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Archive for March, 2012

Originally published in Harvard’s Nieman Watchdog

Over the past dozen years, the United States has spent vast amounts of its human treasure and national resources on a series of foreign interventions.  We have now been involved in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, with Syria and Iran and Central Africa representing candidates for the immediate future.

All of this has been and will be done without declarations of war, over the supine body of our Congress, without the agreement of the majority of the American people and without real scrutiny from the press. We have become a nation of onlookers.

In the United States, Congress has the power under the constitution to “declare war”. However neither the US Constitution, nor the law, tell us what format a declaration of war must take.  The last time Congress passed joint resolutions saying that a “state of war” existed was on June 5, 1942, when the U.S. declared war on Bulgaria, Hungary, and Rumania Since then, the U.S. has used the term “authorization to use military force”, as in the case against Iraq in 2003.

For a variety of reasons, all of which are based on local historical, tribal, ethnic and national realities, our adventures in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya are not turning out as we might have wished.  Despite early warnings from our governmental and academic experts on those areas, it seems clear that any hopes we had for bettering the situations that existed there are likely to fail.  In fact, our military involvement in the region has lead to instability in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, as it almost certainly will if we succumb to local and international pressures to become involved in Syria and Iran.  And now we are told we should become militarily involved in Central Africa.

This is all well and good, but one key ingredient is missing.  We have never had a national discussion about the efficacy of American military intervention abroad.  We have seen two Presidents act in ways that made Congress disposed to support them without intelligent discussion of the activities proposed.

Over the past year, two thirds of Americans have been polled as opposed to our activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans are now faced with the specific prospect of military activity in Syria and Iran and with further future interventions around the world, it is time for America to have this discussion.

First, we need to discuss whether or not we want to conduct such operations at all.  If so, should we act independently of the UN and international coalitions, as stipulated, or unilaterally as many of our hawks and neocons would wish?

We need to have a discussion that defines the specific intervention problem and its solution.  We need to know the precise goal of the intervention, how long it will last and what the likely response to our intervention will be.

Then we need to and how it will be funded.  Are there to be more unfunded interventions like Iraq and Afghanistan at a time when we are already in deep economic trouble resulting from our past interventionist adventures?

Additionally, we need to be reassured that if the intervention involves terrorism, our approach will be limited to police and intelligence work.  We have learned far too much from Iraq and Afghanistan to again involve our military establishment in counterterrorism operations.

If we learn that an insurgency is involved, we need to know how our government plans to avoid subsequent nation building and the export of democracy.  Again, Iraq and Afghanistan provide the wholly negative lesson for us here.

Finally, we must determine whether or not any proposed intervention is in our true national interest and we need to do that in the absence of foreign pressures.

The only way we will learn the answers to these critical questions is through a national discussion of any proposed future intervention.  Our Government isn’t holding such a debate except for a little squawking by individuals now and then.  The media should and could do so, with one or more news organizations making it a front-burner item, interviewing experts and political leaders and staying on the subject.

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Originally published in American Diplomacy

Anthony Shadid, the New York Times’ correspondent, died in Syria on February 16, 2012 . An exemplary reporter and student of his subject matter, his last piece, “Islamists’ Ideas on Democracy and Faith Face Test in Tunisia”, appeared in the Times on the following day. In that piece, Mr. Shadid examined some of the issues involved in the evolution of governance after the Arab Spring Tunisian uprising. He paints a picture that considers some of the problems involved in any hoped-for transition to liberal democracy in the region.

Having listened for a decade to the premise — from some of our more conservative (and hopeful) national politicians — that our military activities in the Middle East were part of the process of bringing democracy to that region, perhaps it is time to more thoroughly examine that premise.

In its broadest sense, today’s Middle East and North African national borders were established or codified under British, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese colonial rule in the 19-20th centuries for the advantage, convenience and profit of the colonial powers. The region under discussion here includes Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Algeria and Morocco.

Those borders ignored or cynically exacerbated many sectarian, tribal and national issues, which were of major importance to the local populations. The arbitrary l948 sectarian division of colonial India into India, Bangladesh and Pakistan; the virtual ignoring of tribal issues in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere; the further ignoring of other sectarian issues in Islam; and discounting the importance of nationality issues for Kurds, Persians, Arabs, Central Asians and Turks in virtually all of the post-WWII states that emerged out of the European colonial era, all stand as examples of the indifference of the colonial powers to issues that ultimately would create major differences and difficulties in the region.

Independence from Imperialism
Regional independence from European imperialism began with Afghanistan in 1919, with the largest number of nations gaining that independence after World War II. It all ended with Bahrain, the UAE and Qatar in 1971. It is worth remembering that in no one of the 20 countries involved, with the possible exception of Turkey, was imperial rule replaced by anything resembling democracy.

Post-war US policy was dictated by our Cold War imperatives and by the existence of abundant and inexpensive regional energy resources. Seeing Soviet communism as a threat to the status quo, we actively supported kingdoms, dictators, strongmen and just about anyone else who was anti-Soviet and could maintain stability for us. We sought to replace any regional regime that looked as if it might add an element of instability as in the cases Iran and Syria, which were destabilized under the active interventionist policies of the Eisenhower administration, creating situations with which we are still dealing today.

American Regional Foreign Policy
Much of America has long believed that we have the best existing economic (market) and governmental (liberal democracy) systems. This belief has been sufficiently widespread that it has quite often been the cornerstone of our foreign policy. Coupled with an inherent American tendency to evangelize, we have often sought to spread our systems around the world and to combat those systems that were not compatible with it.

The problem with this approach is that it does not sufficiently take into account already existing, foreign, governmental, economic and belief structures. It never asks, as can most recently be seen in the neoconservative authorship and continuing support of our invasion of Iraq, whether the ground abroad is sufficiently fertile for the establishment of democracy.

This American exceptionalism, which is fine for us at home, is unfortunately coupled with a poor to nonexistent understanding of the way the rest of the world works and why it is not necessarily a reflection of America.

Unfortunately, we are not favorably viewed in the region. Over the past 65 years of our post-WWII involvement there, we have hardly endeared ourselves to local populations. We have everywhere supported despots and dictators against the wishes of their citizens. We have stationed foreign (US) troops against Muslim law on holy Muslim soil in Saudi Arabia. We are seen by regional locals to have been biased in our support of Israel. And now we are, again in contradiction of Muslim law, killing Muslims across the region.

As If that were not enough, the Bush administration hectored the Palestinian Authority to hold free elections in 2006. They did so and the result was the election of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The administration immediately refused to recognize Hamas, saying it was a “terrorist” organization. This proved beyond doubt to the citizens of the region that the United States was just another hypocrite. If elections we call for do not go our way, we don’t recognize their validity.

We are just now withdrawing from Iraq, still heavily engaged in Afghanistan and, if some would have their way, soon to be involved in Iran and maybe even Syria. And all of this without any real discussion of our own vital national interests or expectations for the region. Do we want to support monarchies across the region? Or, consistent with our Cold War policies, do we want to support any ruler or government that provides stability, irrespective of the manner in which it is provided? Do we want Democracy? How is that working out anywhere in the region? Iraq is problematical, as is Egypt where the military establishment owns a significant share of the economy and has a vested interest in the status quo.

The Middle East today
The unfortunate fact is that the region has virtually no experience with Liberal Democracy. Its history of non-governmental political organization is severely limited. The region is mired in tribalism, sectarianism, brutally imposed secularism or Islamic law, dictatorships and monarchies. None of these are steppingstones to Democratic governance. We have tribes almost everywhere, significant military power in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Iran and Jordan, to name but a few and Islam everywhere.

In the most evolved post-Arab Spring states, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, “free and democratic elections” which must never be mistaken for the actual existence of Liberal Democracy, have brought Islamic parties to the forefront. That is to be expected, as the Islamic parties, even in Turkey where they were once marginalized, represent the only non-governmental political organizations that exist and have existed under pre-Arab Spring governance. They have the membership, organization and funding to outcompete all the opposition, including those on Tahrir Square who believe, without quite knowing what it really means, that they are seeking something called “democracy”

What they all are seeking, whatever they may be heard to say, is self-determination and if we wish to stay on the right side of whatever is to come in this important region, that is what we must support.

The preconditions required for the successful establishment of Democracy
Democracy doesn’t simply spring up, particularly in countries with little to no history of self-rule. It has certain preconditions. To be successful, it must have the active, unfettered participation of the people as citizens in politics and civil life. It requires national and regional tolerance of pluralism, a general and equal right to vote, free and fair elections, the rule of law, unbiased courts, a guarantee of basic human rights to every individual person vis-à-vis the state and its authorities as well as to all social groups, particularly religious institutions,

In addition, it requires a Constitution providing for the separation of powers (executive, legislative and judicial), freedom of speech, press and religion and, particularly, good governance which stresses the public interest and the absence of corruption.

How do these preconditions stack up against today’s regional realities? The answers may be found in the region’s sectarian, tribal and national realities most of which can be found in all of the region’s 21 countries.

In the sectarian world, Muslims tend to believe in and be content with Islam. There may be glaring deficiencies from our point of view, but by and large that view is not shared by Muslims. The Koran and its attendant writings, the Hadith and Shariya, provide the believer with a complete blueprint for life. An essentially content group of Muslim believers cannot be viewed as ripe for conversion to democracy as many of democracy’s basic tenets are diametrically opposed to the teachings of the Koran. Besides that, conversion attempts have been going on since the 11th century crusades and continue to this day with the Bush administration’s policy of bringing democracy to Islam. Muslims are used to us. Many call us the 21st century Crusaders.

Ongoing tribalism is another factor that inhibits receptivity to democracy and Tribalism has never not been a factor in a region where tribes have always been the basic building block of society. Tribalism exists throughout the Middle East and in its extremes, Afghanistan, for example, it brings with it an ingrained distrust of central governance and a drive to keep it as weak as possible.

In its subsequent state of evolution, tribalism supports ethnic alliances, essentially macro-tribal groupings. This can be observed in the Arab, Kurdish, Persian and Central Asian groupings that exist willy-nilly in the region. And thanks to the European colonial powers, these groups, which are only edgily compatible at best, have been corralled into “nations” which over the years have owed their existence to iron-fisted rule that forbad their disintegration. Hardly the underpinnings needed for liberal democracy.

A swift transition to democracy?
Almost all of our politicians, both past and present speak glowingly of a transition in the Middle East to “democracy”. However, there is nothing in past history or contemporary reality that could logically argue that the region is ready for such a transition. Unfortunately, when American politicians speak of “democracy” this way, they are lecturing a short attention span American audience that takes them to mean that we will see a “democratic” Middle East in the near future.

Both the Bush and Obama administrations speak thusly about Iraq, yet Iraq shows every sign at this moment of falling into what has been for many students of the area, predictable, protracted internecine strife. The most recent impediment to strife after Saddam, the US military, has now left, opening the country to very old antagonisms. Afghanistan does not meet any of the criteria for the future successful growth of democracy and we will probably have to make do with some form of Taliban governance.

In Tunisia and Morocco we see moderate Islamists winning elections. In Egypt, the moderate Muslim Brotherhood is running into the Egyptian military juggernaut, which because of its large holdings in the Egyptian economy, are vested in the status quo. Further, the fundamentalist Salafi Muslims are waiting in the wings. In Libya, none of the western powers that supported the struggle against Qaddafi wants to stay around. They have all left and Libya with its 140 tribes and tribal groupings and its old jealousies and rivalries, as it is likely heading for internal trouble. Syria will stop being a problem only after the current minority sect Alawite regime or the protestors are gone. There really is nothing but bloodshed in the offing, regardless of who “wins”. Retribution will likely be the name of the game.

It is an unfortunate fact that our military presence and activities in the region have not helped at all. When we face what are truly insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, not terrorism as claimed by both the Obama and Bush administrations, we present local populations with impossible choices. They must choose between a foreign military force whose true motives are unclear to them and their own people who are fighting against the foreigners. As we are now seeing, there is little reason to support the foreigners and every reason to support their fellow citizens.

There is no magic democratic wand for the Middle East. The absolute best we can hope for are moderate Islamist regimes. The worst will be fundamentalist regimes of the type supported by the Saudi Salafis. We need to get the notion of a democratic Islam in the short term out of our heads and focus on supporting moderate Islamists. Only they have any possibility of successfully confronting Islamic extremists and ultimately evolving into liberal democracies. The timelines for that kind of change are likely to be measured in decades at best and centuries at worst.

In the interim, we might want to concentrate on proving to a skeptical Middle East and greater world that our systems work for us Americans, let alone anyone else. What has happened to that “Shining City upon a Hill”?

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What Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us and what Syria and Iran can teach us further is that American needs to have a robust debate on if, why, where and when we should be involved in future foreign interventions.

In 2001, solely as a result of the events of 9/11, the United States invaded Afghanistan.  There were some Americans who spoke out against that invasion, largely on moral grounds, but in the main, we understood why we were doing it and agreed with that invasion.

In the longer run, as is now becoming painfully clear to the average American, absent repressive governance, the bitterly tribal Afghanis are so resistant to any central government that they are unlikely to achieve any kind of unity.  The likely result is instability.

When we had wiped out Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, we shifted our aim to Iraq and for reasons still largely unknown to the American people, we invaded there.  In our rationale for that invasion, we painted Iraq as “a regime that developed and used weapons of mass destruction, that harbored and supported terrorists, committed outrageous human rights abuses, and defied the just demands of the United Nations and the world”.

None of those reasons passed muster with us.

Although most of our governmental and academic experts on the region said that would not work, the Bush administration implemented the plan.  Since then, we have seen no sign of ultimate success.  Sectarian and national differences within that country make unity illusory, as many experts told us in 2003.  How can we expect Sunni, Shia, Arab and Kurd to get together when they have never previously done so except when coerced?  The likely result is instability.

Our next Middle East adventure was in Libya where we became involved primarily with air support for the anti-Ghaddafi rebels.  In the case of Libya, we were ultimately “successful” in that the rebels did bring about the demise of Ghaddafi.  In the longer run, we are seeing the effect of centuries-old tribal realities – about 150 of them – which split the country and make non-coercive, central government extremely difficult, if not impossible.  The likely result is instability.

Now, the pressure is on here at home for us to “do something” in Syria.  “Do something” apparently ranges in the minds of Americans from Invasion, through air support, to the creation of “safe zones”, but the fact is that we really don’t know what to do.

In Syria sectarianism is at work.  It is a country ruled by a 12% minority Shiite government of Alawites, over the the 74% majority Sunnis.  Since its beginnings in 1963, it has not been a happy arrangement.  The people don’t like either the Baath Party or the Assad family.  Unfortunately, that’s about all they have in common.  There is no indication that those rebellious Syrians have anything much in common when it comes to what sort of post-Assad, post-Alawite government they would support.  Given the extent of anger on both sides, it is probably safe to assume that the losers in this ongoing

struggle will exit Syria in coffins.  There seems to be little hope for a triumph of either reason or humanity.  The likely result is instability.

And finally, let’s move on to Iran where American pro-war activists and the Israeli government are clambering for the invasion of a country which has not yet decided, according to the US and Israeli governments, whether or not to build nuclear weapons, where the Supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, has referred to nuclear weapons as a sin and where, in 2005, he issued a fatwa forbidding their production, stockpiling and use.

Given the other salient realities of Iran and their unquestioned ability to harm our interests in the region, one has to wonder why we are so intent on an attack. In addition, there are current Iranian overtures for talks and the fact remains that any attack on Iran will be the only event that will unite the fractious and unhappy Iranians under its current leaders, which is certainly not in our interest.

The real issue here is whether or not Americans want to be involved in such activities at all and if we do, how will we decide where to intervene?  Is it in our national interest?  Should we involve ourselves in Syria, Iraq, or, as President Obama seems to wish, in Central Africa?

The American people have never had that discussion.  With a war-weary population and before we rush off to some new “worthy” intervention, the discussion simply has to take place.

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First published in Harvard’s Nieman Watchdog

COMMENTARY | March 01, 2012

The only way to achieve our goals in the region is to relentlessly promote self-determination, support moderate Islamists — and not expect miracles, writes a former CIA station chief. Trying to impose our ways, as we should know by now, will only be counterproductive.

The national boundaries created in the Middle East by European colonial powers in the 18th and 19th Centuries ignored traditional, long-standing tribal, sectarian and national realities. They stand as examples of European indifference to issues that ultimately have created major difficulties in the region. Partly as a result of this indifference, Western activities are not favorably viewed in the region in this post-Arab Spring era.

Over the past 65 years of our post-WWII involvement there, America has hardly endeared itself to local populations. In striving for regional “stability”, we have everywhere supported brutal despots and dictators against the wishes of their citizens. We have stationed foreign (U.S.) troops against Muslim law on holy Muslim soil in Saudi Arabia. We are seen by regional locals to have been biased in our support of Israel. And now we are killing Muslims across the region.

Local populations generally do not support terrorists, but when we combat what are really insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan — not terrorism as claimed by both the Obama and Bush administrations — we present local populations with impossible choices. They must choose between a foreign military force whose true motives are suspect and their own people who are fighting against the foreigners. As we are now seeing, there is little reason to support the foreigners and every reason to support their fellow citizens.

As If that were not enough, for years the Bush administration hectored the Palestinian Authority to hold free elections. They finally, reluctantly did so in 2006 and the result was the election of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The administration immediately refused to recognize Hamas, saying it was a “terrorist” organization. This proved beyond doubt to the citizens of the region that the United States was just another self-centered hypocrite. If free elections promoted by us do not go our way, we don’t recognize their validity.

We further prove our bad intentions and insensitivities with Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, waterboarding, Koran burning and errant drone strikes.

The unfortunate fact is that the region has virtually no experience with liberal democracy. Its history of non-governmental political organization is severely limited. The region is mired in tribalism, sectarianism, brutally imposed secularism or Islamic law, dictatorships and monarchies. None of these are steppingstones to democratic governance. There are tribes almost everywhere, significant military forces in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Iran and Jordan, to name but a few, and Islam everywhere.

What they all are seeking, whatever they may be heard to say, is self-determination and if we wish to stay on the right side of whatever is to come in this important region, self-determination is what we must support.

Democracy doesn’t simply spring up, particularly in countries with little to no history of self-rule. To be successful, democracy requires the active, unfettered participation of the people as citizens in politics and civil life. It requires national and regional tolerance of pluralism, a general and equal right to vote, free and fair elections, the rule of law, unbiased courts, a guarantee of basic human rights to every individual person vis-à-vis the state and its authorities as well as to all social groups, particularly religious institutions,

In addition, it requires a constitution providing for the separation of powers (executive, legislative and judicial), freedom of speech, press and religion and, particularly, good governance which stresses the public interest and the absence of corruption.

But there is no magic democratic wand for the Middle East. The absolute best we can hope for are moderate Islamist regimes. The worst will be fundamentalist regimes of the type sought by Salafis. We need to get the short-term notion of a democratic Islam out of our heads and focus on supporting moderate Islamists. Only they have any possibility of successfully confronting Islamic extremism and ultimately evolving toward liberal democracy in the long term.

In the interim, we might want to concentrate on proving to a skeptical Middle East and greater world that our democratic systems actually work here at home, let alone anywhere else.

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