The British Iraq War Inquiry has been dragging on since July 2009, and it’s ending is almost in sight. It’s chairman, Sir John Chilcot, hopes to issue a report by year’s end. It is increasingly clear that whatever tangible results that report may contain, they are likely to become lost in yet another wave of political bickering. Initially, its aims were laudable, even though controversial in some circles. Chiefly, to consider:
“ . . . the UK’s involvement in Iraq, including the way decisions were made and actions taken, to establish, as accurately as possible, what happened and to identify the lessons that can be learned. Those lessons will help ensure that, if we face similar situations in future, the government of the day is best equipped to respond to those situations in the most effective manner in the best interests of the country.”
The Inquiries scope was too large to begin with, spanning the summer of 2001 to the end of July 2009, covering the run-up to the conflict, the military action and its aftermath. Quite a few commentators, as well as reasonably-minded laymen, have lamented that fact that the terms of reference had not been more neatly compartmentalized.
Perhaps as a result, the Inquiry has devolved into a series of rancorous, ill-informed partisan debates. Each side (and there are several) fields battalions of analysts, bloggers, political pundits and would-be future candidates to deride the claims of its opponents and testimonies of witnesses. If the amount or ordinance lobbed into Iraq during the war had been equivalent to the amount of verbiage expended attacking and defending political positions, not a man, woman or child would have survived.
At some point, some “brilliant” parliamentarian will no doubt conclude that what is actually needed is a public inquiry on how to manage public inquiries!
Of course, such panels are necessary from time to time. When a course of action yields less than optimum results, it is worthwhile to step back and ask, “Why?” Democracies in particular need them in order to maintain the citizenry’s faith in the mechanisms of government. The Americans did this after 9/11. Up to that point in time, America spent something on the order of $20 billion or more annually on intelligence gathering and analysis. No matter: nineteen terrorists managed to highjack four aircraft and inflict a hitherto unimaginable amount of death and destruction on America.
America’s inquiry into those events resulted in a 900+ page report that contained over one hundred recommendations. To date, many of these have been implemented. Partially due to the implementation of these recommendations, but mainly as a result of the zealousness of law enforcement, there has been no repeat attack of such scale. However, many of the recommendation still have not been implemented. The reasons for non-implementation are numerous, including entrenched bureaucracies, limited budgets, legal challenges and the fluidity of events since the report was issued.
The difficulty of implementing lessons-learned is something that the British public, I suspect, is about to realize.
About fifteen years ago, I was fortunate to find myself working under a very capable and talented manager. What did I learn from him? The list is short: attention to detail, planning, execution, initiative and finishing the job. “Putting the ball in end zone,” as he often said. Any successful organization, such as the one in which we were working, is a dynamic environment.
Consequently, sometimes the balance between planning and execution, or execution and putting the ball in the end zone, would get out-of-whack.
At times like those, it became necessary to hold people accountable. This is when I learned another valuable lesson: praise in public, criticize in private. Genuinely praising a person’s performance in a public forum raises awareness of what tasks need to be done and how they should be done. It sets a positive example. Criticizing in private allows for dialogue and discussion that permits one to learn from one’s mistakes in a dignified manner.
From this life-lesson, I derived a formula for making or accepting apologies. I do not know if it is truly unique or whether it is just such commonsense that no one has ever bothered to write it down. However, I would like to share the three basic principles of it.
First, an apology – and its acceptance – should be sincere.
Second, an apology should be delivered (and accepted) in the same forum in which the original offense was given.
Third, the person apologizing should not repeat the original offending behavior and the person originally insulted should not return it in-kind.
I’ll try to expand briefly on these three rules.
An apology that is made solely with the intention to avoid worsening a situation or in order to escape an unfavorable outcome is not sincere. Likewise, making an apology but excusing one’s behavior on circumstances (I didn’t sleep well last night, I’ve been under pressure at work, I didn’t like what you were implying, etc.) is not sincere. For the recipient, it is often difficult to accept a sincere apology, particular if the offense is still fresh. A cooling down period is often necessary.
Secondly, if an offense is made publicly, it should be redressed publicly. To do otherwise can leave the impression that a particular form of non-acceptable behavior is, in fact acceptable. In contrast, if some sort of offending behavior occurs in private, it is best for both parties to settle the matter privately. There is no need for public spectacles ala the sobbing confessions that are all too readily available on afternoon television. One doesn’t need to go on the Opera Winfrey Show to say, “I’m sorry.”
Finally, repeating the insult – either publicly or privately – is an indication that the original apology was insincere.
I cannot say with all honesty that I have been able to live up to my own standard consistently. I won’t dismiss my own failure to be consistent with the cliché ‘We’re all human beings, we’re not perfect.’ Rather, I’d like to think that there is a level of perfection that we can all strive for, and that continuously striving for it helps all of us develop our potential more fully.
If you are a foreign policy analyst, newspaper editor, pundit or just political junkie like myself, the last few days have been a real treat. From 19 May to 24 May, two world leaders – one the leader of the world’s only superpower and the other the leader of the world’s most historic people – made speeches, held press conferences and addressed some of the most influential and powerful political bodies in the world. There is a school of thought that says history is best understood by examining its records: treaties, laws and speeches. Whether one accepts this belief or not, the speeches made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been a model of historical consistency.
It began on 19 May. President Obama made a major foreign policy address at the US State Department (see https://themiddleeasthotspot.wordpress.com/2011/05/20/cairo-ad-nauseum/). He stated, in short, that the 1967 borders of Israel should be the future borders of a Palestinian state. This has long been a demand of the Palestinian Authority and its predecessor, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). To be fair, ever since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993 it has been tacitly acknowledged that a Palestinian state would exist somewhere inside those borders. However, President Obama’s remarks crossed a line that no previous American president had: he publicly endorsed a key demand of the Palestinian Authority – and just days before the Israeli Prime Minister was due to arrive in the US.
Netanyahu’s office released a reply the same day, and battle lines were drawn. The Prime Minister’s response foreshadowed the themes that would be repeated and expanded upon in three more speeches over the coming days. First, any future Palestinian state would not come about at the expense of Israel’s security: Israel would not withdraw to the 1967 borders. Second, major Israeli population centers beyond the 1967 lines would be incorporated into Israel’s final borders. Third, that the solution to the Palestinian refugee problem would be within Palestinian borders, not Israel’s. There would be no “right of return.”
The Prime Minister also showed some of his card-playing skills in the press release of 19 May. It mentioned commitments made by a previous US president in 2004 and alluded to the overwhelming support of both US Houses of Congress. If President Obama reneges on the commitments of former President George W. Bush, what credibility does President Obama or any future American president have? Moreover, while he may be the leader of the world’s only superpower, President Obama still must contend with a US House of Representatives and US Senate that are in the hands of his Republican opposition.
Two days later, these same men sat together for several hours and discussed the status of American-Israeli relations, the stalled peace talks, and wider developments in the region. At their joint press conference afterwards, the Prime Minister returned to and expanded on the themes his office annunciated just two days earlier. “Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace,” but would not accept the indefensible 1967 borders. He stated quite clearly that Israel’s pre-1967 geography precluded any possibility of this. In addition, he stated very forcefully, “we’re going to have to have a long-term military presence along the Jordan.” He didn’t say “we would like to have” or “it would be a good idea,” but decisively, we are going to have it.
Perhaps to allay concerns that a major rift was growing between the two allies, Prime Minister Netanyahu acknowledged the President’s statement regarding Hamas. Scorning it as “the Palestinian version of al-Qaeda” (see https://themiddleeasthotspot.wordpress.com/2011/05/22/pity-poor-president-obama/) he indicated that Israel could not be asked to negotiate with a terrorist organization. Only weeks before, Hamas terrorists had killed a teenage boy with a deliberate rocket attack on a school bus and then condemned America for the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Finally, echoing his statement of 19 May, the Prime Minister said, “the Palestinian refugee problem will have to be resolved in the context of a Palestinian state” not within Israel’s borders. He also raised, perhaps for the first time by an Israeli prime minister, the issue of Jewish refugees. It is little known outside of Israel, but in the period from 1948-1952 Israel absorbed over 900,000 Jewish refugees from Arab states. People who had been stripped of almost all of their possessions and subjected to dictates reminiscent of the recently defeated Nazi Germany.
On 24 May, the Prime Minister forcefully repeated Israel’s position in front of a partisan audience at the America Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual policy conference. He evoked the shared commitment to democracy and liberty, reminding those assembled that the ideas of all mean being “created in God’s image, that no ruler is above the law, that everyone is entitled to justice” originated in biblical Israel. These ideas are finally coming to the Arab world, he said, noting the unrest that has rocked the region and toppled two Arab autocrats. Pointing out that the region’s problems are not rooted in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but in the lack of freedom in the Arab world, he proclaimed, “Israel is what is right about the Middle East.”
Finally on the same day, Benjamin Netanyahu had the rare privilege, although it was the second time he has enjoyed such an honor, of addressing a joint-session of the US Congress. Immediately, he played his “Congress card” saying, “And I do see a lot of old friends here. And I do see a lot of new friends here. Democrats and Republicans alike.” The message was clear: my support in your Congress, unlike yours, President Obama, is deep and bipartisan. Applause interrupted the Israeli Prime Minister’s speech more than they had interrupted the President’s State of the Union address four months earlier. Later on in his speech, he would thank President Obama for leading the international effort to impose sanctions on Iran, and pointedly thanked Congress for passing “even tougher sanctions.”
Once again, he noted the region’s turbulence, the “epic battle” unfolding “between tyranny and freedom” and reminded America’s congressional representatives that the outcome of this battle is never certain. Indeed, twice it was lost in the region: in Iran in 1979 and Lebanon in 2010. He made a point that, “Of the 300 million Arabs” in the region, only the one million in Israel “enjoy real democratic rights.” He could have easily added that if there was freedom of press in the Arab world, his words would ring true in every home from Sudan to Syria, from Algeria to Oman.
Again, he clearly stated Israel’s policies: ‘yes’ to a Palestinian state, ‘no’ to the 1967 borders. Israel will incorporate major settlement blocs into its final borders, including Jerusalem. The Palestinian refugee problem will be solved within the context of a Palestinian state, not within the borders of Israel. Finally, that the Palestinian state that emerges will be demilitarized, and that Israel will maintain a long-term military presence in the strategic Jordan River valley.
Over all, President Obama’s remarks on the Middle East and North Africa were a blend of idealism and pragmatism. These are two concepts that seldom are able to coincide at the same time in the same place. A full two-thirds of his speech addressed the much-heralded “Arab Spring” that has seen two authoritarian regimes swept away, and as many as a half-dozen others challenged. The president admitted that this movement was incomplete and its ultimate outcome still uncertain. Yet, as a world power, the US has no choice but to weigh in on the changes taking place. It is thus regrettable that he clothed pragmatic policies in the garb of idealism: when the emperor’s clothing is stripped away, he will be just as naked as he was before.
Let’s begin with his choice of venue for stating the supposedly new American policies. He acknowledged this rapprochement with the Arab world began nearly two years ago in Cairo. However, his remarks of 19 May came from Foggy Bottom – the US State Department in Washington, D.C. There is good reason for this: there is no Arab capital of significance that could or would host him.
Demonstrations, the threat of violence and civil war stalks the streets of Amman, Jordan. There a minority Hashemite regime rules over a population that is 70% Palestinian. Baghdad – trumpeted in his speech as a growing success – is still subject to daily terrorist violence, Iranian subversion and on-going destruction of that country’s ancient Christian community. Cairo? Cairo is where the US abruptly pulled the rug out from under an authoritarian regime. One might expect Obama to return to the site of this success, except that the most future of Egypt is most likely to put his new policies to shame before the end of the year. What about Damascus? Could the President of the US really make a speech championing “universal rights” and “democracy” to the staccato sound of machine guns cutting down unarmed civilians?
Next, Obama ticked off a series of successes: Iraq, Afghanistan and the “huge blow” dealt to al Qaeda “by killing its leader, Osama bin Laden. Let us examine these so-called successes. “Success” in Iraq has been marked by the decline of sectarian violence (among Muslims) to the point where only a couple score are killed every month instead of a couple hundred being killed every month.
Obama claimed that the Taliban’s momentum has been broken, yet just last week the Taliban launched their annual Spring Offensive – a ritual among them that started over twenty years ago when the enemy was the occupying Soviet Union. The combination of America’s distaste for long-term fighting, combined with the corruption-riddled regime installed in Kabul, will ultimately result in a Taliban victory. In that area of the world, the most committed win. Obama has already committed to withdrawal.
As for Osama bin Laden, yes, this is a victory of sorts. Justice long-delayed was finally served. Nonetheless, for many Muslims – both Arab and non-Arab – his assassination was another reminder of America’s power. For many in the region, bin Laden’s death was reminiscent of the targeted assassinations that Israel has used for years against terrorist leaders of the PLO, Hamas and Hezbollah. Make no mistake; his assassination was a legitimate act of self-defense. Unfortunately, the president chose to dress it up as part of his campaign to assure “democracy and individual rights for Muslims.” This begs the question: why does the current president of the world’s only superpower need to clothe legitimate policies in the tattered rags that a president tried so unsuccessfully to sell thirty years ago?
The idealism masks a cold stark truth: what Obama is attempting to sell is nothing more than what a predecessor attempted to sell. Democracy, universal rights, the emancipation of women, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom for minorities were all part of the Carter’s agenda. Obama believes that America’s economic and security interests will be best served if the Arab world is at least philosophically aligned with the US, as well as economically and militarily. The fly in the ointment – the same fly that George W. Bush discovered by the end of his tenure – is that such an alignment is out of the question.
Obama, like Carter before him, ignores the facts. Democracy as it is practiced from Washington east to Warsaw, and Washington west to Tokyo, developed over the course of centuries. In almost every nation in which democracy has taken roots there is a cultural heritage serving as a foundation. This cultural legacy itself dates back nearly twenty-five centuries. To expect the Arab world, and larger Muslim world, to hurdle this learning curve in a mere decade or two is completely unrealistic. As idealists usually are.
Obama expects the Arab and broader Islamic world to embrace democracy, universal rights, the emancipation of women, freedom of speech for all, freedom of assembly for all and freedom for minorities because it is in their long-term best interests. That may be so; reams of economic and sociological data may support it. However, the bottom line is that he is saying to the Arab world, ‘my political philosophy is superior to yours, so I will help you adopt it.’ This is, at best, paternalistic.
At worst, his policies are not merely paternalistic, but down right imperialist. He simply dresses them in the costume of “universal rights.” Less than a year ago there was reason to celebrate as the citizens of Lebanon elected a western-oriented coalition. However, the US and Europe failed to support that coalition. Today, Lebanon is firmly in the clutches of Hezbollah – a Shi’ite Muslim fundamentalist movement – and a satellite of Iran. Lebanon has no energy reserves, no mineral reserves and no strategic value for the US and Europe: sacrificing Lebanon was easy. On the other hand, Bahrain has petroleum reserves, Yemen sits on one end of the Red Sea and Egypt holds the Suez Canal at the other end.
Of course, it is just as well that President Obama ignored the facts. He identified the “failure to speak to the broader aspirations of ordinary people” as feeding the suspicion “that the United States pursues our interests at their expense.” Furthermore, that “a failure to change our approach threatens a deepening spiral of division between the United States and the Arab world.” Implicit in this statement is the ideological position that it is the US that is responsible for Arab (read “Muslim”) anger and hatred. This is despite the fact that Islam looks down on all other religions as subservient, and has done so for fifteen centuries – before universal rights – a product of Western philosophy – existed.
President Obama would like to have his cake and eat it too. He discards the pieces of historical fact that do not fit his ideological puzzle. “Universal rights” are the whole cloth meant to conceal America pursuit of its economic and security priorities. A clear statement that America has, and will continue, to act in accordance with its own priorities would have certainly been out-of-the-question. A superpower also bears the burden of discretion. Mr. Obama would have done much better to take a page out of President Theodore Roosevelt’s book: speak softly and carry a big stick.
A single fact has gone unmentioned in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s assassination. The American public is too busy pumping their fists in the air, but that is to be expected of the general public. Obsessed with ratings, America’s infotainment industry (the mainstream media) has ignored this looming issue, as well. Nature abhors a vacuum, and human nature loathes it even more. Someone will step up and take the place of Osama bin Laden.
The Shi’ite sect of Islam has Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, but he is limited by his Iranian nationality. He must also contend with Iran’s potent Shi’ite clergy and a battery of western sanctions against Iran. Hezbollah’s Sheikh Nasrallah in Lebanon is constrained by his relationship with Ahmadinejad. Hamas, while dangerous, is ridden with behind-the-scenes power struggles and is primarily focused on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Muqtada al Sadr of Iraq, while locally powerful, does not have the theological acumen to become a truly transnational Shi’ite leader. He also lacks a secure powerbase in Iraq. Thus, Ahmadinejad will continue to lead Shi’ite fundamentalism for the time being.
Who will become the next Sunni fundamentalist transnational leader? The bin Laden clan’s ancestral homeland was northern Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The former hosts al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – AQAP, for short. However, it is also experiencing a whiff of “Arab Spring” in the form of pro-democracy demonstrations, as well as being racked by an intermittent civil war. Yemen will continue to be unstable, but is unlikely to produce a leader capable of meeting the urban elite’s demands for greater democracy and calls for increased tribal authority, while establishing a Sunni fundamentalist regime.
Born in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden only emerged as a leader during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. There is a reason for this. The Saudi regime is just as oppressive – even more so in some respects – than the recently fallen autocracies in Tunisia and Egypt. Wahhabism – Saudi’s puritanical brand of Sunni Islam – serves the interests of the royal family first. No Wahhabi cleric will arise to challenge that hegemony. It is even less likely that one of the kingdom’s 200 royal princes will attempt to transform himself to something above the Saudi monarchy.
One bet is Egypt, the home of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is the oldest of the modern fundamentalist movements. It has already stated its intention to contest up to half the seats in the country upcoming parliamentary elections. The Muslim Brotherhood is by far the most organized of the myriad political parties that have sprung up in the wake of Mubarrak’s demise. It is also the most disciplined. There is little doubt that if they were to contest all the seats, they would walk away with a working majority. However, this is something that might very well trigger a Nasserist coup by the Army.
It has watched both Shi’ite electoral success in Lebanon and Sunni success electoral success in Turkey with great interest. In both countries, fundamentalists have slowly consolidated power for years. They use the legitimacy that electoral success affords to whittle away at democracy’s institutions slowly, from the inside. In both instances, the military has been neutered and the independent judiciary subjugated to political control.
Will this be the Brotherhood’s tactic in Egypt? If successful, can they lead an impoverished nation of 80 million, while at the same time assuming a transnational leadership of the Sunni fundamentalist movement? Nasser attempted that fifty years ago and ultimately failed. However, Nasser had few roles models, operated in a world split with East and West tensions, and was subject to the demands of maintaining an aggressive stance towards Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood has a number of successful models to copy. The East-West conflict is dead (for the most part), but the West has not been successful in consolidating its victory. Currently, Egypt enjoys the fruits of a cold peace with Israel.
Thus the question is, can Egypt produce a leader of bin Laden’s stature? Does it want to?