like that term  being used only for citizens of the United States.  July 4 is not a holiday that appeals to our northern neighbors, and it is not observed with the same broad familial enthusiasm.

I passed up two opportunities to travel abroad this week that would have interfered in the family get-together in Savannah, where my wife’s mother was born and cousins still live.  We’ll assemble here from Atlanta, El Paso, New York, New Haven and DC.  Sons and daughters in law, nieces, nephews, cousins, uncles, aunts, parents and grandparents:  a dense web of family relations who don’t see each other more than a few times a year any longer.  I’ve of course been abroad for many Thanksgivings during a Foreign Service career, but it would never be my choice, and we always sought while living in Geneva, Rome and Brasilia to accommodate as many American travelers as possible for the occasion.  For me, the year would not be complete without a Thanksgiving meal, and I know lots of fellow Americans who feel the same way.

The mood this year seems to me no better and not much worse than many others.  Recession still lingers.  The country is feeling less than satisfied.  The world is full of many problems but lacks one great big one.  America’s role seems more challenging to define than in the past. We are finding it hard to solve problems and easy to create them.  Witness the Republican “national security” debate last night, which focused on terrorists who have done precious little damage to the United States in recent years, while our effort to fight them has arguably done a good deal more.  Or the difficulties of Afghanistan, where the soldiers and marines of whom we are justifiably proud (and to whom we are certainly grateful) face complexities that no troops should be asked to unravel.

Americans–those whose responsibilities permit–will pause this week to watch a lot of football, eat a lot of turkey, enjoy the family, salute the troops, pause for a nap and contemplate our blessings.  They are many.  I enjoy an immense feeling of gratitude that comes from seeing two sons realize careers for which they have prepared for many years.  And a wife, nieces and a daughter in law who are likewise pursuing their dreams with talent, commitment and energy–and many fewer barriers than women faced in the past.

I am also thankful for those unnamed multitudes who have risen this year in revolt against regimes that have oppressed them for far too long.  People in the streets of Cairo, Damascus, Sanaa and Manama are showing us the consequences of our ideals and shouldering an enormous responsibility for setting things right.  Gratitude is in order.

I’ll hope to finish my book–on the role of the United States in the world after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars–before Christmas and send it off to publishers early in the new year.  I am grateful for the year that enabled its writing as well as the launching of  Not to mention the good health that allows me still to run 25 miles a week and enough mental acuity to tweet, though not with anything like the cleverness of my fellow tweeps.  I can only hope that you, too, have a good deal to be grateful for and that you will join the rest of the country in giving thanks, and overeating, tomorrow.

Then Friday we can get back to worrying about the terrorists and our civil liberties (whichever is your preference), protecting American national security and making the world a better place for lots more people.  That last especially would be a good way to show gratitude.



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Countering the counter-revolution

It all seemed elegantly simple 10 months ago:  peaceful demonstrators took to the streets and threw out autocrats who had ruled for decades in Tunisia and Egypt.

Now it is far more complicated.  In Egypt the army that helped to remove Hosni Mubarak is holding on to power and engaging in pitched urban battles with both Islamist and secular protesters.  In Syria, Bashar al Assad is killing dozens a day to preserve his regime.  In Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh continues to defy both protesters and army rebels.  The UN envoy’s claim today that an agreement has been reached is at best prelude to a negotiation over getting it signed, which has failed several times.  In Libya, militias that once fought Muammar Qaddafi have begun to fight each other, defying the leadership of the National Transitional Council and its recently appointed interim prime minister.

The forces of counter-revolution are alive and well.  They should not be underestimated.  Many Egyptians crave stability and will support the army.  Minorities and businesspeople in Syria continue to support the regime, fearing loss of privilege and protection if it falls.  The young men with guns in Yemen and Libya, wanting their slice of power and money, won’t hesitate to defy unelected leadership that is largely unarmed.  Things can still go awry in all these places, as they have already in Bahrain, where the monarchy has managed to consolidate its power (with help from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) even as it admits that some of the security forces have used excessive force in dealing with protesters.

What is needed to keep these revolutions on track towards democratic outcomes?  It certainly helps to have, as in Tunisia and Libya, a clear roadmap for when parliamentary (or constituent assembly) elections are to held as well as how and when a new constitution is prepared and presidential elections held.  Egypt has changed its plans several times.  Now even the first round of parliamentary elections scheduled for November 28 is in doubt.  Yemen has never had a clear plan, and the opposition Syrian National Council is just now elaborating a program.

But even more critical than a plan is an authority recognized as legitimate by most people who support the revolution.  The Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces lost it legitimacy with many of those who supported the revolution months ago.  The Libyan National Transitional Council seems still to have it.  The Syrian National Council is still trying to acquire it.  Yemen has intended to rely on the existing, constitutional order, with power turned over to the vice president in preparation for elections three months later.

International recognition of an interim authority can help, as it did in Libya, but it cannot substitute for strong roots within the country.  This is what makes Bahrain so difficult:  the Sunni monarchy there will want to manage a controlled transition to a slightly more constitutional system on its own, without serious input from the country’s Shiite majority.  Tomorrow’s publication of an independent commission of inquiry report on the February/March protests there will mark a new phase–the protesters will need to decide quickly whether to restart their efforts in the street or look instead to the negotiating table.

Most important in Bahrain and elsewhere is that protesters need to be certain that they have truly broad popular backing as they press for faster and more complete change.  It is not enough to claim to represent the 99%, as Occupy Wall Street does in the U.S.  They have to be truly in tune with the 99%, which is difficult when the 99% is split in many different ways, foreign powers are tugging in different directions and autocrats are warning of public disorder.  There is no substitute for wise, indigenous leadership that can decide when to go to the streets and when to go to the ballot box.

PS, November 23:  Here is the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report.



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The second law of holes

As I’ve dared give advice to Belgrade, I might as well go on and compound the felony by giving advice to Pristina.

The problem is this:  Pristina does not control the relatively small part of its territory north and west of the Ibar river, including two border/boundary (Pristina regards it as a border, Belgrade as a boundary) posts with Serbia.  Much of the population there–majority Serb even before the war in the three northernmost municipalities–wants to remain in Serbia.

In the short term, it seems to me the best Pristina can hope for is collection of its taxes and enforcement of its laws at the border/boundary.  Exactly who will do this and under what supervision are the issues that need to be decided.  It might also hope for a clear statement from Belgrade that it regards Kosovo as a single entity, which is consistent with UN Security Council resolution 1244.

Achievement of these shorter-term goals will not however solve the problem of north Kosovo, where there is a population that does not accept Kosovo institutions.  Pristina needs to compete for the hearts and minds of the Serb population north of the Ibar, who are nearly as resentful of Belgrade as they are apprehensive about Pristina.

This is going to be difficult.  More radical Serbs from all over Kosovo have retreated to the north, where they have built up a lucrative trade in untaxed goods shipped not only into the north but also back into Serbia and to Kosovo south of the Ibar.  Pristina has successfully competed for the hearts and minds of at least some Serbs and other minorities living south of the Ibar, many of whom now participate in Kosovo’s institutions and derive benefits from them even if they reject Kosovo’s independence.  There is no reason to settle for less in north Kosovo, but lots of reasons why it will be a greater challenge.

The right approach is to use implementation of the Ahtisaari plan, which provides the Serb municipalities with ample self-government, adjusting as need be to meet legitimate concerns and changed circumstances.  This should be done in cooperation with Serbia, which will need to dissolve or withdraw some of its institutions in the north even as it commits to maintaining and even expanding others.  Educational, health, religious and cultural institutions and personnel that serve the Serb community in Kosovo should in principle be welcomed, because they will encourage members of that community to stay.   The last thing Kosovo needs is a big exodus of Serbs from the north.

Pristina will need to back its efforts with substantial resources and high-level attention.  It should appoint a minister to coordinate the government’s efforts on the north and provide generous funding.   It should also have a representative in Belgrade to improve cooperation and ensure coordination.

It would be reasonable to aim for the next municipal elections, in autumn 2013, to be held in the communities of north Kosovo, in accordance with the Ahtisaari plan.  By then, Belgrade and Pristina should have developed a joint plan for reintegration that will among other things decide the disposition of the Serbian institutions in the north, including the status of their personnel and programs.

I would expect the Kosovo Government to be prepared to discuss these issues, but it cannot be expected to allow Serb institutions that undermine Pristina’s authority in order to lay the groundwork for partition.  Belgrade has to be clear about the goal:  reintegration of the north with the rest of Kosovo.

One wag has proposed a second law of holesfill it in and keep it from becoming a hazard.

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Next week’s peace picks

It surprises me that anyone would try to do an event during Thanksgiving week, but there are in fact a few good ones on the docket.  And don’t forget the AEI/CNN/Heritage Republican Presidential [Candidates] debate, 8 pm November 22.  That promises to be the most amusing of the lot:  watch for the Taliban in Libya, fixing the debt problem by zeroing out foreign aid and how tough talk will scare the nukes out of Iran.

1.  The View from the Middle East: The 2011 Arab Public Opinion Poll

Polling and Public Opinion, Arab-Israeli Relations, Middle East, The Arab Awakening and Middle East Unrest, North Africa

Event Summary

2011 could go down as one of the most consequential years in modern Middle East history. Monumental changes that have swept the Arab world since January will no doubt shape the region for generations to come, altering the way citizens think about governance, politics and their lives. It is a critical time to take the pulse of the region.

Event Information


Monday, November 21, 2011
2:00 PM to 3:30 PM


Falk Auditorium
The Brookings Institution
1775 Massachusetts Ave., NW
Washington, DC

Event Materials

Contact: Brookings Office of Communications


Phone: 202.797.6105

Register Now


Save to My PortfolioCan Israel Survive Without a Palestinian State?

Shibley Telhami
The New York Times (Room for Debate blog)
September 15, 2011

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On November 21, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings will unveil the results of a new 2011 University of Maryland poll. Conducted in the weeks leading up to Egypt’s historic elections, the annual poll assesses attitudes toward the United States and the Obama administration, prospects for Arab-Israeli peace, the impact of the Arab awakening, and attitudes toward where the region is headed politically. The poll also includes a special section reporting on the political mood in Egypt as the country moves closer to its first election since the fall of Mubarak. Brookings Nonresident Senior Fellow Shibley Telhami, principal investigator of the poll and the Anwar Sadat professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, will present his latest research and key findings. Saban Center Director Kenneth Pollack will provide introductory remarks and moderate the discussion.After the program, participants will take audience questions.


Introduction and Moderator

Kenneth M. Pollack

Director, Saban Center for Middle East Policy


Shibley Telhami

Nonresident Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Saban Center for Middle East Policy


Steven Heydemann

Senior Advisor for Middle East Initiatives
The United States Institute of Peace

Margaret Warner

Senior Correspondent
PBS NewsHour

2.  A Bottom-Up View of the Continuing Conflict in South Kivu

  • Monday, Nov 21, 2011 | 3:00 pm – 4:30 pm


Dr. Ferdinand Mushi Mugumo

Catholic University of Congo at Kinshasamoderated byDr. Joel Barkan
CSIS Africa ProgramMonday, November 21, 2011, 3:00 pm to 4:30 pm
Fourth Floor Conference Room, CSIS
1800 K St. NW, Washington, DC 20006In light of the upcoming presidential elections, the Democratic Republic of Congo has reclaimed the attention of regional and international community. However, discussions of the ongoing conflict in the east of the country remain neglected. Please join the CSIS Africa Program for a discussion with Dr. Ferdinand Mushi Mugumo. Dr. Mushi will provide commentary and analysis about village-level attempts toward conflict resolution in South Kivu.Please RSVP to Megan Sacks at
3.  Time for Change: A New Transatlantic Approach for the Western Balkans

Tuesday, November 22, 2011
8:30 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.

B1 Conference Room
CSIS 1800 K St. NW, Washington, DC 20006

As the sixteenth anniversary of the Dayton Accords approaches, it is time to reassess the policies of the United States and the European Union toward the Western Balkans. Please join us for a morning conference featuring policy experts and officials from the United States, European Union and the Western Balkans as we discuss the new CSIS report entitled: “A New Transatlantic Approach for the Western Balkans: Time for Change in Serbia, Kosovo, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.” The conference will feature separate panels on Serbia and Kosovo as well as Bosnia-Herzegovina, in addition to keynote addresses from senior United States and European Union government figures.

Please find a draft agenda here.

Light breakfast will be served.

Please contact Terry Toland at to RSVP.

The discussion will be ON the record.

4.  Iran and International Pressure: An Assessment of Multilateral Efforts to Impede Iran’s Nuclear Program

Iran, Nonproliferation, Nuclear Weapons, Nuclear Energy, Weapons of Mass Destruction

Event Summary

Even as the international community seeks to stem the proliferation of nuclear weapons, Iran continues adding to its stocks of enriched uranium, including the type of enriched uranium needed to arm a nuclear weapon. Given that little prospect exists for resumption of the P5+1 discussions with the Iranian government, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Board of Governors will tackle the Iran issue when it meets on November 17-18 in Vienna. What is the current state of Iran’s nuclear program, and do the Iranians feel pressure from United Nations Security Council mandates and other sanctions? What are the prospects for holding together the coalition that is now working to halt Iran’s nuclear program?

Event Information


Tuesday, November 22, 2011
9:00 AM to 2:00 PM


Falk Auditorium
The Brookings Institution
1775 Massachusetts Ave., NW
Washington, DC

Event Materials

Contact: Brookings Office of Communications


Phone: 202.797.6105

Register Now


Save to My PortfolioA Transatlantic Front: United Against Iranian Nukes

Charles Grant and Philip H. Gordon
International Herald Tribune
September 15, 2005

Save to My PortfolioIran’s Nuclear Program: The U.S. and EU have to Come Together

Ivo H. Daalder and Michael A. Levi
International Herald Tribune
February 27, 2004

More Related Content »

On November 22, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, the Center on the United States and Europe and the Arms Control Initiative at Brookings will host a conference to examine the Iranian nuclear program, assess the impact of international sanctions to date and analyze the ability of the international community to sustain unity and pressure on Tehran. The conference will conclude with keynote remarks from U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon.After each panel, participants will take audience questions.


9:00 AM — Panel 1: Iran’s Internal Dynamics and the Nuclear Program

Moderator: Kenneth M. Pollack

Director, Saban Center for Middle East Policy

Charles Ferguson

Federation of American Scientists

Kevan Harris

Jennings Randolph Peace Scholar
U.S. Institute of Peace

Ray Takeyh

Senior Fellow
Council on Foreign Relations

10:45 AM — Panel 2: Maintaining International Unity

Moderator: Fiona Hill

Director, Center on the United States and Europe

John Parker

Visiting Research Fellow
National Defense University

Francois Rivasseau

Deputy Head of Delegation
European Union Delegation to the United States

Yun Sun

Visiting Fellow, Foreign Policy, Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies

1:00 PM — Keynote Remarks

Introduction: Strobe Talbott

President, The Brookings Institution

Moderator: Steven Pifer

Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Center on the United States and Europe

Tom Donilon

National Security Advisor
The White House

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Libya good, Egypt bad, Syria worse

Libyan militia fighters today captured and brought to their Zintan base Saif al Islam, Muammar Qaddafi’s one-time heir apparent.  He was trying to escape to Niger.  The interim Prime Minister Abdurrahim al-Keib is talking fair trial and trying to prevent Saif from suffering his father’s fate at the hands of his captors.  Keeping Saif safe is vital if Libya is to stay on course towards a democratic regime with ample international support.

Libyans will want to try him in Libya, where justice would be a relative thing and result in the capital punishment the country wants and expects.  The International Criminal Court (ICC) will try to convince the Libyans to turn Saif over.  My own view is that they would be wise to do so, in order to liberate their government from a burden that will be difficult and distracting to discharge.  But the decision should be a Libyan one, after they have heard from the ICC.

In Egypt secularists and Islamists took to the streets yesterday in parallel demonstrations that have ended today in a police riot against those who remained at a sit-in in Tahrir square asking for a quick turnover of power to civilians.  In a well-timed piece published before today’s events, Marina Ottaway noted the revival of the Mubarak military/secular regime, without Mubarak.  Today’s events confirm her view and raise serious doubts about whether Egypt will ever see a truly democratic regime.

While Barbara Slavin is hopeful that the Arab League moves against Syria signal the beginning of the end for Assad regime, arrests and killings continue.  The regime seems unperturbed and continues to enjoy Russian and Iranian support.  It is stalling on international monitors.

Even without implementation the Arab League agreement seems to be having a salutary effect, if not on Syria at least on investors. As Michelle Dunne noted at the Middle East Institute conference Thursday, the Arab League’s new-found activism is a clear vote of no confidence in Bashar’s capacity to continue in office. That won’t get him to step down, but it will certainly make those thinking about investments in Syria think twice. Turkey has reportedly cancelled plans to explore for oil.

I still think there is a long way to go, however. The protesters need a sustainable strategy. And we (U.S., Arab League, Europeans and just about everybody else, even the Iranians) need to avoid the kind of sectarian strife that almost tore Iraq apart in 2005/6. It would be far better for these purposes if the protesters stay nonviolent. We need to convince Turkey in particular to restrain the Free Syrian Army defectors, whose modest tactical successes in recent days will be forgotten quickly as the real Syrian army does its deadly handiwork.



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