Obama in the Middle East.

Was President Obama wrong to avoid intervention in the Syrian Civil War?  Was he wrong to seek escape from Iraq and to hesitate to commit American forces to the war against ISIS?  These questions matter on several levels.  For one thing, there are an awful lot of dead people, no?  Could the huge death toll of the Syrian Civil War been avoided, to say nothing of the Western hostages butchered, and the Jordanian pilot burned to death, and the Yazidis murdered, and the Iraqi soldiers massacred after surrender?

For another thing, we’re in the death throes of an American presidential election.  The aspiring successors to President Obama both criticize his eight years of restraint.  Recently, a gaggle of American diplomats used the free-speech channel at the State Department to dissent from administration policies, and current-Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged their viewpoints.  Whoever wins the election in November 2016, the United States is likely to be blowing up things on a grand scale soon afterward.

Lonely voices defend the president.[1]  To the surprise of no one who has spent time studying the history of international relations, countries define for themselves and then pursue their individual interests.[2]  Sunni and Shi’a Islam are now engaged in a great civil war in the Middle East and elsewhere.  As a result, Saudi Arabia and Iran are at daggers drawn.  Or perhaps it is the other way around.  Saudi Arabia and Iran are at daggers drawn, so there is a Sunni-Shi’ite civil war.  It’s a tricky business.  In any event, Iran backs the Shi’ite majority in Iraq and the Alawite minority in Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Houthis in Yemen.  Saudi Arabia backs the Sunni rebels in Syria, and the government in Yemen, and does nothing very evident to oppose ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  Neither country will bend before American will.

Then, Americans often believe that the course of events is determined by Americans.  For the Right this often means that the United States must just “stand firm” in a Viagraesque way.  For the Left, this means that the United States, usually at the behest of big business, picks the winners in foreign social conflicts.  Neither interpretation could be further from the truth.[3]  The domestic balance of forces determines the outcomes of conflicts.  The United States merely accommodates itself to the de facto government.  In the case of the “Arab Spring,” President Obama’s initial idealism soon got short-circuited by reality.  In similar fashion, his idealism, and the foolishness of Hillary Clinton, led to a disastrous intervention in Libya.  On the core issues, however—Syria, Iraq, Iran—President Obama has been reluctant to intervene in foreign civil wars.  Just as Britain and France hesitated to intervene in the American Civil War.

Most of all, the Middle East just isn’t that important to America at the dawn of a new century.  Fracking has reduced world dependence on Middle Eastern oil.  The Middle East has oil but no industry.  The Russo-American conflict is no longer about existential issues.  Even terrorism can’t destroy America or Western Europe.

Political scientist (and former Obama Administration advisor on the Middle East) Marc Lynch concludes that “America can be more or less directly involved, but it will ultimately prove unable to decide the outcome of the fundamental struggles by Arabs over their future.”  The voice of reason.

[1] Marc Lynch, The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East (Public Affairs, 2016).

[2] “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”—Thucydides.

[3] See, for example, Chiarella Esposito, America’s Feeble Weapon: Funding the Marshall Plan in France and Italy, 1948-1950 (Praeger, 1994).

 

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The Shores of Tripoli: An Attempt at Perspective.

What were some of the consequences of American action? First, there were the weapons. Over the years, Qaddafi had stockpiled conventional weapons. The victorious groups looted this arsenal. Some they used to increase the violence in the Libyan civil war that still rages. Some may have flowed toward ISIS in Syria. Many flowed to Islamist groups in the Sahel and West Africa. Second, there was the collapse of order in Libya and the rise of factions with ties to organized crime. This, in turn, opened a gateway for paying passengers who wished to cross the Mediterranean in search of a better life in Europe.

At the same time, it is important to recognize that for a long time many of the Sahelian and West African countries are or have been on the verge of becoming “failed states”. People have been eager to flee for years. The collapse of Libya opened a pathway for migrants. It did not create the underlying conditions that make people want to leave. This has great importance for the future of Islamist movements in the region.

Some of the proponents for action in Libya in 2011 now suggest a stark dichotomy: “a blood bath in Benghazi and keeping Qaddafi in power, or what is happening now.”[1] Were these the only choices? How can democracy be created in a country that has no experience with democracy or politics? Can it be done over the short-term by toppling a tyrant, creating political parties, and holding elections under international supervision the first few times? Is it a long-term project that can span several generations of political education under outside control? One Human Rights Watch official has remarked that there have been international peace-keeping forces in Bosnia for twenty years. Bosnia figured as one of the “lessons of history” in Secretary Clinton’s decision to favor intervention in Libya. America’s foreign policy in the early 20th Century may offer useful “lessons of history.” In Panama, the United States rigged-up a coup, then put in power a puppet government, and then stayed for a hundred years while the Panamanians developed a viable democracy. In Mexico, Woodrow Wilson set out to “teach the Mexicans to elect good men.” Then he went home. The League of Nations “Mandates” system provided a cover for European imperialism, but it offers a model for less predatory governments.

The whole episode suggests some of the psychological vulnerabilities of Hillary Clinton. She decided to support intervention after a single meeting with rebel leaders (men in suits) who assured her that they represented the whole country and that they had a plan for building a democratic Libya. Apparently, she just took their word for it. The experience of Iraq, where similar figures had sold the Bush II administration a pig in a poke made no impression on her. This suggests that she is credulous. Her arguments for intervention and for arming the rebels—if we don’t do it, then somebody else will—suggest that she is reactive and imitative. In private discussions with her advisors, she often cited her husband’s advice.[2] This suggests that she is unsure and indecisive. According to one aide, Clinton’s “theory on [Vladimir] Putin is, this is a person with some passions—if you get him going [talking] on those passions, your capacity to try to deal with him is improved.” This suggests that she has a shallow understanding. Did she get him talking about Anna Politkovskaya?  If elected, a President Hillary Clinton will have to deal with a powerful foreign leader about whom she understands nothing.

The real burden of decision not to sustain American involvement in Libya rests with President Obama. Secretary Clinton merely adopted the policy he seemed to favor. President Obama has acknowledged his error, while contending that the initial intervention had been the right choice. In contrast, Secretary of Clinton appears to have learned nothing at all from this particular “lesson of history.” She told The Atlantic that “’Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” Maybe not, but it’ll do.

[1] Gerard Araud, then French ambassador to the United Nations and currently French ambassador to the United States, quoted in Becker and Shane, “Clinton,…” .

[2] “That’s what Bill said, too.”—Dennis Ross, quoted in Becker and Shane, “Clinton…” So, who will be president if Hillary Clinton wins in 2016? Just asking.

The Shores of Tripoli 4.

Still, serious problems loomed. For one thing, the post-Qaddafi government guarded its independence. They rejected any international security force. For another thing, a gap opened between the men in suits–the Westernized exiles who had fronted the revolution with the Western powers–and the men with guns—the Libyans who had done what fighting there had been. The men in suits had no influence in the country, while the men with guns dominated the scene. Worse, the men with guns divided between Islamists and secularists. Each faction of fighters just recruited its own group of men in suits to front for them with the Western powers. This put a veneer of Western politics on something very different. Secretary Clinton, to the extent that she still thought about Libya, saw the men in suits as the natural leaders. In fact, brutal factional struggles had already begun among the men with guns.

A third problem appeared in the failure of the gun buy-back program. The State Department had hoped to work through the interim government. The absence of a real government made this impossible. Militias arming for civil war didn’t see the logic of selling their weapons. The Islamist groups continued to receive weapons from Qatar and the non-Islamist groups from the United Arab Emirates. To the extent that the program worked at all, it was by turning the militias into middle-men in a much larger regional arms market. They bought stuff cheap outside Libya, imported the weapons, and re-sold them to the Americans at a mark-up. Other weapons they may just have sold outside Libya. For example, an estimated 20,000 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles just vanished. Qaddafi’s weapons have turned up in Tunisia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, Egypt, Gaza, and Syria. By Fall 2012, American intelligence analysts were deeply alarmed by the spread of these weapons.

In January 2012, Jibril was out as temporary prime minister, and was replaced by a former engineering professor from the University of Alabama. The professor, perhaps inured to the faculty politics of American universities, warned of the danger of civil war if the opposing factions were not disarmed and pacified with various concessions.[1] Soon, everyone wanted elections. This continued the farce that the men in suits controlled events. In fact, as the American ambassador warned in February 2012, the projected July 2012 elections would be under militia control. As it happened, the victors in the election were factions fronted by men in suits with whom Secretary Clinton was familiar. Jibriil was back in office.

The most pressing problem facing the government lay in the militias. At the very least, the government needed a reliable army of its own to help it face down the militias. On the one hand, it made sense to find a way to integrate the fighters in the militias into a peacetime society. Instead of embracing a plan to give the fighters government jobs or aid in starting small businesses or getting some education, the government merely agreed to put the militia commanders on retainer. On the other hand, the different regions—represented by their individual men with guns—struggled for predominance in the constitution that remained to be written. Violence accelerated.

Secretary Clinton’s instinct to push people around began to run into serious opposition after Libya. She proposed putting pressure on Qatar to halt the flow of arms to Libya. Both the Middle East experts at the State Department and the Defense Department argued against putting the American relationship with Qatar at risk. President Obama supported Clinton’s opponents.

Soon after the July 2012, Libya began to descend into even worse violence. The Islamist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi in September 2011 was merely the most eye-catching—for Americans—incident. The country itself began to fragment into a Western region (with a government supported by Qatar and Turkey) and an Eastern region (with a government supported by Egypt and the United Arab emirates). The break-down of government opened the way for many migrants to try to reach Europe by sea.

[1] See the recent controversy over funding STEM education versus the traditional liberal arts.

The Shores of Tripoli 3.

In May 2011, Secretary Clinton met some rebel leaders in Rome. Their fight against the Qaddafi regime had stalled. They wanted more weapons to tip the balance. On behalf of the United States, she declined to help. The Obama administration worried that American-supplied arms would end up in the hands of Islamist extremists. (They had reason to worry. In June 2011, one load of arms from the French had fallen into the hands of a former inmate in a CIA “black site” prison.) The rebels went looking elsewhere. By Summer 2011, both Qatar[1] and the United Arab Emirates had emerged as major weapons suppliers to the rebels. Among those rebels were a number of Islamist groups, like those centered on the town of Misurata Cert.[2] As with her warning to the administration that France and Britain would go ahead with attacks on Libya without American participation, Secretary Clinton argued that the US had to participate if it was not to be left behind. Secretary Clinton persuaded President Obama to launch a covert program to arm the “moderate” rebels centered in Benghazi. On 15 July 2011, the United States recognized the rebels’ “Transitional National Council” as the legitimate government of Libya.

In August 2011, Qaddafi’s power-base had begun to collapse. Professional diplomats, like Jeffrey Feltman, were deeply alarmed at what had developed. Qatar continued to support Islamist groups as they maneuvered for power in post-Qaddafi Libya. Mohammed Jibril, the Libyan rebel leader with whom Secretary Clinton had been so impressed in March 2011, flew back and forth between Libya and Qatar to transmit orders. Jibril seemed totally unconcerned about disarming the foreign-armed militias that had—under cover of American air power—“defeated” Qaddafi.[3]

By October 2011, Qaddafi was dead. Secretary Clinton’s myrmidons celebrated her triumph. In an important step that reflected unhappy experience in post-Saddam Iraq, the State Department launched a $40 million program to “secure” (i.e. buy back from the militias) the huge stocks of weapons plundered from Qaddafi’s arsenals. In another important step, Secretary Clinton arranged for the release to the interim government of billions of dollars of Qaddafi’s “frozen” assets held outside the country.

Soon thereafter, Secretary Clinton disengaged from the Libyan issue. Partly, her tenure at the State Department began to wind down (and her preparations for another run at the White House in 2016 began to ramp up). More importantly, the Syrian front in the “Arab Spring” had blown up. Secretary Clinton switched her focus from intervening in Libya to overthrow Qaddafi to intervening in Syria to overthrow Assad. She urged President Obama to arm and train Syrian rebels.

President Obama resolutely refused to become embroiled in Libya as the Bush II administration had become embroiled in Iraq. He wanted the Europeans to take responsibility for Libya, but both France and Britain were pre-occupied with domestic issuers. He also rejected Clinton’s plan to arm Syrian rebels. Secretary Clinton had chosen adherence to President Obama’s wishes at the beginning of the crisis. She declined to change course afterward.

[1] See: “Your mind’s in the Qatar.”

[2] HA! Is art history joke.

[3] Scott Shane and Jo Becker, “After Revolt, a New Libya ‘With Very Little Time Left’,” NYT, 29 February 2016.

The Shores of Tripoli 2.

In an approach that would be repeated in Syria at the time of the chemical weapons “red line” incident, the President first decided for intervention and then asked his military advisers what was possible. As would be the case later, he didn’t like what he heard. The eastern Libyan city of Benghazi formed the heart of the resistance to Qaddafi. His troops were advancing on the city, driving people before them. A no-fly zone wouldn’t do any good because Qaddafi possessed a huge advantage in conventional arms. Qaddafi “would have lined up the tanks and just gone after folks,” in the later words of then then-CIA director David Petraeus. This forced the President to seek a mandate from the UN for more than a mere no-fly zone.

The big rock in the middle of the road here was the Russians. Russian dictator Vladimir Putin opposed to American interventionism.[1] At first, the Russians opposed even a no-fly zone. Clinton consulted with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. She assured Lavrov that the US didn’t want another war in the Middle East. “Doesn’t mean that you won’t get one,” he replied laconically. Still, for reasons that the NYT story artfully elides,[2] the Russians agreed not to veto a UN resolution allowing “all necessary means” to protect civilians. The resolution carried on 17 March 2011.

On 19 March 2011 Secretary Clinton was in Paris to co-ordinate strategy with French President Nicholas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron.[3] Here Sarkozy blind-sided her by saying that French jets were already airborne for strikes, but that he would recall them if she wanted. Although this meant that the Americans would not control the pace of the initial campaign, Clinton declined to ask for the recall of the attacks.[4]

President Obama claimed that he had no intention of engaging in regime-change. On 22 March 2011, Secretary Clinton publically stated that the purpose of the mission did not include tossing Qaddafi out on his ear. The president ordered the Defense Department to prevent any massacres, and then to pass the task to the French and the British after ten days. Within three days, American forces had suppressed Libyan air defenses and halted the advance on Benghazi. However, the anti-Qaddafi uprising then spread to other areas. These uprisings were rooted in tribal or regional or religious identities long suppressed by Qaddafi. Their success might tear the country apart over the long run. The debate among national security officials turned to questions that might well have been considered before intervention. Was the “protection” mission to extend throughout Libya? Could Libyans be protected without evicting Qaddafi? What kind of government would replace him?

Events moved ahead of debate. By April 2011, the US had deployed drones to strike Qaddafi loyalist targets and inserted CIA officers to provide rebel commanders with combat intelligence. Increasingly, it became apparent that the Qaddafi regime would be destroyed, regardless of what the mandate from the UN authorized. Even so, the rebel offensive couldn’t move beyond Brega, on the coast road to Tripoli, where Qaddafi’s initial offensive had stalled months before.

In Washington, the scales began to fall from the eyes of the interventionists. Many in Congress were angry with President Obama’s contention that the War Powers Act did not apply because Americans were killing foreigners, but no Americans were being killed by foreigners. The Russians claimed that they had not approved regime change. The Arab League said the same.

[1] There is a report that Putin suffered a stroke in the womb before he was born. His obsession with physical attainments, from his judo matches to his riding a horse bareback to his hunting tigers are expressions of a heroic will to master his environment. It shows up in his politics and diplomacy. Or lack of diplomacy.

[2] See: “Obama versus Putin.”

[3] Why was the Secretary of State, rather than the Secretary of Defense, coordinating military plans with allies?

[4] Did she vote for the attack on Iraq in 2003 because she didn’t want to be labeled a “dove” when she ran for President in 2008? It’s always difficult reading the crystal ball, but Obama won as a “dove” in 2008.

The Shores of Tripoli 1.

In Spring 2011, came the “Arab Spring”: Tunisia, then Egypt, and then Libya.[1] Unlike the Tunisian or Egyptian leaders, the Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi threatened to drown the rebellion in blood rather than yield power. Already in February 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looked forward to more trouble: “imagine how difficult [the transition of power] will be in Libya.”[2] By March 2011, the British, the French, and the Arab League—none of whom had real military power—wanted the US to intervene against Qaddafi. President Barack Obama, who had risen to prominence on the basis of his opposition to the 2003 attack on Iraq, was suspicious of the adventure. Compounding the difficulties, the government had little useful information about Qaddafi’s intentions. One State Department official told the NYT that they were captives of news reports to find out what was happening.[3]

Against this backdrop, a contest of policies raged inside the American administration. Voices of caution (notably Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) had warned against tossing overboard Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak just to gratify the young people in Tahrir Square. Now Vice President Joe Biden, Gates, and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon argued that the Bush II administration had “taken its eye off the ball” in Afghanistan by invading Iraq in 2003. Intervention in Libya would have the same effect when the Obama administration struggled to extricate itself from those two long-running conflicts. Some in the intelligence community worried about what would happen if Qaddafi lost power.

Against them were younger aides—not identified by the NYT—who made a moral and sentimental appeal: “Mr. President, you’ve got to be on the right side of history.” This exerted real power on President Obama, who favored a forward policy in responding to the “Arab Spring.” Still, it would be hard to go against the opinion of the adults in the room once again. On 15 March 2011, Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the United Nations, told the French ambassador that “you are not going to drag us into your shitty war.”

Abruptly, Secretary Clinton chose to join the side of the interventionists. Her motivations remain opaque. On the one hand, several of her former aides insist upon the “lessons of history.” President Bill Clinton had rejected intervention in Rwanda, to everyone’s regret; he had intervened against Serbia in the 1990s. Secretary Clinton did not want to stand idly by while another blood bath took place. On the other hand, she was very anxious to gain entry to the president’s inner circle of advisers.[4] Did she allow this desire to shape her policy?

On 14 March 2011, Secretary Clinton, who had voted for the attack on Iraq, met with the leader of one of the Libyan factions. “They gave us what we wanted to hear,” reported one of Clinton’s aids. “And you do want to believe.” Later that day, one French diplomat found her “tough” and “bullish” in favor of intervention. On 15 March 2011, even as Susan Rice made her blunt remarks to the French ambassador, Secretary Clinton warned the President and his other national security advisers that the French and the British were going to launch airstrikes on their own to create a no-fly zone. If things went wrong, the US would have to fish them out of the drink.[5] Clinton’s advocacy for action seemed to tip the balance, or at least to give President Obama the backing he needed to go against expert advice.

[1] Jo Becker and Scott Shane, “Clinton, ‘Smart Power,’ and a Dictator’s Fall,” NYT, 28 February 2016.

[2] Scott Shane and Jo Becker, “After Revolt, a New Libya ‘With Very Little Time Left’,” NYT, 29 February 2016.

[3] Those accounts inflated the death toll, claiming thousands had been killed where Human Rights Watch would later count 350. However, the real issue is the suggestion that neither the US nor—astonishingly—the French had important intelligence assets in Libya. Even the French vastly under-estimated the amount of weapons that Qaddafi had accumulated. See Shane and Becker, “After Revolt,…”

[4] The NYT story tells of one 2009 episode in which she learned from the radio that there was a cabinet meeting scheduled for that day. “Can I go?” she asked aides.

[5] Apparently one “lesson of history” that Secretary Clinton did not learn was that President Eisenhower had let the French and British get out of their own mess in Suez in 1956.

The Gun Show.

Since 2009, when President Obama first began talking about gun control, gun sales have increased. The stock market value of gun manufacturers like Smith and Wesson and Ruger rose by 900 percent.[1] Now the president has begun taking executive action to extend federal control.

How big is the problem of unlicensed gun sales? A study of “Armslist.com” found that 600,000 guns were offered for sale on-line by unlicensed dealers. Of these, 4.5 percent were sales by “high volume dealers”–people who sold 25 to 150 weapons a year.[2] So there are a small number of people knowingly skirting the law in much the same way, perhaps, as many drivers ignore the speed limits[3] or sell marijuana. Guns purchased on-line will not be sent directly to the purchaser. They will be sent to a licensed gun-dealer who can carry out an on-line background check before turning over the gun to the purchase. Many, if not most, gun show sales also require a background check. (Lots of people have a Wi-Fi connection.)

When President Obama issued his executive order on gun-sales, he sought to bring all those who sell or trade guns under federal control.[4] Specifically, anyone who sells guns could be considered a “gun dealer.” Any of them who do not have a federal license—which will not be issued to applicants in the same way that federal lands are to be closed to coal miners by executive order—could be subject to heavy fines. White House spokes-person Josh Earnest[5], claimed that the penalties to be levied on people “hiding behind the hobbyist exemption” would force many people to seek federal gun-dealer licenses. So, that’s the end of that. These dealers are thought to sell hundreds of weapons a year. Some of these hundreds of weapons may be used in the thousands of gun homicides that happen each year. Both small gun dealers and knowledgeable federal officials doubt that the new order will have any effect.

How does it play in Peoria? As of early January 2016, 51 percent of Americans were opposed to tighter gun laws; while 48 percent supported tighter laws.[6] As of mid-January 2016, more than half (54 percent) of Americans opposed President Obama’s use of executive orders to alter the gun laws [relating to who is a gun-dealer], while 44 percent approved it. So, Americans are clear in their own mind about what they believe on this matter. At the same time, however, two-thirds (67 percent) of Americans supported President Obama’s directive for expanded background checks for gun-buyers.[7] What about the party-affiliation breakdown? Well, virtually all Democrats (85 percent), two-thirds (65 percent) of Independents, and just over half of Republicans (51 percent) support expanded background checks. 

What’s the difference? Well, we have an existing system of back-ground checks and anyone can see that the system doesn’t catch enough of the killers. So extending it makes sense without changing the law by presidential ukase. Changing the legal definition of who is a gun-dealer smacks of President Obama’s all-too-evident belief that he is the ruler of the French Second Empire, rather than president of the United States. The former adjunct professor of law appears to have a problem with many Americans about how he understands the Constitution.

[1] Compared to 800 percent for Apple and 147 percent for the benchmark Standard and Poor’s 500 index.

[2] The NYT did not report on the hand gun versus long gun balance of this trade. Hand guns are the chief killers.

[3] See: Route 202 southbound at 6:30 AM. Just reporting on what I have seen.

[4] Hiroku Tabuchi and Rachel Abrams, “Obama’s Gun Initiative Seen as Having Limited Effect on Unlicensed Dealers,” NYT, 8 January 2016.

[5] “Josh” is an old term for “joke.” “Earnest” is an old term for “I’m serious.” So, which is it?

[6] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 15 January 2016, p. 17.

[7] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 22 January 2016, p. 17.