Enough Talking, Kofi

It’s time for the world to stop hiding behind Kofi Annan's skirts. We gave diplomacy a chance in Syria; now we must accept that diplomacy has failed.

Fourteen years ago, Kofi Annan, then the U.N. secretary general, embarked on a desperate mission to Baghdad to persuade Saddam Hussein to allow U.N. weapons inspectors back in the country. Miraculously, he succeeded. And for his pains he was awoken in the middle of the night and browbeaten by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who worried that he had caved to Saddam. When he returned to New York he was mocked for saying that he could "do business" with the Iraqi dictator. Serving as interlocutor-with-evil is a thankless job.

Annan is of course in the midst of another such mission, this time as U.N.-Arab League special envoy to Syria, where he has presented a six-point plan to President Bashar al-Assad in  the hopes of ending the  mass killing of civilians. In recent weeks, Assad had made Annan look like a naïve devotee of peace-at-any-price by first accepting the plannd then systematically trampling on its terms. And then, last Friday, government forces and local militias systematically slaughtered more than 100 civilians, most of them women and children, in Houla, a group of villages in the province of Homs, proving beyond any doubt that Assad has been cynically using Annan to buy time for his own plan, which is to kill and terrorize his opponents. The time has come to thank Kofi Annan for his services and send him back home to Geneva.

I have known Kofi Annan for as long time, and it is true that he has a temperament peculiarly well-suited to situations of powerlessness. He is a gentleman who speaks ill of no one, and thinks ill of only a few. He does not wear his dignity on his sleeve, or anywhere visible at all. He does not upset apple carts, a habit which may have contributed to his inactivity in the face of slaughter in Bosnia and Rwanda when he was the head of U.N. peacekeeping. It's the part of him I admire least.

But for a U.N. diplomat, powerlessness is a fact of life; it's much easier to represent a superpower. In the summer of 2004, I watched Annan sit quietly in a blazing hot office in Darfur while Sudanese officials piled one inane lie on top of another. Didn't he know they were jerking him around? Of course he did, he told me wearily. But what was the point of delivering threats? "I don't," he said, "see anybody rushing in with troops."

And that's the real point. Albright and the Clinton administration let Annan go to Baghdad when they saw how little appetite there was in their own base for airstrikes against Iraq (though they launched a few strikes later that year when the deal Annan negotiated fell apart). And years later, Annan tried to speak reason to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir because the Security Council wasn't prepared to punish him for mounting a campaign of ethnic cleansing and murder in Darfur.

Annan finds himself in the same predicament in Syria today. Arriving in Damascus three days after Houla, Annan condemned the “tragic incident,” and said that his “message of peace” was intended “not only for the government, but for everyone with a gun.” Annan knows perfectly well that responsibility for Houla lies with the regime, but he also knows that Russia, a key player on the U.N. Security Council, insists on blaming both sides for the violence.  And, of course, that even Assad’s toughest critics in the West won’t soon be rushing in with troops or airstrikes.

Annan is no pacifist. In the late 1990s, he championed the doctrine that came to be known as "the responsibility to protect," which stipulates that when states fail to act to stop atrocities, other states have an obligation to do so. But Annan does believe that sometime atrocities can be halted, or prevented, with diplomacy rather than with force. He and others did just that when they mediated between the opposing sides after a disputed election in Kenya in late 2008 led rival tribes to slaughter one another. That was an effort worth making; so was his high-wire act in Baghdad in 1998; so was the mission to Damascus. But it no longer is.

When I asked Ahmad Fawzi, a former U.N. official who serves as the spokesman for the mission in Syria, why Annan was still shuttling between capitals even as Assad's forces continued to shell civilians, he said, "It's the only game in town at the moment." Fawzi made only the most modest claims for the mission's success: Violence goes down while inspectors occupy a given space, though often returns to previous levels once they leave; civilians might "start having faith in the presence of the observers." But it was still better than the alternative -- even more killing.

Houla has vividly demonstrated how very little the 260 or so observers can do to prevent violence where they are not physically present, but the mission grinds on, with another 40 observers still to be added to the force. Annan has returned to Damascus, Fawzi says, because "he feels the time is now ripe to sit down with the president and assess where we are."

Of course, that's not true either. The Syrian opposition, military and political, won't relent until Assad leaves, but Assad almost certainly won't leave unless he feels that the only alternative is death. And that moment is still very far away. The Obama administration understands this well, but views all the available alternatives as even worse than the current one -- talking while Assad keeps killing. I was at a recent lunch with U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who responded to a volley of questions about humanitarian corridors, airstrikes, and the like by saying, "There is a risk it ends in more violence, which is why the last peaceful game in town is one worth pursuing, even if it's a low-probability game, which we readily admit it is."

The question is: When do you stop pursuing this low-probability game? When, if at all, do the risks of action become greater than the risks of inaction? The international community kept talking with the Serbs until the massacre at Srebrenica in July 1995 finally provoked a NATO bombing campaign. In Sudan, as in Rwanda, nothing happened until it was too late to make much of a difference. Annan knows this history all too well; it is his history. "He's been there before," says Fawzi, "and he will know when the time has come to pull the plug." Or maybe he won't. The United States and the EU have allowed Annan to decide when and whether his mission has ceased to be useful; but Annan’s faith in diplomacy may wind up serving Assad’s interests more than those of the Syrian people.

It has now become very hard to imagine any solution to the Syria crisis which is not a terrible one. Though fewer people are dying per day than was true earlier this year, when security forces were besieging the town of Homs, the violent scenario to which Rice alluded is already a reality. According to recent reports, the rebels have begun to receive significant quantities of weapons from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood as well as training and equipment from Turkey. The Obama administration has admitted only to supplying communications equipment and other nonlethal assistance, but is said to be clandestinely helping direct arms to rebels forces. The White House, that is, appears to be reluctantly accepting the inevitability of civil war.

Fawzi says that no Plan B is on offer, but the fact is that an impromptu Plan B appears to be taking shape: Turkey will provide its territory for the training and organization of the Free Syrian Army, the United States will provide logistical and command-and-control assistance, and Gulf states will supply the hardware. Everyone, including Annan and the U.N., will labor mightily to keep the Syrian National Council, the political organ of the opposition, from collapsing into utter chaos, as it now threatens to do, and to persuade the SNC, the rebel army, and the Local Coordinating Committees inside Syria to work together.

We mustn't delude ourselves about Plan B's likelihood of success. The air war that destroyed the Qaddafi regime in Libya was relatively swift and thoroughly decisive, but Libya now teeters on the edge of anarchy. Syria hardly looks more encouraging. If the rebels step up the pace of attacks, Assad is likely to respond with yet more violence, possibly provoking the Gotterdammerung of all-out sectarian war. And as foreign jihadists increasingly infiltrate the rebel forces, and pervert their goals, the chances of creating an unarguably better Syria than the one that existed before the uprising will recede. Syria poses such a terrible problem because it is not about finding the political will to do the right thing, but rather trying to find some way of doing more good than harm.

But the time has come -- or perhaps has very nearly come -- for the world to stop hiding behind Kofi Annan's skirts. We gave diplomacy a chance; now we must accept that diplomacy has failed.

Note: This article has been updated to reflect events in Syria over the weekend.


Terms of Engagement

Nation-Building in the Yemen

Drones alone won't be enough to stop Yemen from falling into the failed state abyss.

Last week, I wrote about the growing drone-ification of U.S. policy toward Yemen, and questioned the faith that drone strikes would not provoke the kind of backlash caused by less "targeted" forms of military intervention. At best, drones are an instrument of policy, not a policy in and of itself. Critics of the Obama administration's emerging counterterrorism strategy in Yemen and elsewhere argue that the United States needs fewer drones, and more of something else. The question for this week is: What's the "something else"?

It's a very urgent question as Yemen is now the front line of the war against terrorism. John Brennan, the White House counter-terrorism advisor, has said that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), based in Yemen, has over 1,000 members, and is "the most active operational franchise" of al Qaeda. The 2010 underwear bomb plot originated in Yemen, as did the effort last month, foiled by a Saudi double agent, to plant an undetectable bomb on a plane. In recent months, AQAP has routed government troops to establish a statelet in southern Yemen, providing it far more operational space than it now has on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

One of the attractions of drones is that most of the time they do what they're supposed to do -- kill terrorists. And they do it very quickly. And that is precisely the point that the administration's critics make. Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar who blogs at the website Waq al-Waq, complains that the administration has been relying on "very quick and very simple solutions for Yemen" rather than the ones that take time and effort. Johnsen and others argue that the administration must give much more priority to the slow and tedious work of economic development and diplomatic engagement, including with the Yemeni opposition. "The U.S. has to focus more on the root causes of terrorism than the effects," as Barak Barfi, a research fellow at the New America Foundation, recently said on CNN.

The "root causes" of terrorism are not so self-evident, but what is clear is that terrorists seek to exploit the empty spaces created by weak and ineffective governments. Thus the long-term solution to the growth of terrorism in places like Yemen is  to help the state become more effective, and more legitimate. American presidents since 9/11 have accepted this premise. In his second inaugural address, George W. Bush declared that the democratization of the Islamic world was in America's deepest national security interest. As a candidate, Barack Obama argued that the United States needed to focus less on elections in fragile states, and more on boosting economic development and government capacity. The counterinsurgency strategy he adopted in Afghanistan had a large civilian component designed to do just that. It is fair to say that the Obama administration has not demonstrated its commitment to nation-building in Yemen. U.S. civilian assistance  this year amounts to a very modest $112 million, of which $73 million will go to humanitarian aid. That leaves only $39 million for development, or a little over $1.50 for each of Yemen's 24 million people. This is a country which ranks 154th on the U.N. human development index, where households desperately need access to clean drinking water, electricity, and fuel oil, among other basic goods. Where's the long-term solution?

The experience of Afghanistan -- and Haiti, and plenty of other such places -- has shown how hard it is to spend large amounts effectively in states where the government has very little presence beyond a few major cities. After years of effort and billions of dollars, the Afghan government remains very corrupt, very weak, and not very legitimate. Yemen is a more advanced country than Afghanistan, but 33 years of the personalized and deeply corrupt rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh enfeebled state institutions and turned much of the economy into a patronage network. The marginal value of additional dollars might drop off quickly.

What about democratic legitimacy? A recent article in FP claimed that by spurning advances from the youth movement -- which took to the streets in Yemen's version of the Arab Spring -- the White House ended "any hopes of an authentic democratic revolution," and thus of "a more tolerant and stable Yemen."  The author predicted that more embittered young men will be driven into the arms of the AQAP. It's possible; but the same argument has been made about the drone strikes, and so far there's very little evidence on either front. There seem to be far fewer Yemenis who identify with the foreign fighters of al Qaeda than there are Pakistanis who identify with the Taliban, who are sons of the soil.

Again, it's easy to claim that the Obama administration's actions in Yemen belie its rhetorical commitment to democracy in the Arab world. Obama supported the plan advanced by Saudi Arabia -- no great friend of democracy -- to ease Saleh out of power in favor of his vice-president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, a longtime Saleh loyalist. And yet staunch support for Hadi has proved to be the single greatest success of American policy in Yemen -- far more important than, say, a decision to double development aid, or to halve drone strikes, would have been. I've heard again and again that the White House doesn't have "a strategy" in Yemen, but in fact the strategy is to support President Hadi through all means possible -- a resumption of aid, high-level visits, public statements of support, and last week's announcement of a White House executive order freezing the assets of anyone who seeks to "obstruct the implementation" of the deal that transferred power to him -- a shot across the bow to Saleh and his circle.

So far, Hadi has exceeded all expectations, and certainly those of Saleh, who counted on his compliance. He has sacked two Saleh family members who occupied senior military posts; both at first refused to go, and needed additional threats from Jamal Ben Omar, the U.N. emissary, who has worked closely with American officials. "He has really been able to consolidate the political center," according to James Fallon of the Eurasia Group. "Inside the GPC" -- Saleh's party -- "there's been a gradual isolation of Saleh and the closest of his circle." Checkpoints have come down from the main streets of the capital, Sanaa, and youth activists have not challenged his authority. In recent days, Hadi has also sent the army back into the south in the hopes of retaking the towns and villages now held by AQAP. The fighting is reported to be fierce, if so far inconclusive.

Hadi enjoys support in part because he is an interim figure whose writ runs out in 18 months. And Saleh, who remains in Sanaa, could upend the deal at any time. But he would have to pay a very serious cost, both with the United States and with the U.N. Security Council. Right now, U.S. policy in Yemen is looking better than it's reputed to be. Les Campbell, Middle East director of the National Democratic Institute and a veteran of Yemeni politics, says, "The U.S. has to a great extent handled Yemen very, very well. They're working very closely with the president, but they haven't really alienated the protestors. That's a pretty good feat."

Yemen is still a disaster area. There is an indigenous rebellion in the south, as well as a sectarian war in the north. Rebels regularly attack the electric grid as well as oil and gas pipelines. Jamal Benomar recently said that as many as 700,000 children could die this year from malnutrition. Yemen seems to be running out of everything -- above all, oil, its chief export, and water. But the ultimate source of its problems, as a recent report notes, is not scarcity but political failure. What Yemen needs most is a political system which all factions are prepared to buy into. America's vast investment in Afghanistan has failed because Afghan politics has failed. There's very little Washington can do about, or around or against, a feckless and corrupt regime. If the White House is pushing all its chips on Hadi, it's because right now he represents Yemen's best chance to survive its current crisis, and for it to begin to rebuild. President Hadi may not be much of a democrat, or even a liberal; but he may be just good enough.