Archive for the ‘The Middle East’ Category

Arab Spring Spreads Across the Middle East

Sunday, March 27th, 2011

Juan Cole on the protests spreading across the Middle East:

Friday saw major protests in Syria, Jordan and Yemen, along with continued fighting in Libya. The Arab Spring has not breathed its last gasp, but rather seems to be getting a second wind. Protesters are crossing red lines set by governments and risking being shot. They know that movements are watered with the blood of martyrs. One of the major protests, in Deraa, Syria, on Friday was actually a funeral procession. But the Baathist regime created dozens more martyrs in response to being challenged. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh seems to have admitted he is outgoing, though he is bargaining with the crowds about the timing and circumstances.

Government Forces Fire on Demonstrators as Syrian Protests Spread

Friday, March 25th, 2011

Syrian Troops opened fire on demonstrators today as tens of thousands turned out in the city of Dara’a and smaller demonstrations broke out in other cities throughout Syria.

Meanwhile, In Damascus, tens of thousands took to the street in support of Bashar-Al Asad’s government as a smaller group supported the protest movements.

Reports indicated that as many as 20 protestors were killed by security forces in Dara’a, with fatal shootings in other areas of the country as well.

The protests are the most serious challenge to the 4o year rule of the Assad family since 1982, when Hafez-Al Asad, the father of current Syrian leader Bashar-Al Asad, massacred at least 10,000 protesters in the city of Hamma in 1982.

Tom Ricks: Beyond the No-Fly Zone

Friday, March 18th, 2011

Well it’s official: in what may be the strongest example of Obama Administration multilateralism to date, the UN Security Council approved the use of force in Libya this afternoon. Here’s Tom Ricks on military options we should be pursuing in Libya and why a no-fly zone itself was a half-measure which sounded easier and more effective than it actually would be. 

Keep in mind that this was written over a week ago and that Qaddafi’s forces have made significant progress in that short time, but I still think the recommendations (and analysis) are solid.

On the Ground in Libya

Sunday, March 13th, 2011

Here’s Nicolas Pelham in the New York Review of Books with the best report I have read so far on the political situation in Libya.

Pelham explains the tactical situation on the battlefield better than most, but the real insight from the article is the sense of the political institutions in Libya, the different factions that makeup the nascent Libyan rebel movement and the window it can provide into what the situation on the ground might look like if the rebels were to prevail.

As Pelham notes, Qaddafi has been particularly adept at neutralizing any other potential  centers of power. In contrast to Egypt, where the military has been a source of stability in national politics, Qaddafi has insured that the Libyan military remains weak.   After a number of unsuccessful military coups in the 1970′s, the Libyan military suffered a humiliating defeat when Qaddafi invaded Chad in the early 80′s and was decisively defeated by the Chadian military with the assistance of French troops.  In 1993, Following another coup attempt by the military with the backing of a Libyan tribe, Qaddafi “pretty much ditched his army,” relying on paramilitary forces to police the country.

The other dominant resistance to Qaddafi has come from Islamist groups. Pelham details how, in the mid-1990′s, a fighting force made up mostly of Libyan jihadists returning from Afghanistan took up camp in the Eastern areas around Beida with the stated intent to overthrow Qaddafi. What followed was a wide ranging purge of Islamists by Qaddafi, many of whom were not tied to the armed rebels. This purge culminated with the slaughter of 1,270 mostly Islamist prisoners in the Tripoli prison of Busalim in 1996.

In fact, the initial uprising in the city of Benghazi was spearheaded by a group of lawyers protesting the detention of fellow lawyer, Fathi Tubril, who represented families of the Busalim massacre victims seeking the return of their bodies. In the wake of the collapse of Egyptian and Tunisian dictatorships, the protest was quickly supported by local imams, tribal sheiks and key defectors in the military.

The public face of the rebels has been former Libyan Justice Minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, but the governing group consists of a number of local councils  beholden to a National Council whose members remain mostly unknown. Despite the disparate factions in the newly declared government, Pelman notes that


to date, inclusiveness has been its hallmark. For such a violent revolutionary regime, revenge killings have been remarkably infrequent—at least for now. Young urban lawyers sit side-by-side with tribal elders and Islamists on the council. A non-Islamist lawyer serves as the National Council spokesman, and a staunch secularist is charged with running Benghazi’s education. And the politicians have consciously wooed the armed forces. Unlike in Iraq, where Paul Bremer, America’s administrator, abolished the security apparatus down to the last immigration officer, youth protesters and the old border guards man their side of the border with Egypt together.

Still, if the rebels were able to prevail, the potential for continued unrest is significant and it is easy to imagine a scenario in which the country descends into a continuing civil war as tribes, Islamists, religious moderates and the military jockey for power in an increasingly militarized (and weaponized) society. Unlike Egypt, where the military has historically held the balance of power, there is no obvious institution that could fill the power vacuum left by a defeat of Qadaffi’s regime.

While this is not an argument for or against a U.S. led no-fly zone or additional military assistance for the rebels, it is a caution that, despite all the talking heads’ bravado and admonishments of Obama for not being forceful enough, the Obama Administration’s caution might be well placed. While most Americans have a natural sympathy for the brave Libyans rebelling against a better armed historic enemy of our country,  Obama’s team needs to look many moves ahead, focusing not only on whether we want Qaddafi out, but on the government that would replace him. Perhaps the only worse outcome than a certifiable kleptocrat running Libya would be a prolonged civil war ending in a failed state.

Glenn Beck off the Deep End

Sunday, March 6th, 2011

It seems like Glenn Beck may have finally gone too far.

The week that the Egypt protests broke wide open, Beck seemed to go off the deep end with his talk of how the peaceful protests in Egypt demanding the end of Mubarak’s rule could be a precursor to the eventual establishment of an Islamic Caliphate that would take over the entire Middle East and potentially spread into Asia and Europe.

If you didn’t know that Beck was a pasty faced huckster with no real sense of international politics or history, then you might get really freaked out watching him manipulate his touchscreen to create a phosphorescent Islamic Caliphate out of the entire Middle East and then explain how Spain, France, Britain and Italy could come under the sway of the new Caliphate because they also have some Muslims living in their countries. Beck goes on to weave a complex tapestry of conspiracy, which includes among its members both President Bushes, “the Left,” and labor unions, just to name a few. In fact,  throughout the week Beck tied the Islamic caliphate theory to quite an impressive list of Fox News villans, including Islamic Socialists, ACORN, Code Pink, Anarchists and Bill Ayers, all of whom Beck claimed were engaged in a  ”well orchestrated campaign” to pave the way for the caliphate.

The next week, Bill Kristol at the American Standard, the most idealistic (Pollyanish?) of the neo-cons, called Beck out. Kristol contrasted Charles Krauthammer’s words of caution about events in Egypt and Beck’s paraniod ravings, noting:

hysteria is not a sign of health. When Glenn Beck rants about the caliphate taking over the Middle East from Morocco to the Philippines, and lists (invents?) the connections between caliphate-promoters and the American left, he brings to mind no one so much as Robert Welch and the John Birch Society. He’s marginalizing himself, just as his predecessors did back in the early 1960s.

In fact, as Chris Matthews pointed out, Beck’s paraniod ramblings seems to be cribbed directly from the John Birchers‘ recent talking points.

In the month that has followed, a number of prominent conservatives have joined Kristol in denouncing Beck. Joe Scarborough (no fan of Glenn Beck before) called him ”bad for the conservative movement” and said that he was “losing it before our eyes.” Peter Wehner, from the uber-conservative website Commentary, called him the “most disturbing personality on cable television,” and urged conservatives to distance themselves from him before he “blows apart professionally.” Time columnist Joe Klein noted that he had heard from more than a few conservative sources that “prominent conservatives” have approached Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes and pushed for his ouster at Fox.

While Fox has never been a network particularly concerned with the truth, perhaps a better motivator may be Beck’s declining ratings: January’s ratings were the worst he’s posted since his Fox show debuted in January 2009.

My own take on this is that two trends are driving this backlash against Beck and people like him:

First, the country has had a full two years of heart rending bitter partisanship. While Obama and Pelosi were running the country and the Right was fully mobilized against them, there was a strong tendency toward cohesion. The nutty conspiracy theories that Beck was spouting were tolerated because they were aimed at a common enemy. Now that the inexorable march toward liberal “tyranny” has been stopped, people are looking for a respite from the continual pitched battles between left and right. This has shown up not only in Beck’s declining ratings, but in public opinion about Sarah Palin after she clumsily and agressively went on the attack after Gabby Giffords was shot. At a time when the country needed healing, Sarah Palin showed the same pettiness that she has shown throughout her career, and the public took note. While Obama delivered a stirring speech on the need to come together as Americans and tone down the rhetoric, Palin once again seemed obsessed with her own public image and sense of victimhood.

In a similar vein, the Republican victory is revealing cracks in the facade of conservative unity that were obscured during the fight against a common enemy. These cracks were conspicuously on display during the Egyptian protests.  Neo-cons who still believe in Bush’s “freedom agenda” have a far different worldview from the cautious realpolitik that Repulicans like Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft used so effectively (and that Obama’s team has tried to emulate), and Glenn Beck’s Bircher influenced conspiracy theories are almost diametrically opposed to the neo-con worldview. As events unfolded in Egypt, you had people like Beck and others basically arguing that Muslims can’t be allowed to have democracy and neo-cons like Kristol arguing that Middle Eastern democracy is essential to achieving our national security objectives.   

While no faction has a monopoly on truth, Beck’s recent rantings are undeniably nutty and it is clear that it’s probably in the interest of the Republicans to distance themselves from him. As Kristol alluded to, we may finally be seeing a replay of the early 1960′s when William F. Buckley famously denounced the John Birch Society in the National Review.

The secretive Birch Society had views that were not far from Beck’s. It’s founder, Robert Welch had called President Dwight D. Eisenhower, ”a conscious, dedicated agent of the communist conspiracy” and he claimed that the US government was “under operational control of the Communist party” (can’t you hear Beck saying something like this on his show?).  

In his 1962 editorial, Buckley called Welch “idiotic” and “paranoid” and said his views were “far removed from common sense.” This effectively banished the Birchers from the conservative movement for almost 50 years, until  they re-emerged in 2010.

Could we be watching history repeat itself 5o years later? I won’t hold my breath, but this might be fun to watch. 

The Turning Point

Friday, February 25th, 2011

I was thinking this week about turning points: points where foreign observers of the situations in places like Libya and Egypt suddenly have a better understanding of what they are watching.

During the protests in Egypt, I remember when I read this article in the New York Times about how the Egyptian military announced that they would not use force against the protesters. I thought to myself: game, set and match.

Those hundreds of thousands of people in the street were not going away, and if the military refused to fire on them, I knew that Mubarak would be out soon.

This moment on Libya came for me this week when I watched this report from Richard Engle, showing a Libyan military unit handing out heavy artillery including rocket launchers and machine guns to civilians. At that moment it was clear to me that this was not like the protests that gripped Egypt, it was an armed revolt, and that Qaddafi was in real trouble.

Since then, close to 90% of Libya has now turned over to rebel control, the towns under rebel control have started to develop their own rudimentary governing structure and Qaddafi, abandoned by the vast majority of Libyan’s, has had to turn to an army of mercenaries to defend Tripoli and maintain power.

No doubt Qaddafi could drag this out, but it’s increasingly clear that he’s making his last stand.

Qaddafi Forces Strike Back Hard as Grip on Power Loosens

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

Here’s the New York Times on the latest from Libya and Juan Cole with a larger analysis of the internal political situation that Qaddafi faces. As Cole notes, Qaddafi has largely maintained power for forty two years by balancing tribal alliances, so the reports that major tribes are now aligning against him is significant (not to mention the defection/resignation of many of his own diplomatsgenerals and fighter pilots).

That being said, this could turn into a long standoff as Qaddafi continues to fight back with all means at his disposal, from the air force to paramilitary mercenaries.

Just to put his country at ease, he followed up his son’s rambling statement from yesterday with this bizarre video of him lackadasically joking about the protests while sitting in a the cab of a truck, holding an umbrella.

I swear, this guy is straight out of a James Bond (or an Austin Powers) movie.

But seriously though, what a month…

Protests Grip Libya, Yemen and Bahrain

Saturday, February 19th, 2011

Here’s Juan Cole again, on the spreading Middle East protests.

The politics of Bahrain are particularly interesting. It’s a Shiite majority country that is ruled by a Sunni royal family and has had sporadic flare ups of political protest with a sectarian edge since the 1990′s.

While the country’s citizens are majority Shiite, there are actually more expatriates than citizens in Bahrain and many of them are Sunni Arabs, Pakistanis or South East Asians.

Once again, the United States’ rhetorical support of democracy is colliding with it’s national security interests. The US Fifth Fleet, which provided critical logistical support for the Iraq war as well as all other Persian Gulf operations, is headquartered in Manama, Bahrain.

Fouad Ajami: Demise of the Dictators

Saturday, February 19th, 2011

Great article from Fouad Ajami on the history and context of the current tumult in the Middle East.

Who’s Next?

Saturday, February 19th, 2011

Hopefully not Yemen.