This week Israel's Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system scored its first successes against live enemy fire. Somewhat akin to the U.S. Patriot air defense system, Iron Dome uses radars and high-speed intercept missiles to knock incoming rockets out of the air. Amid the recent escalation of hostilities between Israel and Hamas, Iron Dome was deployed to defend southern Israel against rockets fired from the Gaza Strip. According to some reports, by early Saturday the system had shot down six rockets that had been directed at cities such as Beersheba and Ashkelon. This development is significant and deserves to be welcomed by many people, notwithstanding the views they may have about whatever else Israel does.
Israel does many things in the name of providing security to its citizens. Iron Dome is different in an important respect: It doesn't harm anyone. It only protects; it does not kill and it does not repress. Many of the other things Israel does in the name of security do harm others, sometimes grievously. The wall that has helped to keep would-be terrorist bombers from moving from the West Bank into Israel has sliced apart Palestinian communities, separating people's livelihoods from where they live. Other restrictions on Palestinians' daily movements have ended some livelihoods altogether. Embargoes of materials supposedly intended to prevent construction of military installations have prolonged squalor in the Gaza Strip. Operations aimed at killing accused terrorists have killed a good number of people not accused of anything. And some Israeli military operations have done this on a larger scale—most notoriously Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, which killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians.
The only way to find a possible disadvantage in an anti-rocket defense system would be to argue that by neutralizing one of the few means Palestinians have to strike back in response to Israeli actions, this gives Israel a freer hand to inflict even more damage. But it is hard to see how Israel would have any freer a hand than it does now to bash Palestinians, or to behave in any more unrestrained way than it does now. The effects of the rockets pale in comparison with the damage that Israel inflicts in the other direction, and the reflexive Israeli reaction to something like rocket fire has always been to strike back, immediately and hard.
In light of these considerations, the United States (and other outsiders) should do all they can to encourage the effectiveness of, and Israeli reliance upon, Iron Dome. The United States should be generous in assisting further development and improvement of the system, which Israeli officials cautiously describe as still only “experimental”. Outsiders have only limited means, of course, to determine how the Israelis set their priorities and allocate their resources. But the outsiders should use what means they have to influence Israel in the direction of more use of Iron Dome and any other undeniably defensive systems and less use of offensive, destructive measures. It would be great if somehow the Israeli Defense Forces could be induced to spend half their budget on Iron Dome.
Such an emphasis would do three things. First, to the extent that the system provides effective defense against rockets, it lessens the Israeli inclination to strike back with something like another Cast Lead. Second, it makes clear that when it really is the security of Israelis that is at stake—when it is a “pure play,” as investors would say, in Israeli security—there should be no question about outside sympathy and support. Third, it draws a clear distinction between Israeli security per se, which is worthy of such support, and many other Israeli actions, which are more worthy of criticism and condemnation than of support. Those other actions include those other steps that are taken in the name of security but are disproportionately destructive and harmful. And they certainly include actions that do not contribute to security at all but are still harmful, with the continued colonization of occupied territories being the most flagrant example.
The popular upheaval in the Middle East, and the reactions of regimes in the region to that upheaval, constitute a laboratory for studying the effectiveness of different strategies for retaining political power. A variety of strategies have been tried. Libya's Qaddafi, for example, has followed one of the harder lines, while other regimes have emphasized carrots for the populace more than sticks. Several regimes are mixing the hard and the soft, although in varying proportions and in different sequences. The variation does not simply track the character of the regimes; it is not just a matter, say, of Qaddafi following a tough line because he is a harder edged tyrant and the previous regime in Egypt following a different course because gentler souls live there. The different strategies reflect calculations by rulers about which approach is most likely to keep them in power. The results in most countries in the region have yet to be determined. They can't all have the best strategy. Who's right?
There is no general answer to that question. The question involves inherent trade-offs. Toughness is best able to quell unrest directly, and it also demonstrates determination. But it antagonizes people and therefore stimulates more anger and possibly more unrest. Concessions and conciliation can defuse unrest without generating more anger, and can bolster a regime's popularity. But it also be seen as weakness and as such may make regime change appear all the more within reach. Mixed strategies have a logical appeal, sending the messages both that continued opposition involves paying a price and that supporting the regime has its rewards. But such mixtures often are interpreted as vacillation and a sign of indecision. These dilemmas are not new. They arose, for example, when the rule of the shah of Iran began to shake. Disagreement persists to this day over whether the shah's regime could have been saved and if so, what strategy was best designed to save it.
The results of different regime-saving strategies are indeterminate partly because whether a regime stays or goes depends also on other variables besides the regime's selection of a strategy. They depend on the specific characteristics of the country in question and on the issues that have arisen there. They sometimes depend on the postures of outside powers (as is the case with Libya today). They depend on the location of the tipping point, which again varies by country, between popular anger and popular fear. And they depend on the same sort of unpredictable catalysts that gave rise to the unrest in the first place.
One implication of the indeterminacy is that we should retain a large dollop of agnosticism in trying to anticipate where this story in the Middle East is going. Another is that if are thinking about giving advice to regimes we want to stay in power (such as the one in Bahrain), we probably should think again. We ought to have little confidence that whatever advice we give is the right advice. Yet another implication is that many people—ourselves, Middle Eastern rulers, and future analysts and historians—are likely to draw incorrect lessons from however events in the region play out. We are apt to hear generalizations such as that toughness pays, or toughness does not pay, and most such generalizations will be wrong. They will be invalid extrapolations from outcomes the basis of which is far more complicated than that.
The counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is something like the elephant that was described differently by blind men touching different parts of the animal. Descriptions of the entire enterprise vary considerably, depending on what part of the effort whoever is offering the description has come to know directly. Some of the shaping of descriptions is motivated by self-interest; it is in the interest of a field commander, for example, to portray the situation he took over as a mess, and then to portray the situation later in his tour of duty as showing substantial progress. But even if self-interest could somehow be expunged, the size and complexity of the conflict in Afghanistan would lead different people, who have come into contact with different appendages of the elephant, to convey widely differing characterizations of where this counterinsurgency is going.
Stephen Biddle and Michael O’Hanlon offer some interesting observations about reasons for the inconsistent perspectives on trends in the war. Soldiers, they point out, expect to operate in dangerous environments and see improvement if a situation goes “from very dangerous to less so.” Civilians tend to have a different standard and to label as unsafe anywhere it is hazardous to work and travel. Biddle and O’Hanlon also contend that perceptions of spreading instability and worsening insecurity are misleading in two respects. One is that greater Taliban activity in the northern part of the country is a response to greater pressure being placed on the Taliban in the south and east. The other is that upsurges in violence in certain areas are the result of coalition forces taking on the Taliban where previous quiet was due only to the population being cowed by the Taliban.
That logic has some validity, but a further perspective on this perspective comes from a report by Rod Nordland in the New York Times describing conditions in Kandahar, which General David Petraeus has highlighted as “one of those very important places where Taliban momentum has been reversed.” Reversed or not, Kandahar was the scene last weekend of violent disturbances, ostensibly in response to the Islamophobic Florida pastor’s burning of the Koran, in which members and sympathizers of the Taliban played a major role. If pressuring the Taliban has in part been a game of whack-a-mole, the moles are showing up not only in parts of Afghanistan to which the coalition has not given high priority but also in parts where the coalition has made a major effort. The Times report indicates that coalition successes in rural districts have driven the Taliban into Kandahar city, where they can go underground and wait for opportunities to strike back. As for the population being cowed by the insurgents, this is not just a phenomenon in quiet districts but again also is showing up in Kandahar. One resident who did not want to give his name for fear of retribution said, “Taliban are there, everyone knows it. No one knows when they are going to come out.”
As for nationwide trends over the past couple of years, two major and discouraging ones are hard to explain away. One is increased anti-foreign and anti-American sentiment in Afghanistan (again, something exhibited in Kandahar). The other is an increase in the number of Taliban fighters in the field. Moles are popping up in many places not just because they are under pressure in other places but because there are more moles.
But official optimism, and a lot of unofficial optimism, persists. A U.S. official is quoted in Nordland’s story as saying, “I wish there were another way to say ‘cautiously optimistic’ ”—a phrase often used throughout the nine years of this war. Those who uttered it probably should have been more cautious and less optimistic.
A peace proposal released this week by a group of prominent Israelis warrants close attention, although not because it breaks any new substantive ground. Condensed into a digestible two pages, it follows the lines that countless knowledgeable observers have known for a long time would have to be the shape of any eventual Israeli-Palestinian agreement. It is consistent with the parameters that Bill Clinton laid out at Camp David over a decade ago, and it explicitly is a response to—and an embracing of—the Arab peace initiative that the Arab League advanced in 2002. The core concept is a comprehensive and permanent peace between Israel and all its Arab neighbors, based on 1967 borders with provision for limited, mutually agreed 1:1 land swaps.
What is noteworthy about the proposal is that reasonable and sensible thinking like this is coming out of Israel, notwithstanding the obduracy of the current Israeli government and its apparent determination to retain indefinitely, and to continue colonization of, lands that Israeli forces seized in a war 44 years ago. Also noteworthy is who is exhibiting the sensible thinking. The proponents of the plan are to the left of Prime Minister Netanyahu and most of the rest of his government, but they include the likes of a former head of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad and a former head of the internal security service Shin Bet. These are not people who would support anything that would endanger the security of Israel.
The former Shin Bet chief, Yaakov Perry, indicated he had furnished a copy of the plan to Netanyahu, who said he looked forward to reading it. Mr. Perry is no doubt smart enough not to hold his breath waiting for any more of a response from the prime minister. In the very week that this unofficial plan is being unveiled, Netanyahu’s government is doing more not only of the colonization of occupied territory but also of rubbing the Americans’ noses in the Israeli government’s ability to get away with it. In what looks like a replay of last year’s spectacle of the government announcing during a visit by the U.S. vice president the construction of additional settlements, more such announcements are being made on the eve of a meeting between President Obama and Israeli President (and former Labor Party leader and prime minister) Shimon Peres. The newest announced construction involves both a disputed area of East Jerusalem and several settlements farther afield in the West Bank.
Probably Netanyahu’s government is feeling all the more inclined to throw its weight around following the much-noted correction by Judge Richard Goldstone of his report on damage and casualties associated with Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli military expedition in the Gaza Strip in 2008-2009. The government is seizing this opportunity to portray this correction (made necessary by Israel’s refusal to cooperate with Goldstone’s inquiry in the first place) as discrediting all of the criticism of Cast Lead, but it did no such thing. Supposedly deliberate military targeting of civilians was never the main issue. Most of Goldstone’s report, which the judge has not retracted, is as valid as ever. Most of the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians during the operation came not from an Israeli military plan to kill them but instead from a use of force that was highly indiscriminate and highly disproportionate to whatever purpose Israeli forces supposedly were achieving with the operation. This is standard stuff in any careful inquiry into the legality and morality of warfare, in which most of the issues are matters of proportionality.
The disproportionate use of force in Cast Lead reflected an Israeli determination to seek absolute security even if that means absolute insecurity for other people. The fatal flaw in this approach is that the other people are always going to be deeply dissatisfied with that state of affairs. As long as this is the Israeli approach, there will be more anger, more rockets, more Cast Leads, and more Goldstone-type reports.
Just as regime change is often looked to for breaking destructive impasses elsewhere in the Middle East, regime change in Israel might be needed to break this endlessly destructive cycle. In the meantime, initiatives such as this week’s peace proposal give some hope. The next time the U.S. president sees the Israeli prime minister, he should press him regarding why he hasn't yet acted on the proposal, or on anything like it from the Israeli government.
Congress gave Attorney General Eric Holder no choice. In the interest of avoiding further delay in having some sort of justice served for an incredibly heinous crime committed a decade ago, he perhaps was right to bow to the misguided Congressional will and have 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and several others accused of involvement in that terrorist attack tried in a military tribunal, rather than holding out any longer to try to get Congress to reverse its mistaken ban on trying the suspects where they ought to be tried, in a federal district court. Holder also was right to be openly disdainful of Congress for enacting that ban.
Don't try to find any logic in the ban. It is based not on logic but on a combination of ideology and ideologically inspired wordplay, in which a lot of people in this country feel compelled to inject the word “war” into anything having to do with counterterrorism, with whatever military connotations follow from that. The ideology and the wordplay are wrapped up especially with Republican attempts to portray themselves as tougher on terrorism than their political opponents are, and to try to make this point by repeatedly uttering the word “war “ and suggesting that those who do not use the same vocabulary just don't take the problem as seriously as they do. It is wrapped up as well in the previous administration's portrayal of its Iraq War—a real war—as part of a “war on terror”. In the current case the ideology and wordplay were assisted by NIMBYism in New York City, including the mayor bowing to business and financial interests in lower Manhattan who preferred not to be inconvenienced by a high profile trial in their neighborhood.
The issue here is not to be equated with the question of whether military tribunals can serve a legitimate purpose. The Obama administration's inability to deliver on Mr. Obama's stated intention of closing the detention facility at Guantanamo points to the existence of individuals whose disposition is difficult because a criminal case would be hard to build against them but there is still reason to believe they would be a danger if released. Many such individuals were vacuumed up on battlefields, especially in Afghanistan, and it might be appropriate for some sort of military judicial proceeding to be part of how their cases are disposed. It should be noted that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was not vacuumed up on a battlefield; his was arrested at a safe house in Pakistan—roused from sleep as documented by that wonderfully unflattering photograph of him in his underwear. The U.S. military had no interaction with him until he was incarcerated at Guantanamo.
Let us review the consequences of the Congressional requirement to address the 9/11 case in a military tribunal rather than in a federal court as provided for in Article III of the U.S. Constitution.
It depicts the terrorists exactly as they wish to be depicted: as warriors rather than as criminals.
It will draw renewed international attention to Guantanamo, to the controversies surrounding the whole detention system centered there, and to the abuses associated with that system.
Given the major legal uncertainties regarding the military tribunals, the case of the 9/11 suspects probably will be subject to unending legal challenges, perhaps never being seen as ever having been definitively resolved.
It shows a lack of confidence in one of the fundamental, long-established elements of the rule of law in this country.
All of the above will be consequences no matter how the military tribunals work in practice. If the tribunals provide all the same procedural rights as a civilian court, then this all becomes a matter of labeling and perceptions. If they do not provide those rights, then we have abandoned one of our own principles having to do with the rule of law, which is that even someone accused of a heinous deed should get his day in court.
To offset all of these consequences, what advantage does use of a military tribunal offer? Besides not inconveniencing those business interests in lower Manhattan, it enables some people to thump their chests as they walk around uttering the word “war”.
The idea that the United States had a moral obligation to intervene to save civilians from ruthless actions of their own government has played a prominent role in justifying the military intervention in Libya. In his televised address on Monday, President Obama stated that waiting any longer meant the city of Benghazi “could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.” Much has also been written about the pressing of this argument by certain members of Mr. Obama's administration—especially White House aide Samantha Power, who covered the Bosnia war as a journalist and had written also about the genocide in Rwanda.
One has to ask: who gets to define, seemingly on behalf of all Americans, which moral principles will govern national policy? That question is seldom posed; too often appeals to do what is morally right are accompanied by an apparent assumption that the direction in which morality points is clear. If the morally right course is not followed, according to this outlook, it is because morality lost out to realpolitik, stinginess, cowardice, or inattention. The outlook has not been confined to liberal interventionists; in the past it has been seen at least as much, for example, among the anti-war left.
But very often the direction in which morality points is not clear. The fact that morally infused liberal interventionists and anti-war activists who are just as morally infused may be on opposite sides of an issue demonstrates the lack of clarity. So does the way that moral concepts that get the most attention tend to grow out of personal experiences such as Power's. The more one gets away from emotional reactions based on such experiences and to the kind of rigorous analysis from first principles in which a moral philosopher might engage, the more the lack of an obviously right direction becomes apparent.
Consider ideas from one of the most prominent contemporary thinkers who has addressed the moral philosophy of war and peace, Michael Walzer. In his book Just and Unjust Wars, Walzer devotes a chapter to intervention by outside powers in internal wars. His main principle is that interventions are unjust if they prop up a party to the conflict that would not otherwise be able to sustain itself—which, according to proponents of the most recent intervention, was true of the Libyan rebels. Walzer provides an exception for humanitarian intervention, when it has a reasonable chance of success and responds to acts that—in words similar to the president's—“shock the moral conscience of mankind.” But he clearly has in mind situations that are more certain and ongoing than mere possibilities of what a ruler “could” do if left unopposed. He cites as an example the atrocities of a Punjabi army against Bengali civilians in 1971 in what was then East Pakistan. “Millions of Bengalis fled into India,” Walzer writes, “and their arrival, destitute, hungry, and with incredible stories to tell, established the moral foundation of the later Indian attack.” Consistent with what he laid out in his earlier book, Walzer has recently argued that the intervention in Libya is unjustified. “A military attack of the sort now in progress is defensible only in the most extreme cases,” he says. “Rwanda and Darfur, where we didn’t intervene, would have qualified. Libya doesn’t.”
The point is not that Walzer is necessarily right (I disagree with some aspects of his ethical system relating to warfare) and that President Obama and Samantha Power are necessarily wrong, but rather that there is no single option that is clearly the morally correct one. A decision such as the one taken on Libya is difficult and complex partly because of competing priorities, trade-offs between different interests, and empirical uncertainties. But even if those complications were shoved aside and one focused solely on treading the morally correct path, the decision still would be difficult and complex. It would be so partly because different ethical values (such as peace and justice) often collide, because our leaders have to weigh their responsibilities to their own citizens as well as responsibility to mankind in general, and because the consequences of decisions include not only the immediate impact but also secondary and tertiary effects, some of which also may involve human suffering or its avoidance.
Certainly we should seek the morally right course when confronted with a challenge like the conflict in Libya. But identifying that course should be a matter of public debate, not the product of any single perspective. It should not be left just to moral philosophers, nor should it be left to White House aides.
The defection from the Libyan regime by Musa Kusa, the foreign minister and before that the longtime head of Libya's External Security Organization, is a significant development that raises legitimate hopes that the regime will crumble from within. Such a prominent defection increases the chance that still more of Muammar Qaddafi's subordinates will desert him. Kusa's move is significant for me also because I did business with him in secret meetings twelve years ago. After Libya surrendered for trial the two suspects wanted for the bombing of Pan Am 103—the subject of the international sanctions maintained against Libya for much of the 1990s—Qaddafi's government conveyed through an intermediary its desire to talk with the United States about turning over a new leaf and moving toward normal relations. The resulting U.S.-Libyan talks that began in 1999 led eventually, after fits and starts, to the agreement in 2003 (also involving Britain) which confirmed not only Qaddafi's getting out of international terrorism but also his giving up of unconventional weapons programs. The principal focus of the early rounds of talks was terrorism and counterterrorism. The initial phase of U.S.-Libyan cooperation against Islamist terrorism was conducted by Kusa and myself.
One can only imagine what cascade of thoughts must go through the mind of someone contemplating defection. The stakes for Kusa in this instance are at least as high as for other defectors or would-be defectors elsewhere. Anyone as prominently associated with the security apparatus of Qaddafi's regime would face a grim future in a post-Qaddafi Libya. But as long as the Libyan dictator clings to power over even a portion of the country, an exiled Kusa faces the danger of being hunted down by the dictator's agents. Kusa would know this all too well, having probably had a part in the hunting down of earlier exiled dissidents. His defection was in part the placing of a bet against Qaddafi's ability to cling to power indefinitely.
But I think his decision reflects more than just a calculation of odds about the outcome of the current Libyan civil war. Kusa is an urbane, polished man who would not look out of place as a minister or ambassador in the service of a western government. He has a western education, in the form of a bachelor's degree from Michigan State University. He is not the image of a revolutionary or a subversive; he comes across as a polite and pragmatic diplomat. Whatever thuggish history may be in his past, it is hard to picture him as representing the current thuggish elements of the Libyan regime. In this moment of trial, anguish, and uncertainty, probably something inside told him that he belongs in the west.
In those initial talks twelve years ago, part of my job was to take the measure of the Libyans and to determine whether they were serious about getting on the good side of counterterrorism. Given whom I was dealing with, this really meant taking the measure of Kusa. I concluded that he, and the government he was representing, were indeed serious about this. We do not know exactly what role Kusa played in persuading Qaddafi to make his dramatic turnaround in policy, but Kusa was the chief implementer of the new policy and I have every reason to think that he fully believed in it and was fully committed to it.
Kusa probably hoped Libya's new direction would enable him to become more of a diplomat and less of a thug, while sufficiently staying in the good graces of the regime he served to stay alive. The new direction promised a new world in which he could more comfortably live with himself as well as living with the regime. Now that world has crashed around him, and he has to rely on the leverage that comes from his valuable knowledge of Libyan matters to receive the mercies of the British.
Those who do not follow closely either the game of cricket or the popular mood in South Asian countries may not fully appreciate how big a deal was the sporting event held on Wednesday at Muhali, India. The national teams of India and Pakistan met in a semifinal of the cricket world cup. The match-up was not foreordained; India had to beat perennial cricket powerhouse Australia in a quarterfinal to get to Wednesday's match. Once the pairing was set up, it became the leading public focus of attention in both India and Pakistan. Many employers had to make special preparations for the day of the match, when they knew absenteeism would be high and little work would get done.
Cricket is such a major diversion in South Asia that the match was bound to have ripple effects no matter when it was held. The potential effects are all the greater coming at a time when India and Pakistan are trying to impart some momentum to their latest, just-started round of bilateral negotiations on the territorial and security issues that divide them. The match was the first meeting between the two cricket teams in either one's home country since the deadly terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November 2008 by the Pakistan-based group Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Cricket diplomacy has previously played a role in Indian-Pakistani relations, with varying degrees of success. Hopes for a beneficial effect this time are justified on several grounds. A peaceful meeting in a sporting event is inherently a sort of goodwill gesture. It gets members of the public thinking about the adversary in terms other than the tough political issues that divide them. And in this case, it can get leaders talking with each other. Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani accepted an invitation from India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to watch the match together.
Among all sports, cricket is particularly well suited to aiding diplomacy. Matches are long. It's not clear what Gilani and Singh talked about, but at least they had several hours to talk—and Gilani brought a delegation of 50 officials with him. The length of a match (even in the limited-overs format used in the world cup), may also symbolize the long slog the two sides face in resolving their differences. The many ways in which a batsman can be put out in cricket may remind the two sides of the setbacks they are bound to endure as they do the slogging.
Cricket also is one of the more gentlemanly sports, without crashing, bashing, and brawls. (NHL-style ice hockey would not be well suited as a diplomatic tool.) But unlike other gentlemanly sports such as golf (and unlike table tennis, the vehicle for the “ping pong diplomacy” that played a role in U.S.-Chinese engagement in the early 1970s), it is an inherently team sport in which the two national sides directly engage each other.
India won Wednesday's match, with 260 runs to Pakistan's 231. Probably a better result from the standpoint of setting the right mood for diplomatic progress would have been a win by Pakistan, which in the larger contest between the two nations is the smaller and weaker power and the one less satisfied with the status quo. But Gilani graciously described the match as a “win for both countries,” Indian officials expressed the hope that this day of good cheer would lead to better overall relations, and people in both countries and beyond can hope for that as well.
Accelerating unrest in Syria, with the regime scrambling to find some combination of concession and repression to stay in power, has regime change juices in the United States flowing. The Washington Post editorial page says “it is time to recognize that Syria’s ruler is an unredeemable thug—and that the incipient domestic uprising offers a potentially precious opportunity.” Elliott Abrams declares that with regimes “falling like dominoes” in the Middle East, “Syria is next.” He issues a clarion call to rid the world of the “murderous clan” and “bloody regime” of Bashar al-Assad.
This excitement is understandable, and to some extent justified. The Syria regime's intermittently bloody crackdown on protestors is a reminder of its shortage of scruples. Then there are all the other reasons this regime gives many people reasons to hate it, from its dominating role in Lebanon (and possibly the assassination of former prime minister Rafic Hariri) to its continued association with Palestinian groups that have used terrorism. Unlike Libya, Syria has reached no agreements with the United States on matters such as terrorism and unconventional weapons. And as for opportunities, the current region-wide popular upheaval and its spread already to Syria probably represent the most threatening challenge to the regime since Assad's father seized power in a coup more than four decades ago.
The talking up of the idea of toppling Assad exhibits some of the same shortcomings, however, as earlier agitation for changes of regime elsewhere. There is underestimation of how much worthwhile business could be conducted with the incumbent regime, however distasteful it may be. There is overestimation of how much the policies of the country in question are specific to the incumbent regime, and thus overestimation as well of how much change in those policies would ensue from a change of regime. There is also a general failure to think much about who or what would replace the current regime.
Abrams's op-ed is a good example of these characteristics. He says absolutely nothing about what a replacement regime in Syria would look like, other than that it would be controlled by someone in Syria's Sunni majority. Yet he writes with absolute certainty about the policies of that undescribed future regime. A Sunni-dominated Syrian government, he says, “would never have” close relations with Iran and Hizballah, and Iran “will lose” its Arab ally and land bridge to Hizballah. Now, it certainly is true that sectarian divides strongly color many policies and perspectives in the Middle East, and that members of the Alawite sect to which Bashar and a disproportionate number of higher-ups in his regime belong view their religion as a form of Twelver Shi’ism as is practiced in Iran. But other influences have been at least as important in shaping the postures in question. (And by the way, I don’t recall hearing any of this kind of sectarian determinism from supporters of the Iraq War when it came to anticipating what policies could be expected from Shia majority rule in Iraq and what this would imply for Iranian influence.) The Syrian-Iranian alliance was motivated initially and primarily by common hostility toward the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, and cemented through economic ties that have lasted beyond Saddam’s demise. A strategic interest in supporting Lebanese Hizballah is something else that Syria and Iran share and has not been primarily a matter of religion. Hizballah’s value to Syria has been as an instrument of influence in Lebanon (which many Syrians have never quite gotten over regarding as a chunk that never should have been taken out of Greater Syria) and as a club to hold over the head of Israel.
The very small proportion of Alawites in Syria, which is three-fourths Sunni Muslim, means that policies shaped by narrow sectarian concerns would be foolish and dangerous for a regime intent on retaining power, and the regime realizes that. In any event, Syria under Assad is probably the most secular place in the Middle East. The influence of Islamism, in whatever form, in Syria has nowhere to go but up if there is regime change. That would not be welcome to those in Israel and the United States who worry about any political role for Islamists.
Another item in Abrams’s bill of particulars against the Assad regime is the hospitality it extends to Hamas. This, too, is not driven by religion and certainly not by sectarian considerations—Hamas being not only Islamist but also Sunni. Instead, it is again a matter of having an ally in confronting Israel. That confrontation is highly likely to shape the attitudes and policies of almost any conceivable ruler of Syria. This is not only because of the salience of the Palestinian issue throughout the Arab world but also because Israel still occupies a piece of Syrian territory that it conquered in the 1967 war.
The status of the Golan Heights relates also to the question of how much business could be done with the “unredeemable thugs” of the current regime. In the 1990s, while Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez still ruled Syria, Israel and Syria came within a whisker of reaching a peace agreement that would include return of the Golan to Syria. Well, not quite within a whisker, but within a few meters of shoreline of Lake Tiberias. One line of analysis regarding how the current instability may shape Bashar al-Assad’s attitude toward peace negotiations is that he has an incentive to be more militant and bellicose than ever toward Israel, as a rally-round-the-flag distraction. In the absence of any apparent prospect for resuming fruitful peace talks, he might react that way. (In his opinion piece, Abrams says nothing about peace with Israel—perhaps reflecting that he, along with the current Israeli government, has little or no interest in a peace agreement involving return of the Golan Heights.) But if given the opportunity, another incentive for Bashar might be more powerful. Making Syrian territory whole again would be one of the biggest possible feathers in his cap, or the cap of any Syrian leader. He would be accomplishing something that even his father could not accomplish in thirty years of rule—sort of like George W. Bush trying to outdo his father by toppling the Iraqi dictator whom the elder Bush had left standing.
Regarding Iraq, by the way, Abrams grossly rewrites history when he refers to “thousands of American soldiers killed in Iraq with the help of the Assad regime.” In the early months of the war Damascus did facilitate the movement of militants between Syria and Iraq. But after Secretary of State Powell read the Syrians the riot act and the Syrians themselves came to realize that a wave of Sunni extremism in western Iraq wasn’t in their own interests (hey, they’re Alawites—remember?) they stepped back from such assistance. For years now, any continued infiltration across the Syrian-Iraqi border has been more a problem of Syrian capability than of Syrian intentions. That problem will continue to face anyone who comes to power in Damascus.
There is, fortunately, not much talk so far in the United States of a fourth war in Syria to go along with our third war in Libya (although there are some who do not seem bothered by the prospect of such a spread of U.S. commitments). The uncertainty of Assad’s grip on power, however, is likely to present the Obama administration with some difficult choices in the near future. As the administration deals with pressures to seize an opportunity and add its own shoving to any effort to topple Assad, it needs to avoid getting swept up in the excitement and to keep a clear head about what difference regime change in Syria would and would not make.
In his speech on Libya Monday night, President Obama had to cram in responses to many different criticisms from many different critics. To those who question the wisdom of using any U.S. military force in Libya, he painted a picture of a prospective humanitarian disaster and adduced multiple ways of defining U.S. strategic interests in Libya. To those who believe he should use military force more extensively in the interest of overthrowing the Libyan regime, he talked of splintered coalitions and memories of the Iraq War. To those worried about the monetary costs of the expedition, he said that limiting the United States to a “supporting role” will mean the cost to U.S. taxpayers “will be reduced significantly.” To those who charge he did not sufficiently involve Congress, he said he had in fact consulted with a “bipartisan Congressional leadership.” To those who accuse him of taking too long to decide on the intervention, he said this decision took much less time than what it took to intervene in Bosnia. To those who say he is a weak leader who unnecessarily deferred to foreign partners, he spoke of true leadership consisting less of doing things oneself than of bringing a coalition along.
With his argument containing so many moving parts, moving in so many different directions, some of them were bound to be strained or unpersuasive. The overdrawn picture of how much blood of innocent Libyans would be shed if the regime had been allowed to proceed unmolested by foreign air power is, despite Qaddafi's track record, only worst case speculation. The assertion that the coalition military mission is narrowly focused on saving lives simply doesn't square with the nature of many of the air strikes in the last few days—with the discrepancy between assertion and reality being great enough for the Libyan regime to make propaganda hay out of it. As for U.S. interests in Libya, any argument is going to be highly nuanced in a situation in which the secretary of defense already has explained that the United States has interests there but not “vital” ones. The president's image of flows of Libyan refugees overwhelming neighboring Tunisia or Egypt (which has a population of 80 million, compared with Libya's 6.5 million) is unconvincing as a U.S. interest pressing enough to warrant the use of military force. The contention that without the intervention a United Nations resolution would have been seen to be meaningless is also unconvincing; what is now the principal resolution followed the decision to intervene, not the other way around. The president also used the now-familiar argument about other dictators drawing lessons if Qaddafi is allowed to stay in power through the ruthless use of force. Apart from ignoring that, given the Libyan leader's earlier agreement with the U.S. and Britain, even more damaging lessons would be drawn if the U.S. participates in his ouster, this leaves unsaid the implications for further interventions elsewhere in the region. If the threat of a western-led military intervention is what is keeping other dictators in the region from misbehaving, is this a threat we are willing to execute? If so, where?
The biggest unanswered questions were among those asked most often in anticipation of the speech. How will this all end? And when will it end? The president was quite clear that removal of Qaddafi's regime is one of his objectives, and equally clear (notwithstanding the nature of some of the ongoing airstrikes) that this is not an objective of the military operation. He talked of other means of pressuring the regime, such as freezing financial assets, but gave no reason to expect or hope that either they or the Libyan rebels on the ground would succeed in ousting the dictator anytime soon. As long as they don't, then what?
And even when Qaddafi goes, there is the huge, messy matter of constructing something in his regime's place. The president allowed that things “will not happen overnight,” but the scale and scope of political (and economic) reconstruction and all the attendant problems in as battered down a society as Libya's, and especially what the expected U.S. role in this would be, were all left unsaid. The president probably felt safe in drawing a contrast between what he is doing and what his predecessor did in going to war in Iraq, because there are indeed huge differences. But recall that overthrowing the dictator in Iraq was the easy part. The long, very costly part was what came afterward. In Libya, if the combination of international sanctions, allied air power, and brave albeit disorganized Libyan rebels is enough to drive Qaddafi out, there will still be an “afterward.” What will be the U.S. role in that? Will we own some of the broken pottery?
The Libyan crisis has quickly become a large and unwelcome preoccupation of Barack Obama's presidency—unwelcome at least as much to Mr. Obama as to anyone else. The best part of his speech by far was the last portion, in which he spoke eloquently not of Libya but of his aspirations for the Middle East as a whole. If only he were free to operate at that level all the time.
Image by magharebia