Tag Archives: Daniel Larison

Superfly, No Fly, The Fly, Fly Girls, Fly The Friendly Skies

Eliot Spitzer at Slate:

From the spokesman for the new provisional Libyan government formed in Benghazi to the resistance fighter holed up in her apartment in Tripoli, the message from anti-Qaddafi Libyans to the West—and the United States in particular—is uniform: Help us!

Qaddafi is not Hosni Mubarak. The Libyan forces arrayed against the insurgency, unlike the Egyptian army, will show no restraint. This will be, indeed has already become, a bloody fight to the finish involving mercenaries and soldiers whose loyalty to the Qaddafi family is based on money and brute force.

Saif Qaddafi predicted “rivers of blood,” and we are now seeing them flowing from the streets of Tripoli to Libya’s other key coastal cities.

Yet the White House has offered little but antiseptic words, followed up by nothing meaningful.

However, the spectrum of options—both multilateral and unilateral—is quite broad, ranging from the creation and enforcement of a no-fly zone, to targeted attacks to take out what little remains of the Qaddafi air force, to covert efforts to keep the Qaddafi air force on the ground, to the provision of communication infrastructure to the resistance, to the provision of armaments so that they can fight on an equal footing.

Not only would our actual assistance be of great actual help, but the emotional impact of our intervention could sway many who remain with Qaddafi and bring them over to the side of the resistance.

Christopher Hitchens at Slate:

Far from being brutalized by four decades of domination by a theatrical madman, the Libyan people appear fairly determined not to sink to his level and to be done with him and his horrible kin. They also seem, at the time of writing, to want this achievement to represent their own unaided effort. Admirable as this is, it doesn’t excuse us from responsibility. The wealth that Qaddafi is squandering is the by-product of decades of collusion with foreign contractors. The weapons that he is employing against civilians were not made in Libya; they were sold to him by sophisticated nations. Other kinds of weaponry have been deployed by Qaddafi in the past against civil aviation and to supply a panoply of nihilistic groups as far away as Ireland and the Philippines. This, too, gives us a different kind of stake in the outcome. Even if Qaddafi basked in the unanimous adoration of his people, he would not be entitled to the export of violence. Moreover, his indiscriminate barbarism, and the effect of its subsequent refugee crisis on neighboring countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, ipso facto constitutes an intervention in the internal affairs of others and a threat to peace in the region. In arguing that he no longer possesses legal sovereignty over “his” country, and that he should relinquish such power as remains to him, we are almost spoiled for choice as to legal and moral pretexts.

And yet there is a palpable reluctance, especially on the part of the Obama administration, to look these things in the face. Even after decades of enmity with this evil creep, our military and intelligence services turn out not even to have had a contingency plan. So it seems we must improvise. But does one have to go over all the arguments again, as if Rwanda and Bosnia and Kurdistan had never happened? It seems, especially when faced with the adamancy for drift and the resolve to be irresolute of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, that one does. Very well, then. Doing nothing is not the absence of a policy; it is, in fact, the adoption of one. “Neutrality” favors the side with the biggest arsenal. “Nonintervention” is a form of interference. If you will the end—and President Barack Obama has finally said that Qaddafi should indeed go—then to that extent you will the means.

Libya is a country with barely 6 million inhabitants. By any computation, however cold and actuarial, the regime of its present dictator cannot possibly last very much longer. As a matter of pure realism, the post-Qaddafi epoch is upon us whether we choose to welcome the fact or not. The immediate task is therefore to limit the amount of damage Qaddafi can do and sharply minimize the number of people he can murder. Whatever the character of the successor system turns out to be, it can hardly be worsened if we show it positive signs of friendship and solidarity. But the pilots of Qaddafi’s own air force, who flew their planes to Malta rather than let themselves be used against civilians, have demonstrated more courage and principle than the entire U.S. Sixth Fleet.

There’s another consequence to our continuing passivity. I am sure I am not alone in feeling rather queasy about being forced to watch the fires in Tripoli and Benghazi as if I were an impotent spectator. Indifference of this kind to the lives of others can have a coarsening effect. It can lower one’s threshold of sympathy. If protracted unduly, it might even become brutalizing.

Thomas Ricks at Foreign Policy:

To help the president nudge the JCS in the ensuing discussion, here are the options he should ask to be put on his desk:

1. Best option: Give the Libyan rebels the aid they need to win. This may be no more than some secure communications gear and a couple of thousand rocket-propelled grenades to deter Qaddafi’s tanks and SUVs. (This may be already happening in some form.) Can we start flying discreet charter flights of stuff into some airports in the east? This needs to be ready to go ASAP — like yesterday.

2. More aggressive, riskier option: It is not in the interests of the United States, or the Libyan people, to see Qaddafi put down the rebels. So if Option 1 doesn’t work, what more do we need to do? I think here we want to think about direct action: Using Special Operations troops to corner and then capture or (if he insists) kill Col. Qaddafi. You do need tactical air on tap for this, both to finish off Qaddafi if he holes up and also to cover the extraction helicopters. This needs to be ready to kick off in 72 hours.

3. Third: And yeah, sure, let’s look at what a no-fly zone would look like. This is my least favorite option, because it is a half measure — which by definition is an act that is enough to get us involved but by itself is not enough to promise to determine the outcome. Still, is there any way to do it quickly and with less risk? I’ve heard things like stating “you fly, you die,” and not conducting extensive air strikes, just popping whoever flies. I am doubtful of this. Sen. Kerry’s simplistic “cratering” of runways is a non-starter — it is very easy to quickly fill in holes. Imposition of an American-led no-fly zone effectively would be a promise to the Libyan people, and it should not be an empty promise that allows Qaddafi to get aircraft in the air even occasionally to bomb rebellious cities. But it might be worthwhile to throw up a no-fly zone if only as a cover for Option 2, because it would have the effect of throwing sand in Qaddafi’s eyes. So the NFZ also needs to be ready to go in 72 hours.

Joe Klein at Swampland at Time:

This is what a worst case scenario looks like: Qaddafi is ramping up the use of airpower against the rebels, increasingly confident that NATO and the U.S. won’t intervene. Actually, this is a next-to-worst case scenario: the real horror would be if Qaddafi breaks out the mustard gas. Either way, we have the spectacle of the Obama Administration standing by as freedom fighters are slaughtered from the air–prime fodder for shoot-first John McCain (yet again, and still, the headliner on a Sunday morning talk show–will wonders never cease?), Mitch McConnell and even for John Kerry.

There are several problems with the conventional wisdom. The biggest problem is that we have no idea whether the rebels in Libya are freedom fighters at all. Some are, especially the English-speaking, western-educated young people who are prime targets for visiting journalists. But how relevant are they to the real power struggle? Who are the non-English-speaking tribal elders? Are they democracy loving freedom fighters…or just Qaddafis-in-waiting? It’s a question to be asked not only in Libya, but also in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Bahrain. One hopes for the best–especially in Egypt, where there are signs that the Army is allowing at least a partial transition away from autocracy. But who knows, really? Even Iraq’s democracy is looking shaky these days as Nouri al-Maliki seems intent on consolidating his power.

Only a sociopath would have any sympathy for Qaddafi. And we should do what we can to calm the situation down…but I have this growing fear that the tribal/civil war in Libya may be as representative of what’s happening in the Middle East as the exhilarating people-power revolution in Egypt. This is truly a diplomatic conundrum: we can’t continue to support the autocrats in power…but by opposing them, we may be aiding and abetting the birth of a more chaotic, brutal Middle East. Those who express vast confidence about one side or the other–or who want to shoot first, as the inevitable McCain does–shouldn’t inspire much confidence. We should provide what humanitarian help we can; we should try to mediate, if possible…but we should think twice–no, three times–before taking any sort of military action.

David Frum at CNN:

Let’s do a quick tally of the Middle East’s nondemocratic leaders.

America’s friend Hosni Mubarak? Gone.

America’s friend Zine El Abidine Ben Ali? Gone.

America’s friend the king of Bahrain? Wobbling.

America’s friend the king of Jordan? Shaken.

On the other side of the ledger:

America’s enemy, the Iranian theocracy? The mullahs unleashed ferocious repression against democratic protesters in the summer of 2009 and kept power.

Hezbollah? It brought down the Lebanese government to forestall a U.N. investigation into the terrorist murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Hamas? Last month it banned male hairdressers in Gaza from cutting women’s hair, the latest zany ordinance from the self-described Islamic movement.

If Gadhafi and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad still rule territory in a month’s time, and if Hezbollah and Hamas continue to rely on their armed presence to back up the militant policies they impose, the promises of Middle Eastern democracy will look very hollow. And the incentive structure of the Middle East will acquire a sinister new look.

Gadhafi’s departure from power in other words is not just a requirement of humanity and decency. It’s not only justice to the people of Libya. It is also essential to American credibility and the stability of the Middle East region.

Obama already has said that Gadhafi “must” go. Gadhafi is not cooperating — and to date, the insurgents have lacked the strength to force him.

The United States paid a heavy price for encouraging Iraqis to rebel against Saddam Hussein in 1991, then standing by as the Iraqi leader slaughtered rebels from the air. We still pay that price, for the memory of the slaughter is a crucial element in the distrust that so many ordinary Iraqis felt for the United States after Hussein’s ouster in 2003.

The president must not repeat that mistake. He’s already committed himself. Now the only choice he faces is whether his words will be seen to have meaning — or to lack it.

Daniel Larison:

The argument that we need to intervene in Libya for the sake of protesters elsewhere isn’t remotely credible, not least because no one is proposing that the U.S. make armed intervention against internal crackdowns a standing policy to be applied in all cases. If intervention in Libya were to deter other unfriendly governments from trying to crush protest movements with violence, Washington would have to make these governments believe that it was prepared and willing to do the same thing to them. Pushing unnecessary war with Libya is bad enough, but if it were just the first in a series of unnecessary wars it becomes even more undesirable.

The U.S. can lend assistance to Tunisia and Egypt in coping with refugees from Libya, and it is appropriate to provide humanitarian aid for the civilian population in Libya where it is possible to deliver it, but there is no reason to become more involved than that.

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Continuing Egypt Coverage…

Photo from Andrew Sullivan’s blog

Robert Springborg at Foreign Policy:

While much of American media has termed the events unfolding in Egypt today as “clashes between pro-government and opposition groups,” this is not in fact what’s happening on the street. The so-called “pro-government” forces are actually Mubarak’s cleverly orchestrated goon squads dressed up as pro-Mubarak demonstrators to attack the protesters in Midan Tahrir, with the Army appearing to be a neutral force. The opposition, largely cognizant of the dirty game being played against it, nevertheless has had little choice but to call for protection against the regime’s thugs by the regime itself, i.e., the military. And so Mubarak begins to show us just how clever and experienced he truly is. The game is, thus, more or less over.

The threat to the military’s control of the Egyptian political system is passing. Millions of demonstrators in the street have not broken the chain of command over which President Mubarak presides. Paradoxically the popular uprising has even ensured that the presidential succession will not only be engineered by the military, but that an officer will succeed Mubarak. The only possible civilian candidate, Gamal Mubarak, has been chased into exile, thereby clearing the path for the new vice president, Gen. Omar Suleiman. The military high command, which under no circumstances would submit to rule by civilians rooted in a representative system, can now breathe much more easily than a few days ago. It can neutralize any further political pressure from below by organizing Hosni Mubarak’s exile, but that may well be unnecessary.

The president and the military, have, in sum, outsmarted the opposition and, for that matter, the Obama administration. They skillfully retained the acceptability and even popularity of the Army, while instilling widespread fear and anxiety in the population and an accompanying longing for a return to normalcy. When it became clear last week that the Ministry of Interior’s crowd-control forces were adding to rather than containing the popular upsurge, they were suddenly and mysteriously removed from the street. Simultaneously, by releasing a symbolic few prisoners from jail; by having plainclothes Ministry of Interior thugs engage in some vandalism and looting (probably including that in the Egyptian National Museum); and by extensively portraying on government television an alleged widespread breakdown of law and order, the regime cleverly elicited the population’s desire for security. While some of that desire was filled by vigilante action, it remained clear that the military was looked to as the real protector of personal security and the nation as a whole. Army units in the streets were under clear orders to show their sympathy with the people.

Daniel Larison:

The military has not directly participated in the crackdown, which preserves the appearance that the military was not involved in attacking the protesters and keeps the military from being split, but it has stood by while Mubarak’s goons target the protesters. As the new cabinet is filled with figures representing the interests of the military, this ought to have been clear to all a few days ago. If Mubarak is on the way out after the next election, Suleiman will be taking over for him. In Tunisia the uprising prompted a “soft” coup against Ben Ali, and Ben Ali could not stay so long as the military was unwilling to use force to defend his hold on power. As quite a few people expected earlier this month, the alignment of interests between the military and Mubarak mattered more than the outrage and persistence of the protesters. Instead of a “soft” coup approved by the military, there won’t be any sort of coup, but an organized (though perhaps not all that “orderly”) transition from one military-backed strongman to another.

I’m not sure that this means that the “historic opportunity to have a democratic Egypt led by those with whom the U.S., Europe and even Israel could do business, will have been lost, maybe forever.” That assumes a great many things about what would have followed. It could also be that Egypt has avoided even more destructive political upheaval and massive suffering.

Juan Cole:

It might seem surprising that Mubarak was so willing to defy the Obama administration’s clear hint that he sould quickly transition out of power. In fact, Mubarak’s slap in the face of President Obama will not be punished and it is nothing new. It shows again American toothlessness and weakness in the Middle East, and will encourage the enemies of the US to treat it with similar disdain.

The tail has long wagged the dog in American Middle East policy. The rotten order of the modern Middle East has been based on wily local elites stealing their way to billions while they took all the aid they could from the United States, even as they bit the hand that fed them. First the justification was the putative threat of International Communism (which however actually only managed to gather up for itself the dust of Hadramawt in South Yemen and the mangy goats milling around broken-down Afghan villages). More recently the cover story has been the supposed threat of radical Islam, which is a tiny fringe phenomenon in most of the Middle East that in some large part was sowed by US support for the extremists in the Cold War as a foil to the phantom of International Communism. And then there is the set of myths around Israel, that it is necessary for the well-being of the world’s Jews, that it is an asset to US security, that it is a great ethical enterprise– all of which are patently false.

On such altars are the labor activists, youthful idealists, human rights workers, and democracy proponents in Egypt being sacrificed with the silver dagger of filthy lucre.

Mubarak is taking his cues for impudence from the far rightwing government of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, which began the Middle Eastern custom of humiliating President Barack Obama with impunity. Obama came into office pledging finally to move smartly to a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Netanyahu government did not have the slightest intention of allowing a Palestinian state to come into existence. Israel was founded on the primal sin of expelling hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes in what is now Israel, and then conniving at keeping them stateless, helpless and weak ever after. Those who fled the machine guns of the Irgun terrorist group to the West Bank and Gaza, where they dwelt in squalid refugee camps, were dismayed to see the Israelis come after them in 1967 and occupy them and further dispossess them. This slow genocide against a people that had been recognized as a Class A Mandate by the League of Nations and scheduled once upon a time for independent statehood is among the worst ongoing crimes of one people against another in the world. Many governments are greedy to rule over people reluctant to be so ruled. But no other government but Israel keeps millions of people stateless while stealing their land and resources or maintaining them in a state of economic blockade and food insecurity.

Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy:

What now?  I would say that the time has come for the Obama administration to escalate to the next step of actively trying to push Mubarak out.  They were right to not do so earlier. No matter how frustrated activists have been by his perceived hedging, until yesterday it was not the time to move to the bottom line.   Mubarak is an American ally of 30 years and needed to be given the chance to respond appropriately.  And everyone seems to forget that magical democracy words (a phrase which as far as I know I coined) don’t work.  Obama saying “Mubarak must go” would not have made Mubarak go, absent the careful preparation of the ground so that the potential power-brokers saw that they really had no choice.   Yesterday’s orgy of state-sanctioned violence should be the moment to make clear that there is now no alternative.

The administration’s diplomacy thus far has been building to this moment. It would have been far preferable if the quiet, patient diplomacy had worked, without an explicit call by the U.S. for Mubarak to be thrown from power.   It shouldn’t be a surprise that Mubarak has preferred to stick with the depressingly familiar playbook of the struggling despot.  The violence unleashed yesterday was as predictable as it was horrific.  But that it happened after a series of highly public American warnings against such violence must now trigger an American response.   After Mubarak violated clear American public red lines — on violence and an immediate, meaningful transition —  there’s really no choice.

The administration has already condemned and deplored yesterday’s violence.   It must now make clear that an Egyptian regime headed by Hosni Mubarak is no longer one with which the United States can do business, and that a military which sanctions such internal violence is not one with which the United Staes can continue to partner.  The Egyptian military must receive the message loudly, directly and clearly that the price of a continuing relationship with America is Mubarak’s departure and a meaningful transition to a more democratic and inclusive political system.   It must understand that if it doesn’t do this, then the price will not just be words or public shaming but rather financial and political.   If Mubarak remains in place, Egypt faces a future as an international pariah without an international patron and with no place in international organizations or forums.  If he departs, and a meaningful transition begins, then Egypt can avoid that fate.

Laura Rozen at Politico:

The Obama White House’s Egypt troubleshooter, former U.S. Amb. to Egypt Frank G. Wisner, abruptly returned to Washington from Cairo Wednesday, as violence sharply escalated and pro-regime mobs attacked demonstrators demanding Hosni Mubarak step down.

Wisner, sent to Cairo Sunday at the suggestion of Hillary Clinton,  found his conversations with Egyptian officials no longer useful,  ABC News reported, supposedly after reports disclosed his meeting wth Mubarak to persuade him to depart. He also met with Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman.

As violence sharply escalated Wednesday, with the army standing by as pro-regime mobs charged anti-Mubarak demonstrators with knives, rocks, and Molotov cocktails, wounding hundreds, Clinton expressed shock at the violence and came close to accusing the Egyptian government of being responsible.

The violence “was a shocking development after many days of consistently peaceful demonstrations,” Clinton told Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman in a phone call Wednesday, the State Department said. “The Secretary urged that the Government of Egypt hold accountable those who were responsible for violent acts.”

The Egyptian military “really blew it today,” Michele Dunne, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said Wednesday. “Much of the goodwill towards the army inside and outside of Egypt evaporated.”

Nick Kristof in NYT:

I was on Tahrir Square, watching armed young men pour in to scream in support of President Hosni Mubarak and to battle the pro-democracy protesters. Everybody, me included, tried to give them a wide berth, and the bodies of the injured being carried away added to the tension. Then along came two middle-age sisters, Amal and Minna, walking toward the square to join the pro-democracy movement. They had their heads covered in the conservative Muslim style, and they looked timid and frail as thugs surrounded them, jostled them, shouted at them.

Yet side by side with the ugliest of humanity, you find the best. The two sisters stood their ground. They explained calmly to the mob why they favored democratic reform and listened patiently to the screams of the pro-Mubarak mob. When the women refused to be cowed, the men lost interest and began to move on — and the two women continued to walk to the center of Tahrir Square.

I approached the women and told them I was awed by their courage. I jotted down their names and asked why they had risked the mob’s wrath to come to Tahrir Square. “We need democracy in Egypt,” Amal told me, looking quite composed. “We just want what you have.”

But when I tried to interview them on video, thugs swarmed us again. I appeased the members of the mob by interviewing them (as one polished his razor), and the two sisters managed again to slip away and continue toward the center of Tahrir Square, also known as Liberation Square, to do their part for Egyptian democracy.

Thuggery and courage coexisted all day in Tahrir Square, just like that. The events were sometimes presented by the news media as “clashes” between rival factions, but that’s a bit misleading. This was an organized government crackdown, but it relied on armed hoodlums, not on police or army troops.

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“Star Wars… Nothing But Star Wars…”

Michael Lind at Salon:

On the left, technological optimists were replaced by Rousseauian romantic primitivists. In the 1970s, Green guru Amory Lovins promulgated the gospel that “hard” sources of energy like nuclear power are bad and that called for a “soft path” based on hydropower, wind and solar energy. Other Green romantics decided that even hydropower is wicked, because it is generated by dams that despoil the prehuman landscape.

The New Left of the 1960s and 1970s longed for small, participatory communities, and rejected the giant organizations that New Deal liberals had taken pride in. In the 1980s and 1990s, new urbanists converted most progressives to their nostalgia for the ephemeral rail-and-trolley based towns of the late nineteenth century. GM foods, which New Deal liberals like Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson would have embraced as a way to feed multitudes while sparing land for wilderness, were denounced by progressives who favored “heirloom” turkey and melons that the Pilgrims might have eaten. The increasingly reactionary American left, disenchanted with nuclear power plants and rockets and suburbs, longed to quit modernity and retire to a small town with an organic farmers’ market and an oompah band playing in the town park’s bandstand.

A similar intellectual regression to infantilism took place on the right in the late twentieth century. Between the 1930s and the 1970s, conservatism was defined by big business anti-statism, not by neotraditionalism. The Republican opponents of New Deal Democrats shared the New Dealers’ faith in science, technology and large-scale industry. They just wanted business to keep more of its prerogatives.

Contrast Eisenhower-era business conservatism with the religious right of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and other evangelicals and fundamentalists in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. By 2000, an entire national party, the Republicans, was intimidated by religious zealots. No Republican presidential candidate could support legal abortion or criticize the pseudoscientific “creationist” alternative to evolutionary biology. Hatred of biotechnology, in the form of GM foods and human genetic engineering, was shared by the regressives of the left and the right. First a Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, then a Republican, George W. Bush, sought votes by claiming he had been “born again” with the help of Jesus, something that no president before the 1970s would have claimed.

Today optimism about science and technology is found chiefly on the libertarian right. At least somebody still defends nuclear energy and biotechnology. But in libertarian thought, science and technology are divorced from their modernist counterparts — large-scale public and private organizations — and wedded to ideals of small producers and unregulated markets that were obsolete by the middle of the nineteenth century. Libertarian thought is half-modern, at best. To its credit, it does not share the longing of many on the left for the Shire of Frodo the Hobbit or the nostalgia of most of the contemporary right for the Little House on the Prairie.

If there was a moment when the culture of enlightened modernity in the United States gave way to the sickly culture of romantic primitivism, it was when the movie “Star Wars” premiered in 1977. A child of the 1960s, I had grown up with the optimistic vision symbolized by “Star Trek,” according to which planets, as they developed technologically and politically, graduated to membership in the United Federation of Planets, a sort of galactic League of Nations or UN. When I first watched “Star Wars,” I was deeply shocked. The representatives of the advanced, scientific, galaxy-spanning organization were now the bad guys, and the heroes were positively medieval — hereditary princes and princesses, wizards and ape-men. Aristocracy and tribalism were superior to bureaucracy. Technology was bad. Magic was good.

The Dark Age that began in the 1970s continues. Today’s conservatives, centrists, progressives — most look like regressives, by the standards of mid-20th century America. Tea Party conservatives argue that federal prohibitions on child labor are unconstitutional, that the Fourteenth Amendment should be repealed, and that the Confederates were right about states, rights. Religious conservatives, having lost some of their political power, continue to their fight against Darwinism. Fiscally conservative “centrists” in Washington share an obsession with balanced budgets that would have seemed irrational and primitive not only to Keynes but also to the 19th-century British founder of The Economist, Walter Bagehot. And while there is a dwindling remnant of modernity-minded New Deal social democrats, most of the energy on the left is found on the nostalgic farmers’market/ train-and-trolley wing of the white upper middle class.

Here’s an idea. America needs to have a neomodernist party to oppose the reigning primitivists of the right, left and center. Let everyone who opposes abortion, wants to ban GM foods and nuclear energy, hates cars and trucks and planes and loves trains and trolleys, seeks to ban suburbia, despises consumerism, and/or thinks Darwin was a fraud join the Regressive Party. Those of us who believe that the real, if exaggerated, dangers of technology, big government, big business and big labor are outweighed by their benefits can join the Modernist Party. While the Regressives secede from reality and try to build their premodern utopias on their reservations, the Modernists can resume the work of building a secular, technological, prosperous, and relatively egalitarian civilization, after a half-century detour into a Dark Age.

Cathleen Kaveny at dotCommonweal:

It strikes me that this new two-party system would also leave many Catholics without a home –for obvious reasons, which we DON’T need to discuss here. In other words, THIS IS NOT A POST ON ABORTION.

But the underlying question, which I DO want to discuss here, is what is the Catholic idea on progress?  It strikes me that it is complicated. Any ideas?

Andrew Sullivan

Daniel Larison:

One of the things that Lind’s preferred states all have in common is that they are expansive, bureaucratic, centralized states ruled by autocrats or unaccountable overseers, and they are capable of extracting far larger revenues out of their economies than their successors. Obviously, Lind finds most of these traits desirable, and he seems not terribly bothered by the autocracy. In the case of the UFP, one simply has a technocrat’s utopian post-political fantasy run riot. Indeed, the political organization of the Federation has always struck me as stunningly implausible and unrealistic even by the standards of science fiction. It was supposed to be a galactic alliance with a massive military whose primary purposes were exploration and peacekeeping, and which had overcome all social problems by dint of technological progress. If ever there were a vision to appeal to a certain type of romantic idealists with no grasp of the corrupting nature of power or the limits of human nature, this would have to be it.

Lind’s article is not very persuasive, not least since his treatment of the change from antiquity to the middle ages is seriously flawed. Lind writes:

But few would disagree that the Europe of Charlemagne was more backward in its mindset, at least at the elite level, than the Rome of Augustus or the Alexandria of the Ptolemies.

Nor are the great gains of decolonization and personal liberation in recent decades necessarily incompatible with an intellectual and cultural Dark Age. After all, the fall of the Roman empire led to the emergence of many new kingdoms, nations and city-states, and slavery withered away by the end of the Middle Ages in Europe.

Well, count me among the “few” that would disagree. For one thing, the “Europe of Charlemagne” was also the Europe of the Byzantines, and under both the Carolingians and the Macedonians later in the ninth century there was extensive cultivation of literary and artistic production that significantly undermines claims that this was an “intellectual and cultural Dark Age.” This was an era of substantial manuscript production, and one marked by the learning of Eriugena and Photios. The Carolingian period was actually one of the more significant moments of political reunification in Europe prior to the later middle ages, but it is true that Charlemagne and his successors did not have a large administrative state apparatus at their disposal. The Iconoclastic emperors in the east were hostile to religious images, but in many other respects they cultivated learning and drew on the mathematical and scientific thought that was flourishing at that time among the ‘Abbasids. Obviously, we are speaking of the elite, but it is the elites of different eras that Lind is comparing. The point is not to reverse the old prejudice against medieval Europe and direct it against classical antiquity, nor we do have to engage in Romantic idealization of medieval societies, but we should acknowledge that this approach to history that Lind offers here abuses those periods and cultures that do not flatter the assumptions or values of modern Westerners. For that matter, it distorts and misrepresents the periods and cultures moderns adopt as their precursors, because it causes them to value those periods and cultures because of how they seem to anticipate some aspect of modernity rather than on their own terms.

Ioz on Larison:

I understand that Gene Roddenberry’s retromod vision of the future had Kirk kissing Nichelle Nichols, but even before the stylish sixties gave way to the weird, hierarchical, technocratic dictatorship of The Next Generation, the United Federation of Planets played barely the part of a supernumerary. The governing organization always seemed to be Starfleet, whose motto . . . to boldly go . . . and shoot with lasers . . . Their missions of exploration always seemed to lead to armed conflict, and the bold, interracial, transspecies future had as a model of its money-free, egalitarian, merit-based society something more or less directly descended from the British Admiralty, circa Trafalgar.

Meanwhile, if we must read Star Wars as something other than someone talking that old hack and fraud Joe Campbell a leeeetle bit too seriously, then let me just remind you that the “advanced, scientific, galaxy-spanning organization” was an evil empire run by a cyborg monster and an evil wizard, and that in almost every visual detail its model was not the New goddamn Deal, but the Third fucking Reich.

Ross Douthat:

So here’s my question: What did Lind think of the prequels? Because in a sense, George Lucas addressed nearly all of Lind’s issues with the “Star Wars” universe in movies one through three. (I am bracketing the more creative interpretations of those films …) Queen Amidala of Naboo, Princess Leia’s mother, turned out to be an elected queen, who moved on to senatorial duties after serving out her term as monarch. (How a teenager managed to navigate Naboo’s version of the Iowa caucuses remains a mystery …) The once-mystical Force was given a scientific explanation, in the form of the “midichlorians,” the micro-organisms that clutter up the bloodstream of the Jedi and give them telekinetic powers as a side effect. And the lost Old Republic that the rebels fight to restore in the original films was revealed to be , well, “a sort of galactic League of Nations or UN,” with the Jedi Knights as its peacekeeping force and the lightsaber as the equivalent of the blue helmet.

For Lind, then, I can only assume that watching the prequels was an immensely gratifying experience. And for the rest of us, the knowledge that Lind’s prescription for “Star Wars” helped produce three of the most disappointing science-fiction blockbusters ever made should be reason enough to reject his prescription for America without a second thought.

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Filed under Go Meta, Movies

It All Comes Back To The Bush

Andrew Sullivan rounds up here, here and here

Jennifer Rubin:

The Obama administration needs to think long and hard about how it can convert its occasional rhetorical flourishes into concrete polices that can assist democracy advocates not only in Tunisia, but in Jordan, Egypt and elsewhere. If Obama wants to do some more productive “Muslim Outreach,” he should stop trying to ingratiate himself with despotic leaders and show that America is, and will continue to be, on the side of those yearning for freedom.

Recall when President George W. Bush talked about democracy taking hold in Iraq and then the region? Now Bush’s vision seems very prescient. Shouldn’t we all be in favor the freedom agenda? Criticized at the time as too Pollyannaish and too ambitious, Bush’s second inaugural address is worth reading again in full. This section is particularly apt:

We will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people. America’s belief in human dignity will guide our policies, yet rights must be more than the grudging concessions of dictators; they are secured by free dissent and the participation of the governed. In the long run, there is no justice without freedom, and there can be no human rights without human liberty.

Some, I know, have questioned the global appeal of liberty–though this time in history, four decades defined by the swiftest advance of freedom ever seen, is an odd time for doubt. Americans, of all people, should never be surprised by the power of our ideals. Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul. We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny because we do not accept the possibility of permanent slavery. Liberty will come to those who love it.

One question that deserves further consideration: How much did the emergence of a democratic Iraq have to do with this popular revolt in Tunisia? For now, the current administration had better get on the right side of history.

Adam Serwer:

Rubin doesn’t even attempt to prove causation — eight years ago, the U.S. invaded Iraq, and last week there was an uprising in Tunisia. Ergo Bush deserves the credit. This is deeply paternalistic — in Rubin’s version of history, the Tunisians who faced down the security forces of an autocratic regime are practically bit players in their own political upheaval.

The point is not to make an actual argument, but to inject a political narrative that will retroactively vindicate the decision to go to war in Iraq, as though the American people would ever forget that the Bush administration justified that decision by manufacturing an imminent danger in the form of WMD that were never found.

“Democracy in the Muslim World” was not the primary reason given for invading Iraq, and even as a retroactive justification it remains weak. As Matt Duss pointed out last year, the RAND Corporation did a study concluding that “Iraq’s instability has become a convenient scarecrow neighboring regimes can use to delay political reform by asserting that democratization inevitably leads to insecurity.” But as Donald Rumsfeld might say, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so Rubin presses on:

One question that deserves further consideration: How much did the emergence of a democratic Iraq have to do with this popular revolt in Tunisia? For now, the current administration had better get on the right side of history.

Perhaps the most bizarre of Republican foreign policy instincts is the belief that the President of the United States can force the foreign policy outcomes he desires through sheer force of will. This is what Matthew Yglesias has dubbed the “The Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics.”

Dan Murphy at the Christian Science Monitor:

One question in Ms. Rubin’s column does have a clear answer however. “How much did the emergence of a democratic Iraq have to do with this popular revolt in Tunisia?” she asks.

Having covered Iraq and Egypt full time between 2003-2008, and having explored the question of whether the US invasion of Iraq would spur regional political change at length with academics, politicians, and average folks in and out of the region over a period of years (and talked to people in touch with current events in Tunisia the past few days) the answer to her question is clear: “Little to nothing.”

The sectarian bloodletting in Iraq, the insurgency, and the US role in combating it claimed tens of thousands of Iraqi lives, and Iraq remains unstable today. The regional view of the Iraq war was and is overwhelmingly negative, the model of Iraq something to be avoided at all costs. Before I read Rubin’s piece earlier today, Simon Hawkins, an anthropology professor at Franklin and Marshall, was kind enough to chat with me about Tunisian politics and history.

Hawkins, whose dissertation was about Tunisia, has been coming and going from the country since the late 1980s. He recounted (unprompted) how the word “democracy” had been given a bad name among many of the Tunisian youth (the same sorts who led the uprising against Ben Ali) because of the Iraq experience, “That’s democracy,” a group of Tunisian youths said to him in 2006 of Iraq. “No thanks.”

The Obama Administration’s policies towards the Arab world, largely focused on counterterrorism cooperation and avoiding pushing hard for political reform in autocracies like Egypt, are in fact an almost straight continuation of President Bush’s approach, particularly in his second term. It’s true that Bush made a ringing call for freedom in the Middle East a centerpiece of his inaugural address, but soon came up against the hard reality that close regional allies like Egypt, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia weren’t much interested in tolerating challenges to their rule.

After the Muslim Brotherhood tripled its share in Egypt’s parliament in one of the fairest (but still fraud marred) Egyptian elections in decades and the Islamist group Hamas swept free and fair Palestinian elections in 2006, the US took a big step back from Arab democracy promotion. That’s a situation that persists today.

More Rubin:

While those in Tunisia tell me there is no specific sign of an Islamist presence yet, it remains a real concern for those pressing for a secularized, democratic government.

One final note: while Muslim autocrats in the region have reason to worry, Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations makes a convincing case that regimes do not face the same threat of instability. In Jordan and Morocco, for example, the kings in those countries enjoy a “perceived legitimacy.”

Nevertheless, George W. Bush must be pleased to see the debate breakout over the best route to Middle East democracy. It was only a few years that the liberal elite assured us that Muslim self-rule was a fantasy.

Daniel Larison:

I don’t know about “the liberal elite,” but people opposed to the Bush administration’s illegal war in Iraq and ruinous “freedom agenda” actually argued that it would be extremely difficult to construct Western-style liberal democracies in countries that had no political tradition of representative or constitutional government. This is true. It is extremely difficult, it doesn’t seem to be worth the effort and resources devoted to it, and it remains a foolish thing for the U.S. to pursue as a major foreign policy goal. What we also said was that it was outrageous and wrong to invade another country, trample on its sovereignty, wreck its infrastructure, and impoverish its people. What was even worse was to claim that we had liberated it, when we were actually handing it over to the tender mercies of sectarian militias and establishing what turned out to be a repressive government that often resorts to police-state tactics. In 2003, Muslim self-rule was already a reality in Turkey, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. The fantasy was the idea that the U.S. could forcibly topple an authoritarian government and readily install a functioning liberal democratic government in Iraq, and that this would then lead to regional transformation. Except for the first part, none of this happened. So far, the Tunisians seem to be managing much better on their own than Iraq did under the tutelage of U.S. occupiers.

Greg Scoblete:

Rubin does raise a significant question, however, regarding U.S. policy towards Tunisia. It could be, as her source suggests, that there exists a wellspring of knowledgeable people in the U.S. federal government who understand Tunisian society and have a keen grasp of how to ensure that the country’s revolutionary tumult is channeled toward a stable, sustainable representative democracy (provided it’s not too Islamist, of course). If that is the case, telling whatever government does emerge “what we expect” makes some sense, as it presumes we know what we’re talking about.

If, however, we don’t actually know what’s best for Tunisian society going forward, outside of a general desire for it to have a representative and relatively liberal government, should we really be butting in?

More Rubin:

Now a final note: The left blogosphere seems to have wigged out over the suggestion that George W. Bush and the successful emergence of a secular, democratic Iraq has anything to do with all this. For starters, it is amusing to see that those voices, fresh from the smear on conservatives regarding the Arizona shooting, are now all about “causation.” But more seriously, had democracy failed in Iraq, had the country descended into chaos, and had Iraqis laboring for a secular, democratic Muslim country been killed and exiled, do we imagine this would have been good for the prospects of democracy elsewhere? Recall that it was the left that said that democracy was alien to the Middle East. Bush was right; they were wrong. And the notion that democratization and rebellion against despotic regimes do not spread regionally after a successful experiment is belied by history (e.g. Central America, Eastern Europe).

Larison responds:

Well, the country did descend into chaos, Iraqis laboring for a secular country were killed and exiled*, and that wasn’t good for the prospects of democracy elsewhere. These also happen to be the effects of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy, which involved invading and devastating a country for bogus national security reasons and then trying to dress up the entire debacle as an experiment in democratization. The outward forms of democracy didn’t entirely fail in Iraq, but what those forms did was politicize ethnic and sectarian divisions and fuel years of inter-communal violence. Looking at the chaos unleashed by what war supporters kept insisting on calling “democracy,” nations throughout the region associated “democracy” with foreign occupation, civil strife, and constant violence. For that matter, there has been no “successful emergence of a secular, democratic Iraq.” There is an elected government with increasingly authoritarian and illiberal habits governed by sectarians pretending to be secular nationalists.

Rubin continues:

Recall that it was the left that said that democracy was alien to the Middle East. Bush was right; they were wrong.

No, Bush’s critics understood, usually better than his supporters, that Iran had some measure of constitutional and representative government before the Pahlavis, and Turkey has been gradually developing as a democratic republic since WWII. Opponents of the disastrous war and the “freedom agenda” said that democratic and representative government was alien to almost all Arab countries. Lebanon was and remains the exception. That was true. Maliki’s semi-dictatorship in Baghdad does little to change that assessment. Bush based his conviction that the U.S. should install democratic government in a predominantly Arab country on the general lack of such governments in Arab countries, which democratists concluded was a principal source of jihadism. To the extent that Bush and his allies were serious in wanting to democratize Arab countries, they were taking for granted that democratic government was alien to these countries, which is why the U.S. had to introduce it directly through active promotion. What Bush and his allies also said was that democratic government was part of a “single model of human progress,” and that therefore every society should be governed this way, and furthermore that every society was capable of governing itself this way. That was the far-fetched claim that most of Bush’s critics couldn’t accept, because it is nothing more than an ideological conviction.

Will at The League:

The analytical gymnastics Jennifer Rubin is forced to perform here to defend the invasion of Iraq are pretty impressive. If the Tunisian revolution spurs reform in neighboring countries, her line of reasoning goes, Iraq’s quasi-democratic political process must be having a similar effect in the region. I know little about the Middle East and less about Tunisia, but let me suggest one important distinction: If the “Jasmine Revolution” inspires emulation in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, it will have something to do with the fact that Tunisia’s political upheaval was a genuinely organic, popular movement that isn’t perceived as the result of outside meddling. Whatever the merits of Iraq’s new government, it will never enjoy that type of currency in the region, which is why overblown claims about the positive regional consequences of our invasion remain so unpersuasive.

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Filed under Africa, Foreign Affairs, Iraq

The End Of Joementum

Joe Klein at Swampland at Time:

I have mixed feelings about the departure of Senator Joe Lieberman from public life. I’ve had fierce disagreements with him in recent years, especially in the area of foreign policy–especially in the middle east, where he is an ardent Likudnik. He has taken positions that are more reflective of what he believes to be Israel’s best interests–in favor of bombing Iran, for example–than they are of U.S. national security goals (although I do believe he actually thinks Israel’s interests and ours are the same). His support for the dramatically unpresidential John McCain against Barack Obama was execrable. Indeed, his willingness to attach himself to McCain’s hip during foreign jaunts diminished his stature as a Senator.

But I’ve never known Lieberman to be rude or mean-spirited. I’ve always known him to be a good guy–and on the vast majority of non-foreign policy issues, he usually took positions that were carefully reasoned and sometimes courageous. His work on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was rightly celebrated. But his efforts to build a bipartisan energy bill–with a price on carbon emissions–really was heroic last year. I hope he’ll continue to press that issue in his last Congressional session; I hope he’ll be able to rope Lindsey Graham–and perhaps even crotchety McCain–back into the fold, as well as other Republicans who must realize that reducing our dependence on foreign oil has become an absolute economic and national defense necessity, even if they doubt the obvious data on climate change.

Ezra Klein:

If you look back over the past two years, perhaps the most consequential decision made by President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was to give Joe Lieberman his chairmanship, even though Lieberman had endorsed John McCain in the 2008 campaign.

That kept Lieberman in the fold, and after Arlen Specter switched parties and Al Franken won his election, gave Democrats the 60 votes they needed to break a Republican filibuster against health-care reform. Lieberman’s behavior during the debate was often erratic and seemingly unprincipled. Among other things, he skipped the meetings where Democrats were trying to work out a compromise on the public option, and then he killed the Medicare buy-in proposal they’d developed — despite endorsing that exact proposal months before. In doing so, he doomed a great piece of policy, and by doing it at the last minute, endangered the rest of the bill, too. But the reality is that the legislation simply wouldn’t have passed without his vote. And after extracting his pound of flesh, he voted “aye.”

That wasn’t Lieberman’s only moment as a good soldier for the Democrats: He was one of the key senators behind the effort to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He was also one of the three lawmakers involved in the most credible of the efforts to pass a cap-and-trade bill. The legislation failed, but if it had succeeded, it would’ve been in no small part due to his hard work. And Lieberman was loyal to his party in other ways, too. He was Harry Reid’s single largest donor in the Senate, for instance.

Robert Farley at Lawyers Guns and Money responds:

We can agree that the decision to keep Joe Lieberman in the fold ended up as a net positive for the Democrats, and should be counted as one of the better moves by Obama and Reid. However, what Ezra describes here is behavior that is slightly below the minimal acceptable standards for a Democratic Senator in the 111th Congress. It’s quite above the Expected Joe Lieberman Value standard, but this merely acknowledges that the EJLV was staggeringly low. It would be better to say that Joe Lieberman performed substantially below (his leadership on DADT notwithstanding) what we would have expected from Senator Lamont. This is to say that if Ned Lamont had behaved in such a fashion, we would have been surprised, disappointed, and angered.

Joe ain’t all that, and we should be glad that he’s heading for retirement

Jennifer Rubin:

I had a couple thoughts. First, he did run for vice president in 2000 and helped to make it razor-close in Florida. (According to the Democrats, he actually helped Al Gore win the state.) He cast mulitple votes for liberal Supreme Court justices and, of course, delivered on the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” And he could have, but did not, abandon the Democrats on cloture on ObamaCare. In a rational world, he would be lionized by the Democratic Party.

But Ezra, I think, asks the wrong question. Lieberman’s entire career was not about being good for the party, it was about being true to his own deeply-held principles. Last year, I wrote a lengthy piece on Lieberman, pointing out that it was precisely his refusal to adhere to the party line that made him a villain on the left.

The correct question, I would suggest, is whether Lieberman was good for America. He championed a robust human rights policy, was indefatigable on national security, strove for a bipartisanship on foreign policy (which now actually seems possible), generally favored pro-growth economic policies and was an unabashed patriot.

Liberals loves a “maverick” — so long as he or she (e.g. Sens. John McCain, Arlen Specter, Susan Collins) is on the other side. But, they tolerate hardly at all those Democrats who don’t check the box on every item on the left-wing agenda.

It is a pity. For if there is one lawmaker who put country above party, practiced civility, and represented “no labels,” it was Joe Lieberman. He’ll be missed — by the Senate and the country, if not the party that was his home for nearly all of his political career.

Jonathan Chait at TNR:

Lieberman’s final departure from the party became inevitable when he supported, and enthusiastically campaigned for, John McCain in 2008. It’s one thing for a Dixecrat in a Southern state to do that fifty years ago, but Connecticut is one of the more liberal states in the country. After that, Lieberman had no plausible path to return to the Senate.

The most interesting question may be why Lieberman took this suicidal path. My guess would be that he didn’t consider it suicide. Lieberman is a true believing New Democrat who is influenced by the neoconservatives. One common thread uniting these two strands of thought is an overly-developed fear of McGovernism. George McGovern, the very liberal Democratic nominee in 1972, lost in a landslide, and his defeat ever since has been held up as evidence that middle America rejects and always will reject unvarnished liberalism. I think there’s some truth to that but it’s an oversimplified view.

The point, though, is that Lieberman is almost certainly a true believer in the legend. And you have to remember that, when Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination, a lot of centrists and neoconservatives viewed him as the heir to McGovern and a likely loser. In Lieberman’s mind, I would submit, Obama was the heir to McGovern, and after he went down to defeat at the hands of popular maverick John McCain, Lieberman would be well-positioned to say “I told you so.” He could then tell Democrats that only his brand of moderate Democratic politics could truly prevail, and the sadder but wiser party base would trudge back to his column.

Obviously, I’m speculating. It’s highly unusual for a competent politician to take such a suicidal step. It’s possibly Lieberman knew what he was doing when he sealed his own fate in 2008, but I think he really believed he could survive.

Daniel Larison:

Chait’s speculation is plausible, but I would add a little more. Lieberman’s decision to back McCain later on was very likely influenced by the debate over the “surge” in early 2007. Along with Lieberman, McCain was one of the most vocal supporters of the new plan, and Obama was one of many to voice skepticism and opposition to it. By the summer of 2008, a fairly conventional, mistaken view on the right and in many mainstream media organizations was that the “surge” had “worked,” and that Obama had judged incorrectly. This gave Lieberman something specific to which he could link his (baseless) fear of a new McGovern.

When Lieberman returned to the Senate in 2007, he had just come out of a general election in which practically the only people in the national media who vocally supported him were McCain’s reliably hawkish supporters in the GOP, including many prominent neoconservatives. These had been the people wailing and gnashing their teeth about the “purge” of Lieberman in the summer of 2006, and they became Lieberman’s cheering section because of their common support for the war in Iraq. Lieberman’s victory was their one consolation in an election that drove the GOP out of power largely because of the war in Iraq. The ideological and political alliance between Lieberman and hawkish interventionists in the GOP became stronger than any residual partisan attachment Lieberman might have had, and so endorsing McCain must have seemed the obvious sequel to his independent run for the Senate. For that reason, my guess is that Lieberman would have backed McCain even if Clinton had been the Democratic nominee, because she had also opposed the “surge,” which was an inexcusable error for people who viewed the war as Lieberman did.

Markos Moulitsas at Daily Kos:

We were going to kick his ass, and it was going to feel great.

But I’ll take it. One way or another, Connecticut will have a real Democrat representing the state in that seat, and America will be much better for it.

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What The Hell Is Going On In Tunisia?

Andrew Sullivan has a great many posts on Tunisia. Video above is graphic.

Live blogs: The Guardian, Scott Lucas at Enduring America, BBC News

Paul Behringer at National Interest:

“Wildcat protests and rioting” have “shaken” Tunisia’s leader of twenty-three years, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, according to the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. The demonstrations, which the United Nations says have resulted in over sixty deaths, were sparked at least partly by a WikiLeaked document written by the American ambassador (and cleverly titled “Corruption in Tunisia: What’s Yours is Mine”) in which he detailed the ruling family’s extravagent wealth (many Tunisians refer to Ben Ali’s extended relations as “The Family” or “The Mafia”). And what began in mid-December as one small-town street vendor’s self-immolation (after authorities took away his vegetable cart) culminated Thursday in the looting and destruction by protestors of a home owned by the president’s uncle in a wealthy seaside resort.

President Ben Ali, who originally took power in a bloodless coup, then gave a speech in which he promised to halt violent crackdowns on the demonstrators, open up freedom for the press and stop Internet censorship—and “cut prices for sugar, milk and bread.” He also promised to step down as president after his current term runs out in 2014, as required by Tunisia’s constitution. But the Times also reports that his effort to sooth the public’s anger (and save his own neck) have thus far come to naught.

Nick Baumann at Mother Jones:

Want to know what’s happening in Tunisia? Let me explain:

What is Tunisia? Tunisia is a mostly Arab, mostly Muslim country in North Africa. It is on the south side of the Mediterranean sea, east of Algeria and west of Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya. Its capital is Tunis, and it has been ruled by dictators since it won independence from France in 1956. The current ruler, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (Ben Ali), has ruled since 1987. He is the kind of ruler who gets re-elected with 90 percent of the “vote.”

What’s happening? Violent riots and protests have spread across the country over the past four weeks. Now Ben Ali’s totalitarian government seems to be collapsing. (Elliott Abrams, a former Bush administration official who unfortunately is rarely right about anything, thinks that if democracy can take hold in Tunisia, is could spread elsewhere in the Arab world, too.)

Why are Tunisians unhappy? Well, they don’t have much freedom. But there also just aren’t enough jobs. Official unemployment is 13 percent, but it’s probably actually much higher. The combination of a repressive regime and a faltering economy is often bad news for the regime. Plus, the regime has diverted a lot of the country’s wealth to Ben Ali’s family and friends, so people are really upset about official corruption.

How did it all start? On December 19, authorities in the small, central city of Sidi Bouzid seized the produce cart that 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi was using to make a living. So Bouazizi set himself on fire. Young people in the small, central city of Sidi Bouzid rioted, and police moved to seal the city. In early January, Bouazizi died, becoming an early martyr for the cause. Brian Whitaker, the Middle East editor of the Guardian and a Tunisia expert, has a good article explaining how Bouazizi and Sidi Bouzid got the ball rolling on revolution.

Robert Mackey in NYT:

On Thursday, as protests continued across Tunisia, bloggers and eyewitnesses posted more video of the demonstrations online, including graphic images of protesters who have been gunned down on the streets.

One clip, uploaded by contributors to Nawaat — a group blog using Posterous, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to spread news of the protests — showed a huge banner of the country’s president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, being torn down in Hammamet on Thursday. As my colleague David Kirkpatrick reported from Hammamet, an exclusive Mediterranean beach town, “rioters calling for the ouster of Tunisia’s authoritarian president swarmed the streets, torched bank offices and ransacked a mansion belonging to one of his relatives.”

Despite apparent efforts by the government to keep Tunisians from using social networks to report on the crisis, new video continues to be posted day after day.

As the casualties mount, and the government continues to use violence to suppress the discontent, video of dead protesters has been added to Nawaat’s YouTube channel with disturbing regularity. On Thursday,  one extremely graphic clip, apparently filmed earlier in the day on the streets of Tunis, the capital, showed the body of a man the bloggers said was gunned down by a sniper.

Jillian C. York, on 1/13:

An email from Youssef Gaigi:

Today’s speech shows definitely a major shift in Tunisia’s history.
Ben Ali talked for the third time in the past month to the people. Something unprecedented, we barely knew this guy. Ben Ali talked in the Tunisian dialect instead of Arabic for the first time ever.
He spoke directly to the police forces and ordered them not to shoot, unless in cases of self-defense. On the same line he said a commission will investigate in the murders that occurred.
He also said that people misled him in several areas, and particularly in the areas of politics and freedom. He admited that he didn’t achieve his goals or dreams in these areas.He granted that all liberties will be given to the people of Tunisia. He stated that the right of setting an organization, a political party, or a media will be totally opened. He said all censorship online or on traditional media will be stopped.
People are still cautious and doubt these words. We are talking about billions of $ stolen by his family. A political party, RCD, which is much much stronger than other parties. We are also talking about 150k policemen who acted like a terrorist organization for decades and particularly lately. Turning his words into action will be a very difficult mission.
We will probably start by checking his words tomorrow.

And

I missed another major point in his speech, probably because of the excitement of this moment.
He announced that he would not run for president in 2014.
Again, I am not sure this is sufficient. Yet this is a step forward.

Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy:

Barely a month goes by without a Washington Post editorial bemoaning Egypt’s authoritarian retrenchment and criticizing the Obama administration’s alleged failure to promote Arab democracy. But now Tunisia has erupted as the story of the year for Arab reformers. The spiraling protests and the regime’s heavy-handed, but thus far ineffective, repression have captured the imagination of Arab publics, governments, and political analysts. Despite Tunis’s efforts to censor media coverage, images and video have made it out onto social media and up to Al Jazeera and other satellite TV. The “Tunisia scenario” is now the term of art for activist hopes and government fears of political instability and mass protests from Jordan to Egypt to the Gulf.

But the Post‘s op-ed page has been strikingly silent about the Tunisian protests. Thus far, a month into the massive demonstrations rocking Tunisia, the Washington Post editorial page has published exactly zero editorials about Tunisia. For that matter, the Weekly Standard, another magazine which frequently claims the mantle of Arab democracy and attacks Obama for failing on it, has thus far published exactly zero articles about Tunisia (though, to his credit, frequent Standard contributor and ex-Bush administration official Elliott Abrams has weighed in on it at his new CFR blog). Why are the most prominent media voices on Arab democracy so entirely absent on the Arab reform story of the year?

Perhaps they’ve had nothing to say simply because there has been little coverage of Tunisia in the Western media, and the United States has few interests or leverage in Tunis, making it a marginal issue for U.S. political debate. Tunisia is not generally on the front burner in American thinking about the Middle East. It’s far away from Israel, Iraq, and the Gulf, and plays little role in the headline strategic issues facing the U.S. in the region. Despite being one of the most repressive and authoritarian regimes in the region, Tunisia has generally been seen as a model of economic development and secularism. Its promotion of women’s rights and crushing of Islamist opposition has taken priority in the West over its near-complete censorship of the media and blanket domination of political society. Indeed, the United States has cared so little about Tunisia’s absolute rejection of democracy and world-class censorship that it chose it for the regional office of MEPI, the Bush administration’s signature democracy promotion initiative.

This is understandable, but hardly satisfying. I can understand the hesitation of U.S. officials to take a strong position on the side of either the protesters or the regime at this point, given the strategic complexities and the implications of taking any rhetorical stance. To my ears, at least, the U.S. message has been muddled, with some officials seeming to take the side of the protesters and warning against too-harsh repression and others seeming to avoid taking a stance. For what it’s worth, I told a State Department official in a public forum yesterday that the absence of major U.S. interests in Tunisia and the real prospect of change there make it a good place for the Obama administration to take a principled stand in favor of public freedoms and against repression.

Daniel Larison responds to Lynch:

The easy answer, but possibly also the right one, is that they have nothing to say about it because it is something much more like a genuine, indigenous popular movement that is not working to advance “pro-Western” or “pro-American” policy goals, and it is therefore irrelevant or even unwelcome in their view. Most of the “color” revolutions were directed against governments that were seen as hostile to U.S. and allied interests or at least too closely aligned with Russia and (in Lebanon’s case) Syria, and the “color” revolutionaries were always identified as “pro-Western” reformers regardless of the accuracy of this description, and so advocates of “democracy” responding accordingly with enthusiastic support for the protesters. When a pro-Western secular autocrat faces a popular uprising that is almost certainly not being encouraged and backed from outside, these advocates of “democracy” have nothing to say because democratic reform was simply a means for advancing regime changes in several countries that the advocates wanted to bring into a Western orbit. Ben Ali’s downfall represents quite the opposite. If Lynch looked back at the reactions from most democracy-promoting outlets after the elections of Morales or of Chavez, which came at the expense of pro-American oligarchies, he would likely find a similar silence and indifference to the empowerment of those countries’ poor majorities.

Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy:

UPDATE: The Tunisian government is denying that Morjane has stepped down, according to Al Arabiya. Meanwhile, President Ben Ali just spoke and said he had ordered security forces to stop firing on demonstrators. He also announced a series of measures aimed at mollifying popular anger, including lower prices for bread, milk, and sugar. Most important of all, he promised not to run for re-election in 2014, when his term is due to expire. We’ll see if he lasts that long.

This thing may really be happening. Kamel Morjane — or someone with access to his website — has just announced his resignation*:

Citizens of the Republic of Tunisia, After witnessing the recent event that our country has been enduring since December17th  2010, I declare my inaptitude in pursuing my function in a serene and objective environment as intended.

I declare hereby my official resignation from my function as a minister of foreign affairs at the Tunisian government. In  a last effort to assume my responsabilities, I am asking the families of the tunisian martyrs to accept my sincere condoleances and my deep regret faced to their common tragedy. I assumed the fate of the Tunisian citizens, after marrying the daughter of one of Ben Ali’s first cousins, and was a member of the family and part of their clan. I am not proud of my own family, and in an honest declaration, would be ready to be judged in court at the same time as they will be. This will be my last service to the Tunisian citizens, in hope that with my resignation, citizens of Tunisia will be more graceful towards me and my family.

I make this decision in hope for the return of rest. I relinquish the Tunisian government to express my  deep affliction and my righteous anger toward the dire management of  this crisis, causing hence the death of dozens of young Tunisians. I am  profoundly convinced that these are not terrorist acts, but citizens  exerting their right to strike against a regime who abandoned them for  two decades. For this reason, I do not deem myself a member of this  oppressing and manipulating government. In a last resort to save face with the international media, the government is working hard from within to portray the protesters as mindless terrorists  destroying their country and refusing any peaceful discussion. The  government has hired teams of their own police in civilian attire that  go around ravaging the suburbs in an effort to spread doubt and  disseminate the truth about the tunisian people.

I reiterate my most sincere condolences to the families of victims, not only  to the ones that passed away these four past weeks, but to all the broken families by the injustice and inconveniences caused by this clan as  well.

For a free Tunisia,

Kamel Morjane

This is a fast-moving story. The New York Times reports that protesters overran a mansion owned by one of the president’s relatives. The Twitterverse is aflame with rumors that other members of the ruling family have fled the country. President Ben Ali is said to have three helicopters fueled up and ready for an emergency flight to Malta.

Max Fisher at The Atlantic

Elizabeth Dickson at Foreign Policy:

As I spoke by phone with Taoufik Ben Brik, a Tunisian opposition journalist, just moments ago, the country’s president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, got onto a plane and left the country. “There will be a military coup — we will see. You will see,” Ben Brik told me. “The army has just closed down the airspace in Tunisia, and they are arresting members of the family.”

If Twitter is to be believed, Ben Ali really is gone.

Ben Brik, one of the (now former?) president’s most pronounced critics, described the regime as “the worst kind of tyranny — [running] a police state, a military state, and a surveillance state.” Ben Brik himself has been subject to that as a journalist, having been harassed and imprisoned on numerous occasions. “It wasn’t just that I was arrested — I was harassed, me and my family. Google me and you will see how they arrested my child, just 14 years old.” Ben Brik was most recently released last April and remains in Tunis, where he is watching the situation unfold on the streets.

What brought the protesters to the streets in the first place was the drive for democracy, a place where freedom was possible — and normal. And yes, WikiLeaks helped. “WikiLeaks revealed a truth previously unspeakable about the mafia-like state,” Ben Brik said.

Mahar Arar at The Huffington Post:

To understand why these acts of violence against civilians is rarely condemned by Western governments, we have to understand the political dynamics in the region. Tunisia, despite the private criticisms targeted at the regime by the U.S. ambassador (as was revealed by WikiLeaks), is considered an important Western ally in the so called “war on terror”. Ben Ali, the President of the “Republic”, like the majority of the Arab dictators, have taken advantage of the American government’s strong desire to build relationships with new allies to fight Al-Qaida and related groups. These police states, including Tunisia, exploited this post-9/11 trend in the American foreign policy which allowed them an increased grip on power. As a result, they delegitimized peaceful decent further, put more restrictions on freedom of expression and heavily controlled Internet access. Also, because they have only been concerned about their own well being, and not about the well being of their constituents, these rulers have focused on increasing their own wealth and that of their family members through questionable business dealings and favouritism. It is no secret that the Ben Ali clan acts more like a Mafia putting their hands on the majority of profitable businesses in the country.

Here is my humble prediction for the next decade: unless Arab leaders implement serious political and economical reforms we will see more of this type of popular uprising in other neighbouring countries. It is only a matter of time. The wind of peaceful change in Tunisia has given hope to the oppressed people all over the Arab World. Whether Western countries or their allies in the region like or not, this wind, with the help of the Internet, will eventually affect the all these countries who are thirsty for democracy and justice. Only then, when it is too late, the Western countries will regret that they have all along been on the wrong side of the fence.

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There’s Something About Mittens

David Frum at Frum Forum:

There is an old joke that Wagner’s music is not as bad as it sounds. Something similar can be said of Romney’s campaign economics. Concealed within the triangulation are some very smart ideas. I remain convinced: this man could be a very good conservative president – if conservatives will permit it.

Mickey Kaus at Newsweek

Ross Douthat:

I hear similar things from Romney supporters (or people trying to convince themselves to be Romney supporters) with remarkable frequency. Yes, the argument runs, Romney seems serially insincere, and nearly every position he stakes out comes across as a blatant (and often inconsistent-looking) pander to a conservative electorate that regards him with suspicion. But there are good ideas concealed within the pandering — you just have to know where to look! And in your heart, you know he’s a smart guy who’d make a solid center-right president — wonkish, detail-oriented, sensible on policy, all the rest of it. He’s just a prisoner of the process! And heck, maybe his transparent insincerity is even a virtue: It shows that try as he might, he can’t give himself over completely to the carnival of a primary campaign, because he’s fundamentally too sober and serious to be a carnival barker. (He’s no Palin, is the implication …) Even when he’s mid-pander, you always know that he knows that it’s all just a freak show, and you can always sense that he’d rather be at a policy seminar somewhere, instead of just forking red meat. There’s a highly competent chief executive trapped inside his campaign persona, in other words, and the only way to liberate him is to put him in the White House!

This is an … unusual argument. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong: There were probably people who said the same thing about George H.W. Bush during his lackluster 1988 race — and he did turn out to be a reasonably good president, all things considered. But there’s still an element of absurdity about it. I believe that Mitt Romney is a more serious person, and would probably be a better president, than his campaign style suggests. But issue by issue, policy by policy, that same campaign style makes it awfully hard to figure out where he would actually stand when the pandering stops and the governing begins. In the last couple years, Romney has taken high-profile positions that I agree with (opposing the G.M. bailout), high-profile positions that I disagree with (opposing the START Treaty), and high-profile positions on issues I’m uncertain about (the current tax deal). But because everything he does feels like a pander, I don’t know where he really stands on any of them. And freak show or no freak show, base or no base, that’s no way to run for president.

Frum responds to Douthat:

I sometimes imagine that Romney approaches politics in the same spirit that the CEO of Darden Restaurants approaches cuisine. Darden owns Olive Garden, Longhorn steakhouses, and Red Lobster among other chains. Now suppose that Darden’s data show a decline in demand for mid-priced steak restaurants and a rising response to Italian family dining. Suppose they convert some of their Longhorn outlets to Olive Gardens. Is that “flip-flopping”? Or is that giving people what they want for their money?

Likewise, the “pro-choice” concept met public demand so long as Romney Inc. was a Boston-based senatorship and governorship-seeking enterprise. But now Romney Inc. is expanding to a national brand, with important new growth opportunities in Iowa and South Carolina. A new concept is accordingly required to serve these new markets. Again: this is not flip-flopping. It is customer service.

You may say: But what does Romney think on the inside? Which of his positions is the “real” Romney? I’d answer that question with another question. Suppose an Olive Garden customer returns to the kitchen a plate of fettuccine alfredo, complaining the pasta is overcooked. What should the manager do? Say “I disagree”? Explain that it’s a core conviction to cook pasta to a certain specified number of minutes and seconds, and if the customer doesn’t like it, she’s welcome to take her patronage elsewhere? No! It doesn’t matter what the manager “really” thinks. What matters is satisfying each and every customer who walks through the door to the very best of the manager’s ability.

Ross Douthat fails to understand that meeting customer expectations is itself a principle!

Ezra Klein:

I enjoyed this analogy, but it doesn’t work. The presidency carries a four-year lock-in, while the Olive Garden doesn’t. Put it this way: If going to the Olive Garden meant only eating at the Olive Garden for the next four years, it’d be a real problem if they lured you in with pasta and breadsticks and then, three months later, turned the place into a hookah bar that served only salmon burgers. Some people might find that to be an improvement, and some people might not, but that’s not the point: A fishy hookah bar isn’t what you signed up for.

Frum is right that customer service can be a principle in and of itself. And I’d be really interested to see a presidential candidate promise to better represent the people by explicitly using polls to steer his or her presidency. But that’s not what Romney is promising. He’s promising to do certain things, and uphold certain values, when in office. If he’s lying about that, it’s not customer service. It’s betrayal yoked to a four-year contract.

Matthew Yglesias:

Ezra Klein points out some problems with this line of thought. But I think the real issue here has to do with character. The executives of Darden Restaurants are basically trying to make money. And so are the owners of the firm. And that’s fine. Most of us aren’t so distressed by the idea that the firm is, on some level, a soulless money-making machine. But on this view, Romney is . . . what? A soulless power-seeking machine?

To a large extent our political system is already biased toward promoting power-crazed sociopaths into positions of authority. The public’s aversion to people who appear to have this quality to a greater extent than other high-profile politicians seems very understandable to me. Meanwhile, at the end of the day Ross Douthat is right to say that this still leaves you necessarily puzzled by the question of what a Romney Administration would actually do. Is it so crazy for political activists and pundits to be curious about this?

Daniel Larison:

Something that helps make sense of Romney’s positioning is its largely reactive quality. Despite his past claims that he understands leadership, he never leads on any issue. During the presidential campaign, Romney endorsed granting Detroit a huge subsidy when he thought it might help him in the Michigan primary. Later the same year, he fiercely opposed bailing out Detroit, because he perceived that support for the auto industry was not useful to him. He supported the TARP when that was the default Republican leadership position to take, and has since become a fierce critic of the management of the TARP once he realized that being identified as pro-TARP was politically toxic. The candidate who famously said that he “liked mandates” and has endorsed a mandate as the “conservative position” when he wanted to brag about his achievements cannot abide the individual mandate when it positions him against the health care bill. In other words, he has the ability to position himself for short-term political advantage rather well, but seems to have no notion of how to take one position–whether he “really” believes it or not–and stand by it for more than a year or so if there is some brief advantage to be had in changing positions in the meantime. This is what creates the impression that he has no enduring goal or vision other than the acquisition of political office and influence. All the while, he has the insufferable habit of embracing each and every new position with the zeal of a convert, convinced that he now has the moral authority to denounce anyone who disagrees, and then casually abandoning or neglecting the issue when something else shiny catches his attention.

My guess is that Romney doesn’t “really” have a stand on any of these issues, but what is annoying is not simply Romney’s lack of principle. Many and possibly most politicians are not that deeply committed to principles, and that’s to be expected, but Romney attaches a degree of smugness and sanctimony to the exercise that is genuinely obnoxious. What should be bothersome to his supporters is that his pandering is so impermanent and fleeting that he inspires no confidence that he will be in the same place a year or two from now. Very simply, he can’t be counted on and can’t be trusted.

Andrew Sullivan

Jonathan Cohn at TNR:

You may not believe this, but I know how Douthat and Frum feel.

Notwithstanding my liberal beliefs and general affinity for Democratic politicians, I once had very high hopes for Romney as a presidential candidate. He had raw intelligence and management acumen, as his tenure at Bain Consulting demonstrated. In Massachusetts politics, he’d staked out moderate positions, pledging not to interfere with a woman’s right to abortion (in part because a family friend had died after an illegal procedure) and criticizing conservatives like Jesse Helms and Pat Robertson in interviews with gay community newspapers.

Most important of all, Romney had accomplished something meaningful in office, signing the Massachusetts health care reforms. In a profile for TNR, here’s how I described that episode:

Romney’s subsequent work on the health care bill showcased his best qualities–reminiscent, in many ways, of his days at Bain. For advice, he tapped some of the state’s top minds on health–even those, like MIT’s Jonathan Gruber, who had traditionally advised Democrats. For political support, he reached out to traditional champions of expanded coverage, such as former House member John McDonough, turning these would-be adversaries into allies. And, above all, he went into negotiations with an open mind. The result was a bill that had enough support to get all the way through the legislative process. Romney ended up signing the bill in a grand public ceremony on the steps of Fanueil Hall. Standing at his sidewas his old nemesis, Ted Kennedy–who, it turns out, had worked closely with Romney on sealing the deal. “I’m a partisan Democrat, and, in a lot of ways, I think he was a terrible governor,” says one high-ranking legislative staffer who worked on the measure.”But I do give him credit for participating in the health care debate and helping to advance that agenda.”

All of this made me think that Romney was the heir to the tradition of moderate Republicanism that his father, former Michigan Governor George Romney, had once championed. During the 1960s, the elder Romney had fought the good fight against the Republicans’ Goldwater wing, urging the party to distance itself from John Birchers and other conservative extremists. The elder Romney never made it as a presidential candidate but maybe the younger Romney would.

Mitt wouldn’t be getting my vote, obviously: He was still pretty conservative, particularly on economic issues. But I thought his problem-solving instincts and apparently sincere interest in public service would serve him well and that, when it was all over, he might end up doing good things in office.

But by early 2007, when I began the reporting of my profile, Romney was in full pander mode–saying whatever it took to win over the Republican base, even if that meant campaigning as precisely the sort of conservative ideologue his father had once disdained:

…if any one moment epitomized the new Mitt Romney, it was his speech before the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) in February. There, gathered in one place, were the intellectual and ideological heirs to the conservative movement that first captured control of the Republican Party in the 1960s. But Mitt Romney had not come to carry on his father’s fight against the right wing. He had come, instead, to do what every other aspiring Republican presidential nominee was doing: beg for the group’s approval. After being introduced by Grover Norquist, the conservative activist perhaps most responsible for the radical makeover of government economic policy in the last decade, Romney began his speech by suggesting it was a “good thing” the crowd would soon hear from Ann Coulter, who was next on the speaking agenda. From there, he fed the crowd red meat–attacking Ted Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi, and the press; promising to fight the liberal social agenda, to close U.S.borders, and to never, ever raise taxes. “This is not the time for us to shrink from conservative principles,” Romney thundered. “It is time for us to stand in strength.”

Romney’s latest panders make me wonder not if those of us who believed in Romney were wrong about him from the beginning. After all, it was Ted Kennedy, back in 1996, who first zeroed in on Romney inconsistencies on abortion with the devastating line: “He’s not pro-choice, he’s not anti-choice. He’s multiple choice.”

Ezra Klein

Mori Dinauer at Tapped:

I think Ross Douthat is essentially correct when he says that Mitt Romney‘s policy dexterity is so extreme that it renders judgment on his hypothetical presidential administration all but futile. I used to think that because Romney will bend in any direction he could be reasoned with, and thus could be a reasonable president. Not any more. The fact that we have no idea what he would do strongly suggests that he is no longer qualified for the office in the first place.

Cynthia Tucker:

Mitt, you old chameleon, you

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