Experts and policymakers watching the situation in Syria are conflicted about what should be done to stop the bloody actions of the Assad government. Those who support a "responsibility to protect" argue that the international community -- including the U.S. -- should be doing more to stop Assad's slaughter of innocents; realists claim that there is not enough at stake for the U.S. to become involved in yet another Middle East conflict; and al Qaida experts are concerned that aid sent to the rebels could end up helping the extremists rather than ordinary Syrians.
If either the U.S. or international community had intervened before the fall of 2012, there would have been fewer disputes about Syria policy. Both al Qaida experts and those who support "responsibility to protect" were generally on the same page: Stopping the brutal actions of the regime and preventing the extremists from gaining a foothold required involvement, and there was a clear non-extremist resistance group to support.
Since then, however, part of the resistance -- embittered by our lack of assistance and desperate to survive -- has been enticed into the embrace of extremists and especially into that of an al Qaida affiliated group called Jabhat al-Nusra. If the international community or the U.S. decides to arm the resistance now, there is a fair chance that the weapons and other support material could fall into the hands of al Qaida and be used against us after the conflict in Syria ends.
While the experts have debated policy, the bloodshed has continued. Assad's decision to once again bomb civilians has, however, returned to the fore another possibility for U.S. policy in Syria: the enforcement of a no-fly zone to prevent Assad from targeting and killing civilians with his air force. This strategy has been proposed by many others over the past two years and was recently raised once more by Carl Levin. I would suggest that now, more than ever, it needs to be seriously considered by both the Obama administration and by realists, since the risks of inaction are now far greater than the risks of action. If the U.S. chooses to continue to do nothing, there are five very bad things that are likely to happen, while if the U.S. chooses to put in place a no-fly zone there is a low probability of bad outcomes and a greater chance for a whole series of good results.
The Risks and Benefits of Inaction
There are only two benefits associated with inaction: We will save a little money and pilots will not be put in jeopardy. The risks of inaction are, in contrast, overwhelming. First, thousands more Syrians will die and Syrians will blame the U.S. and international community for these deaths. After all, the U.S. showed in Libya that it could intervene to overthrow a tyrant whenever it chose, but for reasons that do not make sense to Syrians has determined not to help them. Second, the conflict will continue to spread beyond Syria. Over the past few months, violence has erupted in northern Lebanon, where Jabhat al-Nusra has spread its influence, and the war has spilled across the borders into Iraq and Jordan. Third, at this point, the war in Syria may be radicalizing as many Sunnis throughout the Muslim-majority world as the war in Iraq. Not only that, but this radicalization is being pointed by the extremists at the U.S. and other Western powers. The extremists have been quick to use our non-intervention to argue that the U.S. is allowing the slaughter of Syrians and in fact actually supports Assad's bloody reign. Finally, there is a possibility that the current resistance might overthrow Assad without our help and create a new Syria that is open to domination by the extremists. What chance would the U.S. and the international community have to influence the direction that this new Syria might take if we did not intervene when we could to save lives?
The Risks and Benefits of Action
In direct contrast, the risks of action are minimal: Although highly unlikely, it is possible that Assad might be able to shoot down an American plane. There is also the chance that the U.S. might, however indirectly, empower extremists within the resistance. But the benefits far outweigh these risks. A no-fly zone will save lives, show ordinary Syrians and Muslims around the world that the U.S. and the international community take the bloodshed seriously, help to mitigate the radicalization and influence exerted by the extremists, and grant us some say within any new Syria that is created. But time is running out. The longer the conflict continues without our involvement, the more Syrians and other Muslims will be tempted to listen to the arguments of the extremists about our supposed hatred for Muslims and the more they will be radicalized into action against us and others.
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Here on the 10-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, I wonder how long it will be before we can discuss the war free from the contamination of myths. It may be sooner than many myth-purveyors expect. Just listen to this lecture by Mel Leffler, one of the leading historians of American diplomacy. He has been a harsh critic of Bush-era diplomacy and his speech does accept some of the conventional critique (specifically about the "hubris" of the Bush administration), but his analysis is far more balanced than the conventional wisdom on the topic. All in all, Leffler's analysis is a promising example of myth-busting.
For my part, the myths that get thrown at me most often have to do with why the war happened in the first place. Here are five of the most pervasive myths:
1. The Bush administration went to war against Iraq because it thought (or claimed to think) Iraq had been behind the 9/11 attacks. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Bush Administration did explore the possibility that Hussein might have collaborated with al Qaeda on the attacks. Vice President Dick Cheney (along with some officials in the secretary of defense's office) in particular believed this hypothesis had some merit, and in the early months gave considerable weight to some tantalizing evidence that seemed to support it. However, by the fall of 2002 when the administration was in fact selling the policy of confronting Hussein, the question of a specific link to 9/11 was abandoned and Cheney instead emphasized the larger possibility of collaboration between Iraq and al Qaeda. We now know that those fears were reasonable and supported by the evidence captured in Iraq after the invasion. This has been documented extensively through the work of the Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC), which examined the captured files of the Hussein regime. A 2012 International Studies Association panel sponsored by the CRRC on "Saddam and Terrorism" was devoted to this topic and spent quite a bit of time demonstrating how those who insist that there were no links whatsoever simply rely on a poorly worded sentence referencing "no smoking gun" of a "direct connection" in the executive summary of the 2007 "Iraqi Perspectives Project - Saddam and Terrorism: Emerging Insights from Captured Documents" report and ignore the evidence of links and attempted connections uncovered in the report itself as well as subsequent work by the project.
2. The Bush administration went to war against Iraq because it wanted to forcibly democratize Iraq. The administration was, in the end, committed to using force to defend the democratization project in Iraq but this myth has the logical sequence out of order. The correct sequence, as Leffler and myriad memoirs and contemporaneous reporting demonstrate, is this: (1) Bush was committed to confronting Iraq because of the changed risk calculus brought about by 9/11, which heightened our sensitivity to the nexus of WMD and terrorism (believing that state sponsors of terrorism who had WMD would be a likely pathway by which terrorist networks like al Qaeda could secure WMD); (2) Bush was also committed not to making the mistake of Desert Storm, namely stopping the war with Hussein still in power and concluded that confronting Hussein must end with either full capitulation by Hussein or regime change through war; (3) given regime change, the best option for the new Iraq was one based on pluralism and representative government rather than a "man on horseback" new dictator to take Hussein's place. To be sure, the Bush administration greatly underestimated the difficulty of the democratization path, but democratization was not the prime motivation -- confronting the WMD threat was. Democratization was the consequence of that prime motivation.
3. The "real" motivation behind the Iraq war was the desire to steal Iraqi oil, or boost Halliburton profits, or divert domestic attention from the Enron scandal, or pay off the Israel lobby, or exact revenge on Hussein for his assassination attempt on President George H. W. Bush. These conspiracy theories are ubiquitous on the far left (and right) fringes, and some of them were endorsed by mainstream figures such as President Obama himself. All of them seem impervious to argument, evidence, and reason. The absence of evidence is taken as proof of the strength of the conspiracy. Contrary evidence -- eg., that Israel was more concerned about the threat from Iran than the threat from Iraq -- is dismissed. Mel Leffler's lecture on Iraq is a bracing tonic of reason that rebuts many of these nutty charges, but I suppose true believers will never be convinced.
4. What Frank Harvey calls the "neoconism" myth -- that the Iraq war was forced upon the country by a cabal of neoconservatives, who by virtue of their political skill and ruthless disregard for truth were able to "manipulate the preferences, perceptions and priorities of so many other intelligent people..." who otherwise would never have supported the Iraq war. Frank Harvey painstakingly reconstructs the decision process in 2002 and documents all of the ways that the Bush administration took steps contrary to the "neoconism" thesis -- eg., working through the United Nations and seeking Congressional authorization rather than adopting the unilateralist/executive-only approach many Iraq hawks were urging. (Leffler makes similar points in his lecture). Harvey goes on to make an intriguing case that had Al Gore won the election in 2000, he would have likely authorized the Iraq war just as Bush did. Harvey has not fully convinced me of the latter, but he usefully rebuts much sloppy mythologizing about Gore's foreign policy views, documenting how Gore was, in fact, the most hawkish of officials on Iraq in the Clinton administration. At a minimum, Harvey proves that the Iraq war owed more to the Clinton perspective than it did to then-candidate George W. Bush's worldview as expressed during the 2000 campaign. The neoconism myth serves a politically useful function of fixing all blame on a specific group of Republicans, but, as Harvey shows, the truth is not quite so simplistic.
5. Bush "lied" in making the case for war. I have addressed this myth before. It is a staple of the anti-Iraq/anti-Bush commentary -- and not just of the pseudonymous trolls in blog comment sections. John Mearsheimer, one of the most influential security studies academics, has written a book built around the claim that leaders regularly lie and that Bush in particular lied about Iraq. Mearsheimer claims "four key lies," each one carefully rebutted by Mel Leffler.
When one examines the historical record more fairly, as Leffler does, the "lying" myth collapses. This doesn't absolve the Bush administration of blame, but it does mean that those who allege "lying" are themselves as mistaken as are the targets of their critique.
All of these myths add up to the uber-myth: That the arguments made in favor of the Iraq war were all wrong and the arguments made against the Iraq war were all right. Sometimes this is recast as "those who supported the Iraq war were always wrong and those who opposed the Iraq war were always right." Of course, many of the arguments made in favor of the Iraq war were wrong. Hussein had not yet made by 2002 the progress in reviving his WMD programs that most intelligence services thought he had made. Many specific claims about specific WMD programs turned out to be not true.
On the other hand, many of the arguments made by those who opposed the Iraq war turned out not to be correct, either. For instance, Steve Walt cites favorably a New York Times advertisement paid for by a group of academics (virtually all of whom I consider to be friends, by the way). Some of their arguments were prescient, more prescient than the contrary claims by war supporters -- the warning about the need to occupy Iraq for many years, for example -- but others not so much. It turns out, for instance, that there is considerable evidence of Iraq-al Qaeda overtures and attempted coordination, precisely what the Bush administration worried about. Likewise, contrary to what the war critics warned, neither Iraq's arsenal of chemical and biological weapons nor their skill at urban warfare posed much of an obstacle to the invasion -- of course, insurgency tactics such as urban warfare did pose serious obstacles to the occupation and reconstruction phase of the conflict.
Moreover, Walt and the others he cites favorably almost to a person opposed the surge in 2007, and while some of them now admit that they were wrong about this others still cling to the thoroughly rebutted view that the surge was irrelevant to the change in Iraq's security trajectory. (Ironically, the debate over the surge may be where the grip of mythology lingers the longest. See how Rajiv Chandrasekaran, in an otherwise sensible piece of myth-busting, makes the error of claiming that it is a myth to believe that the surge worked. I have already answered the argument put forward by Chandrasekaran and others and so won't take the time to do it again.)
The point is not that Walt and others were fools or crazy to doubt that the surge would work -- on the contrary, they were squarely within the mainstream of conventional wisdom at the time. Rather, the point is that neither side in the Iraq debate has had a monopoly on wisdom.
I know I haven't had a monopoly on wisdom either and, indeed, my own personal views on Iraq have evolved over time. I opposed putting the Iraq issue on the front-burner in the 2001-2002 time frame and refused to sign a petition arguing for that because I thought the higher priority involved chasing AQ out of ungoverned areas. When the Bush administration did put the Iraq issue on the front-burner over the summer of 2002, I found the arguments of Bush opponents to be over-drawn and unconvincing -- in particular, the anti-Bush position seemed not to take seriously enough the fact that the U.N. inspections regime had collapsed nor that the sanctions regime was in the process of collapsing -- and so I found myself often critiquing the critics. I found the Bush argument that Hussein was gaming the sanctions and poised to redouble his WMD efforts when the sanctions finally collapsed to be a more plausible account of where things were heading absent a confrontation (and as we now know from the interviews with Hussein after his capture that was exactly what he was planning to do).
However, as the march to war accelerated in February 2003, I was one of those who recommended to the administration that the deadline be extended in the hopes of getting yet another UNSC resolution, one that would provide a united international front at the outset of the war. The administration rejected that course, and, in retrospect, I doubt whether what I was calling for was achievable.
Since the war started, I have had my fair share of criticisms for how the war has been handled, but I have always supported the position that having invaded, we now had to succeed. I supported the surge, and I opposed the Obama administration's decision to walk away from the commitment for a small stay-behind force that would be a makeweight in internal and regional balances of power.
I feel more confident about the positions I took on Iraq later in the war than the ones at the outset. But more importantly, I am increasingly confident that the judgment of history will be more nuanced and less simplistic than the judgment of contemporary critics of the war. And, hopefully, less contaminated by myth.
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My colleague Roger Noriega has an excellent post over at the American Enterprise Institute blog on the contentious relationship between Argentinean Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis I, and his country's last two presidents, the husband and wife team of (the late) Néstor and Cristina Kirchner, two populists well known for their authoritarian, bullying behavior.
For my part, I am struck by the ferocity of the attacks against Pope Francis I regarding his allegedly passive behavior towards the military junta that ruled Argentina 1976-1983. (Those generals without a doubt waged as brutal a war against the violent Left as the latter waged against Argentine society.)
This line of attack was represented best in Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson's high-handed, guilty-until-proven-innocent jeremiad that ran under the print headline, "Does Francis have a confession to make?" (The Post followed with a front-page story here.)
The Vatican, meanwhile, attributed the attacks to "anti-clerical left-wing elements" as "part of a campaign that's often slanderous and defamatory."
Now, of course, examining what Cardinal Bergoglio did or didn't do during that difficult period in Argentina's history is fair game. Yet, I couldn't help but think back to a mini-furor that erupted during Pope Benedict's May 2012 trip to Cuba, when an official from the U.S. government-run Radio Martí delivered an on-air commentary in which he took Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega to task for his passive behavior towards the Castro dictatorship.
According to the editorial, delivered by the station's director Carlos Garcia-Perez, "this attitude of Ortega just goes to show his political collusion with the government and his willingness to follow the official line. This lackey attitude demonstrates a profound lack of understanding and compassion toward the human reality of these children of God."It ended: "Cardinal Ortega, please be faithful to the gospel you preach."
Tough words to be sure, but in light of the standard set by Mr. Robinson, one would think that Mr. Garcia-Perez would have been congratulated for calling out Cardinal Ortega for not doing enough to stand up to the abuses committed against the Cuban people by that despotic regime. But, of course, one would be wrong, because in Cardinal Bergoglio's case, it involved a right-wing dictatorship and in Cardinal Ortega's case, well...you know.
Those offended by the temerity of Mr. Garcia-Perez piled on (here, here and here). His comments were denounced as "beyond belief," "name-calling," and most fretfully, "equivalent to a U.S. government statement."
The whole affair only demonstrates how little attitudes have progressed since the late Jeane Kirkpatrick's seminal 1979 Commentary essay, in which she in part lambasted the double standard of those who directed their righteous fury towards right-wing dictatorships but suddenly became quiescent when it came to those of the left-wing variety.
In any case, the bottom line is that judging the actions of clerics operating under extremely difficult conditions -- especially from abroad -- is no subject to take on flippantly. Who can really know what is in an individual's heart and the calculations and compromises he makes in the silence of his conscience to carry out what he sees as his mission? Yet if one is determined to enter that minefield, then let's apply a single standard on which to judge that behavior. What is expected or demanded under one type of dictatorship cannot be apologized for under another.
President Obama's second inaugural address contained an admirable homage to some of the greatest heroes of civil and political rights. We are treated to a vision of the United States that is rooted in the ideals those heroes struggled to achieve. And we celebrate their victory, even if we are not all in agreement about how much progress has been made or how much remains to be done. With the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, America achieved what has made it truly "the last best hope of the Earth" as Lincoln put it and Reagan reiterated. The stains of second-class citizenship and institutionalized prejudice have been removed. There is always more to do to help people take greater advantage of their birthright of freedom, but the birthright is enshrined in law in a country where law rules, not men -- in theory and most of the time in practice.
But such is not the case in many countries of the world, a world where the United States must exist and because of its size and influence, lead. Fecklessness and timidity disguised as false humility won't do; we are expected to lead whether we are asked to or want to. So given this, we as citizens have a right and even a duty, I think, to ask if during the next four years the administration will base U.S. foreign policy on those same ideals. After all, if the character and reputation we have and want to keep is one of a beacon of democracy and a friend to it everywhere, then surely we are obligated to put actions to our words. The president made clear yesterday that as far as his domestic agenda is concerned, he will continue to insist on his understanding of what it means to be a country founded upon the ideals of freedom and equality, and that will mean a larger government and more spending on entitlements with the costs born by overburdened taxpayers and by debt. I don't agree with that approach, but that's not germane to this post. But what of his foreign policy agenda? Shouldn't he also in these matters take care to promote the ideals that he believes make us a great nation? Shouldn't we, can't we, do more than we have done in the last four years to stand by democrats in their struggles, wherever they may be found?
I have been saddened and even alarmed to look over the last four years of the Obama administration's policies and see that support for democracy in word and deed has often been pushed aside to make room for withdrawal and accommodation. For example, one of the greatest threats to liberty and equality the world over are the radical Islamic terrorists and their supporters and funders, but the president and his highest officials, while taking victory laps over bin Laden's takedown by Seal Team 6, campaigned as though this was a diminishing problem and that al Qaeda had been "decimated." The truth is that even as the campaign was winding down Benghazi exposed their assertions as flawed. We know that al Qaeda is not only still powerful but thriving in North Africa and beyond. We stand by as the French take the lead in saving Mali, literally, from an al Qaeda takeover. That's right, the French. But then France has never been slow to assert itself where national interests are at stake. We could take a lesson from them.
And there are other examples where the administration has not taken care to secure our interests, such as its refusal to treat Russia as a bad actor where democracy is concerned and a supporter of those who share its authoritarian bent. Or Venezuela, where a dictator has been allowed to ruin his country, try to ruin others in the region and coddle and comfort our worst enemies with little resistance from us.
Let me tie two concepts together that I have been discussing and make this assertion: support for democracy is in our national interest. I'm glad the president said so yesterday in his second inaugural address. I just wish he'd say it more often and do something more concrete about it in the next four years.
A nation like ours cannot do other than promote democracy and support democrats. It is in our DNA and it is the only way our foreign policy can make sense. Our failure to do so from time to time is the exception that proves the rule. Why else is it noteworthy when we fail to do so? It is one of the reasons we are an exceptional nation.
Support for democracy and democrats means giving voice to our ideals and to take action to support those who share our ideals. We should never fail to talk about liberty and rights with all states who deny them to their citizens. Freedom House's latest report is a useful guide for knowing how to address these issues and with which countries. And we should take action, such as providing resources of various kinds to those men and women who ask for our help. Some of them are so oppressed that they need succor just to go on living; some need support because they are in a position to actually change their country for the better. Think of it as supporting both "hope and change."
Notice I said nothing about imposing democracy or nation-building; these are canards used by those who opposed the Iraq war or who deny our leadership role by hiding behind "state sovereignty" claims. In my years as a government official we never once imposed democracy on any country; it can't be done. What we did, what the United Nations and Europe and the Japanese and the Indians and many others have done, is to provide aid to people in dictatorships or failing states who asked for our help. Sometimes they are the majority of a country; sometimes they are the minority. Pointing out the objections of a dictator who murders and abuses his people and who is very often a disturber of the peace of his region or the world provides no excuse to deny help to his victims when we can. What legitimacy does such a dictator have to object to his would-be slaves asking free peoples to help them be free? By what right does he block the free world from trying to encourage the establishment of more free states, which is in their interest?
A world made up mostly of states where rights are respected and the law rules is surely in our interests as these states are less likely to be in serious conflict with states like them. It might take years or generations, but we should try, nonetheless.
And there are two more reasons to try. First, dictators vexed by dissidents at home are weakened. It is in our interests to make tyrants as miserable as we can; we have plenty of resources and agencies who can do this work. History has many lessons on this. It is a shame so many oppressors and enemies of freedom feel more secure today to work their wicked will at home and abroad than four years ago, especially all those whose behavior we can influence. Second, it makes no sense to hope for the day when a tyrant falls but to have done nothing to help the lovers of freedom be ready to take over. We learned a hard lesson in Egypt: Mubarak spent 30 years squelching the democratic opposition and thereby fulfilling his own prophecy that "it's me or the Brotherhood." We could have done more in Egypt.
I would like to take the president at his word yesterday when he made his single comment about supporting freedom around the world. I did not expect his second inaugural address to be like President George W. Bush's, but I'm glad at least that he mentioned it. And I will hope that he does more. There are many fine people both in the ranks of the political appointees and in the foreign and civil services who want to help democrats around the world, even if there are many who do not. He's the boss, he can have his way if he'll lead. He has an army ready to implement good programs that directly support -- dare I say it -- a freedom agenda.
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By Otto J. Reich and Ezequiel Vázquez-Ger
Seventy-one years ago this week, on December 7, 1941, the United States changed forever. What began as a tranquil day in a country that thought it could avoid the violence wracking the rest of the world ended with a bloody and unprovoked surprise attack. That "day that shall live in infamy" -- in President Franklin Roosevelt's famous words -- saw our country transformed from a growing but isolated nation into the military, technological and economic superpower that routed a vicious totalitarian Axis, then a brutal communist empire, and that has ensured peace and democracy in the world ever since.
On December 7, 2012, the people of Argentina will wake up to a different assault. The attack on its freedoms will not be a surprise and it will not come from a foreign empire. It will be a pre-announced offensive on freedom of expression, the most fundamental liberty of any democracy, and it will come from the increasingly despotic regime headed by Cristina Kirchner, a left-wing populist that, like most authoritarians, cannot abide an independent press.
It is often said that Argentines only protest when the economy hurts their pockets. If so, last November 8, was an exception to this rule. On that day about a million people across that country took to the streets with a clear message: Argentina wants more freedom, an independent judiciary, free press, and an end to widespread corruption. Unlike previous protests, this time the Argentines rallied not for better pay but for the basic principles that a democracy requires to function.
In the last year, after winning re-election with over 54 percent of the vote, Mrs. Kirchner apparently felt that an electoral majority allowed her to crudely grab all remaining power and move aggressively against every sector of society that she saw as a threat.
Motivated by Kirchner's removal of her democratic face mask, the protesters carried signs and placards denouncing many policies of the government, including violations of the constitutional separation of powers (e.g, threats, blackmail and extortion against judges); corruption scandals at the highest levels of government such as with the sitting vice-president; resumption of close diplomatic relations with Iran, with the concomitant somber foreign policy implications; and arbitrary restrictions on private enterprise, such as blocking access to foreign currency for commercial transactions and obstacles to importation of goods from abroad.
But the biggest immediate challenge facing the country, and the largest target of popular discontent, are the threats to press freedom coming from Kirchner. Many of the other indignations described above would not have been known but for the existence of an independent press that the government is trying to silence. And among the most professional and hard-hitting journalistic reporting is that by the largest media conglomerate, Grupo Clarin.
Two years ago, Mrs. Kirchner saw to it that the Congress pass a new media law that seeks to break up the Grupo Clarin, a move that in the opinion of many jurists is unconstitutional. After several judicial processes, in which the government tried to maliciously influence the judges' decisions, the President announced that on December 7 Grupo Clarin will shed many of its properties. If this occurs, it could spell the beginning of the end of press freedom in the Argentina, since Clarin is a trial balloon to be followed by Government attacks on smaller news organizations less able to defend themselves.
But not only is press freedom threatened. If the government is able to neutralize Grupo Clarin, representative democracy itself will be tested. Without the independent media's courage to expose the abuses and scandals of the government, President Kirchner will have eliminated the largest obstacle in her path toward the "constitutional reform" that would allow her to remain in power for an unprecedented third term, or perhaps indefinitely.
Argentina is once again at a crossroads. On November 8, its people arose and demanded the President respect basic principles. On December 7, Argentines will face their own "Pearl Harbor," seeing one of its most illustrious institutions shatter. If, on the other hand, they stand and defend their Constitution and freedoms, they will put a stop to Kirchner's plans for autocratic government and avoid the self-destructive path followed by the Cuban, Venezuelan, Bolivian, Ecuadorian, and other left-wing hemispheric governments.
The U.S. and other Western governments have a responsibility to defend the people of Argentina. Just as on December 7, 1941 the U.S. was bloodied but not broken, so will the people of Argentina recover their freedoms, sometime in the future, probably after a fierce but non-violent struggle, but one that must count with the support of the free world.
Otto J. Reich is president of the consulting firm Otto Reich & Associates LLC. He is a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, and U.S. ambassador to Venezuela. Follow him on Twitter: @ottoreich
Ezequiel Vázquez Ger is an associate at Otto Reich Associates LLC and collaborates with the non-profit organization The Americas Forum. Follow him on Twitter: @ezequielvazquez
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Wikileaks renegade Julian Assange seems to be genetically incapable of staying out of trouble. Holed up now for some five months in the Ecuadorean embassy in London to evade police questioning on sexual assault charges, the self-styled paladin of transparency and free expression appeared on CNN for an interview with host Erin Burnett and wound up insulting his Ecuadorean hosts.
Fumbling about to answer an obvious question on how he reconciled his seeking the political protection of a country whose president, Rafael Correa, has one of the worst track records against a free press in the hemisphere, Assange asserted he did not want to talk about "little things in small countries," and, when Burnett persisted, dismissed the situation of press freedom in Ecuador, because it is "not a significant world player."
Yet even as Assange strained mightily to change the subject from his hypocritical embrace of the Correa government, the latter is showing no signs of letting up on its suppression of critical media, and has even brought its campaign to the United States. Last month, Ecuadorean ambassador to the United States Nathalie Cely and another close Correa crony traveled to Miami to pressure a local Spanish language station not to air a documentary critical of Correa's presidency. (The good news is that the State Department's patience with Correa appears to be wearing thin, with Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobson recently criticizing his abuse of the Ecuadorean legal system to punish and intimidate the press.)
As far as Julian Assange is concerned, as much as he desperately tries to convince anyone who will listen that his cause is openness and transparency and, now apparently, speaking out against purveyors of strategic surveillance technologies, his alignment with someone like Rafael Correa, who as recently as last month said that control of information should be "a function of the state, like the judiciary," leaves his credibility in shambles. Of course, openness and transparency and the abuses of surveillance technologies should be concerns of anyone living in the 21st century, but if you believe the threats emanate from the United States and Europe and not today's technologically savvy authoritarians, then you are less a prophet than a crank whose audience will remain forever confined to the fever swamps of the rabid, anti-American Left.
Assange's quixotic crusade has led him to a cramped room in Rafael Correa's embassy in London -- with no exit in sight. With his opinions on just how much Assange thinks of their country, the Ecuadoreans got to see a side of him they probably were not expecting. Still, the two sides appear to be locked together out of ideological convenience. Here's to a long and unhappy marriage.
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Precisely eleven years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the question of U.S. relations with Islamic countries and communities is once again at the top of the foreign policy agenda. As violent anti-American protests rage around the world, the Obama administration has focused on safeguarding U.S. citizens and installations on one hand, and seeking to dampen the fury of the protests on the other by pointing out that the U.S. government had nothing to do with the anti-Islamic video that ignited this burst of anger.
While this immediate focus on quelling the crisis is prudent, the U.S. response cannot stop there. While the video in question may have catalyzed these protests, it cannot accurately be described as the cause of them. In any event, any effort to quash future provocations of this sort is bound to be futile -- given the ease by which such media can now be produced and distributed -- as well as profoundly contrary to the American belief in the right to free expression.
The current unrest is not in fact a result of a single offensive video, but is rather a continuation and outgrowth of the Arab uprisings of 2011. Those revolutions were the result of deep-seated political and economic grievances that had been decades in the making: the absence of economic prosperity or the hope of individual advancement, paired with the inability to do anything about it as a result of the simultaneous absence of political rights.
But while the Arab uprisings resulted from those grievances, they did not by any means resolve them. Indeed, economies like Egypt's and Libya's are worse off now than they were at the beginning of 2011, as unrest and political uncertainty have driven away tourism and investment and politicians have as frequently sought to settle old scores instead of taking their countries forward. Political participation has increased, but it has not brought results sufficient to meet the (unrealistic) expectations of the people in these countries.
In such circumstances, it is not unusual for people to look for others to blame. As much as the recent anti-American protests and attacks on U.S. embassies have conjured an image of a U.S.-Islamic conflict, the United States is in fact just one of many parties upon whom blame for the Middle East's woes has been cast. The former regimes, religious minorities, wealthy businessmen, Israel, and liberals are among those who have been targeted in these Arab uprisings.
Just as there is no shortage of parties to blame, there have been an abundance of parties both within and without these countries ready to stoke these hatreds to advance their own agendas. Radical Islamists have perhaps been the most pervasive and vocal of these, but certainly not the only ones. In many Middle Eastern states, secular politicians have been as vocally anti-American as their Islamist counterparts. Whatever their ideology, the angry voices have drowned out the introspective ones, and those preaching simple fixes have too often prevailed over those offering sensible albeit difficult paths forward. In highly-charged environments where security and political institutions are either absent or non-functioning, it is a small step from rhetorical attacks on such perceived foes to physical attacks.
At such a pivotal moment, it is important that we correctly understand what is happening and why, and mount the appropriate policy response. We must in particular avoid the temptation of misapprehending the current spurt of violence as the harbinger of some sort of epic civilization-level conflict between the West and Islam, or the urge to disengage with the Middle East in frustration over the persistence of anti-Americanism and chaos there. The Middle East remains a region which is vital to U.S. interests, and we cannot afford either to ignore it or to act in a rash or naïve manner there.
Since the beginning of the Arab uprisings, the Obama administration has adopted a passive, hesitant approach to events, conveying the sense that America is increasingly disengaged, indifferent, or both when it comes to the Middle East. This can be seen in the disconnect between rhetoric and action on Syria, diffidence in dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, "leading from behind" in Libya, and even in the talk of a "pivot" to Asia in our foreign policy. The result has been a diminution rather than an enhancement in both U.S. influence and -- despite strenuous efforts to avoid disputes with new governments in the region -- our popularity.
Going forward, the United States should not lose our hope for a positive future in the Middle East or confidence in our own ability to shape outcomes there. However, we should be clear-eyed about the challenges that we face and the long timetable which lies before us to accomplish what we set out to achieve. Foreign policy has three fundamental objectives -- to promote American security, prosperity, and to advance U.S. values. This should be the starting point for successful policy in the region -- firmly and unapologetically advocate our interests, help governments to reform politically and economically, and support and work with parties within and without the region who share our interests and values.
Any spark can start a fire, but a sustained conflagration requires fuel and oxygen to sustain itself. There is little U.S. policymakers can do to prevent future sparks of the sort that triggered the violence convulsing the Middle East today. But through a clear understanding of the region's challenges and a principled and realistic response to them, we and our allies can hope to prevent them from becoming infernos which engulf our interests and those of the region's citizens.
As the Islamic Republic moves closer to obtaining a nuclear weapons capability, talk of an Israeli attack on Iran is increasingly the subject of articles and reports in the international media. On the one hand, it is certainly understandable why Israel is extremely concerned about the Islamic Republic's nuclear capability, particularly given the escalating anti-Israeli rhetoric coming from Tehran. On the other hand, is an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities really the best solution to the nuclear threat posed by the Islamic Republic?
The answer to this question lies in the effectiveness of the international sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic and whether a coalition of concerned countries, with American leadership, is now willing to support the Iranian freedom movement.
The international sanctions that have delivered the biggest punch to date have been those imposed on Iran's oil and gas industry and its financial institutions. Iran's crude oil shipments have dropped by 52 percent since July 1 and the Islamic Republic is losing $133 million a day all without the devastating oil-price spike that many had feared would happen. Sensitive internal government reports are beginning to leak in Tehran warning of an impending financial crisis in which the regime might not be able to meet the government payroll in the next three months. The regime has warned its ministries to expect a 50 percent cut in the salary of all government employees.
While Ali Khamenei and his minions have been trying to minimize the effects of international sanctions, it appears that the regime's foreign currency reserve may be exhausted in the coming months. The IMF estimated that the regime had $106 billion in official foreign reserves at the end of 2011; estimates by private economists now put the regime's reserves remaining at $50 billion - $70 billion. In spite of Iran Central Bank Governor Mahmoud Bahmani's efforts to hide this alarming situation and halt the dramatic slide of the rial, the rial's unofficial rate is reported to have plunged to record low rates of 25,000 to 29,000 rials to the U.S. dollar. The regime anticipates that the rial may fall to a devastating 67,000 rials to the dollar as the Iranian central bank tries to curb the sharp drop in its reserves.
Inflation has plagued the Iranian economy since the Islamic Revolution. The removal of government subsidies on food and fuel amplified this problem and sanctions have added to the inflationary pressures. With inflation now at 33 percent, prices have escalated to a point that the burden is very difficult if not unbearable for the average Iranian consumer. Discontent with the regime is on the rise. Indeed, if the leaked classified reports are to be believed, the regime should anticipate that riots will occur in border cities where day-to-day conditions are most rapidly disintegrating. The Iranian people blame the regime and its policies for their growing poverty, and food and fuel shortages. Momentum is shifting from the regime to those seeking a free, democratic Iran.
The regime's relentless pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability presents a genuine dilemma. While it is important to keep a credible military strike option on the table, a military attack, especially if Israel executes it unilaterally, will not have long-lasting effects in preventing a nuclear weapons-capable Iran. Israel and all countries concerned about the regime's nuclear threat should not lose sight of the fact that discontent among the Iranians is at its highest level since the Revolution. The Iranian people are capable of surprising the world again by rising up against this oppressive, illegitimate regime just as they did in the 2009 post-election protests.
It is impossible to predict the precise moment when another uprising will happen in Iran, but a military attack will be a serious impediment to the success of any democratic movement in Iran. It will give the mullahs the perfect chance to play victim on the international scene and to impose even greater oppression on the Iranian people. Perhaps this is why the public pronouncements of leaders of the Islamic Republic have been so provocative lately.
The regime believes that a nuclear weapons capability will bestow upon it what the Iranian people will not -- unchallenged legitimacy. Consequently, the Islamic regime will never abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons. A free and democratic Iran is the only permanent solution to the Islamic regime's nuclear threat to the security of Israel and international peace. It requires a concerted international effort to financially paralyze the regime. It also requires a policy by the United States and its allies, including Israel, to support the Iranian freedom movement both inside Iran and abroad.
The Iranian people rose courageously once to show their opposition to this regime and their desire for a peaceful democratic government, but the governments of the free world failed to support them. Today, finally, these same governments, with U.S. leadership, are beginning to take major steps in the right direction through rigorous sanctions. Instead of a military attack, the U.S. and Israel should immediately launch major funding and human rights initiatives to support the Iranian freedom movement in its efforts to bring about a free, democratic Iran that is committed to playing a peaceful and constructive role in the Middle East. The Iranian freedom movement is not asking the United States or its allies to shed blood to advance its struggle with the regime in Tehran. Those seeking a free, democratic Iran are simply looking for strong international public support to secure their God-given freedom and fundamental human rights.
G. William Heiser is a former official in the Reagan National Security Council Staff and currently is an advisor to the Confederation of Iranian Students.
Amir Fakhravar is Secretary General of the Confederation of Iranian Students and a former political prisoner of the Iranian regime. He is presently a Research Fellow and Visiting Lecturer at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school of international affairs in Washington, DC.
The events in Benghazi created a major opportunity for President Obama to speak out about an important problem that afflicts a significant segment of the Muslim world: an inability to recognize that it is not just its religion that deserves to be respected. Muslims were rightly outraged by the disgusting film that denigrated their religion. Those who produced it -- evidently someone using a pseudonym -- and those who support it -- are beyond the pale of decency, much less religious behavior.
But the same respect is due to other religions as well. The Golden Rule -- do unto others as you would have them do unto you -- applies to the treatment of a religion other than one's own.
Sadly, this has far too infrequently been the case in the Muslim world. When mobs attack Christians, as they have done in Libya, and extremists kill Westerners in the name of their religion, too many Muslim religious and secular leaders stay silent. When individual imams teach that Jews are no better than monkeys, too many of their colleagues have nothing to say. When Hindu and Buddhist shrines are desecrated by Muslim extremists, in too many corners of the Muslim world the silence is deafening.
Muslims certainly do not have a monopoly on extremism, nor on the violence and damage that such extremism all too often generates. But unlike the case with respect to their counterpart religions, too many of their leaders, both religious and secular -- and many of their secular leaders, notably those from the Muslim Brotherhood, have close ties to religious leaders -- do not cry out in protest against such behavior.
The president had an opportunity, and still has the opportunity, to call upon Muslim leaders to teach those who heed their words that they accord to others the same respect for the heritage and practices of other religions that they rightly expect for their own. He has yet to do so. Nor, so far as I have been able to determine, has any senior member of his administration. It is not enough to speak of "respect for other religions." That is far too bland a formula for what is a problem that plagues Muslim leaders to a greater extent than those of other religions.
Teachable moments do not often present themselves, and the president and administration's failure to make the most of the moment at hand is unfortunate at best, tragic at worst.
President Obama's surprise speech in Kabul was a political stunt filled with the kind of mischaracterizations typical of a campaign, but the actual U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement that he signed while there was something of greater substance.
The crux of the long-term U.S. commitment to Afghanistan in the new agreement is the American promise to designate Afghanistan a Major Non-NATO Ally. The designation communicates a relatively strong U.S. commitment to Afghan security and begin to undo the damage done by the Obama administration's various and shifting deadlines for the Afghan mission.
The agreement, however, has weaknesses. Click for my full analysis over at the AfPak Channel.
Afghan Presidential Palace via Getty Images
Yesterday's column by David Ignatius ostensibly detailing the Obama administration's reelection campaign's strengths on foreign policy is revealing, but probably not in the way the White House hopes. While some more critical analysis from Ignatius (usually one of the most perceptive of foreign policy columnists) would have been preferred, in this case he seems to be channeling what he's hearing from the White House, so the column serves the useful purpose of explaining the administration's mindset. No doubt Obama's experience and understanding of foreign policy has, um, evolved during his time in office. But given the administration's message in the article's closing line that Obama will be making the campaign case that he has "learned on the job," the specific examples of the administration's current thinking and future priorities cited in the article are puzzling and don't help their case.
For example, on Syria Ignatius says that Obama "worries that the protracted struggle" risks empowering extremists who would be worse than Assad. This is a serious concern, but it also risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy because it completely disregards the White House's own role in failing to support the non-extremist opposition elements in Syria who have for a year been crying out for American help.
On Russia, the hope is expressed that Obama can "do business" with the "transactional" Putin. One wonders if that is the most sophisticated assessment the White House can offer after investing so much diplomatic capital in Medvedev and the failed "re-set" policy, and after seeing Putin's conspiratorial and belligerent campaign directed at the U.S.?
On Iran, I hope the administration's optimism is warranted about the possibility of Tehran accepting a grand bargain on its nuclear program. But the real challenge comes if, as is more likely, Iran rejects the offer -- what is the administration's contingency plan? Especially since as Will Tobey lays out here, Vice President Biden's boasts and distortions notwithstanding, the Iranian regime has made substantial progress on its nuclear program during Obama's time in office.
The Israeli-Palestinian peace process? Again, may the administration's optimism be warranted, but making that a second-term focus needs to first account for the significant setbacks caused by the administration's own previous miscalculations, especially by alienating the Israeli leadership and adopting a position on settlements even firmer than the Palestinian position itself. "Managing" the Arab Spring? This seems to have disquieting echoes of "leading from behind," especially given the administration's current paralysis on Syria and apathy and missed opportunities, as Jackson Diehl has argued, towards democracy promotion in general.
Also curiously absent from the list of second-term priorities is Afghanistan or Asia -- the latter omission is especially puzzling given the administration's previous hype about its strategic pivot. The bottom line is that, as Peter Feaver and I among others have described, the administration's foreign policy successes have generally come when they have followed Bush administration strategic frameworks, and their greatest missteps have come when they tried to go in different directions. Such a pattern does not necessarily bode well for the administration's hoped-for second term policy priorities. Now the skeptics out there might respond that of course Shadow Government writers would say something like that. But I hope those skeptics remember one of Shadow Government's modest maxims: Just because a Republican says it, doesn't mean that it isn't true.
It is bad enough to read that the military has launched a coup in Mali and ousted the democratically elected President Amadou Toumani Touré. Even those of us who believe that Francis Fukuyama made a sound and defensible point about the "end of history" know that there will continue to be setbacks for a long time in much of the developing world. Just because there is now no credible social, economic, or political argument in defense of tyranny does not mean that there won't still be attempts to make that argument by self-serving or even well-meaning putchists.
But it is most disheartening to learn how and why the coup came about just weeks before a scheduled election that was to peacefully replace Touré, only the second democratically elected president of a democratic Mali. Worse still to learn of the reaction to this coup by Malians who should know better.
Mali was somewhat of a success story in the African Sahel region. Only five years ago it hosted the Community of Democracies gathering attended by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte. As we planned for this event (I was then the deputy assistant administrator for democracy and government programs at USAID), there was considerable internal discussion of how well things might go and what the optics would be like for the world's democracy promoters (states as well as NGOs) to gather in Bamako for this important meeting. All were aware that there was of course still much poverty and lack of development in Mali along with unresolved tribal and sectional strife. But the elected government of Touré had been for several years working with the IMF and World Bank and other international donors to cut spending and regulation and improve governance. So it was deemed worthwhile to hold the meeting there. It was a success and the Malian government was a gracious host.
Fast forward to today, a few days after an ill-planned coup by what appear to be incompetent military leaders who have already broken their promises to begin restoring democratic order. Sanctions have been imposed and there are reports that the rebels in the north have taken advantage of the chaos and are furthering their rebellion and implementing sharia law, while as many as 200,000 people are fleeing.
So, democracy has been violently interrupted and al Qaeda, which has designs on Mali as it does in the rest of the Sahel, now has a widening gap in which to insert themselves and to work their wicked will.
But all these problems are compounded by the reaction of the Malians themselves. The coup has been welcomed by various civic groups, peasant leaders as well as other important sectors. Their interest in maintaining democratic processes is as weak, apparently, as the Touré government. The reason is because they have not seen sufficient improvements to their livelihood and an end to the northern rebellion. They have also grown fed-up with the way in which foreign interests have been able to, in their view, exploit the country and its land resources. Their motto is "peace first, elections later."
This is the enduring problem we see in several areas of the developing and democratizing world: Democracy and markets cannot make enough headway before the people become disillusioned to the point of being willing to welcome a coup if it will achieve the objectives they seek. There seems to be no permanent turning away from democracy and polls continue to show that people support democracy and want it for their country. We see this in parts of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. But some people in some states and regions are not willing to endure the progress that democracy can make only slowly. And there is a severe shortage of indigenous far-sighted leaders who should be encouraging the public to work tirelessly and patiently for democratic success instead of taking advantage of public disillusionment and rancor to promote themselves.
This is not a flaw in democracy, representative institutions, or law-based governance. The question is not whether freedom and liberty under law is the solution to lack of development and disorder. They are the only elements that can bring sustained order and progress.
The question is how long will it take and will the public endure the wait? That question is answered only by cultural factors, but Western and international forces can help with wise policy and firm commitments to the democratic path. Now is the time for the West and the U.N. and related organizations to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with African organizations and the leaders of other African countries who are condemning the coup, imposing sanctions, and insisting on a return to normal democratic order. It is also time to support, encourage, and even warn Mali's civil society leaders that they should not make a deal with the devil, as it were, by welcoming violations of democratic order in hopes that good can come of it. Good is very likely not to come of it, especially with a deepening and widening rebellion in the north that the incompetent military cannot control and that is being used to its advantage by terrorist groups like al Qaeda.
GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images
As someone who has worked on human rights and democracy promotion in U.S. foreign policy, one of the questions I most often hear is "Why does the U.S. think it can 'impose' democracy on other countries?" My answer is always the same. We never impose democracy on other countries, we support the individuals and organizations in any country that share our commitment to universal human rights and a desire for freedom for themselves and their nations. Courageous freedom fighters risk their lives to stand against oppression whether or not we stand with them, but America is at its best when we do. The Freedom Collection website, newly launched by the George W. Bush Institute, provides an influential platform for dissidents and human rights advocates to speak publicly about their dreams of freedom and the risks they take to pursue them. It is a compelling reminder that democratic aspirations are not American things we impose but, in fact, reside in the hearts and minds of women and men in every nation.
The case of Burma highlights how steadfast American support for dissidents and their democracy movements can eventually lead to change that is good for them and good for America. As a tentative reform process unfolds under President Thein Sein, the elections scheduled for Sunday, April 1, in which Aung San Suu Kyi is contesting a seat, already are flawed but offer the latest reason for hope that democracy may still take root in this beleaguered S.E. Asian country. The road remains difficult and tenuous, but a cautious optimism has seized the country.
For decades, the U.S. has been providing unwavering support for the Burmese democracy movement -- rhetorically, financially and diplomatically. Every administration and members of the U.S. Congress on both sides of the aisle, have maintained a strong human rights policy on Burma. There has been a strong set of sanctions in place, but even more important has been the significant financial support we have given through the National Endowment for Democracy to the many small exile organizations along the Thai and Indian borders with Burma. With American support and protection, these activist organizations run by exiles have been tracking political prisoners inside the country, planning for a federalist system, documenting horrific human rights abuses of the military regime, convening diverse ethnic nationalities so that they may work together, and reporting or broadcasting news into the closed country.
For years, the influence of these groups was minimal, but it was for such a time as this that the preparations were made to take advantage of small openings and translate them into big change. Many, though not all, political prisoners have been freed and some exiles are returning. As dissidents and former exiles are allowed to participate in the political system, the preparations they have made will be essential for overcoming the serious challenges they will, no doubt, face.
The Freedom Collection highlights several of the most inspiring women's voices from diverse ethnic groups in Burma, all of whom have received support for their work from the U.S. government. Along with Aung San Suu Kyi, Khin Ohmar, Charm Thong, Cheery Zahau, and Dr. Cynthia Maung are from the Burman, Shan, Chin and Karen ethnic groups respectively and have modeled a peaceful and democratic future for the country through their advocacy and collaboration across geography and ethnicity. Burma watchers all agree that one of the biggest challenges remaining, even if democracy returns to the country, is resolving historical conflicts between the various ethnic groups. The military has perpetrated some its worst abuses against minority groups, including widespread use of rape as a weapon of war by the Burmese military. Women's groups across the spectrum all have been advocating an end to these terrible crimes.
I was privileged to work directly with Charm Thong and others of the Shan Women's Action Network (SWAN) to raise awareness of this issue after they published their important report called Licence to Rape in 2002. Women's groups of other ethnic nationalities have published similar reports and all ethnic minority women suffer under this pervasive threat. The encouraging story is that all of these women's groups also work collaboratively together through the umbrella Women's League of Burma that includes majority Burman women. Together they have shown that all the ethnic groups in Burma desire human rights and are able to work together to achieve them. I'm proud to call these women friends and proud that my country stood with them in their struggle. On the Freedom Collection site, Mrs. Laura Bush narrates an important video on the power of women to bring change in countries from Iran to Liberia to Burma. Though every road from tyranny to freedom is rough and winding, I believe in Burma it will be paved primarily by women.
Reasonable people can disagree about what military action, if any, the United States should take on Libya. But if we are going to have a reasonable debate, we will need to avoid some sloppy thinking. Here are three especially sloppy notions that are beginning to appear in the national conversation:
Whatever we do, it mustn't be "unilateral" like the Iraq invasion. The Iraq invasion may or may not have been wise, but it sure wasn't "unilateral." As Pete Wehner reminds us, this "unilateral" action involved contributions from "the United Kingdom, Italy, Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Spain, Poland, Denmark, Hungary, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania, the Netherlands, Norway, El Salvador, and 17 other countries that committed troops to Iraq." If the Obama administration ever does find itself intervening militarily in Libya, it will be hard-pressed to match the multilateralism of that "unilateral" action.
Defenders of military action must answer tough questions but defenders of military inaction don't need to. Doves are right to raise tough questions about any proposed military action in the Libyan crisis. But many similar tough questions need to be asked about the policy of inaction. The Obama administration has already taken sides in the Libyan civil war, is it willing to see "its side" lose? Is there a scale of humanitarian disaster that is intolerable and, if so, what is it and what will the United States do if that point is reached? With Obama's own top intelligence officer predicting that Qaddafi will prevail absent military efforts to shore up the rebels, what is the plan to deal with post-rebellion Libya?
Military action makes us morally responsible but military inaction allows us to avoid moral responsibility. Many defenders of military inaction reach their point of view by way of a skewed cost-benefit calculation that assumes the worst about military action and assumes the best about inaction. Every untoward development that happens or is speculated to happen after military intervention is blamed on the intervener, but every untoward development that happens in the absence of military intervention is left out of the calculus entirely. Thus ideologues who bemoan American "militarism" count up all of the casualties in wars the U.S. intervened in and utterly disregard all of the casualties in conflicts the U.S. let fester without acting.
Let me be clear, more rigorous analysis might still yield a conclusion against U.S. intervening militarily. There has been rigorous debate right here amongst the Shadow Government contributors (see here vs. here). In particular, I find Kori Schake's warning about President Obama's obvious reluctance to intervene to be a wise cautionary. As Rumsfeld might put it, one goes to war with the commander-in-chief one has and so doubt about Obama's resolve on this matter is a reasonable factor to weigh in the balance. But if we do opt for military inaction, it had better be the result of a tough-minded assessment of the costs and benefits of all of the alternatives and not simply the sloppy embrace of inertia.
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
The calls by liberals like John Kerry, and some not-so-liberal types like John McCain, have prompted a reaction from both the administration, which prefers meaningless pronouncements over concrete action to influence events on the ground, as well as from solid conservatives like my colleague and friend Kori Schake, who worry about the true nature and intentions of the Libyan opposition. In the meantime, however, Muammar al-Qaddafi continues both to profit from oil revenues -- Libya is still exporting oil -- and to kill his own people. His aircraft continue flying with impunity, and bombing targets on the ground. Just as the Obama administration's bluster has had no effect whatsoever on the course of the civil war, so too have the much vaunted sanctions approved by the U.N. Security Council done little to unseat the Libyan madman.
Some of Libya's rebels are saying they do not want U.S. intervention; others are pleading for it. And it is true that no one knows who these rebels really are. So there is much to the argument that arming these people -- who in any event have managed to obtain arms on their own -- may not be a terribly good idea. In addition, since at least some of the rebels themselves have stated that they oppose American air strikes, much less any sort of intervention on the ground, there is no reason for the United States, or any of its reluctant allies, to contemplate such actions.
At the same time, however, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Pentagon have gone much further: they insist that any kind of military action -- even a no-fly zone -- simply places excessive demands on U.S. resources. Libya's air defenses would first have to be demolished, they posit, and even then, the country is just too big. And, they argue, any action by the United States must be taken in conjunction with its allies -- meaning NATO. Since several NATO states, notably Turkey, are averse to interfering with Mr. Qaddafi's bloodletting, nothing will happen. How convenient.
The Obama administration appears unclear about why a no-fly zone is called for. It is not just a matter of the rebels' interests; it is, first and foremost, in U.S. interests. After all, what if Qaddafi were to defeat the rebels because there was no interference with his air strikes against them, which are increasing with every passing day. Would his victory serve U.S. interests?
DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images
The sanctions which have been placed on Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, his family members, and his senior officials are strong. They include asset freezes, travel bans, and threats of criminal prosecution. All of which add up to a powerful signal to the Libyan regime that the war it is waging on its own people is illegitimate and unacceptable, and to the Libyan people that our sympathy is with them and we will act to prevent their national assets from being pillaged. The world is now a considerably less inviting place for Libyan officials, who have been known to carouse in the capitals of Europe, the Caribbean, and elsewhere.
But therein a problem lies. The strategy followed thus far by the United States and its allies may persuade many Libyan officials that there is no future in following Qaddafi and therefore, defection to the opposition or negotiating an exit from Libya altogether is the most sensible course of action. But for others, especially those closest to Qaddafi, the sanctions and threats of international prosecution, combined with the advance of opposition forces, may convince them that they have little choice but to hunker down in Tripoli and Sirte and fight.
To deal with this possibility that Qaddafi and his loyalists will use all of the force at their disposal before giving in, and that the violence in Libya may therefore get considerably worse, further international action is needed. The United States and EU should seek U.N. Security Council authorization for the imposition of a no-fly zone in Libya.
We have heard much from U.S. officials in recent days about the risks of imposing a no-fly zone, but inaction also has its consequences.
BEN BORG CARDONA/AFP/Getty Images
The New York Times reports that the Obama administration has committed itself to a policy of regime change in Libya and is now publicly contemplating military action, "The administration [has] declared all options on the table in its diplomatic, economic and military campaign to drive Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi from power." The talk is of imposing a no-fly zone over Libya, which may sound like an incremental and moderate step. Defense Secretary Gates helpfully clarified to Congress that a no-fly zone "begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses." It is an act of war.
On first glance, the move appears to represent a dramatic departure for the Obama administration and, indeed, U.S. foreign policy. Until now the United States did not have a policy of overthrowing governments solely because they violated human rights. If we did, we would be at war with half the world, starting with China. Not even the neoconservatives at their most bellicose had such grand ambitions.
In reality, Obama probably does not either. More likely, Obama is moving against Libya because Qaddafi's actions have shocked the world's conscience and Obama felt the United States, as leader of the free world, ought to act.
In other words, his attempt to overthrow the Libyan government is not a principled stand for liberty; it is an opportunistic attempt to stay in the good graces of world opinion. It is otherwise unclear what U.S. interests Obama thinks are at stake in North Africa that would justify military force and regime change. It cannot be human rights: nothing in the administration's record would suggest it values human rights highly enough that their violation would prompt the overthrow of a government.
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International Relations theorist Charles Glaser has joined a growing chorus calling for the abandonment of Taiwan. His take on why we should abandon the island is tucked into his "nuanced version of realism" argued on the pages of Foreign Affairs. As do most "abandon Taiwan" arguments, he begins with a "realist" argument for why war between the United States and China is unlikely. Why? Because besides Taiwan, Sino-U.S. interests are compatible.
Parting company with other "pessimistic" realists who believe that "power transitions" -- the historic condition of a rising power challenging the existing hegemon -- more often than not lead to war, Glaser believes that this time it is different. The security dilemma (in pursuing our security we take steps which decrease their security which leads them to take steps which decrease our security, a process that can end in conflict) in the Sino-U.S. case. The task for Beijing and Washington (but mostly Washington) is to trust that each country just wants security, not domination.
For example, the United States should not fear China's nuclear build-up because of Beijing's limited ability to strike the U.S. homeland. According to this logic, the United States should forego temptations to increase its own nuclear arsenal in response to China's own increases. All China is doing is increasing its security with a second strike capability. In turn, China should not fear U.S. conventional capabilities because most are resident across the Pacific.
But ultimately, the argument goes, it is up to the United States and not China, to make adjustments to its security posture and not exaggerate threats that China poses. The United States is safe because China will never have the means to destroy its deterrent.
Glaser concedes that this theory overlooks the fact that U.S. security alliances could seem threatening to China. Here we get to the nub of his argument. The United States must ask itself how important its security alliances are. Unlike "Neo-isolationists," Glaser, an advocate of "selective engagement," believes that the alliances with South Korea and Japan are important. And the United States could defend those alliances without creating a debilitating arms race if it provides just enough conventional deterrence, plus the threat of nuclear retaliation should those countries come under attack.
To Glaser, Taiwan is different. China's belief that Taiwan is part of it is non-negotiable, and Beijing and Washington have very different views of what constitutes the status quo across the Strait. The Taiwan dispute has no diplomatic solution and the risks of nuclear war are getting too high, particularly with China's advancing second strike capability. His answer is for the United States to make the necessary "adjustments" and abandon Taiwan.
He acknowledges potential critics who may say appeasement usually whets the appetite of the appeased. But, says Glaser, not all adversaries are Hitler, and China has limited territorial goals. Even if China has more expansive territorial claims, the United States can remediate any military imbalance through a greater conventional presence.
In the end, the real danger is a self-fulfilling prophesy, a failure by the United States to realize that its basic goals are compatible with China's. Glaser fears that this is already happening -- the United States is taking a much more competitive military stance because its ability to operate along China's periphery is in danger. According to Glaser, this dilemma has two solutions. The first is for Washington to realize that U.S. interests are changing -- Taiwan is not really vital. And second, the United States should forego the kind of nuclear superiority that could counter China's second strike capability. Problem solved.
This is a fairly conventional international theory argument about the relative stability of Sino-American relations. Glaser is essentially taking a side in an old debate. His innovation is the abandonment of Taiwan, a necessary step to decrease the security dilemma and reveal China's truly limited aims.
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There is some confusion about the Obama administration's explanation for why they did not take a more forceful stand on Libya earlier in the crisis. The talking points delivered by Ben Rhodes, the White House official responsible for communications in the foreign policy arena, and relayed in Sunday's Washington Post emphasized administration concerns about the potential risk to American citizens. Whether or not the administration made the right call depends, I think, on which citizens they were seeking to protect.
Many critics read this as a general reference to all of the American expats living in Libya. If this were the case, as my friend and former colleague Pete Wehner outlines, the administration's position would be extraordinarily concessionary to Qaddafi and an ominous precedent for dealing with tyrants in the future. If the presence of any U.S. citizens in any country were enough to deter the United States from taking a clear stand, then the implications are deeply troubling. As Wehner argues, "The message sent to, and surely the message received by, despots around the world is this: If you want to neuter America, threaten to harm its citizens. Mr. Obama will bend like red-hot steel pulled from a furnace."
I read the administration's explanation a bit differently. I believe what they were primarily worried about was the safety of the embassy personnel. After all, there are doubtless still U.S. citizens in Libya today and yet the administration has taken fairly tough action on the economic sanctions front and has started to say the things that they were deterred from saying a week ago. Apparently, the U.S. embassy in Tripoli was uniquely vulnerable. According to the deputy Chief of Mission, the embassy lacked the customary security provided by U.S. Marines. With little or no protection from mob action, the embassy personnel were extraordinarily exposed. As bad as the situation in Libya is today, it would be far worse if Qaddafi had seized the embassy in an Iranian-hostage-type gambit. Perhaps the warnings that "certain kinds of messaging from the American government could endanger the security of American citizens..." were a veiled reference to threats directed at the U.S. embassy. Given Qaddafi's record of erratic behavior, I think an embassy hostage situation would have to be considered a realistic threat.
If the administration was simply worried about any potential harm to any American expat, then the critics' case is more compelling. U.S. citizens are everywhere and such a doctrine -- we will not speak out if U.S. citizens are in the country -- is not sustainable. Indeed, if that were the original motivation, the administration did not forbear for long and has put those expats at risk with the economic sanctions and talk of military options.
More plausibly, the administration was delaying certain actions until the embassy personnel could be evacuated. That strikes me as a tough but defensible call under the circumstances. It is tough because it still involves making concessions to virtual hostage takers, nevertheless defensible, because those concessions were only a temporary tactic.
This does not mean that the administration has gotten everything right on Libya. I hope someone presses the administration to explain why the embassy was so vulnerable, and why steps were not taken earlier to evacuate the personnel and thus restore our leverage sooner. And if the administration really wants to prove its critics wrong, it must exercise leadership on the Libyan file from here on out and avoid contradictory messaging.
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The Qaddafi regime's use of deadly force against protesting Libyan citizens has been properly met by condemnations from responsible governments around the globe. And then you have the outliers.
It may surprise some that this includes several governments in the Western Hemisphere, led by Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, the one-time petty dictator who posed as a born-again democrat to capture his country's presidency in 2006 (only to revert to his autocratic ways).
To great fanfare, Ortega pronounced, "I have been speaking with Qaddafi on the telephone ... he is again fighting a great battle, how many battles has Qaddafi had to fight. In these circumstances they are looking for a way to have a dialogue, but defend the unity of the nation, so the country does not disintegrate, so there will not be anarchy in the country."
It bears noting that the last time Daniel Ortega was heard from on a global scale was in 2008. Nicaragua was the only country to recognize the independence of the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions of Georgia following the brutal Russian invasion.
Also displaying solidarity with the murderous Qaddafi regime is Ortega's guiding light, Fidel Castro, who gamely tried to change the subject by telling the world that, "The government of the United States is not concerned at all about peace in Libya and it will not hesitate to give NATO the order to invade that rich country, perhaps in a question of hours or very short days."
The support for Qaddafi, as detestable as it is, is not hard to understand. After all, both Ortega and Castro, along with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales, are all past recipients of the Muammar Qaddafi International Human Rights Prize, bestowed by the Libyan dictator himself.
For his part, the loquacious Chavez has been unusually silent on the Libyan situation. That is quite different from September 2009, when Chavez hosted Qaddafi in Caracas, exclaiming, "What Simon Bolivar is to the Venezuelan people, Qaddafi is to the Libyan people." He also awarded him Venezuela's highest civilian decoration, saying, "We share the same destiny, the same battle in the same trench against a common enemy, and we will conquer."
Chavez critics are currently giving him his comeuppance, "Our garrulous president is keeping a thunderous silence," wrote Teodoro Petkoff in the newspaper Tal Cual. "Now that the democratic rebellion has reached Libya, Chavez is looking the other way and even abandoning his disgraced ‘brother.'"
Compare all this with the reactions of serious governments in the region, such as Peru, Colombia, and Chile, who have all forcefully condemned the attacks of protesters, with Peru breaking relations with Libya all together.
All this crystallizes the situation for the United States in Latin America today: between serious governments with whom we can do business and the irresponsible outliers with whom we share hardly any common interests. It is a distinction the Obama administration doesn't always seem to appreciate. At a House Western Hemisphere subcommittee hearing last week, Rep. David Rivera (R-FL) chided Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela on this score, saying that our hemispheric policy seems to be all about trying to make up with our enemies and ignoring our friends. Let's hope the disparate reactions to the carnage in Libya will serve as a wake-up call to realign our priorities in the Western Hemisphere.
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Up until now, I have been inclined to give the White House the benefit of the doubt for the Middle East message difficulties that they have been having. But they are stretching that doubt almost to the breaking point. Today's press briefing by White House Spokesman Jay Carney was excruciating. He clearly had nothing to say about Libya and was determined not to say it.
I am not expecting the White House spokesman to make policy from the podium, but I did expect the White House to be further ahead of the curve today than they were yesterday or the day before, thus giving Carney more material to work with. I can think of only two plausible explanations for the weak White House response thus far:
Either explanation is plausible or perhaps both are in play. If the first explanation is the correct one, I think the White House's stance is understandable but exceedingly risky. Making concessions to virtual hostage-takers only makes sense as a temporary tactic in a larger strategy that quickly turns to a more forceful intervention. (By the way, if the hostage scenario is correct, the issue of U.N. authorization before military force is moot. It still may not make sense to escalate immediately to military action, but President Obama would have a substantially freer hand in terms of what options would be legitimate). If the second explanation is correct, this is an important test of the president's mettle. He needs to decide the matter and establish a clear policy ... and soon.
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It is not fair to criticize the Obama administration too harshly for its failure to come up with a single, robust policy regarding the spreading street unrest in the Middle East and North Africa. The administration has been playing catch-up and has often been a step or two behind, but I think that is inevitable when one is confronting revolutionary cascades. Moreover, the region is dotted with very different governments, ranging from friendly autocrats who have been liberalizing (albeit too slowly) to thuggish despots who used almost every tool at their disposal to oppress their people and frustrate U.S. interests in the region. The popular movements rising in the region may share some features in common, but the regimes they are threatening are very different. It would be very hard to come up with a one-size-fits-all policy that would endure given these conditions.
So I have some sympathy for the way the Obama administration has handled, for instance, the situation in Bahrain. The regime there has supported key U.S. policies over the years, and securing long-term access to the home port of the 5th Fleet is an important U.S. national interest. The ethnic mix in Bahrain is volatile, and the Sunni rulers have good reason to fear Iranian adventurism -- long a staple in the region. For precisely those reasons, however, the administration is right to use its influence to pressure the regime into avoiding bloodshed and accommodating legitimate political grievances of the protesters. Calibrating the pressure and the message is hard, but the core U.S. interests involved are fairly straightforward.
I have less sympathy for the same equivocation with regard to Libya. The Qaddafi regime is no friend of the United States. While Qaddafi did make a major concession on WMD in 2003 on the heels of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it is likely that that deal would be honored (or an even better one secured) by any regime installed after its ouster. Moreover, the level of atrocities the regime has inflicted upon the street protesters goes well beyond what the other regional autocrats have done. Full-throated condemnation would seem an easy call for the administration. As former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz notes in a tough column today, the U.S. message has not been all that full-throated, not yet anyway.
The Obama administration needs to do more, but I would not go as far as some who advocate having U.S. forces impose a no-fly zone. I share their outrage at the way Qaddafi had his Air Force strafe defenseless citizens, but involving the U.S. military in this way would constitute a major escalation and it would be hard to walk back if the situation further unraveled. What if Qaddafi shifted to tanks? Would we then be obligated to have our planes destroy the tanks? And without U.N. authorization, the United States would be entirely on its own. Not even our European allies, who otherwise would join in condemning the Qaddafi regime, would approve of U.S. military action without U.N. authorization.
The United States has acted without U.N. authorization before and rightly so, most famously in the Kosovo war of 1999, although there we were joined by all of our NATO allies. (Academics also debate whether the 16 prior UNSC resolutions on Iraq provided adequate legal cover for the 2003 invasion of Iraq or whether the Bush administration needed a 17th.) But in these cases, the action came after considerable diplomatic efforts at the United Nations and elsewhere. Other avenues of pressure were tried and found wanting, and only then was a resort to extraordinary force taken.
As Wolfowitz and others note, there is much the United States can do and pressure other states into doing short of unilateral military actions. The Obama administration should take those steps, and quickly.
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Peter Feaver is right that many voices got things wrong on Egypt at multiple points over the last couple of weeks -- especially (now former) President Mubarak himself. But this doesn't mean that everyone has been wrong. As Jackson Diehl and others have pointed out, the bipartisan Working Group on Egypt has for the past year warned repeatedly, in public and in private, and with specific policy prescriptions, of the fragility of Mubarak's rule. Moreover the Working Group stressed the urgent need for the United States to wean ourselves from exclusive reliance on Mubarak and instead extend diplomatic and material support to democracy reformers in Egypt. As I have noted before, the White House should have seen this coming.
The United States has lost significant ground in Egypt over the past few weeks, by repeatedly failing to get out in front with a clear, united, and public message of support for democracy and against Mubarak's continued misrule. This amounts to a missed opportunity by President Obama to assure the Tahrir Square protestors of U.S. support, and of the entire administration to extend crucial economic and diplomatic support for Egyptian democracy activists over the last two years. As Jake Tapper and Glenn Kessler documented, the Obama Administration's record on this count is a failure, most crucially in its drastic budget cuts and abdication of the Bush administration's policy of providing support directly to democratic opposition groups.
In the midst of today's exuberance over Mubarak's departure, as the White House wrestled with what to say and do next, it should realize that just as important as specific statements and policies will be demonstrating to the people of Egypt, that the United States will partner with them in creating a better future for themselves. President Obama's eloquent statement today struck all the right notes, but he has offered the right words on behalf of democracy before -- it is the deeds that have been wanting.
Specifically, this means holding the Egyptian military accountable for ruling temporarily while staying committed to a specific timetable for nationwide elections, and offering full-fledged diplomatic and economic support for Egypt's beleaguered political parties in preparation for the elections. It will also mean renewed efforts on behalf of legal protections for civil liberties like freedom of speech and freedom of religion -- which also serve as institutional bulwarks against the undemocratic inclinations of the Muslim Brotherhood. A new poll by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy offers encouraging findings that only 15 percent of Egyptians approve of the Brotherhood, and only 12 percent want sharia law. Egyptian soil is fertile for the growth of democracy.
What might this mean in history? It is impossible to say. But as I note today over at ConservativeHomeUSA, Feb. 11 also marks the anniversary of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which unleashed many of the maladies that afflict the Middle East today. It is a telling contrast between the two revolutions that Iran today arrested more opposition leaders and blocked media reporting on Egyptians dancing to their freedom in the streets. We can hope that Egypt's revolution will give a new meaning to Feb. 11. Yet hope is not a policy, as the saying goes, and so the administration should be working now to craft a bold policy that bolsters democracy in Egypt, and helps the Egyptian people turn Feb. 11 into a notable date on the calendar of liberty.
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Events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and to a lesser extent Jordan have led both administration officials and the chattering classes to conclude that democracy is on the march in the Middle East. Having once again been caught by surprise by events overseas -- one wonders where our intelligence agencies have been hiding -- the Obama administration is now trying to push itself into the forefront of those seeking democratic change in the region.
Yet it was not democracy that led a young Tunisian to immolate himself and, apart from English-speaking educated intellectuals, it does not appear that democracy is what most people have been demonstrating about. Instead, what they are seeking, first and foremost, is economic opportunity unfettered by corruption and favoritism. Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire because he was prevented from earning a modest living. Three Egyptians have burned themselves because of lack of job opportunities.
Secondly, Tunisians and Egyptian appear to be seeking responsive government, which is quite different from Western notions of democracy. In fact, it is arguable that they and other demonstrators in the Arab world would be quite comfortable living under a Chinese-style system, where there is a high and consistent level of economic growth and standards of living continue to rise. Would Tunisia have overthrown Ben Ali if its economy grew, as it had in the 1990s, and if the President's family curbed their greed? Would Mubarak be in the trouble he is now if he had a far greater percentage of the population benefitting from Egypt's economic growth?
It is noteworthy that for all the talk of upheavals in the Arab world, there has so far been little unrest in the traditional Gulf emirates or in Saudi Arabia. The rulers of the smaller Gulf States have long made it their policy to distribute wealth widely among their citizens. (Non-citizens don't count, of course. And if they made any trouble they would be deported.) Despite predictions of their imminent demise over the past two decades, the Saudis likewise have so far remained quiet. The al-Saud family recognized some ten years ago that it needed to spread more wealth to ensure the support of its increasingly younger population; so far so good.
Even Bahrain, which might have been expected to be the scene of riots, given the secondary status of the majority Sh'ia population, has not witnessed any major demonstrations. Again, most of the Bahraini Sh'ia appear to recognize that a stable Bahrain means more wealth for them too -- even if they do not achieve economic parity with the dominant Sunnis. They also know that Saudi tanks are not far from the causeway that links their state to its much larger and more powerful neighbor, and that those tanks would be quick to cross into the island kingdom if the ruling family came under siege.
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In kayaking, you can choose one of two types of stability, but you cannot have both. A flat-bottomed kayak has high "initial stability" -- it appears to ride smoothly in the water, with little rocking back and forth. But it has low "final stability" -- in rough seas, it tends to quickly and catastrophically capsize. An angled-bottom kayak is just the opposite. With low initial stability, it takes more effort to guide and is prone to constant shifts from side to side. But these kayaks are faster and more efficient, and their high final stability means that they remain upright in stormy seas, and can recover even when turned nearly upside down.
Things are not so different with democracies and dictatorships. Democracy is messy -- look at the United States, where in the last five years alone we have experienced swings from right to left and back again, and where political discourse can often be raucous. Dictatorships, on the other hand, often possess a superficial stability -- until they reach the tipping point, which often comes more quickly than expected. Such was the case in Tunisia, which seemed an oasis of calm until a small spark quickly grew to consume the longstanding rule of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.
Dictatorships lack the self-righting mechanisms and institutions which provide democracies with their deep stability. Free expression, free assembly, multiple and accountable political parties, free and fair elections, and independent courts -- all of these form the vital structure of a democracy and provide an outlet for people's grievances. In a dictatorship, people are denied these outlets and anger simmers beneath the surface, occasionally bursting through society's calm veneer in violent fashion.
These two broad categories -- democracies and dictatorships -- are of course an oversimplification. In reality there is a full spectrum of political and civil liberties along which countries fall. Egypt is not Tunisia. But it is perhaps not so far off. Freedom House gave Tunisia its worst score for political rights, and Egypt scored just one point better. In the civil rights category, the countries received the same score. In understanding the contrasting U.S. and international response to unrest in Tunisia and Egypt, perhaps the most relevant difference between the two is not culture or politics, but the strategic importance of each to the United States.
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Going back to that Foreign Policy Initiative conference I mentioned earlier, I was particularly intrigued by the discussion of democracy promotion between Ken Wollack (president of the National Democratic Institute) and Elliott Abrams (formerly Bush's deputy national security advisor, now with the Council on Foreign Relations). Not surprisingly, they spent most of their time on whether the United States should promote democracy and less time on how to do it. But in the current debate, the two seem pretty linked: After the Bush administration, many people think we don't know how to promote democracy and thus question whether we should do it.
It's a tricky question. After all, democracy is not like, say, disease, where one output (medicine) is likely to achieve the desired outcome (health). There are so many contingent factors that go into democratization, and it's not clear which of these factors -- economic development, a rising middle class, anti-corruption programs, improvements in basic security and rule of law, outside support for democracy activists, external pressure on autocratic governments to reform, free elections, among other factors -- gets a country to democracy. And that's to say nothing about what influence and role an external actor like the United States can have on another country's democratization.
So how exactly do we promote democracy? I put this question to Elliott Abrams, and here is his response:
The United States is not without useful experience in helping foreign democracy activists, and helping governments that are trying to democratize. Some of the expertise resides in the National Endowment for Democracies and the two party institutes, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. Some resides in Foreign Service personnel who have served in posts where this was a major issue, and have seen what works and what does not. So the first part of an answer is to involve people who have worked on this on the ground, pragmatically.
Sounds simple. But the State Department does not greatly value such expertise; it is most often not very "career-enhancing" because it often involves tangling with your ambassador or deputy chief of mission, your USAID mission director, and the local government. State most often pursues smooth relations with other countries, and pushing for democracy through backing local dissidents is not the path to that over-valued goal. We need less to discover, from scratch, what works, than to harness the knowledge that exists in various corners of the U.S. government. The failure to do this -- for example, at the Foreign Service Institute -- and teach it to Foreign Service officers is scandalous.
It is hard to generalize about what does work. Societies are not like bodies, to use your analogy -- all fundamentally alike. In some situations, free elections are the best path forward, and our role is mostly pressure and activism to guarantee the integrity of elections. In other cases, there will not soon be elections, and all we can do is try to protect dissidents -- by meeting them, championing them, visiting them in prison, helping their families, advertising their situation. I do believe, as President Bush did, that elections are often transforming events (not least if they are stolen!) and should not be delayed until all conditions are ideal -- the sequentialist view. But there is no playbook that works in all situations; there is only the accrued experiences of success and failure.
I would say that always and everywhere we should make our position clear, backing peaceful democracy activists (as Bush said in his Prague speech). I reject the view that we need to be silent about abuses, or very quiet about them -- the view that seemed widespread in the Obama Administration as it reacted to Iran after the June elections. Our comments about stolen elections, or the safety of jailed activists, or the trials of dissidents, are always helpful.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.