What should you be reading about the politics of today's Middle East, beyond (of course) the outstanding daily content on the Middle East Channel and the news and analysis featured in the MEC Daily Brief? The Middle East Channel Editor's Reader -- or, "Abu Aardvark's guide to good reads on the Middle East" -- is a new regular feature which will highlight what I consider to be the best of the academic journal articles, long-form magazine articles, policy reports and books which come across my desktop.
The MEC Editor's Reader will reflect what I'm actually reading and think merits your attention. Some weeks that might mean an extended book review, others a selection of journal articles. I may write about a ten year old book if it's what I'm currently reading, or I may write about forthcoming academic research. I will particularly highlight publications by the talented academic members of the Project on Middle East Political Science, which I direct, but I will try to not neglect writers from other fields. I can't promise to even try to be comprehensive -- which you'd thank me for if you actually saw my desktop. This will be a selective guide to work I found interesting for some reason, reflecting my own ideosyncratic interests and reading habits. But please do send me your articles and books if you want me to consider them. And with that, welcome to...
The Middle East Channel Editor's Reader #1 (May 16, 2012)
The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life, by Roger Owen. (Harvard University Press 2012).
Harvard historian Roger Owen had almost completed a book on "Arab Presidents for Life" in late 2010, just as several of those Presidents suddenly faced mortal challenges. Rather than simply insert "and Fall" into the title, Owen chose to integrate the new developments into a thoughtful and incisive evaluation of Arab political authoritarianism in all its components. Owen points out the many ways in which Arab Presidents and Kings imitated one another, with Presidential sons following - or attempting to follow - their fathers, and all relying on extensive security services and webs of patronage. His analysis of the personalization of power challenges recent efforts to distinguish Arab monarchies from their Presidential counterparts, and lays bare the internal logic of such personalized security states. As an historian, Owen is sensitive, and admirably transparent, about the limits of our knowledge about the inner workings of these regimes. But his brief discussions of each country effectively convey both the commonalities and differences across the cases. Owen's highly readable book serves as a fitting requiem for a system of rule which long seemed immovable, has now been exposed in all of its flawed brutality, but seems likely to adapt to new structural conditions rather than simply fade away.
My PDF Reader:
Voting for Change: The Pitfalls and Possibilities of First Elections in Arab Transitions, by Ellen Lust (Brookings Doha). Yale University Political Scientist Ellen Lust, who has written widely on political parties and elections in authoritarian Arab regimes, lays out the challenges and opportunities in the foundational elections in Egypt, Tunisia and beyond. First elections, she warns, should be treated differently from subsequent elections, with different objectives and obstacles, with priority given to building a strong democratic system and addressing the fears and uncertainty which plague any transition rather than on managing a particular political outcome. Lust wrote about Syria's recent pre-transitional Parliamentary election for the MEC here.
The Rise of Islamist Actors: Formulating a Strategy for Engagement, by Quinn Mecham (POMED). Middlebury College Political Scientist and former State Department Policy Planning staffer Quinn Mecham argues for a more systematic strategy for engagement with Islamist political parties. It should surprise nobody that Islamist parties do well in Arab elections or more open political arenas. Mecham expertly lays out the benefits and risks of engagement, and urges the U.S. to engage broadly in order to build understanding on both sides ---but to neither compromise on core value commitments or to exaggerate their likely power.
Tunisia's Transition and the Twin Tolerations, by Alfred Stepan (Journal of Democracy). Columbia University Political Scientist Alfred Stepan, one of the leading figures in the study of democratic transitions globally, examines the relatively successful Tunisian experience since 2011. "With secularists agreeing that Islamists could participate fully in democratic politics, and Islamists agreeing that popular sovereignty is the only source of legitimacy," he writes, Tunisia has been able to avoid the violence and polarization found in some other cases. Egyptians and others should take note.
Networks of Third-Party Interveners and Civil War Duration. Asyegul Aydin and Patrick Regan (European Journal of International Relations, 2011). What is the likely impact of military assistance to the opposition on the duration of Syria's civil war? Aydin and Regan's 2011 article doesn't talk about Syria directly, but it does focus on the logic and historical record of external interventions in such conflicts. The network analysis suggests that such interventions are likely to increase civil war duration and encourage opportunistic, rent-seeking behavior among the combatants unless there is a high degree of unity of purpose and shared interest among the intervening parties. Well worth a read, even if you have a low tolerance for math, for trying to think through the likely implications of supporting armed opposition in Syria.
... and don't miss these from the Project on Middle East Political Science:
Jordan, Forever on the Brink. Collection of essays on the shortcomings of political reform and growing instability in Jordan.
Breaking Bahrain. Collection of essays on the political stalemate in Bahrain.
The sudden, unprecedented resignation by Jordan's Prime Minister Awn Khasawnah last week threw a sudden spotlight on the ongoing shortcomings of political reform in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The deficient new election law rolled out last month, like every step the King has taken over the last year and a half, did too little, too late to respond to the concerns of Jordanian citizens. Limited reforms have done little to stem a rising tide of protest across the towns of the south, a deeply struggling economy, loud complaints of corruption, and an intensifying edge of political anger. Add in the potential impact of the ongoing crisis in Syria or of a new escalation in the West Bank, and concerns for Jordan's political future seem merited.
Veteran observers of the region can be excused for rolling their eyes ever so slightly at reports of instability in Jordan, of course. The Kingdom has seemed on the political brink virtually constantly for many decades, its stability always questioned and the monarchy's command doubted (often, admittedly, by me). And yet the Hashemite monarchy has survived. Warnings about political crisis in Jordan therefore sound just enough like boys crying wolf or Chicken Littles shouting about falling skies. That long history of frustrated protest and successfully navigated challenges should caution anyone predicting a real explosion. But it would be equally wrong to dismiss the signs of a rapidly escalating political crisis to which the Palace seems unable or unwilling to respond.
This post previews a new POMEPS Briefing, "Jordan, Forever on the Brink," which collects twenty articles from the last three years explaining the nature of the Kingdom's political crisis, the shortcomings of its attempted reforms, and the current political state of play.
I was invited to testify before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia to be a witness at the April 25, 2012 hearing "Confronting Damascus: U.S. Policy toward the Evolving Situation in Syria, Part II." The other two witnesses where Andrew Tabler and Mara Karlin. My prepared statement is after the break.
LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images
Nine days ago, the courageous Bahraini activist Alaa Shehabi wrote for Foreign Policy about the then sixty-four day hunger strike by Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja. His death, she warned, "could mark a significant breaking point for the regime's efforts to rehabilitate its tarnished reputation -- and could accelerate the disturbing trend toward militant radicalization in the opposition." As of today, Khawaja remains thankfully alive. But Bahrain's ill-conceived Formula One race event has nevertheless already turned a harsh international spotlight onto the regime's ongoing repression. And Shehabi, an academic with dual Bahrain-British citizenship whose husband was only recently released after nine months in prison, has been arrested.
Shehabi's detention might seem a minor footnote given the ongoing protests, the numbers of other activists and journalists arrested and pressured, Khawaja's hunger strike, and the Formula One controversy. She hopefully will soon be released. But her detention while assisting journalists seems particularly symbolic at a time when Bahrain's regime has sought to burnish its international reputation and suppress critical media coverage without engaging in serious reforms at home.
This week's Formula One-driven media scrutiny has ripped away Bahrain's carefully constructed external facade. It has exposed the failure of Bahrain's regime to take advantage of the breathing space it bought through last year's crackdown or the lifeline thrown to it by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Iniquiry. That failure to engage in serious reform will likely further radicalize its opponents and undermine hopes for its future political stability.
The United Nations should establish an investigation commission to collect evidence about war crimes in Syria to prepare the ground for any future investigation, leading Arab international law expert Cherif Bassiouni told Foreign Policy during a wide-ranging interview yesterday following his talk at George Washington University's Institute for Middle East Studies [videos of both the interview and the talk will be posted shortly]. He warned that Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh should not count on his immunity deal holding up, discounted the ability of Libya's courts to try Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, and blasted Egypt's post-revolutionary trials as focusing on flimsy, marginal cases which avoided dealing with systemic, institutionalized corruption.
Also, he explained that Moammar Qaddafi was a sex addict whose heavy use of Viagra badly affected his decision-making -- which could complicate the ICC's efforts to convict Saif al-Islam (FP's web editors wanted that to be the lead, for some reason).
Few diplomatic initiatives have faced more skepticism than Kofi Annan's plan for Syria, and for good reason. Annan's six point plan may have been the only game in town, but its limited mandate reflected by necessity the demands of a divided Security Council and seemed to many far too accommodating to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Assad certainly gave little reason to believe its promises, as his forces spent the days leading up to the ceasefire date unleashing ever escalating violence. Syrian opposition and activist views ranged from skeptical to hostile, while those who loudly yearn for a Western military intervention dismissed it as an irritating obstacle to action.
But on Thursday, the ceasefire took effect. Violence did not end, but it dramatically dropped. That set the stage for today's critical test: would peaceful protestors return to the streets after the brutal onslaught of the last couple of weeks? And how would regime forces respond if they did? Up until now, the answers offer the first, frail glimmers of hope for Syria in a long, long time. I've been watching dozens of videos of Syrians pouring out into the streets today to demonstrate across the country. And while there have again been scattered reports of attacks and efforts to block demonstrations in some cities, there has not been a systematic military response. Today's exhilerating outpouring of popular, peaceful protest does not guarantee anything. But it does prove that Assad's effort to kill his way to victory has failed.
YouTube Screen Capture, April 13, 2012
Few international institutions have been more congenitally irrelevant than the League of Arab States. It's problems are structural: a Charter rooted in the protection of state sovereignty, an autocratic and inept membership, a façade of Arab unity hardly concealing the reality of deep political divisions. The Arab League for long decades has been little more than a punchline for sad jokes about the failed hopes of unified or effective Arab action.
Some believe that this began to change over the last year. Certainly, it was startling to see the Arab League suddenly acting on regional security issues. Its rapid, unified response to Muammar al-Qaddafi's brutal crackdown in Libya, likely tipped the balance at the United Nations in favor of NATO's military intervention. It has played an important role in the Syria crisis, from its suspension of Assad's Syria to its unprecedented (albeit failed) observer mission and (also failed) bid for to a Security Council resolution. Some of its steps were intriguingly novel, such as the unprecedented suspension of Libyan and Syrian membership over the killing of their own people. And the summit recently held in Baghdad may have finally prodded some baby steps towards Iraq's reintegration into the Arab world.
But this burst of activity was misleading. The revitalized Arab League was really a puppet show, as the GCC led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia used the conveniently empty vehicle of a moribund Arab League to pursue their agendas. The Arab League offered a more useful regional organization than the GCC for acting on Libya and Syria, especially at the United Nations. With traditional Arab powers like Egypt, Iraq and Syria flat on their backs there was nothing to block them from doing so on such issues. The focus of attention at the Security Council debate on Syria was Qatari Foreign Minster Hamed Bin Jassem, not Arab League Secretary General Nabil el-Arabi. The supposedly revitalized Arab League has shown little ability to act effectively on more contentious issues, to coordinate policies on Syria, to provide meaningful assistance to transitional member regimes, or to generate new ideas on the Palestinian issue. The GCC more often looked to non-Arab Turkey than to its Arab League partners for concrete support.
But this could change. Indeed, implausible as it sounds to long-time observers of the region, the Arab League may over the next few years emerge as a more interesting institution than it has ever before been -- and more consequential than the currently dominant GCC. The key GCC states only dominate today because of their wealth and general lack of internal problems, the unusual cooperation between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the internal weakness of traditional Arab powers such as Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. As those states get their acts together, and the inevitable conflicts within and between Gulf states reappear, the Arab League might actually become interesting.
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images
On December 15, 2011, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the formal end of America's military presence in Iraq. The withdrawal came after the inability to reach agreement on a revised Status of Forces Agreement which would have allowed a limited number of troops to remain under legal conditions acceptable to the Pentagon. While the vast majority of Iraqis and Americans supported the departure of America's military presence, some supporters of a long-term U.S. military presence warned of disaster. Some, like Senator John McCain and the Romney campaign, continue to fume that we no longer occupy Iraq and complain that Obama has lost what Bush gained. But in fact, the American departure has hardly mattered at all -- and that's a good thing.
This isn't to say that Iraq has emerged as a peaceful, democratic paradise or an enthusiastic pro-American ally. Hardly. That was never in the cards, after the disastrous invasion and bungled occupation led to a horrific civil war and a near-failed state. Iraq today remains a violent, poorly institutionalized place with deep societal fissures and unresolved political tensions. But little has happened in the months since the U.S. withdrawal which differs significantly from what had been happening while the U.S. remained. The negative trends are the same ones which plagued Iraq despite the presence of U.S. troops in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011. The U.S. presence contributed to some of those problems, helped deal with some, and failed to resolve others. But it had always struggled to convert its military presence into political leverage, and by 2011 it had become almost completely irrelevant.
The real story of America's withdrawal from Iraq is how little impact it has really had on either Iraq or the region. There are even signs that the withdrawal has helped to nudge Iraqis onto the right path, though not as quickly or directly as I might have hoped. This month's death toll was the lowest on record since the 2003 invasion, while Iraqi oil exports are at their highest level since 1980. Baghdad successfully hosted an Arab Summit meeting, which may have done little for Syria but did go further to bring Iraq back into the Arab fold than anything since 2003. Maliki's jousting with his domestic foes and efforts to balance Iraq's ties with Tehran with improved Arab relations are what needs to happen for Iraq to regain a semblance of normality. It isn't pretty, and probably won't be any time soon, but there's absolutely no reason to believe that it would look any better with American troops still encamped in the country. Thus far, Obama's risky but smart gamble to end the U.S. military presence in Iraq is paying off.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.