Posts Tagged ‘Libya’

Republican Schizophrenia on Middle East Policy

Saturday, October 20th, 2012

Here’s a Jon Stewart riff from a couple of weeks ago on the hypocrisy of Republicans using the death of the Ambassador in Libya as a reason to attack Obama’s foreign policy.

Republican critiques of Middle East policy are actually more complex than just the usual Republican hypocrisy in that they get to the heart of a real rift in the Republican party on Middle East Policy. On the one hand, you have what we might want call the “The Arabs Only Understand Force” Republicans–the people who believe that the solution to almost every problem is military force and the threat of military force. These people want to play a version of Cold War era global chess with the Middle East, supporting our dictator friends and deposing the others. They don’t give a shit about democratization and many of them believe that the Arabs can’t handle the freedom. On the other hand, we have the neo-cons, who think that the key to our security in the Abab world lies in allowing these countries to democratize. The theory here is that democracy and freedom lead to economic growth, and economic growth leads to stability, and stability leads to less terrorism which leads to our security. Whether that is actually true is the central question of the Middle East for the next few decades and a topic for another day.

The problem with Republicans under Obama is that they are so mixed up that they constantly shift from one pole to another. This is what allows Republicans who scoffed at Democratic arguments that we should get rid of George W. Bush when he invaded the wrong country, Al Qaeda rushed in and fanned the flames of a sectarian war and 100,000 people died, but have the temerity to say that Obama’s Middle East policy is a failure because of an attack on our embassy and protests across the Middle East. A few weeks ago, my conservative uncle, who was an ardent Bush supporter eight years ago, actually tried to make the argument that Obama should be voted out because “the Middle East is in flames” and people are protesting against our embassies after Obama said that everyting would be better after he was elected. I pointed out that he is suffering from the same short term memory that so many of his fellow Republicans seem to be experiencing these days.

Another example of Republican schizophrenia on Middle East Policy can be seen in contradictory Republican messages messages on Libya and Syria. In Libya, we had a very constrained but effective tactical role in overthrowing a historic enemy of the United States which was accomplished with no American casualties. We now have an emerging, albeit fragile democracy in the country, but also the presence of some militant groups that have yet to be dealt with and unarmed, one of which attacked our embassy a few weeks ago. So you hear from the “Arabs Only Understand Force” Republicans like Ben Stein, who wrote that

It’s amazing that Qaddafi kept saying that the people fighting against him were al Qaeda and we kept helping them — and sure enough, they turned out to be al Qaeda. And Qaddafi, who had become our friend — although a cruel and vile man — was killed by the rebels so now Libya is in large measure in the hands of al Qaeda. 

Too many factual innacuracies to go into detail on (the government isn’t Al Qaeda, the rebels are), but this is a main point of the AOUF Republicans: we deposed Qadaffi and empowered Al Qaeda. Well that’s a reasonable enough argument, but it’s slightly less credible coming from the same people whose response was basically “shut the fuck up” when the exact same argument was made about the War in Iraq (the main difference being tens of thousands of American soldiers wounded, thousands of US soldiers killed, our eye off the Osama bin Laden ball and over a trillion dollars added to the federal debt). 

Similarly, AOUF Republicans blame the Obama administration for the emergence of the Egyptian Brotherhood, but it’s not clear what the alternative was for them. Encourage the government to fire on the protestors? Take sides with our traditional ally when the writing was on the wall that he would ultimately be deposed by his own people?

On Syria, the Republicans have the luxury of an almost diametrically opposed argument to wield against Obama: he isn’t doing enough to help overthrow the Assad regime, even though it’s not clear who would take Assad’s place and there is ample documentation that Al Qaeda are among the groups backing the Sunni insurgency in a conflict that breaks down largely on sectarian lines.

Look, these are tough calls, but that’s partly the point. It’s tough to sit back and watch a government slaughter it’s people, but it’s also probably not wise to help overthrow one government when you don’t know what kind of government is most likely to replace it. Fortunately for the Republicans, they can complain no matter what happens: if we continue to support the Syrians revels with only words, then we’re not doing enough and Obama is showing American weakness. If we enable them to take power and the government that everges is even slightly more Islamic than it is today, then Obama’s foreign policy is a failure because he allowed “radical muslim extremists” to take power.

In the meantime, there’s nothing you can do about it but laugh. 

Herman Cain on Libya

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011


Similar to Rick Perry’s embarrasing performance last week, this is actually difficult to watch.

This guy’s in way over his head.

Where Are The Patriots Now?

Thursday, April 7th, 2011


I love this.

Republicans never met a war they didn’t like before Obama was president, and they sure as hell didn’t ask what the endgame or the exit strategy was the last two times we went to war. Six years into the Iraq war it was unpatriotic to suggest that we might want to get out. Now we’ve been in Libya for three weeks and the Republicans are already demanding the exit strategy.

Reminds me of after Obama was elected president: I told my conservative uncle that I had created a Word document that just read “why do you hate America so much?,” and that everytime he criticised the new president, I was going to open it up and cut and paste it to him.

He bristled and I reassured him that I would never hold him to the ridiculous standard that opposing the president’s policies was unpatriotic, but that every once in a while, I would remind him that Republicans did try to hold Democrats to that standard for 8 years.

Taking a Position On the Libya Engagement

Sunday, March 27th, 2011

I’ve been riveted to the events in Libya, and while I’m not convinced of Andrew Sullivan’s view that bloggers have to take a position, I certainly feel some self imposed obligation to do so.

So, while I admit that this is a tough call for me and I’m not at all sure that my position will be vindicated, I’m inclined to support the president’s actions so far.

That being said, this is a tough call in general and deserves a full analysis:

On the con side, there is the obvious: this would be the third war in the Muslim world that we are engaged in; there’s not a clear, immediate, vital national interest in Libya; we know very little about the rebel forces, and there’s a good argument to be made that, in a time of fiscal crisis, we probably shouldn’t be spending money on more foreign entanglements. But there is such a thing as moral credibility and and it makes sense for us to not let Qaddafi set the precedent that overwhelming force is the best way to put down the “Arab spring” movements. Given that we were slow to respond in Egypt and we’re giving the Saudi and Bahraini monarchies a pass for geopolitical reasons, we would certainly have lost all credibility with the nascent democracy movements in the region (not to mention the rest of the world) if we were to stand by while Qaddafi’s troops overwhelmed Benghazi and meted out a very public revenge on the rebels.

The French and the British were clearly out front on this intervention, and given that, I think the Obama’s Administration’s approach was pretty solid. They made it clear that (a) they wouldn’t act without a request from either the Arab League or the African Union (b) they wanted to get UN approval for their action (c) Arab or African forces would have to be involved the operations, and (d) the U.S. would not take the lead throughout the campaign. The last condition was particularly interesting, given that we have almost always have taken the lead in Western interventions for the past 60 years. In effect, Obama said to the French and British: if you want to do this, we will take the lead in the first few weeks, but then you guys are taking over.

When I initially heard all of these conditions, I thought that they were just roadblocks that the Administration put up in order to kill the idea of intervention. But surprisingly, all of these conditions were met. In an unprecedented step, the Arab League requested Western intervention in the Middle East; China and Russia agreed not to veto a relatively broad resolution authorizing the use of force “to protect civilians”; Qatar and the United Arab Emirates agreed to contribute a token number of fighters to enforce the no-fly zone, and the French and British agreed to take the lead on enforcement after an initial bombardment by US forces.

As President Obama said in his weekly address today:

The progress we’ve made over the past seven days demonstrates how the international community should work, with many nations, not just the United States, bearing the responsibility and cost of upholding international law.

As usual, US led military forces performed brilliantly and the initial operations have worked to level the playing field between the rebels and Qaddafi’s forces, even allowing the rebels to roll back some of Qaddafi’s gains in the past two days.  

Now with the initial air strikes out of the way, the coalition faces the tougher issues, many of which are rooted in the compromises that had to be made in order to get the international community to buy in. For instance, while everyone knows that the real objective is to force Qaddafi from power, the UN resolution only calls for the “protection of civilians.” While the air strikes have stopped Qaddafi’s military from advancing on the rebels, almost everyone agrees that this mostly untrained band of rebels will need outside help to take Tripoli, and while the UN has imposed an arms embargo on Libya, it’s clear that the rebels will need additional armaments and training in order to prevail against Qaddafi. In addition, the French have said that ”The destruction of Qaddafi’s military capacity is a matter of days or weeks, certainly not months”–but without a capitulation by Qaddafi or mass defection of his forces (not out of the question, but dangerous to base a war plan on)–they’re fooling themselves if they think that the rebels can capture Tripoli in a number of weeks.

Ideally, we should rely on our allies to arm and equip the rebels. While there was some initial debate about whether this would violate the UN arms embargo on Libya, there have been recent reports that coalition members are actively pursuing this option.  The French have some experience operating in Qaddafi’s Libya and the Egyptians are already reported to be supplying the rebels with small arms. At the same time, coalition air power can provide a safe haven in rebel controlled territory for the training of troops (either by allied special forces, or by mercenaries) so that the rebels will eventually be able to march to Tripoli and take on Qaddafi’s forces. Clearly this violates the spirit of the UN resolution, but it is hard to believe that anyone thought that the endgame the coalition would be pursuing in Libya would be anything but regime change.

To be clear, this course is fraught with peril and plenty of things could go wrong along the way: evening the playing field could lead to a prolonged standoff between Qaddafi and rebels. A rebel victory could produce a weak central government, setting off a civil war. In the event of either outcome, Libya could become a breeding ground for terrorism. Alternately, a rebel government itself could easily be hijacked by Islamist forces (which are already a part of the governing council and the military). Our allies could tire of the mission, leaving the United States holding the bag, or an excessive focus on Libya could lead us to lose focus(ala Bush in 2003) on the more pressing issues throughout the Middle East (from Egypt to Yemen).

But failure to support the rebels also has its downsides. If the past few months have taught us anything, it’s that the the future of the Middle East (for better or worse) will be shaped by democracy. It may take decades to unfold, or it may happen over the next few years, but if we don’t support it where we can, we significantly increase the chances that whatever type of democracy emerges will view the United States not as the beacon of freedom that we see ourselves for, but as the imperialist power that chose political stability over democratic values when the fate of their countries hung in the balance.

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.

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.

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.