A Rejoinder to Ignatius on Libya

Should the West start putting boots on the ground to establish law and order in Libya to help the teetering government of Ali Zeidan train a general purpose force that later could maintain security in the North African country?

That’s what David Ignatius seems to be suggesting in his opinion piece in today’s Washington Post, which concludes with a comment from Karim Mezran, a Libyan political scientist and senior fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center, who says Libya is so fragile now that NATO may have to send in its own security forces to keep order until the long-delayed training program is ready.

Ignatius apportions blame between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans for the U.S. failing to take some simple steps that “might have limited the country’s descent toward anarchy. But Libya became so toxic after the Benghazi attack that the United States has been slow to provide help.”

But more germane are the simple steps that Libyans themselves have failed to take since the ousting of Col. Muammar Gaddafi — and no amount of U.S. or Western assistance can make up for them. The original source of the country’s instability and lawlessness rests with Libyan leaders themselves.

In the immediate weeks and months after the toppling of Gaddafi, the National Transitional Council blocked the enactment of security plans for the formation of a new national army through the demobilization of militias and re-training of rebel fighters. The various factions did so in order to retain their power and clout.  This was one of the reasons one of Libya’s most able politicians, Mahmoud Jibril, resigned from the NTC.

And ever since then whenever a serious security plan has been proposed the various political and militia factions have sabotaged it, reluctant to accede to a change that would diminish their influence. All too often the militias are seen by reporters as somehow disconnected from politics – but they aren’t: political faction and militias work often hand-in-glove, something I have written about for the Jamestown Foundation among others.

Second, militiamen have also been reluctant to integrate into fledgling armed forces, preferring instead to take a government salary and remain under command of their militia leaders and to have few demands placed on them. They have lacked discipline: in the summer of 2012 dozens of police trainees demanded to be returned to Libya from training in Jordan because they found what was being asked of them too onerous – they complained among other things that they had to get up early in the morning. Others rioted in Jordan because of delays in their return home two days after completing a three-month course.

Third, the Zeidan government and any replacement will remain weak for as long as ordinary Libyans fail to rally round. More than a year ago Jibril told me he feared for Libya for as long as ordinary Libyans fail to protest in the streets in large numbers in support of government efforts to introduce security. I heard an echo of that the other day from a former political exile and onetime rebel leader Abdul Rahman El Mansouri. He told me last week of his frustration at the failure of Libyans to get fed up with what is going on and make clear their anger with politicians and militias alike.

In the end the descent into anarchy is not a Washington responsibility but a Libyan one, and it isn’t American inattention that is a worry but Libyan inattention. There are – and have been for weeks – Western military training teams around. There is a 100-strong EU border enforcement advisory team in Tripoli, for example. None of them are doing much, unable to leave compounds and hotels. It is up to ordinary Libyans to seize the opportunities presented by the ousting of Gaddafi. The West can’t win the future for them.

And putting NATO troops on the ground in Libya isn’t going to help. The appearance of Western troops I suspect would inflame problems and prompt a violent reaction from militant Islamists and foreign jihadists.

Will A Better But Not Yet Good Economy Safe Obama?

Democrats hope in a tight election race that marginal improvements in the economy will persuade voters to back their man over Republican nominee Mitt Romney. With the exception of the parties clashing over Libya, and whether the administration was culpable by neglect in the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans during the September storming of the American consulate in Benghazi, the election has been dominated by the state of the US economy.

The culture wars of the past have dimmed in significance this year. Even the divisive issues of abortion and immigration have faded. With Obama’s fate likely tied to how voters judge his record in restoring economic growth, Democrats have been burnishing any good economic news coming their way. Read my take on this in the Daily Mail.

Bush/Romney: Bring It On!

I would have thought Obama advisers would be saying, “bring it on” to the thought of George W. Bush campaigning actively for Mitt Romney. They should be so lucky.

As Karen Tumulty reports in the Washington Post this morning, Obama’s predecessor in the Oval Office has offered his endorsement of Romney but in as low a key way as possible. On Tuesday an ABC crew caught up with the former President as he was entering an elevator and elicited from Bush the comment, “I’m for Romney.”

He has no plans apparently to get out there on the campaign. His absence will be helpful to the GOP candidate. A presence on the hustings would certainly complicate things for Romney.

In a February poll by Quinnipiac University, 51 percent of respondents said Bush is more to blame for the horrible economy than Obama, while only 35 percent said Obama is.

 

Gay Marriage More Dangerous For Romney

The same-sex marriage issue is going to get complicated for both presidential candidates but Barack Obama is likely to benefit from a more consistent message than Mitt Romney has so far been able to craft.

The President’s position is reasonably simple and can be summed up in a sentence: He is now for same-sex marriages but believes it is up to the states to decide. Romney appears to be attempting to triangulate the issue in a bid both to avoid offending sensitivities that run through the GOP coalition and to steer clear of distracting from his economic pitch to independents.

At first glance, the former Massachusetts governor appears consistent on the issue: he is against same-sex marriage. But then his position starts losing clarity when he’s pressed.

First, he risks irritating states-rights Republicans by his readiness to endorse a federal amendment banning same-sex marriages, while at the same time offending libertarians suspicious of government intrusion in private life.

Second, while opposing same-sex marriage he says he is not against gays adopting children, a position that offends Christian and social conservatives and undermines a key argument that some opponents of gay marriage trot out – namely, that marriage is there for raising children.

And third, Romney opposes not just same-sex marriage but civil unions while at the same time agreeing that same-sex couples should be afforded benefits that heterosexual married couples enjoy, such as being able to pass on pension rights and employee-based health-care coverage.

Romney’s convoluted position is far more demanding to make – and complexity is a real liability in the cut and thrust of election campaigns.

Since Obama’s declaration this week that he has “evolved” to a position of being for same-sex marriage – a strange evolution indeed in that he had been “for” years ago and then back-tracked and has now reversed again – Romney for the first time since he launched his campaign was presented the opportunity of benefiting from energized Christian conservative support. But his contortions on the issue risk sapping much of that energy.

There are risks, too, for President Obama. The majority of states – 30 – have passed gay-marriage bans and his position remains unpopular with significant numbers of black and Latino Democrats. But Romney clearly faces greater challenges. A key one will be to restrain the GOP’s conservative base from going over-the-top in the run-up to the election in lambasting Obama’s position.

When Obama came out with his “evolved” position, his aides were at pains to talk up the bravery of his declaration. And in some ways it is. But it is hard to believe that the President and his advisers refrained from making some political calculations of how this could all play out. As Steve Schmidt, a McCain strategist in 2008, has noted: Obama’s announcement has spotlighted some very tricky divisions within the GOP coalition.

Parlez Vous Francais, Mr President?

President Barack Obama better brush up on his French: Francois Hollande acknowledges in an interview with Slate magazine that he speaks English, “but a French president has to speak French!”

The two leaders are due to meet at Camp David on May 18 and 19 at the G8 Summit, although the White House has invited the French President for a bilateral meeting in Washington DC beforehand.

Asked if a leader should understand the main language of international diplomacy, i.e. English, Hollande responds: “he needs to understand it and to be able to have unmediated exchanges with his interlocutors” but adds that he is “attached to the French language.”

On other fronts, the U.S. and French presidents may have much in common. He notes: “We have similarities on the economic level.” By this he presumably means their shared opposition to the idea that deficit cutting can boost growth. Although it is doubtful whether Obama will want to get two kisses on his cheek from a French President who is a declared “Socialist” — that would be a godsend for the folks at Fox News!

He praises Obama in the interview, saying, “the Democratic administration’s choices in terms of foreign policy showed serious and beneficial changes compared with the preceding one.”

And he mentions he has no wish to make life harder for Obama with an upcoming election: “I intend to assert France’s independence without making Barack Obama’s task any more difficult. For example, I will maintain the position I had during my campaign of a pullout of French troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, in agreement with our allies.”

What will he push at Camp David? There are hints. He says “convertibility of the Chinese currency should have been discussed at the G20” earlier this year and he argues that reform of the international monetary system must be “a priority.” He shares his predecessor’s tough line on Iran and the development of a nuclear weapon but appears to see some room for maneuver in terms of negotiation.

 

No Need To Subpoena Reporters

Peter Suderman over at Reason Magazine has a useful reminder today on how the Obama administration promised to protect whistleblowers but has done quite the opposite and has developed into the most aggressive of administrations in pursuing federal employees who talk out of turn.

The administration pledged to “empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance.”

Suderman quotes Edward Wasserman, a journalism professor at Washington & Lee University. “Prosecutors aren’t hassling reporters as they once did. Thanks to the post-9/11 explosion in government intercepts, electronic surveillance, and data capture of all imaginable kinds — the NSA is estimated to have intercepted 15-20 trillion communications in the past decade — the secrecy police have vast new ways to identify leakers.”

 

 

 

The Hollande-Monti Pact: Growth Over Austerity

Exit polls suggest at the time of writing that Nicolas Sarkozy has suffered the ignominy of being a one-term French president. His loss means that for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century the French have elected a Socialist as their leader.

The result looks like it will be closer than many thought it was going to be a couple of weeks ago. Sarkozy’s rather brutal anti-Muslim appeal to the far right seems to have been rewarded with a narrower defeat. It appears the Socialist François Hollande has secured 52 percent of the vote compared to 48 percent for incumbent Sarkozy – a solid victory. And as I write, Sarkozy has conceded.

Sarkozy is only the second president, after Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, in 1981, to fail to win re-election under the Fifth Republic.

His supporters are now suggesting that this was an “unwinnable election.” That he was unfortunate in his timing: he entered office as the financial crash hit. Does this mean that no  incumbent can expect to win in the current circumstances? He is, after all, the 11th government leader to be swept from office since the financial crash struck. Does this French election hold a warning for Barack Obama?

Four percent is not a heavy defeat. While Sarkozy faced an uphill battle and was associated for many of the French with four years of crisis, the seeds for his defeat also rest with the manner of his governing. The French tend to appreciate a discreet president and Sarkozy was anything but: he chose to celebrate his victory at one of Paris’ most expensive restaurants and for several days after relaxed on a friendly billionaire’s yacht – one sporting the British Red Ensign!

As the living standards of the French dropped during his time in office and unemployment rose, the brash Sarkozy continued to project himself as a contemporary JFK, surrounding himself with beautiful women – not just his wife – and was happy to appreciate being associated with the finer things in life.

Many, I suspect, did not forgive him for this and as they went to the polls they recorded their resentment.

This marks him out from Obama. Sarkozy seemed distant from the pain. Obama doesn’t — although he doesn’t have the Bill Clinton gift of actually appearing to feel the pain. That, though, may save him come November.

There will clearly be Europe-wide consequences from this election. As far as Europe is concerned it is likely to shift the focus from austerity to growth and sets up a possible confrontation between Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The Economist this weekend suggested that Hollande may be rather dangerous, suggesting that he will turn the clock back to the early disastrous days of his Socialist predecessor François Mitterrand. Certainly, Hollande will be less business friendly than Sarkozy and this could well impact the growth he says he wants. But he is a sophisticated and cautious political player and some of his campaign rhetoric should be taken as just that.

Merkel was already indicating on the eve of the French presidential election that she would be open to re-thinking on the austerity-tilted European fiscal pact. She has come under strong lobbying pressure from Italy’s Mario Monti to do so.

Now that Hollande has won that pressure will simply grow on her — and with both the French and Italian leaders arguing for the pact to reflect more of a mix of reform, austerity and growth, she is likely to have to concede and sell it to the Germans.

How the bond and financial markets react is another matter. We shall have more hints on that tomorrow when they open.

“Check This Out Buddy –You’re Fired”

Is this a one-off as the Secret Service insists or are there more revelations to come about the culture of an elite agency that’s entrusted with protecting America’s leaders?

What is particularly disturbing about the case is that veteran supervisors were involved in the partying in Cartagena just before President Obama arrived for the Summit of the Americas last weekend.

That in istelf suggests there is more here than if it had been only junior agents blowing off steam and may well reflect a casualness throughout the agency.

If supervisors thought it was okay to party with escorts while on travel duty, then it suggests that they may have felt they had some immunity or that this would not get them into trouble with higher-ups.

In all eleven Secret Service agents and nine military servicemen are under investigation for hiring 20 or 21 hookers in Cartagena last week. The two veterans were named first by CBS as Greg Stokes and David Chaney.

Chaney, who has been forced into retriement, is the son of a George Chaney, who had himself a long career with the Secret Service and was on the LBJ detail. Stokes, an assistant special agent in charge of the K9 division, has been removed for cause, i.e. fired, but has an opportunity to appeal the dismissal during the 30-day notice period.

Chaney’s lack of discretion comes through on his Facebook page where, according to the Washington Post,  he posted a photo of himself showing him behind Sarah Palin during the 2008 campaign with the comment, “I was really checking her out, if you know what I mean?”

“Well, check this out, buddy — you’re fired!” Sarah Palin has taunted in a TV interview.

From my experience of the Secret Service while covering Capitol Hill and the White House for several years, agents are highly professional but they do have a tendency to drink hard in the evenings at the various Capitol Hill watering holes.