Archive for March, 2011

The Search for Middle Eastern Analogies

Posted in Egypt, Libya, Middle East Conflict, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 27, 2011 by whatafteriraq

The pace of events starting a short two months ago and now lapping at the gates of Damascus has left us all breathless and even sppechless as we try to comprehend what had happened, what it means, and what it may bode for the future. One of the endeavors that inevitably follows from our intellectual disarray is the search for analogies: is what is going on in the Middle East enough like something that has happened in the past that we can draw comparisons with that past that will help us predict and possibly affect wherever these events are leading?

If such an analogy exists in any helpful way (i.e. is close enough to contemporary happenings truly to be instructive), no one has yet found it. The unfolding scene bears some resemblance to what happened two decades ago in Eastern Europe, but it is also different–different people from different cultures, the nature of who and how their oppressions had been imposed, etc. Unless one can draw an analogy with some obscure bit of Middle Eastern history (which I am certainly incapable of doing), we seem stuck. The uncomfortable result is that we do not know exactly what to do, and possibly more importantly, what the impact of whatever it is we do is on the outcome, for good or for bad. It is this uncertainty that has made our responses seem so hesitant and tentative; critics who cry for more decisive responses are either clairvoyant about the future (insights they fail to share with us) or demagogical (here’s another way to attack Obama,so let’s go for it!).

Let me suggest that our difficulty in deciding what to do is the result of at least five questions, the answers to which we either do not know or which we fear. Stating and looking at them will not solve the dilemma of policy understanding; but it may clarify the parameters of the discussion.

1. Who are these people? What has been common to all the uprisings is that they have apparently populist roots: people gather in the streets, the demonstrations grow when not suppressed, the government finally reacts with violence that fans the flames rather than dousing them, and at some point, either the government caves in or the guns come out. In either case, the question of leadership of the insurgents has been a mystery. Clearly, there are organizers, at a minimum people who view on the social media what has happened in neighboring countries and say, “Why not us?” The problem is that we (the U.S. and the West generally) apparently do not possess very much helpful information about who the leaders that could answer subsequent questions.

2. Where do they come from? Large parts of the Middle East are, of course, artificial states with competing ethnic and/or religious groups, but is it disenfranchised of oppressed minorities that are behind the uprisings? As best one can tell in places like Egypt or even Libya (an artificial state but one without notable ethnic rivarlies), the situation appear not to have these characteristics. Syria, on the other hand, does have these cleavages, and it would actually be  to understand what is going in if such motivations are at play.

3. What are they there for? The universal chorus coming from the various uprisings is a call for “freedom,” but what does that mean? At the most obvious level, it means freedom from whatever authoritarian ruler at whom they have directed their ire, but that does not tell one enough about what they are FOR, only what they are against. All the movements say they want democracy, but given the scant background the region has with democratic principles, is that window dressing, or something more profound? One answer may be that they are sincere in their desires but have given very little thought to their operational meaning. In other words, they have and continue to spend a lot more energy on how to overthrow the old regime than about what to do after they succeed. If they don’t know, how are we to know, or even guess intelligently?

4. What are we doing? The outside reaction has moved slowly. It began with cheerleading from the sidelines, which worked fine (at least so far) in Egypt and Tunisia, but that has clearly not been enough in places where the government has resisted, especially violently. The most extreme reaction, of course, surrounds the UN-sanctioned military effort that, at least according to reports today (Sunday) seem to be having some impact on the fighting on the ground in favor of the insurgents. The UN mandate, of course, does not extend to influencing internal politics, only to guarnateeing humanitarian rights. Once one goes beyond that, as the UN did to its chagrin aover a half-century ago in the then Belgian Congo, and the results paralyzed UN responses to these kinds of crises as a result. Do we (the West, the UN, the U.S.) really want to get back into George Bush’s “regime changing” policy mode, albeit under the cover of international action?

5. Will the outcome of these processes be an improvement, either for the countries involved or the rest of us? This is really the $64 question, and its answer would clearly help resolve our response dilemma. Unfortunately, the answer also lies in the answers to the first four questions, and we don’t know these. Also, we lack an appropriate analogy to wrap around and help guide us. So we are left with simply listing the possibilities and hoping a good one is correct.

I will not attempt to suggest all the possibilities or which may apply to individual countries (and one of the probably safe assumptions is that the outcomes will differ by country). The most optimistic outcome is for pro-Western, pro-American democratic regimes to emerge or evolve. The insurgents, by and large, express democratic desires but are a little more circumspect about us. The most unfavorable outcomes involve the emergence of new, replacement autocracies that are even more objectionable than those they replace. Imagine, for instance, a Qadhafi who is also an extreme, fundamentalist Islamist. Nobody talks that way in the region, but anything is possible. In between are a whole range of options that are more or less deomcratic and more or less anti-western. The permutations afre seemingly endless.

Since we do not know what the answers to these questions, and especially the last one, will be, we watch what is infolding with fascination but a sense of unease. If it is true that one should generally look before one leaps and that leaping in this case means knowing what one is leaping into and what the effect will be, caution would seem to be the better part of valor. Unless, of course, one has a really good analogy we can work with.


What Now in Libya?

Posted in Afghanistan, Libya, Middle East Conflict with tags , , , , , , , , on March 20, 2011 by whatafteriraq

The international community, armed with a United Nations Security Resolution (UNSCR) authorizing Chapter VII force, has endorsed a military campaign against Libya, and the christening blows were sent yesterday as French jets and American Tomahawk cruise missiles rained down on the forces of Muammar Qadhafi. In defiance, Qadhafi has promised the coalition arrayed against him a “long war” and has characterized the intervention, predictably enough, as a “colonial crusade,” presumably in the hope of rallying indigenous anti-colonialists and intervention-wary Arab states to his aid.

It is, of course, entirely too soon to predict where all this will lead. Those who have joined the “coalition of the willing” have stated modest goals for their actions. Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the JCS, has specifically said the purpose of military action is not to overthrow the Qadhafi regime, but simply to protect those attempting to overthrow Qadhafi from retribution. This, arguably, is a distinction without a difference, but it at least rhetorically gets the United States off the hook of intervening (illegally) to affect a civil conflict and on the morally higher ground of preventing a humanitarian disaster. Hopefully it is that simple; probably it is not.

Although it is escessive to predict where this whole adventure is going to head, it is not so improvident to raise questions about that direction in the hope that the answers will in some way inform and even direct policy. For lack of better labels, I think the questions can be characterized as political, military, and precedential.

Politically, there are at least two important, sequential questions to ask. The first is about who it is we are now supporting. Although the French quickly recognized the “rebels” as the legitimate government of Libya last week, it is not at all clear who these people are in political terms. They are anti-Qadhafi, but we don’t know who they are or what they are for. Qadhafi says they are Al Qaeda, an interesting stretch, and they almost certainly are not that. They indicate they favor democracy (what else can they say?), but at least publicly, there has been no indication we have a clue what these people would do if they gained power. Some people might argue that if one is going to put American lives at risk, it would be nice to know in what cause.       

The second political question flows from the first: what political objective do we seek to achieve in what we are doing? Is it merely to save Libyans from slaughter by their leader? If so, when can we say “mission accomplished” and quit? The potential for what the military calls “mission creep” (an original mission gradually enlarging until it bears little resemblance but much greater commitment than it originally had) is omnipresent. Think Somalia in 1992, or Operation Provide Comfort (Iraq) in 1991, or, for that matter, Afghanistan in 2002. If replacing Qadhafi is the objective, that may mean a much longer commitment (as he promises) and could still leave unanswered the first political question (e.g. Who are these masked men?).

The second concern is military. What is the United States (and the rest of the UN deputy countries) willing to do to achieve against Libya whatever objective we have? Is it “limited” to creating and enforcing a no-fly zone? If so, how long a commitment is that? The Kurdish no-fly zone,as pointed out here a couple weeks ago, suggests a possibly open-ended commitment that would certainly constitute mission creep. But does the mission go beyond that? Are we going to provide close air support of rebel activities on the ground? If so, we are going to kill Libyan armed forces and incur casualties ourselves, thereby raising the stakes of the game. If that doesn’t work, are ground troops next? We say and doubtless believe the latter answer is no, but once processes are engaged, they sometimes develop a dynamic all of their own.

The final question is about the precedent that is being set. Clearly, the underlying principle here is that the international community will not permit the concerted slaughter of a population by its political leaders. As a principle, that is pretty unassailable, but its implications are not. First, there is no shortage of such potential situations for the world to stick its nose into, and the history of these efforts is that sometimes the world acts, and sometimes it does not. How is Libya an obvious instance of the kinds of things we do involve ourselves in? The United States, one might add, has been decidedly ambivalent about its personal involvement in these matters. Humanitarian intervention is a universally appealing principle, but executing it is not.

There are two more precedential matters to ponder. In this case, the Arab League has endorsed military actions, but it is on the horns of dilemma here. By turning on one of its members, it is saying there are limits to Muslim brotherhood, but how much outside help are they willing to accept or embrace? There is also lots of anti-colonial, anti-Western sentiment in the region, and a prolonged military action (particularly if it involves putting Europeans/Americans on the ground) is going to precipitate a negative reaction. There is a fine line here somewhere that is probably as yet undefined but over which we do not want to step.

Finally, what kind of precedent does the UN action set for others out there who want to overthrow their governments? Does the UN action means that if one rises up against a tyrant (and, to repeat, they are not in short supply, especially in the Middle East), begins to lose, and has worldwide media coverage of the carnage, that you can expect an international intervention to help accomplish your goals? If the outside forces indeed push the situation decisively against Qadhafi, it certainly would be possible for someone to think that way.

These are probably not all the interesting, potentially important questions that should be asked about the Libyan operation, and one hopes they are indeed being asked in official circles as we speak. The answers to these and other questions not raised here will help inform what to do next and whether any or all of it is a good idea.

“What Is America Waiting For?” in Libya

Posted in Libya, Middle East Conflict, Middle East Peace, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , , , , on March 13, 2011 by whatafteriraq

The question cited in the title is a quote from today’s (3/13/11) Washington Post attributed to a civilian in one of the Libyan cities now anticipating an attack by the forces of Col. Qadhafi. It is a plaintive plea for help in a situation that may be starting to unravel, as forces loyal to (or bought by) the Libyan strongman seem to have slowed or stopped the momentum of the populist uprising against it and may be starting to reverse that momentum.

The situation could become bleak indeed if there is no outside assistance to the rebels, a point they seem to understand. They want, even need, assistance if they are to have any chance to continue to contend for power; right now, the preponderance of brute force is not on their side. The Libyan government has the country’s armed forces on its side, and unlike Egypt, their support has not wavered nor have they shown any reluctance to use force to put down the rebellion. The armed, essentially disorganized youth who make up the resistance seem to understand this and vow to fight on to the death. That determination reflects their idealism and hatred for the Qadhafi tyranny, but it probably also a realistic assessment that they will be treated harshly if the government wins; rebels are rarely treated with equanimity when they lose, and Qadhafi is likely to be particularly brutal if given the chance.

By now, it should be clear that Libya will not turn out like Egypt (however, in the long run, that turns out). That being the case, simply standing on the sidelines and yelling encouragement is not enough for the United States and Europe, if we are truly convinced, as President Obama has said, that Qadhafi must go. But what can we, or should we, do?

The intervention option is being touted increasingly from predictable quarters: neo-conservatives like Paul D. Wolfowitz, reflexive hawks like John McCain, so-called “liberal interventionists” like John Kerry, for instance. All want the United States to lead the international imposition of a no-fly zone, the semi-response of choice. The argument is that it is a low-cost, high-yield solution; it is also wrong. As already noted in this space, such a commitment is open-ended in an environment wherein the U.S. hardly needs additional military commitments. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has also calmly pointed out that such an action means effectively declaring war on the Libyans, since establishing the zone would require first attacking and destroying Libyan air defenses–an act of war. Could the United States really sustain what could become another long, convoluted military commitment in that part of the world?

Any proposed response must answer three questions. The first is to whom assistance is to be rendered. As far as I can tell, no one has an answer to that more specific than to “the people.” Sorry, that is not enough, and it is unclear that there is anything coherent enough about the resistance to Qadhafi to form a force with which one could coordinate a military effort. We know who we might fight AGAINST; it is not clear we know who we would fight FOR.

The second question is what outcome we would be fighting for. That question also goes back to the nature and objectives (if any beyond overthrowing Qadhafi) that the insurgents hold. They say they are fighting for freedom, and the Arab League has endorsed them as the “legitimate” government of Libya, a move that could prove awkward if Qadhafi prevails.But what will freedom look like? Will it be a fully democratic regime? An Islamist religious state (e.g. Iran)? A new Arab dictatorship? Chaos? Since the movement lacks any coherent leadership, it could be any of the above, and that makes American assistance an effective act of Russian roulette. That may be enough for Joe Lieberman, but is it enough for the rest of us?

The third question, assuming the first two can be answered positively, is what kind of aid would we provide? The United States can provide naval and air support from the U.S. fleet in the Mediterranean, but much more would require European participation–even leadership–that the European members of NATO would have to put up. To this point, they have shown little enthusiasm for the endeavor; it may be that it will take the first boatloads of refugees washing on shore in Sicily after their 170-mile voyage to convince the Italians that maybe they really should think this through. Taking charge of Libyan air space (the no-fly zone) is certainly part of that, but is it enough in the face of the imbalance between Libya’s organized armed forces and a motley crew of rebels? If it isn’t, what is the West prepared to do?

There is another concern that must be faced if the uprising falls apart, as is at least possible. What if Col. Qadhafi turns the rout of the rebels into a recriminatory bloodbath the results of which inevitably leak into Western public attention (which they almost certainly would)? The pressure at that point to “do something” would be very difficult to resist, but would it be too late?  The precedent of Kosovo in the late 1990s comes to mind, and it is cautionary. The United States took essentially unilateral action and stopped the slaughter, but Kosovo has hardly been anybody’s idea of a big success since.

There is a short answer to the plaintive plea, “What is America waiting for?” It is that we are trying to figure out what we can and what we should do. What we ideally should do is turn the whole thing over to Europe, as argued here last week. That answer is certainly defensible, but it runs into the objective that Europe’s answer is essentially to do nothing. Maybe that is the right answer, but it certainly leaves the Libyan rebels at the potential mercy of Qadhafi, who is unlikely to show much compassion to those who would have him deposed.

That leaves a quandary. We can intervene (the U.S., the U.S. and Europe, or Europe alone), help overturn Qadhafi, and hope his successor regime is a creation of which we can be proud–or at least tolerant. Lots of uncertainties there. Or, we can all stand on the sidelines and hope for the best. At worst, the result is a humanitarian disaster; at best, it is a successful revolution whose victors are less than grateful to us for we did not do. Neither is a very attractive alternative. Is there another solution somewhere in between?

Libya Is Europe’s Job

Posted in Libya, Middle East Conflict, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on March 6, 2011 by whatafteriraq

As conditions continue to deteriorate in Libya and the prospect of a bloody, protracted internecine conflict looms greater everyday, the question of outside assistance to end the conflict and to end the rule of Muammar Qadhafi increasingly enters the conversation. Inevitably, the possibility of the United States taking a lead role in whatever response the international community conjures is among the potential solutions. Thrusting the United States into a leadership role would be a mistake. Doing something about the unfolding tragedy in Libya is Europe’s job. The United States may be a part of the effort, but in a supportive, not a lead role.

Why should Europe lead? In mulling the situation from afar, I can think of four very obvious answers, although there may well be more: Europe is closer, it has historic ties to Libya, the beneficiaries of Libyan oil are mostly European, and any refugees who cannot be absorbed by Egypt or Tunisia are going to head for Europe. Let’s examine each of these for a moment.

The first point is proximity. Sicily and the toe of the the Italian boot are only several hundred miles from Libya. This means, for instance, that if the international community (in this case, effectively NATO) decides to do something militarily about Libya, Italy and Spain are logical launching points, especially for air strikes that are likely the first (and possibly only) form that direct intervention will take: non-American NATO forces can do that job much better than U.S. carrier-based aircraft. So let them!

Proximity is more than geography. Libya is economically tied to Europe much more closely than it is to the United States. Italy receives more Libyan exports than any other country (approximately 38 percent of Libyan exports are to Italy), and Libya’s other top five trading partners are, according to CIA Factbook figures, Germany, France, Spain, and Switzerland; the United States finishes a distant sixth in receiving exports from Libya. The pattern of Libyan imports is similar, headed by Italy and Germany, in that order. The U.S. has no personal economic stake in Libya.

Second, Libya and Europe share history not shared with the United States. Other than a line from the Marine Corps hymn (“to the shores of Tripoli”) associated with the Barbary pirates during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency, all lines tie Libya to Europe. Notably, Italy occupied the country from 1912 until World War II, and France and Great Britain shared mandatory responsibility after WW II. Presumably these experiences give Europeans a sense of understanding of Libya that we lack (although ignorance has rarely stopped us from bumbling into situations aboyut which we have no clue, e.g. Iraq and Afghanistan).

Third, about all that is important about Libya is its oil, and the United States doesn’t get hardly any of it. Petroleum IS the Libyan economy: 95 percent of its export income comes from oil, as does 25 percent of its GDP and 80 percent of government revenues (2009 estimates from the CIA). As import/export figures indicate, the oil goes to Europe; this suggests who should be primarily worried about it.

Fourth, there is the question of refugees. The flow has already begun, but is mostly foreigners (especially Egyptian) petroleum industry workers fleeing the war. If the conflict drags on and/or if there are increasing recriminations, that flow will almost certainly increase and include Libyans, and there is no indication that either neighboring Egypt or Tunisia can or will absorb them. If not, where will they go? You guessed it: Europe, and especially Italy, which is no longer a small craft voyage away from north Africa than, say, south Florida is from Haiti. These refugees cannot get to the United States unless we invite and transport them, which we almost certain will not do. The only wayto avoid the flood is for a reasonably quick resolution that includes the overthrow of Qadhafi. It is not hard to determine whose interests are particularly served by a quick resolution.

There are also good reasons for the United States NOT to take the lead. The most obvious is overcommitment. The United States is, after all, already mired in two Middle Eastern wars that are sapping American military and economic resources. Do we need a third war? Granted, intervention meets the recent criteria for such involvement: instability in a country where we lack either knowledge or understanding, but the negatives are overwhelming. Even the most feckless, clueless chicken hawks can hardly drag out the tried-and-proven “soft on national security” argument here; the United States does not have a sufficient dog in this hunt to even imagine sticking out military nose in the middle of this one. Europeans arguably do.

There is yet another reason for us to stay in the background that is seldom mentioned, probably because it is a bit embarassing. In recent days, as the Libyan armed forces have stepped up attacks on civilians, there have been increasing calls to capture and try Col. Qadhafi as a war criminal, presumably before the International Criminal Court (ICC or War Crimes Court). Great idea, and almost certainly justified, but if the international community is going to do so, it is best to have the Americans in the background, not up front.

Why? Simply because the United States not only is not a member of the ICC, but was (particularly under the neo-conservative influenced Bush White House) positively opposed to acceptance of the jurisdiction against Americans (on the grounds that the U.S. would lose sovereign control of its own soldiers). In this circumstance, how can the United States be the champion of bringing Qadhafi to justice before a tribunal whose jurisdiction we refuse to accept without appearing hopelessly hypocritical? The question is not rhetorical: the reason George W. Bush cancelled his plans to go to Switzerland earlier in the year was because he might well have been arrested on war crimes charges and potentially been brought before the ICC for actions taken by the United States in Iraq and at Guantanamo. The Europeans do not have the same problem.

The case for European, not American, leadership in dealing with Libya is, in my judgment, overwhelming. That does not mean that European NATO will step up to the plate and accept that responsibility, simply that they should. If they do not (as they well may not), Libyan blood will be much more on their hands than ours.

Libyan No-Fly Zones

Posted in Internal Violence in Iraq, Iraq War, Libya, Middle East Conflict with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 3, 2011 by whatafteriraq

It has become quite popular within the press and among pundits in the past several days to raise the prospects of erecting no-fly zones over Libya, the purpose of which is to deny Muammar Gaddafi’s air force the ability to attack rebellious groups in his country. The idea is beguiling, because it appears to provide a quick-fix, action-oriented way to respond the growing crisis in the country and to deny the Libyan dictator the ability to attack and slaughter his own people in locations where his land forces either cannot get to or to which they have been denied access. It is also an apparently cheap, not especially dangerous way to apply force for NATO, since Libya is a quick flight across the Mediterranean from bases in places like France, Italy and Spain, and since the Libyan air force probably would do little effectively to stop the over flights by allied patrols.

The precedent for establishing such zones is Iraq during the 1990s. In the wake of the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War, Saddam Hussein set upon rebellious Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south. In the Kurdish case, many fled across the border into Turkey, where they formed an unwanted refugee problem for the Turkish government, which insisted they quit the Turkish mountain sides and go home. The Kurds refused, knowing they would likely be slaughtered if they did so. The United States, which had encouraged the Kurds to rebel in the first place, was caught in the middle. Turkey is a valued ally, and thus their demands that the Kurds leave could not be ignored, but at the same time, we were sensitive to the likely Kurdish fate if they were simply sent home. The solution was to make it safe for the Kurds to go back to Iraqi Kurdistan, and the vehicle was a no-fly zone that would keep Iraqi forces out of Kurdish territory. Originally named Operation Provide Comfort and later rechristened Northern Watch in 1997, the erection of this protection convinced the Kurds to return, averting the crisis. The same shield was later extended to the Shiite southern region of the country as Operation Southern Watch.

An ingenious solution, one might conclude, and a precedent custom made for the current Libyan crisis, where a beleaguered population is at the mercy of Libyan air strikes. In one sense, that is true, but one should also be sensitive to another aspect of such operations: they are open-ended–there is no easy “exit strategy” once they are imposed.

Northern/Southern Watch offers the cautionary note. Once the no-fly were established over Iraq, they had to continue indefinitely. They could not be lifted, because doing so would have given Saddam Hssein a carte blanche to attack the Kurds and Shiites again. As a result, these operations, begun as temporary solutions to a specifics problem–the Kurds huddled unwelcome on the Turkish mountain sides–became a long-term commitment from which the United States could not extricate itself as long as Saddam Hussein remained in power. In the end, the only “solution” was to overthrow the Iraqi regime–in other words, the Iraq War. Were Saddam still in power, Operations Northern/Southern Watch might well be close to “celebrating” their 20th anniversary.

Is that what we’re looking for in Libya? Of course not, but one can argue that, well, a no-fly zone is just a temporary expedient that will only last until Gaddafi is finally kicked out of power. Right? But the Iraqi precedent is not comforting: Provide Comfort was envisioned to provide “temporary” comfort, not 12 years worth of effort, as it eventually did. What if Gaddafi does not fall? Are those enforcing the no-fly zone as stuck as the United States was? Or do we all have to invade and conquer Libya?

Maybe an open-ended commitment is exactly what the advocates of a Libyan no-fly zone have in mind. If so, they should admit that and see if enthusiasm for the idea is as great as it currently seems to be. If so, fine. If not, it would be better to know up front what one may be getting one’s self into over the Libyan desert. That is the lesson of Provide Comfort/Northern/Southern Watch.