David Ignatius adds something to the reporting on the Saudis’ snit that has been missing: situating it in America’s decision in 2011 to let Hosni Mubarak fall.
The bad feeling that developed after Mubarak’s ouster deepened month by month: The U.S. supported Morsi’s election as president; opposed a crackdown by the monarchy in Bahrain against Shiites protesters; cut aid to the Egyptian military after it toppled Morsi and crushed the Brotherhood; promised covert aid to the Syrian rebels it never delivered; threatened to bomb Syria and then allied with Russia, instead; and finally embarked on a diplomatic opening to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s deadly rival in the Gulf.
Of course, Ignatius depicts the Saudi version here, not reality. US condemnation of Bahrain’s crackdown has been muted, and the US has started shipping arms again. This litany doesn’t mention the Saudi-favored policies the US supported: overthrowing long-time Saudi annoyance Muammar Qaddafi, resolving the Yemeni uprising in such a way that largely maintained the status quo. And it’s not the Brotherhood so much troubles the Saudis (indeed, they’re supporting Islamic extremists elsewhere), but the notion of popular legitimacy (which is not to say Morsi had that when he was overthrown).
But it does reflect what I think is genuinely behind Saudi disengagement. After some setbacks in 2011 — notably, Mubarak’s ouster, but also the need to increase its bribes to its own people to ensure stability — the Saudis found a way to use the rhetoric of popular uprising selectively to pursue their own hegemonic interests. They believed they were on their way to do so in Syria, as well.
With the coup in Egypt and Obama’s tepid response to it, however, the cost of popular legitimacy started to rise again. And with the US backing out of its efforts to use “rebels” (including foreign fighters) to oust Assad, Saudi’s feigned support for popular legitimacy disappeared. That notion reverted to being just another force that might endanger the throne. And as the US gets closer to a deal with Iran — a development that significantly threatens Saudi leverage in our “special relationship” in any case — I suspect the Saudis decided a temper tantrum was necessary. More importantly, I worry they disengaged from the UN because they are considering alternative means of pursuing their interests, means that would be loudly condemned in that body.
The Saudis are running out of money and oil to ensure their own stability, and asserting greater hegemony over the Middle East presented a way to retain it. I assume they intend to keep pursuing that greater hegemony with us or against us.
The NYT has a tick-tock of Obama’s Syria policy. I find it fascinating for two reasons.
Obama uses “covert” status as a legal fiction, nothing more
First, consider the coverage of the covert op — one acknowledged explicitly by Chuck Hagel in Senate testimony. NYT says President Obama actually signed the Finding authorizing arming the rebels in April, not June, as Hagel claimed, but Obama did not move to implement it right away.
President Obama had signed a secret order in April — months earlier than previously reported — authorizing a C.I.A. plan to begin arming the Syrian rebels.
Indeed, the story may have been driven by CIA types trying to blame Obama for indolence after first signing that finding.
As to the decision to do this as a covert op, NYT describes it arose — first of all — out of difficulties over using the Armed Forces to overthrow a sovereign government.
But debate had shifted from whether to arm Syrian rebels to how to do it. Discussions about putting the Pentagon in charge of the program — and publicly acknowledging the arming and training program — were eventually shelved when it was decided that too many legal hurdles stood in the way of the United States’ openly supporting the overthrow of a sovereign government.
Those difficulties, of course, were the same ones present that should have prevented Obama from considering bombing a sovereign government in August, which of course weren’t the ones that ultimately persuaded Obama not to bomb.
The big reason to do it as a covert op, however, came from the need to be able to deny we were arming al Qaeda-linked rebels.
Besides the legal worries, there were other concerns driving the decision to make the program a secret.
As one former senior administration official put it, “We needed plausible deniability in case the arms got into the hands of Al Nusra.”
Yet in spite of this explanation — one which you’d think would demand secrecy — the NYT notes that Ben Rhodes went and announced this policy publicly.
But, the NYT notes (perhaps in anticipation for the inevitable FOIA), the President didn’t say anything about it himself.
Where the hell was the IC getting its rosy scenario about Assad’s overthrow?
The other striking thing about the story is how it portrays Obama’s policies to have been driven by (unquestioned by the NYT) overly rosy assessments of Assad’s demise.
I’m just now catching up to the Joby Warrick “explanation” of the Syrian chemical weapons scare from two weeks ago. Particularly coming on the heels of the NYT’s replay of its old Iraq A1 cutout play (see Moon of Alabama on that), I expected to react to it as propaganda first and foremost.
But mostly, I think the story is an awful mess.
A very central part of the story is that no one (“Western” and “Middle Eastern” sources are cited) knows whether Syrians began to mix the chemicals because of an order of Bashar al-Assad or because a rogue officer ordered it.
Intelligence analysts said the orders to prepare the weapons were issued about two weeks ago. They said it was not clear whether the decision came from senior Syrian leaders, possibly including President Bashar al-Assad, or from a field commander acting on his own, the officials said.
Since concerns surfaced in the summer that Syria was moving chemical weapons among several sites across the country, officials in Damascus have repeatedly pledged not to use the banned munitions. After the warnings last week from Obama and other foreign leaders, the Syrian Foreign Ministry repeated that it would not use chemical weapons against the rebel forces.
Still, the discovery that steps had been taken to activate weapons at at least one military base alarmed intelligence officials, because of fears that a single commander could unleash the deadly poisons without orders from higher up the chain of command.
In spite of this reported uncertainty, sources (including Leon Panetta, on the record) act like Assad “got the message.”
“We haven’t seen anything new indicating any aggressive steps to move forward in that way,” Panetta told reporters during a visit to Kuwait. Referring to Obama’s warning to Assad, the defense secretary said, “I like to believe he’s got the message.”
That would seem to indicate a belief, perhaps within the US, that Assad gave the order.
Nevertheless the possibility that a rogue officer might launch a CW attack allows Warrick’s sources to entertain the possibility that a rogue officer would use the weapons while Assad would not because the officer might believe he has nothing left to lose.
“Once you’ve used the weapons, you know the world is coming after you,” the official said. “But if you’re a general and you think you’re not going to survive this, you might not care.”
The standard treatment by the US for vanquished dictators these days–given the recent history of Saddam and Qaddafi–is a sloppy, humiliating death. Is it really possible that all the anti-Assad intelligence agencies have failed to think through the implications of this? Assad, far more than a rogue General, would have to believe he wasn’t going to live.
Not to mention that the latter half of Warrick’s article suggests why CW would be hard to use effectively in a civil war, with rebels and the regime mixed in close proximity.
Now, for the record, someone (I forget who) floated the idea that if Assad were to use CW, he might be more interested in using them against Turkey, which is the launching pad for this war. None of Warrick’s sources seem to consider that fairly out of the box suggestion. (There’s always the possibility he’d use them as a threat against Israel).
But then there’s the issue I brought up shortly after this happened. The CW mixing happened on November 28. The next day, Syria’s Internet went down (something that goes unmentioned in Warrick’s piece). I suggested in my earlier article that Western assertions that the outage had nothing to do with the CW mixing suggested we, not Assad, brought the Toobz down.
Whether we did or Assad did, though, you’d think this now central concern about rogue officers would have made the Internet outage a really fucking big deal, given that it would have disrupted the command and control that Western intelligence were purportedly already worried about. Nope! We had great visibility, we said.
Oh, did I mention that just after this went down Syria’s Foreign Ministry (the folks who supposedly reassured us on the CW) spokesperson, Jihad Makdissi, defected? You think he might have something to say about the broken Toobz and the alleged CW prep? You think it’s possible he was an asset getting out just after he had carried out two big ops for us, one an InfoOp, the other tactical?
Now, obviously the CW and the Scud missile allegations are designed to gin up a coalition of the willing (and persuade Russia and other members of the coalition of the unwilling) so we can go to war in Syria.
But their narrative is so problematic and dodgy I can’t make sense of whether they really are that stupid or just their narrative is.
CNN is reporting that Curt Weldon, the ethically and legally challenged former Congressman with ties to Manucher Ghorbanifar, has gone to Libya to try to negotiate with Muammar Qaddafi. In a NYT op-ed, Weldon makes the case for why he’s the guy to persuade Qaddafi to step aside.
Seven years later I am back in Libya, this time on a much different mission, as the leader of a small private delegation, at the invitation of Colonel Qaddafi‘s chief of staff and with the knowledge of the Obama administration and members of Congress from both parties. Our purpose is to meet with Colonel Qaddafi today and persuade him to step aside.
First, we must engage face-to-face with Colonel Qaddafi and persuade him to leave, as my delegation hopes to do. I’ve met him enough times to know that it will be very hard to simply bomb him into submission.
Simultaneously, we must obtain an immediate United Nations-monitored cease-fire, with the Libyan Army withdrawing from contested cities and rebel forces ending attempts to advance.
Then we must identify and engage with those leaders who, if not perfect, are pragmatic and reform-minded and thus best positioned to lead the country.
The world agrees that Colonel Qaddafi must go, even though no one has a plan, a foundation for civil society has not been constructed and we are not even sure whom we should trust. But in the meantime, the people of Libya deserve more than bombs. [my emphasis]
Noah Shachtman elaborates on the history Weldon and Qaddafi have in common. The short version? At a time when Weldon served on Qaddafi’s “foundation,” he was pitching selling arms to him.
It wasn’t long ago — April, 2008, to be exact — that Weldon was boasting in a report that he had become the “1st non-Libyan Board Member of the Ghadaffi Foundation.” During a trip to Tripoli the month before, the self-proclaimed “friend of Libya” carried “a personal letter from Libyan Chamber [of Commerce] President to U.S. Chamber President.” Weldon also visited with with the country’s “Nuclear Ministry Leadership and agreed to reinforce U.S. nuclear cooperation/collaboration.”
Finally, Weldon agreed “to quickly return to Libya for meetings with [Gadhafi's] son Morti regarding defense and security cooperation.”
Two weeks later, Defense Solutions — a company which, at the time, counted Weldon as a key executive and adviser — drew up a proposal to refurbish the country’s fleet of armored vehicles, including its T-72 tanks, BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicles and BTR-60 armored personnel carriers.
Now, granted, Weldon says he is undertaking this trip with the knowledge–not the endorsement–of the Obama Administration. Still, I can’t help but wondering whether this is an elaborate plot (with Weldon, there’s always a plot) to make Obama’s decision to send Frank Wisner–also a business associate–to negotiate with Hosni Mubarak look remarkably smart by comparison. After all, both Wisner and Weldon have troubling conflicts that make them poor choices to represent our country’s interests. But Wisner, at least, is diplomatic and sane. Weldon? I’m not so sure.