As we teeter on the cusp of 2014 (according to a highly arbitrary christiological calendar—see tomorrow’s article on a “guide to what you’re celebrating”), I realize that it’s been a while since I’ve commented on core Middle Eastern issues. So herewith a whirlwind and partial summary, not so much on what’s been happening lately, which anyone can read in the newspapers and the other information sources we have to hand, but on what it means.
Yesterday’s New York Times ran a Pulitzer-nomination scale feature by David Kirkpatrick on the September 2012 Benghazi episode. It’s based on interviews and apparently some painstaking analysis. While there are flaws in the story—of which more anon—it’s definitely worth reading if you care about this sort of thing. The key conclusions (which ring true): Yes, that incendiary video made by a rightwing Copt did too play a role in the Libyan events as news of it seeped through from Cairo, though not the major role; yes, U.S. intelligence failed because it focused overly much on al-Qaeda and ignored local dynamics, despite having a pretty large CIA and DIA presence on the ground; and yes, Ambassador Stevens and others had a deeply flawed understanding of how intelligible and pliable a post-Qaddafi Libya would be to American influence.
I was gratified to see this analysis because it vindicates points I made at the time and thereafter. (We bloggers welcome vindication.) Some readers took pleasure in pricking me with criticism after it seemed to be the case that the video had played no role in the Libya episode. Well, prick right back at you.
The analysis in the NYT is deficient on two major counts, however—not for what it says, but rather for what it leaves unsaid. First, like all of its coverage (and not just its coverage), it fails to peel back the onion to March 2011, when the United States help start the war against Libya. It talks about how the Administration messed up on process issues close to the September 2012 incident, and how the Republicans got it wrong as well—all true; but it ignores the fact that none of this would have happened if we’d left Qaddafi alone in his sandy cage.
Second, if you read the account all the way through you’ll see that Kirkpatrick spends a lot of time talking about Ahmed abu Khatallah, who’s been discussed in this space many times. (You’ll even see that the NYT analysis states specifically that SOCOM had a shot at this guy, but the White House prevented the SOF guys from pulling the trigger at State Department behest, because we were still imagining that the Libyan government, such as it is, could arrest this guy, and of course we didn’t want to humiliate or harm the government in the eyes of the Libyan people. I was very gratified to see this, because it’s exactly what I suggested had happened in an earlier, May 3, post.) But it also talks about other militia leaders, and gives accounts of what they were doing before, during and after the attack on the U.S. compound. If you read the account carefully, you’ll be struck as I was by the ambiguity and vacillation of these leaders’ statements and actions. But Kirkpatrick gives the reader no key to explain their behavior.
Alas, the words “Cyrenaica” and “tribe” never appear in Kirkpatrick’s article. These guys all knew each other, Kirkpatrick tells us, from being in prison together and then fighting together against the Qaddafi regime. What he never mentions is tribal affinities in Cyrenaica. These guys in Benghazi have been dealing with each other as representatives of sometimes allied, sometimes antagonistic tribes, clans and families for their whole lives. They calculate whom to help and whom to oppose based on these protracted relationships of balanced opposition, which are in one sense very stable but in another very fluid. I’m no expert in Libyan tribal networks, intermarriages, business and land-ownership relations and the rest, so I cannot reverse-engineer for you other militia leaders’ precise relationships to abu Khatallah as they existed on September 11, 2012. But that’s the right drill if you want to figure out allegiances and behavior at a moment like that.
Finally on this point, why does the American MSM almost never mention tribes, except occasionally as an afterthought, and never speak about how countries like Libya are organized socially, and how that affects their politics? There are so many examples of this that it cannot simply be a coincidence. This is not the place to go into detail, but it comes down, I think, to a form of political correctness that tacitly prohibits any mention of what might be taken even to imply that Libyans (or Yemenis or Syrians or Egyptians, or Pashtuns, or…) might in some way be pre-modern, as we understand the term. (Actually, they’re less aptly described as pre-modern than simply as different, but lowest-common-denominator Enlightenment universalism is very bad at acknowledging the dignity of difference.) That kind of appellation is considered just this side of racist in the higher etiquette of American Enlightenment liberalism, deeply dented, as it has been, by the nonsense of anti-“Orientalism” regnant now for more than a generation in academe. Yes, it was at university where our elite press reporters and their august editors learned this stuff.
As long as our elite press censors itself in this manner, an objective socio-political description of these (and other) countries will remain impossible, and a distorted understanding will inevitably feed misbegotten policy adventures like the Libya war. I would like to be able to assure you that what ails the academy and the press does not afflict the clear-eyed professionals at the CIA and the State Department and USAID and the NSC and the officer corps of the uniformed military. Yes, I would like to… but a lot of these guys went to those same universities.
While yesterday’s NYT front page focused in on Libya, the Washington Post instead aimed its gaze at Afghanistan. A new NIE, we’re told, predicts a “grim future” after the U.S. withdrawal, especially so—and much faster—if we cannot manage to agree with Kabul on a follow-on security arrangement.
It sounds strange to say, maybe, but it’s actually refreshing to hear such pessimism from the intelligence community. I prefer clearheaded pessimism to goo-goo-eyed fantasy, which is mainly what the Obama Administration and U.S. military spokesmen have been feeding us lately. And indeed, the WP article cites several Administration sources, all anonymous, who think the intelligence community’s assessment is too dour.
Now, as I’ve pointed out before, optimism is inherent in government work of this sort. It’s your job to make the policy work, and if you don’t believe it can succeed, you can’t really do you job properly. That’s why, as they say in that old song, “the one who cares the most is always the last to know.” (Well, sure, the song is really about something a little less policy-oriented, but you get the idea.) Still, at some point the penny hits the bottom of an empty well and even the most optimistic toiler must acknowledge the bad news.
Actually, the NIE seems to be somewhat off point, as best I can tell from a declassified summary. In a sense, it’s not pessimistic enough, or rather it’s pessimistic for the wrong reasons. If you’re a loyal TAI reader, you already know this. The U.S. government still has not come to terms with why the Afghanistan “surge” failed: It failed, as Frances Brown brilliantly pointed out in the November/December 2012 issue, because of our own incoherent bureaucracy working at cross-purposes with itself. And as Pauline Baker argues in the current issue, it’s a mistake to look at Afghanistan exclusively though a counter-insurgency or counter-terrorism lens, as the NIE apparently does; we need instead to look at it through a failed-state lens, because that is what U.S. policy, from the Bonn conference on, has inadvertently created. When we pull the plug on this over-centralized, money-soaked monstrosity of a governance structure, one that was never suited to Afghan history, ethnography or experience, the whole flimsy whim of a would-be state will collapse in a heap.
I can barely wait to find out how the post-collapse narrative will go here in the United States. The “who lost Afghanistan” story is destined to be a wild and wooly one, if earlier China and Vietnam and even Iraq episodes are any guide. Democrats and Republicans will blame each other. Civilian and military types will, too. We will blame the locals, and the locals will blame us—but they’ll be right. It will not occur to many Americans, least of all the people who were most deeply involved in the policy, that the foundational assumptions of the policy going in were simply wrong, and they were wrong partly because of a blinding political correctness that prevented us from appreciating the real contours of the society into which we were intervening.
Today’s news carries a report that the technical groups aiming to implement the P5+1/Iran agreement from November 24 are meeting again today in Geneva. This time the Iranian chief negotiator is optimistic that details will all get ironed out by early next year. This strikes a very different tone from the earlier sessions, in which the Iranians characterized themselves as pessimistic, and then staged a walkout ostensibly over U.S. actions (Executive and Legislative Branch actions) related to sanctions.
There are at least a half dozen ways to read these particular tea leaves. Maybe the Iranians tried to extract more concessions via a white-knuckle delay, and now they’ve changed their tune either because they succeeded (in ways not public) or because the Obama Administration held firm on the sanctions and the Iranians now know they can’t get any more cheapies from stock histrionics. Or maybe the political mood changed in Tehran. Whatever the case, it still strikes me as passing strange—and not at all a good idea—to have announced agreement to such flourishes on November 24 without having actually finished the negotiations. That disproportionately puts pressure on us, the open democratic society, to close the gap to get to agreement. Why do that, unless you’re desperately and incompetently looking for a bright and shining headline?
As to the agreement itself, assuming it can be implemented, I’m still ambivalent about it. Judging just by what is within the four corners of the text, the deal, if carried out, is probably more likely to lead to an Iranian weapon than not. Why? Because of a combination of two aspects: It allows enrichment on Iranian soil, spitting in the eye of seven UNSC resolutions, and it bears an expiration date. The Iranians can make lots of progress and then toss out any constraints on further progress when it suits them—unless we exert ourselves to pay for the same horse a second, third, and fourth time over.
The only way such a flawed deal can be remedied is by recourse to developments outside the four corners of the text. If the agreement presages a real change of Iranian attitudes, and is a harbinger of a useful if tense normalization of relations with the United States, then the benefits of major changes in the context of the deal could possibly trump the deficiencies of the deal itself.
That, of course, remains very much to be seen. If and when it is ever seen, it will have to involve a dissolution of the untenable divide between the nuclear-program business and all the rest of Iran’s mischief-making in and beyond the region. Normalization, if we ever get close to that with Iran, will have to face the whole range of issues on which we mutually engage. How likely is that? There’s no way to know for sure, but diplomatic history is not entirely bereft of rapprochements.
Now, in the give-and-take that would inevitably be required to produce a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement would Sunni Arab interests suffer? Yes, but so what (from a U.S. interests point of view)? Would Israeli interests suffer? Maybe but not necessarily: Remember, Iran, along with Turkey and Ethiopia, were part of Ben Gurion’s original periphery strategy. The Iranian Revolution arguably upset Israeli strategic well being even more than it did that of the United States. It may take a generation, and the road may be very rocky and perilous, but the idea of an eventual normalization of Israeli-Iranian relations, pioneered, so to speak, by the United States, should not be dismissed out of hand. Israeli interests beg a better relationship with Iran if one can be had. Stranger things, after all, have happened (Nixon went to China, Sadat went to Jerusalem…). So we wait, we watch and, of course, we worry.
So do I want these technical discussions to succeed, thus allowing the deal to begin actual implementation? Or would I prefer them to fail? If they succeed, we get to find out if there’s a future without some kind of war over this issue. If they don’t, the chances of some kind of kinetic outcome go way up, with consequences intended and unintended alike. So I hope they succeed.
A TAI colleague sent me a Buzzfeed article the other day featuring an unnamed U.S. diplomat complaining that the Obama Administration doesn’t have an Egypt policy. The gist was that day by day the Egyptian government is ramping up its authoritarian muscle, including the formal designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, while we in Washington go merrily on repeating the empty mantra that the “restoration” of Egyptian democracy is on track. The “road map” is being traversed, the State Department insists. Oh, where have we heard that one before?
The unnamed diplomat also complained that the terrific ideas of U.S. diplomats expert in Egypt and the Middle East are not being heard in the Oval Office—the State Department in Washington isn’t letting them through to the NSC, and/or the NSC staff isn’t letting them through to Susan Rice and the President. Well, there’s another old story for you. Maybe these diplomats have good ideas, and just as likely they don’t. But they certainly think that “their” part of the world is critical like no other. Again, that’s part of the job in a way. And it’s so easy to complain anonymously to an omnivorous gossip-seeking press. In recent decades that’s become part of the job, unfortunately.
And it’s true: Since pointlessly sequestering a smidgen of Egypt’s military aid some months ago, the Administration has kept pretty quiet about Egypt. Every once in a while Secretary Kerry will make some preposterous remark about how well things are going, amid a feckless verbal wrist-slap here and there, but that’s about it. What’s going on here? Do we really not have a policy?
We might not. One can easily adduce an argument that between the President’s lack of interest, the Secretary of State’s obsession with other Middle Eastern portfolios, and the deterioration of the policy process under Susan Rice (compared with Tom Donilon), a combination of apathy, distraction and incoherence has resulted in a “policy” so removed from reality that it’s either no policy at all (if you’re in a generous mood) or an out-and-out embarrassment (if you’re not).
Adding weight to this interpretation is an assumption, taken on by some, that the President is operating under a theory of the case in foreign policy that sees too much U.S. activism as preventing the coalescence of a natural ordered balance in the world’s regions. Our interests, while real, are not vital in Egypt or anywhere else in the greater Middle East, and a new regional balance can take care of them well enough, if only we stop acting like a bunch of control freaks.
Maybe. But there is another way to think about this. Maybe the President, the man who assiduously avoided the “c”-word back in early July, is not entirely bent out of shape that General al-Sisi is running the show. We may think al-Sisi unwise for being so illiberal as to bring on or worsen the problems he seeks to outrun, but President Obama, however mysteriously inconsistent he has been on these matters, has never seemed to me at heart to be a dyed-in-the-wool democracy promoter. Maybe, just possibly, his evocation of Reinhold Niebuhr in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance address wasn’t entirely a speechwriter’s flourish.
President Obama seems instead to be a semi-detached photo-opportunist on these matters. So when the Egyptian generals decided to throw Mubarak & Son over the side, we were there for the photo op. When it looked like Morsi was going to be elected president, we were close by for that photo op, too. When about a year later “the people” routed Morsi, conveniently using the Egyptian Army to do so, we refused to call it a coup, and the President sent his Secretary of State to Cairo pretty soon for another photo-op. (Same in Syria, by the way: When it looked like Assad was a goner, Obama called for his fall; when he looked like he was not a goner, we made a deal with him through the Russians. The cameras whirred, click, click, click.) Maybe the best way to describe this is postmodern foreign policy realism: flip or flop, juke or jive, as the moment demands, all the while having faith that no one will remember what happened or what was said two weeks ago anyhow.
Ah, but there’s a bit more to a hypothetical policy of let-Sisi-be-Sisi than that. We are in one helluva spat with the Saudis, and it concerns Egypt as much as it does Syria and Iran. Our influence in Egypt has been outbid by the Saudis, and even as distracted a White House as this one has to understand that by now.
For all the enthusiasm in some quarters for fracking, it’ll be a long time before Saudi energy policy becomes a trivial concern for us, so this is one of those relationships any President has to pay attention to, at least episodically. Having “no policy” toward Egypt—which means in practice having no harping and futile pro-democracy promotion policy—is therefore conducive to ameliorating the deterioration of the relationship with Riyadh. That’s not no policy. It’s just a policy some State Department Arabists either don’t understand or don’t like.
So do we have no policy toward Egypt or do we have a quiet, minimalist policy the less spoken about publicly the better, for the time being at least? Unfortunately, the President does not confide in me, so I’m really not sure. I’d like to think that the folks over in the NSC machine room know what they’re doing. Let me go on thinking that for a while, please.
Today’s news also carries new information on the effort to implement the CW deal. When I left off talking about this, back on December 2, I was mystified by the Administration’s decision to detox 1,000 tons of mostly obsolete chemical gunk aboard U.S. Navy ships, since no other government would agree to do the job on land. Did we even have such a capability, I wondered? (I know a fair bit about the U.S. Navy for a civilian, having ship-ridden two vessels in international waters, and I knew of no such capability.) Off whose littoral would we dare do this? How would we dispose of the “safe” gunk left over? What would this cost and who and how would we pay for it and, above all, why, after all, were we doing the Syrian regime such a favor anyway—essentially offering ourselves up as hazmat garbage collectors to a bunch of mass murderers?
So what’s the news? Not an ounce of Syria’s CW has yet been moved since September 26, when the deal was inked. Not one atom even—and the deadline to get this stuff out of there is tomorrow. The Russians have reportedly supplied armored vehicles for the trip to Tartus, in Latakia province, and Norwegian and Danish ships are on hand to transport the first 20 tons to a U.S. Navy vessel anchored in Italy. There is also reportedly a naval escort ready for these ships courtesy of Norway, Denmark and, I swear this is what I read, China.
So far there is no information on what U.S. Navy ship this is and how it is decked out. There is no information on where this operation is going to take place. There is no information on what, if anything, we’ve told the Italians. If environmental studies have been done, there is no mention of them. Where will the resultant “safe” gunk go? Who’s paying, how much, out of what budget? Zero information about any of that, at least that I’ve seen so far. Does the press think these questions are too boring to bother with? Just wondering.
Meanwhile, insofar as there is any other news about Syria—aside from more gruesome atrocities or signs that civil war is spreading into Lebanon—it’s all about Geneva. Unless the rebels decide to give up—and who could blame them at this point, really, given how we and others have diddled them?—Geneva will accomplish nothing. It will only lead, very predictably, to more dead bodies as all sides try to improve their battlefield situation in advance of the conclave. Indeed, it’s already doing that. A lot of clueless American liberals may not understand that diplomacy cannot achieve things that reality outside the negotiating room will not abet, but no one involved in the Syrian civil war is a liberal, so they’re real clear on the relationship.
If the rebels do give up and Geneva produces some sort of transition that isn’t actually a transition to anything so long as Bashir al-Assad remains in power, then the entire region will read the result as a win for Iran, Russia and bestial-level brutality, and as a loss for the United States. And the U.S. government should agree to be complicit in such an outcome because… why? Well, no one ever claimed that garbage collectors are, in the main, all that bright.
Finally some good news, though not good news easy to find in the American MSM. Not too many days ago the Ennahda government fell and was replaced by a non-Islamist coalition led by Mehdi Joma’a, a former Industry Minister in the previous government—a technocrat, in other words. This is the first time an actually ruling Islamist government (Ennahda is very roughly the Tunisian equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood, but only very roughly) was voted out of office and left power without notable incident. Only in Tunisia, probably, a country that is truly sui generis in the Arab world (but then they all are, each in their own ways), for reasons I commented on in earlier posts.
So one TAI reader, someone who tries to follow Tunisia closely for professional reasons, contacted me to express puzzlement at the very bland comments of the U.S. Ambassador in Tunis over this epochal event. The Ambassador, Jake Walles, an FSO pro, did not have a lot to say, really. He wasn’t especially upbeat; he just remarked that the U.S. government supports the democratic process in Tunisia and otherwise we do not pick or play favorites. And then the Ambassador went off to have lunch, or whatever it is that Ambassadors do in the middle of the day in places like Tunis. I think my interlocutor was hoping for something a little more energetically anti-Islamist.
My response to him was that I found Ambassador Walles’s remarks unexceptional and wise. The only problem, I explained, was that there are too many possible ways to explain them.
First way: We and the Europeans (read: the French and, possibly, the aspiring Italians) have been instrumental in trying to put a non-Islamist government together that will be stable and keep the Ennahda bastards out of power, but because of widespread suspicions in Tunisia that we did precisely that, we want to distance ourselves in public lest we create gratuitous trouble for the new guys.
Second way: It is standard trope to support the democratic process but stay away from partisan leanings, because that is the right thing to do and also the tactically most shrewd thing to do in situations where you never know who’ll be on top two weeks from now.
Third way: We really support the MB types in Tunis, because of some theory that democratization for the long run has to run through the “moderate” Islamists, a theory that makes the least possible amount of sense in Tunisia (and not a whole lot of sense elsewhere, just by the by).
Fourth way: The Ambassador stayed bland because he failed to receive instructions to do otherwise—because there’s disagreement in Washington on the third way, or because it was the holidays and no one was around to give instructions. (Don’t laugh; I’ve seen exactly such a thing happen before my very own eyes.)
Fifth way: The Ambassador is enthralled with a classical definition of a diplomat—“Someone who thinks twice about saying nothing”—and wants to be the quip’s new poster child.
Seriously, I think that somewhere between the second and the fourth ways we probably have our explanation.
So, Libya, Afghanistan, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia—and I mentioned in passing Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and even Israel. Yes, even Israel. Now watch: Something like 75 percent of all the comments made on this post will be about Israel. Oh, that Chosen People…