US and UN too slow, Benghazi at risk

Since Saif al Islam is predicting the fall of Benghzai within 48 hours, it seems a good time to put up this rap, courtesy of the Russian channel RT:

Senator Kerry said today at the Carnegie Endowment that international efforts to oust Gaddafi will not end even if he represses the rebellion and that his survival will not reverse the tide of democratci change sweeping the Middle East. I trust he is correct, but Saddam Hussein survived sanctions for a long time, which gave heart to many of his fellow dictators around the world.

Remember Machiavelli? He wrote on this very subject in Chapter 3 of The Prince (Wooton translation):

Of course it is true that, after a ruler has regained power in rebel teritories, he is much more likely to hang on to it. For the rebellion gives him an excuse, and he is able to take firmer measures to secure his position, punishing delinquents, checking up on suspects, and taking precautions where needed. So, if the first time the King of France lost Milan all that was needed to throw him out was Duke Ludovico growling on his borders, to throw him out a second time it took the whole world united against him…

To the Senator’s credit, he too noted that if Gaddafi stayed on it might cost us more in the end than if we acted now.

Kerry also made it clear that he thought the U.S. and the UN were acting too slowly on Libya. There was little hint he expected any acceleration. It would be nice to think that Saif will have to eat his words come Friday, but I doubt it. Wishing won’t make it so.

On Bahrain and I think Yemen (I confess my live-tweeting got in the way of my hearing), Kerry advocated dialogue. Morocco and Jordan he thought were adopting reasonable reform measures. He had harsh words for Iran, but thought the U.S. had not been sufficiently responsive to measures Syria has taken.

Kerry’s main point in today’s talk was the need for a substantial new political and economic aid program for Egypt, Tunisia and other countries trying to establish democracy, akin to the successful SEED program for Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This is a fine idea, if its backers (Kerry/McCain/Lieberman) can get it past the House Tea Party.

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Bad gets worse

Think things couldn’t get worse?  Think again:

  • One or more of Japan’s nuclear plants now looks sure to melt down, with at least one breaching the reactor containment vessel and spewing radioactive material.  How much attention do we think Arab revolutions will get after that happens?
  • Gaddafi’s forces are at the outskirts of Benghazi.  We can hope that the rebels will succeed in cutting his now long supply lines, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
  • The crackdown has gotten brutal in Bahrain, with the Saudi and UAE forces seeming to remain in the background guarding the royals while the King’s forces enforce martial law with tanks and machine guns.
  • Yemen is at least as bad, with firing on demonstrators and no sign of serious negotiations yet.

Yes, they are still discussing a no fly zone at the Security Council, thus preventing anything else meaningful from getting through that august body.

Also notable:  the European Union, freshly equipped with reforms that were supposed to unify its foreign policy, has rarely sounded less coherent or less effective:  UK and France want a no fly zone, Germany doesn’t and Italy does and doesn’t.

Nor are the Americans sounding much more coherent and effective.  Still in listening mode, which means not ready to do anything.

Don’t forget:  Egypt votes on constitutional amendments Saturday.  If they approve, a good deal of the old regime can hope to survive; if they don’t, things will again be up in the air.  I might vote for up in the air, but I don’t live in Cairo.

I know you all prefer it when I post those funny videos, but this morning is hard to take lightly.  I’ll look for some this afternoon.

PS:  I should have mentioned it earlier but forgot:  one of the consequences of Saudi/UAE intervention in Bahrain is a sharp rise in sectarian tensions, reflected in statements by Iraq’s Prime Minister Maliki and Grand Ayatollah Sistani but also felt in Iran.  That does not bode well.

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Cheerier news

Here is video of a demonstration today in Damascus. It cheered me up a bit:

I spent August 2008 in Damascus studying Arabic at the university. No political activity back then, but the discontent of the general population was easy to find. You just needed to talk to someone. They were not prepared to express unhappiness with the President but enjoyed telling even a foreigner how much they disliked the people around him. They also wanted peace with Israel, better relations with the U.S. and a lot of foreign investment, all of which they viewed as part of a necessary, maybe regrettable, package.

And here is French philosopher Henri Bernard Levy with a strikingly graphic metaphor for the relationship between European governments and dictators in the Middle East. Best not to play this one while the boss is around:

It is going to be hard to beat that for political comment of the day.

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Doom and gloom

A world that was looking hopeful two weeks ago has taken a sharp turn southwards:

  • The earthquake in Japan has not only caused upwards of 10,000 deaths and untold destruction, it has also put in doubt nuclear programs worldwide, not to mention what the prospect of further radiation leaks will do to stock markets today and the economic recovery in the future.
  • Counter revolution is on the march in Libya, Bahrain and Yemen–in all three countries repression is winning the day, with the help of hesitation in Europe and the U.S. and Saudi and UAE security forces in Manama.
  • Egypt votes in a constitutional referendum Saturday to either approve amendments prepared behind closed doors that would leave its regime largely intact, or disapprove, sending the country into uncertainty once again.
  • Violence in Sudan is rising, with local south/south conflicts and tension in Abyei overshadowed for the moment by the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement claim that the north is planning a coup intended to prevent independence in July.
  • Iran is succeeding in repressing its Green Movement opposition and in neutering anyone else who might dare to challenge President Ahmedinejad.
  • Kurdish and Arab leaders in Iraq are competing to see who can claim Kirkuk is their Jerusalem most convincingly, while their respective military forces face off in the contested town.

It is telling that today’s testimony in Congress by General Petraeus on the situation in Afghanistan, which is expected to be relatively upbeat, is the only good news, though experienced wags will see it as just the latest in a long string of turning points in a war that has never turned.

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Meltdowns, nuclear and economic

We are going to be hearing a lot about nuclear meltdowns in the next few days. Here courtesy of Reuters is a decently comprehensible explanation of what may have happened at the Fukushima nuclear power plant:

Nuclear power plants cannot explode the way a nuclear weapon does. But they can spew a lot of dangerous radioactive material if the containment is breached (this has not happened so far). That could make things a lot worse. Check here for more on this and other nuclear issues.

At the very least, we are looking at colossal economic losses due to the earthquake in Japan. The reactors alone cost on the order of $10 billion each, and that is small in the context of the other physical damage done in Japan. But the really big impact is likely to come from increased energy costs worldwide–uncertainty about whether nuclear reactors are safe will drive up electricity and other energy bills, which are already soaring due to Middle East uncertainties.

So…anyone who thought our budget problems might ease in a year when the economy is recovering, as I did, will have to reevaluate. Whatever budget constraints we were feeling before the earthquake, they are going to get a good deal tighter now. This unquestionably affects the way we think about war and peace, in particular how much we are willing to pay for either one. Tea partiers were already prepared to cancel funding for peace, and they were looking shaky on support for war too. How about the rest of us?

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Counter revolution advances, not only in Libya

With the U.S. and Europe hesitating to take action against Gaddafi, the counter-revolution is in full swing, not only in Libya.  The Saudis have prevented any sizable demonstrations and have sent military forces into Bahrain to reinforce its effort to repress the demonstrations, which yesterday focused on Manama’s financial district.  In Yemen, seven were killed over the weekend and many more injured as the government used deadly force against university demonstrators.  Demonstrators and local doctors are also claiming that some sort of illegal poison gas was used:


In Libya, Gaddafi’s forces have taken Brega and are headed east towards Benghazi. The once hopeful rebellion appears headed for defeat, if not oblivion. The past several days of inaction have had serious consequences, as Tripoli has used its unchallenged air force and superior fire power to force the rebels out of several key positions. Libyan forces are now approaching Adjabiya. Their long supply lines now represent the last, best hope of the rebellion to prevent the fall of Benghazi.

Will these reversals encourage conservative forces in Tunisia and Egypt to hold on to what positions they can, or even strike back to counter changes already in progress? Are the reversals temporary setbacks, or are we witnessing the end of the (early) Arab spring? Will the protesters find ways of reviving their efforts? Will the regimes turn their backs on protester aspirations or look for ways to offer more meaningful reforms? Lots of questions, few answers.

PS:  Little did I know when I wrote this that Jackson Diehl had already asked similar questions, with a somewhat more pessimistic spin, in this morning’s Washington Post.


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