On Sunday evening, Egyptian plainclothes police and the army attacked a protest by peaceful demonstrators. Dozens were killed and hundreds wounded, while state television spread inflammatory news of Copts attacking soldiers. Many immediately concluded that sectarianism was to blame, rather than the military command which oversaw the bloodbath. The ability of Egypt's Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) to avoid accountability for its actions lies at the heart of the problems in today's Egypt.
This myth about Egypt's transition runs deep. It blames the stagnation of the country's transition on the divided protest movement, unsatisfied public sector workers, factory labors, and rural farmers. When this narrative does not suffice, the established but ineffective political parties, various Islamist parties greedy for electoral competition, and weak cabinet members are marshaled from their supporting roles to take the fall. Either way, they implicitly place the blame for Egypt's shaky transition on the doorstep of the civilians who made the revolution. Even the focus on parliamentary elections, the policy positions of Egypt's current presidential contenders, or a constitution yet to be written diverts the focus from where it belong -- the people actually in power.
Tech. Sgt. Jacob N. Bailey/AFLO/Zuma Press
Speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace earlier this month, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen stressed the need for the U.S. to maintain open channels of communication with the government of Iran.
"Even in the darkest days of the Cold War," Mullen said, "we had links to the Soviet Union. We are not talking to Iran, so we don't understand each other." Asked whether he was "specifically talking about military to military contact, or a broader set of engagement between the two countries," Mullen replied, "I'm talking about any channel that's open. We've not had a direct link of communication with Iran since 1979...Any channel would be terrific."
While President Obama made talking to Iran a central element of his foreign policy agenda upon taking office, no one expected that it would be easy. Over the last three years, Iran's leaders have done nothing to change that pessimism. Always skeptical of the prospect of negotiating with Iran, U.S. conservatives have criticized President Obama's engagement policy from the start. Most recently, in his first big foreign policy address last Tuesday, Texas Governor Rick Perry scolded President Obama for "wasting precious time on a naïve policy of outreach" to Iran.
Cynicism and skepticism always have their place, but today might just go down as an historic day on the Israeli-Palestinian front. No, there is no direct or quick fix move from the Palestinian application for U.N. membership to the actual realization of a Palestinian state (and certainly not when one factors in the Israeli response) but the Palestinian U.N. move does represent the most definitive break yet with the failed and structurally flawed strategies for advancing peace of many a year. Many Palestinians and others are now suggesting that the PLO leadership progress from the symbolism of September 23rd to a concerted struggle for their freedom centered on nonviolent resistance, diplomacy, and international legality, believing that this would finally deliver a breakthrough.
In its theatrics, today was rather predictable -- other than the Quartet statement of the afternoon, on which more in a moment. The speeches of Abbas and Netanyahu held few, if any, surprises. Abbas played to the Palestinian community at home and around the world, and to the rest of the international community.
As President Mahmoud Abbas continues to prepare the Palestinian bid for "observer" status at the United Nations General Assembly on September 23, some members of congress have threatened to cut off economic and/or security aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA). One might expect this threat to resonate in Ramallah. The PA has long been one of the most aid-dependent administrations in the world and contributing $833 million in 2009, the United States is its largest provider of official development assistance -- outmatching the second largest donor, the United Arab Emirates, by almost a factor of four.
Yet Abbas and his advisors have solidly rebuffed Obama administration pleas and congressional threats to abandon the PA's petition. Why hasn't the PA been dissuaded by the prospect of less (or no) U.S. aid in one year's time? Part of the answer, of course, lies in the homegrown political challenges confronting Abbas and his Prime Minister, Salam al-Fayyad -- progress on which seems stagnant relative to the broader "Arab Awakening" in the region. Another part lies in the intransigence of the Netanyahu government, which offers little hope for meaningful negotiations. But the final part of the answer lies in the nature of U.S. aid itself.
Aid is best at buying leverage when it is in high demand by the recipient, unavailable from other donors, and does not directly serve donor interests. In these situations, donors can issue credible threats to withdraw aid if the recipient fails to implement the donor's foreign policy demands. This year, the United States will provide only about $400.4 million* in Economic Support Funds to the PA, much of which is distributed among technical assistance projects that are widely available from other donors. This is not good material for leverage -- Congress ought not bother. The two most important unique contributions that the United States makes to the PA are diplomatic support and security assistance. However, neither is well-suited to pressuring the PA on the statehood bid -- the former because it has proven ineffective, the latter because it serves U.S. and Israeli interests so well. And that leaves the US with few remaining cards to use with a desperate Palestinian leadership.
SAIF DAHLAH/AFP/Getty Image
Is there anyone familiar with the history of the Israel-Palestine peace process who still believes that this Israeli government would defy the over half-a-million settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem -- by far the most influential political force in Israel -- and their networks of supporters within Israel, and present Palestinians with a reasonable peace plan for a two-state solution that would be acceptable to even the most moderate and accommodating of Palestinian leaders?
Shelly Yachimovich, an Israeli Knesset Member who is a leading candidate for the Labor Party's leadership, recently declared that Israel's settlement project is "not a sin or a crime" since it was initiated by a Labor government, and therefore "a completely consensual move." Leaving aside the bizarre notion that the consensus of thieves legitimizes their theft, if these are the views of candidates for Labor Party leadership in today's Israel, what prospect can there possibly be for an acceptable peace accord to emerge from the peace process?
While the relentless pace of developments in the Middle East shows little sign of flagging, the region will briefly cast its gaze to New York next week -- with the backdrop for the next installment on Israel-Palestine being provided by Manhattan's East side digs of the United Nations. Any thoughts of the Arab awakening "proving" that Palestine was in fact a marginal concern in the region were unequivocally banished in recent weeks. To imagine that a popular Arab push for democracy, freedom, and dignity would ignore Israel's denial of those same aspirations for Palestinians was a flight of fancy. The opposite is unsurprisingly proving true -- Arab democracy will be less tolerant of Palestinian disenfranchisement than was Arab autocracy.
What is actually likely to happen to the Palestinian effort at the United Nations and what might it mean for all concerned?
The killing of a 14-year-old boy by police on the island of Sitra on Aug. 31 has reignited simmering tensions in Bahrain. Ali Jawad Ahmad died while attending an Eid al-Fitr demonstration, one of numerous flashpoints in the daily confrontations between anti-government protesters and the security services. His death triggered widespread protests that rapidly spread to most Shiite villages on the Bahraini archipelago. Some 10,000 people attended his funeral and repeated calls for the overthrow of the ruling Al-Khalifa family.
Groups of demonstrators also returned to central Manama where they attempted to reclaim the site of Pearl Roundabout -- now a traffic junction after it was bulldozed by the regime in March. Riot police beat them back with tear gas, but the symbolism of the attempted return to the heart of the pro-democracy movement that threatened to topple the Al-Khalifa in March was clear.
The swift collapse of the Libyan regime is unlikely to have a decisive impact on the Syrian conflict, but it provides a serious hint as to its ultimate outcome. Syrian protesters did not need to see the rebels overtake Tripoli to boost their confidence; for months they have shown extraordinary resolve in the face of escalating violence. They will not give up if only because they know that worse would be in store were the security services to reassert unchallenged control. Colonel Qaddafi's fall is relevant for a different reason: it provides evidence of the internal frailty of the patrimonial power structures that have plagued the region.
Such regimes ultimately rest on fear and opportunism far more than they do on institutions or a cause. They crumble the moment the army of zealots that form their ranks realize the battle is lost. One day, they appear strong. The next, they are gone. In 2003, when U.S. troops entered Baghdad, they revealed -- much to their own surprise -- that Sadddam's regime was hollow. Tunisian President Ben Ali's leviathan turned out to be a pygmy on rickety stilts. In Libya, loyalist forces had fought the rebels into a seemingly endless stalemate until they suddenly were swept away.
In the Republican presidential primary debate in Ames, Iowa two weeks ago, Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) caused a bit of an uproar with his suggestion that an Iranian nuclear weapon would not mean the end of the world. "Why would that be so strange," Paul asked, "if the Soviets and the Chinese had nuclear weapons? We tolerated the Soviets. We didn't attack them. And they were a much greater danger. They were the greatest danger to us in our whole history. But you [didn't] go to war with them."
Rep. Allen West (R-FL) quickly declared Paul's remarks to be evidence that Paul was "not the kind of guy you need to have sitting at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue." West insisted that the sort of deterrence that obtained between the U.S. and the USSR during the Cold War was "out the window with Iran. If they get a [nuclear] device, they've already told us what their intentions are."
Hailing West's comments, conservative Hot Air blogger Ed Morrissey helpfully explained that deterrence wouldn't work against Iran, because "The mullahs' strategic goals are metaphysical; they want their Messiah to arrive and establish a global Islamic rule. According to their view of Islam, that will come at the end of a great conflagration, and there isn't a much better way to start one of those than by lobbing nukes at Israel, the US, or both."
Early in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's presidency he decreed the elimination of military uniforms in primary and secondary schools. At the time, Western media and analysts dismissed, even ridiculed, the change as virtually worthless and emblematic of how little Assad was actually reforming the country. This added to the growing disappointment in what was supposed to be a different type of Syrian ruler. However, when examined more closely, there was more to the decree than meets the eye. Where Assad could -- in a system almost immune to change and at a time when his authority was less than what it would soon become -- he tried to re-direct Syria's operational philosophy away from the symbols and trappings of martial indoctrination to a more normal educational environment that focused on developing practical skill sets. Ironically, this may have contributed to a new generation of youth thinking not of a battle against real and imagined foes but of securing a socio-political milieu more conducive to a better life. In any event, the conceptual gap on the utility and effectiveness of this decree between the U.S. and Syria was indeed wide.
On one occasion when I met with Assad, he bemoaned the criticism he received in the West for the perceived slow pace of creating private banks in Syria, something he had announced two years earlier. It was considered small potatoes when four private banks actually came into being in 2004. Assad, though, thought it was a transformational moment and harbinger of things to come in terms of economic liberalization.
The United States' military participation in the 22 combined checkpoints across the disputed territories in northern Iraq formally ended on August 1. This was an important event because peacekeeping and conflict prevention in Kirkuk and other territories disputed between Baghdad and Erbil have frequently been cited as among the key stabilizing roles that the U.S. military plays in Iraq. And the tripartite Combined Security Mechanism (CSM) of the U.S. military, Iraqi Army, and Kurdish peshmerga did increase coordination between Iraqi government and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) security forces while serving as a credible crisis management mechanism. It now faces a leap into the unknown without the U.S. glue that has held it together so far.
Will the phasing out of the U.S. role mean, as one leaked U.S. intelligence report suggested, that without strong and fair third party influence tensions along the Arab-Kurdish line may quickly turn to violence? Or is too much being made of the transition in what was always intended to be a temporary mechanism?
The answer is a little bit of both. It is unlikely that the U.S. troop withdrawal will lead directly to a conventional military blowout between the Iraqi Army and peshmerga. In all probability, conditions in most disputed areas will be steady on a day-to-day basis. But its withdrawal will make the situation less stable. The CSM has been a failsafe to prevent episodic crises in individual hotspots from spiraling out of control. Its removal makes the next miscalculation or local standoff more difficult to defuse and potentially graver in its consequences. There almost certainly will be such testing events as the parties jockey to create facts on the ground.
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The decision by the U.S. Treasury to freeze the assets of Syrian businessman Mohammad Hamsho and his businesses has sent a strong message to a key part of the pro-Assad business community and opened up new possibilities for pressuring the Syrian regime. The Syrian business community is the key to the survival of Bashar al-Assad. Despite his brutality and widely perceived loss of legitimacy, Assad has not yet lost this critical constituency. The Damascus and Aleppo business establishment is still betting on Assad's political survival, while his crony capitalist regime partners see their fate as tied to his. Unless they change their calculations, Assad may still hold on to power.
Unlike the Egyptian uprisings which started in Egypt's main cities, Cairo and Alexandria, and then spread to the rest of country, the uprisings in Syria started in rural Deraa and then spread to major hubs like Homs and Hama. Mass protests, similar to the ones we have seen in Hama, have not taken place yet in Syria's two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo. Without these two cities joining the uprisings en masse, the Assad family and their cronies will remain confident that they can withstand the crisis. But the Syrian business community is not a monolith, and has a variety of perspectives on the value of the current regime. What could change their course?
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After serving nearly six years as the special advisor to the United States Security Coordinator (USSC) for Israel and the Palestinian Territories, I came home convinced of one thing, cognizant of another. The first was that a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not only in the vital security interests of Israel and the future state of Palestine, but also the United States. The second, initially noted two years ago by a former IDF Chief of Staff, was that, "The USSC, the IDF and the Palestinian Security Services were buying time, time for the politicians.... [A]nd they're wasting it." As we approach the United Nations General Assembly session in September, the first conviction remains immutable, while sadly, the reality of the general's observation appears not to have changed in the slightest.
T. E. Lawrence wrote in the aftermath of the First World War, "...[W]hen we achieved, and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to re-make in the likeness of the former world they knew... We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly, and made their peace."
As more information seeps out from the Quartet principals meeting held in Washington on July 11, it becomes harder not to reach the conclusion that American policy on Israel-Palestine is now being driven almost exclusively by a desire to prevent any possible U.N. vote on the matter in the Autumn. Reading the draft text proposed as a Quartet statement by the U.S. (the text is not yet public, but the authenticity of the draft described here has been reliably confirmed) and rejected by the EU, Russia, and the U.N. Secretary General entrenches that conclusion -- and worse, that the U.S. was attempting to pull something of a diplomatic fast one on the senior Quartet officials assembled. But more on that later.
First, a veritable minefield of myths that have sprung up around a possible Palestine vote at the U.N. should be debunked.
No a U.N. vote will not in practical terms deliver a sovereign Palestinian state and Israeli withdrawal and de-occupation. Nor will Israelis instantly be hauled in front of various international legal bodies as a consequence of a U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) resolution. Several other steps would have to take place subsequent to a U.N. vote for either of those things to happen and those do not flow seamlessly, one from the other.
A few months back I had a quick exchange with President Obama about the U.S. standing in the Arab World. When I mentioned that we would be conducting a poll to assess Arab attitudes two years after his Cairo speech, he responded that he expected that the ratings would be quite low and would remain low until the U.S. could help find a way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Well, the results are in, and the President was right. In our survey of over 4,000 Arabs from six countries (Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE), we found that favorable attitudes toward the U.S. had declined sharply since our last poll (which had been conducted in 2009 after Obama's first 100 days in office).
Back then, Arabs were hopeful that the new President would bring needed change to the U.S.-Arab relationship and the early steps taken by his administration only served to reinforce this view. As a result, favorable attitudes toward the U.S. climbed significantly from Bush-era lows. But as our respondents made clear in this year's survey, those expectations have not been met and U.S. favorability ratings, in most Arab countries, have now fallen to levels lower than they were in 2008, the last year of the Bush administration. In Morocco, for example, positive attitudes toward the United States went from 26 percent in 2008 to a high 55 percent in 2009. Today, they have fallen to 12 percent. The story was much the same in Egypt, where the U.S. rating went from 9 percent in 2008 to 30 percent in 2009, but has now plummeted to 5 percent in this year's survey.
After six months of ongoing peaceful protests, a fracturing of the armed forces, and ongoing violence in numerous parts of the country, Yemenis face increasingly dire conditions each day. And yet they keep showing up. While non-democratic (nay, anti-democratic) neighbors fitfully engage in mediation efforts while also giving refuge to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the U.S. continues to interpret the crisis through the lens of counterterrorism. Concerned about the risk of an emboldened al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the U.S. has offered tepid support for the aspirations of the country's majority, pinned its hopes on an atavistic autocrat, and opted to increase controversial drone attacks in some of the most unstable parts of the country.
This strategy is mistaken. It presupposes a narrow understanding of U.S. interests centered on counterterrorism, which I and others have argued against elsewhere. But it also assumes that working against the revolutionary aspirations of millions of Yemenis is, in fact, the best way to counter the threat of AQAP. Supporting the development of a democratically-constituted Yemen and offering support to its leaders as they build legitimate state institutions makes more sense. This Friday, the Organizing Committee of the Revolution, which is advocating for Saleh's immediate transfer of powers and the formation of a transitional council, has issued a call for a march in pursuit of a "Civil State." Yemenis from across ideological, occupational, generational, and class lines will gather around the country to demand a state accountable to its rights-bearing citizens. It will be the twenty-fifth Friday on which they have done so, camped out in the squares for the weeks in between.
Shlomo Avineri, a leading Israeli intellectual and politically very much a centrist, is to be commended for dismissing Israeli fears that outside criticism of their country's occupation policies is an effort to challenge Israel's very right to exist. Writing in Ha'aretz, Avineri notes there is not a single country in the world that maintains diplomatic ties with Israel that has ever questioned the legitimacy of Israel's existence.
Avineri maintains that whatever political problems might result for Netanyahu's government from a United Nations decision to recognize a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, it would in no sense "delegitimize" the state of Israel. On the contrary: recognizing Palestine within 1967 borders, he argues, would result in the international recognition of the 1967 lines as the border of Israel, which would mean recognition for the first time of West Jerusalem as a legitimate part of the state of Israel. Avineri concludes, therefore, that "there are no significant moves afoot anywhere on Earth to delegitimize Israel."
The trajectory of peaceful demonstrations in Libya and Syria has been impacted by regime violence. The result: large populations of internally displaced peoples (IDP's) have been created inside of those countries as well as great numbers of refugees fleeing to bordering countries. Furthermore, the revolutions of the Arab Spring have serious ramifications for already existing refugee populations, notably the more than one million Iraqi refugees that have settled in Syria since 2006. The possibility of increased large-scale refugee movement from Libya and Syria will not only spur a devastating humanitarian crisis, but could also further destabilize the region.
Considering that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is already working with insufficient funds, Western policymakers should pay attention to these imminent crises. One need only look at the social and economic repercussions of the still unresolved predicament of Iraqi refugees to see the urgency of keeping the current situations from escalating into another protracted refugee crisis. The consequences of a prolonged refugee situation could be dire, especially as many of the countries to which the people are fleeing allow few -- if any -- rights, benefits, or protection for refugees.
Historical dates often emerge by sheer coincidence. In 2009, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad formulated an operational goal for his tenure: by 2011 he wanted to build institutions that would justify the proclamation of a Palestinian state. This would not just have symbolic value, as PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat's statement in 1988, but would carry practical implications. Fayyad's efforts have commanded international admiration. The West Bank is indeed run in a way that meets many criteria for successful statehood. As opposed to the past, funds are used responsibly and accounting standards are transparent. The security forces -- originally trained by U.S. Lieutenant General Keith Dayton -- are remarkably effective. Both the Palestinian population and the Israel Defense Forces rely on them more than ever. Hence, September 2011 began to crystallize as a realistic date for the founding of a Palestinian state.
Fayyad's 2011 deadline for the declaration of Palestinian statehood had acquired enormous importance, even though Fayyad never connected it to the bid for U.N. recognition. It has provided Palestinians with a political horizon and a strong motivation to try the route of peaceful resistance and reliance on the international community's support for the new state. The idea of turning to the U.N. for recognition of Palestine seems not to have been a long-term strategy; it emerged as an option faute de mieux, in the absence of negotiations, and without reasonable hope that Netanyahu has the will or the mandate for a meaningful Israeli compromise.
What conclusions are to be drawn about the state of Middle East peacemaking from the extraordinary spectacle of the adversarial encounter between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and their several major adversarial addresses in the second half of May?
The spectacle did not bring an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement any closer. Indeed, Netanyahu's address to the U.S. Congress, no less than Congress's reaction to that speech, effectively buried the Middle East peace process for good. For what America's solons were jumping up and down to applaud so wildly as they pandered pathetically to the Israel lobby was Netanyahu's rejection of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, thus endorsing his determination to maintain permanently Israel's colonial project in the West Bank.
If Netanyahu succeeds in his objective, these members of Congress will be able to take credit for an Israeli apartheid regime that former Prime Ministers Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, and Ehud Olmert predicted would be the inescapable consequence of policies the congressmen cheered and promised to continue to support as generously as they have in the past.
To most observers witnessing events in Syria, the goal is clear-cut: end the killing, support democracy, and change the Assad regime -- hoping it will be removed or reformed to an unrecognizable degree. State actors looking at the same reality will often bring a different set of considerations into play, especially if they happen to be neighboring Syria. Israel has had a complicated relationship with the popular upheaval in its northern neighbor -- and, indeed, with the Baathist Damascus regime in general over the years.
As of Sunday, that complexity entered a new dimension. Of course the popular uprising in Syria is not about Israel, nor will it be particularly determined by Israel's response. Nevertheless, Israel's leaders, like those elsewhere in the region, will have to position themselves in relation to this changing environment, and this will, in part, impact Syria's options.
On Sunday, June 5, marking Naksa Day (the Arab "setback" in the 1967 war), protesters -- mostly Palestinian refugees and their descendents -- marched to the Israel/Syria disengagement line representing the border between Syria and the Israeli occupied Golan Heights. According to reports up to 22 unarmed Syrian-Palestinian protesters were killed when Israeli forces apparently resorted to live fire (Israeli laid mines may also have been detonated and may have caused causalities, the exact unraveling of events remains sketchy). In most respects, this Sunday's events were a repeat performance of the outcome of May 15's Nakba Day commemorations (which Palestinians mark as the anniversary of their catastrophe in 1948).
"Oh, it's a long, long while from May to December/But the days grow short when you reach September/ When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame/ One hasn't got time for the waiting game." -- Maxwell Anderson, September Song, 1938
In his speech on the Middle East Thursday, President Obama greeted the arrival of spring in the Arab world with enthusiasm. His prescriptions for achieving Arab-Israeli peace, however, leave the Palestinians once again stalled between seasons.[I] Although the President characterized the transformations sweeping the region as a "story of self-determination" and lauded the courage of Arab citizens who had "taken their future into their own hands," he took a dim view of efforts to pursue international recognition of Palestinian statehood this fall. According to Obama, "Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won't create an independent state." Instead of taking their future into their own hands, Obama suggested, Palestinians should continue down the path of negotiation with the Netanyahu government, however futile talks might seem.
What Obama seems unwilling to acknowledge is that the protest movements across the region and the drive for Palestinian statehood have more in common than just the anxiety they are producing in Israel. They are also premised on a similar impulse. No less than the Tunisians, Egyptians, Bahrainis, Libyans, Syrians, and Yemenis who have revolted against autocratic regimes, what the 4 million Palestinians living under Israeli occupation are seeking is the freedom to govern themselves. For them, independence means more than a seat at the Unuted Nations General Aassembly (UNGA). It means being able to decide where in their country they will live, work, and worship. It means knowing that their government is able to keep them safe. And it means having a say in how their country's resources are used and distributed.
Twenty-four years ago, U.S. President Ronald Reagan gave a stirring speech in Berlin on the cusp of the end of the cold war. At the Brandenburg Gate near the Berlin Wall, long the symbol of the Iron Curtain caste by communism, President Reagan beseeched the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, to "tear down this wall." Not that Gorbachev needed any prodding because he had already realized the inevitability of the collapse of the Soviet system. But with international encouragement and tangible support, Gorbachev engaged in the process of glasnost and perestroika, an opening up and restructuring of the Soviet Union. He was one of those singular leaders who first recognized and then seized the moment, and his legacy in engendering transformational change is safe and secure in the history books, even though the change he wrought eventually meant his own fall from power from the democratic processes he launched.
With perhaps less drama-and less gravitas-President Barack Obama, in his speech on May 19 laying out his vision of US policy at another potential turning point in history, in effect has asked Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to do the same thing. Commenting on countries that have experienced some level of an Arab spring in the region, when he came to Syria he said that Assad now has a choice: He can "lead the transition [toward democracy] or get out of the way."
LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images
The United States may not be able to propose solutions for all the Middle East, but it can prescribe the course of events unfolding in some Arab Spring countries. Case in point: Bahrain.
After thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators took to the streets in the small Gulf kingdom earlier this year, the Bahraini government's response was brutal and systematic: shoot civilian protesters, detain and torture them, and erase all evidence. On the frontline, treating hundreds of these wounded civilians, doctors gained firsthand knowledge of these abuses.
As part of a Physicians for Human Rights investigation in Bahrain last month, Dr. Nizam Peerwani and I conducted in-depth interviews with 47 medical workers, patients, and other eyewitnesses to human rights violations. We corroborated these testimonies by conducting physical examinations of beaten and tortured protesters and by examining their medical records and X-rays. We also investigated four suspicious deaths in custody.
Europe and America have shared a settled conviction over the last decades: It is that Israel, out of its own necessity, must seek to conserve a Jewish majority within Israel. And that with time, and a growing Palestinian population, Israel will at some point have to acquiesce to a Palestinian state in order to maintain that Jewish majority: that is, only by giving Palestinians their own state and thereby shedding a part of the Palestinians it controls, can Israel's Jewish majority be preserved.
This simple proposition has given us the security-first doctrine: Meeting Israel's self-definition of its own security needs -- it is presumed -- stands as the unique and sufficient principle, allowing Israel to transition with confidence to the two-state solution.
But Israel has not done this -- despite many opportunities over the last 19 years -- and does not seem any more disposed to "give" a Palestinian state now. Seldom is it asked why, if the logic is indeed so compelling, have two states not emerged?
What is the definition of an American ally? On an ideological level, an ally is a country that shares America's values, reflects its founding spirit, and resonates with its people's beliefs. Tactically, an ally stands with the United States through multiple conflicts and promotes its global vision. From its location at one strategic crossroads, an ally enhances American intelligence and defense capabilities, and provides ports and training for U.S. forces. Its army is formidable and unequivocally loyal to its democratic government. An ally helps secure America's borders and assists in saving American lives on and off the battlefield. And an ally stimulates the U.S. economy through trade, technological innovation, and job creation.
Few countries fit this description, but Israel is certainly one of them. As U.S. President Barack Obama told a White House gathering, "The United States has no better friend in the world than Israel," a statement reflecting the positions of Democrats and Republicans alike. The importance of the U.S.-Israel alliance has been upheld by successive American administrations and consistently endorsed by lawmakers and military leaders. It should be unimpeachable. But for some it is not.
We don't know when Gaddafi will finally fall or accept a ceasefire that could pave the way for his exit. But we can be confident that, whatever the Colonel's fate, he'll leave Libya in an unholy mess. Cities have been pummeled by artillery bombardments and refugees cluster on the Tunisian and Egyptian borders. The tribal political settlement that underpinned Gaddafi's rule has broken down. The rebels have armed thousands of ill-disciplined young men who may not lay down their arms willingly.
In these circumstances, there will be no easy transition to peace. In Egypt, where the revolution was comparatively straightforward, the fall of Mubarak has been followed by ongoing unrest and religious violence. There may well be an even bloodier period of score-settling in Libya, possibly comparable to the wave of Albanian attacks on Serbs after NATO forced Slobodan Milosevic out of Kosovo in 1999.
It's almost certain that some sort of international peacekeeping force will be required to stabilize the situation. At the London conference on Libya at the end of March, Hillary Clinton and her colleagues asked UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to start stabilization planning. What options does he have?
During his 42 years in power, Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi's unpredictable behavior has become the stuff of legend. But on one issue Qaddafi was remarkably consistent: He was unrelentingly obsessed with purchasing a massive arsenal of weapons from whoever was offering them. As a result, much of Libya resembles one vast arms bazaar -- a museum of curiosities for arms inspectors, and a gallery of horror for those concerned about the safety of civilians. With the collapse of Qaddafi's control in eastern Libya, vast amounts of weapons and munitions are now up for grabs, often to whoever gets there first.
I have been traveling around eastern Libya for most of the past six weeks, since the first days of the regime's collapse, trying to establish a record of the ongoing human rights abuses in the country. Human Rights Watch has been investigating the large-scale killings of protesters by Qaddafi's forces in February, as well as the more recent possible forced disappearance of hundreds of people into the custody of Qaddafi's fighters at the front. Reporting from eastern Libya has been a roller-coaster ride: I have witnessed the euphoria of the uprising's early days, as Libyans celebrated their newfound freedom, to the despair of just a few weeks ago as Qaddafi's forces were once again at the gates of Benghazi. For many in eastern Libya now coming to grips with the limitations of their own untrained and unskilled rebels, the future remains uncertain. For these people, there is no middle ground -- either the rebellion succeeds, or they face certain death if Qaddafi regains control of the East.
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In the shadow of the extraordinary events under way in the Middle East, Djibouti's presidential vote was always going to struggle for attention. Indeed, the plight of this tiny country, sandwiched between Somalia and Yemen, remains almost completely ignored. But as the primary seaport to 85 million landlocked Ethiopians, the center of anti-piracy efforts in the Horn of Africa, and a reliable Western ally in the war on terror, Djibouti is a strategically vital country in an unstable neighborhood.
And with Nigeria's potentially tumultuous national vote coming this week, the relative quiet of the Djiboutian electoral process, which culminated with a ballot on April 8, might be considered a pleasant surprise compared with the electoral chaos of Africa's largest democracy. Djibouti boasts fewer than a million inhabitants -- voters in one district of the Nigerian city of Lagos outnumber its entire electoral roll.
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Two months ago, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad famously told the Wall Street Journal that he had nothing to fear from the wave of popular protests convulsing the Arab world because his government reflects "the beliefs of the people." While his boast was surely disingenuous, his confidence appeared quite genuine. Notwithstanding the recent spate of mass demonstrations and violent government reprisals in Syria that have left more than 100 people dead, Assad's ability to weather this storm should not be underestimated.
If grievances alone could bring down governments, Assad would be in a world of trouble. Most Syrians suffer from the same economic hardships that have fueled popular uprisings in other Arab countries (high unemployment, rising cost of living, rampant corruption, and so on) while their political and civil liberties have been violated in greater measure. Adding insult to injury for Syria's large Sunni Muslim majority, the ruling elite is dominated by Alawites, an Islamic sect comprising roughly 12 percent of the population.
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