Yemen's President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi warned in an interview Saturday that his country, still reeling from the popular uprising that ousted his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, risks a descent into a civil war "worse than Afghanistan" should an upcoming months-long national dialogue fail to resolve the Arab Gulf state's deep political and societal rifts.
In the interview, conducted through his translator and arranged and also conducted by top editors and reporters from the Washington Post, Hadi praised what he described as "excellent" counterterrorism cooperation with the United States and confirmed that he personally signs off on all drone strikes conducted by his American ally.
Repeating the public comments he made Friday at Washington's Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Hadi, dressed in a blue suit and fingering a set of glass prayer beads, marveled at the precision of drone technology, describing it as "more advanced than the human brain." He said that Yemen and its primary counterterrorism partners -- the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Oman -- were taking steps to avoid past "mistakes," an apparent allusion to airstrikes that in some cases have killed Yemeni civilians.
He described visiting the jointly run center where the drone strikes are conducted and said that one could see the operations unfolding "step by step."
Hadi said that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula had reached the "beginning of the end" of its campaign a terror, a surge that saw the ambitious local branch of the global terrorist group take advantage of last year's security vacuum to seize major areas of Abyan and Shabwa provinces.
The Yemeni military recently drove AQAP out of its strongholds in the towns of Jaar and Zinjibar, but thousands of refugees remain in the port city of Aden, many of them living in schools because their homes have been destroyed, Hadi said.
"The first victims of al Qaeda are the Yemenis," he said, noting the security situation's impact on the country's oil and tourism sectors.
He acknowledged that reconstruction efforts were proceeding slowly in the retaken areas, but vowed that al Qaeda would not be allowed to return. Many of the group's foreign fighters had fled to African countries such as Mali and Mauritania, he said, or to the mountains.
Hadi received fresh pledges of roughly $1.5 billion in financial assistance during this week's "Friends of Yemen" meeting in New York, bringing the total promised international funds to nearly $8 billion. But it's not clear how much of that money will be available for reconstruction, or how soon.
Hadi's interview came on the heels of meetings with top U.S. officials, including White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan, Vice President Joe Biden, Department of Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano, and - briefly -- the president, a spokesman for the Yemeni embassy said. He also planned to meet with Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.
In the roughly 45-minute interview, Hadi offered few details about how he would confront what he described as a triple crisis facing Yemen -- economic, security, and political -- but seemed especially seized by the national dialogue, set to begin in November, and by the country's endemic employment crisis.
Six hundred thousand Yemeni university graduates have been waiting for a job for 10 years, he said.
The civil war that could result from the dialogue's failure, he warned, would endanger navigation routes in the Gulf of Aden and therefore pose a threat to regional and global security.
He also said that Yemen was facing "three undeclared wars" conducted by al Qaeda, pirates in the Gulf of Aden, and Houthi rebels in the north, and that Iran was supporting these adversaries "indirectly," but did not offer details of that support.
Frontline has done it again -- with a gripping documentary from the front lines of the Syrian uprising, featuring reporting by the Guardian's Ghaith Abdul-Ahad. I watched the special last night -- which you can see online here -- and it tells a complex story about the battle for Aleppo and beyond: the brewing clash between secularists and Islamists, the struggle to hold the rebels to minimal human rights standards, and the travails of the civilians caught in the crossfire. Frontline's reporting humanizes and makes real a conflict more often seen in grainy YouTube videos and dispassionate newspaper dispatches.
Frontline has given me the opportunity to hold a livechat with Abdul-Ahad and producer Jamie Doran, starting at 11 a.m. ET. Follow along below, and please chime in with your own questions.
My colleague Marc Lynch argued earlier today: "Today will be a pivotal moment in the urgent debates about how such movements will respond to political power and a stake in the political system."
"Libya's leaders thus far look to be passing that test," he writes. "Egypt's do not."
At the time, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsy had yet to issue a statement. Now that he finally has, how does it measure up?
Here is the statement of Mustafa Abushagur, issued before he was voted in as Libya's new prime minister:
Ambassador Chris Stevens was a dear friend of mine, and of Libya, and played a key role in helping our revolution. He was in Benghazi throughout the revolution and was very instrumental in its support. The men and women serving at the United States Consulate were allies in our shared fight for freedom and democracy. I am shocked at the attacks on the United States Consulate in Benghazi. I condemn these barbaric acts in the strongest possible terms. This is an attack on America, Libya and free people everywhere.
There is never any justification for this type of action. There must and will be consequences. Those who were involved at all levels must be found and punished. These actions run counter to the very foundations of free Libya, of democracy, and of Islam. They are reprehensible.
Our revolution is not complete simply because Gaddafi is gone. Our revolution will be complete when our state institutions are strong, when heavy arms are in the hands of only the government and when our streets are safe to all - both to Libyans and to our honored guests. The government cannot do this alone - I call on all true Libyans to hand in their weapons, and to work together to make a better Libya for all. Our shared security is the bedrock of our freedom. This kind of shameful behavior - mobs using force on their own accord - cannot happen again, no matter the target or motivation.
My deepest condolences to the families, friends and colleagues of those unjustly lost last night, and to all Americans.
And here is Morsy's statement, posted on Facebook (thanks to Jason Stern for the translation):
The presidency denounces in the strongest terms the attempt to insult the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) and condemns the people who produced this extreme action. The Egyptian people, both Muslims and Christians, reject this insult against the sacred.
The presidency also emphasizes that the Egyptian state is responsible for the protection of private and public properties and thereby the diplomatic missions and embassies of different countries.
It also affirms the protection and respect for the freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest within the confines of the law while firmly opposing any irresponsible attempt to create lawlessness.
The president and the embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt in the United States have commissioned the undertaking of all possible, legal actions to respond to these individuals who seek the sabotage the relations and dialogue between peoples and nations.
Not a lot of warmth there, and Morsy clearly cares more about the film that served as the pretext for the riots than he does about the embassy breach. So does Egypt fail Marc's test?
As I write, Al Jazeera is reporting that Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, was killed amid an attack on the American consulate in Benghazi along with three others. Video and screen captures, supposedly of his body, are circulating on Twitter. Libya's nascent government has roundly condemned the assault, and the Libyan army engaged in fierce clashes with an Islamist militia late into the night. According to Al Jazeera, the bodies were flown out of the country. (The State Department last night confirmed a death in Benghazi, but did not mention Stevens.)
This is, obviously, a terrible tragedy and a shocking turn of events on a day when Americans mourned those killed 11 years ago on Sept. 11, 2001. Stevens was by all accounts a popular diplomat, having established the U.S. presence in Benghazi during the war and been an avid supporter of the opposition. Here's a video introducing him to Libyans.
What makes the deaths all the more tragic is that they will inevitably become politicized. On Tuesday, conservative websites were highly critical of a statement by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo that came ahead of a protest where demonstrators breached the embassy's walls in a moment reminiscent of 1979 in Iran. Liz Cheney and the Republican-controlled House Foreign Affairs Committee joined in, accusing the administration of issuing an "apology" for a bizarre and mysterious film attacking the Prophet Mohammed that served as a pretext for the protests. And the Romney campaign issued its own statement. Wednesday will likely bring more finger-pointing.
For me, the embassy assaults are a sobering reminder not only of the deep anger and dysfunction that plagues the broader Middle East, but of the enormous difficulty the United States has in dealing with this part of the world. The level of distrust and fury toward America is not the sort of thing you heal with a speech or two. And to make matters worse, there will always be groups that exploit things that have no connection whatsoever to U.S. government policy, like this anti-Islamic film.
The Obama administration must tread delicately during this heated political season. This crude film -- which "portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a womanizer, pedophile and fraud," as the Wall Street Journal put it -- may have been obscure before, but it's not anymore. Afghan President Karzai has already issued a statement condemning the movie -- but not the embassy attacks. Radical Islamist groups and countries like Iran will be looking to exploit the situation, whether in Afghanistan or elsewhere. I suspect this won't be the last time somebody tries to breach the walls of a U.S. facility abroad this year. And there will inevitably be questions about the intelligence warnings and the lack of security in Benghazi and Cairo, to say nothing of the broader concerns raised about America's relationship with these new "democracies." But the White House needs to be smart and above all careful -- it can't let its response be dictated by the exigencies of the election back home.
I asked my Twitter followers this morning what it would have been like had Twitter been around during the Sept. 11 attacks. It seems crazy that only 11 years ago, we didn't even have smart phones integrated with cameras and 3G Internet. There was no Facebook or YouTube. The term "smartphone" didn't even exist until 1997, when it was introduced by Ericsson; Blackberries didn't come out until 1999. The first iPhone wasn't introduced until Jan. 9, 2007 -- and it didn't even hit the market until June 29 of that year. Even blogging was in its infancy: Blogger was introduced in August 1999, but Moveable Type didn't come out until Sept. 3, 2001 -- eight days before 9/11. Friendster, the precursor to Facebook, went live in 2002, and MySpace (remember that?) launched in August 2003. Windows had its PocketPCs, running a crude forerunner to the Windows Mobile platform, but few found them useful. People were still using Palm Pilots.
So what would 9/11 have been like with today's brave new world of mobile social media? The responses to my tweet were interesting, so I thought I'd share them here:
Jake Tapper: oh good Lord
Brendan Byrne: First person perspective horror.
Doctor Longscarf: Horrifying
James Piechura: Imagine instagram
Scott McKenzie: Would've increased feelings of panic
Tim Miller: Disagree with more panic. Would've had more info quicker which leads to less panic
Nabilah Irshad: 9/11 would've broken Twitter
Pfeifer: More workers wld have left both towers after 1st plane
Dave Levy: Data networks would have gone down faster than the cell nets did; would induce more anxiety.
Brad Cundiff: possible that some that went up instead of down in tower 2 could have been made aware of passable areas.
Luke Alnutt: Twitter would have also spread unimaginable panic, rumor, and misinformation IMO.
Some folks noted that we do have some suggestion of what Twitter would be like, assuming it stayed up at all: the records of pager text messages from that day that were later released by WikiLeaks. They tell a story of panic and confusion. Here's a sampling:
08:50:25 A plane crashed thru the twin towers. Real bad..BR
08:51:37 THE WORLD TRADE CENTER HAS JUST BLOWN UP, WE SEEN THE EXPLOSION OUTSIDE OUR WINDOWS. TERESA...
08:54:27 LARRY, CALL BRIAN. WANT TO KNOW IF OUR MEN ARE OKAY, SAW A PLANE HIT BLDG.
08:56:37 From: Gross, Kate (Exchange)- holy s---! a plane just hit the top of the world trade center!
09:00:39 HI IT'S NANCY CALL ME. I WANT TO KNOW IF YOU'RE OK BECAUSE OF THE PLANE THAT HIT THE TWI
09:01:20 ade center damaged; unconfirmed reports say a plane has crashed into tower. MARSH AND NYMEX IMPACTED
09:01:53 Plane crash into World Trade Center. All MTA PD midnight units being held over. MTAPD Comm Ctr (1/1)
09:03:46 PLEASE GIVE ARIEL A CALL RE: CASUALTIES AT THE WORLD TRADR CTR AIRPLANE CRASH.
09:04:37 PLEASE CALL YOUR FATHER, STAT, AT, PAGER #22
09:04:39 YOUR SISTER JOE SAW THE NEWS AND WANT TO KNOW IF YOU ARE OKAY. PLEASE CALL ME AT WORK AND LEAVE A MESSAGE IF I AM NOT AT MY DESK.
09:04:57 CAN YOU CALL MOM AT HOME.
09:05:33 PLANES JUST HIT THE WORLD TRADE CENTER WITHIN 15 MINS! IT'S HORRIBLE...
As for me, I found out about the attacks from a homeless man with a small radio -- I was in New Haven, Connecticut, on my way to drop two Japanese visitors off at the train station. I was imagining a small private plane, like a Piper Cub, and didn't realize the magnitude of what had happened until I showed up at my office, only to see the towers collapse. My major source of news was CNN, and I distinctly remember seeing Tom Clancy -- author of The Sum of All Fears, in which Arab terrorists detonate a nuclear bomb at Mile-High Stadium -- brought on to tell us what had happened and why. It was the sort of day that took a novelist to explain, I thought at the time, because he was one of the few who had actually imagined it.
Thomas Friedman has an interesting column in today's New York Times that raises the question of whether Mitt Romney is actually as hawkish on foreign policy as he makes himself out to be. Friedman writes:
I know Romney doesn't believe a word he's saying on foreign policy and that it's all aimed at ginning up votes: there's some China-bashing to help in the Midwest, some Arab-bashing to win over the Jews, some Russia-bashing (our "No. 1 geopolitical foe") to bring in the Polish vote, plus a dash of testosterone to keep the neocons off his back.
Some neocons are, indeed, worried that Mitt is only pretending to be a hawk to keep the party onside. Jennifer Rubin, the court scribe of the Romney campaign, channels some of that anxiety in a recent blog post. "[A]mong Republicans," she writes, riffing off of some of the candidate's recent speeches, "it is a segment of foreign policy hawks who are most aggrieved and feel overlooked by the campaign."
From the perspective of some hawks, Mitt Romney needs to state controversial, bold foreign policy positions as sort of a test of his seriousness. If he doesn't say now he'll finish the job in Afghanistan and he'll, if need be, set up a no-fly zone in Syria, he'll shrink from tough positions when in office. They don't think it is enough to have surrogates like former senator Jim Talent, a Missouri Republican, and senior adviser Richard Williamson give assurances, speak about Romney's devotion to American exceptionalism and remind conservatives of Romney's early support for the Syrian rebels.
I've heard similar whispers to this effect, and Bill Kristol likely spoke for many on the right when he dinged Romney for failing to even mention the war in Afghanistan during his convention speech, a bizarre unforced error when a perfunctory shoutout to the troops would have been fine.
Doubtless, the various foreign-policy wings of the GOP would battle it out for influence in a Romney administration, and the candidate has done a reasonably good job of staying vague enough that he won't limit his options once in office. But, like Jacob Heilbrunn, I think the realists would win most battles, and here's why.
Josh Barro, a Bloomberg writer and former Manhattan Institute fellow, has been promoting his theory that Romney has a "Secret Economic Plan." In a nutshell, the idea is that Romney can't possibly believe his own rhetoric about immediately imposing severe budget cuts. "To increase his chances of getting elected, he will have to implement policies that are likely to grow the economy," says Barro, and that in part means running up Keynesian deficits. Romney has already indicated that he wants to grow the defense budget, and has railed against defense cuts that he says would kill jobs (Keynesian!). He's also favorably cited a recent Congressional Budget Office report warning that the so-called fiscal cliff would provoke a sharp recession (Keynesian!). It seems pretty clear he doesn't believe in European-style austerity, even though he talks a lot about Obama's deficits and so forth. And the likely Republican-controlled Congress, newly de-radicalized by Obama's departure, would probably go along with heavy deficit spending, just as it did under George W. Bush.
What about foreign policy? Here's where the overseas component of the Secret Economic Plan comes in. Romney isn't going to be interested in getting involved in any foreign entanglements that threaten the Plan. His China comments are nonsense that he obviously has no intention of implementing. He's already said he's fine with Obama's timeline for winding down the war in Afghanistan -- and that means cooperating with No. 1 Geopolitical Foe Russia on the logistically complicated exit. He walked back an aide's comments suggesting he'd green-light an Israeli attack on Iran. He hasn't said much if anything about Pakistan, or about ramping up what remains of the war on terror generally. Even his hawkish advisor John Bolton, in a recent Washington Times op-ed, openly worried that Romney might not pull the trigger himself and bomb, bomb, bomb Iran. His foreign-policy team has bent over backwards to stress that the former governor is not planning to intervene directly in Syria. And his appointment of Robert Zoellick as the head of his national security transition team suggests at a minimum that top realists will play a prominent role in his administration.
It's not a slam-dunk case, I admit. As the New York Times' Peter Baker noted in a smart take on Romney's foreign policy last week, "The challenge is figuring out when the speeches are just words intended to highlight or even invent differences for political purposes and when they genuinely signal a change in America's relationship with the world." But if Romney is serious about earning himself a second term, logic suggests he'll tone it down if and when he gets behind the Resolute Desk.
Correction: Josh Barro informs me he's a *former* Manhattan Institute fellow. Apologies for the mistake.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Over on Shadow Government, Peter Feaver continues his debate with Charles Kupchan and Bruce Jentleson with a challenge:
In my piece, I identified four obvious mistakes (there were many more I could have chosen): announcing an arbitrary withdrawal timeline at the same time that the Afghan surge was announced; the failure to leverage the Green Revolution in Iran in June 2009 to ramp up more pressure then on the Iranian regime; the imposition of new preconditions on Israel regarding building in Jerusalem; and the delay in ratifying the free trade pacts with South Korea and Colombia. Are Jentleson and Kupchan willing to concede that those were indeed mistakes?
I'm sure Kupchan and Jentleson will want to respond, but in the meantime, I think these are interesting charges. Let's examine them one by one.
1. Announcing an arbitrary withdrawal timeline along with Afghan surge. Dumb. Obama undercut his surge by declaring it would only be a temporary thing. The rationale here was twofold: reassure the left wing of the Democratic Party (and many others) that the president didn't want to stay in Afghanistan forever, and signal to Afghan President Hamid Karzai et al that they'd better get their acts together in a hurry. The first part of the strategy worked, in the sense that it took the war off the table domestically. The second part? Meh, not so much. Maybe the impending 2014 withdrawal deadline will focus some minds in the Afghan government, but there are precious few signs that it has done so to date.
Verdict: Point to Feaver, but just barely. Why? Because staying in landlocked, impoverished Afghanistan forever is a terrible idea that very few Americans support, which is why Romney has barely mentioned the war and didn't even say the name of the country during his convention speech.
2. Failing to leverage the Green Revolution in Iran in June 2009 to ramp up more pressure then on the Iranian regime. Note here that Feaver is careful not to make the crazy, indefensible version of this charge: that Obama should have somehow embraced or helped the Green Movement overthrow the Iranian government. The Obama administration's assessment was that coming out loudly in favor of the protesters would have made it even easier for the regime to crush them, and many Iran analysts agree. It's worth noting here that the Green Movement was not actually about overthrowing the system, however (though its remnants may evolve in that more radical direction). It was about disputing the results of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election, which was the common-denominator consensus of the movement's various different factions. The movement's putative leaders, Mir Hossain Moussavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Muhammad Khatami, were careful not to call for an end to Iran's clerical system, and they never called for outside help as far as I can remember.
What about the case for ramping up more pressure on the regime? Well, that is exactly what Obama has done since then, getting the Europeans, the Russians, and the Chinese to sign up for tough sanctions at the U.N. Security Council. And, though arguably Obama has been pushed by Congress into enacting tougher unilateral sanctions than he wanted (or than many on the left thought were humane or wise), here we are.
Verdict: Unknowable, but I don't see much to Feaver's argument.
3. Imposing new preconditions on Israel regarding building in Jerusalem. I suppose it all depends on how you feel about Israeli settlements -- excuse me, "housing developments." If you believe Israel should not be making it harder to reach a permanent agreement, as U.S. presidents have for several decades now, then Obama was just hewing to a longstanding bipartisan consensus. It was probably a tactical error for Obama to make settlements the focus of discussions if he wasn't prepared to stick to his guns. But look, folks: Neither side is willing to pay the price required for a lasting peace agreement. Benjamin Netanyahu doesn't believe in it (read his book -- he says so explicitly), and Mahmoud Abbas is too weak and wrongly thinks time is on the Palestinians' side.
Verdict: Meh. Basically, it's hard to argue that course X or course Y would have led to a better result, because the peace process is a joke and very few people believe in it anymore. Obama's real mistake was trying at all, given the circumstances and his fundamental gutlessness on this issue.
4. The delay in ratifying the free trade pacts with South Korea and Colombia. So what? The South Korea FTA was fairly large, as these things go, but eventually it got done, as did Colombia. The opposition to the Colombia FTA was ridiculous given that it was fundamentally about ratifying a strong existing relationship and permanently opening the Colombian market to U.S. goods. But the Colombian market is just not very big.
Verdict: Weak sauce. I'm actually surprised that Feaver doesn't level a far more serious and defensible charge, which is that Obama just isn't a free trader at heart and has pandered to the left wing of his party by talking nonsense about outsourcing (when he really means offshoring) and failing to offer a Bill Clinton-like argument about why globalization is not only irreversible, but good for the United States. Obama has continued to explore things like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and embraced Russia's long-overdue entry into the WTO. But in general, this isn't a big priority for his administration and Republicans have rightly criticized him for it.
But here's the problem: Free trade just isn't very popular among voters, and especially not in the Democratic Party in the post-2008 era. Even economists like Alan Blinder have started to have their doubts about offshoring. Does anyone believe Obama could have fundamentally moved the needle on this?
P.S.: Remember when the Bush adminstration succeeded in finishing the Doha Round? Me neither.
One thing that's been bugging me about the endless Washington parlor game "Will Israel attack Iran?" -- it's not a simple, binary question. It's actually a somewhat complicated series of interlocking questions, the answers to which will send us to different branches of Bibi Netanyahu's decision tree.
Yes, Israel might attack Iran. And yes, Israel keeps threatening to attack Iran in order to (a) tighten the sanctions regime by indicating to wayward countries in Europe and Asia that the alternative is worse; (b) frighten Iran into agreeing to meet the West's demands; (c) leverage President Obama's debilitating fear of being painted as anti-Israel to extract various promises from Washington; (d) prepare the world and the Israeli public for the possibility of a strike against Iran's nuclear program; and (e) keep the focus on the Iranian threat, not the settlements or the stalled "peace process" with the Palestinians.
All of these things can be and are true at the same time. Israel may not ever attack (though increasing numbers of people believe Bibi is not bluffing this time around), but there are items on its wishlist that could make the possibility even more remote than it is today.
The one being talked about now is a strong public commitment from Obama to take out Iran's nuclear program (of this variety) in exchange for Israel agreeing not to take matters into its own hands. Israel's former military intel chief, Amos Yadlin, floats a variation on this idea in today's Washington Post:
The U.S. president should visit Israel and tell its leadership — and, more important, its people — that preventing a nuclear Iran is a U.S. interest, and if we have to resort to military action, we will. This message, delivered by the president of the United States to the Israeli Knesset, would be far more effective than U.S. officials’ attempts to convey the same sentiment behind closed doors.
Former Obama advisor Dennis Ross makes a similar case in Friday's New York Times, though he takes the possibility that diplomacy might work a little more seriously than does Yadlin.
In any case, the point is this: Israel might strike Iran, eventually. But in the meantime, there are other goals at work in this very public drumbeat of warnings. And both of these things can be true at the same time.
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