Commentary Magazine


Topic: Muammar Qaddafi

What to Make of Rouhani’s Letter?

Over at AEI-Ideas, I take a look at Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s op-ed in today’s Washington Post and argue that, while we shouldn’t be afraid to take “yes” for an answer, Rouhani’s sincerity is extremely unclear. Both the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and the late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi made grand gestures to demonstrate their respective changes of heart.

Alas, reading the tea leaves back in Tehran does not give cause for optimism. As Will Fulton points out in his invaluable “Iran News Round Up,” on September 17, Rouhani suggested creating a commission “to pursue spiritual and material compensation” from the United States and United Kingdom for their role in the 1953 coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq.

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Over at AEI-Ideas, I take a look at Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s op-ed in today’s Washington Post and argue that, while we shouldn’t be afraid to take “yes” for an answer, Rouhani’s sincerity is extremely unclear. Both the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and the late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi made grand gestures to demonstrate their respective changes of heart.

Alas, reading the tea leaves back in Tehran does not give cause for optimism. As Will Fulton points out in his invaluable “Iran News Round Up,” on September 17, Rouhani suggested creating a commission “to pursue spiritual and material compensation” from the United States and United Kingdom for their role in the 1953 coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq.

While that might sound good to a self-flagellating audience of American intellectuals, putting aside whether the coup was wise or not given the Cold War context, the simple fact is that the Iranian clergy was complicit in the coup and, indeed, had made an alliance of convenience with the U.S., British, and Iranian military: All feared Mosaddeq’s populism, which, to be frank, was about as democratic as Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s in Haiti.

That Rouhani wants the United States to pay Iran for the 1953 coup which his teachers and predecessors supported shows just how manipulative and insincere he is in his populist games in Tehran and Washington.

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Is Libya Long for This World?

The Libyan city of Benghazi, the “capital” of the east and the second largest city in the country, held a referendum this past weekend on whether or not to declare political autonomy. The results aren’t in yet, but it’s likely to pass.

Muammar Qaddafi knew if an uprising against him were to break out that it would start in Benghazi. His regime never had much support in the east. His family was from the west, which to the people of Benghazi practically made him a foreigner.

Libya doesn’t make much sense as a country. The western region, Tripolitania, has historically been oriented westward toward Carthage and Tunis. Cyrenaica, the area surrounding Benghazi, has always looked eastward toward Egypt.

As long as it doesn’t become infested with the likes of al-Qaeda, the distinct Saharan region of Fezzan south of Tripolitania may be too sparsely populated to be an ongoing geopolitical concern. The population of Cyrenaica, though, is huge—almost a third of the total—and Libya’s baked-in disunity is one of the reasons Qaddafi ran such a viciously repressive political system. He smothered Benghazi with far more totalitarianism than he ever inflicted on Tripoli.

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The Libyan city of Benghazi, the “capital” of the east and the second largest city in the country, held a referendum this past weekend on whether or not to declare political autonomy. The results aren’t in yet, but it’s likely to pass.

Muammar Qaddafi knew if an uprising against him were to break out that it would start in Benghazi. His regime never had much support in the east. His family was from the west, which to the people of Benghazi practically made him a foreigner.

Libya doesn’t make much sense as a country. The western region, Tripolitania, has historically been oriented westward toward Carthage and Tunis. Cyrenaica, the area surrounding Benghazi, has always looked eastward toward Egypt.

As long as it doesn’t become infested with the likes of al-Qaeda, the distinct Saharan region of Fezzan south of Tripolitania may be too sparsely populated to be an ongoing geopolitical concern. The population of Cyrenaica, though, is huge—almost a third of the total—and Libya’s baked-in disunity is one of the reasons Qaddafi ran such a viciously repressive political system. He smothered Benghazi with far more totalitarianism than he ever inflicted on Tripoli.

Next-door Tunisia is in much better shape for a number of reasons, one of which is that it’s a coherent nation-state. It’s small and can hold itself together without any trouble. It lacks the tribalism, sectarianism, and geographic division that triggers civil wars in so many Arab countries.

Libya is blessedly free of sectarianism, but it still suffers from tribalism and militant regionalism. One of those problems would be partly resolved by federalism or, if that proves impossible, entirely solved by partition, at least theoretically.

The sticking point, though—and it’s a big one—is that most of Libya’s oil fields are in Cyrenaica. If the greater Benghazi area decides to take its ball and go home with most of Libya’s wealth, watch out. It will surely mean war. And if Cyrenaica’s yearning for autonomy isn’t respected, it’s exactly what we ought to brace for.

Correction: The election in Benghazi was for local candidates, many of whom support and campaigned for autonomy for Cyrenaica. The referendum itself will be held in four weeks.

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Obama Hardly a Hawkish Warrior-in-Chief

In today’s New York Times, terrorism expert Peter Bergen, whose work I respect, presents an image of Barack Obama as he would like to be presented to the electorate–as a “warrior-in-chief” who has turned out to be far more hawkish than either liberal supporters or conservative critics anticipated. There is some truth to this portrait, but it is incomplete. It would have been considerably more convincing if written last year, immediately after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and seemed to liberate Obama’s inner dove, rather than today.

Here is how Bergen makes his case:

Mr. Obama decimated al-Qaeda’s leadership. He overthrew the Libyan dictator. He ramped up drone attacks in Pakistan, waged effective covert wars in Yemen and Somalia and authorized a threefold increase in the number of American troops in Afghanistan. He became the first president to authorize the assassination of a United States citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico and played an operational role in al-Qaeda, and was killed in an American drone strike in Yemen. And, of course, Mr. Obama ordered and oversaw the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

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In today’s New York Times, terrorism expert Peter Bergen, whose work I respect, presents an image of Barack Obama as he would like to be presented to the electorate–as a “warrior-in-chief” who has turned out to be far more hawkish than either liberal supporters or conservative critics anticipated. There is some truth to this portrait, but it is incomplete. It would have been considerably more convincing if written last year, immediately after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and seemed to liberate Obama’s inner dove, rather than today.

Here is how Bergen makes his case:

Mr. Obama decimated al-Qaeda’s leadership. He overthrew the Libyan dictator. He ramped up drone attacks in Pakistan, waged effective covert wars in Yemen and Somalia and authorized a threefold increase in the number of American troops in Afghanistan. He became the first president to authorize the assassination of a United States citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico and played an operational role in al-Qaeda, and was killed in an American drone strike in Yemen. And, of course, Mr. Obama ordered and oversaw the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

The first thing that jumps out at me from this litany is that there is a lot of double-counting involved. There are seven discrete claims in this paragraph. Of these all but two–overthrowing Qaddafi and increasing American troop numbers in Afghanistan–relate to pinpoint CIA and/or Special Operations strikes against al-Qaeda leaders. No question, Obama has stepped up the program of covert drone strikes he inherited from Bush. And, also, no question, he authorized a risky raid to kill bin Laden. He deserves full credit for these steps, but it is also worth noting that they are not terribly difficult steps for an American president to take in the post-9/11 climate. Who, aside from some extreme ACLU types, actually opposes doing whatever we can to kill the leaders of a terrorist network responsible for the worst terrorist attack in history? There have been debates about the wisdom of particular operations–many senior officials opposed sending SEALs after bin Laden, favoring instead dropping a bomb on his head–but on the overall rightness of the campaign there is little dissension in the mainstream of American politics.

Much riskier would be to expand the drone strikes to groups, such as the Quetta Shura Taliban and Haqqani Network, which have not targeted the American homeland and are openly supported by our supposed ally Pakistan. This Obama has largely not done, which helps to explain why Islamist terrorist organizations such as the Haqqanis (responsible for killing lots of Americans in Afghanistan) continue to get stronger, even as al-Qaeda’s central core shrinks.

What of Bergen’s other claims? Yes, Obama deserves credit for more than tripling the number of American forces in Afghanistan. But he has also sharply time-limited their involvement, and he has begun withdrawing them faster than militarily prudent, which undercuts the effectiveness of his initial policies and suggests a deep-seated ambivalence on the part of this brainy former law professor. However steely in the battle against al-Qaeda, he has not been an unwavering war leader in the battle against the Taliban and Haqqani network; he has hardly even bothered to speak to the public to rally support for this war effort.

Obama also deserves credit for intervening to topple Qaddafi although his desire to “lead from behind” made the campaign more costly (for Libyans) and more protracted than it need have been, and our lack of follow through may yet doom Libya to years of chaos and in-fighting. Bergen contrasts Obama’s quick action in Libya with President Clinton’s two-year delay before acting in Bosnia. But what of Obama’s year-long delay in Syria where the killing goes on–and we are in serious danger of missing a major opportunity to shift the strategic balance in the Levant in our favor? There Obama’s actions are sadly reminiscent of Clinton’s–he, too, is marrying strong words (Bashar Assad must go, he has said) with weak actions that rely on ineffectual UN monitors.

And what of Obama’s pull-out from Iraq after he did not try terribly hard to negotiate an agreement that would allow our troops to stay? That jeopardizes a war effort that made impressive gains, but it goes unmentioned in Bergen’s op-ed.

There is also little or no mention in Bergen’s article of North Korea, where Obama just tried and failed to conclude the latest ill-advised attempt to bribe the regime into stopping its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs; of Iran, where Obama opposed strong sanctions on the Central Bank that were ultimately passed by Congress, and where he has tried to pressure Israel not to strike while all but ruling out the use of American force against this dangerous nuclear program; of Israel, whose leaders Obama has pressured into halts to West Bank settlements while not exerting comparable pressure on the Palestinians to make peace; or of Eastern European nations which have felt abandoned by Obama’s “reset” with Russia and his cancellation of missile interceptors that were to be deployed in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Finally, Bergen ignores Obama’s support for crippling cuts in our defense budget–nearly $500 billion in cuts was legislated last summer with Obama’s support and another $600 billion or so of cuts could start to hit in January if sequestration, which Obama supports, takes place. Obama’s own defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have warned that those cuts could have “catastrophic” consequences for the armed forces yet Obama has done nothing so far to head them off.

These are hardly the actions of a hawkish commander-in-chief. (At least in my view as a Romney defense adviser.) Yet the reality of Obama’s foreign and defense policy, which especially because the death of bin Laden has turned notably more dovish, has been obscured by the president’s attempt to focus most of the public’s attention on his drone strikes and commando raids on al-Qaeda.

 

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Where’s the Moral Urgency About Syria?

On March 28, 2011, when President Barack Obama addressed the nation to explain U.S. forces’ involvement in operations over Libyan skies, he made a compelling moral argument. In his speech, Obama illustrated the rapid chain of events that led to U.S. and international intervention and referred to Libya’s late dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s forces closing in on Benghazi by saying, “If we waited one more day, Benghazi, a city nearly the size of Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.”

Benghazi, noted the president, is a city of 700,000 people – the size of a big American city.

Expecting the worst, then, the rationale for U.S. intervention was driven by humanitarian considerations – a pre-emptive strike to save human lives from an anticipated massacre that had not happened yet and was in America’s power to avoid.

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On March 28, 2011, when President Barack Obama addressed the nation to explain U.S. forces’ involvement in operations over Libyan skies, he made a compelling moral argument. In his speech, Obama illustrated the rapid chain of events that led to U.S. and international intervention and referred to Libya’s late dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s forces closing in on Benghazi by saying, “If we waited one more day, Benghazi, a city nearly the size of Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.”

Benghazi, noted the president, is a city of 700,000 people – the size of a big American city.

Expecting the worst, then, the rationale for U.S. intervention was driven by humanitarian considerations – a pre-emptive strike to save human lives from an anticipated massacre that had not happened yet and was in America’s power to avoid.

Fast forward 11 months. Syrian regime forces have already slaughtered thousands of innocent civilians – proving that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is no better than Qaddafi. Women and children have been killed by the regime–as Qaddafi had done and President Obama had recorded in his speech as proof of the righteousness of his decision.

Syrian forces have been conducting a slow-motion massacre of a similar scale in Homs, “a city nearly the size of Charlotte” just like Benghazi, for months now.

So where’s the conscience of the world, or does Syrian innocent blood stain less?

Yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to explain the difference, by warning that arming the rebels would possibly play into al-Qaeda’s hands:

“We know al-Qaeda [leader Ayman al-] Zawahiri is supporting the opposition in Syria. Are we supporting al-Qaeda in Syria? Hamas is now supporting the opposition. Are we supporting Hamas in Syria?” Clinton said. “If you’re a military planner or if you’re a secretary of state and you’re trying to figure out do you have the elements of an opposition that is actually viable, that we don’t see. We see immense human suffering that is heartbreaking.” But she added, this was not like Libya.

Thanks heaven for such astuteness – clearly, in Libya there was none of the above. All those who got Western support to topple Qaddafi were Geneva Convention abiding New England liberals – like this guy.

They got passing grades on human rights:

“Armed militia groups in Libya that formed along tribal lines after the ouster of the Muammar Qaddafi regime have turned on one another and now rule most of the country, torturing their opponents with impunity,” Amnesty International says.” It’s not just the revenge attacks or tribe-on-tribe feuding, but the gross human rights abuses that go unchallenged by Libya’s new government…”

And they have brought a measure of stability to the region:

“Weapons smuggled from Libya after the collapse of Muammar Qaddafi’s government are flowing through the surrounding region,” the president of the west African nation of Niger said Friday, “a development that threatens to destabilize a swath of the continent already struggling against ethnic unrest and a regional branch of al-Qaeda.”

Secretary Clinton is, no doubt, one of the savviest foreign policy minds in the current administration.

Still, when all is said and done, it is hard to spot the difference between the moral stain caused by the Benghazi massacre that did not happen and the Homs massacre that is happening.

If the argument is humanitarian, the president should live by the moral standards he admirably spelled out in his Libya speech. If you can’t intervene, then at least arm the rebels.

If the argument is one of viability, expediency, and consequences – a realist argument, shall we say? – then Secretary Clinton should be a tad more honest (she is not running for a second term, after all) and say: “In Libya we got carried away by our sentimental views of human suffering, and the heartbreak made us choose humanitarian concerns over their consequences. Since then, we got smarter – and this time we will not deploy anything until we know that a post-Assad Syria will not be a repeat of post-Qaddafi Libya.”

That would be an honest take on why U.S. (and European) Syria policy does not have the same moral urgency of March 2011.

So don’t hold your breath – a city like Charlotte will be overrun by bloodthirsty regime forces. A massacre that stains the conscience of the world might happen. Its consequences will reverberate across the region. And all that Western policymakers will do is speak, condemn, and extend Kofi Annan’s mandate.

 

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An Unusual Alignment of Interests

More than any other Arab head of state in the world, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has mastered the art of telling listeners what they want to hear.

Last week, he said his country is fully committed to peace in the Middle East, though he worries the Israel government isn’t. He knows this is what bien pensants in the West like to believe. He knows they find it refreshing that he can talk like a liberal while Iran’s Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threaten apocalypse.

He also knows how to talk like the right kind of hardliner. Yesterday, he condemned the double suicide-bombing in Moscow’s underground metro and urged the international community to “fight terror around the globe.”

It’s no wonder, then, that some in Washington, Paris, and even Jerusalem think he’s a man they can do business with. All they have to do is convince him that his alliance with Iran is counterproductive, that it runs contrary to his self-evident interests and public pronouncements.

Syria, though, is the most aggressive state sponsor of terrorism in the world after Iran. Assad doesn’t even try to keep up the pretense when he isn’t preening before peace processors. Last week, he said Israel only understands force — a statement perfectly in line with his behavior. And just two days ago, he and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi urged the Palestinian Authority to scrap negotiations with Israel and return to its terrorist roots.

It’s hard to say if Western diplomats and foreign policy makers are actually suckered in by his act or if they’re just playing along because doing so suits them. Either way, they’d be wise to ignore him even when he makes the right noises and pay a little more heed to what other Arab leaders are saying instead. Their interests are far more in line with ours than Assad’s are.

Over the weekend, all, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, rejected Syria’s and Libya’s calls for armed attacks against Israel. Most aren’t interested in signing a treaty with Benjamin Netanyahu any time soon, but at least they don’t yearn for another Operation Cast Lead or a Third Lebanon War. The status quo ultimately isn’t sustainable, but it’s mostly non-violent right now. There’s nothing urgent about it as long as the Syrian- and Iranian-led resistance bloc isn’t fueling its missiles.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the two most influential of the Sunni Arab regimes, flatly reject the idea of dialogue with Tehran while publicly supporting the peace process theater. Even if they’re no more sincere about the latter than Bashar al-Assad, as long as their rhetoric matches their immobility and conflict aversion, who cares?

Meanwhile, Iraqis gave Ayad Allawi and his slate of staunchly anti-Iranian candidates a plurality of votes in the recent election. The moderate Nouri al-Maliki came in second while the pro-Iranian Iraqi National Alliance came in dead last. Iran tried to Lebanonize Iraq with its Sadrist militias but seems to have failed. The Saudis are profoundly relieved, and the rest of the Arabs outside Syria surely are, too.

So what we have here, for the most part, is an Arab Middle East that wants to put the Israeli conflict on ice and resist the resistance instead — which is more or less what the Israelis want to see happen. It’s an unusual alignment of interests, but it is authentic. Iran’s Khomeinist regime has been gunning for Arabs in the Middle East since it came to power — and not just in Lebanon and Iraq but also in the Gulf and North Africa.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia are unreliable allies (and that’s being generous), but their interests really do overlap with our own and even with Israel’s once in a while. Assad, at the same time, can’t always be bothered even to pretend he shares interests with the U.S. and Israel. His government has been sanctioned and stigmatized for a reason, and it’s not because he’s misguided or misunderstood.

President Barack Obama clearly wants to tilt U.S. foreign policy more toward the Arabs, but he doesn’t have to do it at the expense of our alliance with Israel. Just start with what Washington, Jerusalem, and most of the Arab states have in common and build outward from there. The present alignment may only come round once in a century, so we best not blow it.

More than any other Arab head of state in the world, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has mastered the art of telling listeners what they want to hear.

Last week, he said his country is fully committed to peace in the Middle East, though he worries the Israel government isn’t. He knows this is what bien pensants in the West like to believe. He knows they find it refreshing that he can talk like a liberal while Iran’s Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threaten apocalypse.

He also knows how to talk like the right kind of hardliner. Yesterday, he condemned the double suicide-bombing in Moscow’s underground metro and urged the international community to “fight terror around the globe.”

It’s no wonder, then, that some in Washington, Paris, and even Jerusalem think he’s a man they can do business with. All they have to do is convince him that his alliance with Iran is counterproductive, that it runs contrary to his self-evident interests and public pronouncements.

Syria, though, is the most aggressive state sponsor of terrorism in the world after Iran. Assad doesn’t even try to keep up the pretense when he isn’t preening before peace processors. Last week, he said Israel only understands force — a statement perfectly in line with his behavior. And just two days ago, he and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi urged the Palestinian Authority to scrap negotiations with Israel and return to its terrorist roots.

It’s hard to say if Western diplomats and foreign policy makers are actually suckered in by his act or if they’re just playing along because doing so suits them. Either way, they’d be wise to ignore him even when he makes the right noises and pay a little more heed to what other Arab leaders are saying instead. Their interests are far more in line with ours than Assad’s are.

Over the weekend, all, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, rejected Syria’s and Libya’s calls for armed attacks against Israel. Most aren’t interested in signing a treaty with Benjamin Netanyahu any time soon, but at least they don’t yearn for another Operation Cast Lead or a Third Lebanon War. The status quo ultimately isn’t sustainable, but it’s mostly non-violent right now. There’s nothing urgent about it as long as the Syrian- and Iranian-led resistance bloc isn’t fueling its missiles.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the two most influential of the Sunni Arab regimes, flatly reject the idea of dialogue with Tehran while publicly supporting the peace process theater. Even if they’re no more sincere about the latter than Bashar al-Assad, as long as their rhetoric matches their immobility and conflict aversion, who cares?

Meanwhile, Iraqis gave Ayad Allawi and his slate of staunchly anti-Iranian candidates a plurality of votes in the recent election. The moderate Nouri al-Maliki came in second while the pro-Iranian Iraqi National Alliance came in dead last. Iran tried to Lebanonize Iraq with its Sadrist militias but seems to have failed. The Saudis are profoundly relieved, and the rest of the Arabs outside Syria surely are, too.

So what we have here, for the most part, is an Arab Middle East that wants to put the Israeli conflict on ice and resist the resistance instead — which is more or less what the Israelis want to see happen. It’s an unusual alignment of interests, but it is authentic. Iran’s Khomeinist regime has been gunning for Arabs in the Middle East since it came to power — and not just in Lebanon and Iraq but also in the Gulf and North Africa.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia are unreliable allies (and that’s being generous), but their interests really do overlap with our own and even with Israel’s once in a while. Assad, at the same time, can’t always be bothered even to pretend he shares interests with the U.S. and Israel. His government has been sanctioned and stigmatized for a reason, and it’s not because he’s misguided or misunderstood.

President Barack Obama clearly wants to tilt U.S. foreign policy more toward the Arabs, but he doesn’t have to do it at the expense of our alliance with Israel. Just start with what Washington, Jerusalem, and most of the Arab states have in common and build outward from there. The present alignment may only come round once in a century, so we best not blow it.

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