Saturday, April 2, 2011

There Are Now No Middle Eastern Certainties

The democratic Arab revolts are redrawing political, diplomatic and ideological boundaries in the Middle East. Repression in Libya threatened this dynamic process, and we do not know where the UN-approved actions of western forces in support of the Libyan rebels will lead.
by Serge Halimi
This commentary was published in Le Monde Diplomatique in April 2011 Issue
Even a broken watch tells the right time twice a day. So a UN Security Council resolution authorising the use of force against Libya is not necessarily wrong just because it was a US, French and UK initiative. Unarmed rebels facing a reign of terror may have to seek the assistance of an international force; preoccupied with their own sufferings, they will not refuse help just because the force may be deaf to appeals from other sufferers (for example, in Palestine). They may even forget that the alliance is better known for repression than aid.
But reasons that make sense to Libyan rebels in extreme danger cannot justify yet another western war on Arab land. Intervention by Nato member states is not an acceptable way to topple Muammar Gaddafi. If intervention seems the obvious solution – insofar as we are required to choose between western bombardment and the crushing of the Libyan uprising – that is only because other solutions, such as a joint intervention by UN, Egyptian or pan-Arab forces, have been dismissed.
Going by past record, it is impossible to believe the generous motives for sending in western troops that are currently being claimed. In fact, it is hard to believe that any state anywhere would spend money and deploy forces to achieve democratic goals. And recent history shows that battles fought for those goals may have widely acclaimed initial success, but what comes after is chaotic, more dangerous and less spectacular. The capitals of Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq fell years ago, yet the fighting goes on inside those countries.
The Libyans would have preferred, like their Tunisian and Egyptian neighbours, to end Gaddafi’s despotic rule without outside help. The intervention of external forces places them under an obligation to powers that never had any real interest in Libyan freedom. Gaddafi is primarily to blame for this regional exception. Without 40 years of his violent repressive regime (which shifted from an anti-imperialist dictatorship to a pro-western despotism), without his diatribes against the “agents of al-Qaida” and “rats in the pay of foreign intelligence services”, the Libyan people alone would have been able to determine their own destiny.
Security Council Resolution 1973 authorising the bombing of Libya may have prevented the crushing of a revolt with military means too slender to succeed. But it has opened the door to much hypocrisy. Gaddafi’s troops were not bombed because he was the most vicious or bloodthirsty dictator, but because he was the weakest, without nuclear weapons or powerful friends to shield him from military reprisals or speak for him at the Security Council. The decision to authorise intervention confirms that international law has no clear principles whose violation is subject to universal sanctions.
Gaddafi’s close friends
Diplomatic whitewash is like money laundering: one good action covers decades of wheeling and dealing. So President Nicolas Sarkozy could order air strikes against Gaddafi, his former business partner, whom he received in 2007 although the nature of Gaddafi’s regime was evident. (We can count ourselves lucky, though, that Sarkozy didn’t offer Gaddafi the “French security forces’ expertise” that he extended to Tunisia’s now ex-president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January.) And Silvio Berlusconi was a “close friend” of the Libyan Guide, who visited him in Rome 11 times, yet Berlusconi managed reluctantly to join the coalition.
The Arab League, full of old men who dread democracy, welcomed UN action but were horrified when the first US missiles landed. Russia and China could have opposed the Security Council resolution or introduced amendments to define the action and reduce the risk of escalation, saving themselves from having to “regret” the use of force later. The rectitude of the international community is also clear from the text of Resolution 1973, which condemns “arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, torture and summary executions” in Libya. Of course, these things don’t happen in Guantanamo Bay, Chechnya or China.
No one questions the imperative of protecting civilians. But in armed conflict that means bombing military objectives, including troops, many of them civilian conscripts, mingling with unarmed crowds. Aircraft patrolling a no-fly zone may be shot down, their pilots captured, and special forces will then be sent in to release them. However much the vocabulary is doctored, there is no euphemism for war.
War is in the hands of those who declare it and conduct operations, not those who believe in short wars with happy endings. It is fine to draw up plans for a conflict without hostility and no collateral damage, but the military forces that execute these plans will follow their own inclinations, use their own methods and have their own agenda. The consequences of Resolution 1973 may include retreating Libyan troops mown down by machine guns, as well as crowds rejoicing in Benghazi.
Progressive opinion on Libya is divided, according to whether it stresses solidarity with an oppressed people or opposition to a western war. Both objectives are legitimate but cannot always be reconciled.
Forced to chose, there is a decision to be made on what an “anti-imperialist” label gained in the international arena authorises by way of daily suffering imposed on people.
Wilful silence
Many leftwing governments in Latin America, notably Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia have maintained a dignified silence about Gaddafi’s repressive measures, which seems all the more bizarre since his opposition to the West is pure facade. He claims to be the victim of a “colonialist plot”, after having assured the old colonial powers: “We are all embroiled in the fight against terrorism. Our security services cooperate. We have helped you a lot these past few years” (1).
Like Hugo Chávez, Daniel Ortega and Fidel Castro, Gaddafi claims the attack on him is “all about oil”, although Libyan oil is already controlled by the US, UK and Italian companies Occidental Petroleum, BP and ENI (see The subtleties of Libyan crude). Just a few weeks ago, the International Monetary Fund had welcomed Libya’s “strong macroeconomic performance and the progress on enhancing the role of the private sector” (2). Gaddafi’s friend Ben Ali was paid a similar compliment in November 2008 by IMF director general Dominique Strauss-Kahn – who had just returned from Tripoli (3).
Anthony Giddens, theoretician of the Blairite ‘Third Way’, also seems to have overlooked Gaddafi’s old revolutionary, anti-imperialist veneer, carefully restored in Caracas and Havana, when he observed in 2007 that the “ideal future for Libya in two or three decades’ time would be a Norway of North Africa: prosperous, egalitarian and forward-looking” (4). Gaddafi has duped many impressive people. He may not be quite as mad as we thought.
There are many reasons why leftwing Latin American governments misjudged Gaddafi. They hoped he was the enemy of their enemy, the US, though that was no reason to believe he was a friend. They didn’t know much about North Africa – Chávez phoned Gaddafi to find out what was happening in Tunisia – so they were against what Castro called “the colossal campaign of lies unleashed by the mass media”.
The events revived irrelevant personal memories, hence Chávez’s comment on Libya: “I don’t know why, but the things that have happened and are happening there remind me of Hugo Chávez on 11 April” (11 April 2002, when the Chávez government in Venezuela was almost overturned in a coup with strong media support).
Revolutionary veneer
There were other reasons for the failure to understand events in Libya: decades of US military intervention and domination in Latin America, Libya helping Venezuela to gain a foothold in Africa, Latin American states’ role in Opec and the South America-Africa Summits, and Venezuela’s diplomatic moves to strengthen South-South relations.
Chávez also assumed that close relations between states meant close relations between heads of state: “King Fahd of Saudi Arabia was a friend of mine, King Abdullah is a friend … The emir of Qatar is a friend, and the president of Syria, he came here too. And Bouteflika” (5). When Gaddafi (“my old friend”) and his regime turned repressive, the friendship proved a handicap. Chávez missed the chance to present the Arab uprisings as younger siblings of the leftwing movements in Latin America he knew so well.
It is in the diplomatic arena that one sees most clearly the dire results, in all countries, when power is held by a single individual, and orders are issued without parliamentary control or democratic deliberation. And when, as in the Security Council, diplomats proudly declare war in the name of democracy, the contrast is particularly glaring.
Gaddafi first claimed to espouse the cause of opposing the West and to be defending natural resources; then he played his final card – religion. He explained on 20 March: “The great Christian powers have launched a new crusade against the Muslim people, and the people of Libya first. The aim is to wipe Islam off the map.” Just a fortnight before, he had compared his repressive measures to an action in which 1,400 Palestinians had been killed: “The Israelis had to use tanks to deal with the extremists in Gaza, and we are in the same position … Detachments of the Libyan army had to be deployed against small pockets of al-Qaida” (6). This was unlikely to increase his popularity in the Arab world.
But it has one virtue at least. It makes evident the damaging political effects of language that reflects in reverse the neoconservative talk of crusades and empires. The Arab uprisings with their secular and religious support, and opposition, may end the rhetoric that claims to be anti-imperialist when it is merely anti-West. There may be no more talk in which hatred of “the West” conflates all that is worst (gunboat diplomacy, contempt for the “natives”, wars of religion) and all that is best (from the age of enlightenment to social security) without distinction.
Orientalism in reverse
Not long after the 1979 Iran revolution, the radical Syrian thinker, Sadiq Jalal al-Azm defined, and criticised, an “Orientalism in reverse” that eschewed secular nationalism and communist revolution, and wanted a return to religious authenticity as a weapon against the West.
The principal tenets of this “culturalist” concept, as summarised and refuted by Gilbert Achcar, were that “the degree of emancipation of the Orient should not and cannot be measured by western standards and values, such as democracy, secularism and women’s liberation; that the Islamic Orient cannot be grasped with the epistemological tools of western social sciences and that no analogy with western phenomena is relevant; that the key motional factor in Islamic history, the primary factor setting Muslim masses in motion, is cultural, ie religious, taking precedence over the economic and social/class factors that condition western political dynamics; that the only path of Muslim lands toward their renaissance is through Islam; and that the movements that raise the banner of the ‘return to Islam’ are not reactionary or regressive movements as they are perceived through western lenses, but indeed progressive movements prompted by western cultural domination” (7).
This fundamentalist political vision has not completely disappeared, but the shock waves from Tunisia suggest that its relevance is widely questioned in Arab states where people no longer want to be “with the West, or against it” (8), and where they may be equally critical of a state that is pro-US (Egypt) or against it (Syria). Far from fearing that civil liberties, free speech, democratic policies, trade unions and women’s rights are “western” priorities masquerading as universal liberation, people in Arab states are adopting them as a sign that they reject authoritarianism, social injustice and police states run by old men who treat their people like children. This great drive, reminiscent of other revolutionary movements, these unaccustomed social and democratic victories, this burst of energy all come when “the West” seems divided between fear and apathy, with a necrotic political system, running on automatic toward the same outcomes and on behalf of the same interests, regardless of which coalition is in power.
There is no guarantee that the courage and energy of the Arab people will continue to win easy victories. But they open unknown possibilities. In Article 20 of UN Resolution 1973, the Security Council “affirms its determination to ensure that [Libyan] assets frozen pursuant to [an earlier resolution] shall, at a later stage, as soon as possible be made available to and for the benefit of the people of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.” So assets can be frozen and returned to the people. This lesson will certainly be remembered, that the state can serve the people. In the past few months, the Arab world has reminded us of another universal truth: the people can shape the state.
(1) Interview, Journal du dimanche, Paris, 6 March 2011.
(2) “Le FMI tresse des lauriers à Kadhafi”, Le Canard Enchaîné, Paris, 9 March 2011.
(3) See “STRAUSS-KAHN - ou le génie du FMI - soutient Ben Ali !” on Dailymotion.
(4) Anthony Giddens, “My chat with the colonel”, The Guardian, London, 9 March 2007.
(5) 25 February 2011. See “Chávez: ‘Nos oponemos rotundamente a las pretensiones intervencionistas en Libia’” on
(6) France 24, 7 March 2011, “Interview de Kadhafi 07/03/2011 pour france24 part 2/2”.
(7) Gilbert Achcar, “Orientalism in Reverse: post-1979 trends in French Orientalism”, 4th Edward Said Memorial Lecture, University of Warwick, 20 November 2007. First published in Radical Philosophy, London, no 151, September-October 2008.
(8) See Alain Gresh, “‘Neither with the West, nor against it’”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, March 2011. In a speech delivered on 19 March, Hizbullah’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah said that “any accusation that the US manufactured and launched these revolutions [the Arab revolutions] is unjust speech toward these peoples.”

Tehran Breeds Regional Crises

By Ahmad Aljarallah
This commentary was published in The Arab Times on 02/04/2011
THE series of crises being perpetrated by the dictatorial regime in Iran for the past 30 years has put the entire region in crisis. The spy cell recently uncovered in Kuwait is one of the numerous spy and attack networks being operated in our country, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, as well as many other GCC and Arab nations, both in Africa and Asia. The regime has become a viral disease attacking all countries except those supporting its ideologies or in its bondage.
The talk about Persian expansionist ambition is due to the catastrophic intention to attack neighbors with whom Iran should be coordinating efforts to boost investments and encourage development, and this would have depicted mutual Islamic culture in the right perspective across the globe. However, our bitter experience with Tehran regime has taught us to remain cautious about plans hatched inside dark rooms. The sectarian crisis, which Iran encourages among its neighbors, was not popular until the regime decided to promote strange Sunni-Shiite differences. Sunnis have been managing shrines of the Ahl Al-Bayt in Iraqi cities, including the two military shrines in Samarai for the last 1,200 years until suspicious bombing incidents there a few years ago. The singing of discordant tones over protection of Ahl Al-Bayt in Iraq had led to sectarian blood letting.
The most disastrous among Iran’s critical projects is the intention to convert the ‘Land of Message’ to a place of fight by politicizing pilgrimage and organizing protests every year. It has also planted destructive cells in Saudi Arabia, which led to the bombing of Khobar in 1996, and it regularly exports terrorists to neighboring states. Moreover, Iran plans to overrun the system in Bahrain by exploiting differences among brothers belonging to a single country, apart from annexing the UAE islands.
There is no need to remind about Iran’s terrorist activities in Lebanon that have been going on since 1982 until today. The regime supported Houthis in Yemen and has declared an open media war against Saudi Arabia for the last seven months. It has also been issuing steady threats of shutting down the Strait of Hormuz.
Iran’s wicked plan in the region took a more drastic and devastating dimension after the terrorist activities in Bahrain due to the presence of Baramikah- Arab or French. They attack us on Iranian-sponsored satellite stations with fabricated tales of injustice in order to cause disharmony, and promote their crises-oriented business in the GCC society through false cries and laments, in order to weaken the region.
Iran’s relationship with GCC nations is on the brink of collapse, because the regime has been pushing the region towards arms offensive, thinking it is the region’s power block in control of the situation. Iranian officials seem oblivious of the fact that time has really changed and it is not like in the past when the Shah used to see himself as the Gulf policeman. He did not realize it then, just as the current officials have failed to realize that paradigm power shift normally changes political geography. Iran is now a very weak number in the new global calculation, so no matter how loud its threats, the international community will not allow it to act like an angry baby that destroys everything around him without any accountability.
A majority of political observers see Iranian regime’s behavior as a direct invitation for attack on Iran but the world will leave the decision to topple the government to its citizens who have been facing a high level of oppression, starvation and persecution.
In light of this GCC governments see ouster of the Iranian regime as an urgent need. There is also a need to activate security and military agreements with the international community to fortify our defense, in order to avoid a surprise aggression like the one carried out by Saddam Hussein in the early hours of August 2, 1990. Policies embarked upon by the Iranian dictators for the past 30 years indicate that the regime is capable of doing anything to escape internal crisis or actualize the expansionist ambition.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Syria's British-Born First Lady Divides The Women Of Damascus

Asma and Bashar al-Assad
Syria's first couple, Asma and Bashar al-Assad. Photograph: Miguel Medina/AFP

Criticism mounts of Asma al-Assad, the fashion pinup at the heart of Syria's repressive elite

By Esther Addley and Katherine Marsh in Damascus
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 01/04/2011
To Paris Match she was "the element of light in a country full of shadow zones"; to French Elle, the most stylish woman in world politics. Even the Sun was moved to coo over "the sexy Brit bringing Syria in from the cold".

But when American Vogue last month published a glittering profile of Asma al-Assad, calling her "a rose in the desert … glamorous, young and very chic", it seemed the world's patience with fawning paeans to Syria's British-born first lady was beginning to wear thin.

The former banker, 35, who grew up in Acton, west London, has been married for more than a decade to the country's president, Bashar al-Assad, with whom she has three children. She is, said Vogue, "the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies," who combines her passion for Christian Louboutin shoes with a mission "to create a beacon of culture and secularism in a powder-keg region".

Several months into the current "Arab Spring", during which growing calls for reform of Syria's oppressive dictatorship have been met with a brutal police crackdown, critics of the Syrian regime have become increasingly reluctant to allow such remarks to go unchallenged.

"This is the most insulting article ever published by Vogue," read one comment on the magazine's website, representative of many. "She joined a family that is responsible for a history of brutal and repressive dictatorship. She represents everything that is opposite of what you are praising her for."

Observers pointed out that the 97% of the vote that propelled Assad to the presidency, succeeding his father, was probably less "startling" to Mrs Assad than to the Vogue writer, as her husband had been the only candidate and now presides over one of the most brutal regimes in the world.
"Ever wonder what a Marie Antoinette profile might have looked like if Vogue published in 1788?" asked one commentator. "Wonder no more."

Certainly, to admirers and critics, Asma al-Assad is an intriguing figure. The daughter of a former diplomat and a Syrian Harley Street cardiologist, she was raised as a secular Muslim and spoke Arabic at home, but attended a Church of England school in west London, where fellow pupils knew her as Emma. After the private Queen's College girl's school in Marylebone and King's College London, where she studied computer science, she embarked on a brief career as a banker with JP Morgan in London and New York.

Her father, Fawaz Akhras, was a prominent member of the Syrian emigre community in the UK (later founding the British Syrian society) and she and her siblings visited Syria frequently, where Hafez al-Assad, the long-term ruler, was a family friend. She and Bashar, a decade her senior, began dating when she was in her early 20s. The courtship was conducted in absolute secrecy, with neither her colleagues at JP Morgan nor the Syrian press or public knowing anything about it until they married privately in December 2000.

The new president's wife – multilingual and articulate, with a light London accent and warm, easy manners – soon charmed interviewers and statesmen alike. Syrian public opinion was seduced by the story of how she had spent three months before her marriage touring the Syrian countryside incognito, and her subsequent establishment of an NGO aimed at encouraging "empowerment in a civil society". She regularly makes unexpected appearances at charity events and development functions, and mingles easily with crowds, famously driving herself to and from locations.

Her good looks and understated glamour, like that of Diana, Princess of Wales, to whom Syrians often compare her, didn't hurt. High hopes for a new era of political reform were invested in the president, a former eye surgeon, and his charming wife; in the souqs of Damascus and Aleppo posters and magnets of the president, the first lady and their children became popular souvenirs.

But more than a decade into the second Assad regime, those hopes have been frustrated and Syria is in the middle of a gathering crisis. Dozens of pro-democracy protesters have been killed in recent weeks in a violent crackdown on dissent, and although President Assad has offered limited concessions in an attempt to fend off the wave of unrest sweeping the Arab world, he refused this week to lift the hated emergency laws that have permitted Syrian oppression for more than half a century, defiantly blaming "conspiracies" for the unrest.

Some insist that this is not the fault of Assad or his wife, blaming an intransigent old guard and obstructive military hellbent on frustrating the couple's reforming instincts. Unsourced reports suggested Mrs Assad had considered moving back to London, frustrated at the lack of reform.
Others are more sceptical. "What has been holding back reform, if they are committed reformers?" asks Soumaya Ghannoushi, a Middle East commentator based at the university of London. "He has had a long time in government, there were so many hopes pinned on him for reform when he became president. People have given him chance after chance, and nothing has happened.

"There is a mixed feeling in the country towards her. There is a sense of pride, I think, that they have this young, good-looking first lady, westernised and very stylish. But at the same time, they feel she is playing the role of giving a very soft, friendly human image to a regime which is anything but."

Despite the growing political crisis many young women, especially among the urban elite, still express admiration for the first lady.

"She is doing a lot of good," said Nour, a 32-year old office worker in Damascus, pointing to raised awareness on the environment, disabilities and young people. Mrs Assad is also widely credited with a notable rising interest in volunteerism in the last few years.

But among female activists and protesters, Mrs Assad's appeal appears to be fading. "She's a dictator's wife. I don't see how someone married to him can be dubbed a reformer," said one.
The Vogue article "was offensive to Syrians", said a female lawyer in the capital. "Many of my friends were angered by it." She referred specifically to Mrs Assad's boast that she runs her household "on wildly democratic principles" — in sharp contrast to Syria.

"I wonder what she thinks about [the crisis]," said one woman, who asked not to be named. "Surely she wants her children to grow up in a free, democratic country and have the possibilities she had?"

Katherine Marsh is a pseudonym for a journalist working in Damascus

Iraq's Political Fallout

By Denise Natali 
This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 01/04/2011
Unlike other revolts underway in the Middle East, Iraq's uprisings have not yet escalated into a large-scale opposition movement by local populations against the central government. Rather, they remain disjointed responses by different groups to distinct local and regional-level problems. Iraqis in southern and central Iraq blame local provincial councils, alongside Baghdad, for lack of services and corruption, while populations in the Kurdish north lodge their complaints against the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Although localized, the uprisings have had important political consequences on the central government and the KRG. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's support base has eroded while the unity of the Kurdistan region has been further undermined. Relations between Baghdad and Arbil also are challenged as each political entity seeks greater control over territory and security it claims to be its own.
Indeed, Iraq seems primed to follow the path of other Middle Eastern states in turmoil. The weak central government is no more responsive to its populations than regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, or Libya. Since 2005, and despite the regeneration of oil revenues, Baghdad has been unable to sufficiently restore electricity, provide basic services, or engage in necessary economic development projects that benefit localities. Iraq also retains its Transparency International ranking as the world's fourth most corrupt country. Further, Iraqi youth have access to the social media and could mobilize masses the way their counterparts in other countries have done.
Unlike other troubled Middle Eastern states defined by decades of authoritarianism, however, the Baghdad government is relatively new and without a historical trajectory of repression. Even though the morale of democracy is undeveloped or even nonexistent in Iraq, the power-sharing system embedded in the 2005 constitution has checked the re-emergence of dictatorship by disempowering Baghdad and delegating many powers to the provinces. The regionalization of Iraqi politics, which further polarized ethnic and sectarian communities, has encouraged key political problems to be displaced from the central government to regional and local administrations.
Nuri al-Maliki also assured that the opposition would remain localized by keeping the protestors away from each other. During the demonstrations, for instance, he controlled communication services and set up road blocks so that protestors had to walk about five kilometers to reach the central square in Baghdad. These measures may not have deterred the demonstrations, but they shifted them to outlying localities. Residents in Basra, Fallujah, and Ramadi overthrew their provincial governments and burned down public buildings. Gunmen in Tikrit attacked their local government and took hostages. In
Anbar, the sheikhs seek to remove the governor, provincial council chairman and operations centers commander.
The unrest has had political fallout in Baghdad. Maliki's power base has been further undermined as Ayad Allawi and Moqtada al-Sadr have threatened to withdraw support from the government. Even some members of Maliki's State of Law party have distanced themselves from the prime minister by forming a ‘White Block" in parliament and calling for Maliki's resignation if the situation does not improve in 100 days. Developing alongside these political rifts is the strengthening of the position of Ayatollah al-Sistani, who has taken credit for the non-violent nature of the demonstrations without really having been involved in them. 
As expected, Maliki has responded by trying to control and appease his challengers. While clamping down on protestors, he has promised political reforms and strengthened the state's distributive function through increased allocation of revenues for public goods and services.  Furthermore, he has attempted to co-opt western Sunni Arab tribes by negotiating an amnesty with the "Jihad Reform Group", an ensemble of five Iraqi resistance groups based in Syria. The tribe's perception (and distrust) of Maliki as a Shi'a with Iranian backing, as well as its lucrative trade along the border area, will hinder Maliki's effort to draw Sunni Arab tribes back into the state and to undermine Ayad Allawi's tribal support base. And even though Maliki has licensed the Sadrists' "Sit in against Occupiers" demonstration planned for April 9, he needs to assure that the event does not become violent or further erode his fragile government.
Similar events have transpired in the Kurdish north. The protests, which are still ongoing, have not only unleashed populations' pent-up frustrations with the KRG-party apparatus but also have reinforced fractures in Kurdish politics and society. While most Kurdish populations seek political reform, only those in Sulaimani have had the opportunity and interest to openly challenge KRG and Barzani family power. Political polarization between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) were made evident after the PUK refused the deployment of KDP militia into Sulaimani, which attempted to quell a situation that its KRG partner has proven unable to manage.  
New fissures also have emerged between the KRG and its challengers -- Kurdish populations it now refers to as "Those Who Do Not Love Kurdistan". In fact, the entire opposition movement and protests have become highly politicized as old party feuds over leadership and control are intertwined with demands for real political reform. While the KDP and PUK accuse the opposition group, Goran, and demonstrators for being disloyal to Kurdish nationalism, Islamic parties that have joined the protestors in Sulaimani have permitted their mullahs to give sermons referring to the demonstrations as "a jihad against the KRG". These political tensions have widened the Badinani-Soran rift, or the geographical polarizations between regions, that has evolved alongside the aggrandizement of Barzani-family power and weakening of the PUK since 2006, making the possibility of a truly unified Kurdish government unlikely.
Furthermore, the protests have reaffirmed challenges between Baghdad and Arbil over political authority and territorial claims. During the initial demonstrations, for instance, Kurdish officials refused entry of four-star Iraq generals into a joint Iraqi-KRG peshmerga headquarters in Sulaimani. They also mobilized thousands of Kurdish troops to Kirkuk to securitize the city during and after Iraq's ‘Day of Rage', in which non-Kurdish communities raised further concerns by non-Kurdish communities about the KRG's overextension of its autonomy. 
Maliki and Kurdish president Mas'ud Barzani eventually negotiated the peshmerga's withdrawal; however, Baghdad continues to insist that all Iraqi forces be kept under centralized command while the Kurds assert complete control over their militia. Iraqi President and Kurdish leader Jelal Talabani's public speech referring to Kirkuk as the "Jerusalem of Kurdistan", as well as the PUK's efforts to reshuffle positions on the Kirkuk provincial council to garner Turkoman support, has fueled Arab suspicions of Kurdish intentions in Kirkuk and stirred rivalries between the Kurdish parties.  
This impasse between Baghdad and Arbil is just one of several issues that will mark Iraq's political landscape after the US troop withdrawal. If further mishandled by local and outside actors, it could upset the volatile situation in Kirkuk and intensify local feuds.  For this reason, some type of third party monitoring, such as UNAMI (United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq) involvement, may be necessary to help neutralize the situation and prevent the outbreak of local conflict at the trigger line.
However, given internal governance challenges, pressing demands for stability and increased oil production, and the KRG's dependence upon external patronage for its survival, Baghdad and Arbil are unlikely to test their wills through protracted military confrontation at this time. A more likely scenario is ongoing political stalemate, whereby Iraqi and Kurdish officials begrudgingly tolerate each other and make political side-deals to quell potential unrest, consolidate their power, and assure economic gain.
Like other Middle Eastern populations demanding reform, Iraqi demonstrators will continue to pressure their leaders for better services, less corruption, and governments that govern. Maliki and Barzani, in turn, will become increasingly reliant on coercive and cooptive means of compliance to protect their power. Yet, as long as the weak federalist system is in place and Iraq is politically fragmented, this unrest will be channeled at the regional and local levels. Instead of a revolutionary outcome, Iraq's disruptive change may come more gradually, and alongside the struggle for power in Baghdad and over the nature of the Iraqi state.
Dr. Denise Natali is the Minerva Chair at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University and the author of The Kurdish Quasi-State: Development and Dependency in Post-Gulf War Iraq (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2010) The views expressed are her own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

How To Help Free Libya

By Ali Suleiman AujaliThis commentary was published in The Washington Post on 31/03/2011
Four weeks after the Libyan people rose up against 40 years of Gaddafirepression, the gains remain fragile. We are deeply grateful for the help that President Obama and the American people have provided. Airstrikes and humanitarian aid certainly averted an early catastrophe.
Let us be clear what this battle is about: We are fighting extremism and terrorism, and we are fighting for freedom and self-determination. After 40 years, we have no interest in trading one kind of terrorist for another. We want the same rights as any free people: the freedom to select our leaders, the freedom to speak our minds, the freedom to live without fear. We have no tolerance for al-Qaeda or any other group that acts contrary to these goals.
But we need help. With a brutal counterattack underway, the opposition to Moammar Gaddafi needs more help — quickly — to protect civilian lives and preserve the foothold of a free Libya. We are appealing to the United States and the international community to do the following:
l Sustain the no-fly zone and air campaign. The United States and allied airstrikes stopped Gaddafi’sforces this week. Maintaining the tempo now will be crucial in blunting the counterattack.
l Enhance military assistance. It is up to the Libyan people to remove Gaddafi, but the international community must help even the fight. The allied air campaign has made a real difference, but victory will be determined on the ground. We need better arms and the training to use them. We understand that arms must be used responsibly, and we invite international oversight and control to help us protect against arms finding their way into unfriendly hands.
l Increase humanitarian aid. Food, water, medical supplies and fuel are in short supply. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced across Libya. The international community has responded rapidly, but more needs to be done.
l Free up frozen assets of the Gaddafi regime. We deeply appreciate all that America has done and we are reluctant to ask for more. Fortunately, Libya is a country with resources. The United States and other governments have frozen more than $50 billion in Gaddafi assets. This is money that the corrupt Gaddafishave stolen from the Libyan people. Immediate access to at least some of these assets can help pay for critical humanitarian relief and for military equipment.
l Recognize the transitional council. The opposition leadership shares a common goal of bringing freedom to Libya. We represent a responsible cross-section of Libyan society: doctors; lawyers; former military officers and diplomats; students and business people. Many of us have been educated and have lived in the United States and in Europe. We are eager to properly introduce our leadership to earn the trust of the United States and the international community. The London conference helped to put a face to the opposition and its plans. We hope that further diplomatic engagement over the next week will persuade the United States and others to move forward with recognition.
We have a long and difficult road ahead. Putting decades of repression behind us and building democratic institutions and a civil society will not happen overnight. The transitional council seeks to establish the building blocks of a free and open society. In the spirit of America’s founders, we will create a constitution. We will create a governing body that represents all Libyans. We will create a judicial system. We will create a free press. And we will ensure the delivery of basic services, such as health care, schools, roads and water.
But before we can turn in earnest to the important work of peace, we need to finish the ugly business of war. We are literally fighting for our lives. All of our aspirations will mean little unless we get the help we need now.
Ambassador Ali Suleiman Aujali is the official representative to the United States of the Transitional National Council of the Libyan Republic and the former Libyan ambassador to the United States.

Syria: The Committee Of Frustration

By Husam Itani
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 01/04/2011
The formation of a committee to reconsider the emergency law in Syria increased the frustration following President Bashar al-Assad’s speech. It is assigned to “study and draw up a legislation guaranteeing the security of the country, the dignity of the citizens and the fight against terrorism, in preparation for the lifting of the state of emergency,” as it was stated by the official SANA news agency.

The reasons behind the frustration are numerous, the first of which being the fact that the committee was formed by the national command of the ruling Baath Party, which means that the political authority assigned itself – and not an independent body – to look into the ending of a state from which the authority is considered to be the primary beneficiary.

Secondly, entrusting this task to the national command consecrated the intertwinement between the state and the party, at a time when this is an issue which the oppositionists are insisting on settling for being the greatest obstacle facing the building of a state of institutions in Syria.

The third reason behind the frustration is related to the saying: “Committees are the tombs of the causes,” which is present before all those advocating reform. As for the reassurance of the supporters of the authority regarding the fact that the Baath Party conference in 2005 placed all these issues among others on the table of discussion, it only enhanced the feeling that the authority is insisting on deferring the important reforms to a time which may never come. So far, all that was seen was the use of the pretext of foreign challenges to justify the non-implementation of the reforms, knowing that foreign challenges are the rule in our region, and that their absence is the exception.

Fourthly, in his speech two days ago, Al-Assad did not point to any palpable reformatory step, which leaves the door wide open before the elusion of anything that might have been mentioned during the previous “appearances” of his spokespersons, as the president attributed the events in Syria to a “foreign conspiracy,” into which some Syrians might have been led “based on good intentions.”

The conspiratorial character which the president gave to the protests, allows the state apparatuses to hold on to the security option as the only tool to handle the developments, while this option immediately materialized in the shootings that targeted the peaceful march in Lattakia a few hours after the end of the president’s speech, as well as in the continuation of the arrests at a wide scale.

What increases the bleakness of the image and the depth of the frustration, is the oppositionists’ ongoing talk about the “wasting of the opportunities” and the “blocking of the road before reform” following the People’s Assembly speech, as this speech did not point to any possible dialogue between the authority and the leaders of the protesters. As for the dispatch of security figures to inform the Daraa population about the measures adopted by the political command to prevent additional violence, it does not herald anything positive.

One might claim that the major problem facing the rule in Syria - and in other Arab countries which preceded and will follow it down the path of the “incidents” - is the authority’s non-recognition of the presence of equal components with which it should engage in dialogue to maintain peace.

Democratic pluralistic rule and the transition of power are “taboos” that should not be tackled out of fear of allowing the enemy to smell internal discord and conflicts. However, one must realize that taking to the streets in our Arab countries where security forces are heavily armed with live ammunition and lack tear gas bombs, is not a picnic, and that whoever takes to the street will be in dire need for its most basic rights. In this context, foreign conspiracies are the pretexts of those who do not see these needs.

Obama At War: A Study In Ambiguity

By Amir Taher
This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 1/04/2011
In 1986, the Americans dropped one bomb on Muammar Gaddafi's palace in Tripoli followed with a stern message: stop terrorist attacks against us or more bombs will follow!
The message was received and the mercurial colonel called off his dogs of terror. The “ Supreme Guide” was so scared that for the following quarter of a century he lived in a tent believing that, if bombed again, he would have a better chance there than in a building.
Today, Gaddafi is the “Supreme Guide” of nothing besides Bab Azizieh, where, against character, he is digging in.
In 1986, the American message was clear.
Today, as Libya enters a new and potentially decisive phase, it isn’t.
What is Washington’s exact position?
The question is prompted by a dose of ambiguity that President Barack Obama and his senior aides have injected into what at first appeared to be a clear stance.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defence Secretary Robert Gates have been making the rounds of television studios to, ever so gingerly, distance the US from the issue.
Just 10 days ago President Barack Obama announced that Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi had lost “all legitimacy” and had to go.
Obama then joined the Anglo-French duo to implement a UN resolution that, in effect, demands regime change in Libya.
Obama’s warlike position was based on the premise that Libya was of national interest to the United States and that its collapse into chaos would be a threat to American security.
On Monday, however, Obama appeared to distance himself from his previous stance while still insisting that intervening in Libya reflected the United States’ values and interests.
The Clinton-Gates tandem even talk of a “draw-down” of American military involvement while NATO is drafted to handle the “mission”.
Gates appears to have a personal reason as well.
As he is scheduled to step down as defence secretary at the end of April, he is trying to wrap up the Libyan dossier before he leaves the Pentagon.
Clinton and Gates appear to be less interested in winning this war than in proving that Obama was cleverer, more prudent and more international minded than George W Bush.
To that end they make three claims.
The first is that Obama is acting “with international community”, the implication being that Bush “the Cowboy” rode alone.
However, the coalition acting in Libya consists of France, Britain and Qatar that, together, have provided 22 airplanes, with the US doing the heavy lifting.
In contrast, the US-led coalition in Afghanistan consisted of almost 90 countries while the coalition that liberated Iraq had 42 members.
The second claim is the familiar cliché about the impossibility of imposing democracy by force. However, in Libya as in Afghanistan and Iraq, the mission is to use force to remove a tyrant. How else could Libyans have a chance to at least think of a different future while Gaddafi is in control?
The third claim is that the US is not seeking regime change in Libya, a point made by Obama on Monday.
Well, in that case why did the president call for an end to Gaddafi's regime?
Now that the US has become involved it cannot walk away without losing credibility.
The confusion that reigns in the Obama administration puts the US on a losing trajectory in all configurations.
In the best-case scenario, Gaddafi will be forced out or persuaded by his foreign friends to leave.
In that case, much of the credit would go to Britain and France that set the ball rolling and remained resolute in calling for the colonel to go.
The US that has already spent $1 billion and done 90 per cent of the operations to impose a no fly zone while knocking out the colonel’s armour would be seen as a quitter.
In the worst-case scenario, Gaddafi manages to hang on at least in a portion of western Libya. In that case, the finger of blame would be waved at an irresolute US that gave the despot hope to hang on. Gaddafi would be able to claim victory, reminding everyone that Obama had publicly called for his overthrow.
It is unwise to get involved in a war without wanting to win it.
Obama, Clinton and Gates may call it “mission”, “intervention”, and “operation”, but a war is a war by any other name.
What is happening in Libya is a war; in fact two wars. The inner war is between Gaddafi and his opponents. The outer one is between the “coalition” and what is left of Gaddafi's military.
The sooner the Obama administration admits that this is a war the better.
Once that is done, the administration should fix its objectives for this war.
A war is not like a barbecue party that one could casually drop in and out of. One cannot engage a superpower in a war without knowing what its aim is.
Only when the objectives have been established, one could try to put together a coalition needed to achieve them.
The first signs of American fickleness have already encouraged worrisome developments.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has started accusing the US and its allies of intervening in a civil war rather than implementing a UN resolution. Clearly, the Russians want to remain in Gaddafi's good books, just in case.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, an old pal of the colonel, is proposing a ceasefire, a move designed to kick the whole thing into tall grass in the hope that the anti-Gaddafi opposition would splinter while Western opinion turns against military intervention.
Algeria’s President Abdulaziz Bouteflika has also started making noises against “intervention in the domestic affairs” of an Arab country in the hope of splitting the Arab League and helping Gaddafi remain in power, thus also easing pressure on his own regime.
Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan is offering his “mediation” which means hedging his bets in case Gaddafi or part of his regime manage to hang on.
Unless the US reasserts leadership, sets clear objectives and provides the means of achieving them, the Libyan war could end in a big messy situation with unforeseeable consequences.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

By Merely Bolstering The Weaker Side, We Are Prolonging Libya's Civil War

The interventionists lack the courage of their convictions. If they really want Gaddafi gone, they should just get on with it
By Simon Jenkins
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 31/03/2011
Welcome to 21st-century war, liberal style. You do not fix an objective and use main force to get it. You nuance words, bomb a little, half assassinate, scare, twist, spin and make it up as you go along. Nato's Libyan campaign is proving a field day for the new interventionism. Seemingly desperate to scratch another Muslim itch, Britain's laptop bombardiers and their tame lawyers go into a daily huddle to choreograph the latest visitation of death on some wretched foreigners.
Each day the tacticians tot up a gruesome calculus of wins and losses. Wednesday's defection of Libya's foreign minister, Moussa Koussa, somehow cancelled out two days of retreat by the rebels towards Benghazi. That retreat cancelled out a weekend of victory over Gaddafi's army along the northern highway. Nato bombing cancelled out rebel ineffectiveness. Everything is stalemate punctuated by surprise.
Meanwhile the legal niceties border on the absurd. We cannot kill Gaddafi, unless we describe killing as "all necessary measures". We observe an arms embargo, except apparently if the arms are going to our side and are thus "protecting innocent civilians". Guilty civilians are unprotected. We are forbidden from injecting "a foreign occupying force of any form" into Libya, except if it is a "special force" and aiding the bombing with targeting intelligence. The bombing of Gaddafi's compound and the witnessed killing of civilians in Sirte clearly breached UN resolution 1973. But who cares? As George Bush and Tony Blair found, you can drum up an international lawyer to defend anything.
Gaddafi's survival is ostensibly insane. He is the tinpot dictator of a tiny country that Nato could topple in a day. It could bomb his palace, take out his tanks, land paratroops on his airport and ship in reinforcements. Libya is not Iraq or Afghanistan. Nato could set up a client regime, as in Bosnia, secure the oil and give two fingers to the Arab world, as the west always does when its interest so requires.
Instead we have the ludicrous position that Nato can save Benghazi by taking out a tank column and then laying a bombed strip to the west. But all this does is encourage reckless rebels to drive towards Tripoli and die. The maxim is old as the hills. No war can be won from the air. A temporary balance of advantage can be awarded to one side, but pilots can only destroy. Bombs are inherently crude tools of war. They cannot seize and hold land.
At present Nato strategy appears to be to prolong civil war by bolstering the weaker side. It is the equivalent of refereeing a bare-knuckle fight so as to keep the contestants on their feet and still punching. Stalling Gaddafi's advance on Benghazi appears to have prevented its fall. Whether there would have been a genocidal massacre, as interventionists maintain, is not known. There would surely have been bloody retribution against ringleaders, which is what dictators do to those who cross them. But then Gaddafi, Assad of Syria, Mubarak of Egypt and Hussein of Iraq all did ghastly things to their enemies, usually while the west was cosying up to them.
Holding the ring for someone else's civil war is a bizarre justification for intervention. It is a distortion of the UN's peacekeeping role – indeed it might be termed war-keeping – and an abuse of Nato's supposed purpose, to defend the west against attack. Even setting those objections aside, any humanitarian gain is moot. Iraq and Afghanistan were Muslim dictatorships in a state of suppressed civil war when the west intervened. The result was hardly peace, tranquillity or an easing of tribal tension, rather more destruction and bloodshed. Yet these interventions were claimed as "humanitarian".
The projection of massive military strength against weak foreign states is assumed by western powers with the same bland assurance they showed in the 19th century. The end of the cold war seemed to release an urge way beyond the relief of human suffering, an urge to use military might to reorder the world in the west's own image.
The foreign secretary, William Hague, last week rattled every sabre against "governments that block the aspirations of their people, that steal or are corrupt, that oppress and torture, or that deny freedom of expression and human rights". This is a licence to attack virtually anyone you choose, to a degree not contemplated in the corridors of the Foreign Office since Palmerston, and not even then.
Hague may claim "it is not for Britain to dictate who should rule Libya", but why then is he bombing the place? There are instances where limited power projection has served a strictly limited purpose, as with the Kurdistan no-fly zone prior to 2003. But most interventions are preludes not to democracy but to partition, as in Kurdistan, Timor, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia and possibly now Cyrenaica, or eastern Libya.
Gaddafi may have seemed a plausible victim for the latest intervention. Compared with Ivory Coast, Zimbabwe or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where far worse atrocities are committed or threatened, Libya passed the usual tests. It was small, bombable, had "war on terror" connotations and was not sub-Saharan Africa, which, Sierra Leone aside, always seems beyond the interventionists' pale. Libya was "doable". It may yet be done. As the mission creeps, as all missions do, something called victory will demand some sort of ground troops to aid the rebel cause. There would be dreadful bloodshed, because bombs and shells always miss their targets. If Gaddafi can somehow be killed or otherwise disposed of, there will be some rudimentary puppet state, probably a sitting target for Muslim fundamentalists, gangsters and terrorists. Libya could be an oil-rich Kosovo.
I want nothing to do with this. I would send any amount of humanitarian aid to those in distress. But the dispute of eastern Libya with Gaddafi is not my dispute. As for the interventionists, if they want Gaddafi gone, as they constantly claim, they should get on with it, and not hand him yet another victory "over fascist imperialism" as they did by bombing him in 1986.
Such action would be opposed by other undemocratic Arab regimes, but they are surely next on Hague's list for regime change. Indeed some, such as Syria and Yemen, are of far greater strategic importance than Libya. David Cameron claims, bizarrely, that Britain's vital interests are at stake in the Libyan civil war. Eden said the same before Suez. But if that is so, Cameron should act accordingly. Who dares, wins.
The trouble with liberal interventionism is that it lacks the courage of its neo-imperialist conviction. It claims to know what is best for the world and glories in bombing to get its way. But when push comes to shove it backs off. So we have just a few bombs on the road to Benghazi, one Tomahawk on Gaddafi's compound, a few shells to terrorise Sirte, a handful of RPGs to keep the rebels from despair. It makes us feel good. If this is liberalism, you can keep it.

Obama's Exceptionalism

By Roger Cohen
This commentary was published in The New York Times on 31/03/2011
LONDON — Near Carthage, in Tunisia, there’s an American cemetery where 2,841 military dead rest, victims of the North African campaign in World War II. Among them is a young man from Stillwater, Minnesota, named Robert Lund. He was 25 when he was killed on March 29, 1943. A long time ago, I would sit on a porch in the pretty town of Stillwater and wonder at the gale that could lift a young man from the middle of a placid continent to death on a faraway shore.
America is a restless nation. It was built by taking in the people of the world and so it cannot turn its back on the world. Decades after he was killed, Lund’s death still haunted the family of my first wife. With the return of the resonant datelines of the “Desert War” against Hitler — Tobruk, Benghazi, Tripoli — and the return of U.S. forces to Libya, I’ve been thinking about Lund and American power.
The limits of that power confronted President Barack Obama. He was always a realist onto whom idealism was thrust. He adheres, by instinct and experience, to the middle ground. Taking office in a nation drained by war, he found arguments aplenty to bolster his inclination for ending conflicts.
American exceptionalism — the notion of the United States as a transformative moral beacon to the world — made him uneasy. Atlanticism, the fruit of the war that took Lund’s life, had little emotional hold on a man not yet 30 when the Cold War ended. The disappearing jobs of the home front were his domain.
And yet, and yet, this cautious president, who has been subtly talking down American power — with reason — has involved the nation in a new conflict in Libya, one in which his own defense secretary holds that the United States has no “vital interest.” He has joined a long line of U.S. leaders in discovering the moral imperative indivisible from the American idea.
There were many good reasons for staying out of Libya. A chief strength of the Arab Spring is that it was homegrown. The Levant’s suspicion of the West is bottomless. Obama needs no tutoring in colonialism. Its lessons were bred into him. But could he, the nation’s first African-American president, have sat passive as the forces of Muammar el-Qaddafi delivered a massacre in Benghazi on the North African shore?
Maybe there wouldn’t have been a massacre, just another modest Qaddafi bloodbath. Qaddafi is not Hitler, not even Saddam. But his nature is murderous. And so I say Obama was right to draw a line in the Libyan sand.
I was against a Libyan no-fly zone, having seen its uselessness in Bosnia. My condition for going in was ruthlessness. The one unforgivable thing would have been to involve America in looking virtuous from the sky. I think Obama has met, with bombs, that initial standard; and done so with a strong United Nations mandate reflecting his diplomacy of repair these past years. (The U.N., as its former Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld noted, “Was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.”)
But now what? There was an Allied offensive during the North African campaign called “Operation Brevity.” It had mixed results, but I’d borrow the name. Speed in ousting Qaddafi, the objective from which Western leaders cannot retreat, is essential. We all know what happens if this Mad Max war festers: The coalition fractures, jihadists seep into a failed state of porous borders, mission creep begins.
Qaddafi can go three ways: through military defeat, the least likely given the chaotic rebel traffic-jam on the coastal highway; through a negotiated departure, a long shot despite Turkey’s efforts; or though his inner circle deserting him, the most promising avenue.
Moussa Koussa, the foreign minister, has just fled to London. He’s the biggest prize yet from an intense U.S. and British effort to turn top aides. “We’re doing a ton in that regard, golden parachutes etc.,” one person involved told me.
The tone of the Qaddafi entourage keeps changing: first panicked, then ebullient tirades, now plaintiff. That’s encouraging. Do whatever it takes. This regime reeks of ricketiness. Talks with Libya in recent years mean top Western officials have relations with the core people who must, like Koussa, be turned. Abdullah Al-Sanousi is one prime target.
Obama, having embraced in extremis the radical idea that “the United States of America is different,” having taken a shot at nations that “may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries” (the rising powers — Brazil, Russia, India, China — all abstained on the Libya vote) must now deliver on his honed interpretation of American exceptionalism.
As it happens, his deputy national security adviser, Denis McDonough, is also from Stillwater. That’s a coincidence, but a link exists: The United States is strongest when it aligns its values and interests and is not itself when it turns its back on the meaning of Lund’s sacrifice. Americans understand that. Which is why the moral imperative is not only indivisible from the American idea, it’s indivisible from re-election.

Obama Flirts With A Doctrine

President Obama and his aides insist the U.S.-led intervention in Libya isn't part of a grand doctrine for the Middle East. But his plans for democracy have the earmarks of one.
By Doyle McManus
This commentary was published in The Los Angeles on 31/03/2011
Is an Obama Doctrine in foreign policy developing before our eyes?
The president and his aides wave off the idea, at least if it means seeing the U.S.-led military intervention in Libya as a one-size-fits-all model.
"It's important not to take this particular situation and then try to project some sort of Obama Doctrine that we're going to apply in a cookie-cutter fashion across the board," the president said in a television interview Tuesday. "Each country in this region is different."
But then Obama went ahead and sketched the outlines of something that looks, well, like a doctrine in the making. "We want to make sure that governments are not attacking their own citizens," he said. "We want governments that are responsive to their people. And so we'll use all our tools to try to accomplish that."
Obama has insisted that Libya is "a unique situation," a combination of circumstances that's unlikely to recur: a tyrant threatening to massacre his opponents and a strong international consensus to stop him, in a country that's a relatively easy, uncomplicated target. So the use of military force against dictators isn't a doctrine, since it can't be generally applied. Instead, the doctrine lies in the larger commitment Obama has come to after three months of uprisings in the Arab world: that the United States will be on the side of the democrats, and will use "all our tools" — within limits — to try to help them win.
What that means in practice still hasn't been filled out. This week, Obama talked almost solely about Libya, a conflict his administration jumped into without explaining fully to the public. In the weeks to come, he's expected to talk more often and more broadly about the future of the whole Middle East — including his hopes that the democratic wave convulsing the Arab world can overflow into neighboring Iran.
This is a significant shift after two years in which Obama offered only modest support for democratic reform movements — and three months in which he initially hesitated to support demonstrators in the streets. (His administration's initial impulse, after all, was to defend Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as a reliable ally.)
But the broader issue of when the United States should intervene in other countries is something Obama has been thinking about for a long time. In his 2006 book, "The Audacity of Hope," he posed an earlier version of the questions Americans have been asking this week.
"The United States still lacks a coherent national security policy," he complained. "Instead of guiding principles, we have what appears to be a series of ad hoc decisions, with dubious results. Why invade Iraq and not North Korea or Burma? Why intervene in Bosnia and not Darfur?"
One conclusion he came to then echoes in his recent actions: "It will almost always be in our strategic interest to act multilaterally rather than unilaterally when we use force around the world."
In those days, and even this week, Obama defined his position by contrasting it with that of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who took the United States to war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Obama supported one of those wars but not the other. But on one issue, at least, the two presidents appear to have converged.
In a 2005 pledge that some called the Bush Doctrine, our last president also declared the United States to be on the side of democracy activists everywhere. Obama has already used more military force in a country of secondary strategic interest than Bush ever did.
Right now, Obama and his staff are too focused on winning the war in Libya to spend much time elaborating on the fine points of a grand doctrine. They know that if Moammar Kadafi is toppled in a matter of weeks, they'll look brilliant; if Kadafi hangs on, they'll look like blunderers.
But the president and his aides also see the revolution in the Arab world as the most important event of Obama's time in office — as important, perhaps, as the end of the Cold War in 1989.
They are already working on a larger policy to help it come out right, including a big international aid program — one they hope will be funded partly by Arab oil states — to help Egypt, Tunisia and other new democracies succeed.
They won't call it a "doctrine," but it will almost certainly look like one. From here on out, they say, this will be the centerpiece; this will be what Obama's foreign policy is about.