President Obama’s Speech about U.S. Policy towards Syria

10 09 2013

obama

assad-syria

What did President Obama’s speech of Tuesday night tell us?  That’s not hard to discern.  In his own words, President Obama said, connoted, and conveyed the following:

  • The whole Syria policy and campaign is intrinsically linked to Iran.  President Obama said, “A failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran, which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon or to take a more peaceful path.”
  • The purpose of a military airstrike against Syria is to “deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime’s ability to use them, and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use.”  So the goalpost has moved, from what was once the “Responsibility to Protect” civilians from mass atrocities – known as the R2P principle – which was implemented in the Libya 2011 NATO campaign, to now the use of chemical weapons.  Down the road, will the goalpost shift yet again?
  • President Obama possesses “the authority to order military strikes,” yet he felt the need to respect U.S. democracy and take the debate to Congress.  That means that he is making gestures toward Congress for political legitimacy at the domestic level for military strikes against Syria, but leaves open a huge window to employ his executive authority to order the airstrikes, with or without that political endorsement.  This raises the question of whether or not the airstrikes, if and when they are carried out, will be defined as “war.”  The War Powers Resolution imposes certain parameters on the President, once he engages in military actions in the context of (conventional) war, understood as deploying troops on the ground.  Given that President Obama has promised not to put troops on the ground in Syria, that might allow the military airstrikes to sidestep the definition of war, as was the case the President made with the Libya campaign.  NATO led that campaign against Qaddafi, which allowed the President to say that the U.S. is not engaging in a war; it is carrying out cooperative engagement within the framework of NATO, without troops on the ground, and without the intent of regime change.  We know how it ended for Qaddafi, nonetheless.
  • President Obama asked every member of Congress and viewers at home to watch the videos of the August 21st chemical attack.  He uses the word “children” seven times, and “infant” and “our kids” also added in his speech.  Clearly, he is appealing to the audience’s compassion and humanitarian sensitivities and ideals.  It’s an emotional appeal for reserving the U.S. right to carry out airstrikes against specific targets inside Syria, which may in turn lead inadvertently to more chaos and civilian deaths.
  • Diplomacy engines are working hard, and the ball was lobbed into Russia’s court.  Russia responded by saying they would be glad to oversee the removal of chemical weapons from Syria.  The ball is now back in the U.S. court.  President Obama is giving diplomacy a chance.  But, at the same time, the President unequivocally maintains that the U.S. has the military standing by to continue to apply pressure on Assad, and act in the event that diplomacy fails.

What President Obama omitted, did not address, or left in a grey area included the following:

  • He said that, “We cannot resolve someone else’s civil war through force, particularly after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.”  The U.S. responsibility for actually triggering civil war, arguably in Iraq following the troops pull-out, and potentially after the 2014 pull-out from Afghanistan, is not mentioned or addressed.  Anyone who has watched the film or read the book, Charlie Wilson’s War, learns that after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, the U.S. packed its bags and left the Af-Pak region, despite Representative Wilson’s pleas for U.S. investments in Afghanistan’s postwar education sector.  The moment that happened, Afghanistan descended into civil war.  This also conveys the lesson that once a country enters a war, the chaos and instability does not end after the ceasefire or peace takes hold, or the core objectives of that country are achieved.
  • Chemical weapons use is not tolerated.  But, killing civilians by conventional means since 2011, with a death count beyond the 100,000 mark, is unchallenged.
  • The poison gas sarin is mentioned a few times.  While some analysts have said that rebels could not have deployed chemical weapons because it requires sophisticated technology, no one has mentioned the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack in Japan’s Tokyo subway in 1995.  The cult, Aum Shinrikyo, coordinated five attacks on the Tokyo subway, killing 13 and injuring fifty severely.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), this is how the Aum Shinrikyo operatives carried out the sarin gas attack (see http://www.cfr.org/japan/aum-shinrikyo/p9238):

“During the morning rush hour on one of the world’s busiest commuter systems, Aum members put a liquid form of sarin, tightly contained in packages made to look like lunch boxes or bottled drinks, onto five cars on three separate subway lines that converged at the Kasumigaseki station, where several government ministries are located. The perpetrators punctured the packages with umbrellas and left them in subway cars and stations, where they began to leak a thick liquid. Witnesses said that subway entrances resembled battlefields as injured commuters lay gasping on the ground with blood gushing from their noses or mouths. Twelve members of Aum, including Aum founder Shoko Asahara, were sentenced to death for the subway attack.”

  • President Obama said, “Al Qaeda (AQ) will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death.”  Who’s to say that AQ can’t still get its hands on some chemical weapons?  By the way, many argue that U.S. airstrikes will actually intensify the chaos in Syria, not alleviate it.

One of the take-aways from the President’s speech tonight is that this issue or crisis will drag on for much longer.  Diplomacy is a slow process; civilians will continue to die; waves of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) will continue to flow within and outside Syria; and all the while the clock is ticking for Russia, Syria, and Iran to finalize the proposed deal with the U.S. with some U.N. involvement.  That will take a long time, and all the efforts might still come to naught.

Will the U.S. military remain mobilized while the clock ticks?  President Obama says yes.  Will important, pressing American domestic issues be addressed and resolved, like the debt ceiling, the budget, Sequestration, Obamacare, and the health of the economy in general?  If the Syria crisis remains in crisis status in the eyes of the U.S. President and Congress, then we can be assured that those pressing domestic issues will be placed on the backburner, and kicked down the road.

The most important component of the Obama plan and strategy is the word “deterrence.”  If chemical weapons are dismantled and removed out of Syria, then what?  Will that deter Assad from killing his own people?  Not likely.

If the U.S. carries out the airstrikes against Syria, will this action deter Assad from killing his own people?  Not likely.  The targeted strikes might degrade Assad’s capability to use WMDs, but certainly he will not wave a white flag and declare a ceasefire.  He might even try to crush the resistance even harder.

A big picture, long-term vision in the plan and strategy for Syria must be considered, for not just deterring Assad from using WMDs, but for comprehensive, sustainable conflict resolution.

The U.S. must illustrate that the goalpost remains at R2P, and not a new yardstick, or “red line,” of civilian suffering only by use of chemical weapons unleashed against them.

War is counterproductive for all parties involved, including the U.S., Iran, Russia, and Syria.  Sun Tzu said, “All war is deception.”

The bottom line from this speech, in very simple terms, is that it’s all about the geopolitical chess game with Iran.  Who will shout “checkmate” first is anyone’s guess.

Hayat Alvi, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the National Security Affairs Department at the U.S. Naval War College.  The views expressed are personal.

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“Innocence of Muslims” – Taking the Bait and Having a Field Day

14 09 2012

Writing on flags say: “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”

No one has learned anything from past lessons.  The senseless violence snowballing throughout the Muslim world, supposedly in reaction to an amateurish 14-minute YouTube trailer for a film that no one can find in full length, is a stain on the 21st century.  The news media are presenting the cause of the violence as solely stemming from the anti-Islamic film, entitled “Innocence of Muslims,” which ridicules the Prophet Muhammad.  However, there is much more behind the causal factors of this epidemic violence than the simplistic headlines convey.  Here are some variables, based on my assessment, pertaining to this outbreak of violence, and all of them are interrelated:

  • Genuine emotions
  • Extremists Pulling Strings and Having a Field Day
  • 9/11 Timing
  • Grievances against People’s Governments
  • Taking the Bait

No doubt, many Muslims are expressing genuine hurt feelings and passionate emotions in reaction to insults and offenses targeting Muhammad, the last prophet of Islam, in the film trailer.  If we look back at the Salman Rushdie affair in the 1980s, we see that such sensitivities have not changed, and on the part of more orthodox and conservative Muslims, they have only intensified.  In addition, this film comes in a long series of anti-Islam expressions, like the Danish cartoons, the threat of Quran burning by Terry Jones, the accidental Qurans burned in Afghanistan, etc.  These recent incidents have only reinforced the narrative among many Muslims that the West is against Islam and permits such offenses with impunity.  That’s the perception fueling the anger and hatred.  Yet, there is no condemnation of killings in response to these perceived offenses, like the murder of Theo Van Gogh, for example.  Objective parity is not part of the narrative in this case.

Such hurt feelings and anger never justify the violence and vandalism that the recent protests have generated.  In the big picture, so many films, TV shows, art exhibits, and popular culture programs and performances have insulted Christianity and other religions.  Consider “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy,” “South Park,” and “Monty Python,” to name a few, which are film producers and programs that have repeatedly ridiculed Christianity and other faiths with the sharpest irreverence and mockery, yet we never see violent reactions to them.

Among Islam’s ultra-orthodox and extremist elements, resorting to violence and calling for the death of the offenders are all too quick to the draw.  No one seems to pause and consider the consequences and damage to Islam’s image as a whole, as they become so consumed by their emotions and hatred.  There have been calls for peaceful protests by some, but mob mentality is hard to control especially once it gets out of hand.

This brings me to extremists pulling strings behind the scenes and having a field day.  Undoubtedly, extremist leaders at local levels see an opportunity in manipulating and exploiting the emotions and passions of the masses, especially those who embrace common extremist ideologies.  It is no coincidence that the attacks on the US consulate in Libya and the US embassy in Egypt fell on September 11th, which reinforces the theory that there is more to this violent fervor than just emotive reactions to the offensive film, which most protesters have not even seen (and for the record, the trailer is not worth one’s precious time).  Some analysts are also pointing to the revenge factor, especially in the case of the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens and his security detail.  In June Al Qaeda’s number two leader in Yemen was killed, and he happened to be Libyan.

Furthermore, the extremist Islamists are dismayed at being sidelined and even delegitimized upon the 2011 uprisings and revolutions that toppled decades-long secular dictatorships.  For just as long, these extremist groups spread throughout the region, although small in numbers, were forced to operate underground.  Once the revolutions took place last year through mostly nonviolent protests and civil disobedience, the extremists had the rug pulled from under them.  Even the Islamist parties that have come to power following the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have to balance their respective Islamism with moderate secular and liberal ideals and policies.  This also angers the extremists, who feel that these Islamist governments are “too soft” in their Islamism.  Particularly in the case of Egypt and Sudan, Islamist hardliners are pressuring the governments to capitulate on some of their demands to implement stricter Shariah rules and policies.  These Islamists constitute major political constituents in some cases, and so the governments cannot be seen as leaning too much toward secularism and liberalism.

Similarly, the protesters, especially the young men, continue to hold grievances against their own governments for failing to meet their needs, especially providing jobs and a better future for the next generation.  Thus, woven into this discontent about the anti-Islam film are the underlying grievances against respective governments, especially for socioeconomic reasons.  Change is not occurring fast enough for many, and this has been an opportunity to express their multi-layered anger.

Anti-Western and especially anti-American sentiments are also being exploited by various elements.  Many people in the region, but certainly not all, see Western values, especially freedom of expression, as “boundary-less,” meaning that these freedoms and rights have no limits.  This is not exactly true, because we have laws against “hate speech” and of course the exception to the First Amendment right to free speech and expression exists for the sake of public order and safety, prohibiting incitement of violence.  The “shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” phrase aptly describes this exception.

But, most people in the region are not aware of these provisions and exceptions.  They simply see that an American national has funded and produced this vile film, and that the US government should take action against such offenses, and place boundaries or “reasonable limits” on free speech and expression.  US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama have unequivocally condemned this film, as well as the violence in the Muslim world.  But, they have no authority to undo the constitutional laws that grant all Americans First Amendment rights and freedoms.  The First Amendment embodies the fabric of American values, and, by the way, it also grants everyone the freedom of religion.  We should never compromise on that.

The last few days have been extremely sad, tragic, and disheartening.  Too many breaches have occurred, including the murder of Ambassador Stevens and his colleagues.  Also, the loss of life of protesters is, in my opinion, such a waste.

According to a Reuters article (9/14/2012), entitled “Anti-American fury sweeps Middle East over Film” –

“At least seven people were killed as local police struggled to repel assaults after weekly Muslim prayers in Tunisia and Sudan, while there was new violence in Egypt and Yemen and across the Muslim world, driven by emotions ranging from piety to anger at Western power to frustrations with local leaders and poverty.”

The article also explains the balancing act that Egypt’s President Mursi must play regarding the Cairo protests and US relations (Egypt is the second highest recipient of US foreign aid):

“Mursi must tread a line between appealing to an electorate receptive to the appeal of more hardline Islamists and maintaining ties with Washington, which long funded the ousted military dictatorship.”

The Salafists are involved in most if not all of these violent protests.  I have repeatedly written about the dangers of Salafists, even in Tunisia, as the Reuters article describes:

“Further west along the Mediterranean, a Reuters reporter saw police open fire to try to quell an assault in which protesters forced their way past police into the U.S. embassy in Tunis. Some smashed windows, others hurled petrol bombs and stones at police from inside the embassy and started fires. One threw a computer from a window, others looted computers and telephones.

A Tunisian security officer near the compound said the embassy had not been staffed on Friday, and calls to the embassy went unanswered. Two armed Americans in uniform stood on a roof.

The protesters, many of whom were followers of hardline Salafist Islamist leaders, also set fire to the nearby American School, which was closed at the time, and took away laptops. The protests began after Friday prayers and followed a rallying call on Facebook by Islamist activists and endorsed by militants.”

This is shameful, disgusting, and criminal behavior, not much different in measure than the film producer, and in fact is even worse because lives have been lost.

This behavior also exhibits extreme immaturity at so many levels.  Islam is the youngest of the Judeo-Christian faiths, and its internal ideologies and diverse compositions and manifestations are still evolving.  As one student put it, Christianity used to be very puritanical, with the Inquisition, the Crusades, witch-burnings, and the like.  Islam is going through its phases and evolutions as well, some aspects of which are still very medieval in their outlook.  It’s imperative for the world’s Muslims to reconcile the internal conflicts and facilitate enlightenment and stamp out the extremist ideologies that are so harmful.  Puritanism serves no purpose, especially in the modern era.  It is extremely counterproductive and threatens regional and global peace and security.

Another point for the Muslim world to ponder is this:  given all the anti-Americanism and knee-jerk emotional and violent reactions that we’ve been witnessing throughout the Muslim world, Western powers will think twice before helping Muslims again, and that might include the opposition in Syria.

Finally, why people continue to take the bait is beyond comprehension.  Clearly, this film was intended to provoke anger and emotions.  Yet, it seems that repeatedly Muslims fail to transcend the temptations to react, especially so destructively.  Consider that the Prophet Muhammad’s own reputation and character should speak for himself.  Does he really need people to defend his name violently?  Isn’t something wrong with this picture?  It only gives perpetual license to the world’s provocateurs, who are probably rolling on the ground laughing, at the expense of global peace.

NOTE:  Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views





Understanding Afghanistan

8 01 2012

There’s a circle of journalists and scholars who has been following and writing about Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion days.  One of them is Edward Girardet, whose current book, Killing the Cranes:  A Reporter’s Journey through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan, offers personal accounts and commentaries about his encounters with Ahmed Shah Massoud, Gulbuddin Hekmetyar, and even Osama bin Laden.  Ed was a co-panelist with me at a 9/11 tenth anniversary talk we participated in at the University of Maine School of Law last year.  His talk was absolutely captivating, and I have a hard time putting down his book.

I like to consider myself as part of this circle, as I have also closely followed Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion.  Since 9/11 and the US campaign that toppled the Taliban regime, the US and ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) have come face-to-face with the complexities of the region.  If only the book Charlie Wilson’s War (2004) had been published sooner!  But, still, I doubt zealous policy makers on all sides would really appreciate or comprehend the complicatedness of the situation in Afghanistan, since diverse factors of the equations pertaining to each and every aspect of the situational factors are rarely considered, not to mention the often imprecise metrics in measuring the effectiveness of policies and strategies help put a more positive spin on the efforts and achievements of the coalition forces.  This is not to say that there are absolutely no positive results at all, but in light of a 2014 drawdown, this political analyst cannot help but be cynical.

For instance, much of Afghanistan’s economy relies on drug production and trafficking, as well as an intricate network of organized criminal activities involving warlords, gangsters, and a variety of opportunists, black marketers, and middlemen.  Check out this November 3, 2010 Time Magazine article (excerpts) describing only one aspect of Afghanistan’s black market economy:

“Popularly known as the ‘Bush Market’ and, increasingly, the ‘Obama Market’ the warren of small shops is the largest of several commercial centers named after U.S. Presidents that have sprung up since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Indeed, the presence of foreign armies in the country has for many years spawned a supply and demand for their homegrown products. Three decades ago, during the Soviet occupation, its forerunner was called the ‘Brezhnev Market’ after the former head of the Communist Party, and its stalls were packed with basic Russian commodities. Now, 10 years into an American-led war, hard-to-find Western items are the top draw. ‘I come here all the time for new clothes,’ says Ajmal, 27, as he browses a selection of North Face trekking shoes. ‘The styles are good, the prices are low. It’s great’ …

 

At the Bagram market, bulletproof vests and Kevlar helmets are known to turn up. U.S. Army and Marine digital-camouflage fatigues are widely available for about $40 a set. And at another market near the capital’s largest mosque, Afghan police, army and even presidential guard uniforms sell for even less. (It’s not unheard of for Taliban suicide bombers disguised as Afghan security forces to infiltrate and attack large gatherings.) Yet shopkeeper Khwaja Muhammad, 23, concedes that although many of the customers are state military employees who go to buy a second uniform or have alterations done, ‘We sell to anybody with cash’.”

 

This is just one small glimpse into a spider-web network of the underground economy in Afghanistan, often linked to counterparts in Pakistan.  Ed’s book drives home the point:  if only we paid attention to certain caveats.

I contend that in order for a viable, legitimate economy to flourish, Afghanistan needs to empower an independent and impartial judiciary, which would presumably prosecute the lawbreakers, including those in the organized crime networks.  Some people argue with me that a viable Afghan judiciary is simply not possible, and even that it’s not the answer to Afghanistan’s problems.  It might not be the answer, but it better be part of the equation.

NOTE:  Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views.