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Archive for March, 2011

Originally published in the Herald of Randoph

The popular uprisings and protests in the Middle East that began in December 2010 and America’s reactions to them have left many wondering precisely what our policy is in that region and what motivates it.

Of course, years of established policy have left to the Obama administration only bad options today.  There really is nothing they can do that is both practical in the sense that it forwards our national interests and is, at the same time, consistent with what we claim to be our basic national principles.

Over the years, our policy has been driven neither by pure pragmatism, nor by pure ideology.  It has been an admixture of the two and that dichotomy has not been to our advantage.  In fact, we are viewed in the region as hypocritical, seen, for example, in our overthrow of the democratically elected Mossadegh regime in Iran in 1953.

What were the factors that drove our Middle East policies after the Second World War?  First, we were either dismally or willfully ignorant of realities in Islam.  We seldom let facts on the ground get in the way of or influence our chosen policies.

During Cold war, we felt it necessary to keep as many nations as possible on our side and aligned against the Soviet Union.  Thus, even in the aftermath of years of Imperialism in the region, we found it pragmatically necessary to make whatever accommodations were necessary to maintain the support of the autocratic, repressive and corrupt Middle East regimes that had replaced the imperialists.  Democracy, what’s that?

The creation of a democratic, Zionist Israel and our decision to support literally whatever they felt they needed to do in support of their national goals, left us, ultimately, in the same ambivalent boat of pragmatism vs. idealism.  In the face of UN vetoes, and international rulings on, for example, the illegality of the ongoing west Bank settlement program, America edges ever further into the arena of hypocrisy.

Additionally, we have stationed our foreign American troops on Islam’s holiest ground and fought wars that have killed Muslim civilians – very much taboo under the Koran.  With all of our strident talk about bringing Democracy to Islam whether they want it, need it or not, we have turned into the twenty-first Century Crusaders.  That really means something in Islam.  Even though the first Crusades were in the 11-12th Centuries, no one in Islam forgets them!

We have seen three wars fought between Arabs and Israelis.  The Palestinians have endless shelled Israel and Israel has invaded Lebanon and Gaza to suppress them.

The very nature of the Muslim Middle East with its Sunni-Shia and Arab-Persian splits, Its multiple ethnic rivalries, tribalism, corruption, bellicosity and political instabilities, introduces realities which we cannot control and poorly understand.  As a nation, we are sadly lacking in our grasp of the complexities that dominate the Middle East, making the creation of rational foreign policy illusive at best. In addition, we have the constant negative and confusing intrusion of internal American politics into the formation of foreign policy.

Add oil into this volatile mixture in a time of rising international demand and shrinking resources, and any observer will begin to see the problem for U.S. policy makers.

Rami Khouri, an Arab-American educator and commentator, recently wrote perceptively and accurately that “……..Washington has become a marginal player in much of the Middle East, largely as a consequence of its own incompetence, inconsistency, bias and weakness ….”

Our past foreign policy inconsistencies, our decline of influence in the Middle East and our ongoing activities have put us in the position of alienating someone, somewhere, every time we make a policy decision.

Informal polling shows about half the Arab “street” in favor of Western involvement with the Libyan rebels, while the other half are suspicious of western intentions.  Our “allies” in the region like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen and the Gulf states, along with those whom we do not support like Syria and Iran, are very nervous about our involvement in Libya, fearing it might catalyze their own peoples.  Ongoing tendencies toward self-determination even have the Chinese worried.

The larger question here is what the result of these rebellions will be.  Will they spread further to places like Saudi Arabia where we have far more at stake?  How will we react to that?  Then, what will evolve in Tunis, Egypt and Libya?  Will we see stability?  Will the outcomes be in our favor?

The genie is out of the bottle and we are without significant influence!

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Many questions about Libya

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald & Barre Times-Argus]

It’s hard to know precisely where to begin examining our recent “intervention” in Libya. However, we might start by asking how we got into this. Were we bullied by the British and French? In stressing the moral imperatives of intervention, did they shame President Obama into participation?

Why, if he ultimately decided it was right and proper to get involved, did he dither so long in making up his mind? He came very close to giving Libya back to Gadhafi.

This, in turn, questions the efficacy of running foreign policy on an internationally democratic basis, committing to coordinate our activities with the entire world. Don’t we have enough of a problem getting consensus here in America with our own people?

Given that reality, how could we expect broad international agreement on anything as provocative as the third American military intervention in an Arab country in the last nine years?

In fact, after the rush of Arab League approval of action against Libya, we find its members backing off. “We didn’t really mean that!”

They now say we went too far in the Security Council, while lambasting us for “killing civilians.” One simply has to ask here how you pull off a “no-fly zone” without killing civilians, particularly when your adversary is making sure he populates every last military target you have with his own imported civilians. All of this should have been anticipated.

In addition, we are the object of the purest worldwide schadenfreude seen in decades. Our enemies are more than enthused at our discomfort. Putin has asked if we are the new crusaders, pushing an emotional button in Islam that cannot be overestimated. The Chinese have to be delighted at this unexpected, politically suicidal turn of events. Iranians, Koreans, Cubans, Venezuelans and the Arab street see that America has taken steady aim at its own foot and pulled the trigger. None of them could believe that we Americans could have been so stupid as to get involved in this way, in this place at this time.

All of this aside, there are some truly important questions that so far have gone begging. Why are we intervening in what is clearly a civil war? Will we be doing that again elsewhere around the world? How will we decide where and when? Human misery? Oil?

Just what are our goals in Libya? One suspects that our primary goal is to depose Gadhafi, yet that is never agreed to either in the Arab League or in the Security Council. Our “coalition” already has philosophical fissures.

Then we have to ask exactly who and what our allies are. Are they simply those Libyans who have a grievance against Gadhafi? How many of the 140 tribes and tribal groupings in Libya do they represent? Like it or not, as poorly as we appear to understand them, they are our chosen allies. The fact that they are made up of dozens of hostile tribes and that they are not today close to being a decent fighting force is a fact we have chosen to live with. Who will be the boots on the ground? The new crusaders?

What are their goals, other than the removal of Gadhafi? Do we think they are all closet democrats? If we do, we are likely to be sorely disappointed. Just what kind of post-Gadhafi government are they likely to form, and how stable is that likely to be? Tribal societies do have problems with consensus and stable national governance.

What does this intervention say about Obama’s leadership style? Is his deliberate style of seeking consensus likely to survive in today’s world, or does this style take too long and ultimately come up with questionable results? Is it better or worse than Bush II?

Then we have the Republicans who seem to be uniformly critical of this Obama decision. Have they forgotten where they were after 9/11? They do appear to be wildly hypocritical in their uniform condemnation of activities that they themselves approved a scant nine years ago. It would appear that the Democrats have become the war party and the Republicans the pacifists — a quaint role reversal from the Bush era.

Finally, this looks just like the Bush invasion of Iraq in that so many in and around the government, except Bush and his neoconservative friends, knew that it would ultimately go badly because of the inherent fissures in Iraqi society. The same holds true today in Libya.

Insanity is defined as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Are we mad?

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Democracy and Islam

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald and Barre Times-Argus.]

Let’s start out by agreeing that, whatever its faults, the liberal democracy that exists here in the United States ranks among the best forms of government that ever have been invented by mankind. In a nutshell, it goes to the yearnings that almost all people have for control over their lives and destinies.

Those yearnings are not the sole province of Americans. They are shared by most others around the world, ranging broadly from Western Europe where liberal democracies are in place, through the rigid, repressive regimes of the Middle East and North Africa, and on to Iran, China and North Korea. It also includes countries that lie somewhere in between those extremes, like Russia, Venezuela and Cuba, where one or more of the necessary pillars of democracy — a constitution, free elections, freedom of the press and the rule of law — are missing.

With totalitarianism under the gun in North Africa and the Middle East, American and Western politicians and pundits are calling for “democracy” for all those people. And wouldn’t it be nice if we could simply wave our magic wand and install our liberal democracy in those countries? Perhaps not.

The problem is that most of the citizens of those Islamic countries don’t have the foggiest idea what “democracy” really is, and there’s a good possibility that if they did, they might not be so keen on importing it into the Islamic world.

All they really know is that they don’t like what they have — Mubarak in Egypt, Gadhafi in Libya — and that they like the idea of being able to get more freedom, more control over their lives.

But there are a lot of conflicts involved in importing “democracy” into Islam. The Quran is a complete blueprint for life. It tells the believer everything he or she needs to know to lead an appropriate life. Much of that instruction, however, is essentially incompatible with the ideals of liberal democracy.

The root of the problem lies in the fact that in Islam, God determines the laws through the Quran, shariya and hadith. Under strict interpretation, man has only limited license to interpret those laws. Under shariya law, all aspects of life — religious, political, economic, social and private — are predetermined. There is little room for man to intervene.

Then there are practical matters like the extremes of stoning people, cutting off hands as punishment and the overall treatment of women. The extent of adherence to Islamic law depends on the time and place. Some modern Islamic democracies like Turkey and Indonesia have opted not to enforce all those laws. Other Islamic countries, like Iran and Saudi Arabia, have stuck to the traditional interpretation of Islam, which can hardly be called democratic.

What this means today is that we may not do anyone any service by calling for the “democratization” of Islamic countries. In the long run, the inhabitants of those countries may decide that democracy is incompatible with their Islamic ideals. All we know for sure about the stirrings of discontent in the Arab world is that the people in those countries know what they don’t want. They don’t want Arab dictatorships and the concomitant suppression of their own needs and desires. From that we can infer that what they do want is control over their lives and destinies.

When we preach about the virtues and advantages of our democracy, all we are saying is that it works for us. We seldom stop to think that it works for us largely because we have been at it for almost 250 years. We are comfortable with it.

The democracy that many Muslims seek is essentially unknown to them. They have never lived it or worked at it, as we have. It is simply an idealized goal for them. Given that reality, perhaps we should consider what we really want for these peoples.

That seems pretty straightforward. What we want for them is the right for them to choose whatever system of government they wish through the democratic process of free elections. That process is called self-determination, which is a word that does not prejudice the outcome of the process. All it says is that any people would be allowed to determine the kind of government under which to live.

In Islam that may very well turn out not to be democracy as we know it in America, but if those peoples and the region are to find any sort of stability, self-determination is the only practical way they have to reach it.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Eastern and Western Europe and the Middle East and as chief of the counterterrorism staff.

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