After Abbas

The Palestinian president will either be toppled from his throne, or die on it. And that may be Hamas's chance to pounce.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas went to the United Nations last month and brought his people one step closer to statehood. But amid all the fanfare, Western diplomats quietly conceded that the General Assembly vote to upgrade the Palestinians' U.N. mission was not simply a step taken to advance their national project. It also reflected a desire to counter Hamas's growing influence, particularly after the Gaza-based terrorist group claimed victory in its war with Israel in November.

In the overwhelming vote (138 to 9) to confer nonmember observer status on the Palestinians, the international community may have outsmarted itself. Abbas's next steps are entirely unclear -- he has threatened to pursue membership in the International Criminal Court, which he could then use as a bludgeon against Israel, but that tactic could take years to bear fruit.

The aging Abbas, however, may not have years. The Palestinian leader is 77 years old, a heavy smoker, and an incessant traveler. He reportedly underwent treatment for prostate cancer a decade ago, and in 2010 he was admitted six times to a Jordanian hospital for unspecified health reasons. In short, he's not a picture of perfect fitness. This raises the inconvenient question: Who will follow in his footsteps?

Right now, the answer is Hamas. According to Palestinian Basic Law, Article 37, if the presidency of the Palestinian Authority becomes vacant "the Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council shall temporarily assume the powers and duties of the Presidency of the National Authority for a period not to exceed sixty (60) days, during which free and direct elections to elect a new President shall take place."

As it turns out, the current speaker is none other than Aziz Dweik. In January 2006, the last time Palestinians held legislative elections, Dweik ran and won on Hamas's Change and Reform list. When Hamas emerged with a majority after that vote, he was sworn in as speaker.

Who is this leader waiting in the wings? He has spent two decades being pursued by Israel. In 1992, Dweik was one of 415 Hamas members exiled to Lebanon by Israel for their involvement in the nascent terrorist group. Following the 2006 kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, the Israelis arrested him for being a member of Hamas. In June 2009, Dweik was released from prison, but was rearrested this January for "involvement in terrorist activities." He was released again, only months ago, in July.

Of course, Dweik isn't a shoo-in. Succession does not always proceed according to law, and the PLO could still appoint someone from its own ranks if Abbas could no longer lead that body. However, a power struggle is a recipe for another ugly clash between the PLO and Hamas -- perhaps a reprise of the bloody 2007 civil war, in which Hamas seized the Gaza Strip. And right now, Abbas's health and political fortunes are the only things standing in the way of this chaotic scenario.

Abbas's political standing could be just as disconcerting as his advancing age. Since Hamas drubbed Abbas's secular Fatah party in the 2006 election and pushed his security forces out of Gaza in 2007, Abbas has leaned heavily on the United States and Israel for military, intelligence, and financial assistance to maintain his tenuous grip on the West Bank. His government, meanwhile, has become ossified, eroding his support among many West Bankers.

In September, frustration boiled over when the Palestinian Authority's (PA) coffers began to dry up and government workers' salaries went unpaid, prompting thousands of Palestinians to pour into the streets. The demonstrations raised troubling questions about whether the PA might soon collapse. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's recent threats to withhold PA tax revenues for several months have only revived those concerns.

Abbas continues to hang on, but he still doesn't seem to stand for anything other than the perpetuation of his own rule. He has failed to deliver peace, yet will not engage in violence against Israel. This "neither here nor there" approach explains why he was basically irrelevant during the most recent round of fighting between Israel and Hamas.

The question of who might succeed Abbas is not a new one. According to a leaked U.S. State Department cable, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat warned Americans as far back as 2006 that a "political vacuum" would elevate Dweik to the role of president. Other Palestinian insiders have also quietly expressed concerns about the Palestinian Authority's succession plan.

Abbas, however, refuses to name a successor. Taking a page from deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, his old ally, he has no vice president and no heir apparent. Instead, he has led campaigns to weaken potential challengers. Mohammed Dahlan, the popular strongman of Gaza under the late Yasir Arafat, has endured particularly nasty treatment from Abbas, who has made moves to freeze his assets abroad.

This October's municipal elections in the West Bank brought a handful of renegade Fatah leaders into office. This new crop of relatively unknown secularists may yet represent the future of the Palestinians. Ghassan Shakaa, for example, garnered attention in the New York Times as a leading figure "among dozens of Fatah activists ousted from the party [in October] because they had decided to run independently." But rather than embracing political diversity, Abbas has reportedly isolated these figures -- most recently refusing them a role in the festivities after the Palestinians earned their upgrade at the United Nations.

Abbas's potential challengers cannot carve out a niche for themselves at the ballot box either. Owing to the bitter rift between Hamas and Fatah, Abbas refuses to hold new national elections. And Washington -- fearful that Hamas might win again at the polls -- has his back on this.

In other words, Abbas has solidified his position as the unquestioned leader of the Palestinians, and he will continue in that position either until a time of his own choosing or until his demise.

To put it mildly, this is not a viable strategy for maintaining a partner for peace in the West Bank. Nor is supporting a bureaucratic maneuver at the United Nations, which merely granted Abbas a temporary boost in approval. Such moves, in fact, only exacerbate the brewing Palestinian succession crisis because they bolster the current leadership without pushing for much-needed reform.

If the international community is serious about Palestinian statehood, it should start thinking about who is next in line to govern the Palestinian people and how to forge the infrastructure needed to ensure good governance. More importantly, it should demand that Abbas take steps to ensure that legitimate contenders have the opportunities to ensure their political voices are heard.

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David and Paula

The Petraeus affair may be over, as far as the media circus is concerned. But its baleful aftereffects linger on.

While the spate of ink over the scandal that toppled former CIA director David Petraeus has abated a bit, there is little sign that the public significance of the episode has penetrated. Both Petraeus and Paula Broadwell let it be known through surrogates that they "screwed up," that they are personally "devastated," and that they are working to repair the damage done to their families. But I have not heard either of them or any of us for that matter -- members of the national security community -- weigh our public responsibilities in the drama and its impact on institutions we claim to cherish.

Plenty of people were pleased to consider themselves acquaintances of Dave Petraeus. I have known him for about four years; we corresponded frequently about Afghanistan, and I served in his Kabul headquarters on loan from the Joint Staff during his transition into command in the summer of 2010. While real affection clearly infused some of these relationships, most were also transactional. People made professional mileage on their links to Petraeus; he used them to get his views out. They served him in one way or another; he rewarded them with positions, connections, or implicit endorsements.

Many of the same people consider themselves part of the national security community -- they make careers on their avowed expertise. But membership in such groups, with the stature and privileges it confers, entails responsibilities.

I can name a dozen people who knew things did not look right between Petraeus and Broadwell at the international military headquarters in Kabul in the first half of 2011, when Broadwell was working on her biography of Petraeus. It almost didn't matter what was actually going on behind the closed door of that office. The pair spent too many hours in there, too late at night, the public affairs officer sent away. It is difficult to describe how dramatically such behavior clashes with the rigorously professional demeanor expected in a military headquarters, especially a deployed one. And that summer, when they returned from Kabul, the charged vibe between the two remained on display in Washington.

In a community, friends -- and even military subordinates -- bear some collective responsibility for the behavior of their friends or superiors, as uncomfortable as it may be to intervene. Even more importantly, those who claim a stake in national security policy ought to bear some collective responsibility for the national interest. That national interest, if not Petraeus's welfare, should have outweighed any reticence. Yet none of us, that I know of -- including me -- asked him a tough question.

Ultimately, of course, the responsibility for this debacle and the costs it inflicted not just on two families, but on hundreds of serving and former members of the military, on the standards underpinning the institution, on U.S. national security decision-making and public integrity, must lie with the two adults who acted with such breathtaking recklessness. But it is unclear whether either of them has taken that responsibility to heart.

Prompted by her recently-hired public relations firm, Broadwell sent out an appeal late last month to respected contacts, asking them to talk to Fox News or other reporters about "the Paula [they] know." Her words of regret in one such e-mail for what "has occurred" don't even span a full sentence. "Much," she quickly adds, "has been spun and twisted out of control in the press."

Many who did encounter her -- as I did beginning in 2009 -- knew a Paula who was undeniably intelligent and aggressive, but whose ambition outshone her qualifications, a Paula who consistently fell below the standards of the communities whose credentials she wished to appropriate. Her vaunted Harvard Kennedy School master's degree was supposed to be a Ph.D., but her academic work was substandard and she was asked to leave the program. Her biography of Petraeus -- largely penned by a coauthor -- was considered by no one in either the editing or the national security fields to be a creditable work of narrative non-fiction, nor certainly journalism.

In the e-mail chain from her PR advisors (left intact beneath her plea) is a remark about "the ‘sickeningly sexist' coverage" she has suffered to date. Broadwell would do better not to play that card. For she was the one who -- often arrayed in inappropriate clothes -- exploited her gender to gain an entree to people and venues that her credentials could not have secured.

Sadly, it worked.

Organizations that would never have given her a glance had she not been connected to Petraeus welcomed her once she was. Only her access allowed her to command the generous book advance she received -- for something she was unable to write herself. Invitations cascaded in: to a high-level panel at the very Kennedy School that had thrown her out a few years before, to the prestigious Aspen Security Forum, to the annual dinner honoring the forerunner of the CIA, or to a "major conference" on Afghan women and children. "Many members of the UNGA and int'l community, including former POTUSes, PMs, heads of state, and current foreign ministers will be present in the audience," she enthused in a September e-mail, which highlighted her membership on the executive board of such establishments as Women in International Security.

What exactly qualified Broadwell to travel in such circles? What motivation prompted so many of us to fawn over her this way? Why did serious reporters and think-tankers so easily set aside their critical analysis? These are questions the national security community might well ask as we consider the significance of this event.

Not that Petraeus was an innocent bystander. He promoted her into this environment -- and personally ushered her into an inner circle that was increasingly adulatory and resistant to critical views. He, no less than the rest of us, should weigh the quality of the character judgment such a lapse implies. Senior leaders like Petraeus appoint subordinates; they engage in hair-trigger interactions with hard-to-read counterparts. Character judgment matters.

Moreover, the suggestion that this was a purely private affair is inaccurate. Petraeus allowed it to spill over into his professional time and space, and to absorb resources that belonged in the fight. In Kabul, for example, Broadwell went along on so many "battlefield circulations" -- Petraeus's trips to visit subordinate commands aboard helicopters where seats were scarce -- that one staff member asked her if she could stay behind just occasionally, to leave room for officers who were actually working the issues to be discussed. "The general wants me along," the officer told me she replied.

When people are caught in an extramarital affair, and the imaginary world they have been avidly constructing abruptly implodes, leaving them flailing to right themselves amid the sharp-edged rubble, their first instinct is often to try to salvage something, anything. So perhaps Petraeus's energetic spinning in the days following his exposure was to be expected -- especially given his trademark practice of working aggressively to control messages that reflected on him. In this case, the effort was particularly transparent, since quotes from various friends and former staff members kept featuring the same vocabulary.

What was most disappointing was the absence in these statements by surrogates of any expression of remorse for the impact the pair's actions had on the institution that made them: the U.S. military. While a jolt of schadenfreude may have traversed some at news of the scandal, for others it has been deeply troubling. Troops -- whose bravery both Petraeus and Broadwell have often applauded -- are in the line of fire right now, many with their worldview badly dented. Two senior officers I know have spoken of their conversations with rattled company and battalion commanders. Many looked up to Petraeus as the ultimate role model. Others have seen their careers wrecked for much smaller lapses. Damage may be particularly great at the pair's alma mater, West Point. There and in our other military academies, young cadets or midshipmen are struggling, with perhaps more difficulty than before, to absorb lessons on the responsibility that goes with public service.

Repair after a personal crisis of these dimensions can lead to profound growth, but it requires a realization of what went wrong. For the moment, I don't see that either Petraeus or Broadwell, or members of the community that cosseted them, have made that realization. None has yet quite understood that this drama is not all about them.

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