The Tuareg Rebellion in Mali

The Tuareg Rebellion in Mali

(also available in French here)

Matthew VanDyke wearing a Tuareg tagelmust in the Sahara desert

Matthew VanDyke wearing a Tuareg tagelmust in the Sahara desert

I admittedly had some mixed feelings when deciding whether to write about the Tuareg rebellion because of my experience as a freedom fighter in the Libyan civil war.  Thousands of Tuaregs were serving in Muammar Gaddafi’s army during the Libyan civil war and others went to Libya as mercenaries to join them.  If I had encountered any of them on the battlefield they would have been in my crosshairs like any other Gaddafi fighter.

But I never saw a Tuareg during the war and with good reason.  Most had already fled back to Mali before I escaped from prison and returned to the front lines.  They weren’t Gaddafi loyalists, they were Gaddafi opportunists – they came for money – and while I consider this even more deplorable than actually believing in Gaddafi and being a true loyalist, it at least suggests that their participation in the Libyan civil war was morally but not ideologically corrupt.

The Tuareg desire for self-determination cannot be dismissed despite the desire of many to do so for the past hundred years.  This is a conflict that has been ongoing since 1962 and is just the latest of four Taureg rebellions in Mali.  The Tuareg, the fabled Blue Men of the Desert, have demonstrated repeatedly that they won’t disappear quietly into the Sahara.

The current Tuareg rebellion, by far the most organized, equipped, and successful of them all, has given the Tuaregs the best opportunity for self-determination that they have ever had.  They may never be in this position again, flush with arms and ammunition and their ranks dominated by veteran fighters returning from war in a neighboring country.  The military wing of the movement, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad(MNLA), has learned the mistakes of past Tuareg rebellions and will not repeat them.  This time they have also learned some lessons of the Arab Spring and are supported by a virtual army of Tuareg activists around the world who use social media to communicate, coordinate, and propagandize the conflict to carry it far beyond the sands of the Sahara.

Azawad Calling

The Tuareg want to establish their own country, Azawad, in northern Mali.  Their traditional homeland in the Sahara was carved apart by the French during the Scramble for Africa and divided among Mali, Niger and Algeria, all of whose borders were carefully drawn by France to pursue its own interests in Africa.  The Tuareg of Mali, a nomadic desert people, were lumped into a country twice the size of France and quickly fell under the dominance of their former slaves, the black Africans living in tropical Mali south of the Niger River.  Like many of the colonial borders drawn in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia by European powers in the 19th and 20th centuries during the period of New Imperialism Mali was destined for perpetual strife.

Unlike many other intrastate conflicts, the Tuareg aren’t fighting for resources or valuable land.  The conflict is primarily ideological, a matter of cultural pride to a people with simple needs and interests.  Mali is already one of the poorest countries in the world and Azawad would be even poorer, at least for the first several years.  However, the geology of the Taoudeni Basin in northern Mali suggests that significant oil and gas reserves may lay beneath the sand.  Companies have been unable to conduct adequate surveys of the area due to poor security in the region, but there is little doubt that there is enough oil to allow Azawad to survive as an independent nation.  Cynical observers with no sense of history have suggested that those oil reserves are behind the current rebellion, an argument that doesn’t stand when one considers that the Tuareg have been fighting for independence in Mali for 50 years.

Resistance by the West, Mali, and its Neighbors

The arguments in favor of preserving Mali’s territorial integrity at the expense of the Tuaregs are difficult to justify.  The West’s primary interest in Mali is fighting Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and preserving Mali’s 20 year history as a democratic country and stabilizing force in West Africa.  Mali is active in several programs, initiatives, and organizations in the region and has been a valued and reliable partner of the West.  The US and EU are also concerned that unrest in Mali could spread and that a lack of central authority in the Azawad region could lead to a safe haven for Al Qaeda as existed in Afghanistan prior to 2001.

Algeria and Niger believe that the creation of Azawad would incite Taureg rebellions in their own countries (and in the case of Algeria, perhaps a Tuareg-inspired Berber rebellion as well).  This is similar to the arguments made by Turkey and Iran about Kurdish independence – that it would inspire the Kurds in their own countries to also seek independence.  Like Turkey and Iran, Algeria and Niger will do everything they can to crush the aspirations for self-determination in a neighboring country in the pursuit of crushing them at home.

The government of Mali is panicked, despite enjoying the overwhelming support of non-Tuareg Malians (and a limited number of Tuaregs as well).  The Tuareg rebellion has been so successful that it prompted a coup d’etat by military officers desperate to stop it, ending 20 years of democracy in Mali.  The Malian government and most of its citizens believe that preserving their multi-ethnic, territorially vast, democratic country is in the best interest of everyone.  They also don’t want to lose whatever natural resources might lay hidden beneath the sands of northern Mali.

Intelligence and Policy Failure

The scandal in all of this was that the Tuareg insurgency of 2012 was entirely predictable and could have been prevented by Mali and its allies.  Tuareg fighters were able to haul a massive arsenal of weapons and ammunition over a thousand miles from Libya to Mali, through Algeria or Niger, without interference by Mali’s allies in the West, Algeria, or the Malian government.  It was an extraordinary display of incompetence by all involved.

That a Tuareg insurgency would follow the Libyan civil war was entirely predictable.  The Mali civil war (1990-96) was begun by Tuareg fighters supported by Libya, including Tauregs who returned to Mali after serving Gaddafi in his war against Chad.  A veteran of the civil war,  Ag Bahanga, led the failed 2006 uprising and was forced to flee to Libya in 2009.  He became a close confident of Muammar Gaddafi.  Another Tuareg leader, Mohammed Ag Najm, became a commander of one of Gaddafi’s elite desert units, and many Tuaregs enlisted in the Libyan army.

Bahanga and Najm waited for their opportunity to act.  Once the Libyan civil war began to turn against Gaddafi in early summer 2011 Bahanga and Najm led the Tuaregs to raid the arms depots and then headed southwest back to Mali.  They were in command of elite desert units that had the men, equipment, and knowledge of the desert necessary to transport their massive stockpile of weapons over a thousand miles through three countries.  It was a time-consuming and difficult operation that allegedly took several trips over a period of months and is rumored to have had the consent of the Libyan rebel government (the NTC) because it reduced Gaddafi’s arsenal and took Tuaregs off the battlefield.

The United States clearly had an interest in preventing this through either direct action or by coordinating with the Algerian or Niger authorities to stop it, especially since Bahanga and Najm’s arsenal may have included surface to air missiles.

Once again the US intelligence community has dropped the ball despite overwhelming technology and funding simply because they lacked the ability to think a few steps ahead and have the wrong people (with the wrong type of experience) working as analysts.

What happens next?

This time the proverbial genie is out of the bottle and it isn’t getting put back.  The Mali government strategy, if one can call it that, appears limited to waiting for the Tuaregs to run out of ammunition.  This is unlikely to happen anytime soon as the MNLA will successfully negotiate for the surrender of towns and garrisons as they proceed south and capture the weapons left behind.  Tuareg soldiers from the Malian army have also defected to the rebels bringing with them vehicles, weapons, and ammunition.

The coup d’etat, intended by the conspirators to better enable the military to crush the rebellion, will at least for now have the opposite effect.  The government is weaker than ever, which will hurt the morale of government forces and lead to more surrenders and defections from army ranks.

Years of cooperation between the US and Malian government are going down the drain and analysts are typing away on their keyboards generating assessments of what the latest Tuareg rebellion means to the United States and the War on Terrorism.  A determination will likely be made that short-term regional stability trumps all other concerns, as usual; even the right to self-determination which is part of our national ethos.

The State Department will frantically start pulling the levers of diplomacy to find a negotiated solution to end the conflict – a negotiated solution that will certainly not allow for the creation of Azawad as a new country.  The US military may even cooperate with the Malian military to crush the rebellion which will do far more than anything to push Tuaregs, who have historically shown little affinity for AQIM, straight to their neighborhood jihadi recruitment office.

Red, White, and Blue Men of the Desert?

The current situation presents a historic opportunity for the United States.  The coup d’etat was counterintuitively fortuitous by giving the US government an excuse to withhold support for the Malian government.  This will provide more time to assess the situation, avoid angering the Tuaregs, lessen AQIM’s ability to capitalize on the insurgency with propaganda against the West, send the message that coup d’etats against democratic governments will not be tolerated, help the US walk the fine line of not angering Algeria and Niger, and most importantly allow the Tuaregs to achieve their goal of establishing Azawad.

How is the creation of Azawad possibly in the interest of the United States?  The time to stop this from happening was when Bahanga and Najm set off from Libya.  Tracking their movements and having the Algerians stop them, or alternatively, making sure those convoys mysteriously disappeared in the desert with nothing but charred, smoking wrecks of vehicles left behind, would have solved this before it started.  Now, it is too late.

Within the next few weeks Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu will fall to the Tuaregs.  With the acquisition of the three capitals of the three regions that will compose Azawad the territorial aspirations of the Tuaregs will be largely complete.  Entrenched in favorable terrain and enjoying the support of the local population, the Tuaregs can defend Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu against any counter-offensive by Mali’s small army of 7,000 (now likely only 4,500 if estimates of casualties and desertions are accurate).

The war is lost.

If policymakers in Washington have learned anything from the Arab Spring (and they appear to be learning, slowly) they should realize this and will soon begin tapping every connection they have with the Tuaregs to convince them to stop at the Niger River, to negotiate a ceasefire with Mali, and to guide the Tuareg leadership towards democracy, self-governance, and further cooperation with the US against AQIM in exchange for political and economic support.  They’ll push for the federal solution to the conflict that grants the Tuaregs semi-autonomy over northern Mali, which might not be acceptable to either side.  The Tuaregs have been burned before by the Malian government refusing to honor the terms of previous agreements.

The US government will be reluctant to support the creation of Azawad as a new country.  Those working at the State Department, Pentagon, and the intelligence agencies have never understood this part of the world, as revealed by Wikileaks documents on Mali.  A career government analyst will have a hard time wrapping his head around how dispersed desert nomads would be better partners in the fight against AQIM than the government of Mali.

The reason why should be obvious even to those who haven’t spent time among the people of the Sahara.  Mali has never had any real control over the Azawad territories.  The Tuaregs are culturally, racially, and politically foreign to the central government, and the Sahara is hostile territory to the vast majority of Malians.  They have never been able to tame it, understand it, or function in it.  Mali was never going to be a truly effective partner against AQIM.

Azawad, on the other hand, will be.  Nobody knows the desert better than the Tuaregs.  They have lived there for two thousand years, know every route and every track in the desert, are connected by tribal and family ties that make it impossible for someone to join AQIM without others knowing, and most importantly have shown little desire for either radical Islam or terrorism in the past.  The MNLA has made it very clear that they intend to create a secular, democratic state. With no history of radical Islamism, the majority of Tuaregs opposed to the imposition of sharia law, and a matrilineal society that respects the rights of women, there is no reason to doubt their intentions.

Most importantly for the United States, the Tuareg are the only people who can effectively police that region of the world, and since the Tuaregs are dispersed over 5+ nations their reach and potential as a partner in the War on Terrorism should not be underestimated.

The Sahara is their sandbox, and they know everyone who plays in it.

Fighting AQIM is the only significant strategic interest the United States has in this fight, other than maintaining good relations with Algeria and Niger or preventing instability from spreading beyond Mali’s borders.  Every effort should be made to reach out to the Tuaregs and gain influence and favor with them to ensure that the United States has influence in Azawad when this war is over.

It won’t be easy.  The Tuareg are fiercely proud and independent.  Whatever we do they won’t ever love us – they even fight among themselves.  They’ll always question our intentions and the Sahara is notorious for conspiracy theories that will only bolster their suspicions.  However, the Tuareg relationship with Gaddafi should serve as a model for a US-Azawad relationship.

The Tuareg can be bought.  They have replaced their ancient camel caravans transporting salt across the Sahara with Toyota pickup trucks smuggling cocaine, weapons, and migrants.  They’ve been involved in kidnapping foreigners for sale or ransom.  Corruption and criminality have spread among the Tuaregs as the Mali and Niger governments have failed to integrate them into modernity and the rest of society.  When Gaddafi stepped into this void by funding development projects, employing Tuaregs in his armed forces, declaring support for a Tuareg state, and identifying himself with the Tuareg by sleeping in tents and various other displays of tacky showmanship, the people loved him for it.

Therein lies an opportunity for the United States.  Obama doesn’t need to sleep in a tent, but supporting the Tuareg’s Azawad aspirations would go a long way if accompanied by economic development projects.  Stepping into the void left by the removal of Gaddafi would position the United States to have real influence in the region and monitor a part of the world that is often obscured in darkness.

This might be achievable through the likely outcome of this war: the federal solution of Tuareg semi-autonomy in Azawad, while remaining part of Mali.  This would resemble the situation of Kurdistan in Iraq and might satisfy enough Tuaregs to take the steam out of their rebellion.  Regardless of whether the Tuaregs achieve semi-autonomy or independence (and one of these outcomes will be the result of this successful rebellion) the United States must position itself as a friend of the Tuaregs and aggressively support the region with aid and development to buy the support of the people.

The United States cannot risk Azawad resembling Afghanistan pre-2001, where American reach was so limited that Al Qaeda was able to operate with impunity.  If the US reaches out to the Tuaregs now we will gain influence over the emerging Azawad government and create bonds that could be among our most significant victories in the fight against Al Qaeda.

The Founding Fathers, The Declaration of Independence, and The Arab Spring

The Founding Fathers, The Declaration of Independence, and The Arab Spring

Muslim woman with American flag face paint

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – The Declaration of Independence

All men.  When Thomas Jefferson penned these famous words in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 he didn’t write “the people of the British Colonies.”  He chose the words “all men” for a reason.  The two principle beliefs articulated by the Declaration of Independence – Natural Law and the Right of Revolution, were not stated in narrow terms.  America was setting an example for the world.

Many Americans, especially those who are quick to wrap themselves in the flag and proclaim their patriotism while at the same time criticising the Arab Spring, have forgotten what our nation’s founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence.  It was not a policy statement derived in a cubicle at the State Department involving careful calculations of the economic consequences of British trade policy.  It wasn’t written after consultations and Powerpoint presentations by Pentagon officials.  The 56 visionaries who signed the Declaration didn’t take a poll to see what popular opinion was before signing it.

If such approaches had been deployed in 1776 as they are now when determining American policy towards the Arab Spring we’d be living on scones and tea, soccer would be popular, and this blog posting would be full of “jolly good” and “blimey.”

The Founding Fathers were stating unequivocally that freedom is a right given by nature (or God) to every human being, a principle termed Natural Law by John Locke in his Second Treatise on Government  and expounded upon by Thomas Paine in Common Sense.  As Benjamin Franklin famously wrote, “Freedom is not a gift bestowed upon us by other men, but a right that belongs to us by the laws of God and nature.”  The Declaration of Independence coupled this belief in Natural Law with the Right of Revolution, which held that the people have the right to overthrow a government that acts against their interests.

That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new Government, laying its Foundations on such Principles and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to Them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness – The Declaration of Independence

The authoritarian regimes of the Arab world do not derive their powers from the consent of the governed, and in the view of the Founding Fathers the people have the Right of Revolution – the Right of the Arab Spring – to overthrow their governments and create new ones that respect Natural Law.

But the Declaration of Independence goes even further:

When a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government.

The Founding Fathers clearly state in the Declaration of Independence that revolution against tyranny it is not only a right, but a duty.  Since mankind is given unalienable rights by God, it is a duty – a responsibility and a necessity – to overthrow any government that violates Natural Law.

Anything short of support for the Arab Spring by the United States is clearly a betrayal of the vision and values of the Founding Fathers and contrary to our very own Declaration of Independence.  The words of the Founding Fathers leave no doubt as to what their view of the Arab Spring would be.  There is no ambiguity about the fact that a tepid response to the Arab Spring, and even worse the obstruction of its progress, would cause the signatories of the Declaration of Independence to turn over in their graves.

It is idealistic, but perhaps not practical, to take the position that the United States must always follow the vision of the Founding Fathers.  If we did we wouldn’t have an income tax or a standing army.  But the extent to which we’ve strayed from the core principles that our nation was founded upon is alarming, and when we’ve done so it has often been to our peril.

One example is American support for authoritarian regimes in the Arab world.  We supported Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and cooperated with Muammar Gaddafi in the 2000s only to later find ourselves militarily removing them from power when they proved uncontrollable.  We supported Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Ben Ali of Tunisia, and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen only to be forced into embarrassing backtracking that hurt our credibility in the international community.  Our support has not been forthcoming to the freedom fighters of Syria and the protestors in Iran.  We have consistently supported authoritarian regimes in the Arab world because of short-sighted interests usually centered on regional stability and our capacity to influence authoritarian regimes more easily than democratically elected governments.

It is very clear what the Founding Fathers would say about these policies as there is no way to reconcile them with a belief in Natural Law and the Right of Revolution.

And it is equally clear what the Founding Fathers would say about the Arab Spring.

In their own words:

“God grant that not only the love of liberty but a thorough knowledge of the rights of man may pervade all the nations of the earth, so that a philosopher may set his foot anywhere on its surface and say: This is my country.” – Benjamin Franklin

“I always consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design in providence, for the illumination of the ignorant and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth.” – John Adams

“Natural liberty is a gift of the beneficent Creator, to the whole human race” – Alexander Hamilton

“Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.” – Thomas Paine

“Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God” – Thomas Jefferson

Gaddafi’s Prisoner – Reflections on My Time as a POW in the Libyan Civil War

Gaddafi’s Prisoner – Reflections on My Time as a POW in the Libyan Civil War

(also available in French here)

Matthew VanDyke the American prisoner of war sits in his cell at Maktab al-Nasser prison in Tripoli Libya

Freedom fighter and prisoner of war Matthew VanDyke in his cell at Maktab al-Nasser prison in Tripoli, Libya

One year ago today on March 13, 2011 I was captured by Gaddafi’s forces during a reconnaissance mission in Brega, Libya.  I was struck in the head and woke up in a prison cell to the sounds of a man being tortured in the room above me.

I was psychologically tortured in solitary confinement for 165 days in two of Libya’s most notorious prisons, Maktab al-Nasser and Abu Salim.

Staring at the wall in silence for 5 1/2 months gave me a lot of time for reflection.  These are some of the thoughts that went through my mind:

My life is over.  I have thrown it all away.

I will never see my mother again.  I am an only child and she has no other family.  I have selfishly left her all alone.  She will never be able to move on and will spend the rest of her life trying to get me freed.  If they ever release me I will be 50 or 60 years old and just starting my life when others are retiring.  Hopefully I will still have at least a couple of years left with my mother.

I will never see my girlfriend again.  Six years of true love that most people only know of through books and movies.  If I do get to see her again it will be in 30 years.  I will meet her husband and her children, and wish they were my children, and think of what could have been.

Gaddafi’s regime believes I am a spy.  They will torture me.  They will rip out my fingernails one by one until I confess.

And then they will execute me.  Perhaps in public.  Maybe Gaddafi himself will preside over the execution, as they hang me by the neck in Green Square.  That would not be the worse that could happen.  At least a public execution would limit my suffering to a few moments before it all goes dark.  A secret execution might be slow and painful.  Or angry guards might break into my cell, stack tires up to my neck, douse me with gasoline and light me on fire.

Maybe I am better off dead, so that my mother and girlfriend can have some closure.

Maybe I should take my own life.

I hope that the men I was captured with are ok.  Are they still alive or were they executed?  How did I get this wound on the left side of my head and why can’t I remember what happened?

I know nothing except the confines of my cell.  And it is likely that this cell is all I will know for the rest of my life.

Is it wrong to fight for freedom?  Is freedom worth fighting, killing, dying for?  Have I committed a sin and is God punishing me for it?  Or has God saved me from committing sin by taking away my mortal life to save my immortal soul?

Was the freedom of others worth this sacrifice, worth spending the rest of my life in solitary confinement staring at gray walls and thinking of what my life could have been like if I hadn’t gotten on that plane and gone to Libya?

These are a fraction of the thoughts that ran through my head for 5 ½ months.  165 days.  Nearly 4,000 hours.  Sitting in a wretched Libyan prison, staring at scratches on the wall marking the days of the prisoners before me and watching in horror as my own scratches became double and triple the number of theirs.

My story is only unique because I am an American freedom fighter, an American prisoner of war in the Arab Spring.  As you read this there are thousands of others in prisons who are tortured by the same thoughts, the same questions, the same doubts.  Some of them have been in prison for many years; others were imprisoned for protesting in the street or fighting for freedom on the battlefield in countries like Syria.  Many others suffer in these dungeons merely for something they wrote or an off-hand remark they made that was overheard by a regime informer.

I was fortunate.  On August 24, 2011 escaping prisoners came to my cell, broke the lock, opened the door, and took me with them as we ran for our lives.  It is time that we begin doing the same for the hundreds of thousands of political prisoners and freedom fighters around the world who have sacrificed their personal liberty in the pursuit of liberty for all.

In the words of George Orwell:

“Either we all live in a decent world, or nobody does.”

Only Regime Change Will End Iran’s Nuclear Program

Only Regime Change Will End Iran’s Nuclear Program

Matthew VanDyke with a mural of Grand Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran

Matthew VanDyke with a mural of Grand Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran

As happens so often in politics, the complex issue of how to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions has been diluted into two simplistic, opposing viewpoints. A decade of negotiations and diplomatic wrangling have produced few results, leading to the emergence of two camps: those who want even tougher sanctions, and those who want a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Neither of these options will stop Iran from acquiring the capacity to build nuclear weapons.

Sanctions

The diplomats, led by the United States, point to the effects that the current sanctions have had on Iran’s currency, inflation rate, and oil production. Iranians are certainly feeling the impact on their lives. But is the regime?

Not really. Many countries won’t enforce the oil sanctions (including China), which leaves Iran with more than enough customers to sustain its government. Iran has been under sanctions before, and the regime is quite adept at weathering the storm.

As with any authoritarian system Iran is concerned about preserving the regime, not about the people of Iran. As long as sanctions don’t lead to an uprising that threatens to violently overthrow the government, they will endure them. Sanctions that inflict some pain on the citizens of Iran would work quite well in a democratic system, but will have little effect in an authoritarian one.

Military Strike

A military strike by the United States or Israel is becoming increasingly likely. At some point Israel will have to make a decision about whether to bomb Iranian facilities before Iran begins building them so deep underground that Israel’s bombs cannot penetrate. Given domestic politics in Israel, Netanyahu’s history, and the stakes – Israel’s very survival – they aren’t going take a back seat on this issue.

There will be two consequences of bombing Iran. First, the nuclear program will be set back by a few years. Second, Iran will surely bury their new facilities deep enough underground that not even American weapons can destroy them.

Iran Will Never Give Up Its Nuclear Program

US and EU policy towards Iran is based on the erroneous assumption that Iran is a rational actor that will modify its behavior in response to hardship and incentives. This is a fundamental tenet of diplomacy. Unfortunately, it does not apply in the case of Iran for numerous reasons:

  • Iranian leaders have a history of acting irrationally. During WWII Reza Shah stubbornly refused to allow supplies to be shipped to Russia through Iran, and Britain and Russia were forced to invade the country to use the railroads. In the 1950s, Prime Minister Mosaddegh nationalized the oil industry despite the certainty that the British and American response would be harsh; two years later he was overthrown in a British-American orchestrated coup d’etat. The taunts, threats, and public statements of defiance from the current regime suggest that little has changed.
  • Part of the reason for the stubbornly defiant attitude of the regime is Iranian culture and national psyche. During my travels by motorcycle in Iran I was struck by the undercurrent of a superiority complex in the society. I hadn’t been in the country for long before I heard talk of Iran’s Aryan ethnicity, their superiority to Arabs, and a proud heritage dating back thousands of years. Add to this the megalomania of authoritarian rule and a belief that compromise projects weakness, and most rationality goes out the window.
  • Even if Iran wanted to act rationally, its leaders may lack the necessary information to make rational decisions. The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, doesn’t take criticism well (the regime sentences critics to imprisonment or death); it is unlikely his inner circle is vocal in challenging his decisions or being the bearer of bad news. The information that does seep through to inform his decisions probably isn’t even accurate given the general incompetence of authoritarian governments, especially Middle Eastern ones.

The Underlying Rationality of a Nuclear Program

Despite all the signs that Iran doesn’t act rationally, their central motivation for acquiring a nuclear weapon is rational. Nuclear weapons are the only way to protect the regime against external threats. Nukes are the ultimate deterrent against Iran ending up like its neighbors Iraq and Afghanistan.

There is also an element of Persian pride at work. As one of history’s great powers, Iranians believe that their country deserves to be a member of the nuclear club, and the public supports the pursuit of nuclear technology.

Regime Change

How do you deal with an irrational regime run by religious fanatics with a cultural superiority complex and a history of bad decision making?

You don’t. Negotiations with Iran have produced little in 10 years. Nuclear weapons have been around for 70 years – any nation that is determined and resourceful enough can acquire them. It is inevitable that Iran will develop the capacity to build nuclear weapons, barring a persistent campaign to repeatedly bomb every underground facility that Iran attempts to build in the future (which neither the US nor Israel will have the stomach for since it would be illegal under international law).

This leaves only one option: remove the regime. The US and EU must place the toughest possible sanctions on Iran and pull every diplomatic lever to get the international community to enforce them. This will cause widespread dissatisfaction among many of Iran’s 75 million citizens as inflation coupled with unemployment makes life under the regime unbearable.

The covert war between Israel and Iran should continue, and the target list expanded beyond nuclear facilities and assassinations of nuclear scientists. Numerous covert actions, including sabotage of prominent government facilities in full view of the public and the exposure (or manufacture) of regime corruption and misdeeds must be undertaken to make the regime look weak, vulnerable, and incompetent in the eyes of the Iranian people.

Support should be given to Iranian opposition groups and a PSYOP campaign waged to show the Iranian people how dramatically life will improve in a post-revolution Iran.

Over 60% of Iranians are under 30 years old, and the number of Iranians on Facebook is estimated to be several million. The literacy rate in Iran is above 80%. The majority of the population was born after the Islamic Revolution and do not identify with the regime the same way their parents did. Mobilizing them through covert action should be a top priority.

A military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities that lacks the steps to encourage regime change is a short-term solution that will need to be repeated again in the future. However, a military strike that is coupled with a comprehensive, long-term campaign to incite a revolt in Iran will signal to the Iranian people how incompetent the government of Ayatollah Khamenei really is. The overthrow of Bashar Assad in Syria will further isolate and weaken Iran, and if the conditions are right when that happens, the Iranian people may take it as a sign that the time for their own revolution has come.

The potential for popular uprising is already present in Iran, as evidenced by the Green Movement in 2009. Sanctions and military action must be part of the larger strategic goal of regime change, not temporary fixes to set the Iranian nuclear program back by a few years. The seeds of revolution are still present in Iran, and they’re not buried too deep. With encouragement the Iranian Spring will come.

Matthew VanDyke on his MZ Kanuni motorcycle in front of a Ayatollah Khomeini and Khamenei billboard in Iran

Matthew VanDyke on his MZ Kanuni motorcycle in front of a Ayatollah Khomeini and Khamenei billboard in Iran

The Arab Spring and the Democratic Domino Theory

The Arab Spring and the Democratic Domino Theory

Democratic Domino Theory and the Arab Spring

The Democratic Domino Theory

You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences. – President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Eisenhower’s answer to a question about the spread of communism in 1954 would later be developed by others into the domino theory.  The theory was simple: if a country fell under the influence of communism, then neighboring countries would also, and communism would spread throughout a region.  The domino theory became a major influence on American foreign policy throughout the Cold War.

The concept of a domino theory was given new life in 2003.  Termed the “Democratic Domino Theory” (or “reverse-domino theory”), it became one of many rationales for the war in Iraq.  Some in the Bush administration believed that establishing a democracy in Iraq would lead to the spread of democracy in the Middle East, and lead to the overthrow of authoritarian regimes hostile to US interests.  This was a short-lived iteration of the domino theory (and one that few have even heard of), and was discredited as years passed when the Iraqi model failed to inspire change in the region.

Although Iraq was clearly not the domino that set off the chain reaction that many had hoped for, the Arab Spring has shown that the Democratic Domino Theory is alive and well.  The dominoes are authoritarian regimes, and they are falling.

What happened?

Just a few years ago the dominoes appeared to be glued to the table, unmovable and permanent.  Authoritarian rulers were grooming their children to take office when they died, and talk in the media and policy circles focused on hopes that the son wouldn’t be as bad as the father.

On December 18, 2010 the world changed.  Unrest erupted in Tunisia in response to a young man setting himself on fire in protest the day before.  Tunisians took to the streets and within a month the regime of Ben Ali collapsed.

The first domino had fallen.  Inspired by the protests in Tunisia, Egyptians overthrew President Hosni Mubarak after two weeks of an intense standoff between the people and the regime.

The Arab Spring was underway.  Protests erupted across the Arab world, and in many cases the authoritarian regimes responded with bloodshed.  Libya and Syria were the worst examples of how far the despots would go to cling to power, as they plunged their countries into civil war.  The Libyan civil war, which I fought in, was successful and we overthrew the regime of Muammar Gaddafi.  As of this writing, however, Bashar Assad of Syria remains in power.

How did all of this happen?  The catalyst for the Arab Spring was social media.  Expanded internet service gave Arabs access to social media like Facebook and Twitter, which allowed them to communicate and coordinate on a mass scale.  Suddenly, it became possible to quickly call thousands of people to protest.  Revolutions could be engineered with a few clicks of a keyboard.  Social media became the turpentine that once poured on the table dissolved the glue that kept the dominoes standing.

Ironically, it was the authoritarian regimes that paved the way for their own demise through internet access.  Gaddafi’s son ran the largest internet service provider in Libya, Assad was head of the organization that introduced the internet to Syria, and internet service in Tunisia was mostly provided by Ben Ali’s government.

After Ben Ali was overthrown the regimes learned quickly: a principal strategy of quelling Arab Spring unrest in their countries was to limit internet access.

Why the Arab Spring?

It is a significant intelligence and analytical failure that the Arab Spring took the West by surprise.  The phenomenon was entirely predictable to anyone who had spent enough time in the region.  The unrest was there, a seething anger waiting for the spark to ignite it.  During my years traveling the region by motorcycle, living among the local population and making friends throughout the Arab World, I would hear the murmurs of discontent.  Sometimes more than just murmurs.  Arabs were usually cautious and reserved in their criticisms, worried about who was listening, but every now and then someone would reveal the truth about what people thought of their government.  The discontent was boiling just beneath the surface.

The late Christopher Hitchens wrote of similar experiences during his travels in authoritarian states:

Someone in a café makes an offhand remark. A piece of ironic graffiti is scrawled in the men’s room. Some group at the university issues some improvised leaflet. The glacier begins to melt; a joke makes the rounds and the apparently immovable regime suddenly looks vulnerable and absurd. – Christopher Hitchens

Add to this the ability to organize via social media and the formula for mass uprising was complete.

But why did it spread so quickly from country to country, toppling authoritarian regimes like dominos?  This too was predictable.  A pan-Arab opposition to the governments of North Africa and the Middle East has existed for years, and has been stoked by Al Jazeera, the universally popular news network in the Arab World.  Virtually every television in the Arab World uses a satellite dish, and with the unifying language of Arabic most get their news from arabic Al Jazeera.  What a commentator says on Al Jazeera reaches the ears of millions, and the images shown can inspire the rage of even more.

Additionally, pan-Arabism and a culture of protest already existed because of opposition to the policies of Israel and the West, particularly with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iraq war.  The authoritarian rulers applauded and helped incite these protests, unaware of the seeds they were sowing.

There is also a history of political movements sweeping through the region.  First was the spread of Islam.  In the 20th century there was Arab Nationalism and Arab Socialism.  Now is the time of the Arab Spring.

Furthermore, Arab culture tends to emulate success.  Many Arabs talk of wanting to develop their countries and introduce economic models to be like Dubai.  They want a democratic form of government because they see the freedom, liberty, and successes of the Western world.  Even on a micro-level following in the footsteps of success is a tradition.  When a friend or relative immigrates to another country and is successful, many more want to do the same.  Imitation is inherent in culture, but from my experiences in the Arab World I have found it to be an especially strong force in North Africa and the Middle East.

It was intuitive and predictable that once a regime fell, the Arab Spring would spread rapidly to other countries.  The dominos had been arranged long ago, and that the regimes would fall in succession was just as predictable as dominos falling once the first is pushed over.

The Iranian Spring

Once Syria falls, Iran is the next major domino down the line.  The loss of Iran’s main Arab ally in the Middle East will be devastating to the regime’s influence in the region.  Iraq is slowly taking Syria’s place, but with extensive problems of its own, Iraq is a poor substitute.

Sanctions have devastated Iran’s economy.  Their currency has lost half its value, inflation is rising, and assets have been frozen.  Iran will likely have to sell oil to Asia at discounts, in barter agreements, or on other unfavorable terms to stay afloat.

The Iranian people are suffering the effects of their government’s policies towards the West and their pursuit of a nuclear program.  A recent Gallup poll found that nearly half of Iranians claim there were times in the past year when they couldn’t afford to buy food for their families.

Iranians already rose up against the current regime during the Green Revolution of 2009.  The government crushed it with an iron fist, and the world stood by and did nothing.  Some Iranians have clearly demonstrated a desire for regime change, and now that those on the sidelines find themselves suffering under sanctions because of their government’s wreckless international policies, the conditions are being set for a larger uprising the next time.

When Assad is removed from power in Syria it will be taken as a sign of Iranian weakness.  Iran’s nuclear facilities will likely be destroyed by an Israeli or American air strike at some point as well.  This will also be viewed as regime weakness, and possibly anger some Iranians that they have suffered under sanctions for a program that their government couldn’t even defend.

Finally, the Sunni Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, with Saudi Arabia at the helm, are engaged in a sectarian rivalry with Shia Iran that is rapidly coming to a head.  They are energized and mobilized by the uprising in Syria, and have their sights set on further weakening Iran.  Once they get rolling on Syria they won’t want to stop until their conflict with Iran is resolved as well.

What Comes Next?

“It was curious to think that the sky was the same for everybody, in Eurasia or Eastasia as well as here. And the people under the sky were also very much the same–everywhere, all over the world, hundreds or thousands of millions of people just like this, people ignorant of one another’s existence, held apart by walls of hatred and lies, and yet almost exactly the same–people who had never learned to think but were storing up in their hearts and bellies and muscles the power that would one day overturn the world.” – George Orwell

The Arab Spring has inspired protests around the world.  Africa, Asia, Europe, the Americas, and even the island nation of Fiji have seen protests break out in response to the successes of the Arab Spring.

Most of these protests did not amount to much – they were snuffed out by the regime or died off on their own, or had modest goals that were achieved.  Africa and Asia, however, are two regions where change is long overdue.  The dominos are almost ready to fall, and few of them will fall peacefully.

As long as the momentum of the Arab Spring continues there is little that can stop a wave of democratization from leaping country to country, and region to region.  Once one domino in these regions falls, it should accelerate the collapse of neighboring regimes.

Picking Sides

The battle lines have been drawn.  On one side are the democratic countries, assisted by a small group of non-democratic ones (like those of the GCC) that have joined them in order to take advantage of revolutions for their own strategic interests.  On the other side are the authoritarian and non-democratic (and deeply-flawed democratic) countries, consisting of both vulnerable regimes and their allies who support them for political, economic, and strategic interests, as well as a desire to prevent the Springs from spreading to them.  The Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index provides a good visual illustration of where countries stand in this fight:

Democracy Index map showing democratic and authoritarian countries

2011 Democracy Index (Dark green countries are the most democratic, dark red countries are the most authoritarian)

A Responsibility to Act

The countries of the free world have a responsibility to encourage and assist in the overthrow of authoritarian regimes.  In the 21st century no man should have to live his life under an oppressive government.

In 2010 only 11.3% of the world’s population lived in democratic countries.  Of the 88.7% who didn’t, 37.6% lived under authoritarian regimes.  This means that 6.12 billion people don’t live under fully democratic systems of government, and nearly 2.6 billion of them are ruled by authoritarian regimes.

2.6 billion.  In the 21st century.

There is no excuse for allowing this to continue.  We have planted the flag of a democratic country on the moon, yet allow a third of the population on Earth to live under authoritarianism.

Those of us who live under the blessings of democracy cannot abandon 2.6 billion people to medieval forms of government that corrupt and destroy everything it means to be human.

The authoritarian regimes of the world have been weakened.  The despots are scared, and they should be.  They know what is coming.  We can eliminate this scourge with an aggressive, unwavering strategy of isolating and destabilizing their governments, and supporting revolutions against authoritarian rule.

The Democratic Domino Theory should be a major influence on US and EU foreign policy.  The regimes are desperately trying to glue their dominos to the table (and the glue is often made in Russia and China) by better arming themselves, engaging in increased surveillance of their populations, and restricting internet access.  There is a window of opportunity to liberate many more countries from authoritarianism while the momentum is still on the side of freedom.  Allowing authoritarian regimes to learn from the mistakes of those that have fallen and further entrench themselves in power is a mistake that will have profound moral, strategic, and historical consequences for the 21st century.

Freedom Fighter Matthew VanDyke in the Libyan Civil War

Freedom Fighter Matthew VanDyke working as a DShK machine gunner in the Libyan Civil War