Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Obama's unprofessional handling of Syria's gas attack

One could write a book about all the things the Obama administration is doing wrong in Syria and regarding the gas attack. There wouldn't even be a civil war without US involvement. Instead I will try to describe how a more professional Obama would have acted:

How Obama should have reacted to the Syrian gas attack

- He should have started with declaring his horror, immediately asking for an UN investigation (instead he didn't hurry) and offering to send atropine to the region. No condemnations. No threats.

- If he had evidence that the government used the poison gas he should first provide the evidence and let the world evaluate it. Only when that is convincing should he discuss retaliation. He should also be prepared to accept it if the rest of the world considers it insufficient - as happened with prior gas attacks.

- He should be prepared to take accusations that the rebels used gas seriously.

- He should shed his attitude that Russia is up to no good. In fact Russia and China gave him the green light in case of Libya and he terribly abused it. Now he is in the position that has to show that he has improved. It may feel humiliating for a president of the US but it is well deserved.

- He should have complimented the Syrian government for allowing the inspections - instead of reacting by increasing his hostility. Better late than never.

- Both the wave of criticism after Assad allowed the inspections and the refusal to wait for the results of the UN inspection suggest that Obama doesn't really care about the chemical attacks and just sees it as an opportunity to bomb Syria. This radiates narrow-mindedness and opportunism. It certain won't win him influence among the countries that support Syria.

- He should be prepared to wait for the result of the UN inspections.

- He should only attack with permission of the Security Council.

- He should stick to the fact instead of holding misleading talks about Syria being a threat to the US.

- Russia and Iran should get time to formulate their reactions. Khomeini was so much against chemical weapons that he forbade their use even when Iran was attacked with them by Iraq - so one can be sure that Iran won't be enthusiastic about Syrian use of chemical arms.

- Assad should get time to formulate a reaction. One of the possibilities is that the chemical arms were fired by some rogue officer in the Syrian army. Assad punishing some of his soldiers - even if they are scapegoats - would be an acceptable outcome.

- A considerable number of Syrians support Assad as the lesser evil compared to the Islamist dominated rebels. Chemical arms could make them change their minds and as such are not a very wise policy for Assad. A precedent of how the public opinion could react is the Houla massacre that increased support for the rebels. Given this and other considerations there can be expected to be considerable discussion within Syrian government ranks if the US provides convincing evidence that the government fired chemical weapons.

- Red lines are for children and troublemakers. It is ridiculous that some people are now discussing the situation in terms of Obama's credibility instead of the need to stop the use of chemical arms. Besides that, credibility doesn't work that simple.

- If there was armed retaliation it should consist of only a few missiles. With the message that next time there would be more.

- The primary goal should be preventing a repeat. If for example the Russians would refuse to support a resolution but would be prepared to effectively pressure Assad that no repeat should happen this should be considered a success.

The above may sound as very time consuming and likely to lead to no action. However, one should consider the following:
- all the noise about attacking Syria distracts the attention from the chemical weapon use dispute
- one of the two things we are now waiting for is the US finally disclosing its evidence that Assad used chemical arms. The US could speed this up.
- the more civilized tone of the debate would invite Russia and Iran to take part
- the time would be used for a very realistic discussion. One caveat: it might take effort to keep it going.
- With power comes responsibility and that is usually implemented with procedures. Keeping to procedures would mean that Washington shows real leadership - instead of dictatorship.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

America betrays Syria - again

Finally - much too late - the Syrian government allowed the UN inspectors to have a look at the alleged chemical attack sites. Immediately we saw Washington react with the message that it was too late. At the same time Obama adopted a more hostile tone.

This is a familiar pattern. It shows that Obama doesn't care about what Assad is doing and is only obsessed with getting his "regime change". From that attitude the forthcoming reaction of Assad was unwelcome and had to be compensated with more hostility from the US side.

If Obama had been interested in dialogue and solutions he would have welcomed the Syrian change of policy. Not that it is such a great gesture or that it will make much difference. But simply because any improvement in attitude should be rewarded if you want to have better relations.

It is not improbable that Obama has already decided to some retaliatory attack. But even in that circumstance it is still the case that communication should not be unnecessarily hampered.

Leave it to Iran

Amid the accusation of the use of chemical arms in Syria it may be good to watch Iran.

During the Iran-Iraq war Iraq used chemical arms against Iran but Iran never retaliated by using chemical arms itself - considering them immoral.

So if it would become clear that Syria's government has used chemical weapons Iran can be expected to take that very seriously.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Why Western mediation failed in Egypt

Both the EU and the US sent mediators to Egypt. They thought they were close to a deal. But in the end - according to them - the Egyptian army refused to make a deal. In fact the mission was doomed because the diplomats didn't understand the situation.

Take this example of arrogance:
“You could tell people were itching for a fight,” [senator] Graham recalled in an interview. “The prime minister was a disaster. He kept preaching to me: ‘You can’t negotiate with these people. They’ve got to get out of the streets and respect the rule of law.’ I said: ‘Mr. Prime Minister, it’s pretty hard for you to lecture anyone on the rule of law. How many votes did you get? Oh, yeah, you didn’t have an election.’ ”
Obviously Graham found it impossible to see the situation through the eyes of this prime minister. Yet the first step in a mediation is being able to see things through the eyes of both sides. Only then can you see what motivates them and propose other solutions.

The arrogance is systemic. This was what the journalists wrote after talking to many of the Americans involved:
The generals in Cairo felt free to ignore the Americans first on the prisoner release and then on the statement, in a cold-eyed calculation that they would not pay a significant cost — a conclusion bolstered when President Obama responded by canceling a joint military exercise but not $1.5 billion in annual aid.
The generals are involved in a win-or-lose fight with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). They are convinced that if they don't prevail either a civil war will follow or Muslim Brotherhood's intolerant sectarian rule. For them at the moment the US - and anything else outside the conflict - is far away and irrelevant. When the conflict is over they will have the luxury to worry about those kinds of things. But obviously the Americans find it painful to see that they - the great superpower - are just irrelevant in the present situation.

Of course there is also a conspiracy theory to make the bad guys looking even worse. In this case it is the theory that some Egyptian generals always hated the MB and that they saw the present situation - where the MB had lost much support due to bad government and sectarian activism - as an excellent opportunity to once and for all suppress it. Just like any other conspiracy theory you cannot disprove it. The problem of such theories is that they close the minds of those who believe them for any fact that doesn't fit the theory. And that makes them incapable to see solutions.

The mediation effort itself: Under a plan they worked out, the Muslim Brotherhood would limit demonstrations to two squares, thin out crowds and publicly condemn violence. The government would issue a similar statement, commit to an inclusive political process allowing any party to compete in elections and, as a sign of good faith, release Saad al-Katatni, the Muslim Brotherhood speaker of the dissolved Parliament, and Aboul-Ela Maadi, founder of a more moderate Islamist party. Both faced implausible charges of instigating violence, and Western diplomats felt that before the takeover, Mr. Katatni in particular had proved himself a pragmatic voice for compromise.
This is typical of Western diplomacy that in other instances (Slovenia/Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Cyprus) too came with unrealistic proposals that reflected the fact that it didn't get the core of the problem. Let's look at this proposal:
- the MB has many times said that they were committed to peaceful protest. The problem was that they used the next sentence to say that they were prepared to die for their cause and that obviously throwing stones fell within their definition of non-violence.
- you cannot have endless demonstrations. Even the US beat down Occupy Wall Street when that employed such tactics. The goal of demonstrations is to express opinions. When instead they are used to try to impose opinions you have a major law-and-order problem. One effect of continuing demonstrations is self-radicalization and you saw that already happening in Egypt.
- an "inclusive political process" sounds very nice but is meaningless as long as the only thing acceptable to the MB is the return of Morsi as president. The mediators were right that at some point the MB should be again part of the Egyptian political process. They forgot that you can only be a part of a process if you accept its rules. One can understand that MB members are angry about Morsi's arrest but they cannot become part of the new political process as long as they remain focused on Morsi's return.
What we see here is a rather common reaction of Western diplomacy to violent protests in other countries: they de facto give in to the protesters and when that leads to a confrontation they blame the government.

According to the NYT article one of the top leaders of the MB, Mr. Shater, rejected the proposal. A Reuters article claims that the Brotherhood did accept a deal and that it included more steps than one.

In the end the army publicly declared that the negotiations had failed: The Americans and Europeans were furious, feeling deceived and manipulated.
Any realist would have thought that their chances of success were much below 50% to begin with but that it was worth to give it a try. It looks like those diplomats lacked that perspective.

When it came to the methods the army used for its crackdown we see another conspiracy theory: But diplomats and Egyptian officials said [Minister of Interior] Ibrahim was worried that if the assaults went badly he might be held up as a scapegoat.
Unfortunately this conspiracy theory makes that part of the article very hard to understand. And that very likely reflects a lack of understanding among the Western diplomats about the dilemma's that the Egyptian army faced. Again, by misunderstanding the situation, the diplomats rob themselves of the possibility to have some influence.

The only things that could have worked for Western diplomacy was being very clear towards the MB that unless they cooperated there would be a crackdown. It is not hard to see the disadvantages: it meant full support for the military coup and it would mean that those diplomats would be held partly responsible if there was a blood crackdown. Obviously that would have required lots of courage from our political leaders.

You can only have one government in a country and if it isn't Morsi's it is the military's. That shouldn't stop us from being very critical of the methods the Egyptian army is using to make sure it has total control. Finding the balance between the two is difficult. Yet: if our Western leaders are not prepared to walk that thin line they might have done better to keep their diplomats at home.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

How Egypt's Brotherhood grabbed power

Many articles have listed complaints about how the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood grabbed power. Yet many Western journalists still cling to the excuse that obstruction by the Army and others left the MB little choice.

In that light the following article is interesting. It shows that the MB power grab happened on all levels and even in the villages. It looks like this was a systematic and well coordinated operation. Probably that is the reason that the MB is no resisting so fiercely against the army takeover. It has little to do with democracy: they know that it is very unlikely that they will get a second chance for their power grab.

Egypt’s Brotherhood loses rural support: ... the Brotherhood’s controlling all squares where prayers are performed. They appeared extremely proud of their power. They stood at the squares’ entrances deciding who the preacher would be, and leading their people however they wanted. Anyone who prayed last year in any village where the Brotherhood controlled the town’s major mosques and youth centers will remember this. The Brotherhood dominated everyone through controlling these centers and mosques. This led to a general state of frustration and fear of the unknown under the Brotherhood’s governance.

Egypt’s Journalists, Still Under Siege tells the story of an Egyptian journalist who is critical of Islamists and the Brotherhood and who has faced harassment from them for decades. It became worse under Morsi but even today it hasn't ended.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood's continuing miscalculations

When the Egyptian army deposed and arrested Morsi this was a well considered and long prepared step. So it was foolish to expect that army would give in a re-install Morsi - the more so as the Morsi supporters were not in a position to force the army.

So the logical attitude for the Brotherhood would have been to protest loudly while at the same time cooperating with the army to prepare for the next elections. They should be careful not to provide the army with any excuse to delay the promised elections.

Instead the Morsi supporters chose the confrontation. They stressed the legality of Morsi - conveniently forgetting his not so democratic missteps. They waged a media campaign full of lies to instigate their followers against the new government.

MB members have claimed that the army wants to forbid their movement. They forget that you cannot really forbid a popular movement in a democracy. Its voters will just move to another party to further their interests and sooner or later they will be allowed again.

MB members seem to believe that martyrdom will further their cause. They are wrong. First of all the confrontation will kill many Egyptians and cause a lot of damage. But its long term effects may be even worse. It could be an immediate war like in Algeria or a delayed war as we see in the Syrian conflict - that is to a considerable extent the result of the previous uprising in 1982. They are also forgetting that by forcing the Egyptian army to kill many of them they are increasing the threshold for the army to ever again allow the MB to acquire power.