Tag: regime change

On Benghazi, the Buck Stops with Hillary

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will face the wrong questions when she testifies today on the September 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Benghazi. The buck stops with Secretary Clinton—and it should. But members of Congress will focus on politically charged and distracting issues. The terrorist attack on the consulate was abhorrent. However, a broader discussion about the NATO-led regime change in Libya—and its unfolding political aftermath in Mali—would be a better use of Congress’s time. The consequences of intervention should not be ignored, and its antecedents must be explored.

Secretary Clinton was among the handful of U.S. and European officials who urged Western military action in Libya, a mission that entangled the United States in yet another volatile, post-revolutionary Muslim country, and accelerated neighboring Mali’s destabilization. North Africa’s vortex of Islamist crosscurrents has now sucked America and France into Mali. Indeed, the reverberations of NATO-led regime change in Libya impelled U.S. and French involvement in Mali. Like the conflict in Libya, France cannot do the heavy lifting in Mali on its own. Senators should ask: How far will the conflict in Mali go? Will the United States end up holding the broken pieces once again? Is America now “leading from behind”?

Furthermore, Congress should ask Secretary Clinton about how the White House shamelessly recast the word “war” into “kinetic military operations.” That Orwellian revisionism allowed the administration to side step the War Powers Act and bypass congressional authorization. In the course of supposedly demonstrating America’s selflessness in the promotion of democracy abroad, the administration compromised the integrity of our institutions at home. In that respect, the Libyan adventure has added to the steady aggrandizement of America’s imperial presidency

Secretary Clinton probably won’t go into any of that, and pitchfork wielding senators likely won’t ask her about those far-reaching consequences.

Time Running Out in Libya?

Even defenders of broad presidential prerogatives are starting to conclude that Obama’s war in Libya violates the original legal justification for it offered by the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) in the Department of Justice.

Briefly put, the OLC said the Libyan war was not a war because the operation would be limited as to means, objectives, and duration. Thus, the OLC argued, neither the Constitution nor the War Powers Resolution constrained the president’s prerogatives.

The objective has changed from protecting civilians to regime change. The war itself has gone on now for as long as the unauthorized war in Kosovo in 1999. Jack Goldsmith concludes: “as the days drag on, and as our deep involvement persists, it becomes harder and harder to represent that this mission is limited in nature, duration, and scope.”

René Magritte’s War

The Belgian painter René Magritte is famous in part for the painting pictured below.

What’s surprising is how much Magritte can tell us about our war in Libya. To recap where we are in Libya, our military objective is to “protect civilians” in that country. Except there’s this paragraph opening the recent New York Times article on the war:

WASHINGTON — NATO planners say the allies are stepping up attacks on palaces, headquarters, communications centers and other prominent institutions supporting the Libyan government, a shift of targets that is intended to weaken Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s grip on power and frustrate his forces in the field.

The Times also runs these quotes from officials in charge of the war:

“Now we are going after his rear echelon,” one NATO official said. “We are going after his ability to command and control his forces — his headquarters, his command posts, his communications — all those things that allow him to coordinate his attacks at the front.”

Military officials privately acknowledge that removing Colonel Qaddafi from power is the desired secondary effect of striking at state television and other symbols of his authoritarian rule. “His people may see the futility of continued resistance,” one Pentagon official said.

Somebody should probably loop in poor White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, who made the mistake just yesterday of saying the following:

“The goal of the mission is clear: protect the civilian population, enforce the no-fly zone, enforce the arms embargo. [It is] certainly not the policy of the coalition, of this administration, to decapitate, if you will, or to effect regime change in Libya by force.”

So let’s work this out. The United States currently has as a policy objective in Libya to remove Muammar Qaddafi from power. Washington is simultaneously using the military to attack “institutions supporting the Libyan government” in order to “weaken Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s grip on power,” but our official position is that doing so is unrelated to our policy objective of getting Qaddafi out of power. Does the administration really think we’re that stupid? Perhaps more importantly, is Congress that stupid?

Also, it may be time for a rundown of terms for which we no longer have adequate working definitions. I nominate:

  • “war”
  • “kinetic military action”
  • “protect”
  • “civilians”
  • “protect civilians”
  • “massacre”
  • “regime change”
  • “target”

Any other nominees?

The Libertarian Take on Iran

In this video, David Boaz makes an excellent case for tamping down our overblown perception of Iran.

In the clip, Boaz argues persuasively that far from being suicidal, the track record of Iranian behavior shows pragmatism and calculating temperament when attempting to advance its interests in the region. Thus, rather than assessing Iran based on their leaders’ repulsive and provocative rhetoric, U.S. officials should deduce future Iranian intentions based on how it has reacted when confronted with overwhelming force. While no one can predict the future, regional experts—not hawkish, misinformed policy analysts or neo-conservative ideologues who advocate regime change—insist that the clerical regime has valued self-preservation and in the future can be deterred.

My colleague, Justin Logan, argues here that U.S. policymakers must press for direct diplomacy with the Iranian leadership and have a plan “B” in case that diplomacy fails. Of course, the problem is that those who endorse a tougher approach toward Iran insist that we have tried diplomacy before. That is not true. Washington typically offers halfhearted gestures and then falsely concludes that diplomacy does not work. Americans must reject the alarmist rhetoric and tortured rationales that have thus far proved counterproductive for arriving at a long-term solution toward Iran.

Who Said “No Comment”?

In this morning’s Washington Post, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz has some advice for the Obama administration regarding the protests in Iran:

[T]he reform the Iranian demonstrators seek is something that we should be supporting. In such a situation, the United States does not have a “no comment” option. Coming from America, silence is itself a comment — a comment in support of those holding power and against those protesting the status quo.

I just did a quick search on www.WhiteHouse.gov, and I did not find the words “no comment” as it pertains to the Iranian elections. I did, however, find two statements on the protests by President Obama:

  • Speaking to reporters following a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on June 15th, President Obama said:

I am deeply troubled by the violence that I’ve been seeing on television.  I think that the democratic process — free speech, the ability of people to peacefully dissent — all those are universal values and need to be respected.  And whenever I see violence perpetrated on people who are peacefully dissenting, and whenever the American people see that, I think they’re, rightfully, troubled.

and

I think it would be wrong for me to be silent about what we’ve seen on the television over the last few days. And what I would say to those people who put so much hope and energy and optimism into the political process, I would say to them that the world is watching and inspired by their participation…

and

[P]articularly to the youth of Iran, I want them to know that we in the United States do not want to make any decisions for the Iranians, but we do believe that the Iranian people and their voices should be heard and respected.

  • The following day, the president hosted South Korean President Lee  Myung-Bak. Despite the fact that they had a number of very urgent topics to discuss, President Obama took time to state that while it was “not productive, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations,” for the U.S. president to be “meddling in Iranian elections,” he wished to repeat his remarks from the previous day:

[W]hen I see violence directed at peaceful protestors, when I see peaceful dissent being suppressed, wherever that takes place, it is of concern to me and it’s of concern to the American people. That is not how governments should interact with their people.

and

I do believe that something has happened in Iran where there is a questioning of the kinds of antagonistic postures towards the international community that have taken place in the past, and that there are people who want to see greater openness and greater debate and want to see greater democracy. How that plays out over the next several days and several weeks is something ultimately for the Iranian people to decide. But I stand strongly with the universal principle that people’s voices should be heard and not suppressed.

So, President Obama has not been silent, and he has never said “no comment.”

Judging from the text of his op-ed, Wolfowitz seems most frustrated that the Iranian election dispute might not prove a precursor to regime change in Iran on par with the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986 and the ascension of Boris Yeltsin in Russia in 1991.

Wolfowitz admits that no historical analogy is perfect, but he doesn’t dwell on what really differentiates the overthrow of Marcos in 1986 and the Yeltsin countercoup of 1991 from the situation today in Iran: a pattern of trust and amicable relations on the one hand, and an equally clear pattern of suspicion and hostility on the other.

In 1986, the United States had been supporting the Filipino government for roughly 40 years. No one could have painted Aquino and her spontaneous “people power” protests as the leading edge of a regime-change operation funded and choreographed by the CIA. When Ronald Reagan’s personal emissary, Sen. Paul Laxalt, communicated with Marcos privately, the message was crystal clear: time’s up.

In a similar vein, George H.W. Bush’s close ties to Mikhail Gorbachev, painstakingly cultivated for several years, built an atmosphere of trust that extended beyond Gorbachev’s personal circle of advisers. The United States had not been engaged during the Bush adminstration — and not even during the closing days of the Reagan administration, for that matter — in attempting to overthrow the Soviet government. The collapse came from within. When the counter-counter-revolutionaries attempted to take back power, Yeltsin never feared being tarred as an agent for the West. Instead, he sought out and embraced U.S. support. And yet, the most important communications between Washington and Moscow were conducted in private.

Contrast this conduct with what the neocons have done and would have us do. The Reagan and first Bush administrations engaged in “diplomacy”: back-channel communications, moral suasion, gentle pressure. The neocons have painstakingly sought to destroy the very concept, equating “diplomacy” with “appeasement.” Having succeeded in thwarting efforts to resolve the stand-off with Iraq by peaceful means, they got their war, and now they’ve moved on. They have since drifted off to the private sector and friendly think tanks from whence they can write op-eds on what to do next.

In truth, their efforts began years ago.

Mere weeks after the United States invaded Iraq, Richard Perle said publicly of neighboring Iran and any other country who would dare to oppose the United States: “You’re next.” Behind the scenes, the Iranians are reported to have approached the Bush administration in the spring of 2003 with an offer to negotiate an end to their nuclear program in exchange for normalized relations (Nicholas Kristof posted the docs on the NYT blog).

The Bush administration’s response? “No comment.” Instead, they effectively let Richard Perle do the talking for them. Within a few years, the small circle of reformers who had been willing to reach out to the United States were gone from power, replaced by Holocaust-denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Since then, pro-democracy advocates in Iran have had a simple message for the Americans who purport to be their saviors: butt out. Most notable among this group is Nobel-laureate Shirin Ebadi, who has been outspoken in calling the elections a fraud, but has been equally clear in urging American leaders not to anoint the Iranian reform movement as America’s choice. Ebadi has praised Obama’s approach. A more outspoken, or even hostile, posture by Washington would certainly evoke a counterreaction among fiercely nationalistic Iranians.

In short, the louder the neocons become in their braying for a free and fair counting of the election results, the less likely it is to occur. In their more candid moments, a few are willing to admit that they would prefer Ahmadinejad to Mousavi.

Before the election, Daniel Pipes told an audience at the Heritage Foundation (starting at 1:29:26 in the clip), “I’m sometimes asked who I would vote for if I were enfranchised in this election, and I think I would, with due hesitance, vote for Ahmadinejad.”

The reason, Pipes explained, is that he would “prefer to have an enemy who’s forthright and blatant and obvious, who wakes people up by his outlandish statements, than a slier version of that same policy as respresented by” Mousavi. “If you get someone…who is saying the nice things that people want to hear, then there’ll be a relaxation, which would be the wrong step for us.”

Max Boot sees things in a similar light. “In an odd sort of way,” wrote Boot on Commentary blog last Sunday:

[A] win for Ahmadinejad is also a win for those of us who are seriously alarmed about Iranian capabilities and intentions. With crazy Mahmoud in office — and his patron, Ayatollah Khameini, looming in the background — it will be harder for Iranian apologists to deny the reality of this terrorist regime.

This does make sense, “in an odd sort of way” — if that is all you care about. Mousavi, for example, was instrumental in restarting Iran’s nuclear program (it had been initiated by our ally the Shah in the 1970s). It would be logical to guess, therefore, that he won’t willingly give it up.

And given that he doesn’t carry Admadinejad’s baggage, he might be more capable of convincing outside powers to normalize relations with Iran, and to allow his country to continue with a peaceful uranium enrichment program in exchange for a pledge not to weaponize. This must frighten those who refuse to countenance an Iranian nuclear program on par with that of, for example, Japan.

Perhaps that is what this loud talk is really all about?

It is possible to view President Obama as a more credible messenger, given that he opposed the Iraq war from the outset and has shown a willingness to reach out to the Iranian people. Perhaps a full-throated, morally self-righteous, public address in support of Mousavi’s supporters might have tipped the scales in the right direction.

It seems more likely, however, that Obama’s patient, measured public response to recent events is well suited to the circumstances. As the president said earlier this week, Americans are right to feel sympathy for the Iranian protesters, and we should all be free to voice our sentiments openly. But it is incumbent upon policymakers to pursue strategies that don’t backfire, or whose unintended consequences don’t dwarf the gains that we are trying to achieve. In many cases, the quiet, private back channel works well. And if we discover that there is no credible back channel to Iran available, similar to those employed in 1986 and 1991, then we’ll all know whom to blame.

Why We Shouldn’t Bomb Iran—From an Unlikely Source

Many of the same people who were telling us what a cakewalk invading Iraq would be are now lobbying to bomb Iran.  They assure us it would be another cakewalk which would restore American prestige around the world.  Indeed, North Korea and other rogue states would come groveling.

Right.

But an unusual opponent of launching another war has emerged.  Reports the Jerusalem Post:

There is no viable military option for dealing the Iranian nuclear threat, and efforts by the Israeli government and its supporters to link that threat to progress in peace with the Palestinians and Syria are “nonsense” and an obstacle to the Arab-Israeli and international cooperation essential to changing Iranian behavior.

That’s the conclusion of Keith Weissman, the Iran expert formerly at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), speaking publicly for the first time since the government dropped espionage charges against him and his colleague, Steve Rosen, earlier this month.

There’s no assurance an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities - even if all of them could be located - would be anything more than a temporary setback, Weissman told me. Instead, a military strike would unify Iranians behind an unpopular regime, ignite a wave of retaliation that would leave thousands dead from Teheran to Tel Aviv, block oil exports from the Persian Gulf and probably necessitate a ground war, he said.

“The only viable solution is dialogue. You don’t deal with Iran with threats or preaching regime change,” said Weissman, who has lived in Iran, knows Farsi (as well as Arabic, Turkish and French) and wrote his doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago on Iranian history. That’s where the Bush administration went wrong, in his view.

“President Bush’s demand that Iran halt all nuclear enrichment before we would talk with the regime was an excuse not to talk at all,” Weissman said. “And the administration’s preaching of regime change only made the Iranians more paranoid and told them there was no real desire to engage them, only demonize them. The thing they fear most is American meddling in their internal politics.”

His arguments would have had no effect on the previous administration.  But his judgment offers powerful and welcome backing for President Barack Obama, who seems determined to pursue diplomacy.