Middle East



Libya’s Political Minefields

Published March 20th, 2011 by tcarpenter

Are you wondering about what the United States and its allies are getting into by imposing a no-fly zone and launching missile strikes and air strikes against Libya?  Are you worried that by attacking the forces of Muammar Gaddafi the Obama administration may have embarked on yet another unnecessary war that could lead to a messy entanglement? 

I address those and other matters in a new article in The National Interest Online.  The focus of the piece is how Libya is not a cohesive nation-state like most Western countries, but is instead an artificial collection of tribes with a fairly sharp geographic division between the eastern and western parts of the country.   America is wandering into another volatile situation, and as usual, our leaders seem utterly clueless about the potential political pitfalls and minefields.

Is Iraq’s New Boss the Same as the Old Boss?

Published February 27th, 2011 by tcarpenter

When the Bush administration decided to invade and occupy Iraq, a key stated goal was to bring democracy to that country.   But aside from periodic elections with competing parties, the new Iraq is beginning to resemble the old Iraq.  In particular, the government of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki is treating journalists and other critics with intolerance and outright brutality reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Disturbing evidence of such repression has been building for at least the past two years, but the developments this week are truly shocking.  As with many other countries in the Middle East, demonstrations have broken out in Iraq demanding, among other things, an end to the Maliki government’s rampant corruption.  Those demonstrations culminated on Friday with a “Day of Rage.”  Although the demonstrations even on that day were mostly peaceful, security forces killed at least 29 participants.

They also rounded up dozens of journalists, writers, photographers, and intellectuals who had been involved in organizing the rallies.  Late in the afternoon, the Aldiyar Television station, which had telecast footage of the demonstrations, reported that security forces arrested seven employees, including a director and an anchorman, and closed the studio.

One of the many other journalists arrested that day in Baghdad was Hadi al-Mahhi, who told Washington Post reporter Stephanie McCrummen what happened after soldiers arrested him and several colleagues while they were sitting at an outdoor cafe.  The soldiers loaded al-Mahdi and the others into Humvees and drove them to a side street, where they beat them severely.  Then, they took them to a former defense ministry building that now houses a unit of the army’s increasingly feared intelligence unit.  Mahdi was taken to a room alone, where he was beaten again with clubs, boots and fists.  Not satisfied with such garden-variety brutality, they took his shoes off, wet his feet, and administered electric shocks.

This is the new Iraqi democracy for which the United States spent $800 billion and sacrificed nearly 4,500 American lives.  An Iraq in which regime opponents are arrested and tortured, in which more than a third of the terrorized Christian community has fled, and in which more and more women are being forced back under the veil by religious zealots.  One hopes that the Obama administration learns from the folly of its predecessor and resists the siren calls that we’re now hearing to intervene in Libya and other countries to bring the blessings of democracy to those populations.

The GOP’s Uninspiring Presidential Candidates

Published February 21st, 2011 by tcarpenter

I had the misfortune of catching Mike Huckabee’s interview today on ABC’s Good Morning America.  When asked about his presidential ambitions for 2012, the former Arkansas governor was cautious, arguing that President Obama would be a formidable candidate.  Huckabee then stated that since 1848, only one incumbent president, Jimmy Carter, had ever been defeated for re-election.

Well, he was almost right.  Except for George H.W. “Poppy” Bush losing to Bill Clinton in 1992.  And Herbert Hoover being defeated by Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.  And William Howard Taft losing in 1912.  And Grover Cleveland coming up short in 1888.  And Benjamin Harrison being ousted from the White House in 1892.

Is it really too much to expect that candidates for the presidency (and let’s remember that Huckabee already ran for the GOP nomination in 2008) know the basics about that office and not make gross factual misstatements on national television?

But one shouldn’t really be surprised.  The probable GOP presidential field for 2012 thus far looks utterly dismal.  The likes of Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney inspire no more confidence than does Mike Huckabee.  And then, of course, we have Sarah Palin, whose degree of ignorance on both civil liberties and foreign policy issues is truly breathtaking.  Her most recent gaffe occurred when she was asked about the mounting anti-regime demonstrations in the Middle East.  Her answer was so utterly incoherent that it was not even certain she was speaking English.

Please.  The party that produced Abraham Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan should be able to do better than this bunch.

America and the Turmoil in Iran

Published June 20th, 2009 by tcarpenter

President Obama has received considerable criticism because he has refrained from strongly endorsing the anti-regime street demonstrations in Iran.  Much of that criticism has come from the same neoconservative geniuses, such as former deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz and Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, who brought us the Iraq debacle.  My colleague Christopher Preble does an especially good job of showing why meddling, even verbally, in Iran’s internal political affairs would be a bad idea.  Given America’s less-than-savory reputation with many Iranians ever since the CIA overthrew the country’s democratic government in 1953 and put the brutal, corrupt Shah back on the throne, a U.S. endorsement of the opposition would likely be the kiss of death.  

The alleged election victory by hardline President Mahmoud Amadinejad was probably the result of fraud, and most Americans hope that the ongoing demonstrations ultimately oust the clerical regime.  But if a revolution occurs, the Iranian people must do it for themselves.  It would be both improper–and given the unfortunate history of U.S.-Iranian relations, counterproductive–for the U.S. government to meddle.   So far, President Obama has struck the right cautious and balanced tone.

Obama’s First Week: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

Published January 25th, 2009 by tcarpenter

President Obama is certainly off to a fast start.  The record during his first week, though, is mixed. 

One good early action was his decision to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, shut down the secret CIA prisons in various overseas locations, and tighten the standards for interrogating terrorist suspects.  Gitmo and everything associated with it will likely go down as one of the more shameful episodes in American history.  Even though Bush administration officials repeatedly denied that the U.S. engaged in torture, the reality was otherwise.  Cynical euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation techniques” sounded like dialogue from characters in a George Orwell novel.  Of course, we all want to minimize the danger of new terrorist attacks, but there are certain lines that a society must not cross if it wishes to remain a moral society.  Torture is one of those bright red lines.

While President Obama’s decisions on that issue removed a stain on America’s honor, his proposed remedy for the ongoing economic recession embodies many of the worst ideas liberal Democrats have been peddling for decades.  Advocating another $825 billion in spending when the federal government is already running a deficit that is likely to exceed $1 trillion this year constitutes fiscal folly.  Even the underlying goal to jump start more consumer spending is flawed.  Jim Rogers, one of world’s most successful investors over the past three decades put the matter very well: “The idea that you can solve a period of excessive borrowing and consumption with more borrowing and more consumption” is “ludicrous on its face.”

The ugly portion of the Obama administration’s first week was the confirmation of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.   In her earlier confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, she pledged that the administration’s foreign policy would be one of “smart power”–filching a term that I and other scholars have used for years.  That wouldn’t be so bad if what she advocated was even remotely smart.  But virtually everything she said was merely warmed over conventional wisdom–and usually the worst aspects of the conventional wisdom.  Clinton emphasized the supposed need to strengthen NATO–that Cold War-era dinosaur of an alliance–and add new members, such as tiny Balkan states, Georgia, and Ukraine.  The former are militarily useless (as is Georgia) and membership for Georgia and Ukraine would further damage the already tense relations between the U.S. and Russia.  The rest of her testimony was equally bad.  America must keep other useless, costly military commitments, such as the one to South Korea, somehow solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (like we haven’t been trying to do that for the past four decades), take a hard line with Iran (like we haven’t been doing that for the past three decades) and engage in more humanitarian interventions and nation-building missions.  Those, apparently, we can accomplish with all of our spare money and troops.  If there were such a requirement as truth in advertising for presidential appointees, Hillary’s foreign policy would have to be labeled “dumb power” not smart power.  For an approach that is actually smart power, check here.