Thursday, May 24, 2012


My article for the American Spectator in 2012.
First published here

The war in Libya is over but its aftershocks keep shaking the region. A rebel Tuareg army swept across northern Mali, taking over the famous city of Timbuktu. Tuareg rebellions have long been a recurring phenomenon in Mali and Niger, but this time it was different. Ever since the regime of Gaddafi was overthrown, the governments of Mali and Niger were sounding alarm bells over the influx of heavily armed Tuareg fighters who used to serve in the army of the late dictator. Hundreds of these fighters, and the skills and the weaponry they have brought from Libya, have created a new and seemingly unstoppable type of Tuareg rebel army that has finally achieved what eluded the previous rebellions. Within a few weeks the rebels routed the minuscule Malian army and effectively partitioned the country in two. The Malian government has meanwhile collapsed altogether.

On 6 April, the veteran Tuareg national movement -- National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) -- declared a new independent state in Gao, the biggest of the three towns in the North. It was not very surprising that the MNLA's declaration of independence immediately hit a wall. The State Department, the EU, the African Union, Mali's neighbors and its government, all flatly rejected this idea out of hand. The surprising part was that the declaration was rejected from within the rebel ranks as well. For decades uprisings by Tuareg nationalists have been a major headache for local governments and their outside sponsors. Now a previously unknown rebel faction, which calls itself Ansar ed Dine, said it had no interest in independence whatsoever and its goal was instead to impose the Islamic law on the entire country of Mali

2006. Tuaregs having fun in Timbuktu

It's a story familiar in the Middle East and North Africa -- if it's not nationalists, then it's Islamists. Nature abhors a vacuum. Where the former fail, the latter often step in. The capital of the de facto independent Iraqi Kurdistan has been transformed from a neglected backyard of Iraq into a sea of construction cranes. American flags are posted proudly on dashboards. Not one single American soldier had died here. But in South Yemen it's no longer the defeated nationalists who are fighting battles against the northern army, but instead Islamic fundamentalists are imposing Sharia law on towns and areas under their control.

Nevertheless, the emergence of Tuareg fundamentalists has amazed some observers. The Tuaregs are known as occasional providers of logistic services to radical Islamic groups, but until now the nomads were not usually known as naturally born fundamentalists. As a matter of fact, MNLA has repeatedly offered its services in fighting Al Qaeda in the strategically important Sahara region to the West and the international community in exchange for recognition of Tuareg independence.

The tradition of men covering their faces certainly gives the Tuareg men a rather sinister look. In fact, in Roman times, their ancestors were called the Garamantes, and controlled lucrative caravan routes across the Sahara from Mali. They repeatedly clashed with the Romans on various occasions and the last proconsul to earn a triumphus -- Lucius Cornelius Balbus -- won this distinguished honor from Augustus in 19 BC for having defeated the Garamantes in a series of skirmishes in modern-day Fezzan. Yet, even though the poet Virgil prophesied the subjugation of these tribesmen in his renowned epic the Aeneid, the Garamantes always remained independent of Roman rule in the province of Africa.

Modern day Tuaregs do have a reputation for smuggling, raiding and providing ruthless mercenaries to regimes across the region, including the one of Muammar Gaddafi. But Tuaregs also have a less known soft side of the bon vivants of the Sahara desert, fans of booze, partying and a peculiar music style known as Tuareg rock or Tuareg blues. Other aspects of the Tuareg culture also make them unlikely converts to the Islamist cause. The Tuaregs are largely matrilineal. Though they are not matriarchal, traditionally, in the Tuareg society women were accorded higher social status compared to Arabs and other Berber peoples. Not a bunch of folks one would normally expect to submit themselves readily to the bleak and dry routine of a Sharia state.

The leader of the new faction himself is a perfect example of this dramatic change. A renowned rebel, who single-handedly kick-started a previous Tuareg uprising, as late as 2008, Iyad ag Ghali still appears in Wikileaks sharing intelligence about Al Qaeda with U.S. diplomats. Ag Ghali's transformation into an Islamic fundamentalist is even more surprising given the existence of personal accounts that indicate that not so long ago the man was still a big fan of smoking, drinking and partying. In this Ag Ghali was certainly not unlike many other Tuaregs of the region.

2009. The desert comes to party in Europe. Tinariwen performing live in Rubigen, Switzerland

The Tuareg uprising in Mali has received limited media coverage and was largely overshadowed by the ongoing battles of the Arab Spring. Syria, in particular, grabbed the attention of international audiences and produced an unholy amount of analyses and plain speculations. But behind the two uprisings in Mali and Syria, happening in different parts of the region and at the first glance unrelated to each other, is lurking the same reality of absurd borders and impossible ethno-sectarian configurations. It's a reality that hails back to decisions made by the former colonial ruler of these lands many years ago.

In 1959 on the eve of Mali's independence a group of Tuareg tribal chiefs wrote a letter to French President Charles de Gaulle:
Permit me, your honor Mr. President, to remind you that joining the Tuareg nation to the government of Mali is unjust and it is not what General Joffre agreed to. It's the opposite of those who ruled over us before the French government, and the Tuareg will never accept the present position of their country, which is divided between the government of Mali and the government of Niger. The principle, according to the French government when it decided to leave the Tuareg country, is that it should not disperse them between different peoples with whom the Tuareg people do not share the same ethnicity, religion, or language
More than two decades before this, 1936 to be precise, a group of Alawite notables in Syria wrote a letter to the French colonial master, begging him, admittedly in a rather grotesque form, that the Alawites should not be made part of the future Syria:
The Alawites refuse to be annexed to Muslim Syria because, in Syria, the official religion of the state is Islam, and according to Islam, the Alawites are considered infidels....
There is no hope that the situation will ever change. Therefore, the abolition of the Mandate will expose the minorities in Syria to the dangers of death and annihilation, irrespective of the fact that such abolition will annihilate the freedom of thought and belief.…
…The condition of the Jews in Palestine is the strongest and most explicit evidence of the militancy of the Islamic issue vis-à-vis those who do not belong to Islam. These good Jews contributed to the Arabs with civilization and peace, scattered gold, and established prosperity in Palestine without harming anyone or taking anything by force, yet the Muslims declare holy war against them and never hesitated in slaughtering their women and children. 
… We assure you that treaties have no value in relation to the Islamic mentality in Syria. We have previously seen this situation in the Anglo‑Iraqi treaty, which did not prevent the Iraqis from slaughtering the Assyrians and the Yezidis.
Ironically, among the signatories of the Alawite letter was nobody else but Sulayman al-Assad, the grandfather of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, currently denounced around the world for his bloody crackdown on a largely Sunni uprising against his rule.

These two letters were the beginning of two very different stories. But with all the difference between the two, the two stories also share two common denominators: namely, they began with letters and they both ended badly.

In Syria the Alawite minority has resigned itself to the French decision but not to its fate of a downtrodden minority. Al Assad's descendents have eventually taken over the whole country and established one of the most repressive regimes in the Middle East hell bent on exporting instability all around. In 1982 this regime has set a new standard of oppression in the Middle East, summarized by Thomas Friedman in the term "Hama Rules," named after a big Syrian city reduced to a pile of rubble by the regime's artillery during crackdown on an Islamist led uprising. Come 2012 and the Hama Rules no longer help as violence in Syria is spiraling out of control.

In Africa, two of the poorest nations on Earth -- Mali and Niger -- were left to struggle with an impossible task of controlling vast expanses of Sahara populated by a hostile desert minority. Two hopeless landlocked basket cases, basically bankrolled by the international community. It's therefore no wonder that one of them has now collapsed under repeated assaults by rebellious Tuaregs, whose national struggle seems to have started mutating into a hardcore fundamentalist Islamic movement.

2008. Tauregs in Mali. Sitting in the sand, listening to music

On April 8, the president of CMA, a world organization representing all Berber peoples including Tuaregs, wrote an open letter to the candidates for the French presidential election. The letter restated the previous MNLA promise to establish a secular and democratic state and the intention to drive Islamist factions out of all the territories of Azawad. As its two predecessors more than half a century ago, the letter warned the, now former, colonial master about the dangers of arbitrary and unsustainable borders:

The Tuaregs like other oppressed peoples in the world do not want to live forever colonized. The international community has understood this by favoring the access to the independence of many countries in Europe during the last 20 years or even recently in Africa with the independence of the South-Sudan.

When the French Minister declares that "it is not possible to question the sovereignty of Mali," we remind him that it is not any more allowed for France to continue to draw the map of Africa as one pleases. The time of the colonialism is gone, it is the moment to make speak about the international law concerning the right of the peoples to their self-determination. Furthermore, as the ancient colonial power, France is placed well to know the arbitrary and artificial character of the borders which she drew in Africa, what is at the origin of the conflict of today.

If the history of letter writing in the region has any lesson to offer, it would be that this letter will fare no better than its predecessors. On the ground MNLA appears to be steadily losing to Ansar ed Dine, buoyed by the influx of hundreds of foreign fighters sent to ag Ghali by the likes of Al Qaeda in Maghreb and the Nigerian Boko Haram. The deal, MNLA was originally planning to offer to the international community, fell apart. If anything it's now MNLA itself who needs the international community to save it from the fundamentalists. But on the international scene MNLA and its declaration of independence have received no support whatsoever and the mood seems to be gradually shifting in support of military intervention.

These are bad days for the Tuareg nationalists. Yet, as they are watching their surprising victory to slip out of their hands, it's now their former colonial tormentors themselves, oh the irony of it, who are finding themselves slipping into the nightmare of another failed experiment in creative borders and wishful mixing of peoples and cultures. "Whoever speaks of Europe is wrong," wrote Bismarck in 1876. "Europe is a geographical expression." More than one hundreds years later the "geographical expression" is struggling to survive a utopia imposed on it by the well-meaning enthusiasts of togetherness.

The severe economic crisis has put to test both the viability of a single European currency and the sense of solidarity between its members. The anti-German sentiment is exploding along the Eurozone's southern periphery with an intensity unseen in Europe since the World War II. Unemployment hitting above 20% in Spain and Greece, the practice of burning German flags and chanting "Nazis out" pioneered by protesters in Greece may yet become a new habit in the Eurozone's Mediterranean belt.

Across Europe anti immigration and nationalist parties are rising. Scotland is likely to see an independence referendum in 2014. Belgium has recently smashed all world records for the longest period without a government amid constant infighting between the Flemish nationalists and their French-speaking opponents. Elevating the entire euro zone to the status of transfer union may sound like a good idea in theory, but right now this notion is threatening to split the very country which is home to the EU headquarters, no less.

France does not seem to be having it any better in the United States of Europe than other members. President Sarkozy spent his term vigorously deporting Roma migrants, threatening to strip foreign-born rioters of citizenship and plotting with the Germans to reestablish border controls within the Schengen area. To no avail. As the world of fantasy is crumbling in Europe, large chunks of the French electorate failed to get impressed and the voters turned even more massively towards the anti euro and anti immigration National Front.

Ours is a world of absurd borders and impossible unions. But from Africa through the Maghreb and the Middle East, all the way to Scotland and Flanders in Northern Europe, they are rising: nationalists, separatists, regionalists. They are coming in all shapes and colors and they are legion. Ag Ghali and his fundamentalists may have spoiled the party in Mali, but the big party is far from over. If anything, it has barely started.

2010. Bombino aka Omar Mokhtar, also nicknamed the Jimmie Hendrix of the Tuaregs,
 firing up a rock party at the feet of an ancient adobe mosque in Agadez, Niger

Monday, February 6, 2012


The article I co-authored for the American Spectator in 2012.
First published here

The "peripheralism" and Malthusian underpinnings of an unexpected uprising.

Among the second wave of Arab Spring uprisings that followed Tunisia, Syria was the most spectacular "out of the blue" that suddenly arose in the face of the media and analytic community. Just days before Deraa exploded with protests last March, some analysts were still scrutinizing Syria's circumstances and declaring the country to be immune from the Arab Spring. Nor did reporters who visited the country spot signs of a brewing storm.

In fact, throughout the Arab Spring, the media and experts repeatedly fell into the same trap of confusing the capital city with the whole country. On the eve of the Islamist landslide in Egypt's elections various polls and informed individuals were putting the popularity of radical Salafis at between 5% and 10%. The Salafis have indeed won about 10% of the vote… but only in Cairo. Nationwide they took almost 30%, beating even those unrepentant pessimists who were betting on a Muslim Brotherhood spring. In some provinces they grabbed all of 50%.

This routine of the periphery ambushing the media and analysts during the Arab Spring and making a mockery of their reports and predictions has reached such grotesque proportions in Syria partly thanks to the media restrictions imposed by the regime, but mostly owing to the very peripheral nature of the Syrian uprising itself. This "peripheralism" has also laid waste to the best efforts of Iranian advisers who came to Syria to share with their Syrian colleagues the know-how accumulated by the regime in Tehran in crushing the Greens.

In truth, the escalation in Syria took by surprise only the people who never bothered to examine Syria's population pyramid. It was no "out of the blue" to anybody even slightly familiar with the basic facts on demography and climate in the region. In the Middle East's long list of hopeless basket cases Yemen is surely beyond competition. However, for quite a while Syria has positioned herself as a formidable contender for respectable second place.

In some respects, the seeds of the current disaster were planted as far back as 1956, when Youssef Helbaoui -- head of economic analysis in Syria's Planning Department -- famously declared: "A birth control policy has no reason for being in this country. Malthus could not find any followers among us." Since then Syria has been living in a state of one uninterrupted demographic cataclysm. The regime was so obsessively pro-natalist that in the early 1970s, the trade and use of contraceptives in Syria were officially banned. By 1975, the birth rate reached 50 live births per 1,000 people, with Hafez al-Assad asserting that a "high population growth rate and internal migration" were responsible for stimulating "proper socio-economic improvements" within the development framework.

Even when other nations in the Middle East began to take measures to curb their population growth as the danger of demographic collapse started to loom over the region, the regime in Syria was struggling to make up its mind on the issue. Only in recent years has the regime introduced some measure of family planning, but by now the sheer amount of population momentum accumulated in previous decades has kept the population swelling to new highs. It's true that the average Syrian woman entering the child bearing age now is expected to have no more than three children in her lifetime. Yet, the sheer proportion of such young people in the population continues to propel the population forward. And the workforce is still expanding at a neck breaking rate of 4%.

The impact of the rapidly mounting population pressures on the economy has been exacerbated by the steady depletion of natural resources that, critically for the regime, included declining oil production, with an output of 385,000 barrels per day (bpd) as of 2010 against the peak of about 583,000 bpd back in 1996. To give the reader some perception on the decline, even after hitting the bottom the oil sector still accounted for a majority of the country's export income and about a quarter of government revenues.

The final blow came during the last decade. With Malthus sending broad smiles in the direction of Syria from his grave, the climate change that has hit the region has wrecked Syria's countryside. Shifts in rain patterns have led to prolonged droughts all around the Middle East in recent years. But their impact was particularly devastating in Syria, where agriculture remains a major part of the economy and the lifestyle of a large section of the population, some 20% of Syria's GDP being generated by this sector. With water shortages reported in many parts of the country, some rural areas have become impoverished disaster zones. Whole villages and fields have been abandoned, while slums around Syrian cities have been swelling with hundreds of thousands of climate refugees.

In 2009, the International Institute for Sustainable Development noted that a decline in rainfall and subsequent aggravation of water scarcity led to the abandonment of around 160 villages in northern Syria in the period 2007-2008. In eastern Syria, the Inezi tribe saw some 85% of its livestock killed between 2005 and 2010 because of prolonged drought. In 2010 the United Nations estimated that more than a million people have left the northeast of the country, "with farmers simply not cultivating enough food or earning enough money to sustain them."

Basically, Syria's GDP per capita was declining during the 1980s and stagnating in the 1990s. This trend was reversed only with the beginning of market reforms in 2000s, but the economic renaissance was largely confined to Damascus and Aleppo and struggled to spread to other parts of the country. A measure of prosperity brought into some cities by the economic liberalization, unevenly distributed in any case, was simply not enough to balance out the tremendous demographic and social pressures that were piling up in provinces like Deraa and Deir ez Zor and spilling into the center from the periphery. Regardless of whether the urban classes in Damascus and Aleppo were fully aware of their precarious existence living by the side of this volcano, they showed limited enthusiasm for fireworks once the volcano finally erupted and sent its flames towards the suburbs of their cities.

To be sure, the peripheral character of the uprising in Syria makes the task of ensuring the survival of the Assad regime rather difficult compared with the experience of its patrons in Tehran. However, getting rid of the regime would be an easy task for the country compared to surviving the post-revolution.

The uprising in Syria has many characteristics of a poor man's revolt and a "periphery against center" conflict at the same time and as such it's the exact opposite of the kind of unrest the regime in Tehran was facing in its big cities in 2009.

While the protest movement in Iran was led by the urban classes of the capital and major city centers, the Syrian uprising is very much powered by the same underclass that in Iran is providing the bulk of the recruits for the Baseej squads that eventually crushed the Green opposition. In Iran, Tehran was the epicenter of the protests, but the Syrian revolution started in the heavily Bedouin and undeveloped Deraa, and from its very beginning the uprising featured a rather unusual degree of mobilization in the countryside against the regime. Protests were regularly reported in villages and small towns. During the siege of Deraa and Hama, nearby villagers were reported trying to break blockades with supply convoys and clashing with security cordons.

Even where the Syrian regime was successfully keeping city centers clean of protesters, the unrest persisted in suburbs and the countryside. In far-flung provinces, towns and localities have been changing hands several times, with protesters and the Free Syrian Army reinfiltrating them immediately after the army had departed. The regime is clearly overstretched and struggling to contain such a widely geographically distributed and increasingly militarized unrest, as shown by the recent reports of unrest creeping in towards the centers of Damascus and Aleppo. More critically for the regime, the challenge of defending the country's energy infrastructure over vast expanses of such a big country seems to be overwhelming the Syrian army, with attacks on oil and gas pipelines escalating.

Much was made of Syria's sectarian configuration, which is indeed one of the most challenging in the region. The steady stream of reports about sectarian killings in Homs suggests mounting tensions and troubles for the future. Yet, even if stripped of all its minorities down to the bare Sunni heartland, the post-Assad Syria is still very likely to be resistant to any notion of unity and stability.

As a poor man's revolt, the uprising in Syria, which by all accounts remains predominantly Sunni, is often blessed with the involvement of the most backward and conservative sections of the society. The Syrian opposition abroad may be represented by the finest intellectuals and members of all Syria's minorities. However, a Voice of America reporter, recently allowed into one of the opposition's strongholds in the area of Damascus-Douma, couldn't help noticing how the place was teeming with fully veiled women.

Many parts of the Syrian periphery are severely impoverished and many are heavily tribal. The tribes in Deir ez-Zor are officially allowed to carry arms as a counterweight to the Kurdish population in the North. Tribes in Deraa and other provinces are also quickly becoming militarized.

The potential for internal conflicts over the country's limited resources remains enormous. The same Deir ez-Zor, for example, is Syria's poorest province. Yet Deir ez-Zor accounts for 70% of Syria's oil production. Once the regime falls, the tribes in the province should be expected to demand their share of the oil revenues, either sending the rest of the country to beg the Saudis for a bailout, or starting a new "periphery against center" conflict.

None of this is to say that the survival of Bashar Assad's regime is necessarily in the interests of the West, Syria's neighbors and even the Syrians themselves. If only because it's not obvious that Syria in its current configuration can survive at all. However, while the Western media can keep cheering on the Arab Spring and the triumph of liberal democracy in the Middle East until it's blue in the face, the basic fact remains that this march to freedom in many parts of the region looks more like a modern species of a classic Malthusian collapse. Syria's immunity to the Arab Spring was a short-lived notion. However, those who think that a better future beckons for the Middle East had better hope that by the time that future arrives Syria will be still hanging around.

Monday, January 16, 2012


The article I co-authored for the American Spectator in 2012.
First published here

Muammar Gaddafi was certainly more than prophetic during the summit of the Arab League (AL) in 2008 when he inquired about the fate of his Iraqi predecessor for Western military interventions: Saddam Hussein. "The ruler and head of an AL member has been hanged. Why?" he asked. "In the future it's going to be your turn. Even you, the friends of America," he told the Arab leaders present as the audience was rolling on the floor laughing. "Friends of America… No, I say," said Gaddafi, "We are friends of America, but America can approve of our hanging one day."

Two years later, the eccentric dictator was dragged out of a sewage channel and lynched by a mob of rebels after the regime succumbed to an alliance of domestic insurgents and NATO air strikes. In the White House, Obama hailed Gaddafi's demise, saying, "One of the world's longest-serving dictators is no more. The dark shadow of tyranny has been lifted."

Well, Gaddafi might be no more, but his long shadow keeps chasing Obama and other enthusiasts of the intervention in Libya even now. When Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, the rationale behind the award rested in significant part on the president's commitment to nuclear disarmament, with the Nobel committee's citation hailing Obama for a "vision of a world free from nuclear arms."

Furthermore, the citation affirmed the following: "Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts."

Or as Professor Juan Cole -- the go-to Middle East "expert" for pundits like Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald -- put it: "Barack Obama was given the prize because he is a game-changer.… Two years ago we were talking about whether Cheney could convince Americans to go to war on Iran. Now Washington is engaging in direct talks with Tehran that have eased tensions."

However, when the next installment -- the Libyan civil war -- of that reality show otherwise known as the Arab Spring was hitting TV screens, NATO involvement attracted an unwanted and unintended audience: namely, North Korea and Iran.

An unnamed North Korean foreign policy official quoted by North Korea's news agency lambasted air strikes on Libya and drew a direct parallel between his country's nuclear arsenal and the ill-fated WMD program of Libya, which Gaddafi dismantled in 2003 as part of his plans to co-operate with the West. Calling the West's bargain with Gaddafi "an invasion tactic to disarm the country," the North Korean official said that the subsequent bombing of Libya by NATO forces was "teaching the international community a grave lesson," and proclaimed that a powerful military was the only means of ensuring peace in the Korean Peninsula.

More ominously for the administration, the implications of the war in Libya did not escape the attention of Iran's Supreme Leader -- Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Supreme Leader compared the West's tempting Gaddafi with diplomatic and economic incentives in 2003 in exchange for giving up his nuclear ambitions to "giving candy to a child." Khamenei said Iran was right to reject restrictions on its nuclear program, making it clear that one can fool a child with sweets, but only once. Having seen what happened to Gaddafi, Iran is not going to trade its nuclear ambitions for any "candy."

The non-proliferation connection of the war in Libya was completely missed by many analysts. The same Juan Cole endorsed the war in Libya as follows (while expressing slight reservations over the fact that Obama continued U.S. participation without authorization from Congress): "The Libya intervention, in and of itself, is therefore legal in international law in a way that the Iraq War was not. I personally believe that the UN attempt to forbid unilateral aggressive war is absolutely central to our survival on earth, and although it has had many failures, it is an ideal worth reaching for." His position on Iran remained unchanged.

In a blog post last October, Juan Cole again called for dialogue between the administration and Iran, "Obama came into office convinced that the negotiating table was the only plausible way to deal with Iran. He should go back to that."

But by now it has become abundantly clear that if a plausible way to deal with Iran exists at all, it is not the negotiating table.

Common sense suggests that a regime will only abandon a WMD program on the understanding that the other party will not subsequently try to take advantage of the degradation of the regime's deterrence capabilities.

By backing the anti-Gaddafi forces in the Libyan civil war to the point of pushing a de facto policy of regime change (and not simply "protecting civilians"), Obama broke the United States' tacit agreement with Gaddafi that had been in place since the Libyan autocrat gave up his WMD ambitions in 2003. The president has indeed become a "game-changer"… by eliminating the negotiating table from the list of options for dealing with Iran.

Gaddafi was not even the first dictator in the Middle East to be toppled after it dismantled its WMD program at the request of the Wet. That honor belongs to Saddam Hussein. Yet unlike Saddam, Gaddafi was never accused of failing to carry out his part of the bargain. After reaching a de facto agreement to give up his WMD program, Gaddafi joined forces with Western powers as a supposed ally against terrorism and became a regular visitor in Western capitals.

The truth is that the casus belli behind the NATO intervention in Libya was the violent crackdown on a popular uprising against Gaddafi's rule. On the other hand, violent crackdowns on popular uprisings are exactly what Iran has been very busy with in recent years. The regime crushed the Green Revolution in 2009 under heavy criticism from the same Western powers that later intervened in Libya when Gaddafi forces were on the verge of defeating the rebels. At the beginning of 2011 the regime in Tehran faced off an attempt to revive the protests.

Meanwhile, the Saudi prince stated the monarchy's position on Iran's nuclear ambitions in very clear terms at a conference in Riyadh: "If our efforts, and the efforts of the world community, fail to convince Israel to shed its weapons of mass destruction and to prevent Iran from obtaining similar weapons, we must, as a duty to our country and people, look into all options we are given, including obtaining these weapons ourselves."

The Saudi warning, while clearly being insincere as regards Israel's nuclear weapons that have existed for a few decades, leaves no doubt regarding the nasty potential for a nuclear Iran to unleash an Arab-Persian nuclear arms race in a region that is generally not known for stability or predictability.

In 2010, the United Arab Emirates' ambassador in the U.S. was even more frank. Calling Iran the only country in the region to pose a threat to the UAE, Yousef Al-Otaiba said, "We cannot live with a nuclear Iran."

Today the Obama administration is facing a dilemma undreamed of in the philosophy of Professor Cole. The manner in which the ideal of preventing unilateral aggressive wars ended with the lynching of Gaddafi has unnerved the regimes of Iran and North Korea. The chances that either country will voluntarily discontinue WMD programs or surrender existing weapons have turned from very slim to non-existent. Indeed, on what basis should they do so in light of Gaddafi's fate?

Under the present circumstances, the Obama administration may well be considering a pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear installations before the regime acquires a nuclear deterrent and sends the whole region on a WMD acquisition spree. Contrary to the arguments of some pundits like Jeffrey Goldberg, a preemptive attack is the only realistic option now, if Obama's vision of a nuclear free world is to have any chance of survival in the Middle East in the near future. The regime in Tehran is not going to back off through a carrot-and-stick approach of negotiations and sanctions after what transpired in Libya.

However, such a unilateral, preemptive attack was certainly not the original intention of the Nobel committee that commended Obama's non-proliferation efforts with the Peace Prize. Nor did Juan Cole have such an outcome in mind when he was lauding the administration's "leading from behind" in Libya.

Truly one should never underestimate the shadow of a dead man: in this case, Gaddafi.