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Mayhem in Mali

“There is no alternative. For some of these more radical groups, it’s going to take military force… We shouldn’t be optimistic that this is going to be a one- or two-week surgical strike, and then we go home.” – Jack Christofides, UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations

The president has had his hands full these days. Problems at home and abroad are pressing from all sides, and even though he no longer needs to worry about his re-election bid, Barack Obama has plenty of other worries to keep him up at night: A quickly-approaching fiscal cliff, yet more fallout from September’s Benghazi attacks, the appointment of the next Secretary of State, uncertain outcomes from the latest conflicts between Israel and Hamas, continuing violence in Syria, and a still-unresolved nuclear bone to pick with Iran, just to name a few. But one story that hasn’t gotten much attention, from president or press, is the ongoing violence and chaos that has gripped Mali for the past eight months.

A satellite image of Mali. Radical Islamists have taken over the northern desert region (known as the Azawad), an area roughly the size of France. (public domain)

Perhaps a bit of history is in order. Back in March, a group of soldiers staged a coup d’état, seizing the presidential palace and dissolving the government. In the aftermath of the coup, a group called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA, in the French acronym) unilaterally declared that northern Mali, an area known as Azawad, was to be a free and independent state. The rebels backed their words with deeds, taking the northern Malian cities of Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal in a matter of days. After these gains, the MNLA was joined and eventually sidelined (or fought) by militant Islamist groups, a number of them with ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

These Islamists are now the effective rulers of northern Mali (and have dropped the MNLA’s calls for secession), enforcing a brutally repressive regime on its inhabitants. The groups, rather than hoping to split northern Mali off from the rest of the state, are instead looking to enforce their radical view of Shari’a law on the entire nation, putting the still-unstable south at risk as well. Reports coming out of northern Malian cities like Gao and Timbuktu tell of public beatings, stonings, and amputations, forced marriages, and threats of grisly violence toward those regarded as “unholy,” such as unmarried pregnant women. Death tolls are uncertain, but with the region gripped by conflicts between and within rebel groups and radical mob “justice” occurring on what seems like a daily basis, the anarchic north may have seen hundreds killed so far.

Mali’s is more than a humanitarian and moral crisis, though it is both of those things. It could also quickly become a strategic crisis for the region, the Mediterranean, and even the US. Without forgetting the real human suffering happening daily in this desert, the West should recognize that, if left unaddressed, northern Mali could easily become “Africa’s Afghanistan,” a safe haven for radical Islamists and terrorists. We know already that a number of groups in the Azawad have affiliations with Al Qaeda, whose heart in Central Asia may have been destroyed but whose arms could still have far-reaching and deadly power. The Malian government is certainly ill-equipped (and not particularly willing) to evict the radicals from the north. So who should do it?

The United Nations Security Council has already given the go-ahead for foreign military intervention, but not many powers have stepped up to the plate. There is a lack of willingness on the part of the West, particularly the United States and France, to become very involved militarily in Mali. Both countries have significant interests at stake in the region, and so would benefit from driving out extremists. France has had a number of its citizens kidnapped by the radicals, and the United States certainly won’t be better off for allowing a pocket of Al Qaeda influence to fester and grow, especially in light of September’s Benghazi attacks.

But neither country seems willing to acknowledge that the chaos and violence incited by the Islamist regime will not be limited by borders, especially in the sweeping deserts and largely un-policed region of West Africa. Mali shares huge borders with Mauritania and Algeria, both of which could be vulnerable to attack and both of which could certainly suffer from refugee overflows and uncontained extremism and violence. If nothing is done to remove or reduce Islamist influence in northern Mali, it could become a launch pad for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to wreak havoc across the region and even into Western Europe. Hillary Clinton herself said that northern Mali has become “a larger safe haven” that could allow terrorists “to extend their reach and their networks in multiple directions.”

This seems like a very contradictory approach. Even as the US says that terrorist factions based in northern Mali could become a grave threat if allowed to remain in power unchallenged, it refuses to commit militarily, and is reluctant even to commit to using attack drones in the future, a tactic problematic in our supposed ally Pakistan but likely to be much more straightforward and successful in the flat desert of northern Mali (see map).

This hesitation could be ascribed to a noble refusal to expand the so-called War on Terror into yet another country, but such praise would be misplaced. Unlike past actions in Iraq, Pakistan, or Yemen, military action has the go-ahead in Mali, not only from the national government of the country itself, but from the UNSC and the region more broadly. The US wouldn’t be haphazardly dropping missiles on a dubious international mandate, but rather would be cooperating with an overwhelmed and desperate government.

I’m not saying that the West needs to send 10,000 of its own soldiers (the rough UN estimate of the number of troops needed) into the fray, or even that it needs to send a fraction of those. Regional powers like Algeria, Nigeria, or Mauritania (not to mention Mali itself), perhaps along with the African Union, could take the lead, and the UN could contribute peacekeeping forces to make peace stick once it’s achieved. But the United States and France, both with a significant interest in excising the Islamists, can’t sit back and wait for others to solve the problem.

There isn’t just a moral incentive to dismantle this regime; there are strategic motives as well. The US should step up and use its technology and military power to help the international force that may soon take shape. We don’t need to have “boots on the ground,” but drones in the sky might not be a bad place to start. We can’t afford to wait for Mali to become another Afghanistan. North Africa seems only to be growing in significance, and American leadership would be wise to recognize this.

But this problem will require more than military might. If there’s anything that the West should have learned from our military excursions of the past decade, it’s that regional divisions and local grievances can’t be sorted out with airstrikes and Predator drones. Armed force will be needed to cripple the radical regime in the north, but ultimately Mali needs reconciliation to solve this problem. Foreign intervention should weaken the Islamists to the point that they have no choice but to join in real dialogue, and should protect the fragile interim government until it can get back on its feet and give the Azawad the attention it needs.

For that matter, the international community should give Mali the attention it needs as well. We’ll all be better off for it.

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A Whole New World (of Problems)

The emblem of the National Transitional Council (and a pretty damn cool one at that) of Libya. The NTC claims to represent rebels across the country, but do they have the influence to really unite Libya's opposition? (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

As Colonel Moammar Qaddafi’s days become more and more numbered, the question of Libya’s new leadership is coming to the front of international leaders’ minds, and of course is a topic of paramount importance to Libyans themselves.

Little sidenote here – it seems that Moammar Qaddafi’s son and heir-apparent, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, has either escaped rebel custody or was never captured in the first place. Rebels had reported that Saif was captured, and would be handed over to the International Criminal Court, but it seems that won’t be happening until he’s actually, well, captured. Just a little update!

Control of Libya seems to be moving safely into rebel hands; at least, the general momentum of the conflict is in the rebels’ favor for now. The probable outcome is an entirely different story, and one I won’t dive into here, except to say that I’m generally optimistic for the rebels. Let’s be generous to the rebels and the National Transitional Council and assume that they’ll soon take power.

The new leadership will face many challenges and problems as they take over Tripoli. The first, and perhaps most important of these is figuring out who the new leadership actually is. Like so many revolutionary movements, the rebellion in Libya is made up of a complicated fabric of different tribes, factions, and interest groups, a fabric that is difficult to tease apart. While the NTC (National Transitional Council, the de jure leadership of the Libyan rebels) is technically in charge, there are so many different groups represented in the rebellion that it will be a major challenge just to bring everyone under a single banner.

And beyond the already daunting task of uniting the rebel forces is the challenge of holding back the tide of anger, resentment, and vengeance that is likely to be brought to bear against Qaddafi supporters by rebels after the tyrant falls. The last thing post-Qaddafi Libya needs is an Iraq-esqe chaos-state (catchy huh?) where violence is the only law people obey.

On top of all this, there’s the ever-present risk of another dictator rising from the ashes of the Colonel’s regime, an outcome which is not entirely unlikely, and one which would render the entire revolution moot and make the international community that facilitated the change seem rather moronic.

The stakes are high in Tripoli and across Libya. The people of the country certainly don’t lack resolve and bravery, traits which they’ve demonstrated throughout the revolution. But because Libya has been in Moammar Qaddafi’s headlock for the past 42 years, the country has few political institutions, and the young people who are largely responsible for the rebellion don’t have any experience leading large political groups, much less governments. During his lengthy rule, Qaddafi made a point of splitting up tribes, organizations, political groups and movements, and any other form of organization that he could get his hands on. This simple yet effective dictatorial tactic will make it trickier for the Libyan people to form the political groups they need to and to build a stable state.

This state will need to hit the ground running in order to keep up with the constant demands of a divided and conflict-ridden country like Libya. Besides managing infrastructure issues like water supply, electricity, and the many other things Qaddafi promised the rebels would cut off if allowed to come to power, the NTC and other leaders will still need to manage the winding down of a civil war. Even after Qaddafi’s death or capture, the country will remain divided, and it could take quite a long time to bring things back together.

To achieve these and other goals, the new government will not only need to act fast and think faster, but will also, in all likelihood, require a bit more international nudging. The NATO air campaign has helped the rebels enormously, but the majority of Libya’s problems can’t be solved by aerial bombardment. If security is a major issue in the weeks and months after regime change, it may be necessary for peacekeeping forces (who should be from a variety of contributors, not just the US) to step onto the streets of Tripoli until things can be calmed down. Once some democratic institutions have been set up (and this process is already underway in Benghazi and across the country) and the NTC has found its footing, the international community can pull out and declare Libya a job well done.

There are of course many more issues and challenges that I may have overlooked or airbrushed in the course of writing this, but the Libyan rebels seem to be on the right side of history in this conflict. If their determination can bring about democracy and revolution gives way to freedom and security, then the story of the rebels who stood up to Moammar Qaddafi’s violence and repression will be a refreshing revival of the Arab Spring and a powerful reminder to tyrants across the Middle East and the world at large that violence and rage can’t stop a people who will give anything to win back their country.

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A Harder Line on Israel

Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama discussing the state of affairs between Israel and Palestine. (Source: CNN)

In a landmark speech on the Middle East, President Obama staked a strong position for the United States towards Israel, Palestine, and the conflict between the two nations. Rather than the usually-noncommittal tack taken by previous US leaders, Obama strongly stated that Israel and Palestine must set apart their differences, each recognizing the other as a sovereign, independent state.

It’s been the unofficial stance of the United States for years that Palestinian borders should be restored to their positions in 1967, prior to the Six-Day War, in which Israel forced Palestine out of yet more of its territory, after having already been given Palestinian territory by the United Nations in 1947. But Barack Obama is the first US president to openly state that this will be America’s official policy toward the conflict.

This is a crucial statement on Obama’s part, both politically and strategically. On the political side, Obama is finally reviving one of his campaign “promises” (I use quotes because all presidential candidates make promises that are unlikely to come to fruition; it’s how they get elected) by bringing up the issue of Israeli-Palestinian tensions. Strategically, Obama may have helped place himself on the right side of a coming conflict between Israel and Palestine.

I say “coming conflict” because, unfortunately, it seems quite likely that another intifada may come along. The revolutionary spirit of many other parts of the Arab world could easily catch on in Palestine, and not necessarily in the peaceful ways it did in Egypt or Tunisia. The recent merger of Fatah and Hamas has Israel even more concerned, and the Palestinian plan for a unilateral declaration of independence at the UN’s General Assembly this coming September is pushing things to dangerous levels. Last week, Palestinians from neighboring countries marched on Israel, calling for recognition of a Palestinian state. 13 were killed by Israeli soldiers.

All of these events, combined with the energy of the Arab Spring, may put Israel on very bad footing on the international stage. If Palestine can take the reins of this revolutionary fervor in a peaceful way, Israel will have to either make peaceful concessions or react oppressively to Palestinian desires. If Israel doesn’t acquiesce but instead reacts with repression, it stands to lose an enormous amount of hard-won respect around the world.

Perhaps a new, peaceful intifada is in order. Instead of the bloodshed and violent hatred that marked the second intifada though, this revolution should be a nonviolent shaking-off (as the word intifada literally translates to) of Israel’s repression. Palestine must recognize Israel’s right to statehood, but Israel must do the same for Palestine. Only if these two peoples can see one another’s value will there be any true resolution.

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Global Community, Global Responsibility (Part 3)

Each and every member of the international community must be responsible and consistent, both within its own borders and in its handling of international and foreign problems. (Source: miyabbi.student.umm.ac.id)

This post is a continuation of my previous two posts of the same title. Parts 1 and 2 can be found here and here, respectively.

But perhaps more importantly than international interventionary action is a right international mindset toward atrocities and states that have gone bad. Many of the greatest crimes against humanity have been committed by leaders who pushed the limits and received no reprimand. The most frightening example is of course, that of Hitler. After coming to power by completely legal means, Hitler pushed the political and social boundaries in his own country, and no one stopped him from taking complete control of Germany. The fuhrer swiftly expanded his power across Europe, as the Allies flailed in diplomatic inefficacy. This policy of appeasement allowed Hitler’s Germany to grow into a colossally dangerous and destructive force.

Admittedly, there are few people alive in the world today who have as much blood on their hands as Adolf Hitler did. But after the hard lessons learned from allowing Hitler to have his way with the countries around him (at least until he looked to Poland), international leaders can no longer stand back and allow atrocities to happen, whether these are crimes committed against foreign persons or against one’s own people.

As I said at the beginning of this post, the road to international responsibility starts in a country’s attitude toward leaders who perpetrate injustice. If the international community simply sits back and allows a state to commit atrocities, either against others or its own people, the damage is twofold. First, the leader(s) responsible for such acts will see that these can be successfully perpetrated with no repercussion or retribution, at least not from any organization or institution with real power. And second, the rest of the international community risks looking toothless and tame. While the international community shouldn’t come across as hyper-aggressive, it must be not be seen as a powerless objector to atrocities, but rather as a powerful dissuadent from atrocity.

This requires both consistency and enforcement on the part of the international community. Leaders who are considering committing atrocities must be shown that any violent acts they commit will not pay off. If a dictatorial leader (Qaddafi or Mubarak would be examples) believes that he can commit mass violence (whether it is toward a political purpose or any other) without being stopped, then he will. Strong countries and international organizations must show these leaders that any violence they commit will be severely dealt with, no matter what.

This issue is particularly pressing in light of the Arab Spring sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa. As leaders like Moammar Qaddafi cling to power by violently suppressing their people, the international community’s response must be swift and decisive. A lot has already been done in Libya, but it may not be enough (I’m planning to write more on this subject soon!). And after a violent weekend in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, one wonders how long Assad’s schizophrenic alternation between reform and crackdown can go on before it reaches the same breaking point that was reached in Libya.

Without the right mindset and determination behind its actions and sanctions, the international community will never be able to act as a serious roadblock to state-sanctioned atrocities. And this determination and consistency will take some sacrifice, of course. But to be a responsible member of any community, especially one as large and all-encompassing as the international community, one must learn to give up some of their own goals and desires for the good of all.

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Global Community, Global Responsibility (Part 2)

The international community has a responsibility to end state-condoned atrocities in other countries. (Source: Middle-East-Info.org)

This is part 2 of a multi-part post on international responsibility. Part 1 can be found here.

The answer to this question is an unfortunately simple one: Because no one stopped it.

The international community is understandably hesitant to become involved in foreign conflicts and complications. Becoming tangled in another country’s conflict can be costly and often pointless, as the United States has seen in recent years in Afghanistan and, to a certain extent, Iraq. Sorting out other countries’ issues is difficult work.

But other nations must sometimes become involved in a country’s private affairs, even if it’s not very advantageous for the intervening country. I would consider these “private affairs” to be any act of atrocity that is committed, condoned, or simply overlooked by the ruling government. US Vice President Joe Biden had this to say about the actions of Moammar Qaddafi in Libya: “When a State engages in atrocity, it forfeits its sovereignty.”

Sovereignty is a very important concept in international relations. Simply put, it’s the quality of having supreme authority over an area of land and its inhabitants. But a state must earn this authority by being a responsible caretaker and lawmaker for its people. And when a state does not perform this duty, other nations may have to step in to force the issue.

Let me rephrase that: The international community may have to step in (yes, I know I’ve said the words “international community” far too many times!). Just as it is crucial for a country to be personally responsible to have a part on the international stage, it’s important that all countries are collectively responsible for keeping the world a safe place. I ought to say though, that I’m not endorsing a kind of world police, at least not one run by any one country (least not the United States). But perhaps we do need a world interventionary force, to prevent atrocities from being committed.

This force would be multilateral and international, so as not to skew power in any country’s direction too far. It would need to be much quicker to act than organizations like NATO or the UN though, and would probably work best when independent of these organizations. Unfortunately, the United Nations simply represents too many conflicting interests, and takes far too long to come to decisions; it took nearly a million deaths before the UN did anything in Rwanda, and by then it was too late. So perhaps willing and able parties of the international community should form a more fast-acting organization, to quickly strike against state-committed or -sponsored violence.

In fact, NATO did a fairly good job of this recently, in its response to the violence of Qaddafi against his own people in Libya. Even then though, it took far too long for the UN and NATO to step in, and there’s still more that should be done, such as the placement of peacekeeping troops or delivery of additional medical supplies.

If there were to be an independent, international coalition specifically set up to counteract state atrocities, mass violence could be stopped much sooner and more effectively. Assuming that specific guidelines were set in place, and all participating nations agreed on which actions constitute atrocity, this peacekeeping force might have the power to stop many humanitarian crises. The key to this would be fast, decisive action against state atrocities; dictators tend to commit these violences on their own people after the international community does nothing to stop earlier offenses.

Looks like this post is going on to a third part! Check back soon for part 3!

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Global Community, Global Responsibility (Part 1)

The international community is continually becoming more tightly-knit, but that comes with a great deal of responsibility. (Source: icicp.blogspot.com/www.icicp.org)

Our world is growing increasingly global and interconnected. Countless alliances, agreements, treaties, and organizations bind together countries and peoples all around the planet. Many companies are turning abroad to emerging markets to expand their business. It’s now almost commonplace for a student to spend months or even years studying abroad.

The degree to which the many diverse groups of people around the world are connected is astounding. We’ve managed to cross many lingual, social, religious, and cultural barriers as the world continues to become more globalized, or as Thomas Friedman might say, flat.

Globalization brings with it a plethora of advantages and advances that not only offer more opportunity to those in emerging countries but give us a chance to understand each other more. Perhaps more importantly, it has allowed many countries around the world to move past dangerous nationalism and allowed international cooperation where it hasn’t existed before.

I’m majoring in International Studies at my university, so I believe that an examination of these changes is critical, not only for gaining a better understanding of the politics and economics of the world, but for understanding the people of it. And though I’m nowhere near graduation or a full knowledge of international relations, I feel that I’m beginning to realize something about our trend towards the global.

As nations continue to draw more connections to one another, they become beholden to an increasingly high standard of responsibility and accountability. As a nation moves outside of itself and reaches out or is reached out to by other parts of the world, its standards must be carefully examined. The more involved a country is on the international stage, the higher its national credibility must be. Once a nation becomes globally active, it can no longer make decisions based entirely on its own needs and desires, nor can it expect to avoid all international scrutiny.

Yet many members of the international community are not living up to the standards that they should be expected to adhere to if they want to receive recognition from other countries. In a way, these governments – such as those of North Korea, Rwanda and Serbia in the 1990s, Sudan, and Libya, as well as countless others – want to have their cake and eat it too, so to speak. They want or wanted to have a presence on the international level (and have that), but are or were unwilling to live up to the standards that such nations must hold.

The nations I listed above have had in the past or currently have grievous human rights violations staining their records. But in each of these circumstances, the international community either spent weeks, months, or years deliberating about what to do, or is still doing nothing. Why is this? Why were 800,000 Tutsi people killed in Rwanda before anyone put a stop to the violence? Why was Slobodan Milošević allowed to stay in power in Serbia after massacres of Bosnian Muslims, when 3 weeks of NATO bombing stopped him later? Why are people still being killed in Darfur?

I’ve decided to split this post into multiple parts, as it seems likely to become rather lengthy, and I haven’t published in some time. Check back soon for part 2!

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Seeking the Spiritual: The Century of Common People (Part 2)

Will we finally let go of our differences? (Source: scu.edu)

This is the second part of an earlier post, which you can find here. If you’re a bit lost, give my earlier post a read!

Sadly, we’re nowhere near as far toward this as we could be, or should be, and I must admit there’s a long way to go. But progress is being made, and in no small way! A great example of this is in the steady advancement of gay rights over the past years. Public opinion is moving toward favoring marriage equality, DADT has been repealed (nominally at least), 6 states allow gay marriage, and Maryland will soon join them. To add to this, the Department of Justice is no longer upholding DOMA, a strong step that shows that government is moving with the popular opinion. The long run for marriage equality is looking even brighter, as more than half of voters under the age of 30 (55%, to be exact) approve of same-sex marriage, and the media generally treats it as both normal and acceptable.

Of course, this is by no means the only place we’re moving forward! Huge strides are being made across religious, social, cultural, and linguistic barriers, as people all around the world are connecting in new and incredible ways. Even just in the short time I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve had the opportunity to meet many new and amazing people, and talk with them about some of the most important things in life, and we’ve been able to do this across entire oceans!

This new century brings incredible new potentials with it, unlike anything in centuries past. Just as the 20th century brought about amazing new developments and turning points in our collective history, the 21st century is bringing a new kind of change, one that brings understanding and peace, instead of division and strife.

Maybe this is just the optimistic musing of a young mind, but as I mentioned above, this seems to me to be happening in a variety of very real and tangible ways! I’m finding more and more people who are willing to reach out and understand others, no matter what their differences are. People seem to be slowly becoming more willing to accommodate the different ideas of others, without feeling the need to be right. In schools, more children are being taught the value of acceptance and tolerance, instead of the value of winning an argument. There seems to be a greater and greater need and desire for interfaith dialogue, and prominent religious leaders (Feisal Abdul Rauf, Desmond Tutu, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, and many others) are standing up to try and bring greater peace and unity between religious traditions, without sacrificing diversity.

As I said, there is still a lot of work to be done here, but a lot of progress is being made as well. Though we’re only a tenth of the way through it, I can see this century being a bright one, a time when people will slowly but surely realize that all of our differences, all of our outward appearances and supposed differences can be left at the wayside. This 21st century will be, I’m sure, one of Common People.

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