My FP column last week argued that the Obama administration was correct to reject plans to arm the Syrian opposition. The objections to arming have become weaker as the conflict has become fully militarized, I argued, but the upside to arming has not become substantially higher. My column tomorrow will feature the second half of my current take on Syria, with a set of alternative policy recommendations drawn from my forthcoming CNAS Policy Brief. Stay tuned for that tomorrow!
Today I am happy to be able to feature three interesting and important responses to my column. This is part of my ongoing effort to promote serious, critical debate and discussion on these issues (for previous episodes, see the Egypt policy challenge responses and the Twitter Devolutions responses). Today's roundtable features Daniel Byman (Georgetown and Brookings), Emile Hokayem (International Institute for Strategic Studies), and Mona Yacoubian (Stimson Center). I am also going to quote from a piece by Karl Sharro that touched on similar themes. I regret that several others whom I invited didn't have time to contribute to the roundtable, but I look forward to hearing their thoughts in other venues.
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If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, will it set off a cascade of unmanageable nuclear proliferation in the Gulf? Not necessarily, according to "Atomic Kingdom," a fascinating and deeply researched new report from the Center for a New American Security (full disclosure: I'm a non-resident senior fellow at CNAS, but I didn't review this report). Colin Kahl, Melissa Dalton, and Matt Irvine make a pretty strong case that its own self-interest would probably stop Saudi Arabia from taking the nuclear plunge. Their report is a vital corrective to one of those poorly-vetted Washington "facts" which too often shape policy ... even if it ultimately raises as many questions as it answers.
"375,000 Syrians have come to Jordan since March 2011, which is 6-7% of our population. In American numbers, at that rate, this is 17-18 million people." The spillover effects of the Syria conflict were very much on the mind of Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh during a wide-ranging conversation over coffee in Washington last week. His government's focus for Syria was very much on finding a political transition which, he said, "everybody realizes at this stage is the only game in town." His other primary preoccupation was to advance a narrative of successful reform following Parliamentary elections against my more cynical perspective.
On the problem of Syrian refugees, Judeh and I had little about which to disagree. Jordan has good reason to be concerned about the impact of Syrian refugees on the Kingdom. The flow from Syria has been more intense than the wave of Iraqi refugees during the last decade: faster, more concentrated, and with no end in sight. The early accommodations for a much smaller refugee flow have struggled to keep pace, and Jordanians are feeling the strain from hosting this massive influx (things have only gotten worse since this sharply reported FP account by Nicholas Seeley a few months ago).
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My column this week looks at the debate over the revelations that last summer the White House blocked a proposal by the Pentagon, Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus to arm Syria's rebels. I argue that this proposal was very much an "Option C", a way to appear to be doing something but not something which anybody really believed would work. That the idea was floated should shock nobody, but it's a pleasant surprise that the administration managed to push it back. The proposal emerged at exactly the time when it should have: after the failure of Kofi Annan's peace initiative, when new ideas were needed. And it was rejected just as it should have been when closer analysis suggested strongly that it wouldn't work. This isn't a story of a dysfunctional process, it suggests that something worked.
This is only a placeholder post for blog readers that the column's been published; discussion and commentary will follow later. I'll only note here that this is obviously part of a long, ongoing debate. I first made many of these observations about arming the Free Syrian Army almost exactly one year ago, and the debate has obviously continued more or less continuously. My column a few weeks ago focused on how the changing situation inside of Syria should affect these policy debates, and a robust debate followed.
My argument then, and now, was that the arguments against arming the Syrian rebels were now weaker simply because most of the negative effects of militarization had already manifested: the political horizon shut down, power devolved to the men with guns, proxy warlordism, massive humanitarian suffering. This is much of what opponents of arming the FSA had hoped to avoid. Now that the Syrian conflict is fully militarized, the arguments for managing that process correspondingly strengthened: better a coordinated than an uncoordinated flow of weapons, better an arms flow attached to a coherent political strategy and legitimate emergent institutions than the alternative.
But at the same time, we shouldn't exaggerate what providing arms would actually achieve: an American flow of arms would not likely buy enduring influence with proxies, end the war quickly, crowd out competitors, or drive away the Islamist trend among the opposition. Even if the negatives of arming the rebels can no longer be avoided, the positives aren't nearly as great as promised.
Anyway, go read my column over at the FP main page. As I have been doing for the last few weeks, I will link to or publish the best of the responses and reactions I receive to the column -- so send me your thoughts over the next few days if you'd like to participate in the debate!
Last week, Egyptian human rights activist Bahieddin Hassan penned an open letter to Barack Obama which asked "that spokespeople and officials in your administration stop commenting on developments in Egypt." After reciting the liberal narrative on what ails Egypt (short version: the Muslim Brotherhood), he concluded that "as long as they cannot speak the truth about what is happening in Egypt," the United States should simply "keep silent." He must therefore have been very pleased with President Obama's State of the Union Address, which devoted only one brief passage to Egypt and to the broader challenges in the Arab world. Who says we don't listen to Arab liberals?
Well, as they say, sometimes you can get what you want and still not be happy. Here's all Obama had to say about Egypt and the Arab uprisings last night:
"In the Middle East, we will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions to democracy. The process will be messy, and we cannot presume to dictate the course of change in countries like Egypt; but we can - and will - insist on respect for the fundamental rights of all people."
Now, in my view that's pretty much where the U.S. position should be: not seeking to dictate outcomes or take sides, avoiding the mistake of constantly inserting itself unproductively or even counterproductively into the daily turbulence of Egyptian politics, supporting the consolidation of democratic institutions and laying out a normative benchmark on fundamental universal rights. Sure, I'd like to see this stated more prominently and forcefully, with a fully articulated strategy and vision for engagement and promoting democratic change - but the State of the Union probably wasn't the time or place for that.
Still, his brief comment, buried deep in the speech, is unlikely to satisfy an Egypt policy community or an Egyptian public which generally wants to see something more. But what, exactly? On February 1, I put out a friendly challenge to the policy community to specify what precisely this more robust policy might be. I don't think that the policy debate has really engaged with how the radically changed Egyptian political landscape affects the value of the standard toolkit of democracy promotion - pro-democracy rhetoric, support for civil society organizations, and using aid as leverage. So I posed six questions: how to deal with Islamists likely to fare well in elections; how to effectively support liberals in the actually existing Egyptian political arena; how to differentiate between supporting the democratic process and supporting the current government; whether conditionality on military aid would have an effect given the current political role of the SCAF; whether conditionality on economic aid was appropriate at a time of economic crisis; and how to engage with a suspicious and often hostile Egyptian public.
I got fewer responses from the policy community than I had hoped for, but we're all very busy. I did get quite a few variations on the "we shouldn't be trying to promote democracy" and "the U.S. isn't really interested in democracy" themes, which are defensible positions but don't answer the questions posed. Egyptians seemed far more likely than American policy analysts to offer some version of "Washington should just butt out of Egyptian affairs."
The most common answer (for a good example see Juul below) was to more forcefully, consistently and vocally call out Morsi's government when it abused democratic procedures and human rights. I agree completely that such public rhetoric should be deployed (I quite liked the consisently excellent Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner's comments today), but let's be honest: it probably wouldn't actually affect very much, it only opens up the obvious next question of matching words with deeds, and nobody seems to notice much when the U.S. does issue such criticisms (for instance, Ambassador Anne Patterson's critical comments in Alexandria this week, widely seen as a departure, were actually virtually identical to Hillary Clinton's comments in the same city last July). I'd like to see a bit more thinking here about step two: after we've issued these public criticisms of the Muslim Brotherhood, or recognized their unconstructive role, what next? What is meant to follow from this recognition or from the public rhetoric?
At any rate, here are some of the best of the responses I received: Elijah Zarwan gives sharp responses to five of the six questions; Peter Juul (on behalf of the excellent team at the Center for American Progress) calling for more public criticism of Muslim Brotherhood mistakes; Jeb Ober of Democracy International calls to support liberal organizations and trends, but not parties; and Joshua Slepin points to more effective ways to leverage ties to Egypt's military.
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My column last week, Twitter Devolutions: How Social Media is Hurting the Arab Spring, stirred up more than the usual amount of discussion and responses. Thanks to all of you who tweeted it, retweeted it, and offered your thoughts. My purpose in writing Twitter Devolutions wasn't to blame the internet for all the current problems in Egypt or Syria, any more than earlier essays gave social media all the credit It was to push for a more complete account of the specific ways in which the new internet based media impact politics for better and for worse.
I've had some great feedback already on this week's FP column, What We Talk About When We Talk about Supporting Egyptian Democracy (Alt-T). I'm not going to summarize the rather lengthy article here -- just go read it, please! When you're done come on back, because I'd like to throw out a real, not rhetorical, challenge to those who want the United States to effectively support democracy in Egypt (that's not to deny the legitimacy of those who don't think we should be promoting democracy there for one reason or another -- that's just not today's question).
Before I get to the challenge, one quick response to an objection raised by my right honorable friends Michael Wahid Hanna and Issandr el-Amrani. They argue that whatever it might have said at other times, the Obama administration badly misplayed its response to Morsi's November 22 power grab. I don't really dispute their read of the initial response -- I think the administration was still primarily focused on Gaza at that point and didn't catch the significance of Morsi's domestic move quickly enough. But I don't think that the overall trend of two years can be judged by one day, and would continue to argue that the administration has been far more consistent in its public and private support for Egyptian democracy than is generally remembered. But still, point taken -- that was not part of my highlight reel.
Okay, now to the challenge. I believe that most of the academic and policy community in Washington seriously wants to support democacy in Egypt, believes it to be both normatively valuable and important to American national interests, and thinks that the United States has not done enough to support it. That same general description would have applied to pretty much any point in the last twenty years, regardless of the U.S. administration or Egypt's political conditions. (The turmoil of the last two years and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood seems to have driven at least some to rethink the goal of democracy, but again that's a different argument).
Most of the disagreements within this community, for better or for worse, are about how to promote such democracy. But I'm not sure that the debate about means has quite kept up with the dizzying changes of the last two years. As I point out in the column, we still mostly hear about the same old chestnuts: more pro-democracy rhetoric, more funding for civil society and democracy programs, more conditionality on military aid or financial assistance. What seems to be missing is genuinely new thinking about what "getting serious" about democracy would actually mean concretely in the current environment. How do you support democracy while opposing Muslim Brotherhood victories? How do you support liberal movements or parties without undermining their electoral prospects? Does conditionality make sense at a time when the Egyptian economy is collapsing?
So here's the challenge. Below are six specific questions about how the U.S. should go about supporting Egyptian democracy. They are meant as questions, not answers -- I don't believe that anyone, including me, has fully or persuasively answered most of them. I'm not looking for you to agree with me (not that anyone would!) -- I'm looking for real debate and good new ideas. You don't need to answer all of them or write fully developed articles, but do try to think beyond the familiar answers that we can all recite by heart. Next week, I'll write up and link to the responses if I get enough useful feedback. And also feel free to pose new questions which you'd like to see addressed.
Without further ado, the questions:
1. The Islamists. It is frequently argued that the Muslim Brotherhood's ideology and organization renders it essentially incompatible with true democracy. The Brotherhood won Egypt's post-transitional parliamentary and presidential elections, however, and is likely to perform well in (if not win) future elections. How would you propose dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood's participation in democratic elections? Should the United States call for barring the Muslim Brotherhood from fielding candidates or refuse to deal with its members if they do take office? If not, then how would you propose dealing with the reality or prospect of their winning free and fair elections?
2. Supporting Liberals. Most U.S. policy advocates would like to support liberal trends in civil society and in the political arena. The current Egyptian political arena (including many leftist activists) is quite hostile to foreign interference in general and to the United States in particular, however, and is likely to continue to be so for at least the next few years. Even if the case against U.S. democracy NGOs were to be thankfully resolved, it is unlikely that they will be able to operate in any significant capacity in the near future. Given this, how do you think that the United States could most effectively support liberal or otherwise sympathetic political trends or groups? Should the United States openly support such groups, and if so what do you think the effects would be inside of Egypt? Should the United States attempt to quietly or covertly support them? If so, do you think this is feasible in Egypt's current media environment, and what do you think the effects would be of exposure of such support? Do such groups in fact want U.S. funding and/or support, and would it actually help them win elections?
3. The Process. One alternative to supporting liberals or opposing the Muslim Brotherhood is to focus on the democratic process and institutions. Support for the abstract principle of democracy, however, is often taken as support for the winners, so that "backing democracy" is perceived as "backing Morsi." Do you believe that the MB's current dominance of Egyptian institutions means that seemingly neutral support for the democratic process is actually de facto support for Islamist rule? Is there some way which the U.S. might support the democratic process which would not have that effect? What, precisely, would that be? Most agree that elections are not enough, and that effective inclusion and respect for minorities and core human rights lie at the heart of any real democracy. How, specifically, could the United States most effectively push for such inclusion and rights?
4. Conditionality on military aid is often seen as the key mechanism for influencing the Egyptian political system. Does it still make sense to focus on conditionality for military assistance now that the SCAF has transferred power to a civilian government? Would conditioning military aid under the current political alignment mean weakening the military relative to the Muslim Brotherhood, and thus be counter-productive? How credible and effective would such conditionality be given what we know about how military aid to Egypt actually funds U.S. corporations and about how conditionality will always include issues related to the Camp David Treaty as well as to democracy and human rights?
5. Conditionality on economic assistance, whether bilateral or through the IMF and World Bank, is also often seen as a key point of leverage. Does the intensity of Egypt's current economic crisis make this the wrong time to talk about conditionality, given the urgent need to stabilize the situation? Or does the crisis make this the perfect time to take advantage of the desperation of Egyptian leaders for external support?
6. Engagement. There is a broad consensus that the United States has been ineffective at communicating its support for democracy to the Egyptian public and that it should do more to engage broadly across the Egyptian public. What, specifically, could the United States do to engage more effectively? With whom should it speak, what should it talk about, and what policies should be changed which would make the engagement more effective with a broad cross-section of the Egyptian public?
My answers to at least some of these questions are here, but as I said I'm really looking for new, specific ideas here. I'm pretty sure that there will be a highly interested audience within the government as well as the policy community for any good new ideas about these questions. Please email me your thoughts and comments, or a link to any you post at your own outlets, and if I get enough responses by early next week then I will write them up. So fire away!
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.