One of the nice things about being the world's only superpower is that United States gets to do certain things that it would object to if anybody tried to do them to us. A nice illustration of that tendency is the flap over the Egyptian government's recent decision to prevent employees of several global non-profits (including the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, and Germany's Konrad Adenauer Stiftuing) from leaving the country, amid a broader inquiry into their activities.
In the case of the NRI and IDI, these two groups are non-profit 501(c)3 organizations whose stated goal is to encourage democracy in other countries. They are supposedly "non-partisan"(even though one is labeled "Republican" and the other "Democratic"), and they get the bulk of their funding from the U.S. government (i.e., the State Department, AID, the National Endowment for Democracy, etc.).
IRI and NDI do a lot of fairly innocuous stuff, like teaching people in other countries the nuts and bolts of party organization, campaigning, election best practices, and the like. I don't have a big problem with that, and I agree with Tom Friedman and Mohamed El Dashan that the Egyptian decision to detain these employees is a dangerous bit of diplomatic brinksmanship. Moreover, some of the accusations lodged against these organizations are ridiculous, most notably the claim that they were advancing Zionist or "Jewish" interests. Statements by the Egyptian minister of planning Fayaz Abul Naga, the driving force behind the campaign, have been especially offensive and ill-informed, and tell you that bizarre conspiracy theories remain far too common in that part of the world.
But before we let our outrage overwhelm our judgment, we ought to ask ourselves how these organizations and their activities might look to officials and even some average citizens of other countries. We think that encouraging democracy is an innocuous or even wholly beneficial activity, because we are convinced it is the best form of government and that all societies will be better off if they adopt democratic systems. And maybe we're right. But if efforts to promote democracy destabilize an existing government, leading to political chaos and economic hardship, then you can understand why local authorities and some members of the population might look on this process rather differently.
This problem really shouldn't be all that hard for us to understand. During the Cold War, we thought Soviet support for communist parties in other countries was a dangerous form of subversion that showed just how aggressive those nasty Marxist-Leninists were. Heck, we even went through "Red Scares" in the 1920s and 1950s, based on grossly exaggerated claims that Commies were lurking everywhere. If we can spawn a Joe McCarthy, it shouldn't be hard to understand why ill-informed Egyptian officials might believe goofy conspiracy theories about the NGOs and their supposedly dangerous agenda?
Similarly, just imagine how we would react if the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt were openly funding a non-profit organization here in the United States, whose stated purpose was to spread the social welfare principles of the Brotherhood in under-served urban communities? If something like that were happening, I'll bet Pamela Geller and her followers would have a collective aneurysm, and people like Representative Peter King (R-NY) would be holding hearings about it on Capitol Hill.
Or what if China began expanding the activities of its various Confucius Institutes beyond language training and cultural exchange, and added courses on "The Superiority of Asian Values," and "The Virtues of One-State Capitalism?" What if some of their employees started reaching out to the Occupy Movement here in the United States, to suggest practical steps that this movement could use to promote greater economic equality? My guess is that Americans might find this more than a little troubling.
Bottom line: if you think promoting democracy is both morally right and strategically desirable in any and all circumstances, then you probably support everything that IRI, NDI and Freedom House do and you're willing to accept the fact that some governments won't like it. But let's at least be honest to admit that even the most innocuous forms of "democracy promotion" are intended to foster slow-motion regime change, and we shouldn't be especially surprised when other governments object.
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The Libyan revolution celebrated its first anniversary last week, and though there were a few news stories and blog posts about it, the milestone didn't attract as much attention as one might have expected. Instead, the focus of debate has moved on to the grim tragedy unfolding in Syria, and the perpetual sabre-rattling over Iran, not to mention vital issues such as whether 1) Santorum or Romney will win Michigan, 2) Jeremy Lin is a fluke or a phenom, and 3) Bobby Brown was treated badly by the security team at ex-wife Whitney Houston's funeral.
Meanwhile, what about Libya? There's no question that efforts to build a stable, legitimate, and effective post-Qaddafi government haven't gone all that well, belying the confident proclamations that rebel leaders made during the fighting itself. The National Transitional Council is increasingly seen as weak and ineffective, dozens of armed militias continue to hold sway throughout the country, and radical Islamists are openly contending for power. Amnesty International reports that human rights abuses are widespread, including acts of torture, extra-judicial executions, and acts of retribution against ethnic minorities. Thousands of man-portable surface-to-air missiles remain unaccounted for, and some of the weapons may be helping fuel conflicts in neighboring countries and maybe even getting into the hands of terrorists.
Does this mean the effort to topple Qaddafi was a mistake? Those of us who were skeptical about the wisdom of the operation might be tempted to declare our view vindicated, but to do so would be just as foolhardy as George W. Bush's premature "Mission Accomplished" moment in Iraq. Fixing a country as screwed up as Libya was is going to take time, and I still believe we won't really know the answer for another year or two at least.
What is more troubling to me is the short attention span we seem to have about these events. The foreign policy community is like a kid with ADD: A crisis erupts, and there's a sudden flurry of interest and activity. Advisors huddle and plan, spokespersons proclaim, diplomats confer, pundits opine, and yes, bloggers like me type our hearts out for awhile. And then the moment passes (often as soon as the former ruler does), and attention moves on to the next set of headlines. A year ago, Libya; today, Syria, tomorrow, who?
And in the meantime, Libyans are more-or-less left to their fate. Yes, there is a UN mission there, and yes, the United States has pledged a modest amount of aid. In particular, we are funding a program to buy up the remnants of Qaddafi's arsenal of weapons, which tells you that we care more about that issue than we do about the condition of the Libyan people. As you can read about in this very useful Congressional Research Service study, a few Congressmen have inserted various Libya-oriented programs into various authorization bills, which suggests that a few people in Washington are still engaged by the issue. But overall, one doesn't get the sense that Libya is taking up much bandwidth in the foreign policy establishment anymore.
Mind you, I'm not saying that the United States should be offering Libya a new Marshall Plan, or trying to conduct an ambitious "state-building" operation there. We've tried that in some other places and our track record isn't encouraging. But I worry that while we may have lost our appetite for state-building, we haven't lost our appetite for state-destroying (otherwise known as regime change). Call it a policy of "drive-by interventionism": We'll help take out this month's bad guy (and let's be clear, the leaders we've gone after lately have been pretty despicable), but then we'll leave it to others to sort out the bodies and rebuild the institutions. If they do. And if things go south later, well, by then we'll have moved on.
In some ways, this is the central tension in America's current global posture. Despite some largely rhetorical efforts to emphasize diplomacy, development, and other forms of "civilian power," our approach to contemporary security problems continues to privilege the sharp end of the stick. Outside powers cannot build functioning states on the ashes of the old without committing massive resources to the task -- and it may not work even if you do -- and the United States and its allies have neither the resources nor the motivation to do that anymore. Instead, we send drones and planes and Special Forces to topple governments who have fallen from favor. These policy instruments are cheap and sometimes effective, but they are of little or no value when it's time to rebuild.
Again: it's too soon to say whether the Libyan adventure will turn out well or not. But thus far, it is a cautionary tale for those who are now eager to do something similar in Syria. I share the widespread desire to see Assad give up power and accede to the demands for reform, but we have no way of knowing whether aid to the rebels will hasten that shared goal or simply ignite an even more punishing civil war. In other words, be careful what you wish for: There's hardly any situation that is so bad that it couldn't get worse.
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Did last year's triumph in Libya help stymie efforts to forge an international consensus on Syria?
Some of you will have already seen FP colleagues Marc and Colum Lynch's excellent posts bemoaning the U.N. Security Council's inability to pass a resolution addressing the continuing violence on Syria. The proximate cause was a joint Russian and Chinese veto of the proposed resolution, ostensibly on the grounds that it was one-sided.
I think Marc is right to say that this lapse weakens the authority and legitimacy of the Security Council (SC). I place less weight on the SC than some commentators do, but even I don't think a weak and discredited SC is a good thing. I also agree that this development increases the danger of a prolonged conflict in Syria, and maybe even an internationalized civil war there.
There are a number of reasons why the U.N. effort has failed thus far, but part of the blame lies with the liberal interventionists who abused the Security Council's mandate during last year's intervention in Libya.
You'll recall that UN Security Council Resolution 1973 authorized military action in Libya to protect civilians. The resolution was directly inspired by the fear that Qaddafi loyalists laying siege to the rebel town of Benghazi were about to conduct some sort of massacre there. In response, Res. 1973 authorized member states "take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory." France, the United States and other foreign powers quickly went beyond this mandate, using airpower and other forms of assistance to help the rebels defeat Muammar Qaddafi's forces and oust him from power.
One can argue that this was the right course of action anyway, because getting rid of a thug like Qaddafi was worth it. That's a debate for another day, although I would note in passing that post-Qaddafi Libya remains deeply troubled and the collapse of the regime seems to be fueling conflicts elsewhere. But what if the Libyan precedent is one of the reasons why Russia and China aren't playing ball today? They supported Resolution 1973 back in 2011, and then watched NATO and a few others make a mockery of multilateralism in the quest to topple Qaddafi. The Syrian tragedy is pay-back time, and neither Beijing nor Moscow want to be party to another effort at Western-sponsored "regime change." It is hardly surprising that Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin condemned the failed resolution on precisely these grounds. In short, our high-handed manipulation of the SC process in the case of Libya may have made it harder to gain a consensus on Syria, which is arguably a far more important and dangerous situation.
Don't get me wrong: I shed no tears for Qaddafi or his family and I'd be delighted to see Bashar al-Assad gone in Syria. The Libya precedent is not the only reason why China and Russia dug in their heels, and I think their decision to veto the resolution could be costly for them. But it is both ironic and tragic that some of the most enthusiastic defenders of multilateralism and international law seem all too willing to ignore them when they get in the way of other things they want to do, however laudable the latter goal might be. But a commitment to multilateralism and international law is not something you can invoke when it suits you and ignore when it doesn't, at least not without paying a price. Powerful states like the United States can (and do) act with impunity on occasion, but they shouldn't be surprised when such behavior backfires later on.
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Having written a fair bit about the pros and cons (mostly the latter) of a war with Iran, I feel compelled to offer a brief comment on Ronan Bergman's alarmist article in yesterday's New York Times Magazine. I say this even though I think the article was essentially worthless. It's a vivid and readable piece of reportage, but it doesn't provide readers with new or interesting information and it tells you almost nothing about the likelihood of an Israeli strike on Iran.
First off, the article is essentially a reprise of Jeffrey Goldberg's September 2010 Atlantic Monthly article on the same subject. The research method is identical: a reporter interviews a lot of big-shots in the Israeli security establishment, writes down what they say, and concludes that that Israel is very likely to attack. Bergman doesn't present new evidence or arguments, pro or con; it's just an updated version of the same old story.
Second, the central flaw in this approach is that there is no way of knowing if the testimony of these various officials reflects their true beliefs or not. There are lots of obvious reasons why Israeli officials might want to exaggerate their willingness to use force against Iran, and this simple fact makes it unwise to take their testimony at face value. Maybe they really mean what they say. Or maybe they just want to keep Tehran off-balance Maybe they want to distract everyone from their continued expansion of West Bank settlements and other brutalities against Palestinians. Maybe they want to encourage Europe to support tougher economic sanctions against Iran, and they know that occasional saber-rattling helps makes sanctions look like an attractive alternative. Maybe it's several of these things at once, depending on who's talking. Who knows?
By the way, I'm not accusing the officials that Bergman interviewed of doing anything wrong. I don't expect top officials of any country to tell the truth all the time, and I'm neither surprised nor upset when foreign officials try to manipulate fears of war in order to advance what they see as their interests. My point is that it is impossible to tell if they mean what they are saying or not, which is why an article based on interviews of this kind just isn't very informative. They might be telling the truth, or they might be lying, and nobody knows for sure.
Lastly, as Gary Sick notes in an excellent post of his own, the Bergman piece ignores the considerable evidence suggesting that Iran is not in fact trying to build a nuclear weapon. Equally important are Sick's reminder that the IAEA still has lots of inspectors keeping a watchful eye on Iran's nuclear activities, and his observation that Israel cannot attack Iran without warning, because doing so would almost certainly kill a bunch of IAEA inspectors.
His conclusion (and mine): until Iran expels the inspectors or Israel warns them that it is time to leave, there isn't going to be a war. And if that is the case, then Bergman's scary essay is just another example of empty alarmism.
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One of the nice things about writing for Foreign Policy is the energy and creativity of its leadership, as exemplified by their relentless quest for new publishing innovations. Just yesterday, for example, FP launched a new fiction section, clearly intended to highlight writing on international affairs that doesn't have much basis in reality.
I refer, of course, to Elliott Abrams' brief essay entitled "A Forward Strategy of Freedom," where he argues that neoconservative ideas and policies are responsible for the "Arab Spring." It's been apparent for a long time that being a neoconservative means never having to say you're sorry (or even admit that you're wrong), but this essay displayed a degree of historical amnesia unusual even by neoconservative standards. It's not really worth a sustained critique, so I'll just make a few quick points.
First, there's no evidence that the Bush administration's "forward strategy for freedom" had anything to do with the Tunisian's fruit seller Mohammed Bouazizi's tragic decision to set himself afire, an act of protest that started the wave of upheavals that has convulsed much of the Arab world ever since. Or is Abrams' suggesting that Bush's 2nd inaugural inspired Bouazizi? More tellingly, neither the liberal forces that drove much of the uprisings against the Mubarak regime nor the Islamic forces that have profited most from Mubarak's departure give credit to Bush & co. for inspiring their efforts. And it's not hard to see why: both the Muslim Brotherhood and the more fundamentalist Egyptian Salafis have been anathema for the neocons from the get-go.
Second, the entire neoconservative strategy for spreading democracy depended heavily on U.S. military power, and it focused almost entirely on countries like Iraq, Syria, and Iran. The Bush administration in which Abrams served continued to coddle Mubarak, the Saudis, and America's other authoritarian allies, for the same reasons that previous administrations did. The Arab spring emerged elsewhere, however, and had little to do with the deployment of American military power. Obama's Cairo speech is a far more plausible candidate in this regard (though I'd have my doubts about its impact too), but strangely, Abrams doesn't mention it.
Meanwhile, in the one place where the neocon strategy was fully implemented -- Iraq -- it was a colossal failure. The United States spent trillions of dollars and thousands of its soldiers' lives, and the end result is a deeply divided society and a dysfunctional political system that is drifting steadily back towards authoritarian rule and is at least partly aligned with Iran. So what were the neocons right about?
Third, the neoconservative hypocrisy about democracy was exposed in 2006, when the United States refused to accept Hamas' victory in the Palestinian legislative elections. You don't have to like Hamas or its charter to concede that they won the election fair and square, but that didn't stop the Bush administration from ignoring the outcome completely. In fact, Abrams subsequently tried to foment a Fatah coup against Hamas in Gaza, only to have his putative allies routed and discredited. Another neocon blunder, in short. And isn't it a bit odd that this deeply committed apostle of democracy has no problem with Israel continuing to violate the human rights of the millions of Palestinians it controls via its illegal occupation of the West Bank and its continued restrictions on movement in Gaza? Why isn't he pressing Israel to either give these people the right to vote, or to let them have a viable state of their own so that they can vote there? Some neoconservatives (e.g., Paul Wolfowitz) have been sympathetic to such aspirations, but as far as I know Abrams is not one of them.
Finally, let's not lose sight of all the other things that neoconservatives got wrong. They were wrong about Saddam's WMD. They were wrong about his alleged links to Al Qaeda. They were wrong that the occupation of Iraq would pay for itself. They were wrong that it would be easy to create democracy there once Saddam was gone. And given America's toxic image in much of the Arab world, they were wrong to believe that fostering democracy in the Arab world would create legitimate and pro-American regimes.
Weighed in the balance, therefore, the neocons got far more wrong than right, and it would be refreshing if they'd just man up and admit it.
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I've detected a growing tendency to issue obituaries for the "Arab spring." This impulse is understandable given the relentless turmoil in Yemen, the brutal repression that continues in Syria, the simmering tensions in Libya and Bahrain, and the recent resurgence of sometimes violent protest against the military regime in Egypt. Not surprisingly, early hopes that the Arab world was at the dawn of a new era have been dashed-or at least diminished. And that's why pundits like Tom Friedman are now crossing their fingers and hoping for the reincarnation of Nelson Mandela in each of these states.
But if the history of revolutions tells us anything, it is that rebuilding new political orders is a protracted, difficult, and unpredictable process, and having a few Mandelas around is no guarantee of success. Why? Because once the existing political order has collapsed, the stakes for key groups in society rise dramatically. The creation of new institutions -- in effect, the development of new rules for ordering political life -- inevitably creates new winners and losers. And everyone knows this. Not only does this situation encourage more and more groups to join the process of political struggle, but awareness that high stakes are involved also gives them incentives to use more extreme means, including violence.
Under these conditions, it is a pipedream to think that key actors in a complex and troubled society like Egypt or Libya (or in the future, Syria) could quickly agree on new political institutions and infuse them with legitimacy. Even if interim rulers write a quick constitution, hold a referendum, or elect new representatives, those whose interests are undermined by the outcomes are bound to question the new rules and the process and to do what they can to undermine or amend them. What one should expect, therefore, are half-measures, false starts, prolonged uncertainty, and highly contingent events, where seemingly random events (a riot, an accident, an episode of overt foreign interference, an unexpected flurry of violence, etc.) can alter the course of events in far-reaching ways. Tunisia notwithstanding, what you are unlikely to get is a quick and easy consensus on new institutions.
Remember the French Revolution? The storming of the Bastille took place in July 1789, the nobility was abolished by the National Assembly the following year, and Louis XVI tried unsuccessfully to flee in 1791 before being forced to accept a new constitution. Internal turmoil and foreign interference eventually lead to war in 1792, Louis and Marie Antoinette were executed in 1793, and Paris was soon engulfed by the Jacobin terror, which eventually burns itself out. A new constitution is adopted in 1795, establishing a government known as the "Directory," which is eventually overthrown by Napoleon's coup d'etat on 18 Brumaire, 1799. By the time Napoleon seized power, it had been more than ten years since the initial revolutionary upheaval.
To judge by that timetable, the "Arab spring" has a long way to go. And other cases offer a similar lesson. The Russian revolution starts with the fall of the Tsarist regime in March 1917 and the formation of Kerensky's provisional government, which is subsequently overthrown by the Bolshevik coup a few months later. But the Bolsheviks' hold on power isn't fully established until their victory in the Russian Civil War, which isn't fully won until 1923. The Soviet political order endured recurrent power struggles over the next decade, until Joseph Stalin vanquished his various opponents and established a personal dictatorship.
Or take a more recent case, Iran. The revolution begins in 1978, with a steadily escalating series of street demonstrations. The shah flees into exile in January 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini returns in February and appoints Mehdan Bazegar as Prime Minister of an interim government. A new constitution is drafted by October, but there is a continuing struggle for power between liberal, Islamist, and other groups.
The first president of the new "Islamic Republic," Abdolhassan Bani-Sadr, is impeached in 1981, and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war strengthens hardliners and provides an opportunity for a crackdown against some prominent members of the original revolutionary movement. The Islamic republic remains a work-in-progress to this day, with the role of the "Supreme Jurisprudent," the Revolutionary Guards, the clergy, the presidency, and the Majlis remaining in flux.
Even the comparatively benign American Revolution was hardly a done-deal when the peace treaty with England was signed in 1783. Independence from England had required the colonists to fight a lengthy war of independence, and the fledgling republic then faced several armed rebellions, most notably Shays' Rebellion in 1786. These challenges revealed the inadequacies of the original Articles of Confederation (1777-1786) leading to the drafting and adoption of what is now the U.S. Constitution.
In short, anybody who thought that the events that swept through the Arab world in 2011 were going to produce stable and orderly outcomes quickly was living in a dream world. To say this is not to oppose what has happened, or to believe that the old orders could or should have continued. Rather, it is to recognize that radical reform -- even revolution -- is a long, difficult, and uncertain process, and that the ride is likely to be a bumpy one for years to come.
History also warns that outside powers have at best limited influence over the outcomes of a genuine revolutionary process. Even well-intentioned efforts to aid progressive forces can backfire, as can overt efforts to thwart them. Overall, a policy of "benevolent neglect" may be the more prudent course, making it clear that outsiders are prepared to let each country's citizens choose their own order, provided that important foreign policy redlines are not crossed. But for a country like the United States, which still sees itself as a model for others and tends to think that it has the right and the wisdom to tell them what to do, patience and restraint can be hard to sustain. And patience is what is needed most these days.
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The New York Times reports that the United States is planning to beef up its security ties in the Gulf, in the aftermath of the withdrawal from Iraq. On the one hand, this makes sense given global dependence on stable oil exports from the Gulf region and the damage that the war in Iraq has done to the strategic balance there. On the other hand, a large ground or air force presence in the region is precisely the sort of thing that invites accusations of Western "imperialism," and puts the United States in a close embrace with regimes like the al-Khalifa family in Bahrain. One could argue that this is one of those places where strategic necessity requires us to compromise the idealistic commitment to democracy, human rights, and other desirable things like that.
There is little question that the idiotic decision to invade Iraq in 2003 weakened our strategic position and bolstered Iran's. As the Times story makes clear, some hardliners now complain that Obama's decision to cut our (considerable) losses in Iraq will undermine U.S. interests even more. That's what I'd expect them to say, but there are good reasons to question that judgment (and not just because these same hardliners have been wrong so often in the past). In fact, withdrawal from Iraq could actually bolster our strategic position in other ways, mostly by encouraging greater frictions between Iraq and Iran.
Ever since 2003, the U.S. presence in Iraq has reinforced cooperation between Iran and some significant portions of Iraq's Shiite community, and especially those elements (such as Muktada al Sadr's Mahdi Army) who really wanted the United States to get out. But once we withdraw, then it is far from obvious that the bulk of Iraqis -- including most Iraqi leaders -- will want to become a satrap for Iran. It's true that the Sunni-Shiite divide provides Iran with some avenues of influence in Iraq society, but there's also the enduring division between Arabs and Persians and Iraq's overriding interest in not allowing Iran to become a hegemonic power in the Gulf region. Let's not forget that the two countries fought a brutal and costly war for most of the 1980s, and plenty of Iraqi and Iranian Shiites killed each other during that conflict.
The Indochina war offers an obvious historical analogy. One of the reasons the United States fought there for so long was the familiar domino theory -- the dubious idea that a communist victory in Vietnam would trigger a cascade of falling dominos and undermine the entire US position in Asia (and possibly elsewhere). But when the United States finally got out, the exact opposite thing happened: none of our other Asian allies abandoned us and China and Vietnam had a rapid falling-out that led to war between the two communist states in 1979. And over time, of course, China abandoned Maoism and Vietnam grew more and more interested in better relations with America. And let's not forget that fourteen years after Saigon fell, it was the Soviet Union that ended up on the ash-heap of history. Once we stopped pouring troops and bombs into Indochina, in short, our strategic position began to improve and we could focus on the more serious aspects of Cold War competition.
In short, if you really think Iran is a threat to dominate the Gulf region, and if you also believe that states tend to balance against threatening powers instead of band-wagoning with them, then you should also expect the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq to encourage more regional powers--including Iraq--to take actions to limit Iranian power and influence. And that might also include being a bit more favorably inclined toward the United States, despite all the other things we do that tick off people in that part of the world. That could be why we're getting a positive response to these new initiatives, and that's why getting out of Iraq may actually bolster our overall strategic position.
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Yesterday was a crazy day here in Cambridge, and so I'm late with my reaction to the death of Muammar al-Qaddafi. Here's my initial take, for what it may be worth.
I don't think the death of any human being is something to celebrate, but there is no reason to mourn the man and we can take a certain grim satisfaction in his demise. Although one could point to a few achievements during his forty years as Libya's leader, such as improved literacy, the more important fact is that he was brutal and megalomaniacal dictator who killed his opponents, supported various forms of terrorism, stole much of Libya's wealth for himself and his cronies, and squandered innumerable opportunities to improve the lives of ordinary Libyans. Tin pot tyrants like him deserve no sympathy, and I feel none.
Moreover, Qaddafi's death probably reinforces some other positive aspects of the whole Libyan intervention. For starters, the campaign did not turn into a stalemate or a quagmire, as many of us feared and as seemed likely to occur at several moments during the war (and yes, it was a war). The Obama administration can also be congratulated for having shifted most of the burdens onto states whose interests were more directly at stake, and at having handled the necessary diplomacy fairly well (with one major caveat to be noted below).
The decision to intervene may have reinforced perceptions that the United States was in favor of democratic change in the Middle East, and kept some of the momentum of the "Arab Spring" alive. (According to Michael Hastings, that concern was a big part of Obama's rationale for going to war). It is also possible that the Colonel's fate will have a salutary effect on some other dictators (are you listening, Bashar?), and lead some of them to look for an early and safe exit instead of trying to hang on until the last bullet. Qaddafi's demise also eliminates any possibility of a restoration and spares the country the distraction of a prolonged trial and possible execution, thereby making it easier for Libyans to focus on the difficult task of constructing a workable political order.
So it would be foolish not to see a certain amount of good news in this outcome. But any sense of achievement should be tempered by several other considerations.
First, I still worry about the other lessons that other leaders may draw from Qaddafi's fate. He agreed to give up all his WMD programs in 2003, in exchange for a U.S. pledge not to overthrow him. And he got a lot of favorable attention from the United States after that--including a friendly visit from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice -- in part because he was openly hostile to Al Qaeda. Yet eight years later, that pledge was tossed aside and we intervened to help topple him from power. We should therefore expect the leaders of Iran and North Korea (and maybe some other countries) to draw the obvious conclusion: weapons of mass destruction are an effective means of deterring great powers from trying to overthrow you, and don't ever, ever believe Washington when it promises to leave you alone if you disarm.
Second, helping overthrow Qaddafi may have signaled U.S. support for the "Arab spring," but our response to upheavals in Bahrain and elsewhere shows that our policy is far from consistent. On the plus side, we did not allow at least one dictator to crush the opposition, and we can therefore claim to have taken action consistent with our values. But we are also guilty of obvious hypocrisy-both because we had previously embraced the supposedly reformed Qaddafi and because we have turned a blind eye when authoritarians on which we are more dependent cracked down on their populations. We can be sure that critics will remind us about our double-standards -- repeatedly. And any kudos we may have won in the Arab world are more than counteracted by our shameful policy on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
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The rebel victory in Libya is likely to gladden the hearts of liberal interventionists, who will see the NATO-aided triumph as vindicating the idea that great powers have the right and the responsibility to come to the aid of victims of tyrannical oppression. Add to that the general enthusiasm-which I share-for the broad effort to create more open and democratic orders in the Middle East, and it seems likely that the Wilsonian project that the U.S. foreign policy establishment has long embraced will get a shot in the arm. The debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan will be discounted, and the "Libyan model" (whatever that is) will become the latest strategic fad du jour.
If you'd like to read a good corrective to this sort of cheer-leading, I recommend Robert Kaplan's oped this morning's Financial Times, entitled ""Libya, Obama, and the Triumph of Realism." Kaplan is a self-acknowledged realist, and he offers a good defense of broadly realist approach to the tumultuous events in the Arab world and Asia. He reminds us that a realist strategy in these regions paid major dividends for many years, and argues that a balanced, prudent, and cautious policy is more likely to preserve key interests than the idealistic crusades favored by neoconservatives and Wilsonian liberals alike.
As you might expect, I think Kaplan is basically right. As I've noted before, we still don't know how the "Libyan revolution" is going to turn out. Even if Qaddafi set a very low standard for effective or just governance, the end-result of his ouster may not be as gratifying as we hope. More importantly, we also ought to guard against the common tendency to draw big policy conclusions from a single case, especially when we don't have good theories to help us understand the differences between different outcomes.
Looking forward, the policy-relevant question is whether it is a good idea for powerful outside powers to use military force to cause regime change in weak states whose leaders are misbehaving in some way. This phenomenon has become known as "foreign-imposed regime change" (FIRC). To answer that question, the first thing one ought to ask is what the general baseline patterns are: how often do FIRCs succeed, based on various measures of success? If Libya turns out well but the vast majority of FIRCs were failures, for example, then a prudent policymaker would be wary of trying to repeat the Libyan operation elsewhere. (The logic is the same in reverse, of course, our failures in Iraq do not mean that all preventive wars are wrong, even if that one obviously was).
The second step would be to identify the conditions associated with success or failure, and the causal mechanisms leading to one outcome or another. (Thus, far, the academic literatures suggests that FIRCs are more likely to fail when there are deep ethnic or religious cleavages in the target society, and when it is relatively poor). Even if FIRCs usually failed, for example, there might be certain circumstances when success was much more likely and where attempting regime change would therefore be more attractive. Because this is social science and not deterministic, knowing that conditions are favorable is no guarantee of success. But surely a smart policymaker would want to know both the general tendency and whether the case at hand might be an outlier.
The third step-which should be informed by the first two-would be to ask if there were specific policy steps that could be taken to increase the probability of success. And the smart follow-up question is to ask whether one's opponents have readily available strategies that they could employ to thwart our efforts). Even if FIRCs often fail, perhaps clever strategies and "policy learning" could improve the success rate over time, especially if leaders picked their spots carefully and if the other side had a limited repertoire of responses.
But notice one danger here: even when circumstances aren't propitious, advocates of intervention can fall prey to wishful thinking and convince themselves that they have figured out how to do these things properly, thereby avoiding the disasters that have befallen others. Right now, some people are undoubtedly thinking that the right combination of special forces, drones, local allies, and multilateral support are the magic formula for success. They may be right but I wouldn't assume it blindly and I wouldn't ignore the possibility that others will start thinking about ways to make sure the U.S. and its allies can't repeat this sort of thing elsewhere. Donald Rumsfeld was pretty sure he knew how the United States could avoid costly quagmires-go in light and get out early-the only problem was that getting in turned out to be the easy part. And don't be surprised if a few countries conclude that the real lesson of the Libyan intervention was that Muammar al-Qaddafi blundered when he agreed to end his WMD programs and open up to the outside world. I'm glad he did, but I suspect that leaders in Iran and North Korea will draw their own conclusions.
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All eyes have been riveted on the endgame in Libya, and I'm as guilty as anyone in that regard. Qaddafi was hard to ignore because his behavior was often peculiar and because he caused a lot of trouble over 40 years of rule. A violent uprising in which NATO has backed one side is bound to command a lot of attention too, and it's only natural for us to spend time trying to figure out what implications, if any, this will have for the broader process of political change that is taking place in the Arab world. Add it all up, and it's hardly a surprise that events in Tripoli have dominated the headlines and taken up a lot of megabytes and pixels here at FP.
Nonetheless, I feel compelled to remind everybody that Libya is not in fact a very important country. It has a very small population (less than 6.5 million, which means that New York mayor Michael Bloomberg governs more people than Qaddafi ever did). Libya does have a lot of oil, but it's not a market-setting swing producer like Saudi Arabia or a major natural gas supplier like Russia. Libya has little industrial capacity or scientific/technological expertise, its military capabilities were always third-rate, and even its nuclear research programs never came anywhere near producing an actual weapon. And Qaddafi's incomprehensible ideology won few, if any converts, apart from those who had little choice but to pretend to embrace it.
Instead, Libya under Qaddafi was mostly significant as a sometime sponsor of terrorism and for Brother Muammar's own bizarre behavior. He was a troublemaker, to be sure, but fortunately he lacked the capability to cause as much trouble as he might have liked.
It is heartwarming to see the rebels triumph, and let's by all means hope that they defy expectations and manage to build a new and reliably democratic Libyan state. But in the larger scheme of the world this revolt is a pretty minor event. In the long term, more good would probably come from 1) getting the United States and Eurozone economies restarted (which would have lots of positive secondary effects), 2) preventing an intense security competition between the United States and China, 3) finding some way to reduce U.S.-Iranian tensions, 4) settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 5) ensuring that democracy takes firm root in Egypt, or 6) preventing more bloodbaths in South Asia (just to name a few).
I don't mean to be a killjoy here, and nothing I've just said diminishes the achievement of the courageous Libyans who have fought to regain control over their own country and their own lives. But their success won't help us make progress on a lot of other big issues in world politics, and we ought to keep that in mind too.
Today is the 21st anniversary of a key date in world history. On this date in 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, setting in motion a train of events that would have fateful consequences for Saddam himself, but also for the United States. Indeed, one could argue that this invasion was the first step in a train of events that did enormous damage to the United States and its position in the world.
Of course, we all know what happened in the first Gulf War. After a brief period of vacillation (and a vigorous public debate on different options), the first Bush administration assembled a large and diverse international coalition and quickly mobilized an impressive array of military power (most of it American). It got approval from the U.N. Security Council for the use of force. Although a number of prominent hawks predicted that the war would be long and bloody, the U.S.-led coalition routed the third-rate Iraqi forces and destroyed much of Saddam's military machine. We then imposed an intrusive sanctions regime that dismantled Iraqi's WMD programs and left it a hollow shell. Despite hard-line pressure to "go to Baghdad," Bush & Co. wisely chose not to occupy the country. They understood what Bush's son did not: Trying to occupy and reorder the politics of a deeply divided Arab country is a fool's errand.
Unfortunately, the smashing victory in the first Gulf War also set in train an unfortunate series of subsequent events. For starters, Saddam Hussein was now firmly identified as the World's Worst Human Being, even though the United States had been happy to back him during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. More importantly, the war left the United States committed to enforcing "no-fly zones" in northern and southern Iraq.
But even worse, the Clinton administration entered office in 1993 and proceeded to adopt a strategy of "dual containment." Until that moment, the United States had acted as an "offshore balancer" in the Persian Gulf, and we had carefully refrained from deploying large air or ground force units there on a permanent basis. We had backed the Shah of Iran since the 1940s, and then switched sides and tilted toward Iraq during the 1980s. Our goal was to prevent any single power from dominating this oil-rich region, and we cleverly played competing powers off against each other for several decades.
With dual containment, however, the United States had committed itself to containing two different countries -- Iran and Iraq -- who hated each other, which in turn forced us to keep lots of airplanes and troops in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. We did this, as both Kenneth Pollack and Trita Parsi have documented, because Israel wanted us to do it, and U.S. officials foolishly believed that doing so would make Israel more compliant during the Oslo peace process. But in addition to costing a lot more money, keeping U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia for the long term also fueled the rise of al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden was deeply offended by the presence of "infidel" troops on Saudi territory, and so the foolish strategy of dual containment played no small role in causing our terrorism problem. It also helped derail several attempts to improve relations between the United States and Iran. Dual containment, in short, was a colossal blunder.
But no strategy is so bad that somebody else can't make it worse. And that is precisely what George W. Bush did after 9/11. Under the influence of neoconservatives who had opposed dual containment because they thought it didn't go far enough, Bush adopted a new strategy of "regional transformation." Instead of preserving a regional balance of power, or containing Iraq and Iran simultaneously, the United States was now going to use its military power to topple regimes across the Middle East and turn those countries into pro-American democracies. This was social engineering on a scale never seen before. The American public and the Congress were unenthusiastic, if not suspicious, about this grand enterprise, which forced the Bush administration to wage a massive deception campaign to get them on board for what was supposed to be the first step in this wildly ambitious scheme. The chicanery worked, and the United States launched its unnecessary war on Iraq in March 2003.
Not only did "Mission Accomplished" soon become a costly quagmire, but wrecking Iraq -- which is what we did -- destroyed the balance of power in the Gulf and improved Iran's geopolitical position. The invasion of Iraq also diverted resources away from the war in Afghanistan, which allowed the Taliban to re-emerge as a formidable fighting force. Thus, Bush's decision to topple Saddam in 2003 led directly to two losing wars, not just one. And these wars were enormously expensive to boot. Combined with Bush's tax cuts and other fiscal irresponsibilities, this strategic incompetence caused the federal deficit to balloon to dangerous levels and helped bring about the fiscal impasse that we will be dealing with for years to come.
Obviously, none of these outcomes were inevitable back in 1990. Had cooler heads and smarter strategists been in charge after the first Gulf War, we might have taken advantage of that victory to foster a more secure and stable order throughout the Middle East. In particular, we would have pulled our military forces out of the region and gone back to offshore balancing. After all, Saddam's decision to invade Kuwait in 1990 did not force the United States to choose "dual containment." Nor did it make it inevitable that we would bungle the Oslo peace process, pay insufficient attention to al Qaeda's intentions, or drink the neocons' Kool-Aid and gallop off on their foolish misadventure in Iraq. But when future historians search for the moment when the "American Empire" reached its pinnacle and began its descent, the war that began 21 years ago would be a good place to start.
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Vacation is over, and as I took the bus to my office this morning I had a sudden thought: Whatever happened to the war in Libya? You know, the one that used to be on the front pages every day? The one that was critical to preventing a humanitarian bloodbath and to preserving the momentum of the "Arab Spring?" The one that Obama's obedient lawyers claimed didn't involve "hostilities," in a transparent effort to evade the requirements of the War Powers Resolution? Oh, right: that one.
Obviously, the war is still going on, and it sometimes rates a new story buried deep in the middle of the newspaper, but the hopes of a rapid and cheap victory were dashed a long time ago. Assuming NATO continues to back the rebels, they will probably succeed in slowly grinding the Qaddafi family/regime into the ground -- though apparently some European leaders are now saying that negotiations are the way to go, which suggests a less-than-optimal degree of unity among the coalition (h/t Juan Cole). But if Qaddafi does go, then the liberal hawks will give each other high-fives and do their best to obscure the miscalculations and longer-term consequences of this latest whimsical war.
Three thoughts. First, although the main justification for intervention was the fear of a possible "bloodbath" had Qaddafi's forces captured the rebel stronghold in Benghazi, a second rationale was the fear that permitting Qaddafi to triumph would derail the entire Arab Spring. In essence, this was a fear of "reverse contagion": If a kleptocratic dictator like Qaddafi could use force to stay in power in Libya, then other autocrats would be similarly emboldened and the progressive forces that had launched the various upheavals would lose heart. To keep the revolutionary wave moving forward, Qaddafi had to go.
This argument now seems fallacious. There was clearly an element of contagion in the original revolutionary wave, which spread from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya to Yemen to Bahrain and to Syria with remarkable speed. But like other examples of political contagion, the outcomes in each case depended on the constellation of local and external forces in each particular place and not on what was occurring in some other country. The outcome in Egypt is very different from those in Syria or Yemen, for example, and Libya and Bahrain and Morocco are carving their own paths too. In short, what happened in Libya probably had little or no effect on what is occurring elsewhere in the Arab world. To put it bluntly: If we had stayed out and Qaddafi had won outright, I suspect Assad would still be in trouble.
Second, back when NATO first got involved, a number of people made the obvious comparison to the 1999 war in Kosovo. Both wars were launched on impulse, there were no vital strategic interests involved, and both wars were fought "on the cheap" through the use of air power. NATO leaders expected the targets to succumb quickly and were surprised when their adversaries (Milosevic in 1999, Qaddafi today) hung on as long as they did.
But there's another parallel that deserves mention too. Serbia eventually surrendered, and I expect that Qaddafi or his sons will eventually do so too. But in the case of Kosovo, NATO and the U.N. had to send in a peacekeeping force, and they are still there 10 years later. And Kosovo has only about 28 percent of Libya's population and is much smaller geographically (some 10,000 square kilometers, compared with Libya's 1,800,000 sq. km.). So anybody who thinks that NATO, the United Nations, or the vaguely defined "international community" will be done whenever Qaddafi says uncle (or succumbs to a NATO airstrike) should probably lower their expectations and prepare themselves for long-term involvement in a deeply divided country.
Third, this latest little war leads me to think we need a new term. You all know the distinction between "wars of necessity" and "wars of choice." The line between the two is sometimes blurry, but we tend to think of the former as wars where vital strategic interests (and maybe national survival) are at stake, while the latter are wars where there is no immediate or urgent necessity for either strategic or humanitarian grounds, though one can imagine some strategic benefits accruing if all goes as planned. I propose a third category: "wars of whim." These are wars that powerful and wealthy countries fight for the same reasons that some powerful politicians cheat: "because they can."
It's not that the leaders who start these wars can't come up with reasons for what they are doing. Human beings are boundlessly creative, and a powerful state can always devise a rationale for using force. And proponents may even believe it. But the dictionary defines whim as a "sudden or capricious idea, a fancy." A "war of whim" is just that: a war that great powers enter without careful preparation or forethought, without a public debate on its merits or justification, and without thinking through the consequences if one's initial assumptions and hopes are not borne out. Wars of whim aren't likely to bankrupt a nation by themselves or even lead to major strategic reversals. But they are yet another distraction, at a time when world leaders ought to focusing laser-like on a very small number of Very Big Issues (like the economy).
So maybe that's the silver lining: If we're not paying much attention to Libya anymore, doesn't that tell us something about its real importance?
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Juan Cole had a nice piece over the weekend on the paltry Western offers of support for the Arab Spring. Helping the Arab economies recover and securing a moderate and democratic outcome in Egypt and Tunisia (and maybe elsewhere) is arguably one of the more significant priorities in contemporary international affairs, yet pledges of outside help have been pretty meager.
This isn't surprising, of course, because the United States is in deep fiscal trouble and some of our European allies are in even worse shape. So we're trying to get the Arab oil exporters to pony up a lot of the money, or we're making vague commitments of support that may not even be implemented.
If you want a comparison that reveals how our recent profligacy has undermined our ability to make bold moves in cases like this, consider that the European Recovery Program (aka the "Marshall Plan") cost about $13 billion in 1948 dollars, which would the equivalent of about $113 billion today. The U.S. economy was only about $270 billion back then, so Marshall Plan aid amounted to roughly 5 percent of U.S. GDP. If Washington were to pledge a similar percentage today, it would be about $700 billion. Of course, Egypt and Tunisia are just two countries, not a whole continent, but even a tenth of that amount would be some $70 billion (which is less than we spend each year fighting in Afghanistan). Yet nobody seems to be thinking in these terms. After all, what did Obama offer Egypt in his speech at the State Department? A couple of billion in loan guarantees and debt relief, and that's all. And I'm not saying he should've have pledged more, because I've no idea where he could find it or how he'd get Congress to authorize it.
Which goes a long way toward explaining why the United States and its allies aren't going to have much influence over how the Arab spring evolves.
P.S. I'll be appearing at a conference session in Washington today (Tuesday), co-sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Kennedy School's Middle East Initiative. Other speakers include Nathan Brown, Marina Ottaway, Tarek Masoud, Nicholas Burns, Marwan Muasher, and Christopher Boucek. I don't know if it will be live-streamed or not, but you can find out more about it here.
With the U.S. and NATO's thumb firmly on the scale, the balance of power in Libya seems to be shifting steadily toward the rebel forces. That's bad news for the Qaddafi family, though their lack of attractive alternatives to fighting on makes it unlikely that they will simply surrender. This outcome is also not that surprising, as the Libyan military was never a first-class fighting force and it was not going to have real trouble standing up to the rebel forces once they started getting lots of outside help. The danger, however, is that the rebel forces will not be able to consolidate control over the entire country without a lot more fighting, including the sort of nasty urban warfare that can get lots of civilians killed.
As with the invasion of Iraq, in short, the issue wasn't whether the West could eventually accomplish "regime change" if it tried. Rather, the key questions revolved around whether it was in our overall interest to do so and whether the benefits would be worth the costs. In the Iraqi case, it is obvious to anyone who isn't a diehard neocon or committed Bush loyalist that the (dubious) benefits of that invasion weren't worth the enormous price tag. There were no WMD and no links between Saddam and al Qaeda, and the war has cost over a trillion dollars (possibly a lot more). Tens of thousands of people died (including some 4500 Americans), and millions of refugees had to flee their homes. And for what? Mostly, a significant improvement in Iran's influence and strategic position.
In the Libyan case, same basic question. Hardly anyone thinks the Qaddafi family deserves to run Libya, and few if any will mourn their departure. But assuming the rebels win, will the benefits of regime change be worth the costs? Secretary of Defense Gates has reported that the war has cost the United States about $750 million thus far, which is not a huge sum by DoD standards but not exactly trivial in an era of budget stringency. More troubling is the cost to Libya itself: NATO and the US intervened to ward off an anticipated "humanitarian disaster" (which might or might not have occurred and whose magnitude is anyone's guess); what we got instead was a nasty little civil war in which thousands may already have died (and the fighting isn't over yet). So we can look forward to lively debate on the wisdom of this intervention, with advocates claiming that we prevented a larger bloodbath and skeptics arguing that there was never any risk of a genocide or even a deliberate mass killing and that our decision to intervene actually made things worse.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration is about to hit the 60 day deadline imposed by the War Powers Act, and so it is marshaling a lot of clever lawyers to find some way to keep the war going. But here's a radical suggestion: why not just go to Congress and ask for authorization? Such a step would be consistent with the U.S. Constitution, and President Obama made this very point himself before he became President. As he told the Boston Globe in 2007: "the president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation." And if the case for this war is so strong and it is so clearly in our vital interests to do it, surely the articulate advocates in the Obama Administration won't have any trouble convincing Congress to go along.
At the same time, the US and NATO had better be thinking long and hard about what they are going to do if and when Qaddafi falls. As we are now seeing in some other contexts (e.g., Egypt), revolutionary change is usually chaotic, unpredictable, and violent, and it creates opportunities for various forms of mischief. These dangers loom especially large in Libya, due in good part to the lack of effective political institutions and the likelihood that some of the people we are backing now will want to settle scores with loyalists. And that possibility means there's also a risk of the same sort of loyalist insurgency that sprang up in Iraq, possibly rooted in long-standing tribal divisions.
So if the liberal interventionists who got us into this war want to make their decisions look good in retrospect, they had better have a plan to ensure that political transition in Libya goes a lot more smoothly than it did in Iraq. And you know what that means, don't you? We'll be there for longer than you think, and at a higher cost than one might hope. But no worries; it's not as though we have any other problems to think about (or spend money on) these days.
There's some second-guessing going on in the aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden, mostly having to do with whether he actually "resisted" or whether the SEAL team that took him out did so deliberately. Although it would be better if the Obama administration's original story had been more complete from the start, I'm inclined to cut them a bit of slack on this one. To me, it's not that surprising that some details were wrong in the initial accounts, and to their credit the administration has been forthcoming about amending the basic account.
Did the Obama administration deliberately send the team in to take him out? I don't know. But I'm sure the SEALs were given very loose "rules of engagement," such that even a minimal degree of "resistance" could be met (as it was) with deadly force. At the same time, I suspect that one reason Obama decided to send a team in rather than simply bomb the compound was a desire to use discriminate force, and to minimize the danger to bystanders. Killing bin Laden during the raid is one thing; killing his wives or the children present there would have played far worse in the eyes of much of the world. Sending a team in was also a way to ensure that we could prove we had got him; leveling the compound would have given even more fodder to conspiracy theorists to argue that he had actually escaped (presumably to join Elvis and Hitler somewhere in South America).
There are two reasons to suspect that we were more interested in killing him than capturing him. The first is the obvious point that having him in custody would have been a major policy challenge. How many terror threats or hostage takings might have accompanied his trial and incarceration? In the abstract, I'd prefer to have put him on trial for his crimes, to draw the sharpest possible contrast between his lawless behavior and the principles of the rule of law that we like to proclaim. But the practical obstacles to that course would have been daunting, and I can understand why the U.S. government might have preferred just taking him out.
The second reason, of course, is that targeted assassinations have become an increasingly favorite tool of U.S. security policy. And it's not just drone attacks on suspected terrorists in Pakistan or Yemen, targeted killings by special forces are one of the key ways that we are prosecuting the war in Afghanistan. And there's certainly some reason to believe that this is how NATO is trying to resolve the civil war in Libya, though of course we will never say so openly. Given our current practice in these contexts, it would hardly be a stretch to imagine Obama sending in the SEALs not with deliberate orders to kill bin Laden, but with instructions that made his death very, very likely.
Lastly, what about the decision to dispose of his body at sea? Somebody clearly thought about this issue in advance, and this step was supposedly done because 1) there was no country that would want to accept his remains, 2) the United States had no interest in keeping them ourselves, and 3) U.S. officials were worried that a gravesite might become some sort of inspirational shrine for like-minded extremists.
I get all that, but I'm not totally convinced. For one thing, some Muslims are likely to see the burial at sea as disrespectful or callous, and Muslim religious experts seem to be divided on this issue. Second, while it's possible that his body/grave might have emerged as some sort of shrine, that's hardly a certainty. Mussolini's place in the family crypt isn't a big pilgrimage site for proto-fascists, and the site of the bunker where Hitler died hasn't become a big rallying place for neo-Nazis. Revolutionary states like the Soviet Union, Iran, and Vietnam have built enormous shrines to their founding leaders, but do these pretentious attempts at immortality really inspire many followers? And needless to say, no government or charitable foundation was going to pour any money into a shrine for bin Laden. If his body had ended up buried in some remote corner of Saudi Arabia, I rather doubt it would attract a lot of visitors. And even if it did, as Yglesias points out, it would be a nice way to get their pictures on file.
It seems somewhat superfluous of me to join the feeding frenzy of commentary on the killing of Osama bin Laden, but it is also an event that I can't quite ignore. I caught the announcement late last night, along with some rather breathless initial commentary. Here are a few initial reactions.
For starters, I think it's important to keep his killing in perspective. By all accounts bin Laden was no longer playing an operational role for al Qaeda, and his main value to the movement he founded was largely symbolic. It was the fact that he was still at large and still defiant that made him significant, and his death takes that symbolic value away. He may serve as an inspirational martyr for a few people, but I doubt that lots of new recruits will rally to al Qaeda's banner merely to avenge his death.
In fact, one could argue that the movement he founded has already failed. He hoped to inspire a broad fundamentalist revolution that would topple existing Arab governments and usher in a unified Islamic caliphate, but that goal has failed to resonate among Arab and Muslim populations and his own popularity has declined steadily since 9/11. Instead, the upheavals that have swept the Arab world in 2011 have drawn their inspiration not from bin Laden but from more universal ideals of democracy, human rights, and open discourse. And the more that these movements succeed, the more discredited his entire approach to politics will be.
Which is not to say that bin Laden was a complete failure. One of his main goals was to lure the United States into costly and protracted wars in the Muslim world, and with our help, he succeeded. Had 9/11 never occurred, the United States would not have squandered trillions of dollars and thousands of lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, and possibly accelerated the end of the "unipolar moment." But this "achievement" was not solely his doing. Had the Bush administration been smarter, and focused on counter-terrorism rather than a misguided campaign of "regional transformation," we might have found him sooner and at less financial, human, and reputational cost.
Going forward, focusing too much attention on bin Laden threatens to distract us from the broader social and political challenges that the United States still faces in the Arab and Islamic world. Bin Laden is gone, but anger at various aspects of U.S. policy continues to drive anti-Americanism and makes it more difficult to protect our core interests in that part of the world. Al Qaeda isn't the real reason we having a hard time in Afghanistan, and it has nothing to do with our difficulties with Iran. Indeed, even it it were disappear entirely, we'd still face plenty of other foreign policy challenges in the Middle East (and elsewhere).
Furthermore, there's a tendency for both presidents and the media to exaggerate the long-term significance of events like this. Whenever we are successful, we assume our credibility will soar, our opponents will be disheartened and confused, and our allies will once again be impressed by our prowess and inclined to do our bidding. Maybe so, but the effect usually wears off quickly. In the long run, what really matters is not our ability to catch a single bad guy after ten years of trying, but rather the long-term health of the U.S. economy and our ability to devise foreign and defense policies that other powerful states will welcome and/or respect.
Perhaps the best thing to hope for, therefore, is that Obama will use this event as an opportunity to "declare victory and get out." Not that he will do this overtly, but the United States can now claim -- as Obama did last night -- that the primary perpetrator of 9/11 has been "brought to justice," and that our long campaign in Central Asia has finally achieved its primary goal. (That's not quite true, of course, but politics often involves a bit of sophistry and rhetorical sleight-of-hand). So if Obama can exploit this triumph to justify an accelerated disengagement, he'll reap the maximum benefits from this otherwise modest victory.
But don't count on it. For one thing, we've spent that past ten years creating a pretty massive set of organizations designed to prosecute the "war on terror," and government bureaucracies (like other organizations) tend not to put themselves out of business without a fight. It will take a sustained political effort (and continued fiscal pressure) to unwind the post-9/11 version of the national security state, which means we'll be standing in TSA lines, conducting drone attacks, and having our emails and phone calls scanned for a long time to come. And I suppose bin Laden would take posthumous credit for that too.
Lastly, although President Obama and his team are undoubtedly (and deservedly) gratified by this achievement, I wouldn't rest on these laurels if I were them. President George H. W. Bush won a smashing victory in the 1991 Gulf War, and then he was turned out of office by a disgruntled electorate eighteen months later. Americans will be exchanging high-fives for a few days and Obama will no doubt get a bump in the polls, but memories are short and other issues (e.g., employment) are likely to loom much larger come 2012. As the winner of the 1992 election, Bill Clinton, might have put it: "It's the economy, stupid."
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
In an obvious example of "mission creep," France, Britain, and now Italy have decided to send military advisors to support the rebel army in Libya. While resolutely declaring the no ground troops will be sent, these NATO powers (and the United States), continue to move beyond the original limited purpose of the intervention and are openly seeking to unseat the Qadhafi regime completely.
This situation is a textbook illustration of what one might call the Intervention Paradox. Because there are no vital strategic interests at stake in the Libyan situation, outside leaders are reluctant to do whatever it takes to resolve the situation quickly. You don't hear Obama, Sarkozy, or Cameron declaring that they are going to call up reserves, redeploy forces from other commitments, or launch a direct invasion of Libya itself. They know that that mission isn't worth it, and that their own populations would quickly question the wisdom of such a massive operation.
Instead, intervening powers try to use as little force as possible, and seek to minimize their own casualties above all. After all, when there are no vital interests at stake, it is much harder to justify the loss of one's own soldiers. So they rely on airpower, not boots on the ground. They'll send advisors and weapons, but not their own troops. But because the rebel army is a ramshackle operation, and because there are real limits to what NATO can achieve with airpower alone, this minimalist approach is more likely to produce a costly stalemate in which more Libyans die. Even if it eventually succeeds, going in small prolongs the fighting and does more damage to the people we are supposedly helping.
The other option, of course, is to use overwhelming force from the very beginning. Qaddafi's loyal forces might be effective against a poorly-trained rebel army, but they would be no match for a sizeable NATO force. But this isn't really the answer either, even if we had such forces readily available (and remember, the United States is already bogged down in other places). For one thing, doing it this way is a lot more expensive, and you're likely to lose some of your own people along the way. And once you've ousted the regime you own the country, and trying to put a society like Libya back together again would not be easy or cheap (see under: Iraq, Afghanistan). Given the divisions that are already apparent among the rebels themselves, and the absence of well-functioning social and political institutions, a post-Qaddafi Libya is likely to be a real headache. And there's always the risk that an insurgency will spring up, further inflating the costs.
Hence the paradox: if you go in light you get a protracted stalemate; if you go in big you end up with a costly quagmire. Under these circumstances you can understand why the intervening powers are tiptoeing their way in, but as noted above, that merely increases the danger that the civil war drags on.
There is a third option, however: great powers could be a lot more careful about where and when they used military power to try to determine who gets to run some foreign country. But that's an option that U.S. leaders seem to have forgotten.
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Over in another corner of the FP media juggernaut, David Bosco has challenged my claim that the humanitarian case for imminent intervention in Libya was weak. According to President Obama, the United States and its allies had to intervene because Qaddafi's forces were about to conduct a massacre that "would stain the conscience of the world." He said there would be "violence on a horrific scale." Drawing on some recent commentary by political scientist Alan Kuperman and journalist Stephen Chapman, I questioned this assumption and said the risk of such a massacre was slight. Bosco challenges me in turn, and says that my assessment is an "epic overreach."
To be clear, I do think rebel lives would have been lost had Qaddafi's force taken Benghazi, and I have no doubt that the Libyan dictator would have dealt harshly with the rebel leaders and anyone who fought to the bitter end. In other words, I'm pretty sure his forces would have murdered some of the rebels and probably some innocent civilians too. But the president seems to have been convinced that Qaddafi was about to unleash genuine mass killings of perhaps as many as 100,000 people, in a city of roughly 650,000 (remember his pointed reference to Benghazi being nearly the size of Charlotte?). Thus, the president's rhetoric strongly implied that tens of thousands of innocent bystanders were about to be ruthlessly slaughtered. That same image was reinforced by media references to the "lessons of Rwanda" that supposedly had shaped the views of some of Obama's advisors.
Yet as I noted in my piece, there were no large-scale massacres in the other cities that the loyalists had recaptured. It is easy to believe that Qaddafi would have gone after the rebel leaders and diehard followers -- whom he undoubtedly regards as traitors -- but turning Benghazi into a ghost town filled with corpses was probably not in his own interest.
The president is tiptoeing through a mine-field of conflicting imperatives, seeking to justify a war that he has launched even though there are no vital strategic interests at stake. And make no mistake: it is a war. When your forces are flying hundreds of sorties, and firing missiles and dropping bombs on another country's armed forces, it is Orwellian to call it anything else.
It is a war being fought for humanitarian objectives -- and there's nothing inherently wrong with that -- but the president's somewhat tortured parsing of the reasons for his action betrays an awareness that he's on shaky ground. And notice that almost all of his justifications were anticipatory in nature: we went to war to prevent a potential bloodbath in Benghazi, to prevent evens in Libya from possibly affecting developments elsewhere in the Arab world, and to forestall some future tarnishing of America's reputation. When you are as strong and secure as the United States really is, everything becomes a "preventive" operation. (Too bad we don't think that way when it comes to financial matters). Ironically, if the United States faced real threats to its security, it wouldn't be wasting much time or effort on operations like this one.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Based on the weekend's events, what do we now know about Libya?
1. As you can see from these Pentagon slides here, the United States did the the heavy lifting during the initial phases of the intervention against Libya (h/t Micah Zenko & Jeremy Pressman). Notice that these figures omit missile strikes, which were overwhelmingly conducted by the United States, so the data actually understate the extent to which the initial operations were dominated by Uncle Sam. We are now told that allied forces are going to take over (most of) the mission, but patrolling the no-fly-zone is pretty easy work now that Libya's air defenses (which were never very good to begin with) have been largely if not entirely decimated. In short, this intervention fits the pattern of prior "coalitions of the willing": the United States does most of the work, and the other members are there mostly to provide diplomatic cover. That distribution of burdens is supposed to change now, but sticking to that plan will probably depend on whether the rebels keep making progress. If their campaign bogs down, Qaddafi's forces are able to regroup, or the British and French start feeling the pinch, look for more pressure on Washington to get back in the game.
2. The operation in Libya has quickly moved beyond a purely humanitarian mission and the intervening forces are more-or-less openly seeking to topple Qaddafi's regime. The New York Times reports that coalition air strikes against Qaddafi's forces are continuing, and making it possible for the rebels to advance, even though the immediate humanitarian concern (i.e., the threat of some sort of massacre in Benghazi) has now been removed.
This latest version of "mission creep" isn't surprising. Several Western leaders (including President Obama) have already called for Qaddafi to step down, the International Criminal Court says it is investigating possible crimes against humanity, and in any case his pariah status in the international community is well-earned. What is still not clear is the human price of this expanded mission. Ousting Qaddafi may still require a lot of bloody ground fighting, NATO airpower will be less valuable once it is a matter of urban warfare, the collapse of his regime could usher in a prolonged power vacuum, with lots of regrettable human consequences. It's possible that tribal leaders can work out some sort of post-Qaddafi political formula, but a benign outcome of that sort is hardly guaranteed.
3. Whether this was the right decision or not won't be known for awhile (remember that "Mission Accomplished" moment in Iraq?) The two situations are hardly identical, but the Iraqi case does remind us that there is a big difference between defeating a regime's armed forces and driving its leaders from power, and being able to stand up a new government that can establish order. There's still a real risk of prolonged internal disarray if we succeed, and the Libyan case is likely to teach other autocrats that giving up their WMD programs is a good way to leave themselves vulnerable to U.S.-led attack. Bottom line: the costs vs. benefits calculation here won't be possible for some time.
As readers know, I've questioned the wisdom of this intervention, and I've thought that it should have been a European operation from the start. I'm still hoping that it resolves itself quickly, and that my concerns about the post-Qaddafi environment turn out to be unwarranted. I also hope that putting Libya back together afterwards turns out to be easier and less costly than I expect, and that success doesn't embolden the neoconservative/liberal interventionist alliance and lead them off in search of new wrongs to right in places we don't understand very well. In short, as is often the case, I hope I'm wrong about a lot of this. We'll see.
John Moore/Getty Images
Before France, Britain, and the United States stumbled into its current attempt to dislodge Muammar al-Qaddafi from power in Libya -- and let's not kid ourselves, that's what they are trying to do -- did anyone bother to ask what recent social science tells us about the likely results of our intervention?
I doubt it, because recent research suggests that we are likely to be disappointed by the outcome. A 2006 study by Jeffrey Pickering and Mark Peceny found that military intervention by liberal states (i.e., states like Britain, France and the United States) "has only very rarely played a role in democratization since 1945." Similarly, George Downs, and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of New York University found that U.S. interventions since World War II led to stable democracies within ten years less than 3 percent of the time, and a separate study by their NYU colleague William Easterly and several associates found that both U.S and Soviet interventions during the Cold War generally led to "significant declines in democracy." Finally, a 2010 article by Goran Piec and Daniel Reiter examines forty-two "foreign imposed regime changes" since 1920 and finds that when interventions "damage state infrastructural power" they also increase the risk of subsequent civil war.
The best and most relevant study I have yet read on this question is an as-yet unpublished working paper by Alexander Downes of Duke University, which you can find on his website here. Using a more sophisticated research design, Downes examined 100 cases of "foreign imposed regime change" going all the way back to 1816. In particular, his analysis takes into account "selection effects" (i.e., the fact that foreign powers are more likely to intervene in states that already have lots of problems, so you would expect these states to have more problems afterwards too). He finds that foreign intervention tends to promote stability when the intervening powers are seeking to restore a previously deposed ruler. But when foreign interveners oust an existing ruler and impose a wholly new government (which is what we are trying to do in Libya), the likelihood of civil war more than triples.
GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images
Mark Sheetz of Boston College offers the following guest post:
Obama's handling of the Libyan crisis could have been worse, but not much
The president had a perfect opportunity to push the Europeans into the lead on
this issue but could not muster the sangfroid
to call the Europeans' bluff. France and Britain were out front early on
military intervention, yet the United States did not seize the opportunity to state the
obvious, namely, that the Europeans could handle this one. The European
Security Strategy is focused squarely on conflict management, "human security," and the defense
of human rights. The European Union maintains a "Mediterannean
partnership" with North African countries and a "neighborhood policy" that concerns stability and security on its southern and eastern flanks.
A humanitarian crisis in Libya fits perfectly into European security concerns.
President Sarkozy of France was especially eager to show what Europeans could do. He went out front and recognized a motley group of rebels as the legitimate government of Libya without consulting allies in either NATO or the European Union. A recent article in Le Figaro gives a terrific account of Bernard Henry Lévy's involvement in the affair. Levy is a public intellectual and another vain French rooster strutting around looking for glory. Ever the opportunist, Levy found the rebels in Benghazi and hooked them up with Sarkozy, who pounced on the chance to be their champion to the rest of the world.
The French and British recently joined together at Lancaster House to loudly proclaim European security cooperation in the joint use of aircraft carriers, expeditionary forces, and nuclear weapons. These two countries have the largest defense budgets and the most advanced military capabilities in Europe and can field forces that can pummel any African army, including Libya's, into submission.
Given that the United States has no vital interests of any kind to protect in
Libya, the situation was tailor-made for Europeans to take the initiative and
handle this one without us. Yet the President could not leave well enough
alone. He was somehow shamed into showing American "leadership."
The story of how the Europeans managed to bait Obama into joining the
"coalition" and supplying the vast bulk of military capabilities will be a fascinating
one to unravel.
In accepting the Nobel prize, President Obama declared that military force was justified on humanitarian grounds and that the defense of human rights was in the national interest. Now he has set the precedent of waging war for third tier interests beyond the narrow scope of national security. In so doing, he has compromised the nation's security interest in non-proliferation. The key lesson that states like Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia will draw from the military intervention in Libya is to keep a nuclear development program if you have one and go get one if you do not. One has to believe that Qaddafi is now tormenting himself at night with the question: "Why did I ever agree to give up my WMD programs?
Mark Sheetz is a fellow in International Security at the John F. Kennedy School of Government of Harvard University.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
Wednesday I spoke at an event
at Hofstra University, on the subject of "Barack Obama's Foreign
Policy." The other panelists were former DNC chair and 2004 presidential
candidate Howard Dean and longtime Republican campaign guru Ed Rollins. The
organizers at Hofstra were efficient and friendly, the audience asked good
questions, and I thought both Dean and Rollins were gracious and insightful in
their comments. All in all, it was a very successful session.
During the Q & A, I talked about the narrowness of foreign policy debate in Washington and the close political kinship between the liberal interventionists of the Democratic Party and the neoconservatives that dominate the GOP. At one point, I said that "liberal interventionists are just ‘kinder, gentler' neocons, and neocons are just liberal interventionists on steroids."
Dean challenged me rather forcefully on this point, declaring that there was simply no similarity whatsoever between a smart and sensible person like U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and a "crazy guy" like Paul Wolfowitz. (I didn't write down Dean's exact words, but I am certain that he portrayed Wolfowitz in more-or-less those terms). I responded by listing all the similarites between the two schools of thought, and the discussion went on from there.
I mention this anecdote because I wonder what Dean would say now. In case you hadn't noticed, over the weekend President Obama took the nation to war against Libya, largely on the advice of liberal interventionists like Ambassador Rice, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and NSC aides Samantha Power and Michael McFaul. According to several news reports I've read, he did this despite objections from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon.
The only important intellectual difference between neoconservatives and liberal interventionists is that the former have disdain for international institutions (which they see as constraints on U.S. power), and the latter see them as a useful way to legitimate American dominance. Both groups extol the virtues of democracy, both groups believe that U.S. power -- and especially its military power -- can be a highly effective tool of statecraft. Both groups are deeply alarmed at the prospect that WMD might be in the hands of anybody but the United States and its closest allies, and both groups think it is America's right and responsibility to fix lots of problems all over the world. Both groups consistently over-estimate how easy it will be to do this, however, which is why each has a propensity to get us involved in conflicts where our vital interests are not engaged and that end up costing a lot more than they initially expect.
So if you're baffled by how Mr. "Change You Can Believe In" morphed into Mr. "More of the Same," you shouldn't really be surprised. George Bush left in disgrace and Barack Obama took his place, but he brought with him a group of foreign policy advisors whose basic world views were not that different from the people they were replacing. I'm not saying their attitudes were identical, but the similarities are probably more important than the areas of disagreement. Most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment has become addicted to empire, it seems, and it doesn't really matter which party happens to be occupying Pennsylvania Avenue.
So where does this leave us? For starters, Barack Obama now owns not one but two wars. He inherited a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, and he chose to escalate instead of withdrawing. Instead of being George Bush's mismanaged blunder, Afghanistan became "Obama's War." And now he's taken on a second, potentially open-ended military commitment, after no public debate, scant consultation with Congress, without a clear articulation of national interest, and in the face of great public skepticism. Talk about going with a gut instinct.
When the Security Council passed Resolution 1973 last week and it was clear we were going to war, I credited the administration with letting Europe and the Arab League take the lead in the operation. My fear back then, however, was that the Europeans and Arab states would not be up to the job and that Uncle Sucker would end up holding the bag. But even there I gave them too much credit, insofar as U.S. forces have been extensively involved from the very start, and the Arab League has already gone wobbly on us. Can anyone really doubt that this affair will be perceived by people around the world as a United States-led operation, no matter what we say about it?
More importantly, despite Obama's declaration that he would not send ground troops into Libya -- a statement made to assuage an overcommitted military, reassure a skeptical public, or both -- what is he going to do if the air assault doesn't work? What if Qaddafi hangs tough, which would hardly be surprising given the dearth of attractive alternatives that he's facing? What if his supporters see this as another case of illegitimate Western interferences, and continue to back him? What if he moves forces back into the cities he controls, blends them in with the local population, and dares us to bomb civilians? Will the United States and its allies continue to pummel Libya until he says uncle? Or will Obama and Sarkozy and Cameron then decide that now it's time for special forces, or even ground troops?
And even if we are successful, what then? As in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, over forty years of Qaddafi's erratic and despotic rule have left Libya in very poor shape despite its oil wealth. Apart from some potentially fractious tribes, the country is almost completely lacking in effective national institutions. If Qaddafi goes we will own the place, and we will probably have to do something substantial to rebuild it lest it turn into an exporter of refugees, a breeding ground for criminals, or the sort of terrorist "safe haven" we're supposedly trying to prevent in Afghanistan.
But the real lesson is what it tells us about America's inability to resist the temptation to meddle with military power. Because the United States seems so much stronger than a country like Libya, well-intentioned liberal hawks can easily convince themselves that they can use the mailed fist at low cost and without onerous unintended consequences. When you have a big hammer the whole world looks like a nail; when you have thousand of cruise missiles and smart bombs and lots of B-2s and F-18s, the whole world looks like a target set. The United States doesn't get involved everywhere that despots crack down on rebels (as our limp reaction to the crackdowns in Yemen and Bahrain demonstrate), but lately we always seems to doing this sort of thing somewhere. Even a smart guy like Barack Obama couldn't keep himself from going abroad in search of a monster to destroy.
And even if this little adventure goes better than I expect, it's likely to come back to haunt us later. One reason that the Bush administration could stampede the country to war in Iraq was the apparent ease with which the United States had toppled the Taliban back in 2001. After a string of seeming successes dating back to the 1991 Gulf War, U.S. leaders and the American public had become convinced that the Pentagon had a magic formula for remaking whole countries without breaking a sweat. It took the debacle in Iraq and the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan to remind us of the limits of military power, and it seems to have taken Obama less than two years on the job to forget that lesson. We may get reminded again in Libya, but if we don't, the neocon/liberal alliance will be emboldened and we'll be more likely to stumble into a quagmire somewhere else.
And who's the big winner here? Back in Beijing, China's leaders must be smiling as they watch Washington walk open-eyed into another potential quagmire.
GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images
When the revolt in Tunisia occurred back in January, I wrote:
Although most Arab governments are authoritarian, they are also all independent and depend on a slightly different mix of political institutions and measures to keep the rulers in power. The fact that Ben Ali ultimately mismanaged a challenge and was driven from power does not mean that other Arab leaders won't be able to deflect, deter, or suppress challenges to their rule."
Tunisia is an obvious warning sign to other Arab dictatorships, and they are bound to be especially vigilant in the months ahead, lest some sort of similar revolutionary wave begin to emerge."
While conceding that a revolutionary cascade was possible and that pressure for greater openness might succeed in the long term, I concluded that a rapid transformation was unlikely.
As I've noted previously, I underestimated the degree to which events in Tunisia would inspire like-minded movements in other countries, and it's clear that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak didn't respond as swiftly or effectively as I expected. But Arab governments are under no illusions now, and we seem to be witnessing precisely the sort of counterrevolutionary responses that often serve to contain a revolutionary outbreak.
In Libya, the Qaddafi regime has responded in brutal but increasingly effective fashion and now seems likely to retain power in at least part of the country for some time to come. With few genuine foreign friends, a big pile of cash, and no place to run or hide, Qaddafi and his family had little choice but to fight it out and hope for the best, even if their brutal suppression of the rebel forces lands them back on the list of international pariahs.
For its part, the Saudi government has sought to pre-empt significant protests by doling out $37 billion worth of new social benefits, while making it clear that protests will be dealt with harshly. In neighboring Bahrain, the Khalifa dynasty has responded to rising protests from its Shiite majority population with heightened repression. It has also invited the Saudis -- which share the Khalifa regime's fear of Iranian influence -- to send several thousand troops there to back up the government.
So if you believed that the events in Tunisia and Egypt -- which were both relatively bloodless and remarkably swift -- were likely to be duplicated elsewhere, you were wrong. The revolutionary impulse has been remarkably contagious, but revolutionary outcomes much less so, at least thus far. Nor do we yet know how far-reaching the reforms in Tunisia and Egypt will ultimately be (though I remain cautiously optimistic).
All that said, I still find it hard to believe that these events do not herald more far-reaching political change throughout much of the Arab world. Even if some governments are able to keep the lid on for now, the social, political, and economic conditions that have given rise to these upheavals won't vanish anytime soon. Whether they consent to real reform or not, ruling elites are likely to be more mindful of popular opinion going forward, for fear of facing new protests in the future or driving frustrated reformers in more radical and dangerous directions.
If this view is correct, then the days when the United States could base key elements of its Middle East grand strategy on alliances with a set of Arab regimes whose policies tended to ignore popular sentiment -- including widespread popular anger at the U.S. role in the region -- are coming to an end. A new grand strategy is going to be needed -- and soon.
I've been thinking about how the international community should deal with the Libyan civil war, and like the Obama administration, I'm finding it hard to come up with a policy that leaves me completely satisfied. I'd like to see Qaddafi's regime replaced by a government that is less brutal, capricious, and inefficient, as well as one that would be more responsive to the desires and welfare of the Libyan people. And the sooner the better. For this reason, I support the various measures that have been taken to condemn Qaddafi's actions and to freeze his assets. We should also be open to providing humanitarian aid (such as food relief) to rebel-controlled areas, should that become necessary to avoid a large-scale humanitarian disaster.
At the same time, I'm cognizant that it is easier to take on new military commitments than it is to relinquish them -- even in the best of circumstances -- and that external intervention in civil conflicts often has unpredictable and unforeseen consequences. So instead of firm prescriptions, here are a few observations that have struck me as I've pondered.
For starters, let's acknowledge that the United States has no vital strategic interests at stake in the outcome of the Libyan struggle. Libyan oil production (about 1.6 million barrels/day prior to the recent violence) is valuable but not decisive, and can be made up by increased production in Saudi Arabia. Libya has no WMD (having been compelled to give up its various WMD programs by a protracted Western-led sanctions campaign), and it is not a significant military power. Qaddafi has no links to al Qaeda (in fact, he's been a target of al Qaeda sympathizers in the past) and few, if any allies in the rest of the world. Libya's population is less than 7 million, and its economy (apart from oil) is unimpressive. Despite Qaddafi's many unsavory qualities and hostile acts, most U.S. presidents ultimately concluded that he was not important enough to remove from power, though the Reagan administration did target his residence in a bombing raid back in the 1980s.
Thus, the U.S. (and international) interest here is humanitarian, not strategic, which does not by itself mean that we should do nothing. What is going on in Libya does not constitute genocide -- a deliberate attempt to exterminate a whole category of people -- but the government's actions are clearly brutal, inhumane, and almost certainly involve war crimes. It thus falls squarely under the heading of the "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine (R2P), a new norm of humanitarian intervention promulgated with some fanfare a few years ago. R2P says "where a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure, and the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect" (my emphasis).
John Moore/Getty Images
I've been writing this blog for a couple of years now, and for the most part I'm satisfied with what I've had to say. But no social science theory is 100 percent accurate, and no social scientist is right 100 percent of the time, especially when reacting to rapidly moving events. Anybody who writes a blog and sticks their neck out is going to get a few big things wrong, which is why I tell prospective bloggers to start with a thick skin.
Case in point: My post on why the revolution in Tunisia would not spread. To say my prediction was wrong is an understatement, and some of the usual critics have seized on this opportunity to take a shot or two. Fair enough, but when I look back at what I actually wrote, I don't feel particularly embarrassed. After all, I began by noting that revolutionary events are inherently hard to forecast (for reasons that other scholars had already identified), and the actual post (as opposed to the provocative headline) made it clear I didn't think contagion was impossible, just unlikely.
Moreover, I still think my reasons for being skeptical about the possibility of contagion were cogent, even if my forecast was clearly wrong in this instance. Large-scale protests are hardly a rare occurrence in many parts of the world, but the vast majority of them do not lead governments to fall. And when a government is toppled, most of the time this does not lead to similar upheavals elsewhere, and certainly not within a few days or weeks. My original prediction was off the mark, but it would have been correct in most cases.
But not this time, which raises the obvious question: Why was this case an exception? What did I miss? Because we still don't know exactly why and how the upheaval in Tunisia caught fire so quickly, what follows is inevitably speculative. But with that caveat in mind, here's where I think I blew it.
First, although everyone knew that authoritarian regimes like the Mubarak government in Egypt were unpopular, I underestimated the degree of internal resentment. Of course, as Timur Kuran and others have shown, that is precisely why it is impossible to predict the timing of a revolutionary upheaval: Citizens in an autocracy won't express their true preferences (and especially their propensity to rebel) openly because doing so is dangerous. This tendency for what Kuran calls "preference falsification" makes it impossible for anyone to know exactly how likely a revolution might be. But with hindsight, it's clear that resentment against some of these governments was deeper and wider than we recognized.
Second, it now seems likely many commentators -- including yours truly -- were unaware of the level of anti-government organization that had already taken place in places like Egypt, and it seems clear that the Mubarak government didn't know about it either. Massive yet disciplined street demonstrations don't occur entirely by accident, and we now know that young activists had been quietly mobilizing and organizing long before the Tunisian revolt lit the fuse. Given Egypt's central place in Arab politics, Mubarak's unexpected ouster fueled the perception that change was possible elsewhere, thereby fueling similar responses elsewhere.
FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images.
When Hosni Mubarak briefly tried to crack down against the demonstrators in Egypt, I wrote:
Even if Mubarak manages to cling to power, his regime has been fatally compromised. If he uses massive force to suppress the popular movement, it will be damaged even more. Mubarak himself is 83 years old, and even a successful act of repression won't buy him (or his domestic allies) a lot of time. If the United States is seen as complicit in keeping him in power, it will solidify Arab anger and make our exalted rhetoric about democracy and human rights look like the basest hypocrisy."
Needless to say, this same logic applies with even more force in the case of Libya, where Qaddafi's brutal, narcissistic, and incoherent campaign of repression has been far more reprehensible than Mubarak's. I'm wary of direct U.S. military intervention there, but U.S. spokesmen should be condemning his actions in the strongest possible terms and looking into both a Security Council resolution and the creation of an international peacekeeping force to keep order there in a post-Qaddafi environment.
I'll have a lengthier comment on these upheavals tomorrow.
When Zhou en-Lai was asked in the 1970s about the historical significance of the French Revolution, he famously responded that it was "too soon to tell." Given that wise caution, it is undoubtedly foolhardy for me to try to pick the winners and losers of the upheaval whose ultimate implications remain uncertain. But at the risk of looking silly in a few days (or weeks or months or years), I'm going to ignore the obvious pitfalls and forge ahead. Here's my current list of winners and losers, plus a third category: those for whom I have no idea.
1. The Demonstrators
The obvious winners in these events are the thousands of ordinary Egyptians who poured into the streets to demand Mubarak's ouster, and to insist on the credible prospect of genuine reform. For this reason, Mubarak's designated deputy, Omar Suleiman, had to go too. Some of the demonstrators' activities were planned and coordinated (and we'll probably know a lot more about it over time) but a lot of it was the spontaneous expression of long-simmering frustration. By relying on non-violent methods, maintaining morale and discipline, and by insisting that Mubarak had to go, the anti-government uprising succeeded where prior protest campaigns had failed. "People power" with an Arab face. And oh yes: Google got a great product placement too.
2. Al Jazeera
With round-the-clock coverage that put a lot of Western coverage to shame, Al Jazeera comes out of these events with its reputation enhanced. Its ability to transmit these images throughout the Arab world may have given events in Tunisia and in Egypt far greater regional resonance. If Radio Cairo was the great revolutionary amplifier of the Nasser era, Al Jazeera may have emerged as an even more potent revolutionary force, as a medium that is shared by Arab publics and accessible to outsiders too. And I'll bet that is what Mubarak now thinks.
To continue reading this article, click here.
President Obama is reportedly angry with the U.S. intelligence agencies for failing to anticipate the upheavals in Tunisia or Egypt. His irritation is silly, because there's a well-founded social science literature (by Timur Kuran, Susanne Lohmann, and Marc Granovetter, among others) explaining why it is nearly impossible to predict the onset of a revolutionary upheaval. You can identify countries where the government is unpopular or illegitimate, and thus were a rebellion might occur, but that doesn't tell you if or when a popular uprising of the sort we have been watching will occur.
As I explained before, the reason is because an individual's willingness to rebel is essentially private information, and nobody is going to tell you what they really think in an authoritarian society. Furthermore, an individual's willingness to march openly against the regime depends on what he or she thinks others will do, and that cannot be ascertained in advance either. But when conditions are right and some triggering event occurs (which can be almost anything), then you can get a rapid and unexpected revolutionary cascade, as more and more people decide that it is safe to express their previously-concealed resentment and that doing so is likely to succeed.
Instead of being angry with the U.S. intelligence agencies, therefore, Obama should be reserving his ire for his foreign policy advisors, who have been screwing up U.S. Middle East policy for over two years now and who may be in the process of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory yet again. If the news reports I've seen are correct, the United States is now getting behind a political transition that will be orchestrated by the new Vice President Omar Suleiman, a close Mubarak associate. It's not even clear if the United States now thinks Mubarak has to step down. Instead, Secretary of State Clinton seems to be suggesting that we need to help VP Suleiman "defuse" the street demonstrations, which would remove most of the impetus for change.
An unnamed "senior U.S. official" has also suggested that the Obama administration is dead set against a substantial political role for the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, the official reportedly suggested that what the United States wants is a purely "secular" government in Egypt (i.e., one with no Islamist influence) as if that's even possible in a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim.
It's early days, of course, and as FP's Josh Rogin reports here, there is a potential legal nightmare trying to revise Egyptian law in ways that would permit a genuinely "free and fair" election. But I worry that the Obama administration is about to repeat the same mistake that the Bush administration made in the Palestinian legislative elections of 2006. After insisting that the elections be held, the United States simply refused to accept the results of the elections when we didn't like the winner (Hamas). Are we now going to keep our thumb discreetly on the scale in Egypt, to make sure that a post-Mubarak government continues to dance to Washington's tune? When will Washington learn that you cannot simultaneously proclaim your commitment to democracy and freedom and then insist on dictating who is allowed to win?
The other problem is that Suleiman doesn't have much (any?) credibility as a steward of democratic change. I suggested a couple of days ago that one way he could bolster his position would be to help push Mubarak out (and to make it clear that he is doing so), and to openly declare that he (Suleiman) will serve only as a caretaker and not run for office himself in the next election. I'm not at all sure that these measures would work, however, and the anti-government forces might well see him as no different than Mubarak himself. That certainly seems to be their reaction thus far. And if subsequent reforms are mostly cosmetic and individuals or groups associated with the old regime end up retaining power in a subsequent election, they are likely to have no more legitimacy than Mubarak has right now. And the U.S. image in the region, which is bad enough already, will take another big hit.
So the United States has two long-term challenges. The first is to make sure it is not once again perceived as working to quash a genuinely representative government in Egypt. The second is get ready to accept the results of that process, even if the people we might prefer don't win.
For more analysis along these lines, check out Asli Bani and Aziz Rana's article "The Fake Moderation of America's Moderate Mideast Allies," from Foreign Policy in Focus, here.
Egyptians have returned to the streets for what anti-government forces have dubbed a "day of departure." The early reports I've seen are heartening: the demonstrations are peaceful, more and more members of the elite appear to be embracing change, and key institutions like the army continue to behave with restraint and to enjoy respect from the crowds. If it holds up, this augurs well for a transition that avoids most of the worst-case scenarios.
Meanwhile, there seems to be a lot of behind-the-scenes diplomacy going on, trying to convince Hosni Mubarak to step down and to coordinate some sort of transitional process. I hope that is the case, because Egypt will need a credible caretaker government to orchestrate the revision of the constitution, conduct either new elections or the elections already scheduled for September, and to maintain order during this process.
I don't know what sort of transitional arrangements would work best, so I'm not going to prescribe any particular scenario or road-map. Instead, here are few items you might want to read, to get a sense of the different issues, possibilities, and pitfalls.
1. My colleage Tarek Masoud has an very interesting op-ed in today's New York Times, arguing that Mubarak needs to say long enough to orchestrate a transition that is consistent with the existing constitution. His point is that it makes sense to change the government via existing procedures, to emphasize the importance of rule of law. I'm not convinced this will work (i.e., the popular forces may not tolerate it), but his broader point about giving the transitional process as much legitimacy as possible seems right to me. But would the best be the enemy of the good?
2. For an alternative procedure, see the statement by a group of Egyptian activists that was translated and released by the Carnegie Endowment here. In their scenario, the Vice-President would oversee an independent process of revising the constitution and preparing for new elections, in consultation with independent jurists and constitutional experts. For additional commentary on the proposal, and the more general problem of constitutional reform, see Egypt expert Nathan Brown's posting here.
3. If you've been hearing those wild-eyed claims that the Muslim Brotherhood is a mortal threat to US interests and the nucleus of a future radical Islamic republic in Egypt, please read Helena Cobban's thoughtful discussion of the MB and its background. I should add that I think the lurid fears of some sort of radical jihadist takeover of Egypt are wildly off-the-mark, especially so long as the Egyptian army remains intact and respected (as it has so far). And as Masoud says in the op-ed discussed above, "democracy in Egypt, or any other part of the world, is not something we should fear."
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.