Tag: United States

Wasting your money, Tomislav?

This is inside baseball, but for those of you who might be interested:  former U.S. Ambassador William Montgomery’s September 2010 registration with the Justice Department as an agent for Tomislav Nikolic, President of the Serbian Progressive Party.

I would be the last to deny a retired Foreign Service officer whatever income he can find, and 7500 euros a month is not pocket change, but I would also want to know whom he represents when he gives interviews calling for the dissolution of Bosnia.  To be fair he was doing this even before the date of his registration, and he is of course entitled to his views, which are contrary to mine.

The partitions Montgomery proposes are sure formulas for re-igniting conflict in the Balkans, with devastating results, including the formation of an Islamic Republic in central Bosnia.  Remember Bill?  We called that the “non-viable, rump Islamic Republic that would be a platform for Iranian terrorism in Europe.”  Hard for me to see how that is in the U.S. or Serbian interest.  But there is of course no longer a need for Bill to worry about that.  He works for Nikolic.

The bigger problem may be for Nikolic:  he is going to have a hard time being welcomed in Washington unless he takes a pro-Europe, One Bosnia line.  Associating himself with Bill Montgomery’s advocacy of partition of Bosnia and Kosovo is no way to overcome Nikolic’s past association with the hard-line, anti-European ethnic nationalism of the Serb Radical Party, from which he split in 2008.

What does Montgomery do for Nikolic’s money?  He’ll call his old friends at State, the National Security Council and Congress to get appointments.  This is something that the head of a party in the Serbian parliament could and should have done by his own secretary, or by the Serbian embassy.

If that doesn’t work, I’ll help him, for free.  I am vigorously in favor of Washington hearing from all parts of the political spectrum in Serbia.  But it is simply outrageous that people get paid to make appointments in Washington–our public servants should all be told to tell paid agents that appointments can only be made directly, not through intermediaries.

If Nikolic wants to pay Montgomery to write his talking points, that’s fine with me.  But they’ll have to say something different from what Montgomery has been saying in public.

Wasting your money, Tomislav?

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Maliki ueber alles?

While we’ve all been preoccupied with Tunisia then Egypt, an Iraqi Supreme Court decision has called into question the independence of the central bank, the electoral commission, the human rights commission and the integrity commission.  Reidar Visser has commented on the electoral commission aspect, but arguably the central bank is even more important.  The big issue is accumulation of power in the hands of the Prime Minister.

Here are the most obviously relevant articles of the Iraqi constitution:

Article 102:

The High Commission for Human Rights, the Independent Electoral Commission, and the Commission on Public Integrity are considered independent commissions subject to monitoring by the Council of Representatives, and their functions shall be regulated by law.

Article 103:

First: The Central Bank of Iraq, the Board of Supreme Audit, the Communication and Media Commission, and the Endowment Commissions are financially and administratively independent institutions, and the work of each of these institutions shall be regulated by law.

Second: The Central Bank of Iraq is responsible before the Council of Representatives. The Board of Supreme Audit and the Communication and Media Commission shall be attached to the Council of Representatives.

What the court apparently decided is that agencies with an “executive” function have to be subordinated to the executive branch, not the Council of Representatives, in order to respect the separation of powers.  This is obviously pretty deep legal water in which I don’t know how to swim, so I am reluctant to dive in.

But it also raises important questions about the survivability of democracy in Iraq, where accumulation of power has a long and unhappy history. Independent agencies are a frequent feature of the landscape in democratic societies, and independent central banks are regarded as absolutely vital to macroeconomic stability, which Iraq has enjoyed for the most part since the fall of Saddam Hussein.  If executive branch supervision refers exclusively to financial probity and other administrative questions, that is one thing (though perhaps not entirely without problems).  If executive branch decision is going to mean that these institutions are no longer in any serious sense independent, that is another.

We shouldn’t leap to conclusions, but I certainly hope the U.S. embassy in Baghdad is inquiring and letting the Prime Minister know that those who fought and paid for Iraq’s relative freedom would not be interested in seeing it undermined by an overly aggressive effort to centralize power.

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What a day!

What a day!

Somehow my friend Emile Hokayem came to the conclusion several days ago that events in Egypt would favor Tehran, by removing a strong U.S. ally and “rekindling” Arab pride.  Today it looks as if he could not have been more wrong.  I know lots of people would have preferred that the United States do more for the demonstrators earlier in the process, as I would have, but it seems to me the President has had his thumb on the scale in their favor for some time now.  Look and hear what he had to say today:

It’s not just that he comes out on the right side–that is easy enough after the fact. But he comes out on the right side for the right reasons. This is an enthusiastic endorsement, unhedged by the kind of reserve that Emile and others would expect.

And rightly so.  As Shibley Telhami argues today in Politico, a democratic Egypt will shrink the space in which extremism thrives, not increase it.  It will also speak up more loudly for the Palestinians, something that really is necessary if an agreement is to be reached–someone needs to save the Israelis from their single-minded drive towards a one-state solution.

What worries me is not Egypt’s regional impact or its effect on Israel, but rather completion of its democratic trajectory.  As the President said today, this is a beginning, not an end.  We’ve seen what happens when revolutions are hijacked–as in Iran–or stopped three-quarters of the way to the finish line–which is how I would describe Serbia.  The turnover of power to the military, which is what happened today, cannot be allowed to get frozen in place.

There is at least a year ahead of difficult transition, and more likely several years.  It will sometimes be hard to tell which is the right path.  Egyptians have chosen wisely so far, and we are wise to let them continue to choose.  But for the moment:  what a day!

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Stress reveals the best and the worst

Stress brings out interesting things in both people and institutions. Egypt is under stress these days. What has been revealed?

Mubarak: his speech last night revealed a chasm between his understanding of the situation and that of ordinary Egyptians. For Mubarak, two things are critical:

1) sticking with the constitution:  “to satisfy the demands of the youth and the people in a way that respects the constitutional legitimacy and would not restrict it in any way”

2) saving the economy:   “the priority right now is regaining the sense of confidence in Egyptians and a sense of trust in our economy, our reputation.”

No surprise here.  Along with the military, these are the mainstays of the regime, a constitution that ensures continuity by blocking any serious political competition and an economy that feeds regime backers.  The only surprise is that Mubarak thought this would appeal to the hundreds of thousands who gathered in Tahrir square last night to hear his resignation and celebrate the death of the regime.

The military:  its two communiques betray its profound ambivalence.  As
Shadi Hamid on the New York Times website says:

The military is by no means a pro-democracy organization. It has benefited from the status quo, becoming a privileged, powerful economic force in society. It has something to gain, but also, perhaps, quite a lot to lose.

While expressing support for the democratic goals of the demonstrators, and offering itself as their guarantor, it is backing the regime-led, constitutional transition, at least for the moment. In Arabic:

As Amir Taheri puts it, this is “change within the regime, not regime change.”

The United States:   this is the biggest shift yesterday, with the President saying,

…the United States has also been clear that we stand for a set of core principles. We believe that the universal rights of the Egyptian people must be respected, and their aspirations must be met. We believe that this transition must immediately demonstrate irreversible political change, and a negotiated path to democracy. To that end, we believe that the emergency law should be lifted. We believe that meaningful negotiations with the broad opposition and Egyptian civil society should address the key questions confronting Egypt’s future: protecting the fundamental rights of all citizens; revising the Constitution and other laws to demonstrate irreversible change; and jointly developing a clear roadmap to elections that are free and fair.

This marks the definitive return of the “d” word, democracy, to American foreign policy, after two years of exile to cleanse it of its associations with George W. Bush and military intervention. If the rights are universal, they need to be respected not just for Egyptians, but for others as well. Stay tuned: this will be heard throughout the world, frightening autocrats and inspiring demonstrators.

The protesters: they remain inchoate, but I found this Asharq Alawsat interview with an April 6 activist interesting:

As for our meeting with Dr. Ahmed Zewail, we believe that he is the closest to our current viewpoint and desires, and even when he held his press conference he was careful to deliberately separate his viewpoint from the viewpoint of the protestors. As a result of this, we believe he is one of the most important figures and we support his candidacy to be a member of the “presidential council” that we propose governs the country’s affairs for a transitional period.

Ahmed Zemail is the Egyptian and American winner of the 1999 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, who has returned to Cairo to join the demonstrations. Zeweil in 2008 asked the question,

Does the problem lie in the fact that we are Arabs or is it because we are Muslims?

This was in reference to the failure of the Arab and Muslim worlds to participate in contemporary scientific advances, but it could well have been asked about democracy in the Arab and Muslim countries as well. The account of his answer was also more broadly applicable. After denying that lack of scientific progress was due to either Arab or Muslim culture, he is reported to say,

…the appropriate environment for scientific research is absent in the Arab world…he explained that had it not been for the freedom of creativity in the United States he would never have progressed in the field of science to such an extent.

If this is the man the protesters are looking to for at least part of their leadership, we are fortunate indeed.

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Another big Friday: can Mubarak hang on?

President Mubarak didn’t step down this evening, as I confess I expected (along with almost everyone in Tahrir square as well as CIA Director Panetta), but his speech was a clear indication of how little he understands what is going on. He is still a goner, if only because he is so out of touch.

What he apparently did do is formally transfer all the powers constitutionally permitted to Vice President Omar Suleiman (the exceptions are dissolution of parliament, dismissal of the government and proposing constitutional amendments).  That will satisfy virtually no one in Tahrir square, where Suleiman is no more popular than Mubarak. The constitutional route the regime has taken will drive the protesters ever more definitively to choose an extra-constitutional path, one they would like to see guaranteed by the Army.

Tomorrow is Friday, the big day for demonstrating in Egypt.  The demonstrators had already succeeded earlier today in moving out of Tahrir square and blocking parliament.  Tomorrow they may head for the presidential palace, unless they get clever and decide to head for someplace else.

The Army’s position is highly ambiguous:

Based on the responsibility of the Armed Forces, and its commitment to protect the people, and to oversee their interests and security, and with a view to the safety of the nation and the citizenry, and of the achievements and properties of the great people of Egypt, and in affirmation and support for the legitimate demands of the people, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces convened today, 10 February 2011, to consider developments to date, and decided to remain in continuous session to consider what procedures and measures that may be taken to protect the nation, and the achievements and aspirations of the great people of Egypt.

Is this an auto-coup, an Army takeover in support of the regime? That might go along with the stealth crackdown that seemed to be growing even before today’s fiasco.  Journalists and organizers were finding themselves detained and harshly treated.  Neither the regime nor the protesters show signs of cracking.  Or is the Army reluctant to act against the demonstrators, as many in Tahrir square seem to believe?

I would still expect more crackdown, along with more protests, but with a likelihood that the Army will get fed up and go over to the demonstrators if asked to fire on the crowd.

There is no guarantee that this will end well, and a lot of indications that the regime is determined to make it end badly.  The initiative is now with the demonstrators:  they need to maintain their momentum, to stick with nonviolence, to convince the Army that it will do better without Mubarak than with him, and to prepare for negotiations.

Washington at this point will gain little from shifting back to support for Mubarak, who will have seen President Obama’s remarks this afternoon as an attempt to force Egypt’s transition to the next stage.  I’d suggest putting all the chips on democracy.  Stability is not likely to come for some time yet.

Can Mubarak survive?  He clearly intends to, even if in a weakened condition, and was at pains to assure the public in comforting thones this evening that he would be watching daily events closely.  I suppose anything is possible in this wild world, but I would also put my personal chips on the protesters.  If they don’t succeed tomorrow, they look determined enough to come back for more.

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He’s a goner, but nothing else is clear yet

Mubarak’s status is uncertain for the moment, but he is certainly out of power.  The Egyptian Army has apparently taken over, welcomed by the protesters.  They had wanted Mubarak out.  They welcome the Army  because it suggests a non-constitutional route for the immediate future–one that need not pay heed to the constitutional succession or the highly restrictive provisions controlling new elections. It is not yet clear whether they have really gotten their way.

Egypt is important to the U.S., but it is certainly going to be a different Egypt:  maybe one in the hands of the army, maybe one in the hands of the demonstrators, maybe some hybrid.  Short-term, U.S. interests might fare better in the hands of the army, but long-term Egypt will find its way to a more democratic regime, one way or the other.  It would be a mistake to get on the wrong side of that historical wave.  President Obama has already made it clear he welcomes what is coming, though the Americans still seem quite uncertain what precisely that is.

Can the peace with Israel be maintained?  Let’s remember that it has long been considered a “cold” peace, one that would avoid war but lacked the flow of people, goods, services and understanding that makes for a warm peace.  It could of course get colder, and likely will if the Muslim Brotherhood wins a strong position in Egypt that strengthens pro-Palestinian sentiment in Cairo.  But it is hard to picture what Egypt stands to gain from anything more belligerent than some strong words about mistreatment of people in Gaza.  Israel occupies no Egyptian territory, and it will not be in Egypt’s interest to help Hamas–a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate–with more than rhetoric and humanitarian relief.

A bit stronger Palestinian voice is in any event necessary to getting a Mideast peace agreement–that is the unequivocal lesson anyone can see written in the Palestinian papers, which document an Israel ready to reject even the most forthcoming of Palestinian offers.

The question of the moment is who is really in control of Egypt?  Will the Army shove Omar Suleiman aside, or will he remain in power?  If so, he’ll insist on an end to the demonstrations.  That would not satisfy the protesters and create real strains between them and the army.  Stay tuned.  The outcome is still unclear, even if it is moving in the direction of the protesters.

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