Thursday, October 2, 2014

An embarrassment with a portfolio

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil has been ridiculed in recent days for his embarrassing performance at a meeting he held on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly session with the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates.

A video of the incident has been circulating, so there is not much to add. A smirking Bassil is repeatedly seen calling out to an assistant, asking “Rami, where is Caroline?” He then makes a hand gesture indicating that the woman, Caroline Ziadeh, the deputy permanent representative of Lebanon at the U.N., is attractive. The scene then cuts to Ziadeh, who is seen sitting down and straightening her skirt with an expression suggesting she is not happy.

On Wednesday, Bassil held a press conference to explain the incident. Yet he only dug his hole deeper by saying, “Yes she is an elegant woman, and Iwas in competition with the Emirati foreign minister, each of us praising our country’s women.”

The incident was humiliating for Ziadeh, but above all it was humiliating for Lebanon, which Bassil represents before the world. That the post once held by Charles Malek and Fouad Boutros should now be in such hands is a disgrace. But it is not surprising.

After all, Lebanese officialdom became agitated earlier this year when skier Jackie Chamoun had the misfortune of showing her breasts in the film of a photo-shoot for a calendar. She did not pose nude in the calendar itself, nor was her nudity on film meant to be seen by the public. Yet Chamoun issued a cringing apology and Sports and Youth Minister Faisal Karami asked Lebanon’s Olympic Committee to initiate the “necessary inquiries” into the incident.

I doubt anyone will make the necessary inquiries into Bassil’s performance. Yet that idea would not seem so strange in countries where such issues are taken seriously. The minister is hierarchically Ziadeh’s superior, someone in a position to advance her career or interrupt it. That this individual should be seen commenting on the physical attributes of his envoy, and in front of a ministerial counterpart no less, is remarkable. No one is suggesting Bassil has taken advantage of his position, but in many countries even the potential for that to happen is never dismissed as irrelevant.

But Lebanon is a country where there have been obstacles to passing laws curbing domestic violence, so don’t expect there to be any momentum to tighten legislation to end sexual harassment in the workplace. Again, no one is accusing Bassil of this, but given his actions, clearly he is not someone whose priority is to create a work environment in which proper behavior is respected.

When it comes to relations between the sexes at work, an argument can be made that the West has gone too far. Not every wink and nod needs to signify sexually harassment, and not every salacious story has to be brought up with one’s lawyer. It is frequently better for problems to be resolved within the work environment when possible, with the law available when it becomes impossible.

In Lebanon the margin women have to respond against harassment is much narrower than in the West. Don’t expect the courts to become a vanguard for action in this regard, or Lebanese society to take a strong stand against sexual harassment, especially when it involves an employee accusing a boss. I would wager that in most such cases it is the employee who is dispensable, not the boss, and that it is far easier for a company to resolve a problem by dismissing a subordinate.

In one noted case last April, a woman, Hoda Sankari, secretly filmed the governor of north Lebanon and acting governor of Beirut, Nassif Qaloush, implying that her contract with the governorate had not been renewed because she had not slept with him. The video was shown on primetime news and forced Qaloush to resign in May.

Since then Sankari has said she would file a lawsuit against Qaloush, who no longer enjoys immunity from prosecution as a grade-one civil servant. Yet no disciplinary action was taken against the former governor by the Interior Ministry, despite the evidence. Sankari reminded us there is a swath of top-level civil servants who are legally protected if they ever decide to take advantage of their employees.

With Bassil, it was different. The minister suggested that Ziadeh was worth bringing into the room not because she is a professional diplomat whose presence was required, but because she has a nice body. It was his sheer vulgarity that was striking, the lack of respect for her competence, from a man whose job it is to show Lebanon’s best face. You dare not wonder what the Emirati minister thought.

But what many Lebanese thought was that Bassil had behaved in a nauseating way. Ziadeh has reached a level of qualification in her job that can serve as a model for young Lebanese. But after watching the video, how many of them would want to follow in her footsteps and work for ministers who get away with behaving so boorishly?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Even in admitting failure, Obama is disingenuous

On Sunday, President Barack Obama admitted that the United States had underestimated the rise of ISIL. Agreeing with the director of national intelligence, Mr Obama observed: “Jim Clapper has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.”

For Mr Obama to shift the burden of responsibility onto Mr Clapper was disingenuous. From the start of the conflict in Syria in 2011, numerous people warned that if the breakdown there was allowed to continue unabated, it could spread, creating blowback that could ultimately target the United States.

Indeed, the initial American reluctance to get involved in Syria was due to a fear that this might tip the balance in favour of Islamist groups fighting Bashar Al Assad’s regime. Early on there was an understanding in Washington of the nexus between violence in Syria and the fact that the growing sectarianism in the country might attract foreign jihadists.

Is that surprising? The link was well grasped by Mr Al Assad’s intelligence services, which falsely labelled the opposition “Islamist terrorists”, then tried to create that reality. By crushing peaceful demonstrations, the regime knew it would push the opposition to arm, drawing foreign jihadists and allowing the regime to portray itself as a victim of terrorism.

Mr Obama acknowledged that ISIL had exploited the vacuum in Syria, stating: “Over the past couple of years, during the chaos of the Syrian civil war, where essentially you have huge swathes of the country that are completely ungoverned, they were able to reconstitute themselves and take advantage of that chaos.”

Blaming America for that void is unfair, but it is not unfair to insist that America should have foreseen the consequences. Mr Obama came to office promising a rules-based international system. That promise collapsed in Syria, which did not mean Mr Obama had a licence to do nothing. Time and again his unwillingness to involve America in another Middle East conflict hit up against the rationale for doing so to uphold a rules-based order.

This was most flagrant in August last year, when Mr Al Assad’s forces used chemical weapons against civilians in Ghouta, killing perhaps as many as 1,700 people. Mr Obama prepared to retaliate, though when he was offered a way out by Russia, he took it, allowing Mr Al Assad to get away, literally, with murder. This hardly reinforced international norms of behaviour.

The president’s refusal to act in Syria was bolstered by an isolationist mood in the United States. For instance, earlier this year a Politico poll asked Americans about, among other things, their country’s involvement in Syria. Only 15 per cent supported more involvement; 42 per cent sought less involvement; and 26 per cent supported the current level of involvement.

These attitudes changed radically when two Americans were decapitated by ISIL. But conducting foreign policy by opinion polls is never a good idea. The public, unlike an administration, rarely has all the information needed for making sound judgements.

When ISIL last year was seizing larger expanses of territory in eastern Syria and seeking to cut off the Syrian opposition’s access to Turkey, the administration was in a good position to assess where this was going. After all, it involved the successor to Al Qaeda in Iraq, which America had fought years earlier.

The reality is that Mr Obama’s Syria policy has been irresponsible and hypocritical, but in no way has it been based on a misunderstanding of the Syrian situation. His administration stood aside and did as little as possible to stop a great crime of the decade, couching its position in high principles that Mr Obama had no intention of implementing.

The president’s reference to his administration’s “underestimation” of the ISIL threat was embarrassing. What Mr Obama should have said is that he was responsible for a massive failure in policy. Senior administration officials – including former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, defence secretary Leon Panetta, CIA director David Petraeus and joint chiefs of staff chairman General Martin Dempsey – had advocated arming the less-dangerous rebels, but Mr Obama rejected their views.

Now the president intends to arm the rebels. It may be too late either to defeat Mr Al Assad or prevail against ISIL. Mr Obama had hoped to kick that can into early next year, but ISIL’s murder of two Americans forced him to act now. As some have observed, this, not the death of nearly 200,000 Syrians, turned the tide. No wonder the Syrian opposition mistrusts America.

Mr Obama might respond that the US is being unfairly blamed when the rest of the world, too, did nothing about Syria. True, but only America anchors the international system and claims to uphold the values that have been systematically undermined in Syria for more than three years.

Mr Obama would agree. As he told an interviewer with the CBS network this week: “America leads. We are the indispensable nation. We have capacity no one else has. Our military is the best in the history of the world. And when trouble comes up anywhere in the world, they don’t call Beijing. They don’t call Moscow. They call us. That’s the deal.”

It’s good that the president has finally acted, even if the outcome is unclear. Had he done so sooner ISIL might not have become so strong. Some will welcome Mr Obama’s honesty about Syria, but it is tinged with more than a little dishonesty.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Toward a Syrian endgame? - The anti-ISIS campaign may lead to an Assad exit

If Iran and Hezbollah appear worried about the attacks being directed by the United States and its allies against the Islamic State, or ISIS, the reason is simple. They realize that the logical outcome of military operations in Syria is likely to be pressure for a political solution that leads to Bashar al-Assad’s departure.

The connection between the anti-ISIS campaign and the Syrian conflict was made on Thursday at a Friends of Syria foreign ministers’ meeting in New York. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal expressed it succinctly: “For as long as the strife in Syria continues, the growth of extremist groups will continue.”

Applying the same logic as in Iraq, the Americans are also likely to soon conclude that only a more inclusive government in Syria can consolidate the gains made against ISIS. In Iraq, the aim was to bring Sunnis into the political process, in the belief that they are necessary to defeating ISIS, and to do so the Obama administration helped remove Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Why should Syria be any different?

Perhaps what disturbs Iran and Hezbollah the most is that their strategy in both Iraq and Syria is crumbling. When Mosul fell to ISIS, Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, was asked what was to be done. “We must rely on Shiite solidarity,” Suleimani allegedly replied.

That was decidedly not the solution that the United States pursued, nor one that would have allowed the Iraqi government to prevail over ISIS. If anything, Shiite solidarity would only have solidified the Iraqi divide, allowing ISIS, with its core of Saddam-era officers, to reinforce its hold over Sunni areas.

In Syria, Iran’s policies have brought little more than fragmentation. That may be an Iranian objective, but the repercussions are turning to Tehran’s disadvantage. The minority backbone of the regime is breaking as Alawites and Christians take increasingly heavy losses. This is unsustainable, and already there are signs that the regime’s supporters are becoming angry over the way the war is being conducted.

In Qalamoun, Hezbollah and the Syrian army announced earlier this year that they had defeated the rebels. In fact, not wanting to engage in a bloody final push in such places as Qusayr and Yabroud, they allowed the rebels to evacuate the towns with their weapons and regroup in the hinterland.

Now Hezbollah is trapped in a battle it cannot win in Qalamoun, while the Syrian regime has lost ground in the south of Syria and around Damascus – not to mention its loss of large outposts in the north and east of the country. Assad once said that the fighting in Syria would be largely over by the end of this year. He may yet be right, but not quite in the way he envisaged.

Officially, Russian support for Assad has not diminished, but as Moscow wrestles with the consequences of the conflict in the Ukraine and an economy suffering from Western sanctions, its outlook toward Syria may change. Earlier this year Egypt’s foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy, told one of his Lebanese interlocutors that in speaking to Russian officials, he felt that they had reached an impasse over Syria.

If true, the Russian impasse, along with the Iranian impasse, along with the air war against ISIS, may create the elements of a broader deal in Syria that sees Assad’s removal while also offering guarantees to the country’s frightened minorities. Yet Iran and Russia are wary that it may be Assad’s enemies who will get the best of any such deal, in part because it is their airplanes that are flying sorties above Syria and their weapons that will be sent to the “moderates” among the rebels.

The question is how the Obama administration will react to the inescapable reality that for its anti-ISIS campaign to succeed in Syria, it will require a parallel political solution to end the conflict there. President Barack Obama is not about to admit that openly, just weeks before midterm congressional elections, when isolationist impulses are still strong in America. However, once the voting is done, anticipate a change in attitude.

The challenge for Obama will be to prepare the ground for a political solution, even if we’re not there yet. The meeting in New York between the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers this week was a useful start, though Tehran and Riyadh remain far apart on Syria. Obama’s decision to bar Iran from the recent anti-ISIS coalition meeting in Paris was probably a mistake, given Tehran’s influence in both Baghdad and Damascus. The Gulf states may have been pleased, but reaching a consensus over Syria will not happen without Iran being a part of it.

In the end, Bashar Assad is expendable. Not even the Iranians can seriously believe that normalization in Syria will take place with him remaining in office. That means that a mechanism must be found to reduce the differences between the various regional actors involved in Syria. And there is a major difference today when compared to the past: America is engaged and it has an interest in creating a new political context that can shore up the gains it makes against ISIS.

Not so long ago, Obama didn’t want to hear about Syria. Now his aircraft are bombing Syria on a daily basis. Before long, expect the president to talk more about a resolution of the Syrian conflict. It is becoming plain that he cannot avoid doing so, even if the president’s predisposition to avoid problems usually means they come back to hit him twice as hard.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Army is being sucked into Syria

The rising number of attacks against the Lebanese Army in Arsal and northern Lebanon is a worrying reminder of what is at stake for the military. In entering the fray in Arsal, the Army has immersed itself in the treacherous dynamics of Syria’s civil war.

By trying to close off the Lebanese-Syrian border, a legitimate aim in principle, the Army is effectively participating in strangling the Syrian rebels in the Qalamoun district. The rebels rely on access to Arsal to resupply themselves and to rest. With winter coming, the rebels realize that they will have to come down from the high ground in Qalamoun, and if they are denied access to Arsal, they will have to find alternatives, leaving them more vulnerable to attack by the Syrian regime and Hezbollah.

The Army can say that it is trying to guarantee that the conflict in Syria does not reach Lebanon. That would be convincing if Hezbollah had not deployed thousands of combatants in Syria, and if negotiations over the release of the abducted soldiers had not been hindered by the party, because it wants its own members captured or killed in Syria to be part the deal.

It would be even more convincing if we did not know that Hezbollah has played a significant role in pushing the Army to take a more aggressive stance in Arsal than it has previously taken. The reason is that the party is struggling in Qalamoun, caught in a war of attrition that it cannot win against a motivated foe with nothing to lose.

So, Hezbollah has maneuvered the Army into serving as its partner. To lend this legitimacy, it has been depicted as an anti-terrorism campaign against Salafist-jihadists such as the Nusra Front and ISIS. But how accurate is that portrayal?

In private conversation, a Lebanese ally of Syria admits that the bulk of the armed men in Qalamoun are inhabitants of the area who were forced to evacuate their towns and villages when the Syrian army and Hezbollah went on the offensive last year. That is not to say that there are no jihadists among them, let alone to play down the murder of soldiers; but rather to suggest that the picture is more varied than the Army’s public relations arm has let on and media have been led to believe.

What are the options for the Army? Today it has no real strategy in the Arsal hinterland, and is setting itself up for a grinding battle without resolution. Soldiers will continue to be the target of attack; the hostage situation will remain stalemated; and the country will continue to shake to the repercussions of the Arsal situation. Sectarian tensions in the Bekaa Valley may worsen given that the state and political parties have only a limited capacity to control their communities there.

Under these circumstances it may be preferable to consider a de facto agreement with the rebels governing passage to and from Arsal, in exchange for the release of the abducted soldiers and policemen and a clear definition of the conditions for entry and exit. This would include ensuring that weapons will not cross the border, only food and humanitarian supplies.

Hezbollah would doubtless oppose such an arrangement, and could be expected to block it on the ground. But there are circumstances that could make the party more open to an implicit accord.

For starters, given the stalemate in Qalamoun, Hezbollah has an interest in maintaining channels to the opposition in the event more of its fighters are made prisoner. Because of the unlikeliness of a total cutoff of communication lines between Arsal and Qalamoun, it may be preferable for both sides to get something out of a deal as opposed to what they might lose by refusing such an alternative.

Hezbollah also must think of the future. The Syrian regime is slowly losing ground everywhere. Its armed forces are depleted and the casualty toll among Syria’s minorities, especially Alawites, is high and unsustainable. Even in the best scenario, if ISIS is beaten, which is unlikely in the coming weeks, the regime cannot regain what it has lost.

Given all this, Hezbollah gains from being flexible. If Bashar Assad and the party cannot prevail militarily in Syria, Hezbollah may eventually have to consider a fallback strategy to contain the consequences of the Syrian conflict inside Syria. Having already reached a modus vivendi with rebel groups in the border area could become very useful if that occurs.

There are those who believe that, despite the dangers of a sectarian war in Lebanon, the armed men in Qalamoun have no intention of extending the Syrian conflict to Lebanon. That could well be true, but don’t take anybody’s word for it. Hezbollah is a prisoner of two contradictory logics: It wants to help the Assad regime win in Syria, and it wants to ensure that the Syrian violence is kept out of Lebanon. The first objective, almost by definition, has undermined the second.

However, the contrary is less evident. A desire to keep Lebanon separate from the Syrian conflict need not weaken Assad, and an implicit deal in the area of Arsal may show why. While it is improbable that Hezbollah will embrace such a reality, the Lebanese Army can tell the party that it refuses to be drawn into Syria, and intends to find a means to ensure this.

It can do so with Hezbollah’s approval or not, but the Army is in a better position to impose an arrangement, one that does not harm the party’s interests, because Hezbollah is vulnerable. The Army is not doing enough to stay clear of the Syrian war, and this can benefit only Hezbollah and Assad.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Decades later, Camp David’s legacy remains debatable

Thirty-six years ago this month, Israel and Egypt negotiated the Camp David accords under the watchful eyes of US president Jimmy Carter, leading to an Egyptian-Israeli peace settlement.

What lessons can we learn from Camp David? Lawrence Wright has tried to answer that question in a new book, Thirteen Days in September. As he shows, the messages are mixed.

Optimists will say that Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Al Sadat arrived in Camp David with maximalist positions, and that only their willingness to compromise produced a historical final agreement.

The pessimists will say that Camp David was a flash in the pan. It led only to an Egyptian-Israeli peace accord because a major item on the summit’s agenda, a resolution of the Palestinian problem, was undermined by Begin, without his interlocutors being able to do much about it. Mr Carter split the negotiating tracks into two and focused on an Egyptian-Israeli accord, realising the Palestinian issue could sabotage the talks.

Both interpretations are correct in some ways, but looking back at Begin’s behaviour, it is difficult not to conclude that his intransigence is still very much alive today among Israel’s political leadership, with his Likud party still playing a dominant role.

Begin arrived at Camp David with a very peculiar interpretation of the United Nations resolution governing the negotiations, Resolution 242, passed after the June 1967 war. The resolution affirms “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in which every State in the area can live in security”.

This formulation effectively outlined a “land for peace” process, one that continues to serve as a basis for Arab-Israeli negotiations today. However, Begin strongly resisted its implications. When Mr Carter presented an American paper to break the logjam, the Israeli prime minister focused on reference to Resolution 242, arguing it was unacceptable.

“The language applies only to wars of aggression,” Begin said. “The war of 1967 gives Israel the right to change frontiers.” In fact Resolution 242 says nothing about wars of aggression, and the prime minister appeared to use that argument less out of conviction than to hold on to land Israel coveted.

In the end Begin did allow for the return of Sinai to Egypt, although he himself was unconvinced, in exchange for the grand prize of a peace treaty with Egypt that would severely divide the Arab world and weaken it militarily. But this would little alter the view on the right expressed by Begin that victory in 1967 gave Israel “the right to change frontiers”.

Indeed, a central objective of Israeli policy since that time has been to do precisely that. In 1981 Israel annexed the Golan Heights from Syria, while its expansion of settlements there and in the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza has made a “land for peace” deal far more difficult to achieve.

Even prime minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip in 2005 was designed mainly to facilitate Israeli consolidation over other occupied areas that would be integrated into Israel after final peace accords.

Camp David would also signal the end of boldness in Arab relations with Israel. When Jordan and Syria engaged in negotiations with Israel a decade and a half later, they would do so on a road first opened by Al Sadat, under the guidance of a United States that was by then the sole superpower.

However, neither King Hussein of Jordan nor Hafez Al Assad in Syria saw benefits in taking risks with Israel. King Hussein had many secret contacts with Israelis over the years, but Jordan’s peace treaty with the Israelis came only after Oslo. As for Al Assad, he refused to meet Israeli officials or engage in confidence-building measures until his conditions were met.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s attitude towards the Palestinians has reflected that of Begin at Camp David. It is remarkable how deep Begin’s contempt for the Palestinians and their aspirations was, to the extent that in a paper he presented to the parties, Mr Carter removed a reference to ending Israeli settlement building in the occupied territories, knowing that Begin would concentrate on that point to reject the document as a whole.

Rather, Begin offered an insulting autonomy plan to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. They would be placed under an Arab administration with minimal powers. Israel, in turn, would continue to build settlements and would be the final authority on most decisions. “All who beheld [the plan] praised it,” an irony-free Begin said, according to Mr Wright’s account.

After the Oslo accords, Israel finally accepted the principle of a Palestinian state. However, with Mr Netanyahu back in office, the entity he is willing to allow Palestinians seems marginally more attractive than what Begin offered.

Last July, Mr Netanyahu explained what he envisaged in a speech in Hebrew. According to journalist David Horovitz, the prime minister made it clear that he could never countenance a fully sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank. “[T]here cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan,” Mr Netanyahu was quoted as saying.

Nor is Mr Netanyahu likely to concede anything substantial on Jerusalem or refugees. Camp David was about peace, but it was also about resistance to steps facilitating peace. That’s why the lessons of the summit still remain ambiguous.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Eye on you - Americans have had enough with totalitarian policies

Apple’s decision to make it impossible for the company to hand over information on users of iPhones or iPads to police is welcome. The company has introduced encryption that allows only users of the devices to gain access to the data in them.

Apple has found a neat way around the dilemma of having to comply with court orders obliging it to deliver such data while simultaneously respecting their clients’ privacy.

Newspaper reports placed the decision in the context of a Supreme Court ruling several months ago that in most cases police need a search warrant to access information stored on mobile phones. As National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed last year, the government has had widespread access to the mobile telephone data of Americans, often with only cursory legal oversight.

A former FBI agent quoted by The Washington Post described the Apple move as “problematic,” because it will make it much more difficult for law enforcement to collect evidence from people’s telephones. Perhaps, but the government and police have only themselves to blame, as their Orwellian behavior in recent years has increasingly outraged the general public.

Pushback against the government and law enforcement is long overdue. Ever since Snowden spilled the beans, major technology companies have worried about their bottom line. Realizing the negative backlash from consumers to news that technology companies were sharing their personal information with the government, the companies began resisting government requests. Apparently only the free market reminded them there was a constitutional right to privacy.

However, the broader message is that America has changed dramatically in recent years, with the government having the means to gain near-totalitarian insight into its citizens. America remains a democracy, so one should explain: While the system allows for protests and condemnation of the state’s actions, the technical means the state has at its disposal allow it to survey virtually every aspect of people’s lives, all the time. 

Nor is this hyperbole. Certainly, Americans are protected by their domestic legislation. But as Snowden revealed, many of them were also swept up in the government’s surveillance net, though this was perfectly illegal. Meanwhile, non-Americans all over the world continue to be targets of American snooping, with very little likelihood that this situation will change.

The American government is doubtless not alone in eavesdropping on citizens. But looking at the United States today it’s hard to believe that it is the democratic powerhouse it once was. The gradual accumulation by the government and by law enforcement of powers hitherto inconceivable in a democratic system is truly alarming, and chilling.

Take the growth of militarized police departments in the country. The consequences were on display during the recent standoff between demonstrators and police in Ferguson, Missouri, after an unarmed teenager was shot by an officer. Initially, the police deployed atop armored personnel carriers, pointing military-grade weapons at the public. When police behave like an occupying army, something is very wrong. 

This was hardly an exception. All over America the trend has been toward more militarized and invasive police forces. Reports of policemen shooting citizens, or pets, is a regular occurrence. Until a court recently ruled otherwise, the police would routinely arrest people caught filming their activities. In a notorious episode in Hawthorne, California, the police did a two-step: they cuffed a man for filming them then proceeded to shoot his dog.

While this may not seem to have anything to do with government surveillance, it has very much to do with a society that has granted the authorities vast powers to which they are not entitled. That Americans are beginning to fight back is reassuring, but the government is still gathering massive amounts of information on citizens, eroding constitutional principles and sending a message that its eyes are everywhere.

Americans abroad have felt this with the so-called Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, or FATCA, which enrolls foreign financial institutions into a program to spy on the accounts of American citizens. Banks and other financial institutions are obliged to report annually on these accounts, even when one of the account holders may be a non-American – or else 30% of their American transactions are withheld.

Such activities have prompted thousands of Americans to relinquish their nationality. That’s because most people don’t take kindly to banks reporting on how they manage their own money, while many foreign financial institutions are refusing to open accounts for Americans, as it has become too costly.

The list goes on – from civil forfeiture, where the police arbitrarily confiscate the money or property of people it has detained (but not necessarily charged with a crime), to the Transportation Security Administration’s unexplained searches of individuals after their flight has landed. This makes one wonder what has gotten into America. Why has a country with a strong tradition of civil liberties and a bill of rights allowed itself to become a repository of official abuse and stupidity?

If America acts in such a way, you can expect much of the world to follow suit. America and Americans may not be particularly preoccupied with democracy in the world during these isolationist days, but if democracy is to do better globally, then it probably has to do better in America first.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Obama’s ‘no troops’ vow is unrealistic

There is a proverb that if you sit by the river long enough, you will eventually see the body of your enemy floating by. Similarly, observe Washington long enough, you will see politicians reversing themselves on their most cherished beliefs.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, suggested that the United States might alter its position on the deployment of American troops in the fight against ISIS.

Dempsey stated, about President Barack Obama, “He has told me as well to come back to him on a case-by-case basis. If we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific [ISIS] targets, I’ll recommend that to the president.”

While the chairman was speaking only about troops accompanying their Iraqi counterparts, not large contingents of American forces engaged directly in battle with ISIS, the ambiguities in Dempsey’s remarks had many observers wondering how the U.S. role in Iraq and Syria might change. Indeed, Congress will pass legislation to fund the arming and training of “moderate” Syrian rebels, but the House will affirm it does not support placing troops on the ground.

The White House sought to play down Dempsey’s remarks, describing what the chairman had said as a “purely hypothetical scenario.” But very subtly he had managed to shift the goal posts. By suggesting that the president was willing to consider using troops on a case-by-case basis, he showed that the administration was preparing for circumstances that could change.

American reluctance to send soldiers into new wars is understandable. But as a reluctant Obama prepares for a campaign against ISIS, it is noticeable how American political desires are constantly blindsided by reality. Where there are those in Washington who feel their country can deal with the world almost contractually, the fact is that the likes of Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are not lawyers.

Was it a good idea for the Obama administration to say that it would not send ground troops to fight ISIS? True, it did not want to undermine domestic support for the anti-ISIS campaign. However, like Obama’s policy in Afghanistan, where he set a deadline for an American pullout, when you tell the enemy what your constraints are, he adapts his strategy accordingly.

President Bill Clinton learned this in Kosovo in 1998-1999. Initially he was publicly very reluctant to deploy ground forces there. Slobodan Milosevic saw that all he had to do was hold out. Only when the administration began planning for a ground war did Milosevic capitulate. That, anyway, is the view of Gen. Wesley Clark, the NATO commander who led the campaign.

War is about will, and someone like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is not going to be impressed when the American priority is to limit casualties and stick to what is politically safe. That’s not to say he will triumph, but for all of George W. Bush’s errors in Iraq, his forces made headway when it became apparent that they were prepared to prevail against their opponents, whatever it took. And in that sense they succeeded, leaving Iraq far more secure than when they entered in 2003. However, such a narrative is not one the Obama administration embraces, even as the American military revives ties that were formed at the time with Sunni tribes, in order to strike against ISIS.

The big question mark is Syria. In Iraq there are forces that can take advantage of American air power, but not so, or not yet, in Syria. Obama’s plan to arm “moderates” has many people shaking their heads, but the president’s options are few. He should have done this long ago when the extremists were much weaker, but Obama was so busy trying to avoid Syria, that he helped create the very situation he is wrestling with today.

The war against ISIS will be a long one, and Obama would do best not to tie his own hands. Sending American ground forces to the Middle East may not be on the agenda now, or ever, but there is no point in ruling it out indefinitely, in all situations. What is politically expedient is one thing; but what is best for the military itself may be something quite different. The president undoubtedly wants to avoid mission creep, but his approach should not be defined solely by what he seeks to avoid, but by what he needs in order to achieve the aims he has set for himself.

For instance, Obama has made extensive use of the American Joint Special Operations Command all over the world to assassinate or capture alleged terrorists. JSOC units were dispatched to Syria in the failed effort to liberate journalist James Foley. Does it make any sense for Obama to affirm that such units would not be used against ISIS, when one of the roles of JSOC is to engage precisely in that sort of intervention?

Obama is not about to invade Arab countries, as Bush did. However, drifting to the other extreme of hesitating to do anything on the ground militarily is hardly the solution for the proliferating risk represented by ISIS. Dempsey implicitly showed the shortcomings of adopting too definite a position, and soon enough expect Obama to start doing the same.