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On Middle East, Obama Took Only Path Available To U.S.

There’s been a lot of criticism of President Obama for being too slow to support the Mideast’s popular uprisings, especially in Libya.

“Feeble,” “incoherent” and “not showing leadership” are some of the complaints I get from readers from both sides of the political spectrum. At moments, I’ve felt the same: The White House’s Mideast team is weak, his “peace process” diplomacy has failed, his support of pro-democracy rebels is conflicted.

Yet, after reflecting on a recent visit to Egypt and conversations with experts in the region, I’ve concluded that no U.S. administration could have acted more decisively to aid Arab rebels. Any president would have been constricted by the same factors Obama faced.

Let’s start with Libya, where Obama hesitated for weeks to intervene, but has now agreed to a U.N.-backed no-fly zone that aims to stop Col. Moammar Gadhafi from slaughtering his own people.

In deciding how to act, Obama was haunted by the legacy of the Iraq war. That ill-conceived conflict and failed occupation turned the entire Middle East, including democrats, against U.S. interventions. Egyptian rebel leaders made that point to me over and over. Imposing democracy from above, a la Iraq, is out.

So unilateral U.S. intervention in Libya was out of the question. Moreover, the Pentagon strongly opposed intervention in another Muslim country. U.S. generals feared it would take ground forces to get rid of Gadhafi.

Only after the Arab League endorsed a no-fly zone March 12 (and called for United Nations support) could the White House press for a vote by the U.N. Security Council. The vote meant – in theory, at least – that Arab countries could provide cover for action by France and Britain, with the United States in a supporting role. Even so, had Gadhafi not been on the verge of committing large-scale atrocities against civilians in full view of the world, Obama might not have concurred.

However, the Libya story is but a tragic sideshow. The fate of the region will turn on the results of democratic experiments in Egypt and events in Yemen, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia.

The Obama-ites were slow to support Egyptian rebels, but that may have been a godsend. Much of Egypt’s newfound pride lies with the fact that its rebels made their revolution on their own.

Now is the moment when U.S. officials should back democratic Egyptians (and Tunisians) in their push for fair elections and an open constitutional process. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who just visited both countries, seems to get it. But in their eagerness to avoid interference in Egypt’s politics, U.S. officials may be taking an approach that’s too hands-off.

The president’s ambivalence has also stemmed, however, from the fact that we have sharply conflicting interests in the region.

In theory, we back political reform in the Middle East, in the hope that Arab states can build democratic institutions in the long run. If they succeed, terrorists may find less fertile ground in the region.

Yet in the short run, the United States still faces crucial security threats from Iran and from Islamist terrorists. Our autocratic Arab allies helped us fight these threats. Their demise is likely to create instability in coming months or years that will enable those threats to increase.

This conflict underlay the slow support for change in Egypt. Hosni Mubarak’s intelligence service was aggressive in pursuit of Islamist terrorists, and he was a key Sunni ally in containing Shiite Tehran. In the new Egypt (and Tunisia, and Libya, if Gadhafi falls), intelligence services will be curbed. This is a good thing, as the secret police repressed their own people. But it will also make it easier for terrorist networks to regroup in the region.

At least in Egypt, the White House can still rely on a close relationship with the army, which will remain a power center for the foreseeable future. In the Arabian Peninsula and the gulf, however, the democracy-vs.-security conflict makes it almost impossible to shape a coherent policy.

Gulf rulers like Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah want Obama to forget about democracy and focus on security. Such a choice seemed possible in the last decade: George W. Bush promoted Mideast democracy in his first term; then, when that backfired, he emphasized Mideast security in his second term. But that choice is not possible now.

The administration has tried, unsuccessfully, to encourage the president of Yemen to usher in peaceful democratic change. Neither ruler nor rebels seem able to make the necessary compromises, which means U.S. officials probably can’t save Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yet if he falls, this country, just below Saudi Arabia, may relapse into tribal warfare. This would make it easier for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula to flourish.

In Bahrain, the revolt of a largely Shiite population against its Sunni rulers presents the greatest danger to U.S. interests. This island kingdom is connected by a causeway to Saudi Arabia, whose eastern oil region is dominated by its Shiite minority. The Saudis fear that if Bahrain’s rulers fall, Iran will have the perfect base from which to push Saudi Shiites to rebel.

Last week, over Obama’s objections, the Saudi monarch sent troops across the causeway to help crush Bahrain’s rebels. He won’t listen when U.S. officials urge him (and Bahrain’s ruler) to give more representation to their Shiites. Obama’s team says this will head off trouble; Abdullah believes it will create more.

The Saudis think Obama is too strong on democracy and weak on security. Obama’s critics slam him for being too weak on democracy – or on security. Few realize he is caught in a historical bind that requires him to be strong on both, even though the two contradict each other – at least in the short term. Bush couldn’t resolve that contradiction; Obama has no choice but to try.

By: Trudy Rubin, Columnist, The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 22, 2011

March 22, 2011 Posted by | Democracy, Dictators, Egypt, Foreign Policy, Libya, Middle East, Military Intervention, President Obama, Qaddafi | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why Qaddafi Has Already Lost

The fight is not over. Whether or not Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi defeats the rebels in eastern Libya, any legitimacy he once had has been extinguished. He has weapons, tanks and planes, but he has lost the allegiance of even those elements of Libyan society that had once been willing to wait and hope for political reform. His base of support is now only diehard allies and foreign mercenaries. They might win on the battlefield, but they will lose in the end.

The uprisings in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt were precipitating events, but the resistance has drawn its core motivation from Libya’s brutal experience of colonialism. What is most striking about the rhetoric of the rebellion is how the anticolonialist theme that Colonel Qaddafi once deployed has now been turned against him and is being used on Twitter and Facebook. Even as they are assaulted by Colonel Qaddafi’s forces, the rebels have resisted calling for forceful Western intervention, though they support the imposition of a no-flight zone.

Libya’s history explains why. From 1911 to 1943, half a million Libyans died under Italian rule, including 60,000 in concentration camps run by the fascists. Colonel Qaddafi’s nationalist populism is rooted in the traumas of the colonial era, which were papered over during the modernizing but out-of-touch monarchy that ruled from 1951 to 1969.

The regime that came into existence in a bloodless coup in 1969 was led by officers who came from lower-middle-class backgrounds, represented all three regions of Libya and had the backing of a population that was largely rural. Although it was anticolonialist and anticommunist and advocated Arab nationalism and Islamic cultural identity, the new government did not have a clearly delineated political agenda; instead it looked for guidance from the 1952 Egyptian revolution. To this ideological mix the Qaddafi faction, which consolidated power in 1976, added its vision of an indigenous, pastoral, socialist society supported by oil revenues and the labor of workers from abroad.

Western analysts focused on the leader’s cult of personality and eccentric style have often misinterpreted his regime as a historical aberration. In fact, it was rooted in the hinterland of south-central Libya, with its pan-Islamic culture, kinship networks, fear of the central state and mistrust of the West. Colonel Qaddafi transformed anticolonialism and Libyan nationalism into a revolutionary ideology, using language understood by ordinary Libyans. He employed his charisma to mobilize Libyans and attack his opponents. He spoke, ate and dressed like a rural tribesman.

But “tribalism,” so frequently mentioned in coverage of the revolt, is not a timeless feature of Libyan society. It was merely one facet of Colonel Qaddafi’s divide-and-conquer style of rule. To weaken opposition from students, intellectuals and the middle class, the regime pursued a policy of “Bedouinization,” attacking urban culture; promoting rural dress, music, festivals and rituals; and reviving institutions like tribal leadership councils. Tripoli, the capital, lost much of its cosmopolitan character even as it grew.

In its first two decades, the revolution brought many benefits to ordinary Libyans: widespread literacy, free medical care and education, and improvements in living conditions. Women in particular benefited, becoming ministers, ambassadors, pilots, judges and doctors. The government got wide support from the lower and middle classes.

But starting in the 1980s, excessive centralization, greater repression by security forces and a decline in the rule of law undermined the experiment in indigenous populism. Institutions like courts, universities, unions and hospitals weakened. Civic associations that had made Libyan society seem more democratic than many Persian Gulf states in the 1970s withered or were eliminated. A hostile international climate, and fluctuations in oil revenues, added to the pressures on the regime.

It responded by transforming its rituals of hero-worship into a rhetoric of pan-African ideology. It also turned to violence. After repeated coup attempts, it beat, imprisoned and exiled dissidents. It staffed security forces with reliable relatives and allies from central and southern Libya. During the 1990s, as economic sanctions took their toll, health care and education deteriorated, unemployment soared, the economy became ever more dependent on oil and the regime grew increasingly corrupt.

But what has escaped notice since the rebellion began in mid-February is the demographic transformation that made it possible. About 80 percent of Libyans now live in urban areas, towns and cities. Libya today has a modern economy and a high literacy rate. The leaders of the uprising include lawyers, judges, journalists, writers, scholars, women’s rights activists, former army officers and diplomats — a sizable urban elite that is battered and restive.

Had Colonel Qaddafi responded with openness to the calls for reform and not overreacted to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the urban elite might have been placated, and the violent rebellion avoided. He blew it. Once his army and police shot at protesters, the pent-up disaffection of Libyan society was unleashed, and it is too late for the regime to bottle it up. In recent weeks the revolt has even gained support from the historically pro-Qaddafi rural populace. No matter how much blood is shed today, the uprising will not be stopped.

By: Ali Abdullatif Ahmida, Op-Ed Contributor, The New York Times: Professor of Political Science at the University of New England, and author of “The Making of Modern Libya: State Formation, Colonization and Resistance, 1830-1932.”

March 17, 2011 Posted by | Dictators, Libya, Muslims, No Fly Zones, Qaddafi, War | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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