Belmont Club

The 24-Second Clock

Ambassador Susan Rice said the Obama administration was prepared to take steps beyond enforcing a “no fly zone” to stop Mohammar Khadaffi’s advance on rebel forces.  Those additional steps were not characterized, although common sense suggests they might include air-strikes.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the US could not act unilaterally although pressure from the Arab League is now building to act.

Until now, the Obama administration had seemed reluctant to support imposition of a no-fly zone. But with Kadafi’s forces crushing the rebellion, the U.S. is facing mounting pressure to intervene.

Over the weekend, the Arab League voted in favor of a no-fly zone, giving the U.S. some political cover. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reflected the change in the administration’s thinking.

“So many different actions are being considered,” Clinton said Wednesday in an interview with CBS. “Yes, a no-fly zone, but others as well, to enable the protection of Libyan citizens against their own leader, who seems to be determined to turn the clock back and kill as many of them as possible.”

But although Clinton believes the clock is working against Khadaffi, events suggest that time is actually working for the Duck of Death. He confidently announced that final victory over the rebels might come in a matter of days. Thus, the announcement by the Netherlands that it would contribute 4 F-16s to an internationall-backed “no fly zone” — should the “NATO high command” decide to act — seemed like a case of too little, too late. There was no indication whether the aircraft would be available for the extended actions implied by Clinton and Rice.

While the administration has been trying to get a bunch of diplomats to sign off on a plan of action designed by committee,  the smaller regional players were waiting for no one. Information Dissemination looks at reports that Libya has also been receiving assistance from the outside, examining rumors that a ship with armored personnel carriers unloaded in Tripoli and links to pictures of a tanker said to be carrying contraband oil. The writer asks, “does a blockade actually exist?” Not yet; they ae still thinking about it. AGI News reported that Italy was exhorting its European partners to find ships to patrol the Libyan coast.

Italy will propose to the next extraordinary European Council that the European Union and NATO coordinate naval forces to enforce a naval blockade of Libya. The announcement was made by Foreign Minister Franco Frattini during a joint meeting of the Foreign Affairs Commission in parliament. “We need to take action,” said Frattini, “to enforce respect for sanctions, but we must avoid, as is the case with piracy, two operations, one NATO and one EU.”

But it would be an extraordinarily passive blockade. Nowhere is there mention of acting against the masterminds of the blockade-running itself. Someone is sending weapons. Getting the diplomats to name them would be yet another effort.   For Libya is not the only nation receiving contraband. Aviation Week reports that Israel has intercepted a ship full of missiles bound for Gaza. They included antiship missiles and ordnance that could bombard Ashkelon, a nearby Israeli city. The vessel originated in Turkey and on its way to Egypt. It was owned by a German company and flew a Liberian flag.

An initial investigation revealed the ship was loaded with C-704 anti-ship missiles – shore-to-sea missiles with a range of 35 km that could put at risk Israeli vessels at sea as well as strategic infrastructure targets near Ashkelon. Iran is known to possess and produce such missiles, which, along with identifying documents (including a missile identification document, below) gives substantial evidence of Iran’s involvement in the weapons smuggling attempt, and yet another example of Iran’s use of innocent merchant ships as a means of transferring arms to terrorist organizations.

By first daylight, naval commandos boarded the vessel and verified the existence of weaponry on board. Following the encounter with the Israeli Navy, the Victoria headed to an Israeli port of Ashdod for detailed inspection of its cargo. The vessel was on its way from Mersin Port in Turkey to Alexandria Port in Egypt. According to Israeli assessments, the true destination of the weapon shipment was probably the Egyptian port of El-Arish, from where the shipment would be smuggled on land, through tunnels, reaching terror organizations operating in the Gaza Strip.

The suspected vessel was seized 200 miles from the Israeli coast, which may raise questions about the “international legitimacy” of the seizure, but fewer about where the weapons were from. Unlike President Obama, Israel could not wait for Arab League or UN authority to act. The threat was too great.  The Jerusalem Post believes the weapons originated from Iran against whom the post-Mubarak government is quietly striving. The JP suggests that a low-intensity war may actually be underway inside Egypt.

The route that the Victoria took was of particular interest for the navy. In the past, a number of ships were tracked as they sailed through the Red Sea and unloaded weaponry in Sudan or Eritrea, which made its way by land up to the Egyptian-Gaza border. In this case, the ship was loaded in Syria, then sailed north to Turkey and then back south again to Egypt.

This route led intelligence officials in Israel to believe that the stopover at the Turkish port of Mersin was a ploy to draw attention away from the ship.

The decision to transfer the weaponry directly to Egypt could mean that Iran is encountering difficulty in the traditional land route through Egypt. This could have to do with Israeli efforts to stop the shipments, but the Egyptians are also believed to be making a greater effort to stop arms convoys from crossing into the country from its southern border with Sudan. A few days ago, the Egyptian military attacked such a convoy with artillery shells, preventing it from entering the country.

Interwoven amid the already explosive threads of oil, democracy vs autocracy, Islamism vs the West and anti-Semitism vs Israel is Iran.  Iran is the political actor which knits the most dangerous developments together. All those strands converge in Bahrain. As the Economist reports, “The small Gulf monarchy of Bahrain has rapidly turned from an oasis of relative liberalism … to a country under a state of emergency where Saudi and Emirati troops are helping the government to quell unrest—none too tenderly.” Iran is ground zero of Sunni despotism vs Shia despotism. It is widely suspected of supporting the Shia protests in Bahrain, and while Iran may be redoubling its agitational efforts with glee, the administration still is trying, without much success, to extricate itself from responsibility while simultaneously trying to take credit for any positive development which may occur.

Suspicious of Washington, Bahrain may be the first instance of Sunni autocratic regimes acting on their own because they don’t know whether the administration will pull another Mubarak. And yet the Sunni actions are still linked to America resulting in the worst of all worlds, suggesting that if you take up a leadership position and do nothing you will on the contrary be blamed for everything. The Economist reports:

In different parts of the small country vigilante groups have set up roadblocks and taken up makeshift arms, often on a sectarian basis. The mostly Shia village of Sitra has seen severe clashes between protesters and police. Facebook and YouTube are filled with photos of bloody corpses and videos of street fights. Two government ministers have resigned in protest. …

The dispatch of some 2,000 Sunni forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to a majority Shia country has exacerbated sectarian tensions. … American officials say they had little warning of the troop influx. …

For their part, many opposition members are convinced that the Americans gave the green light, and argue they are therefore complicit in the killing of protesters. This could encourage attacks on the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which is based in Bahrain. It is possible that Saudi Arabia and the UAE made the decision to intervene on their own, angered by America’s withdrawal of support for the former Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, a key ally.

The Obama administration is in the position of a parent trying to get its teenage wards, some of whom are delinquent, to decide whether they should get the keys to the car. Neither the Arab League, the UN nor even the “NATO high command” has access to any significant non-US military resources.  It is an American car they want to ride. But Washington is going through the diplomatic evolutions  in the hope that if the car is crashed in the subsequent joy-ride,  it can point to others for the bad use of what are fundamentally national assets. The result is an such a slow tempo of play that it looks like a stall.

Smaller actors with far less hard power are running rings around US policy, nimbly dancing away from the ponderous movements of Washington, presenting it with a set of fait accomplis. The administration’s decision loop is so slow, so utterly incapable of clearing its inbox that they are going to need to raise the ceiling to accomodate the backlog. In the parlance of the NBA, the home team is not taking the shot. It’s not even going for the defensive rebound.  So what’s going on?  Where’s the coach? Maybe it is time to call a time-out, but if the coach himself is off somewhere there’s nothing for it but to wait for Game 2 of the playoffs, scheduled for 2012.

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