In Cairo Spring, Libya may be a distraction

I’m not expert enough on Middle Eastern politics to know whether it was wise for the United States to join he coalition taking military action against the Libyan government.

Toppling dictators and thugs is, on one level, a gratifying business.  And it was painful to watch as Muammar Gaddafi’s troops closed in on rebels fighting for regime change.

Hopefully the world’s intervention can bring about a quick and positive transition of power, without a lengthy entanglement.

I am concerned, however, that this decision to resort to military action betrays a misunderstanding about the real meaning of the remarkable events of the Cairo Spring, both to the region and to the world.

Broadly speaking, we have learned in recent months that there is extensive political support in the Middle East for creating sustainable democracies, productive economies, and civil societies where the rule of law prevails.

The portrait of the “Muslim Street” that many Americans had internalized — one of chaotic fist-shaking masses, of a society that will always collaborate at least passively with terrorists — has been turned on its head.

We have seen women in leadership positions.  We have seen peaceful expressions of political idealism.  We have seen articulate, reasonable and courageous people demanding better and freer lives.

All of which should lead the world back to the fundamental and inevitable question in that region:  What do we do about Palestine?

While largely peaceful revolutions were sweeping the Arab world, we have also seen indications that Palestinian leaders are also legitimately eager for a settlement.

But the Israeli leadership continues to press disappointing policies that have nothing to do with national security — indeed, some of those policies are so provocative that they endanger the Israeli people.

The most risky of these actions is the continued construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

This is dangerous for two reasons.  First, it weakens those elements in Palestinian society that appear to be searching in earnest for civilized co-existence with Israel.

That can only embolden the deadly, terrorist factions that Israel faces.

But the other risk to Israel is that the nation will continue to find itself more and more isolated in the world community.

The Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory is already hugely controversial throughout the vast Islamic world and increasingly in much of the Western world.

Imagine a future where Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, and Libya are functioning democracies, yet Palestinians still live under the control of the Israeli military.

Surely that would be intolerable for many of Israel’s allies, and for many of Israel’s democracy-loving citizens.

In the latest issue of the New Yorker, David Remnick suggests that this kind of isolation is already brewing.

He quotes a scathing conversation between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

Late last month, [Netahyahu] called the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to register his displeasure that Germany had voted for a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Jewish settlements.

According to an account in the Israeli daily Haaretz, a German source said that Merkel could hardly contain her outrage.

“How dare you?” she said. “You are the one who has disappointed us. You haven’t made a single step to advance peace.”

I’m guessing that Israel is hearing much the same, in private, from many other world leaders.

The Israeli leadership has insisted for more than forty years that their occupation of Palestinian territories — unambiguously condemned by the United Nations — is a necessary bulwark against the chaos and violence of Islamic radicalism.

One can’t help but observe that all the Arab despots toppled in recent weeks made much the same claim.

Dictators like Hosni Mubarak assured the world that their brutish and undemocratic approach was the only way to treat with Muslims.  It turns out they were wrong.

As I write this, Egyptians are drafting a new constitution and preparing for a presidential election.

Israeli leaders (and we who support them) are confronted now with a troubling and urgent question:

Does anyone really believe that the Palestinians are less capable of democracy than, say, the Egyptians or the Libyans?

So while the Obama administration participates in the Libya campaign, it should also reopen high level talks immediately with the Israelis and Palestinians.

Toppling Gaddafi may be a laudable pursuit.

But the real goal in this historic moment should be establishing a lasting peace, with dignity, territorial security, and self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Yes, that means challenging Palestinians to embrace non-violent aspects of this Cairo Spring.

It also means challenging Israel’s leaders to rethink their view of what security and prosperity in the Middle East might look like in the wake of the Middle East’s transformation.

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19 Comments on “In Cairo Spring, Libya may be a distraction”

  1. JDM says:

    “Dictators like Hosni Mubarak assured the world that their brutish and undemocratic approach was the only way to treat with Muslims. It turns out they were wrong.

    As I write this, Egyptians are drafting a new constitution and preparing for a presidential election.”

    Way to soon to assume that anything resembling a western democracy will be the outcome.

    If the Muslim extremist groups prevail, then once again, the people will be subjected to the brutish and undemocratic approach.

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  2. Brian Mann says:

    JDM –

    If we don’t believe Arabs are capable of building better, more democratic lives, then we shouldn’t be putting our military personnel in harm’s way trying to topple Gaddafi.

    –Brian, NCPR

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  3. JDM says:

    “we shouldn’t be putting our military personnel in harm’s way trying to topple Gaddafi. ”

    I agree with this point.

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  4. tootightmike says:

    Let’s hope that our engagement in Libya is brief. Looking back over the 19th and 20th century, it seems clear that almost every U.S. intervention (With the exception of Germany and Japan) , ultimately led to failure. The U.S. led military and mercenary adventures, the endless sanctions, the economic blockades have done little but fritter away centuries of human potential (and treasure).
    I can’t help but wonder at the cost of the weekends little manoeuvres, say, in comparison with out school system cutbacks.

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  5. Mervel says:

    Civil war has often historically been part of the Democratic process. The idea that we should stick our noses in to these civil wars to me is very bad policy. What we need to do is stop giving legitimacy to these dictators. The fact is much of our international policy even recently was based on getting along with Mubarek and getting along with Gaddifi.

    As far as Israel and Palestine goes I don’t believe that Hamas has said that they recognize Israel as a country who has a right to exist and they are in charge. They could have had a two state solution under President Clinton but choose the road they are now on.

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  6. tootightmike says:

    Is democracy OK for western governments but not so for Palestinian? How is it OK for us to elect a dope like Bush,or for Israel to elect outright war mongers, but not OK for the Palestinians to choose for themselves?

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  7. Bret4207 says:

    These are tough choices. We sat by and watched as Hitler rolled through Europe in the late 30′s. Would we have been better off joining in and stopping him early on? We watched Castro and his bloody coup in Cuba, would we (and the Cuban people) have been better off if we’d taken some direct action? We watched Saddam roll into Kuwait. Would we, the world, have been better off letting him take over that country? We watched the ethnic war in the Balkans, saw people eating bark and leaves in Sarajevo. Europe did nothing, the UN did nothing, eventually we carpet bombed fighters and civilians alike in a politically correct war. Was that the best decision? We completely screwed up in Somolia by playing politics. Was that the best choice?

    It would be wonderful if peace came to the mid-east, if Jews and Palestinians could get along. I doubt it will happen. I forget which Israeli leader it was, Perez maybe, that extended the olive branch, that offered huge concessions, essentially offered Arafat everything he wanted, and yet Arafat refused. How do you deal with thinking like that?

    I have little faith we’ll see Libya transformed into a democracy. More likely Gadaffi will be repalced with another equally brutal dictator of another stripe. It seems to work that way in that area.

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  8. phahn50 says:

    That whole area has too many cross currents to feel comfortable taking any action. I admit I didnt want to see the Libyan rebels defeated and killed, and at least temporarily I’m happy we are supporting them. I’m also glad we got the cover of the Arab league endorsement and the UN resolution. Otherwise, when it goes south, and it almost surely will, we’d be stuck.

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  9. phahn50 says:

    And Palestine??? There is way too much religious fundamentalism/fanatacism on both sides.

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  10. Pete Klein says:

    Just a couple of thoughts.
    We would not have defeated the British in our civil war with them if France and others hadn’t seen fit to stick their noses in.
    As to putting our “military personnel in harm’s way,” there wouldn’t be all that much danger if we are ever willing to learn from WWII that less is risked if we would just use Air Power and stop putting “boots on the ground.”
    If it weren’t for the bombing we did in Japan and Germany, we would still be fooling around “over there.”
    Between the Navy and the Air Force, we have the ability to “take out” everyone and anyone without any need to put “boots on the ground.”
    The Army knows this but doesn’t want to give up its position of power.
    As to the Middle East and the so called “Arab World,” whatever level of democracy they are able to achieve, it will always be less than it could be until they have the nerve to tell their religious leaders to stay the hell out of politics and civil affairs.
    By the way, the same holds true for the USA.

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  11. Bill G says:

    “Imagine a future where Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, and Libya are functioning democracies, yet Palestinians still live under the control of the Israeli military.”

    I can’t. None are today, at least by any reasonable standard, and one would have to be an optimist of the highest order to believe they will anytime soon.

    The news cycle of today combined with our desire for quick and simple (or even simple-minded) solutions precludes any sense of historical perspective. There is a long distance between overthrowing a dictator and creating functioning democracy. The tendency toward continuity is greater than that toward change, so the odds in all these cases are against democratization, not necessarily because Arabs and Muslims are different but because theirs, like most societies, are influenced by their historical experience.

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  12. Brian Mann says:

    This is a statement released today by Rep. Chris Gibson (R-20th NY)

    “Certainly I empathize with the Libyan people who desire to live free; however, I am deeply concerned with President Obama’s decision to intervene militarily in their civil war. Our country is currently facing a myriad of challenges, including working to complete our objectives in Iraq and Afghanistan, protecting our cherished way of life from extremist terrorist networks, and struggling here at home to address a skyrocketing deficit that poses a tremendous threat to our national security. Now is not the time to take on new missions. The Libyans must decide their own fate and we should stop our military operations immediately.”

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  13. Bill G says:

    Any belief that conventional air power alone can accomplish the task is ignoring or misreading history. The Allies bombed Germany for years and still had to rely on massive Soviet ground forces and an Allied invasion to end the war.

    The atomic bomb brought an end to the Pacific war. I don’t think anyone is in favor of using nuclear weapons in the present conflict. Absent its use, most historians believe it would have taken an invasion of Japan to end hostilities.

    I’m not suggesting that American ground forces should be used in Libya but it is highly unlikely that there will be a definitive defeat through air and naval power.

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  14. Mervel says:

    It is not up to us anyway this is supposedly a French and British operation with the US providing support. It is time for us to step back and let these other countries take the lead for once.

    I am not a fan of this President, however I think he is doing okay in this situation I think he is playing it correctly, we are one member of the team and if the team decides this is not working than we would follow that lead.

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  15. Pete Klein says:

    Bill G,
    Truman used the A bombs to avoid an invasion and it worked.
    If we swear we will never use A and H bombs, what’s the point in having them and spending the money on them?
    I’m not in favor of using them unless needed but Air and Sea power can do the job without their use.
    In the case of Afghanistan and Iraq, more air power could have eliminated both Sadam and Osama without the need to send troops in.
    Besides, every time the Army says please, please let us go in, they still need help from the Marines, a division of the Navy.
    We could have won in both Korea and Viet Nam if the we had let the Navy and Air Force obliterate the north.
    I know, I know it’s all about worrying about innocent civilians. But there again, if we had worried about innocent civilians in Germany and Japan, we could not have won WWII.
    Our enemies, Gadhafie and the Taliban don’t worry about innocent civilians. They target them.

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  16. George Nagle says:

    Brian Mann writes

    “Toppling Gaddafi may be a laudable pursuit.

    “But the real goal in this historic moment should be establishing a lasting peace, with dignity, territorial security, and self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians.”

    I agree, but the obstacles are huge.

    First, the Palestinians must recognize that non-violent advocacy is far better than violence. Abbas knows this, but Hamas controling the Gaza doesn’t. Every rocket launched, every boast of annihilating Israel, plays into the hands of Israeli hard liners.

    Second, the Israelis must want an accommodation with the Palestinians consistent with international law. Israel is a vibrant democracy, and its government represent its people although at present extreme right wing parties have power disproportionate to their numbers as part of a coalition government in a parliamentary system.

    Achieving an agreement with the Palestinians will be extraordinarily difficult even both they and most Israelis want it. The present arrangement caters to those who believe that God has empowered them to take Palestinian land.

    In seeking to implement the Oslo Peace accords, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was accused of forsaking Jewish values by Benjamin Netanyahu, now prime minister, and others, and in 1995 assasinated by an ultraorthodox man. It’s not clear how an Israeli government would handle such extremists, or even if it could.

    Third, the United States’ uncritical support of Israel is in neither government’s interest. A bumper sticker on a car in Burlington reads “Whatever Israel is for I am for.” Many Americans share that feeling, and it finds expression in Congress. Eric Cantor, majority leader in the House, would stop funding Planned Parenthood, NPR, and a host of services that benefit Americans, but he wouldn’t touch the 3 billion dollars we give Israel each year.

    When Obama said that expanding Jewish settlements on the West Bank would not advance the peace talks he then found it necessary to meet with Jewish leaders to convince them he wasn’t “against Israel.”

    Unless and until Americans’ support for Israel is more nuanced we will continue to be partners in the subjugation of the Palestinians and draw the ire of the international community to an extent that General Petraeus called a threat to our national security.

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  17. Mervel says:

    Hamas has no interest in a lasting peace with Israel their goal is the destruction of Israel, a total genocide. I have to agree with Netanyahu when people say they want to destroy you, you should believe them. How nuanced should we be with Holocaust deniers?

    I do think it is between those parties I agree we should become much less involved starting with removing the money flow to Israel and Egypt.

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  18. Bill G says:

    “Nuanced” may be the wrong characterization. The problem with U.S policy toward Israel during the Bush administration was that there was none. Whatever the Israeli government chose to do was rubber stamped by the administration. That meant that a significant aspect of U.S. Middle East policy was developed in Israel, a pretty crazy concept when you give it any thought.

    At the risk of being called an anti-Semite (a common knee-jerk reaction of many Israel supporters to any form of criticism or thoughtful analysis), I take issue with the idea that there is overwheming support by the American public for the idea of ‘Israel, right or wrong’. The truth is that there is a formidible pro-Israel lobby that has disproportionate influence on U.S. polcy. Why is it that every potential presidential candidate finds it necessary to make a publicized trip to Israel to kiss Netanyahu’s, ah, ring? It certainly isn’t because the American public demands it.

    U.S. policy should be developed by the U.S. government and should be guided by what is in our interest. The practice of deferring to Israeli leadership is the equivalent of writing a blank check with us as the banker.

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  19. Pete Klein says:

    I kind of doubt Gibson would be complaining about our small involvement over Libya if the President were a Republican.
    Notice I did say “over Libya” and not “in Libya.”
    This is what we love about elected officials, we know what they are going to say before they say it.
    This goes for both parties.
    You know why we call them parties. We call them that because they have so much fun being big shots.

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