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Syria is Not Rwanda

Monday, April 29th, 2013

Anne-Marie Slaughter had a short but bombastic WaPo op-ed on Syria and chemical weapons use that requires comment:

Obama should remember Rwanda as he weighs action in Syria 

….The Clinton administration did not want to acknowledge that genocide was taking place in Rwanda because the United States would have been legally bound by the Genocide Convention of 1948 to intervene to stop the killing. The reason the Obama administration does not want to recognize that chemical weapons are being used in Syria is because Obama warned the Syrian regime clearly and sharply in August against using such weapons. “There would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical-weapons front or the use of chemical weapons,” he said. “That would change my calculations significantly.”

….But the White House must recognize that the game has already changed. U.S. credibility is on the line. For all the temptation to hide behind the decision to invade Iraq based on faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, Obama must realize the tremendous damage he will do to the United States and to his legacy if he fails to act. He should understand the deep and lasting damage done when the gap between words and deeds becomes too great to ignore, when those who wield power are exposed as not saying what they mean or meaning what they say.

This is remarkably poorly reasoned advice from Dr. Slaughter that hopefully, President Obama will continue to ignore.
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The President, on the basis of advice very much in the spirit of this op-ed, drew a public “red-line” about chemical weapons use for Bashar Assad, or some variation of that, on six occasions, personally and through intermediaries. On the narrow point, Slaughter is correct that this action was ill-considered, in that the President wisely does not seem to have much of an appetite for jumping into the Syrian conflict. Bluffing needlessly is not a good practice in foreign policy simply to pacify domestic critics, but it is something presidents do from time to time. Maybe the POTUS arguably needs better foreign policy advisers, but doubling down by following through with some kind (Slaughter fails to specify) military intervention in Syria is not supported in this op-ed by anything beyond mere rhetoric.
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First, as bad as the Syrian civil war is in terms of casualties it does not remotely approximate the Rwandan Genocide in scale, moral clarity, military dynamics or characteristics of the major actors. This is a terrible analogy designed primarily to appeal to emotion in the uninformed. Syria is engaged in civil war, not genocide.
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Secondly, the “credibility” argument has been lifted by Slaughter from it’s Cold War historical context where the United States capacity to provide a nuclear umbrella and effective deterrent for allied states was tied to the perception of our political will to assume the appropriate risks, which in turn would help avoid escalation of any given conflict to WWIII. This psychological-political variable of “credibility” soon migrated from the realm of direct US-Soviet nuclear confrontation in Europe to all manner of minor disputes (ex. -Quemoy and Matsu, civil unrest in the Dominican Republic) and proxy wars. It was often misapplied in these circumstances and “credibility” assumed a much greater exigency in the minds of American statesmen than it it did in our Soviet adversaries or even our allies, to the point where American statecraft at the highest level was paralyzed by groupthink in dealing with the war in Vietnam. By 1968, even the French thought we were mad.
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Absent the superpower rivalry that kept the world near the brink of global thermonuclear war, “credibility” as understood by Johnson, Rusk, Nixon and Kissinger loses much of it’s impetus. If “credibility” is the only reason for significant US intervention in Syria it is being offered because there are no good, hardheaded, reasons based on interest that can pass a laugh test.
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The historical examples President Obama should heed in contemplating American intervention in Syria is not Rwanda, but Lebanon and Iraq.
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Of masks and masking in Bahrain

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- a clever play on words, is all ]
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Headline writers are appallingly fond of puns, but I thought the sting in the tail of this piece from Al Arabiya English was particularly fine:

Bahrain imposes ban on Guy Fawkes masks

In an unusual move, the Bahraini government has banned the imports of something most people would find to be innocent, the Guy Fawkes mask, worn in the 2005 Hollywood movie ‘V’ for vendetta because it was seen as symbol of an uprising against the country’s rulers.

The Gulf Kingdom’s Industry and Commerce Minister, Hassan Fakhro, ordered a block on importing the facial garb, and anyone found importing could be put in detention. This is all due to the fact that anti-government protestors have been using them to remain anonymous.

The historical mask has been used in street demonstrations around the world, from the Occupy Wall street movement in the United States and UK to the Arab Spring revolutions that toppled strongmen in the likes of Muammar Qaddafi and Hosni Mubarak.

To many this may sound like a strange move given the fact that it is just a mask. At the end of the day the Minister may be able to put it on the black list but questions remain as to whether the government will be able to control production within the country.

Can the ban of this costume piece mask the deep set political issues in Bahrain?

That shift from “mask” the noun to “mask” the verb is quite delightful.

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Nir Rosen Among the Alawites

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

Controversial journalist Nir Rosen is, by my standards, a left-wing extremist with carcinogenic political views. On the other hand, he is also a fearless and skillful war correspondent who goes places to report where few others dare; as a result, Rosen is usually worth reading, particularly as he seldom is treading a well-worn path:

London Review of Books: Among the Alawites -Nir Rosen reports from Syria 

….When Abu Laith took me to Rabia itself, news of our arrival spread quickly. Thousands of residents staged a seemingly spontaneous but clearly sincere demonstration in support of the regime in the centre of town, next to a statue of Hafez al-Assad holding an olive branch and a sword. The statue, paid for by locals, was erected after the uprising started. Behind it was a massive poster with a picture of Hafez and Bashar. On it was written ‘Rabia is the lion’s den,’ a play on the word assad, which means ‘lion’. I was dragged from house to house so people could speak of their dead and wounded relatives, and of Rabia’s 42 martyrs. I told one group of local men that when I visited opposition strongholds like Baba Amr in Homs I always heard similar stories about fathers or sons being martyred. ‘Our sons were just going to work,’ an army colonel whose nephew was killed in Idlib said in reply. ‘There is a difference between killing a man going to work for the state and killing an armed man taking up weapons against the state. Is it peaceful demonstrators who kill five officers at a checkpoint?’

For the past year Rabia’s Alawites have clashed with neighbouring Sunni villages. Last summer the town’s students couldn’t travel into the city of Hama to take their exams because the opposition had blocked the road. Around thirty Alawite families from one nearby majority Sunni village have settled in Rabia, feeling it was no longer safe to stay where they were. The displaced families were disappointed with the government’s response. ‘We didn’t have any weapons or we would have fought back,’ one man told me. ‘They should have sent in tanks but the opposition blocked the roads. We want the state to solve our problems and the army to return us to our land. The army has to enter the villages, but the army is busy in Hama. Why is the state taking its time?’ Abu Laith’s father, a retired soldier, agreed. ‘Only the army can solve this,’ he said. ‘If we respond ourselves it will be seen as sectarian violence and other villages will join them against us. They will outnumber us.’

From Rabia I headed north-west towards Aziziya, a remote Alawite village which has clashed with the neighbouring Sunni village of Tamana. As in most Alawite villages, the majority of its men work in security or the army. Its Sunni neighbours all support the opposition, and opposition militias have been operating in the area since last spring. Salhab, the nearest town of any size, contains hundreds of displaced Alawite mothers and children who have fled the village. The fight between Aziziya and Tamana showed no sign of abating and in the town I found several families in a near hysterical state. A woman who’d recently reached Salhab shouted at me: ‘We left under fire! Our dignity is precious! Our leader is honourable! They are traitors! Everything for Bashar!’

The Alawites and Syria’s Christian minorities are not going to fare well if Syria falls to the increasingly Salafist-tinged opposition. Their back is against the wall. The Druze and Kurds, with potential ethnic allies in neighboring states, may have greater leverage if the Baathist regime collapses.

 

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Obama’s Foreign Policy Gamble on the Moderate Islamists

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

As you probably already know, the US Embassy in Cairo Egypt was stormed today by Islamists supposedly angry about a video on Youtube supposedly made or endorsed by anti-Muslim Quran-burner and bigot Rev. Terry Jones. The embassy, deliberately left without sufficient protection by the Egyptian government of Islamist President  Mohamed Morsi, was overrun, Islamists tore down the US flag and hoisted the black flag of al Qaida while a senior Muslim Brotherhood official has called on the US to “apologize”. All on the anniversary of 9/11.

The US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya was attacked by an Islamist militia with RPGs and small arms, sacked and burned, killing at least one American.

The Obama administration has gambled heavily upon a Mideast policy of engagement verging into appeasement and sponsorship of Sunni Islamist groups’ political and even revolutionary aspirations in the hopes of  co-opting “moderate” or “pragmatic” Islamists into a durable partnership with the United States. The new regime of American-educated Mohammed Morsi, represents the cornerstone of this policy, alongside the Libyan Revolution that toppled Gaddafi. This initiative has been delicately balanced, Nixon-style, with a very tough campaign of unapologetic targeted drone strikes on hard-core al Qaida terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

If you have a sense of deja vu, you are harkening back to 1979, when another Democratic administration and an arrogantly uninformed group of senior State Department officials severely misread another, that time Shia, Islamist revolution. We lost several embassies then as well and endured a national humiliation of the Iranian hostage crisis.

But give the Carter administration, it’s due: when the embassy in Teheran was seized or the one in Islamabad burned by military-sponsored Islamist mobs, no State Department official at the time responded with quite this level of truckling moral cowardice and incompetence:

@Mbaha2

@USEmbassyCairo you say all humans are equal but the truth is you hate Muslims and describe us as terrorists when u are the real terrorists

@USEmbassyCairo

@mbaha2 No, that’s not true. We consistently stand up for Muslims around the world and talk abt how Islam is a wonderful religion

Perhaps the time for anxiously politically correct FSOs describing Islam as “a wonderful religion” to an online Salafist hater could wait a few days, at least until Egypt restored the American embassy to it’s sovereign status with an apology and the body of the slain American diplomat is returned to their family from Libya for a decent burial?

The administration’s policy teeters on a knife’s edge. Their so far craven and confused response today to two of our diplomatic missions being attacked by the forces they themselves have engaged could potentially cause a snowball effect across the region. Their would-be “allies” are  currently calculating the costs of biting the hand that fed them vice the dangers of their own swarming fanatics in the streets. The administration’s officials as of today seem to have little awareness of the effects of their bizarrely conciliatory words and a stubborn determination to double-down rather than correct their course  have begun to reevaluate at least their rhetoric. The policy is another question.
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Perhaps for our next hostage crisis, we will see an American ambassador beheaded live on al Jazeera……
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UPDATE:
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Events in Libya were worse than news reports yesterday indicated. Ambassador Stevens and three other diplomatic personnel were killed and the security situation in Libya remains dicey.
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When this terrible incident is examined by Congressional committees, one focus will be on the security provided to the embassy and Ambassador Stevens by the State Department and the government of Libya, whose security minister reported that the government safe house sheltering American diplomatic personnel had been discovered by the attackers. “Where were the Marine guards?” is a question already being asked privately by national security and defense professionals which will soon be put forward in public.
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UPDATE II:
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Now policy may be changing sharply in the direction of realism. Good
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The Twilight War—a review

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

[by J. Scott Shipman]

The Twilight War, The Secret History of America’s Thirty-year Conflict with Iran, by David Crist

When President Obama made a heartfelt opening, a smug Iranian leadership viewed it as a ruse or the gesture of a weak leader. Iran spurned him. Obama fell back on sanctions and CENTCOM; Iran fell back into its comfortable bed of terrorism and warmongering. Soon it may no longer be twilight; the light is dimming, and night may well be approaching at long last. [emphasis added]

Thus concludes senior government historian David Crist’s The Twilight War, and be assured Crist’s language is not hyperbole. Crist masterfully details the tumult of U.S.-Iranian relations from the Carter administration to present day. Using recently released and unclassified archived data from principals directly involved in shaping and making American foreign policy, Crist provides the reader an up-front view of “how the sausage is made;” and, as with sausage, the view often isn’t pretty for either side. Crist’s access wasn’t limited to U.S. policy makers, as he conducted interviews with principles on the other side as well, for instance, he had secret meetings/interviews with pro-Iranian Lebanese officials in south Beirut. In all, Crist estimated he interviewed over “four hundred individuals in the United States and overseas.”

Crist begins his story with the Shah of Iran in the last days of his leadership, as popular sentiment was turning against both his regime, as well as his American enablers. He reveals the Carter administration’s fleeting notion of military intervention following the fall of the Shah, and includes details how the clerics reigned in professional Iranian military members, purging the “unreconstructed royalists.” From the start, the U.S. learned how difficult, if indeed impossible, relations were going to be with the new Iranian leadership. One State Department report summed up the situation:

It is clear that we are dealing with an outlook that differs fundamentally from our own, and a chaotic internal situation. Our character, our society are based on optimism—a long history of strength and success, the possibility of equality, the protection of institutions, enshrined in a constitution, the belief in our ability to control our own destiny. Iran, on the other hand has a long and painful history of foreign invasions, occupations, and domination. Their outlook is a function of this history and the solace most Iranians have found in Shi’a Islam. They place a premium on survival. They are manipulative, fatalistic, suspicious, and xenophobic.

While I am certain the writer of this report was not intending to be prophetic, as it turns out this paragraph captures the essence of our conflict. Each American president has thought himself equal to the challenge and each has thus far failed.

The Twilight War includes the birth of Hezbollah, accounts of the Marine barracks bombing in 1983 (from the men who were there), and the details of the Kuwaiti request for American protection of their tanker fleet from the Iranians. From this decision, the U.S. committed military force to protect Middle East oil—a difficult and at times, contentious decision. This decision resulted in continued sporadic confrontations between the U.S. and Iranian forces in the Persian Gulf.

Crist’s book is an illustration writ-large of a book previously reviewed here at Zenpundit.com; Derek Leebaert’s Magic and Mayhem, The Delusions of American Foreign Policy—as both “magic” and “mayhem” figure large in our on-going relationship with Iran. Most U.S. administrations when dealing with Iran came to rely on the “magic, ” and often divorced, or worse, ignored the realities.

At 572 pages, the fast paced narrative is a must read for anyone wanting insight into the origins and issues that remain in the ongoing U.S.-Iran conflict. The Twilight War is exhaustively sourced.  Crist says in the Notes his book was twenty-years in the making and it shows. Further, this book comes with excellent maps, so keeping up with the geography is made easier.

Tom Ricks said, “this is the foreign policy book of the year, perhaps many years,” and Ricks may be right. The Twilight War is an important and timely book on a vital topic, and comes with my strongest recommendation.

Postscript:

A copy of The Twilight War was provided to this reviewer by the publisher.

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