Tag Archives: Bashar al-Assad

Looking at the Arab Spring Through the Lens of Political Theory

Noah Feldman, The Arab Winter: A Tragedy

(Princeton University Press)

2011 was the year of the upheaval known as the “Arab Spring,” a time when much of the Arabic-speaking world seemed to have embarked on a path toward democracy—or at least a path away from authoritarian government. The upheaval began in December 2010, when a twenty-six-year-old Tunisian street fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, distraught over confiscation of his cart and scales by municipal authorities, ostensibly because he lacked a required work permit, doused his body with gasoline and burned himself.  Protests began almost immediately after Bouazizi’s self-immolation, aimed at Tunisia’s autocratic ruler since 1987 Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.  On 14 January 2011, Ben Ali­­, who had fled to Saudi Arabia, resigned.

One month later, Hosni Mubarak­, Egypt’s strongman president since 1981, resigned his office. By that time, protests against ruling autocrats had broken out in Libya and in Yemen. In March, similar protests began in Syria. By year’s end, Yemen’s out-of-touch leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, had been forced to resign, and Colonel Muammar Qaddafi—who had ruled Libya since 1969—was driven from office and shot by rebels. Only Syria’s Bashar al-Assad still clung to power, but his days, too, appeared numbered.

The stupefying departures in a single calendar year of four of the Arab world’s seemingly most firmly entrenched autocrats sent soaring the hopes of many, including the present writer.  Finally, we said, at last—at long, long last—democracy had broken through in the Middle East. The era of dictators and despots was over in that part of the world, or so we allowed ourselves to think. It did not seem far-fetched to compare 2011 to 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and countries across Central and Eastern Europe were suddenly out from under Soviet domination.

But as we know now, ten years later, 2011 was no 1989: the euphoria and sheer giddiness of that year turned to despair.  Egypt’s democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi was replaced in 2013 by a military government that seems at least as ruthlessly autocratic as that of Mubarak.  Syria broke apart in an apparently unending civil war that continues to this day, with Assad holding onto power amidst one of the twenty-first century’s most severe migrant and humanitarian crises.  Yemen and Libya appear to be ruled, if at all, by tribal militias and gangs, conspicuously lacking stabilizing institutions that might hold the countries together.  Only Tunisia offers cautious hope of a democratic future. And hovering over the entire region is the threat of brutal terrorism, represented most terrifyingly by the self-styled Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS.

It is easy, therefore, almost inescapable, to write off the Arab Spring as a failure—to saddle it with what Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman terms a “verdict of implicit nonexistence” (p.x), as he phrases it in The Arab Winter: A Tragedy.  But Feldman, a seasoned scholar of the Arabic-speaking world, would like us to look beyond notions of failure and implicit nonexistence to consider the Arab spring and its aftermath from the perspective of classical political theory.  Rather than emphasizing chronology and causation, as historians might, political theorists—the “philosophers who make it their business to talk about government” (p.8) —ask a normative question: what is the right way to govern? Looking at the events of 2011 and their aftermath from this perspective, Feldman hopes to change our “overall sense of what the Arab spring meant and what the Arab winter portends” (p.xxi).

In this compact but rigorously analytical volume, Feldman considers how some of the most basic notions of democratic governance—political self-determination, popular sovereignty, political agency, and the nature of political freedom and responsibility—played out over the course of the Arab Spring and its bleak aftermath, the “Arab Winter” of his title.   Feldman focuses specifically on Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and ISIS, each meriting a separate chapter, with Libya and Yemen mentioned intermittently.  In an introductory chapter, he addresses the Arab Spring collectively, highlighting factors common to the individual countries that experienced the events of the Arab Spring and ensuing “winter.”  In each country, those events took place within a framework defined by  “political action that was in an important sense autonomous” (p.xiii).  

The Arab Spring marked a crucial, historical break from the era in which empires—Ottoman, European and American—were the primary arbiters of Arab politics.  The “central political meaning” of the Arab Spring and its aftermath, Feldman argues, is that it “featured Arabic-speaking people acting essentially on their own, as full-fledged, independent makers of their own history and of global history more broadly” (p.xii).  The forces arrayed against those seeking to end autocracy in their countries were also Arab forces, “not empires or imperial proxies” (p.xii).  Many of the events of the Arab Spring were nonetheless connected to the decline of empire in the region, especially in the aftermath of the two wars fought in Iraq in 1991 and 2003.  The “failure and retreat of the U.S. imperial presence” was an “important condition in setting the circumstances for self-determination to emerge” (p.41).  

 While the massive protests against existing regimes that erupted in Tunisia, Egypt, Syrian, Libya, and Yemen in the early months of 2011 were calls for change in the protesters’ own nation-states, there was also a broader if somewhat vague sense of trans-national Arab solidarity to the cascading calls for change.  By “self-consciously echoing the claims of other Arabic-speaking protestors in other countries,” Feldman argues, the protesters were “suggesting that a broader people—implicitly the Arab people or peoples —were seeking change from the regime or regimes . . . that were governing them” (p.2). The constituent peoples of a broader trans-national Arab “nation” were rising, “not precisely together but also not precisely separately” (p.29).  

 The early-2011 protests were based on the claim that “the people” were asserting their right to take power from the existing government and reassign it, a claim that to Feldman “sounds very much like the theory of the right to self-determination” (p.11).  The historian and the sociologist would immediately ask who was making this “grand claim on behalf of the ‘people” (p.11).  But to the political theorist, the most pressing question is “whether the claim was legitimate and correct” (p.11).   Feldman finds the answer in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, first published in 1689. Democratic political theory since the Second Treatise has strongly supported the idea that the people of a constituent state may legitimately seize power from unjust and undemocratic rulers. Such an exercise of what could be termed the right to revolution is “very close to the central pillar of democratic theory itself” (p.11).   Legitimate government “originates in the consent of the governed;” a government not derived from consent “loses its legitimacy and may justifiably be replaced” (p.12).  The Egypt of the Arab Spring provides one of recent-history’s most provocative applications of the Lockean right to self-determination. 

* * *

Can a people which opted for constitutional democracy through a legitimate exercise of its political will opt to end democracy through a similarly legitimate exercise of its political will?  Can a democracy vote itself out of existence?  In his chapter on Egypt, Feldman concludes that the answer to these existential questions of political theory is yes, a conclusion that he characterizes as “painful” (p.59).  Just as massive and legitimate protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in January 2011 paved the way for forcing out aging autocrat Hosni Mubarak, so too did massive and legitimate protests in the same Tahrir Square in June 2013 pave the way for forcing out democratically-elected president Mohamed Morsi.

Morsi was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood—a movement banned under Mubarak that aspired to a legal order frequently termed “Islamism,” based upon Sharia Law and the primacy of the Islamic Quran.  Morsi won the presidency in June 2012 by a narrow margin over a military-affiliated candidate, but was unsuccessful almost from the beginning of his term.  In Feldman’s view, his most fatal error was that he never developed a sense of a need to compromise.  “If the people willed the end of the Mubarak regime, the people also willed the end of the Morsi regime just two and a half years later” (p.59),  he contends. The Egyptian people rejected constitutional democracy, “grandly, publicly, and in an exercise of democratic will” (p.24).  While they may have committed an “historical error of the greatest consequence by repudiating their own democratic process,” that was the “choice the Egyptian people made” (p.63).

Unlike in Egypt, in Tunisia the will of the people—what Feldman terms “political agency”—produced what then appeared to be a sustainable if fragile democratic structure.  Tunisia succeeded because its citizens from across the political spectrum “exercised not only political agency but also political responsibility” (p.130).  Tunisian protesters, activists, civil society leaders, politicians, and voters all “realized that they must take into account the probable consequences of each step of their decision making” (p.130).  

Moving the country toward compromise were two older politicians from opposite ends of the political spectrum: seventy-two-year-old Rached Ghannouchi, representing Ennahda—an Islamist party with ties to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood—and Beji Caid Essebsi, then eighty-five, a rigorous secularist with an extensive record of government service.  Together, the two men led a redrafting of Tunisia’s Constitution, in which Ennahda dropped the idea of Sharia Law as the foundation of the Tunisian State in favor of a constitution that protected religion from statist dominance and guaranteed liberty for political actors to “promote religious values in the public sphere”—in short, a constitution that was “not simply democratic but liberal-democratic” (p.140).  

Tunisia had another advantage that Egypt lacked: a set of independent civil society institutions that had a “stake in continued stability,” along with a “stake in avoiding a return to autocracy” (p.145).  But Tunisia’s success was largely political, with no evident payoff in the country’s economic fortunes. The “very consensus structures that helped Tunisia avoid the fate of Egypt,” Feldman warns, ominously but presciently, have “created conditions in which the underlying economic causes that sparked the Arab spring protests have not been addressed” (p.150).   

As if to prove Feldman’s point, this past summer Tunisia’s democratically-elected President Kais Saied, a constitutional law professor like Feldman, froze Parliament and fired the Prime Minister, “vowing to attack corruption and return power to the people. It was a power grab that an overwhelming majority of Tunisians greeted with joy and relief,” The New York Times reported.  One cannot help but wonder whether Tunisia is about to confront and answer the existential Lockean question in a manner similar to Egypt a decade ago.

Protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began after both Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt had been forced out of office, and initially seemed to be replicating those of Tunisia and Egypt.  But the country degenerated into a disastrous civil war that has rendered the country increasingly dysfunctional.  The key to understanding why lies in the country’s denominational-sectarian divide, in which the Assad regime—a minority-based dictatorship of Alawi Muslims, followers of an off-shoot of Shiite Islam representing about 15 % of the Syrian population—had disempowered much of the country’s Sunni majority.  Any challenge to the Assad regime was understood, perhaps correctly, as an existential threat to Syria’s Alawi minority.  Instead of seeking a power-sharing agreement that could have prolonged his regime, Bashar sought the total defeat of his rivals.  The regime and the protesters were thus divided along sectarian lines and both sides “rejected compromise in favor of a winner-take-all struggle for control of the state” (p.78). 

The Sunnis challenging Assad hoped that Western powers, especially the United States, would intervene in the Syrian conflict, as they had in Libya.  United States policy, however, as Feldman describes it, was to keep the rebel groups “in the fight, while refusing to take definitive steps that would make them win.”  As military strategy, this policy “verged on the incoherent”  (p.90).  President Barack Obama wanted to avoid political responsibility for Bashar’s fall, if it came to that, in order to avoid the fate of his predecessor, President George W. Bush, who was considered politically responsible for the chaos that followed the United States intervention in Iraq in 2003.  But the Obama strategy did not lead to stability in Syria.  It had an opposite impact, notably by creating the conditions for the Islamic State, ISIS, to become a meaningful regional actor.

ISIS is known mostly for its brutality and fanaticism, such as beheading hostages and smashing precious historical artifacts.  While these horrifying attributes cannot be gainsaid, there is more to the group that Feldman wants us to see.  ISIS in his view is best understood as a utopian, revolutionary-reformist movement that bears some similarities to other utopian revolutionary movements, including John Calvin’s Geneva and the Bolsheviks in Russia in the World War I era.  The Islamic State arose in the aftermath of the failure and overreach of the American occupation of Iraq.  But it achieved strategic relevance in 2014 with the continuing breakdown of the Assad regime’s sovereignty over large swaths of Syrian territory, creating the possibility of a would-be state that bridged the Iraq-Syria border.  Without the Syrian civil war, “there would have been no Islamic State” (p.107), Feldman argues.

The Islamic State attained significant success through its appeal to Sunni Muslims disillusioned with modernist versions of political Islam of the type represented by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia.  With no pretensions of adopting democratic values and practices, which it considered illegitimate and un-Islamic, ISIS sought to take political Islam back to pre-modern governance.  It posited a vision of Islamic government for which the foundation was the polity “once ruled by the Prophet and the four ‘rightly guided’ caliphs who succeeded him in the first several decades of Islam” (p.102).

But unlike Al-Qaeda or other ideologically similar entities, the Islamic State actually conquered and held enough territory to set up a functioning state in parts of Syria.  Until dislodged by a combination of Western air power, Kurdish and Shia militias supported by Iran, and active Russian intervention, ISIS was able to put into practice its revolutionary utopian form of government.  As a “self-conscious, intentional product of an organized group of people trying to give effect to specific political ideas and to govern on their basis,” ISIS represents for Feldman the “strangest and most mystifying outgrowth of the Arab spring” (p.102).

* * *

Despite dispiriting outcomes in Syria and Egypt, alongside those of Libya and Yemen, Feldman is dogged in his view that democracy is not doomed in the Arabic-speaking world.  Feldman’s democratic optimism combines Aristotle’s notion of “catharsis,” a cleansing that comes after tragedy, with the Arabic notion of tragedy itself, which can have a “practical, forward looking purpose. It can lead us to do better” (p.162).  The current winter of Arab politics “may last a generation or more,” he concludes.  “But after the winter—and from its depths—always comes another spring” (p.162).  But a generation, whether viewed through the lens of the political theorist or that of the historian, is a long time to wait for those Arabic-speaking people yearning to escape autocracy, civil war, and terrorist rule.

Thomas H. Peebles 

Bethesda, Maryland 

November 10, 2021 

 

6 Comments

Filed under Middle Eastern History, Political Theory

The Power of Human Rights

 

Samantha Power, The Education of an Idealist:

A Memoir 

By almost any measure, Samantha Power should be considered an extraordinary American success story. An immigrant from Ireland who fled the Emerald Isle with her mother and brother at a young age to escape a turbulent family situation, Power earned degrees from Yale University and Harvard Law School, rose to prominence in her mid-20s as a journalist covering civil wars and ethnic cleaning in Bosnia and the Balkans, won a Pulitzer Prize for a book on 20th century genocides, and helped found the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where she served as its executive director — all before age 35.  Then she met an ambitious junior Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, and her career really took off.

Between 2009 and 2017, Power served in the Obama administration almost continually, first on the National Security Council and subsequently as Ambassador to the United Nations.  In both capacities, she became the administration’s most outspoken and influential voice for prioritizing human rights, arguing regularly for targeted United States and multi-lateral interventions to protect individuals from human rights abuses and mass atrocities, perpetrated in most cases by their own governments.  In what amounts to an autobiography, The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir, Power guides her readers through  the major foreign policy crises of the Obama administration.

Her life story, Power tells her readers at the outset, is one of idealism, “where it comes from, how it gets challenged, and why it must endure” (p.xii).  She is quick to emphasize that hers is not a story of how a person with “lofty dreams” about making a difference in the world came to be “’educated’ by the “brutish forces” (p.xii) she encountered throughout her professional career.  So what then is the nature of the idealist’s “education” that provides the title to her memoir?  The short answer probably lies in how Power learned to make her idealistic message on human rights both heard and effective within the complex bureaucratic structures of the United States government and the United Nations.

But Power almost invariably couples this idealistic message with the view that the promotion and protection of human rights across the globe is in the United States’ own national security interests; and that the United States can often advance those interests most effectively by working multi-laterally, through international organizations and with like-minded states.  The United States, by virtue of its multi-faceted strengths – economic, military and cultural – is in a unique position to influence the actions of other states, from its traditional allies all the way to those that inflict atrocities upon their citizens.

Power acknowledges that the United States has not always used its strength as a positive force for human rights and human betterment – one immediate example is the 2003 Iraq invasion, which she opposed. Nevertheless, the United States retains a reservoir of credibility sufficient to be effective on human rights matters when it choses to do so.   Although Power is sometimes labeled a foreign policy “hawk,” she recoils from that adjective.  To Power, the military is among the last of the tools that should be considered to advance America’s interests around the world.

Into this policy-rich discussion, Power weaves much detail about her personal life, beginning with her early years in Ireland,  the incompatibilities between her parents that prompted her mother to take her and her brother to the United States when she was nine, and her efforts as a schoolgirl to become American in the full sense of the term. After numerous failed romances, she finally met Mr. Right, her husband, Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein (who also served briefly in the Obama administration). The marriage gave rise to a boy and a girl with lovely Irish names, Declan and Rían, both born while Power was in government.  With much emphasis upon her parents, husband, children and family life, the memoir is also a case study of how professional women balance the exacting demands of high-level jobs with the formidable responsibilities attached to being a parent and spouse.  It’s a tough balancing act for any parent, but especially for women, and Power admits that she did not always strike the right balance.

Memoirs by political and public figures are frequently attempts to write one’s biography before someone else does, and Power’s whopping 550-page work seems to fit this rule.  But Power provides much candor  – a willingness to admit to mistakes and share vulnerabilities – that is often missing in political memoirs. Refreshingly, she also abstains from serious score settling.  Most striking for me is the nostalgia that pervades the memoir.  Power takes her readers down memory lane, depicting a now by-gone time when the United States cared about human rights and believed in bi- and multi-lateral cooperation to accomplish its goals in its dealings with the rest of the world – a time that sure seems long ago.

* * *

Samantha Jane Power was born in 1970 to Irish parents, Vera Delaney, a doctor, and Jim Power, a part-time dentist.  She spent her early years in Dublin, in a tense family environment where, she can see now, her parents’ marriage was coming unraveled.  Her father put in far more time at Hartigan’s, a local pub in the neighborhood where he was known for his musical skills and “holding court,” than he did at his dentist’s office.  Although young Samantha didn’t recognize it at the time, her father had a serious alcohol problem, serious enough to lead her mother to escape by immigrating to the United States with the couple’s two children, Samantha, then age nine, and her brother Stephen, two years younger. They settled in Pittsburgh, where Samantha at a young age set about to become American, as she dropped her Irish accent, tried to learn the intricacies of American sports, and became a fervent Pittsburgh Pirates fan.

But the two children were required under the terms of their parents’ custody agreement to spend time with her father back in Ireland. On her trip back at Christmas 1979, Samantha’s father informed the nine-year old that he intended to keep her and her brother with him.  When her mother, who was staying nearby, showed up to object and collect her children to return to the United States, a parental confrontation ensued which would traumatize Samantha for decades.  The nine year old found herself caught between the conflicting commands of her two parents and, in a split second decision, left with her mother and returned to the Pittsburgh. She never again saw her father.

When her father died unexpectedly five years later, at age 47 of alcohol-related complications, Samantha, then in high school, blamed herself for her father’s death and carried a sense of guilt with her well into her adult years. It was not until she was thirty-five, after many therapy sessions, that she came to accept that she had not been responsible for her father’s death.  Then, a few years later, she made the mistake of returning to Hartigan’s, where she encountered the bar lady who had worked there in her father’s time.   Mostly out of curiosity, Power asked her why, given that so many people drank so much at Hartigan’s, her father had been the only one who died. The bar lady’s answer was matter-of-fact: “Because you left” (p.192) — not what Power needed to hear.

Power had by then already acquired a public persona as a human rights advocate through her work as a journalist in the 1990s in Bosnia, where she called attention to the ethnic cleansing that was sweeping the country in the aftermath of the collapse of the former Yugoslavia.  Power ended up writing for a number of major publications, including The Economist, the New Republic and the Washington Post.   She was among the first to report on the fall of Srebrenica in July 1995, the largest single massacre in Europe since World War II, in which around 10,000 Muslim men and boy were taken prisoner and “seemed to have simply vanished” (p.102). Although the United States and its NATO allies had imposed a no-fly zone over Bosnia, Power hoped the Clinton administration would commit to employing ground troops to prevent further atrocities. But she did not yet enjoy the clout to have a real chance at making her case directly with the administration.

Power wrote a chronology of the conflict, Breakdown in the Balkans, which was later put into book form and attracted attention from think tanks, and the diplomatic, policy and media communities.  Attracting even more attention was  A Problem for Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, her book exploring  American reluctance to take action in the face of 20th century mass atrocities and genocides.  The book appeared in 2002, and won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.  It also provided Power with her inroad to Senator Barack Obama.

At the recommendation of a politically well-connected friend, in late 2004 Power sent a copy of the book to the recently elected Illinois Senator who had inspired the Democratic National Convention that summer with an electrifying keynote address.  Obama’s office scheduled a dinner for her with the Senator which was supposed to last 45 minutes.  The dinner went on for four hours as the two exchanged ideas about America’s place in the world and how, why and when it should advance human rights as a component of its foreign policy.  Although Obama considered Power to be primarily an academic, he offered her a position on his Senate staff, where she started working late in 2005.

Obama and Power would then be linked professionally more or less continually until the end of the Obama presidency in January 2017.   Once Obama enters the memoir, at about the one-third point, it becomes as much his story as hers. The two did not always see the world and specific world problems in the same way, but it’s clear that Obama had great appreciation both for Power’s intelligence and her intensity. He was a man who enjoyed being challenged intellectually, and plainly valued the human rights perspective that Power brought to their policy discussions even if he wasn’t prepared to push as far as Power advocated.

After Obama threw his hat in the ring for the 2008 Democratic Party nomination, Power became one of his primary foreign policy advisors and, more generally, a political operative. It was not a role that fit Power comfortably and it threatened to be short-lived.  In the heat of the primary campaign, with Obama and Hilary Clinton facing off in a vigorously contested battle for their party’s nomination, Power was quoted in an obscure British publication, the Scotsman, as describing Clinton as a “monster.” The right-wing Drudge Report picked up the quotation, whose accuracy Power does not contest, and suddenly Power found herself on the front page of major newspapers, the subject of a story she did not want.  Obama’s closest advisors were of the view that she would have to resign from the campaign.  But the candidate himself, who loved sports metaphors, told Power only that she would have to spend some time in the “penalty box” (p.187).  Obama’s relatively soft reaction was an indication of the potential he saw in her and his assessment of her prospective value to him if successful in the primaries and the general election.

Power’s time in the penalty box had expired when Obama, having defeated Clinton for his party’s nomination, won a resounding victory in the general election in November 2008.  Obama badly wanted Power on his team in some capacity, and the transition team placed her on the President’s National Security Council as principal deputy for international organizations, especially the United Nations.  But she was also able to carve out a concurrent position for herself as the President’s Senior Director for Human Rights.   In this portion of the memoir, Power describes learning the jargon and often-arcane skills needed to be effective on the council and within the vast foreign policy bureaucracy of the United States government.  Being solely responsibility for human rights, Power found that she had some leeway in deciding which issues to concentrate on and bring to the attention of the full Council.  Her mentor Richard Holbrook advised her that she could be most effective on subjects for which there was limited United States interest – pick “small fights,” Holbrook advised.

Power had a hand in a string of “small victories” while on the National Security Council: coaxing the United States to rejoin a number of UN agencies from which the Bush Administration had walked away; convincing President Obama to raise his voice over atrocities perpetrated by governments in Sri Lanka and Sudan against their own citizens; being appointed White House coordinator for Iraqi refugees; helping create an inter-agency board to coordinate the United States government’s response to war crimes and atrocities; and encouraging increased emphasis upon lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender issues (LGBT) overseas.  In pursuit of the latter, Obama delivered an address at the UN General Assembly on LGBT rights, and thereafter issued a Presidential Memorandum directing all US agencies to consider LGBT issues explicitly in crafting overseas assistance (disclosure: while with the Department of Justice, I served on the department’s portion of the inter-agency Atrocity Prevention Board, and represented the department in inter-agency coordination on the President’s LGBT memorandum; I never met Power in either capacity).

But the Arab Spring that erupted in late 2010 and early 2011 presented  anything but small issues and resulted in few victories for the Obama administration.  A “cascade of revolts that would reorder huge swaths of the Arab world,” the Arab Spring ended up “impacting the course of Obama’s presidency more than any other geopolitical development during his eight years in office” (p.288), Power writes, and the same could be said for Power’s time in government.  Power was among those at the National Security Council who pushed successfully for United States military intervention in Libya to protect Libyan citizens from the predations of their leader, Muammar Qaddafi.

The intervention, backed by a United Nations Security Council resolution and led jointly by the United States, France and Jordan, saved civilian lives and contributed to Qaddafi’s ouster and death.  ButPresident Obama was determined to avoid a longer-term and more open-ended United States commitment, and the mission stopped short of the follow-up needed to bring stability to the country.  With civil war in various guises continuing to this day, Power suggests that the outcome might have been different had the United States continued its engagement in the aftermath of Qaddafi’s death.

Shortly after Power became US Ambassador to the United Nations, the volatile issue of an American military commitment arose again, this time in Syria in August 2013, when proof came irrefutably to light that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad was using chemical weapons in his effort to suppress uprisings within the country.  The revelations came 13 months after Obama had asserted that use of such weapons would constitute a “red line” that would move him to intervene militarily in Syria.  Power favored targeted US air strikes within Syria.

Obama came excruciatingly close to approving such strikes.  He not only concluded that the “costs of not responding forcefully were greater than the risks of taking military action” (p.369), but was prepared to act without UN Security Council authorization, given the certainty of  a Russian veto of any Security Council resolution for concerted action.   With elevated stakes for “upholding the international norm against the use of chemical weapons” Power writes, Obama was “prepared to operate with what White House lawyers called a ‘traditionally recognized legal basis under international law’” (p.369).

But almost overnight, Obama decided that he needed prior Congressional authorization for a military strike in Syria, a decision taken seemingly with little effort to ascertain whether there was sufficient support in Congress for such a strike.  With neither the Congress nor the American public supporting military action within Syria to save civilian lives, Obama backed down.  On no other issue did Power see Obama as torn as he was on Syria,  “convinced that even limited military action would mire the United States in another open-ended conflict, yet wracked by the human toll of the slaughter.  I don’t believe he ever stopped interrogating his choices” (p.508).

Looking back at that decision with the passage of more than five years, Power’s disappointment remains palpable.  The consequences of inaction in Syria, she maintains, went:

beyond unfathomable levels of death, destruction, and displacement. The spillover of the conflict into neighboring countries through massive refugee flows and the spread of ISIS’s ideology has created dangers for people in many parts of the world. . . [T]hose of us involved in helping devise Syria policy will forever carry regret over our inability to do more to stem the crisis.  And we know the consequences of the policies we did choose. For generations to come, the Syrian people and the wide world will be living with the horrific aftermath of the most diabolical atrocities carried out since the Rwanda genocide (p.513-14).

But if incomplete action in Libya and inaction in Syria constitute major disappointments for Power, she considers exemplary the response of both the United States and the United Nations to the July 2014 outbreak of the Ebola virus that occurred in three West African countries, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.  United States experts initially foresaw more than one million infections of the deadly and contagious disease by the end of 2015.  The United States devised its own plan to send supplies, doctors and nurses to the region to facilitate the training of local health workers to care for Ebola patients, along with 3,000 military personnel to assist with on-the-ground logistics.  Power was able to talk President Obama out of a travel ban to the United States from the three impacted countries, a measure favored not only by Donald Trump, then contemplating an improbable run for the presidency, but also by many members of the President’s own party.

At the United Nations, Power was charged with marshaling global assistance.   She convinced 134 fellow Ambassadors to co-sponsor a Security Council resolution declaring the Ebola outbreak a public health threat to international peace and security, the largest number of co-sponsors for any Security Council resolution in UN history and the first ever directed to a public health crisis.  Thereafter, UN Member States committed $4 billion in supplies, facilities and medical treatments.  The surge of international resources that followed meant that the three West African countries “got what they needed to conquer Ebola” (p.455).  At different times in 2015, each of the countries was declared Ebola-free.

The most deadly and dangerous Ebola outbreak in history was contained, Power observes, above all because of the “heroic efforts of the people and governments of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone” (p.456). But America’s involvement was also crucial.  President Obama provided what she describes as an “awesome demonstration of US leadership and capability – and a vivid example of how a country advances its values and interests at once” (p.438).  But the multi-national, collective success further illustrated “why the world needed the United Nations, because no one country – even one as powerful as the United States – could have slayed the epidemic on its own” (p.457).

Although Russia supported the UN Ebola intervention, Power more often found herself in an adversarial posture with Russia on both geo-political and UN administrative issues.  Yet, she used creative  diplomatic skills to develop a more nuanced relationship with her Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin.  Cherkin, a talented negotiator and master of the art of strategically storming out of meetings, valued US-Russia cooperation and often “pushed for compromises that Moscow was disinclined to make” (p.405).  Over time, Power writes, she and Churkin “developed something resembling genuine friendship” (p.406). But “I also spent much of my time at the UN in pitched, public battle with him” (p.408).

The most heated of these battles ensued after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2014, a flagrant violation of international law. Later that year, troops associated with Russia shot down a Malaysian passenger jet, killing all passengers aboard.  In the UN debates on Ukraine, Power found her Russian counterpart “defending the indefensible, repeating lines sent by Moscow that he was too intelligent to believe and speaking in binary terms that belied his nuanced grasp of what was actually happening” (p.426). Yet, Power and Churkin continued to meet privately to seek solutions to the Ukraine crisis, none of which bore fruit.

While at the UN, Power went out of her way to visit the offices of the ambassadors of the smaller countries represented in the General Assembly, many of whom had never received  a United States Ambassador.  During her UN tenure, she managed to meet personally with the ambassadors from every country except North Korea.  Power also started a group that gathered the UN’s 37 female Ambassadors together one day a week for coffee and discussion of common issues.  Some involved  substantive matters that the UN had to deal with, but just as often the group focused on workplace matters that affected the women ambassadors as women, matters that their male colleagues did not have to deal with.

* * *

Donald Trump’s surprise victory in November 2016 left Power stunned.  His nativist campaign to “Make America Great Again” seemed to her like a “repudiation of many of the central tenets of my life” (p.534).  As an  immigrant, a category Trump seemed to relish denigrating, she “felt fortunate to have experienced many countries and cultures. I saw the fate of the American people as intertwined with that of individuals elsewhere on the planet.   And I knew that if the United States retreated from the world, global crises would fester, harming US interests” (p.534-35).  As Obama passed the baton to Trump in January 2017, Power left government.

Not long after, her husband suffered a near-fatal automobile accident, from which he recovered. Today, the pair team-teach courses at Harvard, while Power seems to have found the time for her family that proved so elusive when she was in government.  She is coaching her son’s baseball team and helping her daughter survey rocks and leaves in their backyard.  No one would begrudge Power’s quality time with her family. But her memoir will likely leave many readers wistful, daring to hope that there may someday  be room again for  her and her energetic idealism in the formulation of United States foreign policy.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

April 26, 2020

7 Comments

Filed under American Politics, American Society, Politics, United States History

Exuberance That Failed to Last

Robert Worth, A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil,

From Tahrir Square to ISIS 

            The upheaval known as the Arab Spring began on December 17, 2010, when a Tunisian street fruit vendor, Muhammed Bouazizi, doused his body with gasoline and burned himself.  The 26-year old had been distraught over confiscation of his cart and scales by municipal authorities, ostensibly because he lacked a required work permit. Pro-democracy protests throughout Tunisia began almost immediately after Bouazizi’s self-immolation, aimed at Tunisia’s autocratic ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.  Bouazizi died 18 days later, on January 4, 2011. On January 14, 2011, Ben Ali, who had fled to Saudi Arabia, resigned the office he had held since 1987.

          In less than two weeks, pro-democracy demonstrations against Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s strongman president since 1981, took place on Cairo’s Tahrir Square.  On February 11, 2011, Mubarak too resigned his office. By that time, protests against ruling autocrats had broken out in Libya and Yemen. On March 14, 2011, similar protests began in Syria.  Before the end of the year, Yemen’s out-of-touch leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, President of North Yemen since 1978 and of Yemen since the North’s merger with South Yemen in 1990, had been forced to resign; and Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, who had ruled Libya since 1969, was driven from office and shot by rebels. Of the region’s autocrats, only Syria’s Bashar al-Assad still clung to power, and his days too appeared numbered.

           The era of dictators and despots was over in the Middle East, or so it seemed. The stupefying departures in a single calendar year of four of the Arab world’s seemingly most firmly entrenched autocrats prompted many exuberant souls, myself included, to permit themselves to believe that finally, at last, democracy had broken through in the Middle East.  Some went so far as to compare 2011 to 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and countries across Central and Eastern Europe were suddenly out from under Soviet domination.

          But, as we now know, 2011 was no 1989: the euphoria and giddiness of that year have turned to despair. Egypt’s democratically elected president, Muhammad Morsi, was deposed by a military coup and the current government seems as ruthlessly autocratic as that of Mubarak. Assad holds on to power in Syria amidst a ruinous civil war that has cost hundreds of thousands lives and shows few signs of abating.  Yemen and Libya appear to be ruled, if at all, by tribal militias and gangs. Only Tunisia offers cautious hope of an enduring democratic future. And hovering over the entire region is the threat of brutal terrorism, represented most terrifyingly by the self-styled Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS.

         For those wondering how such high initial hopes could have been so thoroughly dashed, and for those simply seeking to better their understanding of what happened, Robert Worth’s A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, From Tahrir Square to ISIS, should be prescribed reading. A former Middle East correspondent for the New York Times, Worth takes his readers on a personally guided country-by-country tour of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, places that seemed so promising in early 2011, with roughly half the book devoted to Egypt.  As his title indicates, Worth also addresses the rise of ISIS to become what he terms the “great menace of a new age . . . capable of inspiring people as far away as France or even California to murder in the name of God” (p.231).

        Not least among the many virtues of Worth’s perspective upon the various iterations of the Arab Spring is that he does not seek to wrap them into a grandiose overall theory that would explain how the hopeful vision of 2011 unraveled. Although the early message of the Arab Spring now “appears to have been wholly reversed,” Worth writes, each country he treats “fell apart in its own way” (p.4).   Worth focuses on the indigenous forces that propelled the uprisings of 2011, rather than the “mostly secondary” (p.12) role of the United States and European powers. His book is not intended to be a comprehensive history of the Arab Spring but rather, as he puts it, a “much more selective effort to make sense of the fallout”(p.12). He argues that the Arab world had “never built a peaceful model for political succession” and that the pro-democracy activists of 2011 were “spectacularly unprepared for upheaval” (p.8).

      Worth’s perspective sustains its momentum through personal stories of  individuals who experienced the Arab Spring, in a manner reminiscent of Adam Hochschild’s account of the Spanish Civil War, Spain in Our Hearts, reviewed here last month. But unlike Hochschild, Worth portrays men and women he had met and worked with: his professional contacts, acquaintances and, in some cases, personal friends. Their stories humanize the regional upheaval, underscoring its complex and tragic character.

* * *

         Worth was present almost from the beginning of the January 2011 anti-Mubarak demonstrations on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and he writes about them more as a participant than as a journalist observer. He recounts his experience through the eyes of Pierre Siaufi, a 49 year old, 300 pound “slacker and bohemian . . . a benevolent Arab version of Allen Ginsberg” (p.17-18). Siaufi turned his disheveled apartment near Tahrir Square into “ground zero,” the nerve center of the largely leaderless anti-Mubarak protests.  The demonstrators included groups and classes that had previously viewed one another with distrust: Facebook and social media savvy youth, middle class liberals and intellectuals, secularists, Christians and Muslims – including the long suppressed Muslim Brotherhood – even, Worth notes, street vendors from Cairo’s slums and some notorious soccer hooligans.

          For a short period, the unlikely grouping on Tahirir Square seemed almost impossibly united:

There was an emotion in the air that encompassed all of us, made us feel we’d shed our old skins and the past was irrelevant . . . [There was] a sudden shift in perspective, as if Earth had tilted on its axis, allowing you to miraculously see truths that had been hidden from you all along. The tyrant, once vast and august, was now revealed as a laughable old fool . . . Most of all, there was the passionate insistence that the revolution would triumph, that justice would replace injustice, that the country’s problems – its sectarian hatreds, its corruption, its terrorist gangs – were all artificial, trumped up, the cynical props of the old regime. All of it would fade away now that the people were empowered (p.19-20).

Yet Worth’s gut feeling was that this exuberance could not last. He summarizes in italics the views of those around him, which seem to be his own as well: “I know these things are not true. But perhaps, if we will them with enough conviction, they will come true someday” (p.20).

      Worth’s gut proved right. The heady moment on February 11, 2011, when Mubarak stepped aside, led to an Islamic ascendancy, resulting in the election and disastrous presidency of Muhammad Morsi.  Morsi represented Egypt’s infuriatingly complex Muslim Brotherhood, a “religious movement seeking democracy” but including a “more secretive element – with radical spin-offs – bent on implementing Islamic law” (p.132). Under Mubarak, the Brotherhood operated in a “legal shadowland” (p.132), subject to periodic mass arrests.

         After Mubarak’s resignation, the Brotherhood indicated that it would not proffer a candidate for president. But with unexpected success in parliamentary elections in late 2011, it reversed itself.  Morsi, a stubborn organization man with few political skills, was elected president in June 2012. Worth contrasts Morsi with Brotherhood member Muhammad Beltagy, a thoughtful medical doctor in Cairo’s slums, with skills at mediation and conciliation far exceeding those of Morsi.  Beltagy “always looked as if he’d been up all night negotiating a truce and emerged victorious at dawn” (p.128), Worth writes. He suggests that Beltagy might well have avoided the catastrophic consequences of the Morsi presidency had he been willing to serve.

          A decree which Morsi issued in November 2012, granting him broad powers above the courts as the “guardian of the revolution,” precipitated large scale protests and set the stage for the bloody military coup orchestrated by General Abdelfattah al Sisi that deposed Morsi in July 2013, with the support of many secularists and liberals who had previously joined with the Brotherhood in opposing Mubarak. Once in power, Sisi brutally suppressed pro-Islamist demonstrations and arrested most of the Brotherhood leadership.  Almost overnight, the Brotherhood went from the “summit of power to the status of a terrorist group” (p.167). Many Brotherhood members fled the country, with some joining ISIS to fight in Syria and Libya. Beltagy’s daughter was killed in one of the demonstrations and Beltagy found himself jailed and sentenced to death under the military regime.

        Worth places responsibility for the failure of Egypt’s democratically elected government squarely upon Morsi and his “pigheadedness” (p.152), which alienated even his own cabinet ministers.  When faced with organized opposition to his regime, Morsi “sounded as brittle and intransigent as any ancient regime tyrant. He blamed it all on a ‘fifth column’ and refused to give any ground. He wrapped himself in the flag just as Mubarak had, warning against hired thugs and saboteurs, never acknowledging the depth of the anger he had provoked” (p.147).

* * *

         By mid-2011, Tunisia, where the Arab Spring had begun, appeared to be heading in the same calamitous direction as Egypt. In the first parliamentary elections since the uprising, Ennahda, an Islamist party led by Rached Ghannouchi, won a plurality of seats. As in Egypt, the Islamist ascendancy in Tunisia caused alarm throughout the country. But Ghannouchi was the polar opposite of Egypt’s Morsi, a “philosopher-king” (p.207) within Tunisia’s Islamist movement who had lived abroad, spoke several languages, and was reluctant to demonize his political opponents.  In August 2013, Ghannouchi began meeting secretly in Paris with the primary opposition leader, Beji Caid Essebsi.

          Essebsi was Tunisia’s “ remaining elder statesman” (p.200), a rigorous secularist who had served as Interior Minister under Ben Ali’s predecessor, Tunisia’s post-World War II anti-colonialist leader Habib Bourguiba.  Worth provides an affecting fly-on-the-wall account of the discussions between Tunisia’s “two grand old men” (p.221) — Ghannouchi was then 72, Essebsi 86. Although from opposite ends of the social spectrum and opposite sides of Tunisia’s sectarian divide, Ghannouchi and Essebsi found common ground and a way forward. By September 2013, they agreed that Ennahda would cede power to a caretaker government, while a new constitution could be considered.

          In January 2014, Ennahada suffered major loses in parliamentary elections, with Essebsi’s secularist party winning a parliamentary majority. Essebsi was elected president and formed a coalition government with Ennahda. Two deadly terrorist attacks later in 2014 all but destroyed Tunisia’s critical tourist industry and threatened the coalition government, which bent but did not break. By mid-2015, the coalition government was “coalescing and planning reforms, albeit slowly. Most of the Islamists seemed to have come around to the belief in compromise and reconciliation. Leftists spoke optimistically about a working relationship with the people they’d once hoped to eradicate” (p.221).

          The legacy to be granted to Tunisia’s two grand old men, Ghannouchi and Essebsi, remains to be determined, Worth concludes: “The idea that they achieved a historic synthesis, a reweaving of the country’s Islamic and Western ancestries, is an appealing one. And in many ways, Tunisia did seem to have pulled back from the crater’s edge in mid-2015” (p.221). But, five years after Mohamed Bouazizi’s death had set the Arab Spring in motion, most Tunisians “still hoped that their small country could be a model, spreading its dream of reconciliation across a region troubled by war and tyranny. They also knew the same winds could blow in reverse and smash everything they had built” (p.221).

* * *

            Protests against Yemen’s leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, began in the summer of 2010, but gained momentum after the events in Tunisia and Egypt in the winter of 2011.  Saleh was a ruler who, as Worth puts it, brought corruption and manipulation to a “whole new level of cynicism and mastery” (p.98). In the Arab world’s poorest country, he managed to “rake off tens of billions of dollars in public funds for himself and his family” (p.98), becoming richer than Hosni Mubarak. Elevating blackmail into a “tool of the state,” Saleh’s greatest talent was for “corrupting other people . . . He made sure that every potential opponent had dirty money or blood on his hands, or both” (p.98-99).

         By June 2011, anti-Saleh rebels had captured large portions of the country. When Saleh himself was injured in a bombing at a mosque, he fled to Saudi Arabia for treatment, leaving the country rudderless.  In November, he officially resigned his office in exchange for a diplomatically brokered agreement providing him with immunity from prosecution. But the agreement failed to end the fighting among tribal factions. Tribal warfare, “widely viewed as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran” (p.240), continues to this day. Worth tells the story of Yemen through the eyes of Saeed, a grizzled and battered activist who had been fighting the Yemeni regime for four decades and provides the book’s best single line quotation. “I don’t want an Islamic state, I don’t want a Socialist state, I don’t want a one-party state,” Saeed said. “I just want a modern state” — which Worth defines as a “state where citizenship meant something, where the rule of law was respected” (p.100).  Yemen is not there yet.

* * *

            Protests against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya began on February 15, 2011, four days after Mubarak’s fall. The protestors were “met with truncheons, and then with bullets; they picked up weapons almost at once” (p.38-39). Within days, the rebels had driven Qaddafi’s forces out and laid claim to almost half the country. By August 2011, Qaddafi was forced to flee Tripoli. He was captured and killed in October 2011. In a country where clan solidarity and the tradition of blood feuds run deep, Qaddafi left his countrymen with a void: “no army, no police, no unions, nothing to bring them together” (p.38).  ISIS filled part of the void, founding a mini-state in portions of the country, amidst a civil war between competing militias that Worth describes as “so fragmented and mercurial that it defied all efforts to distill a larger meaning” (p.226-27). Libya had become an “archipelago of feuding warlords” (p.38).

* * *

          With Saleh’s resignation and Quaddafi’s death, Syria’s Bashar Assad was — and remains to this day — the last tyrant still standing, with a shaky hold on power amidst a civil war that has destroyed his country and produced one of the 21st century’s most severe humanitarian crisis.  Anti-Assad demonstrations in Syria began after both Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia had been forced out of office, but was triggered by police mistreatment of teenagers arrested in the southern Syrian town of Daraa for writing antigovernment graffiti. Assad determined early on that he would not go down as easily as his Egyptian and Tunisian counterparts.

       Worth presents the sectarian underpinnings to Syria’s civil war through the pairing of two bright women, both in their 20s from opposite sides of the country’s sectarian divide: Naura Kanafani, a Sunni Muslim; and her long-time best friend Aliaa Ali, an Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and supporter of fellow Alawite Assad.  Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, approximately 70% of its population, looks down on the impoverished Alawais as heretics and crude mountain people, Worth explains. But Assad’s father, Alawi military officer Hafez al Assad, became Syria’s autocrat-in-charge in 1971. When Hafez died in 2000, his son Bashar, described by Worth as “tall and angular. . . with a birdlike watchfulness and an elongated neck and head that made him look as if he’d been painted by El Greco” (p.67), succeeded him.

          Bashar responded to the March 2011 protests by unleashing his “foot soldiers,” essentially Alawi thugs from the mountains, to counter the protesters. By the end of 2011, forces loyal to Assad were “using tanks and fighter jets to pound whole neighborhoods to rubble. . . [They were] massacring Sunni civilians in the their homes and leaving scrawled sectarian slogans on the doors” (p.68). Best friends Naura and Aliaa, for whom religious differences had previously been irrelevant, began to see the same events differently. Naura was aghast that the regime appeared to be killing innocent people wantonly, while Aliaa attributed such reports to “fake news.” Little by little, Naura and Aliaa began to define each other as the enemy. Their prior friendship “belonged to a world that no longer made sense” (p.95).

          Throughout 2012, the Syrian conflict “spun outward. . . drawing in almost every country in the region and many beyond it” (p.86). The Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah and Shiite Iran supported Assad, with Russian backing. ISIS came into its own in Syria fighting Assad, and seized control of substantial portions of Syrian territory. Western-backed factions also fought Assad, finding themselves uncomfortably on the same side as ISIS. The first wave of anti-Assad rebels, the “urban young men and women who spoke of democracy,” gave way to “legions of young zealots who slipped across the border with holy war and martyrdom and on their minds” (p.80). These zealous migrants, including eager volunteers for suicide missions, helped ISIS become what Worth terms the “most powerful jihadi group in history” (p.175).

      In mid-2013, Worth returned to Syria, where he had previously spent considerable time and nurtured numerous contacts.  This time he barely recognized the country. “Half the country was behind rebel lines, in a zone where Western hostages were bought and sold and beheaded. Most of my Syrian friends had fled and were living in Europe or Beirut or Dubai” (p.87). By the end of 2014, the death toll in Syria exceeded 200,000, with huge waves of migration out of Syria, making their way through Turkey on “rickety boats to Greece and onward to Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, and Germany” (p.230). As a Sunni Muslim, Naura Kanafani was among the hundreds of thousands forced to flee Syria, escaping into Turkey on foot with her mother.

* * *

         Readers convinced that democracy cannot take hold and flourish in the Arab world – or in the Middle East, or in Muslim-majority countries – will have to dig deeply into Worth’s book to find support for their convictions, and they are unlikely to come up with much.  Despite the dashed expectations of 2011, Worth’s dispiriting yet riveting account leaves his readers thinking – or maybe just hoping – that the yearning expressed by his Yemeni contact Saaed for a modern state is unlikely to recede across the Middle East.

Thomas H. Peebles

Aubais, France

September 26, 2017

 

2 Comments

Filed under History, Middle Eastern History