Good critique, but where’s the beef?

Hillary Clinton went after Donald Trump on national security issues yesterday, landing lots of body blows and a head shot or two as well. She said he was unqualified to be president, both substantively and temperamentally. Her fans are applauding loudly.

It is easy enough to slam a guy who likes (and gets endorsements from) President Putin and Chairman Kim Jong Un. He also advocates withdrawal from NATO, US government default on its debts, nuclear weapons for Japan and South Korea, a blockade on Muslims from entering the US, and Mexican payment for a wall on the border. Little of what he says makes sense. Much of it is dangerous. But what would Hillary Clinton do (or not) about the Islamic State (ISIS), the civil wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya, North Korea’s nuclear weapons and China’s challenges to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea?

She didn’t outline her own national security perspective. Her speech suggested little more than continuity with President Obama’s efforts:

We need to take out their strongholds in Iraq and Syria by intensifying the air campaign and stepping up our support for Arab and Kurdish forces on the ground. We need to keep pursuing diplomacy to end Syria’s civil war and close Iraq’s sectarian divide, because those conflicts are keeping ISIS alive.  We need to lash up with our allies, and ensure our intelligence services are working hand-in-hand to dismantle the global network that supplies money, arms, propaganda and fighters to the terrorists. We need to win the battle in cyberspace.

I am no isolationist, but the fact is we’ve got more problems than our limited resources allow us to resolve. That’s an important part of the reason Barack Obama tried to get us out of Iraq and Afghanistan and refused to get involved in post-Qaddafi Libya. But withdrawal and abstention left vacuums that ISIS and the Taliban have filled. How would President Clinton bring our capabilities and resources into balance with the requirements? Which problems would she put at the top of the list, and which at the bottom?

President Obama succeeded in getting a decent nuclear deal with Iran, but Tehran continues its regional destabilization efforts in Yemen and Syria. North Korea continues to test nuclear weapons and, without success, ballistic missiles while China continues to build artificial islands. What would President Clinton do to counter them?

It is widely believed that Clinton is more hawkish than Obama, because she recommended the Libya intervention and voted for the Iraq war. But it is one thing to advise the president, or vote in the Senate. It is another to make your own decisions once you hold the levers of power. The admittedly stirring speech–I dislike Donald Trump’s fakery as much as the next liberal internationalist–did little to clarify Clinton’s own positions on the issues.

Of course there is time in what will be an excruciatingly long campaign. Campaigning is also different from advising and governing. Questioning your opponent’s basic qualifications seems a good enough place to start. But it is a cerebral exercise, not an emotional one. It depends on demonstrating incoherence.

That is not an adequate response to Trump. His talent is that he has tapped into a reservoir of emotions, including misogyny, Islamophobia, xenophobia and racism, that were out there and waiting to be exploited. Clinton tried but was less successful at tapping into a strikingly different reservoir: one that treasures pride in the liberal world order, confidence in American talents and optimism about the country’s political and economic future. Here’s hoping she finds the right way!

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A step down the slippery slope

Manbij battle June 2 Juan Cole is predicting long-term repercussions from the move of Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with US support into the 90-mile stretch just south of the Turkish border known as the “Manbij pocket” and heretofore under Islamic State (ISIS) rule. At the same time, Turkish President Erdogan is saying that most of the SDF force is Arab, allowing him to welcome the US-supported move. A lot depends on who is right.

Turkish and American interests potentially converge in the Manbij pocket, which has been the subject of Washington/Ankara discussions for months if not years. Ankara wants to ensure that the Kurds do not take over the area, which would give them contiguous territory all the way from Hasakah in Syria’s northeast to Afrin in the west. Washington wants to defeat ISIS in the Manbij pocket, as it is an important route for recruits and supplies. Attacking Manbij will also relieve pressure on Azaz, where ISIS is challenging relatively moderate opposition rebels defending a vital supply route of their own.

The big issue is not only about who will fight for the Manbij pocket but rather who will control it after the fact. The Americans say the Kurds are relatively few and will not stay, which is reassuring to the Turks. Instead, they will withdraw and presumably refocus again on Raqqa. That would be ideal, but it also cuts against the grain. Forces that take territory usually keep it, especially if they perceive strategic benefits from doing so. Only vigorous American insistence will convince the Kurds to give up what they no doubt see as vital to their prospects for a clearly defined Kurdish-ruled territory within an eventual post-war Syria.

That is precisely what Erdogan wants to prevent, as he views the Syrian Kurds as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Kurdish PKK rebellion inside Turkey. Having re-initiated the war against the PKK, the Turkish President will not be able to accept Syrian Kurdish gains that he views as directly threatening to his country. There is no sign he is willing to make his peace with the Syrian or Turkish Kurds, as seemed likely only a few years ago. He is determined to ride the wave of Turkish nationalism his crackdown on the Kurds has generated as far as it will take him. He aims to change the constitution and enhance the powers of the presidency.

The Americans have a great deal of say about who will control the Manbij pocket if and when ISIS is defeated there. They will need American air power to protect them. This will enable, or extend, a de facto no-fly zone in northern Syria. The SDF invasion of the Manbij pocket is a hesitant step down a slippery slope that President Obama has tried to avoid.


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Washington Journal: Iraq and Afghanistan

Here is my appearance last Saturday on C-Span’s Washington Journal discussing Iraq and Afghanistan:

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The end of despair

Even as hope fades for peace talks, Syrian civil society gives me reason not to despair. Here is my preface to the Center for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria report Standing on the First Page of the End of Despair: Transparency in Emerging Syrian Institutions, published yesterday:

There is more to Syria than military forces and battles, though this is not immediately apparent to much of the international community, which currently seems to be focused on ISIS and the flow of refugees to Europe. Five years of conflict have seen the growth of vibrant civil society in both regime and opposition controlled areas. More than ever before in Syrian history, civilians have taken charge of their own lives, desperately trying to bring order, security, sustenance, services and shelter to their families, friends and communities. Civic associations, local councils, human rights and other legal advocates, relief organizations, food, water and service providers, media outlets, professional societies, and economic development incubators have grown like topsy in the ruins of the Assad regime, which was among the most opaque, autocratic and corrupt in the world in 2011 when the uprising in Syria began.

This growth of civil society in wartime Syria is one of the country’s saving graces. As the authors of this fascinating and path-breaking report put it, despite the humanitarian disaster Syria is standing on the first page of the end of despair, because it has generated one of the key elements of a more open and democratic society. Syrians have been ingenious in inventing the institutions that fill the vacuum collapse of the dictatorship left behind.

But it is fitting that the Center for Civil Society and Democracy (CCSD), itself a civil society organization, takes nothing for granted. It wants to know how transparent nongovernmental organizations in Syria are, both in their internal processes and in their interactions with their beneficiaries and other institutions. This extensive and perceptive report based on a survey of 280 civil society organizations—including local councils that provide de facto governance in many areas—is the result. It is intended to lay the basis for improvements in the future.

Considering the extraordinarily difficult conditions in which they operate, the results are what I would describe as good, even extremely good. The vast majority of the organizations surveyed have clear internal structures, by laws, and boards of directors. They report on and publicize their work and conduct monitoring and evaluation. Most document their expenses and consult with stakeholders, though a bit more consultation with beneficiaries would be a good idea. This performance would be remarkable and praiseworthy even in more stable environments. With civilians facing daily bombardment, Syrians have reason to hope that the civil society they have created will serve them well in the future.

That is, if it survives. The first page of the end of despair could also be the last page, if the dictatorship wins the war and re-imposes the kind of draconian and opaque rule it enjoyed before 2011. Military defeat could spell the end of the burgeoning of Syrian civil society that Americans and Europeans should be anxious and determined to preserve and nurture. Whatever the military outcome, people of good will everywhere should be thinking about how to preserve, fertilize and enhance the extraordinary array of institutions that Syrians have generated. And international governments and donors in particular will do well to pay attention to this issue amidst the cacophony of the Syrian people’s very important needs. If they hope to see a stable and secure Syria in the future, one of the building blocks will be this nascent web of interconnected civil society groups, whose legitimacy and sustainability depend upon their transparency and accountability to their communities.

Let’s try to make sure that despair leads to hope, not more despair.

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The Bytyqi brothers

Praveen Madhiraju, a pro bono advisor to the Btyqi family, writes: 

“Don’t worry, we’ll resolve [the Bytyqi murders], and I think that it’s our job, it’s our duty to do it…. [Resolution will] happen very soon or much sooner than anybody might expect.”
Serbian PM Aleksandar Vucic, June 4, 2015 at SAIS

Many of you were present at SAIS approximately one year ago when Prime Minister Vucic promised expeditious resolution on the Bytyqi case – the case of three American citizens and brothers that were kidnapped, executed and dumped into a mass grave by Serbian special forces at the end of the Kosovo war.

But in the year that has transpired, virtually nothing has happened.  Witnesses have not been given clear signals that they will be protected.  No charges have been filed. Suspected war criminals, however, are faring much better.  Goran Radosavljevic, a prime suspect in the case, remains a key advisor to Prime Minister Vucic and President Tomislav Nikolic and their Progressive Party.  Despite repeated requests, the Bytyqi family has not been given updates on any future plans to move the case along.This wasn’t the first promise that Prime Minister Vucic had broken to US officials (including Vice President Biden, Secretary Kerry, and National Security Advisor Rice), the American public, and the Bytyqi family.  He had previously promised to resolve the case by the end of the Summer 2014. After missing that first self-imposed deadline, he promised in November 2014 to resolve it by end of March 2015.

Although Serbia has pledged various systemic reforms as part of its EU accession process, there is little evidence that these efforts will be genuinely pursued.  Vucic seems poised to reappoint a Justice Minister who throws “welcome home” parties for convicted war criminals.  This is especially important since June 4 will also mark 156 days since Serbia has been without a head of the Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor.  The Justice Minister will take a leading role in nominating new candidates and has previously suggested that he would impose an “SNS-friendly” litmus test for such nominations. A lack of political support remains a primary impediment to resolving war crimes. These failures result in fewer and fewer war crimes being prosecuted each year.
Bottom line: Prime Minister Vucic has lied multiple times to the family of three murdered American citizens and our highest leaders, including the Vice President of the United States.  He should be held accountable for his failures.

I’d have preferred this note read “has failed to fulfill his promises to the family…,” but that’s just me. Here is the full recording of the Prime Minister’s appearance at SAIS on June 4, 2015 (please let me know if you discover at which point the above quotation about the Bytyqi brothers appears):

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Hope fades

The Syria peace talks, never substantial, are evaporating. The chief negotiator for the opposition has quit. The Russians and the Syrian government continue to bombard pretty much whomever they like in dozens of raids every day, though Administration officials assure me that the Russians insist on some restraint. That wasn’t apparent yesterday in a bombing near Idlib’s main hospital.* Sieges have not been lifted, prisoners have not been exchanged and most humanitarian supplies are still blocked.

On the main issue in the talks–the formation of a transitional governing body with full executive authority (TGBFEA)–there is no progress reported, despite a looming deadline of August 1 for beginning the transition. The Syrian government and the Russians continue to insist that Bashar al Assad preside over the TGBFEA. The opposition rejects that proposition, but its deteriorating military situation gives it little leverage in the negotiation. The Americans have been unable to convince the opposition to yield. Even if some moderates do, they will be unlikely to be able to deliver the armed groups–moderates as well as extremists–to a political solution that leaves Bashar al Assad in place.

The question of Assad is a secondary one for the Americans, who are mainly concerned to pursue the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). Pentagon equipped, trained and advised Syrian Democratic Forces (mainly Kurdish but partly Arab) are making progress in investing Raqqa, ISIS’s more or less capital. But ISIS has responded with attacks farther west aimed at cutting off a main supply route from Turkey to relatively moderate forces in Aleppo and farther north. If Kurdish forces prove necessary to block this move, Ankara will have apoplexy, since that could give them control of the last remaining portion of the Syrian/Turkish border that they do not already own. ISIS knows how to drive a wedge between the supposed Coalition partners fighting against it.

Things are going a bit better in Iraq, where more or less government-controlled forces have surrounded Fallujah, which ISIS has been using to launch suicide attacks in Baghdad, and are beginning the effort to liberate it. Kurdish forces have also moved towards Mosul, though any effort to liberate what was once Iraq’s second-largest city still seems far off.

Sectarian strife increasingly threatens military success in Iraq, with Iranian-backed Shia militias prominent in investing Fallujah and apparently determined to play a role in its liberation, despite the express wishes of Prime Minister Abadi. He remains under political pressure in Baghdad but has been unable to assemble the parliamentary quorum and majority needed to approve a new, more technocratic government and much-needed anti-corruption reforms.

With the Syrian regime refusing to allow humanitarian convoys into besieged cities, talk has grown of airdropping aid. That’s an expensive and ineffective proposition that should be used only in limited and extreme circumstances. It is no substitute for the truckloads required in major population centers. Nor will it do anything to end the war. Bashar al Assad is happy to tie up the international community in interminable discussions of humanitarian access because it helps him to avoid the search for a political solution and the inevitable end to his rule it would entail.

Hope for the peace talks is fading. Syria is headed for more war. It is at moments like these that sometimes someone does something fundamental to alter the equation. What that might be, and who will act, isn’t at all clear to me.

*I originally said “of Idlib’s main hospital.” Later reporting suggests that was inaccurate.

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