It is time to think seriously about intervening militarily in Syria, argues Steven Cook today. He joins a small but growing chorus pushing for such a move. Some parts of the Syrian opposition have moved toward requesting an intervention, albeit with serious reservations and furious internal disagreements, as has the Emir of Qatar and some other Arab officials. And then of course, there are those who have been pushing for hawkish policies toward Syria for years who have seized the moment to push for action, and others who generally support military solutions. This is the kind of temporary coalition which can drive real policy shifts.
It is easy to understand the urgency behind such a call. The brutality of the Syrian regime has produced unspeakable atrocities which challenge the conscience of the world. The daily death toll, and the horrific videos and images which circulate freely, can easily make the passions overwhelm the interests and push us to set prudence aside. I supported the intervention in Libya, and believe strongly in the importance of advancing regional and global norms against regime violence.
But the U.S. should not be contemplating military intervention in Syria. Risky, costly foreign policy decisions can not simply be taken to express moral outrage. They need to have a serious chance of success. None of the military options currently under discussion have a reasonable chance of improving the situation at an acceptable cost, and their failure would likely pave the way to something far worse.
Syria is not Libya, and has few of the unique conditions which made that intervention appropriate. The moral outrage at the depradations of Assad's forces, as well as the fevered hopes of those hoping to change the region's strategic equation by bringing down Iran's main Arab ally are not enough, any more than hope is a plan. Military intervention in Syria has little prospect of success, a high risk of disastrous failure, and a near-certainty of escalation which should make the experience of Iraq weigh extremely heavily on anyone contemplating such an intervention. There is no magic number of deaths at which the U.S. must embark on a self-defeating and foolish adventure.
The last American troops officially left Iraq before Christmas, mostly completing an American withdrawal by the end of 2011 which few thought possible when then-candidate Barack Obama promised it or even when then-President George Bush formally committed to it. Critics of the withdrawal have blasted Obama for putting politics over policy, risking the alleged gains of the "surge" in order to meet a campaign promise. Many of those who played a role in the desperate attempt to reverse Iraq's 2006 descent into civil war have entirely legitimate and justifiable fears for Iraq's future. But in fact, Obama's decision to complete the withdrawal from Iraq was probably better policy than it was politics -- and it was the right call both for America and for Iraq.
In many ways, it would have been safer politically for Obama to keep the residual force in Iraq which hawks demanded to insulate himself against charges of having "lost Iraq". But it would have been wrong on policy. It's not just that the U.S. was obligated by the SOFA to withdraw its forces, once it proved unable to negotiate the terms of an extended troop presence with the immunity provisions which the Pentagon demanded. It's that the remaining U.S. troops could do little for Iraqi security, had little positive effect on Iraqi politics, and would have soon become an active liability. This is the lesson of the last two years, when U.S. troops were reduced in number and largely withdrew to the bases under the terms of the SOFA. The American troop presence didn't prevent bombings and murders, didn't force political reconciliation, didn't usher in real democracy, and didn't significantly increase American diplomatic influence in the region. But nor did Iraq fall apart. Obama's gamble is that the same sequence will play out in 2012 and that he will have successfully left behind an Iraq which isn't perfect but which has avoided yet another catastrophe.
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It's time for the official, Aardvark-certified list of the Best Books on the Middle East for 2011! (See last year's winners here.) Next year's list will undoubtedly be dominated by books addressing this year's uprisings which have transformed the Arab world, but not many significant books on the topic were published in 2011. That'll hopefully change on March 27, when my own book The Arab Uprising comes out -- don't worry, it won't be eligible for the 2012 awards of course! -- and, all joking aside, when a number of great journalists and scholars weigh in with books in the pipeline. In the meantime, you can always go back to Revolution in the Arab World, the eBook based on Foreign Policy articles, which I think remains an outstanding guide to the first few months.
First, the ground rules. The awards are limited to English-language books that were published in calendar year 2011 and which dealt primarily with the contemporary broader Middle East. I read more than 65 books published this year which fit that description, from academic and trade presses alike. The award is entirely subjective, based on what I found impressive or interesting. There's no committee, no publishers sent me free copies or offered up lucrative swag, and I couldn't read everything -- especially if books were published too late in the year or if publishers insisted on releasing them only as $90 hardcovers. If your book didn't make the list, however, then you know what do do (hint: you really can't go wrong by blaming Blake Hounshell).
And with that...the 2011 Aardvark Awards for the Best Books on the Middle East:
The call to accelerate the transition to civilian rule in Egypt has taken on a new urgency this week. A wide range of political forces are calling for the SCAF to cede power to an elected leadership by February 2012. There are many different ideas about how to do this, perhaps through the new Parliament selecting an interim Prime Minister or perhaps by holding Presidential elections at the end of January. All of the ideas have their problems. But those problems pale against the threat to the Egyptian democratic transition posed by the continuing misrule of and escalating resort to violence by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. I believe that the calls for a new President by February should be taken very seriously indeed.
This weekend's anomic violence on Qasr el-Aini Street does not likely augur the rekindling of popular revolution, as the protests were almost completely contained to a few blocks and seem to have attracted little popular sympathy. But the wildly disproportionate, undisciplined, and frankly brutal response by the army does show graphically why the SCAF is rapidly losing its legitimacy to rule among the political elite. It really doesn't matter whether it ordered the violent crackdown against the Cabinet sit-in or undisciplined troops began the violence on their own, since both point to something deeply problematic. Such crises will continue to recur and intensify as long as the underlying problem of military rule remains unresolved.
The greatest political accomplishment during the last bout of violence in November was that the SCAF agreed to to hold Presidential elections and the transfer of power by June. But as one of Cairo's savviest political analysts told me yesterday, "we can't take six more months of this."
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images
A demonstration outside the Cabinet building in central Cairo turned violent last night when soldiers attacked a sit-in which had been established three weeks ago. Protestors were pelted with rocks and even furniture from the buildings above. There are reports of almost 100 injured, and the battle continues to rage on. At least three members of the Advisory Council appointed by the SCAF have resigned in protest, and the political fallout is likely only beginning. After three weeks of orderly elections, Cairo once again looks like Bahrain.
When I walked through Qasr el-Aini street this afternoon it looked post-apocalyptic, with rubble strewn everywhere and an incredibly tense, unpleasant vibe. It seems to have gotten worse since then. The contrast from the orderly, calm voting stations I had visited over the last few days couldn't have been more stark. The violence should puncture any illusions that the SCAF's problems had evaporated with the high turnout and relatively smooth process of the Parliamentary elections now in their third week. Elections are necessary, but they are not sufficient.
Today's sudden deterioration and brutal violence shows clearly that Egypt will remain unstable as long as the Egyptian military leadership fails to address core political grievances or impose any meaningful accountability for violence by its security forces. What the SCAF has thus far done is clearly not enough. Egypt can't wait for the SCAF to transfer real power to an effective civilian government, end its abusive security tactics, and hold those responsible for the violence accountable.
At a talk in Kuwait this week, I mentioned in passing that the leading Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Arab politics isn't likely to last and the Arab spring will certainly come to the Gulf. That seemed to spark quite a bit of skeptical debate -- which strikes me as a good discussion to have. There's no question about the new energy and effectiveness of the GCC this year, as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have pushed the regional organization forward as a key actor across the Middle East. But there is a certain triumphalism in the new narrative about the GCC which is unwarranted. History and current trends suggest that the GCC's current leading role will prove the exception, not the rule, and likely won't survive the coming years.
KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images
"I think the Muslim Brotherhood [in Egypt] should govern by coalition that includes the people from secular parties and the Copts." That was the advice which Rached Ghannouchi, President of Tunisia's el-Nahda Party, offered his Egyptian Islamist counterparts during an interview with the editors of the Middle East Channel last Thursday. He warned pointedly against repeating the mistakes of Algeria when, as he put it, "the Islamists won 80 percent of the vote but they completely ignored the influential minority of secularists, of the army, of the business community. So they did a coup d'etat against the democratic process and Algeria is still suffering from that." Avoiding a replay of that catastrophe weighs heavily on Ghannouchi and his party.
Ghannouchi was in Washington at the invitation of Foreign Policy, after being named one of its Top 100 Global Thinkers. He took full advantage of the opportunity to visit the United States for the first time in twenty years, appearing at a wide range of think tanks including the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and meeting with a range of U.S. government officials, journalists, and policy analysts. He had warm praise for the Obama administration as "supportive of the Arab Spring," and described the new willingness in the United States to talk about a more positive relationship between democracy and Islam, and between Americans and the Islamic world, as a very important new development. His reception in Washington is a sign of the times, as the United States struggles to adapt to the reality of Islamist electoral success and Islamist parties struggle to reassure those who fear their ascent while delivering on their own programs.
Egypt's election commission has just announced that it will not be releasing official results from the first round of elections until tomorrow. The early signs suggest high turnout, and a very strong performance by the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party. Don't forget that thus far we only have partial results. Closely contested individual seats will go to a run-off election next week. It will take longer to calculate the allocation of the 2/3 of seats for lists. And the vote to date was only the first of three rounds, and the final results could change dramatically in the second and third rounds of voting. Few Egyptians will forget that in the last somewhat free Parliamentary election in 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood's strong showing in the first round prompted the Mubarak regime to dramatically escalate its repression and fraud to save the NDP in the second and third rounds.
While we wait for all that to unfold, three other things for you to read:
First, Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations and I have just published an oped in the International Herald Tribune/New York Times calling on the United States to significantly increase its public pressure on the SCAF to implement a rapid transition to civilian rule; end practices such as emergency law, military trials for civilians, and escalating censorship of media and repression of protests; and hold those responsible for last week's violence against protestors accountable:
Egyptians lined up this week to vote in the first Parliamentary elections since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. The high turnout in a peaceful, orderly election contrasted sharply with the violence and chaos of the previous week, when hundreds of thousands returned to Tahrir Square after security forces killed at least 42 people and left 3,000 injured. But Washington should not be fooled by the peace that has returned to Egyptian streets. Even successful elections can not erase months of political mismanagement by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (S.C.A.F.) or the bloodshed committed under its auspices.
The U.S. State Department condemned the violence in Tahrir, and has called on the S.C.A.F. to transfer power to civilians as soon as possible. That is a good start, but is not enough. Egypt’s military rulers clearly believe that they have survived the political crisis, and have resisted calls for a more fundamental political change. The generals may prevail in the short term, as the numbers in Tahrir dwindle and Egyptians turn their attention back to the elections and political squabbles.
Still, the violence last week demonstrates that the S.C.A.F.’s leadership has created the conditions under which even small problems and challenges can spark massive instability. And it has shown that Washington’s present approach to Egypt, which has placed a premium on private diplomacy at the expense of public pressure, must change.
Overall, the Obama administration has done better with Egypt than most critics recognize. It has sought to shape the generals’ behavior by praising them in public while quietly pushing them from behind the scenes. This approach has sometimes worked, but it has lowered America’s status in the eyes of many Egyptians. Few Egyptians (or Americans) know what motivates U.S. policy toward Egypt or what it has done. Most revolutionaries assume that Obama is conspiring with the generals against them.
Until this week, arguments could be made either way on the balance between private influence and public pressure. Yet the unacceptable, systematic violence in Tahrir Square and the ratcheting repression across the country against protesters, journalists and foreigners changes that equation. The U.S. was virtually silent as dozens of Egyptians died and tons of U.S.-made tear gas bombarded Tahrir Square. Only after a few days did it muster a demand for restraint on both sides — which caused outrage among peaceful protesters — and a call for free and fair elections. Washington has toughened its language in recent days, including a White House statement calling on the S.C.A.F. to transfer power to a civilian government “as soon as possible.” But few Egyptians even noticed.
Read the rest here. I would add only that the White House statement clearly did get the attention of the SCAF, which has responded quite sharply and negatively to the unprecedented public criticism. That's good. Now that Washington has their attention, it should press them on what really matters.
I would also add that the U.S. has done very well thus far to not panic in the face of likely Muslim Brotherhood success in the election, just as it has in Tunisia and Morocco. It will be harder and harder to maintain that poise over the next few weeks, as Egyptian liberals, Israel, and many in the U.S. begin to freak out. But it's important that it keep its cool, accepting the results of a free and fair election while also voicing its own clear expectations about the importance of the Islamist forces demonstrating their commitment to democratic rules, cooperation and tolerance.
Second, the Project on Middle East Political Science has just released its seventh briefing on the Arab uprisings, this one titled "Election Season." My introduction begins:
On Monday, November 28, Egyptians went to the polls for the first round of parliamentary elections. Those elections are perhaps the most momentous of a recent wave of Arab elections. Tunisia’s election on October 25 went almost unbelievably well. Oman’s went almost entirely unnoticed. Morocco’s played their assigned role. The announcement that Yemen would hold presidential elections in February has thus far been met mostly with disbelief. Elections may be on the horizon in Kuwait, after the resignation of its government, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has announced May 4, 2012 as the date for elections in the West Bank and Gaza. It’s election season in the Middle East. But are elections the right way forward for these countries in transition? Will they change anything?
The Briefing collects great Middle East Channel articles on Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Kuwait, Jordan and Oman, along with an original introductory essay by me. It's great for use in classes or just to catch up on the context for the rush of events. Download it for free here!
Finally, I have a lead story in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine discussing the ideas of the Arab uprisings, focusing on the debates and discussion among Arab intellectuals and political activists rather than on Western narratives. I argue that
while the Arab uprisings generated a marvelous range of innovative tactics (uploading mobile-camera videos to social media like Facebook and Twitter, seizing and holding public squares), they did not introduce any particularly new ideas. The relentless critique of the status quo, the generational desire for political change, the yearning for democratic freedoms, the intense pan-Arab identification -- these had all been in circulation for more than a decade. What changed with the fall of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia was the recognition that even the worst tyrants could be toppled. It shattered the wall of fear. That is why hundreds of thousands of Egyptians came into the streets on Jan. 25. It's why protests broke out in Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, and Jordan. It's why Syrians and Libyans took unfathomable personal risks to rise up against seemingly untouchable despots despite the near certainty of arrest, torture, murder, and reprisals against their families.
And now, back to scouring Twitter for unreliable second hand reports of partial election returns from Egyptian precincts.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.