I first used this title 15 years ago in a piece for the Secretary of State’s Morning Summary about Presidents Tudjman, Milosevic and Izetbegovic. It drew a personal word of interest and praise from President Clinton. That doesn’t happen often, so a lowly office director tends to remember when it does. And maybe resurrect the charmed title at an appropriate moment.
Today’s three blind mice are chiefs of state Bashar al Assad, Muammar Gaddafi and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Syria, Libya and Yemen, respectively. While it is easy now to imagine that things will get worse in these three countries before they get better, it is clear enough that they would be better now if their chiefs had stepped aside long ago to allow orderly transitions. Sunday the Syrian armed forces made a clear summer day in Hama sound like this:
Bashar al Assad therefore rates a word of particular opprobrium: he and his brother Maher are showing themselves heirs to the blood-shedding tradition of their father Hafez. This should not surprise, but people have come to think Bashar is somehow better than the rest of his homicidal family. It just isn’t so.
Things are arguably worse in Libya and Yemen. A kind of multi-faceted tribal, regional and sectarian chaos reigns in the latter, on top of a popular protest movement that remains vigorous and terrorist bands who harbor in the hinterlands. In Libya, the killing by we know not whom of General Abdel Fatah Younes, a rebel military leader who came over from the Gaddafi regime, has raised lots of questions about the Transitional National Council (TNC) that leads the rebellion, which apparently had to fight off Gaddafi forces inside Benghazi over the weekend.
These three Middle Eastern potentates are blind not just to the interests of their countries but also to their own. A few months ago it would have been possible to arrange a decent exit for these embattled chiefs of state. Now the International Criminal Court has indicted Gaddafi, Saleh is nursing wounds in Saudi Arabia and Bashar al Assad cannot hope to escape responsibility for several thousand deaths of peaceful demonstrators. Only Saleh can hope to live out a peaceful old age, and only if he gives up on his ambition to return to Yemen.
What we are lacking here is the farmer’s wife, who is supposed to cut off their tails with a carving knife. By this I mean some international party that can persuade chiefs of state who have lost the consent of the people they govern to step aside. In the midst of this Arab spring Ban Ki Moon was reelected as United Nations Secretary General, but he has not been empowered to negotiate what the international community clearly seeks: abdication of these chiefs of state. He has a clear mandate only with respect to Gaddafi, and that is for a ceasefire and withdrawal rather than abdication.
Several “mediators” have sought compromise solutions. The African Union and Turkey have tried with Libya, Turkey has tried with Syria, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia and its wealthy monarchy friends) has tried with Yemen. None of this has worked so far. What we are witnessing is a failure of diplomacy, which should make us think harder about how to strengthen international norms and institutions that can deliver results more effectively.
That is precisely what is not happening, though I happily credit U.S. ambassador to Damascus Robert Ford (who testifies this week in Congress) for his courageous display of support to the demonstrators. Instead, the U.S. Congress is considering budgets that would slice diplomacy to the bone and limit contributions to international organization. I can’t really say there are 535 blind mice, since some members of Congress understand better than I do what is needed. But the collective decision is likely to disarm the farmer’s wife, leaving her standing there without even a carving knife to discipline the unruly despots of the 21st century.
I admit it is hard to shift attention away from the consequences of Osama bin Laden’s death. America and Pakistan have embarked on a great debate. Sticking with the claim that they knew nothing about either OBL’s whereabouts or about the American operation to kill him, Pakistan’s government now has to explain its apparent incompetence. The Obama Administration has to explain why we should provide billions in assistance to a country that incompetent, or worse, one that harbored OBL.
These debates will go on for some time but is unlikely to change much. Congress will fulminate, but President Obama will not want to reduce aid, for fear of making the situation worse, and he will stick to his drawdown schedule in Afghanistan, starting small. Maybe in Pakistan the debate will have a broader impact: its military and intelligence services deserve a thorough airing out, though they are likely to survive with their prerequisites intact.
More interesting for the long term are the things that were, and were not, happening in the Arab world while we weren’t watching.
In Syria, the crackdown is proceeding, with hundreds more arrested in apparently indiscriminate security sweeps of major provincial centers of unrest. Bashar al Assad shows every sign of continuing. Aleppo and Damascus, Syria’s two biggest cities, remain relatively quiet. Friday will tell us whether the repression is succeeding.
In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh has managed to slip out of an agreement negotiated with the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia plus other oil-rich gulfies) to step down in 30 days. It is unclear whether the GCC, the political opposition or the protesters can do much at this point to resurrect the agreement, so it is likely both demonstrations and repression will continue.
In Libya, a kind of tottering stalemate has developed, with Gaddafi continuing to pound the western town of Misrata and to hold off the rebels in the east. Turkey has turned against the Colonel, but it is unclear whether that will make much difference. For all the much-vaunted rise of Turkey as a regional player, Ankara seems to have trouble making its weight felt with either Bashar al Assad or Muammar Gaddafi.
In Bahrain, repression is also in full swing, with the Americans seeming to bend to Saudi pressure not to object too strenuously. The regime there, in the past one of the milder ones, has been arresting doctors and nurses who provided medical treatment to protesters.
So it looks as if counter-revolution is succeeding for the moment across the region. It would be ironic if OBL’s death were to coincide with failure of the protests that showed promise of harnessing the discontents that used to be channeled into terrorism. Mr. Obama, where was that right side of history last time we saw it?
Two things are overdue: a forceful international community reaction to the violent repression in Syria, and an agreement for President Saleh of Yemen to leave power.
The Syrian situation is getting downright ugly, with the regime claiming it is fighting terrorists. Tanks, machine guns and random sniper killings were the weapons of choice yesterday in Deraa, the epicenter of the protests so far. We can expect similar action to be taken elsewhere, if the regime has the military resources to deploy. Lots of protesters have been rounded up for interrogation. The pattern book here is Gaddafi’s, with echoes of Saddam Hussein: random violence to reinstate fear, which then keeps most people in line.
The State Department has urged all Americans to leave Syria. This may seem pro forma and irrelevant, but it isn’t: we saw in Libya how Washington hesitates to take vigorous action until U.S. citizens and embassy staff are safe. So far as I know, essential embassy staff are remaining in Damascus. The U.S. citizens in Syria will include not only tourists and Syrian Americans, but notably also Defense Department scholarship students studying Arabic at Damascus University.
The key to success for the protesters in Syria is their relationship with the security forces. The large army is mostly conscripts with short tours of duty. If they can get the security forces to hesitate in using violence, there is real hope of success. This will require a level of mass mobilization and nonviolent discipline that will be difficult to achieve. Protesters in small numbers are easy prey to regime violence, and attacks against the security forces will only bring massive violence in reprisal.
Washington is said to be working on “targeted” sanctions against individuals in the Syrian regime responsible for ordering the attacks on demonstrators. There are also signs of a condemnatory UN Security Council resolution in the works. Both are good ideas, even if late in the game. An International Criminal Court threat of indictment against the regime leadership seems to me less than credible, since Bashar al Assad will certainly not allow investigators into the country. More useful would be frank talk from Turkey, which has improved its relations with Syria of late and wants to play a peacemaker role in the Middle East.
The real game though is Iran, which now appears to be encouraging and assisting the crackdown in Syria. The day Tehran becomes convinced that the crackdown is counterproductive is the day it will end. We may have to wait for a long time for that day, or the day Bashar agrees to step aside, so the protesters need to get ready for a long and difficult haul.
In Yemen, the now negotiated agreement appears to provide for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down within 30 days, turning power over to a handpicked vice president while the president’s family members remain in their jobs, in exchange for immunity from prosecution for the president and his family. The most detail I’ve seen includes this:
The two-page draft deal, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, doesn’t mention defense or counterterrorism issues. People familiar with the document say the U.S. and Gulf Arabs expect that Mr. Saleh’s son and nephews—who run the country’s intelligence service, Republican Guard and elite Interior Ministry forces and are key counterterrorism liaisons for American officials—would remain in their positions until new elections….
According to the proposed plan, a vice president chosen by Mr. Saleh would take over after the 30-day period, running the country along with a parliament in which 50% of seats are controlled by the ruling party, 40% are controlled by the opposition, and the rest are reserved for undefined “others.”
This is the smooth transition the U.S. seeks to protect its interests in maintaining the counterterrorism campaign against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. It sounds to me as if it more than adequately protects Saleh.
The protesters are now said to have agreed with the plan, which the political party opposition negotiated. The remaining question is when it will be announced officially, setting the 30-day clock in motion. That will require a push from the international community–Saleh won’t jump on his own. If this is the plan everyone accepts, best to get on with it.
There is something cooking–maybe something good–involving Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Muslim Santa Claus yesterday delivered Karzai welcoming the idea of the Taliban opening an office in Turkey and Turkey announcing a military exercise involving Pakistan and Afghanistan scheduled for April. These were outcomes of the fifth AfTuPak (my coinage, I think) meeting since 2007, when Turkey’s hyperactive non-secular government (I hesitate to call it Islamist because of the implications to non-Turkish ears, even if that too would be accurate) undertook to help improve relations between Kabul and Islamabad.
This comes on top of revival (admittedly for the umpteenth time) of the TAPI pipeline proposal involving Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, a proposal still far from realization but a clear sign of rapprochement among the countries involved.
Somewhere in the bowels of the State Department someone may be grumbling about all this, calling it a pipedream, as American diplomats (and intel analysts) tend to do about anything not conceived in Washington. But surely Clinton, Gates and Obama understand that this kind of effort among Afghanistan and its neighbors can have positive repercussions. If it works, someone can discover that it all really was invented in DC (maybe even Holbrooke’s last legacy). Anything that gives Afghanistan and its neighbors, most especially Pakistan, a common stake in peace has got to be rated a plus.
David Petraeus is sounding a lot happier about Pakistan’s cooperation these days. Some of this will just be salving old wounds, but maybe, just maybe, there was something more going on while we were all enjoying the holiday yesterday.
With ample evidence that its neighbors are playing a strong role in Iraq, it is puzzling why the Obama Administration has been reluctant to deal with them in a more concerted way. Following on a Bush Administration that had only reluctantly and belatedly engaged with Iraq’s neighbors, I’d have expected Obama to move aggressively in this direction, as it did in others recommended by the Iraq Study Group (caveat emptor: I was its executive director).
Why hasn’t this happened? First, because the Administration has dropped Iraq way down on its list of diplomatic priorities, especially with Tehran (where the nuclear issue is given absolute priority). Second, because some of the neighbors have begun doing the right things, largely on their own (but likely with some push from Washington): Turkey has dramatically improved its rapport with both Baghdad and Erbil (the de facto capital of Iraqi Kurdistan), Saudi Arabia gave ample backing to Iyad Allawi in the Iraqi elections, and Kuwait has begun to patch up relations with Baghdad, as has Egypt.
The Americans claim that they are giving priority to Iraq in their bilateral relations with each of the neighbors, but what they have not done is to exploit the kind of regional forum that proved useful under the Bush Administration (and has often proved useful in other stabilization situations). What is missing is a concerted regional effort to ensure Iraq’s stability and to block efforts by neighbors, especially Syria, to pursue their own interests in ways that may destabilize Iraq.
It is not too late for this kind of neighbors’ diplomacy, but Baghdad, not Washington, would now have to initiate it. Once the new government is fully formed and approved in the Council of Representatives (parliament), the Prime Minister would do well to invite his neighbors, the U.S. and NATO to a regional conference to discuss the way forward.