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  1. #1

    Lightbulb The Oh-So-Fun Middle East!

    Since we don't have a thread yet in that swath of paradise known a the Middle East, here we go!

  2. #2
    President’s decree of new powers divides Egypt

    By Michael Birnbaum and Joby Warrick

    Published: November 23 | Updated: Saturday, November 24, 3:30 AM

    CAIRO — A stark new divide appeared to be emerging in Egypt on Friday after the nation’s first democratically elected president asserted nearly unlimited powers, as rival crowds of demonstrators poured into the streets of the capital to express disgust and admiration for the move.

    With Islamists lining up behind President Mohamed Morsi and secular leaders rallying against him, the development threatened to wipe away once and for all the unlikely joining of the two forces that brought down Egypt’s longtime leader Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

    In a thunderous speech in front of a presidential palace in Cairo, Morsi told thousands of cheering supporters that the sweeping decrees he issued Thursday were intended to defend the revolution that led to Morsi’s election this June.

    But just a few miles away in Tahrir Square, thousands more people, most of them well-educated and secular, said that they were resolved to press for another revolution, this time against the Islamist leader who won 52 percent of the presidential vote. Many people said Morsi’s actions were verging on dictatorship.

    The Obama administration expressed dismay over Morsi’s action. Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, noted that a core aim of the upheaval that toppled Mubarak had been to “ensure that power would not be overly concentrated in the hands of any one person or institution.”

    Having congratulated Morsi earlier in the week for his statesmanship in fostering a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, State Department officials said the United States was seeking an explanation for the new move, which removed all judicial checks over Morsi’s actions.

    In his speech, Morsi used harsh language in denouncing judges and prosecutors for doing too little to address the corruption and abuses of the Mubarak years. “There are weevils eating away at Egypt’s nation,” Morsi said.

    “It is my duty to move forward with the goals of the revolution and eliminate all of the obstacles which are linked to the past that we hate,” he said.

    Clashes broke out across the country in response to the move. The offices of the Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing were torched over Morsi’s close links to those organizations. A Morsi adviser who is a Coptic Christian resigned.

    “We have been living in a dictatorship for a very long time, but not like this,” said Yehia el-Gamal, a constitutional law expert who served as a deputy prime minister early in the post-Mubarak era. He said the move went well beyond anything that Mubarak or his predecessors Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser had attempted in the years since 1956 when the monarchy was toppled.

    Morsi and his supporters, who include the ultraconservative Nour Party and other groups of political Islamists, have said that the moves were necessary at a time when obstacles erected by judges and prosecutors installed under Mubarak have blocked the new president’s agenda.

    His supporters say the action was intended in large part to protect the work of a committee appointed to write a new constitution at a time when Egypt’s highest court had signaled that it might disband that squabbling body. Morsi has said he will relinquish his extraordinary powers after the constitution is written and a new legislature elected.

    Egyptians were not alone in questioning Morsi’s actions. In Geneva, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said that the decree raised serious concerns, while Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, said the move had “raised concerns for many Egyptians and for the international community.’’

    “The current constitutional vacuum in Egypt can only be resolved by the adoption of a constitution that includes checks and balances, and respects fundamental freedoms, individual rights, and the rule of law consistent with Egypt’s international commitments,’’ Nuland said.

    Washington Post's reporter in Gaza has been capturing scenes from the war using her mobile phone.

    The crowd at Tahrir Square, while large, had little of the pulsing feel of possibility of the January and February 2011 protests that brought down Mubarak. Those demonstrations were bolstered by the Muslim Brotherhood, whose mobilization was the key factor in ending the leader’s 30-year reign in a matter of weeks. It was the inclusion of many segments of society that gave the opposition its legitimacy.

    This time, the Muslim Brotherhood was gathered in front of the ornate Ittihadiya Palace, the seat of an executive branch that once forced them underground. Morsi, one of their own, was delivering his fiery address from a temporary stage that had as its backdrop an enormous banner reading, “The People Support Mohamed Morsi.”

    “The people want the implementation of the sharia of God,” the crowded chanted at one point, a reference to laws derived from the Koran and Islamic traditions. “The people want to dissolve the constitutional court.” For the most part, the audience listened attentively to the 45-minute speech.

    “There was a plan to destroy the country and the president,” said Walaa Ezzedin, 29, a pharmacist and supporter who came to listen to Morsi. “Those who are objecting are simply against the president. If he had taken the opposite position, they would have objected too.”

    The distance between the two sides was evident at the palace and in Tahrir Square, where some of the younger, more affluent Egyptians who took part in the revolution that toppled Mubarak said they were surprised to find themselves aligned with former Mubarak supporters in denouncing Morsi’s moves.

    “Overthrowing Morsi is a demand of the revolutionaries and also of the remnants of the old regime,” said Mohamed ElBeshlawy, 32, an accountant. “Now it’s going to be the two groups together. Winds do not blow as the ships wish. There’s going to be another angry revolution.”

    Whatever the motivation for Morsi’s move, the effort to shield his government from judicial challenge wold remove “whatever checks and balances exist in Egypt at this point,” said Michele Dunne, a former member of the National Security Council staff under President Obama.

    “It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Morsi has overreached, and that he did so partly on the strength of his recent diplomatic victory in Gaza,” said Dunne, now director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. She noted that Morsi had previously tried and failed to confront the judiciary in a tussle over the dissolution of Egypt’s parliament.

    “He has ended up having to back down, but he keeps trying,’’ Dunne said.

    Warrick contributed from Washington. Amer Shakhatreh contributed from Cairo.

  3. #3
    Syria is central to holding together the Mideast

    By Condoleezza Rice, Saturday, November 24, 8:27 AM

    Condoleezza Rice was secretary of state from 2005 to 2009.

    The civil war in Syria may well be the last act in the story of the disintegration of the Middle East as we know it. The opportunity to hold the region together and to rebuild it on a firmer foundation of tolerance, freedom and, eventually, democratic stability is slipping from our grasp.

    Egypt and Iran have long, continuous histories and strong national identities. Turkey does as well, except for the matter of the Kurds, who are still largely unassimilated, mistrusted by Ankara and tempted by the hope of independent nationhood.

    Every other important state is a modern construct, created by the British and the French, who drew borders like lines on the back of an envelope, often without regard for ethnic and sectarian differences. The results: A Bahrain that is 70 percent Shiite, governed by a Sunni monarch. Saudi Arabia was created with a 10 percent Shiite population in its richest provinces to the east. Iraq is 65 percent Shiite, 20 percent Sunni Arab, and a mix of Kurds and others, all ruled until 2003 by an iron-fisted Sunni dictator. Jordan’s population is almost 70 percent Palestinian. Lebanon is roughly divided among Sunnis, Shiites and Christians. And then there is Syria: a conglomerate of Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and others, ruled by the Alawite minority.

    The fragile state structure of the Middle East has been held together for decades by monarchs and dictators. But as the desire for freedom has spread from Tunis to Cairo to Damascus, authoritarians have lost their grip. The danger now is that the artificial states could fly apart.

    In Iraq, after overthrowing Saddam Hussein, the United States hoped that a fledging multi-ethnic, multi-confessional democracy could do what authoritarians could not: give all of these groups a stake in a common future. To an extent it has, with elections repeatedly producing inclusive governments. But the institutions are young and fragile, and they are groaning under the weight of the region’s broader sectarian explosion. The conflict in Syria is pushing Iraq and others to the breaking point. At the same time, U.S. disengagement has tempted Iraqi politicians to move toward sectarian allies for survival. If Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki cannot count on the Americans, he will take no risks with Tehran.

    The great mistake of the past year has been to define the conflict with Bashar al-Assad’s regime as a humanitarian one. The regime in Damascus has been brutal, and many innocent people have been slaughtered. But this was no replay of Libya. Much more is at stake.

    As Syria crumbles, Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds are being drawn into a regional web of sectarian allegiances. Karl Marx once called on workers of the world to unite across national boundaries. He told them that they had more in common with each other than with the ruling classes that oppressed them in the name of nationalism. Marx exhorted workers to throw off the “false consciousness” of national identity.

    Today’s Karl Marx is Iran. It envisions the spread of its influence among Shiites, uniting them under the theocratic flag of Tehran — destroying the integrity of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Lebanon. Iran uses terrorist groups, Hezbollah and the Shiite militias in southern Iraq to do its bidding. Syria is the linchpin, the bridge into the Arab Middle East. Tehran no longer hides the fact that its security forces are working in Syria to prop up Assad. In this context, Tehran’s sprint toward a nuclear weapon is a problem not just for Israel but the region as a whole.

    In response, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other neighboring powers arm and support Sunni factions. The Turks are being drawn into the conflict, desperately fearful that the Kurds will break away in Syria and push their brethren in Turkey to do the same. Missile and mortar strikes are increasingly common across the borders of Israel and Turkey. Ankara’s cries to NATO for help last month should have gotten our attention.

    But where is the United States? America has spent months trying to get the Russians and the Chinese to agree to toothless U.N. resolutions to “end the bloodshed,” as though Moscow will abandon Assad and Beijing really cares about chaos in the Middle East. Vladimir Putin is not a sentimental man. But if he believes that Assad can survive, he will do nothing to undermine him.

    In recent days, France, Britain and Turkey have stepped into the diplomatic vacuum to recognize a newly formed opposition that is broadly representative of all Syrians. The United States should follow their lead and then vet and arm the unified group with defensive weapons on the condition that it pursues an inclusive post-Assad framework. The United States and its allies should also consider establishing a no-fly zone to protect the innocent. America’s weight and influence are needed. Leaving this to regional powers, whose interests are not identical to ours, will only exacerbate the deepening sectarianism.

    Certainly there are risks. After more than a year of brutal conflict, the most extreme elements of the opposition — including al-Qaeda — have been empowered. Civil wars tend to strengthen the worst forces. The overthrow of Assad could indeed bring these dangerous groups to power.

    But the breakdown of the Middle East state system is a graver risk. Iran will win, our allies will lose, and for decades the region’s misery and violence will make today’s chaos look tame.

    War is not receding in the Middle East. It is building to a crescendo. Our elections are over. Now, America must act.

  4. #4
    America foreign policy, adrift on the Middle East

    By Michael Gerson

    Published: September 18

    During his campaign and the early part of his administration, Barack Obama offered a theory about the disorders of the greater Middle East. One explanation, he argued, was the intervention in Iraq, which “fans anti-American sentiment among Muslims, increases the pool of potential terrorist recruits.” Another was the failed Arab-Israeli peace process, which his administration would finally give some emphasis (as though other presidents had not really tried). Obama would refocus the war on terrorism more narrowly on Afghanistan and al-Qaeda and dispense with the Bush Doctrine, which sought to “impose democracy with the barrel of a gun.”

    The president’s June 4, 2009, speech in Cairo summarized this critique, while adding an element of soaring ambition. With American combat troops still on the ground, Obama dismissed Iraq as a “war of choice.” He catalogued various criticisms of U.S. policy during the Cold War and the Bush administration — if not an apology, then certainly an aggressive distancing. And he offered an antidote to anti-Americanism: himself. He had, after all, “known Islam on three continents” and had “heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and at the fall of dusk.”

    It was to be a “new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect” — implying that insufficient American respect had been part of the problem. Obama’s persona would be the bridge between civilizations.

    After pumping up expectations to the size of a Thanksgiving Day parade balloon, the deflation has not been dignified. Large historical challenges do not yield to changes in tone and personality. And the matters that obsess liberal foreign-policy experts — Iraq, the Arab-Israeli peace process, various policies in the war on terror — have little relation to the current chaos in North Africa and the Middle East.

    This is a region of dysfunctional societies, run into the ground by corrupt and oppressive autocrats. Leaders such as Hosni Mubarak undermined legitimate opposition, forced dissent into the radical mosque, produced economic misery and vast unemployment, and drew attention away from their failures by blaming outsiders and feeding conspiracy theories. It is hard to imagine a political system better designed to produce resentment, radicalism and riots with minimal provocation.

    The collapse of the old order has released dangerous forces, exploited by sophisticated and unappeasable Islamist groups. But preserving the status quo ante was not an option — as though Mubarak or his unimpressive son could have survived indefinitely if only provided with a few more truncheons. The autocrats fell because they failed. For many years to come, the United States will deal with the resulting disorder — attempting to preempt threats and promote more reasonable political actors. The stakes are high and the levers are limited.

    Obama’s grand ambitions were naive. But how has he reacted to realities that resisted resetting?

    On security matters, Obama is hard to fault, and hard to distinguish from his predecessor. Threats to the U.S. homeland are magnified by terrorist safe havens — places to gather, plot and train. Terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere have been given every reason to feel unsafe by American drones and Special Operations forces. For the most part, Obama has continued to treat the global war on terror as an actual war, not primarily a law enforcement operation.

    On aid to democratic transitions, Obama’s record is mixed. In a May 19, 2011, policy address, the sworn opponent of the Bush Doctrine proclaimed “tyrants will fail” and declared the promotion of democratic reform a “core” American interest. Efforts in Tunisia and Libya have been relatively strong. Reaction to the Egyptian government’s persecution of pro-democracy organizations has been limp. The promotion of reform in the Gulf States — where political transition won’t be delayed forever — is weak.

    The largest failure of Obama’s approach to the Middle East is its apparent geopolitical randomness. Support for Iran’s Green Revolution was late and grudging — as though courageous reformers were intruding on Obama’s engagement of the regime. The president dramatically escalated the Afghan war before conveying an impression of heading for the exits. After wringing its hands, the administration took needed action in Libya. After wringing its hands, it has remained on the sidelines in Syria. The main consistency has been the wringing part.

    In the absence of an organizing principle, flexibility becomes ambiguity. Other nations know exactly what Iran is after, what Russia is after, what Israel is after. They are left to guess at American intentions. The risk is that they will cease to care.

  5. #5
    Iran shows no hesitation about intervening in Syria

    By Editorial Board

    Published: September 21

    IT’S BEEN MORE than a year since the Obama administration began describing the downfall of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad as a matter of time. He’s defied White House predictions in part because of his ruthlessness — more than 20,000 Syrians, most of them civilians, have died during the uprising — and in part because of political and military weakness of his opposition.

    But the Assad regime also has been bolstered by the imbalance of foreign intervention. While the United States and other Western powers hang back, and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar offer weak and poorly coordinated aid, Iran has mounted a concerted and escalating campaign to prop up the government. Iran has sent men as well as arms, cash and technical support.

    Could President Obama have provided more relief?

    White House aides are frequently described as worrying that direct U.S. aid to the rebels would intensify the war — which is now bloodier than Iraq at the height of its sectarian fighting — or prompt other countries to jump in. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s regime has no such scruples. The commander in chief of the Revolutionary Guard, Mohamad Ali Jafari, acknowledged at a news conference last weekend that members of the elite Quds force have been training a 50,000-member civilian militia modeled on Iran’s own Basij force. Those fighters, known to Syrians as shabiha, have been guilty of some of the war’s worst atrocities, including the mass murder of civilians in several villages.

    The Wall Street Journal reported that the Revolutionary Guard general leading the training effort, Hossein Hamedani, commanded the assault on Iranians who revolted against the regime in 2009. Hundreds of rank-and-file members of the Guard and Basij are in Syria to bolster government forces, the Journal said. A busload of 48 was captured by the Free Syrian Army last month.

    Even as the Obama administration was rejecting appeals from Turkey, France and other allies for more robust action against the Assad regime, Tehran was escalating. In July it resumed direct cargo flights to Damascus across Iraqi airspace. U.S. officials, who believe that the planes carry military equipment, appealed to the Iraqi government to stop them or at least inspect them. But the flights have continued. U.S. officials told the New York Times that Iran has even provided the regime with a cargo plane for transporting fighters and supplies around the country. Meanwhile, the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, an Iranian client, has been sending its own trainers into Syria.

    Some administration officials dismiss the Iranian effort as futile support for a lost cause. But Iranian backing for the regime, matched against Western passivity, could keep Mr. Assad in power indefinitely. Even if the government in Damascus collapses, Iranian commanders and the militias they’ve trained will likely stay on to compete in what could be a chaotic struggle for power that could spread from Syria to Lebanon and Iraq. Al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremist groups will be part of that fight; so will the rebel groups backed by the fundamentalist Saudis and Qataris. If it continues its present policy, the United States will go on watching from the sidelines as the future of the Levant is decided.

  6. #6
    What Ambassador Chris Stevens would have wanted us to do in the Middle East

    By Robin Wright

    Published: September 15

    The last time I saw Chris Stevens was in May, at his swearing-in ceremony for his first post as ambassador, in Libya. We’d been friends since he was a junior diplomat on the Iran desk, when we used to gab for hours about Tehran’s cryptic politics. We later met up in Mideast hot spots, from Syria and Saudi Arabia to the Palestinian territories. He always had funny tales about diplomatic mischief.

    During an earlier tour in Tripoli, when Moammar Gaddafi was still in power, Chris once grabbed the camera off a Libyan intelligence goon on his tail, turned and, with a big smile, took the guy’s picture. Then he gave the camera back. The lanky Californian could be both charming and disarming, even as he made his point.

    Chris was posted in Jerusalem during the second intifada, when Palestinians were blowing themselves up on Israeli buses and Israeli troops were raiding West Bank villages. In a bit of unorthodox public diplomacy, Chris and a junior officer went outdoors during a rare snowstorm and started lobbing snowballs at each other. Young Palestinians and Israeli border guards on opposite sides of the divide joined in. It broke the tension, at least temporarily.

    His antics were misleading, however. Chris fast became one of America’s savviest envoys.

    In April 2011, two months after the Libyan uprising erupted, he was dispatched on a cargo ferry from Malta to Benghazi to set up a U.S. liaison office to the rebels, working out of a hotel room. Colleagues dubbed him the expeditionary diplomat.

    “He very quickly developed these amazing circles of contacts,” recalled Jeffrey D. Feltman, a former colleague and now an undersecretary at the United Nations.

    More than anyone else, Stevens soon convinced Washington that the Transitional National Council (NTC) had the political bona fides to pick up the pieces after Gaddafi’s 42-year rule.

    His assessment has so far proved accurate. When Libyans went to the polls in July, the majority rejected hard-line Islamists as well as separatists. And many NTC officials won the popular vote.

    Most colleagues thought Chris was daft for taking the ambassadorship, in what would be his third Libyan tour. But he was excited. “You’ve got to come out,” he told me. “It’s going to be fascinating. Wild, but fascinating.”

    A week before his murder in Benghazi, we exchanged e-mails about my plans to visit Libya in a few weeks. A State Department travel warning last month cited increasing assassinations, car bombs and gunmen abducting foreigners. Clashes among militias “can erupt at any time or any place in the country,” it cautioned.

    Yet Chris saw the potential over the peril. He was not among those declaring that the Arab Spring had only made the region worse. Quite the reverse. He understood that the Middle East is moving into the second phase of its traumatic transition as Arabs vie to define a new order.

    So as the United States deployed gunships and drones this past week to track his killers, I started thinking about what Chris would have wanted the United States to do — about his death, the latest turmoil and in the years ahead. I suspect his message would have been: Waver not.

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