Archive for April, 2011

Democracy, Islamism, the U.S., Egypt, and Israel

Posted in Egypt, Israel and the United States, Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East Peace, War on Terror with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2011 by whatafteriraq

Although the Libyan civil war is the current focus of most of the world’s (and certainly John McCain’s) attention, that blooldletting is a sideshow on the greater stage of the revolutionary movement that has swept across parts of the Middle East since January and which may spread even further in the upcoming months or years. The central stage of this drama is a two-act drama. The key element in that drama is the shape that post-uprising political systems in the region will take, and it is a contest widely portrayed in terms of democracy versus religious extremism (Islamism). The outcome of that contest may reshape the geopolitics of the Middle East region, and especially the critical triangular relationship between the United States, Egypt, and Israel that is a linchpin of American foreign policy in the region.

The common denominator of the Middle East revolutions has been popular uprisings against repressive, authoritarian regimes by suppressed peoples. These movements were virtually unanticipated in the West, which saw regimes like that of Egyptian Hosni Mubarak as pillars of stability in the region. That they were anti-democratic conflicted with the on-again-off-again U.S. policy of democracy promotion in the region, but that policy impulse (and it is hard to think of it as much more than that) always had as its alter ego the comfort of dealing with predictable regimes who cooperated with American policy emphases such as moderating anti-Israeli sentiments among Arab populations and participating in the American war on terrorism.

American policy toward Egypt demonstrated the American ambivalence on the subject particularly clearly. Everyone knew that Mubarak’s regime was nothing to be proud of in human rights or economic matters, but he was enduring (it lasted over 30 years, after all), and Mubarak was a staunch supporter of peace with Israel and a champion of anti-terrorist activities. But there was always an irony involved: the same prisons where he jailed and even tortured his political opponents were also available for the “rendition” (i.e. torture) of suspected terrorists captured by the United States and from whom the Americans wanted to extract information that it would be embarassing for us to obtain otherwise. Good old Hosni would take care of them for us. Gee, some of us may actually miss him.

Ambivalence about what is happening is, of course, rarely put this way. Rather, the great fear is that democratic movements in the countries undergoing upheavals may somehow be highjacked by radical Islamists, who will transform their societies into Iran-like clones and even, at worst, as havens for fanatical terrorists. This is a fear that beleaguered tyrants like Muammar Gadhafi have raised with particular vehemence (his charge that westerners and Al Qaeda–strange bedfellows–are responsible for Libya’s travail), and it raises a prospect that many others, but especially Israel, feels with particularly personal urgency.

But is this fear justified? It is too early to say with absolute certainty, but the early indications are that as democratic processes emerge, the Islamic extremists will not fare especially well. Egypt, which is the largest, most populous, and most strategically located of all the countries undergoing change, is the case in point. It is, of course, the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood, offshoots of which are active in virtually every other Arab country in the region, but all indications are that the Brotherhood will neither be the preeminent influence in a post-Mubarak political order nor will its influence be particularly radical. One can and should never say never about these prospects, but unless things change, the prospects seem manageable.

There are, however, two other possible, even probable, outcomes that are more troublesome for the West, and the United States and Israel in particular. One is that all of these movements are likely to contain fairly strong anti-American elements. In one way this is strange, since it is western inventiveness that has energized the movements (e.g. the Internet) and since the political freedom to which they aspire is distinctly western. At the same time, the peoples involved know that that west, and notably the United States, has been the primary supporter of discredited leaders like Mubarak–the source of the misery to which they have reacted. This dichotomy mainly reflects the schizophrenia of American policy that valued “stability” over our own democratic values in these places, and that it is coming home to roost is probably something we will have to endure and try to make the best of. But one thing is pretty clear, and that it that the United States will have less influence over whoever ascends to power in places like Egypt than it had before.

This recognition brings us to the other outcome, which is a more anti-Israeli stance from post-revolutionary governments. For better or worse reasons, public opinion in places like Egypt is much more pro-Palestinian and thus thus anti-Israeli than the policies of fallen leaders like Mubarak have reflected. In open and democratic settings, it will be impossible for successor governments not to reflect this opposition, and the trick for the United States will be to try to keep this sentiment from boiling over into the destruction of the Middle East peace process which, ironically, has been one of the triumphs of the American policy of supporting regional tyrants.

The Israelis, of course, are well aware of and consequently with this likely outcome of democratization. The process, however, also leaves Israel in something of a bind in terms of how to respond. One of the signal bases of Israeli appeal in the region has been that it is the only legitimate political democracy in the Middle East, and as such, it can hardly oppose the spread of democracy to its neighbors. At the same time, it is also aware of the anti-Israeli tone of democratic politics there, a sentiment largely born of Israel’s obdurate clinging to the West Bank and opposition to completing an agreement creating an independent state of Palestine. These contradictions are part of a lively political debate within Israel, but the Israelis have been very quiet internationally about how they feel. Privately, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apparently strongly advocated muscular American actions to prop up Mubarak (coming out on the stability end of the stability-democracy argument), but that train has left the station, and the Israelis are hunkering down.

From a geopolitical standpoint, the great question that remains is what will become of the strategically triangular relationship between Egypt, Israel, and the United States. Under Mubarak, the three were united to keep the lid on the volatile region by maintaining at least the fiction of a lively peace process leading to some kind of solution acceptable to the Palestinians, but democratic expressions in places like Egypt could undercut that fiction. It is not clear how diminished American influence will be in this situation, but it will certainly be decreased somewhat. The result will be uncomfortable for Israel, because its current policy of expanding the status quo will come under increasingly withering criticism from unconstrained democratizing places like Egypt. How Israel responds to this change will go a long way toward defining the geopolitics of the democratizing Middle East.

“Fragile and Reversible Progress” in Afghanistan

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Iraq War, Middle East Conflict with tags , , , , on April 17, 2011 by whatafteriraq

Speaking of the situation in southern Afghanistan at what is the traditional beginning of the military campaigning season (it is warm enough and the winter snow has melted), this was the assessment put forward by General David Petraeus about what he considers to be more favorable circumstances as the United States and its Afghan and NATO allies prepare for yet another year’s battle with the Taliban. We are making “progress,” but it is “fragile and reversible.”

Wait a second! Haven’t we heard these identical words (or at least very close approximations of them) before in both Iraq and Afghanistan? Is this phrase not simply a part of the counterinsurgency (COIN) manual written under Patraeus’ difection for the Army and Marines that has been discussed in this space before? It certainly has a familiar ring about it. Why?

There are several candidate reasons. The most prominent involve the nature of countering indigenous insurgencies in foreign countries (foreign at least to those conducting the counterinsurgencies). In this situations, “progress” is an elusive term. Does it mean military progress? If so, what are the measures of that progress? Attrition of the enemy? Victory in encounters with the opposition? More territory gained and secured? These are traditional ways military progress is measured, and they do not quite fit insurgent circumstances. We generally do not know how effectively we are “attriting” (killing off) the enemy, or we cannot measure accurately his ability to replenish whatever losses he endures (remember Vietnam and the infamous body count that “proved” in 1968 that the North Vietnamese/VC had been so depleted they couldn’t possibly field the size forces they did at Tet?). Victories on the battlefield are also an imprecise measure, as demonstrated by the famous exchange after Vietnam by an American officer and a North Vietnamese where the American said, “We never lost a single battle,” to which his counterpart replies “That is absolutely true and irrelevant.” Similarly, control of territory is a notoriously limited metric, both since insurgents do not consider territory held their objective and because holding gained territory is the Achilles heel of COIN strategy (because of having too few troops to keep liberated areas secure). 

Maybe “progress” means political progress, winning the battle for political loyalty (LBJ’s “hearts and minds of men”), which is the ultimate measure of success in insurgency. But how do measure that? Typically (including in the current case) we ask people in the areas we have liberated if they are glad we’re there. Standing at the wrong end of an American rifle barrel, those we ask almost always reply that they sure do like us better than they did the Taliban. What a surprise and wonderful measure of loyalty and conversion that is.

All this suggests that “progress” is a slippery term, and it is unkind (but not unfair) to say we really do not know, in any meaningful operational way, what it means in this or similar circumstances. We do know, however, that it is, at any point in time, “fragile and reversible.” The translation for this term is pretty straightforward: whatever “progress” we experience is ephemeral and subject to rapid, radical change, but with a rejoinder. The rejoinder is that we have worked damned hard to make this progress, and if policy (defined in terms of support levels) for what we have done flags, the result could well be that the fragile progress may be reversed. Is there any reason to wonder about the motivation of such a warning when faced with a presidential determination to review policy in a few months, with scaling back the resources that have allowed “progress” to occur as a major element?

One could be more sanguine about this pronouncement by Petraeus if one had not heard it so many times before. When was the last time anyone heard the U.S. or allied military command pronounce progress as solid and irreversible? It is always “fragile and reversible,” and one must ask why.

The answers lie in the nature of the enterprise. Outside intervention in civil wars in the modern world has turned out to be fool’s work: it never succeeds in the manner those contemplating it anticipate before they jump in. NEVER! I have discussed these dynamics in a number of books (“Distant Thunder” and “Uncivil Wars,” both published in the 1990s are the most complete statements, but the arguments also appear in the various editions of “National Security for a New Era”). Basically, the problem is that intervention, no matter how well intentioned by whoever (i.e. the U.S.) does it will never be viewed in the same benevolent manner by whoever is the recipient of the action. Intervention changes civil wars, adding to the firepower of the government on whose behalf one intervenes, but it also alienates the target population unless the action is swift, decisive, and followed by a rapid withdrawal before the natives can get sick of us. These conditions never hold in modern internal warfare, meaning intervention will always be resented and opposed. Progress, such as it may appear, will always be “fragile and reversible,” because it is the intervener’s progress, not the progress of the (reluctant) host government. It does not matter how “bad” the Taliban are (which is bad) or how “good” the government may be (which they are not), intervention will always make the insurgents look better.

It really is as simple as that. The United States has been in Afghanistan for a decade, and the best we can come up with are statements of “fragile and revsersible” progress which is, effectively, no progress at all. The president has said he expects to be in Afghanistan with significant force at least until 2014, and apologists for the war think it will be much longer than that. Why? The best we can hope for is more “fragile and reversible” progress. It’s really as simple as that.

Using American Force in the Middle East

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Egypt, Iraq War, Libya, US Domestic Politics, Yemen with tags , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2011 by whatafteriraq

As the uprisings of 2011 continue to roll across the Middle East, one inevitable question seems to center on whether, or in what cases, the United States should contemplate the use of American forces to intervene in the situation(s). Eqaully inevitably, there is widespread disagreement about answers along fairly predictable ideological lines.

Because so many of the country’s land forces either are tied down in or have been exhausted by a decade of fighting two wars in the region in Iraq and Afghanistan, nobody of note has openly advocated putting American “muddy boots” on the ground in any of these conflicts. This admirable show of restraint is not because the civil uprisings are much less important to the United States or the world (it is not difficult to argue that most of the countries experiencing violence are as important to the United States as Iraq in particular), but because either the force is not available or the calculation is that even the American public would support such action. Still, on one side exemplified by John McCain (who could, one is reminded with a shudder, could be president of the United States) hectoring General Carter Ham, the Pentagon’s front man in this situation, about whether imposing (with American air forces) a no-fly zone in Libya might have brought about a different result (a Qadhafi overthrow) than the current impasse. General Ham, who is a bright guy, to his credit refused to rise to the bait on this one, sardonically telling the Senator such determinations were not military and thus not part of his portfolio. (Personal note: General Ham was a student of mine at the US Air War College in  1996-97, and was then a very perceptive student of the utilities and limits of military power.) The political left equally predictably decries any use of force in the current situation, arguing either that these are civil wars (they are) where our interests are not clear (which they are not) and that it is not clear whether our intervention might help under any circumstances (equally true).

Even the suggestion that the United States might use force to affect the outcomes of these various uprisings is curious. For one thing, they are all internal, civil affairs, with autocratic governments under varying degrees of siege from suppressed populations who want the old leader out, replaced by some alternative they we (and they) cannot define. These are, in international legal terms, strictly speaking none of our business, and although we may oppose dictatorial rule in principle, it is not clear we support an as-yet undefiined alternative. Who, for instance, is the alternative in Egypt? Moreover, our past catches up with us: if dictatorial leaders either professed anti-communism, ant-terrorism or both, we have probably supported them, making changing horses embarassing. We did pull the plug on Mubarak,but can we do so with Saleh in Yemen, where we clearly have no clue about the dynamics or other consequences of various outcomes (other than fearing Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula–AQAP–might benefit). Thus, the question “force for what?” has to be asked.

Stephen Walt, in a posting in Foreign Policy (online) dates April 4, 2011, offers some insight into why these questions even arise. In the article, he lays out five reasons the United States employs force so much, and he comes up with five answers that help frame the application of force to the Middle East. First, Walt argues, we use force “because we can.” The U.S. has lots of sophisticated military capability (most of which no one else has), and it is pretty easily available. Second, “the U.S. has no serious enemies,” which has two implications. One is that we don’t need our forces to deter non-existent enemies, and the other is that there is nobody who can–or wants to–oppose us when we do. The third reason is the existence of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF). Its existence largely removes the restraint of public displeasure, since nobody is involuntarily forced to implement force decisions. The fourth, “It’s the Establishment, Stupid!” argues that our political establishment has become in essence “force-happy,” seeing military solutions as the answer to all our problems (the neo-conservatives are singled out as the leading evangels of this phenomenon). Fifth and finally, “Congress has checked out,” meaning the Congress no longer asserts its constitutional perogatives to approve or disapprove applications of force. Taken in combination, Walt argues, the result is a green light for the U.S. government to view almost everything as a military problem with military solutions. Why should the current situation in the Middle East be any different?

Well, there are three differences. One is that there is some evidence the American public is becoming war weary enough that appeals to force do not resonate so well today. I have not, for instance, seen any groundswell behind the McCain position on no-fly zones (admittedly, I never listen to or watch Fox “News”). Second, it is indeed not at all clear what American interests are in this situation or how U.S. military action would positively achieve achieving whatever goals we might have in the area. 

The third reason may be the most defining: the budget crisis. Any U.S. application of force in the current uprisings is going to be expensive at a time when there is great pressure to bring down government spending. The Tea Partiers exclude (hpyocritically, in my view) defense spending in budget cuts to bring down deficits, but any serious advocacy of added defense spending to support military adventurism in the Middle East at a time when other budget oxen are being gored is probably politically unsupportable. Moreover, as Papa and Baby Paul would quickly point out in their libertarian way, overseas military activities are not exactly how one shrinks government. It thus may be that an unlikely coalition of the right and left, starting from opposite motivations, may come together to torpedo any dreams/nightmares that are entertained about inserting American force into the uprisings of 2011.

Hyper-Partisanship, Non-Consensus, and Libya

Posted in International Terrorism, Libya, Middle East Conflict, US Domestic Politics with tags , , , , on April 3, 2011 by whatafteriraq

President Obama has received a great deal of criticism over the past several weeks about how his administration has handled the American reaction to the revolution in Libya. This criticism has covered the gamut of possible actions and solutions. George Bush-like, some have lambasted him for timidity, suggesting that the United States come much more forcefully to the aid of Libyan rebels in the form of a no-fly zone or more; John McCain and Joe Lieberman respresent this strand of opinion; at the other end of the GOP spectrum, Richard Lugar of Indiana has broken with Obama for getting at all involved. Within his own party, most of the criticism has come from the left, which wants no US involvement militarily in Libya (or Afghanistan or Iraq, one might add). At the same time, a few remind Obama about a potential Rwanda-style humanitarian disaster (an analogy almost certainly overblown) unless the United States does something about Colonel Qadhafi.

The merits of the situation are at best murky, thereby allowing advocacy of a broad range of options without any danger of bumping too closely into the facts. Two things, however, seem clear to me at this point. One is that the loose coalition of anti-Qadhafi factions cannot possibly win (i.e. overthrow Qadhafi) without outside assistance; indeed, it is not at all certain that this “revolution” can persist without outsiders suppressing the government’s attempts to destroy them, as events showed last week. The balance of power is not on the rebels’ side. Qadhafi has the guns, and the absence of meaningful uprisings in the western part of the country (notably Tripoli) indicates either that the rebellion lacks comprehensive support or that pro-government supporters are capable of suppressing the rebels. In either case, it looks like the only way the rebellion can succeed is with a great deal of outside help–something like a massive intervention against the Libyan government. Such an action is problematical in principle (these things often do not work at all, and even when they do, the outcomes are rarely what one hoped they might be). No one seems to be advocating such an intervention, but the logic dictates that eventually it will have to be contemplated when stalemate proves not to be enough.

That leads to the second clear point: we still do not have a good handle on who exactly the rebels are. Certainly the foot soldiers are non-radical citizens who are simply sick of Qadhafi and want to see him gone. Most outsiders share that sentiment,which is why there is more support for active moves than there might otherwise be. But is that all the leadership wants? What do we know about these people–who are they? where do they come from? what is their politics? It is becoming clear that there is no single leadership cadre; that instead there are alternative aspirants to post-Qadhafi leadership. Before one becomes too involved in replacing one leadership with another, it is always nice to know what the replacement will be like. Do we know this? For that matter, do the Libyans themselves know this?

If my assessment is at all sanguine, the situation on the ground in Libya would seem to counsel a slow, measured approach to involvement on the ground, which is pretty much what the White House is pursuing. Yet, the hounds continue to bay. Why?

Let me suggest two reasons that are stated in the title of this post. The first is the hyper-partisanship that has infected all American politics and, increasingly American foreign policy. The basic dynamic is that all aspects of political life are now framed in increasingly strident ideological language, mostly along partisan party lines, and politics has become a zero-sum game in which one side succeeds at the other side’s expense. Democrats blame Republicans for everything that happens and everything the GOP does in response, and vice versa. As this phenomenon has become more pervasive, its effect has been to paralyze (or “gridlock”) the political system: the battle over keeping the government going is the most obvious example. In times past, foreign policy was exempt from much of this sniping (“politics ends at the water’s edge”). It no longer is, unfortunately. (This theme is developed more fully in a book Pat Haney and I are co-authoring, American Foreign Policy in a New Era, due out in January 2012).

The other problem is a lack of consensus on guiding first principles that inform foreign policy. If one side or another was communist (the Cold War), the response would be easy. Immediately after 9/11, the charge that one side was composed of terrorists would also serve as an activator. Col. Qadhafi has tried that one, accusing the opposition of being Al Qaeda dupes, but it has not worked. Anti-terrorism is still a theme of American policy, but it is not longer a supreme first principle. In the current situation, we have no real guiding grand strategy, and so part of our bickering reflects a disagreement on what should activate the United States in a place like Libya that is based on first premises on which there is no depth of agreement.

This leaves the president tip-toeing through a minefield, where any step he takes will set off another explosion. His response, it seems to me, has been to activate what used to be revered as a highly desirable leadership trait: pragmatism (the approach of dealing with problems on their individual merits rather than in conformance with some pre-existing ideological framework). That approach is not much in vogue today, attacked from both sides as being unprincipled–wishy-washy in Charlier Brown language. Yet, pragmatism in this situation probably argues for caution before we know the answers to the kinds of questions raised above, and it is hard for me to understand how anyone could disagree about that. But then, someone will probably disagree about when we can disagree as well.