It has been widely noted that monarchies have done better at surviving the Arab uprisings that began two years ago. Three Presidents (Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Saleh) have fallen, along with Muammar al-Qaddafi's unique Jamahiriaya, while Bashar al-Assad's Baathist presidential regime faces a mortal threat. No Arab monarch has yet lost his throne. For some analysts and academics, this pattern suggests a fairly obvious "monarchical exception" which demands explanation.
In August, I launched a debate on Foreign Policy about whether and how monarchy matters in explaining the resilience of Arab regimes. I was not impressed. Against arguments that monarchies possess some kind of unique legitimacy commanding the loyalty of their people, I noted that Arab monarchies have in fact faced significant popular mobilization over the last two years: Bahrain has had one of the most intense and protracted uprisings anywhere; Kuwait is facing the deepest political crisis in its post-occupation history; Jordan experienced unprecedented protests; Saudi Arabia has had a protracted challenge in its Eastern Province; Oman experienced unusual levels of protest; Morocco's protest movement drove the king to adopt a significant (if underwhelming) constitutional initiative. I concluded, "the monarchies look like fairly typical Arab authoritarian regimes, surviving because they enjoy greater financial resources, less demanding international allies, and powerful media assets to perpetuate their legitimation myths."
The responses I got over email, over Twitter, across blogs, and at various academic conferences convinced me that the monarchy question remains an open one, however. It is an important debate for political scientists and analysts, with a wide range of arguments and evidence to consider. Over the last few months, I have reached out to a number of leading scholars to weigh in on the question of Arab monarchy. I asked them to move beyond simple binaries ("monarchy does or doesn't matter") to explore the specific mechanisms by which it might matter, to weigh them against competing explanations, and to show how monarchy operated in particular cases which they knew well. Those articles, along with some particularly relevant older Middle East Channel essays, are now collected in today's new POMEPS Brief, "The Arab Monarchy Debate."
-- The Middle East Channel Editor's Blog --
There are plenty of strong reasons for the United States and the international community to remain deeply cautious about taking a deeper role in Syria's internal war. Concerns about the nature of the Syrian opposition and the unintended effects of arming them, fears of a slippery slope from limited to direct military involvement, and questions about international legitimacy remain as urgent as ever. But what could possibly justify the failure to adequately address the humanitarian needs of the expanding Syrian refugee population?
Nobody can seriously question the magnitude of the Syrian refugee crisis. There are now more than 465,000 refugees registered with UNHCR in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and North Africa. By past experience, this likely dramatically undercounts the real number as many refugees shy away from registering with official organizations. That does not count the internally displaced, which likely number in the hundreds of thousands. Most of the refugees are living in harsh conditions, inside or outside of camps.
ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images
Egypt has had quite a week, even by its inimitable standards. President Mohamed Morsi brokered a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, returning Egypt to the regional political balance and proving to be the pragmatic, realistic leader for which many had hoped. Almost immediately afterward, his government announced a preliminary deal with the International Monetary Fund for a desperately needed $4.8 billion loan. But then, just as Morsi stood poised to bask in the international acclaim, he suddenly released a presidential decree granting himself extraordinary powers and triggering a surge of popular mobilization protesting his decisions.
Morsi's move should be seen in the context of Cairo's intensely polarized, gridlocked politics rather than as some pure expression of Islamist intent. His power is more impressive on paper than in reality. But there is no real question that Morsi went too far: decrees changing the rules of the game and placing the executive above any appeal were dangerous and wrong when done by the SCAF, would have been dangerous and wrong if done by a President Shafiq, and they are dangerous and wrong when done by Morsi. They should be reversed. But that will no more solve the underlying problems than last week's Israel-Hamas ceasefire will solve the enduring problems of Gaza.
AHMED MAHMOUD/AFP/Getty Images
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's sudden move last week to oust the senior leadership of the Egyptian military broke a long period of political stagnation and began to bring into view the contours of the emerging political order. It reversed views of Morsi almost overnight. Only two weeks ago, most analysts had written Morsi off as a weak and ineffective executive boxed in by the ascendant military leadership of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). After his bold move against the SCAF and reversal of its constitutional decrees, many now fear that he and the Muslim Brotherhood stand at the brink of nigh-totalitarian domination.
I have been fascinated by some of the findings of a massive new Pew Research Center global public opinion survey of Muslims in 39 countries in every region of the world. Pew conducted 38,000 face-to-face interviews in more than 80 languages between 2008 and 2012. What makes The World's Muslims especially interesting is that it doesn't ask questions mainly of interest to Americans, such as how Muslims feel about America. Instead, it asks a series of questions about their own understanding of Islam and their own religious practices and beliefs. The findings reveal some really interesting differences across regions, countries, and generations.
This afternoon, a sizable Washington audience turned out to watch White House Counterterrorism advisor John Brennan talk about American policy toward Yemen. Imagine that -- a large Washington audience turning out in the dead of summer to hear about Yemen! And even better, Brennan began by responding directly to the criticisms of U.S. policy toward Yemen expressed in a recent Atlantic Council-POMED letter to President Obama, which called for moving "beyond the narrow lens of counterterrorism." (I made similar criticisms in this space in January.)
Brennan's main goal was to push back against these criticisms. It is simply wrong, he argued, to claim that the U.S. views Yemen only from a security and counter-terrorism lens. He laid out the administration's "comprehensive" strategy for Yemen, including support for the political transition, humanitarian aid and economic development, and institutional reforms. He effusively praised President Hadi and his efforts at institutional reform and political transition, and he emphasized several times that more than half of the increased U.S. aid to Yemen went to the political transition and economic development, not to counterterrorism. Of course at the end he came to AQAP and mounted a spirited defense of drone strikes as ethical, legal, and effective, but the speech was structured to show that these efforts came within a broader political and developmental context. (He also, thankfully, didn't waste our time blaming Iran for Yemen's problems).
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
The Middle East Channel Editor's Reader, #5
Last week's outbreak of the largest wave of popular protests in Sudan in nearly two decades has opened up the possibility for change in one of the cruelest regimes in the Middle East and Africa. Few regimes are more deserving of popular challenge than that of Omar Bashir, who should long since have been in custody in the Hague answering for his indictment by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in Darfur.
The "Arab spring" is hardly needed to account for the protests in Khartoum, which has a long history of popular uprisings, but it certainly frames the perception and politics of what is unfolding. The current wave of protests were triggered by austerity measures, including cuts to food subsidies, in a tenuous political arena framed by the tensions surrounding the new South Sudan. Activists, especially students who had been trying to keep protests alive for over a year and a half, have moved creatively to embrace the online communications and organizational tactics made familiar by the Arab uprisings of the last year and a half. The tortuous path of popular struggles in Syria, Yemen and so many other Arab countries following early waves of enthusiasm should be a cautionary tale about overly high expectations. But Sudan's rising protest movement in the face of a growing crackdown clearly merits the world's attention.
The uprisings that swept the Arab world following the fall of Tunisia’s President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 represented a stunning moment in the region’s political history. For political scientists specializing in the region, the events of the last year and a half represented not just an exhilarating moment of potential change, but also an important opportunity to develop new research questions, engage in new comparisons, and exploit new data and information. The Arab uprisings challenged long-held theories dominant in the field, particularly about the resilience of authoritarian regimes, while opening up entirely new areas of legitimate social scientific inquiry.
The Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS) was created in 2010 in part to build the capacity of Middle East experts to engage and inform policy-makers, the public sphere, and other political scientists about the region. On May 29-30, 2012, POMEPS convened a group of leading political scientists who specialize in the Middle East for its third annual conference at George Washington University to discuss the opportunities and challenges that the Arab uprisings pose to the subfield. Participants were asked: “What new and innovative research questions do you think have become particularly urgent, feasible, or relevant? How would those research questions fit into wider debates in the field of political science?” I am thrilled to announce the publication of a new special POMEPS Briefing collecting nearly two dozen of the memos written for the conference (free PDF download here).
The authors are all academic political scientists and Middle East specialists who speak Arabic and have lived in and studied Arab countries for extended periods. They include scholars at all career levels, from senior faculty at top universities to advanced graduate students still writing their dissertations. The memos reflect on a wide range of debates and paradigms within political science, and taken together lay out an impressive set of marching orders for the subfield. Graduate students looking for dissertation topics and junior faculty looking for articles that might make a big splash take note.
The Social Science Research Council's Transformations of the Public Sphere Initiative has been publishing an outstanding series of reflections by leading academics on the transformative effects of the evolving public sphere. Some of the key contributions to the series thus far by political scientists include "Too Much Information," by Lisa Anderson; "Political Science and the Public Sphere in the 21st Century" and "The Public Responsibilities of Political Science," by Rogers Smith; "International Affairs and the Public Sphere," by Stephen Walt; and "Intellectuals and their Public," by Jurgen Habermas. I was honored to be invited to contribute to such a stellar series. My new essay in the series, "Political Science and the New Arab Public Sphere," appears here with the permission of the SSRC.
MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images
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).
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.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
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:
Friday's attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo by protestors marching from Tahrir Square and the subsequent harsh security crackdown could become an epic fail for the Egyptian revolution. That's not because Egyptians shouldn't protest against Israel if that's what angers them, and it's not because the incident is likely to escalate to war. It's because the incident could easily become an excuse for the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) to postpone elections, expand rather than surrender its Emergency Law powers, and avoid the transfer of power to a legitimate civilian government. What's more, these moves might now win applause rather than condemnation among key constituencies: revolutionaries who were already skeptical of elections, liberals worried that Islamists will win, and Americans and others abroad worried about the implications of Egyptian democracy for Israel.
This would be a terrible mistake. The absence of any legitimate political institutions seven months after Mubarak's fall and the SCAF's arbitrary and unaccountable rule are what created the political vaccuum which has brought Egypt to this edge. Yesterday's chaos should not be taken as a reason to postpone a democratic transition. It should instead be a powerful reminder of the urgency of sticking to the timeline for elections and getting on with the business of building an Egyptian democracy. Those who care about Egypt completing its revolution should now be doubling down on the urgency of a real democratic transition -- not backing away from it.
DAVID BUIMOVITCH/AFP/Getty Images
Al-Shaab Yureed Tatbiq Shari'a Allah! The people want to implement God's Sharia! That chant rang through my ears as I struggled through a jam-packed Tahrir Square on Friday, as hundreds of thousands of Islamists packed the symbolic home of Egypt's revolution to demand that their presence be known. Two days later, the ill-advised occupation of Tahrir Square by mostly secular and leftist political trends which began on July 8 largely ended, as most groups decided to pull out and then security forces cleared the remains. Feelings are running raw in Egypt as the revolution approaches yet another turning point. The galvanizing events of the weekend mark a new stage in one of the most urgent battles in post-Mubarak Egypt: who owns the revolution, and who may speak in its name?
"I have seen no evidence yet in terms of hard changes on the ground that the Syrian government is willing to reform at anything like the speed demanded by the street protestors. If it doesn’t start moving with far greater alacrity, the street will wash them away."
That was the blunt verdict offered by U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford in a wide-ranging telephone interview with Foreign Policy today. Ford sharply criticized the Syrian government's continuing repression against peaceful protestors and called on President Bashar al-Assad to "take the hard decisions" to begin meaningful reforms before it is too late. Not, Ford stressed, because of American concerns but because of the impatience of the Syrian opposition itself. "This is not about Americans, it is about the way the Syrian government mistreats its own people," Ford stressed repeatedly. "This is really about Syrians interacting with other Syrians. I’m a marginal thing on the sidelines. I’m not that important."
Some might disagree. Last Thursday and Friday, Ford made a dramatic visit to the embattled city of Hama to demonstrate the United States' support for peaceful protests and its condemnation of the Syrian government's use of violence. His trip to Hama electrified supporters of the Syrian opposition, and marked a sharp escalation in U.S. efforts to deal with the difficult Syrian stalemate. It also sparked a vicious Syrian response, as government-backed mobs attacked the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, inflicting considerable damage. In a caustic note posted to his Facebook page, Ford called on the Syrian government to "stop beating and shooting peaceful demonstrators." Ford's sharp criticism of the Syrian government's violence against peaceful protestors and detailed outline of multilateral and American diplomatic efforts to pressure the Syrian regime suggest that the recent U.S. rhetorical escalation does mark a new stage in the ongoing crisis.
Like approximately 99 percent of the Arab world, and the U.S. government, I've been glued to Al Jazeera all morning watching the astonishing images of mass demonstrations and brutal security force repression across Egypt. I'm not going to even try to summarize the course of events thus far -- for now I just wanted to quickly note that the Obama administration needs to get out in front of this very, very soon. Its messaging has been good thus far, consistently and firmly been speaking out against Egyptian repression and in support of political freedoms. The message has been muddied by a few unfortunate exceptions such as Clinton's early comment about Egyptian stability, presumably before she had been fully briefed, and Biden's bizarre praise for Mubarak last night. Despite those false notes, it's been a strong message.... but one which is rapidly being overtaken by events.
The administration has to get out in the next few hours with a strong public statement by a senior official, such as Secretary of State Clinton, which clearly lays out that using violence against citizens is a U.S. red line and which goes beyond "urging" or "hoping" that the Egyptian government responds. It's really important that the United States be clearly and unambiguously on the right side of these events, and not wait and see too long for it to matter. The public message should be paired with blunt private messages to the Egyptian government that there's no going back to business as usual, regardless of whether Mubarak rides out this storm in the short run.
Flickr Creative Commons, January 27, 2011
The end of the Tunisian story hasn't yet been written. We don't yet know whether the so-called Jasmine Revolution will produce fundamental change or a return to a cosmetically-modified status quo ante, democracy or a newly configured authoritarianism. But most of the policy community has long since moved on to ask whether the Tunisian protests will spread to other Arab countries -- Egypt, of course, but also Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, Libya, and almost every place else. Most experts on each individual country can offer powerful, well-reasoned explanations as to why their country won't be next. I'm skeptical too.
But I found it unsatisfying to settle for such skepticism as I watched the massive demonstrations unfold in Egypt on my Twitter feed while moderating a panel discussion on Tunisia yesterday (I plead guilty). As I've been arguing for the last month, something does seem to be happening at a regional level, exposing the crumbling foundations of Arab authoritarianism and empowering young populations who suddenly believe that change is possible. There are strong reasons to expect most of these regimes to survive, which we shouldn't ignore in a moment of enthusiasm. But we also shouldn't ignore this unmistakable new energy, the revelation of the crumbling foundations of Arab authoritarian regimes, or the continuing surprises which should keep all analysts humble about what might follow.
Flickr Creative Commons, January 26, 2010
I don't have a lot of time this morning before the panel discussion I'm hosting at GW on Tunisia -- webcast here, if you can't make it to the Elliott School! But I do want to make a few quick comments on Egypt. The images and stories of protests today have been impressive, both in numbers and in energy and enthusiasm. The Egyptians are self-consciously emulating the Tunisian protests, seeking to capitalize on the new mood within the Arab world. Their efforts are not new, despite the intense Western desire to put them into a narrative driven by Twitter, WikiLeaks, or demonstration effects. Egyptians have been protesting and demonstrating for the last decade: massive demonstrations in support of Palestinians and against the Iraq war from 2000 to 2003; Kefaya's creative protests for political reform and against succession which peaked in 2004 to 2006; lawyers and judges and professional associations; the Facebook protests and April 6 movements; the plethora of wildcat labor strikes across the country.
One key factor was missing, though, at least early on. Al Jazeera has played a vital, instrumental role in framing this popular narrative by its intense, innovative coverage of Tunisia and its explicit broadening of that experience to the region. Its coverage today has been frankly baffling, though. During the key period when the protests were picking up steam, Al Jazeera aired a documentary cultural program on a very nice seeming Egyptian novelist and musical groups, and then to sports. Now (10:30am EST) it is finally covering the protests in depth, but its early lack of coverage may hurt its credibility. I can't remember another case of Al Jazeera simply punting on a major story in a political space which it has owned.
Flickr January 25, 2010
Yesterday I noted the spread of seemingly unrelated protests and clashes through a diverse array of Arab states -- Tunisia, Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt. Last night, protests spread to Algeria, partly in response to rising prices on basic food items but more deeply by the same combination of economic desperation, fury over perceived corruption, and a blocked political order. There's some evidence that Algerians have been carefully watching what is happening in Tunisia, on al-Jazeera and on the internet. Are we seeing the beginnings of the Obama administration equivalent of the 2005 "Arab Spring", when the protests in Beirut captured popular attention and driven in part by newly powerful satellite television images inspired popular mobilization across the region that some hoped might finally break through the stagnation of Arab autocracy? Will social media play the role of al-Jazeera this time? Will the outcome be any different?
The Atlantic asked me to name an outstanding book from 2010 in Middle East Studies. I chose John Calvert's Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism. In honor of that choice, I'm delighted to publish today Calvert's essay "The Afterlife of Sayyid Qutb" on the Middle East Channel, an essay which fills in one of the only real gaps in the book. Choosing only one book was difficult, but fortunately I have a blog of my own to offer a longer list of the best books published this year on the Middle East -- or at least the best books published this year which I actually had time to read, which means that it's far from exhaustive. Without further ado, the list:
The great debates about Iraq policy which consumed much of the past decade have largely faded from the public arena. The Obama administration has withdrawn more than 100,000 troops from Iraq, while the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated by the Bush administration in 2008 commits the U.S. to withdrawing the balance of its troops by the end of next year. Iraqi politics muddle along, while the security situation remains roughly stable with periodic spikes of spectacular violence but no signs of a resurgent civil war. But while the U.S. political debate about Iraq has faded, the importance of Iraq to American interests has not. It's therefore rather extraordinary that Congress has moved to cut $500 million from funding for the U.S. civilian mission in Iraq, leaving a shortfall of more than $1 billion.
Yesterday a wide array of Iraq policy analysts of wildly different perspectives converged on an appeal for the United States to remain committed to Iraq politically in order to deliver on a long-term strategic relationship beyond the military mission. I authored an op-ed with John Nagl, my colleague at the Center for a New American Security, arguing for a continued political engagement. Meanwhile, Brookings released a report entitled Unfinished Business, co-authored by Ken Pollack, Raad AlKadiri, Scott Carpenter, Fred Kagan and Sean Kane. There's a striking degree of analytical and policy convergence among people who used to be at sharp odds over Iraq. Nagl and I are colleagues at the Center for a New American Security but we sharply disagreed back in 2007-08 about the appropriate strategy for Iraq, as did many of the people involved in yesterday's Brookings Report. Nagl and I had not read the Brookings report at the time when we wrote the Christian Science Monitor op-ed. That we all converge on a roughly similar position today is significant - a "harmonic convergence" which the authors of the Brookings report nicely recount: "members of our group who had once been ready to do great violence to one another over their differences found themselves in violent agreement over what needed to be done." The conclusion of my piece with Nagl nicely captures this, I hope:
Today, those who backed the 2007 "surge" should be keen to see its gains consolidated, while those who called for withdrawal should be keen to make sure that as it happens, disaster does not follow. And while Iraq certainly needs to step up its political game, the United States must also muster the bipartisan political strength and will to help build a stable Iraq that can be a partner to the United States in a vital -- and deeply troubled -- part of the world. Those who gave their lives for this fight deserve nothing less.
The Saudis always want to "fight the Iranians to the last American" and it is "time for them to get in the game," Secretary of Defense Robert Gates tells the French foreign minister in a newly released cable from February 2010. This captures perfectly the point I made yesterday about how to read the reporting in these cables about the private hawkishness of Arab leaders. The question of Arabs and Iran was never an information problem -- it's an analysis problem. The antipathy which many of these leaders feel for Iran has long been well known. But so has their reluctance to do anything about it. And so have the internal divisions within Arab governments and Gulf ruling families, and their deep fears of either Iranian retaliation or popular upheaval, and their bottomless hunger for U.S. weapons systems, and their hopes that the U.S. would magically solve their problems for them, and the disconnect between the palaces and the public.
Iran hawks have been gloating that the quotes from a few Arab leaders in the initial cable release vindicate their analysis and discredit skeptics of military action against Iran. It doesn't. Gates' comment about the Saudis needing to "get into the game" came almost two years after King Abdullah's now-famous "cut off the head of the snake" comment. And another cable from January 2008 shows Abdullah telling Sarkozy that Saudi Arabia "does not want to inflame the situation," recommends "continued international engagement" with Iran and "is not yet ready to take any action besides diplomacy." Maybe, just maybe, those private remarks weren't actually a very reliable guide to what the Saudis will really do in public?
The way the Iran hawks have been leaping at a few juicy quotes while ignoring the entire well-known context only shows the ongoing poverty of their analysis. I would expect better from the serious analysts on the hawkish side, but, well, there you are.
(Note: updated to include the Sarkozy-Abdullah cable)
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon is reportedly set to soon indict several top Hezbollah leaders for the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri. The expected indictments have brought Lebanon to the brink of crisis, while the Obama administration has rushed to express its support for the STL and to deliver an additional $10 million to its investigation. Most of the commentary thus far has focused on the potential impact of its anticipated anti-Hezbollah ruling, whether it might lead to war or how it might affect Hezbollah's participation in the government. But lost in that admittedly quite important shuffle is a more basic question: Does the STL have any credibility at this point? If not, how does that lack of credibility shape the likely political fallout of its indictment? And should the Obama administration really be hitching its wagon to a Bush-era zombie which might drag Lebanon into an unnecessary crisis?
Dan Drezner's going to bed early tonight because he doesn't think the outcome of Congressional elections matters much for foreign policy. But at least on Middle East issues, that's crazy. If the GOP takes Congress, it might overwhelmingly approve an Iran sanctions bill which ties the hands of President Barack Obama's administration and undermines its efforts to construct an effective negotiation strategy. Or it might irresponsibly fail to confirm ambassadors to Syria and Turkey, two key players in the region, for no good reason. I could even see it slashing funding for the civilian mission in Iraq, forcing the administration to scramble to deliver on its promise of a long-term civilian and political commitment. Oh wait…
Seriously -- and with apologies to some of the good eggs in Congress who have played a constructive role the last few years, such as Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Dick Lugar (R-IN) at the SFRC -- there are real reasons to worry about the effects of a GOP-controlled Congress for Middle East policy, even beyond the… odd… views of some of the likely new members and committee chairs. Foreign leaders and publics may take the outcome of the election as a signal about what to expect from Obama in the next two years and craft their strategies accordingly. A GOP victory might embolden Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to continue stonewalling Obama and to stoke partisan opposition to his policies, for instance. Iran may conclude that it's pointless to do a deal with Obama if they think he can't deliver on his end. But those perception effects will matter mostly at the margins, I'd say, since the political struggles have been going on for such a long time that the election is already factored into their calculus.
That doesn't mean that a changeover would be irrelevant. I'm not looking forward to clownshow hearings with lunatics denouncing creeping sharia and whipping up anti-Islamic hysteria, which could undermine Obama's public diplomacy and counterterrorism strategies and do some real long term damage. I'm gritting my teeth in anticipation of the next Congress becoming a platform for Iran war hawks, hyping the issue even further in anticipation of the 2012 elections… look for another round of sanctions and some kind of Iranian Liberation Act on the horizon, regardless of how things are actually going for U.S. diplomatic efforts. A GOP-controlled Congress may not go for the big $60 billion arms sale to the Saudis, what with that whole "sharia" thing. Endless harassing subpoenas and investigations and the inevitable impeachment attempt may be a wee bit distracting. But overall I think the effects are more likely to be domestic than on foreign policy or the Middle East.
And who knows -- maybe the polls are wrong. I don't think I know anyone who actually answers a home phone showing an unknown number on Caller ID, but I also know that I'm not the least bit normal, and far be it from me to question the geniuses over in the polling bureaus. Guess we'll find out tonight. And what would be the effect of a surprising Democratic performance and relative Republican failure after all this buildup? Beats me. But unlike Drezner, I don't think I'll be going to bed early tonight.
David Broder has raised some eyebrows with his bizarre Washington Post column arguing "with strong Republican support in Congress for challenging Iran's ambition to become a nuclear power, [Obama] can spend much of 2011 and 2012 orchestrating a showdown with the mullahs. This will help him politically because the opposition party will be urging him on. And as tensions rise and we accelerate preparations for war, the economy will improve." It should only be surprising to those who haven't been paying attention, though. Leaving aside the truly odd ideas about the economy, Broder is actually offering a warmed over, mainstream version of the argument coined in August by former Bush Middle East adviser Elliott Abrams that "the Obama who had struck Iran and destroyed its nuclear program would be a far stronger candidate, and perhaps an unbeatable one." Since then, each time the argument pops up I've tagged it on Twitter with "this idea was stupid enough when Elliott Abrams wrote it in August."
Broder's column is an interesting study in how really dumb ideas bounce around Washington D.C. Fortunately, it's not an idea that seems to have any support at all in the Obama White House. Unlike Abrams (who it's fair to assume does not wish Obama well in November 2012) and Broder (who... well, it's anyone's guess), the Obama team can see perfectly clearly that the American people have no appetite for a third major war in the Middle East and that launching a war with massive strategic consequences for short-term political gain would be epically irresponsible. They find this argument ridiculous. Even if they were primarily interested in their electoral fortunes in designing Iran policy, they would quickly see that such an Abrams-approved stratagem would wipe out their support on the left and gain absolutely zero votes on the right.
Now, I'm very worried that Obama's Iran strategy will lock the U.S. into ever more hawkish rhetoric which ties their hands and paves the way to future military confrontations. I think that serious people disagree about the likely effectiveness of sanctions or of diplomacy, and that all are struggling to find meaningful off-ramps in the glide towards ever more stringent and militarized regional containment. I worry about a lot on Iran policy. But this isn't one of the things that I worry about. I don't think that anyone in the Obama White House takes remotely seriously the epically bad Abrams-Broder advice to pursue military showdown with Iran for political advantage. This may offer an intriguing window into how Abrams thought about foreign policy in the Bush White House, and a depressing case study in the circulation of ideas in Washington, but it tells us nothing at all about how the Obama administration is thinking about Iran.
JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
One moment over the last month when I really regretted my hiatus was when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proposed that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state in exchange for a two month moratorium on settlements. The blizzard of commentary which followed covered most of the obvious problems with this proposal -- the inequality of the proposed exchange, the novelty of the demand, the implications for Israel's Arab citizens, and so forth. But nobody seemed to pick up on the half-serious suggestion I put out on Twitter: In exchange for a two month settlement moratorium, Abu Mazen could offer to recognize Israel as a Jewish state for two months.
Think about it! It seems fine to me for Israel to bring forward issues that matter to them in the negotiations, even if others object or it doesn't conform with past practice -- that's what negotiations are for. But it would be obviously silly to expect the Palestinians to make a permanent concession on an issue Israel seems to value in exchange for a temporary Israeli concession on a side issue. But a temporary "freeze" on the non-recognition of Israel as a Jewish state in exchange for a temporary "freeze" on settlements? Let the bargaining begin! And it gets better. Abu Mazen could have followed up by offering to extend the recognition as a Jewish state for a longer period if Israel agreed to extend the settlement moratorium for the same time period. And once they get to the final status two-state agreement, it could be made permanent.
Am I serious? Well, let's just say that we could sure use *some* creative thinking on the Israeli-Palestinian front, and leave it at that.
Hey all -- sorry to leave you without any blogging for the last month. The beginning of the academic year happened, along with a crush of other deadlines. I'm back. And a lot sure has happened while I've been gone -- Israel and the Palestinians resolved the impasse over a settlement freeze and resumed talks, and… oh wait, that didn't happen. Well, Iraq now has a government… what? Oh, um, well at least we've made progress in our nuclear talks with Iran. Wait, they haven't yet even said whether they'll show up for the talks next month? Hosni Mubarak's still around? Gaza still under blockade? Hamas and Fatah still haven't reconciled? At least the unjustly imprisoned Bahraini internet forum leader Ali Abdulemam has finally been released… oh, that didn't happen either. Okay then.
Now that I'm coming back online, I'm planning to tweak the format here a bit. Since we launched the Middle East Channel in March I've been struggling with the appropriate balance between my personal blog here and the longer essays which we feature over there. I've generally opted to limit myself to the longer essays which could be cross-posted to the Channel, while restricting my short comments to Twitter. But I find that I miss old-school blogging. So I'm going to experiment with going back to posting more of those quick-hitting posts here on my personal blog, while continuing to cross-post longer essays to the Middle East Channel. We'll see how that works out. In the meantime, apologies for my absence and I welcome me back to my blog!
This morning, at a small meeting with various Washington-based analysts and European diplomats, I was asked to speculate on the future of Iran policy. While it's of course impossible to predict, I don't expect to see military action by the U.S. or by Israel. Nor do I expect to see any serious progress towards a political bargain, either a narrow one about the Iranian nuclear program nor an expansive one about Iran's place in the Middle East. Nor do I expect Iran to test a nuclear weapon.
More likely than either is a relentless slide towards a replay of the Iraq saga of the 1990's: a steady ratcheting-up of sanctions, which increasingly impact the Iranian people but fail to compel change in the regime's political behavior; episodic and frequent diplomatic crises which consume the world's diplomatic attention and resources; the growing militarization and polarization of the Gulf; ongoing uncertainty about Iranian intentions and capabilities. Eventually, as with Iraq, the choices may well narrow sufficiently and the perception of impending threat mount so that a President -- maybe Obama, maybe Palin, maybe anyone else -- finds him or herself faced with "no choice" but to move towards war. "Keeping Tehran in a Box" is not a pretty scenario, nor one which I think anyone especially wants, but it seems the most likely path unless better "off-ramps" are developed to avert it. And such "off-ramps" are the most glaring absence in the current Iran policy debate.
The contours of the response to the Gaza flotilla fiasco are now coming into sharper public view: the Israeli government will significantly ease the blockade of Gaza in exchange for American support for a whitewash of the investigation of the flotilla incident. As I've said many times on Twitter, this is a good deal. No investigation was ever going to produce anything of any particular value, but easing the blockade of Gaza could have significant positive effects for the people of Gaza, the prospects of Palestinian reconciliation, the peace process, and American credibility in the region. None of those will happen on their own, of course. And nobody is likely to be fully satisfied with the new measures. I've been quite critical of how the Obama team has handled the Israeli-Palestinian track, and particularly the Gaza situation -- and if they had moved strongly to resolve the Gaza blockade a year ago, the issue wouldn't have been there now to exploit. But now, I think they deserve some real credit for nudging Israel towards finally making a move which could over time open up some real new possibilities for progress.
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"So the Arab core grows hollow," laments former Bush administration Middle East adviser Elliott Abrams in the Weekly Standard today. Most of the essay is an unexceptional restatement of neo-conservative tropes: Obama is weak, Arabs only respect power, Turkey has become a radical Islamist enemy... you can fill in the rest of the blanks. But the lament about the hollowness of the Arab core deserves more careful attention. Why has the Arab core grown so hollow? After all, the Arab core --- in his definition, mostly Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- has been closely aligned with the United States for many decades, and its leaders cooperated very closely with the Bush administration on virtually every issue. This points to a contradiction at the core of the approach favored by Abrams. The cooperation by these Arab leaders, in the face of widespread and deep hostility towards those policies among much of the Arab public, contributed immensely towards stripping away their legitimacy and driving them towards ever greater repression. The approach outlined so ably by Abrams isn't the solution to the problem of this "hollow Arab core." It is one of its causes. And the problem with Obama administration's regional diplomacy thus far has been that it has changed too little.. not too much.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.