Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Back to Tet?

I won't be surprised if by now I've acquired the moniker "Dr. Doom" due to my constant attacks on Barack Obama's foreign policy. Still, let me give my take on Obama's decision to pull troops out from Afghanistan.

First, I do think that Brad hits the nail with his argument that Obama's decision is partly influenced by his desire to negotiate with the Taliban. I agree that there is some "tit-for-tat" going on, and Obama's willingness to pull more troops than even agreed by his generals is based on both his goal to negotiate with the Taliban and political considerations back in the US where FOX News found that 74% respondents agreed with Obama's decision.

The problem lies in the Taliban themselves. The Taliban is not a cohesive political or fighting unit. It is basically a network of various local warlords/extremists that have given their allegiance to the "Taliban" banner because there's no credible alternative in Afghanistan at this point. Due to America's targeted attacks on the Taliban's leadership, the movement has become more and more decentralized and fragmented. In addition, Pakistan plays an important role in the Taliban movement, with its intelligence services pulling the strings behind the screen.

In essence, the Taliban is no longer a monolithic organization with a clear chain of command. The question is whether the U.S. is able to draw as many Taliban as possible into any political accord.

The attack on the Intercontinental Hotel on Monday showed the peril of Obama's position. The attack was done by a Taliban faction allied with the Haqqani network, which is very close to the Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence.

Of course, the Taliban movement as a whole claimed that the attack was their handiwork - it would be stupid and politically disastrous to claim otherwise. Nevertheless, this is the case of the tail that wags the dog: while the leadership itself is willing to negotiate, we find many extremists within the organization who oppose such moves. And they are capable of garnering more political prominence due to their repeated successful attacks. Unfortunately, the leadership, in turn, so as not to be driven into irrelevance, likely has no option but to support the extremists.

Thus, my prediction: the closer it gets to September 2012, the more likely the Taliban will attack and cause disturbances, thereby creating a "Tet" moment, the point of time when everyone will look and say that was the moment the group broke America's commitment to Afghanistan. Why not after September? Because as promised by Obama, by then the U.S. has to unilaterally withdraw and thus there is no more political score to achieve for the Taliban.

Moreover, the U.S. public has no appetite for further foreign adventures. Obama or whomever wins the election in 2012 will have no option except to quicken the pace of America's exit. Thus, by causing a "Tet" before the America's withdrawal in September 2012, the Taliban can claim a major political, military, and strategic victory.

In short, the Intercontinental Hotel is just the beginning. This will be a very long year for U.S. troops there. I wish them the best of luck.

What's Obama's Logic on Afghanistan?

As most of you know by now, last week Barack Obama outlined his plan for drawing down some of the American forces stationed in Afghanistan. According to Obama, by the end of this year, 10,000 troops will leave the country, with an additional 23,000 to follow them out the door by September 2012. The sum total (33,000) of the withdrawal essentially represents the surge in forces that was implemented in 2009/10.

These moves beg the following questions: Why remove the number of troops at the pace described by Obama? What's the logic underpinning Obama's decision? Two popular arguments have been put forward.

1. Obama himself suggested that he was reluctant to remove more than 33,000 troops because he wanted to retain a large enough contingent in Afghanistan that could pressure the Taliban into full-fledged negotiations, concessions, and eventually a political deal. There is an obvious problem with this argument, however. If the peak number of American forces in Afghanistan (about 100,000), a number includes the 2009/10 surge, couldn't break the back of the Taliban, couldn't get the group to commit in earnest to joining peace talks, then why would 2/3 of that number do the trick? If the goal is to put an enormous strain on the Taliban, then Obama should've taken the advice of his military advisers and proceeded with a much slower withdrawal. This would've given the U.S. military a chance to consolidate some of the gains it's made over the last year and continue making progress on the ground. It doesn't make much sense to let the Taliban off the hook now, if the goal is what Obama has argued.

2. The New York Times, citing anonymous sources, claims that "high-ranking officials say that al-Qaeda’s original network in the region has been crippled, providing a rationale for an accelerated reduction of troops." Surely, there is much truth in that statement.

After all, by most accounts, the Obama administration has made it a priority to shift American strategy in Afghanistan from nation building to countering the global jihadists (specifically, al-Qaeda, or AQ) who pose a threat to the U.S.

And AQ really has been badly damaged over the last year. American troops and drone attacks have taken out a number of AQ and AQ-aligned individuals. Most estimates say that there are only about 100 or so of AQ in Afghanistan. Of course, the head of AQ, Osama bin Laden, the charismatic terror leader who was the founder of the group as well as a strategic and recruitment guru, has been killed. Furthermore, the Arab uprisings, which have by led largely by peaceful pro-democratic movements and motivated mostly by aspirations for freedom and transparency, have rendered AQ irrelevant and meaningless in the Middle East and North Africa.

But here's the rub: if Obama thinks that America's job in Afghanistan is basically complete, now that AQ is rudderless, in disarray, and on the run, then why should the U.S. keep any significant number of troops in the country? Does the U.S. really need to keep more than 60,000 Americans stationed in Afghanistan to control, if not eliminate, a 100 AQ members? This is a huge waste of resources. And even more importantly, it unnecessarily places American men and women in harm's way, for they're targets of AQ, yes, but also the Taliban, which also wants the U.S. out of Afghanistan.

I suspect there is another factor at play here, one that that has been overlooked by journalists and policy analysts. Thanks to the recent admission by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, we now know for certain that the U.S. is talking via interlocutors with the Taliban. With this in mind, it's possible that Obama's withdrawal plan is part of ongoing bargaining maneuvers with the Taliban.

In short, it's conceivable he promised to cut the number of troops in Afghanistan as a goodwill gesture to get the Taliban to the negotiating table. But in a bargain such as this, the U.S. can't take all of its troops out of the county lest it lose entirely its leverage vis-a-vis the other side. So for now, it keeps a substantial amount of troops in Afghanistan. If the Taliban comes to the table and negotiates with the various actors (the Afghan government, Pakistan, the U.S.) in good faith, the U.S. can go ahead as planned with the withdrawal and even make deeper cuts in troop levels, potentially leading to the full exit of America's military from Afghanistan. But if the Taliban balks at seeking a negotiated resolution to the ongoing conflict, or steps up its attacks against the U.S. and its allies (e.g., NATO forces, Afghan troops, installations, infrastructure, citizens), then Obama can backtrack on his promise and freeze the drawdown, particularly with respect to the second wave of forces proposed to leave Afghanistan. Remember, the bulk of the surge forces leaving Afghanistan aren't supposed to depart until 2012, plenty of time for the Taliban to show its cards and for Obama to rethink his plan.

Readers, I'm sure, might doubt that Obama would proceed in this manner, especially with elections in 2012. But Obama really need not worry about the American left, he has that vote wrapped up. Will the left vote for Romney or Pawlenty or Bachmann? Highly unlikely. What Obama will need to do is secure the moderate, independent vote, just like he did in 2008. And while a growing number of Americans are tiring of the "long war," this doesn't mean that a freeze on troop levels would hurt Obama.

To the contrary, it could help him. Standing up to and maintaining the fight against the Taliban very easily could be interpreted as signs of decisive leadership and his determination to rout terrorism, which, in turn, might play well with independent voters. Additionally, if the economy continues to struggle by the summer of 2012, and that's almost a given at this point, Obama will likely find himself in a electoral dogfight, looking for any and all ways to bolster his presidential credentials. Don't be surprised if he looks to highlight his national security bona fides. Positioning himself as the anti-terror president, a part of which could include staying the course in Afghanistan, is one possible way to do that.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The House Voted 295-123 to Reject a Resolution to "Authorize" the Mission in Libya

First, I completely disagree with this vote. I do understand that there's a sense of war-weariness going on, that they have to look back at the public opinion back home, etc. But again, this is a bad decision. Why? It can undermine America's credibility abroad, fostering the perception that once the public opinion sours back home, the U.S. will seek to retreat, with its tails between its legs.

Plus, the vote can create a condition of uncertainty: the rebels are likely no longer sure whether the U.S. will be behind their back, and Qaddafi might believe that the longer he can stay afloat, the higher the possibility that his regime will survive.

Yet, what really surprised me is on how bipartisan this vote is. 70 out of 185 Democrats rejected the resolution, meaning that the dissenting Republicans are supported by almost half of the Democrats. I don't doubt the Republicans were politically motivated in pushing for this vote, but I think the blame in the end falls on Obama himself.

Why? I mentioned in an earlier post that Obama's argument that "there's no hostilities" would bite the White House in the end because he insulted the intelligence of both the Congress and the public with his legal mumbo jumbo. Even the Harvard scholar Stephen M. Walt was disenchanted with the administration's lame explanations, even though he is not a fan of the republican-dominated Congress.

Of course, telling the Congress that the Administration would ignore the resolution doesn't do much to endear the House to the Libya mission. In a last ditch attempt to bring the Democrats on the table, Hillary gave the argument that "the Republicans wouldn't challenge a president of their own party," but it was too late. As Representative Lynn Woolsey, a Democrat from California, noted. “She did what the White House should have been doing all along, which is come to us, talk about the situation, tell us what their perspective is, and have a conversation.”

Still, the Senate may not support this resolution so this might be all bells, whistles, and no substance.

Obama could have avoided this mess had he built a support-base first in the congress and taken his time to explain to the people the necessity of America's intervention on Libya. In other words, Obama should stop his 2012 campaign mode and start acting like a real president.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Market-Based Terrorism

Many experts have feared the death of Osama bin Laden might lead to retaliation by al-Qaeda on American interests. While there might be a grain of truth in this, observations on terrorist movements suggest such concerns might be overblown. At bottom, most radical movements are local and they only link themselves to the al-Qaeda global network because they desire al-Qaeda's funds and expertise. Once these local groups strengthen their position, more often than not, they actually do not enjoy working with al-Qaeda, which can be seen as both alien and threatening to their interests.

A crucial element in terrorism is the ability of groups and cells to enhance their operational capacity. They are frequently able to do this by linking to other, more powerful domestic or international actors. These groups aim to acquire political cover, financial assistance, and material support. As we know, states like Iran and Syria are major donors of global terrorism, as is al-Qaeda. Thus, al-Qaeda functions as a terrorist group, seeking to commit violent acts, in addition to its role as a sponsor to its various franchises worldwide. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda were jointly important because they could fund and train many local radicals. In Indonesia, for instance, as the police and the armed forces acquired a monopoly over illegal sources of revenues, such as extortion, illicit mining and fishing, and protection fees, local Islamic radicals have turned to other criminal activities, such as bank robbery, or donors from the Middle East, including al-Qaeda.

The history of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in Indonesia clearly reflects this. Originated in the repressive era of Suharto, members of JI escaped repression by moving to Malaysia or joining the war in Afghanistan during the 1980s. There, they made a connection with the more powerful, richer global jihad network al-Qaeda. After having made this connection, al-Qaeda became JI's primary source of support. Essentially, JI and al-Qaeda entered into a mutually agreeable informal transaction. JI received funding and other means of support in exchange for hitting targets that al-Qaeda deemed valuable.

After the fall of Suharto, with the state no longer as repressive as it used to be, radical groups became emboldened to take on a more assertive presence in Indonesia. And the ethno-religious conflicts between local Christians and Moslems in Maluku and Poso offered a ripe opportunity for them to do so. With the Indonesian state seemingly unable to stop the conflicts, the idea in some quarters that governing officials wouldn't lift a hand to help fellow Moslems in distress became popular. Some saw the Christians there as a part of global conspiracy, funded and armed by the United States, to undermine Moslems' interests everywhere.

JI eventually hopped into this mess, determined to show itself as a major player in terrorism. It joined the violence in both Maluku and Poso, thereby signaling to the outside world that the group existed, was active in the local jihad community, and thus should be assisted by the global jihadist network. Using the already established network between itself and al-Qaeda, Middle Eastern fighters soon played part in the conflicts under the name of Laskar Jundullah.

 9/11, however, changed the equation. The United States started to pay attention to the global financial transactions that funded the jihadists, pressuring the network. It also pressured the Indonesian government to start putting the clamps on JI.

At the same time, local developments worked against the group. JI's forced imposition of radical Islamic law on parts of the population made it unpopular. And the foreign elements within JI proved troublesome. They were unable to integrate smoothly within the local community, and the local jihadis resented the fact that they were seen as subordinates, second class foot soldiers in the movement. In the end, as Indonesians started to believe that the group was part of the global terrorist network, local jihadis saw the "foreigners" as a liability that effectively undermined their freedom of movement and action.

By the time the army decided to crack down on the violence, Indonesians were all too happy to rid themselves of the foreign jihadis and JI itself. With the conflict in Maluku winding down, and the conflict in Poso taking on a more local flavor, JI had to find other means to show that it was still relevant to the global network.Thus, it was not a coincidence that the notorious Bali bombings of 2002 occurred at that moment of crisis.

The picture of JI we just described lends consequential insight into how small and aspiring terrorist groups and cells operate, which in itself has been the subject of a large discussion among scholars and policy analysts. In short, it is apparent that at least some terrorist outfits seem to behave much like businesses do in market settings. That is, they have adopted the principles of firm survival and success and applied them to terrorism. Really, this is a form of market terrorism. And it makes sense, too, for terrorism is subject to many of the same pressures and constraints that businesses face--limited resources, imperfect information, the desire to survive, and intense competition for success.

Let's look at the logic of market terrorism. Small and medium-sized companies look for ways to demonstrate financial viability to attract prospective investors. Getting investors to buy-in to their products or ideas is important, for it can help these companies sustain themselves and possibly take them to another rung of success, leading to better brand recognition, more customers, more profit, and so on. In much the same way, terrorist groups and cells ostensibly look to demonstrate their violent capabilities--the hallmark of success in the terrorist world--to receive a buy-in from larger, well-financed and well-organized terrorist organizations. Such investments, which take the form of funds, weapons, training, political support, safe haven, and new recruits and followers, among other things, can enable these terror groups to become self-sustaining enterprises and make a name for themselves in the terror business.

Armed with this information, we have a better understanding of the relationship between al-Qaeda headquarters and its affiliates. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the latter isn't necessarily wedded to the former's politico-religious ideology, nor is it particularly inspired to commit violence because of shared fundamentalist views. In fact, as the case of JI shows, there may quite a bit of disharmony in the relationship between the affiliates and their bases of support. More often than not, the affiliates are simply rational self-interested opportunists looking for support for local political and economic causes and ego-driven concerns. Should the main branch of al-Qaeda vanish from the scene, market forces would dictate that its affiliates look for alternative sources of assistance. And in this case, just as with JI, we would find these groups tailoring their messaging and activities around their new sponsor's goals and objectives.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Rebuttal: On Obama's Foreign Policy

I need to stress several things in response to Brad's post.

First, let me ask you, what is a "right" foreign policy? As far as I know, all conservatives (including me) are not in agreement with each other.  As you noted in the fifth paragraph, the hawks and the fiscal conservatives disagree with each other. Monday's Republican debate showed that even Romney seemed to question the America's commitment in Afghanistan (the horror!). So let us just dispense with the labels and go straight to each others' arguments.

Second, I think you oversimplified my arguments. I argue that there has been no active U.S. engagement in the region. Obama hardly tried to solve the Israel-Palestinian problem before the Arab Spring erupted, only sending George Mitchell to the region with little involvement from himself. Aside of some flowery speeches praising the Muslim community, such as the Cairo Speech in 2009, there has been no significant breakthrough in the region. There is no personal rapport between him and the regional leaders, and thus when personal connections are needed during times of crisis, they just don't trust him.

Please re-read my entire posts from the beginning, and you will find that I am pretty consistent in my criticism of Obama's foreign policy. On leadership: what I blasted Obama on was on his lack of coherence in policy-making in the region. A few days before Mubarak resigned, I criticized Obama for giving a mixed signals that caused elements in Egyptian army to be pissed off. In fact, I proposed quiet diplomacy and stated on March 4:

"I think the best role that the United States can do at this point is quietly, behind the scenes, pressure the military leaders to honor their promise to reform and start telling the truth that transition to democracy is always an ugly process."

The problem was that you have Hillary who said that Mubarak was indispensable and Obama who said that transition should start "right now." I don't know, but I think I'd call that disorganization.

Of course, then you have Libya. I criticized him before on his decision to go there without Congressional approval, predicting that things would go hairy. Guess what happened? So now we are going to engage in a debate whether the U.S. is engaged in a "hostile act" in Libya. Wow. Talk about leadership.

Then, finally, the post that sparked this debate, about Obama's giving up his "Osama Mojo." Well, I don't know, but I think that combining both the Arab Spring and Israel-Palestinian problem in a speech is simply a sign of bad political judgment.

So you see, maybe it is all good in the big picture, but the devil is always in the details. I think I have shown that I am pretty much consistent here, not just spouting another "right wing partisan nonsense." Besides, I can't see the Soviet Union from my backyard anyway.

Anyway, my point is that Obama's lack of interest in the region and thus his lack of leadership is clear here. Mind you, I will give him credit when I see that he is doing the right things. I agree that there are times when the United States should do nothing to intervene lest it will cause backlashes. Unfortunately, though, all I see here is Obama blundering ahead while things fortunately fall in his favor, so far.

Abu Bakar Bashir was sentenced to 15 years

Readers of this blog may ask: so what? Who cares? Well, for one, Mr. Abu Bakar Bashir is a spiritual leader of Jamaah Islamiyah of Southeast Asia, a part of al-Qaeda's global network.

While Jamaah Islamiyah has been under pressure in recent years, thanks to the government's crackdown (JI was involved in ethno-religious conflicts and several bombings all over Indonesia), the arrest and the sentencing of Mr. Bashir to 15 years in prison is unprecedented. While the government did arrest, imprison and sentence many terrorists to death, it usually treads very carefully around religious figures such as Mr. Bashir.

This is not Mr. Bashir's first brush with law. In 2005, after years of intense U.S. pressure, the court handed Mr. Bashir 3 years in prison for his involvement in the notorious Bali Bombing of 2002, which subsequently was reduced and further commuted to around 2 years. The reason for such a short-term sentence was immediately clear. During his time in prison, he was visited by various dignitaries, including then Indonesian Vice President Hamzah Haz. When he was released, he received a hero's welcoming. Basically, the judiciary was bulled and under heavy pressure to give him as light a sentence as possible.

This time, Mr. Bashir was arrested and sentenced under the accusation of "raising funds for a paramilitary camp in Aceh that police believe served as a training ground for militants to carry out attacks on government assets and state leaders." Surprisingly, now no VIP has run to his defense. There are no more "useful idiots" showing their indignation on national TV. In fact, most news channels only briefly talked about the sentencing, then returned to the regular discussion on the corruption scandal that is currently embroiling Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's party.

I think we can make two conjectures out of this. First, people are simply sick and tired of all these radical Islamists. They are tired of all the violence and the bombs. This fact is reflected in the 2009 election, where the Islamists parties' share of votes declined significantly. Thus, the politicians are simply adapting to this new development, and nobody is protecting Mr. Bashir from his just dessert.

Second, Mr. Bashir's organization is no longer that useful politically. In Indonesia, there's a tradition of patrons protecting violent mass organizations, such as most famously the Islam Defender Front (FPI), which is supposed to be protected by several retired Islamist generals. As a result, these organizations can act with impunity, and that used to include Mr. Bashir.

The fact that Mr. Bashir was sentenced for 15 years means that his organization is no longer  important, and considering his connection to al-Qaeda, this may also reflect on al-Qaeda's influence in the region, which is becoming more and more irrelevant, especially with the decimation of its commanders worldwide. Hopefully, this can be a good indication for our progress in defeating al-Qaeda and its ilk all over the world.

More on Obama's Foreign Policy

In a recent post, Yohanes made two arguments that I’d like to explore in more detail. As a refresher, here are his arguments: First, he avers that the U.S. has failed to exhibit much leadership under Obama. And second, Yohanes claims that Obama’s foreign policies, particularly with respect to the Arab Spring, are mostly reactive in nature.

Regarding American leadership: I beg to differ with Yohanes. In my view, the U.S. has led on the Arab Spring, especially in places like Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and so on. In short, under Obama, the U.S. has cobbled coalitions together for support for pro-democracy movements and taken steps (diplomatically and via force) to nudge leaders out of office. Additionally, it is trying to cajole Turkey into pressuring Syria to cease its violence against protesters and demonstrators. And even now, it is apparent that other countries, usually its allies, still take their cues from Washington.

This approach, however, comes under from the fire from some on the American right who see Obama’s foreign policies as weak and feeble. In their eyes, they're too reliant on the wishes of foreign countries, effectively granting these actors too large a say in American policies, and far too time consuming. This group of critics prefer strong and decisive action, even it means bullying others into what the U.S. wants them to do. Indeed, it’s a stark contrast from the "with us or against" days of the Bush administration. And really, that’s the issue. The approach proffered by Obama does demonstrate American leadership, it’s just not the kind that Yohanes and others mostly on the right prefer.

Yes, it’s true that American foreign policy has been mostly reactive in response to the Arab Spring. Which makes sense. These were organic uprisings, indigenous to the various countries in North Africa and the Middle East. It doesn’t make much sense to make the Arab Spring about the U.S. The U.S. isn’t and shouldn’t be driving the action in these countries. These are foreign countries, and the people there have the right and a strong desire to chart their own political and economic futures. Internal meddling is something Arab publics don’t want. To be clear, this kind of action would only taint the reformers, making them look like Washington’s stooges, and signal that the U.S. seeks to hijack the uprisings.

Could the U.S. have inserted itself to a greater degree in the Arab Spring? Sure. Should the U.S. be doing more right now? Probably, but not significantly so. But it seems that either way Obama would be subject to criticism. Had the U.S. done less, invested less support and fewer resources on the Arab Spring, then the liberal internationalists and neoconservatives would have been up in arms about Obama not sufficiently backing pro-democracy protesters and movements. On the other had, had the U.S. substantially upped its level of effort, then other groups on the American right would have found fault with American foreign policy. The fiscal conservatives would complain (and some already are complaining) about the price of a deeper commitment at a time when the U.S. is already involved in two wars, military action in Yemen, Libya, and Pakistan, and has an unsteady and weak economy. And undoubtedly, the more hawkish side of the right would bitterly protest U.S. policies (as some already have), believing that by trying to pry open more and more Arab regimes, we will see the rise of radical Islamic governments in more Middle Eastern countries.

On a general level, what the U.S. should be doing is basically what it’s now doing. The U.S. is letting the pro-democracy protesters and revolutionaries dictate events on the ground. Meantime, it is also attempting to shape the choices and actions of the revolutionaries and existing and/or new governments. Toward that end, the White House is in the process of creating conditions-based economic and political aid packages to various countries as incentive to lead them toward greater democratic reforms. Just ask the Egyptian revolutionaries what they think of these packages. Quite honestly, they aren’t in favor of them, precisely because they know that the U.S. is attempting to narrow and restrict Egypt’s policy options going forward.

For reasons stated above, I believe Obama has done a pretty good job at the big picture level, and that’s what I’ve focused on in this post. That said, I don’t think the Obama administration has been flawless in its response to the Arab uprisings. It’s messaging has been inconsistent at best. Obama tends to disengage himself from the policy process at times, preferring to let other officials steer policy debates and give substantial input on policy matters–something evident in the early stages of the uprisings, probably at a time when Obama thought these events would be regionally confined. The failure of the opposition to break through in Washington-friendly Bahrain doesn’t reflect well on the U.S. The U.S. could have used its relationship to nudge the royal family out of office, but it didn’t. Meantime, the pro-democracy Bahraini demonstrators didn’t receive any support from America and were left virtually alone to face state-sponsored violence and repression. Additionally, each of the conflicts and violence in Syria, Yemen, and Libya threaten to spin out of control, thereby adversely impacting the entire region.

And so interestingly, Obama could potentially get the big picture essentially right yet still have his foreign policy agenda undermined by one or more of the uprisings. Clearly, events in Syria, Yemen, and Libya are still in flux, with outcomes still to be determined, so there’s time for Team Obama to continue to try to shape the directions in these countries in its favor. For the sake of the U.S., as well as the stability in the region, I hope they succeed.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

No "hostilities" in Libya

Okay, so what kind of kool-aid do they drink in the White House? I can't think of another administration which willingly keeps giving its enemies more and more ammunition.

Of all bone-headed excuses they can conjure to skirt the War Power Act requirements, the Obama administration argues that the intervention in Libya is not an act of hostilities?! What were they thinking?

Of course, this is a very dicey issue from the start. Why should the United States intervene in Libya? This should be the underlying question of any attempt to gain approval from Congress. Like all debates on human rights interventions, when should a state start and refrain from intervening under the banner of "defending human rights?" So Libya fits the bill? Fine, but what about Syria? Bahrain? Iran? Yemen? The list goes on and on and on.

Moreover, with the public's appetite for war at its lowest in quite some time, coupled with the elections next year and Obama's certain quest to recapture his "peace mojo" among the anti-war liberals, it is not politically palatable for him to engage in a third war.

Because the administration is simply unable to answer those questions, the easiest way out is to punt, to simply argue that the "War Power Act" does not apply in Libya, since the US is not engaged in a direct action there. Rather, according to the White House, the U.S. has played a supporting role under the auspices of NATO and crossing the fingers.

Legally, this is correct. Obama's attempts in trying to stay in the "gray" area, to avoid stepping in what he believes is the tripwire for the "War Power Act," causes NATO's efforts in Libya to be a half-hearted effort and ineffective, as NATO itself has neither the capability nor the political will to engage in a full-scale intervention.

Realistically, however, how many people will buy this argument? That the U.S. has done little in Libya? Even though the U.S. is in a supporting position, the United States is still providing about 75 percent of aerial refueling flights and at least 70 percent of intelligence and surveillance flights in the campaign.

Qaddafi may be nutty, but he is not an idiot. He knows about this debate on the War Powers Act and he's counting that by the time the clock hits 90-days, Obama may be chicken enough to submit to Congressional will, or maybe the Congress or Dennis Kucinich will be angry enough to stop the military action.

Thus, Obama's decision of sidestepping the hard question blows on his face now. Instead, this will simply play into the narrative of an "out-of-touch arrogant White House that will bypass the Congress when it is inconvenient."

Still, assuming that this excuse works, it can create a very dangerous precedent for the future administrations. First, both the White House and the Congress will no longer try to make something work. Rather, they will try to create and to abuse as many legal loopholes as possible, and thus it will be a game of cat-and-mouse that will throw the U.S. more and more into gridlock.

Second, as long as the U.S. can get a fig leaf of working under some sort of international authorization and as long as the U.S. does not engage in direct hostilities, then the Congress can do nothing but to accept the argument that as the U.S. is not engaged in "hostilities."

The next few days will be very interesting. Both the Republicans and the Democrats will be put in a bind. With the election looming next year, they have to tread the line very carefully.

In the meantime, Rome is burning...

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Quick reply to Brad's Post

Brad made a good rebuttal to my points, but here is my counter-response to him.

First, I think Brad missed my point of the "Osama Bump" for Obama. No credible analyst will ever claim that Obama can win the 2012 election based on his accomplishment on nabbing Osama alone. The economy is important, and Bush, Sr. found this out to his chagrin back in 1992.

What Obama squandered was the idea that the Republicans could no longer assail Democrats on "weak foreign policy," that Republicans always get the job done and Democrats always mess things up. Here, Obama showed that he managed to clean up the mess that he inherited from Bush. Thus, he would be able to show a contrast that he's a results-oriented president.

He squandered his mojo by his ill-timed speech on Israel. I agree that he did the speech to preempt the Palestinians from pushing it in the United Nations on September. Still, why then? Why a day before Netanyahu visited the United States and a few days after Mitchell resigned? Why he didn't invest some of his time dealing with this issue last year? He had snubbed Netanyahu in his last visit and in doing this speech, he did that twice, and not surprisingly, the Republicans just smelled blood and the Democrats went on the defensive. Had Obama really been serious in dealing with Israeli-Palestinian issue, he'd have put a lot of backing behind Mitchell (e.g. by trying to mend bridges with Netanyahu, while at the same time trying to strengthen Abbas' position). Instead, he waited until the PA decided to drop a bombshell by making an agreement with Hamas.

That's what I call a clueless foreign policy. Instead of leading, he is reacting to developments. It is not the no-cookie-cutter approach that I dislike. Frankly, I hate a cookie cutter approach, as each country has its own characteristics, making a cookie cutter approach another disaster in the making. The problem is that there is simply no leadership, that he does not seem to be engaged with neither the region nor the leaders. Even after he engaged with the region, he had to confront Israeli-Palestinian problem at the worst possible time.

Interestingly though, even though people might have hated Bush's foreign policy, and Bush's worldwide popularity was horrid, he was surprisingly able to build good working relationships with leaders all over the world.

I may be heading to a rough spot here, but I argue that one can only lead if he/she knows where they are headed. Thus, I argue that Obama's lack of leadership in the Middle East is because he simply has no idea of what to do and where to go. He has no foreign policy and that's because he is ignorant to the developments there. He is surrounded by great people, such as Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power, George Mitchell, Dennis Ross, and various other experts (who disagree with each other), and yet he was caught flatfooted for weeks after the uprising in Tunisia started and after the revolution struck Cairo.

That's what I call lack of leadership.

Obama Foreign Policy: A Response to Yohanes

Here are a few quick thoughts, comments, and questions in response to Yohanes’ post on Obama. 

1. Sure, a number of American commentators did wonder if the death of bin Laden enhanced Obama’s reelection chances. But let’s not overplay this. As early as a few days after Osama’s killing, that specific speculation about Obama in 2012 was displaced by different a prognostication. Indeed, most now argue that no matter what Obama does on foreign policy, his reelection will likely be determined by whether America's sluggish economic growth and high unemployment improves. Indeed, I've heard quite a few comparisons between the current plight of Obama and the predicament in which George H.W. Bush found himself in 1991-92, which should please Republicans and their supporters.

2. With that in mind, I don’t think Obama "squandered" his bump in approval as much as he was overtaken by events on other issue-areas. It was inevitable, given the poor U.S. economy.

3. Did the Obama and his associates try to "soak credit" for killing bin Laden? Or were they simply trying to get out an important story as quickly as possible? The answers to these questions are heavily dependent on how one views Team Obama. 

4. Sure, there have been missteps, but it is an overstatement to say that all of Obama's recent moves have yielded bad news. Here are a few examples: There's good news from Libya. The so-called rebels are continuing to advance, making progress toward ousting Gaddafi. Obama's speech to AIPAC received good reviews. Obama's plan for economic assistance to Egypt and Tunisia is key to ensuring that democracy and liberalism are gradually but firmly anchored in both countries. These might not be enough to satisfyYohanes, but they do count for something.

5. I think Obama's intentions regarding Israel are misunderstood or mischaracterized (or both) by the American right. Arguably, he forced the issue of peace talks a bit with Israel out of concern for that country. He knows that Israel could find itself even more isolated (a point I made here) if the status quo continues to hold until September, the time at which the Palestinians might push the issue of statehood at the UN. This is a view shared by Tony Blair. And as Israel’s main supporter and benefactor, Obama also knows that if Israel takes a hit internationally, so will Washington, possibly from many different directions. Saudi Arabia has already promised "disastrous consequences" for its relations with the U.S. should Washington veto the Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN.

6. Yohanes claims that Obama’s not an expert on foreign policy. But how would we know if Obama is indeed such an expert? By the decisions he makes? Bad decisions don't mean Obama lacks sufficient foreign policy knowledge, just as good decisions don’t necessarily imply he has a wealth of foreign policy expertise. Take the example of Jimmy Carter. The conventional wisdom is that he made bad policy decisions but possessed a good understanding of international politics. The punchline: decision-making is an inadequate proxy for it doesn't adequately capture what's in the head of leaders. By the way, out of fairness, I believe my argument here should be applied to George W. Bush, someone who was widely panned as a foreign policy dolt. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn't. That's almost beside the point. The more important issue is how we would operationalize "knowledge" or "understanding."

7. It seems the main argument Yohanes makes is really less about Obama's foreign policy ideas and knowledge and more about the overall foreign policy process in the Obama administration. That is, his real concern is about how Obama engages with the policy process, how he interacts with staff and cabinet, and the messaging from the administration. In my view, for reasons I previously cited here, I see this as a very legitimate criticism. After more than two years in office, it's disappointing that the U.S. foreign policy process under Obama doesn't function more smoothly and efficiently.

8. By now, it is apparent Obama does have a plan for the Arab Spring. It’s just one that Yohanes and others, especially people in the region, might not like, and that's understandable. Obama wants to treat each case of democratization on its own terms. The justification for this singular approach is that each case is shaped by its own set of external and internal variables. Cookie cutter solutions, so goes the logic, are ill-suited to deal with the Arab Spring. That’s the plan. The downfall is that, to his critics, this approach doesn’t seem like much of a plan. Perhaps. And it also leaves people in the Arab world extremely disappointed, because Obama, despite his repeated soaring appeals to democratic ideas and institutions and so on, won’t advocate for democracy equally across the Middle East. It only reinforces the notion that the U.S. is a hypocritical country.

The other side of the globe: On Spratly

Before someone decides to rename this blog "Center for Middle Eastern Conflict and Peace," let us move to the diplomatic standoff between China and both the Philippines and Vietnam over the Spratly Islands. For the past few days, angry words have been traded between Beijing, Manila, and Hanoi over clashes between Chinese "fishing boats" and Vietnamese exploration vessels.

The situation is dicey because the status of the Spratly Islands is currently under dispute between China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippine, Malaysia, and even Brunei. The reason? It is strategically positioned, right in the middle of commercial shipping lanes and one of the world's most productive areas for fishing. Still, the best part is that it has tons of oil and natural gas (fourth largest reserve bed in the world), with major windfalls for energy-hungry Asian nations.

While the dispute has been ongoing for decades, it is only in the past few years that the surrounding countries have started to complain that China is overtly aggressive in staking its claim over the islands. Even though at this point it is still doubtful whether China is capable to dominate the entire islands with its current strength vis-a-vis an alliance of the states with claims over the islands, what important here is the calculation of the states that China's power will keep increasing, and correspondingly, also its territorial appetites. Thus, it is better to complain bitterly and loudly today, to attract the attention of the only power that is capable of balancing against China at this point of time, which is the United States.

Not surprisingly, when departing U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates attended the Shangri-La Dialogue at Singapore, he found both General Phung Quang Thanh, Vietnam’s defense minister, and his counterpart from Philippines, Mr. Voltaire, Gazmin were clamoring for a greater American presence in the region. Regardless of the tumultuous past between the U.S. and Vietnam, the Vietnamese have been busy courting the U.S., and both countries have even staged a joint military exercise. The Philippines also have mostly abandoned their anti-U.S. position and embraced America, which, they believe, could bring the stability to the region.

At this point, China is experiencing what the U.S. had experienced right after the end of the Cold War, that its neighbors suddenly find themselves living next to a 8,000 ton gorilla. With the world perceiving America's power as declining, thanks to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and not to mention the subprime mortgage mess, everyone is starting to take a second look at China.

It is true that China's trade is growing, and that people grow rich from trading with China. China is willing to trade with anyone and anywhere, uncaring about all these human rights hassles, which is a welcomed development by isolated countries such as Myanmar. On the other hand, people are also starting to complain that low-cost Chinese goods starting to flood the local markets and that Chinese corporations exploit countries all over the world (sound familiar?).

Even though China has been assuring its neighbors that in its thousands years of history, China has never embarked on an expansionist foreign policy, it is still seen a growing threat by everyone in the neighborhood. China is no longer seen as a partner to balance the brash, uncontrollable, and unilateral United States, but a future threat that may surpass the U.S. and dominate the world, starting with its immediate neighborhood.

Thus, these concerns are at the root of the current conflict on Spratly.

Monday, June 6, 2011

President Saleh has left the building....

So it seems, after he got injured in a surprise shelling on his palace. The question is, then, what happens next?

Well, first, while the government went to great lengths to note that Mr. Saleh's departure was temporary and that once he got well, he would assume his post back, I am willing to bet that Mr. Saleh has left for good. As a leader in precarious condition, leaving the county usually spells the end of his/her time in office. If leaders want to remain in power, then they ought to stay, giving the illusion that they are still in command and in control of the situation. Therefore, regardless the excuses, once they leave the building, they are gone for good, and what's left is to make-up any safe-facing excuses. That's it.

Not surprisingly, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, Mr. Saleh's vice president, immediately called for cease-fire, for Mr. Saleh's departure has emboldened the opposition and demoralized his remaining supporters. The cease-fire offer was immediately accepted, likely because the opposition realized that they were united only in their dislike of Saleh. In reality, they are divided among many clans, each of which have different, sometimes competing, interests.

At the same time, Saleh's son and relatives were backed into a corner, and for them, a cease-fire was not something they welcomed. They looked at Egypt, saw that Mubarak and his family ended up arrested after he resigned, and ostensibly decided that they wanted to avoid his fate. As a result, they launched attacks, trying to show they're still powerful, to bolster up the claim that Saleh will return later, and to get some concessions out of the opposition. It's a desperation move.

So, what's next for Yemen?

Mr. Hadi will keep trying to make peace with the opposition. The problem for Mr. Hadi is that the opposition will want him to rein in Mr. Saleh's loyalists, which is something he can't really do because he has no power over them.

Here, the Saudis and the U.S. should actually jump in to pressure Mr. Saleh to realize that his game is up. At the same time, Mr. Hadi and the opposition should agree to make a clean break from the past. Regardless of how appalling this might sound, the opposition should declare a blanket amnesty on Mr. Saleh's supporters, which might split the loyalists further and set the stage for reconciliation in the future.

Still, we should expect Yemen to remain in turmoil for the next few months, as Mr. Saleh's departure leaves a huge vacuum of power and the clan-based Yemen politics make it difficult to create an effective unity government. We can only hope that a new caretaker government has enough foresight to create an inclusive government so as to avoid the pitfalls of countries like Iraq. Additionally, it would nice if both the US and the Saudis promised to pump in some economic assistance to help stabilize the country. Otherwise, what we have here is a failed state in the making. And given the presence of al-Qaeda on Yemen soil, as well as American interests in the region, this is something I hope Yemen avoids.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Egypt's Transition to Democracy: Foreign Policy

For those of you who have followed this blog closely, what I’m about to say about Egypt’s future foreign policy probably won’t seem too surprising. After all, Egypt’s foreign policy is a topic that has come up several times over the last few months. What makes this blog post different from those prior posts is that here I perform a more systematic and comprehensive survey and analysis of Egyptian foreign policy.


To begin, let’s look at a very basic, general level of Egyptian foreign policy. In short, what does Egypt want? What are its goals? Egyptians of many different stripes—those from different religions and economic strata and with different political beliefs—widely agree that Egypt should attempt to reclaim its position of leadership within the region. They look back at the Mubarak era with disgust, in part because they believe he consistently prioritized the interests of Israel and the U.S. over the traditional interests of his own country. Really, in their view, Israel’s and Washington’s interests became Egypt’s interests. Put simply, according to this logic, Egypt was a follower and became a passive player in the region. It looked to the U.S. and Israel to set the tone on its own foreign policy. We can debate how much of this is actually grounded in truth or myth, but in the end it doesn’t matter. What matters most is what Egyptians believe to be true, for it is these beliefs that will shape Egyptian policymaking going forward. And in the future, we should expect Egypt to try to break free from its so-called era of passivity by acting more assertively and exercising more independence in its foreign policymaking. Significantly, this is something that the revolutionaries, various political candidates and parties, and religious groups have called for.

A more assertive foreign policy carries a host of implications. One important implication is that other states the region, especially Saudi Arabia and Iran and Israel, are going to have to make a place for Egypt at the policy table or risk confrontation. This is the same dilemma that will likely plague U.S.-China relations in the future. In both cases, either (1) the established leaders make concessions to the rising power, granting it more respect and a greater voice on the regional/world stage, and seek to integrate this country into the status quo; or (2) face the possibility that the rising power will become extremely dissatisfied with its position in the region/world, to the point that it might try to overturn the status quo. At this point, we’re a long way from Egypt embracing such aggressive tactics, but it is a potential pathway that it could head down if it does adopt very assertive policies over the long-term.


Next, let’s turn to Egypt’s relations with various important countries, starting with Israel. There’s already been quite a bit of speculation that Egypt’s transition to democracy will be bad for Israel’s interests. Truthfully, there is some evidence for this concern. Already, much to Israel’s dismay, Egyptian officials helped to seal a reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah, bringing Hamas in from the cold once again, and they are now working with both sides to implement it.

Moreover, Egyptian citizens have been very vocal in expressing their pro-Palestinian (and in some cases, anti-Israeli) views. Even during the revolution, the crowd in Tahrir was not shy about voicing their thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There have been several protests at the Israeli embassy in Cairo, including one that triggered a violent crackdown by the Egyptian military. Last month, in a show of support for the Palestinians, who were commemorating Nakba Day, hundreds of Egyptians attempted to close in on the Rafah border crossing, but were stopped by the military. And to make matters worse, recent polling data from the Pew Research Center suggests that a majority of Egyptian citizens (54%) prefer to abrogate the peace deal with Israel.

Additionally, news about lower than market gas deals under Mubarak to Israel has surfaced, which has only infuriated Egyptians. Egyptian officials have promised to review these deals and possibly request Israel to pay a higher price.

And Egypt’s overtures to Iran, leading possibly to reestablishing ties with Iran, have unnerved Israel. Let’s face it: Under Mubarak, Egypt was one of the region’s stalwart countries that could be counted on to balance against any threatening politico-military moves emanating from Tehran. Without Egypt in an anti-Iran regional coalition, Iran’s freedom of movement, including its ability to cause havoc and mayhem directly or indirectly via its proxies, is greatly enhanced.

Lastly, as of last Saturday, to break Israel’s chokehold on Gaza, Egypt has opened the Rafah border. Reasonably, Egyptian officials argue that the move was made to alleviate humanitarian problems, but Israel sees the opening as a vehicle that allows unsavory people and things to get into Gaza.

As expected, Israeli officials are already finding all of these changes both frustrating and annoying at a minimum, and some, especially the foreign policy hawks, see these changes as worrisome and alarming.

But let’s take a deep breath for the moment. Most major players in Egyptian politics, even the Muslim Brotherhood, claim that they will respect the peace treaty. Most have been fairly careful about describing relations with Israel, emphasizing that Israel is not Egypt’s enemy. Indeed, most public statements simply highlight the need to break free from Israel’s shadow, to demonstrate some policy independence. Even the issue of the Rafah border crossing might not be quite so inflammatory to Israel or harmful to Egypt-Israel relations. For example, despite officially opening the border crossing, Gazans

I still believe the Egyptian Revolution could be a good thing for Israel. At Washington’s bidding, Hosni Mubarak supported the regional status quo, leading Egypt to avoid pushing Israel too hard to work with the Palestinians. In effect, this allowed the Israel-Palestinian conflict to get swept under the rug, and played into Israel’s hands. As we have already seen, a more open and free Egypt will no longer take this approach. Egypt will not avoid or ignore the longstanding conflict. Instead, it will make a greater effort to make progress on a deal, and this, in turn, might lead others in region to behave similarly, adding a sense of urgency and momentum to the stalled talks.

Saudi Arabia and Iran

What about the two other major countries in the region? As just mentioned, Egypt has broached the idea of normalizing relations with Iran. Egyptian officials have stated that they would like to treat Iran as just another country in the world, not necessarily as a friend or a foe. As a gesture of goodwill, in February, Egypt let Iranian warships pass through the Suez Canal, the first time that has happened since the Shah was overthrown. And Egyptian and Iranian officials have already held meetings in both Cairo and Tehran. Where all of this will lead is uncertain. But what is clear is that both sides value better inter-state ties.

Meantime, Egypt’s relations with Saudi Arabia are trending in the opposite direction. And there lots of moving parts involved here. First, to Saudi Arabia’s rulers, Hosni Mubarak not only presided over a friendly government, but he was their friend. Remember, Mubarak served for so long that was able to cultivate good political and personal ties to the King and his associates. The new democratic government in Egypt, whenever it takes office, with a whole new set of characters and intentions and goals, will be viewed by the King somewhat warily. The new democratic government just won’t have the longevity or the history with Saudi Arabia to make these inter-state relations as smooth and seamless as they have been in the past. And if the revolutionaries—the very group that toppled the Mubarak government—take power sometime soon, there could be some latent hostility between Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

It is also becoming evident that Saudi Arabia doesn’t like the new direction in Egypt’s foreign policy. Resetting relations with Iran, downgrading its ties with Israel, becoming more pro-active in the region—these aren’t things the Saudis want to see. Yes, even the part about Israel. Why? On a big picture level, they are nascent signs that Egypt might begin to formulate and implement foreign policies without consideration of Saudi interests and concerns. But on a micro level, on an issue by issue basis, they generate specific concerns: Will Saudi Arabia be left alone to counter-balance Iran’s bid for regional hegemony? Will Egypt try to challenge Saudi Arabia as the vanguard of Sunni dominance in the region?

And here’s one more challenge in Saudi-Egyptian relations: Egypt’s revolutionaries and political activists, as well as various Shia and Coptics, believe that Saudi Arabia is funding extremist political groups (specifically, the Salafis) so as to undermine the revolution. That is to say, in their eyes, Saudi Arabia is meddling in their country and in bed with, if not actually leading, the counter-revolutionaries. Not surprisingly, there have been protests at the Saudi embassy in Cairo. Arguably, the more troubling part of this is that the accusations give the Saudis another reason to dislike the revolutionaries, which only complicates further the ties between both countries.

The U.S.

The U.S. probably will lose some influence in Egypt as the country opens up its political processes. If the new government in Egypt reflects the political preferences of its citizens, as they do in free and fair democratic regimes, then it will undoubtedly take foreign policy positions that are increasingly independent of Washington’s demands and interests. But given the deep economic and military connections between Cairo and Washington, it’s awfully difficult to envision a sharp break in the relationship. And as another good sign, while Egyptian officials have stated their desire to pursue a foreign policy program independent of Washington, they have also been effusive in their praise of the U.S., proclaiming America to be a good friend of Egypt.

Alas, not everything is well in Egypt-U.S. relations. Certainly, there is some backlash because the U.S. is viewed as the longstanding puppeteer of Egyptian foreign policy, effectively making Cairo a servant of Washington for decades. And some Egyptians, especially the April 6 Movement, are upset with the U.S. because they believe Barack Obama’s support for the revolution was excessively slow. To them, the U.S. was too indecisive, wielding the full weight of its power far too late, which contributed the death and violence during the revolution. And it seemed that the U.S. preferred the autocratic, repressive Mubarak over their freedom. This argument fits with a narrative that’s been long popular in the region: the U.S. is hypocritical when it comes to its much-cherished values of freedom and liberty. Washington supports democracy in some countries, but declines to encourage or back it in other countries. Yes, the U.S. does have its reasons for maintaining inconsistencies in its foreign policies, but that’s beside the point. The main point here is that the perception of U.S. actions is the motor behind some negative attitudes and opinions on the Obama administration and American foreign policy.

The reaction of a number of revolutionaries and political activists to Obama’s recent speech on the Middle East uprisings fully displayed their distaste for the Obama administration, American government, and U.S. foreign policy. Many were uninterested in what Obama had to say, thought his words and efforts to help Egypt have come too late, and preferred he kept out of Egyptian politics. In short, they tuned Obama out. It is possible these thoughts and feelings are triggered mostly out of frustration and don’t mean much for future Egypt-U.S. relations. But still, the revolutionaries are Egypt’s next generation of political and economic leaders, and so what they think should be taken into account.

Going Forward
It is very interesting to see Egypt so willing and eager to flex its muscles in the region. Most countries engulfed in political transition tend to retreat from the world/regional stage and focus on internal affairs. I wonder if this assertiveness will hold for a prolonged period of time. Will Egypt’s efforts and energy on foreign policy match its foreign policy desires and plans over the next 5-7 years? Or will Egypt eventually turn inward?

Another key is to see where power is vested in Egyptian politics. It’s these power bases that will drive Egypt’s foreign policy. Surely, the military will be one major player, but who are the others? Ultimately, it depends on whether substantial political power is vested in parliament or the president. If it’s parliament, then foreign policy will be led by the military and various political parties, mostly likely the Muslim Brotherhood for now. On the other hand, if Egypt opts for a presidential system, then foreign policy will be driven by the military and the president, such as Mohamed El-Baradei or Amr Moussa, and his/her associates.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Persistence of Dictators: a Thinkpiece

Why don't leaders in places like Libya, Syria, Yemen, and so on step down from office in the face of widespread revolts and protests? Why do they hold on to power, even if this means shooting and killing their own citizens?

There is no silver bullet answer to those questions, but there are several factors in play here, ranging from psychological factors such as groupthink, messianic views, and misperceptions to the simple calculation that they can outlast their opponents.

First, let us talk about the psychological factor. Almost every dictator always has a messianic view of their role in their own societies and in the world more generally. Indeed, they seem to believe that they are the only persons capable of saving the state, ending existing political discord, and producing lasting peace and harmony. As a result, they believe that there's nobody after them who will keep the country running together and in good shape. This was evident in the gallery of dictators, from Adolf Hitler, Stalin, and Mao to Kim Il Sung and Qaddafi.

Messianic views, however, do not explain everything. Dictators have resigned and relinquished political power, even though they believed that they were essential to the welfare of their state. Sukarno and Suharto of Indonesia, Hosni Mubarak, and Pinochet are examples of dictators with messianic values that resigned in the end. Even one could argue that Hitler resigned by committing suicide.

What is important here is their perception of vulnerability, which, in turn, is heavily influenced by the "groupthink" around the leaders. Leaders don't operate alone. They invariably create a circle of trusted subordinates who will help these leaders maintain their grip on power. These subordinates in turn rely on the leaders as a source of legitimacy. This creates a dependency relationship between the leader and the system and fosters the need to maintain the survival of both the leader and the system.

Leaders usually fall when either the system collapses (e.g. Hitler) or the system (which includes a host of institutions and groups) has outgrown the leader and believes that the leader is no longer indispensable and can survive better without the leader itself (e.g. Sukarno, Suharto, Pinochet and Mubarak).

Let us look at three current dictators in the Middle East: Saleh (Yemen), Assad (Syria), and Qaddafi (Libya).

In Saleh's case, his leadership is indispensable to his clique (which include friends and family members). Yemeni politics in essence is comprised of a loose coalition of Arab tribes, and Saleh is able to stay on top based on his ability to play each tribe against the others. He blundered in the earlier days of protests, when he cracked down on protesters, creating unity among his political opponents. He then tried to divide the opposition by first declaring that he would resign and later by bringing the Saudis to mediate. Still, his inconsistent patterns of dealing with the protesters gave him credibility problems and in fact his opposition only became emboldened and tried to push for more. Yet, the fragmented nature of the opposition, combined by the indispensability of Saleh to his clique gives Saleh some hope that he might be able to survive the current political crisis, thus explaining his obstinacy.

In the case of Asaad, for him and his associates, it is a question of life and death: they came from the Allawites, the minority tribe that comprises only 10% of the Syrian population, making their survival at stake should they get toppled from power. As a result, Assad chose to crack down on his opponents, grant some carrots of amnesty in order to prevent international intervention, and attempt to divide the opposition.

In Qaddafi's case, the fragmented nature of the state--there is simply no organization at all--actually empowers Qaddafi, making it difficult to dislodge him from power. But at the same time, both the government and the opposition are fragmented, which had led to a stalemate. Qaddafi himself seems to be confident that without the NATO's meddling, he can rely on his mercenaries to get rid of the fragmented, unorganized and poorly trained and equipped opposition. And with both the U.S. and the Europeans unwilling to get dirty and bogged down in Libya, the longer he holds on to power, the higher his chance of survival as sooner or later war fatigue will set in.

Thus, all three dictators hold to power due to a simple logic, that their chance of survival is still high, considering the fragmented opposition and the unwillingness of international community to get their hands dirty.

Why Obama Sqandered His "Osama Mojo"

In the aftermath of America's successful assassination of Osama Bin Laden, many media pundits clamored that Obama now had a foreign policy-proof vest, where the Republicans can no longer beat him using security issues. Heck, the Bush Administrations spent years without avail trying to capture or kill Osama, while Obama was successful, showing his ability to take risk when needed. He was on the top of the world and the king of the hill.

While Obama's approval rating enjoys a 6% bump in May thanks to Osama's death, within a few days, however, his accomplishment was unraveling. First, the administration tried to soak so much credit from the success that they rushed the facts of the operation. The problem is that due to the "fog of war," it was very difficult to get a nice neat story, and thus the administrations made so many contradictory statements, so many retractions, that Jim Treacher of the Daily Caller called it "victory lap in clown car."

Still, that couldn't match Obama's next blunder, which was his technically correct but politically disastrous speech on Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In essence, he gave the ammunition to the Republicans to start beating him again on foreign policy. While most Jewish donors seem to remain in Obama's camp, the administration seems to be rattled enough that even Rahm Emmanuel had to give assurance that the Obama Administration was acting on Israel's interests.

At the same time, the U.S. Congress took issue on his handling of Libya, where he ignored the War Power Act of 1973. John Boehner's resolution on barring the use of U.S. ground forces in Libya that was passed 268-145 and supported by both the Republicans and the Democrats was actually a compromise in order to prevent a more damaging Kucinich Resolution that would pull the US out from Libya in 15 days.

By the end of the day, Obama could not capitalize on Osama's death to create a long lasting shield to stop the Republicans from bashing his foreign policy. Obama's problem lies in the fact that he simply has no coherent foreign policy plan. His dealing with the Arab Spring, the Israel-Palestinian problem, and various other foreign policy problems is based on impulse. Obama is not an expert on foreign policy - he prefers to focus on domestic politics, content to leave foreign affairs to Hillary Clinton and her personnel at the Foggy Bottom.

This arrangement works in normal times. But Obama has no experience in dealing with foreign policy crises. Instead, he must rely on his policy advisers with various intellectual backgrounds and philosophies, which leads to paralysis in the foreign policy process. Worse, his political instincts frequently clash with the State Department's policies. This is most evident in the administration's early responses to the Arab Spring. Given this situation, it's not a surprise to see such incoherent and weak statements foreign policies formed in response to crises in Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, and so on.

To put it simply, Obama has no foreign policy because he is ignorant in foreign policy. As a result, when he finally got Osama and got his foreign policy triumph, he didn't know how to turn that accomplishment into a strong basis for American foreign policy.