January 31, 2011

The Last Trick Up Mubarak's Sleeve

By Victor Kotsev, published in Asia Times Online:

TEL AVIV - "Jimmy Carter will go down in American history as 'the president who lost Iran'," Israeli analyst Aluf Benn wrote on Sunday. "Barack Obama will be remembered as the president who 'lost' Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt, and during whose tenure America's alliances in the Middle East crumbled."

Comparing Obama and Carter is a common theme among Israeli analysts. While Benn qualifies his own comparison by pointing out that "unlike Carter, who preached human rights even when it hurt allies, Obama sat on the fence and exercised caution", there is a widespread perception in Israel that Obama is overly idealistic, doesn't understand the Middle East well, and his policies will bring about a disaster, both for the United States and for the Jewish state.

The fear behind this perception is that Muslim masses are not ready for democracy, and that if unleashed on their current autocratic rulers, they will create militant theocratic societies, as happened during the Iranian revolution of 1979. In fact, some analysts see Iran as benefiting and taking advantage of the events to expand its own influence.

Both assumptions can be disputed: for example, the Egyptian opposition has tried hard to distance itself from exclusively religious slogans, and has largely united behind the secular Mohamed ElBaradei. However, from a geopolitical point of view, the broader conclusion that Egypt is lost as an ally probably holds, at least in the short- and mid-term.

Should the protesters take power, even in the best-case scenario it will take time to forge new relationships on all levels. There is every indication that the new government would be reserved towards Egypt's former allies, and at worst, even animosity can be expected.

The Muslim Brotherhood, one of the main opposition forces (and possible coalition partner), has frequently threatened in the past to annul the peace treaty with Israel; for the first time since the start of the demonstrations, reports surfaced on Sunday that the protesters were turning their anger on the US and Israel.

Paradoxically, the American administration interfered mostly on the side of the protesters. It is impossible to verify reports that the US "backed Egypt uprising planners", but in the past few days, Obama put a lot of pressure on the Egyptian president to announce broad reforms, to allow freedom of expression and to unblock communications such as cellular phones, access to the Internet and social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter). The Americans even reportedly threatened to reduce their military aid for Egypt, currently around US$1.3 billion a year, if Mubarak failed to comply.

According to Foreign Policy blogger Marc Lynch, "the [US] administration ... is trying hard to protect the protestors from an escalation of violent repression, giving Mubarak just enough rope to hang himself, while carefully preparing to ensure that a transition will go in the direction of a more democratic successor." When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced on Sunday that "we want to see an orderly transition [in Egypt]… that will bring about a democratic participatory government," and Obama himself later supported her comments, their remarks only strengthened this impression.

This is why, should a new regime in Egypt turn against the US, Obama would get a lot of the blame. For the very same reason, should the regime survive - this currently remains a possibility - Egypt would prove to be a very unruly ally, to say the least. Mubarak is not known to tolerate betrayal, and this is how he will view the actions of his close ally.

The battle is far from over. In the words of The New York Times, "More than at perhaps any other point since the uprising began, the tumult Sunday seemed perched between two deepening narratives: a vision of impending anarchy offered by the government, and echoed by many Egyptian fearing chaos, against the perspective of protesters and many others that the uprising had become, as they described it in a list of demands posted in Liberation Square on Sunday, 'a popular revolution'."

After the police forces were overwhelmed on Friday and the army stepped in, the former disappeared from the streets of several major cities, and a period of lawlessness and looting set in. During attacks on several prisons, an unknown number of prisoners broke out. Looters attacked the Egyptian museum and damaged two mummies. "Thieves raped my daughter in front of my eyes, without showing mercy," a resident of Cairo, Said Mahmoud, told Ynet. Up to 60 rapes were reported, and many citizens organized neighborhood watch groups armed with clubs and knives.

These scenes, amplified by the state media, caused many to have second thoughts. Sunday's demonstrations were reported to be palpably smaller than those of the previous days. Still, a sizeable core group of protesters (estimated at 20,000 in Tahrir Square) persisted through the night, united around the figure of ElBaradei, and continued to call on Mubarak to step down. A fresh detachment of elite tank units was dispatched to the square, but did not fire on the crowd. The protesters distanced themselves from the atrocities, organized human chains to protect the museum, and blamed the looting and jailbreaks on instigation by the secret police.

It is possible that parts of Mubarak's security apparatus, with or without his consent, took part in instigating the chaos. This would echo what has happened in similar circumstances in countless other places, and, if executed stealthily, could damage the support base of the protesters. American think-tank Stratfor reports, "Egyptian plainclothes police allegedly were behind a number of the jailbreaks, robberies of major banks and the spread of attacks and break-ins in high-class neighborhoods."

According to Stratfor, there is a rivalry between the Egyptian army and police. The army is a symbol of national unity, and large parts of it sympathize with the protesters in varying degrees. During the last days, there were many instances of soldiers joining the rallies, and pictures circulate of protesters carrying junior officers on their shoulders.

The police, on the other hand, are widely perceived as an instrument of oppression. Even though it was overwhelmed on Friday, it is very well organized and diverse. Its sudden disappearance from the streets is by itself strange. Despite that it is hard to verify the reports - and unreasonable to blame all looting on the police - it seems that the regime anticipated the chaos and wanted the people to start missing the police a little.

If successful, this strategy could give Mubarak one last chance to turn the tide. On Sunday morning, he seemed broken down; the appointment of his confidante and intelligence chief General Omar Suleiman as vice president - a post that has been vacant for 30 years - was widely interpreted as a prelude to a transition of power. Chaos was rampant and rumors circulated that he had left Cairo. Even the American administration had apparently written him off.

However, Obama may possibly have jumped the gun. Mubarak is one of the world's oldest and most experienced leaders. While many described him as disconnected from reality, he was possibly laying low and waiting for the opportune moment to play his last remaining cards.

Stratfor also reports that on Monday, the police will be back in many places. This will be a crucial test for Mubarak's strategy. It will also be a test for the relationship between the army and the various forces of the Interior Ministry. We should also keep in mind the question how the appointment of a government dominated by the military might play into the internal intrigues.

As I argued in my previous story Days of rage in Egypt (Asia Times Online, January 28, 2011), another decisive factor is how well the protesters will be able to organize and rally around clearly-defined goals. Stratfor seems to believe they are not: "The demonstrators are deeply divided among themselves and thus far do not appear to have been able to generate the type of mass movement that toppled the Shah of Iran's regime in 1979."

The situation remains extremely volatile. Even if Mubarak survives the protests, he is reportedly very ill, and may well step down in the near future. What all this will mean for Egypt's foreign policy is unclear. Israeli analysts have speculated that Israel might need to revamp its operational doctrine and to beef up its forces in the south. In Stratfor's analysis:
If Egypt were to abrogate the Camp David Accords and over time reconstruct its military into an effective force, the existential threat to Israel that existed before the treaty was signed would re-emerge. This would not happen quickly, but Israel would have to deal with two realities. The first is that the Israeli military is not nearly large enough or strong enough to occupy and control Egypt. The second is that the development of Egypt's military would impose substantial costs on Israel and limit its room for maneuver.

However, a close - and perhaps informal - short-term alliance between Egypt and Israel is not inconceivable under certain circumstances. If Mubarak survives, he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might well find themselves in the same boat of American allies that Obama has picked a fight with (Netanyahu has campaigned among world leaders to go easy on Mubarak, the Israeli Ha'aretz daily newspaper reported early on Monday). The two leaders would also have a common grudge against Hamas, which, according to reports, broke the Egyptian blockade of Gaza during the past days and attempted to form a new front against Mubarak.

Finally, it is important to keep in mind the Iranian standoff. It doesn't seem so far that Iran is directly involved in the tumult in Egypt. However, if Israel is threatened with a new, if hypothetical and removed in time, front in the south, would that draw resources away from the Iranian crisis, or would it make it more urgent? It is hard to answer this question right away, but clues will most likely emerge in the coming days and weeks.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst based in Tel Aviv.

Revolution Traps Washington in Strategic Dilemma

The video phones are ringing off the hook. Crumbling and nervous allies, observing foreign governments, journalists, activists, maybe an opposition figure or two. All wanting to know how the White House will respond to the revolutionary furor sweeping the Middle East - all wanting to know what President Barack Obama will do next.

But what can he do?

As Tunisia’s revolutionary fire spread from Cairo to Egypt’s periphery, the U.S. media began to reflect an uncharacteristically harsh light back upon the White House. With Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s pleas falling on deaf ears and Egyptian security forces multiplying by the day, news organizations were left with nothing to print except the truth. Sinking into the same historical quicksand as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, reports starting labeling the Obama administration as “surprised,” “overwhelmed,” and “trying to catch up” to Tunisia’s chain reaction.

The descriptions fit. A novice in foreign affairs and seemingly afraid to get dirty, Obama has relied on Clinton to do most of his talking. Experience has finally assumed a dominate role, and Obama is reportedly leaning hard on his stable of advisers to handle the massive flow of information. Though he needs a couple dozen heads to track the region’s quakes, a lack of executive decision-making has slowed the White House’s response time during a pivotal moment in world history - and Obama’s presidency.

These factors, however, shape the mold of the real handcuffs limiting America's reaction. Even a mind perceiving the deepest nature of the Middle East’s upheaval would, when dumped with the collective failure of U.S. policy, find the challenge impossible to solve overnight. He or she must summon their full imagination and unconventionally extract America from its position “on the wrong side of history.” Unfortunately Washington’s dilemma is strategic in nature and rooted in decades of shaky policy, and thus faces the prospect of having no solution.

"There's no easy answer," Clinton admitted on CNN's "State of the Union.”

America’s paradox can be expressed in a simple syllogism. To contain Islamic elements hostile to the U.S. or Israel, it became necessary to prop up those regimes that could exert relative control of their territory. This arrangement of convenience often inflames tensions between the government and opposition groups; popular movements are quelled at the expense of long-term stability, as militant groups thrive on the unequal status quo.

al-Qaeda’s ideology bases itself on overthrowing morally-bankrupt Western puppets.

Counterinsurgency lives or dies by its message - in word, deed, and impression - and America has long contradicted its message of freedom and democracy through support for unpopular or unlawful regimes. Now, as legitimate revolutionary protests spread across the Middle East, Washington must weigh the risks of bankrupting its ideals against an Islamic uprising that intentionally or unintentionally empowers its enemies. This fatal contradiction poses the main strategic dilemma in America’s war against al-Qaeda, and the White House knows it.

One former Obama administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the Oval Office, "recognized that change was coming and they needed to be on the right side of history and not try to keep Mubarak in power against all odds. It's a very difficult balance to be struck... The administration understand this. But the most important thing they understand is that they have to get in front of this and not behind it.''

Yet this reasoning has left U.S. officials to overly spin the situation. Portraying Obama as active and attune with movements on the streets, the White House even released a statement saying that he received "multiple updates," and that he was currently on the phone with foreign leaders. Clinton bombarded Sunday news programs with a warm but stern message to both Mubarak and protesters, urging them to work together and move forward.

Beyond neutralizing the crisis, these efforts were designed to stem criticism that the White House has over-focused on the perception of its response, neglecting the response itself.

"The events in Egypt as well as in Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan, and Algeria should spark a broader rethink in America's approach to the entire region," says Brian Katulis, a fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington. "Currently, the Obama administration is largely stuck in a reactive and tactical crisis management mode on many key fronts.”

Obama and Clinton are now floating a “peaceful transition” in Egypt to appease both sides, calling on the Mubarak regime to negotiate and for protesters to refrain from violence. For all the reasons above, the White House continues to toe the line hoping it can prevent outright revolution. Seeking a transition through the chaos, not a transition of the Mubarak government, some officials believe it wise to, "stay on the sidelines and keep American fingerprints off too much support of the regime on one hand and too much support for protesters on the other."

But negotiations and lineage are unlikely to yield permanent stability, and maintaining the region’s equilibrium contradicts the realization that the Middle East is metamorphosing. At some point, sooner than later, the White House may well be forced to pick a side: the government or popular movement attempting to replace it. The middle of the road ultimately reflects indecision, not pragmatism or wisdom, and is where people get run over.

Washington must take a decisive stand to break out of its strategic dilemma. Mohamed ElBaradi, Egypt’s highest-profile opposition figure, countered in his own series of interviews to CBS and ABC, "It is better for President Obama not to appear that he is the last one to say to President Mubarak, 'It's time for you to go.’”

And to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, “People need to see that you not only talk the talk, but walk the walk... To say we have a tight rope - between the people and the dictator - to say that we are asking a dictator who's been in power for 30 years to implement democracy is an oxymoron, frankly.”

So what can Obama and Clinton do right now to improve the situations in Egypt and Yemen, Algeria and Jordan? Any strategy must operate on multiple levels. If the choice ultimately comes down to governments or populaces, then America must let the dust settle wherever the people cast it. If the Muslim Brotherhood comes into power, so be it. As in Hezbollah and Muqtada al-Sadr’s cases, the Brotherhood isn’t about to attack U.S. or Israeli targets after securing political power.

With the group in her sights, Clinton claimed that she wanted to see “real democracy... not a democracy for six months or a year and then evolving into essentially a military dictatorship or a so-called democracy that then leads to what we saw in Iran." In fact, the Brotherhood has taken a conscious back-seat in Egypt’s revolution, and their main “threat” appears to be increased support for the Palestinians. Mohammed Mahdi Akef, the group’s retired leader, explained, "This is on purpose. We want to be part of the fabric of society. If we had led, they would have massacred us. All we want is freedom for all the people. Freedom would give us space for movement."

"They are no way extremists,” ElBaradei told ABC's "This Week" program. “They are no way using violence. This is what the regime... sold to the West and to the US: 'It's either us, repression or al Qaeda-type Islamists.’”

Exactly America’s strategic dilemma - and the means to escape is by rejecting fear.

This strategy does become more difficult in Yemen. To blanket opposition movements as Islamists is politically and morally reckless, yet there’s no doubt that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula eagerly awaits a situation similar to Egypt’s. AQAP doesn’t even need a power vacuum to thrive; a temporary raid on a military base could stock the group, which has shown itself adept at living off the enemy. As a smaller cadre AQAP can’t afford many suicide bombings, and instead employs ambushes to overwhelm and loot Yemeni security forces. Last week a payroll convoy was stolen.

After watching Egyptian inmates break out into the chaos, AQAP could use the growing protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh to strike an armory or financial institution.

In general, the war against AQAP will suffer so long as Saleh must focus his energy on political survival. Washington has few options since Saleh poses the same problem as Mubarak. Recently ordering his General People’s Congress (GPC) to set about eliminating his term limit, which expires in 2013, Clinton was forced to urge a dialogue after Yemen’s opposition threatened to boycott April’s parliamentary election. But repeated references to “unity” indicate that America doesn’t want to see a divided Yemen, despite some of the deepest resentment emanating from the secessionist Southern Movement.

Now, just as Washington is trying to ramp up operations in Yemen, Obama must choose between the unpopular Saleh - and the wrong side of the future - or Yemen’s opposition and the risk of AQAP’s expansion.

Any solution requires a persistent grind and continual emphasis on non-military operations. Although $300 million in aid is marked for 2011, supposedly split between military and non-military aid, reports have $250 million going to military support. Non-military aid should greatly exceed military assistance to prove the sincerity of America’s concern for the Yemeni people. AQAP tries to avoid killing civilians, non-Houthis anyway, and busies itself supplying food, medicine, and wells for local tribes.

America has to consistently beat this message over time.

At the macro-level, it seems too obvious that Obama must redouble (or triple) his efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian front. Clinton has spent a good deal of air-time spinning Arab revolt into an example of why America advocates a permanent peace. Yet negotiating in Israel’s favor, the present breakdown with the Palestinians, and now the infamous Palestine Papers magnifies America’s favoritism and ineptitude on an international level. A policy reversal won’t address the grievances of each regional crisis, but one must assume a general improvement in U.S. relations with the Muslim world.

Unfortunately Egypt, Yemen, and other hot-spots appear to have further distracted the White House from conflict-resolution. Though America’s support for Israel remains a main source of negativity, protecting it from the fallout has introduced another check on Washington’s decision-making. The White House and Congress must realize that the best way to protect Israel is an equitable two-state solution, complete with a divided Jerusalem that Obama should personally split.

Becoming distracted from the peace process during such a critical moment leads into a death spiral.

With Washington lagging far behind the revolutionary train that left Tunisia and panting to catch up, the Obama administration has no time for an Afghanistan-like review or Palestinian collapse. Events in the Middle East call for rapid, unconventional thinking and decisive action. Only drastic measures will jump America to the right side of history.

Being the tortoise doesn’t work after starting off as the hare.

January 29, 2011

Update: AU Risks Stalemate to Fill al-Shabab's Gaps

It's safe to say that the AU feels it missed its chance to exploit al-Shabab's leadership transition.

"We are ready to attack if we have permission from the United Nations' Security Council," Jean Ping, chairman of the African Union Commission, told a news conference in Ethiopia. "In the coming months, we have to move to that ceiling of 12,000 troops."

Ping was referring to the ceiling that he helped set after the Kampala bombings in Uganda. With Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's consent, the AU ultimately wishes to deploy more than 20,000 total troops to Somalia, 12,000 for Mogadishu and 8,000 for the rest of the country.

The TFG and AU's urgency is easily understandable. al-Shabab appears weakened yet the AU possesses no ability to deal a death blow. Now al-Shabab has resumed operations in Mogadishu, contesting the capital so that AU troops can't gain momentum into the south. The AU was hoping to fill the temporary void left by al-Shabab's divisions, only this gap is starting to close. If there ever were a time for a comprehensive attack on al-Shabab, now would have been it.

However this is no longer a matter of life and death for Somalis. The TFG's mandate expires after August, the AU's after September, and that appears to play a lead role in their urgency. They need to make progress before then and secure new funding, whether to extend their mandates or jockey for position in the new government.

And desperation isn't a bad thing when it achieves positive results.

Unfortunately the opportune time to attack al-Shabab has passed, and the TFG and AU face several daunting obstacles in launching a systematic campaign (which we will analyze shortly). After the UN appealed to international donors to fill the AU's trust fund, which had reached its lowest level, the AU now wants to deploy another 4,000 troops and send them on the attack. An "offensive" mandate is misleading because the AU already mounts assaults on al-Shabab positions, and Ping may simply being appealing for helicopter gunships and air-strikes.

But the AU has something big in mind and that's going to cost more money: for weapons, fuel, food, soldier pay, and the possible reimbursement that will surely be necessary for civilians (although this could be the first area cut).

How the AU actually expects to seize all of Mogadishu and conduct a nation-wide offensive has yet to be explained in any real detail. We've noted before that several AU commanders estimated Mogadishu's need at 15,000+. Our own estimate for Somalia ranges between 30,000 and 40,000 total troops, depending on the level Ethiopia's assistance and Western air-support.

In any event the task won't come cheap. Somalia is why the term "nation-building" exists, and if America can't fund something on that scale, what hope does the AU have when it largely depends on Western financing? The unavoidable problem will be holding and governing in al-Shabab territory. Clearing, as often the case, will be the easiest phase of counterinsurgency, hard as the fighting is. The AU must remember at all times that it's waging COIN; any conventional thinking will likely doom the campaign.

Our constant advice to the AU is to only capture holdable territory, otherwise the operation becomes counterproductive. Maintaining their force pales in comparison to running the actual counterinsurgency. Bogging down in uncontrollable territory is the main risk to the AU's strategy, as it drains lives, time, resources, and confidence - at the national, regional, and international levels.

The UN already acknowledged earlier this week that the TFG missed its deadline to adopt a new constitution and approve a presidential election. Somalia's chaotic parliament and the constitution remain the TFG's greatest weaknesses, as President Sharif Ahmed and parliamentary speaker Hassan Sheik Aden have reached a logjam on a new constitution and Sharif's desire for another term. Aden reportedly demands that an election be held despite insufficient security. This is but one more reason for the TFG's urgency.

And one more source of friction between now and August.

al-Shabab Leaders Duel for “Hearts and Minds”

Several days ago Fu’ad Shongole, al-Shabab’s third in command and overseer of Puntland, used his platform at a Bakaara mosque to broadcast the group’s new narrative.

“I warn you against condemning people as infidels and hurriedly killing them for visiting government help positions or spying,” he said angrily. “These acts will be questioned during the Day of Judgment. I therefore urge you to stop these genocidal killings against the Somali Muslim population.”

Though he had issued others in the past, Shongole’s call still surprised many Somalis in light of al-Shabab’s treatment of them. Disbelief was another prominent reaction, and perhaps al-Shabab will never fulfill Shongole’s tall order. But his emergence also suggested a repair in al-Shabab’s command structure.

The group’s leader and deputy, Moktar “Godane” Ali Zubeyr and Mukhtar “Abu Mansur” Robow, had clashed since at least 2009 over a wide range of issues, notably whether to accept humanitarian aid and absorb the rival militia Hizbul Islam. At one point Robow threatened to break off and form his own militia, but al-Qaeda leadership in the country managed to cool his head.

With their power-struggle ripping open after a failed attempt to topple Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the feud culminated in December’s merger with Hizbul Islam. Zubeyr’s persistent hostility towards its chief, Hassan Aweys, alienated the majority of al-Shabab fighters. In late December, al-Qaeda leadership within the country agreed to oust a man that had pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden.

Ibrahim "al-Afghani," al-Shabab’s administrator in Kismayo and an ally of Robow, assumed Zubeyr’s position.

Having forced Zubeyr out of the picture, the nationalistic Robow and Shongole began to consolidate their hold on al-Shabab’s ranks, with Robow summoning new fighters in his Bay region and Shongole ordering them to respect Somalis. The plan appears obvious: scapegoat Zubeyr for al-Shabab’s previous behavior. Recruiting with the message of “returning al-Shabab to Somalis,” Robow and his allies hope to restore the movement’s common bond - Sharia law - to “rise above” clan politics and counter negative opinion.

Even if that means subtly blaming those foreign fighters that helped remove Zubeyr from power.

Furthermore, the TFG has achieved some recent success in politically reorganizing itself and seizing Mogadishu districts adjacent to Hamar Weyne, the site of Villa Somalia. Bondhere has allegedly come under AU control, while its troops also challenge al-Shabab in Hodan and Hawl Wadag, home of the Bakaara market. Sunni militia Ahlu Sunna has assisted the TFG and AU in many battles. But with al-Shabab still holding onto a chunk of Mogadishu and nearly half of the country, the TFG’s main victory has come in the information sphere.

Manipulating al-Shabab’s turmoil to portray a lost grip on Mogadishu is key to convincing the international community of reinvesting in the TFG.

This has led al-Shabab to aim for every target: prove unity, strength, and benevolence. Contradictory as the equation may be, al-Shabab would likely settle for the first two. Yet as absurd as improved governance seems, it would be unwise to totally discount al-Shabab’s rhetoric. Small improvements are improvements nonetheless, especially when al-Shabab’s approval hovers near 8% (according to the latest TFG poll).

Odder still, Robow’s new message appears to be Zubeyr’s plan too. The former chief recently released a tape to local radio stations in which Zubeyr “called his fighters for justice,” and “not to inspire people’s hatred.”

“You should deal people with in accordance with Sharia," he said, "but not let them flee from your administration."

Though few concrete details have surfaced to illuminate Zubeyr’s dismissal, his removal presumably wouldn’t occur overnight. Connected throughout Somalia and Somaliland, Zubeyr has resisted exile and holds the option of starting his own unit - possibly franchised by al-Qaeda - if he isn’t killed first. But after watching the actions of Robow and Shongole, Zubeyr appears to have chosen the bizarre twist of competing for “hearts and minds.”

So now both of al-Shabab’s “kings” are calling for better treatment of Somalis.

Their gamesmanship may be just that, rhetorical warfare to up the highest bid. Whether anyone can cash the check is irrelevant. And with Zubeyr refusing to go quietly, it's anyone's guess when he resorts to drastic action. But it’s also been reported that, “a group of al Shabab commanders have asked the Shura Council, al Shabab's ultimate decision making council to accept the return of aid agencies in al Shabab controlled areas. Although the foreigners and the other hardcore Somali Jihadis accepted, they perceived the operations of aid agencies disruptive, accusing them of being spies for Western countries.”

With al-Shabab now fighting over how well to treat Somalis, this could be one battle that actually benefits them.

Netanyahu Orders Silence Over Egypt

From The Associated Press:
Israel's prime minister ordered government spokesmen to keep silent Saturday on anti-government protests in neighboring Egypt. Security officials nonetheless expressed concern the violence could threaten ties with its important ally and spread to the Palestinian Authority.

Two Israeli officials said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered all government spokesmen not to comment on the mass riots in Egypt, where protesters are demanding President Hosni Mubarak resign after nearly 30 years in power. Both officials were speaking on condition of anonymity.

"There is a great concern about what is happening in Egypt," one senior diplomatic official said. "We are following very closely the events and are analyzing them as they occur."

The officials said they expect Mubarak to survive the unrest but that it could damage ties with Israel if the country's popular opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, makes gains.

Egypt was the first Arab country to reach peace with Israel three decades ago. It remains one of Israel's most important allies by acting as a bridge to the wider Arab world.

It is experiencing the fiercest anti-government protests in years, threatening to destabilize Mubarak's regime.

The Israeli security officials, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said they were worried that violence might spread to Gaza, the West Bank, and possibly to its other ally in the Arab world, Jordan.

Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip after the Islamic militant group Hamas seized control in bloody street battles from the rival Palestinian Fatah party in 2007. Israeli security officials on Saturday said they are worried Gaza militants might take advantage of the chaos and breach the border with Gaza.

The Egyptian protesters are raging over the government's neglect of poverty, unemployment and rising prices.

Mubarak took power in the wake of the assassination of Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian leader who reached peace with Israel. Mubarak has preserved that agreement, turning himself into a force of moderation and Western bulwark in a region where Islamic radicals have gained increasing strength.

Eli Shaked, a former Israeli Ambassador to Egypt to Channel 10 TV Saturday that if Mubarak's reign is destabilized, radical Egyptian Islamists could fill the void.

"It's good that Israel is keeping quiet, but there is no doubt that what is happening in Egypt is not good for Israeli interests," Shaked said. "It will only be a matter of time before a leader of the revolution arises and he will come from the Muslim Brotherhood, they are the ones that will take advantage of the situation," Shaked said.

Palestinian officials in the West Bank and Gaza refused to comment.

January 28, 2011

Quotes of the Day

"I want to be very clear in calling on the Egyptian authorities to refrain from any violence against peaceful protesters. The people of Egypt have rights that are universal... These are human rights, and the United States will stand up for them everywhere."

- U.S. President Barack Obama, trying to outrun his critics as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak promised a new government - and essentially declared martial law on protesters

"I'm very sorry to say that it was made in the U.S.A. The U.S. must condemn this use of force and, at the proper moment, tell Mubarak to get out."

- Osama el-Ghazi Harb, Egyptian author and protester, holding up a tear gas canister

Schism Over Palestine Papers Leads to Uncertainty

From The Christian Science Monitor:

With the winds of anti-government sentiment spreading across the Middle East, Al Jazeera's leak of the Palestine papers this week threatened to undermine the increasingly weak Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas.

The news channel's exposé of far-reaching Palestinian peace concessions to Israel on Jerusalem, refugees, and borders failed to spark outward public outrage, spurring relief among President Abbas' aides. But the muted response of everyone from shopkeepers and businessmen in the West Bank belies a deeper erosion of support for Mr. Abbas, who has staked his career on negotiating peace with Israel.

While the West has embraced Abbas's willingness to make concessions such as those outlined in the recently leaked documents, he has struggled to gain the same credibility in Palestinian eyes as his predecessor Yasser Arafat, the revolutionary guerrilla who fought for a Palestinian state for decades.

Even if he were able to arrive at a peace deal with Israel, his limited street credibility – dented further by the Al Jazeera leak – calls into question his ability to make it stick with people like Ali Ahmed, a grocery shop owner in Ramallah.

"No one has given the Jews as much as [Abbas] gave them in land, in borders and security,'' says Mr. Ahmed. "He gave a lot and gave up the struggle.''

Fewer than 1 in 3 Palestinians support peace talks

After nearly two decades of peace talks failed to yield a state, Palestinians are growing weary of negotiations. Only 27 percent believe there will be a state in five years, according to a December survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. That skepticism prompted Abbas to boycott talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after he refused to freeze Israeli settlements.

The failure of the peace process weakens Abbas and his Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority government against Hamas, the Islamic militant group that has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007.

The ongoing rift has delayed national elections and fueled an atmosphere of political intimidation: In the same survey, only 27 percent said that West Bankers can criticize the authorities without fear.

Though the Al Jazeera scoop focused mainly on peace talks from 2008, it is liable to erode the public credibility of the Palestinian government in Ramallah, analysts say.

"This is going to have long-term ramifications for the Palestinian leadership because the legitimacy is already in question,'' says Sam Bahour, a Ramallah-based businessman and political analyst, "and this is only reinforcing that legitimacy crisis.''

Al Jazeera attack on Abbas?

The Palestinian official reaction has been muddled and defensive. At first officials said the documents were fabricated. Later some officials vouched for the documents, but said that they had been taken out of context by Al Jazeera. Some officials said that the positions detailed in the documents reveal nothing new. They also accused Al Jazeera of serving the agenda of both Hamas and Israel.

In a frenzied appearance Wednesday night on Al Jazeera, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat accused the news channel of slandering him as a collaborator with Israel.

While many Palestinians sided with their leaders, seeing the exposé as an intentional attempt to undermine Fatah, in private many assailed the government for being overly generous to Israel and getting little in return.

"People understand this is an attack, but it is still manipulating minds," says Dalal Salameh, a former legislator from Abbas' Fatah party who came to party headquarters this week to implore Fatah leaders to begin stumping to offset any public backslash. "We want to avoid damage of trust in their leaders and in the opportunities of the negotiations.''

Indeed, the wide gap between the concessions detailed in the Al Jazeera documents and Palestinians' public statements on the heavily symbolic issues risks further erosion of support for President Abbas and the peace talks, say activists and analysts.

'What happened in Tunis will happen here'

To be sure, in public opinion polls, Abbas' approval rating surpasses 50 percent, and he defeats Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh by more than 10 percent. Fatah still beats Hamas as well. But Abbas has never been a man of the masses, and Fatah is viewed as largely corrupt.

In Ramallah's Al Amari refugee camp, an archway marking the entrance of the district declares the camp the "fortress'' of Abbas, but locals ridicule the tribute as evidence of Fatah payoffs.
Down the road at the Amari café, the Al Jazeera reports served as fodder for a debate between Fayez Isaili and his co-proprietor Jamal Abu Rub.

"Abbas has conceded a long time ago'' to Israel, Isaili said. "What happened in Tunis will happen here," he said referring to the street protests in Tunisia.

But Mr. Abu Rub insists that Abbas would resist pressures to make compromises in the negotiations. "Abu Mazen is following in the footsteps of Arafat. Like Arafat he will not concede.''

'We have no other leaders'

Much of the Palestinian discussion focused on Al Jazeera's coverage of the leaks rather than their substance: concessions on Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and the right of return for more than a million refugees whose families fled or were forced out of Israel in the war that gave birth to the Jewish states. Those issues are so laden with symbolic weight that many are reluctant to discuss pragmatic compromises that must be at the centerpiece of any peace treaty.

Back in the refugee camp, Fatma Memousa, whose family is originally from Lod, Israel, said she was opposed to Abbas' remark in one document saying the return of millions of refugees to Israel is unrealistic. "[Abbas'] credibility has been shaken on the Palestinian street, but we shouldn't attack him because we have no other leaders.''

And in a produce shop a few feet away, Samara Mahmoud, a teacher who wore a black robe and head covering, was also sympathetic toward Abbas but disagreed with his eschewing of violence – illustrating the dangerous alternative if Abbas's commitment to peace talks fails to bear fruit.

"Why are people unfair to Abu Mazen? Would anyone else be more successful?'' she asks, before adding: "Negotiations are not the solution. An intifada is the only solution."

January 27, 2011

U.S. On Wrong End of Tunisia's Revolution

They flock to the station as if they’re afraid of being left behind. Tunisia’s revolutionary train has departed to an unknown location and it doesn’t really matter where. Anywhere is better than before, a sentiment that many Muslim populaces can deeply relate to. Now they all chase Tunisia’s train, fiercely aware that their window won’t stay open for long. And here comes America running up behind, trying to hop on the caboose.

Why would anyone look back on what caused them to rise up in the first place?

Tunisia’s “Jasmine” revolution has spawned a massive chain reaction along two rails. First come the revolutionary-inspired protests that have broken out in Algeria, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, and Iraq. Then comes the U.S. claim that America supports all peoples’ aspirations for freedom. Clearly Washington has missed this freedom train. Partially responsible for nursing those regimes now facing the wrath of their marginalized peoples, U.S. officials are learning the WikiLeaks way that the time to switch policies is before, not after, the truth bleeds out.

The similarities between Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen link together to form a putrid trend in U.S. foreign policy. Many factors tilted the overthrow of ex-Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali: abuse from security forces, high-level corruption, and economic hardship. The revolution lived out its life through Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor whose self-immolation provided the tipping point in Tunisia’s revolution. A unique catalyst, Bouazizi had been harassed by local security since youth and never stopped giving food to the poor.

But it didn’t help that WikiLeaks revealed America’s political and economic complicity in Ben Ali’s regime. Washington’s blase reaction to his landslide 2009 re-election isn’t even a secret.

Now U.S. officials from President Barack Obama on down vow to support the will of Tunisians, as if 2009 occurred outside their watch. “We saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia,” he declared in his State of the Union address, “where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator. And tonight, let us be clear: The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.”

Turns out the will of the people was stronger than a dictator and his U.S. muscle. Sadly Tunisians have no reason to believe Obama’s words.

This exact scenario is unfolding in Egypt. With Egypt’s Internet offline, opposition protests and the government’s violent reaction have heated up to the point where many are seriously considering the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s government. And here comes America to piggy back its dead weight on the revolutionary spirit. Obama told a YouTube townhall, “I've always said to him [Mubarak] that making sure that they are moving forward on reform - political reform, economic reform - is absolutely critical to the long-term well being of Egypt.”

And while briefing the press with Nasser Judeh, Jordan’s Foreign Minister, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton innocently declared, “We believe strongly that the Egyptian Government has an important opportunity at this moment in time to implement political, economic, and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people. The United States is committed to working with Egypt and with the Egyptian people to advance such goals.”

Of course, Obama and Clinton also declined to publicly address Egypt’s parliamentary election last November, leaving State Department officials to issue late-night press releases as police beat the disenfranchised. So great is America’s concern for Egyptian freedom that the opposition wasn't surprised about the lack of U.S. support. In other words, Egyptians expected the White House to aid in their suppression, accustomed as they are to its protection of Mubarak.

How can Obama and Clinton honestly tell them that America has their back when Washington has repeatedly allowed them to fall? And why will this time be any different when the revolutionary fervor is driven, not supported, by America?

This fever releases the same decades-old energy wherever it spreads, making Yemen a prime target. Mobilized groups of students awaiting the slightest spark rode the very first wave of copy-cat Tunisian protests. Then the government foolishly arrested female activist Tawakul Karman, a futile action that catalyzed protesters into securing her release. Thousands of protesters now march down the streets of Sana’a calling for the removal of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a key U.S. ally in its war against al-Qaeda.

Some of the opposition will settle for reform, fearing a power vacuum. But given the level of marginalization inside Yemen, both with its secessionist movements and the urban poor, their movement is capable of snowballing.

Clinton claims to support these protests too, yet the truth is that she had no choice. Having arrived in Sana'a in the middle of a power struggle between Saleh and Yemen’s opposition, Clinton arranged a high-profile meeting with opposition leaders to pledge her support. But she nevertheless walked a soft-line on Saleh’s efforts to remove his term limits, encouraging the opposition to accept the government’s offer for dialogue. Though voicing concern at Saleh’s controversial amendment, Clinton then dropped several hints that Yemen must remain “united,” warning shots to the northern Houthi tribe and secessionist Southern Movement.

Mohammed al-Sabry, leader of the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, now finds himself marching alongside fellow protesters: "We want constitutional amendments but we want amendments that don't lead to the continuance of the ruler and the inheritance of power to his children."

Washington’s dilemma in Yemen is no different than in Tunisia and Egypt. Known to prop up an unpopular dictator, flip-flopping with credibility is impossible, making it unrealistic to expect a significant change in U.S. policy. The White House can’t press harder on Saleh because he dangles the threat of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) over the U.S. mainland. So U.S. officials must walk a middle course, appeasing protesters with words and pressuring Saleh for token reform in private.

Basically, do enough to maintain the status quo.

As in Tunisia and Egypt, too many Yemenis justifiably believe that America is complicit in their misery. Though Obama administration officials have backed Yemenis’ right to "democracy," supporting Saleh's administration as a matter of policy runs contrary to this assertion. Were America sincere about its non-military emphasis, it would have responded to Christmas bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab by leading with non-military operations, not air-striking Yemen’s mountainous terrain and killing dozens of civilians. Only now, after AQAP's growth has exposed this overly-militarized policy as counterproductive, are U.S. officials trying to reverse their narrative into the kinder light of political and economic reform.

Thus Clinton is unlikely to convince many Yemenis of America’s benevolence.

One gets the feeling that the White House, lacking a real course of action, has resorted to throwing everything at the wall. Clinton even used Tunisia and Egypt to highlight America’s urgency for permanent peace in the Middle East. The Palestine Papers say otherwise, as does the blunt reality that Washington is partially responsible for the current breakdown between Israel and the Palestinians. Tardy on all fronts, a lack of proaction has forced the White House to react throughout the entire crisis.

The overriding dilemma is that America has arrived too late to these popular backlashes, and can never fully catch up to the front. Obama’s optimistic rhetoric clashes sharply with his willingness to look the other way in regards to oppressive regimes. Clinton repeatedly invoked Obama’s declaration to support “the democratic aspirations of all peoples,” but it’s going to take more than one line to prove himself to the world’s oppressed. Words can no longer extract him from trouble.

The reform that Clinton now advises to Washington's endangered allies must be equaled in U.S. foreign policy. Too much of America's war against al-Qaeda depends on enabling unpopular and sometimes unlawful regimes, a fact no kill count can erase. Washington doesn’t have the license to drive Tunisia's freedom train - it has to watch the tail fade into the distance.

Hopefully next time will be different.

January 26, 2011

Can al-Shabab Deliver On Its Promise?

Fu'ad Shongole faces the same problem that hounds Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG). After years of poor performance, few Somalis are willing to give the TFG or al-Shabab’s rhetoric a precious second of their lives.

Seeing is believing, a motto the TFG’s new cabinet has attempted to instill by cleaning house and auditioning for a new lease on its mandate, which expires after August. Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, earnest in his political efforts and well versed in public relations, has promised to regain control of Mogadishu by August. Yet TFG and African Union (AU) officials have longed promise a counteroffensive in Mogadishu that has yet to materialize.

And while AU reinforcements from Uganda stand ready for deployment, green-lit by the UN, America and the EU's private doubts in the TFG have left the AU’s trust fund at its lowest point.

Few will believe Shongole, al-Shabab’s third in command and Puntland overseer, when he extends a hand to the TFG and offers to govern together according to Sharia law. Or when he preaches from a Bakara mosque in Mogadishu, “I call on the Shabab militia to stop killing innocent people. We should especially stop killing people that we have condemned of spying for the government.”

So Shongole is also working on his credibility. But his message might carry a deeper meaning.

The war isn’t over yet between Moktar Ali Zubeyr “Godane” and Sheikh Mukhtar “Abu Mansur” Robow, al-Shabab’s chief and deputy. The transnationally-minded Zubeyr and nationalistic Robow had clashed since 2009 over clan rivalries, government negotiations, humanitarian aid, and the integration of Hizbul Islam. While Zubeyr viewed Hizbul Islam leader Hassan Aweys as a threat to his position, going so far as to call for his execution, Robow and Shongole considered Hizbul Islam as a useful placeholder and tool in northern Somalia.

With the merger with Hizbul Islam completed in early December, al-Qaeda leadership allegedly replaced Zubeyr in late December after a three-month power dispute with Robow and Shongole. Of course Zubeyr won’t be easy to get rid of, and sources close to Shongole told Somaliweyn that he’s still conflicting with his former ally.

However al-Shabab’s recent activity suggests that it has doused its fire for the time being, and its decision-making could begin to tail away from Zubeyr’s thinking. UN relief continues to reach most Somalis in al-Shabab territory despite its constant threats against aid agencies, and Robow has spoken approvingly of foreign aid, albeit with inconclusive results. Beyond ideological and political differences, problems arise from the fact al-Shabab lacks absolute control of its territory and fighters, many of which are between 12 and 20.

Robow and Shongole won’t deliver on all of their rhetoric. With al-Shabab’s activity increasing again, both in Mogadishu and the central and northern regions, Robow only seems to be fulfilling his promise to storm the capital. And Zubeyr’s ouster hasn’t stopped al-Shabab from declaring handshakes off limits, suppressing local media, and ignoring a historic drought.

Yet Robow has extended feelers to the TFG in the past, and with Aweys spending parts of 2010 under President Sharif Ahmed’s protection, the two may share a private willingness to at least hear out the TFG’s new government. Shongole even claimed he reversed his policy of cooperation with the government because of the fallout with Zubeyr, and denounced al-Shabab's treatment of civilians soon after his removal. Now he’s addressing the war in pure insurgency terms, acknowledging that they’ve lost the people’s support (what support they had, anyway) and vowing to win them back.

This appears a conscious shift by al-Shabab’s more nationalistic actors to relate with Somalis, to prove they have reorganized and have regained control of the movement from foreigners (even though al-Qaeda chose Ibrahim Haji Jama Mee'aad "al-Afghani,” an ally of Robow, over Zubeyr).

And thus to counter the TFG’s reorganization and information campaign.

One can never be sure of al-Shabab’s rhetoric, and Shongole’s “new policy” may be a feeble attempt to keep pace with the TFG’s propaganda. But the surfacing unity of command suggests that a change in al-Shabab’s platform is possible. Though its “reform” won’t overwhelm Somalis, gradual improvements could reduce friction just at the moment the TFG is trying to exploit these divisions.

Whatever al-Shabab is thinking, it’s clearly aware of its shortfalls - and has nowhere to go except up.

January 25, 2011

Obama's Just Not Into Foreign Policy

Having anticipated a domestic State of the Union address months before the White House unveiled President Barack Obama’s intended focus - economic growth and alternative energy - we’re thankful for not having to alter our rebuttal. An hour of speech and almost no mention of the world beyond America’s borders. The definition of lip service:
Look to Iraq, where nearly 100,000 of our brave men and women have left with their heads held high; where American combat patrols have ended; violence has come down; and a new government has been formed. This year, our civilians will forge a lasting partnership with the Iraqi people, while we finish the job of bringing our troops out of Iraq. America's commitment has been kept; the Iraq War is coming to an end. Of course, as we speak, al Qaeda and their affiliates continue to plan attacks against us. Thanks to our intelligence and law enforcement professionals, we are disrupting plots and securing our cities and skies. And as extremists try to inspire acts of violence within our borders, we are responding with the strength of our communities, with respect for the rule of law, and with the conviction that American Muslims are a part of our American family.
Now Iraqis die by the hundreds rather than thousands - and Obama appears to connect Iraq to 9/11.
We have also taken the fight to al Qaeda and their allies abroad. In Afghanistan, our troops have taken Taliban strongholds and trained Afghan Security Forces. Our purpose is clear - by preventing the Taliban from reestablishing a stranglehold over the Afghan people, we will deny al Qaeda the safe-haven that served as a launching pad for 9/11. Thanks to our heroic troops and civilians, fewer Afghans are under the control of the insurgency. There will be tough fighting ahead, and the Afghan government will need to deliver better governance. But we are strengthening the capacity of the Afghan people and building an enduring partnership with them. This year, we will work with nearly 50 countries to begin a transition to an Afghan lead. And this July, we will begin to bring our troops home. In Pakistan, al Qaeda's leadership is under more pressure than at any point since 2001. Their leaders and operatives are being removed from the battlefield. Their safe-havens are shrinking. And we have sent a message from the Afghan border to the Arabian Peninsula to all parts of the globe: we will not relent, we will not waver, and we will defeat you.
So goes the depth of U.S. strategy for defeating al-Qaeda’s hydra.
American leadership can also be seen in the effort to secure the worst weapons of war. Because Republicans and Democrats approved the New START Treaty, far fewer nuclear weapons and launchers will be deployed. Because we rallied the world, nuclear materials are being locked down on every continent so they never fall into the hands of terrorists. Because of a diplomatic effort to insist that Iran meet its obligations, the Iranian government now faces tougher and tighter sanctions than ever before. And on the Korean peninsula, we stand with our ally South Korea, and insist that North Korea keeps its commitment to abandon nuclear weapons. This is just a part of how we are shaping a world that favors peace and prosperity. With our European allies, we revitalized NATO, and increased our cooperation on everything from counter-terrorism to missile defense. We have reset our relationship with Russia, strengthened Asian alliances, and built new partnerships with nations like India. This March, I will travel to Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador to forge new alliances for progress in the Americas.
Around the globe, we are standing with those who take responsibility - helping farmers grow more food; supporting doctors who care for the sick; and combating the corruption that can rot a society and rob people of opportunity. Recent events have shown us that what sets us apart must not just be our power - it must be the purpose behind it. In South Sudan - with our assistance - the people were finally able to vote for independence after years of war. Thousands lined up before dawn. People danced in the streets. One man who lost four of his brothers at war summed up the scene around him: "This was a battlefield for most of my life. Now we want to be free." We saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator. And tonight, let us be clear: the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.
Wikileaks helped jump-start the Jasmine Revolution by leaking America’s support for Tunisia’s oppressive regime.

There are two basic ways of going about a State of the Union address: cast a wide net and address the full spectrum of U.S. policy - domestic and foreign - or, given that too wide a sweep may generate little clarity, narrow the topics and elaborate in detail.

Each of these options has its merits and downsides. A comprehensive speech, if delivered with the proper expertise, is the best course available as it offers something for everyone. Public debate is encouraged in this way. Focusing on several topics also tends to drag them out in a speech format, while a speech divided into dense bites has no time to stall. Third-generation warfare evolved the sequential attack; fourth-generation warfare evolved the simultaneous attack.

The same goes for the evolution of political oratory.

The main disadvantage of range is that few possess the ability. We do not pretend to understand the complexities of economics or health care, just as President Obama should stick to what he knows and not feign knowledge of his deficiencies. “Know your limit,” goes the common philosophical maxim. Thus a president should narrow their focus if they cannot expand to the full range of U.S. policy.

The flaw in this thinking allows the president to pick and choose his own interests rather than abide by the country’s overriding interests. Though the SOU is an opportunity for the president to lay out his priorities, there’s no guarantee that they’ll order correctly. Some topics are inevitably shelved and can experience prolonged darkness. Trade and green energy are obviously vital to America, especially with unemployment refusing to decline, and the White House’s recovery plan is the issue everyone wants to hear about.

Fundamentally, a strong domestic policy is necessary to sustain a progressive foreign policy. A weak economy leads to reduced power projection, the exact reaction to America’s financial crisis.

But focusing solely on economics leaves those issues people don’t want to hear about to languish in the shadows of Washington’s establishment, polluting their transparency and opening them to manipulation. Despite 60% disapproval, Afghanistan ranks 9th in American priorities and Obama treats the war as such. Yet he’s not just speaking to what people want to hear. Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars “revealed” that White House officials intentionally exploit America’s domestic woes to divert attention from its crumbling foreign policy.

They concluded that the U.S. public was too distracted by the economy to mount a resistance to Obama’s surge.

Part of the president’s job, however, is to raise those issues that Americans don’t want to hear. The SOU was designed to shed transparency on U.S. governance, yet for too long has been perverted by politics. And Obama, “the transparent president,” is as guilty as any other. He could be "saving" Afghanistan for 2012, but by then it will be too late to change U.S. perceptions. Or he may never directly address Afghanistan during a State of the Union speech, as if it’s not part of America’s future.

And delaying once more reinforces the concrete impression that Obama is over his head in Afghanistan, outmaneuvered by the Pentagon and at a lost for a real exit.

The greater problem in mentioning Afghanistan necessitates the rest of al-Qaeda’s theater, which Obama surely wishes to avoid. And he did. He can’t travel to North Africa, Yemen, Somalia - countries that undermine the rational for a prolonged occupation in Afghanistan. Not when he and his advisers have few answers for any of these conflicts, nor the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Sudan’s impending split, or China’s expanding hegemony.

“Know the limit,” but a low limit spells bad tidings.

A complete avoidance of foreign policy has solidified the perception that Obama is overwhelmed by world affairs. For all of his “worldliness,” he's simply (and ironically) not a foreign policy kind of guy. This poses no problem in theory, as leaders come with diverse skill-sets and interests.

But practically speaking, four addresses later and still no details on foreign policy, this theory will turn into a nightmare.

Quotes of the Day

"A Hezbollah-controlled government would clearly have an impact on our bilateral relationship with Lebanon. The United States deems Hezbollah a terrorist organization and has imposed sanctions against the group and its members."

- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

"I am not in a confrontation with the West. We are looking to build good relations with the West. Why these accusations and all this furor ahead of time? Why the prejudgments?"

- Najib Mikati, Hezbollah's candidate for Lebanon's premiership

"We do not seek power and we do not seek to govern. Our minds and hearts are somewhere else. While you go to sleep, we go to train (against Israel)."

- Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah

Petraeus Selling Hollow Optimism in Afghanistan

From The Washington Post:

KABUL - Gen. David H. Petraeus on Tuesday offered an optimistic assessment of the war in Afghanistan, writing to his subordinates that coalition and Afghan troops in the past year "inflicted enormous losses" on mid-level insurgents and "took away some of their most important safe havens."

The three-page letter to the troops made many of the same points that U.S. military officials have offered for weeks: an improving situation in southern Afghanistan, where the bulk of U.S. troops are based; a relentless mission tempo to kill insurgent field commanders; and an overall weakening of the Taliban.

"Now, in fact, the insurgents are increasingly responding to our operations rather than vice-versa, and there are numerous reports of unprecedented discord among the members of the Quetta Shura, the Taliban senior leadership body," Petraeus wrote.

But Petraeus's optimism - he has recently compared the situation in Afghanistan to how he felt near the end of 2007 in Iraq, when violence there began to fall sharply - is not widely shared among Afghans, or even other NATO diplomats or U.S. military officials.

Statistics gathered by NATO, as well as other organizations, show that violence rose to its highest levels last year, and U.S. military officials predict 2011 will be even worse. To the coalition, the Afghan government remains dangerously ineffective, and the Pakistan sanctuary for the Taliban's leadership is still secure. And many Afghans express frustration with the presence of foreign troops.

"I can tell you this very clearly: 50 percent of the people who are working with the Afghan government, their hearts are with the Taliban," said Munshi Abdul Majid, the governor of Baghlan, a province in northern Afghanistan where security deteriorated last year. "And this 50 percent feel the international community is not trustworthy and is trying to fool them."

Last year's talk of secret peace negotiations with Taliban leaders has apparently amounted to little beyond an embarrassing episode involving a fake Taliban emissary. Petraeus did not mention "reconciliation" - the catchphrase for political dialogue with senior insurgent leaders - in his letter to the troops.

"Nothing has happened yet, not secret, not public," Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban regime's former ambassador to Pakistan, said of any dialogue with insurgent leadership. "The fighting itself is the big problem. Peace is like water. And fighting is a burning thing. No one can to find water amid all of this fire."

Now that American commanders have their eyes set on "end of 2014" for when Afghan forces are "in the lead," as Petraeus wrote, President Obama's initial deadline of July 2011 to start withdrawals has lost significance. With that breathing room, Petraeus's strategy involves heavy military pressure, to weaken and fracture the Taliban, to entice certain factions to give up the fight. Some of his commanders are equally upbeat about the progress so far.

"If we continue on the glide path we're on, continue to reinforce the police with well-trained officers and patrolmen, continue to support the governor with his attempts to get good local government deeply embedded, I think it's irreversible," Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, the Marine commander in Helmand province, said of the progress in Marja. "Could I come up with a scenario where it would be reversible? A significant force of drug merchants who wanted to turn things around a la Mexico, that could happen."

At the highest levels of the insurgency, Petraeus's office sees promising signs of fracture. Petraeus said at a recent morning briefing that "we clearly now have our teeth in the jugular of the enemy," according to one person present. One Taliban leader, former Guantanamo detainee Abdul Rauf Khadim, in December was demoted from his job on the Taliban's military commission, where he had oversight for several provinces, to the role of shadow governor for Uruzgan province.

The personnel move, made by the Taliban's overall military commander, Abdul Qayoum Zaqir, has angered some in the insurgent leadership, according to a senior U.S. military official, citing intelligence gathered from detainees in Afghanistan.

Another Quetta Shura member, Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, has vowed to resign if Zaqir is not moved from his top post, according to the official.

"Some of the decision-making is being challenged, the cohesion within the Quetta is starting to break apart," the official said.

The leadership of the Haqqani network, an insurgent group that fights in eastern Afghanistan, also recently told its fighters not to return to their traditional stronghold of Pakistan's North Waziristan region over the winter due to growing insecurity from CIA drone strikes and potential future operations by Pakistan's army, according to a source familiar with intelligence reporting.

But other U.S. and Afghan officials dispute the notion that there is any meaningful breakdown of insurgent cohesion, as the leadership remains largely protected in Pakistan. The CIA, which has generally been more pessimistic than the U.S. military about progress against the Taliban, has noted personality conflicts within the Quetta Shura but no evidence of a leadership struggle.

"I don't buy it yet. This has been going on forever. Organizations have power struggles, whether it's the Quetta Shura or [the International Security Assistance Force] or The Washington Post," said one U.S. military official in Afghanistan. "I can give you a list of five or six equally bad trends of command and control within ISAF, and that doesn't mean ISAF is about to collapse."

Harvard University researcher Matt Waldman noted the Quetta Shura rivalries in a June paper about the Taliban and Pakistan's spy agency. The dynamic does not necessarily bode well for peace, he said in an interview, as a younger, more militant generation of leaders appears to have marginalized older figures from the Taliban's government before 2001.

"I think it is increasingly difficult for moderates to argue their case, in light of the scale and intensity of the coalition surge," Waldman said. The Taliban "have responded to ISAF's escalation with heavy firepower, they have seen it as a declaration of war and they have responded accordingly."

Waldman, who interviewed several Taliban commanders last year, said that many insurgents "believe they are fighting aggressive, invading forces and a degenerate proxy regime - in other words, they think they are fighting a just war."

"That provides a great deal of impetus to the movement, and given that they have their support and sanctuary outside the country, I think it will be very hard to really crush or contain this insurgency," he said.

The Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO), which advises nonprofit groups on security, said in a recent report that messages from foreign troops touting improved security "are not intended to offer an accurate portrayal of the situation for those who live and work here."

"No matter how authoritative the source of any such claim, messages of this nature are solely intended to influence American and European public opinion ahead of withdrawal," the report said.

January 24, 2011

Lebanon Needs Interaction, Not Isolation

Though its response has been comical up to this point, Washington has every reason to panic over Lebanon’s ongoing political crisis. al-Qaeda isn’t the ultimate night-mare scenario - unless, of course, it’s nuclear armed. In fact, al-Qaeda serves a useful purpose by offering America justification to occupy and militarize unstable Muslim states.

No, the real threat emanates from groups like Hamas, Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, and Hezbollah, “terrorist” organizations that have evolved to the highest form of guerrilla warfare: legitimate political representation. So now that Hezbollah has positioned itself to take over Lebanon’s government, America is responding to the move like a declaration of war.

But if Washington actually expects to out-maneuver Hezbollah, it can’t treat Lebanon like the Gaza Strip.

Three days after Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), threw at least seven of his 11 parliamentary seats behind Hezbollah’s choice for prime minister, the March 8th Alliance dropped a bombshell on the Western world by announcing it held a majority of parliament - 65 out of 128 seats. Comprised of Hezbollah, the Shia Amal Movement, and Michel Aoun’s Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), March 8 has also selected its candidate for prime minister, Sunni billionaire Najib Mikati.

“It’s Mikati, unless something happens at the last minute,” a senior March 8 source told The Daily Star.

We were initially unsure of whether Hezbollah made right choice to dissolve Lebanon’s government. At the time it appeared to be a rash move to dodge the UN's tribunal over former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination, a "guilty" move that could jeopardize Hezbollah's own political support. But Hezbollah apparently realized it had the numbers all along, otherwise it wouldn’t have resorted to its current strategy.

And it already had its candidate lined up in Mikati, a seemingly perfect fit to avoid the UN’s tribunal and disarmament campaign. Asked about the tribunal, Mikati responded that "any dispute can be solved only through dialogue."

Considered politically neutral and wary of rocking the boat, Mikati comes with the additional bonus of believable unity. Instead of choosing Omar Karami, whose pro-Syrian interests threw him into media speculation, Hezbollah has trotted out a smiling face to offer an olive branch to Sunni Lebanese. Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s leader, claimed he favored a unity government during a speech Sunday night, though his reasons are certainly questionable.

“We have agreed with Mikati there is no objection to the formation of a partnership government, but without granting veto power [to the March 14 coalition],” said the Hezbollah source. “If they [March 14] refuse to join such a government, we will not beat ourselves up.”

Likely envisioned as Hezbollah’s checkmate, Mikati also happens to be on friendly terms with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. It’s widely believed that Hezbollah, rather than choosing an easy target to oppose, selected Mikati to force Hariri into rejecting an ally. Hariri said on Monday morning that he won't a Hezbollah-led government, but Mikati is expected to rub his charm on the current PM.

"I don't distinguish between anyone," said Mikati, a Harvard graduate whose wealth is estimated at $2.5 billion, after meeting President Michel Suleiman on Monday. "I extend my hand to everyone without exception... I say to Prime Minister Saad Hariri, let us all work together for the sake of Lebanon."

So how should America react to these developments?

A contrary position is likely to serve a greater interest than conventional thinking. Washington has achieved little progress in isolating groups like Hamas and individuals like al-Sadr, a policy that attracts criticism for “selective democracy” and often backfires by empowering U.S. opponents. Staying in the thick of Lebanon’s power vacuum and keeping an open mind to Hezbollah’s alliance could dampen accusations of U.S. meddling, as well as limit new Iranian overtures.

And as some point out, Hezbollah isn’t usurping power so much as skillfully manipulating Lebanon’s internal politics.

One reporter asked State Department spokesman Philip Crowley, “Hariri’s government had two ministers from Hezbollah in it. And it seems they’re probably not going to get more than two ministers. Are you more focused on the role of Hezbollah or the process itself? Because it seems the process is democratic and constitutional. So you’re not going to recognize a government that reflects the will of representatives of the Lebanese people?”

Crowley pegged a “representative” government on the UN’s tribunal, which Washington views as its best opportunity to weaken Hezbollah’s political power. Apparently America only wants to reflect the will of Sunni Lebanese. But with Hezbollah holding such a commanding political position whether it secures the premiership or not, icing out Hezbollah in hopes of marginalizing it doesn’t offer a realistic solution to Lebanon's crisis.

For now, though, this appears to be America’s course of action.

“We will reserve judgment until a government is formed,” Crowley replied, as if Washington’s judgment hadn’t already formed. “Our view of Hezbollah is very well known. We see it as a terrorist organization and will have great concerns about a government that – within which Hezbollah plays a leading role. It is hard for us to imagine any government as being truly representative of all of Lebanon if that government is prepared to take steps back, for example, from its ongoing support for the work of the tribunal.”

He added, “The larger the role played by Hezbollah in this government the more problematic our relationship will be.”

Now, with the Israeli Defense Force already on high alert, unconfirmed reports have two Western military fleets streaming towards the Mediterranean Sea, complete with two nuclear aircraft carriers, 200 warplanes, and upwards of 5,000 Marines. Hezbollah isn’t about to launch an attack while attempting to climb Lebanon’s power ladder, yet America and Israel are acting as though they’ll blockade the country. As if they can back down Hezbollah through their own show of force.

This scheme has historically encouraged Hezbollah’s pursuit of power.

Lebanon’s latest crisis calls for a new tactic of accepting the inevitable. While the state cannot be ceded entirely to Hezbollah, neither can Washington close its eyes and wish Hezbollah away. Real politik demands a practical response. America has fought against Hezbollah’s political representation from the beginning - and look at the result of this policy.

January 23, 2011

Somali PR Contains Blackwater Leak

Abdulkareem Jama says his country has no need for mercenaries. Yet with few soldiers and policemen of its own, Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) clearly needs all the outside help it can get.

African Union (AU) forces guard the presidential palace, Villa Somalia, and the airport from al-Shabab. European Union (EU) officials busy themselves training Somali recruits in Kenya and Uganda. TFG officials have encouraged periodic U.S. air-strikes on high-profile militants, and an international flotilla patrols Somalia’s horn for pirates.

Though none of these external forces qualifies strictly as mercenaries - each possesses its own security concerns - all of them seek to gain from Somalia's crisis. Having supplied 6,000 of the 8,000 AU troops in Somalia, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni deftly exploited the Kampala bombings to promote his own regional ambitions, and relies on his Western necessity to buffer criticism of his domestic rule. With negligible sympathy for Somalia’s plight, the EU and Asian states vigorously patrol shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden to protect their profits.

Foreign investors envision fields of oil platforms.

And beyond preventing another al-Qaeda safe haven (too late for that), America still entertains hopes of militarizing the region through a semi-stable Somalia. Blackhawk Down compromised the region to U.S. operations and while Washington isn’t eager to deploy ground forces, General David Petraeus has indicated the general direction of U.S. policy with his 2009 Special Forces directive. Securing the Bab-el-Mandeb is a key goal for developed nations going into the 21st century.

TFG officials such as Jama, Somalia’s information minister, understand these quid pro quos and concede them to maintain political and financial support.

Furthermore, the present center of controversy has little to do with real mercenaries. Reports of Saracen International training local anti-piracy forces surfaced in November under a veil of secrecy, generating legitimate concerns over Somalia's arms embargoes and an improper chain of command. Supposedly a resurrection of Executive Outcomes, a security firm populated by South African special forces, Saracen’s Uganda subsidiary was implicated in a 2002 UN Security Council report for training DRC rebels who later went on a criminal spree.

But so far one “fact” has remained consistent: Somalis are being recruited into the force. Whether the United Arab Emirates or Saracen funds and trains these forces is largely irrelevant so long as they’re mostly local. Somalia has ample room for “mercenaries.”

It’s Blackwater that Jama has no use for.

“At this point, our collective thinking is that this is not a good thing,” he said after the company’s founder, Erik Prince, surfaced in connection to Saracen. “We don’t want to have anything to do with Blackwater. We need help, but we don’t want mercenaries.”

Abdulhakim Mohamoud Haji Faqi, Somalia’s defense minister, added, “We will not accept any mercenaries.”

As noted in our previous post, the TFG has spent the last three months setting itself up for a city-wide campaign in Mogadishu. New Prime Minister Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed streamlined Somalia’s cabinet to 18 members while picking what is considered Somalia’s most competent executive branch since 1991. A power-rift in al-Shabab’s leadership allowed for modest gains in the capital, which TFG and AU officials crafted into propaganda by declaring 60% control of Mogadishu.

Hoping to land another 4,000 AU troops before the TFG’s mandate expires at the end of August, Somalia’s new government intends to secure an extension by seizing the entire capital. For that it needs the population’s support, and it has managed to gradually win them over. But Blackwater could flood the TFG's counterinsurgency.

So tainted is the name - Jama listed some of its crimes in Iraq - that the mere specter of Prince jeopardizes both land and sea operations.

“Piracy can only be solved on land,” goes the frequent criticism from TFG and AU officials, starving Somalis, and international observers (including ourselves). And 2010’s statistics bolster a logical conclusion. Despite vigorous patrolling and evolving counter-measures such as laser blinders, pirates captured a record 1,016 hostages in 2010 and currently hold 32 vessels and 746 crew members, according to a recent report by the International Maritime Bureau. Eight hostages died and 13 were wounded, up from four dead and 10 wounded in 2009.

al-Shabab had free reign on land for much of 2010 and continues to operate throughout Somalia.

Naturally international states are responding with even heavier force, as if this will solve the problem. Alan Cole, the head of the U.N.'s anti-piracy program at the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, said the South Korean and Malaysian navies resorted to commando raids out of frustration: “There is a good chance that navies will increase the numbers of patrols and step up military activity to try and deal with this problem.”

South Korea has already begun consulting Somalia’s neighbors to find a new method for processing pirates, and is hinting at a more aggressive approach and punishment. More money, more problems.

Conversely, UN officials have warned that the AU’s trust fund for Somalia has reached its lowest level. And though the TFG managed to pay its soldiers for December and January, their first paycheck in seven months, it needs $3 million per month (an estimated 10,000 are payed $300) to maintain a national force. A meager sum in itself, corruption has siphoned away much of the funds and scared away donors, while leaving TFG recruits no choice except to consider switching sides.

Naval operations allow for full control and no concern for Somalia itself - a not-so-blissful ignorance. Talk about land affecting sea and vice versa. The naval emphasis already diverts (and wastes) resources by endlessly chasing pirates; now Blackwater’s tainted image threatens the TFG’s land campaign, in turn limiting security efforts at sea. Permanent international navies are no substitute for a local anti-piracy force.

Also noted in our previous post, these private forces have historically generated friction between Somalia, Puntland, and Somaliland. Jama said he hoped that Puntland would, “follow the direction of the federal government and not continue with Saracen.” One week after vowing not to cooperate with the TFG until it established a “federal” government, Puntland’s government just banned the region to all TFG officials lawmakers.

It’s all the more likely to push ahead if the TFG cancels its contract with Saracen.

However, if the TFG does publicly sever its ties with Saracen or Prince (if he’s truly involved), verification is unlikely to follow. Having kept the program secret to “surprise” the pirates, they could simply lie and continue the operation under an even thicker screen. They could keep Saracen’s contract and eliminate Prince so that he doesn’t show up in AU disclosures, or they could start fresh with a new PMC.

In any case, the poison running in Blackwater’s name has proven itself as potent as ever, and the TFG is wise to extinguish this fire before it spreads any further. Prince has already cost the TFG enough time and energy.

What Somalia’s government really doesn’t need is another distraction from its war against al-Shabab.

Risks For Peace: America's Broken Mantra

by Robert Grenier, published in Al Jazeera:

It has been an American mantra throughout the many years of the peace process that both sides must take “risks for peace.” Those risks have taken different forms over time, but the most compelling risk for both Israelis and Palestinians has been a domestic political one: So long as the prospect of peace has remained a hazy dream, no one could object to it compellingly; but just begin to seriously consider the hard compromises necessarily involved, and it becomes clear to important constituencies on both sides that they will lose. To accept and politically manage those realities: That is the essence of “risks for peace.”

Given the current disproportion of grievances – and aggrieved constituencies – on their side, and the relative weakness of their bargaining position vis-a-vis Israel, it has always been true, though often willfully ignored by both the Israelis and the Americans, that the greatest burden of risk falls upon the Palestinian leadership. To reach their goals and to satisfy their people, they must have an agreement, and the right agreement, and soon; for as time goes on, their dispossession only increases. On the other hand, the status quo, particularly as illegally and unilaterally changed by them, has suited the Israelis very nicely, so long as bombs were not going off in their cafes and buses. From the Israeli point of view, at least in the short term, the major risk is in agreeing to any settlement at all.

Beginning with the signing of the Oslo accords, the political risks to the Palestinian leadership qualitatively changed, and not for the better. No longer would it be enough just to accept hard compromises and permanent concessions. Now, the Israelis, with full American support, demand that the Palestinians provide assurances of their ability to carry out an agreement by developing the institutions of a stable and competent state, despite having neither the legitimacy nor the independent resources necessary to do so.

The need for American support

The essential bargain for an Israeli-Arab peace, ever since passage of UN resolution 242, has been summed up in a three-word formulation: “land for peace.” However, where Palestinians are concerned, that formulation might better be understood as “land for Israeli security."

Thus, the one core component of the Palestinian state-building project since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, insisted upon by Israelis and Americans alike, has been for the Palestinians to establish full control over radical elements who might not abjure violence in pursuit of Palestinian aims, and to demonstrate the willingness and ability to identify, track down, and arrest or kill anyone involved in terrorism – even as very broadly defined to include those who, in other times and places, would be seen as engaged in legitimate armed resistance to oppression.

The impetus behind this insistence on Palestinian security was greatly expanded after the attacks of 9/11, when the US undertook to lead a grand international coalition against terrorism. Embracing their Israeli friends all the more tightly as allies and fellow-victims of the terrorist plague, the US demand for full Palestinian participation in a war on terror became correspondingly all the more insistent – and indeed a full precondition for any future American assistance in achieving a negotiated solution with Israel.

The post-Arafat Palestinian leadership therefore faced a dilemma. Convinced that there could be no agreement without American support, they were constrained to set up a pervasive and competent security regime and to make an “irrevocable” commitment against the use of violent resistance. This would mean turning on a considerable number of their own people, and alienating groups like Hamas, which enjoyed considerable popular support – indeed, far more than the Fatah-led leadership understood at the time.

Arafat, by contrast, had never permanently abjured violence. He continued to calibrate repression of the most violent elements among his people with the threat of armed resistance to Israel, and when he felt his political needs were being frustrated, he was willing to turn his Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades loose and to empty the jails, allowing nature to take its course. At the end he was again labeled a terrorist by the West; few would meet with him; and his final days were spent surrounded and alone, besieged in squalid defiance.

It should be remembered that the predominantly accepted narrative outside the occupied territories themselves was that Arafat had gone badly wrong, that he wasn’t sincere about peace, that if only he had abandoned his militant roots and acted in good faith to “end terror,” he might have succeeded in winning peace and justice for his people.

The Palestinian Authority's risks

And so Abu Mazen, the leadership, and the Palestinian peace process team made a choice.

They knew they could never obtain justice for their people by negotiating alone with Israel. Armed resistance, while appearing noble to some, could never succeed on its own and would permanently undermine international support. Instead, they would make a good-faith effort to meet the expectations of the “international community,” and hope against all hope that the Americans, once armed with the credible assurances which Palestinian actions would supply, might finally honor their own objective national interests to produce some measure of justice for the Palestinians, a chance for stability in the region, and a counter-narrative to the one propounded by al-Qaeda and its sympathizers in the Muslim world.

In doing so, they knew, they ran an enormous risk. For if their successful efforts to end terror failed to elicit a good-faith response from the Israelis, and if their conformity to international expectations and their cooperation in the US war on terror failed to convince the US to advocate effectively on their behalf, they could easily be branded as quislings, as trustees of the Israeli prison being inexorably constructed for their people.

Their good works, they knew, instead of being rewarded, might only make the status quo more comfortable for the Israelis, and incentivize greater Israeli obduracy.

I have spent many hours reading The Palestine Papers, the recent 10-year record of the so-called Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The picture which clearly emerges from these pages of the Palestinian leadership and of the peace process negotiators themselves is that these are no quislings. For month after month, year after year, through endless, mind-numbing subcommittee meetings and plenary sessions, through interminable exchanges of letters and legal briefs, slogging from hotel meetings in Jerusalem to conferences in Egypt to “summit meetings” in Washington, the Palestinian negotiators tirelessly advocate on behalf of their people’s interests. In the face of Israeli condescension, obfuscation, and endless legalistic pettifogging they continually push back, insisting on application of relevant international law, despite the Israelis’ obvious contempt for their international obligations.

They persist in the face of the Americans’ blatant advocacy on behalf of the Israelis, refusing to cave in to consistent American pressure designed to force the Palestinians to compensate for Israeli inflexibility with ever-greater concessions of their own.

And time and again, we see them pleading for some small concession, some tangible evidence which will demonstrate to their people that they do, in fact, have a valuable stake in negotiations with their oppressors. Beyond the immediate exigencies of the negotiating points themselves, the Palestinians are at pains to point out to the Americans the underlying trends in the region, what is at stake for the US in this process, and the many clear convergences of Palestinian and American interests – all largely for naught.

Through it all, hanging like an incubus over the proceedings, is the palpable fear and insecurity of the Palestinians, who know that the longer the process moves on without any prospect of satisfaction for their people’s legitimate aspirations, buying more time for creeping annexation of their patrimony, the more they themselves are vulnerable to the charge that they are traitors, sacrificing the interests of their people to others more powerful than they.

It must be acknowledged, however, that there is another picture which emerges from the pages of The Palestine Papers.

They show that over time the Palestinian leadership has embraced the task of policing their people with more than warranted enthusiasm. They reveal that in committing themselves to a negotiating process, the Palestinian leadership has at times allowed the process to become a fetish, that it has at times agreed to refrain from advocating legitimately for their people’s rights in international forums, all to preserve the formal procedure which has become their raison d’etre.

There is much in The Palestine Papers that the PA’s detractors will seize upon, and often deservedly so. But the context in which these charges are being, and will be, made is set precisely by what the Palestinian leaders of the peace process have feared all along: That their failure to make any long-term, tangible gains for their people – despite their complicity in the process, despite their documented willingness to make far-reaching concessions, and despite having accepted American and Israeli support to repress their enemies and maintain themselves in power with at best threadbare legitimacy – all conspire to open them to charges of collaboration.

Again, the record from these documents shows that these are no collaborators. Even from this evidence, however, one cannot know what is in the heads of the Palestinian participants in the peace process: the Abu Mazens, the Saeb Erekats, the Abu Alas. At what point - if ever - might they have concluded that negotiation for a two-state solution was hopeless, and that continuation of the process would only serve to further compromise them? At what point – if ever – might they have tacitly decided to continue onward simply because there is nothing left for them, that this is their only way to hang on? I cannot pretend to know.

All of us approach this record burdened with our own backgrounds and experiences. I assess them as an American, and as a former government practitioner. As an American, the reaction I draw, frankly, is one of shame. My government has consistently followed the path of least resistance and of short-term political expediency, at the cost of decency, justice, and our clear, long-term interests. More pointedly, The Palestine Papers reveal us to have alternatively demanded and encouraged the Palestinian participants to take disproportionate risks for a negotiated settlement, and then to have refused to extend ourselves to help them achieve it, leaving them exposed and vulnerable. The Palestine Papers, in my view, further document an American legacy of ignominy in Palestine.

As a government practitioner, my reaction is one of empathy for the Palestinian fellow-practitioners whose record and whose impressions these pages reflect. I know well that to achieve anything in public affairs, one will always in the end be compromised to some extent. It is easy for the observers, for the armchair analysts, to criticize; but my sympathies lie with those who enter the ring, who fight and who risk failure for what they believe.

The Palestinian leadership will surely face criticism for what The Palestine Papers reveal. Some will be merited; some not. The overwhelming conclusion one draws from this record is that the process for a two-state solution is essentially over, that the history of the peace process is one of abject failure for all concerned. The Palestinian participants, having lost the most, will likely suffer most. But I can only come away with the passionately-held belief that these people deserved better.

Robert L. Grenier is Chairman of ERG Partners, a financial advisory and consulting firm. He retired from CIA in 2006, following a 27-year career in the CIA’s Clandestine Service. Mr. Grenier served as Director of the CIA Counter-Terrorism Center (CTC) from 2004 to 2006, coordinated CIA activities in Iraq from 2002 to 2004 as the Iraq Mission Manager, and was the CIA Chief of Station in Islamabad, Pakistan before and after the 9/11 attacks. Earlier, he was the deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, and also served as the CIA’s chief of operational training. He is credited with founding the CIA’s Counter-proliferation Division. Grenier is now a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and speaks and writes frequently on foreign policy issues.