The absence of Iraqi voices from American discussions about Iraq over the last decade has long been a major shortcoming. The bookshelf of English-language books about the decade of war with Iraq overflows with accounts of Washington inter-agency battles, General David Petraeus, American soldiers in the field, General David Petraeus, and General David Petraeus. Some are excellent, some less excellent. But very few of them seriously incorporate the experiences, views, or memories of Iraqis themselves -- a problem of American-centric analysis which I termed "strategic narcissism."
And so, on Thursday, October 3, I'm proud to be hosting a really fascinating and hopefully important conference at the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University called "The Encounter." Each panel at the full-day event will include both Iraqi students who lived in Iraq during some of the years of the war and American students who served those same years in the U.S. military in Iraq (including several Tillman Military Scholars). The keynote lunch session will feature a discussion about American policy and the Iraqi experience between me, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Colin Kahl and the Iraqi historian Abbas Kadhim. The agenda is open-ended, and the discussions about how Americans and Iraqis viewed one another should be extremely frank and direct.
If you're in the Washington DC area, I hope that you'll be able to join us for all or part of this event at GW on October 3. I don't usually advertise GW events over here at FP, but I really feel like this one is special, and a long time in the making. An open, frank dialogue about the American experience in Iraq which incorporate diverse American and Iraqi perspectives should be extraordinarily interesting and productive. You can RSVP for the event here, and I look forward to seeing people there and sharing their feedback on the discussions.
So you want to read up on the issues surrounding Syria, but you aren't satisfied with the usual list of -- often outstanding, sometimes less so -- think tank reports, blogs and op-eds which usually get offered up? Well, here's a selection of some of the most useful books for making sense of what's happening in Syria now and what might be coming. They aren't going to give you the kind of immediate situational intelligence to make sense of current events, of course, or directly address the issues posed by the current policy debates, but they will leave you a lot more informed about Syria.
The very best book for all this is probably Patrick Seale's sadly out of print The Struggle for Syria: a definitive, highly readable account of an earlier era of regional proxy wars over Syria. I'm shocked that it doesn't seem to be available at an affordable price, but get your hands on it if you can. On current events, I'd start with Emile Hokayem's Syria's Uprising and the Fracturing of the Levant. Stephen Starr's Eyewitness to an Uprising is a nice read. Asad biographer David Lesch's The Fall of the House of Asad gives useful insights into the mindset of Syria's President. Some of the chapters in the recently published Middle East Authoritarianisms, edited by Steve Heydemann and Reinoud Leenders, are very insightful. There's also that The Arab Uprising book that some FP blogger wrote.
There's some good choices on Syria's political economy and the formation of the state. Heydemann's Authoritarianism in Syria is a fine account of the emergence of an authoritarian state in the period leading up to 1970. Bassam Haddad's Business Networks in Syria is really good on the political economy underpinnings of the regime. Nikolas Van Dam's updated version of The Struggle for Power in Syria gives a good sense of the nature of political conflict in Syria's history.
Thomas Pierret's new book Religion and State in Syria offers some unique insights into the role of the Syrian ulema, while Rafael Lefebvre's Ashes of Hama will be useful on the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood if it's ever released in the United States. There's also this "after-action report" by Abu Musab al-Suri on the reasons for the failure of the last jihad in Syria, courtesy of Will McCants. I'm quite enjoying Daniel Neep's new book Occupying Syria, on the role of violence during the French occupation; pity about the price tag. Lisa Wedeen's Ambiguities of Domination might not seem directly relevant to the current crisis, but there's really just no way I'm not going to recommend that you read it. Oh, and of course Hanna Batatu's 7,269 page Syria's Peasantry, the Descendant of its Lesser Rural Notables, and Their Politics doesn't just have a catchy title, it can also be used to kill zombies or hold up a collapsing wall.
Meanwhile, it couldn't hurt to have a look at Fanar Haddad's Sectarianism in Iraq to get a sense of how these antagonisms developed next door. Toby Matthiessen's brand new Sectarian Gulf might help make sense of just what the Saudis might be up to (hint: probably not promoting Syrian democracy). While you're at it, why not dust of your old copies of Tom Ricks' Fiasco and Nir Rosen's Aftermath for a reminder of just how often these things go according to plan. The Logic of Violence in Civil War by Stathis Kalyvas is pretty essential for all purposes in life; and if you like that one then have I got a list of relevant books on civil wars and insurgencies and international intervention for you!
Happy reading. There are many more, of course -- I'm sure you'll all quickly remind me of the ones I forgot! -- but this should at least be a nice start.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia issued an unusually rapid and strong endorsement of the Egyptian military crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood's sit-ins, calling on all Arabs to unite behind a crackdown on terrorism, incitement, and disorder. Bahrain, the UAE, and Kuwait rapidly backed his stance. But many of the most popular and influential Saudi and Kuwaiti Islamist personalities disagreed vehemently and publicly. Indeed, a popular hashtag quickly appeared on Twitter: "King Abdullah's Speech Does Not Represent Me."
YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images
The Middle East Channel Editor's Blog
How should analysts understand the combination of the June 30 massive popular mobilization and the July 3 military coup against then-President Mohamed Morsi? Should these events be understood as a continuation of the January 25 revolution, a second revolution, a straightforward military coup, or a restoration of the Mubarak-era order? Does the blame for the failure of Egypt's first popularly elected presidency lie with Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, with a recalcitrant opposition, with a resistant state, or with the deep problems which any transitional leadership would have confronted? Can a pathway toward a democratic order still be found?
Egypt's Political Reset, the latest in the POMEPS Arab Uprisings Briefing Series, collects 15 recent Middle East Channel and Foreign Policy essays written by academics grappling with these issues. The essays range widely across a diverse range of interpretations and analysis. They include historical comparisons and cross-national comparisons alongside close examinations of the Egyptian police, the military, the state, and the Muslim Brotherhood. These essays offer no analytical consensus nor a clear path forward -- and nor should they.
Here's a link to the video of my discussion today with Andrew Tabler at the Washington Institute about U.S. policy towards Syria, which was broadcast on C-Span. My comments begin at around the 25 minute mark. I enjoyed the discussion. No time right now to write any of it up, and can't find a working embed code to post it here, but for now feel free to check it out on C-Span.
If a group of Middle East analysts had been asked two years ago to rank which Arab heads of state were most likely to still be in power by the end of June 2013, the Emir of Qatar would almost certainly have been ranked #1. And for good reason: relatively young and exceedingly energetic diplomatically, unfathomably wealthy, facing no real domestic challenges or grave international threats. My column this week, which despite my best efforts was not entitled "Game of Qatari Thrones", explores some of the mysteries surrounding his stunning decision to hand over power to his son Tamim.
The Emir's surprising move recalls many of the fascinating discussions and debates about the possibility of prediction in political science in the wake of the Arab uprisings. You'll recall that the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, and all which followed, spawned a tidal wave of indictments of political science and of area studies for failing to predict the mass mobilization. This never seemed exactly right. The predictive failure wasn't one of information: many, if not most, scholars of Arab politics over the 2000s catalogued the political, economic, and institutional failures of Arab regimes and the rising wave of popular protest. The analytical failure, such as it was, came from the (not unreasonable) assumption that the survival strategies which had kept those authoritarian regimes in power for decades despite their many failures would continue to work. That assumption was widely shared. As Charlie Kurzman and others have often pointed out, even the participants in protest movements are often surprised by their success. It is only in retrospect that the unthinkable comes to seem inevitable.
The Emir's decision to hand over power was arguably even more unpredictable than the Arab uprisings. As Jay Ulfelder, a political scientist who has worked for a long time on forecasting and prediction (including with the Political Instability Task Force), points out, the eruption of mass mobilization and its political outcomes can be modeled within a broad comparative universe. All sorts of data might go into the predictive analysis. But what would allow you to predict an intra-family decision behind closed doors for inscrutable reasons, other than actually being in that room? Even hearing the many rumors about the closed doors meeting doesn't really help, since rumors flow freely in a place like Doha and 99 out of 100 turn out to be bunk. At any rate, I'd love to hear more from Jay and others on the relative challenges of predicting leadership changes in the Gulf against, say, what might happen in Egypt on June 30.
This Week on the Middle East Channel
Speaking of Egypt's June 30 protests, the Middle East Channel posted several outstanding articles previewing the runup to those potentially fateful -- and potentially an overhyped fizzle -- protests. Nathan Brown returned from a week in Cairo extremely worried about the polarization and expectations in the days leading up to June 30. Tarek Radwan recounted the political road to June 30 and the thinking behind how it might unfold. Hisham Hellyer warned of the atmosphere which produced the horrifying lynching of four Shi'ite Egyptians. And over on the FP main page, Mohammed el-Baradei warned that Egypt is already a failed state and "you can't eat sharia."
Elsewhere on the Channel, Paola Rivetti and Farideh Farhi and Daniel Brumberg interpreted the politics of Iran's Presidential election; Aaron Zelin and Charles Lister presented one of the most detailed analyses to date on the emergence of the Syrian Islamic Front; Curtis Ryan examined Jordan's ongoing struggles with political reform and the controversy over its blocking of websites; Jake Hess went into Iraq to interview a leader of Turkey's PKK about the very tenuous prospects for a real peace agreement; and I talked to Mark Tessler about the evolution of Arab public opinion research.
Finally: POMEPS is hiring! If you want to work with us here at the Middle East Channel, along with a wide range of academic programming, check out this opportunity. Since it was originally posted last week the position has been upgraded to a full time position. If you're interested be sure to apply!
How reliable is public opinion survey research in the Arab world? What lessons should we draw from its findings for policy or for academic hypothesis testing? Has the proliferation of new research, of varying quality, improved the state of our knowledge? In last week's POMEPS Conversation, I talked to Shibley Telhami about his new book, The World Through Arab Eyes, based on a decade's worth of survey research in the region. In this week's POMEPS Conversation, I talk with the University of Michigan's Mark Tessler, one of the founders and leading scholars in the field of Arab public opinion research:
Tessler recently collected decades worth of essays based on survey research in the region into a book, Public Opinion in the Middle East. He has trained many of the leading figures in the younger generation of political scientists using such survey research in their work. I know that I've learned an incredible amount about how to evaluate such research from talking with Tessler over the years and reading his work.
Tessler is also the lead researcher for the ambitious Arab Barometer project, which has been doing in-depth, rigorous surveys of attitudes across the region in line with the other regional Barometer projects -- and, crucially, making the data openly available to academic researchers. They have resisted being driven primarily by U.S. foreign policy concerns, going deeper than "how do Arabs feel about the United States? How do they feel about Bush/Obama? What most explains how they feel about America?" The survey work and analysis which he's done with collaborators such as Amaney Jamal, Michael Robbins and Eleanor Gao has been crucial for our understanding of Arab attitudes towards democracy, religion, and much else. In this conversation, Tessler talks about how public opinion survey research in the Middle East has evolved over the decades, the new research vistas which this data opens, and the continuing problems which such research faces.
Remember, all the Middle East Channel's POMEPS Conversations with leading Middle East scholars can be found here, and you can subscribe to the podcast here.
President Obama's move to increase the public flow of arms to selected Syrian rebels is probably his worst foreign policy decision since taking office. It is basically the Afghan surge decision redux: long months of grueling internal deliberation about whether to escalate military commitments resulting in an "Option C" policy choice which pleases nobody and which few think will work. At least the Afghan surge came with an expiration date.
Nobody in the administration seems to have any illusions that arming the rebels is likely to work. The argument over arming the FSA has been raging for well over a year, driven by the horrific levels of death and devastation, fears of regional destabilization, the inadequacy of existing policies, concerns about credibility over the ill-conceived chemical weapons red line, and a relentless campaign for intervention led by hawkish media, think tanks, Congress, and some European and regional allies. Through all of this, Obama (who has not forgotten the lessons of Iraq) has by all accounts opposed deeper intervention, and rightly so, along with much of the Pentagon and many others across the administration. The most direct cause for the switch likely was Hezbollah's open entry in the fighting and fears that the fall of Qusair could lead to a rapid rebel collapse.
Obama's move is likely meant as a way to "do something," and perhaps to give Secretary John Kerry something to work with diplomatically on the way to Geneva II, while deflecting pressure for more aggressive steps. The logic behind the steps has been thoroughly aired by now. The dominant idea is that these arms will help to pressure Assad to the bargaining table, strengthen the "moderate" groups within the opposition while marginalizing the jihadists in the rebellion's ranks, and assert stronger U.S. leadership over the international and regional proxy war. Much of it sounds like magical thinking. History does not suggest that this will work out as planned.
On its own, the decision will have only a marginal impact on the Syrian war -- the real risks lie in what steps might follow when it fails. The significant moves to arm the rebels began last year, with or without open American participation. Assad's brutal campaign of military repression and savage slaughters and the foreign arming of various rebel groups has long since thoroughly militarized the conflict. The U.S. is modifying its public role in a proxy war in progress, providing more and different forms of support to certain rebel groups, rather than entering into something completely new.
The real problem with Obama's announcement is that it shatters one of the primary psychological and political footholds in the grim effort to prevent the slide down the slippery slope to war. He may have chosen the arming option in order to block pressure for other, more direct moves, like a no-fly zone or an air campaign. But instead, as the immediate push for "robust intervention" makes obvious, the decision will only embolden the relentless campaign for more and deeper U.S. involvement in the war. The Syrian opposition's spokesmen and advocates barely paused to say thank you before immediately beginning to push for more and heavier weapons, no-fly zones, air campaigns, and so on. The arming of the rebels may buy a few months, but when it fails to produce either victory or a breakthrough at the negotiating table the pressure to do more will build. Capitulating to the pressure this time will make it that much harder to resist in a few months when the push builds to escalate.
I don't think anyone in the administration really has any great confidence that arming the rebels will end Syria's civil war or work in any other meaningful way, though many likely feel that it's worth trying something different after so many months of horrors and want to believe that this will work. Obviously, I am deeply skeptical. I hope I'm wrong, and that against the odds the new policy can make a difference, and help to resolve the Syrian catastrophe. But more likely it just drags the U.S. further down the road to another disastrous war -- one which has just become harder to prevent.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.