Daniel Larison

Top Libyan Rebel Commander Has Been Killed

Al Jazeera reports that Abdel Fatah Younes, the top rebel military commander, has been killed:

Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the chief of the NTC, blamed Younes’s killing on gunmen loyal to Gaddafi in a press conference late on Thursday night. He said Younes had been summoned from the front line to appear before a “panel of judges” and was killed on his way there. One of his killers was arrested, Jalil said, but Younes’s body has not been recovered.

Sources close to the NTC told Al Jazeera that Younes was suspected of engaging in unauthorised communication with Gaddafi’s representatives and had possibly even helped supply regime troops with weapons – a dire offence against the rebel cause, but one that could not be immediately proved.

His death, while possibly under investigation, throws open a power vacuum in the rebel hierarchy. Many Libyans fear such void will spawn more violence as others move to fill his role as military commander, while his allies seek retribution.

While there is speculation that Younes’ death might have actually been the result of discord among rebel officers, and there are rumors that Younes was in contact with the regime, it seems more likely that someone loyal to Gaddafi was responsible. Regardless, the effect will still be to undermine rebel military efforts. The story concludes:

Much remains to be learned of Younes’s murder. According to Jalil, he was ambushed en route to a meeting with NTC representatives. Whether they were seeking to discuss military issues or to investigate Younes’s alleged collaboration remains unclear. Also unclear is where Younes’s body has gone – Jalil said it has not been recovered.

While Jalil blamed Gaddafi loyalists for the attack, Tarik Yousef, a professor at Georgetown University who lived in Benghazi, said he discounted the idea that regime gunmen could have killed Younes, given the commander’s constant security.

“I think its a wake up call for the National Transitional Council to deal with the matter of security within the cities under its control,” he told Al Jazeera.

The military structure, he said, is “highly undisciplined and not subject to the typical norms of command and control”.

Younes’s death is “a very unpleasant development at a critical moment,” he said.

Update: David Kenner comments:

The rosy view of the Libyan rebels is endangered by Younis’s death. It may well emerge that he was killed by a pro-Qaddafi hit squad, but even if it does, observers are still left to grapple with why Abdul Jalil was unable or unwilling to answer basic questions about the incident, and how such a significant security lapse could occur in rebel-controlled territory. And if it appears that someone within the rebel ranks killed Younis, Western officials and reporters are going to find themselves asking hard questions about signs of factionalism within the TNC and the murky nature of its military structure. Whatever the case may be, the honeymoon with the rebels is over; bring on the politics.

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McCain Is a “Centrist,” Not a “Maverick”

McCain’s comments (and the controversy they caused ) raise an intriguing question: Has McCain the straight-talking maverick been reborn? ~Chris Cillizza

The answer to the question is no, but it’s not because there ever was a “straight-talking maverick” to be reborn. It isn’t even an intriguing question. The idea that McCain has ever been a maverick is one of the most tiresome and enduring cliches in contemporary politics. McCain has made a career out of using conservatives in his party as a foil and often as a punching bag whenever he has wanted to grandstand and moralize about any issue. He has also made a habit of positioning himself in favor of whatever the fashionable Washington consensus has happened to be. It is no accident that all of McCain’s famous apostasies have aligned him with “centrist” conventional wisdom, and he has cultivated his reputation as a “centrist” to win fawning admiration from the press, which many journalists have been only too happy to provide.

Sometimes this has involved breaking with his party, which is what originally earned him the “maverick” label, and sometimes it has involved lining up with his party’s leadership, but at all times it requires him to denigrate and dismiss conservatives as foolish or reckless or perhaps even evil. This has not been hard duty for McCain. Policy substance has no bearing on this, as McCain will invariably side with the fashionable consensus view whether it makes sense or not. It has only been during election seasons when McCain felt vulnerable to a voter backlash that he has tacked back towards more conservative positions, as he did most egregiously on immigration during his re-election bid last year. In any case, there is nothing brave or independent-minded in denouncing Republican holdouts on raising the debt ceiling. This is the definition of taking the path of least resistance.

Cillizza acknowledges as much near the end:

The less favorable view of McCain’s journey over the last decade is that he has bent to the political winds — embracing the maverick mantle when it served his purposes and walking away from it when it didn’t.

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A Ron Paul Upset at Ames? (II)

Ron Paul has picked up a valuable local endorsement ahead of the Ames straw poll:

Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul has fresh bragging rights after picking up what is surely a coveted endorsement on Monday.
Cory Adams – the Republican chairman of Story County in Iowa – endorsed the Texas congressman’s presidential bid at a campaign event in Ames, Iowa.

That’s significant for a few reasons. Ames is the largest city in Story County, home to over 50,000 residents. And it is in this city that a widely-watched showdown between the GOP presidential candidates will play out on August 13. The Ames Straw Poll will test the candidates’ popularity and could be a sign of their electability.

Having the endorsement of such an influential political figure in and around Ames will surely give Paul’s campaign something to boast about as it aims for a strong showing in that contest.

One endorsement from a local party official may not move very many votes, but it certainly indicates that Ron Paul is gaining traction in a state where few would normally expect him to do well.

A recent New York Times article lists Rep. Paul’s advantages:

Mr. Paul, of Texas, has a number of factors going for him. He has a legion of passionate supporters, many of them young, who in the past have flooded other straw polls that he has won.

His effort in Iowa is well financed. His latest online fund-raiser, “Ready, Ames, Fire,” brought in $550,000, added to the $4.5 million he raised in the second quarter.

The money has bought time for radio and television spots, for six paid staff members in the state and to fly in Mr. Paul by private jet (“Operation Top Gun”) for weekly rallies, including two he attended Monday here and in Ames.

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Policy Failure in Somalia

Carne Ross describes the failure of international policy in Somalia:

International policy to stabilise Somalia has been a total failure. Yet, the same policies persist. In 2000, the “international community” set up what it thought was a legitimate government in Somalia, in an attempt to create a political consensus where none existed. Today, the so-called Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is neither transitional nor federal, nor even really a government, in that it offers no prospect of a transition to a more durable alternative, does not represent the rest of Somalia in a meaningful way, and, as a government, provides no services to its people, who did not elect it, in any case. The TFG is, in the words of a recent International Crisis Group report, “incompetent, corrupt and hobbled by weak leadership” and should be given a deadline to shape up, or be removed. Very few observers expect it to shape up: the current system pays the cabal who control it far too well.

Somalia’s most alarming and pressing problem is the current famine, but among its many other problems is the internationally-backed “government” whose legitimacy derives entirely from the support of international institutions and foreign governments. The TFG in Somalia is a propped-up governing authority without legitimacy or much of a claim to represent the people it theoretically governs. It was installed in Mogadishu after the Ethiopian invasion, and it has been fighting a desultory war simply to take control of the capital ever since. Ross cites this Congressional testimony (.PDF) by Dr. J. Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council to argue that U.S. policy has contributed to Somalia’s political dysfunction. Pham refers to “America’s hitherto policy of virtually unconditional—and, quite frankly, at times poorly-informed—support for the TFG” that the current administration is finally beginning to correct. Pham’s concluding remarks are worth quoting:

It is high time that the United States and Somalia’s other international partners look after their own legitimate interests and refocus their energies on minimizing and containing the harm caused by the TFG’s incompetence and corruption, while strengthening those functional parts of the former Somali state and integrating them into the framework for regional security and stability. To put it in terms that would resonate with the traditional pastoral Somali, the stakes are simply too high for us to continue betting on a camel that, if not quite dead, is certainly crippled.

Given the disintegration of Somalia and the failed backing of the TFG by foreign governments, one would think that U.S. and European governments would be wary of throwing support behind another weak, fledgling government that represents just a fraction of the country that it nominally rules and does not have effective control over most of the country’s territory or population. As we have seen in the last few months, they are not.

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Cheap Grace

Prof. Bacevich discusses the “cheap grace” and “false freedom” involved in public expressions of support for the military:

To stand in solidarity with those on whom the burden of service and sacrifice falls is about as far as they will go. Expressions of solidarity affirm that the existing relationship between soldiers and society is consistent with democratic practice. By extension, so, too, is the distribution of prerogatives and responsibilities entailed by that relationship: a few fight, the rest applaud. Put simply, the message that citizens wish to convey to their soldiers is this: although choosing not to be with you, we are still for you (so long as being for you entails nothing on our part). Cheering for the troops, in effect, provides a convenient mechanism for voiding obligation and easing guilty consciences.

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Violence in Kosovo

Tony Karon reviews the causes of the recent outbreak of violence in northern Kosovo, and considers the official reactions:

The battle for the border posts occurred amid a politically inspired trade dispute between Kosovo and Serbia. Kosovar police tried on Monday to take over the crossings, which have been run since 2008 by an EU mission, in order to enforce a ban on imports from Serbia. That measure had been enacted last week in retaliation for Serbia’s refusal to accept imports from Kosovo on the grounds that it can’t accept customs paperwork from the “Republic of Kosovo”, an entity it doesn’t recognize. While the Kosovar authorities say they’re exercising a sovereign right to control the territory’s border crossings, the local Serb community vows to stop what they see as an effort to cut their links to Serbia. And U.S. and European officials condemned the Kosovar side for a provocative action undertaken without consultation, but called on all sides to restore calm and negotiate a compromise.

While the Serbs and the rest of NATO’s rivals never really accepted the breakaway of Kosovo from Serbia, the Kosovar Albanians chafed at the persistence of a Serb enclave denying Kosovo’s independence within what it claimed as sovereign borders. But NATO’s dominance has enabled it, until now, to enforce its writ on both sides. Serbia’s moderate President Boris Tadic, who knows his goal of joining the EU depends on solving the Kosovo issue, condemned the violence, making clear that Serbia has no appetite for war — but he also warned that any encouragement of Kosovar authorities to take control of the Serb enclave put peace at risk. Kosovo President Hashem Thaci seemed more inclined to talk tough, warning that the Serb enclave would never be allowed to return to Belgrade’s control.

It is more than a little comical that the thuggish government in Pristina insists on their sovereign rights in this part of Kosovo. Their hold on power and the recognition of their state’s independence both depended entirely on disregarding the sovereignty of Serbia and benefiting from an illegal partition. As Belgrade sees it, the Kosovo government does not have sovereign rights there or anywhere else. That said, the Serb minority will gain nothing by acts violence, and more attacks of this kind are simply going to give Thaci the excuse to engage in a brutal crackdown or perhaps even a campaign of expulsion.

P.S. American and French troops are now in the control of the border crossings.

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NATO Solidarity and the Libyan War

Third, the US cannot abdicate NATO leadership. This does not mean acting unilaterally, but neither can the US take a back seat. It is understandable that Americans would be frustrated that Europe does not pull more of the load. But an America that “leads from behind” is not leading at all.
We must lead, and bring others with us. By rejecting this role in Libya, the US is allowing NATO to appear a paper tiger. That serves no one’s interests. ~Kurt Volker

This is becoming the standard critique of the limited U.S. involvement in Libya, but there a few things wrong with it. The fundamental American mistake regarding Libya was when it joined Britain and France in making the intervention possible at the U.N. and leading the alliance into an unnecessary war. From that point on, the administration had decided to wager NATO’s reputation for the sake of an ill-defined mission for which none of the allies was prepared to take major risks. If the U.S. were not “leading from behind,” the intervening governments would still be in more or less the same predicament, except that the U.S. would be seen as waging an unsuccessful rather than merely half-hearted war.

Had the U.S. been intensely engaged in the bombing campaign all along, everyone seems to assume that NATO would not appear to be a “paper tiger,” but would instead vindicate its reputation as the greatest alliance in history. No doubt this is what many hawks would like to believe, but I’m not sure that it is true. Once the U.S. and its allies ruled out an invasion, they outsourced the success or failure of the mission to the weaker side in Libya’s civil war. It is this that has left the U.S. and NATO in a “slog.” Something was wrong with this intervention as soon as the leading governments adopted the tiresome mantra that the future of Libya is in the hands of Libyans, as if NATO were not daily affecting the shape of that future and attempting to guarantee a particular political outcome.

One of the main lessons from Libya should be that the U.S. and NATO should not set ambitious goals when they are unwilling to commit the resources and take the risks required to reach them. If a successful intervention requires the use of ground forces, and if no allied government considers the intervention worth risking their soldiers on the ground, then that ought to put a stop to all talk of intervention then and there. If such a step cannot even be contemplated because the conflict is so tangential and irrelevant to national interests, we should stay out. If minimizing risk is more important than success, the intervention must not be all that important to the security of the allied governments.

This relates to Volker’s fourth lesson, which is that there must be no more “caveats” from allies when it comes to conducting military expeditions. The caveats exist to maintain the illusion of consensus. NATO cannot launch military expeditions outside Europe and not expect some of its members to condition or rule out their involvement. If caveats will not be permitted, there will be no consensus in support of taking military action in the name of the alliance. NATO members do not have formal obligations to support “out-of-area” operations. The thing that jeopardizes real allied solidarity is the use of a defensive alliance as an umbrella organization to wage wars that are unrelated to the defense of alliance members.

Volker concludes:

A “back to basics” NATO that focuses on the collective defense of the allies may be the most that publics and finance ministries will sustainably support. Which means that for complex, expeditionary, and combat missions, whether on Europe’s periphery or beyond, the old “coalition of the willing” concept is looking better and better.

This is where NATO’s role in the Libyan intervention creates misunderstanding. The Libyan war is an example of the “coalition of the willing” concept in action, and I don’t think anyone would say that it is looking so good. The coalition in question was responsible for starting the war, and it is this coalition that is waging the war. For various reasons, some in that coalition wanted to drag NATO as a whole into their mess, and incredibly the rest of the alliance’s members let them. Instead of complaining about a lack of solidarity, we should marvel at the display of misguided solidarity with Britain, France, and the U.S. that committed the alliance to a war that most of its members will not or cannot fight.

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Third-Tier Pawlenty

Citing the latest Gallup numbers, Christian Heinze concludes that Pawlenty has disappeared:

It’s time to stop calling T-Paw a first tier candidate.

We should have stopped calling him that several weeks ago. The more interesting question is whether Pawlenty is still a second-tier candidate. Alexis Levinson investigates what it was that led people to mistake Pawlenty for a first-tier candidate in the beginning:

Pawlenty’s standing as a first-tier candidate has as much, if not more, to do with the campaign he has set up and the people with whom he has surrounded himself than it does with what he himself brings as a candidate.

“I think the reason why they continue to be seen by the establishment media as a tier-one candidate is because the perception is that he has high national electability,” said a GOP strategist who has been involved with several presidential campaigns.

“He has convinced the insiders, or the establishment media, that, you know, ‘I’ve got the really smart talent, and I’ve got experienced people, and, at the end of the day, they can make the difference to me.’ And those people work assiduously at having good relations with the press.”

Levinson continues:

“The people that he’s hired and surrounded himself with, like Terry Nelson … Phil Musser … Nick Ayers — they’ve created this massive operation of always being in the news … of always being in the Washington press circle,” said Bob Kish, an Ohio-based Republican consultant who is working for Bachmann. They’re “hiring a lot of big names, spending a lot of money and creating this perception.”

But Kish said that a good campaign team is not enough.

“This political operation they set up might be a first-tier operation, but the fact is they have a second-tier candidate,” he said.

Chris Cillizza’s rankings aren’t quite so generous to Pawlenty. As Cillizza sees it, there are three tiers: Romney is in the first, Bachmann is in the second, and everyone else is in the third. Cillizza assesses Pawlenty’s predicament:

While the Pawlenty campaign is doing everything it can to downplay expectations in advance of the straw vote, it’s hard to see how anything other than a first or a close second place finish keeps him in the race. (Anything below that will make fundraising a near impossibility.) With so much riding on Ames, Pawlenty needs to have the best 22 days of his campaign between now and Aug. 13.

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“The Truth About the West Bank”

It is understandable that the Israeli government wants to make its occupation and settlement policies seem reasonable and justified when they aren’t, but even by the standards of clumsy hasbara this video (via Joe Carter) is exceptional:

The bit around the 3:00 minute 2:45 mark when Ayalon claims that the Balfour Declaration somehow entitles Israel to the West Bank is probably the most outstanding falsehood. As I’m sure almost everyone knows, the Balfour Declaration was a “declaration of sympathy” that said the following:

His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

Jeffrey Goldberg describes the video as “cheesy and disturbing,” which it is, and challenges the main argument Ayalon makes:

Ayalon argues, among other things, “The West Bank should not be considered ‘occupied’ because there was no previous legal sovereign in the area and therefore the real definition should be ‘disputed territory.’ Ayalon neglects to mention that the salient point about the West Bank might not be who the “legal sovereign” was 44 years ago, but that actual people of another ethnic group live on the West Bank and don’t want to be ruled — “occupied” would be another word for “ruled” — by a foreign power. To most of the world, at least (and to many, many Israelis and a clear majority of American Jews) this is what matters.

The purpose of the video is to maintain support for the continuation of the occupation of the West Bank, so it’s a bit rich for Ayalon to claim that it is mainly concerned with accurate terminology.

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What Would “Finishing the Job” in Libya Look Like?

This venture was a typically botched Wilsonian war from the start but to launch a gratuitous war and then lose it is about as pure a show of fecklessness as can be imagined. President Obama needs to finish the job. Fast. ~Walter Russell Mead

The rebels now say that the offer for Gaddafi to remain in Libya after stepping down has “expired,” which raises the question why it was ever made at all. It’s an odd bit of timing for them to extend the offer, wait until both Britain and France have endorsed the idea, and then withdraw it after Britain and France exposed themselves to no end of ridicule for having entertained the idea. It’s also a bit late to start worrying about losing the Libyan war. As a matter of protecting the civilian population, the Libyan war was already lost shortly after it went from being a defensive operation to protect rebel-held areas to a campaign to topple Gaddafi, so it’s not clear what “finishing the job” could mean under the circumstances. Obviously, driving out Gaddafi has always been the real goal, but there has been no plan for how this would happen except to keep bombing and hope for luck. Saying “finish the job” is as vague and unhelpful as repeating the mantra that “Gaddafi must go.” We are no closer to finding a means by which Gaddafi would be forced to “go” than we were four months ago.

The administration has put itself in a bit of a bind. It claims to respect the constitutionality of the War Powers Act, and it claims that it does not believe that the executive can launch wars without Congressional approval, and so it has attempted to define its involvement in the Libyan war as something else. This is ridiculous and insults the intelligence of everyone who hears it, but it may be politically tenable so long as the Senate majority leadership remains supportive. If the U.S. were to “finish the job” by escalating U.S. involvement in the war back to what it was in March, the administration would be under significant pressure to get Congressional approval. Based on what we have seen so far this year, there is not much support for the war in Congress, and there is even less public support. There is virtually no support for escalating U.S. involvement beyond what it is now.

As the stalemate continues, the fears of a partition discussed by Karim Mezran last week are growing. The Daily Telegraph editorialized on Britain’s decision to recognize the TNC:

William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, said it would also enable the UK and its allies to offer greater practical assistance to the NTC on the ground. But it is the underlying symbolism of the measure that matters most.

This looks like the start of a process that the Nato alliance has been desperate to avoid – the effective partition of the country.

As Mezran explained, U.S. recognition of the TNC had the effect of making a negotiated settlement less likely:

Recognizing the rebel’s government has outraged Qaddafi and his supporters, while at the same time depriving the United States of a powerful tool to pressure the TNC into accepting a possibly unpopular negotiated solution.

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