Tag: qatar

Political Bloviation in Doha, Qatar

The 13th Doha Forum has convened, with your loyal correspondent in attendance. It is an impressive gathering, filling the luxurious Ritz-Carlton. Cars are checked for bombs before approaching the hotel. Guests have to go through a metal detector both entering the hotel and inside heading to the conference. The meeting room was full, with just about every citizen of Qatar (who only make up something like 15 percent of the population) seeming to line the hallway before the Emir arrived.

There are few more tragic figures than onetime national leaders who have fallen away from the centers of power. For instance, after the Qatar royals, who still do matter, opened the gathering, to the stage strode a frustrated former British prime minister trying to remain relevant. The Right Honorable Gordon Brown, who finally grabbed the premiership from his frenemy Tony Blair only to lose it in the 2010 election, twice quoted John F. Kennedy while chattering on about the importance of interdependence.

Brown also urged the creation of a North African-Middle Eastern development bank to promote economic growth in such nations as Egypt—which, he failed to note, has been buried in foreign aid for years without generating economic growth. The former PM was introduced as preventing a new Great Depression (who knew!) and later lauded for his “profound” ideas (apparently defined as previously advanced by his hosts in Qatar).

Francois Fillon, a former prime minister of France, followed, telling us that we needed to solve the Syrian conflict, create a Middle Eastern financial institution, and “defend European civilization,” whatever that means. The moderator declared his ideas to be “fascinating” and his mention of Europe to be an example of “self-reflection.”

Amadou Bondou, the vice president of Argentina—which has made a practice of looting the productive and stealing people’s retirement savings—denounced austerity. These policies are having “negative repercussions” on poor people, he complained. No doubt, they are. However, if you have a wild party, you can’t very well expect everyone else to pay the clean-up costs. Next time countries, especially his own, should think before blowing their budgets to enrich favored interests and win votes.

Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference, concluded the first session with a discussion about the importance of solving the Syrian conflict. He suggested a comprehensive conference to end the fighting and conduct of proxy wars in the region. Alas, what evidence is there that the parties are prepared to settle or that their backers are prepared to stay out? He also urged more humanitarian assistance for Syrians. He worried that if the Europeans fail to give more aid they may be left with no friends at all in Syria. Given the way that conflict is going, why would that be such a bad thing? Trying to make friends is about the dumbest reason one can imagine for getting involved in such a war.

Well, that’s the start here in Doha. I just can’t wait for additional “fascinating” observations from more “profound” thinkers like Messrs. Brown, Fillon, Bondou, and Ischinger!

Don’t Arm Syria’s Rebels

With the death toll in Syria now climbing above 5,000, and graphic videos and images of the bloodbath flooding the internet, some in Washington have called for arming the Syrian resistance. That option, compared to other alternatives like a NATO-led no-fly zone, seems antiseptic. But America’s arming of rebels will amount to contributing to a worsening situation without a means of reaching a peaceful end state. Restraint, however unpalatable, is the most prudent option in an increasingly intractable situation.

First, there is no clear group in the resistance for Washington to provide arms to, even if that was the policy option chosen. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, who has argued most forcefully for arming the rebels, said, “It is time we gave them the wherewithal to fight back and stop the slaughter.” But Sen. McCain stopped short of calling for the direct supply of weapons by the United States, and didn’t mention to whom among the resistance he’d like to lend a helping hand.

No single group or leader speaks on behalf of Syria’s resistance, especially in a country where political loyalty tends to hew to one’s ethnicity, religion, sect, or clan. The Damascus-based National Coordination Committee (NCC), considered weak by some Syrian activists, is still willing to engage the regime in a power-sharing unity government.

The exile-based Syrian National Council (SNC) rejects all contact with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. SNC seeks recognition from the West, but is viewed by some as a vehicle for monopolizing the uprising. The Free Syrian Army, a disorganized mash-up of disparate rebel groups and government soldiers who have switched sides, has declared its allegiance to the SNC.

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has said it’s open to foreign intervention, at first emphasizing Muslim Turkey. Meanwhile, a large portion of Syrian Kurds see Turkey as a primary threat. These rifts persist amid reports of Sunni jihadists entering Syria from Iraq, and fears that al Qaeda may hijack what for many is a struggle for a democratic Syria.

Furthermore, as George Washington University Professor Marc Lynch and others have argued, “boosting rebel fighting capacity” is likely to crystallize Syria’s internal polarization, and do little to weaken the Assad regime politically.

Flooding Syria with weapons, in a conflict the United Nations high commissioner for human rights has described as on the brink of civil war, might be used to justify a heavier government crackdown. U.S. assistance to rebels would vindicate Assad’s narrative that the revolt is a conspiracy of outside forces, including the U.S., Israel, and the Gulf states. It could also stir Sunni elites in Damascus and the relatively quiescent Aleppo to rally around Assad, strengthening his support, rather than weakening it.

Lastly, the civil war won’t end after arming one side. The most infamous instance of backlash was from the U.S. arming rebels in Afghanistan in the 1980s, a country that later turned into an al Qaeda sanctuary.

Today in Syria, the foreign frenzy of weapons pouring in has already resulted in a hot mess. Iranian and Russian arms, along with political support from Lebanon and Iraq, are going to the regime in Damascus and the large portion of minority Shia Alawites who support it. Arms and support from Qatar and Saudi Arabia back the majority Sunnis and other anti-Shia Islamist factions. Whatever this regional and international sectarian proxy war morphs into Washington would do best to stay out of it.

Syria’s deepening slide into civil war looks likely, which can be prevented only by either marshaling international opposition to the Assad regime, something Washington has already attempted to do, or encouraging more defections from within the regime, with the promise of resettlement and amnesty. The current diplomatic policy of waiting for the resistance to congeal and pledge to guard minority rights is prudent and should be pursued.

Sending weapons to rebels might satisfy the outside world’s moral urge to do something immediately, but it also might add to the mayhem, increase the loss of life, and push Syria further away from a stable future. Restraint is the more difficult choice, but the one that serves both the American and the Syrian people better in the long run.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

No Soccer for Oil!

Fans of soccer and liberal democracy — I’m in both groups — were disappointed to hear that the FIFA grandees awarded the 2018 World Cup to Putinland Russia and the 2022 event to Qatar (!).  My friend Grant Wahl has a typically sharp immediate reaction for Sports Illustrated that boils down to three points: (1) the choices prove once again that FIFA is not exactly a model of integrity and transparency; (2) Qatar?  Really?  Really?; and (3) the U.S. put together a strong bid and left everything on the pitch.

I would expand Grant’s first point to darned-near all elite international organizations, from the International Olympic Committee all the way to the United Nations (though the Wall Street Journal today said FIFA makes the UN look like a model).  Where there is no democratic accountability and plenty of rent-seeking opportunities, is corruption and non-merit-based decisionmaking all that surprising?

And of course this isn’t a matter of the United States losing out to a nation with a deep soccer (or any athletic) tradition, or even to a developing country set to burst onto the geo-political stage (like awarding the 1968 Olympics to Mexico City, the 1988 Games to Seoul, or the 2008 Games to Beijing).  No, this was a matter of petro-wealthy sheiks buying a major sporting event.  Bully for commercial competition, of course, but (a) those are sovereign, not private funds in play (though the distinction is observed in the breach in the Middle East); (b) playing in 110-degree heat can’t make sense (see the problems with the relatively balmy 1996 Atlanta Olympics — and I’ll believe the air-conditioned outdoor stadiums when I see them); and (c) who knows what the political situation will be in the region 12 years hence.  Plus bribing officials and riding anti-American sentiment — shocking, I know, given that George W. Bush was not part of the Bill Clinton/Morgan Freeman-led lobbying team — ain’t exactly a testament to the free market.

Speaking of economics, though, one silver lining to the U.S. disappointment — and that of England, once favored for the 2018 Cup but finishing with only two votes — is that hosting a “mega-event” like the World Cup or Olympics really doesn’t do much for a national economy (and more often than not has a detrimental economic impact).  And while I haven’t studied the details of the U.S. bid, it’s safe to assume that whatever public stadium and other subsidies were in it — probably not much compared to luring/keeping pro sports teams — paled in comparison to Qatar’s bid (let alone Russia’s).  And so American soccer fans’ loss is almost certainly American taxpayers’ gain.

In short, the Russia-Qatar double is a cynical course of events that will harm soccer’s long-term prospects in the United States and the reputation of international athletic bodies everywhere.  (Just in time for the annual peak in anti-BCS vitriol among lovers of American football, this time with a neat antitrust twist — on which more at some later point.)

Perhaps the biggest question, though, is how will Qatar’s strict alcohol laws affect fans’ enjoyment of “the beautiful game”?