And if there’s one fact that he likes to deploy in his foreign policy case against Hillary Clinton, it’s her vote authorizing the Iraq War 14 years ago, when Clinton was just in her second year as a senator from New York.
But aside from the Kissinger snark and some minor back-and-forth over US policy in Cuba, foreign policy played only a little role in Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential debate, and it’s played an equally minor role throughout the entire contest. On one hand, that’s because the Sanders insurgency has zeroed in on income inequality, the growing wealth gap and the role of wealthy donors in campaign finance. But it’s also because Clinton, whether or not you trust her judgment, is the most qualified non-incumbent candidate in decades when it comes to international affairs. In addition to her service in the US senate, she also served for four years as secretary of state and eight years as first lady. It’s truly formidable.
Yet, given Clinton-Sanders dynamic, there’s still a lot of space for Sanders to make a strong foreign policy case against Clinton, and time after time, Sanders just hasn’t made that case. Maybe that’s politically wise; shifting his emphasis from Wall Street and income inequality would dilute his message with an attack based on issues that seem far less salient to Democratic primary voters.
But it’s true that Clinton’s foreign-policy instincts have always been more hawkish than those in her own party and, often, those of president Barack Obama and vice president Joe Biden (who, according to Jeffrey Goldberg’s amazing piece in The Atlantic about Obama’s world view, said Clinton ‘just wants to be Golda Meir’).
To some degree, the problem with challenging Clinton on foreign policy is that Sanders would largely be challenging the Obama administration, and that’s tricky when you’re trying to win the votes of an electorate that still adores Obama. But Sanders certainly hasn’t shied away from stating clear differences with the Obama administration’s approach to domestic policy.
Moreover, to the extent that Sanders made a clear and cogent case on international affairs, he could claim that his more dovish approach represents true continuity with the Obama administration (and that Clinton’s more hawkish approach shares more in common with a potential Republican administration). There’s no doubt that Sanders is a talented politician; in one fell swoop, he could use foreign policy to drive a wedge between Clinton and the Obama legacy. That’s a very powerful tool, and it’s one that Sanders, so far, hasn’t been interested in wielding.
Fairly or unfairly, Sanders is tagged as a one-issue protest candidate, and he suffers from the perception that his candidacy’s purpose is to nudge Clinton further to the left, not to win the Oval Office. By adding a foreign policy element to his critique of the Democratic frontrunner, Sanders could bend a more skeptical media into taking him more seriously and show voters that he really can fill out what Americans expect from a president. In the 21st century, like it or not, the president is the chief policymaking official when it comes to foreign policy.
Given the stakes involved, it’s not too late for Sanders to make this case as the Democratic contest turns to larger states like Ohio, Illinois and Florida next week and, after that, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and California. If he wanted to do so, there’s a long list of areas from which Sanders could choose.
When he was reelected to a dodgy fourth term in April 2014, Algerian voters knew that Abdelaziz Bouteflika, now aged 79, was ailing.
Though he easily dispatched a former prime minister, Ali Benflis, who officially won just over 12% of the vote, most of the opposition simply boycotted the last vote. During the 2011 Arab spring protests and beyond, Algerians have generally been more willing to tolerate Bouteflika’s hold on power because of the stability that his regime brought after a decade of civil war.
Aides claim the president’s faculties are intact, despite a stroke three years ago that left him unable to speak. Nevertheless, it’s clear — and has been clear for some time — that there’s an internal struggle between Bouteflika’s camp and the Algerian military about his ultimate successor.
Last year, Bouteflika sidelined Algeria’s top internal security official, Mohamed Mediene, a move widely seen as a setback to the military’s involvement in Algerian domestic politics and, accordingly, any succession after Bouteflika’s resignation or death. It was a shock at the time, considering that Mediene, also known as ‘Toufik’ and commonly referred to as the Dieu de l’Algérie, or the ‘God of Algeria,’ had been a fixture within the country’s power elite for more than two decades as the head of the Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS), the Algerian intelligence agency since 1990.
Bouteflika’s next step came earlier this week, with his administration apparently set to reorganize the DRS altogether. If successful, Bouteflika will have dismantled one of the institutional pillars of the military’s power, thereby transferring the country’s intelligence apparatus, which plays a role in domestic as well as international affairs, from the military to the presidential camp.
With so much at stake, the Algerian military may not simply accept such a sweeping adjustment of power, and its leaders may be biding their time to strike in a post-Bouteflika struggle. But it means that Bouteflika’s camp is very serious about controlling the post-Bouteflika transition in as orderly way as possible — and in a way that leaves the presidential regime, and not military or DRS leaders, in charge.
His brother’s keeper
The most likely successor? For now, it might be Saïd Bouteflika, who will argue that he represents the most seamless transition, thereby guaranteeing Algeria’s continued stability.
With 20 airstrikes on Sunday in the de facto Islamic State/Saesh capital of Raqqa, French president François Hollande made it very clear that he would stay true to his word and launch a ‘merciless war’ against the terrorist camps in Syria controlled by IS/Daesh.
That may seem like a tall order, especially given the geopolitical conundrums of Syria’s civil war. Russia is also bombing Raqqa and other rebel strongholds, with the explicit goal of boosting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. France, meanwhile, opposes Assad, and Hollande nearly launched airstrikes in 2013 against Assad. The United States, along with France and the United Kingdom, have generally argued that Assad must leave power, and the United States once looked to boost anti-Assad Sunni rebels, some of whom are now allied with IS/Daesh. Now, however, US special forces are on the ground in Syria working with Kurdish peshmerga forces to pressure Raqqa as well. For what it’s worth, Turkey is also boosting the US effort with airstrikes on IS/Daesh, but Turkish forces have also been attacking Kurdish militants in southeast Turkey.
And so on and so on. Last Friday’s attacks on Paris may have simplified the French objective in the region, but it doesn’t make it strategically less messier. Hollande has now made it clear that his goal is to destroy IS/Daesh, not simply to contain it. That makes him, for now, far more hawkish on Syria than either US president Barack Obama or UK prime minister David Cameron. It’s worth remembering that Hollande played a crucial role in bringing Berlin and Athens together for a last-minute bailout deal at the nadir of Greece’s eurozone crisis in July.
The Syrian calculus may also be changing for Obama and Cameron, though. Obama spent nearly a half-hour conferring with Russian president Vladimir Putin over the weekend at the G-20 summit in Turkey, and Hollande is set to meet Obama in person in Washington on November 24, followed by a visit with Putin in Moscow two days later.
An increasingly hawkish France in the Sarkozy-Hollande era
If there’s anyone in world politics today, however, whose record of eliminating jihadist threats and restoring peace in the developing world is decent, it’s Hollande — after at least partially successful operations in Mali and in the Central African Republic.
Throughout most of the world (including France), Hollande is an unpopular and ineffective figure who has neither stood up to German chancellor Angela Merkel’s ‘austerity,’ nor enacted reforms to make the French economy more effective nor lowered France’s persistent unemployment rate. That’s, at least, when his personal love life isn’t making headlines.
But Hollande has developed an impressive record when it comes to engaging and defeating radical jihadists in former French colonies– and in prolonging a new trend of aggressive foreign policy.
His predecessor, conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, took office in 2007 with the explicit goal of closer security ties with the United States and the United Kingdom, embracing the once toxic mantle of ‘Atlanticist.’ In 2009, he ended France’s four-decade-long rift with NATO, fully integrating France into NATO’s security regime, and he embraced a muscular, hawkish foreign policy — on Libya and elsewhere.
Perhaps to the surprise of some of the more dovish members of Hollande’s Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party), he has embraced the new French assertiveness on the global stage. Even more surprisingly, it’s Laurent Fabius, a long-time Socialist official, who has carried out Hollande’s muscular foreign policy as France’s foreign minister.
Fabius, who served as France’s youngest prime minister in the 1980s under François Mitterrand, bucked his party in 2005 in advocating a non vote against a European constitution. Nevertheless, he comes from the left wing of the party, and he’s run (unsuccessfully) for the party’s presidential nomination.
Mali — restoring a government in the Sahel
In 2012, in northern Mali, the Tuaregs, nomadic Muslims long resentful of the southern elite, were on the verge of breaking away to form their own northern state. The pressure on Mali’s government culminated in a military coup, deposing Mali’s democratically elected president Amadou Toumani Touré and thereby plunging Mali into even greater chaos. By the end of the year, a relatively stable democratic country had become a magnet for international jihadists, including newly-armed Libyan rebels and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Together, the radicals had overtaken both the Malian army and the local Tuareg forces to create a radical Islamist pocket across northern Mali, introducing harsh sharia law and increasingly threatening the southern capital, Bamako.
Invited by the new government, Hollande sent a 4,000-person force to Mali in January 2013. Within days, French troops controlled the northern city of Timbuktu and, By April, the international jihadist threat in Mali was significantly reduced, and French troops began withdrawing from Mali, as a regional African force took control over regional security. By August 2013, the country held its delayed presidential election, voting Ibrahim Boubakar Keïta into power and restoring Mali back onto a democratic path, tasked with tough negotiations with Tuareg rebels.
A more wide-ranging force, together with national African troops, remained behind to ensure that the international fighters in Mali didn’t stick around to cause mayhem in other countries in the Sahel.
While IBK, as he’s known in Mali, has not been incredibly successful in pacifying the Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), who continue to clash with Malian forces and are pushing forward to create their own sovereign state of Azawad. That’s not the best potential outcome for Mali, necessarily, but it did prevent Mali — or the wide Sahel — from becoming the kind of powerless vacuum where international jihadist rule can thrive, like in eastern Syria, western Iraq and present-day Libya. Moreover, even as Mali struggles to consolidate a united country, it can do so without having to wage a war against an IS-style caliphate within its own borders. Pushing aside hand-wringing about the perception of françafrique, the notion that France continues to play a role in its former colonies to perpetuate its own self-interested political and economic control, Hollande’s targeted and narrowly defined mission made Europe and the Sahel safer as a result.
CAR — giving peace a fresh start
A year later, the Central African Republic, another former French colony, was devolving into chaos.
François Bozizé, the CAR’s president since taking power in a 2003 coup, was himself ousted by the Séléka alliance that first took control of the country’s north in November 2012, then took the capital, Bangui, in March 2013, bringing Séléka rebel leader Michel Djotodia to power.
Yet Djotodia, even after dissolving his militia, failed to control the increasingly intense fighting between Christians-dominated ‘anti-balaka’ militia and the Muslim dominated Séléka. With the country descending back into civil war, the UN Security Council introduced a peacekeeping force, and Hollande sent 1,600 French troops to help disarm militias, after refusing an initial request from Bozizé earlier in 2013 to stabilize his regime.
Isolated from the elites of the Bozizé regime and increasingly from other rebel leaders in his own Séléka alliance, Djotodia stepped down in early 2014, and the country eventually appointed an interim leader, Catherine Samba-Panza.
The French peacekeeping effort hasn’t pacified the CAR enough to allow for elections that have now been delayed numerous times. But it may helped prevent wider violence, or even mass genocide, in central Africa. Again, French forces have kept the CAR from becoming a fully failed state and a vacuum for jihadist forces that might delight at forming a base in central Africa.
Syria — a chance for a genuine political settlement
Neither Mali nor the Central African Republic today are what you might call model countries today, not even by the standards of sub-Saharan Africa. Mali’s democratic restoration remains fragile and the country is still divided on tenuous north-south lines. The Central African Republic still hasn’t held postwar elections, and it could crumble back into violence at any moment.
But by the standards of Western intervention over the last 15 years, it’s hard to think of any greater successes. Certainly not Iraq or Afghanistan after the end of US-led intervention there, and certainly not Libya, which is barely functioning today after Sarkozy and Cameron led a US-backed charge to dislodge Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi. US drone strikes in Somalia and Yemen have done little, either, to make those countries safer. Hollande’s record may not be perfect, but there’s at least some cause for hope.
It’s also true that Syria is different and, in many ways, from sub-Saharan Africa, and will be a much more difficult challenge for Hollande or any international coalition to pacify. For a country that’s suffered four years of civil war and brutality on all sides, Syrians may not welcome yet another international player to the mix. Intervention from the United States, Russia, Turkey and others only seems to make things worse for everyday Syrians, bringing just fleeting gains to the pro-Assad or anti-Assad forces of the day.
Hollande, like Obama and Putin, must realize that any military victory in pushing back IS/Daesh will ultimately be a Pyrrhic victory without the kind of political settlement that brings an end to Syria’s hostilities, even if that means pushing Assad from power.
When you start to add up all the abuses of Gambian president Yahya Jammeh’s 20-year dictatorship, you might think it’s a real shame that Tuesday’s coup attempt has apparently failed.
Though Gambian officials are reporting that the coup has failed, and other officials are denying that a coup attempt even took place, it’s hard to know just exactly what is happening in the capital city of Banjul. Jammeh is said to be out of the country, though conflicting reports have placed him on official business in France as well as on a personal trip to Dubai. In short, no one know what’s happened (or may still be going on in Gambia) and no one knows where Jammeh is currently located.
Gambia served for centuries as a Portuguese trading colony before it became a British protectorate in 1894. An overwhelmingly Muslim country, it won its independence from the United Kingdom in 1965, and it’s known just two leaders in that time — Dawfa Jawara, who ruled as prime minister or president from 1965 to 1994, and his successor, Jammeh, who ousted Jawara in a chiefly bloodless coup at the tender age of 29. What followed could hardly be called bloodless, however.
Since 1994, Jammeh’s record has been dotted with human rights violations that rank among some of the worst in sub-Saharan Africa, in marked contrast to the conciliatory approach Jawara deployed for the first three decades of post-independence Gambia. Though Jammeh (pictured above earlier this year with US president Barack Obama) might not rise to the level of abuse reserved for butchers like former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, former Liberian president Charles Taylor or former CAR president Jean-Bédel Bokassa, he must certainly rank high on the list of Africa’s most brutal leaders today, earning international scorn for his approach to the death penalty, press freedom and LGBT rights, in particular: Continue reading Who is Yahya Jammeh? A look at Gambia’s erratic dictator.→
Only seven world leaders have held office longer than Burkina Faso’s president Blaise Compaoré. His place on that list, however, may be coming to a swift end today, amid chaotic protests in the capital city of Ouagadougou, when protesters set the parliament on fire.
For the entirety of his 27-year rule in the Sahelian country, the specter of his predecessor, Thomas Sankara, hung over his reign, possibly now more than ever — the equatorial Banquo to Compaoré’s Macbeth.
Sankara took power, like every single one of his predecessors, in a coup. He did so, in 1983, with Compaoré’s help, and with the charisma of a post-independence African ‘Che’ Guevara, promising to bring an honest and socialist government to his country, which he renamed ‘Burkina Faso,’ or ‘the land of the honest people,’ instead of the more colonial Upper Volta (‘Haute-Volta‘).
Though Sankara was hardly democratic, he enjoyed a groundswell of genuine support, and his brutal assassination just four years later (for which most analysts blame Compaoré) ended a burst of dynamic governance through which Sankara attempted nothing less than a renaissance for Burkina Faso. With mixed roots among both the Mossi and Fulani ethnic groups, Sankara personified the two dominant peoples that comprise a majority of Burkina Faso’s population.
In addition to giving the country a new name and a new national anthem (Sankara, a guitar player, wrote it himself), he turned to an ambitious program of social welfare initiatives. He vaccinated the country’s children against diseases like yellow fever, started a national literacy campaign, took steps to reverse desertification through ‘green’ policies, redistributed land for greater crop production and, in a nod to women’s rights, outlawed female genital mutilation, polygamy and forced marriages, problems that still plague many sub-Saharan Africa countries today. He was also the first African leader to recognize publicly the health threat that HIV/AIDS could cause. Two decades later, by contrast, South African president Thabo Mbeki was still denying the scientific link between HIV and AIDS.
Known for his personal integrity, he sold the government’s fleet of Mercedes and replaced them with much-cheaper Renaults. He opposed foreign aid, but simultaneously demanded debt forgiveness from France and other Western countries.
As soon as she stepped off the airplane, she became the instant, unexpected hit of the White House’s summit of African leaders in Washington, D.C.
No, it’s not Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, who cancelled plans to visit Washington in the wake of the devastating Ebola outbreak in west Africa.
Africa’s only other female head of state, Catherine Samba-Panza, who is struggling as interim president of the Central African Republic to pacify what’s now been a year of civil war, wasn’t even invited to the summit. (Under the African Union’s rules, no CAR leader was eligible to attend until the country holds new, democratic elections.)
Instead, it’s Chantal Biya, whose flamboyant hairstyle has grabbed headlines from New York to Los Angeles. The WashingtonPost‘s hard-hitting coverage noted when Chantal Biya ‘and her hair’ touched down in Washington, DC. It’s disappointing that the US media, given so many governance crises across sub-Saharan Africa, has emphasized style over substance during this week’s summit.
Chantal Biya’s husband, Paul Biya, has served as president of Cameroon, a west-central African country that shares a long border with Nigeria, since 1982 — the second year of the Reagan administration in the United States. His 32-year record isn’t exactly admirable. It’s a country that has a GDP per capita of less than $1,300, according to the International Monetary Fund, and it would be even less if not for oil production. For a first lady who confesses a weakness for Dior and Chanel, her husband presides over a country of nearly 22 million people where nearly 40% live at or below the poverty level. Continue reading The country behind the hair: contemporary Cameroon→
It’s a fluke of random nature that the fearsome Ebola virus is endemic to some of the poorest and least governable countries in the world.
But unlike in central Africa, where previous outbreaks were controlled through limited mobility of local populations, the current outbreak, centered in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, is afflicting a corner of the world that features far greater travel.
So while central African countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo are hardly equipped to deal with modern epidemics, the epidemiological limitations of prior Ebola outbreaks haven’t always required the kind of national mobilization that’s now necessary to bring the west African outbreak under control. Though all three west African countries have worked to build governing institutions, they are all barely a decade removed from some of the most fearsome civil wars in recent African history. That’s left all three countries with populations loathe to trust public health officials, making the Ebola outbreak west Africa’s most difficult governance crisis since the end of its civil wars in the early 2000s.
Though the three countries in the middle of the current crisis are relatively small, the news that Ebola has now travelled to Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, via a US citizen no less, has raised concerns that Ebola could also spread even farther. Though the Nigerian government’s rapid response in quarantining and monitoring those exposed to Ebola was impressive, there are already worries that Ebola has crossed the border into Mali, where the government is still battling to unite the country after a disabling civil war with northern Tuareg separatists (and an influx of international Islamist jihadists).
The outbreak is already, by far, the deadliest in history, infecting 1,201 and killing 672, as of July 25, according to the World Health Organization. in the three countries since the first case was reported in Guinea in February.
So what exactly are the political and historical backgrounds of the three countries in the maelstrom of the current Ebola outbreak? And how equipped are they to handle a full-blown epidemic?
Mauritania’s president Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz won a fresh term in elections on Saturday with 81.89% of the vote.
The outcome wasn’t particularly in doubt in the Sahelian country of 3.8 million.
Abdelaziz came to power in August 2008 in a coup against Mauritania’s elected president Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, who had been elected in a rare competitive election in 2007.
From within the military, Abdelaziz also played a key role in the coup that pushed Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya out of power. Ould Taya had served as Mauritania’s prime minister or president consecutively from 1981 until his ouster in August 2005, which was supposed to pave the way for greater democratic participation and genuine multi-party democracy, leading to the 2007 elections.
But Mauritania’s experiment in democracy came to halt with the 2008 coup, a return to form in a country that has now seen six leaders ousted in coups since Mauritania won independence from France in 1960.
A former general, Abdelaziz previously served as Abdallahi’s chief of staff at the time of the coup. Abdelaziz reaffirmed his power in a 2009 presidential election.
Perhaps Abdelaziz’s most important accomplishment has been his aggressive stand against radical Islam and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which so effectively destabilized neighboring Mali in 2012 and early 2013. Despite a long, porous border with Mali, Abdelaziz preemptively attacked AQIM and associated forces, sometimes sending Mauritanian forces into Mali to rebuff jihadists. Continue reading Abdelaziz wins reelection as Mauritania’s president→
Though French president François Hollande on Monday promised a gouvernement de combat in his cabinet reshuffle, it looks like the government he’s chosen might wind up spending more time combatting one another that the myriad economic challenges that France faces.
Just 48 hours after naming interior minister Manuel Valls, the hard-charging, Roma-busting strongman of the Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) as France’s new prime minister, Hollande announced the rest of his cabinet reshuffle today.
Though the return of Ségolène Royal, Hollande’s partner of three decades and the 2007 Socialist Party’s presidential candidate, is sure to top most headlines, the heart of the cabinet reshuffle are Hollande’s schizophrenic choices for finance minister, Michel Sapin (pictured above), and economy minister, Arnaud Montebourg.
At first glance, Hollande’s new slimmed-down cabinet (16 ministers instead of 20) seems like a kind of ‘team of rivals,’ given that Valls, Montebourg and Royal all campaigned for the Socialist Party’s 2012 presidential nomination — the only major rival not to hold a post in the new government is Martine Aubry, a longtime champion of the party’s left wing and the former minister who introduced France’s 35-hour workweek (a policy that Valls stridently opposes).
No one could miss the undertones of yesterday’s op-ed, co-written by US president Barack Obama and French president François Hollande, in The Washington Post and Le Monde:
A decade ago, few would have imagined our two countries working so closely together in so many ways. But in recent years our alliance has transformed. Since France’s return to NATO’s military command four years ago and consistent with our continuing commitment to strengthen the NATO- European Union partnership, we have expanded our cooperation across the board. We are sovereign and independent nations that make our decisions based on our respective national interests. Yet we have been able to take our alliance to a new level because our interests and values are so closely aligned.
It was one of the biggest, wettest, sloppiest kisses that the Obama administration has given a foreign leader — and it’s not something that this administration does often. It’s part of the red-carpet treatment that Obama is rolling out for Hollande, who visited Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, in Virginia on Monday, and will be the host of a state dinner tonight at the White House.
It’s clearly an opportunity for the newly single Hollande to move on after a dismal January, when sensational headlines over his trysts with a French actress overshadowed his his attempts to introduce a new economic reform package. It became a nearly monthlong saga that sent Hollande’s partner, Valerie Trierweiler, to a Paris hospital for over a week, and that ended with their breakup.
Time magazine, which a wide-ranging interview, asks this week on its cover whether Hollande can fix France. It’s worth asking whether, first, the White House is trying to help fix Hollande. Polls routinely show Hollande with an approval rating in the low 20s (or even high teens), making him the least popular president in the history of the Fifth Republic, not even two years into his five-year term.
The White House treatment, including Monday’s joint editorial, undoubtedly hopes to share of Obama’s star power with the widely derided president. Obama needs Hollande’s help to finalize the US-EU free trade pact, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, even though it could harm French farmers and wine producers by opening the European Union to cheaper US exports. Obama will also need Hollande’s help to win a long-term nuclear energy deal with Iran while the temporary six-month deal remains in effect.
It’s true that France has been, surprisingly, almost as reliable a partner on US foreign policy as the United Kingdom in recent years. Hollande has deepened France’s 21st century internationalism, of course, most notably through his decision to mount a largely successful intervention to keep northern Mali from falling to foreign Islamic jihadists, thereby giving Bamako the space to hold new elections and build a stronger national government. French peacemakers in the Central African Republic may have also helped limit violence between Christians and Muslims in December and January and smoothed the way for Michel Djotodia’s resignation. Hollande was willing to back a US military attack on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad last August when the United Kingdom and the US Congress were not.
Accordingly, here are 14 possible game-changers — they’re not predictions per se, but neither are they as far-fetched as they might seem. No one can say with certainty that they will come to pass in 2014. Instead, consider these something between rote predictions (e.g., that violence in Iraq is getting worse) and outrageous fat-tail risks (e.g., the impending breakup of the United States).
There’s an old album of small pieces conducted by the late English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, a delightfully playful album entitled Lollipops that contains some of the old master’s favorite, most lively short pieces.
Think of these as Suffragio‘s 14 world politics lollipops to watch in 2014.
In the United States, ‘Benghazi’ has become a code word for conservative Republicans hinting at a dark cover-up within the administration of US president Barack Obama about who actually perpetrated the attack on September 11, 2012 against the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya’s second-most populous city.
The furor stems largely from comments by Susan Rice, then the US ambassador to the United Nations and a candidate to succeed Hillary Clinton as US secretary of state, that indicated the attack was entirely spontaneous, caused by protests to a purported film trailer, ‘Innocence of Muslims,’ that ridiculed Islam and the prophet Mohammed. Republicans immediately seized on the comments, arguing that al-Qaeda was responsible for the attack, which left four US officials dead, including Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya at the time, a volatile period following the US-backed NATO efforts to assist rebels in their effort to end the 42-year rule of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
An amazingly detailed report in The New York Times by David Kirkpatrick on Saturday reveals that there’s no evidence that al-Qaeda was responsible for the attack. While it was more planned than the spontaneous anti-film riots that rocked the US embassy in Cairo the same day, the Benghazi incident was carried out by local extremist militias. Kirkpatrick singles out, in particular, Abu Khattala, a local construction worker and militia leader, but he also identifies other radical militias within Benghazi, such as Ansar al-Sharia, which may not have been responsible, but still seem relatively sympathetic to anti-American sentiment:
Mohammed Ali al-Zahawi, the leader of Ansar al-Shariah, told The Washington Post that he disapproved of attacking Western diplomats, but he added, “If it had been our attack on the U.S. Consulate, we would have flattened it.”
Similarly named groups have emerged throughout north Africa and the Arabian peninsula over the past few years — a group calling itself Ansar al-Sharia, not ‘al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’ (AQAP), took control of portions of southern Yemen after the battle of Zinjibar in 2011. The United States ultimately listed ‘Ansar al-Sharia’ as an alias for AQAP, but it’s unclear the degree to which the two are (or were) separate. It also underscores the degree to which local Islamist groups like AQAP are necessarily fueled by local interests and concerns . Most Yemenis fighting alongside AQAP are doing so for local reasons in a country that remains split on tribal and geographic lines — South Yemen could claim to be an independent state as recently as 1990. Groups also named Ansar al-Sharia also operate in Mali, Tunisia, Mauritania, Morocco and Egypt, and some of them have links to al-Qaeda affiliates and personnel. Others do not.
If Khattala, as The New York Times reports, is the culprit behind the consulate attack (and the US government continues to seek him in response to the attack), he fits the profile less of a notorious international terror mastermind and more of a local, off-kilter eccentric:
Sheikh Mohamed Abu Sidra, a member of Parliament from Benghazi close to many hard-line Islamists, who spent 22 years in Abu Salim, said, “Even in prison, he was always alone.” He added: “He is sincere, but he is very ignorant, and I don’t think he is 100 percent mentally fit. I always ask myself, how did he become a leader?”
Moreover, if there’s a scandal involving the Obama administration, it’s the way in which the United States came to enter the Libyan conflict in 2011. The Obama administration refused to seek authorization from the US Congress when it ordered military action in Libya in support of the NATO mission and to establish a no-fly zone, pushing a potentially unconstitutional interpretation of the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which requires Congressional authorization for open-ended conflicts that last for more than 60 days. Ironically, Obama’s case for ignoring Congress was actually stronger with respect to potential airstrikes on Syria earlier this year, though Obama’ ultimately decided to seek Congressional support for a potential military strike in August in response to the use of chemical weapons by Syria’s military.
Republicans, who control the US House of Representatives but not the US Senate, the upper house of the US Congress, just as they did in 2011, could have (and should have) held Obama more accountable for his decision vis-à-vis the War Powers Resolution. Instead, they’ve colluded with a conservative echo chamber that mutters ‘Benghazi’ like some unhinged conspiracy theory, suggesting that somehow the Obama administration purposefully lied about what happened that day. The reality is that the Obama administration was as caught off guard as anyone by the attack. Democrats that would have howled with disgust over Benghazi if it had happened under the previous administration of Republican George W. Bush have remained incredibly docile during the Obama administration — to say nothing of the Obama administration’s encroaching internet surveillance, ongoing war in Afghanistan, frequent use of drone attacks and pioneering use of ‘targeted killings’ (including assassination of US citizens).
Kirkpatrick’s report showed that while US intelligence agencies were tracing an individual with tangential ties to al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden, they largely missed the more local threats like Khattala and Ansar al-Sharia:
The C.I.A. kept its closest watch on people who had known ties to terrorist networks abroad, especially those connected to Al Qaeda. Intelligence briefings for diplomats often mentioned Sufian bin Qumu, a former driver for a company run by Bin Laden. Mr. Qumu had been apprehended in Pakistan in 2001 and detained for six years at Guantánamo Bay before returning home to Derna, a coastal city near Benghazi that was known for a high concentration of Islamist extremists.
But neither Mr. Qumu nor anyone else in Derna appears to have played a significant role in the attack on the American Mission, officials briefed on the investigation and the intelligence said. “We heard a lot about Sufian bin Qumu,” said one American diplomat in Libya at the time. “I don’t know if we ever heard anything about Ansar al-Shariah.”
That, in turn, highlights the real lesson of Benghazi — both the Obama administration and the national security apparatus that it has empowered, and the conservative opposition to the Obama administration are missing the larger problem with the way that the United States engages the world. It’s a point that rings most clearly in the words of Khattala himself:
“The enmity between the American government and the peoples of the world is an old case,” he said. “Why is the United States always trying to use force to implement its agendas?”….
Ten years after French president Jacques Chirac and France’s UN ambassador Dominique de Villepin made an impassioned stand in the United Nations against the US-led invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq over the issue of weapons of mass destruction, France finds itself as the chief European ally in US president Barack Obama’s push to punish the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad for the alleged use of chemical weapons in Damascus late last month.
In a parliamentary debate in Paris yesterday, French prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault (pictured above) made a strong case for intervention for the purpose of demonstrating the international community’s credibility in deterring the use of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in the future. Center-right legislators in the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP, Union for a Popular Movement), including the UMP’s parliamentary leader Christian Jacob, argued just as forcefully that French participation in a US-led strike against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad — without the authorization of the United Nations Security Council — over the use of chemical weapons would isolate France’s role in the international community.
Although Chirac and the UMP also opposed unilateral intervention in Iraq in 2002 and 2003, it’s ironic that the UMP has suddenly found itself as the voice of opposition to Hollande because no one is more responsible for the transformation of France’s newfound assertiveness in world affairs than former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who succeeded Chirac in 2007, who struck a consistently muscular posture on foreign affairs. Sarkozy, always keen to rejuvenate Franco-American relations, took a starring role alongside Cameron in the UN-backed NATO campaign to enforce a no-fly zone against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and support anti-Gaddafi rebels in Tripoli and Benghazi.
Had he won reelection in May 2012, Sarkozy would likely be just as enthusiastic as Hollande to support Syrian intervention — probably more so given the opportunity to supplant the United Kingdom as Obama’s chief partner. Some former Sarkozy officials, notably former foreign minister Alain Juppé, support France’s forward role in Syria.
But Sarkozy, who may run again for president in 2017, has been uncharacteristically quiet on France’s role in any military action against Syria.
Silence or not, it’s the UMP’s Sarkozy who put France on the path to a more aggressive foreign policy, in part by returning France to NATO’s military command after a 40-year absence. Since the start of Syria’s civil war two years ago, both Sarkozy and Hollande have called for Assad’s removal, and Sarkozy helped lifted the EU arms embargo on Syria to allow weapons to the anti-Assad opposition.
Recent African elections demonstrate progress in three ways. First, long-delayed or boycotted elections are finally taking place, removing military regimes or one-party states from power.
Second, for the first time, several countries having enjoyed two or three free and fair elections in a row. This is significant because running two well-managed elections improves the odds that there will be a third, and then a fourth — turning an isolated electoral experiment into a true democratic tradition.
Third, elections once marred by violence have been carried out peacefully, improving the credibility of political leaders and encouraging coalition-building and a non-zero sum attitude toward governing.
So for every Zimbabwe, there’s a Mali, which represents a return to two decades of democratic traditions. There’s a Kenya, where president Uhuru Kenyatta’s election earlier this spring wasn’t marred by violence, despite a close race. There’s a Guinea, where long-delayed elections are moving forward after fraught negotiations between the ruling party and the opposition. Even in Zimbabwe, July’s elections passed without the violence that resulted in 2008, and Mugabe’s successor will likely have to be much more responsive to economic and social pressures than Mugabe, who too often gets a free pass from Zimbabweans and other Africans due to his founding-father status in leading the country out of white minority rule in 1979-80.
Our conclusion is that there’s room for measured optimism:
It would be a mistake to view the developing African democracy with the same kind of rapture than some international investors have developed in recent years for Africa’s “cheetah” economies. But in the wake of international discouragement over Zimbabwe’s vote, it would also be a mistake to conclude that African democracy is in retreat, when there are so many signs that it continues to grow stronger.
Mali has a new president it seems — frontrunner Ibrahim Boubakar Keïta (or just IBK), after his rival in Sunday’s runoff vote, Soumaïla Cissé, conceded defeat earlier today.
Results have not been announced, though Mali’s election authorities believed that formal results would be ready by the end of the week.
Here’s a profile from a couple of weeks ago on IBK and what his leadership might mean for the troubled country as it turns back along a more democratic path. His first and most challenging task will be to secure a worthwhile peace accord with northern Tuareg separatists, whose campaign for independence triggered both the March 2012 military coup in Bamako and the subsequent destabilization of northern Mali, which led both foreign and Malian Islamists to take power and institute sharia law. French military intervention earlier this year deposed the Islamists and propped up the transitional Malian government, and French and other western governments have been eager for Mali’s rapid stabilization.