Sunday, August 28, 2011

Libya and the Iraq Model

Recent days have seen a spate of essays comparing Iraq (how not to do the overthrow of a dictator) and Libya - where, in the opinion of many, things promise to go much more smoothly because the Libyans don't suffer from Iraq's sectarian divisions, and because the overthrow of Qaddafi came at the hands of the Libyan people, as opposed to a foreign army.

But the AP's Rebecca Santana has a piece that ends with a sobering note:

What may be the most lasting lesson of the Iraq conflict is how difficult it is to maintain unity once the celebrations over a dictator's ouster are gone. Right now, Libyan rebels are united in their desire to oust Gadhafi and his regime. But so were Iraqi leaders and now the government is beset by infighting.

"They were together because their enemy was one: Saddam and the Baathists," said Abbas. "Over there in Libya, they have one enemy: Gadhafi and his family, his tribe. When they leave, the differences between them will appear."

Should the US Stay Involved in Libya?

Robert Kagan's essay in the WaPo (= an abbreviated version of longer piece in the neocon trumpet The Weekly Standard) verges on the insidious: offering grudging yet relatively fulsome praise for Obama's leadership in what Kagan seems to assume is a "win" for the West in Libya, but also challenging him not to "walk away" from Libya.

The administration did deserve criticism. The Libyan intervention will join the Kosovo campaign under the historical heading “Winning Ugly.” The president was slow to act. The arbitrary decision to stop flying the A-10s and AC-130s after only a few days may have prolonged the war by months, with thousands of needless Libyan deaths. Clearly the president and his advisers were spooked by public opinion, worried about committing the nation to yet another Middle East intervention and, in the midst of an economic crisis, looking to fight the war as cheaply as possible. Administration spinners who are now telling a gullible press corps what a brilliantly conceived operation this was from start to finish know what nonsense that is.

But what’s new? American interventions, large and small, are never pretty. American presidents are almost always slow to see the need for action; they worry about their political backsides and start looking for the exits as soon as they decide to act. Republican critics, especially those who served in the Reagan and Bush years, should look in the mirror. They might recall the handling of the intervention in Lebanon in 1982, the deliberate inaction in the early days of the Balkan slaughter in 1992, not to mention Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States almost never does these things well. But sometimes it succeeds nevertheless. This is one of those times.

Or at least one hopes. Plenty can still go wrong in a country governed for 40 years by a mad despot. The Obama administration is where the Bush administration was in November 2001 in Afghanistan and in April 2003 in Iraq. The dictator has fallen, but dangers abound.

Those experiences teach that failure to manage the transition can rapidly turn success into disaster. Presumably the president and his advisers know this. Yet the temptation to pocket the president’s “win” and run away from Libya as fast as possible will be great. Obama needs to resist it.

Implicit in Kagan's admissions (we don't do intervention well; Obama could have led better, etc.) is a yeah-but that, be all of that as it may, the US-is-the-indispensable-nation.  I can't argue with Kagan's advice that the US not "walk away" from Libya - but his piece makes no reference to the strong likelihood that Libya's situation may well deteriorate before it gets better.  There will be lots of score-settling to come.  Meanwhile, Libya's infrastructure of internal governance is almost non-existent, thanks to the style of rule that Qaddafi adopted.

What if Libya starts to swirl the drain?  What if "al-Qaeda" or salafist groups begin to assert themselves in towns or countryside?  What if members of Qaddafi's tribe retaliate in vengeance?  What if (as Andrew Gilligan noted in The Telegraph) Libya's Arabs resent and oppose the new influence of the western Berbers who played such a prominent role in the military victories against Qaddafi's forces?  Is Kagan contending that Obama needs to put the US military on stand-by alert, to intervene if the situation sours?  Is Obama now supposed to provide some sort of guarantee for the Libyan revolution?

Lurking here is a reassertion of the neocon credo: the US has the prerogative - indeed, the obligation - to wield its military in the cause of re-shaping the Middle East to fit a model of democracy that suits US values and interests.

I hope Obama won't be signing on. 

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Lessons of American Hubris

I was ready to roll with a much longer comment on this essay by Stephen Walt, only to see it vanish with one mis-hit keystroke. The essay itself though is worth a second attempt at a post by me. Nothing earth-shattering. Simply the straight-up assertion that the US has lost the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for reasons that many of us have understood for a long time. Bush made a colossal strategic blunder in invading Iraq; Obama compounded the mess by doubling down in Afghanistan; the US economy has been run off a cliff, in no small part because of the expense of these debacles; and the people of both countries have been saddled with misery that they in no way deserved, and for which they - and other Muslim countries across the planet - will blame the US for decades to come.
. . these wars were lost because there is an enormous difference between defeating a third-rate conventional army (which is what Saddam had) and governing a restive, deeply-divided, and well-armed population with a long-standing aversion to all forms of foreign interference. There was no way to "win" either war without creating effective local institutions that could actually run the place (so that we could leave), but that was the one thing we did not know how to do. Not only did we not know who to put in charge, but once we backed anybody, their legitimacy automatically declined. And so did our leverage over them, as people like President Karzai understood that our prestige was now on the line and we could not afford to let him fail. . . .
The real lesson one should draw from these defeats is that the United States doesn't know how to build democratic societies in large and distant Muslim countries that are divided by sectarian, ethnic, or tribal splits, and especially if these countries have a history of instability or internal violence. Nobody else does either. But that's not a mission we should be seeking out in the future, because it will only generate greater hatred of the United States and further sap our strength.

Another lesson here? The US did not - and does not - have the ability (nor was it the US's prerogative) to re-shape geopolitical realities in the Middle East with the blunt hammer of the US military. We're not that powerful, unless we were to decide to unleash a nuclear Armageddon . . . in which case, what would have been the point of domination over a desolation.

But I strongly disagree with Prof. Walt's conclusion that there is a bright spot in all this, in that the "US is willing to fight for a long time under difficult conditions." Let's remember that, on the whole, the American people were insulated from the harsher realities of a long war. There was no military conscription. The wars were fought by a volunteer professional army, a kind of new warrior class of rural and working-class white kids and underprivileged minorities, many of them Hispanic. Much of middle-class and upper-class America partied on, happy to remain oblivious to the havoc their military was wreaking in their name, or salving any pangs of conscience by sticking a decal on their vehicles to declare their support for "the troops." There was no rationing of critical materials. In fact, near the war's outset, Bush cut taxes, choosing to run up a huge tab being held for him in Beijing.

In other words, a war with no shared sacrifice during its darker hours - but now, as the troops are being pulled out, the bills are coming due - and the shared sacrifices are only beginning.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Tea Party Dimwits

Very worthwhile piece in the NYT, on the price we pay for electing to Congress intellectually puny men and women whose knowledge (such as it is) of economic realities is blinkered by ideological myopia and blatant immaturity.  And also, the price we pay for cultivating a social ethos that values wealth, celebrity, and photogenic looks over actual achievement, education, and experience. 

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Journalism, Orientalism, and the Raid that Killed Bin Laden

On the day after a US Chinook copter with members of the same SEAL team that killed Osama Bin Laden was downed by Taliban ground-fire, it's perhaps appropriate to highlight some issues surrounding Nicholas Schmidle's much celebrated New Yorker report on the SEAL raid in Abbottabad.  A number of expert commentators have scrutinized the reportage -among them, Georgetown U's Christine Fair (at Registan), who raises some important questions that go to the heart of understanding how the American public "learns" about major incidents such as this:

The article was in fact so detailed that it left the unmistakable impression that Mr. Schmidle had interviewed at least a few of the SEALs involved in the raid. During an NPR interview, Steve Inskeep explains that indeed Schmidle had spent time with the SEALs who were on the mission to get Bin Laden. NPR subsequently issued a correction . . . .

All of this makes for a gripping read. Too gripping I thought to myself.  As it turned out, there is one very serious problem with Mr. Schmidle’s account: Schmidle never met any of the SEALs involved, as reported (with great tact and restraint) by Paul Farhi on August 3.

Farhi reached the same conclusion as I had: “a casual reader of the article wouldn’t know that [he had not interviewed the SEALS]; neither the article nor an editor’s note describes the sourcing for parts of the story. Schmidle, in fact, piles up so many details about some of the men, such as their thoughts at various times, that the article leaves a strong impression that he spoke with them directly.”

Surely a journalist or an editor with a commitment to informing—rather than amusing—a public would understand that disclosing this simple fact is critical to allowing readers to determine how much credibility they should put into this account.  In the absence of such disclosure, we are left asking whether this was second or third-hand information? Who are the people that he spoke to and how credible is their information?

Such an egregious exercise of incaution raises a number of questions about the entire report.

Indeed.  Moreover, Fair raises the sticky issue of the reporter's parentage: he's the son of a Marine Corps Lt. General who happens also to be the deputy commander of the US CyberCommand. Very interesting, especially in light of his claim (when queried about his sources) that "the 23 SEALs on the mission that evening were not the only ones who were listening to their radio communications.”  Is he implying that daddy somehow tipped him off to the details? 

Myra MacDonald (posting at a Reuters site) makes the very telling point that Schmidle's account is essentially devoid of any Pakistani presence, and she draws some spot-on conclusions:

I would guess that any version of U.S. policy, based on the same thinking behind the New Yorker’s story, that there are no real people on the ground, is unlikely to succeed.

By the way, to return to the subject of Black Hawk Down, my Pakistan army minder when I went to Siachen had been in Somalia at the time the Americans left. His version of what happened was  quite different from the one I had seen in the film and read in the book.  He remembered thousands of Somalis clamouring at the airport for food and being shot at.  But he was telling me that story in 2004, soon after the Abu Ghraib scandal when not one person I met in the Pakistan army had a good word to say about the Americans. All those stories – Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, 9/11, the bin Laden raid -  had many sides to them and many versions.

Whether, and however much, we might disagree with them, we should however, know what they are. For me as a reader (and less as a journalist since there is always a value in telling a story from different perspectives and rarely room to fit them all into one piece), I personally am troubled most by one aspect of the New Yorker reconstruction. There appear to be no people in Pakistan.

MacDonald also steers readers to some insights from Jakob Steiner (at RugPundits) about Orientalism in Schmidle's piece:

Schmidle also ‘recounts’ how the SEALs catch bin Laden’s wives in bear hugs fearing they were wearing suicide vests. I understand that precaution is never a stupid thing, but the fact that the narrative on al-Qaeda has managed to expect us that women of their high-ups put on a suicide west each night after they take down their make up and brush their teeth with an electric toothbrush (yeah, I guess they even have that – shocking, eh?) is showing how far we have managed to construct the evil ‘other’ to our liking.

Steiner characterizes Fair's critique of Schmidle's report as a "rant." I can't agree - and in fact, Fair raises some other extremely significant issues about Schmidle's dubiously sourced account of the raid - specifically, his report that the SEAL who actually shot OBL said, as he pulled the trigger, "For God and country":
whether or not the shooter actually said “For God and For Country” is another important question that affects the way in which the United States and is citizenry are seen across the world. The conflict with Bin Laden has been waged in lamentably civilizational terms focusing upon the clash of Islam and the presumably non-Islamic west.  Since 9/11, countries with Muslim minorities have been gripped by Islamophobia with some states outlying headscarves and minarets and others seeking to restrict the erection of new mosques. Anti-immigration concerns in Europe are thinly disguised efforts to deter future Muslims from migrating.  Success in the war of terrorism seems to be equated with success in turning back the spread of Islam. Several states in the United States have even introduced ludicrous and shameful bills to outlaw Sharia.

How would a proclamation that Bin Laden was killed “for God and for country” be read in a place like Pakistan where the war on terror has been largely seen as a war on Islam and Muslims? If this was in fact uttered, as an American, I am saddened that eliminating the world’s most notorious killer was done “for God” first and country second. If it wasn’t uttered, such a gratuitous detail hardly helps the United States make its case that it opposes terrorists not Muslims.


Thus, as Fair, MacDonald, and others have made clear, the story of Nicholas Schmidle's New Yorker piece is about a lot more than a rousing story of American heroic derring-do.  It touches on issues of journalistic integrity, and of responsibility to the reading - and policy-making - public both in the US and abroad.  Fair hammers this - hard - in her conclusions:

Whether Americans and our allies like it or not, Pakistan and Pakistan’s populations are critical to U.S. interests.  This will be true for the foreseeable future.  Journalists have an important function: informing our publics.  Journalists’ reportage shapes how Americans see their country abroad and understand the countries with which the United States engages. It shapes our support for war, for foreign aid, for particular bilateral relations. The U.S. experience with the Iraq war illustrates the extreme limits of how a supine and incompetent press became the vehicle to mobilize an angry public for an ill-conceived and unjustifiable war of choice.  The United States will long pay the price for strategic error.

Journalists have an equally important, if less appreciated, role in shaping how the outside world sees us. With the internet, the entire world reads our press, watches our television and hears our radio broadcasts.  Media hype and hysteria, xenophobia, Islamophobia and more quotidian issues of inaccuracy and incaution with handling sensitive pieces of information are for the whole world to see and to judge us.

There are hugely significant lessons here, at a time when US neocons and their fellow travelers (I think of Elliot Abrams, Max Boot, John McCain, Joe Lieberman, Lindsey Graham, Fox News, and their ilk) are screaming for Obama to take a tougher stance vis-a-vis Asad's Syria and Qaddafi's Libya, yet - as anyone who checks in at Joshua Landis' excellent Syria Comment site - are doing so on the basis of incomplete information and often skewed reportage from not entirely reliable sources. 

Some of the same commentators are likewise trying to ratchet up concerns about the supposedly evil intentions of those nefarious mullahs of Iran.  The US public was stampeded into a stupid war against Saddam, and into vastly overblown military intervention in Afghanistan - the huge (and growing, well into the decades ahead) cost of which contributed mightily to the now tight downward spiral of our economy and our democratic system.  Shame on all of if we let them stampede us again - and, shame on The New Yorker and other usually respected journals if they don't take more care about the quality and integrity behind what they report.





US's Worst Day in Afghanistan

This report from Slate includes links to reports from other mainstream media.  Obviously, a horrific loss for the families of the men who were killed; and also a major blow to US  military capacity in the Afghan-Pakistan region. 

On the other hand, I imagine that the fact that some of the SEALs who died were members of Team 6 - the group that killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan - is  a matter of some rejoicing among the Taliban . . . and, I imagine, among the ranks of the ISI and Pakistani military.


Friday, August 5, 2011

What Would Jesus Cut?

Fine essay from former Bush speech-writer Michael Gerson in today's WaPo, about how various sides in the ongoing budget debates invoke God/Jesus as endorsing their very opposed positions:

This use of religion in politics is a source of cynicism. It should raise alarms when the views of the Almighty conveniently match our most urgent political needs. A faith that conforms exactly to the contours of a political ideology has lost its independence. Churches become clubs of the politically like-minded. Political dialogue suffers, since opponents are viewed as heretics. And when religion becomes too closely identified with a detailed political platform, both are quickly outdated. Despite William Jennings Bryan’s best efforts, who now recalls God’s view of bimetallism? . . . .

Public spending on poverty and global health programs is a sliver of discretionary spending and essentially irrelevant to America’s long-term debt. A political argument giving equal weight to cuts in poverty programs and reductions in entitlement spending is uninformed about the nature of the budget crisis, which is largely a health-entitlement crisis. A simplistic philosophy of “shared sacrifice,” focused mainly on cuts in discretionary spending, requires disproportionate sacrifices of the most vulnerable. If religious people do not make this case, it is difficult to determine what distinctive message they offer.

This is not an argument endorsed by God, but it corresponds to budgetary reality. And this has a virtue of its own.





Wednesday, August 3, 2011

On the Tea Party and Republicans

Some priceless - and astute - comments to CNN in the wake of the debt-ceiling fiasco.  Seems that many feel as if the Tea Party leaders - and the GOP in general - "got some 'splainin to do"

The Meaning of Mubarak's Trial

Tony Karon, as savvy and realist as ever (indeed, by my lights, he - along with Peter Pillar and Stephen Walt - is perhaps the most perceptive commentator around on issues Middle Eastern - and no disrespect intended to other stalwarts like Patrick Cockburn, Robert Fisk, Rami Khouri, Patrick Seale - and no, I do not include Thomas Friedman in my line-up) . . . on the meaning of Hosni Mubarak's trial, which began today:
when the excesses and abuses of the regime finally provoked a revolt of the masses last winter, the military spine of the regime recognized that stability could not be restored as long as Mubarak remained in power -- so, the generals forced him out. But they did not yield power to the risen masses; instead, they claimed it for themselves, as a collective -- the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a not-entirely-transparent junta composed of between 20 and 28 officers from the top echelon of the military. Initially, they simply shipped Mubarak off to his summer residence in Sharm el-Sheikh, hoping to allow him a dignified retirement. But the clamor on the streets continued for the erstwhile "Pharaoh" to be brought to justice and for the defanging the security services that had been the regime's political bludgeon.

Putting Mubarak on trial is the junta's response, heeding a popular demand, but without necessarily changing the power equation. The trial coincided with the clearing of Tahrir Square of the last remnants of the protest movement last Saturday, the Supreme Council determined to restore order and put an end to disruptive mass action as it oversees a transition on its own terms. There have been plenty of indications that the generals may seek to retain some authority over the elected government in any new order. Whether they'll achieve that goal may depend on the extent to which Egyptians are prepared to allow it, and the leverage they can muster to prevent it.

Many lizards have defense mechanism known as "autotomy", shedding their tails in moments of mortal peril, creating a skittering and twitching decoy to distract an attacker. If the predator is fooled, the lizard escapes, and grows a new tail.

While Mubarak has been shed, the regime remains intact -- and in charge. His trial could be the dawning of a new era of accountability that forever changes Egyptian politics by empowering its citizens to take their destiny into their own hands and subordinate their armed forces to the civilian government they elect. It could, however, also turn out to have been a spectacle of symbolic retribution that does little to alter the fact that it is the generals that hold power, even if they claim to do so in the name of "the revolution".

Either way, that's question that will be answered outside the courtroom.

TK might also have noted that lizards are cold-blooded creatures - kind of like military regimes; and that they like to bask in the sun.  A public shaming of Mubarak, followed by his conviction, might provide the military an opportunity for basking as it separates itself from one of its own.  One has to wonder, though, if a subsequent execution would be in the cards.  I suspect that SCAF might draw the line at that, if only to avoid a precedent that might come back to bite them - and to avert any hard feelings within their own ranks in the aftermath.  It would be difficult to believe that Mubarak had no friends within the officer corps whence he came.




Pretext for a New Arab-Israeli War?

Via Real Clear World's listings today comes a report from three Israeli experts who decry the declining tenor of the relationship between Israel and post-Mubarak Egypt.  There's been, of course, lots of hand-wringing since January over the possibility of increased Islamist influence in Egypt's government and the impact that might have on ties with Israel, including the possible abrogation of the 1979 treaty.  (That possibility of increased Islamist influence has now become, IMO, a certainty; though it need not entail abrogating the treaty.)  But this new analysis springboards from the latest attack on Egypt's natural-gas pipeline in the Sinai, which supplies a significant portion of fuel that Israel needs for energy.

The upshot: Egypt's security forces are no longer up to the task of maintaining control over the Sinai.  The natural-gas pipeline is at risk, with consequences of some significance for Israel's energy security, as well as its economy. (As natural-gas supply is reduced, Israel must resort to other, more expensive energy sources.)  Moreover, the Israelis also worry that Hamas and other Palestinian Islamist groups (two of whom they suspect of involvement in the attack on the pipeline) are now having a much easier time routing weapons and other supplies into Hamas-controlled Gaza.

The experts' recommendation:

THE RECENT developments only sharpen the need for Israeli political and security officials to conduct an in-depth examination of the situation in light of a possible strategic shift in relations with Egypt. This would likely require new military and security arrangements on the southern front, quiet for over 30 years. At the same time, the accepted assessment in Israel thus far is that even if relations with Egypt are not as close as they were for most of Mubarak's rule, the new regime in Egypt will continue to adhere to the peace treaty.

Nonetheless, until the new regime stabilizes and as long as the Egyptian security apparatus is occupied primarily with the uprising aftermath in the large cities, the border area shared by Egypt, Israel and the Gaza Strip will likely continue to be a focus for increased terrorist activity against Israeli targets.

Let's remember that we've been here before: 1967, when, after a period of rising tensions between Israel and Gamal Abdul Nasser's Egypt, the IDF went on the offensive and conquered the Sinai, all the way up to the Suez Canal.  Jewish settlers followed them into the Sinai not too long after - and the removal of Jewish settlements after the 1979 Camp David Accords returned the Sinai to Egypt was fraught with anger and resentment on the part of the settlers.

Don't look for Egypt to be able to restore security in the Sinai in the near future.  (Note, for example, how militants recently stormed an Egyptian town on the Sinai coast, killing seven people.)  Maintaining order in the Egyptian heartlands (i.e., along the Nile Valley and Delta) may already be more than they can handle. 

But at some point, will the Netanyahu government decide that the situation in the Sinai has spun too far out of control for Israel to accept?  Surely Netanyahu knows what sending in Israeli forces to establish "order"  might entail: war with Egypt, along with heightened pressure along all of Israel's borders.




Faces of the Oslo Dead - and their Critics

A stunning gallery of portraits of beautiful young men and women, at the NY Times.  The hope and promise literally shine from their eyes - eyes that are now forever closed, without light.

And as you gaze upon what Norway - and the world - have lost - the future leaders, scholars, diplomats, perhaps Nobel Prize winners - ponder the remarks of two of the truly execrable icons of right-wing Islamophobia, Glenn Beck and Pamela Geller.
  • Glenn Beck, who wondered on air about the whole idea of such a political camp, which, he averred, smacked of the Hitler Youth.
  • Pamela Geller, who opined that the faces of the dead that she had seen showed an uncomfortably large number who looked to be of Middle Eastern descent - and who also offered up the view that the camp was likely a center of anti-Israel indoctrination. (And the Think Progress site where I found this also posts a nice little shot of Geller with Tea Party and Israel lobby stalwart Eric Cantor - the same Eric Cantor who has taken such pains to assure Mr. Netanyahu that the American Congress has Israel's back when to comes to the perfidy of the Obama administration.)





And then, ponder how, in a country that has appointed itself the paragon of human rights, democracy, freedom - all that good stuff - these two dim-bulbs have literally millions - millions! - of fans and followers.


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