First day back at work in the New Year. Blearily open eyes on computer screen. First story I see: Muslim Brotherhood says they won't recognize Israel. Second story: Muslim Brotherhood closer to running lower house in Egyptian parliament. Third story: Islamists form government in Morocco. Next story: Israelis, prepare for peace talks by announcing new construction beyond Green Line in Jerusalem. Next story: Iranian rattling sabers in the Gulf. Next story: Taliban setting up shop in Qatar thanks to rapprochement with government. Next story: Arab League sham intervention in Syria going nowhere fast.
Seriously. That's how 2012 started for me. So, the question is: what's a guy supposed to think? Is it that 2011 was the year of giddy -- and utterly unfounded -- optimism about the Middle East?
The only person who could possibly read all those stories and be happy is Bibi Netanyahu. With elections expected in Israel this year, nothing could do more for his election chances than to have all his worst predictions about the aftermath of Arab Spring and the increasing Iranian threat appear to be coming true. All the intolerance, abuse, violence, and exacerbation of the country's problems associated with the Israeli far right and all the missteps of the Israeli Prime Minister himself may seem small price to pay if the country feels a vice grip of insecurity tightening around it throughout the year.
That's not to say I actually think that Netanyahu's combativeness and pedantry actually helps anything. I don't. It's actually more a way of saying that as bad as I think this morning's first news dump was for me, I can't help but feel worse is in store.
Beyond the problems that seem certain to deepen between Israel and the Palestinians, within Syria, with the rise of intransigent Islamic political parties, and with Iran, we also have Iraq seemingly heading straight back to the emergency room of geopolitics and, if anything, the deal the U.S. seems likely to cut with the devils we know in Afghanistan promises even less satisfactory outcomes.
Furthermore, none of these pessimistic analyzes actually have to pan out in the long run to actually have really negative consequences. For example, one of the more positive stories of the morning was the announcement that U.S. Defense Secretary Panetta was preparing a plan to cut $450 billion in U.S. defense spending over the next decade. This is in line with the very modest 8 percent cuts the administration had planned. And it's an important step in the right direction.
Almost certainly the greatest, most damaging strategic error the U.S. has made during the past couple decades is continuing our over-the-top defense spending. We have spent at many times the level we need to protect ourselves -- indeed, we have spent at a level at which the economic damage we have done the country (both in terms of deficits created and in terms of the opportunity cost of investing in our military rather than in more productive segments of the economy) vastly outstrips any potential security benefits that may have been derived. Certainly, that's been true since the fall of the USSR. In all likelihood it was true long before that.
We could cut the budget five times the level proposed and still be outspending our nearest rival many times over. But, if the Middle East -- which I would argue is not and should not be our primary security focus -- festers and boils this year as today's headlines suggest it might, then it is easy to imagine a central debate of this year's elections in the U.S. being about whether or not we should cut defense spending at all. A President with an exemplary record in terms of combating terror and getting the U.S. out of costly conflicts will suddenly find that Republicans will be able to open a different front on the national security debate where he may appear vulnerable. They will say the world is more dangerous and this is no time to be cutting defense.
And my guess is that means that when the time comes to really cut the budget nothing like these cuts will be made...and the U.S. will continue to pose the greatest danger to itself by over-spending on wasteful, bloated, duplicative defense systems it can't and shouldn't attempt to afford. The Panetta $450 billion plan will be seen as the high bid in terms of cuts and we will negotiate downward from there. The changes will be incremental and we will continue down the path to great power decline long ago limned by Paul Kennedy.
Take that and the real threats posed by the ever changing landscape in the Middle East -- uncertainty in North Korea, the rise of ever more important security challenges in Asia, the problems in the Eurozone, and bird flu (I saw "Contagion"...I know what we're up against! I saw Gwyneth Paltrow's brain!) -- and my newest New Year's resolution is to go back to bed, pull the covers over my head and wait for 2013.
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Sept. 11, 2001 marked the beginning of a decade in which the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy was "the war on terror." As we approach Sept. 11, 2011, it is clear that America's foreign policy priorities have changed.
Not only has the United States achieved our principle goal of decapitating al Qaeda and degrading its capabilities, we have hardened our assets, enhanced our intelligence capabilities, developed better networks of international cooperation and, above all, recognized that there are other issues of far greater importance to our national interests that should take precedence. Even the term "war on terror" has thankfully fallen into disuse, a sign that while combatting threats from extremists remains an important element of our national security mission, we no longer seek to equate tactical responses to isolated threats with past conflicts in which our strategic interests were at stake. Instead, we are now appropriately addressing such broader strategic questions such as the rise of new powers like China, India, and Brazil, collaborating to manage the global economy, and containing important regional threats that include but are far from limited to the risks associated with terror.
Nowhere is this shift more striking than in the Greater Middle East, the source of not only the 9/11 attacks but of many of the most serious terror threats of recent memory. Recent events in Libya only underscore that America's number one issue in the region is now supporting the transition of a large number of important regional governments from autocracy to more inclusive forms of government and from top-down, crony states to more open, opportunity-rich economies. In the Middle East we have gone from the war on terror to a new campaign focused not on destruction but on building, not on sidestepping our ideals in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo but on promoting them consistent with the spirit of places like Tahrir Square.
In Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan, while the individual situations are different as is our involvement, our missions are consistent and mutually reinforcing. In the near future, it is to be hoped that similar missions will exist in Syria and in Palestine. Related reforms in countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and even Jordan -- no one like the other, but all sharing a need to evolve to reflect new economic, political, social, and technological realities -- are also likely to grow ever more important to our overall goals in the Middle East.
Of course, the initiatives we support -- those that enfranchise citizens and create opportunities for self-sufficiency and advancement -- are also far more effective tools to combat the spread of terror than have been many of our military and political initiatives of the recent past. That's not to say that there is not an important dimension to that on-going fight that will require swift, decisive use of force -- sometimes even unilateral use of force. But among the best elements of this new approach in the region is that it can only be done through effective multilateral cooperation in conjunction with a broad array of other supporters and international institutions.
Anniversaries like 9/11 are important because they help us remember. But they are also important because they provide needed punctuation marks, allowing us to bring to an end dark chapters like the "war on terror."
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It is not the narrative we had hoped for. It is certainly not the story line that would have been most uplifting. It is not even the scenario that seems most consistent with the course of centuries of human progress. But it is one we have to consider because with every passing day, it does seem the direction events are now headed.
Judging from developments throughout the Middle East, it seems quite possible that the primary outcome of the "Arab Spring" may be the reinforcing of the power of the old guard.
In Egypt, recent reports such as David Kirkpatrick's in the New York Times this weekend suggest that the military is working tirelessly to retain its traditionally dominant behind-the-scenes role in that country's political life even after any further reforms are implemented. In addition, political candidates -- like former foreign minister Amr Moussa -- with close ties to Hosni Mubarak's regime may fare well in upcoming elections.
In Jordan, Yemen, and Tunisia, promises of reform have thus far outnumbered any substantial steps in that direction. (See, for a thoughtful analysis, my Carnegie colleague Marina Ottaway's "Tunisia: The Revolution Is Over, Can Reform Continue?")
In Syria, while Bashar al-Assad regime has been weakened by protests, even weaker has been the international response to its brutality. The regime could well survive. Perhaps more importantly vis-à-vis the region at large, take how it has thus far faired compared with toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, and the message to autocrats threatened in the future may be: strike hard, strike without mercy, the worst you will have to contend with from the rest of the planet is a flurry of diplomatic wrist-slaps. The fact that similar crackdowns in Iran and Bahrain were also effective only underscores the point.
In Bahrain, the formula is a little more pernicious. It suggests for regimes lucky enough to be located in the Gulf -- because of the oil, because of America's desire to contain Iran, because of old friendships -- you can get away with virtually anything. See today's article in the Independent titled "Poet jailed in protests claims she was beaten by Bahraini royal." It is a credible account of just one more ugly dimension of a protracted repressive episode that the United States and the rest of the world effectively chose to ignore … which in such cases is much the same thing as complicity.
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The Greek parliament's austerity vote accomplished one thing. It advanced the possibility of a deal that will pump enough cash in the direction of Athens for the country to pay off its creditors. Here's what it will not do:
It also won't reduce Europe's vulnerability to upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa, address the problems caused by growing dependence on Russian gas that is the direct implication of Germany's decision to shut down its nuclear power generating capacity, address the deep flaws in its common foreign policy mechanisms that have been revealed by the seemingly endless war of "days not weeks or months" in Libya, or somehow address Europe's inability to produce decent pop music.
In short, yesterday's Greek vote may have soothed markets temporarily ... but it is nothing more than the latest effort to treat the symptoms of Europe's ills while steadfastly ignoring the underlying disease.
Imagine being Muammar al-Qaddafi. There you are, struggling with the day-to-day challenges of trying to get a decent colorist and botox doc to come to your bunker, and the International Criminal Court issues an arrest warrant for you for crimes against humanity. You're thinking, "crimes against fashion" sure, I would understand that. People are jealous they can't rock the gold epaulets like I do. But crimes against humanity? I'm just following the job description to which every other leader in my region adheres. Sure, I'm trying to put down a rebellion. Abraham Lincoln did the same thing, it resulted in way more killing and mayhem than has happened here, and he's on the five dollar bill.
"What about Assad?" he must be asking any remaining Ukrainian nurse practitioners as he is shuttled from one hiding place to another?
"What about the Bahrainis? What about Ahmadinejad? What about every one of my local colleagues who have dropped the hammer on the people trying to push us from office?"
"Heck, what about the NATO powers that were supposedly not authorized to pursue regime change here who keep "accidentally" bombing every place in town where I have stopped to take a nap?"
"What about George W.T.F. Bush?" he must be asking aloud while daubing shoe polish on his moustache and wondering silently who does Tom Selleck's? "He and Cheney violated every international law on the books, invaded a country, hundreds of thousands of innocent people died, and what do they get? Presidential libraries! Book contracts! State of the art pacemakers!"
Of course, Qaddafi has every reason to be bitter. The international community singled him out and has starkly and apparently unabashedly ignored far worse violations by Bashir al Assad, to pick just the most egregious case of a double standard. Not that Qaddafi doesn't deserve the arrest warrant issued by the ICC on Monday. Not that the world won't be a better place when he is out of office or better, behind bars paying for his brutality, his sponsorship for terror and his myriad abuses against his own people. But, if ever a guy was having a "why me" moment, it must be him as he reads about Syrian crackdowns, recalls the Iranian crackdown, watches as leaders from North Korea to China to Myanmar to Russia to Zimbabwe to Sudan to the Congo to Venezuela order their opponents locked up or worse.
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The Osama bin Laden mission has generated something approaching national euphoria in the U.S. for a number of reasons. Foremost among these are, of course, a sense of justice, of closure and satisfaction with a well-executed national success. But close behind there is the fact that to many average Americans and to many top policymakers and influencers, catching and dispatching a man responsible for the death of thousands was satisfyingly, even refreshingly, clear-cut ... a comparatively black and white chapter in the morally fog-bound landscape of the Middle East.
While admittedly there are inevitable criticisms from a few at home and abroad about some elements of the U.S. raid and how the final confrontation with the terrorist unfolded, in the end, it was a very bad man dying a long-overdue and well-deserved death.
But part of the resonance of the event was not due simply to closing the decade-long cycle of a story of epic proportions. It was a consequence of what we have learned during that decade and in the past few months in particular.
During the past decade, we have seen America brutally wronged and seen ourselves seek justice ... and then go too far allegedly in the name of the pursuit of that reasonable goal. At first, in the days after the 9/11 attacks, we were profoundly hurt but the world was with us. Then we went through Iraq and Abu Ghraib and the Patriot Act and Guantanamo and extraordinary renditions and waterboarding and the collateral deaths of hundreds of thousands and the squandering of trillions that could never be used to help the needy in America or anywhere else. The "wave" election of 2008 was a desire to purge ourselves of the moral ambiguity that had come to define the times and had led us to come to question ourselves and our national identity.
The self-doubt was the greatest the United States had felt since the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, oil shocked, hostage crisis, malaise-ridden nation of the 70s. And washing that away was the majority hoped would come of the last election. That slogan "change we can believe in" was not about a candidate, it was about returning to being a country we could once again have faith in, be proud of without the lurking, taunting "yes, but..." of the past decade.
But as murky as were the images we saw in our own mirrors, immersing ourselves in the Middle East for the past decade we have come to recognize the degree to which it is a region in which good and evil are conjoined twins, go by each other's names, are often utterly indistinguishable. Allies and enemies behave just the same.
As a consequence, achieving the kind of victories Americans want, victories in which good guys beat bad guys and justice is advanced, has proven agonizingly difficult. Indeed, there is no place in the Middle East for idealists...and by idealists, I mean not just those who are self-defined but others with simplistic, misleading clear-cut views of a bafflingly, ceaselessly, confounding social and political landscape including self-identified "realists."
For many Americans, raised on Hollywood banalities about our roles in Vietnam (bad) or World War II (good) without being burdened with questions about the morality of Hiroshima or Dresden or turning our backs on the victims of the Holocaust or our war crimes, we want our wins neat and to leave moral ambiguity to films with subtitles. That our wins against the Germans and the Japanese were undeniably justified and to the good enabled us to form a national legend for ourselves that blotted out the genocide and slavery that were as responsible for America's early successful conquest of the continent as were our democratic values or our industry.
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Old Middle East hands know that when conflict comes in the region, history says that the smart money should be on David. The trick is knowing which David on which to bet.
For example, when it comes to leading America's most important initiative in the region, there might be a reflexive tendency to think that the key David is General David Petraeus, leading as he does the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. But in reality, the most important David right now may be the National Economic Council's David Lipton, the low-key, experienced, smart former under secretary of the treasury who is chairing the inter-agency working group looking at economic aid programs for Egypt.
That's because in a region full of screeching, competing urgencies, there are few things more important to the United States' interests than in making Egypt's revolution work. And to make that revolution a success -- to ensure Egyptian stability and that pluralism has a chance to take root in that country -- the key is going to be whether the next government is able to deliver jobs and opportunity for the majority of Egyptians better than Mubarak could.
There is no clarity yet in Washington -- or anywhere, I suspect -- as to what all the changes sweeping through the Middle East mean for narrow national or broad global interests. The situation is too fluid. There are too many moving parts. We cannot know whether upheaval will bring lasting change or whether change will be for better or for worse in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Yemen, Syria, Jordan, Bahrain or elsewhere in the region. In every instance the players, the variables and the stakes are different. And other uprisings may be yet to come whether in the Palestinian Territories, Iran, or Saudi Arabia. So, one-size-fits-all policies are impossible to fashion.
But coherent, well-focused ones are not only possible but urgently needed. That means working with the international community to embrace positive change, identify, and reduce threats, send clear messages and set sensible priorities in terms of the time and resources devoted to each situation. In turn, government limitations in terms of capabilities and political will being what they are, that means zeroing in on the most important cases, the ones with the greatest resonance and implications, and trying to ensure the best possible outcomes in each.
Given Egypt's centrality in the Arab world, its size, its political, cultural and historical roles, it is a natural choice for focus. And given that the issue in Egypt at its heart is, as it is elsewhere in the region, about creating lasting hope for the people, the success or failure of this Arab Spring will not be measured in the number of governments that fall but in the number of jobs that are ultimately created, especially for the young.
The United States and the international community can no more assure such job creation than they can any political outcome in these countries, but we can work to provide much needed aid flows, capital for infrastructure, trade deals that enable the world to have access to locally produced goods, technical assistance to ensure the right economic policies are implemented, etc.
It would be too easy to say that Barack Obama has been a big loser so far since the onset of operations against the Qaddafi regime in Libya. It would also be wrong. The Obama administration has mishandled many elements of the crisis, but nothing they have done wrong thus far is irreversible and in terms of the simple objectives of imposing a no-fly zone and containing Qaddafi, the effort has been effective.
Further, whatever the criticism of Obama may be, his intentions have been both defensible and sound: The desire to forestall a humanitarian disaster and to do so through multilateral mechanisms were worthy and responsible goals. The challenge thus far has been in the execution ... although clearly, the risks going forward remain high and were this to result in a protracted U.S. involvement, unacceptable costs, a stalemate on the ground that left Qaddafi in power or the installation of a new government that ultimately proved to be as bad or worse for U.S. interests than its predecessors, then we would have to revisit our list.
Meanwhile, at this stage of the game, the five biggest losers associate with the whadeveryacallit (see Jay Carney's convolocution above) are:
Much as the Libyan people were only the number five beneficiary of events so far in our winners list because the outcome is so uncertain, Qaddafi is only the number five loser of the major international military onslaught targeting his regime because it is not certain how this will all end up for him. With the UN's promise not to put boots on the ground, Qaddafi's tenure in office could be a long one and absent a "lucky" missile strike or a major increase in the effectiveness of opposition forces, a stalemate in which he retains considerable power over important chunks of Libya seems a strong possibility. Another alternative which might not be so bad is exile and the prospect of living with billions of dollars and all the Ukrainian nurses that can buy (which is a lot). So, while the most advanced military forces in the world are working against him, right now Muammar still is clinging to hope of a better tomorrow ... or any tomorrow ... which could prove to be a very unsatisfactory outcome from the political perspective of some of his leading international adversaries. That said, my money is on him not surviving as Libya's leader and in any event all his attempts at remaking his image over the past half decade have been undone and he has been permanently restored to his much deserved lunatic pariah status.
While the forces in the field have been performing admirably, the early days of this operation in terms of the alliance's political operations haven't been pretty. The world's most important, powerful, experienced, best-equipped military alliance has all the toys a middle-aged coalition could want but someone seems to have misplaced the instruction manual for smooth establishment of a command structure. From the minute they committed to this there have been arguments about who is in charge, about goals, about tactics, about basing, about burden-sharing, about virtually everything that alleged friends could possibly fight about. While the attacks NATO has carried out have apparently been effective, it is still unclear whether in the long-term they will be making the region any safer. Further, and more damagingly, they have revealed real problems in the ability of the alliance to work together on the kinds of conflicts with which they are most likely to be confronted in the near future. The apparent decision, a week into the crisis, to put a clear NATO command structure to be in charge helps matters considerably ... but the delays in getting there also underscore the kind of fault-line issues bedeviling the participating countries. This will all be papered over once this draws to a close but going forward, resistance of countries like Germany and Turkey to participation in undertakings like this could remain high for some time to come.
3. Arab League
Not that they had much credibility to begin with and not that many people expected much of them when it came to championing either democracy or even the basic human rights of the people of their region, but the Arab League at least during the early days of this operation did the near impossible and reduced the value of their role as a force of good within their region by their inability to follow up on their welcome promise of playing a key role in containing Qaddafi. Again, it's possible that they could undo the damage that has been done by stepping up their commitment of men and materiel to the mission -- and today's welcome announcement of substantial air support from the UAE buttresses the commitment of the Qataris in important ways -- but there are plenty in the coalition who acted in response to their promises who are absolutely furious at how so many members of the League have proven to be all keffiyeh and no camel on this issue. (A reference to the old Texas slam about posturing would-be ranchers who were "all hat and no cattle" for those of you wondering where I was going with that.)
Viewing points 3 and 4 above, one can't help but worry that at the dawn of what could be a new era in international affairs, an essential idea has been set back by messy execution. In the wake of the Iraq debacle, America and the world both were motivated to move away from the ugly inequities of a one superpower world dominated by a we-can-do-it-all-ourselves USA. The only alternative was better sharing of responsibilities for decision-making and problem-solving when it came to global problems. Barack Obama's willingness to embrace that new approach in the face of this first real 3 a.m. phone call type crisis of his presidency was welcome and the right thing to do but it could produce more damage than good if critics ultimately feel we did the right thing in the wrong way. If the message about multilateralism is that it is slow or messy or costly or politically damaging, it will not only become harder to rally allies in the future but in the U.S. unilateralists will have a case in point to use when next they want to drop the hammer on someone without benefit of the blessing of the international community.
It is a good thing that William Safire, the New York Times redoubtable lover of words and their meanings is dead because if he weren't the White House press statements on this crisis would have killed him. We don't have to start with the good and capable Jay Carney's ill-considered coherence-limited characterization of the Libya conflict cited in the title of this post. We can turn to Ben Rhodes' clarity-challenged clarification of whether or not the U.S. was seeking regime change cited in an earlier post this week. Or we can go to Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough's appearance on the PBS NewsHour which was described by the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin as "He was asked questions. He answered them. And in the end you had no idea what he said." (For our international readers let me note that the Washington Post is not seen as a crazy right wing mouthpiece of the Republican Party.) Speaking however of crazy Republicans, they are not immune from the disease currently affecting Washington, either. Take Newt Gingrich who may have finally stuck a stake through the heart of his already slim chances of being a credible candidate for president when he offered two completely contradictory positions on intervention in Libya within the course of a couple of weeks. (Although his creative "patriotism excuses infidelity" stance -- also known as the flag-made-me-do-it excuse for cheating on your cancer-stricken wife -- is likely to ensure him a few male votes should he ever run.) It is almost as if the underlying foundation of the United States's current foreign policy is Newton's Third Law of Motion, paraphrased to suggest that for each guiding principle of our actions there is an equal and opposite principle to which we also adhere. We're leading and we're not. We're for regime change and we're against. We're for democracy in some places but not in others. For those seeking comfort, there are always the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald that "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." For those worried by the trend outbreak of double-talk there is however the fact that Fitzgerald offered that observation in an essay called "The Crack-Up."
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Under cover of tsunami, the Saudi military rolled into Bahrain to help secure a minority's rule over an angry, abused majority.
Under cover of a nuclear crisis, Libya's military battered brave but outgunned opponents whose only crime was seeking an end to a four-decade-long brutal dictatorship.
Under cover of an earthquake, the nations of the West dithered, threatening action in Libya … but by waiting, assuring it would only come after Qaddafi's loyalists had strafed and blasted their way to an upper hand in that country's civil war.
Japan's compound tragedies held the world spellbound, and frankly, the world seemed pretty happy with the arrangement.
There were hard questions lurking in the Middle East. Questions about whether America and its allies only supported democracy in states that didn't produce oil, whether our high values could be traded on the world's commodity markets, one full measure of national integrity for every barrel of crude. Questions about whether we only supported democracy for some in the Islamic world but, for example, not for Shiites because of their ties with Iran. Or perhaps it is that we support, it seems, rights for Shiites in Iran but not for Shiites in the Gulf.
The Japan disaster obscured the slaughter of a family of five Israeli settlers and the Israeli government's subsequent announcement of more settlement construction and then the shrill commentaries trying to equate the two. One was the murder of an innocent family. The other was a defiant if ill-considered and demonstratively unproductive policy. But the modern Middle East trades as easily in false equivalencies as it does raging hypocrisies.
Consider that this week that the world debated nuclear reactor safety in Japan while Iran worked silently to develop nuclear weapons capabilities, while Pakistan continued to build its massive arsenal.
What is happening in Japan is extremely important and it warrants the attention of world leaders and it is heartening to see global assistance flowing into the stricken nation. But it does not excuse those leaders from their responsibilities to address other urgent issues elsewhere, and yet one cannot help but feel that many are seeking cover behind these grim stories datelined in Sendai or Iwate Prefecture, an excuse for inaction or worse, for inexcusable actions.
It would be a sad irony if part of the toll of the Japanese quake included thousands more dead in Libya, or the freedom of aspirant millions from the Maghreb to the Gulf. Britain's David Cameron has said he will seek U.N. action on Libya, a resolution and a threat of a no-fly zone at some point in the future. It's an admirable ambition but poses the questions: At what point will that be? What will be left of the opposition?
The measure of Cameron's sincerity and that of the world leaders who once condemned Qaddafi or cheered on the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square is not how soaring their rhetoric is, but how swiftly and decisively they act … and whether or not they remain engaged in support of democratic reforms and the right of self-determination even in the face of other priorities, events that might offer a distraction but can never excuse hesitation from the only people who are in a position to help.
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The tsunami and earthquake that tragically struck Japan today could not come at a worse moment for the Japanese. The economy has been struggling for almost two decades to recover and seemed poised to make progress, but now has suffered yet another bitter blow. The costs of rebuilding will add to already high deficits and high anxiety. It is only fortunate that there is perhaps no other country in the world as well prepared to deal with earthquakes and their consequences as Japan.
That said, the disaster also resonates in many ways with what is happening elsewhere in the world. It reminds us that "black swans" are not rare events. Indeed, the first few months of this year have demonstrated yet again that nothing in this world is as commonplace as the unexpected. That is no doubt more a commentary on the way we arrive at expectations than it is on the nature of life on the planet. In just the past 10 weeks alone, we have seen revolutions, earthquakes, major economies downgraded by credit ratings agencies, spiking energy and food prices, and the usual accompanying market roller coaster rides that bespeak the fact that we are collectively spun around by events more often than your average weathervane is by the daily breeze.
Another way the tsunami resonates is with the images we have already seen on the television of it sweeping ashore -- a great black wave of destruction -- causing havoc and then retreating to the sea. As I watched I couldn't help but wonder if that was not how we were ultimately going to view the upheaval that has rocked the Middle East this year. There came a wave and great drama and then, almost as quickly, the wave withdrew and was forgotten.
Certainly, we are at risk of such an outcome at the moment. If Qaddafi succeeds in pushing back the rebels during the next couple of days, the world may well conclude -- if it has not done so already -- that supporting the Libyan opposition may be a losing proposition. And if Qaddafi wins and reestablishes his control on the country through brutality, it will send a strong message to other regimes across the region that the right response to rebellion is to be both ferocious and merciless.
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It is hard to argue with the White House's reasoning behind working collaboratively with other nations in formulating the response to the Libya crisis. But, if the president is going to talk the multilateralist talk, the crucial question is going to be whether he does so effectively or not.
Obama's multilateralism is both ideological and pragmatic. Since his first days as a candidate, he has made it clear that he believes in the international rule of law, support for international institutions and a United States that is a committed partner rather than a unilateralist rogue within the international system. On the practical front, the U.S. public has neither the appetite nor the checkbook for a sequel to the series of with-us-or-against-us-themed American Sherriff road movies that recently have been playing to such mixed notices in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. (In both instances while we have worked with coalitions, the U.S. role has been so great that other nations have really been extras, featured ensemble members at best.)
So the president has shown reasoned restraint in the wake of the outbreak of civil war in Libya. While the plight of citizens on the ground cries out for support, Obama and his team have felt that given both the complexities associated with widely bruited-about "solutions" like the imposition of a no-fly zone as well as other interventive measures, that whatever is done would be both more legitimate and more sustainable if undertaken through collective initiative.
That seems like a sound approach -- if intervention actually takes place. But the president and his team must not fall into the trap of thinking that embracing multilateralism excuses inaction when decisive measures are called for. The United States still has national interests -- whether they are in maintaining oil flows or preventing a humanitarian disaster or discouraging other thugocracies from brutalizing their own people -- and if it is the choice of this administration to advance those interests through collaboration with our NATO allies, via the United Nations or through some ad hoc coalition then the United States must find ways to actually do so and to do so in a timely, resolute and ultimately successful way.
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This morning's New York Times contains an article quoting various "regional experts" as saying that the current upheaval in the region is playing into the hands of Iran. This is a flawed analysis on several levels.
First, we are so early in this process that it is premature to say who will benefit from or be damaged by it. It is still too early to know how many states will be affected or what the effects of the revolutions will be. Several scenarios are plausible. In one, prolonged upheaval, Iran may benefit as the alliance that existed against it is compromised. In another, a shift to democracy, Iran may or may not benefit depending on the orientation of the government, but in all likelihood it would be damaged as more democratic governments are likely to be both more open to the rest of the world and an inspiration to the repressed people of Iran. In a third, a new generation of strongmen emerges, you could theoretically have pro-Iranian Islamic states take hold, but the reality is, given the long-term history of Iran within the region, old anti-Iranian alliances would recoalesce. This is especially true because new regimes would likely have large military components comprising experienced officers who have been in anti-Iranian stance throughout their careers.
Iran is certainly working to take advantage of the current uncertainty, using Hezbollah, Hamas, and related networks to promote both the instability it seeks and voices that it considers friendly. But Iran is not, and cannot ever be, "of" the Arab world. The cultural and historic barriers are too great. And therefore, the notion of it somehow creating an enduring network of states aligned to it is far-fetched.
This point about Iran however, does bring into focus a bigger point about the nature and future of the remarkable wave of revolutions currently sweeping across the region. Just as Iran is in the Middle East without being, in the minds of its Arab neighbors, a real part of their world, so too has the great problem of the Middle East at large been that for a variety of historical, political, and cultural reasons it has been in the world without having been of it.
The cultural disposition of the region has been to set itself apart, to create barriers to integration to the rest of the world, and in fact, to view integration with the rest of the world as a threat. This is a generalization, of course. There are hugely sophisticated global business leaders from the region, and there are cosmopolitan pockets within each of the countries of the Middle East. But for intentional and unintentional reasons -- education, religious views, political ideologies, social stratification, deliberate policy choices made by ruling regimes -- the benefits of integrating into the global economy have not been as available to people from the region as they have been to others in the Americas, Europe, or Asia.
The regional experts assessing the situation in the New York Times article are viewing what is happening purely in terms of old paradigms and politics. But one of the most important questions raised by the current situation is whether we are not seeing merely the latest round of political musical chairs, but rather we are seeing something deeper and more profound that could alter historical patterns. This is not, by the way, just an abstract question. It has very practical strategic implications for how the world outside the region handles the remainder of this period of change.
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While it is too early to assess the long-term outcomes of the uprising in Egypt, there are nonetheless a number of important conclusions to which we can reasonably come.
First, something profound has changed. It did not change because of the uprising in Tahrir Square. It changed and the uprising was the result; the power has shifted in the region. We have passed a generational and technological tipping point. While the dinosaurs cling to the levers of power in virtually every country in the greater Middle East, the under 30 majority is now the great force to be reckoned with. While the establishment has done almost everything conceivable to keep them down from denying them education to curtailing the spread of information technologies to gutting the economies, nonetheless, new information sources and technologies and ways of connecting and collaborating seeped in to these societies through every one of the cracks spreading across the Ozymandian edifices of the elite.
These changes are irreversible. They are seen in the cell phones that even the poorest carry with them, in the broadcasts of Al Jazeera, in the burgeoning Twitter feeds, the apps young Arabs create to provide work-arounds every time a government tries to curtail Internet access, and even in the technological use of some of the region's worst players.
These changes have remade the social and political fabric of the region. What they have yet to do is what they have done everywhere else in the world and that is to fuel economic change.
That is the second inescapable conclusion we need to consider. The great challenges before this under-30 majority are economic, they are about opportunity. They are not about Israel or battles between Shiites and Sunnis or tribal divisions. Those problems still fester, but the unifying challenge for this generation is even more basic: They need jobs. They crave opportunity. And the failure of their leaders to provide them with these basic sources of sustenance and dignity is what has fueled the revolutions of 2011.
A corollary to this conclusion is that we in the United States have been sending the wrong people with the wrong approaches to solve the wrong problems in this region for decades. The problems of this region will not be solved by negotiators or generals. They require investors and entrepreneurs and educators. To the extent that we can contribute, we must do so by supporting the creation of economic opportunity. It is a massive undertaking but it is the only true peacemaker.
A third conclusion is related to the second, however. The role for the U.S. government in all this is very, very limited. We would do well to redirect what aid we provide to address this core challenge of creating jobs for the under-30s. We would do well to put our best economic minds in charge, perhaps even appointing a special economic envoy of real stature. But the only people who can ultimately solve this problem are in the Middle East. In fact, in the hierarchy of those who can help, if the people of the Middle East are first and by far foremost, it is the people of Europe, not the United States who must be second. They are the natural economic neighbors of the region and they must answer the question whether they want those under-30s employed in the Middle East or seeking employment in Europe. After the Europeans, it may even be the Chinese or Indians and others dependent on oil in the region and closer to its problems who should take more prominent roles in helping to solve the problem than the United States, which is a lightening rod and has problems of our own at home.
A fourth conclusion is that the hardest part is clearly still ahead of us. Egypt must make the transition to democracy and that means the military must really step aside after six months. Friends of mine who have met with them believe they understand the implications of the political earthquake that has taken place during the past month and that they will do so. But there are dinosaurs among their leaders so it is by no means a sure thing. Even beyond establishing a democracy is actually keeping one, and beyond that is addressing successfully the economic challenges alluded to above. Further, there are the problems of all the other countries of the region. They will be difficult to handle but we in the United States need to be confident enough in our core beliefs to let them work them out among themselves. There will be fights and setbacks and people we don't like will periodically gain the upper hand. But give me a duel between two guys armed with the Internet, Facebook, and Twitter feeds and let one offer the people the 11th Century and another offer the 21th and I know who I will bet on.
Finally, my fifth conclusion is that of all the big challenges ahead for U.S. foreign policy associated with this period of upheaval, the greatest by far lies with Israel and the Palestinians. Personally, I am not sure why the Palestinians have not yet unilaterally declared independence. The world would surely support them. But imagine what would happen if, perhaps on the road to such a declaration perhaps following it, a hundred thousand Palestinians took to the streets peacefully demanding real self-determination. With memories of Tahrir Square fresh in the minds of the world, how could the Israelis respond as they might have in the past? On what side of history would they appear to be as President Obama might put it? And in that vein, on what side of that history would President Obama and the United States want to be?
Until now, the fact that Israel was the region's only democracy was its "get out of jail free" card. It was used to excuse ... or attempt to excuse ... a multitude of sins. For this reason, no Arab military offensive could be as effective in undermining Israel's strategic advantages as real democracy taking root elsewhere in the region. The Netanyahu administration would be flummoxed if people power came to the West Bank and Gaza. They would be cast involuntarily with the dinosaurs. They would have no pages in their playbook indicating how to handle this. They would have very few good choices.
Actually, they would have only one. They would have to get out of the way. They would have to do what Mubarak did. They would have to step within the 1967 borders and let the Palestinians begin the job of building Palestine. And they would have to hope that the United States, Europe, and the rest of the world helped the Palestinians do it because once that happens, it will be of the utmost importance for Israel that its new neighbor produce real opportunity for its people ... because we have seen the alternative and it, for this generation who have both nothing and nothing to lose will not be contained by the tactics or the rhetoric of the past.
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The problem with experience is that it doesn't prepare you for what you have never seen before. This is also a challenge for experts, for whom their knowledge of the past is usually an advantage, but sometimes can be their worst limitation.
This has certainly been the case in the past several weeks with the events in Tunisia and Egypt. Old Middle East hands approached the matter with great caution, fearing instability, because if it followed past patterns, it would most likely end in unhappiness. The most likely outcomes they could foresee were either: the further cementing of the status quo or an invitation to something much worse.
History taught them that popular uprisings in the region typically led either to replacing one despot with another or perhaps to trading the evils of autocracy for the evils of theocracy.
And we would do well to consider the fact that even now, as Egypt is awash in euphoria, that the experts may be right. And they would do well to consider that perhaps what has happened in Egypt is something entirely new.
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In the past several days, an Obama administration that has, for the most part, appeared to handle the Egypt uprising well has been sailing a little close to the wind. In an attempt to appear on top of events, the administration has issued statements that felt a little too much like taking credit for persuading Mubarak to leave office by September.
Press Secretary Robert Gibbs showed they know better when he stated that there were some elements of diplomacy that best take place away from the cameras. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were right to turn to a man as experienced and gifted as former Ambassador Frank Wisner to conduct key elements of their behind the scenes communications with the Egyptian leadership. Wisner is one of the very best the State Department has produced in the past half century. But, what he did and what the president may have said to Mubarak on the telephone in private should have remained private.
That said, going forward, there is much that should be communicated to the Egyptian leadership -- quietly -- in the next day or so if it has not already been said. Paramount among these messages should be an unequivocal statement along the following lines:
While we are deeply grateful for the support and friendship that President Mubarak and the people of Egypt have shown to the United States during the past several decades, we must acknowledge what has changed in these first days of 2011 ... and what has not.
Let us begin with what has not changed. First, America continues to seek only the best relationship with the people and government of Egypt. Such a relationship is, of course, based on a foundation of mutual respect and a recognition that all nations must advance their own national interests. A reason for the strength of our relationship and the depth of our commitment to Egypt over these past decades is the degree to which these principles have been followed.
The United States' primary national interest with regard to Egypt is in preserving peace and stability in the region and in the collaboration that was possible due to our shared goals. That does not just mean peace between Egypt and its neighbors -- it means peace within Egypt and it means stability throughout the region. It also means supporting the shared values and vision that will produce greater peace, stability, and prosperity in the future.
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The Obama administration has thus far been pitch perfect in its public statements regarding the unrest in Egypt. Learning from its ill-considered silence in the early days of the Iranian protests, it has offered a balanced message. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got it exactly right with "the Egyptian government has an important opportunity … to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people." And Robert Gibbs's deft "Egypt is a strong ally" sent the unmistakable message that our long-term interests lie with the Egyptian people and not with any particular individual or leadership group … while at the same time reflecting an appreciation for embattled, aging Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's past cooperation with the United States.
That said, the uprisings in Egypt also signal a new period in the administration's foreign policy that will pose conundrums that make the riddle of the Sphinx look like a snap in comparison.
The complex challenges are, of course, hinted at in the choice the United States faces with regard to the Egyptian turmoil. The student uprisings raise the prospect of a more representative government in the country … and also the possibility that the uprisings we saw in Iran and then in Tunisia that preceded the Egyptian events might signal a moment of generational transition that could remake the region's politics. But they also raise the possibility of instability and of the uprisings being co-opted either by hard-liners who use them as an excuse to clamp down or by other even more radical, fundamentalist elements who seize on the upheaval to make their own moves.
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FIFA, not content to be tainted with just its current trifecta of on-going scandals -- including its cash for selection site votes scandal, "Ticketgate," and the ISL secret payments scandal -- inched closer to claiming the International Olympic Committee's crown as the most odious organizing body in international sports with its absolutely ridiculous choice today of Qatar over the United States to host the 2022 World Cup.
To compound the indefensible nature of the choice -- which in the end came down to petrodollars over the integrity of the sport and the interests of the fans (see Grant Wahl's "Inside Soccer" column at si.com) -- Russia, home to infrastructure that is as compromised by neglect as is its democracy, was chosen as site of the 2018 games. But at least Russia is a country of enough size to produce plenty of fans and it has a substantial soccer tradition. And it's not a desert location for a summer sporting event.
But Qatar? With something under 500,000 native born residents and just over 1.6 million people overall? No soccer tradition to speak of? No stadiums? 120 degree summer heat? All those unpleasant WikiLeaks stories? Located at a huge distance from most of the fans who might want to go?
Qatar over Australia, which did beautifully with the Olympics not so long ago? Qatar over the United States? With Bill Clinton and Morgan Freeman presenting on America's behalf? Do they understand who Morgan Freeman is? He's the guy God would get to play Himself in the biopic. He's Nelson Mandela. He's "Red" Redding from Shawshank for goodness sakes! He's a higher power than almost all mortals … but not higher than Sepp Blatter, the man with the ugliest name in sports, the Peron of the Pitch, the Mussolini of the Midfield, the Genghis Khan of the Goooooooooooooal!
Blatter let it be known that even if FIFA's technical evaluations of Qatar were not so great that he would like to see the games go to the country which has promised $50 billion and something like 9 new stadiums to host.
On Fox Sports Channel U.S. Soccer great Eric Wynalda asked, "Is this about soccer or about natural gas and oil? That's what has just won… they have just bought the World Cup."
Now some of you might ask, is this sour grapes? Is this just one more jingoistic American whining when the ball doesn't bounce our way?
Yes, yes it is. But, I wouldn't be complaining like this if there was one compelling (wholesome) rationale to explain the decision, one explanation that might suggest that the interests of soccer fans anywhere outside downtown Doha were taken into consideration.
But after all this the decision came from the same guys who argued that all those bad calls during this summer's Cup in South Africa were good for the game because they provoked conversations. Perhaps they're using the same rationale now. Because this is the worst FIFA call all year, and that's saying something.
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David Rothkopf is the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. His new book, "Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning that Lies Ahead" is due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on March 1.