Saturday, August 18, 2012

Zone Of Insanity

Are Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak really crazy enough to bomb Iran -- against the wishes of the United States and their own people?


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu

It must drive Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu crazy that scarcely anybody outside his immediate circle of advisors -- oh, and Mitt Romney -- understands the imperative for war against Iran. Israel's retired security chiefs uniformly consider a war unnecessary right now. Israel's president, Shimon Peres, agrees. A poll released this week found the Israeli public opposed to war by a solid 46 percent to 32 percent. As for the United States, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta insists that "the window is still open to try to work toward a diplomatic solution."

We know this drives Netanyahu crazy because the last few days have seen a frenzy of leaking and spinning by senior Israeli officials. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told an interviewer that the world must halt Iran's nuclear program within "several weeks." An unnamed "decision maker" -- transparently Defense Secretary Ehud Barak -- told Ari Shavit of the Israeli daily Haaretz that Israel cannot afford to wait for the United States to take action. And Shavit came up with another big scoop: A new U.S. intelligence report, he asserts, demonstrates conclusively that "within about a year Iran will be capable of becoming a nuclear power."

It's unclear whether Netanyahu is trying to prepare domestic public opinion for an imminent Israeli strike on Iran, or hoping to bully U.S. President Barack Obama into making some sort of ironclad promise to launch airstrikes -- should Iran cross some stipulated red line or should diplomacy fail to deter the Iranians by a stipulated date. Netanyahu would plainly prefer an American attack, which would do far more damage to Iran's nuclear infrastructure than an Israeli one would, but he may have concluded (as Barak intimated) that Israel will have to act alone rather than risk American inaction. Yet Netanyahu has put Obama in the almost impossible position of having to reassure Israel that the United States will act if necessary -- thus reassuring American swing voters that he has Israel's back -- without binding himself to fight Israel's war on Israel's terms. Obama has already allowed Israel to back him into a corner by saying that he would go to war rather than accept a nuclear Iran, but apparently Netanyahu and Barak don't believe him.

You wouldn't know it from the way the Israelis have turned the air blue, but absolutely nothing has happened to change the view of U.S. intelligence about Iran's intentions or capacities. In January, James Clapper, director of national intelligence, said in congressional testimony: "Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.… We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons." Iran, that is, continues to enrich nuclear fuel to a purity consistent with weaponization, but has yet to resume work on the technology needed to make a bomb. That remains the U.S. view. Indeed, as Jeffrey Lewis argues elsewhere on, it seems that the devastating new intelligence report does not exist.

The difference between the United States and Israel is not, as Shavit charmingly put it in his account of the nonexistent report, that "the post-traumas of Afghanistan, Iraq and the economic crisis have prevented America from taking a hard straight look at" Iran's nuclear strategy. It is, first, that the United States can wait longer to act than Israel can because it has superior military technology and, second, that so long as diplomacy has a chance of working, the Obama administration is unwilling to risk the terrorist attacks, missile strikes, oil shocks, and grave reputational damage that a war on Iran is likely to provoke. Of course, that's also why the Israeli public opposes a war whose chief victims might well be themselves. What's more, bombing would only delay, not eliminate, Iran's apparent march toward a nuclear bomb -- though Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to Washington, recently said that this was "not an argument against."

The problem with the Obama administration's position is that diplomacy isn't working. While it is probably true that the vise of sanctions that the United States and its allies have applied has forced Iran to the negotiating table, there is little evidence that economic pain has made the leadership reconsider its commitment to the nuclear program. The so-called P5+1, as the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany are known, have not been able to furnish either carrots or sticks powerful enough to change Iran's calculus. The most recent round of negotiations in Moscow this June ended in failure. Israel thus has good reason to fear that Iran will string along the P5+1 until it has placed its precious hoard of highly enriched uranium beyond the reach even of American bombs -- what Barak describes as Iran's "zone of immunity."
Israel, of course, wants sharper sticks -- either a U.S. promise to attack if diplomacy fails by June 2013, according to one unlikely report, or an explicit declaration of red lines, according to another. I can't imagine that Obama will back himself yet further into a corner by making his red lines public. The White House has tried to mollify Israel's bellicose leader, as well as send a blunt message to Tehran, with a stream of tough assertions about rapidly closing windows, as well as by sending two aircraft carrier battle groups to the Persian Gulf.

Washington does need to wave a big stick, but amid all the preparations for war, the idea of inducing Iran to change its behavior appears to have been forgotten. In Moscow, the P5+1 made Iran a very modest offer, including help with nuclear safety and a medical research reactor, in exchange for the bottom-line demand that Iran stop enriching fuel to 20 percent purity. It's hardly surprising that the Iranians spurned the deal.

The P5+1 should have offered a much more comprehensive package. A number of U.S. diplomats with long experience in Iran, including Nicholas Burns and Dennis Ross (of the George W. Bush and Obama administration, respectively) argue that negotiators must test Iran's bona fides by offering the country what it claims to want -- the right to enrich uranium for civilian purposes. Burns recently proposed that the next president, whoever he is, open direct negotiations with Iran "with all issues on the table." Burns added that the United States must not "remain hostage to Prime Minister Netanyahu's increasingly swift timetable for action" -- the kind of home truth you can offer once you're an ex-diplomat.

I can already hear the reminders of Neville Chamberlain coming from the favored journalists and columnists of the war faction. Lest you think I'm kidding, the Washington Post's Colbert I. King recently wrote, "The Iranian government is as anti-Semitic as the Third Reich" -- an exercise in hyperbole that produced a surprise phone call from an admiring Netanyahu.

The real danger, of course, is that Netanyahu might conclude that Israel has to go it alone. The smart money still thinks he's bluffing, but Ross told me that the "decision-maker" interview convinced him that Barak and Netanyahu really are prepared to fight their own war. The Obama administration has prepared for this eventuality with a series of statements paying elaborate deference to Israel's sovereign right to defend itself as it sees fit. I can only say that I hope that officials are sending a different message in private -- making it very clear to their Israeli counterparts that they will not be drawn into a war with Iran and that a unilateral decision by Israel will do very grave harm to relations with the United States. If Netanyahu wants to go ahead anyway and pay that price on top of everything else -- if "an existential threat" means that it's irresponsible to balance benefits with costs -- then it's up to the Israeli public to decide what to do about their fearless, feckless leader.

-This commentary was published first in Foreign policy on 17/08/2012
-James Traub is a fellow of the Center on International Cooperation

Friday, August 17, 2012

Reversing The Anti-American Sway In Yemen

By Danya Greenfield

John Brennan's, President Obama's chief counterterrorism advisor

While John Brennan's, President Obama's chief counterterrorism advisor, recent speech on U.S. policy in Yemen still echoed in the halls of the Council of Foreign Relations, the rebel Houthi movement was busy planning an anti-American demonstration galvanizing hundreds of supporters across the country. Although the Houthis are by no means representative of the Yemeni public, they are tapping into a widespread sentiment in order to garner sympathy and support. Originally emerging as a geographically-contained, rebellious movement seeking autonomy and independence from Sanaa's central government and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, they are now positioning themselves as a revolutionary force that seeks to advocate for the downtrodden and overturn injustice.

Their tactics are not new, but what is notable is the wide disconnect between what Brennan asserts in Washington and what is felt in the hills and valleys throughout Yemen, not only among the Houthis, but among opposition party activists, youth activists, and the otherwise disgruntled masses. The gap is profound, despite concerted U.S. attempts to support Yemen's democratic transition and provide emergency food assistance. To its credit, the Obama Administration has exerted great effort to increase the amount of non-military assistance for development and humanitarian aid -- reaching more than $175 million of a total $337 million package for FY2012 -- and has recognized the need for a long-term, development-focused strategy in Yemen not narrowly limited to drone strikes. The United States actually provides more humanitarian assistance to Yemen than any other country, and yet, the perception remains that the United States is focused solely on eliminating terrorist networks (which could alternatively be classified as a local insurgency) and sustaining a military arrangement that benefits its interest to the detriment of the Yemeni public.

When the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Rajiv Shah visited Yemen in June, including a much appreciated trip to the southern war-torn Abyan province, he announced a new $52 million package in humanitarian assistance, a significant increase given the tight budget climate in Washington. This initiative should help demonstrate to Yemenis the seriousness of American intentions, but it will take time for the projects to get underway. As it does, the embassy and its interlocutors should not be shy about touting concrete projects that will help provide infrastructure, new wells, and electricity generators. Even with this positive overture, the international and local press is far more likely to place stories about drone strikes or military trainers on the front page instead of highlighting the softer success stories of bilateral partnership; the old truism sticks that what bleeds leads.

Part of the challenge in shifting this perception is that Yemenis have watched U.S. attention to Yemen rise and fall over the years, the ebb and flow of assistance rising to a peak, then nearly zeroing out, then rising again after the Christmas Day bombing attempt in 2009. In order to make the administration's efforts credible, it must drive home the point that the United States has a long-term, sustained commitment to Yemen's development that is not driven only by the presence of extremists in its midst. Many are still skeptical of U.S. intentions and see that former President Saleh used (and exaggerated) the al Qaeda card to manipulate support and money from the Americans, who were all too inclined to pour money into counterterrorism units. Now that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is actually a real and growing threat emanating from Yemen -- not only to the U.S. homeland, but more immediately to Yemeni institutions, soldiers, and civilians -- there is a renewed opportunity to forge a coordinated, comprehensive approach between Yemen and the United States to address what is clearly a shared priority.

While the United States may not be able to reverse anti-American sentiment in short order while drone strikes continue, there are a number of steps the administration can take at this extremely critical moment to build greater credibility and underscore its commitment to a successful political and military transition. To begin with, U.S. and Yemeni leadership must make consistently clear that the fight against AQAP and Ansar al Sharia is a Yemeni fight and that the United States is assisting efforts led by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his military command. Targeted strikes by U.S. aircraft should be understood as a joint endeavor, and greater transparency to both the American and Yemeni publics about what is being done and why it is necessary. During a visit to Sanaa in early July, I spoke with many Yemenis who recognized the legitimacy of U.S. involvement, and even acknowledged the necessity of targeted strikes, but deeply resented what they felt as an American violation of its national sovereignty. The ability for Yemeni forces to "own" this campaign will undercut claims that the United States is overstepping.

President Hadi has started the painful process of upending the status quo and reorganizing the military and security establishment, and the United States has an important role to play in this particularly sensitive moment. This is perhaps the most dangerous and most important aspect of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) deal that set forth a roadmap for Yemen's transition and could bring about a genuine transition to a post-Saleh period. In the spring, Hadi removed the former president's nephew, Tariq Saleh, and several other commanders connected to the family from their military positions. Just this week, he made an extremely bold move by transferring several units from the Republican Guards and the First Armored Division to alternative command, which serves to weaken the two most powerful centers of military power, that of General Ali Mohsen and Ahmed Ali, former President Saleh's oldest son. In response, more than 200 Republican Guards surrounded the defense ministry and battled with government troops, a direct threat to Hadi's authority and efforts at reorganization. This fight goes to the heart of privilege, power, and politics; it is a major undertaking that will require the fortitude to withstand significant internal pressure. The United States should continue to provide robust support to President Hadi in his efforts to restructure the security forces, both rhetorically and materially, as appropriate. The success of Yemen's transition rests on his ability to wrest control from Saleh and his family.

However, even while supporting Hadi, the United States must ensure that the thrust of its support is oriented toward building strong military and civilian institutions to guarantee Yemen's security, not individual figures in the security establishment. It would be far too easy to replace Ali Abdullah Saleh, Ahmed Ali, Tariq, Yahya, and the rest of the Saleh cohort with another set of thugs to fight AQAP, but that is not what hundreds of Yemeni youth died for in Change Square. Financial assistance to the military should be channeled through central institutions and not individual commanders, oriented to building their capacity, ultimately with an eye toward assuming operations that the United States is currently conducting.

Looking ahead to the coming month, the United States should use the opportunity of the upcoming donors meeting in Riyadh on September 4 and 5 and the Friends of Yemen meeting at the U.N. General Assembly in New York on September 27 to rally international financial and diplomatic support for Yemen's precarious transition. The United States, its European allies, and other interested parties should provide assistance for an inclusive national dialogue process, constitutional development, the creation of a new voter registry, and elections support. Perhaps most importantly, the administration should pressure Gulf states and other allies to follow its lead and contribute significant economic and food resources to address Yemen's critical humanitarian conditions. President Hadi has taken important steps to move the GCC process forward; now the United States, the European Union, and the GCC countries need to carry their end of the bargain to ensure that Yemen has the tools and resources to capitalize on this narrow opening.

-This commentary was first published in Foreign Policy on 16/08/2012
-Danya Greenfield is the deputy director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council

Thursday, August 16, 2012

In Iraqi Town Where Saddam Hussein Was Captured, The Man Who Hid Him Speaks Up

By Kevin Sullivan in Dawr, Iraq

 Iraqi town that hid Hussein moves forward: The U.S. troops are gone. Now Dawr, the place that sheltered a former dictator and a place where many still revere him, is coming back to life.

Alaa Namiq doesn’t want to talk about it. Or he’s dying to. It’s hard to tell. One minute he’s shaking his head, stone silent. Then he starts bragging about it and he won’t stop talking.

“I dug the hole for him,” he says, his eyes burning with pride.

“The hole,” known to the world as the “spider hole,” is the tiny underground bunker on Namiq’s farm where former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was captured by U.S. soldiers on Dec. 13, 2003.

Namiq and his older brother Qais have rarely spoken publicly about how they helped hide the world’s most sought-after fugitive for nearly nine months after the U.S.-led invasion.

But now, sipping tea in the modest little restaurant he opened this summer, a couple of football fields away from “the hole,” Alaa Namiq seems willing.

Maybe enough time has passed. Maybe few have asked. But for whatever reason, Namiq now folds his tall, broad-shouldered frame into a little plastic chair, tugs on a cigarette and talks about hiding the man his family had known for decades.

“He came here and he asked us for help and I said yes,” says Namiq, 41, wearing a long white dishdasha robe. “He said, ‘You might be captured and tortured.’ But in our Arab tribal tradition, and by Islamic law, when someone needs help, we help him.”

Hussein was born in a village near Tikrit, just north of this little town on the banks of the Tigris River. When the U.S. military was searching for him, it became convinced, correctly, that he would find shelter among his Tikriti clansmen in these lush orchards of date palms and orange and pear trees.

Namiq says he and Qais were arrested along with Hussein and spent a miserable six months in Abu Ghraib prison. Once a driver and an aide to Hussein, he has spent the past few years driving a taxi, finally saving enough to open his family restaurant a few weeks ago.

At his restaurant on the riverbank, Namiq greets an American reporter graciously, offering grilled chicken and sweet tea on a sweltering evening. The restaurant is a small cinder-block shack, with a couple of grills and a few plastic tables set outside. Four of his brothers cook and wait tables for customers watching a big flat-screen TV showing Turkish dramas and men’s volleyball.

“I won’t tell you everything,” Namiq says, over and over, during the course of a couple of hours. “Someday I will say all I know. Maybe I will write a book. Maybe a movie. But I won’t tell you everything.”

Then he starts talking.

Namiq says his family, mainly he and Qais (who declined to be interviewed), helped move Hussein among various houses in the area after the March 2003 invasion.

Hussein never used a phone, he says, knowing that the Americans were listening for his voice. Namiq says that Hussein read and wrote extensively, prose and poetry, and that his writings were confiscated by the U.S. troops who captured him.

Namiq says Hussein wrote to his wife and daughters but he never saw them. His only visitors were his sons Uday and Qusay — Namiq says he helped arrange their secret trips to the farm.

Hussein released several fiery speeches during the time he was in hiding, exhorting his supporters to fight the Americans. Namiq says he and Hussein recorded them together on a small tape recorder.

Knowing the Americans would be analyzing the recordings for clues to Hussein’s whereabouts, Namiq says he once drove 10 miles to the city of Samarra, parked on the side of the road and recorded the sounds of urban traffic.

“I wanted to make the Americans feel dizzy and confused,” he says.

Namiq clearly still reveres Hussein, who was hanged in 2006.

“Saddam knew there would be a day that he would be captured and executed,” Namiq says. “In his heart, he knew that everything was gone and that he was no longer president. So he started something new — jihad against the occupiers. He sacrificed everything he had, including his two sons, for the sake of the country.”

Namiq says that when he was held at Abu Ghraib, U.S. soldiers — including a female interrogator who told him he looked like actor Tom Selleck — questioned him daily about weapons of mass destruction and the hiding places of top aides to Hussein.

He says that his cell was kept dark 24 hours a day and that guards threw in buckets of water to keep it constantly wet. He says he was hooded and beaten, and bitten by guard dogs. He was submitted to mock executions, he says, and constant, deafening rock music.

“I endured the dogs and the torture, but I couldn’t stand that music,” Namiq says, without a trace of humor in his deep voice.

A spokesman for the U.S. Central Command said that because records of individual prisoners at Abu Ghraib in 2003 would be difficult to retrieve, military officials could not immediately confirm Namiq’s arrest or detention. A spokesman for the U.S. Special Operations Command said that most details of Hussein’s capture remain classified.

Hussein’s attorney, Khalil Dulaimi, quoted the former dictator in a 2009 book as saying that he had known the Namiq family since 1959 and that they had hidden him. In the book, Qais Namiq is accused of eventually turning Hussein in to the U.S. troops, which Alaa Namiq vehemently denies.

The Namiq family has become something like royalty in Dawr for sheltering a local tribesman who is still idolized by many here.

“We consider it a heroic act,” said Col. Mohammad Hassan of the Iraqi National Police, who is stationed in Dawr. “This act doesn’t concern this family only, but it represents all the citizens of Dawr because this city embraced Saddam.”

Hassan said that if the people of Dawr felt differently, the Namiq family would not have been able to continue living here. He said the family members were already well respected because they had worked for years as cooks and fishermen for Hussein.

“Now,” he said, “the people of Dawr respect and appreciate this family even more than before.”
Hussein was buried just up the road in Auja, the village where he was born. Aware of the former dictator’s enduring popularity around here, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has ordered his grave site closed to the public to keep it from becoming a shrine.

On the farm where Hussein was captured, the “spider hole” sits at the base of a date palm tree, covered with a four-foot-square concrete cap, largely forgotten beneath dirty cages filled with doves and parakeets.

Chickens and dogs roam the grounds, and huge orange carp swim in two ponds. On a midsummer evening, the trees are so full that with every strong breeze, small yellow pears fall like raindrops.

Across the narrow road at his restaurant, Namiq excuses himself and gets up from the table. He walks around the dirt courtyard, table to table, greeting customers who all know him by name.

-This report was published first in The Washington Post on 15/08/2012

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Politically Incorrect Guide To U.S. Interests In The Middle East

Sorry, folks: America just doesn't care about freedom or Arab-Israeli peace all that much.


Foreign policy, including the use of military power, isn't an end in itself. It consists of tools and instruments designed to achieve specific and hopefully well-thought-out ends. Those ends -- let's call them interests -- are theoretically supposed to drive a country's foreign-policy strategy. Sounds pretty simple, right?

So what are America's interests in the Middle East? Are there core goals and priorities that are more important than others? Does the country pretend certain things are more important than they really are? And how do you think it is doing in protecting those interests?

These are really good questions, and they're not asked nearly enough. One reason is that since 1945, when the United States began to get its feet wet in the region, largely as a consequence of oil, Israel, and the Russians -- that complex triumvirate of things it was trying to either protect or guard against -- its core interests have remained pretty much the same.

Today, if you take the Russian bogeyman out of the picture (sorry Mitt), add Islamists and counterterrorism, and subtract a few Arab dictators and authoritarians, U.S. interests remain pretty much the same.

And despite all the charges of bias, dysfunction, and incompetence leveled at the United States, the country has actually done a pretty good job at protecting those interests. The Soviets never really made inroads in the Middle East, and eventually collapsed. The oil kept flowing from the Persian Gulf. And there was even progress -- under American auspices -- on the Arab-Israeli peace process.

Granted, the United States had a couple of oil shocks (1973 and 1979) and a half dozen Arab-Israeli wars, and America's Arab street cred is way down because the country has cut a devil's bargain with more than a few authoritarian rulers and because it staunchly supports Israel.

But hey, you know what? It's not so easy being a great power. And it's really hard to keep everybody happy. If you want unconditional love and affection, get a puppy.

Indeed, had it not been for President George W. Bush's trillion-dollar social science project in Iraq and President Barack Obama's initial tendency to create inflated expectations on both the Israeli-Palestinian issue and what the United States could do to bring democracy to the region, America would even be in better shape.

So what are America's vital national interests in the region today -- the matters it considers the core of its relationship with the Middle East?
Listen to how Obama answers the question. In a major speech in May 2011 dealing with what was then a more hopeful unfolding of the Arab Spring, he said the following:

For decades, the United States has pursued a set of core interests in the region: countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, securing the free flow of commerce and safeguarding the security of the region, standing up for Israel's security, and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace.

But Obama then went on to add that those interests were insufficient to constitute America's entire foreign-policy strategy. "We must acknowledge that a strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuit of these interests will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind," the president said.

I'd give the president a B-minus for historical accuracy here and a C for honesty about American priorities. Only relatively recently has the United States been really serious about counterterrorism -- it has cherry-picked those countries that it doesn't mind having nukes (Israel, India) and those of much greater concern (North Korea, Pakistan, Iran). And though the peace process has been a priority at times, it has mostly been pursued haphazardly.

The president's views on democracy promotion also represent a real contradiction. By trying to wrap the pursuit of more traditional interests in a prettier box, Obama doesn't do himself or us any favors. Indeed, he raises the expectation -- his specialty -- that the United States, true to its democratic values and principles, will now rise up to decry tyranny, oppose the heavy hand of the authoritarian, and champion the popular will against oppression.

The only problem is: The country doesn't. The perpetuation of this fiction sets the United States up for charges of hypocrisy and carries the potential to undercut the very interests the president identifies as core.

To keep commerce free (I think Obama means oil), the United States supports the authoritarian Saudi kings. To keep the region secure, it backs the repressive Khalifa monarchy in Bahrain, which gives the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet the port access that allows it to project power across the Gulf. And to stand up for Israel, the United States gives the Egyptian military $1.3 billion per year to protect the peace treaty and turn a blind eye while the generals protect their praetorian privileges. As far as championing the rights of the Arab peoples, see America's largely hands-off policy on Syria -- correct though I believe it to be.

I'm not complaining, mind you, just reporting. But the United States needs to be clear and stop pretending. There are certain things in this region it really cares about and that resonate powerfully at home, and others that don't -- and in any event are less susceptible to American influence, power, and persuasions.

Here's the politically incorrect and inconvenient version of American interests in the region. The United States has at least four vital national interests that it really cares deeply about. It is prepared to use force to protect all of them.

1. Stopping an attack on the continental United States with conventional and unconventional weapons. This is the big one. The organizing principle of a country's foreign policy is protection of the homeland. If you can't do that, you don't need a foreign policy. Americans are safer since the 9/11 attacks -- but not safe. There are still transnational groups that want to inflict catastrophic harm on the United States. The country will continue to spend the time and resources in an effort to stop them. The U.S. military will whack bad guys with drones whenever it can, regardless of the protestations of local governments.

2. Energy security. The good news for America is that it's weaning itself off Arab oil. The bad news is that oil is a single market. Supply disruptions and the challenge of making sure Persian Gulf oil doesn't fall into unfriendly hands -- or stop flowing entirely -- will be a core interest for as long as America and the world are dependent on hydrocarbons.

Want to worry about something? Worry about the House of Saud coming down. Oil is useless unless sold, but a regime change in Riyadh that triggered lengthy convulsions would be devastating for America and the world economy. So, staying true to the principles it really doesn't have, America will push what I call the "wink and nod" brand of reform from the Saudis (and also the Bahrainis, and the Kuwaitis, and the Qataris, and the Emiratis). And it'll use force to keep the Strait of Hormuz open and to protect that tried-and-true democracy in Saudi Arabia.

3. Supporting Israel. I can already hear the "what do you mean supporting Israel is a core interest?" crowd rumbling in the back. Let the Israelis fend for themselves, it says. They don't deserve any special status, particularly when they ignore U.S. interests.

The fact is, America has allowed the "special relationship" to become far too exclusive and one-sided, and that's not good for Israel or America. Obama isn't all that enamored about the special bond either and would like to reset it -- but he can't do much about it at this particular political moment.

But none of that makes the case for supporting one of the few democracies that emerged in the wake of World War II any less compelling. Strict realists question the whole values argument, particularly given the Israeli occupation. But support for the security and well-being of Israel, with all its imperfections, is in accord with the broadest conception of the American national interest -- supporting like-minded societies.

Israel also resonates powerfully at home in political terms, and that's nothing to be ashamed of or defensive about. Even factoring in the power of the pro-Israeli community, the U.S.-Israel bond could not have survived for this long without the support of millions of Americans -- not just Jews and evangelicals -- who believe in it too. In a democracy, you need a sustainable domestic base for any long-running policy. There's just no way U.S. support for Israel would have lasted 60-plus years if enough Americans didn't sign off on it.

There's a fourth point that I reluctantly put in this category of vital national security interests -- though I'm not at all sure about it, particularly on whether the United States should be prepared to use military force.

4. Stopping Iran from getting the bomb. I have to be honest: I thought a good deal about not putting this one in the core category. Don't get me wrong; you'd have to be interminably obtuse to conclude that Iran with nukes would be anything other than a disaster. It would raise regional tensions, buck up Iran's regional ambitions, escalate the Israeli-Iranian covert (and maybe overt) war, and probably set off a regional arms race.

And there's no doubt the Obama administration is exerting great effort to stop or delay Iran's program. It has implemented powerful sanctions and embarked on negotiations with a weakened but not chastened Islamic Republic, as dubious as their prospects are.

Still, I'm not at all persuaded the president's heart is in this one. On Iran, he's clearly the "not now" president -- and I suspect he would just like the whole issue to go away. He and the mullahs probably share a common goal: stop or delay an Israeli strike for as long as possible. The president doesn't want to see Iran with nukes, but he worries even more about an Israeli or American military strike.

The Israelis may well force the president's hand at some point -- striking Iran and triggering a U.S. intervention too. But this president will go to great lengths to prevent that. He knows that hitting Iran's nuclear sites will only set the program back a couple of years. Perhaps he's prepared -- and his successors would be too -- for a strategy of striking Iran's nuclear facilities every so often, like some grand game of whack-a-mole (the Israelis call it "mowing the lawn"). But I'm not sure that's a sustainable policy.

The fact is, there's probably only one country that can stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capacity, and that's Iran. But I'm not at all sure Tehran will determine that the costs of its nuclear program are prohibitive. Indeed, the fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime will only sharpen Iran's sense of vulnerability and accelerate its quest for a weapon.

If Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini hadn't overthrown the shah in 1979, Iran would be a nuclear weapons state today. Why? Because the four countries that have developed nuclear weapons in the past several decades -- Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea -- are all fundamentally insecure. They were determined to acquire nukes and had the means and motivation to pull it off. Iran is the poster child for insecurity, but it's even more than that. Throw in its conception of itself as a great power, its regional ambitions, and its grandiosity, and poof -- you're on the road to Nukeville.

The odds that the United States can stop the mullahs from acquiring the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon, should they truly want one, are long indeed. With regard to military action, the risks are probably overstated. It's the efficacy that bothers me. Will a military campaign work? Does America try some eleventh-hour, high-level secret talks with Iran first? Great questions; no answers. But the moment is approaching later this year, or early in 2013, when Israel and the United States will probably face a choice. Bomb, or accept the bomb.

The Rest Is Discretionary

But wait, you say, what about America's other interests, particularly the peace process and democratization?

Great questions. Let me give you some harsh answers. Watch the U.S. government's hands on these two; don't listen to its words. And what that disconnect tells me is that however much the United States says it cares, it really doesn't all that much.

On the issue of a conflict-ending agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, wake me up when the current Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority get serious about doing something real. Every previous breakthrough was preceded by some act -- positive or negative -- that the locals initiated and that gave Washington the means and motivation to intervene successfully. Unless that ownership is present, the United States should stop worrying about this plan or that and stop pretending that it can somehow fix this.

On the issue of the Arab Spring -- or Islamist Winter, depending on your viewpoint -- it's going to be a very long movie. The United States should do what it can to help but stop inflating its rhetoric and realize that it's in no position to act decisively. The country is still involved in a devil's bargain with authoritarian monarchies in the Gulf, military elites in Egypt, and a strongman in Iraq (not to mention a corrupt regime in nearby Afghanistan). Nor did it ever have the capacity or the will to remake these lands. The fact is, Arabs own more of their own politics now than ever before. And that's a good thing.

If America wants to pretend to the rest of the world that it's serious about Arab-Israeli peace or that it'll stand up to defend nascent Arab democracies, that's one thing. All governments dissemble and use idealized arguments to package their policies.

But there are certain things the United States cares about and others it doesn't -- certain issues it's prepared to do something about and others it chooses not to. At the very least, we should stop fooling ourselves about what those really are.

-This commentary was first published in Foreign Policy on 15/08/2012
-Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His new book, Can America Have Another Great President?, will be published this year

Bahrain's Still Stuck

By Jane Kinninmont

Yesterday, Bahrain postponed verdicts in the controversial trial of 13 high-profile opposition leaders until September 4. Their legal battle may be receiving little media attention, but it reveals much about the uncertain political scene in the strategically important country. Bahrain's government has not managed to use last year's famous inquiry by M. Cherif Bassiouni's commission to draw a line under the events of 2011. As a result, the public remains polarized, though more on political than on sectarian grounds, while the protest movement has survived the detention of key leaders. Meanwhile, the root causes of the uprising remain unaddressed, in the absence of a process of political dialogue and negotiation.

Bahrain's royally commissioned inquiry into last year's unrest, commonly known as the Bassiouni report, was intended to be the basis for a national consensus on the causes of and the events during the uprising, as well as making recommendations for human rights reforms. Optimists -- in the government, the opposition, and among Bahrain's Western allies -- hoped it could help kick start a much-needed process of dialogue and negotiation between the government and political factions. The report was praised internationally as groundbreaking and progressive, and far more forward leaning than expected.

But despite public relations efforts by the Bahraini government, its recommendations have not been fully implemented. Various practices criticized in the report -- from nighttime house raids to imprisonment for offenses involving political expression -- are recurring. Promises to hold torturers accountable have resulted in just three policemen being convicted. Opposition groups estimate there are around 1,400 political prisoners while the government says there are none. According to estimates from al-Wefaq, the main opposition group, in July alone 240 people were arrested and 100 injured with birdshot and rubber bullets. The group's secretary-general, Sheikh Ali Salman, was wounded with birdshot when taking part in a small demonstration outside his house in June.

Meanwhile, the frustrated opposition shows signs of further radicalization. A small but increasing minority of protesters lob Molotov cocktails and iron rods at security forces and police stations and are looking for new ways to improvise weapons. While the mainstream opposition leaders routinely condemn violence, a rising number of voices online are seeking to justify violence as "self-defense" or "resistance." This in turn encourages a vocal pro-government constituency to applaud the arrests of activists, seeing them all as complicit, even when they are arrested for tweets or for protesting without a permit.

The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report remains a vital reference point, and is a rare source of leverage for those within Bahrain's bureaucracy who are trying to push reforms. But there is little traction for such efforts given that almost all of the senior decision makers who oversaw last year's crackdown have retained their posts. There remain differences within the royal family, the Al Khalifa, over whether to make concessions to the opposition and how to handle any process of dialogue. Such divides manifest in mixed messages, as was seen earlier this year in the case of one of the 13 imprisoned opposition leaders, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a dual Danish-Bahraini national, who was then on hunger strike. Danish officials at Bahrain's Universal Periodic Review at the U.N. Human Rights Council said that they had reached an agreement in mid-March for al-Khawaja to leave Bahrain for medical treatment in Denmark, but this was never implemented.

The 13 men in court this week had been convicted in a military court last year of crimes that included plotting to overthrow the government by force, as well as inciting hatred of the regime, insulting the army, and fomenting sectarianism. Several, including al-Khawaja, received life sentences. All the defendants assert their innocence and have described extensive torture in custody. The Bassiouni inquiry was highly critical of the behavior of security forces, including both "systemic" and "systematic" use of torture. It recommended that civilian courts review all convictions by military courts that had not respected basic fair-trial principles, such as the inadmissibility of "confessions" extracted through torture. Six months after the inquiry report, after international attention increasingly focused on al-Khawaja's hunger strike, it was eventually announced that the opposition leaders would have this right. However, their lawyers say the court is still using tortured "confessions" as evidence.

Al-Khawaja is not alone, however. One of the more high-profile detainees is Ebrahim Sharif, one of the few Sunni Bahrainis to have been jailed for his part in the protest movement. Before his imprisonment, he was the secretary-general of al-Waad, a legally recognized, secular, liberal opposition society led by a mixture of Sunni and Shiite Bahrainis. It draws inspiration from the Arab nationalist movements of the 1950s and 1960s, when Bahrain's opposition had a cross-sectarian leadership but primarily enjoyed support from urban Sunni Muslims. Waad is a relatively small movement, in an era dominated by Islamists, but represents an important intellectual elite. Sharif, a former investment banker and latterly a telecoms entrepreneur, is one of the opposition's most adept economists and an effective critic of corruption. In a 2008 interview with Bahrain Television, he raised detailed questions about the budget of the Royal Court. Not only was he never invited back, but one week later, the information minister -- who is in charge of state television -- was abruptly replaced.

Sharif's role in the protests -- where he often appeared side by side with Wefaq's Ali Salman, a Shiite cleric, making joint calls for a peaceful transition to a genuine constitutional monarchy -- complicates the widely used official narrative that the protests were sectarian in nature. Although the majority of protesters were Shiites, the youth groups that organized the February 14 protests included both Sunni and Shiites, secular and Islamist Bahrainis, partly inspired by the peaceful mass movements they saw in Egypt and Tunisia. In general, Sunni Bahrainis were treated more leniently during the crackdown, but are also more likely to face family pressure to keep quiet. Sharif, sentenced to five years in prison on charges including insulting the army, is an exception.

The defendants also include leaders of the "Coalition for a Republic," the three groups that decided to call for the overthrow of the monarchy in March 2011: Hassan Mushaima and Abduljalil Al Singace of the Haq Movement and Abdulwahhab Hussein of Wafa (while Saeed Shehabi, the British-based leader of the third group, the Bahrain Freedom Movement, was convicted in absentia). Unlike Waad and Wefaq, these more revolutionary or rejectionist opposition groups have always refused to participate in the half-elected parliament, given its limited powers, and have focused instead on direct action and street protests. Their call for a republic was one of the tipping points in last year's uprising, representing a red line for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies, which sent troops into Bahrain just one week later.

Yet a decade ago, these activists had also tried to build support for a constitutional monarchy. They have been imprisoned repeatedly in the past, including in the 1990s, for their role in the uprising then. When the current Bahraini king, Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, came to power, Mushaima and Hussein were among the opposition leaders that endorsed his National Action Charter, a royal charter that promised to reinstate the country's parliament, but amending the 1973 constitution to include an upper house with purely advisory powers. The king met with Hussein, among others, to win his support. Their endorsement helped to ensure the overwhelming approval of the charter in a popular referendum in 2001. However, in 2002, the king promulgated a new constitution in which the upper house of parliament was made equal to the elected house. The parliament that ensued was also gerrymandered to dilute the Shiite vote. This experience helps to explain the current opposition skepticism about promises of dialogue and reform.

The supporters of the government are also skeptical about the authorities' handling of these figures, but for very different reasons. Several of the defendants were put on trial in 2009, and again in 2010, on terrorism charges (under a law that defines terrorism very broadly). In both cases, they experienced a legal oddity: they were "pardoned" without being found guilty. This ambiguous use of the royal pardon has contributed to the polarization of views in Bahrain. For the opposition, the political leaders are national figures with a long history of struggle for dignity and justice; they see the previous pardons as a face-saving way for the authorities to back down from accusations for which they had no evidence. For government supporters, they are dangerous radicals who have already been let out of jail too many times; they see the pardons as a manifestation of royal leniency. Thus, both the relatives of the detainees and the most anti-opposition voices share the view that the detainees should not be pardoned -- though for very different reasons. Many among both groups believe that the verdict will ultimately be a political decision, as were the previous pardons.

The announcement of the final verdict, expected yesterday, was delayed at the last minute for another three weeks. The judge said the hearing was adjourned because some of the defendants' relatives chanted political slogans in the court. Locally, there remains much speculation that the case could be used as a political bargaining chip in any efforts to prepare the ground for the fresh political dialogue for which Bahrain's Western allies are pressing. In a speech later the same day, King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, spoke in general terms about the value of dialogue. Opposition groups say there is as yet no concrete offer on the table.

Assuming an offer eventually is presented, Wefaq will have a hard job convincing an increasingly radicalized Shiite street that its preference for dialogue -- and its avowed support for the monarchy, albeit with an elected government and with more constitutional limits on the ruler's power -- will bear fruit. Near-daily protests, often involving skirmishes between police and protesters, continue, despite a de-facto ban (i.e. no permits being issued) for the past few weeks. Within the opposition, the popularity of the 13 detained activists has only risen since they went to prison; those who suffer personally often gain credibility that way, a point sometimes missed by the more powerful party in an asymmetric conflict.

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 15/08/2012
-Jane Kinninmont is a senior research fellow at Chatham House and author of Bahrain: Beyond The Impasse

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Ramadan In Aleppo

After nearly 18 months and some 20,000 dead, Western and Arab governments are still debating the geopolitical pros and cons of intervening in Syria. But inside the country, the opposition has more pressing concerns, from battling the regime to collecting the trash. A report from on the ground in rebel-controlled northern Syria.

By Michael Weiss

A portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the Bab al-Salam border crossing to Turkey. (Umit Bektas/Courtesy Reuters)

"Don't even think about going to sleep tonight."

My fixer, Mahmoud Elzour, shot me a wry smile from the corner of a rooftop patio in a safe house in al-Bab, a town about 27 miles north of Aleppo that was recently liberated by Syrian rebels. It was already two o'clock in the morning, and the predawn meal that was supposed to get us through the Ramadan day ahead was being served by our host, Abu Ali. With his large frame and close-cropped brown hair, he could easily have been mistaken for a defensive tackle for the Miami Dolphins. We were surrounded by a gracious fraternity of activists, relatives of Abu Ali, and rebel fighters, among them one military defector and about four civilians. Earlier that evening, we had made a touch-and-go border crossing from Kilis, Turkey, and then drove for an hour along the completely quiet roadways leading from the border to al-Bab. The only military presence we encountered was a single Free Syrian Army (FSA) checkpoint. So after all this, sleeping had never occurred to me. "We will go to Aleppo at four and leave at noon," Mahmoud said. Was it safe? "Of course. I would not take you there if it wasn't, habibi." Another smile.

Reedy and bespectacled, Mahmoud is a 52-year-old Syrian who spent the last two decades in Atlanta. A few months ago, he sold most of his successful construction-vehicle dealership to move to Antakya, Turkey, where many Syrian fighters have formed an ad hoc base. Once there, he started financing his own rebel battalion. The day before our jaunt into Syria, he had returned from a fierce battle in central Aleppo that culminated in the rebels' overrunning two police stations and defeating a group of shabiha, mercenary civilian thugs employed by the regime, from the pro-Assad Barri tribe. Some members of the tribe were later summarily executed, and a gruesome video of the incident appalled even pro-opposition Syrians. Mahmoud took no part in the executions, but he did participate in a raid on one of the police stations. Rebels blew up the ground floor with with a bomb that had been fashioned, Mahmoud said, out of an old water boiler. The officers inside had been offered amnesty and safe passage if they quit their posts, but after hearing the scream of fighter jets overhead and mistakenly believing that reinforcements were on the way, they angrily refused. So the rebels invaded, killing anyone who fired back.


After nearly 18 months, with over 20,000 dead and millions more directly affected, the Syrian revolution has become the foreign policy preoccupation of every Western and Arab government. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's few remaining allies -- China, Iran, and Russia -- show no sign of acceding to the aspirations of the Syrian people. And so what started out as a movement for economic reform, and was met with great violence, has now morphed into an armed insurgency, consisting overwhelmingly of civilians aiming to end the regime through force.

The Obama administration still professes not to know who the Syrian rebels are, even as busloads of foreign correspondents do the work of the Central Intelligence Agency in profiling them. The White House fears that the rebels' ranks have been infiltrated by extremist or sectarian groups, most notoriously al Qaeda, and thus is wary of committing money and arms to their cause. Some analysts cite this restraint as proof of the administration's prudence rather than of an incoherence that risks damning Syria to Washington's self-fulfilling prophecies. Those opposed to U.S. intervention warned that it would inevitably breed jihadism, sectarianism, and regional instability -- all of which have already come to pass. Meanwhile, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have had no such qualms about backing the opposition, albeit selectively and to further their own ideological interests. The rebels, for their part, have not equivocated in their call for outside help, giving weekly protests such names as "No-Fly Zone Friday." It is the West's hearts and minds that need winning over.

On the ground, however, the geopolitics of the struggle takes a back seat to more exigent considerations. The real story continues to be the unraveling of four decades of dynastic totalitarian rule. As horrifying as the carnage has been, the resilience of some segments of Syrian society leaves no doubt that the regime is finished. In parts of the country, an alternative to Assad's rule is already being joyously experienced and seen as worth dying for.

Still, nobody can predict with certainty when and how the House of Assad will fall. For all the braggadocio I heard from the Syrian rebels ("We will take Aleppo in no more than ten days"), their congenial shrugs over specifics revealed them to be far more interested in fighting a long war of attrition than in planning any well-timed march on Damascus. They can withstand losing a city street here, or a whole neighborhood there, because even in tactical defeat they cost the regime money, ammunition, and men. The rebels learn from their setbacks, too. In February, it took a month of brutal artillery bombardment and some 7,000 soldiers for the regime to retake Baba Amr, just one district in the city of Homs. The FSA had about 400 men, most of whom retreated when they ran out of bullets. Mark the sequel in Aleppo.


The chaotic news reports out of Syria do not prepare you for the eerie calm in the rural north of the country. Travel 50 miles from the border, and you'll barely realize you've left Turkey: Farmers drive along the main road in their tractors, many greeting you with a wave or a honk.

Such was the scene in al-Bab, at least when I arrived there two weeks ago. Since the start of the Syrian uprising, about 92 people have been killed there, 45 of them in the last month alone, after government forces started shelling the area. But when I came to this city of around 200,000 people, it was solidly under rebel control, thanks to the sacking of the nearby military camp that had carried out the shelling. The opposition fighters had even captured a few tanks. Within days, the makings of a civil society could already be glimpsed, especially at night. It was then that locals and rebels poured out into the streets, trading their cell phones and Kalashnikov rifles for garbage bags, white gloves, and brooms. Here were the Free Syrian Street Sweepers. Boys as young as 12 were at work all around the city picking up the day's trash or, in some cases, clearing rubble left after the siege.

One young boy told me he was on cleanup duty because for his whole life (and decades before that, too) to do anything spontaneous or willful in Syria required government permission. Another joked that the garbage bag in his hand was where he wanted Assad to go. The main boulevard was colored by minibuses emblazoned with the pre-Baathist Syrian flag -- rebranded the "independence" flag -- and pro-FSA slogans. Flashing headlights and loud horns gave the street an ecstatic energy that seemed completely at odds with the grinding and bloody civil war raging elsewhere. At a surprisingly chic hookah café with leather sofas and a plasma television, locals watched international news channels into the early hours of the morning. The strawberry smoothies were first-rate.

Yet the makings of a civil society are not the same thing as an actual civil society. As a recent video circulating on the Internet appears to show, during the siege of al-Bab, rebels threw the corpses of regime personnel off the rooftop of a post-office building that government forces were using as a security headquarters. Al-Bab opposition activists have since claimed that the bodies belonged to snipers who had killed seven rebels. They have also condemned the act and said that the identities of those who threw the bodies off the roof are not yet known. Still, this video is yet another reminder that Syria is a brutalized society. Even as some rebels try to act responsibly by adopting a martial code of conduct or putting their captives on trial before meting out punishment, they must overcome fear, sectarianism, and a deep-rooted sense of tribal justice. Lucky is the revolution in which the ennobling desire for freedom vanquishes the rebarbative impulse for vengeance.

Al-Bab is home to roughly 400 rebels and headquarters to one of the armed opposition's many Abu Bakr brigades, named for the Prophet Muhammad's father-in-law. Local merchants support the fighters with "salaries," a charismatic 32-year-old activist named Barry told me in the hookah café, in the amount of 5,000 Syrian lira ($100) per month. No money had come from outside the city. I asked Barry if the Syrian National Council, the largest umbrella group of opposition figures, which has been partially recognized by the United States, was sending aid of any kind into al-Bab. "No, no," he laughed. "They want someone [to] go there and -- I don't know the word -- 'please give me some money.'" To beg? "Yes, to beg."

Al-Bab has not seen help from the United States, either. When I asked a local activist, Muhammad Rajaf, what he thought of U.S. President Barack Obama, he made a derisive flapping gesture with his hand. "Obama . . . we see, talk, talk, talk. Don't see work." He had a higher opinion of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Barry agreed, saying that the only countries a post-Assad Syria would have positive relations with were Turkey, Libya, and Tunisia, because all had contributed materially to the revolution. I then asked about the foreign fighters, some of them radical Islamists, who had reportedly infiltrated the Syrian opposition. Barry did not deny their existence, but he thought that the much-hyped menace of al Qaeda was one of the regime's greatest propaganda achievements. "Where are the terrorists here?  You're with us now," he said to me, "so you can be the first Jewish-Christian member of al Qaeda."  That did not mean that outside support for the revolution was necessarily secular or pluralistic. Barry called Saudi Arabia an enemy for its exclusive funding of Syrian Salafists, most of whom are based in the northwestern province of Idlib. "They want us to work with the Saudi agenda. We will not. We are a free people now." And free people, Barry said, need a free election. "At that time, I will accept the Salafi, the Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood], the liberal, anybody who wins fairly."

Until that election, though, the task of governing rebel-controlled territory is a tricky one. Al-Bab residents are trying to establish an emergency civil council to administer the city while the rest of Syria awaits its own piecemeal liberation. The council, according to Barry, is to be composed of a "first circle" of 21 members to be elected by activists in the city who "have been with the revolution from the first day." The FSA will not be involved, and the same goes for any of the initially nonviolent civilian activists who have since taken up arms. Merchants and latecomers to the revolution -- "the old men," in Barry's coinage -- would have subordinate roles in a "second circle" of councilmen that would be responsible for media, relief, and medical treatment, in effect bringing all of the de facto governing bodies in al-Bab under one heading. It sounded like a nice plan, in theory.


If the FSA does cede authority to al-Bab's civilian-only municipal government, it might be because the militia's priorities lie elsewhere at the moment. Each day, fighters in al-Bab make the 35-minute journey to join the "mother of all battles," as the regime has termed it, now being waged in Aleppo, Syria's most populous city. The regime's unrelenting aerial bombardment campaign, using helicopters and fighter jets, has yet to be matched by an equivalent ground assault. That will come, as Syrians are wont to say, "tomorrow." Last week, the most severe clashes were raging in the neighborhood of Salaheddine, in southwestern Aleppo. In a video that Barry showed me, the neighborhood was a blasted-out ruin with decaying corpses in the street. He had just returned from the area, where he was hit by sniper bullets that ricocheted off the ground and entered his lower back and upper thigh. He had spent a few hours in the al-Bab field hospital (located in the basement of a mosque), got himself stitched up, and was ready to head back into Aleppo.

The field hospital is another testament to the resilience of al-Bab. At around eleven o'clock at night, Ilhan Tanir, a Turkish-American journalist, and I were taken there on motorbike to meet the volunteer staff members. They were eating in the corner of the expansive, fluorescent-lit center for triage and surgery. The entrance was filled with boxes of medical supplies, all moved from the actual hospital, which had been destroyed by regime forces. The room housed a single patient recovering from an unspecified head injury, but I could see traces of earlier casualties, including a dried pool of blood on the floor next to one gurney.

An electrical engineer who asked to be identified as Abdullah Mowahed told us, in perfect English, that it was his responsibility to keep a digital record of every case that passed through the hospital. He opened a laptop and showed me an Excel spreadsheet with the names of the patients, their places of origins, the type of injuries they had sustained, and their status -- civilian, rebel, or regime -- all organized like an accountant's ledger. The staff also recorded videos to document the patients' treatment, and the media team uploaded them to YouTube. One video showed a girl no older than ten whose back was covered by the scattershot rubies of a shrapnel wound; another showed a man whose legs were mangled beyond recognition. These were the victims of the bombardment campaign. "That was a hard time," the male nurse who seemed to administrate everything told us.

I asked about regime fighters treated here. Another volunteer named Muhammad replied that they received the same care as everyone else. "We tell them, 'What you do when you leave is up to you. But if you return to the army, you'll likely be killed because they will assume you've joined the opposition.'" Most, he said, defected or ran away.

Mutiny has been one of Assad's biggest fears since June 2011, when a lieutenant colonel named Hussein Harmoush turned his guns on regime forces who were firing on unarmed civilians in the northwestern town of Jisr al-Shughour. The majority of soldiers in the Syrian army are Sunnis, and whenever they are deployed into population centers -- usually on orders to fight "terrorists," or even Israelis -- a large bloc of them inevitably defects. As with Stalin's Red Army in World War II, Syrian regulars who make contact with the opposition and do not join their ranks can be held under lethal suspicion. A colonel who defected to Turkey in March told the London-based newspaper Asharq Alawsat: "[I]f an officer is discovered watching a channel other than the official Syrian channel, he will be punished; even when he goes to visit his family, he is allowed only one day, or 'a night.'"


For all the free-flowing traffic, leaving al-Bab is not easy once you arrive. As our party was preparing for our 4:00 AM jaunt into Aleppo, we faced a setback: no gas. After more than a year of U.S. and EU sanctions, not to mention the regime's own version of collective punishment, petrol was selling for $13 per gallon -- that is, for those lucky enough to find any to buy. Rebels have routinely seized gas trucks traveling through Syria, so drivers are reluctant to risk going to work. Not one to give up, Barry had a plan: Rather than head to Aleppo ourselves, we'd join an FSA convoy.

At around 5:30 AM, Abu Ali drove Mahmoud, Barry, Ilhan, and me the short distance from his house to a rebel gathering point at the southern tip of the city. There, we were met by a small war fleet: one pickup truck, an SUV with a mounted machine gun, a sedan (that was our ride), and a white minivan. After some cries of "Allahu Akbar," the convoy got moving.

As with the journey to al-Bab, the main highway leading to Aleppo was void of any regime presence. There were no FSA checkpoints in sight, either. Civilian vehicles passing us from the other direction honked or waved at the rebels. As we pulled into the liberated parts of Aleppo City, however, the pastoral scenery faded into that of a devastated war zone. The quiet indicated either a long-awaited cessation of violence or a prelude to another attack. Hundreds of thousands of people had fled in the last few weeks -- to other cities or to neighboring countries -- and scores of rebels, civilians, and regime fighters had been killed. At this point, I noticed that the white minivan ahead of us had its side door open -- the rebels inside were ready for anything.

A burned-out and graffiti-covered bus, which Barry claimed had been used to transport shabiha, lay in ruins on the side of the road. Garbage had not been collected in days, and the stench wafting in through the car window was eye-watering. A few residents and street vendors were out, tending to their businesses with an air of resignation or shell-shocked obliviousness. Even in hell, you have to eat. A long line had formed outside one building next to a cemetery. Barry said the people were waiting for bread. "Now it's not crowded, by the way." The line would grow longer later in the day.

We stopped somewhere along the way so that our convoy could consult with other rebels. Barry and Mahmoud got out of the sedan to find out where we were headed. "Where we are going," he said on returning, "I am happy." Given what he had been up to less than 24 hours before, I replied that what made him happy made me very unhappy. He laughed and reassured me that this would be a scenic tour that required very little running. Our destination, as we discovered, was Bab al-Hadid ("the Iron Gate"), a 500-year-old structure that marks the entrance to Aleppo's ancient city. The rebels had secured this area just days before; the freshly erected FSA checkpoints were manned by two or three fighters. Wooden milk crates were the only barriers that had to be removed to allow us to proceed to our destination, a parking lot across from a block of mostly shuttered storefronts and abandoned apartments. The armed fighters there, we were told, hailed from several different battalions. A middle-aged commander doled out instructions to each soldier. Some would be sent to guard checkpoints, others would deploy along a 650-foot perimeter around our location, in territories still very much controlled by the regime. "If you walk five minutes that way," Mahmoud said, pointing down a wide street that ran parallel to the Iron Gate, "you will be in downtown Aleppo. You'll also be in snipers' alley." Two guardsmen sat watch in front of a doormat with an image of Assad woven into it. Barry stepped on the dictator's face.

If any fighting was taking place this early in the morning, it was far enough away from us that we could not hear the shots. We spotted a helicopter flying a mile above us, although it did not appear to be getting ready to fire.

Civilians and yellow taxicabs wove in and out of this FSA safe zone all the time, evincing a life-must-go-on attitude in defiance of both sides. Unlike other sympathetic hotspots in Syria, Aleppo was still the latecomer to the revolution -- a city of Barry's "old men." At our hotel back in Turkey, Mahmoud had run into a wealthy Aleppine businessman who denied that the regime was bombing the city. "What does he think, that the rebels have jets and helicopters?" Mahmoud recounted to me indignantly. Aleppo is Syria's economic and industrial heart, and many revolutionaries suspect that its inhabitants care more for their wallets than their political freedoms.

No doubt there were some residents of the city who were downright hostile to any FSA presence, but on the whole most seemed indifferent. The imam of a local mosque, which rebels had turned into a sleeping quarters, was quite friendly, however. He brightened when I told him I was an American, and perhaps because we looked like we had not slept in days -- Mahmoud certainly had not -- he invited us to rest in his mosque. Lying down on an embroidered carpet, I looked up at the chandeliers screwed into the arched ceiling and noticed that they held energy-saving bulbs. I fell asleep with the grimly amusing thought that small touches like these must have contributed to the Western delusion that Assad, a London-educated ophthalmologist with a runway-model wife, was a reformer. As we dozed, the distant thud of shelling could finally be heard.

When we awoke a few hours later, we set out in search of caffeine before making the trip back to al-Bab. In a dingy alleyway, a group of four rebels invited us to squat on the curb with them and drink chai. The leader of this platoon, Abu Muhammad, was a civilian who used to build military housing. He carried a pistol in his belt. Many Aleppines, he told me, still support Assad. Even in the liberated area around the Iron Gate, shabiha occasionally shoot at rebels from rooftops. I asked about the presence of foreign fighters in Aleppo, since news reports have suggested that radical Islamists from abroad had joined in the battle for the city. He said that the only foreign fighters he knew of were Iranian snipers operating near the citadel and Russians who were embedded with Assad's regular army. I took his statement with a grain of salt: Iran has admitted to a Revolutionary Guard Corps presence in Syria, but no credible evidence suggests that Russia has dispatched any forces, at least not yet. Still, in a country where paranoia and conspiracy theories masquerade as state-sponsored news, it is hard to fault any Syrian for rumormongering.

A small crowd had gathered around us by now. One rebel, perhaps thinking I had not fully grasped the enormity of his struggle, handed me a semi-exploded mortar.


Within 48 hours of my leaving Syria and returning to London, the regime had once again taken to shelling Bab al-Hadid, as Western newspapers reported that the rebels controlled between 50 to 60 percent of Aleppo. Assad's anticipated ground offensive had not yet materialized, but now the regime's most advanced warcraft, MiG fighter jets, were indiscriminately targeting FSA strongholds and civilian homes alike. Richard Spencer, a correspondent for the British Daily Telegraph, stood in front of one house where members of the Kayali and Katab families were wiped out by two missiles. A ten-year-old girl's head, Spencer reported, "was attached to a torso that ended at her stomach." Meanwhile, the newly appointed Sunni Prime Minister Riad Hijab and his family had just defected to Jordan after a dangerous holdover in an FSA safe house in the southern city of Daraa. He had reportedly been coordinating the move with the opposition for almost as long as he held office.

All these defections and rebel victories underscore the assertion, a favorite in unassertive Washington, that Assad's days are numbered. But what number? And under what conditions will his tyranny come to an end? No one I met in Syria had the answer. Unless the West plans to hasten that eventuality directly, it should not claim to, either.

-This report was published first in Foreign Affairs on 13/08/2012

What Morsi Could Learn From Anwar Sadat

By Dina Rashed

Late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat

On Sunday President Mohamed Morsi issued a new constitutional declaration making major changes in Egypt's current balance of power. According to the new declaration, the president now enjoys all powers that were vested in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), including legislative. The president sent the defense minister and general commander of the SCAF, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the chief of staff of the armed forces, General Sami Anan, and the heads of the air force and navy into retirement. Although the reshuffle comes in the aftermath of a major a assault by militants in Sinai, it is unrealistic to think of the latest security arrangements as spur of the moment choices in reaction to the attacks. The president's decisions probably have been brewing for some time given the careful selection of succeeding generals.

The recent changes may be the most important military purges since former President Anwar Sadat's elimination of the "power centers" in the early 1970s. Faced with mounting opposition to his presidency, Sadat often collided with his predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser's generals especially Minister of Defense Mahmoud Fawzi, head of General Intelligence Ali Sabri, and Minister of Interior Sha'rawi Goma. The strong men showed limited loyalty to the then new president and worked to curtail his powers. However, Sadat managed to depose of the disloyal generals when a window of opportunity opened in 1971. Communication between the president and his second tier generals had been crucial to the success of the purge. Morsi's recent efforts bear many similarities to the process that took place four decades ago.

Morsi's legal powers were limited when the SCAF amended Egypt's constitutional declaration last June. The amendments stripped the incoming president of the power to appoint military personnel without the SCAF's approval. It also mandated that in the absence of an elected parliament, only the SCAF would hold the power to legislate. In a tug-of-war over legal means, the new president needed to issue another declaration to annul the earlier one. There is no doubt that Morsi and his advisors were preparing to issue another constitutional declaration, but waited for the right time in order to prevent further inflammation of the already delicate domestic situation. After all, the elected president only won a quarter of Egypt's voting power, and an unhappy public would have made such legal steps costly for him. The recent attack on Egyptian soldiers and the political embarrassment it caused to the military provided an opportune moment for Morsi to recapture the presidential powers.

On August 5, 35 militants attacked a security post on the Egyptian border with Gaza. The attackers struck at sunset when Egyptian soldiers were breaking their Ramadan fast, killing 16 soldiers and stealing two armored vehicles before fleeing toward the Palestinian side. When Israeli intelligence officials declared that they knew about the possibility of an attack and passed some information to their Egyptian counterparts, General Mowafi publicly admitted that he informed his superiors, Field Marshal Tantawi and General Anan. Mowafi added that he could not believe that a Muslim would kill a fasting Muslim in Ramadan. The chief spy's comments inflamed the public who questioned the preparedness and competence of the security sector. Two days later, President Morsi sent Mowafi to retirement, dismissed General Abdul Wahab Mabruk, the governor of North Sinai, and ordered the first military air strikes in Sinai in 40 years, targeting terrorist cells that have been growing over the past 18 months in the peninsula.

Although Morsi's military reshuffle can be partially understood in light of the Sinai attack, the security arrangement around the funeral of the slain soldiers may have played an equally important role in prompting the president to hasten the changes. In recognition of its fallen members, the military had planned for the funeral to take place in its main mosque in Cairo's Nasr City quarter. President Morsi, Field Marshal Tantawi, General Anan, Prime Minister Hisham Qandil, and other high officials and dignitaries were to attend. At the last minute, the president changed his plans and refused to show up. His spokesperson later declared that members of his Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) informed him that adequate measures to ensure his safety were lacking. Although Morsi received assurances from the military police to the contrary, he ultimately relied on the intelligence of the FJP. Party youth, who gathered in and near the mosque, noticed an influx of angry pro-Mubarak protesters and anticipated a possible attack on the president. Indeed, most Islamist figures, including the newly appointed prime minister, were verbally and physically assaulted at the funeral.

The incident showed the selective inability of the military police to protect the highest government officials. While all military generals and non-Islamist politicians remained untouched, Prime Minister Qandil was ultimately rushed from the scene under the protection of his bodyguards in an attempt to escape the barrage of shoes that were thrown at him. Morsi's absence from the service exposed him to strong criticism from activists and journalists. And in reaction to the funeral fiasco, he asked Tantawi to remove General Hamdi Badeen, the head of the military police. The president seemed to consider the attack on his handpicked prime minister as an attack on him. Despite the president's orders, military officials said that General Badeen would not be sent to retirement but would be given another post that would benefit from his expertise.

In a sense, the combination of the Sinai attack and the security failure of the funeral may have been the straw that broke the camel's back. The calls from the public for improved security enabled the president to annul the constitutional amendments and reclaim his authority over military appointments. The new appointees included General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi who will succeed Tantawi, heading both the ministry of defense and ministry of war production, and General Sedki Sobhi who will replace Anan as the new chief of staff. General Mohamed al-Assar was given the title of assistant defense minister. The appointments reveal Morsi's understanding of key posts within the military and the needs of the transitional period. Sisi, who is almost two decades Tantawi's junior, headed the military intelligence, the unit responsible for monitoring officers and their political views, while Sobhi headed the third field army based in Suez. Although Assar was not assigned a new position, his promotion formalizes his de facto role. Throughout the transitional period, Assar has proven to be a professional soldier with a likeable character and good communication skills. This enabled him to hold successful talks with international partners, in particular the United States, as well as domestic political forces. All three generals have been members of the SCAF, which indicates that the president consulted with his generals before ousting Tantawi and Anan.

In keeping with the Egyptian informal tradition of honoring deposed foes, the president awarded Tantawi and Anan the highest Egyptian medals and appointed them as his military consultants. Given Tantawi's old age, and his and Anan's close ties to Mubarak, their new positions will be more ceremonial than real; it is unlikely that Morsi will consult them on any pressing matters.

The tense relationship between Morsi and Mubarak's upper brass resembles Sadat's experience with Nasser's loyalists in the military in the early 1970s. As new presidents, both Sadat and Morsi stood on shaky grounds, even despite their legitimate ascension to power. Sadat was Nasser's vice president and the second in command according to the succession rules, but he lacked much of Nasser's charisma and therefore seemed less qualified as a president. Morsi faces similar challenges. Because he was the second choice of the MB in the presidential elections and won with a marginal victory over Mubarak's disciple, General Ahmed Shafiq, many of his opponents feel that he lacks the political character necessary to rule the country.

Also like Sadat, Morsi's success in cultivating loyalty to his presidency depends, in part, on his ability to maintain the coherence of the military establishment and relationship with his second-tier generals. It may be hard to judge how the officer corps has received Morsi's decisions, but independent news outlets and social network sites show that activists and politicians from different political backgrounds welcome them. The popular support alone should minimize possible internal opposition within the establishment as long as the president attends to the institutional interests of its members.

But Morsi faces a different military with a different set of challenges from that of Sadat. The late president confronted strong opposition from the head of the general intelligence and the defense minister, yet the defeat in the 1967 war with Israel made the officer corps yearn for higher levels of professionalization and lower levels of involvement in political life. Sadat promised them better equipment and training through re-orienting the country's ties with the West. Morsi, on the other hand, may be facing a stronger and more professional military and can offer little in terms of improving its equipment and training given the country's deteriorating economy. In fact, the ties between the Egyptian military and the Pentagon have been so well institutionalized over the past 30 years that any president can offer little to improve this relationship. Morsi's best offer to the military may be to keep the institution's economic assets intact and to foreclose queries into its engagement in trials of civilians especially under Mubarak. The current military may enjoy economic independence but officers may prefer to step away from the daily management and pay more attention to the turbulent situations on Egypt's borders.

Sunday's decisions show that the new president is making a consistent effort to reshape the security sector apparatus, instating officers who are more loyal to the new presidency than to the old regime. In addition to changes within the military and the intelligence leadership, in early August a new minister of interior with little affiliation to the Mubarak regime was sworn in. The new appointees are expected to show more loyalty to Morsi as the elected president of the country even if they are not MB loyalists. The appointed leaders were SCAF members prior to the 2011 revolution, and both Mubarak and Tantawi were careful to swiftly remove Islamists from the rank and file. In his capacity as the head of the military intelligence, Sisi was in charge of monitoring potential political activities of officers; it is foreseeable that he will continue with the same policy as the new minister of defense. Whether Morsi will work to instate Islamists in the office corps or pick MB sympathizers as his military generals remains a question for the future.

Like Sadat, Morsi may prove to be more politically shrewd than first anticipated. The current president won one more battle in the war against the Mubarak regime, but there are no guarantees that his decisions will be in the interest of a democratic transition given the concentration of legislative and executive powers in his hand.

The battle for the new constitution remains the real battle for democratic change.

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 14/08/2012
-Dina Rashed is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Chicago. Her research focuses on authoritarian regimes, armed actors, and civil-military relations

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Point Guard

Susan Rice calls the plays for Barack Obama at the United Nations. Could she lead his foreign-policy team next? Should she?


                                                    Susan Rice

Throughout the second week of March 2011, the vastly outgunned rebel forces in Libya fell back before an onslaught by troops loyal to Muammar al-Qaddafi. In the United Nations Security Council, Britain and France lobbied desperately for a resolution authorizing the establishment of a no-fly zone. But U.S. President Barack Obama, intent on withdrawing from the two Middle Eastern wars he had inherited, seemed loath to act, and his U.N. ambassador, the blunt and outspoken Susan Rice, stayed uncharacteristically quiet on the sidelines, sending her deputy to key council meetings and questioning whether a no-fly zone would ever work. "She was blocking, blocking, blocking, standing on the brakes on Libya," one Security Council diplomat recalls.

As an assistant secretary of state under President Bill Clinton, Rice had lived through the horrendous American failure to stop the genocide in Rwanda, and later, as a fellow at the Brookings Institution, she had called for military intervention to stop atrocities in Darfur. But senior Obama administration officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Thomas Donilon, the national security advisor, were insisting that Libya was not strategically vital and advised the president to steer clear of another war. Despite their opposition and her own public stance, Rice agitated with the White House in favor of intervention in Libya, several aides told me. She also privately instructed her staff in New York to ready a resolution authorizing tough new sanctions and the use of force. She told neither fellow diplomats nor officials in Washington about the draft.

On Saturday, March 12, the Arab League called for military action, as Rice had been warning her colleagues it would. But it was obvious that a no-fly zone, by itself, would not stop Qaddafi's troops. When Obama gathered his principals for a decisive meeting that Tuesday night, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, having spoken to Arab allies, was able to promise that some Arab countries would join a more robust campaign to bomb Libyan targets. Rice, on speakerphone in New York, said she thought she could move such a resolution through the council. The way Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor, recalls it, Rice said that "she was going to call people's bluff" by proposing much more powerful military action than even France and Britain had sought. Just before the meeting, Rice had called key ambassadors to say the United States would not endorse a no-fly zone. But three hours later she called again to say the United States would push for a bombing campaign. Some of America's allies were so bewildered by the abrupt turnaround that they were half-convinced Washington was issuing impossible demands in order to cover its unwillingness to act.

The next morning, Rice took her resolution out of the drawer and introduced it at the Security Council. "I confess," she told me recently, "that I made something of a dramatic presentation." Rice normally shuns theatricality. Now, however, she told the council that Libya presented "as imminent and urgent a situation as this council has ever faced." Rice was brutally explicit. "I don't want to hear six months from now that we did a bait-and-switch on you people," she said. "It's airstrikes; it's aggressive use of air power." The presentation, a council diplomat recalled, produced stunned silence; it was itself a sort of aerial assault. And it worked. The next day, March 17, the Security Council voted 10-0, with five abstentions, to take "all necessary measures" to protect Libyan civilians.

The Libya resolution was a major achievement for Rice and a vindication of the Obama administration's commitment to multilateral institutions, above all the United Nations. Obama had concluded that stopping the violence was not a matter of core national security interests and had instructed Rice to tell the Security Council that the United States would not act at all absent council authorization. "It's up to you to decide," Rice told her colleagues. This reticence would later be stigmatized as "leading from behind," but perhaps it's better understood as leading without wishing to be seen as taking the lead -- a new model of multilateralism suitable to a post-hegemonic era. And because the intervention ultimately succeeded, it offered hope that the U.N. might finally become the authorizing agency for the "responsibility to protect," the doctrine stipulating that states have a duty to prevent or halt mass atrocities even outside their borders.

The multilateralist euphoria lasted all of a few weeks. By Oct. 4, Russia and China blocked even a mild resolution criticizing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who was brutalizing his own citizens as grossly as Qaddafi had. That was about 17,000 fatalities ago. The council's paralysis on Syria soon made Obama's strategic deference look like timidity, especially as months of ineffective Security Council diplomacy dragged on; this time, there would be no Susan Rice maneuver to break the logjam. Richard Williamson, one of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's chief foreign-policy advisors, has accused the president of "subcontracting" U.S. policy to former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, whose U.N.-backed peace plan dissolved amid a whirlwind of violence. The feeble half-measures on Syria offer a reminder of the inherent limitations of the Security Council, where the great powers have a veto and are prepared to wield it. They also demonstrate one of the organization's unspoken purposes: If you don't want to act or you don't know how to act, you can always blame it on the Security Council. Libya, as Rice herself would put it, was a "data point," not a "trend."

DURING THE 2008 presidential campaign, Obama sometimes said, "I want to stand in front of the U.N. and say, 'America is back!'" He meant not only that under a President Obama the United States would take the United Nations seriously again, but that the United Nations would be the right place from which to proclaim a new policy of "engagement" with institutions, with adversaries, and even with allies after eight years of what Obama saw as George W. Bush's unilateral high-handedness, not least his failure to secure Security Council approval for the Iraq war. Obama argued that transnational problems -- climate change, nuclear proliferation, epidemic disease -- could only be solved in multilateral bodies. He also thought that healing the breach at the U.N. and elsewhere had become a national security imperative. "The image of the U.S. was always our most important export," he told me in the summer of 2007, "and underwrote a lot of our security." Obama made, in effect, a hard-nosed case for what might otherwise be seen as a dangerously soft-nosed policy.

Bush had sent a message to the U.N. in 2005 when he appointed as ambassador John Bolton, who had publicly argued that the United States should not be bound by international law and had famously said that the U.N. could lose 10 floors of its 38-story headquarters without consequence. Obama sent a different kind of message with Rice, who had written her doctoral dissertation on U.N. peacekeeping, worked with the U.N. in the Clinton administration, and strongly advocated Security Council action in a range of conflict areas. Rice was as stubborn a figure as Bolton, but with a radically different set of beliefs.

Rice, however, had not wanted to be U.N. ambassador. She had taken a huge risk with a promising career when she decided in 2007 to support Obama over his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. Rice had served all eight years of Bill Clinton's presidency, first on the National Security Council staff and then as assistant secretary of state for African affairs. But when Obama decided to seek the presidency, Rice threw in her lot with him because, unlike Hillary Clinton, he had opposed the war in Iraq. What's more, as she told me at the time, she thought that Obama (and not Clinton) had a "21st-century view of the world." Rice became a leader of Obama's foreign-policy team and his most important surrogate on foreign affairs; early in the campaign, they emailed and spoke constantly. When Obama won, Rice hoped to be national security advisor, or at least deputy. But Obama was a young black man with no foreign-policy experience; in Gen. James Jones, his first national security advisor, he chose an older, tall, and craggy white man with many stars on his shoulders. Rice got the United Nations.

Rice now has, in effect, two separate jobs: As U.N. ambassador, she reports to the secretary of state and works with the State Department's Bureau of International Organization Affairs; as a member of the cabinet she reports to the president. In the Obama administration, foreign policy is made by the White House and carried out by the State Department, and Rice has hitched herself almost wholly to the former. This has contributed to her cool, if perfectly correct, relationship with Secretary Clinton, as has her primal act of rebellion in 2007. A "black belt in bureaucracy," as an admiring White House official says, Rice has constituted her office as a kind of shadow cabinet department. She often dispatches mid-level officials to the State Department to convey her wishes on subjects remote from her portfolio. One former administration official told me, "Susan's complete insistence on making the U.S. [mission to the] U.N. her own thing" has, unsurprisingly, led to friction with the State Department.

Rice was a prodigy; she had become an assistant secretary of state at the tender age of 32, and she has the semisocialized quality of many people who have known nothing but success. She had a "fearsome reputation" as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, says Elizabeth Cousens, who roomed with her then and later served as Rice's chief policy advisor at the United Nations. Cousens says that people who could only see Rice's argumentativeness and single-minded passion, rather than her kindness and intense loyalty, were baffled at their close friendship. Cousens was also awestruck by her friend's methodical intelligence: To write her dissertation, Rice placed hundreds of index cards on the floor and simply picked up each card as she wrote her way through.

As a very young official in the Clinton administration, Rice's confrontations were legend. She and Richard Holbrooke, who had the job she holds now in 1999 and 2000, squared off over policy toward Africa, and Rice is said to have told Holbrooke to screw himself, but in less gentle language, in the White House Situation Room. When I made the mistake of interrupting her once, she cried, "Let me finish!" And when, toward the end of one of our interviews, her assistant entered and silently handed her a card, Rice glanced at it and said, "I know what time it is. Thank you."

Washington is full of people who are very self-confident and very impatient, people who seem to be clad in sandpaper. Almost all, however, are white men; Rice is one of the few black women who belong to this particular club, and her membership can be seen as a sign that, at least in the elite world she has always occupied, neither race nor gender need be defining. Rice's father, the son of a South Carolina preacher, got a Ph.D. in economics from the University of California/Berkeley, taught at Cornell University, and moved to Washington before becoming a governor of the Federal Reserve. Rice's mother graduated from Radcliffe College and worked as an education researcher. Rice's father played tennis on Sundays with Joseph Albright, the husband of future Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and then the families would have lunch together. The young Susan went to National Cathedral School, where she was valedictorian, school president, and, at 5'3", point guard on the basketball team. Then she went to Stanford University and Oxford. Her story somehow mingles the self-confidence of the insider with the relentless drive, the sharp edge, even the distrustfulness, of the outsider. People born into privilege often have the gift of putting people at ease; Rice does not.

You might think that such an abrupt person would be ill-suited to diplomacy, but U.S. diplomats are expected to be blunt, and the position of power they occupy allows them to be. In fact, most of the diplomats with whom I spoke profess to like Rice. Hardeep Singh Puri, the U.N. ambassador from India, says, "Susan is easy to work with; there's no ambiguity. Most work around here gets done in informal conversation, and her style is well suited to that." What diplomats want most from a U.S. ambassador is the power to deliver what he or she promises. Here Rice is in a special category of her own, in no small part because of her close relationship to Obama. "When he sees her" outside the Oval Office, says a senior administration official, "he lights up." Several people suggested to me that she and the president share the experience of being black people who rose to the top of virtually all-white institutions, but Rice herself pooh-poohed the idea. What binds them, she told me, is age and a shared worldview. They also both love basketball and have children of about the same ages. (Rice's are 15 and 9.) Whatever the case, Obama clearly takes Rice's advice seriously. She was one of the few cabinet officers to be asked for input on his June 2009 speech in Cairo, and she is expected to weigh in on subjects far outside her ambit, like Afghanistan. Obama allows Rice a longer leash than most U.N. ambassadors -- a latitude that Rice has used to much effect.

WHEN RICE TOOK OVER as ambassador after eight years of Bush, the United Nations was in dire need of attention. The bitter feelings provoked by the debate over Iraq had faded, and the era of provocation had largely ended with Bolton's departure in late 2006. But Bush hadn't been terribly interested in using the institution, and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had proved to be an almost soporific figure. The U.N. felt increasingly marginal. So Rice and the administration ushered in a new era with a bang when Obama took office by vowing to pay the United Nations $1 billion in back dues, which it did by the fall.

Next, they tackled the confounding question of whether to join the U.N. Human Rights Council, something the Bush administration had refused to do. A number of senior officials at the State Department and the White House considered the organization incorrigible and worried that joining would make Obama look naive. The council was, as Tom Malinowski, Washington director for Human Rights Watch, puts it, "a place where good causes were delegitimized." Cuba and other serial human rights violators largely controlled the institution and blocked all attempts to censure any country save Israel.

But Rice and Clinton believed strongly that the new policy of engagement should not be, as Rice says, "a la carte." They argued that the United States could make the council better by participating. In March 2009, the White House agreed. And the risk has paid off. By taking part, the United States prevented Iran from also joining the council and even persuaded its members to appoint a special rapporteur to investigate the country's human rights record; the council has passed resolutions condemning violence in Libya and Syria, and it demanded an investigation into abuses allegedly committed by Sri Lanka in the 2009 war against Tamil rebels. As Malinowski says, "There's still a disproportionate focus on Israel, but it's also bashing a lot of countries that previously felt completely protected."

Then, at the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly in September 2009, Obama spent three days in New York to highlight America's renewed commitment to the institution -- seen as proof of Rice's capacity to "deliver" the president. He even agreed to chair a session of the Security Council, which no U.S. president had done before.

Rice and the White House used the session to advance the president's goal of moving toward a world without nuclear weapons, which he had articulated in Prague that year. After tough negotiations, Russia endorsed a text that called for strict controls on the export of nuclear materials and committed council members to treaties outlawing nuclear tests and the production of fissile material for weapons. Other states then fell into line. "Basically," says Brooke Anderson, Rice's former chief of staff, "we got the rest of the P5" -- the five permanent members of the Security Council (Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States) -- "to raise their hands and endorse the Prague agenda." That agreement helped U.S. diplomats make headway at the five-year review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty the following spring, and the U.S. willingness to take its own arms control obligations seriously helped Rice and the White House persuade reluctant countries to punish Iran for its illicit nuclear activities.

Rice spent the first six months of 2010 carrying out tense, tedious, and protracted negotiations on a resolution imposing harsh sanctions on Iran, which had been clandestinely building nuclear-enrichment facilities in violation of nonproliferation rules. Russia, with its deep ties to Iran, was reluctant to toughen existing sanctions. China would not talk at all. Brazil and Turkey, says Rice, were conducting their own diplomatic bid to resolve the dispute (which the United States had not encouraged). Rice's aides say that she got down in the weeds of the resolution, battering her fellow diplomats with details of how Iran used foreign banks to obscure nuclear-related transactions. She was prepared to conduct her own foreign policy when necessary. When a fellow diplomat challenged her on a red-line issue, saying that Jones, the national security advisor, had laid out the administration's policy differently, Rice retorted, "I outrank General Jones." I asked the diplomat who recalled this tale whether he had been shocked. Not at all, he said. "It made us smile."

But issues as crucial to global security as Iran's nuclear program are ultimately settled well over an ambassador's head. China, for example, only joined the discussion after Obama pressed Chinese President Hu Jintao. Clinton also lobbied a range of foreign capitals. In late spring, the P5 plus Germany finally agreed on a resolution and presented it to the other members of the Security Council. In June 2010, the council passed Resolution 1929, imposing sanctions on Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, banning the sale to Iran of certain heavy weapons, and requiring states to inspect ships or planes heading to or from Iran if they suspected banned cargo was aboard.

The Iran resolution raised Rice's stock in the White House. "She got it done," says Michael McFaul, a National Security Council official who worked closely with her and now serves as ambassador to Russia. "That was giant, big, historic." Russia had agreed to measures it never would have accepted outside the U.N. framework. European allies were prepared to adopt tough sanctions of their own, including the embargo on purchases of Iranian oil that went into effect this July, because they were built on the legitimacy of council action. The measure also showed how the administration's multilateralism policy operated within its larger framework of "engagement": Russia was more inclined to work with the United States because of the administration's effort to "reset" relations (even if the reset wouldn't survive much beyond the Iran resolution). Other states came along in part because Obama, unlike Bush, had shown a willingness to work with Tehran.

Of course, for all the subtle diplomacy, Obama has not yet been any more successful than Bush was in actually stopping Iran's uranium-enrichment program. Multilateralism is a means to reduce friction among states, not a miracle cure -- a point that would be made painfully clear in Syria.

EVEN AS NATO PLANES roared over Libya in the spring of 2011, the Security Council struggled to respond when Assad's forces opened fire on peaceful protesters in Syria. Starting in May, the United States, France, and Britain pressed for a statement condemning the violence. Russia and China resisted. Then, as the death toll mounted into the thousands, the Western countries sought to craft a resolution threatening sanctions against the Assad regime. To ease passage, Britain and France watered down the resolution to the point where, Rice says, "It had become an embarrassment." Nevertheless, Russia and China vetoed the measure, and Lebanon and the big emerging states on the council -- Brazil, India, and South Africa -- voted against it.

What had happened? The Russians, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, complained that they had been betrayed on the Libya resolution, which had authorized force only to enforce a cease-fire -- not to overthrow Qaddafi's regime. This charge infuriates U.S. officials, who think that they could not have been more transparent. On the floor of the council, a visibly angry Rice declared, "This is not about Libya. That is a cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people." Russia, of course, is Syria's chief arms supplier. One senior U.N. official, however, points out that Brazil, India, and South Africa have also complained of being misled on Libya and concludes that the institution is "paying the price in spades on Syria." India's Ambassador Puri has said bluntly that "the Libyan experience" turned many council members against coercive measures.

In January, the Arab League drew up a plan to ease Assad from power. The Obama administration sought the council's blessing for the plan, as a year earlier it had leveraged Arab opinion to gain support for the bombing campaign against Libya. In the first days of February, Russia's ambassador to the U.N., Vitaly Churkin, with whom Rice has a kind of cheerful frenemy relationship, seemed prepared to accept the resolution, but after a meeting with Clinton, Lavrov complained that the document "left the door open to military intervention." Russia and China exercised their veto once again.

Annan briefly saved the international community from its humiliating inaction by proposing a peace plan that did not require Assad's departure and that Russia could thus embrace. In March, the council endorsed the Annan plan and agreed in April to send unarmed observers to Syria. Rice wasn't terribly enthusiastic but thought it was better than nothing, saying, "There is a risk it ends in more violence, which is why the last peaceful game in town is one worth pursuing, even if it's a low-probability game, which we readily admit it is." Annan himself conceded by early July that his low-probability gambit had failed. The United States, Britain, and France then submitted yet another resolution threatening sanctions if Syria did not comply with the terms of the Annan plan, and Russia and China vetoed that one too. Rice finally unloaded in front of the council's 15 members. "The Security Council has failed utterly in its most important task on its agenda this year. This is another dark day in Turtle Bay," she said. "The first two vetoes were very destructive. This veto is even more dangerous and deplorable."

Syria has arguably become the U.N.'s Waterloo, or at least its bridge too far. Russia has used the institution to protect a favored dictator. Countries like South Africa have peeked over the cliff of intervention and recoiled in dismay. No U.N. approval, so no action.

But in this case, the U.N. is more the scapegoat than the problem. After all, even if Russia and China endorsed a resolution threatening sanctions, Assad would be unlikely to call back his troops and relinquish power. Obama first called for Assad to step down fully a year ago but seems unwilling or unable to do more. And it seems doubtful that will change. Few if any senior officials inside the Obama administration favor the kind of military measures that might tip the balance between Assad and his opponents; a Libya-style assault against Syria could provoke sectarian warfare across the region. At a lunch for journalists I attended in May, Rice made it clear that she opposed airstrikes, humanitarian corridors, safe zones, or any of the other military fixes under discussion. Yet nothing short of such measures may dislodge Assad, at least not until after he has killed thousands more Syrians. This is a paradox that someone who believes strongly in the moral use of force might find tragic. But Rice does not resonate at such metaphysical frequencies. She is, she reminded me, a "pragmatist" and accepts the fact that what worked in Kosovo and Libya will not work in Syria.

OBAMA IS NO LONGER treated as the second coming, in the United States or anywhere else. He has not closed the Guantánamo Bay prison or ended many of his predecessor's more onerous counterterrorism policies. He has defended Israel almost as single-mindedly as Bush did. Obama is much less like a European social democrat than his global audience once thought: From the perspective of U.N. diplomats, he looks more like a pragmatic calculator of American national interests in the mold of the elder George Bush, and, when asked to name his favorite statesmen, Obama usually chooses "realists" like Brent Scowcroft and James Baker.  Of course, that still puts him a long way from Mitt Romney, who at times has courted the folks who think the U.N. is coming to get them in black helicopters, as when he recently declared that he would not condone "turning to the United Nations to tell us how to raise our kids, or whether we can have the Second Amendment rights that our Constitution gave us."

What is true of Obama might be said even more explicitly of Rice. The U.N. ambassador has her boss's pragmatism without his gift of vision; she is a creature wholly of prose. "Susan is not about game-changing diplomacy," says a former administration official. "She approached the U.N. without much idealism, with a sort of reserve." Rice herself might not disagree. When I said that, like the president, she seemed to be an idealistic thinker with a highly practical streak, she shook her head. "'Idealistic' to me connotes believing in things or wanting things that are not achievable," she said. She prefers the word "principled."

Rice is held in high esteem in the place where it matters: the White House. One former administration official told me that at the outset of the administration, "the boys" -- deputy national security advisor Denis McDonough, an Obama confidant, and other senior officials -- "wanted her out of the White House -- out, out, out." If that was ever true, a current senior official insists ("Susan was one of the boys right from the beginning"), it almost certainly isn't now. With the exception of Syria, she has won every major battle she has fought at the U.N., not just Iran and Libya, but resolutions imposing sanctions on North Korea, sending a robust peacekeeping force into Ivory Coast when it was torn by post-election conflict, and warding off, at least for the moment, a full-scale war between Sudan and the breakaway state of South Sudan. National Security Council senior staffer Samantha Power, a baseball fan, compares her to Mariano Rivera, the Yankee great who turns every close game into a win. When I told Rhodes that I had heard he was one of the early skeptics of Rice, he put me right. "I would walk through fire for Susan Rice," he said. "She may not be cuddly, but she's incredibly faithful and loyal and passionate on behalf of her friends and the people she's been through fights with."

In the entertaining parlor game of "Who would be secretary of state in a hypothetical Obama second term?" Rice is now considered the leader, or perhaps tied with Donilon, though questions about his possible role in the recent disclosure of sensitive national security information to the New York Times could threaten his confirmability. (Handicappers now place both in front of Sen. John Kerry.) It's unclear that she'd be good at a job like that, though; her smile may be just a trifle too forced, her patience a bit too thin. A State Department official who has known her since the Clinton days says that though Rice is hard-driving, diligent, and effective, "There is a disconnect between that and wisdom." The president, a shrewd judge of character, may know this about her, but the fact that he trusts her may matter more.

Susan Rice is not to be denied. She has never faltered along the steep upward trajectory of her career. Some high-powered women have dropped out of the administration to tend to their families, and Rice says she is sympathetic to their plight; she just doesn't share it. At one point I asked Rice whether she had ever experienced a serious failure. She thought about it. No, she hadn't. "Some have tried to take me on," she murmured. Presumably, they lived to regret it.

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy Magazine September/October 2012 Issue.
- James Traub is fellow at the Center on International Cooperation