The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged uspolicy
Colin Kahl: Trump's "upside down duck"

This is the first in an interesting series of tweets (see the rest here) by former Obama and Biden advisor Colin Kahl, basically arguing that the best one can hope is that while Trump says crazy things in foreign policy, more responsible officials will ensure he and the Bannon types get nothing done. In other words, that a kind of "adults in the room" deep state ensure that a minimally functional US foreign policy continues till the next election.

In Translation: Trump and the Arabs

There has been a wide range of reactions to the election of Donald Trump as US president in the Arab world, ranging from horror to accommodation to cheers. Much of the Egyptian media – indeed, the Egyptian regime – sees in Trump hope that of a leader who will develop closer ties to Abdefattah al-SIsi, ending the funk in Egypt-US relations and declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group on a par with the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. In the Gulf, commentators close to the Saudi regime show cautious pragmatism, cheered by the anti-Iranian stance (even if they might not be so happy about the Iran nuclear deal being scrapped, since at least it contained Tehran’s nuclear ambition). Many right-wing Israelis are overjoyed by the prospect of a US president who not only promises to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but is overly anti-Palestinian and whose chief advisor hails from an “alt-right” movement many of whose members are pro-Israel and whose ideologues describe as “White Zionism”. And of course, many, many others fear (another?) war-mongering US president with openly Islamophobic views and, more generally, yet another element of uncertainty at a moment of regional turmoil.

But there is an argument to be made that, while Trump’s impact on the US may very well be dire, it will not mark such a significant shift for the region. First, Trump’s foreign policy ideas are basically non-existent. He will draw in advisors with radical and biased views, to be sure, but this happened before under George W. Bush and other administrations haven’t exactly been impartial mediators on many issues (see Israel-Palestine). Trump backing Assad or staying away from conflicts such as Yemen and Libya or seeking to extract a kind of tribute from the oil producing state of the Gulf can be seen as a more forthright departure from existing policy, not a radical departure. Indeed the thing to fear the most is geopolitical uncertainty, amateurism and military adventurism. But again, nothing entirely new. Only the idea of the “Muslim ban” offers something that pretty much draws universal condemnation in the region. The likes of veteran commentators AbdelBari Atwan, whose post-election commentary is reproduced below, are making these points. They likely underestimate the new and innovative forms of damage a Trump presidency could wreck.

This In Translation feature is only possible through the support of our friends at Industry Arabic – please check them out for your company’s Arabic translation needs.


Trump stunned many with his surprise victory… how did he achieve this ‘miracle’? What will his policies be towards in the Arab world? How will his friendship with Putin impact Syria, Iraq, Libya, the Gulf and Iran?

AbdelBari Atwan, Rai al-Youm, 9 November 2016

Defeating the American political establishment as embodied by its representative, Hillary Clinton, and defeating the mighty media empires, Donald Trump has won. He has also demonstrated that opinion polling lacks credibility and is fatally flawed, and proven wrong countless political analysts, experts and think tanks who predicted that he would be quickly and decisively defeated.

The leaders of the Republican Party and its elite in Congress and the House of Representatives washed their hands of him, describing him as ignorant and lacking political experience, but he faced them down, parrying their blows with blows of his own. Demonstrating a deep reading of popular sentiment and engineering a message that effectively reached out to the electorate, he proved that he better understands the American people and its demands than the party.

Americans, as this election has demonstrated, are tired of their schizophrenic governing elite, which fails to understand their concerns, problems and ambitions. This is why they put their trust in this “rebel” against the political establishment and gave him their votes.

We in no way disagree with the many who condemn this man, or with the numerous criticisms of his personality and behavior, but at the end of the day, judgment resides in the hands of the people and at the ballot boxes. It is hard to imagine how a millionaire who travels by private plane and luxury yacht could present himself as the representative and defender of the rights and demands of the poor and marginalized. However, the frustrated of America believed him and entrusted him with their votes, perhaps because he is candid and spontaneous, unlike the ruling establishment’s professionals and politicians.


Facing vicious and personal attacks in the media about his character, family life and financial honesty, he kept the course through the media’s minefields to defeat his 16 rivals for the Republican party nomination before prevailing over the greater challenger, Clinton, to arrive in the White House wearing his bright red tie.

He is racist, right-wing, and belittles and harasses women. He despises Islam and Muslims and wants to shut them out along with the poor of Mexico and Latin America. But why is this surprising? Are we not talking about America, the country that assails us with tanks, missiles and agents, that kills millions of us, that plants the seeds of sectarian war, changes regimes and spreads murderous chaos? And is Mrs. Clinton really full of love for Muslims? Did she not threaten to intervene militarily in Syria, enthusiastically back the invasion and occupation of Iraq, urge the murder of an Arab leader (Qadhafi) and fail to show any basic human respect towards him once he died?

There may have been differences between candidates in the presidential elections when it comes to many matters of domestic and foreign policy, but they were united in their contempt for Arabs and therefore Islam. The only difference was the manner in which they expressed it.

Today, when Trump went to the heart of the White House, it dawned on us that we would have to work with this loathsome person as president. More than other presidents who provoked the ruling establishment, it is clear that he will have to change his behavior and stances or else face the risk of assassination. His threat to repeal or amend many of the provisions of the Iranian nuclear agreement may indeed be shelved since the agreement concerns the five major powers plus Germany, not just Iran and America, and since cancelling the deal would result in Iran resuming its enrichment of uranium and acquiring nuclear weapons, possibly leading to war to prevent that from happening.

We disagree with the many who bought into the stereotype sold by the powerful media and political establishment, which described him as an unpredictable madman unqualified to lead any state. If that were the case, he would not have received a majority[^1] of the votes of approximately 300 million US citizens in free and fair elections.

Trump’s admiration for Russian President Vladmir Putin is not a shortcoming or a mistake. We think differently and believe the cup is half-full. This obvious admiration for Putin may lead to more cooperation between the two major powers on pressing issues, particularly the wars of the Middle East. Is it necessary for the presidents of two major powers with a tense relationship and ongoing cold and hot wars to themselves be antagonistic towards one another? Have we forgotten that war between them is conducted on our land and that the victims are our people and children?

Trump threatens to move the US embassy to occupied Jerusalem. We have started to clamor about this disastrous idea — and it would really be a disaster — but what can we do? Do we have the power to prevent it, given the painful condition of the Islamic world at present? Did we prevent the occupation of Jerusalem or its Judaization? Is there anyone championing the members of the resistance in the occupied territories who are losing their lives, so as to protect Palestine’s Arab and Islamic identity?

Another point that many people are stuck on is Trump’s threat to ban Muslims from entering America. This behavior is racist, detestable and fascist. However, we should ask, have Arab countries, and especially Gulf countries, opened their borders to Syrian refugees or Iraqi refugees before them? They are the countries that bear the greatest responsibility, having spent billions of dollars trying to topple the Syrian government and supported the invasion, embargo and regime change in Iraq.

Why should our response not be to prevent Americans from entering the 50 Islamic countries around the world? Why should Muslims go to America at all? There are many other alternatives, and we don’t think that Muslims will die of grief if they can’t go to America as visitors and immigrants. They should turn their attention to corrupt Arab leaders who waste their resources, steal the fruits of their labor and place the proceeds in American banks, and instead work towards good governance, social justice and political and economic reform.


We do not support President Trump, nor do we support any American president, because we absolutely believe that most of our troubles have been caused by America and the Arab leaders allied to it. However, we wanted to provide a different analysis of the political earthquake caused by this American election, and how to deal with it. We also wanted to say that we, as Arabs and Muslims, who have only rarely experienced this thing called an election, must rely first and foremost on ourselves.

America is changing. Trump in the White House represents the beginning of this change. It is only logical to conclude that we too must change, learn from our disastrous mistakes, and stop being subordinate to our American backers who want to impose the jizya[^2] on us and plunder the remainder of our resources.

[^1]: Atwan writes before the final tally showing that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote.

[^2]: A tax historically levied on non-Muslim subjects in Muslim states; in this case Atwan uses it to in the more general sense of tribute.

US "meh power" in Libya

This two-part New York Times feature (one, two) on US policy in Libya is to a large extent about Hillary Clinton’s advocacy for an intervention in 2011 and her subsequent disengagement as other priorities took hold. It in an indictment of Clinton that should give anyone want to vote for her some pause, but it is an even bigger indictment of the policy process in the Obama administration and the lack of thinking-through the Libya issue. Clinton thinks of the 2011 Libya intervention as "smart power" (the most overused and meaningless foreign policy cliché of the last two decades) but it looks more like "meh power": apart from short-bursts of activism (by Clinton mostly) driven by political ambition, there is mostly lack of sustained interest. They just don't care that much about what they started.

It actually lets off fairly easily the cheerleaders for intervention on Clinton’s team, such as Anne-Marie Slaughter, who advocated for intervention but did not press on the aftermath. It makes a rapid mention of the fact that the US scuttled potential negotiations with the Qadhafi regime, not giving them a chance to see what they could deliver (arguably the worst decision in the whole episode). Allies that act in a duplicitous manner to railroad the US into certain actions or to create facts on the ground, like France or Qatar, are never pushed back. It reveals that there was a US program to provide weapons to the rebels – in other words, that Washington joined Paris, Doha, Abu Dhabi and others in flooding Libya (and hence its neighbors) with weapons – but does not dwell on it. So much more could be made of the abundant material in these pieces, but what is most odd is that it suggests that both Obama and Clinton have drawn the wrong conclusions from the Libya debacle.

Still, excellent reporting and contains some scoops.

Obama Proposes Removing Human Rights Conditions on Aid to Egypt

Ziad Jilani writing for The Intercept

The budget proposal released by the Obama administration Tuesday seeks to roll back restrictions Congress has placed on foreign aid to Egypt’s military regime and the sale of crowd control weapons to “emerging democracies.”
Under current law, 15 percent of aid to Egypt is subject to being withheld based on human rights conditions — although even that can be waived if it is deemed to be in the national security interest of the United States, as it was last year.
Cole Bockenfeld, deputy director for policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy, says the administration probably doesn’t want to go to the trouble of justifying its waiver this year. “They had to basically do an assessment. … Here’s how they’re doing on political prisoners, here’s how they’re doing on freedom of assembly, and so on,” Bockenfeld explains. Last year’s report “infuriated the Egyptians … it was a pretty honest assessment of how things had deteriorated in Egypt.”
The assessment, for instance, took the Egyptians to task for the “impunity” their security forces operate under and restrictions on due process.
“I think what they’re trying to do is avoid a repeat of that scenario,” concludes Bockenfeld. “Because that upset the Egyptians as much as it did, we’d rather handle those things privately.”

In short, the Obama administration does not want in any way to publicly chastise the Sisi regime. At best – and let's face it this is a stretch – it's because it feels taking up these issues privately with Cairo is more effective. Yes, because that has worked so well in the past. It would be nice if the administration just came out publicly and said it can't be bothered, does not want headaches, and is fully supportive of the regime in Egypt no matter what it does. It would have much greater success in pleasing the Egyptians, which appears to be the chief goal, and put an end to the distracting and dishonest debate about supporting democracy or human rights. The damage here is not just the refusal to take a public political stance on what's going on in a key ally and major recipient of US largesse, but perhaps chiefly the ongoing abandonment of previous commitments to keep an eye on these issues and the making of concession after concession to the Sisi regime with apparently nothing in return. It's a small thing in the big scheme of things (see Russia and Aleppo), but exemplifies the amateurish, bureaucratically-driven, and irresolute aspects of Obama's foreign policy at its weakest.

Sale of U.S. Arms Fuels the Wars of Arab States - NYT

Good report on all the possible upside of regional chaos for the U.S. arms industry:

American defense firms are following the money. Boeing opened an office in Doha, Qatar, in 2011, and Lockheed Martin set up an office there this year. Lockheed created a division in 2013 devoted solely to foreign military sales, and the company’s chief executive, Marillyn Hewson, has said that Lockheed needs to increase foreign business — with a goal of global arms sales’ becoming 25 percent to 30 percent of its revenue — in part to offset the shrinking of the Pentagon budget after the post-Sept. 11 boom.
American intelligence agencies believe that the proxy wars in the Middle East could last for years, which will make countries in the region even more eager for the F-35 fighter jet, considered to be the jewel of America’s future arsenal of weapons. The plane, the world’s most expensive weapons project, has stealth capabilities and has been marketed heavily to European and Asian allies. It has not yet been peddled to Arab allies because of concerns about preserving Israel’s military edge.
But with the balance of power in the Middle East in flux, several defense analysts said that could change. Russia is a major arms supplier to Iran, and a decision by President Vladimir V. Putin to sell an advanced air defense system to Iran could increase demand for the F-35, which is likely to have the ability to penetrate Russian-made defenses.
“This could be the precipitating event: the emerging Sunni-Shia civil war coupled with the sale of advanced Russian air defense systems to Iran,” Mr. Aboulafia said. “If anything is going to result in F-35 clearance to the gulf states, this is the combination of events.”

Remember, this is what Obama recently made quite clear about his Middle East policy: it's about selling more weapons

The Obama Doctrine

In Thomas Friedman's interesting sit-down with Obama about the Iran deal, this tidbit on US policy towards Arab countries:

Regarding America’s Sunni Arab allies, Obama reiterated that while he is prepared to help increase their military capabilities they also need to increase their willingness to commit their ground troops to solving regional problems.
“The conversations I want to have with the Gulf countries is, first and foremost, how do they build more effective defense capabilities,” the president said. “I think when you look at what happens in Syria, for example, there’s been a great desire for the United States to get in there and do something. But the question is: Why is it that we can’t have Arabs fighting [against] the terrible human rights abuses that have been perpetrated, or fighting against what Assad has done? I also think that I can send a message to them about the U.S.’s commitments to work with them and ensure that they are not invaded from the outside, and that perhaps will ease some of their concerns and allow them to have a more fruitful conversation with the Iranians. What I can’t do, though, is commit to dealing with some of these internal issues that they have without them making some changes that are more responsive to their people.”
One way to think about it, Obama continued, “is [that] when it comes to external aggression, I think we’re going to be there for our [Arab] friends — and I want to see how we can formalize that a little bit more than we currently have, and also help build their capacity so that they feel more confident about their ability to protect themselves from external aggression.” But, he repeated, “The biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries. Now disentangling that from real terrorist activity inside their country, how we sort that out, how we engage in the counterterrorism cooperation that’s been so important to our own security — without automatically legitimizing or validating whatever repressive tactics they may employ — I think that’s a tough conversation to have, but it’s one that we have to have.”

Let me translate that for you: our priority in the Arab world is selling them weapons and making sure that the regimes are stable enough so that they will keep buying our weapons, and don't act too embarrassingly either in terms of human rights and so on because it might make selling them weapons more difficult. Also, we would like to formalize as much as we can how we will sell them weapons.

Charles Glass on the CIA's Arabists

Charles Glass reviews a new book on the history of the CIA's Arabists for the TLS:

In 1947, two American intelligence operatives, Miles Copeland and Archie Roosevelt, flew from Washington to the Levant together to take up posts in, respectively, Damascus and Beirut. Copeland described the pair at that time as "me a New Orleans jazz musician and Tennessee riverboat gambler, he a member in good standing of what passes for nobility in America". The two became friends and co-conspirators, who, together with Archie's cousin Kim Roosevelt, did more to mould the modern Middle East than the so-called policy-makers in Washington. Hugh Wilford tells the story of the Central Intelligence Agency' s three musketeers in this absorbing account of romantics enchanted by Kiplingesque myths and the Lawrence of Arabia legend, who cynically harboured the self-contradictory ambition of democratizing the Arab world and Iran while arrogating all decisions to themselves.

. . .

When Copeland arrived in Damascus in 1947, Syria had an elected parliament and prime minister under a democratic constitution similar to that of the Third Republic in France. It did not take Copeland long to strike up a friendship with the Syrian Army's chief of staff, the Kurdish Colonel Husni Zaim, and turn his thoughts to politics at a time when the civilian government was delaying a treaty to permit an American oil pipeline through its territory from Saudi Arabia and Jordan to Lebanon. Roosevelt had been cultivating what he called the "young effendis" and Copeland the "right kind of leaders" to drag the Arab world away from Britain and France and into the American century. Zaim seemed perfect. As Wilford writes, he told Copeland that there was "only one way to start the Syrian people along the road to progress and democracy", pausing to slash at his desk with a riding crop, "with the whip".

Worth a read. This story has been told many times, and in this book from Glass' description it is told through the lens of CIA operatives being pro-democracy romantics. Dubious proposition to say the least...

"The US doesn't really have a policy on Yemen"

Brian Whitaker, writing in The Guardian :

Viewed from Washington, Yemen is not a real place where people are demanding social justice and democracy so much as a theatre of operations in Saudi Arabia's backyard, veteran Yemen-watcher Sheila Carapico told a conference in January.

In fact, she added, the US doesn't really have a policy on Yemen. What it has instead is a longstanding commitment to the security and stability of Saudi Arabia and the GCC states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates), coupled with an anti-terrorism policy in which Yemen is treated as an extension of the Afghan/Pakistani theatre. The result, she said, is "pretty much the antithesis" of what Yemenis were aspiring to when they set about overthrowing President Saleh in 2011.

France draws the military consequences of US disengagement from the Middle East

From Le Figaro's report on a "white paper" on France's military doctrine for the years ahead:

«C'est un fait majeur, lourd de conséquences, aussi important selon moi que les printemps arabes, car il signifie que l'on ne pourra plus désormais compter sur les États-Unis comme on le fit jusque-là», commente Étienne de Durand, le directeur du Centre des études de sécurité de l'Ifri, qui a suivi de près les travaux du livre blanc. Les deux dernières guerres livrées par la France, en Libye et au Mali, organisées autour de coalitions verticales, représentent selon lui «l'avenir». «Le fait que les États-Unis ne veuillent plus être en première ligne est un changement fondamental qu'il nous faut intégrer», poursuit cet expert.

The report also stresses the need to maintain France's African bases as a consequence of Operation Serval in Mali, describes the "vertical" coalitions used in Mali and Libya as "the future" and stresses that "the fact that the United States no longer want to be on the front line is a fundamental change that we must integrate". 

Do arms transfers represent breakthrough for Syrian rebels?

FSA fighters being instructed in the use of the ex-Yugoslav M79 anti-tank rocket launcher (YouTube)

The New York Times reported last week that “Saudi Arabia has financed a large purchase of infantry weapons from Croatia and quietly funneled them to antigovernment fighters in Syria.” The effort was reportedly known to the US, but nothing was said for or against it so that it might proceed under the radar of a European Union arms embargo on Syria.

Palettes of former Yugoslavian weapons are not game-changers in and of themselves, and the way they’ve been secured by the rebels shows that the US still refuses to place its bets on any specific group. That said, the arrival of planeloads worth of small arms is significant in that it demonstrates a greater investment in the rebels by their foreign backers. According to the Australian small arms expert Nic Jenzen-Jones, it is the quantity of the weapons that is the most significant development for the rebels: “a lot of people are discussing, ‘is x system effective against y armoured vehicle?’. What’s more important in this conflict is that we’ve seen an initial dearth of weapons and only recently have we seen supplies of anti-armour weapons significantly increase.” 

“It’s a long term thing, but I’m sure we’ll see the situation in Daraa look very similar to that in Aleppo in the coming months,” the Times’ Eliot Higgins told me, as Aleppo and other parts of northern Syria are falling under rebel control due to the capture of multiple Syrian military bases in the region. According to Higgins, the new weapons have given the rebels an "extra edge that has allowed them to start attacking checkpoints and bases, resulting in the capture of heavier equipment” from the Syrian Army.

Jenzen-Jones explained that three types of Eastern bloc anti-tank weapons – the M79 “Osa,” the M60 recoilless gun and the RPG–22 – now in use in Syria are “suitable for the type of hit-and-run urban warfare the rebels are conducting.” Suitable, but not “game-changing.”

Indeed, the conspicuous absence of a certain type of handheld weapon suggests that the supply effort is not quite an all-out effort on behalf of the rebels by foreign benefactors. “If we see [anti-air missile systems] being provided, I think that would suggest a shift in thinking in Washington,” Higgins explained, noting that rebels still mainly rely on captured Syrian Army stockpiles and a handful of heat-seeking Chinese-made missiles of unknown origin.

The rebels’ lack of air defenses in the face of aerial bombardment is partly why they have risked their columns to besiege Syrian military bases: capturing the airfields around Aleppo and in Idlib Province have reduced the scale of air attacks on targets in these places. Even if those jets and attack helicopters were grounded, however, the rebels would still lack the heavy weapons to exploit the situation.

The area where these weapons have been observed most is known as Daraa province, along the Jordanian border, and the weapons may help the rebels there carve out an enclave under their control. But where do the rebels go from Daraa, whose capital city they have already lost once before? That is less clear, because the flow of the Croatian pipeline is not and has never been a sure thing for the rebels.

A parallel with this situation can be drawn from the NATO and UN intelligence failures going into the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre in Bosnia. The international mission was divided against itself, with Western allies keeping secrets from one another, and of middlemen pocketing some of the spoils meant for the war effort. Small arms were shipped in en masse by international Islamic charities and the governments of several Middle Eastern countries with the official knowledge, (if not always actual complicity), of the US and several of its allies: Jordan, Turkey, Germany and the UK.

Indeed, the US embassy in Croatia was hit by backbiting over these arms transfers in the 1990s, with the CIA station chief and ambassador there falling out over the CIA man’s suspicious the State Department was keeping quiet about other nations’ (Iran) arms transfers in Bosnia because of an “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” rationale. 
Or rather, nothing was said for or against it because it armed a group the West wanted to see armed but didn’t want to associate with. Through Jordan, Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, that seems to be the policy of the US, France and the UK.

So far, no amount of pro-opposition lobbying in these three nations has led to them granting the rebels substantial armed assistance, though trainings programs for Free Syrian Army soldiers and anti-Assad propagandists are reportedly ongoing in both Jordan and Turkey under US direction.

When the US moved to reorganize the Syrian National Council as the “Syrian National Coalition,” it was thought that Washington was signaling greater investment in Syrian opposition forces. Despite rumors that the White House will receive leaders of both the FSA and Syrian National Coalition, no one has demonstrated direct arming of the rebels … though Secretary of State John Kerry has revealed that the White House is far more “involved” with overseeing the Gulf states’ arms deliveries than previously admitted. 

Though the decision to increase “non-lethal” to US$60 million and to supply it directly to the FSA is being marked as a decisive change in policy, it will be at least three months before the arms embargo imposed on Syria by the EU is up for renegotiation, with the UK in the lead to have it relaxed. If there is one military benefit from it for the rebels, it is that now they are freed up to spend more on weapons with their consumables and medical kits being better taken care of.

According to Syria Comment’s Joshua Landis, one of the main reasons the US government continues to demonstrate great reticence in openly backing any rebel force diplomatically, let alone militarily is because “the sort of received wisdom in Washington today is that Syria is going to become Somalia because all of these groups are going to end up in an extended civil conflict once they get through Assad.” Landis explains that “the main groups from the Islamic front [rivals to the FSA, and likely the preferential recipients of aid from the Gulf states] are trying to find [more] common ground, and these Salafists are willing to push aside Jahbat al-Nusra” despite a burst of initial support for it when it was designated a terrorist organization by the US. The foreign fighters’ haughty disdain for their Syrian brothers-in-arms, it appears, are playing a large part in the increasingly negative response to their presence in Syria.

The Beltway calculus is, he says, that “to pick an effective winner in Syria, you need to be able to pick an Islamist” and the White House does not think it can sell anyone in Syria that way to justify a more direct role. Meanwhile, rebel supporters lampoon the US’s hesitancy, and representatives of the Free Syrian Army openly blame the Obama Administration for holding back Saudi arms transfers to them. At the same time, the FSA leader Salim Idris, “who is supposed to be heading all of these things,” says Landis, "denies that [arms transfers] are happening.”

“I don’t think he’s being sincere, but clearly, he’s trying to make a point that this is a drop in the bucket,“ Landis added, noting that making that point was probably the driving reason for Idris’s remarks, rather than an effort to distance the FSA from the Saudis. C.J. Chivers, the lead author of the Times report, has speculated on his blog that “[t]hese newly arrived weapons in Syria may well have been intended for nationalist and secular fighters,” ones favored by FSA top “commanders” who have very limited authority within Syria. That, believes Chivers, is how the operation might have been sold to US policymakers.

The Guardian’s Ghaith Abdul-Ahad has written that foreign efforts to influence the course the FSA’s “officers” would take as the “armed opposition” began to come apart early on due to rivalries and the strength of Assad’s military: these failures to hold group in major cities such as Homs and Hama highlighted their limited popularity and poor supply situation. Jenzen-Jones notes that one of the biggest problems (and future challenges) for the rebels has been of ammunition supply and standardization: "you’ve got a lot of different calibers, and then within that you’ve got a lot of different types of ammunition, and you want to make sure the right ammunition is available so that you’re able to employ this range of weapons most effectively.”

The Salafist Ahrar al-Sham militia and the FSA’s “Farouq Brigades” were both named by Higgins as beneficiaries of the Croatian pipeline and seem well-placed to use and distribute the ex-Yugoslavian weapons to other groups.

While they can and do work together, the fact is that they belong to different militia alliances – al-Sham is part of an Islamist coalition and works with the extremist al-Nusra Front. They have been rivals for recruits and materiel because: “the fighters arm themselves and fund themselves as individuals or small groups,” Nir Rosen observed after several months inside Syria last year. While this is changing due to the influx of new weapons, and some groups do seem more interested in forming a centralized fighting front, there is a catch. With the Islamists the preferential choice of Saudi patrons, they may be in a stronger position to spread their influence in the FSA: as one of Higgins’ colleagues has remarked that ”if they’re making ideological conditioning [a prerequisite] for weapons training, would help explain growth of Salafists" – albeit those still loosely affiliated with the FSA.

The Brothers crave legitimization more than aid

What the U.S. can do for Egypt - By Tamara Cofman Wittes | The Middle East Channel

Tamara Coffman-Wittes gets where America's leverage over Egypt lies:

It's true that, with all their flaws, the Brotherhood won the freest and fairest elections in Egypt's modern history -- and may win the next elections too. But electoral victory does not absolve the group of the obligation to adhere to democratic rules and norms -- not if it wants to be recognized, and it most certainly does, as a democratically legitimate actor in Egypt and on the global stage. This is Washington's real leverage -- that the Brotherhood-led government wants U.S. recognition, and seeks U.S. partnership and support. Love it or hate it, there is simply no substitute for that photo-op in the Oval Office to signal to the world that you have arrived.

One wonders, though, whether the new Secretary of State's first acts should be in a visit to Cairo in this case.

Kagan & Dunne: Time to get tough on Egypt

This is one of those times that I wished that the Washington Post's editorial board hadn't spent the last four years making all-too-often spurious criticism of the Obama administration's foreign policy, because this quite good op-ed by Robert Kagan and Michele Dunne would have more punch. Neoconservative wonk Kagan (perched at Brookings) and Egypt expert Dunne (who has done a sterling job running the Atlantic Council's Egypt Source) have good credentials to speak about this, they have been engaged in the democracy debate for years and Kagan is probably the only neocon whose intellectual credentials are respectable (and isn't mostly motivated on this issue by the question of Israel's interests). They call on Obama 2.0 to get tough on Egypt right now.

A few excerpts and comments:

The Obama administration has treated Egypt primarily as an economic problem and has urged Cairo to move quickly to satisfy International Monetary Fund (IMF) demands to qualify for financing. But there is no separating Egypt’s economic crisis from its political crisis — or from the failures of its current government. Egypt’s economy is struggling, and disorder is rampant primarily because the country’s leaders the past two years — first the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, now President Mohamed Morsi — have failed to build an inclusive political process. Until they do, no amount of IMF funding will make a difference.

It is true one of the two main areas of focus of the Obama administration since Mubarak's overthrow has been the economy — I remember attending a briefling by Robert Bill Burns in February 2011 where it was his main focus. But the other one the administration focused on was the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, often giving the impression the only thing it cared about was hearing the magic words "we will respect Egypt's international obligations" (they didn't mean the Convention of the Rights of Children, which the MB opposes!). So basically the equation was Israel + economy (meaning economic stability so things don't degenerate further creating political instability, which in turn would threaten Israel and other US strategic interests). They are right that politics (realizing the need for inclusiveness during a transition period, a decent transition framework, actually setting out an agenda for things like security sector reform, transitional justice, etc.) deserved greater focus. After all, today we have the Suez Canal zone and parts of Sinai in their fourth day of civil disobedience for political, not economic reasons (economic neglect being a political issue).

Under Morsi’s rule, Egyptian society has become polarized between Islamists and non-Islamists. Enraging the political opposition late last year, he railroaded through a new constitution that contains inadequate protections for the rights of women and non-Muslims and leaves open the possibility of Islamic clerical oversight of legislation. Ignoring protests about the flawed process by which the constitution was drafted and passed, Morsi is moving ahead to legislative elections based on an electoral law to which the opposition objects. Meanwhile, his government has cracked down on journalists, brought spurious charges against opposition leaders and limited the right to public protests. It is considering legislation that would constrain the activities of non-governmental organizations even more than Hosni Mubarak did.

This may all be true — but does the sin of ignoring negatives signs begin with Morsi? Let us not forget that under SCAF, security forces killed some 150-200 people, put thousands through military trials and severely restricted the press and civil society. There was very little speaking out then apart during the NGO crisis and briefly in late November 2011 when the White House expressed the desire for a quick end to SCAF's inter-regnum. The tentative pact early after Mubarak's ouster between the MB and SCAF over how the transition should proceed was seen as "stabilizing" by Washington, just as the tentative MB (and sundry 'liberals' in the "Council of the Wise") pact with Omar Suleiman between January 29 and February 6 2011 had US backing. The problem in terms of US policy is not that Morsi is a destabilizing influence, as much as that stability is the wrong thing to prioritize — especially seeking to produce real stability.

It’s time for a new approach. Both the administration and Congress need to fully review military and economic assistance to Egypt. What does the Egyptian army need to bring security to the Sinai? Probably not F-16s. What conditions should Congress place on aid? Previous packages have appropriately been conditioned on progress toward democracy, but the administration has insisted on a national security waiver and has exercised it to provide the aid regardless of Egypt’s behavior. Perhaps Congress should not permit such a waiver in the next aid bill.

This paragraph reflects the fact that one of the admistration's main concern is to protect whoever is in charge in Egypt from the latest fad in Congress. But is Congress really the answer, in any case? Will politicians who are easily swayed by various lobbies (Egyptian, Islamist, Israeli, defense) really provide the backbone necessary? I'm not convinced the answer is to let Congress take the lead — the administration needs to do it itself, through political pressure (i.e. diplomacy) first and foremost.

Hindsight is 20/20, but I feel comfortable at least that, since late 2011 at least, I expressed reservations about the manner in which the US reached out to the Brotherhood and rushed to give it recognition with no counterpart save reassuring statements about Israel and the peace treaty. I argued, including with officials, that this was the wrong approach: the Israel question would take care of itself, since Egypt under any leadership is in no position to enter into a confrontation with Israel. More important was to focus on the future of Egypt's domestic politics and sending the message that a government willing to carry out fundamental reforms (and not just economic ones) would be supported: transitional justice, security sector reform, political culture. It may not have been the intended effect, but the impression many in Egypt (from secularists to the military) got was that Washington was annointing the Muslim Brothers as the next poeple in charge. The problem got worse after the parliamentary elections because of the FJP's success, despite the fact that parliament was actually fairly diverse, the results were obviously not a conclusive, long-term political map of the country, and the FJP did not have a majority.

The point at which there should have been a forceful US reaction was November 23, 2012, the day after President Morsi's Constitutional Declaration, the Muslim Brothers' march on the Cassation Court and the massive and unexpected protests in reaction. No act could have been more worsely calculated by the presidency, and in those first few days there were signs that the Brotherhood thought it had made a mistake. Its choice, though, was to rush through to get to a constitutional referendum that would justify its choice rather than back down, mirroring SCAF's strategy in February-March 2011 to rush to a referendum to justify its rule, ignoring demands for the consideration of alternatives by leaders of the revolution and many secular movements.

Western diplomats, these days, generally make excuses for the Brotherhood and blame the opposition for its fecklessness, its idiotic backing of the dissolution of parliament (imagine if that parliament was still there, if the secularists and Islamists had negotiated a date for its dissolution after a new constitution was voted in: you'd have secularists and moderate Islamists controlling almost 30% of seats, a much better pulpit to face the MB — possibly with a tactical alliance with Nour's 25% — than the television shows and press conferences it must settle with now). The opposition's uselessness is acting as a shield for the Brothers — who could use being saved from themselves rather than encouraged in their current path. I have sat through more than one meeting hearing these diplomats rant about the opposition, and some of its backing for Ahmed Shafiq and potential alliance with the felool, with a straight face: we don't know what Shafiq would have done (I doubt it would have been pretty) but Morsi has already done plenty, and how come they suddenly object to the likes of a Shafiq (i.e. a Mubarak lite)? Puh-lease.

There is an idea out there that accepting political Islam is a great geo-strategic move that will put the nail in al-Qaeda's coffin, and that the Brothers' failure would be a disaster because it would feed the jihadist international. Really? Al-Qaeda continues to metastasize into new and different things across the world, and while a Muslim Brotherhood in opposition at this stage is a scary thought because of its power of obstruction, there is no reason to believe it would become al-Qaeda (after all, why didn't it before? Perhaps because it genuinely has abandoned violence as a movement a while back, even if embraces state violence today?) Embracing the Brotherhood because of fear of uncertainty is the wrong choice, just like embracing Mubarak for fear of alternatives was the wrong choice. 

Kagan and Dunne make this point in their conclusion:

The United States made a strategic error for years by coddling Mubarak, and his refusal to carry out reforms produced the revolution of Tahrir Square. We repeat the error by coddling Morsi at this critical moment. The United States needs to use all its options — military aid, economic aid and U.S. influence with the IMF and other international lenders — to persuade Morsi to compromise with secular politicians and civil-society leaders on political and human rights issues to rebuild security and get the economy on track.

The question is, is it already too late? Have the events of November and December and their consequences already set in motion an economic collapse, made securing an IMF deal exponentially more difficult, and set Egypt's political forces on a confrontation path that encourage either chaos, eventual military intervention, or the dominance of the Brotherhood through authoritarian rather than electoral means?

That's what I ask myself today, and I'm not sure that in light of what appears to be coming in Egypt anyone has the appetite to "get tough."

The US ambassador's speech

As I've previously written (and I'm not the only one to think so), I think US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson has been too incautious in her embrace and praise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the last two years. Her recent speech in Alexandria, though, helps correct some of her recent media statements and strikes many right notes for where US policy should be. Her assessment of the economic situation is devasting, and a pointed critique of the Morsi administration's handling of this. The speech does not touch on politics much, but does hint at great alarm at Morsi's poor leadership.

I am pasting the whole thing after the jump.

Press Release  
February 10, 2013
 
Remarks
U.S. Ambassador to Egypt
Anne W. Patterson
Rotary Club of Alexandria Mariout
February 10, 2013
Alexandria, Egypt
 
 
Thank you Dr. El-Akad, for that kind introduction.
 
I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you today.  The Rotary plays a critical role in civic and charitable activities in many countries, including Egypt.  In other places I have lived, I have found Rotarians to be excellent partners.   I am a member of Rotary in my home town of Fort Smith Arkansas.  Organizations like Rotary reflect values that we all hold dear: outreach in our communities, generous charitable work locally and overseas, and a forum to learn more about local and international issues. 
 
I will never forget sitting in a Rotary meeting in Bogota, Colombia when a big boom went off and we all thought it was a car bomb in the neighborhood, an occurrence which was depressingly familiar.  But yet these Rotarians were meeting with each other and talking about how to help the least fortunate in their country.  So I am very grateful to be asked to speak to you today.     
 
 
I want to take this time to speak about the issues facing this country and realistic steps Egypt can take to move forward.  Two weeks ago, Egypt marked the second anniversary of its 2011 revolution.  What should have been a day of celebration was marred instead by violence in the streets, which intensified in the days following.  Two years ago the world stood by in amazement as the people of Egypt took control of their future and ended Hosni Mubarak’s thirty year reign.  This year the world watched rock wielding youths face off against the police of a democratically elected government armed with truncheons and tear gas as roads and bridges were closed, vehicles were burned and a major tourist hotel was looted.  Potential tourists who represent a vital lifeline for Egypt’s economy saw not the natural and historic beauty of this country, but violence and instability.  This is the last thing Egypt needs. 
 
Egypt has made great strides in the two years since January 25, 2011.  Elections generally regarded as free and fair elected a new president and, despite considerable controversy over the process that produced it, a referendum endorsed a new constitution.  But while elections and constitutions are a necessary part of democracy, they are not enough.  For Egypt to complete its transition to a free democratic nation, it needs much more.
 
Democracy needs a healthy and active civil society.  Non-Governmental Organizations are vital – not just political NGOs, but organizations like Rotary International working in a wide range of areas.  My embassy staff and I have met with NGOs focused on improving education, creating business opportunities, promoting dialogue between members of different religions, nurturing the spirit of entrepreneurship and offering opportunities for vocational training.  These are just a small sample of what a thriving civil society can do for a country and its people, without unduly burdening the country’s treasury. 
 
NGOs, however, need an environment in which they can grow and thrive.  There must also be people like Rotarians who are willing to volunteer their time and resources to create and maintain the organizations of civil society.  Egypt needs a new NGO law that clarifies the role of civil society and more importantly defines a clear and simple process by which these organizations can register themselves and protects their rights.  By adopting a law that is consistent with international norms for freedom of association, the Egyptian government can create a firm foundation on which civil society can flourish.  And Egyptian organizations do not have to carry the burden alone.  They can get help from other organizations in other countries.  Egyptians can learn from the experience of others who have gone through their own political transitions.  Your government should ensure that they too can register themselves in a timely and efficient manner.
 
The burden for creating and nurturing civil society does not rest solely with elected officials.  Those who went to Tahrir square two years ago brought down a dictator and earned their freedom, and did so with remarkably little violence.  Their courage as they joined arms to protect the Cairo Museum and the Alexandria Library was an inspiration.  But courage needs to be combined with commitment to the hard work of building political parties and engaging in the electoral process. 
 
Now is the time to build up the political structures of the country.  Egypt’s activists need to channel their courage and effort into creating political institutions – not merely legal structures, but true institutions that are widely respected by all elements of the society and restrain leaders or groups that might seek to impose their will.  They must gather to form effective political parties, participate in the electoral process, and commit to the hard work of building grassroots support for their values.  The people who will build Egypt’s future are the ones who are best at finding reasonable compromises and building national consensus.
 
To build the future Egypt deserves, Egypt will need all of its people, regardless of their faith, ethnic background or gender.  For this reason, Egypt needs to ensure the protection and participation of the full breadth of its rich tapestry of citizenry.  Christians and Jews have been a part of Egypt for thousands of years.  Egypt is also home to members of other religions and denominations, including Bahais and Shia Muslims.  Many are now frightened that they will have no role, or even that they will be unsafe, in Egypt’s future.  That is a tragedy.  They need to know that they are welcome and their contributions to society are embraced and encouraged.  Similarly, women are half the population; they are strong, smart, able and fearless.  For years, they have stood side by side with men working together to build this country.  Now is the wrong time to backslide on their participation.  As Christine Lagarde of the IMF noted in Davos on January 23, all studies point to the economic benefits of full female participation in the labor force, in the economy, in society.  Societies that learn to give women the scope to fully participate in the workforce alongside men have faster economic growth.  And economic growth is something Egypt sorely needs.  It is difficult for democracy to survive alongside widespread poverty and a stagnant economy. 
 
Two years after the revolution, it is time to focus on the most critical economic needs of the Egyptian people.  Egypt’s numbers paint a bleak picture: Currency Reserves are at a critical level, roughly $14 billion or three months’ worth of imports.  While this has held steady since July, that is only because of the regular injections of cash by Qatar and Turkey.  These numbers do not take into account the billions that the government is in arrears to oil companies.  And more importantly they don’t highlight what Egypt is importing – basic food items and refined energy products, key determinants of social stability.  If Egypt cannot pay its import bill, her people will not be missing out on television sets and cars, but on electricity, gasoline and food.  In other words a more careful look at the reserve numbers show they are not close to what a country like Egypt needs for a smooth running economy.
 
As the Central Bank tries to manage a gradual depreciation of the pound to market levels, I know that the Central Bank is taking steps to reduce the black and gray markets for foreign exchange.  Black markets are dangerous because large amounts of money now move unsupervised by the authorities of legitimate institutions, weakening the legitimate banking sector and eroding respect for law.  The longer Egypt restricts access to foreign exchange, the more it will undercut investment interest in the country.  It is a simple fact of life.  Investors will not enter the market if they cannot get their money out of the country.    
 
The exchange rate is a key price in any economy and needs to respect fundamental laws of economics.  If not, evasion of legal exchange and stunted growth will be the result as domestic producers turn to imports and close their factories and domestic business formation is retarded.  Meanwhile, key sectors are hurting, perhaps none more so than tourism, which had seen something of a recovery in arrivals but no real recovery in receipts.  I visit Luxor occasionally, and the situation there, with some of the most incredible historic sites in the world, is heartbreaking.  Tourists who are coming to Egypt are not spending very much, and this will continue to erode the quality of the product that Egypt can offer, so that jobs are lost and communities dependent on tourism will be crippled.  
 
Every economy goes through bad periods, but economies only recover when they are tended.  And that means someone has to take ownership of the solutions (even if they are difficult) and lead the way out.  People must be shown a vision of how the future will reward the sacrifices of the present. 
 
The most catastrophic path is for the government and the political leadership of the country – whether in power or in opposition – to avoid decisions, to show no leadership, to ignore the economic situation of the country.  When management of the economy is treated as a by-product of political disputes instead of a core function of political leadership, the business community is left trying to protect itself instead of investing and growing.  The talks with the IMF need to be brought to closure.    
 
The current system of fuel and energy subsidies is unsustainable.  This needs to be discussed openly and the public needs to debate the solutions.  A way must be found to bring the cost of the energy subsidies down while protecting Egypt’s poorest citizens, but possible solutions require an open public discussion – a discussion that is not taking place.  
 
The engine for future growth in Egypt is small and medium enterprises, the kinds of firms that can innovate and grow more rapidly than the rest of the economy.  The government needs to streamline the process for getting into business, reducing red tape, forms, fees, taxes etc.  Research into innovative new ways of doing things, new crops for the Delta, allowing the private sector to take advantage of all the efficiencies promised by high speed internet, and assuring that good ideas can get financing are all vital.  And these are things SMEs do well. 
 
One thing that has come through to the Embassy loudly is the banks have not been willing to lend to small and medium enterprises.  SMEs are not able to prosper when banks refuse to finance them, even when money is available.  The government and the Central Bank need to find a way to make financing for small and medium enterprises available and affordable or the ability of the Egyptian economy to “take-off” into sustainable high rates of growth will be severely constrained.
 
Egypt has a great economic future.  It has a diverse economy, a large internal market, and an enviable strategic location.  It has a well-respected financial sector and abundant growth potential.  And even as bad as the economy has become, it is still growing at about two percent.  Egypt’s economy is, in a word, remarkably resilient.  It has withstood a lot of tribulation over the last two years, and it is a credit to the country’s private sector and to its diversity that it is still standing at all. 
 
More than that, we know there are foreign investors who still have an eye on this country.  Last September, Egypt hosted the largest American business delegation to visit in the Middle East in history; many of the giants of the U.S. business world – Google, Boeing – enthusiastically attended.  We talk to portfolio managers regularly who want to know when it will be time to get back into Egypt.  We know of major multinationals that have plans for significant additional investments once stability returns to the economic space.  And it will be key not just to attract foreign investors, but also to lure back Egyptian investors who have left out of fear or uncertainty.      
 
No individual has all the answers, but there are three key things Egypt must do without delay to restart the engines of growth:
 
First, Egypt needs to conclude a credible agreement with the IMF.  Reaching agreement will unlock IMF funds and financing from other sources, including the U.S. Government, and more importantly will send a strong signal to the investment community that Egypt is committed to reforming its economy.  The IMF agreement’s biggest impact will be as a catalyst, encouraging additional lending, and sparking interest from short-term portfolio investors, then perhaps longer-term portfolio investors, and then eventually a return of badly-needed Foreign Direct Investment.
 
Second, Egypt needs to fix its energy sector, fundamentally overhauling a simply unsustainable subsidy program that costs billions of dollars every year.  The money saved can repay its arrears and once again secure the credit terms it needs for imports.  And in the longer term, Egypt will be able to make critical infrastructure improvements, expansions, and modernizations that will lead to greater efficiency and cost-savings while ensuring the country can meet the energy needs of a growing population.
 
Finally, Egypt needs to make peace with its past.  It needs to provide clear public assurances that investors are safe from arbitrary acts.  Contracts no matter when signed or under what circumstances will be honored except when they are found illegal by a due process of law in an impartial judicial system.  A framework of law must be in place making clear that contracts will be honored.  Those who invested in Egypt in the past cannot be threatened with jail or severe financial penalties years later because that forces investors to invest elsewhere.  When investors are confident they will be treated fairly, they will return to the opportunities Egypt presents in droves.  New investment is the foundation for economic growth; it must be nurtured, not disciplined. 
 
Are these decisions easy?  Absolutely not.  Leadership is hard.  It sometimes means sacrificing short-term gain for the greater good of the country.  But by building a stronger Egypt, it ultimately brings benefits to all of Egypt’s people, and that’s what leadership is all about.

 

Egyptian activist to Obama: at least have the decency to stop voicing support for Morsi

A striking open letter to President Obama by veteran Egyptian human rights activist Baheieddin Hassan:

Mr President, when I spoke with you in 2010, I asked why the US administration condemns repressive practices in Iran while remaining silent when Arab regimes engage in the same violations. Over recent months, statements by your administration have similarly failed to address violations and have even blamed protesters and victims for violence committed in the context of demonstrations. Indeed, the stances of your administration have given political cover to the current authoritarian regime in Egypt and allowed it to fearlessly implement undemocratic policies and commit numerous acts of repression.

Statements that “Egypt is witnessing a genuine and broad-based process of democratisation” have covered over and indeed legitimised the undemocratic processes by which the Constituent Assembly passed the new constitution, an issue which has in turn led to greatly heightened instability in the country. Calls for “the opposition [to] remain non-violent” and for “the government and security forces [to] exercise self-restraint in the face of protester violence” have allowed the police and the current Egyptian administration to shirk their responsibilities to secure demonstrations and to respond to the demands of the Egyptian people, and have allowed them to place the blame for violence and instability on protesters themselves. Urging “the opposition [to] engage in a national dialogue without preconditions” undermines the ability of the opposition to play a real role in the decision-making processes of the country, as these “dialogues” seldom result in anything more concrete than a photo-op with the president. Is it a coincidence that the statements issued by your administration reflect the same political rhetoric used by the new authoritarian regime in Egypt? But when these statements come from the world’s superpower — the one most able to have a positive or negative impact on policies in Egypt and the region, not to mention the biggest donor and material supporter of the Egyptian regime for the past 35 years — they become lethal ammunition, offering political protection to perpetrators of murder, torture, brutality and rape.

I do not write you today to ask you to condemn the repressive policies of the current regime, or to ask you to urge President Mohamed Morsi to “cease” using excessive force and violence against Egyptians, even as your administration was so eager to achieve a ceasefire with Hamas to stop hostilities in Gaza. I write you not to ask for troops to protect political protesters in Egypt, or to suspend, freeze, or reduce military or economic aid to my country, or even to impose conditions on that aid. My request is quite modest: that spokespeople and officials in your administration stop commenting on developments in Egypt. This will no doubt spare your administration much time and effort, but more importantly, it may spare more bloodshed in Egypt, as the current regime will no longer enjoy the political cover that the US administration now offers them. Certainly, Egypt has seen enough bloodshed over the last two years, and Egyptians are tired of being punished for their uprising.

Read the whole thing. 

The Obama administration has the same problem it had with Mubarak: it suffers from acute clientitis, has an ambassador whose embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood has been way too much too fast and is incautious with her praise, it fails to appreciate the seriousness of the current situation and thinks things will just blow over, and has a department of defense whose interest in the status quo consistently overrides other elements of the foreign policy machine. We are back to the Mubarak era where the main concern of the embassy, and large elements of the departments of State and Defense, is how they are going to protect Egypt (whether the generals or the Morsi administration) from Congress. It's a sad state of affairs.

The not-so-secret secret base and the not-so-wet-towel towels

The Washington Post, among “several” other unnamed news outlets, have reportedly known of a US airstrip in Saudi Arabia that, aside from the apparent distinction of being the first new US base opened on Saudi soil since the 2003 troop withdrawals, was the airstrip that participated in the 2011 raid(s) that killed Anwar al-Awlaki.

According to the Post, it and those outlets have sat on the information for a year at the administration’s request for fear it would jeopardize the base’s security and the secrecy of US combat operations in Yemen, which are also supported by the Saudi Air Force. It is also notable that the US has set up this while still retaining its heaviest aerial assets (which are reserved for contingencies against the Islamic Republic of Iran) in the region in Qatar, so this is solely an anti-AQAP program that’s been set up.

One of the outlets - not the Post - was going to break the self-observed gag order on the basing details, so the details have begun to emerge, which for presumptive DCIA John Brennan is hardly pleasant news since his Senate confirmation hearings have begun and there is much talk of him throwing a wet towel on the campaign. However, as Matt Appuzo points out, this is not the first we’ve heard of this base. “In addition to Seychelles and Ethiopia, the senior U.S. military official said the United States got permission to fly armed drones from Djibouti, and confirmed the construction of a new airstrip in Saudi Arabia” was what Fox News reported in 2011, citing a Washington Post report on the expansion of drone efforts worldwide, though the remarks quoted above came from Fox’s own source. 

Considering how contentious US basing in the Kingdom was when it began in the 1990s (and, we thought, largely came to an end in the 2000s except for the two military training/modernization programs run for the Saudi military and National Guard), one really has to marvel at how this White House earned the accolade of “transparency” in its first term with actions such as these. It’s worth noting that while detailed explanations — but not material evidence or witnesses — have been offered for targeting him as an active AQAP member, there have been no such specifics with regards to the death of his 16-year old son, Abdulrahman, who was killed in an operation against another target few days later — though unlike his father, he had not been deliberately targeted (the operation was targeting an Egyptian national). Bad parenting has even been offered as an explanation - well, justification - by one official for the son’s death once it became clear he was a minor and therefore not subject to the “signature strikes” that treat all adult males in the targeted areas as militant until proven innocent (NB: Brennan convinced Obama to maintain this policy and have the CIA “tighten its targeting standards,” according to the Daily Beast). 

But if we are talking in terms of leaks, then yes, this has been a very “Sunshine Week” for the Administration. Since I’m on the subject of drones - though as Gregory D. Johnson points out drones are not the only weapons the US deploys in the Yemeni and Pakistani highlands - there have been some important new stories out about the US’s national counterterrorism strategy here in the Middle East:

  1. The black sites legacy of the Bush Administration detailed in a new OSI report, though as OSI itself notes, “it appears that the Obama administration did not end extraordinary rendition,” though it has been much-scaled back. Both Eli Lake and Jeremy Scahill have been to Somalia in the past two years to report on these alleged CIA black sites and the local prisons that feed into them. However, it is clear that the administration has shied away from the sites in favor of drone operations.

  2. Not a leak, but Micah Zenko’s discussion of outgoing SecDef Leon Panetta’s recent remarks on drones is still illuminating into the debate that goes on at these levels.

  3. A leaked white paper released by NBC’s Michael Isikoff - perhaps from a White House source not happy with John Brennan (finally) moving (back) to the CIA in Obama’s second term? - that providers more detail on the speeches given by Brennan and others about the criteria for putting people, including US citizens, in the sights. Again, this isn’t the official policy document, but as a white paper signed off on by lawyers within the Administration, it is as good as we are going to get bar the Times or the Post releasing audiotape of a “Terror Tuesday” briefing. Glenn Greenwald details the implications in greater detail here.