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The Most Important Question About Libya

Paul Pillar

The political inanity about what was said or not said in the first hours and days after the incident in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens continues, and it continues to move farther away from anything of importance to U.S. policy and U.S. interests. With the fixation on minutiae about the editing of some preliminary talking points, it moves farther away even from anything that makes sense in terms of competitive politics. Even if the Obama administration had wanted to manipulate a public version of the Libyan events to help re-elect the president, how would any manipulation on this matter have done that? When has the Obama administration ever contended that international terrorism is not a major security problem (bin Laden or no bin Laden)? Such a contention would only make it all the harder for the administration to justify and explain those drone strikes and how they have become increasingly frequent under Mr. Obama.

It appears that preemptive opposition to a possible nominee for secretary of state is now part of what is sustaining the momentum of what began as a tactic in an election campaign. Please let us focus instead on how in terms of attributes and experience this person would or would not be qualified to be secretary of state, rather than how she handled her talking points on talk shows one Sunday.

Perhaps something else that helps to make this supposed issue credible is an underlying assumption that the foreign intervention that helped to overthrow Muammar Qadhafi, and in which the United States participated, was a good thing and left something approaching a stable situation in Libya. If that assumption were true, then maybe it would make sense to dwell a bit, when violence nonetheless occurs, on the relative influence of things such as Islamophobic films and the machinations of extremist groups. But if instead what was left in Libya is a highly unstable and chronically violent situation in which the plans of terrorist groups, the uncontrolled activities of multiple militias, the inability of governing authorities to secure their own territory, and mass resentment against certain things associated with the United States all get mixed together in a constantly bubbling lethal brew, then any such dwelling is almost pointless. It is the latter situation that in fact describes much of Libya, including Benghazi, today. As Kareem Fahim reports in the New York Times, Ambassador Stevens was only one of about three dozen public servants who have been killed in Benghazi alone over the last year and a half. The government is weaker than the militias, and even militias that have been relied upon as ersatz public security forces are unwilling to go after the likes of Ansar al-Shariah, a group accused of involvement in the attack that killed Stevens.

I have discussed before how one of the largest entries on the balance sheet of the intervention to overthrow Qadhafi is the disincentive it created for other regimes who otherwise might have been willing to reach agreements on weapons programs, terrorism, or other important issues but now are less likely to make a deal because they have a vivid demonstration of U.S. untrustworthiness. Other parts of the balance sheet concern the instability of what was left behind in the country where the intervention occurred. Some in Washington who still believe the intervention in Libya was a good idea are hesitant to intervene in Syria because the United States avoided American casualties in Libya but maybe the same could not be said of an intervention in Syria. Immediate American casualties are certainly a good reason for hesitation, but not the only reason. Sometimes what appears to be the avoidance of casualties is only the delaying of casualties. Christopher Stevens and the other Americans who died with him represent that.

Instead of all the business about preparation of talking points and demeanor on talk shows, the most important question about events in Libya is: was the intervention there worthwhile, and what are the implications for dealing with problem countries elsewhere in the Middle East?

TopicsDomestic PoliticsElectionsFailed StatesNuclear ProliferationTerrorism RegionsLibyaUnited StatesSyria

Syrian Internet Goes Dark

The Buzz

Several technology monitoring services and The Washington Post are confirming that the Internet has been completely shut off in Syria since early afternoon today. While Assad's government is crying terrorist, all signs point to it following the Libyan and Egyptian models of a government-induced blackout to stifle communication among the opposition.

Perhaps the rebels' recent strategic victories are proving more troublesome to the Syrian autocracy than first thought.

TopicsTechnology RegionsSyria

Go Away, Susan Rice

Jacob Heilbrunn

The defenders of Susan Rice offer numerous explanations for why President Obama should ignore her detractors, and they seem to growing by the day, to select her to become Secretary of State. They say that she is a victim of racism. Or they say that she is being tarred as overly aggressive, a label that no one would pin on a man. Or they say she is abundantly qualified for the post. Or they say all of the above.

None of it is convincing. The truth is that Susan Rice would be a lousy candidate for Secretary of State even if she had never uttered a syllable about Benghazi. As Maureen Dowd observes in the New York Times, the very fact that she walked out of her big 90-minute meeting with Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Kelly Ayotte leaving them more, not less, dubious about her credentials is a telling indice of her lack of diplomatic skills. What on earth did she say? That they were "confused," as she once sniped at McCain, about her record? If she she keeps this up, pretty soon there may be a spontaneous demonstration against Rice in the Senate.

She has punched all the right tickets in the foreign policy establishment--Stanford, a Rhodes scholarship, various national security postings. For a president like Obama who seems to have a pathological need to surround himself with establishment advisers she fits just right in. But the most striking thing about Rice's resume--which, as Dana Milbank has noted, is not so hot after all--is what it does not contain--a serious position that has nothing to do with foreign policy. She has not been a Senator, a lawyer, a businessman. Instead, she has succeeded at succeeding. She has never, you could say, left her little ecosystem.

Now she is supposed to be the president's star pupil. She also has the White House cabal of Michelle Obama and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, one of the worst influences on Obama, behind her. Obama dared her critics to come after him instead. It was a childish boast.  She has never demonstrated prowess as a diplomat. In reality, she is simply, as she has been all her life, the teacher's pet.

It is this background, I suspect, that made her so prepared to fall on her sword for the Obama administration. She wants to please her superiors, which is why she fudged when it came to deeming the events in Rwanda "genocide" during her service on the national security council during the Clinton administration. In 1994 she apparently stated, "If we use the word 'genocide' and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November congressional election?" This isn't the statement of a diplomat, but a political hack.

The bottom line is this: Rice doesn't question authority; she seeks to cater to it. So she asked no questions about the bogus intelligence about the events in Libya that she was relying upon. Rather, she simply regurgitated her talking points about a spontaneous protest in Benghazi with vigor and conviction. Which is why Senator Bob Corker has it right when he observes that her talents might be best-suited to making her an "outstanding" head of the Democratic National Committee, but are not necessarily conducive to a successful tenure as Secretary of State.

With numerous foreign affairs problems confronting America--from the roiling Middle East to a resurgent China--Rice simply does not have the experience to grapple with them successfully. Democrats, the Los Angeles Times reports, are beginning to get queasy about Rice: "Without defections, Democrats would need to pick up only five Republican votes to stop a filibuster of the nomination. But some Senate Democrats are privately expressing reluctance to cast a vote that might not be popular in their home states." Obama would not simply be making a mistake if he picks Rice. He would be committing a terrible blunder. Instead of dwelling on her, Obama should move on and avoid a divisive confirmation battle. How about approaching Jon Huntsman?

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

Hamas and the Two-State Solution

Paul Pillar

Wikimedia Commons/Soman.What is one of the first things Hamas does when it is fresh off standing up against an Israeli assault and widely perceived to have gained ground politically at the expense of its intramural rival, Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority? It voices support for Abbas's effort to get his organization's status at the United Nations upgraded from observer to “non-member state.” Given the way Hamas is routinely suspected and reviled in some quarters, this move is sure to give rise to explanations that are convoluted and conspiratorial—that what Hamas is saying is a ruse, or is just a tactic for harassing Israel, or is a step toward shoving the Palestinian Authority aside while Abbas is down.

The explanation that is simple and straightforward, and ought to be obvious, is much more likely to be accurate: that Hamas supports the creation of a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel, and that diplomacy is the preferred way to achieve that goal. That's all that anyone who endorses Abbas's initiative at the U.N. is signing up to. And it is what everyone with a hand in this long-running conflict—including Israel, the Palestinians, the Quartet and the Arab League—claims to support. The Hamas spokesman said that his organization supports any political gains that Abbas can make at the U.N. “without causing harm to the national Palestinian rights.”

Although some saw this position by Hamas as surprising, there is no reason for any surprise. Hamas has repeatedly made clear that it will support the establishment of a Palestinian state limited to the 22 percent of the mandate of Palestine that would be represented by the 1967 borders, provided that such a settlement is approved by a majority of Palestinians in a referendum. The land swaps that are generally recognized as being necessary to accommodate some of the facts that Israel has established on the ground since 1967 represent a small step from that formula, as long as the 1967 borders are taken as the starting point for any such trades.

And yet the government of Israel, and Americans who sing that government's tune, and much of the American media habitually describe Hamas and the objectives of Hamas as something much different. The usual formula is something like “Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel.” Attempts to substantiate such a description often point to Hamas not having formally recognized Israel and its right to exist. Well, it hasn't, but neither has Israel recognized any right of Hamas to exist (even after Hamas won a free all-Palestinian election). Not only that, but Israel has done everything it can to try to squeeze Hamas out of existence, going to the extreme of collectively punishing the population of the Gaza Strip in an unsuccessful effort to do so. It is Israel that appears to be dedicated to the destruction of Hamas.  Why should Hamas be expected to bestow the first recognition, gratis, under such circumstances?

One also often hears that all Hamas is offering is a hudna or truce, rather than a commitment to a final settlement. That will be a distinction without a practical difference. The agreement that ended the Korean War 59 years ago is only a hudna, but that peace has held even though the regime north of the armistice line is far more erratic, illegitimate, and downright scary than Hamas. Besides, anyone can see—and Hamas's leaders are not dummies—that Israel, the strongest state in its region, is here to stay no matter what its borders. Even if the most extreme, negative assumptions about Hamas's intentions and objectives were true (and they very likely are not), being part of (or even being the ruling party in) a Palestinian state in that 22 percent would not bring it any closer to being able to destroy or even undermine Israel. Instead, it would have that much more to lose from the certain retaliation if it were to renege on an agreement that finally established the long-sought Palestinian state.

An upgraded status for Palestinians at the United Nations merely levels somewhat the diplomatic playing field for the bilateral negotiations that will still be needed to bring a real Palestinian state into existence, as well as reconfirming the objective that everybody involved says they share. It would thus be a positive step. Don't just listen to what Abbas or Hamas say on the subject. See what former Israeli diplomat Yossi Beilin, who helped to craft the Oslo accords, says about it. See also the statement on the subject by Gro Harlem Brundtland, who was the Norwegian prime minister at the time the accords were negotiated, and Jimmy Carter, who based on his past experience also knows a thing or two about Arab-Israeli negotiations.

Probably some in Israel and the United States will see Hamas's endorsement of Abbas's U.N. initiative as another reason to oppose the initiative. If the governments of Israel and the United States continue foolishly to oppose this move and to invest political capital in trying to defeat it, we will have come in a sense full circle. The organization that is continually accused of not wanting a peaceful diplomatic settlement will have signed on to a process aimed at moving toward such a settlement and giving it additional multilateral approval. It will be its chief accusers who fail to do so.

TopicsUNHuman RightsPost-Conflict RegionsIsraelUnited StatesPalestinian territories

The Earthquake in the Sinai

The Buzz

Over at the New York Review of Books, Nicholas Pelham takes a deep look at the ongoing crisis in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, where the Bedouin have become increasingly restless under Cairo’s rule.

The Sinai is now one of the world’s most dangerous places. A tribal leader Pelham planned to interview is killed by a Salafi cousin, militants roam the deserts in technicals, and policemen are routinely ambushed. It was the site of some of the 2011 national uprising’s first violence, the shooting of a stone-thrower that was broadcast around the world by the Associated Press. It’s also, as Pelham shows, deeply complex. Radicals compete with old tribal power structures and Sufis. Drugs and people are smuggled. The Muslim Brotherhood sends in a parliamentarian and the generals provide the mayor. An “urbane Cairo-trained academic and veterinarian from the Fuwakhariya tribe merely shrug[s] when gunmen open fire one evening on a police station.” A young woman in dress (a veil and overalls) form-fitting enough to be branded non-Muslim by the radicals expresses sympathy for their violence against the regime.

The Sinai has become a distillation of the social turbulence, self-contradictions and weird postmodernity of the modern Middle East.

Pelham’s article makes less mention of how truly international the peninsula’s problems have become. Iran funnels weapons from the Sudan, through the Sinai, and into Gaza. Migrants come from places like Ethiopia and Eritrea. Militants come from throughout the Arab world. Arms and vehicles stolen from Libya circulate. Hamas arms itself from the tunnels and funds itself with taxes on them. In the Mubarak era, there was alleged Hezbollah activity. Terrorists have bombed the gas pipeline that leads to Israel and Jordan more than a dozen times; cash-strapped Amman has shelled out billions for alternative sources. Militant activity on the border with Israel led to the IDF inadvertently killing several Egyptian soldiers; crowds stormed Israel’s embassy in Cairo, prompting a string of emergency calls between Israel, Egypt, and the United States. The Sinai unrest isn’t just Cairene misrule and local grievance—it’s a case study of how the globe’s many weakly-controlled "black spots" can metastasize.

TopicsCounterinsurgencyTerrorismSecurity RegionsEgypt

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