Friday, February 25, 2011

Libya On My Mind

Tripoli: Old Medina and Bay
In early 2007, on two separate trips, I taught entrepreneurial business planning to an executive training program in Libya. The course was organized by Monitor Group, which I had worked for in the early 1990s, and was now consulting to the government on economic planning and "capacity building." In all, I got to know about 300 trainees rather well, over more than a month of days and classes.

This was a very narrow slice of Libyan society, 30-and-40-somethings who started small engineering companies attached to the oil industry, store owners, people in tourism, some low-ranking government ministers, the scions of families who had owned businesses before The Leader took power in 1969--older and younger, men and women (some in head scarves, some not). Call it Tripoli's bourgeois intelligentsia-in-the-making. 

Our trainees were exceptionally hospitable and grateful people, even for an Arab country. Their children and grandchildren would kiss you, a perfect stranger, as if you were an uncle. They were hungry for the moral oxygen coming from European businesses and tourists. They were wondering if The Leader's son, Seif-Al-Islam, who had hired Monitor, and who was studying political philosophy at LSE, would really prove liberal, really eventually come to power, really open the country to the West.

The Son told one of my colleagues that he would never agree to hold a position in government he was not elected to. His recent television speeches in defense of his father's rule, delivered in a Gucci suit, before and after The Leader's soldiers and mercenaries began killing protesters in cold blood, leave one wondering if The Son's notion of election really needed to be nuanced by an LSE degree.

LIBYA, OR AT least the educated and urbane part of it, seemed to me a painfully promising tranche of the Arab world. The inhabited part of the country (much like Israel, actually) is a strip of land along the Mediterranean coast, with desert in the hinterland. The population of citizens, perhaps 7 million people (along with another couple of million guest workers from sub-Saharan Africa), has been concentrated in the cities and suburban towns. They still think of themselves as great merchants and traders, tied to the sea. 

Libyans despise the memory of the Italian occupation, but will still proudly explain to you that they were "the fourth coast of Rome," the site of Leptis Magna, the great city from which Emperor Septimius Severus had come, its ruins still a wonder of the world. From here, thousands of trapped African slaves, and wild beasts for the Forum, were exported. (The Leader's famously pleated jacket, a traditional Libyan garb, hearkens back to the toga.) Libyans see themselves a part of southern Europe, a short hop to Malta, a few hundred miles from Sicily. Saint Augustine was from here. They awaited European tourists like people waiting for long lost relatives.

Libyan agriculture, which is bountiful, depends on depleted water reserves and is hardly fit to support an export industry. Oil reserves create all wealth, about 95% of what is sold to the world. Cash reserves create all power. We heard rumors that the state--i.e., The Leader--had amassed reserves of upwards of a staggering $150 billion, though nobody really knew, since no standard auditing standards applied. We did know that one of our trainees, still in his early thirties, and running a new sovereign wealth fund for the first time, had responsibility for $5-6 billion.  You walked around the old city market, or Medina, of Tripoli, and you passed a fruit, stand, cigarette stand, and cell phone stand, in trio after trio.

The small population, in other words, along with the oceans of cash sloshing around in the economy, the foreign educated elites identified with Europe, the new technology, the tourism, etc., should have made the place an entrepreneurial paradise. But all things depending on the state--water, roads, hospitals, schools, telecom, airports--were either developed by foreign management or dysfunctional. My trainees spoke openly--surprisingly so, I thought--about the difficulties of doing anything without having to pay-off government officials. Corruption was by far the biggest impediment to doing business, they told me. 

Then again, a good many of them were themselves government employees, pocketing the equivalent of a few hundred dollars every month, pretending to work until just after lunch, at which point they went to their own retail or service start-ups.

I CAME TO know Tripoli rather well. What I cannot get out of my mind, as I hear the radio reports of machine gun fire from the city, is the sense of frustration our trainees would express with the direction of the regime. They were bored listening to the litany by now; bored hearing themselves whisper about the incompetence of the regime and its absurd personality cult, yet aware that with so much oil money circulating, and The Leader keeping the peace, they might well make a future under the radar. We were all on Yahoo groupware, and people were already tasting what seemed like progress in cyberspace. Opening Libya would be like opening Cuba. 

More important, they saw themselves not only as an economic class, but as the beginning of a genuine civil society--and thought The Son their ally, which perhaps he was back then. (For the record, trainees knew I was living in Jerusalem, and most spoke of Israel with grudging respect, believing that the conflict with the Palestinians had become stupid and small, and that Israel had so much more to gain by doing business with them than from any settlement.)

And yet. Everybody knew The Leader was a maniac who pretended to be an eccentric intellectual, producing his little green book (which I actually read: imagine marrying the ideas of the young Marx to those of an Islamist, tribal Rousseau, all written in the style of the Book of Mormon) for guests to his tent-and concrete compound. These included world intellectuals from Francis Fukayama to Robert Putnam to Richard Perle, whose own books The Leader was reputed to have spent $10 million to translate for his private edification. 

We also knew The Leader funded a vicious security apparat, including another son and other close members of his family, that was happier to be simply rich and in control, than mega-rich from globalization and having to share power with people like our trainees. Agents lurked about everywhere, smoking and smiling, spying comings and goings from the Corinthia Hotel. 

And we knew, alas, that The Leader was in his sixties and, unlike Fidel, might be around a long time. We spoke, with forlorn hope, about marrying his sham village councils to groupware and social networking sites like the one we are on and building democratic institutions from the ground up. Then we went out to eat fish.

NOW WE KNOW, finally, that The Leader will not be around a long time. 

It is heart-breaking to think of the good people who will die, or already have died, freeing themselves from his pathetic grip. I see many faces before me. I fear that among them may be people from our classes whose hopes were so palpable just three years ago. 

I realize that the shores of Tripoli seem too much for American forces just now, and perhaps never should have been in an American military song in the first place. But I cannot help wondering what use are aircraft carriers if one cannot be used to keep Libyan airspace free of the lunatic's planes and gunships, so that fewer good people will die taking him down.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Stern Stuff

Sol Stern is an old friend. It was Sol who introduced me to Arthur Koestler's Promise and Fulfillment in the early 1970s, and then to Hillel Kook, from whom I learned the phrase "Hebrew Republic." I have spent many warm hours with him and Ruthie and I treasure them.

Sol, alas, is offended by my article in the New York Times Magazine: not original, he says, and not even true. My argument boils down to blaming Israel.

I find Sol's attack saddening, for all the obvious reasons. I never claimed that my piece in the Times was the first to reveal major components of Olmert's offer; I blogged about the things Olmert had informally revealed to various reporters (myself included) long before this new piece. It was precisely because I had heard much about the deal from him on in our casual meetings that I suggested we eventually do a definitive interview, which this was (in conjunction with Olmert's publisher, Yediot Aharonot), and then get Abbas's response.

Anyway, it is the package that seemed to me worth doing: juxtaposing the retrospecitve responses of both leaders, today, and exploring whether the gaps between them suggest a bridgeable deal America could yet propose, irrespective of who did what to whom, when. It is doubly sad to think that Sol, standing in for tens of thousands of American Jewish reflexes, is so anxious that Israel's 40+ year occupation will not be seen empathetically that he refuses to judge the fairness of the deal itself; that he rushes to the conclusion that Palestinians will never accept anything less than Israel's destruction; that, therefore, any talk of a deal in which Israel relents on settlements can only come from people seeking to show Israel in a bad light.

We need to get past these reflexes. And just for the record, Abbas was never given a map, though he never had any trouble reproducing it. All of this is trivial stuff.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Obama, The Plan, And The Politics: A Coda

Abbas's Palestinian Authority has just announced elections for the fall. If Obama has any hope that the leadership circle around Abbas, including Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, will make a strong showing in this vote, he had better come forth with a plan very soon. And the administration should quietly (but firmly) urge Israeli leaders to release Marwan Barghouti from prison and restart informal discussions with him about the outlines of a plan, using the Olmert-Abbas talks as a starting point. If we have learned anything from Egypt, it is that when people say "things cannot go on like this," things eventually don't.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Obama, The Plan, And The Politics

A final (preemptive) word about my forthcoming article in Sunday's New York Times Magazine, appealing to President Obama to present an American plan based on the Olmert-Abbas talks.

Obama knows very well that when Abbas finally met Netanyahu last year, the Palestinian president proposed that he and Netanyahu begin where he (Abbas) and Olmert left off, and that Netanyahu rejected this out of hand. ("No way," Netanyahu said, or so Abbas told me.)

Why then should Obama present a plan that the Israeli government is bound to dismiss? Isn't this setting up the American administration for a diplomatic failure?

No way.

The point is, an Obama plan should be presented first to (and coordinated in advance with) the EU, the Quartet, the leaders of the OECD, and congressional leaders for that matter. It should be declared consistent with Olmert's offer and designed (as Olmert's offer was) to be "in the spirit" of the Arab League Initiative of 2002.

Its great victory would not be in (immediately) getting Israelis and Palestinians to yes, but in creating an international consensus which all sides, especially Netanyahu and Israeli leaders and journalists more generally, would have to contend with for the foreseeable future. Obama could make the plan concrete by, for example, offering to provide funding for the RAND Corporation's ARC project, tying a Palestinian state together with a transportation corridor, and offering Israeli infrastructure companies the chance to participate.

The purpose of presenting a plan now, in other words, would be to signal the Arab street, and the Israeli street, too, that America is committed to a new, coherent Middle East and that it has the world behind it. The plan's gravitas, which may take a year or two to sink in, would derive from its inherent fairness (based, as it is, on Olmert's and Abbas's 36 meetings), not on the predictable resistance of extremists to it. It would start a new political conversation, like the UN Partition resolution of 1947. It would signal all parties that the fate of Palestine is by no means Israel's internal affair, nor is the security of Israel merely a matter for the Israeli military.

Obama needs to understand--and everyone with a pen should encourage him to--that he has the chance to face an election, not as the manager of a stalemated peace process, but rather as the author of a visionary policy. He would not be seen as a timid, failed mediator, like Dennis Ross, but as a bold architect, like George Marshall, universally identified with the only reasonable future the Middle East can expect. After all, Obama has not got Iran to give up its nuclear program, as the rest of the world wants. But he has been justifiably given great credit for organizing what the rest of the world wants.

Moreover, a peace plan of this kind is bound to have a serious impact on Israeli politics, empowering the parties of global Israel (Livni, Labor and the rest) to declare that they alone can preserve relations with Washington and the EU, while the parties of greater Israel (Netanyahu, Lieberman and the rest) will be seen as driving Israel into an impossible isolation. It will give Palestinians a political horizon and may help to preserve the peace and demonstrable economic progress in a volatile West Bank.

Besides, if Obama misses this opportunity, he will almost certainly be running in 2012 with Palestine in chaos, spreading violence in the region, and mobilized Arab youth chanting anti-American slogans. He will be the president who "lost Egypt," rather than the one who gained an international consensus. He does not have much time.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Get Behind Obama--And Push

Daniel Gordis's op-ed in the this morning's Times leaves one wondering if Israel's brand managers still believe in Oldsmobiles. Only democracy. Settlements may be unwise but. Repressive Arabs coddled. Throw weight behind Netanyhu. Would even Pavlov imagine this kind of bell would cause the dogs to salivate?

On the other hand, Gordis's piece is useful in reflecting the inertia the Obama administration would have to overcome to seize the moment. Obama has been trying a difficult balancing act over the past week, advocating change without getting too far out in front of what the Egyptian protest movement can hope to achieve. What he can do, if he is not going to lose the Arab street for a generation, is signal change by changing the conversation on Palestine.

I wrote about the Olmert-Abbas talks in the hope (hubristic, but there you are) that the climate for the administration could be changed; that if columnists, bloggers, pundits, foreign policy experts,etc., broadly understood how doable a deal was, they would encourage a change of course from the administration and cover Obama's back. I still believe that there is a very narrow window here; that if Obama does not act on Palestine--formulating a plan based on the Olmert-Abbas gaps, and rallying the Quartet and the countries of the OECD to it--not only will young Arabs turn decisively on America, but Abbas will soon be gone, and Jerusalem will blow.

In response, many have written me over the past couple of days expressing their skepticism--their disappointment in the president, and so forth. But surely they miss the point. People like Gordis have framed things for many years. Obama needs others to change the conversation if he is to act.  Instead of expecting him to lead on all things, and complaining when he fails to slay dragons, we ought to be mobilizing, if not on the streets, then in the blogosphere and other media. Obama has many world-historical problems between now and November, 2012.  And other bullies have pulpits.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Makings Of America's Peace Plan

"The dramatic events of the recent period make it necessary for us to take the Israeli-Palestinian conflict off the regional agenda," Shimon Peres told the 11th annual Israeli security conference yesterday. "We must do this as soon as possible because the conflict is being exploited to the detriment of all sides."

Here are the makings of a peace plan--a preview from next Sunday's New York Times Magazine, providing the definitive account of what came out of Abbas' and Olmert's 36  meetings. Our only hope is an American president willing to embrace their achievement, bridge the small gaps, and rally the world to an American package.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Next For Obama: Palestine

President Mubarak announced a few moments ago that he would not be seeking reelection, telling the world what it already knew. What was more interesting about the announcement was the way it was foreshadowed by the actions of the American administration. Obama has decided that he wants to be part of what's next, clearly, but siding with the crowds against Mubarak right now is not exactly going bold.

If he really intends to capture the imaginations of the young people in the crowds, from Tunis to Amman, he will have to signal powerfully that he is intent on building a new Middle East with them and live up to the promise of his Cairo speech. This means making clear that he will not be toyed with by the Netanyahu government. Many will jump to the conclusion that the fall of Mubarak is proof that Netanyahu was right all along, that his neighborhood is tough and unstable. But the wisdom of the crowd is that the occupation of Palestine has been the toughest and most destabilizing reality in the neighborhood for the last 40 years.

It would be folly for Obama to move on the Palestinian issue if a peace deal were not capable of being envisioned. Obama should not dare to present a plan that is implausible just to pander to Egyptian protesters, and he will certainly not sacrifice Israel's essential security interests.  But what if a deal is not only possible but more or less worked out?

Readers of this blog know that I've been working on an article for the past 10 days based on exclusive recent interviews with Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas. I won't say more about the achievement of their negotiations here; the article will be in the New York Times Magazine very soon.  What I will say is that these leaders left Obama small gaps to bridge; both still want to see the president bridge them. Obama does not have a great deal of time to digest what they negotiated, offer an American package based on their understandings, and rally the world to it. But if he proves courageous enough to do this while young people are full of passion and hope, he can, let us say, finally earn his peace prize.