Posts Tagged ‘The Middle East’

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. 

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.