The Second Debate: Cheap Shots and Evasions

Photo belongs to ABC News

I sat last night to hear the “town hall” type debate and personally focused on some of the foreign policy issues which surprisingly were asked by the citizen participants.


One of the questions was about the security issues that resulted in the attack on our mission in Benghazi in Libya.  As a former diplomat who focused on the threat of terrorist attacks against our missions and personnel abroad for part of my career, I was outraged and saddened at Gov. Romney’s political attacks again. I chaired a committee of the American Foreign Service Association focused on these very questions.  With this perspective, I was appalled that Gov. Romney tried to use a tragic situation for cheap political gain. It brings into question his fitness to be a responsible president and “Commander-in-chief.”

This was not the first time he used this subject in order divert attention from his dismissal of 47% of our citizens and to undermine the existing approval of American citizens in Obama leadership abroad. Yet, he added little of our understanding of America’s role in the region. 

Further, I want all to know that decisions about security in a particular embassy or mission is NOT normally taken to the President – not even many times to the Secretary of State. I worked for several secretaries of state as a policy planner and also in the White House and have some concept of the chain of information and decision-making in this area.

President Obama made a courageous decision to take responsibility for a decision and situation for which he had no direct involvement and was not at the presidential level before the attack. He did, however, act afterwards in directing an investigation, increasing the security in our missions in the area, and put forth finding and punishing the attackers.

There are serious issues concerning our goals, policies, and activities to deal with the Arab Spring, unrest in the region, and helping in the building of decent governments while seeking peace in the region. Romney gave us not a single bit of new insight regarding his specific different actions from what Obama is already doing. In fact, Obama has carried out a wide range of useful actions and policies from the start of his administration. Reaching out to the Muslim world along with rebuilding our trust in the region (after the disasters of the Bush administration) help us deal with Iran and creates cooperation on other issues in the region. Obama, in fact, built a measure of trust and dialogue where only antagonism existed due to our previous policies.

The exploiting of this serious, tragic, difficult, and still not clear situation instead of a more broad debate on major policies was unfortunate. I hope the next debate will add and not detract from that goal rather than making it into a leaver against a president who was and is still acting with concern and responsibility. It was an effort to divert attention from Romney’s clear void of foreign policy depth.  Yes, it was a cheap shot and beneath anyone running for president.

Libya Killings: The Exploitation of Tragedy and Our Corrosive Politics

As a former diplomat I am appalled not just by the act of mindless violence that resulted in the death of four professional American diplomats, but also by the use of this sad event by the Republican candidate for president and his team to exploit it for partisan advantage. This, in my view, is truly unforgivable.

There are enough dangers and complexity in the various areas of trouble in the world without adding to them and saying silly things or to exacerbate hatreds and anger which seems sometimes to be the aim of Gov. Romney and his crew. America’s aim is to make peace and bring democracy and prosperity to the Middle East region and beyond. This fact seems of little worth to the Republicans if there is some gain in risking this goal to gain power.

The Middle East has been a kind of tinder box for as long as I can remember and its politics and national and ethnic makeup call for very wise and judicious handling which was the forte of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and his many colleagues in the region. This is also a critical time in Middle East transition after the Arab Spring. It is time for both parties to continue the tradition of a subtle, balanced, and wise unified approach as taken by Reagan, the first Bush, Carter, Clinton, even the second Bush for some of his time (despite his indifference to its dangers), and now Obama. The simple fact is that Obama has been stronger and more effective against terrorism than the Bush people even came close to. He has shown strength in American determinism but also judiciousness in approach which has gain America much respect.     

Unfortunately, I agree with Senator Kerry’s judgment about Romney when he said, “Frankly I don’t think he knows what he is talking about.” 

At a time when U.S. Embassies are under attack, there is more need for voices of sanity, calm, and reconciliation. Not for stirring up partisan, ethnic, or religious animosities and least of all, in a time of turmoil and sadness of blatantly accusing the president (who has steadfastly fought terrorism successfully and also reached out to the vast majority of peaceful Muslims), of “sympathizing” with terrorists.

We do need a rational and thoughtful debate on American foreign policy but it is best done on the basis of facts, careful study, and thoughtful analysis; rather than the degrading and wrongheaded statements of someone who clearly is out of his depth but just does not know it. 

We welcome your comments!

Next Steps for Libya’s Transitional National Council and for the Libyan People’s Future?

We are getting closer to seeing the testing moment of whether or not the Transitional National Council (TNC) will be able to work together as a stable interim government rather than a rather fractious fighting rebel force. They have gained recognition by a wide group of nations including now the U.S. and the Arab League, which sets the stage for external help.

The proof will be if the TNC’s efforts successfully create a better future for its people and provide the basis for promoting reconciliation and democracy as well as create democracy and prosperity for that nation.  Certainly, they have the advantage of some major resources in their oil producing capacity (about 3% of world production) and their now “embargoed” massive Libyan assets which can soon be made available for useful investment in the country.  They also have a fairly high literacy rate unlike what we see in Afghanistan.

Equally, we will be seeing if the NATO powers and the Arab allies will be able to provide the vital necessary assistance in a timely way and in forms that immediately impact the lives, well being, and especially employment–particularly of the youths of that nation, who are now so armed and engaged that they present both an element of instability and a promising source of talent to rebuild their now fairly devastated nation.

Libya needs an economic plan not dissimilar to what Obama would have liked in America if the Republicans had not vetoed it and thus prolonged our sad economic decline we are now seeing. But clearly, for Libya, a real stimulus is just what the doctor ordered to achieve growth and economic renewal.

We made some major mistakes in Iraq and in Afghanistan regarding getting their economies and security systems established and working.  Let’s not make the same mistake while the Arab world is watching and its implications loom large for the future of the “Arab Spring” and, thus, the evolution of the Arab world towards modernity and democracy.

There are plenty of “shovel ready” projects in rebuilding the damage that six months of civil war have created. (Just like there are in America with our own deteriorated infrastructure where the government can employ millions for massive long term national benefits.)  In Libya this can, in the end, all be paid for by oil money.  (In the US it can be paid for by our own increased productivity and revenue plus savings from less imported oil and fewer unemployment checks and destitute families.)  But it requires the full mobilization of both national resources and help from outside experts, companies, and international organizations with expertise in rebuilding countries that have experienced major damage. It means massive educational and training programs that lead to real jobs. Such an effort is likely to make building national unity easier when all have a stake in success.  The coming six months of victory and rebuilding will be even more important than the six months of civil war!

Comments invited!

By Harry C. Blaney III.

A Region on Fire: The “Arab Spring” Moves to “Arab Summer” and Heats UP

The Arab Spring has morphed into an “Arab Summer” of heated uncertainty and brutal conflict and soon will transition into an ‘Arab Fall.’  The “Arab Fall” will likely be the key time when agreed transition actions, conflicts, and elections will come to a critical stage and outcomes a bit more known. I suspect that the fall’s events will be major in determining to some extent the true direction of the Arab upheavals. But the summer has demonstrated the risks and uncertainties of the transformation.  Thus, we have little time to really help with this critical transition.

We will look at some of the current changes we are seeing, but the question of what will become of all the unrest and upheavals and the still fragile accomplishments of the “Arab Spring” remains. The question especially is what should America’s response, and that of our friends and allies, be?

First is the cradle of the movement in Tunisia where, for various reasons, there is more hope than despair but a still fragile and changing situation. Here democratic forces are still responding.  We are likely to see party formations and preparation for elections over the coming months, and the response of the current transition government will be key.  Here we need to find a multilateral framework which can help promote civic society, democracy, transparency and, conduct election monitoring for the Tunisians. They are “the center” of the North African “upheaval sandwich” with Egypt on one side and Libya on the other—all unstable and continuing to go through dangerous change.

Second is the most important event of the “Arab Spring,” namely the “revolution” in Egypt.  Here things do not look so good, as the existing government seems of mixed inclination with actions against change for a real democracy and small, incomplete steps towards a functioning democratic government.  The military council, which rules Egypt, has put Mubarak on trial but not made transparent, nor deeply involved the opposition groups in, the decisions on the path to democracy.

Third is the continued conflict and revolution in Libya, which is still an ongoing hindrance to progress, but likely has an “end game” which has yet to play out. Here there have been both positive and negative trends. The positive is the international community’s wide recognition of the rebel council.  On the negative side, rebel supporters killed the general, who had been leading the campaign against Gaddafi.  Inter-clan rivalries seem to be a barrier to a unified and effective transition system of national governance.  Once money starts to flow to the Transition Council and supplies flow in, the rebels should gain a better advantage over the Gaddafi forces.  Nevertheless, the Council has yet to fully prove it can be a unified transition and honest governing body.

The problem again is the lack of a comprehensive follow through by the West and friendly, rich Arab countries to help the transitional leaders organize a truly national government, prepare a nation which never had democracy and is divided by clan and ethnic interests, and gain the capability of meeting the hopes and aspirations of its newly freed citizens.

Lastly, the other “upheavals” will have an impact on the region, and there are still lessons to be learned from the chaotic situation in several of these countries—the most dangerous and unpredictable being Syria. The government seems determined to kill its restive citizens while the West seems equally determined not to intervene due to what might be call “war” fatigue and lack of resources.

The UN has just condemned the killings but without taking any meaningful action.  Clearly, Syria is destined to be a problem for the whole region, a killing field, and a murderous dictatorship unless some concerted action is taken.  Without getting rid of Assad and his supporters, Syria will remain a festering source of regional instability.  The new troubles in Lebanon, due to the UN calling for the arrest of Hezbollah killers of the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, highlight the potential of added turmoil in Syria’s bordering countries.

Other countries in the region remain either in revolt, turmoil, or restive states. These include Yemen, Lebanon, Bahrain, Lebanon, etc. In short, much of the region is undergoing major changes that pose both extraordinary opportunities and equal risks.  Doing nothing or very little is likely the worse option, yet the mood and economy of the West is corrosive to bold action.

What about American policies in the region to further democracy and to help economic growth, which is necessary to achieve stability and support democratic rule over the long term?  Obama’s stated polices seem right, but the issue at hand is that Congress is so dysfunctional that Obama might not be given, in the present atmosphere, enough support and resources to make enough of a contribution to the region to ensure its stability and prosperity.  The political and economic situations confronting the U.S. and our European allies make reaching out and giving support to these positive forces questionable. That means that others with more malevolent intent could seize the day.  In that case, we will have lost an historic opportunity to help shape the region’s aspiring democracy.

Under these circumstances, what can and should be done to create democracy, protect human rights, and ensure a measure of economic justice?  In an earlier letter on May 2nd to the Financial Times, I urged a new multilateral effort to establish an international body, perhaps under the UN, to coordinate and to fund a regional development and democracy building program and to utilize the funding capacity of the World Bank, IMF, UNDP, and the Arab League to raise funds for the effort rather than rely on strained, traditional bilateral or insufficient limited multilateral assistance.  A multi-year “full court press’ is clearly necessary here. A regional fund of at least $100 billion to start is needed with a timeline of help over a ten year period.

The second initiative is one of concerted diplomacy to prevent conflict and hands-on assistance provided by NGOs and established international organizations to provide on the ground training, educational assistance, and jobs focused on the youth of the region, along with civil development support.  Not least, private sector investment is crucial and may need to be subsidized or guaranteed in some form.

We welcome our readers’ thoughts and comments as the events continue to unfold!

By Harry C. Blaney III.

What’s Next for Libya?

That was the question that a panel of experts organized by the Middle East Institute endeavored to answer as Barack Obama was delivering his landmark Middle East speech Thursday. Panelists, including Paul Pillar, Jeffrey White, and U.S. Representative of the Transitional National Council of Libya and former Libyan ambassador to the U.S. Ali Suleiman Aujali, discussed the progress of Libya’s civil war to date and the challenges that must be overcome if it is to be brought to a peaceful and desirable resolution.

In Mr. White’s presentation, he outlined four possible outcomes to the civil war. They are:

  1. The forces of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime steadily weaken and eventually dissolve, leading to victory for the rebels. This process would take several more weeks if not months.
  2. The regime collapses suddenly and without warning, causing an immediate rebel victory.
  3. The war becomes a true stalemate. In this outcome, any peace would likely involve a partition of the country along East-West geographic lines.
  4. The regime makes a comeback, gaining a military advantage and ultimately crushing the rebellion. Continue reading

Full Transcript of President Barack Obama’s May 19 Speech on the Middle East

Barack Obama gave his most significant address on the Middle East since his 2009 Cairo speech on Thursday. Emphasizing values over the strategic interests of the United States, the President expressed his support for all the Arab Spring movements and their cause of liberty and democracy. He also laid out in concrete terms what U.S. policy will be towards each of the crisis areas of the Middle East. The speech strongly condemned not only Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, but also Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the government of Bahrain. Obama’s most ambitious new policy proposal was a concrete plan for the Arab-Israeli peace process: a demilitarized but sovereign Palestinian state based on 1967 borders. 

The full text of President Obama’s speech is below, with the most crucial and relevant sections bolded. We welcome your comments on the speech.

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Bin Laden, Middle East Upheavals, and Rethinking American Policy

Yes, we have a new Middle East landscape with immense implications for the region and for American and allied interests. And yes, the killing of Bin Laden also has implications but they are also different. While the death of Bin Laden is important as a symbol of American determination to fight terrorism, it will not, of itself, stop attacks on America and others. Nor will it change in major ways the dynamics of the Middle East conflict between Israel and Palestine.

These changes in the regimes of Middle East countries, however, are likely for Israel making the “neighborhood” far less predictable and perhaps more dangerous unless a balanced peace agreement can be brought forth before too long.  The requirement must be for all sides to see this as an opportunity. But getting there seems, at the moment, a “bridge too far” for the opposing sides unless America and the other key global players act more directly than they have in the past. As with the current Middle East unrest, waiting only means a much larger price to pay at the end when the Tsunami of instability and long term hatreds and frustrations hits.

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