Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Syrian regime responds to critical cartoons by breaking the cartoonist's hands

The Washington Post's headline gets right to the point: Syrian security forces break hands of political cartoonist Ali Ferzat (8/25/2011)
Renowned Syrian political cartoonist Ali Ferzat was kidnapped, badly beaten, and left bleeding on the side of the road in an attack Thursday blamed on the security forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. [....]
According to the more extensive report in the Guardian:
In the early hours of Thursday, masked men seized Ferzat from the street and forced him in to a van. A relative has said that Ferzat's attackers targeted his hands, breaking them both, and told him it was "just a warning" before leaving him by the roadside with a bag over his head.
Of course, there is no direct proof that these thugs belonged to the Syrian security services. But that kind of heavy-handed symbolism, so to speak, is characteristic of their style of operation over the years, both at home and in Lebanon. One famous example was the 1980 assassination of the Lebanese journalist Selim al-Lawzi, whose body was found with his right hand burned in acid. And last month, according to the same Guardian report, "Ibrahim al-Qashoush, the composer of a popular anti-regime song in Hama, was found dead with his vocal chords removed." (They meant "vocal cords".) By comparison, what Ferzat got was "just a warning."

When Bashar took over from his father Hafez al-Assad as ruler of Syria in 2000, there was a brief period when it seemed possible that he would initiate a bit of glasnost. But those hopes faded pretty quickly, as the regime reverted to form.
In a 2001 interview with the Guardian, Ferzat recalled that before becoming president, Assad visited one of his exhibitions and said that some of the cartoons banned in Syria should have been published. He also published satirical paper al-Domar (Lamplighter), which ran from late 2000 until he was forced to close it in 2003. [....]

The dissident artist, who once described himself as having a friendship with Assad, warned in 2007 of an impending "monumental crisis" if the regime did not reform. He has since become increasingly critical of the regime and its brutal crackdown.
Until recently it looked as though Ferzat's prominence, along with Assad's desire to have a few token critics around for the sake of appearances, would protect him from attack. No longer.
Outspoken cultural figures have in the past been able to get away with more criticism than others. But in recent weeks, several artists, writers and actors have been arrested. [JW: Or, like Ibrahim al-Qashoush, murdered.] "At this stage, fame may be more of a danger than a protection because the regime does not want any prominent figure to come to the fore and provide a public face for the revolution," said Ammar Abdulhamid, a US-based dissident and son of Syrian actor Mona Wasif.
My impression is that for some time Ferzat's cartoons have all been published outside Syria, but no doubt they're accessible to Syrians in various ways. This recent cartoon, which shows Assad with his bags packed trying to hitch a ride with a fleeing Qaddafi, may have been the last straw.

Of course, Ferzat wasn't the only one to make this connection. On August 22, the day after jubilant Libyan rebels were shown on TV celebrating in the heart of Tripoli,
Thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets across Syria today after a televised appearance by Bashar al-Assad, shouting for the president to step down and chanting: "Gaddafi is gone, now it's your turn, Bashar!"
Whether or not Assad does go the way of Qaddafi remains to be seen. The situations in Syria and in Libya are different in a lot of important ways, so one shouldn't jump to conclusions. But stay tuned.

—Jeff Weintraub

Friday, August 26, 2011

Who got it right on Libya? — Christopher Hitchens, Fred Kaplan, & Barack Obama in March

The Obama administration's decision to have the US support the revolutionaries in Libya, and to do so in a low-key way as just one member of a multilateral NATO-led coalition, was a gamble that could have turned out very badly (and, hypothetically, might still wind up looking like a mistake in the long term). But so far it seems to have been vindicated by the outcome. In the interest of trying to learn some lessons from this experience, as well as giving credit where credit is due, it's worth revisiting some of the arguments that were offered in favor of what proved to be the right policy.

=> On March 28 of this year, shortly after the beginning of the US/NATO military intervention in Libya, President Obama gave a speech explaining and justifying his administration's Libya policy. Here are some selections from Fred Kaplan's assessment and endorsement of Obama's approach:
President Barack Obama's speech on Libya Monday night was about as shrewd and sensible as any such address could have been.

Some of his critics hoped he would outline a grand strategy on the use of force for humanitarian principles. Some demanded that he go so far as to declare what actions he would or would not take, and why, in Syria, Bahrain, and other nations where authoritarian rulers fire bullets at their own people. Still others urged him to spell out when the air war will stop, how we'll exit, who will help the Libyan people rebuild their country after Qaddafi goes, and what we'll do if he doesn't go.

These are all interesting matters, but they evade the two main questions, which Obama confronted straight on. First, under the circumstances, did the United States really have any choice but to intervene militarily? Second, for all the initial hesitations and continuing misunderstandings, would the actions urged by his critics (on the left and right) have led to better results? For that matter, have any presidents of the last couple of decades dealt with similar crises more wisely?

The answers to all those questions: no. [....]
Well, to be precise, the US did have a choice. What Kaplan means is that a decision to do nothing would have been a terrible mistake, and that under the circumstances postponing a decision would have been equivalent to making the wrong decision, irretrievably, by default.
Obama's main point was this: When, as he put it, "our interests and values are at stake," and when taking military action a) carries few risks, b) costs little, and c) may reap huge benefits, both political and humanitarian, then such action is worth taking even if the interests involved aren't quite vital.

This formulation is unsatisfying, both to the [self-styled foreign-policy] Realists (who shy from using force except in pursuit of [so-called] vital interests and, even then, only when the outcome is fairly certain and preponderant force is mustered) and to the neoconservatives (who leap to use force anywhere and everywhere in the cause of universal moral values). But it reflects a sense of realism with a small r.

The brutal fact that the neocons (and their brethren among liberal humanitarians) must face is that the United States is not as powerful as it once was. (In fact, it never was, but that's another story …) Even if Obama were inclined to promote democracy everywhere, he couldn't do it. [....]

And the fact that the Realists must face is that sometimes force is worth using even if the material interests at stake are meager. [JW: In this context, "realist" is a term that should never be used without scare-quotes or some other cautionary marking, as Kaplan has done, since it is a misleading and undeserved self-congratulatory technical label for a perspective that is often far from realistic in the everyday sense of the word.] [....]

In this case, Qaddafi was on the verge of quashing the rebels, and he said he would go door to door to kill them and their supporters like rats. The Arab League—the Arab League!—called on the international community to come to the aid of the Libyan people. France and Great Britain—France and Great Britain!—seconded the motion. The U.N. Security Council took up the call (with much U.S. leadership), and since the Arabs had called for action, Russia and China—which didn't much like the notion—couldn't find an excuse for a veto, so it passed.

This is precisely the way the United Nations is supposed to work—a broad coalition of world powers summoning the will to engage in collective defense. [....] For those who accuse Obama of "dithering," it's worth noting, as he did Monday night, that President Bill Clinton waited a year—and stood by while a real massacre took place—before taking similar action against Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. If Obama had waited for the citizens of Benghazi to be slaughtered by the thousands, his critics would be fuming, and rightly so.

The main reason they're fuming now anyway seems pretty clear. As New York Times columnist Gail Collins wrote of Mitt Romney's opinion of Libya, he "supports the current mission, except for the part where it's run by Barack Obama."

There are still many uncertainties about the Libyan operation—and it's reasonable to argue that they should have been worked out more clearly or more fully before the bombs fell. [....] But the fate of Libya is the most troubling part of this whole operation. The country's a wreck. If Qaddafi does fall, there are no political institutions, no parties or social groupings, no levers for the makings of a civil society or a thriving economy. It's not even clear who the rebel leaders are, what they stand for, or whether they have any true following among the Libyan people (whoever they are). Granted, there wasn't much time for postwar planning; the intervention had to commence when it did, or Qaddafi would have won. Yet, while Libya is not Iraq, the crucial failing of the Iraq invasion was the lack of pos planning. If some countries or international bodies aren't prepared to step in quickly, with some sort of plan, Libya could easily plunge into chaos, anarchy, civil war, or worse.

Obama said in his speech Monday night that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would head to London on Tuesday to meet with "the Libyan opposition" and "consult with more than 30 nations" about "a transition to the future that the Libyan people deserve." We'll see. [....
=> And below is most of a piece that Christopher Hitchens wrote on March 14, before the NATO military intervention began with the last-minute bombing to save Benghazi. On the whole, it stands up rather well in retrospect. I've cut just a few bits, which seem to me peripheral, but if you like you can read >the whole thing.

(Let us note, by the way, that on this one Juan Cole and Christopher Hitchens were on the same side. For one alternative perspective, see here.)

—Jeff Weintraub

Posted Monday, March 14, 2011, at 10:53 AM ET
Don't Let Qaddafi Win
Ignore the "realists." If we do nothing, the situation in Libya can only get worse.

By Christopher Hitchens

The stand of the "realist" school, and its objections to further or faster involvement in the Libya crisis, can be fairly summarized as follows:

1) Libya contains too many unknowns for us to be sure whom we would be supporting. We thus run the risk of breaching the principle of primo non nocere, or "first do no harm."

2) The relative calm of Tripoli, when contrasted with the upheaval in Benghazi, points to a historic east-west divide between the former provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, which predates the formation of the modern Libyan state and might itself be destabilizing. The West might inadvertently ignite a sectarian regionalism culminating in fragmentation or partition.

3) The U.N. Security Council will not legalize the means with which to remove Muammar Qaddafi.

4) The Arab world is highly dubious about Western intervention and quick to take offense at anything smacking of a revived colonialism.

5) A "no-fly zone" is less simple than it sounds, since it necessarily involves a confrontation with a Russian-built air-defense system and would almost certainly necessitate the next step, which would be boots-on-the-ground military action and perhaps a period of occupation, for which the portents are not encouraging.

6) Political change in Libya should, in any case, be the work—as with the precedents of Tunisia and Egypt—of home-grown social forces.

The first two points are quite strong ones, but they become less persuasive unless one assumes the persistence in power of the Qaddafi clan. The actual evidence, however, is that Qaddafi senior has reached his Ceausescu moment: a full-dress (in the literal sense) meltdown into paranoia, megalomania, and delusion. His recent speeches and appearances have shown him stinking with madness and hysteria. His age and condition, at any rate, set a very sharp limit to the duration of his regime. If that regime implodes while he is still "in place," then all the grim consequences foreseen by the realists will be incurred in any case. Weapons will get into the wrong hands; divide-and-rule tactics (already a stock in trade) will intensify; religious and tribal passions will be deliberately inflamed. The main difference will be that we merely watched this happen. [....]

Further, to points (3) and (4): The Arab League has now itself broken with decades of torpor, declared the Qaddafi regime illegitimate, and called for the imposition of a no-fly zone. This unprecedented resolution, which is not contradicted by any measurable pro-Qaddafi opinion in the legendary "Arab street," seems to draw much of the sting from the realist concern about regional opinion. The Shiite population has not forgotten Qaddafi's role in the disappearance and presumed murder of Imam Musa Sadr; Saudi officials have been targeted by his death squads; many other states have cause to resent his criminal meddling over the years.

Qaddafi is also particularly disliked in Egypt, whose armed forces we have been sustaining at a high level of sophistication (and expense) for several decades. Should the Obama administration not now be pressing Egypt to give point to its Arab League vote and to take a share of responsibility for local law enforcement? It would be a great baptism of the new Egyptian republic. But, again, one hears only the sound of shuffling.

As to the feasibility of a no-fly zone, I pointed out several weeks ago what I couldn't avoid noticing on two brief visits to Libya: The entire country is in effect a long strip of coastline, with a vast hinterland of desert, bordering a sea, where the strongest force by far is the Sixth Fleet. This elementary point has been taken up and elaborated in a very considered—one might almost call it realist—Wall Street Journal article by James Thomas and Zachary Cooper. These two experts at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments emphasize that "[u]nlike in the Balkans and Iraq, Libya's most populated cities and airbases are situated near its coastline, with most situated less than 10 miles from the shore" (my italics). This sheer geographical fact gives us the option of using ship- and aircraft-based missiles without sending any planes into Libyan airspace, what the authors call a "stand-off no-fly zone." [....]

[JW: As it turned out, the NATO-led intervention went well beyond imposing a no-fly zone, though it stopped short of introducing foreign ground troops—and that was the right strategy.]

If the other side in this argument is correct, or even to the extent that it is correct, then we are being warned that a maimed and traumatized Libya is in our future, no matter what. That being the case, a piecemeal and improvised policy is the least pragmatic one. Even if Qaddafi temporarily turns the tide, as seems thinkable, and covers us all with shame for doing so, we will still have it all to do again. Let us at least hope that certain excuses will not be available next time.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Who got it right on Libya? — Marc Lynch in June

The Libyan revolution against the Qaddafi dictatorship and the intervention of NATO countries (plus Qatar) in support of the revolution seem to have turned out a lot more successfully than many people expected and predicted (though we still should worry about the aftermath). I certainly won't claim that I felt confident about this outcome myself, but I didn't try to pretend otherwise. However, a wide range of analysts, pundits, and political figures made confident predictions of disaster and futility that turned out to be quite wrong. Others got it right--on the basis of arguments and analysis, not just guesswork–and in those cases it makes sense to give credit where credit is due. It's not just a question of being fair. Some retrospective attention to the competing analysis (whether or not we agree fully with any of them) might help us make more informed and intelligent judgments about future controversies ... though, of course, the facts and issues involved are never going to be precisely the same..

A few days ago I noted that Juan Cole "has 'unabashedly' sided with the 'liberation movement' in Libya and argued that it deserved support and assistance from the outside world–a position that produced consternation and dismay among many of his usual fans, who expected him to share their knee-jerk opposition to any kind of western involvement or intervention." (He responded forcefully and convincingly to that kind of thinking in his Open Letter to the Left on Libya,) So Cole is entitled to feel some vindication, and indeed he feels vindicated.

Marc Lynch of Washington University, who blogs as Abu Aardvark, is another well-known analyst/pundit on the Middle East whose failure to reflexively oppose NATO intervention surprised many of his usual fans. But his analysis and predictions (after some ambivalent waffling in March, at the very beginning) have stood up very well. Here are selections from an item Lynch posted on June 18, 2011:
This is a good time to realize that the war in Libya was very much worth fighting and that it is moving in a positive direction. A massacre was averted, all the trends favor the rebels, the emerging National Transitional Council is an unusually impressive government in waiting, and a positive endgame is in sight. This is a war of which the administration should be proud, not one to be hidden away from public or Congressional view.

I supported the intervention in Libya reluctantly, in the face of strong evidence of [an] impending humanitarian catastrophe and an unprecedented, intense Arab public demand for Western action. I believe fully that the NATO intervention prevented a major massacre in Benghazi, which would have guaranteed the survival of the Qaddafi regime. The retaliation campaign which followed the regime's survival would have been bloodier still. There would have been a chilling effect across the region, encouraging violent repression and demoralizing challengers. And the impact on America's image in the region of failing to act and allowing the massacre would have been profound. Many of the same people (in the Arab world and in the U.S.) who now lambaste Obama for intervening would have been editorializing about his betrayal of his promises to the Muslims of the world and his indifference to Muslim lives.

[....] I acknowledge that strong arguments could be and have been made about the limited U.S. national interests directly at stake in Libya, and the real dangers of overstretch, but still believe that the importance of preventing a preventable massacre and helping to facilitate real change in Libya outweigh them. (The argument that this was a war for Libyan oil strikes me as silly, given Qaddafi's enthusiasm for selling it.)

The prevailing view seems to be that Libya has become a quagmire, a grinding stalemate with no end in sight. This is wrong. While nothing is resolved yet, and Qaddafi may still be able to hang on, all the trends are in the favor of the rebels. There has been a growing cascade of states recognizing the NTC as the legitimate government of Libya, as Qaddafi's support dries up even in Africa. There are more and more defections from the Qaddafi regime to the NTC, and -- crucially -- virtually no examples of anyone moving in the opposite direction. The rebels are holding territory, and the battle has moved to Tripoli itself. Qaddafi appears to be running out of money. Finally, the NTC itself (several of whom I've had the opportunity to meet) appears to be an impressive group, with serious technocrats attending to key shadow ministries and a real effort to include and represent all parts of Libya.

The Libya campaign certainly hasn't been perfect -- far from it! -- and many people had strong, legitimate reasons to oppose the intervention. But there were also strong reasons for intervening. Much good was done. Many lives were saved, both immediately in Benghazi and over the longer-term across Libya. The international intervention has helped Libyans to seize the chance for a more democratic and open state which respects the rule of law and human rights. And it was done with NATO in the lead and with serious diplomatic and popular Arab support. It was worth the fight.

I wish that the Obama administration had obtained Congressional support for the campaign long before it reached today's crisis point. But now that we are here, I hope that the administration will make a full-throated case for the Libya intervention-- why it was launched, what it accomplished, where it fits into the broader unfolding Arab transformation, and how its success will advance American interests.
=> As Lynch suggests, someone else who ought to feel vindicated by this outcome is President Obama. It was Britain and France, not the US, that led the charge for NATO intervention–for which credit is due to David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy. And it's clear from numerous reports that the Obama administration, including Obama himself, was deeply ambivalent and uncertain about getting involved. But in the end Obama did decide to commit the US to join in an international intervention by a coalition of some but not all NATO members (plus Qatar). Since then, US involvement has taken the form of "leading from behind." The first military action came at the very last moment, when Qaddafi's forces were on the verge of crushing the last remaining stronghold of the rebellion in Benghazi, and after the first few weeks Britain and France have done the heavy lifting in providing air support for the rebels, while Qatar seems to have played a significant role in training and supplying rebel fighters. The US, for its part, has played an effective role in getting international support for the intervention, including formal resolutions from the UN and the Arab League, and maintaining diplomatic and economic pressure on the Qaddafi regime. This intervention has been a genuinely multilateral operation, and the administration has deliberately avoided having the US take a conspicuously predominant role. This strategy took six months to work, and must have generated a lot of anxiety within the administration, but they stayed the course unflappably, and in the end the gamble worked. An e-mail message I got from Victor Lidz nicely summed up the appropriate conclusions:
One thought I would like to add is that there should be congratulations to the Obama administration for their approach to this situation – not jumping in to impose another war on our country and the Islamic world, but allowing Libyans to take the lead while assuring that NATO would provide effective support. Just a week or ten days ago, the administration was being blamed for a policy that had been ineffective, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, for entangling the US in another unending war. Both criticisms now seem profoundly wrong despite the many uncertainties about what the longer-term outcome will be. What has happened is that the Libyans have won a new opportunity for themselves…
Right. (And by the way, according to the estimates I have read, the direct financial costs of this operation for the US have been about $1 billion. That's a lot of money, to be sure, but by comparison with the ongoing costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan–just the weekly costs, let alone the total costs–it's chicken feed.)

=>All of that has to do with the substantive policy and its concrete outcomes. The main reservations that need to be added involve procedural concerns about the way that the US government has pursued this policy. From a legal and constitutional perspective, the whole process has been unfortunate, disappointing, embarrassing, and in some ways disgraceful. It reflects badly on the Obama administration, on Congress, and on the overall health of our political system, and it may have some troubling long-term implications. More on these matters another time ...

–Jeff Weintraub

P.S. Perhaps it's worth adding this tweet that Eli Lake, not exactly a big fan of Obama himself, directed at right-wing Obama-bashers: