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September 16, 2013

Seeing the Mideast Through a Cold War Lens Will End Badly for America

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While I took issue with Andrew Sullivan's idea that Vladimir Putin now "owned" the mess in Syria, Commentary's Jonathan Tobin evidently took the idea to heart and is terrified at the prospect. According to Tobin, it's quite possible that Putin could end up "owning" the Middle East with damaging results for the U.S. around the world:

The guiding principle of Russian foreign policy is twofold: annoy, humiliate, and defeat the United States every chance they get and thereby help rebuild the lost Soviet empire whose fall Putin still mourns. Russian adventurism in Syria won’t stop there. It will extend into Asia and cause havoc and diminish American influence there and everywhere else.

I think Tobin is utterly wrong in his premise that a loss of influence in one area of the world will lead to a loss everywhere (an argument that should have been put to bed after it was thoroughly discredited during the Cold War), but just for the sake of argument, let's accept that his framing is correct. Does it therefore make sense to overthrow Assad? Not even close.

First, let's look at the lay of the land. Russia has one client -- a regime that is battered by a civil war and that looks to be battling a fierce insurgency for years. It has a second, tepid ally in Iran. The U.S., on the other hand, can count on all the other major countries in the region. It's a chessboard that looks distinctly favorable to the U.S. even if Assad stays in power.

Second, for all of Tobin's breathless talk about "Brezhnev-era" diplomacy and Putin's scheme to reconstitute the Soviet empire (!), there is no chance whatsoever that Russia can re-assemble anything remotely like the Soviet Union again. It will never reclaim Central or Eastern Europe. Central Asia is independent and is as likely to tilt toward China as it is toward Russia. Ukraine, Russia's best hope for a pliable neighboring client, is also balking at Russian overtures, despite the election of Viktor Yanukovych, who was widely seen as in Putin's pocket. As Anton Barbashin and Hannah Thoburn noted recently, Russia's entire geopolitcal strategy for its near abroad is collapsing. The idea that saving Assad's bacon is an important building block in restoring Russian power makes sense only if you ignore almost every other development in Russia's Putin-era foreign policy. (It also ignores the strong evidence that Russia is in pretty bad shape domestically, too.)

Then there's the history. The last time the U.S. aided rebel groups to blunt the advance of Russian power, in Afghanistan, it ended in a transnational jihadist movement that killed thousands of Americans. Back then, the U.S. had the benefit of not knowing the danger of Islamic radicalism. Back then, Russia was a legitimate national security threat that warranted such risk taking. Today, there is no such excuse. Russia is hardly a large enough "threat" to the U.S. to warrant stoking a jihadist whirlwind in Syria just to give them a black eye.

(AP Photo)

July 25, 2013

John Kerry's Priorities

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According to Josh Rogin and Eli Lake, Secretary Kerry has spent "years" trying to nudge the Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table:

Long before he was sworn in as America’s top diplomat in January, Kerry in 2009 began conducting his own quiet peace process from the Senate through meetings, late-night talks, personal visits, and phone calls with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and other key leaders in the Middle East. Kerry conducted his shadow diplomacy even as President Obama’s Middle East peace initiative floundered.

Think about it: of all the issues facing the U.S. abroad, was this really the one that required hundreds of hours of diligent, pain-staking effort? Forget about whether or not Secretary Kerry will actually succeed in making peace (my money is on "no"), what would that peace even deliver for U.S. interests?

Meanwhile, there are potentially huge global trade deals to be had in Asia and Europe which could have a significant impact on the well being of Americans. Yet inexplicably, who lives where in the West Bank is of paramount importance.

(AP Photo)

April 17, 2013

Saudi Arabia Expelling Handsome Men

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Saudi Arabia engages in all manner of dubious practices: restricting a woman's ability to drive, crucifying people convicted of "sorcery" and so on. But here's something I just might stand behind: according to a report in the Arabic press, three officials from the UAE were booted out of the country "because authorities thought their looks may corrupt young women."

The handsome gentlemen in question claimed they were ejected not on the basis of their stunning looks but because Saudi authorities were concerned with a female artist they were travelling with.

Take it with a grain of salt, of course, but speaking as someone unlikely to be ejected from anywhere on the basis of my good looks, I can't work up that much outrage.

(AP Photo)


March 22, 2013

How the Israelis and Palestinians View the Peace Process

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As President Obama stumps for a resumption of the peace process, Gallup has published some polling on the sentiment in the region and finds "broad support" for such talks.

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Very few Israelis or Palestinians are hopeful that such a deal can be obtained, however. Israelis (both Jewish and non-Jewish) are more optimistic than Palestinians, with Gaza Palestinians being the least hopeful of the bunch (not surprising, given that they are also most opposed to the process).

Gallup also found that seven-in-10 West Bank Palestinians "broadly supported" the idea of a two-state solution, while 85 percent of non-Jewish Israelis favored that outcome. Jewish Israelis were less disposed to the idea, with 52 percent saying they favored it and 40 percent saying they opposed it. In Gaza, 51 percent opposed the idea, while 48 percent favored it. Gazans were also the most likely to endorse the use of military force to achieve their aims.

(AP Photo)

March 6, 2013

Kerry's Magic Words Will Keep Arms from Falling into Jihadist Hands

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Secretary of State John Kerry has a plan to stop Gulf state weapons from ending up in jihadist's hands in Syria:

Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that the Obama administration supported efforts by Middle Eastern nations to send arms to the opposition in Syria, and had had discussions with foreign officials to emphasize that those arms should go to moderate forces rather than to extremists.

“We had a discussion about the types of weapons that are being transferred and by whom,” Mr. Kerry said after a meeting with the prime minister of Qatar, which has been involved in arming the Syrian opposition. “We did discuss the question of the ability to try to guarantee that it’s going to the right people and to the moderate Syrian opposition coalition.”

Mr. Kerry’s comments were the most direct public affirmation to date that the Obama administration was supporting efforts to arm the Syrian resistance, provided that the arms are sent by other nations and that care is taken to direct them to factions the United States supports. [Emphasis mine.]

It's been discussed and emphasized. Is anyone else reassured by that?

(AP Photo)

February 26, 2013

Top House Democrat Wants to Arm Syrian Rebels

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) thinks it's a good idea to dump weapons into Syria. Engel evidently believes the U.S. has a "choice" between brokering a peace deal with Russia and Assad, or precipitating the Assad regime's violent collapse.

Engel does not offer any evidence to support the proposition that arming the rebels will produce an outcome amenable to American interests -- this is now apparently simply assumed on faith.

In other Syrian news, the Saudis are reportedly funneling infantry weapons from Croatia into Syria. Not to worry though: they're only giving those weapons to "secular" and "nationalists" groups -- and not jihadists. According to an unnamed CIA official, the rebellion against Assad remains "fragmented" and "operationally incoherent."

Maybe someone should tell Rep. Engel.

February 20, 2013

Why a Nuclear Iran Won't Trigger a Regional Arms Race

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Perhaps the biggest potential danger of a nuclear-armed Iran is the prospect of other states in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, seek their own weapons. Even those prone to avoid hysterical fear-mongering over Iran, like Henry Kissinger, worry about the potential for a rash of proliferation following Iran's nuclear breakout.

The Center for a New American Security is out with a report this week (PDF) arguing that if Iran does manage to build a nuclear weapon, it won't catalyze a wave of nuclear proliferation throughout the Middle East. The report centers specifically on Saudi Arabia, arguing that the conventional wisdom surrounding the country's incentives to seek nukes is "probably wrong," as "significant disincentives would weigh against a mad rush by Riyadh to develop nuclear weapons."

The report's authors argue that there are considerable technological, legal and political hurdles that stand between Saudi Arabia and a bomb. Instead, Riyadh would run to Washington for help deterring Iran, relying on the U.S. nuclear umbrella and additional assurances (such as the basing of additional "trip wire" forces in the region) instead.

The authors also pour cold water over the idea that Pakistan would simply sell nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia, writing that Pakistan views its nuclear arsenal solely through the lens of deterring India. Pan-Islamic solidarity isn't a big enough motivator to run the risks involved in selling those weapons to another state, they write. There is some small possibility that Pakistan would extend a "nuclear umbrella" to Saudi Arabia, but even that prospect was deemed highly unlikely by CNAS given the costs and difficulties it would entail.

Earlier this week, Peter Jones, a professor at the University of Ottawa and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, made a similar argument, claiming that expectations of rapid nuclear proliferation in the Middle East are belied by the actual history of how states behave in the nuclear age. Granted, the nuclear age isn't all that long and taking an overly deterministic view of how the Middle East would react could be equally blinkered. But it's still worth noting that most of the potential candidates for acquiring a nuclear weapon are either close U.S. allies (Jordan, Saudi Arabia) or too dysfunctional (Egypt) to manage it.

Yet, as the CNAS authors make clear, the policy most likely to avert nuclear proliferation in the Middle East is the extension of U.S. security guarantees and the positioning of more forward-deployed military assets. That's also problematic, given how such deployments provoke anti-Americanism, waste American tax dollars and draw Washington's strategic focus from Asia. Maybe some clever strategist could devise a way to make this China's problem, given the fact that they are far more reliant on Middle Eastern oil than the U.S. is.

(AP Photo)

February 19, 2013

Why Hagel Is Generating Such Sound and Fury

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Josh Marshall and Andrew Sullivan make the case that one reason Hagel's nomination has become such a hot potato is because he symbolizes the Obama administration's pivot away from the Middle East. Here's how Marshall puts it:

Let’s start with what we might incompletely call the Bush/neoconservative approach. It is a belligerent unilateralism, a vision based on an abundantly powerful and yet deeply endangered America, and — very significantly — one that sees almost all the big issues and future security of the country emanating out of the zone of conflict stretching from North Africa into Pakistan. In other words, it’s about oil, Islam, the Middle East and Israel.

The people around Obama have a different take on goals, threats and tactics. It’s not just that we can’t continue — either in security or fiscal terms — with open-ended occupations of Middle Eastern countries or hapless efforts to ‘transform the region’. It’s that the Middle East is fundamentally more yesterday’s news than tomorrow’s and that we need to be in the business of making it more yesterday rather than less.

There are multiple lines of attack against Hagel, so I don't know if there's really one meta answer for why his nomination has generated such controversy. Still, Marshall makes an interesting point.

(AP Photo)

February 15, 2013

Are U.S. Bases in Saudi Arabia No Longer Inflammatory?

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Last week, both the New York Times and Washington Post revealed the existence of a secret U.S. drone base operating inside Saudi Arabia. The news raised eyebrows because it was the existence of U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia during the 1990s that figured so prominently in Osama bin Laden's jihad against the United States. That the Obama administration would blithely drop another U.S. base into the country without regard for the potentially negative symbolism could, as Tom Engelhardt argues, be a sign of sheer stupidity. Max Fischer, however, isn't so sure, noting that since the revelation, reaction has been rather tame:

It is difficult to draw many conclusions from this one incident, but it does suggest several interesting possibilities. Perhaps, for example, there is something categorically different, for Saudi citizens, between a large number of U.S. troops and a relatively small drone base, which makes the latter less significantly offensive than the former. Maybe there have been so many hints and suggestions of such a base that people had time to get used to the idea.

Or maybe something about Saudi Arabia has changed during the past 20 years, such that what might have once caused wide public outrage no longer does. It is still an austere, deeply conservative and politically oppressive country, but it has not been totally immune from the Middle East’s two turbulent and ideologically charged decades.

It's obviously too soon to draw a firm conclusion, but it points to the underlying and probably unanswerable issue with the drone war: is it radicalizing more people than it is killing? Everything we know about the Obama administration's counter-terrorism policy suggests that they prioritize taking immediate action at the risk of long-term damage vs. enduring heightened risk in the short-term with the promise (hope) of mitigating the danger of jihadism over the long term.

It's hard to blame them for this approach -- there is no incentive for politicians to take the long view on this (or any) issue. Only time will tell if it was the right approach.

(Satellite photos of possible U.S. drone base in Saudi Arabia, via Wired)

February 11, 2013

Obama's Syria Call

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During testimony last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs indicated that they had agreed with a State Department and CIA proposal to arm factions of the Syrian rebellion. This advice was rejected by the Obama White House after a CIA analysis showed that the light weapons under consideration would not have shifted the balance. The idea of providing heavier weapons, like shoulder-fired missiles, was apparently not considered.

Naturally, this is being seized on by proponents of arming the rebels, such as Sen. John McCain, as proof of the president's shortsightedness. Instead, it seems like a prudent call.

All the arguments for providing Syria's rebels with heavy, "game changing" weapons hinge on the outcome of a post-war Syria, and that is an area where Senator McCain and others have been awfully vague. Merely toppling the Assad regime does nothing for America. The resulting chaos could be worse for U.S. interests if al-Qaeda cells flourish and begin attacking regional and international targets, or if another anti-American regime takes hold. If the U.S. can't make the situation better, it's wise not to make it worse.

(AP Photo)

February 9, 2013

Obama vs. His Cabinet on Arming Syrian Rebels

Watch White House, Cabinet Split on Civil War in Syria on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

Reports surfaced this week that the Obama White House rejected the advice of the CIA, State Department and Defense Department to arm the Syrian rebels. The NewsHour explores the internal debate.

February 4, 2013

The Case for Maintaining U.S. Aid to Egypt

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Ken Sofer argues that cutting U.S. aid to Egypt now would be too harsh:

While Egypt’s progress under President Muhammad Morsi towards an open, democratic state has been frustrating and often ineptly managed, the United States needs to remain engaged in efforts to influence the political and economic transition in Egypt, as well as bolster security in one of our most important allies. Both actions will require continued support for a full range of U.S. policy tools — including the annual security and economic assistance the U.S. has delivered since 1979 — and a more robust diplomatic engagement with the multiple centers of power that have emerged in Egypt during the past two years.

U.S. assistance and support for Egypt must be reformed in the long run to reflect new realities, but ending aid to Egypt is a blunt tool that should be reserved for red lines in the relationship, such as a coup d’état, a sharp authoritarian turn, or Egypt reneging on its treaty obligations with Israel. As incoming Secretary of State John Kerry recently stressed, now is not the time to rashly cut off support to Egypt. Clearly, Egypt’s people and leaders will determine its trajectory, but the United States can play a positive role in shaping outcomes.

Can the U.S. really play a positive role? Presumably Sofer means that we can continue to identify and work with liberal factions inside Egypt to bolster their capacity to peacefully organize while exerting pressure on the Brotherhood to adhere to the peace treaty with Israel and govern according to Egypt's constitution. None of these things are necessarily bad ideas, but are they sufficient? And if they fail, what will the U.S. have gained? Having meddled in Egypt's political transition and failed to secure our preferred outcome, we will simply have made more enemies, wasted billions of dollars and provided significant weaponry to a hostile force.

Events across the entire are very fluid right now. I think the notion that Washington can harness these turbulent forces to "shape outcomes" to its liking is, at best, optimistic.

(AP Photo)

February 2, 2013

Are Settlements a Threat to Israel's Existence?

Intelligence Squared recently hosted a debate in London on the question of Israel's settlements. As you'd expect, it gets rather heated.

January 15, 2013

Morsi's Utterly Unsurprising Anti-Semitic Rant

A 2010 rant in which now Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi calls Jews the "descendants of apes and pigs" has come to light, putting Morsi in a somewhat delicate position vis-a-vis his international supporters.

That Morsi holds these foul views should come as a surprise to exactly no one. Yet is it proof, as Walter Russell Mead argues, that "[t]here are a lot of illusions out there about how the exercise of power will moderate the Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups"?

I think it's far too soon to tell (and Hamas isn't a good analogy since they are internationally isolated in a way Egypt is not). Certainly, holding power in a democratic system opens the temptation for politicians to engage in more of this kind of demagogic and anti-Semitic vitriol, not less. But actions matter too, and while Morsi's Egypt isn't going to be the close partner that Mubarak's was, it may not look to provoke direct confrontation with either Israel or the U.S.

Still, there's also no reason to believe that moderation will naturally follow with governing responsibility as night follows day.

As far as the U.S. is concerned, there's not much that can be done to cure Morsi or the Brotherhood of their toxic views in the short term. There are likely to be calls to sever aid to Egypt, which may be wise. But the U.S. should resist the temptation to find other, more pliable allies inside Egypt who could seize power -- the route to moderation won't be found through more external meddling.

January 4, 2013

Coming to Grips with the End of the "Two-State Solution"

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A recent survey from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs is likely to pour cold water over anyone's hopes for a resumption of the peace process in 2013. It shows an Israeli public deeply skeptical about any possible deal and concerned about the repercussions of the "Arab Spring." (It also indicates that a majority would back a preemptive strike against Iran if the U.S. fails to act.) This helps to explain the right-ward tack of the Israeli electorate, which is poised to deliver as many as 14 parliamentary seats to the hawkish Habayit Hayehudi party, making it the third largest in the Knesset. Combined with Hamas' continued, violent rejectionism and the Palestinian's unilateral strong-arming at the United Nations, the prospects are grim indeed.

This puts Washington in something of a bind. It's the official position of the U.S. and the international community that the Israeli-Palestinian standoff be solved via a negotiated settlement ending in "two states for two peoples." Yet as it becomes clearer that this is not going to happen anytime soon (and certainly not at President Obama's urging), the debate should shift to more realistic questions, such as: if there will be no two state solution, what role should the U.S. play going forward?

(AP Photo)

January 3, 2013

A War in Asia Is Worse than Islamic Terrorism

Clifford May argues that Stratfor's Robert Kaplan is wrong to worry about Asia's brewing nationalism:

Similarly, in Asia, Kaplan sees China, Japan, and other nations “rediscovering nationalism,” undermining the notion that “we live in a post-national age.” He adds: “The disputes in Asia are not about ideology or any uplifting moral philosophy; they are about who gets to control space on the map.” True, but is the revival of such nationalistic sentiment really a crisis or even a major problem? Meanwhile, much more significant, Islamists are offering an alternative to both the old nationalist and the newer post-nationalist models.

It seems self-evident to me that Asia's disputes are considerably more worrisome. Islamists may be offering alternative models to discredited pan-Arab movements, but it doesn't mean the countries they lead (or could lead, if they take power) have much in the way of power or influence on a global scale. We know that when militant Islamist groups take power, the country in question tends to fail (see Afghanistan, Iran, etc.). Egypt's Brotherhood may offer an alternative to Taliban-style militancy, but then it will be stripped of the elements that make it dangerous to Western interests. Islamist governments of the kind May fears produce dysfunction, not global power.

The principle threat Islamism poses to the West is sporadic terrorism. There are some worst-case scenarios which could see sweeping upheaval across the Mideast that deposes the Saudi monarchy and plunges the global energy market into a major crisis. There's also the possibility that terror networks in Syria and Iraq could disrupt regional energy resources. That's clearly a danger, but one that carries the seeds of its own solution -- i.e., the more terrorism disrupts Middle East energy supplies, the faster the globe will transition away from Middle East energy. (A smart political class would be trying to head this off now, by reducing the use of oil -- not just producing more of it domestically -- but that's an argument for another day.)

Switching to Asia, the dynamics are just as combustible but the players far more important. It touches on two U.S. treaty allies, South Korea and Japan. It implicates three of the largest economies in the world (China, Japan, and the United States) as well as major maritime trade routes. The potential for conflict is rife, since unlike the Middle East where every country knows who owns what oil field (for the most part), Asia's untapped resources lie in contested waters. There's just as much history and bad blood among the major players in Asia as there is among the Mideast's various rivals (if not more), but unlike the Mideast, Asian states have advanced militaries.

So I think Kaplan has it right: we should be more concerned with Asia's brewing conflicts than Islamism.

December 27, 2012

Stopping Iran's Nuclear Program Won't Stabilize the Mideast

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In the course of yet-another attack on Chuck Hagel, Jonathan Tobin writes that "stopping the Islamist regime in Iran is the prerequisite for stability in the region."

This is a common refrain among those who want to take more aggressive action against Iran. And it's completely wrong. In fact, it's an ironic argument coming from Tobin since he (rightly) dismisses the naive "linkage" argument when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian peace (i.e. the argument that said peace is the key to ensuring Mideast stability).

First, Iran is not the only, or even the worst, source of instability in the region. Gulf state efforts at containing Iran's influence are fomenting a far greater source of instability in the form of Sunni jihadists. Moreover, U.S. support for the repression of its allies in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Jordan and the U.S. covert war in Yemen are also destabilizing the region. Throw in centuries-old sectarian fault lines, battles over water resources, ethnic separatism and map lines drawn by clueless colonial powers and it's painfully obvious that there are no shortage of powder kegs in the Middle East.

Iran and its support for militant proxies no doubt plays a role in stirring this already turbulent stew, but it's naive at best to think that merely "stopping" them (however that's done) would be sufficient to calm things down.

(AP Photo)

December 21, 2012

Israeli Missiles vs. Palestinian Rockets

One of the themes from the recent war between Israel and Hamas was the performance of Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system. In this video, Uzi Rubin, president of the defense consulting firm Rubicon, and founding director of the Israel Missile Defense Organization discusses how well it did.

December 11, 2012

Why Doesn't Washington Trust in Incentives?

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Hadley Gamble reports from a conference on U.S. interests in the Middle East:

U.S. delegates to the summit in Bahrain's capital Manama were pounded by questions from nations making up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) over the meaning of the administration's"pivot" to Asia and the possibility of a de-escalating American presence in the Gulf, this despite the half-billion dollars in investment earmarked for the Fifth Fleet's operational base in Bahrain.

But it was the specter of a rising China that pervaded much of the debate including security in the Strait of Hormuz. With over 87 percent of crude oil exports passing through the Arabian Gulf now headed to Asian markets,one question U.S.policy makers could soon be facing is whether America can or should continue to foot the bill for the security of China's oil supply.

"It's a technical problem as well as a strategic problem," says Jon Alterman, Middle East Program Director at another think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). "It's a global energy market that must be secured. Energy headed from the Gulf to Asia ends up fueling exports to the U.S. and America has the only navy capable of providing that security."

One reason the U.S. has the only navy capable of providing Gulf security is because none of the other stakeholders needs to make such an investment -- the U.S. taxpayer is doing it for them. It's odd that in the 21st century any outside power such as the U.S. or even China needs to be a guarantor of Gulf oil -- the Gulf states have enormous wealth and have a direct incentive to ensure that crude passes through Hormuz. The incentives align very neatly here: those that produce the oil should be responsible for securing its transit to global markets given that those regional navies are literally the best placed for such a role.

This is obviously not something that could happen over night (and in reality, it's not going to happen anytime soon since the U.S. is pouring more money into the Fifth Fleet's Bahrain base) but it's funny how a Cold War strategic imperative has morphed into an unassailable orthodoxy.

Instead of restructuring this regional bargain, the U.S. is content with a situation where it not only secures the Gulf states' oil revenue but also protect these states from Iran. In exchange, these states use the oil wealth that should be funding a regional navy to fund Islamist terrorist organizations and repress their own citizens.

(AP Photo)

December 10, 2012

What's the Deal with Qatar?

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There's one thing the revolt against Libya's Gaddafi and the revolt against Syria's Assad have in common: weapons have been provisioned to Islamic extremists and al-Qaeda syndicates by the government of Qatar.

It's difficult to tell whether it's due to incompetence (one person quoted by the Times describes weapons being handed out "like candy" without regard for who's getting one) or whether the government is deliberating seeking out Islamists to empower as a means of expanding its regional influence. But either way, Qatar's actions are bolstering people who may present a direct threat to the United States as failed states emerge in both Libya and Syria.

The U.S. is no passive observer: it has an air base in Qatar, is building a missile defense radar installation there and is ostensibly close to the government. While it probably couldn't stop Qatar outright, it seems odd that the Obama administration is doing nothing besides registering token complaints.

Or maybe not so odd: after all, Qatar is a plank in a regional strategy designed to contain Iran. It is, in fact, a perfect example of how such a strategy is going to end up fueling forces far more hostile to the U.S. and its interests -- and far less deterrable -- than Iran.

(AP Photo)

November 28, 2012

Europe Isn't Crazy Enough to Give Syrian Rebels Missiles, Right?

The New York Times reports that the Syrian rebels have gotten their hands on surface-to-air rockets and have used them at least once to down a regime helicopter, as shown above. The question now becomes: how did they get them? According to the Times:

Debate has raged since the start of the insurgency over whether Western and Arab nations should provide Syria’s rebels with portable antiaircraft missiles, often called Manpads. Some fear that such weapons could be smuggled away from the conflict and later used by terrorists against civilian airliners.

Manpads funneled by the United States to Pakistan helped Afghan rebels turn the tide against the Soviet Union in the Afghan war of 1980s. But that example is full of ambivalence — often cited in the Syria debate — because it led to an extended buyback program and decades of worry after Islamist militias, which eventually collaborated with Al Qaeda, prevailed over the Soviet-backed government in Kabul.

“Once these weapons are outside of government control, it is often extremely difficult to track their movement and control who has access to them,” said Matthew Schroeder, an analyst who studies missile proliferation at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.

The rebels have slowly been acquiring them nonetheless, including from Syrian military stock captured in battle, and according to the unconfirmed accounts of some rebel commanders, via smuggling from outside.

Tuesday’s helicopter downing occurred not far from a large military base outside Aleppo, which rebels overran last week. It comes after a monthlong string of rebel raids on air bases, followed by their ransacking for weapons.

Andrew J. Tabler, a Syria analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, called the use of the missile “a big deal, but not a surprising deal,” and said it appeared to confirm one of two things: weapons seized from bases are functional, or that there has been truth to the quiet talk that after the recent meeting in Doha, Qatar, to reorganize the Syrian opposition into a new coalition, outside countries would provide more sophisticated weapons to the rebels.

It would be one thing if the rebels raided regime stocks - that's unavoidable. But if any Western government thinks funneling surface-to-air missiles to Syrian rebels is a good idea, they need to have their heads examined. These weapons can be used to down passenger jets and there's no way that Western intelligence officials could stop a few of these weapons from leaking beyond Syria (it will be hard enough to stop Syria's own stockpiles from leaking).

Al-Qaeda has a long and ugly history of targeting Western aircraft. Literally handing over potent tools to Islamist rebels to do just that is insane.

November 26, 2012

The Flattering of the Hegemon

Robert Kagan thinks the world wants America:

The recurrent theme at the Sir Bani Yas Forum, hosted by the United Arab Emirates and Chatham House here last weekend, was, Where is the United States? ... It was impressive to see how much desire there is for a more active U.S. role in the Middle East. There was little talk here of America’s decline as the world’s preeminent power. No one is preparing for a Chinese, Indian or Turkish ascendancy. Not even the Europeans claim that the European Union has the will or capacity to take on a bigger role in the region. The United States remains by far the most important player.

What has people concerned and despairing is not American decline but America’s declining interest — the sense that the Obama administration, and the American people, have about washed their hands of the Middle East.

This isn't surprising: it's much like the concept of moral hazard in economics. If the world is always expecting a U.S. bailout, they'll never take it upon themselves to address their own issues.

November 19, 2012

Has Obama's "Light Footprint" Strategy in the Middle East Really Failed?

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David Sanger's piece in the New York Times highlights a lot of what I think is wrong about how foreign policy is discussed in Washington. The piece is anchored around the observation that a lot of things are bad in the Middle East right now (Syria, Iran's nuclear program, a war between Israel and Gaza militants) and that Obama has taken a "light footprint" approach to the region, ergo the light footprint is to blame.

This is dubious on a number of levels.

First, the "light footprint" simply isn't true relative to the baseline of America's presence in the Middle East circa the late 1970s. It is only "light" relative to the occupation of Iraq during the years 2003-2008. The U.S. still retains military bases in Kuwait and Bahrain, conducts regular military exercises in the region and has positioned additional naval power in the Gulf to contain Iran.

So the notion that President Obama has employed a "light footprint" makes almost no sense, unless we're talking about sustaining an occupation force in the region of over 100,000 U.S. troops -- and even then, Sanger's argument is untenable. There were more civilians killed in the Middle East when the U.S. had a "heavy footprint" than under Obama's light one.

Second, it's anchored in an assumption that the Middle East's problems are America's to solve - and that simply putting more effort into it (enlarging our "footprint") will yield the results we desire. This is an assumption that is belied by the history of outside powers- particularly Western powers -- in the Middle East. From the disastrous map-drawing of the victors of World War I to the disastrous intervention in Iraq, foreign powers have always struggled to forge a Mideast more to their liking.

The idea that President Obama's policies are failing presupposes a coherent alternative approach that Sanger doesn't mention (probably because it doesn't exist).

This is not to carry water for President Obama's Middle East policy - it has certainly failed, or disappointed, on a number of fronts. But it is to suggest that the reluctance to get the U.S. deeply involved in the region (any more than it already is) is based on an appreciation that U.S. interests in the region are changing and that the ability to effect positive change is extremely limited.

(AP Photo)

November 13, 2012

Leaving the Middle East Will Be Good for America

Kelly McParland picks up on the IAE report that forecasts American energy abundance in the near future and sketches out the ramifications:

The obvious first reaction would be an immense wave of relief. No more dependence on the Middle East? Great. No more wars over oil; no more catering to unstable autocracies run by corrupt sheiks with their army of princes and princelings. No more need to wonder what happens if some insurgent group of religious fanatics gains control over vital shipping lanes and shuts off the energy flow. No more oil wells blazing in the desert because one murderous dictator or another doesn’t want to give up his job.

True. So what’s it all mean? The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet communism produced prophecies of halcyon days, as the world’s sole remaining superpower, the U.S., held sway over a suddenly less-threatening world. Except it didn’t quite work out like that.

Actually, it worked out rather well for Europe - the center of gravity during the Cold War. It went from being the potential locus of World War III to being peaceful (with the exception of Bosnia) and relatively stable. It's also led to a slow reduction in U.S. troops in the region - a reduction which could very easily be accelerated based on Europe's overall wealth, stability and ability to defend itself from what meager threats it does face.

A similar thing won't exactly happen in the Mideast - if the U.S. were to withdraw from the Mideast as its own production ramps up, it won't be leaving behind a peaceful and prosperous region. But with ample energy production occurring in multiple regions beyond the Middle East, America's fundamental security needs will be met. What more is there to do?

October 15, 2012

America's Mideast 'Allies' Are Arming Jihadists in Syria

Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups that the West wants to bolster, according to American officials and Middle Eastern diplomats. - David Sanger

If you want to sum up the folly of Washington's Mideast strategy, this paragraph does a nice job. Here are American "allies" funneling weapons to the same ideological forces that attacked the U.S. on 9/11 and yet the U.S. taxpayer and armed forces are supposed to protect them from an Iranian nuclear weapon.

September 28, 2012

Radical Islam Is Its Own Worst Enemy

Yuir Yarim-Agaev is worried about America's approach to radical Islam:

The winning formula against Soviet communism proved to be peace through strength. A strong military and economy are important, but even more important is standing strong for basic principles. Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and the Soviet and East European dissidents all understood this.

We did not start wars with communism, Nazism or Islamism. They were imposed upon us. Those ideologies thrive on confrontation with the free world. Today we must revisit Kristallnacht, the Holocaust and the Cold War, to recollect our successful experience of dealing with those virulent ideologies.


I'd say Yarim-Agaev is correct on one count: like Communism, more radical versions of Islamism will burn themselves out over time - not because of anything the U.S. does but because they will prove incompatible with modernity and running a functional society. It may take a while, and it may get a bit hairy at times, but fundamentalism has a very lousy track record. There's no reason to worry about the long-term trend, despite the real (and worrisome!) prospect for short-term violence and dislocation.

The fact is, empty slogans like "peace through strength" are not only not applicable - they're patently absurd. The U.S. is exponentially stronger that any combination of Islamist foe and will only grow stronger if societies like Egypt embrace fundamentalism (given it's rather abysmal record in governance).

Those who preach the superiority of Western values should have a bit more confidence in their long-term prospects.

Now, if you really want something to worry about, may I suggest this?

September 19, 2012

Is it Time for the U.S. to Turn Away from the Middle East?

antiamerican.jpg

The ongoing protests over the anti-Islamic film "Innocence of Muslims" has naturally led to finger pointing and partisan sniping in the United States.

On the left, we have the absurd (and evidently untrue) suggestion from the Obama administration that it was all just outrage over "Innocence." Just a misunderstanding that can be soothed over with more pious homilies. Conservatives have responded by retreating to the usual trope that "strength" will be respected and that it was simply Obama's weakness that initiated the ferocious unrest.

The truth is, the U.S. has a very immature relationship with the Middle East. The left and neoconservative right tend to treat the region as child-like, in need of careful nurturing so that they can flower into their full democratic potential (and be ever grateful as a result). The right, when not indulging in the same democratic do-gooderism, tends to believe that the region is similarly child-like but needs to be cowed with displays of power, the better to "respect" us (translation: submit to policies they find offensive or oppressive). Both sides routinely express shock and outrage when the Mideast responds with displays of anti-Americanism.

Moreover, despite some topical changes, U.S. policy toward the region has been incredibly stable since President Carter: the U.S. takes a deep and abiding interest in keeping Israel secure, anti-American powers down, and corrupt and dictatorial allies in power. All three policies are deeply resented in the region. To a subset of the region, American values aren't that popular either (even a wholesale change in U.S. policy wouldn't stop Salafist rabble rousers from burning flags and marching on embassies at this or that perceived outrage, nor is it likely to stop dedicated jihadists whose radicalism can't be wound down all that quickly).

So the likely U.S. response to Middle Eastern protest, in the short term at least, is going to be more of the same. Conservatives will make vague but insistent demands for "strength" while liberals will talk up the merits of outreach and democratic reforms. Foreign policy experts will double down on the orthodoxy that the Mideast is just too important to be left to chart its own destiny.

I'd prefer to see these events as yet another reminder that the U.S. should be pursuing a policy of gradual disengagement and benign neglect. Over time, if fracking and alternative energy sources ultimately do disperse the concentration of strategic energy wealth around the world, the value of the Middle East to U.S. economic security will plummet (indeed, it was arguably overblown to begin with). That will knock the legs out of the rationale for supporting what dictators and monarchs are able to pull through the Arab Spring. It will also weaken the rationale for attacking countries like Iran, whose principle threat to the U.S. revolves around an ability to spike global oil prices. Washington's ability to secure Israel will suffer a bit with fewer dictators to bribe, but Israel's defensive capabilities can still be sustained offshore - through arms sales and intelligence sharing.

(AP Photo)

September 7, 2012

Are Saudi Arabia's Oil Wells Drying Up?

This is just what the world economy does not need:

If Citigroup is right, Saudi Arabia will cease to be an oil exporter by 2030, far sooner than previously thought.

A 150-page report by Heidy Rehman on the Saudi petrochemical industry should be sober reading for those who think that shale oil and gas have solved our global energy crunch....

The basic point – common to other Gulf oil producers – is that Saudi local consumption is rocketing. Residential use makes up 50pc of demand, and over two thirds of that is air-conditioning.

The Saudis also consume 250 litres per head per day of water – the world's third highest (which blows the mind), growing at 9pc a year – and most of this is provided from energy-guzzling desalination plants.

The study predicts that the Kingdom could be a net importer of oil starting as soon as 2030. Needless to say, the consequences of such a move would be profound. Saudi Arabia would not only see its strategic weight plummet, but (more importantly) global energy supplies would be that much tighter.

August 28, 2012

Is Saudi Arabia's King Sick?

Simon Henderson raises the alarm:

This morning, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia left the country for an undisclosed destination after deputizing Crown Prince Salman to take over his responsibilities in his absence. The reason for the trip has not been revealed, but there is widespread speculation that the eighty-eight-year-old king will head to New York City for medical treatment, perhaps after a brief stop in Morocco. He had operations for a back complaint in 2010 and 2011, and he was almost bent double while standing during an Islamic summit in Mecca two weeks ago. Photographs showed him in obvious discomfort as he left the kingdom today.

Despite the lack of information about the trip, now is a good time to examine Saudi Arabia's regional role and relationship with the United States. The Obama administration sees King Abdullah as a crucial ally in several fields. In Syria, Riyadh is providing arms to the anti-Assad rebels. In the oil market, it has expanded production to offset the drop in Iranian exports caused by nuclear sanctions. Although Riyadh was reportedly disappointed with Washington's swift removal of support for longtime ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the kingdom appears to share many policy objectives with the United States. Washington undoubtedly views Saudi leadership of the Arab and Muslim worlds as useful, not to mention its role as a major oil supplier.


August 7, 2012

What the Arab World Thinks It Knows About America

Mohammed Dajani did a deep dive into the Arab world's understanding of the United States:

In total, just over 1,000 books were collected. This shockingly low number alone says a lot about the poverty of Arab knowledge about America. Of the total, about 25 percent covered U.S. foreign policy, reflecting three dominant themes:

* the United States as policeman of the world, directing global politics to benefit U.S. interests;

* the Israeli lobby as the major force behind U.S. decisionmaking;

* and the United States as waging a war against Islam.

Typically, the authors of these books have never traveled to or studied in the United States, but that has no impact on their immense credibility and wide readership.

Dajani contends that the three major points above represent biased information about the United States. And indeed, the beliefs about the power of the "Israel lobby" or there being a "war on Islam" are spurious. But the first contention - that the United States acts as policeman of the world, directing global politics to benefit U.S. interests - seems pretty straightforward and unobjectionable, not the product of misinformation. Obviously the U.S. doesn't always succeed in directing global politics toward the benefit of its interests, but that's clearly America's grand strategy.

July 17, 2012

Obama's Approach to the Middle East Peace Process

Over the weekend, the Washington Post's Scott Wilson published a long piece detailing the Obama administration's efforts to forge a settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians. In it, Wilson touches on the president's early thinking:

Obama’s view of the conflict broke from Bush’s approach, which he believed overtly favored Israel and damaged the United States’ ability to play the role of trusted mediator. Bush developed a close relationship with then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a Likud member for decades until breaking off to form a centrist party known as Kadima. He even took Sharon to his ranch in Crawford, Tex., before Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005.

With what they viewed as mixed results from the Bush years, some Jewish leaders in the meeting that day disagreed with Obama’s assessment that only by creating some public distance with Israel could diplomatic progress be made with the Palestinians.

“The case he was trying to make was that the United States will be a better partner to Israel if it has more credibility with the Arab states, that we will be a better, more useful friend to Israel if we have more friends in the Arab world,” Rhodes said.

So now we have two case studies in the Bush and Obama approaches. One hugs Israel very tightly, the other tries to put some "public distance" between the two countries. Neither produced a negotiated settlement.

You have to believe, at this point, that the idea of fostering an enduring peace settlement between the two parties is beyond Washington's ability, and that such a reality is probably starting to sink in in Washington.

July 16, 2012

Russia Condemns Saudi Arabia on Human Rights

The diplomatic wrangling over Syria is steadily escalating:

Russian Human Rights envoy Konstantin Dolgov had expressed “great concern” about the situation in eastern Saudi Arabia following what he described as clashes between law enforcement and peaceful demonstrators in which two people were killed and more than 20 were wounded, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry website.

The Saudi interior ministry has said there were no clashes but that two people were killed by unknown assailants last Sunday in the east, where the country’s minority Muslim Shi’ite population is concentrated.

“The Kingdom learned with strong astonishment and surprise about the comment by the Russian Foreign Ministry’s representative on human rights which represents a blatant and unjustified intervention … in the internal affairs of the kingdom,” SPA quoted a Foreign Ministry statement, attributed to an “official source”, as saying.

Mark Adomanis thinks the Russians are "concern trolling." Certainly, the hypocrisy here knows no bounds.

July 9, 2012

The Middle East's Declining Relevance

Paul Miller says the Mideast's oil muscle is getting flabby:

The picture here is stark: when unconventional methods of oil development are taken into account, including development of heavy oil, shale oil and oil sands, the Middle East suddenly becomes a minor player. There may be as many as 7.9 trillion barrels of potentially recoverable oil left in the world from all sources, according to the IEA, with more than 90 percent of it outside the Middle East. The Middle East dominates the currently proven, conventional and commercially viable reserves, but these reserves account for less than 10 percent of the total oil in the world. Once unconventional methods become commercially competitive, the Middle East will be dwarfed by Canada, the United States and Venezuela.

Finally, as the massive unconventional oil deposits become commercially viable, the Middle Eastern oil industry will no longer be too big to fail. Middle Eastern oil producers will lose the implicit discount on risk they gain from dominating the current world oil market. They will, in fact, be dispensable, making it much harder for them to get a free ride on the implicit guarantees and subsidies they currently enjoy from their host governments. As they devolve from global politicians into businessmen, governments will rightly ask if these guarantees make good business sense anymore.

Miller then zeros in on the implications:

That means the central goal of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East will essentially be achieved: no power will be able to threaten the United States with unacceptable leverage over the American economy. That is because oil itself will be less important, and the world oil market will be more diffuse and diverse. The importance of this development cannot be overstated. It is a tectonic shift in the geopolitical balance of power, a strategically pivotal development only slightly less momentous than the fall of the Soviet Union. It is the slow-motion collapse of the Middle Eastern oil empire.

June 26, 2012

Pillars Built on Sand

For more than 60 years the Persian Gulf has been an American lake, and protecting its vast energy resources has been a cornerstone of U.S. strategy, through the Cold War, two wars in Iraq, and another in Afghanistan. If the Iranians are now fearless in dealing with the Obama administration, it’s because they have recognized that Obama is shockingly unconcerned with maintaining America’s longstanding commitments in the Gulf.

Let’s look at Obama’s Middle East policy the way Tehran must. Obama withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq and has scheduled a similar exit from Afghanistan, exposing the region to Iranian influence that the United States will have little ability to check. Instead the administration has left U.S. interests in the hands of largely incapable allies. The Obama administration did sell $30 billion worth of F-15s to Saudi Arabia—as if hoping that with enough hardware Riyadh would be capable of defending itself. - Lee Smith

These "allies" are incapable of defending themselves precisely because the U.S. taxpayer has assumed responsibility for their security for so long. And in any event, the kind of security challenges posed to friendly Gulf states by Iran has very little to do with conventional power, but subversion or guerrilla-style groups that act as Iranian proxies. The U.S. can protect a regime if Iran decided, ala Iraq in 1991, to invade a country - but the U.S. has far fewer tools to combat other levers of Iranian "influence" in the Gulf.

Smith's analysis is also tellingly incomplete. The Obama administration is not pulling U.S. forces and bases from Kuwait or Bahrain - i.e. they are not stepping back from a general U.S. commitment to the Gulf, they are unwinding the presence in Iraq. The view from Tehran, then, is more complicated. They see the U.S. liquidating (fragile) footholds in Iraq and Afghanistan but also a U.S. administration committed to attacking it via sabotage, sanctions, international isolation, arms sales to neighboring states and the continued presence of U.S. military forces in the region.

Smith continues:

The Gulf’s enormous reserves of oil make it one of the world’s great prizes​—​as has been recognized by those most hostile to the United States, from the Nazis and the Soviets, to Saddam Hussein, al Qaeda, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. What has compounded the danger for Washington is that the political order of the Gulf is inherently unstable, as has been abundantly clear ever since the collapse of the shah’s regime, which had once been an American security pillar in the Gulf, in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The Gulf's political order has been unstable since World War I, when the shattered Ottoman Empire was carved up by France and Britain. The subsequent "Pax Americana" has tried, with mixed results, to hold this order together, but it is fraying rapidly now. Smith would have the U.S. redouble its efforts to ensure that the Persian Gulf remains "an American lake" but how tenable is such a posture as the Arab Spring roils the region?

June 19, 2012

The U.S. Isn't Handing Off the Mideast to China

Niall Ferguson, long a proponent of an imperial role for the U.S., makes this rather shocking (for him) suggestion:

In terms of geopolitics, China today is the world’s supreme free rider. China’s oil consumption has doubled in the past 10 years, while America’s has actually declined. As economist Zhang Jian pointed out in a paper for the Brookings Institution last year, China relies on foreign imports for more than 50 percent of the oil it consumes, and half of this imported oil is from the Middle East. (China’s own reserves account for just 1.2 percent of the global total.)

Moreover, China’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil is set to increase. The International Energy Authority estimates that by 2015 foreign imports will account for between 60 and 70 percent of its total consumption. Most of that imported energy comes through a handful of vital marine bottlenecks: principally, the straits of Hormuz and Malacca and the Suez Canal.

Yet China contributes almost nothing to stability in the oil-producing heartland of the Arabian deserts and barely anything to the free movement of goods through the world’s strategic sea lanes.

Imagine, for a moment, if the Chinese said they would be building naval bases in the Persian Gulf to help stabilize the region and protect their vital sea lanes. Would the U.S. reaction be to celebrate the burden-sharing and use the move as an opportunity to downsize its own commitments? Or would Washington have a collective freak-out about Chinese "assertiveness" and the dangers of being locked out of the Middle East forever?

I'm going with the second option.

Indeed, the reason the U.S. is "pivoting" to Asia is partly because China is beginning to shore up its own sea lane defenses in its immediate neighborhood. The U.S. response hasn't been to celebrate China's assumption of greater responsibility but to complain that China is "destabilizing" the region with its arms buildup and "assertive" foreign policy. If China can't take steps to protect what it views as vital interests in its own neighborhood without provoking howls of protest from the U.S., why do we think they'd be welcome in the Middle East?

If anything, the arguments for a redoubled U.S. commitment to the Middle East are going to grow in direct proportion to China's strategic rise. If China is dependent on Mideast oil and the U.S. is holding the most leverage in the Middle East, we are de-facto arbiters of China's energy security. That's not a position the U.S. is likely to relinquish if a Cold War-style standoff with China starts to take shape.

The flip side to this, and the argument I'm more sympathetic too, is that fobbing off the troublesome region on China (or anyone) would be a very good idea. It's just interesting that Ferguson, of all people, would be advancing it.

April 11, 2012

Arab Middle East Doesn't Fear Iran

A new poll of Arab public opinion (via Patrick Appel) should help to frame the debate over U.S. mideast strategy:

The vast majority of the Arab public does not believe that Iran poses a threat to the "security of the Arab homeland." Only 5 percent of respondents named Iran as a source of threat, versus 22 percent who named the U.S. The first place was reserved for Israel, which 51 percent of respondents named as a threat to Arab national security. Arab societies differed modestly in their answers: The largest percentage viewing Iran as a threat was reported in Lebanon and Jordan (10 percent) and the lowest (1 percent or less) was reported in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Mauritania, and the Sudan. Even when respondents were asked about the state that poses the greatest threat to their particular country, the pattern held: Iran (7 percent), U.S. (14 percent), and Israel (35 percent). Interestingly, while Saudi Arabia is often cited as the primary Arab state in support of belligerence against Iran, the data indicate that this view doesn't seem to extend to its public. In the Saudi Arabian sample, only 8 percent believed that Iran presents a threat -- a lower percentage even than that which viewed the U.S. as a source of threat (13 percent).
Ponder this last finding. Saudi Arabia - a U.S. ally, showered with advanced American weapons, protected in 1991 from Saddam Hussein's approaching army - thinks the U.S. is a bigger threat to it than Iran.

It's little wonder why the region's autocrats want America to do the dirty work of attacking Iran for them. They not only get to hold America's coat, but the outrage from their own publics gets deflected off of them and onto the U.S. The real question is why on Earth Washington would oblige them.

April 2, 2012

Kissinger on the Mideast

Henry Kissinger offers his views on the Arab Spring:

For more than half a century, U.S. policy in the Middle East has been guided by several core security objectives: preventing any power in the region from emerging as a hegemon; ensuring the free flow of energy resources, still vital to the operation of the world economy; and attempting to broker a durable peace between Israel and its neighbors, including a settlement with the Palestinian Arabs.

Kissinger is wary about backing revolutionary regimes in the region lest they upset the apple cart with respect to these core objectives, but I think the Arab Spring and nascent civil wars in Syria and Libya represent an important occasion to re-conceptualize U.S. policy toward the region.

There are two predominate and competing impulses when it comes to America's approach to the Arab Spring - either we back democracy, come what may, to be on the right side of history and the Middle East's true aspirations. Or we back the forces of stability (and repression) to safeguard our core objectives and keep Islamist movements at bay.

Both of these impulses reflect a desire to meddle in affairs that cannot really be controlled by outside powers. In the Cold War context, a degree of interference in Middle Eastern affairs had a strategic rationale. Today, there is arguably much less of a need.

Consider Kissinger's list of "core" security requirements. The only item on his list that could seriously damage U.S. interests would be if oil were no longer flowing from the Middle East. Who lives where, in and around Israel's borders and which country exercises greater power relative to other states in the region are really subordinate concerns. Stated in this way, the U.S. really has one simple "requirement" from the region and it just so happens to align neatly with the economic interests (indeed, the very survival) of any regime of any ideological disposition in the Middle East.

Any attempts to press the scales of internal development probably won't work - the U.S. couldn't predict the Arab Spring before it sprung and is unlikely to be smart enough or well-positioned enough to guide it to an acceptable end point. Our interference will, at best, generate resentment among the very people we're attempting to help (or marginalize) and at worst, instigate violence. We shouldn't insist on making our Middle East policy more complicated than it needs to be.

March 25, 2012

Energy Independence Won't Save the U.S. from the Mideast

The New York Times claims that the U.S. is "inching toward energy independence" which would deliver a host of benefits:

Taken together, the increasing production and declining consumption have unexpectedly brought the United States markedly closer to a goal that has tantalized presidents since Richard Nixon: independence from foreign energy sources, a milestone that could reconfigure American foreign policy, the economy and more. In 2011, the country imported just 45 percent of the liquid fuels it used, down from a record high of 60 percent in 2005.

We often hear from politicians that "energy independence" through more domestic drilling is a way to save the U.S. from all of its Mideast headaches. But that's simply not the case.

Oil is priced on a global market, so even if the U.S. were able to source all of its oil domestically, the price it pays is set globally and thus subject to the same geopolitical dynamics (like Mideast tension) that have caused prices to spike in the past. If U.S. foreign policy today is based on the principle that Mideast supply must pass through the Gulf unmolested less prices soar, it's going to remain anchored in that principle even as the U.S. produces more oil domestically.

To truly reap any foreign policy dividends from "energy independence" would require not just pumping more oil domestically but either: 1. finding so much oil in North America that's economically viable to extract that it would literally be impossible for any regional supply shocks to significantly impact prices; 2. using another energy source that is not impacted by oil price fluctuations. Neither of these options seems particularly plausible in the short-to-medium term.

Of course, there's nothing about America's oil consumption that mandates our current policies in the Middle East. But pumping more oil domestically is not going to sway the argument one way or another.

March 22, 2012

Saudi Arabia to the Rescue?

I've voiced some skepticism in the past about Saudi Arabia's spare capacity (or lack thereof) so it's worth highlighting this FT piece:

In a matter of days, Saudi Arabia has hired the largest number of super-tankers in years. When the tankers load their cargo in Ras Tanura, the world’s largest oil terminal, in the next couple of weeks and start a 40-day voyage towards the US Gulf coast, they will deliver a wall of oil with a single aim: to bring prices down.

Let's hope it works.

January 19, 2012

Will the Middle East Be China's Problem?

NightWatch sees China's partnership with the UAE as filling a void left by the U.S. :

China has maintained a strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia since before the first Gulf War. The closer relationship with the UAE signifies that China intends to be consequential in both Sunni Arab states as well as Shiite Iran.

A recent analysis concluded that Arab states friendly to the US now perceive that the will to use US influence in the Middle East is waning and thus have begun looking for other partners to help ensure their long term security. China is the obvious candidate and is showing that it is prepared to fill any power vacuum the US choses to leave.

Omri Ceren sees this as some kind of problem, but I'd argue it's a positive development. China is more dependent on Gulf oil than the U.S. (the short-sighted killing of the Keystone pipeline notwithstanding) and should therefore take on a larger share of the Gulf's security headaches.

January 18, 2012

Can Saudi Arabia Pump More Oil?

Saudi Arabia's geostrategic value lies in the fact that its immense reserves of oil make it a "supplier of last resort" able to meet global demand. Kevin Drum says that Saudi power is in this regard is basically spent:

Neither the Saudis, nor anyone else, control the price of oil anymore. Saudi Arabia has very little spare capacity to speak of, and couldn't open the taps to bring the price of oil down even if it wanted to. So no matter what the price of oil is, that's approximately the price the Saudis say is fair. That way they don't have to admit that they no longer have the ability to seriously affect oil price movements.

This, by the way, is the same dynamic at work in OPEC meetings. They meet, they talk, and then they release a statement saying that they aren't going to increase production quotas because the current price is fair and "customers aren't asking for more oil." Well, of course they aren't. By definition, customers aren't asking for more oil as long as oil is selling at the market-clearing price. Which it is. Because if it's not, then the price goes up, and guess what? Markets clear and customers aren't asking for more oil. Nonetheless, this charade regularly gets played out anyway, because OPEC doesn't want to admit that their production quotas are mostly meaningless these days.

January 13, 2012

What Is Obama Doing in the Middle East?

Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, told a group of supporters on a private conference call Wednesday that the entire idea of deploying large numbers of troops in the region, which has been U.S. policy since the Gulf War in 1990, is now over.

"The tide of war is receding around the world," said Rhodes. "It's certainly going to be the lowest level, in terms of number of troops, that we've seen in 20 years. There are not really plans to have any substantial increases in any other parts of the Gulf as this war winds down."

Just after the administration announced it was not able to reach a deal with Iraq to extend the U.S. troop presence there in October, the New York Times reported the administration was planning to increase troop levels in nearby countries, such as Kuwait, to account for the risk of Iraq backsliding into violence. But Rhodes said Wednesday that's just not the case. - Josh Rogin, Dec. 16, 2011

The Pentagon quietly shifted combat troops and warships to the Middle East after the top American commander in the region warned that he needed additional forces to deal with Iran and other potential threats, U.S. officials said.

Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, who heads U.S. Central Command, won White House approval for the deployments late last year after talks with the government in Baghdad broke down over keeping U.S. troops in Iraq, but the extent of the Pentagon moves is only now becoming clear.

Officials said Thursday that the deployments are not meant to suggest a buildup to war, but rather are intended as a quick-reaction and contingency force in case a military crisis erupts in the standoff with Tehran over its suspected nuclear weapons program. - LA Times, Jan. 13, 2012

Either Mr. Rhodes didn't get the memo, or the administration is talking out of both sides of its mouth.

December 22, 2011

Maintaining Leverage Over Egypt

Andrew Exum argues that American leverage in the Middle East shouldn't be traded away so lightly:

The principle problem is one that has been in my head watching more violent crackdowns in Bahrain and Egypt: the very source of U.S. leverage against the regimes in Bahrain and Egypt is that which links the United States to the abuses of the regime in the first place. So if you want to take a "moral" stand against the abuses of the regime in Bahrain and remove the Fifth Fleet, congratulations! You can feel good about yourself for about 24 hours -- or until the time you realize that you have just lost the ability to schedule a same-day meeting with the Crown Prince to press him on the behavior of Bahrain's security forces. Your leverage, such as it was, has just evaporated. The same is true in Egypt. It would feel good, amidst these violent clashes between the Army and protesters, to cut aid to the Egyptian Army. But in doing so, you also reduce your own leverage over the behavior of the Army itself.

But all of this begs an important question - leverage for what? The idea is that the U.S. invests in places like Bahrain and Egypt because it needs or wants something in return. During the Cold War, it was keeping these states out of the Soviet orbit. In the 1990s and beyond, it was ensuring these states remained friendly with Israel and accommodative to U.S. military power in the region. Today, what? What is it that U.S. policy requires from Egypt and Bahrain that necessitates supporting these regimes during these brutal crack downs?

December 19, 2011

U.S. Resets in the Middle East

According to Josh Rogin, the Obama administration is framing the Iraq pullout as a return to off-shore balancing (without calling it as such):

President Barack Obama's administration has disproved the notion that a large military footprint helps fight terrorism and, following the end of the Iraq war, is now returning the United States to a pre-1990 military level in the Persian Gulf, according to a White House official.

Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, told a group of supporters on a private conference call Wednesday that the entire idea of deploying large numbers of troops in the region, which has been U.S. policy since the Gulf War in 1990, is now over.

"The tide of war is receding around the world," said Rhodes. "It's certainly going to be the lowest level, in terms of number of troops, that we've seen in 20 years. There are not really plans to have any substantial increases in any other parts of the Gulf as this war winds down."

Just after the administration announced it was not able to reach a deal with Iraq to extend the U.S. troop presence there in October, the New York Times reported the administration was planning to increase troop levels in nearby countries, such as Kuwait, to account for the risk of Iraq backsliding into violence. But Rhodes said Wednesday that's just not the case.

"I don't think we're looking to reallocate our military footprint in any significant way from Iraq. They won't be reallocated to other countries in the region in any substantial numbers," he said.


This is certainly an encouraging sign as far as it goes. But the U.S. still retains a significant military footprint in the region and is likely to do so for a long time.

December 6, 2011

A New Policy Toward the Middle East

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Kenneth Pollack calls for a reappraisal of U.S. strategy toward the Middle East, advocating a move away from backing oppressive autocrats to supporting democrats. Here's his rationale:

Whether we like it or not, the changes sweeping the Middle East will affect America's vital national interests as well. We hate to admit it, but we must face the fact that our economy -- and the economy of the wider world, with which we are inextricably intertwined -- is addicted to oil. And the price of oil, and thus the welfare of our economy and that of the rest of the world, is deeply affected by what happens in the Middle East.
From this observation, Pollack goes on to sketch out a strategy whereby the U.S. aids the Middle East through a complicated political transition without angering Saudi Arabia, endangering Israel or empowering autocratic Islamist forces.

That's certainly one way to avoid high oil prices, but there are other ways to mitigate rising or unpredictable oil costs. Between improved automobile mileage standards, research into alternative fuels, better urban planning and domestic drilling - the U.S. has other policy options available than attempting a complicated strategy of micromanaging Middle Eastern politics.

(AP Photo)

November 21, 2011

As Iraq Went, So Goes Syria

The administration cannot imagine a post-Assad Syria because its vision is obscured by a post-Saddam Iraq. The Obama White House wants to avoid the sectarian bloodshed that split Baghdad. More than anything else, it wants to steer clear of anything that smacks of George W. Bush. Accordingly, the administration has petitioned the opposition to stay peaceful and include minorities in the Sunni-majority movement. A White House wary of Bush-style nation building has taken on the role of opposition building. - Lee Smith
A harrowing sectarian war has spread across the Syrian city of Homs this month, with supporters and opponents of the government blamed for beheadings, rival gangs carrying out tit-for-tat kidnappings, minorities fleeing for their native villages, and taxi drivers too fearful of drive-by shootings to ply the streets. - Anthony Shadid

I would say the Obama administration has this right.

October 18, 2011

BlackBerry Goes Down, Dubai Gets Safer

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As many of you may know (especially if, ahem, you're following our new tech site), BlackBerry suffered a massive global outage last week. Apparently, the brief blackout lead to a dramatic increase in driver safety in Dubai:

In Dubai, traffic accidents fell 20 per cent from average rates on the days BlackBerry users were unable to use its messaging service. In Abu Dhabi, the number of accidents this week fell 40 per cent and there were no fatal accidents.

On average there is a traffic accident every three minutes in Dubai, while in Abu Dhabi there is a fatal accident every two days.

(AP Photo)

September 29, 2011

U.S. at Cross-Purposes in the Middle East

Hillel Fradkin and Lewis Libby have a long essay on America's fading position in the new Middle East:

Taken together, these trends have called into question a number of strategic concepts on which American diplomacy in the Middle East has rested for decades:

• that a prosperous and democratic Turkey, anchored in the West, would, by example, draw other Muslim countries westward;

• that the failures of fascism, communism, and Shia theocracy, coupled with the enticements and pressures of a global economy, would in time lead the region, with Western help, to realign toward a liberal future in the broader community of nations;

• that the peace Israel reached with Egypt and Jordan would in time radiate outward into peace with other Arab states, and thus minimize the prospects of a major regional war;

• that the world community would prevent states in the region from getting nuclear weapons; and

• that regional divisions and American strength would prevent forces hostile to the US from dominating the region.

I think what's evident from the above checklist of regional priorities is that they had failure baked in. The U.S. has had a mixed track record when it comes to preventing a major regional war - there was one almost every decade since 1970 - and two of them involved the United States. Nor is it clear why Washington expected that the Middle East would, with "Western help," realign to a "liberal future" as it simultaneously stopped hostile states from dominating the region and prevented them from acquiring nuclear weapons. "Western help" was (and is) directed toward illiberal states in the region as a bulwark against "forces hostile to the United States." The process of doing one thing undermines the other.

Put in more concrete terms: is there anyone who sincerely believes that you can support the Saudi monarchy to check Iran while simultaneously "helping" that same monarchy dissolve itself in the name of Western liberalism? It's sounds like a self-evidently absurd position and yet, it's being held up as something Obama has failed to do...

September 27, 2011

America's Collapsing Position in the Mideast

Michael Brenner charts it:


The United States’ strategic position in the greater Middle East is disintegrating. The repercussions of the Arab Spring have undercut the tacit alliance among Washington, Cairo, Riyadh, Amman and Jerusalem with auxiliary members in Yemen and Tunisia among other peripheral states. Mubarak is gone while his former military cohorts sap the revolution’s zeal through symbolic acts that include untying the bonds to Israel while cultivating an alliance with Turkey. Both pillars of the regional sub-system are animated by a deepening anti-American feeling that are spreading across the Islamic world. In Ankara, moreover, the Erdogan government now has its own calculated view of a diplomatic field that no longer has the United States as its hub. The House of Saud is so badly rattled that it is turning on Washington as the cause of its new-found sense of vulnerability. Iraq’s sectarian Shi’ite leadership spurns the idea of a special relationship with us while incrementally building structures of cooperation with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Tehran will not bend the knee in response our relentless campaigning of shunning and sanctioning it – leaving Washington with the bleak choice of war or an indefinite period of containment – in the absence of any readiness to speak seriously with its leaders about the terms of a modus vivendi.

September 21, 2011

A Saudi Joy Ride

We all know that women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, but after watching this video of a Saudi joy ride, you'll be left wondering why. They can't be any more crazy.

September 12, 2011

Is the U.S. Helping Saudi Arabia in a 9/11 Cover Up?

Shortly after 9/11, it was reported that the U.S. hastily flew several Saudi nationals out of the country (a report later confirmed). It was never really clear why this happened - the official explanation cited their personal security - but it sure did smell bad. Now comes this striking report in the Miami Herald:

Just two weeks before the 9/11 hijackers slammed into the Pentagon and World Trade Center, members of a Saudi family abruptly vacated their luxury home near Sarasota, leaving a brand new car in the driveway, a refrigerator full of food, fruit on the counter — and an open safe in a master bedroom.

In the weeks to follow, law enforcement agents not only discovered the home was visited by vehicles used by the hijackers, but phone calls were linked between the home and those who carried out the death flights — including leader Mohamed Atta — in discoveries never before revealed to the public.

Ten years after the deadliest attack of terrorism on U.S. soil, new information has emerged that shows the FBI found troubling ties between the hijackers and residents in the upscale community in southwest Florida, but the investigation wasn’t reported to Congress or mentioned in the 9/11 Commission Report....

The fact that the FBI did not tell the Inquiry about the Florida discoveries, Graham says, is similar to the agency’s failure to provide information linking members of the 9/11 terrorist team to other Saudis in California until congressional investigators discovered it themselves.

The Inquiry did nevertheless accumulate a “very large” file on the hijackers in the United States, and later turned it over to the 9/11 Commission. “They did very little with it,” Graham said, “and their reference to Saudi Arabia is almost cryptic sometimes. … I never got a good answer as to why they did not pursue that.”

The final 28-page section of the Inquiry’s report, which deals with “sources of foreign support for some of the Sept. 11 hijackers,” was entirely blanked out. It was kept secret from the public on the orders of former President George W. Bush and is still withheld to this day, Graham said.

There are three possible things at work here. The first is that what's being reported by the Herald may look damning but is incomplete and, if all the facts were known, wouldn't actually be damning. One newspaper report does not an indictment make. The second possibility is that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia were using some U.S.-based Saudis as moles in al-Qaeda and subsequently tried to cover those tracks after 9/11. The third possibility is that the U.S. is simply helping Saudi Arabia cover up their role in 9/11. I think the last possibility is the least likely, but most outrageous. In any event, this is a line of inquiry that should be pursued. Is there another possibility I'm missing?

September 1, 2011

Cash Rules Everything Around Them

The Saudi royal family that is:

The foreign assets of Saudi Arabia’s central bank have crossed $500bn for the first time.

Measured on a per capita basis or as a percentage of gross domestic product the kingdom’s foreign asset holdings are substantially higher than China’s, according to research from HSBC in Dubai.

Of that vast wealth around $360bn are holdings in foreign securities, the majority of which, analysts say, are US treasury bills. The central bank doesn’t give a full break down of its holdings and doesn’t say whether its data is mark-to-market.


August 22, 2011

The Middle East, Democracy and Israel

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James Traub defends his enthusiasm for the Arab Spring against the pessimists:

There are, I suppose, two reasons to dump cold water on the Arab Spring. The first is that you think the enthusiasm is overblown, and you enjoying taunting the romantic spirit that sees reflections of America and its democratic values in every popular uprising across the globe. Go ahead and jeer; I would only note that even the grumpy and skeptical John Quincy Adams, who famously abjured crusades to destroy foreign "monsters," added that the American people are "well-wishers" to those everywhere who seek freedom.

The second reason is that you believe that while it may be good for them, it's bad for us. But in the long term, that cannot be so. Illegitimate government in the Arab world has been a disaster for the neighborhood, and for the world. Legitimate government provides the only narrative powerful enough to prevail over the appeal of extremism. We have every reason to be well-wishers.

The trouble with this formula is that, from Washington's perspective, the "us" is not simply the United States but Israel as well. After all, a key American interest in the Middle East has been creating a benign security environment for the state of Israel. Reconciling that interest with an interest in the flourishing of Middle East democracy is going to be difficult indeed. Take the recent news from the Egypt-Israeli border:

"Egyptian blood is not cheap and the government will not accept that Egyptian blood gets shed for nothing," state news agency MENA quoted a cabinet statement as saying.

Egypt's Information Minister Osama Heikal told state TV: "The assurance that Egypt is committed to the peace treaty with Israel ... should be reciprocated by an equivalent commitment and an adjustment of Israeli statements and behavior regarding various issues between both countries."

As crowds of Egyptians protested angrily at the Israeli embassy in Cairo through Saturday night, burning Israeli flags in scenes that would never be allowed during the Mubarak era, both countries were trying to defuse the diplomatic crisis.

But restraint was in short supply among the contenders to become Egypt's future leader in elections due by year-end.

"Israel must realize that the day when Egypt's sons are killed without an appropriate and strong reaction are over," wrote presidential hopeful Amr Moussa -- former secretary-general of the Arab League -- on his website.

Another contender for the leadership, Hamdeen Sabahy, hailed a protester who scrambled atop the Israel embassy in Cairo in the early hours of Saturday to remove and burn the Israeli flag as a "public hero."

The Obama administration is obviously going to work hard to paper over this immediate dispute and wield whatever leverage it has left in Egypt to kept the country at peace with Israel. It's also clear that, at least initially, the goal will be for the U.S. to have its cake (a secure Israel) and eat it too (a democratizing Middle East). But what if those two goals become, at least for a time, mutually exclusive?

(AP Photo)

August 4, 2011

Blaming Obama for Syrian Violence

Considering Obama has pledged to support the Arab Spring, his failure to do more in Syria is shameful and puzzling. If Assad is overthrown, the entire power equation in the region changes in ways favorable to the West and unfavorable to the mullahs in Iran. Short of an invasion—which no one advocates—we cannot decisively alter the course of events in Syria. But we do have the ability to bring considerable influence to bear, if we take a strong stand along with regional allies such as Turkey. So far that hasn’t happened, and the people of Syria continue to pay a price for this president’s characteristic ambivalence. - Max Boot

Implicating President Obama in the slaughter of Syrian protesters by their murderous rulers strikes me as unfair, to put it mildly. Boot links to Elliott Abrams' piece outlining what the U.S. can do to thwart the Assad regime. His suggestions boil down to these six items:

1. Use "psychological warfare" against members of the military.
2. Ask Turkey for help.
3. Talk bad about Assad in public.
4. Sanction Syrian businesses.
5. Ask the Syrian opposition to say nice things.
6. Topple Gaddafi.

Given that a bona fide armed uprising and NATO bombing campaign has failed to dislodge Gaddafi (thus far), why would these measures do much to deter Assad and company much less staunch the immediate humanitarian crisis?

Star Trek in the Middle East

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Let's pause for some good news in the Middle East:

A Star Trek-themed attraction is set to boldly go ahead in Jordan, as US$1.5 billion of funding has been secured for a major tourism and theme park development.

Construction work on the 74-hectare Red Sea Astrarium project in Aqaba, which will include four hotels and 17 entertainment developments, is expected to start early next year....

The Astrarium project will not be King Abdullah's first voyage into the world of Star Trek. He is known to be a "Trekkie", as fans of the long-running science-fiction show are known. He reportedly made a brief cameo on an episode of Star Trek: Voyager in 1995, when he was still a prince.

I'm still smarting over the loss of the Star Trek cafe in the Las Vegas Hilton...

(AP Photo)

July 28, 2011

Ajami and Hill on the Arab Spring

Peter Robinson's interview with Charles Hill and Fouad Ajami on the latest edition of Uncommon Knowledge is worth your viewing for a number of reasons, but particularly for a line of argument on the Arab Spring interesting, particularly around the 5 minute mark:

Robinson: But what happens next?

Hill: It's going to hell. Because primarily, frankly, the United States has stepped back from its support of freedom and democracy... The speech of the president on the Arab Spring, that climaxed with the question of the Israeli-Palestinian situation, it turned the whole narrative back to 1975 when there's a new narrative that didn't say "Death to America" or "All that matters is the Palestinians", it was an entirely new freedom agenda that we have just stepped away from.

Hill's focus leads to a comment by Robinson on a missed opportunity for a genuine reset of relations with the Arab world. This is intriguing, and it will almost certainly be included in any general election campaign from the right as a criticism of Obama's response to the Arab Spring and the campaign in Libya. Whether it has any sticking power will likely depend on the continuation of world events in Egypt and the political success of the Muslim Brotherhood there.

July 14, 2011

The Arab Spring and U.S. Interests

Aaron David Miller reflects on the impact the "Arab Spring" will have on U.S. interests in the Middle East:

Democracy, or whatever strange hybrid of popular government, weak institutions, and elite control replaces the autocrats, will be a double-edged sword. And American policies, already marked by contradiction and challenge, won’t escape its cutting edge. The gaps separating American values, interests, and policies could actually grow, and the space available to the United States to pursue its policies—from Iran to Gaza to the Arab-Israeli peace process—could contract. The growing influence of Arab public opinion on the actions of Arab governments and the absence of strong leaders will make it much tougher for the United States to pursue its traditional policies. For America, the Arab Spring may well prove to be more an Arab Winter.

I used to agree with this sentiment, but now I'm not so sure. Consider what American policies in the region currently are:

1. Supporting Israel's military superiority: This can and will continue no matter who is in charge of the various states currently in tumult. Indeed, if democratic governments do take hold in the region and shift away from a "cold peace" with Israel, U.S. commitments would only strengthen. Certain facets of U.S. policy toward sustaining Israel's preeminence - such as bribing Egypt - might be constrained, but certainly not derailed (and let's not forget that Egypt is badly in need of money).

2. Ensuring the "free flow" of oil: U.S. forces stationed in the region ostensibly for this purpose are in countries where either the "Arab Spring" has been crushed (Bahrain) or never flowered in the first place (Kuwait and Qatar). Newly empowered democracies in Egypt and Tunisia might protest this basing, but could they really end it?

3. Containing Iran: This is as much a Saudi interest as an American one, and as long as the Saudis swing their sizable checkbook behind the effort it's sure to have a few takers.

4. Striking al-Qaeda: This is perhaps the most vulnerable of America's interests, since weaker governments and reformed intelligence services might have qualms about torturing people on America's behalf or simply be overwhelmed with other responsibilities to cater to Washington's requests. Still, if the U.S. can keep tight with Jordan and Saudi intelligence the impact could be manageable.

In other words, the major American policies in the region that inflame regional public opinion are also fairly well insulated from that opinion. They may be altered at the margins, but probably won't be completely derailed.

July 11, 2011

Arabic - The Language of Facebook?

A new study looks at the use of Facebook in the Middle East:

Since it was launched in 2009, use of the Arabic Facebook interface has skyrocketed to reach some 10 million users today. At the moment, they represent about a third of all Facebook users in the Arab world, but it’s expected that within a year Arabic will overtake English to become the most popular Facebook language in the region.

Spot On Public Relations, a Middle Eastern publicity agency specializing in on-line social media, found that two times as many people log on to Facebook in the Middle East and North Africa than purchase a daily newspaper.

“What’s fascinating for us is not Facebook’s overall growth in the Middle East but its growth in Arabic,” Alexander McNabb, director of Spot On PR told The Media Line.

According to their study, Arabic Facebook has grown about 175% a year, double the overall rate of the mushrooming use of Facebook worldwide. In some countries, like Algeria, it grew a whopping 423% annually.

“Until recently, many marketers pretty much took for granted that the region’s Facebook users were English-speaking Arabs or expatriates, using Facebook in English and representing a fairly elite group of on-line consumers. It has become apparent that this is now far from being true,” the study found. “We can expect Arabic to become the most popular Facebook langue in the region within a year.”

The Arabic platform’s 10 million users make up about 35% of the region’s Facebook subscribers, up from 24% in May 2010.

“The new phenomenon we are seeing is the growth in Arabic language usage, which in some parts of the region is truly phenomenal,” McNabb said.

According to their figures, 56% of Facebook users in Egypt (3.8 million) opt for the Arabic language version. In the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, 41% use Arabic and in Saudi Arabia it’s 61%. By contrast, Morocco has 17% recorded Arabic users and at the bottom of the list is the United Arab Emirates, with its big expatriate population, with just 10%.

July 2, 2011

Islam Without Extremes

Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol, author of the just-released Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, writes at The Public Discourse on his view of the Arab Spring in the context of history:

When the colonial period ended in the mid-20th century, another terrible trend began: secular dictatorships, which promised to "modernize" their countries with iron fists, often at the expense of the conservative Islamic groups that they typically suppressed. That is why the political movements that emerged from these Islamic groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, became increasingly radical, and even gave rise to radical offshoots that resorted to armed struggle (jihad) to fight the regimes that suppressed them and even their Western patrons.

The modern Middle East, in other words, has been haunted by the vicious cycle between two extremes: secular authoritarianism and Islamic authoritarianism. Islamic liberalism, which had its roots in tradition, and which looked promising in the 19th century, was obscured.

But now, with the Arab Spring of 2011, we seem to be at a critical turning point: First in Tunis and then in Egypt, the secular dictators who dominated these countries were overthrown by popular uprisings. But the Islamic groups that joined and even helped lead these revolts did not attempt to establish dictatorships of their own; they vowed to join the democratic process for which the masses have yearned. This embrace of democratic principles seems to have freed these countries from the extremes between which they were caught, and has created the right context in which Islamic liberalism, once again, might flourish.

Akyol is far more optimistic than I am about the time frame for such a flourishing liberalism: I believe there's a need for a generational shift here, for time in which those who favor a free society to grow in number and influence to form the superstructure of a new culture and government. But his book looks interesting, and I'm intrigued by his thesis.

July 1, 2011

Recognizing the Muslim Brotherhood

Jonathan Tobin argues that the United States has reversed longstanding policy in recognizing the Muslim Brotherhood, a policy that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed had existed on and off for about five or six years:

The resumption of formal contacts is a symbolic victory for the Brotherhood. It is also a signal to the Egyptian military the United States has no problem with the Brotherhood’s bid for more influence in the country, paving the way for a condominium between the army and the influential Islamist party.

While it can be argued the United States needs to be informed about the positions of all the major players in a key country such as Egypt, that could have been taken care of by private talks. Instead, the Obama administration has taken a critical step towards the acceptance of a militant anti-Western group as part of a future government of the most populous Arab nation.

This is certain to spark strong criticism from Capitol Hill, where the Muslim group CAIR is currently being targeted for investigation for possibly taking money illegally from Brotherhood groups and allies, and where such a relationship is viewed as a quick hop to legitimizing the Brotherhood-affiliated Hamas.

Given the climate, I would certainly expect this to become a prominent election issue in the months ahead. Then-candidate Obama backtracked almost entirely from his endorsement of "meeting with our enemies" during the 2008 campaign - this could be construed as reconsidering that walkback.

June 29, 2011

Gulf Arabs Too Scared to Protest

According to a new poll:

Many Persian Gulf Arabs are frightened and pessimistic about the uprisings and revolutions that are sweeping the Middle East and are too afraid to speak out against their rulers.

According to a new opinion poll commissioned by the Qatar-based public forum The Doha Debates, that's the current mood among many gulf Arabs.

The online study, conducted by YouGov in June in which over 1,000 respondents were polled in 17 different Arab states, said an increasing number of gulf Arabs view the so-called Arab Spring with pessimism and fear.

And more than more half of those polled in countries in the Arabian Peninsula said they would be be "too scared" to go out in the streets and protest against their leaders.


The mood is far more optimistic in North Africa with 85 percent of respondents saying they thought Arab states would be democracies in five years, the poll found.

June 21, 2011

Next Stop, Syria?

Maybe, if Lindsey Graham has his way:

Nevertheless, Sen. Graham, who two years ago spent a pleasant time visiting Tripoli and discussing with Qaddafi the possibility of providing military aid, now is relentlessly beating the war drums for U.S. and NATO escalation. And he views Libya as a template for military action elsewhere. Appearing on CBS’s Face the Nation, he declared: “If it made sense to protect the Libyan people against Qaddafi, and it did, . . . the question for the world is have we gotten to that point in Syria?” Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, added: “We may not be there yet, but we’re getting very close.” He explained: “It has gotten to the point where Qaddafi’s behavior and Assad’s behavior are indistinguishable . . . You need to put on the table all options, including a model like we have in Libya.”

At the risk of sounding "isolationist" let's just point out that the Libyan "model" has yet to produce the desired results and the tab continues to grow. Why this option would be "on the table" is beyond me.

June 15, 2011

Are the Saudis Done With the U.S.?

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Richard Cohen is worried that Prince Turki al-Faisal's scolding op-ed augurs a dangerous shift in Saudi attitudes toward the United States:

This is not your usual diplomatic language -- and even for Turki it is rough. It shows, though, a not-surprising frustration in the Arab world with American policy tethered for the moment to a quite stubborn and unimaginative Israeli policy. Both countries are suffering from a surfeit of democracy. Israel's governing coalition is held hostage by the right; America's governing coalition is in the same fix.

Turki does not run out of wagging fingers. He says that those who think that the U.S. and Israel will determine the future of Palestine are dead wrong. "There will be disastrous consequences for U.S.-Saudi relations if the United States vetoes U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state. It would mark a nadir in the decades-long relationship as well as irrevocably damage the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and America's reputation among Arab nations. The ideological distance between the Muslim world and the West in general would widen -- and opportunities for friendship and cooperation between the two could vanish." This from our ally, not to mention friendly gas station.

I think Cohen is worrying about nothing. The Saudis aren't so angry that they're declining American weapons or private defense cooperation. The "opportunities for friendship" revolve around the fact that the Saudis want the U.S. to defend them and we want them to periodically produce more oil. Israel doesn't really figure into this equation at all.

(AP Photo)

June 8, 2011

U.S. Interests After the Arab Spring

After America’s withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan and the constraint to our strategic reach produced by the revolution in Egypt, a new definition of American leadership and America’s national interest is inescapable. - Henry Kissinger

One would think this would be the case, but is it? Few of the leading Republican candidates at the moment have engaged seriously with this question, content to recycle bromides defending the existing orthodoxy. The Obama administration has blithely set about digging another hole for the U.S. in Libya. Any attempt to argue for a narrower set of American interests in the Greater Middle East are met with cries of "isolationism." This is not an environment conducive to a sober reappraisal of U.S. interest in the Middle East.

June 1, 2011

Arab Spring vs. Eastern Europe

Georgetown's Marc Howard runs down the differences and similarities between the Arab Spring and Eastern Europe in 1989. His conclusion:

The 2011 movements in the Middle East have been beautiful, inspiring, and worth supporting. They are certainly reminiscent of the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe in many respects. Yet a closer inspection shows that the important similarities are nonetheless outweighed by key differences. As a result, I am pessimistic about the long-term effects of these movements and their ability to bring about consolidated democracy.

It is ironic, in my view, that so many observers have chosen the term “Arab Spring” to characterize these events. It does not take an especially astute historical memory to recall that the East European analogue to this concept was in fact the “Prague Spring” of 1968. In a sense, the term may actually be appropriate—even if unintentionally so—for the result in the Middle East may wind up looking more like the brutal crackdown and crushing of dissidents and opposition of 1968 than the successful democratizing revolutions of 1989.

May 31, 2011

Why the Gulf Is (Relatively) Quiet

Gallup has a new poll out which sheds some light on why the states in the Persian Gulf have been relatively quiet during the Arab Spring:

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May 25, 2011

Staying in Iraq

Frederick Kagan has a new report (pdf) out making the case for an extended U.S. presence in Iraq beyond 2012. Here's what's in it for the United States:

A long-term strategic military partnership also benefits the United States. It would deter serious Iranian adventurism in Iraq and help Baghdad resist Iranian pressure to conform to Tehran's policies aimed at excluding the United States and its allies from a region of vital interest to the West.

In other words we must stay in Iraq to ensure that we can stay in Iraq.

While Kagan devotes the majority of the report to arguing why U.S. forces should stay within Iraq, he doesn't devote any space to arguing how the U.S. should go about convincing the Iraqi government. And indeed, Kagan admits that the Maliki government is "of two minds" about letting the U.S. retain a military presence in his country after the Status of Forces Agreement expires. One theme Kagan does stress is that Iraq should allow U.S. troops to stay in the country to keep Iraq free of foreign interference. This, for instance, was apparently written without irony:

If Maliki allows the United States to leave Iraq, he is effectively declaring his intent to fall in line with Tehran’s wishes, to subordinate Iraq’s foreign policy to the Persians, and, possibly, to consolidate his own power as a sort of modern Persian satrap in Baghdad. If Iraq’s leaders allow themselves to be daunted by fear of Maliki or Iran, they will be betraying their people, who have shed so much blood to establish a safe, independent, multiethnic, multisectarian, unitary Iraqi state with representative institutions of government. Maliki and Iraq’s other leaders contemplating such a course should beware the persistent dangers of the Arab Spring to would-be autocrats and those who appear to place control of their countries in the hands of foreigners.

Replace "Persian" with "American" and you can make the exact same argument from the standpoint of Iraqi nationalism. Kagan's entire argument is that Iraq's value to the United States hinges, in great measure, on how it can be used to defenestrate Iran. In other words, both the Americans and the Iranians are attempting to use Iraq in much the same way - as a springboard to enhance their power.

May 23, 2011

Who Has the Time?

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To understand why this latest batch of peace process enthusiasm is likely to end in disappointment, it's important to examine two competing and contradictory tensions at the heart of the effort. Both involve time.

The first is a concern, raised by White House adviser Dennis Ross, that rushing into an agreement when neither party is ready could make things worse. The argument is that peace requires trust-building and efforts to prepare the respective publics for a deal. Suffice it to say the Palestinians haven't quite pushed a narrative of compromise (witness the reaction to the leak of the Palestinian Papers and the rush of PA officials to disavow their contents). That goes double now that Hamas is a part of the Palestinian government.

The counter argument is that absent a deal the Palestinians will be further disadvantaged in future negotiations. In making the case for the "1967 lines" as a starting point for negotiations, President Obama conceded during his AIPAC speech that those lines would of course be adjusted to accommodate "facts on the ground." And what are those facts? Continued Israeli settlements. Indeed, successive Israeli administrations have pursued a settlement policy precisely to create "facts on the ground" that would ensure more and more land would fall under Israel's ostensible control.

The longer negotiations and a lack of an accord continues, the more "facts on the ground" may change, and in Israel's favor.

This circle is really impossible to square, which explains why all U.S. efforts to resolve this crisis have consistently ended in failure. This time will likely be no different.

(AP Photo)

May 20, 2011

Why Not Honesty?

The president's message seems to be that we will speak out on core principles while doing little to promote them. This is likely to incur to American foreign policy all of the detriments of acrimony from governments whose assistance we need and charges of hypocrisy from those working for change, without accruing the benefits of actually fostering change.

The Bush administration is rightly criticized for being long on vision and deficient in day-to-day management for advancing that vision. The Obama administration has taken two and a half years to more or less endorse that vision while demonstrating an equal deficiency in in the conduct of its policies. - Kori Schake

Here's my question: why even "endorse the vision" that our interests and values align in the Middle East? Why not treat the American people - and, indeed, the world - like adults and try to explain the basis for U.S. policies in the region? The president made a passing attempt at framing U.S. strategic interests in the region - terrorism, oil, Israel - in the beginning of the speech, only to drown it out in a lot of Wilsonian sanctimony. But a speech discussing the convergence of American values and interests in the Middle East that did not have a single word - not one - about Saudi Arabia, and only passing mention of the Gulf states, is self-evidently dishonest.

American "values" are clearly, and frequently, subordinate to strategic interests in the Middle East. No one can seriously deny this - nor is it something to necessarily be ashamed of! Rather than trying to dress this up in a lot of flim-flam, why not tackle it head-on? Why not explain to the U.S. and the world that in some places the U.S. cannot simply support "democracy" when it does not know what will spring forth from that democracy or that the U.S. has much more urgent needs to attend to - such as protecting Israel and ensuring the stability of the Saudi monarchy?

And if this is a message that Washington doesn't believe will go over well, but is nonetheless not inclined to actually change those offending policies, why not keep quiet? Consistently saying one thing and doing another is a formula for not being taken seriously. The Chinese, I suspect, are going about their business in the Middle East much the same way, but unlike America, they are not embarrassing themselves in the process.

How Did Israel/Palestine Become Central?

If we learned one thing from the "Arab Spring" thus far it's that outrage over a lack of domestic political freedoms and economic opportunity - not Israel or the West Bank - has the power to bring large numbers into the "Arab street" and even topple regimes. And yet, in the aftermath of President Obama's speech on the Arab Spring, all anyone is talking about is Israel and the Palestinians.

This frame of reference is ultimately counter-productive. Whatever else one says about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it's only a strategic liability for the U.S. insofar as Washington insists on subsidizing the combatants and trying - in a ham-handed and incompetent fashion - to solve it.

May 19, 2011

Saudi Ties and the Arab Spring

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It's ironic that on the day President Obama is set to give a talk highlighting American policy toward the Mideast in light of the "Arab Spring," the AP reports on expanding U.S.-Saudi defense ties and cuts the legs out from anyone hoping the administration was going to embrace democracy for the region.

Writes Robert Burns:

Saudi Arabia is central to American policy in the Middle East. It is a key player in the Arab-Israeli peace process that President Barack Obama has so far failed to advance, and it is vital to U.S. energy security, with Saudi Arabia ranking as the third-largest source of U.S. oil imports. It also figures prominently in U.S. efforts to undercut Islamic extremism and promote democracy.

One wonders how that final sentence got into this report. Saudi Arabia is one of the principle ideological progenitors of the radicalism that the U.S. is combating. It was America's protection of Saudi Arabia (stationing troops there to "contain" Saddam's Iraq) that spurred bin Laden to turn his jihadist guns on the U.S. Far from "undercutting" extremism, America's embrace of Saudi Arabia has propelled it.

And it's absurd on its face to suggest that Saudi Arabia - a monarchy - somehow figures in "democracy promotion" efforts. One need only see how Saudi Arabia reacted to uprisings in Bahrain to understand how the kingdom views pro-democracy protests.

As to the merits of expanding and deepening America's defense ties to Saudi Arabia, who knows. Maybe if the U.S. declined to help Saudi Arabia defend its oil fields from terrorists and loosened the six decade defense relationship, the kingdom would collapse, oil prices would skyrocket and the civilized world would be forced to eek out a miserable existence in a Mad Max-style post-apocalyptic dystopia. Or maybe the Saudis would get on with life and find a way to keep selling the oil they need to keep their country afloat.

Either way, the fact that neither the administration nor the Saudis are eager to publicly discuss what it is they're doing should be proof enough that whatever President Obama says about U.S. policy towards the Middle East isn't quite the whole story.

(AP Photo)

May 18, 2011

Non-Violent Resistance

So now we have an opportunity to see how Americans will react. We've asked the Palestinians to lay down their arms. We've told them their lack of a state is their own fault; if only they would embrace non-violence, a reasonable and unprejudiced world would see the merit of their claims. Over the weekend, tens of thousands of them did just that, and it seems likely to continue. If crowds of tens of thousands of non-violent Palestinian protestors continue to march, and if Israel continues to shoot at them, what will we do? Will we make good on our rhetoric, and press Israel to give them their state? - Matt Steinglass

One of the problems with inserting ourselves into this issue is that somehow the onus is on America - not the parties to the conflict - to resolve this issue. What if, following Steinglass' advice, the U.S. "presses" Israel to give the Palestinians a state - and Israel refuses? Or the Palestinians make demands that Israel can't accept?

Saudi Arabia's Counter-Revolution

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A good piece here by Glen Carey documenting how Saudi Arabia is launching a counter-revolution in the Middle East:

The Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council also may admit Morocco and Jordan as the group seeks to counter “the wave of political change in region,” Ayham Kamel, an analyst with Washington-based Eurasia Group, wrote on May 13.

Under a pact dating back to 1744 between the Al Saud ruling family and Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab, the kingdom has maintained an austere brand of Islam, known as Wahhabism, in return for the Sunni hierarchy’s acceptance of the crown.

The king renewed the alliance with clerical power at home “to present a solid front against the events that are sweeping the region,” Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said in a phone interview.

Political loyalties have their costs. Of the expenditure announced by Abdullah in February and March, $67 billion went to funds for religious groups and the military, according to a royal decree issued by the king.

President Obama is supposedly readying a speech that will make everything all better, but it's worth pointing out how bad America's choices are in the region so long as we insist on trying to micro-manage events there. We can get on board with Saudi Arabia as they whip up Sunni fundamentalism to counter Iran's supposed "influence" in the region, or we can throw our lot in with an amorphous group of protesters to instigate a series of destabilizing regime changes that could leave the region in flames. Good times.

(AP Photo)

May 14, 2011

The Gulf Cooperation Council Expansion

Suleiman al-Khalidi writes on the emerging anti-Iran bloc in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and what the newly formed club could look like if Jordan and Morocco - two countries which are certainly punching below the weight of GCC members Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, UAE, Bahrain, and Qatar - decide to join in:

Ali Anouzla, editor of independent Moroccan news portal Lakome.com, said: "This looks like an alliance that will be against both geography and strategic common sense."

"Amid the popular revolts demanding democracy, it feels more like a political alliance aimed at preserving the stability and the continuity of Arab monarchies, the majority of which are led by prominent tribes and clans in their respective countries."

Reactions from other corners of the Muslim world were overwhelmingly supportive of the surprising step. Speaking from Riyadh after a meeting with King Abdullah, Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak voiced his support for the steps, particularly focused on Bahrain, saying, "Malaysia fully backs all sovereign decisions taken by Saudi Arabia and GCC states to safeguard the stability and security of the region in these trying times."

The question is just how much of this expansion has to do with safeguarding, and how much of it is reactionary crackdown. Elliott Abrams outlines the consequences for the Arab world of such a step:

An enlarged and well financed GCC can provide real leadership to the Arab world. The members are all countries with good relations with the United States, including in most cases close intelligence and military ties. The trick will be to prevent the GCC from becoming a reactionaries club, trying to avoid “carefully considered reform” and instead to preserve royal roles that make constitutional monarchy and democracy impossible. The legitimizing principle of government in the 21st century is popular sovereignty. The GCC monarchs can adjust to that, as many European monarchs did—or in the end disappear as did many other European kings and princes, ending up living in exile in rented mansions with plenty of time to contemplate what went wrong.

As we move into a new period in the Arab world, whether we answer these questions in a way that allows for less bloodshed and more smooth transitions may be up to the newly expanded GCC.

May 13, 2011

Stopping Syria

Aaron David Miller doesn't think President Obama can stop Assad's brutal crackdown:

And after all, what could he do that would deter a regime in a fight for its life? Pull U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford from Damascus? Impose a travel ban on Assad and his family? Press the Europeans to freeze Assad's money?

In a world of symbols, these steps may make an important point about American values. However, none of them will make a difference in how events play out in Syria.

I'm coming around to the view that "making ourselves feel good" has now become a core national interest, irrespective of objective outcomes.

May 12, 2011

Oil and Terror

When I first joined the Navy, our military footprint in the Middle East consisted of a one-star admiral and three ships. We now have multiple three- and four-star generals, and 150,000 men and women of the armed forces are deployed at great expense to our blood and treasure.

It is no coincidence that as our nation’s reliance on oil has grown, so has our military presence in this area, which is rich in oil and ripe with volatility.

Reforming our energy policy will take time and political will, but the stakes to our national security are too high not to act. It took nearly a decade to find bin Laden. Let’s start our next attack on Al Qaeda right now — working to end our oil dependence. - Dennis Blair

Transforming America's energy economy in the way Blair states is the work of decades. It will do nothing about al-Qaeda or radical recruitment in the short and medium-term. Indeed, this energy independence argument has little to do with U.S. national security - oil wealth will flow to terrorists so long as their are people who need oil and terrorists who need money. American dollars can easily be substituted with Chinese yuan in this regard.

This is actually an argument about whether or not the U.S. should sustain a large military footprint in the Middle East. I'd agree that such a large military footprint in the Mideast is counter-productive and should be reduced, but we don't need to go on a crash course to reduce oil consumption to do that - it could be done in relatively short order for far less money than transforming America's energy economy.

U.S. Views on Syria

Via Rasmussen:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that just nine percent (9%) of Likely U.S. Voters think the United States should get more directly involved in the Syrian crisis. Sixty-five percent (65%) say America should leave the situation alone. But one-in-four voters (25%) aren’t sure.

These findings are comparable to the views voters held in the early stages of the protests in Egypt in late January and in Libya a month later.

Yet while the Obama administration has limited itself publicly to criticism of the Syrian government’s actions, just 28% of voters think the administration’s response has been good or excellent. Nearly as many (23%) rate the response as poor.

If Americans don't want to get involved in Syria's uprising, it's not clear to me why they're unhappy with the Obama administration. In any event, as Rasmussen noted, public opinion on these matters isn't all that important.

May 10, 2011

Religious Rants

As a proud Canadian and a three-day-a-year Muslim, I was gobsmacked by an op-ed in the National Post, one of our two Canadian national newspapers. Jonathan Kay, managing editor of the paper, highlights Dutch Politician Geert Wilders and his controversial views on Islam.

Out of haste (I’m on deadline) I’m lifting from The Atlantic Wire’s summary:

Wilders insists that he doesn't hate Muslims but considers them "victims of bad ideas," describing Islam not as a religion, "but rather a retrograde political ideology with religious trappings." Kay understands why Wilders's opinions have branded him "a hatemonger" in the eyes of many Europeans. Still, "His insistence on the proper distinction between faith and ideology deserve to be taken seriously," he argues. "For it invites the question: If we permit the excoriation of totalitarian cults created by modern dictators, why do we stigmatize (and even criminalize) the excoriation of arguably similar notions when they happen to be attributed to a 7th-century prophet?"
Being in no position to challenge Wilders on what is and isn’t in the Koran, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. And from the little I’d previously read about Wilders, I wasn’t left aghast by his comments.

But it’s Kay’s closing thought that irks. It singles out without context or perspective. There’s little question that Christopher Hitchens might have issues with Islam but at least when he strikes a match he burns down the whole pantheon:

[…] I will not be told I can't eat pork, and I will not respect those who burn books on a regular basis. I, too, have strong convictions and beliefs and value the Enlightenment above any priesthood or any sacred fetish-object. It is revolting to me to breathe the same air as wafts from the exhalations of the madrasahs, or the reeking fumes of the suicide-murderers, or the sermons of Billy Graham and Joseph Ratzinger.
Granted, it would be irresponsible not to discuss the role of Islam in a study of today’s geopolitical landscape and there’s room for only so many words in an op-ed piece, but to confound religion and ideology is mistaken - even in the case of Islam, whose current convulsions through it’s own Enlightenment are creating a branding challenge, to put it lightly.

Challenging and questioning the diktats of prophets, 7th century or otherwise, can never be a bad thing. But if Islam is to be judged ideology rather than religion on the basis of its most literal interpretation then there can be no halfway. The yardstick must stretch across the religious (er, ideological?) spectrum before it can find any moral force.

In crises of faith I often turn to a trusted friend to help light the way - television.

I leave you with The West Wing, season two, episode three:

Alim

May 2, 2011

After bin Laden

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In an effort to organize my own thoughts on the killing of Osama bin Laden, I find myself returning over and over again to Peter Beinart's take on the terror mastermind's demise:

President Obama now has his best chance since taking office to acknowledge some simple, long-overdue truths. Terrorism does not represent the greatest threat to American security; debt does, and our anti-terror efforts are exacerbating the problem. We do not face, as we did in the 1930s, a totalitarian foe with global ideological appeal. We face competitors who, in varying ways, have imported aspects of our democratic capitalist ideology, and are beating us at our own game.

Bin Laden was a monster and a distraction. It is good that he is dead, partly because the bereaved deserve justice, but also because his shadow kept us from seeing clearly the larger challenges we face. The war on terror is over; Al Qaeda lost. Now for the really hard stuff; let’s hope we haven’t deferred it too long.

The competitor Beinart alludes to, I'm assuming, is China, and I can't help but wonder if bin Laden's death marks the end of an epoch in American foreign policy. Terrorism obviously isn't going anywhere; it existed prior to 9/11, and it will continue to exist long after. The so-called Global War on Terrorism was less a global understanding than a kind of framework for How The World Works According to Washington. The American military has been and will for the foreseeable future remain the preeminent power on earth, but to justify and rationalize that hegemony there must be rules; a kind of flowchart or S.O.P. to help the Beltway make sense of American power.

The War on Terrorism provided Washington's pundits and policymakers with a handy paradigm, much as the Cold War did throughout the latter half of the 20th Century. Will this change? Will a symbolic death lead to a more substantive reappraisal of American policy? Keep in mind that bin Laden's arguably symbolic termination precedes an actual drawdown of American troops from Afghanistan later this year. So while the generals - and the bloggers, and the pundits, and the pols and the wonks - continue to fight and feud over the last war - will we employ 'COIN' or 'Offshore Balancing' in our next indefinite military campaign? - I can't help but think that the American public has already moved on.

And who can possibly blame them? My own gripe with the War on Terrorism, specifically the Afghan mission, was the apparent indefiniteness of the mission. In a decade full of 'surges' and small accomplishments, rarely has there been as decisive and certain an action as bin Laden's killing. This man attacked us, and now he's dead. Seems simple enough.

That's why I can understand last night's displays of revelry and pure emotion in Washington, New York and elsewhere. After nearly ten years of color codes, TSA molestations and frequent condescension from the intelligentsia, the American people finally got a cut and dry result - a mission truly accomplished.

But where to from here for American foreign policy? For all the shortcomings and confusion that came with the GWOT, it was, at the very least, a doctrine premised on national defense. But if, getting back to Beinart's point, the War on Terror is to be replaced by a doctrine of counter-declinism, deficit hawkishness and Chinese containment, then I fear we may be headed toward an even uglier foreign policy paradigm.

China has gradually crept onto the American radar screen, and Beijing, for its own part, has been a busy bee.

With bin Laden now dead, and U.S. withdrawal (kind of) underway in the Near East, is China the next in line to consume America's imagination and energy? And will Washington follow? What happens, in other words, when one distracted giant finally opens its eyes, only to find another right in front of it?

Update: Evan Osnos gives a rather appropriate take on Chinese reactions to bin Laden's killing.

(AP Photo)

April 27, 2011

The Last 30 Years

Last July, in a debate with another realist making the case for Israel-as-a-liability (Chas W. Freeman), I argued that "what we really need in the Middle East are more 'Israels' -- not more Jewish states, of course, but more strong, reliable, democratic, pro-American allies.... The absence of those sorts of allies is precisely what has gotten us into such deep trouble over the past 30 years." - Robert Satloff

It's not clear whether the "30 years" here refers to the beginning of the Carter Doctrine or the Nixon/Kissinger tilt toward Israel during the Yom Kippur War. I'm assuming it can't be the latter, as that would undermine Satloff's argument. As for the Carter Doctrine, I think a more straightforward explanation for America's "deep trouble" in the Middle East over the past 30 years is that it has tried to micromanage countries and cultures that it doesn't understand and that ultimately resent outside interference.

Sure, it would be nice to have pro-American, free market democracies in the region but we can satisfy ourselves with the next best thing: less meddling.

A Question of Leverage

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One recurring line of criticism against the Obama administration during the "Arab spring" is that it has been more willing to condemn and push-aside America's erstwhile allies than her enemies. For instance, here's Elliott Abrams:

Second, the Friday statement continues to appeal to Assad: “We call on President Assad to change course now, and heed the calls of his own people.” That might have been acceptable 300 deaths ago, but it is now absurd. The President called on Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, a long-time American ally, to leave; why the reticence about Assad, a long-time American enemy?

I think aside from the fact that the administration is more or less making this up as it goes along, the basic fact is that the U.S. had influence over Egypt's military, which was the only institution that could push Mubarak aside. What leverage does the U.S. have over Syria, or institutions within the Syrian state that could oust the regime? Paradoxically, the more isolated from the U.S. the country is, the less ability the U.S. has to effect regime change when the country's citizens revolt. Of course, President Obama can get up and denounce Assad more vigorously, but it's not clear what that would accomplish on the ground.

The other alternative is to try to transform the thus-far peaceful protests in Syria into an armed revolt against the Syrian regime. As in Libya, it's not clear whether that is a formula for swiftly deposing the Assad/Baathist regime in favor of something better or for starting a prolonged civil war.

(AP Photo)

April 25, 2011

Cyber Warfare With Iran on the Rise

In 2010, Iran’s atomic program was targeted by the Stuxnet computer worm to slow down uranium enrichment in centrifuges at its Natanz nuclear facility. Earlier this year, the 1000-megawatt Bushehr nuclear power plant was forced offline as well just as it was commencing operation.

Now Iranian officials claim their nation’s defense facilities have been the target of more cyber warfare. According to the Mehr News Agency, which reports in Farsi, Arabic, English, German, Turkish and Urdu, in addition to publishing the Tehran Times:

TEHRAN, April 25 (MNA) -- Iran has been targeted by a new computer worm dubbed Stars, the director of Iran’s Passive Defense Organization announced on Monday. Fortunately the Iranian experts spotted the computer worm and are still studying the malware, Gholam-Reza Jalali told the Mehr News Agency. No final result has been achieved yet, he added. “[However], certain characteristics about the Stars worm have been identified, including that it is compatible with the [targeted] system,” Jalali stated.

In November 2010, Iran’s Basij paramilitia, controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, established a 1,500 person “Cyber warriors” unit. Shortly thereafter, in February 2011, the Voice of America website was attacked by pro-Iranian hackers calling themselves the Iranian Cyber Army. Twitter and Google too have experienced electronic intrusions by pro-Iranian or Iran-based hackers.

Cyber warfare between the Iranian government and nations opposed to Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and political expansionism seems to be on the upswing. More electronic disruptions are likely on both sides.

April 18, 2011

Saudi-Iran Cold War

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The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend about the "new Cold War" in the Middle East:

There has long been bad blood between the Saudis and Iran. Saudi Arabia is a Sunni Muslim kingdom of ethnic Arabs, Iran a Shiite Islamic republic populated by ethnic Persians. Shiites first broke with Sunnis over the line of succession after the death of the Prophet Mohammed in the year 632; Sunnis have regarded them as a heretical sect ever since. Arabs and Persians, along with many others, have vied for the land and resources of the Middle East for almost as long.

These days, geopolitics also plays a role. The two sides have assembled loosely allied camps. Iran holds in its sway Syria and the militant Arab groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories; in the Saudi sphere are the Sunni Muslim-led Gulf monarchies, Egypt, Morocco and the other main Palestinian faction, Fatah. The Saudi camp is pro-Western and leans toward tolerating the state of Israel. The Iranian grouping thrives on its reputation in the region as a scrappy "resistance" camp, defiantly opposed to the West and Israel.

If you had to venture a guess as to which state was more likely to emerge as a moderately liberalizing, less anti-American force in the Middle East in 10 to 15 years would it be Saudi Arabia or Iran?

I genuinely don't know the answer, but it really doesn't matter because the U.S. is already knee deep in this thing on behalf of the House of Saud.

That said, we need to be clear about the forces we're supporting. Saudi Arabia may be pro-Western in the sense that they've agreed to take American money and have U.S. soldiers fight on their behalf in exchange for doing what they would do no matter who was protecting them (i.e. sell oil), but I don't think there's a natural "pro-Western" constituency in the country outside of the elite. There's also that little matter of Wahhabi proselytizing, which hasn't exactly been a boon to U.S. security. Not too many Iranians flocked to al-Qaeda in the 1990s.

(AP Photo)

April 6, 2011

In Kuwait, Protests Meet the Water's Edge

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By Michael Wilner

In an English class at Kuwait University, I was given the chance to ask local students what it means to be Kuwaiti. After testing the limits of my Arabic skills, I asked the class in English for their impressions of the revolutions rocking the Middle East.

“Forty years of anger!” one student responded.

“We want freedom,” another said.

Kuwait has certainly been quiet relative to its neighbors since Tunisia erupted in January. With no taxes on its citizenry, a 95 percent literacy rate and a parliament with real powers predating any other in the Gulf region, most experts expect that quiet to hold. But Kuwaitis are well aware of the pan-Arab uprisings that surround them, and some believe the small Gulf city-state may be the next stop for major protest.

“The potential for problems are there,” said Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, citing political corruption, the illegal status of the Bedoun and the role of the emir. “The huge challenge for the U.S. is how we should assist the Kuwaitis to head off such a crisis,” Khalilzad added. “Additional reforms may be needed to head this off.”

Continue reading "In Kuwait, Protests Meet the Water's Edge" »

U.S. Interests in the Middle East

One of the consequences of the various uprisings gripping the Middle East will be a forced reappraisal of what American interests are in the region. No one is quite sure what will replace the old order that is in the process of either being swept away or seriously rattled, but I think it's clear that what follows will entail a rethink of U.S. policy.

In that light, a new Pew Research poll asked Americans to rank their Middle Eastern priorities:

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That terrorism tops the list is interesting, because you could argue that the best thing the U.S. could do to blunt the spread of terrorism is to disentangle itself from the Middle East - something which may become a fait accompli if more democratic governments emerge in the Middle East. The flip side, however, is that chaos in the region (especially in Yemen) makes it more likely that terrorist cells can set up shop, making an attack against the U.S. more, not less, likely. Steps to reduce America's exposure to terror in the long run could produce a spike in short-term risk.

April 5, 2011

The U.S. as the Soviet Union

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Gideon Rachman draws a striking analogy:

Like the USSR in 1989, the US chose the honourable option in refusing to let its regional ally stay in power through force. But, like the Russians, the US now has to worry that it will sacrifice power in a traditional sphere of influence. American officials know that they risk losing friends and endangering economic and security interests in an emerging Middle East that they barely understand. After the fall of Mr Mubarak, a senior US official was heard to lament: “But we do everything with Egypt. Who do we work with now?”

I think it's obvious that the U.S. is going to lose some influence in the region as more democratic societies emerge (if they emerge). But that's not necessarily a bad thing - presiding over a status quo in which you're resented as a meddling, imperial power isn't sustainable and in any event isn't really necessary. Oil is sold on an open market and Middle Eastern states don't need to like us to take our money.

But that is not the approach the Obama administration is taking. Instead, according to David Sanger, they're viewing all events in the Middle East through the prism of containing Iran - a country that is a negligible military power already beset by internal fissures. That means that any democratic aspirations in states, like Bahrain, that could enhance Iran's power must be crushed, while those that have only a tenuous connection to Iran, like Libya, can be championed.

Unfortunately, there's no evidence to date that the Obama administration has any finer grasp on Middle East micromanagement than previous U.S. administrations.

(AP Photo)

March 19, 2011

Fantasies

Perhaps the Obama administration has cleverly figured out a way to bring about the neoisolationist fantasy of the 1990s: making the rest of the world shoulder the load of global policeman. Many of the critiques of U.S. military intervention over the past twenty years have been critiques of U.S. involvement, not military intervention, per se. The cases in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and so on were deemed not to be in our interest. Perhaps they required military intervention, but let someone else bear the costs.

The Bush 41 and Clinton administrations tried this, but were never able to get the rest of the world to handle matters satisfactorily. The United States was "indispensable," Clinton's Secretary of State Madeleine Albright concluded. If we did not lead and shoulder the leader's load it would not get done, whatever it was that needed doing (the East Timor exception that proved the rule notwithstanding). - Peter Feaver

Again, it's not clear if this is what the Obama administration is doing, but if so, rather than deride it as a "neoisolationist fantasy"* the president should get significant credit. The U.S. has no interests at stake in Libya's civil war, so it makes no sense to "bear the leader's load" in Feaver's words. But European and Middle Eastern countries do have a stake in the conflict. If going along with a UN Resolution and offering some intelligence and logistical support galvanizes these countries to take the lead and bear the majority of the costs ... that's a good thing! Military intervention may not be the best way for those countries to safeguard those interests, but they are in a better position to judge that than the U.S.

---
* I understand why Feaver uses the word fantasy here - it is something of a fantasy to expect others not to free ride on the U.S. when Washington has proven so profligate with its global leadership. But I don't quite understand what is "neoisolationist" about the proposition that nations with a larger stake in an outcome should bear a correspondingly larger share of the costs. It seems rather like common sense.

March 17, 2011

A Second War of Choice

Andrew Sullivan raises some good questions about the looming war against Libya:

If we are prepared to do this in Libya, why not in Congo, where the casualties and brutality have been immensely greater? Or Zimbabwe?

There is no intellectually defensible rationale for intervening in Libya on a humanitarian basis that doesn't simultaneously demand interventions in Congo, and Zimbabwe, and Somalia and Sudan, and so on. Why prioritize Libya?

But perhaps what's more troubling about this whole episode, as Sullivan notes, is that it has proceeded almost entirely without debate. When the Bush administration wanted to wage a war of choice against Iraq, it at least spent several months building a public case. The Bush administration had to resort to some wild rhetoric about the possibility of the United States getting nuked, but at least it was making a case built (however absurdly) on American security interests. What has the Obama administration said? What interests are at stake? Why is American security at risk if we do nothing?

And what of Congress? I know it's considered old-fashioned in national security circles to trot out the Constitution and remind folks that it is the people's representatives who get to decide whether the U.S. wages war or not, but it remains the case nonetheless.

And I should add that just because I think the intervention is ill-considered doesn't mean I think it's going to end in a calamity (although it clearly could). There's no reason to believe the U.S. can't deliver a beating to Gaddafi's thugs and force them away from the rebel strongholds without having to intervene on the ground. But unless the Obama administration articulates some clear red-lines about the scope of American involvement, we're on a clear path toward regime change in Libya. For better or worse.

What's the UN Got To Do With It?

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The Obama administration is evidently not willing to wage war against Libya without the imprimatur of the United Nations:

The administration, which remains deeply reluctant to be drawn into an armed conflict in yet another Muslim country, is nevertheless backing a resolution in the Security Council that would give countries a broad range of options for aiding the Libyan rebels, including military steps that go well beyond a no-flight zone.

Administration officials — who have been debating a no-flight zone for weeks — concluded that such a step now would be “too little, too late” for rebels who have been pushed back to Benghazi. That suggests more aggressive measures, which some military analysts have called a no-drive zone, to prevent Colonel Qaddafi from moving tanks and artillery into Benghazi.

The United States is insisting that any military action would have to be carried out by an international coalition, including Libya’s Arab neighbors.

This doesn't make much sense to me. If the administration believes that waging war against Gaddafi is in America's national interest, then it should do so irrespective of UN sanction. If the administration does not believe that waging war against Gaddafi is in America's interest, it should not do so anyway simply because the UN has authorized it. Having the UN Security Council authorize punitive measures against Gaddafi's regime doesn't suddenly transform the conflict from a peripheral interest to a central one.

(AP Photo)

Libya & Iraq Lessons

Is it really necessary to point out that, lessons notwithstanding, Libya is not Iraq? (It is not Bosnia or Rwanda, either, but, given the administration’s modest definition of American purpose, its members won’t be summoning these precedents any time soon.) The Obama team ought to respond to the Libya crisis on its own terms, if it intends to respond at all. That means acknowledging the differences between Libya and Iraq: the disparity between Saddam Hussein’s 500,000-man army and Muammar Qaddafi’s 50,000-man (and shrinking) army; the distinction between the size of Iraq’s population and Libya’s population, which adds up to about 20 percent of Iraq’s and mostly inhabits a thin slice of coastline; the difference between an essentially American enterprise and an undertaking that has the sanction of the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and marches to the tune of La Marseillaise; the difference between a dictator whose crimes (presumably) belonged to the past and one who vows to “cleanse Libya house by house” and, by all accounts, has proved himself keen to do so; the difference between Iraq, with no viable opposition movement, and Libya, which boasts an active and well-armed rebel force; the difference between a country frozen in the amber of authoritarianism a decade ago and an entire region awash in a wave of successful popular uprisings today. - Lawrence Kaplan

There are indeed obvious differences between Libya in 2011 and Iraq in 2003 and Kaplan ably catalogs them, but there are more similarities here than Kaplan acknowledges. The first is the utter disregard among those pressing for military action for what happens following a U.S. strike. Much like the commentary in the lead up to Iraq, the entirety of the focus is on urging policy makers to act, now, irrespective of whether the U.S. is capable of sorting out the complex set of political issues that follow the end of hostilities.

The second, related, similarity is that the U.S. almost certainly does not possess the wherewithal to sort out a post-war Libyan political settlement. The Bush administration prepared for months for the Iraq war and its aftermath, and what followed the invasion was not exactly a ringing endorsement of American colonial management. Indeed, the U.S. has been trying for a decade to midwife an acceptable political and security dynamic in Afghanistan with little success.

Of course, this doesn't mean that failure is preordained in Libya, but the track record of American policy toward post-war settlements in the Middle East doesn't instill a lot of confidence - nor does the fact that the Obama administration has had at most two weeks to discuss Libya and American policy toward the country. Secretary Clinton has met a whopping two times with opposition groups.

The third similarity is Potemkin multilateralism. Kaplan trots out the Arab League endorsement, as if this means anything. As Leslie Gelb and others have pointed out, if the Arab League and Libya's neighbors want a no-fly zone, they are well within their rights and have ample equipment to establish one. But just as the coalition of the willing produced only a handful of nations truly willing to commit blood and treasure to the battle, it's far more likely that ringing endorsements from the Arab League are a prelude to holding America's coat while it wades into a second war of choice.

March 16, 2011

Still More Libya Polling

A new one from CNN shows 56 percent of the public supporting a no-fly zone with 40 percent opposed. It also finds support for arming the rebels (53 percent vs. 43 percent). However, the public does not favor the U.S. taking the lead to resolve the crisis - 74 percent said the U.S. should "leave it to others" - and an equally large majority do not support sending ground troops into Libya.

March 15, 2011

New Poll Shows U.S. Not in Favor of Libya Intervention

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A new poll from Pew Research confirms earlier polls from Rasmussen which showed that the American public doesn't support a military intervention in Libya:

The public by a wide margin says the United States does not have a responsibility to do something about the fighting between government forces and anti-government groups in Libya. And while opinion is divided over enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya, this view is undercut by the fact that Americans overwhelmingly oppose bombing Libyan military air defenses.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted March 10-13 among 1,001 adults, finds that 63% say the United States does not have a responsibility to act in Libya; fewer than half as many (27%) say the U.S. has this responsibility....

Reflecting the public's reluctance about U.S. involvement in Libya, barely half (51%) favor increasing economic and diplomatic sanctions against Libya. The public is divided over the possibility of enforcing a no-fly zone -- 44% favor this action while 45% are opposed. Yet just 16% favor bombing Libyan air defenses -- 77% oppose bombing the sites.

This is actually somewhat in line with yesterday's Washington Post/ABC news poll, which showed a slight majority in favor of a no-fly zone until they were asked about bombing Libyan air defenses, after which support for a no-fly zone drops. Pew also found that 69 percent of Americans have no interest in arming rebels and 82 percent do not want to send U.S. troops into Libya.

Meanwhile, Larison thinks we should follow Senator Lugar's advice and actually debate the merits of going to war with Libya in Congress:

As the vast majority of the public is against a Libyan war even in the form of a no-fly zone, it is hardly certain that Congress would authorize military action, much less take what is by now a very unusual step of formally declaring war. This is as it should be. War powers were reserved to Congress to prevent the executive from launching wars arbitrarily, and the failure of Congress to rein in presidential abuses in this area and the failure to insist on declarations of war before going to war have been at the heart of many of the most serious foreign policy blunders since WWII.

March 14, 2011

A No-Fly Zone Is Just the Start

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One dynamic that bears repeating in the Libya no-fly zone debate is that by implementing a no-fly zone, the U.S. would almost certainly be committing itself to doing more against the Gaddafi regime down the road. The very act of creating one against Gaddafi is a strong statement that the U.S. takes an active interest in the internal balance of power in Libya. That we take such an interest with a frankly appalling level of ignorance about the actors inside the country, their aims, capabilities, loyalties and outlook is clearly beside the point to the strategy's proponents. We'd have staked a claim to that balance and changes to it would provoke a U.S. policy response.

Many of the voices currently agitating for a no-fly zone would almost certainly endorse more putative measures against Gaddafi should he retain power in a portion of Libya. Much like the no-fly zones in Iraq morphed into a cassus beli to finish off Saddam "once and for all" a no-fly zone in Libya will turn Gaddafi's defiant survival into a rallying cry among U.S. interventionists for a future invasion down the road.

(AP Photo)

U.S. Inclined Toward Libyan No-Fly Zone

A new Washington Post/ABC News poll shows less skepticism toward U.S. intervention in Libya than prior polls:

When it comes to Libya, 56 percent of those polled are supportive of the United States’ joining a new no-fly arrangement to prevent government air strikes on rebel groups. Support is slimmer (49 percent) for more independent U.S. action: using U.S. aircraft to create the no-fly zone.

They also asked the public to rate President Obama's performance on Libya:

Forty-five percent say they approve of President Obama’s handling of the situation in Libya, and 34 percent say they disapprove. A large 21 percent say they have no opinion on the matter. Those undecideds shift to disapproval when it comes to the president’s handling of the political unrest in the region more broadly. On that front, 45 percent approve, and 44 percent disapprove.

March 11, 2011

Words and Deeds

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One of the arguments being put forward on behalf of intervening in Libya's civil war is that because President Obama declared that he wanted Gaddafi gone, the U.S. has "no choice" but to facilitate his removal. Fareed Zakaria makes that point in Time, as does Simon Tisdall in the Guardian:

If the west does not intervene, and the revolution is bloodily suppressed, leaders who spoke out boldly and bravely in support will be ridiculed as impotent charlatans. They will not be trusted again. They may be forced, in time, to deal with a triumphant and unpredictably vengeful Gaddafi. And democratic uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world will be set back, perhaps fatally. It is a conundrum made in hell.

It's actually not all that difficult. Let's remember that at the end of the day, the president of the Untied States, like the prime minister of Great Britain, is a politician. Part of the job description of a politician is to say things - and make promises - that they don't have the ability to deliver on. It's an unfortunate and disagreeable habit, but it's not one that can be cured.

I think it's true that the U.S. pays a price when its leadership makes declarations that they have no intention of following through on. This episode is a terrific reminder that leaders should choose their words more carefully. But looking feckless is orders of magnitude less significant than intervening militarily in Libya's civil war. They're not remotely on the same plane and it's a patently absurd argument to say that the U.S. must commit itself to a potentially calamitous course of action simply to save face.

Larison puts it well:

Saying that the U.S. wants him gone creates the expectation that the U.S. will work to bring that about, which makes it that much harder to do the correct thing for U.S. interests, which is to avoid being pulled into a civil war that has nothing to do with us. So we can agree that Obama blundered by calling for an outcome that he has no intention of realizing. It doesn’t follow that Obama should compound an error of saying the wrong thing by doing something even more unwise.

(AP Photo)

March 10, 2011

By All Means, Arm Them!

Your fun Libya fact of the day, courtesy of Andrew Exum:

On a per capita basis, though, twice as many foreign fighters came to Iraq from Libya -- and specifically eastern Libya -- than from any other country in the Arabic-speaking world. Libyans were apparently more fired up to travel to Iraq to kill Americans than anyone else in the Middle East. And 84.1% of the 88 Libyan fighters in the Sinjar documents who listed their hometowns came from either Benghazi or Darnah in Libya's east.

The East, incidentally, is the portion of Libya that's broken Gaddafi's hold and is currently battling him for control of the country. Maybe someone should call Senator McCain's office.

New Poll Shows Little U.S. Support for Intervention in Libya

Following a Rasmussen poll which found that 63 percent of Americans wanted to leave Libya alone, a new poll (pdf) from Angus Reid confirms that there is little appetite for an entanglement with Gaddafi's crumbling country:

The prospect of a military intervention to topple the Libyan regime is endorsed at this time by fewer than one-in-ten Americans, a new Vision Critical / Angus Reid poll has found.

The online survey of a representative national sample of 1,006 American adults presented respondents with three policy options that the United States government could take to deal with Libya, where a popular uprising that began in February has led to violent confrontations between rebels and the long-standing regime of Muammar Gaddafi.

More than a third of respondents (36%) believe the U.S. should impose economic sanctions against Libya—the course of action originally outlined by President Barack Obama last month.

One-in-five Americans (22%) would do nothing, saying that the African country poses no threat to the U.S. Only eight per cent of respondents would authorize a full-scale invasion of Libya to remove the current government.

I think it would have been better to measure whether Americans would support a no-fly zone - the policy option currently being batted around. I don't think anyone has really put a full-blown land invasion on the table.

Liberal Interventionists & Libya

I was a strong opponent of the Iraq war, but this feels different. We would not have to send any ground troops to Libya, and a no-fly zone would be executed at the request of Libyan rebel forces and at the “demand” of six Arab countries in the gulf. The Arab League may endorse the no-fly zone as well, and, ideally, Egypt and Tunisia would contribute bases and planes or perhaps provide search-and-rescue capabilities. - Nicholas Kristof

With all due respect to Kristof, who has done some very courageous reporting in the region, this doesn't sound well reasoned at all. It "feels" different? Presumably the reason Kristof feels this way is that the atrocities being committed by Gaddafi loyalists are unfolding before our eyes, while the majority of Saddam Hussein's more heinous crimes were done years prior to the second Gulf War. Nevertheless, if your aim is to leverage American blood and treasure to assuage your own moral anguish, a no-fly zone is patently insufficient, for many of the reasons sketched out by Mark Leon Goldberg here.

Of course, if your aim is to simply "do something," however ineffective, then maybe a no-fly zone is called for.

March 9, 2011

An Iraq Syndrome?

Bloody wars beget caution. As after Korea, as after Vietnam, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have made Americans battle-averse. In 2005 John Mueller, a professor of political science at the Ohio State University, predicted in Foreign Affairs that an “Iraq syndrome” would eventually make America more sceptical of unilateral military action, especially in places that presented no direct threat to it, and less inclined to dismiss Europeans and other well-meaning foreigners as wimps. - Lexington

It has always puzzled me why much of the Washington foreign policy community saw the "Vietnam Syndrome" as a bad thing, as if the U.S. had curled up into a geopolitical fetal position, unwilling to use force even to protect vital interests (not true: when push came to shove we ejected Saddam from Kuwait). But to the extent that a "Vietnam Syndrome" prevented policymakers from blundering into an unnecessary conflict, so much the better, I would argue.

The trouble is, of course, that the definition of a "necessary" conflict is quite elastic. If the Iraq war has made at least some cross-section of elite opinion more wary about plunging American power into a Middle Eastern country about which it knows next to nothing, it should be regarded as a good thing.

March 8, 2011

U.S. Views on Libya Intervention

A majority of U.S. voters want a hands-off approach to Libya, according to a new poll from Rasmussen Reports:

Just 22% of Likely U.S. Voters think the United States should get more directly involved in the Libyan crisis. Sixty-three percent (63%) say America should leave the situation alone. Fifteen percent (15%) are not sure.

This is consistent with an earlier Rasmussen poll that found that 67 percent of voters said the U.S. should "stay out" of the unrest roiling the Arab world.

Rasmussen also asked voters about the performance of President Obama with respect to Libya:

Forty percent (40%) of voters rate the Obama administration’s response to the situation in Libya to date as good or excellent. Twenty-one percent (21%) say the administration is doing a poor job.

John Kerry & Intervention

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What's remarkable about most of the arguments that U.S. lawmakers are putting forward about an intervention in Libya is that none of them hinge on America's national security interests. Here's Senator John Kerry:

For the administration, Mr. Kerry’s view is more troublesome, given that he is a normally a strong ally on foreign policy issues. He was a fierce critic of the war in Iraq, but he sees Libya as a different matter.

He has pushed the White House to do more — including “cratering” Libya’s airfields so the planes cannot take off.

Mr. Kerry, who was openly siding with officials who want the president to take a stronger public stance, said he was pushing the administration to “prepare for all eventualities” and warned that “showing reticence in a huge public way is not the best option.”

“You want to be prepared if he is bombing people, and killing his own people,” he said, referring to Colonel Qaddafi. The Libyan people, he said, would “look defenseless and we would look feckless — you have to be ready.”

Notice that Senator Kerry's case hinges exclusively on how the U.S. looks or is perceived. He's even scornful of public "reticence" - as if it were a bad thing! There is no indication, or argument, that the lives of Americans or core interests are in danger.

Senator Kerry is surely correct that the U.S. looks feckless when its political leaders issue threats they have no intention of following through on. But that's an argument in favor of reticence.

(AP Photo)

Was Libya a Bush Success?

Paul Pillar argues against those, like columnist Charles Krauthammer, who credit the invasion of Iraq for scaring Gaddafi into giving up his nuclear program:

The particular mistake among Krauthammer's assertions I feel especially moved to correct—because I was personally involved in the relevant diplomacy—is that “Qadhafi was so terrified by what we did to Saddam & Sons that he plea-bargained away his weapons of mass destruction.” In fact, the Libyan ruler's dramatic turnabout, in which he gave up his involvement in international terrorism and instead became a counterterrorist partner of the West, as well as giving up his unconventional weapons programs, had begun years earlier. Qadhafi was responding to the pressure and ostracism of multilateral sanctions and to the prospect of an improved international standing if he came clean about the bombing of Pan Am 103 and was willing to deal seriously with the United States on the issues of most concern to the United States. The secret negotiations that confirmed and codified all this were begun in 1999, under the Clinton Administration. It was the willingness of the United States to engage Qadhafi's regime that made this all possible, not some prospect that military force would be used to remove him—let alone, as with the ouster of Saddam, that force would be used to oust him no matter how he tried to adjust his policies.

In the interest of not being churlish, I still think the Bush administration deserves credit for taking "yes" for an answer when it came to Libya. They could have spurned this engagement, as they spurned feelers from Iran, and left Libya considerably worse off than it is today.

March 4, 2011

Libya & the CNN Effect

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Paul Miller makes a very important point:

The administration looks to me like it is being driven by the CNN effect. Libya is in the headlines, dramatic events are afoot, so the administration believes it must do something, it must act, probably to demonstrate resolve, or exercise leadership. It isn't leadership to let the media drive your foreign policy. If the exact same thing were happening right now in Equatorial Guinea, no one would care and we would not be contemplating a no-fly zone.

The administration is blundering into an unnecessary crisis, setting unrealistic expectations about our ability to drive events in Libya, and exposing itself to the dangers of unplanned escalation and mission creep. If we're to have a grand strategy centered on building the liberal democratic peace -- which is not a terrible idea -- it should start from more considered reflection, not lurching overreaction to a crisis over which we have little control.

It's worth pointing out that the administration is being goaded into this course of action by U.S. lawmakers too, not just journalists. But Miller is right: no core U.S. interests are at risk in Libya. The administration is going to be criticized no matter what it does, but far better to be assailed for inaction (or as I prefer to describe it, restraint), then to act recklessly.

(AP Photo)

March 3, 2011

Making Up Reasons

Diplomats say NATO won't act to stop Moammar Gaddafi from bombing his own citizens unless the U.N. Security Council passes an authorizing resolution -- and Russia and China will not allow that. Pentagon officials are meanwhile warning that any no-fly operation would require preemptive attacks on Libyan air defenses. At a Senate hearing Tuesday Gen. James Mattis, chief of U.S. Central Command, called the potential mission "challenging" and added, "it would be a military operation -- it wouldn't be just telling people not to fly airplanes."

Those comments exasperated Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) a former Navy pilot who, along with Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), just returned from a tour of the Middle East. "We spend $500 billion on defense, and we can't take down Libyan air defenses?" he asked incredulously in an interview he and Lieberman gave to me and The Post's Fred Hiatt. "You tell those Libyan pilots that there is a no-fly zone, and they are not going to fly."

"I think they [in the Obama administration] are making up reasons" not to act, McCain added. "You will always have people who will find out the reasons why you can't do it. But I don't recall Ronald Reagan asking anyone's permission to get Cuba out of Grenada, or responding to the killings of American soldiers.." - Jackson Diehl

This is a very odd way to describe what's happening. A top military official tells a Senate panel that bombing Libya is an act of war and not something to be entered into lightly (a message also conveyed by Secretary Gates to British Prime Minister David Cameron), and Senator McCain thinks this is the geopolitical equivalent of calling out of work sick with a "stomach bug."

I don't believe anyone in the Obama administration is arguing that establishing a no-fly zone is some kind of technical or logistical impossibility - they're saying, to borrow a phrase, that it wouldn't be prudent. Senator McCain's counter-argument consists of saying the words "Ronald Reagan" and making an unsubstantiated assertion of how Libya will behave after it gets bombed.

March 2, 2011

China, Ignored

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Max Bergmann explains why no one cares what China has to say about unrest in the Middle East:

China doesn’t have an international system it is pushing, it has China. And it is pretty hard to develop a new alternative international order in an age of nationalism, liberalism, and democracy whose sole function is to benefit the mothership power. China is developing and expanding its relations with other countries and building somewhat of a network of associates. But these are largely transactional relationships. A vivid example of the nature of China’s priorities was evident in the evacuation of Chinese oil workers from Libya. China was in Libya because it could get oil, but in Egypt, where resources are scarce, China was relatively absent. For the US the situation was reversed. We had close ties with Egypt and paid it billions, despite it being resource poor, because Egypt is critical to regional stability and peace.

I think this is largely correct, and clearly the fact that the U.S. has a large network of allies is an American strength. That said, having a more "transactional" relationship with the Middle East specifically doesn't sound like a bad thing. The world may not care what China has to say about the mess in the Middle East, but neither do they expect China to clean it up.

(AP Photo)

March 1, 2011

Super Duper Power

The fact that it took ten days and at least a thousand dead on the streets of Libya’s cities before President Obama finally mustered the courage to call for Muammar “mad dog” Gaddafi to step down is highly embarrassing for the world’s only superpower, and emblematic of a deer-in-the-headlights approach to world leadership. Washington seems incapable of decisive decision-making on foreign policy at the moment, a far cry from the days when it swept entire regimes from power, and defeated America’s enemies with deep-seated conviction and an unshakeable drive for victory. - Nile Gardiner

Look, if you're going to criticize the Obama administration for not marching into Tripoli and carrying out Colonel Gaddafi's head on a pike, fine. But does anyone find that last sentence remotely in accord with reality?

How Will the Mideast Revolts Play Out?

Joshua Kurlantzick compares the Middle East in 2011 to Asia in the 1990s:

Yet today these countries have enjoyed mixed results. Thailand is not truly a democracy, and the military has regained power; Malaysia has retained a soft authoritarianism; the Philippines is essentially an oligarchy; Cambodia has become an authoritarian state; Indonesia has moved toward democracy but faces serious challenges; and South Korea is a vibrant, pluralistic democracy. And throughout Asia, nostalgia for authoritarian rule remains high, according to studies conducted by the Asian Barometer survey series.

Given the hope for widespread democratic change in Asia that existed in the late 1990s, this mixture of consolidation and reversals is hardly inspiring. But Asia offers several critical lessons for today's changes in the Middle East, where it is likely that some countries will build genuine democracies while others will stagger backwards into authoritarian rule or outright chaos.

One lesson he offers is for the U.S. to take a "background role" - something that may happen in places like Tunisia but probably not in Egypt.

February 28, 2011

Which Democrats?

Niall Ferguson follows up on an earlier critique of President Obama's handling of the Middle East with his advice:

The correct strategy—which, incidentally, John McCain would have actively pursued had he been elected in 2008—was twofold. First, we should have tried to repeat the successes of the pre-1989 period, when we practiced what we preached in Central and Eastern Europe by actively supporting those individuals and movements who aspired to replace the communist puppet regimes with democracies.

Western support for the likes of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia and Solidarity in Poland was real. And it was one of the reasons that, when the crisis of the Soviet empire came in 1989, there were genuine democrats ready and waiting to step into the vacuums created by Mikhail Gorbachev’s “Sinatra Doctrine” (whereby each Warsaw Pact country was allowed to do things “its way”).

No such effort has been made in the Arab world. On the contrary, efforts in that direction have been scaled down. The result is that we have absolutely no idea who is going to fill today’s vacuums of power. Only the hopelessly naive imagine that 30-something Google executives will emerge as the new leaders of the Arab world, aided by their social network of Facebook friends. The far more likely outcome—as in past revolutions—is that power will pass to the best organized, most radical, and most ruthless elements in the revolution, which in this case means Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood.

The basic question here is how we know who the right local proxies are. If the 30-something Google executives don't cut it, who, exactly, would John McCain court? The Egyptian Ahmed Chalabi? And as John McCain is honing this well oiled machine of pro-Western, pro-Israel liberal democrats waiting in the wings, are the region's intelligence services providing us with more or less covert assistance?

Many commentators seem to be infatuated with the Cold War example of American aid to dissidents in Eastern Europe. But this seems completely inappropriate. During the Cold War, it's true, the U.S. supported Eastern European dissidents - but not their oppressors. In the Mideast, the U.S. has a long and very well document history of supporting the oppressors and offering half-hearted, on-again, off-again support for reforms.

I'm pretty confident that had John McCain been elected, he would not have radically overhauled America's alliance structure in the Middle East. But that's what you would have to do to repeat the success of the "pre-1989" policy.

Update: Larison has more:

If “the best organized, most radical, and most ruthless elements” will be able to exploit the situation in Egypt now, they would have been able to do so even if the U.S. had followed all of the democracy promotion advocates’ advice. Nostalgia for Cold War successes is badly misleading. Western support for eastern European dissidents was all very well, but it wasn’t what made the revolutions in 1989 a success, and it wasn’t what led to the mostly peaceful transitions to democratic government in the years that followed. Westerners very much want to take credit for 1989 and afterwards (we “won” the Cold War, after all), but the reality is that this was something that the peoples of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union accomplished almost entirely on their own.

Can America Shape the Middle East?

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With the Middle East in flux, many commentators have started arguing that now is a propitious moment to begin remaking the region so that it conforms to Western universal values. The latest entry in the genre is Kenneth Pollack:

But how the Egyptian revolution defines the new Middle East is still an open question. A great many people will try to use it to impose their visions. It is a moment when the United States can and must enter the fray. It is vital that we take the lead in helping shape how Middle Easterners see the Egyptian revolution.

It is also an opportunity for the United States to overcome our past mistakes, to recognize the real grievances of the people of the region and to reexamine their conflicts and our role in them. The Egyptian revolution and the regional unrest that followed have made it abundantly clear that the vast majority of Muslim Middle Easterners want to live in modernizing, democratizing, developing nations. They want prosperity, they want pluralism and they want the better lives that we in the West enjoy.

The struggle in the new Middle East must be defined as one between nations that are moving in the right direction and nations that are not; between those that are embracing economic liberalization, educational reform, democracy, the rule of law and civil liberties, and those that are not. Viewed through this prism, the new Egypt, the new Iraq and the new Palestinian Authority are clearly in one camp. Iran and Syria — the region's two most authoritarian regimes and America's two greatest remaining adversaries there — are in the other.

It's interesting, when you think about it. The Mideast has long vexed the United States. We have been unable, and generally unwilling, to moderate its corrupt rulers, to solve its intractable conflicts and have been drawn into a "policing" role that has seen us wage wars and station military forces in the region - and with serious global consequences.

This current wave of unrest is an occasion to pause and reflect on U.S. policy and it has generally elicited two kinds of reactions. The first is Pollack's, and it's basically an argument for the status quo - but better! We'll keep meddling and interfering, but this time, we'll back the right player. The past failures can be swept away and the region can be made anew, just as Eastern Europe was brought into the fold following the collapse of the Soviet Union. This narrative, I suspect, is almost certainly going to the be one adopted by the Obama administration, as it continues to put the U.S. in the middle of the region's affairs and accords with the Iranian containment strategy the administration has put in place.

The second reaction, and one I'm obviously more sympathetic too, is Peter Beinert's argument that now is a good time to "get out" - that 400 million people aren't clay to be "shaped," and that those who can confidently declare what the "vast majority" of the Muslim Middle East desires don't really know anything of the sort.

(AP Photo)

February 25, 2011

Who Depends on Libya's Oil?

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Via the Economist, a look at which nations are most vulnerable if Libyan oil supplies come off market.

Interests, Values & Libyan Nukes

Elliott Abrams makes the case that interests trump values:

Our annual human rights reports told the truth, but there was no question that the Bush administration (and the Obama administration that followed) felt limited by Gadhafi's adherence to the bargain. We had not promised to be silent about human rights abuses, and we were not, but there was no real energy behind our statements. We were doing business with Gadhafi, not trying to overthrow him. The fate of Fathi Eljahmi, one of Libya's most prominent dissidents, was symbolic: Bush and Obama administration pressure was insufficient to free him from prison until just before his death in 2009.

Seen from this bloody February of 2011, the agreement with Libya was still the right policy. Gadhafi in his bunker with control over missiles, chemical weapons and a rudimentary nuclear program is a terrifying thought. So is a Libya after regime collapse with those materials available to the highest bidder.

Had we reneged—taken Libya's weaponry but then started a campaign against Gadhafi's rule—he'd have re-armed fast and gone back to terrorism. It's also not clear what more strenuous and public efforts to promote change in Libya would have achieved. It's not as if one could reason with Gadhafi.

These trade-offs aren't easy, but as I wrote earlier, I think the Bush administration made the right call. But this raises a number of questions. First, around the same time that Gaddafi was negotiating to give up his nuclear program, the Iranians sent feelers to the Bush administration regarding talks - feelers that were spurned. But wouldn't a similar "half a loaf" outcome with Iran (if it were possible) be better than the current stalemate?

And if the Obama administration had the opportunity to get a half a loaf solution to the Iranian nuclear program, would Abrams hail that as clear-eyed diplomacy or a capitulation?

Dept. of Bad Excuses

This would make the cut:

Gadhafi accused al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden of being behind the uprising in Libya, in a rambling phone call to state TV. The Libyan leader said the more than week-long revolt has been carried out by young men hopped up on hallucinogenic pills given to them "in their coffee with milk, like Nescafe."


February 24, 2011

FP's Guide to Revolution in the Arab World

The fine folks at Foreign Policy have released a new ebook on the happenings in Cairo and the fall of the Mubarak regime. It's called Revolution in the Arab World: Tunisia, Egypt, And the Unmaking of an Era, and you can hit that link to buy it on Kindle, or hit this one to buy it via Paypal.

I've got mine already. As an aside, I wish more organizations would present collections like this of their material in responding to stories of this magnitude - by the time a traditional book would go to press, much of this information would be far less useful, or lost in the shifting sands of Google searches.

Denouncing Libya

John Podhoretz is upset that President Obama didn't thunderously denounce Muammar Gaddafi:

After days of silence, the president of the United States took to the microphone and, in a statement of almost unbelievable pointlessness, said as little as he could. He condemned the violence, said he was sending Hillary Clinton to Europe, said he had instructed his team to look at all options, and said that the “most basic aspiration” of people was (and here he quoted a Libyan) “to be able to live like human beings.” Crises either elevate leaders or make them look shrunken and unequal to the task history has assigned them. I think there’s little question which of these two categories describes Barack Obama right now.

Daniel Larison offers some needed context, highlighting how the U.S. was unable to get Libya's permission to fly U.S. citizens out of the country:

It’s almost as if the U.S. government has a greater responsibility to its citizens than it does to condemning the activities of a foreign government. In fact, it would be a remarkable display of arrogance and folly to start denouncing Gaddafi’s crimes when U.S. citizens could immediately be exposed to violent reprisals or arrest. It doesn’t seem to cross the minds of interventionists in this case that our government could imperil fellow Americans by following their advice. If official condemnations have to wait a few days or weeks until U.S. citizens in Libya are safely out of the country, that is what a responsible government should do.

February 23, 2011

Americans Don't Want to Intervene in the Middle East

Walter Russell Mead doesn't think much of Rand & Ron Paul's non-interventionist foreign policy, arguing in the IHT that it won't garner favor in Washington:

The first is that the contest in the Tea Party between what might be called its Palinite and its Paulite wings will likely end in a victory for the Palinites. The Palinite wing of the Tea Party (after Sarah Palin) wants a vigorous, proactive approach to the problem of terrorism in the Middle East, one that rests on a close alliance between the United States and Israel. The Paulite wing (Rand Paul) would rather distance the United States from Israel as part of a general reduction of the United States’ profile in a part of the world from which little good can be expected.

The Paulites are likely to lose this contest because the commonsense reasoning of the American people now generally takes as axiomatic that security at home cannot be protected without substantial engagement overseas.

But on the issue of the growing tumult in the Middle East, the American people are with the "Paulites."

According to Rasmussen:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 29% of American Adults think a change of government in any of these Arab countries will be good for the United States, while slightly more (33%) feel such a change will be bad for America. Twelve percent (12%) say it will have no impact, but one-in-four (26%) aren’t sure what to expect.

However, as with the recent turmoil in Egypt, most Americans (67%) say the United States should leave the situation in the Arab countries alone. Just 17% say the United States should get more directly involved in the political situation there, but another 17% are not sure.

Americans are skeptical about the political changes that are likely to come from the growing - and, in Libya’s case, violent - protests. Thirty percent (30%) believe it is at least somewhat likely that most of these Arab countries will become free, democratic and peaceful over the next few years, but that includes just four percent (4%) who say it is Very Likely. Sixty-one percent (61%) view a democratic and peaceful outcome as unlikely, with 14% who say it is Not At All Likely.

If we're talking about common sense, not plunging the United States and NATO into an incipient civil war in a Middle Eastern country with strong tribal factions seems to qualify. Of course, this is not going to sit well with the coalition of liberals and conservatives urging the U.S. and NATO to the barricades.

Don't Just Do Something, Stand There

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Bill Kristol wants President Obama to take action in the Middle East:

What exactly to do in each case is complicated; it depends on difficult judgments of facts on the ground. It might be that if more analysts and commentators spent more time trying to figure out what could be done, and less time thinking up clever analogies that allegedly show how things are destined to turn out, or finding ever more reasons any effort on our part is doomed to fail, we might learn that we have more ways to affect events than we now think.

But at such moments we can't depend on analysts and commentators. This is a time when one looks, necessarily, to the president. So far, one looks in vain. What has been strikingly lacking in the Obama administration's response is a sense of the possibility of the moment, a commitment to doing our best to bring that possibility to fruition, a realization that this may be an important inflection point in world history that should shake us out of business as usual.

It seems to me that if you're going to demand action but casually glide over the specifics of what you want done - it's complicated, you see - then you don't have much grounds to criticize. That's not to say there aren't grounds to criticize the administration's handling of the situation, but vague calls to "do something" aren't very convincing.

(AP Photo)

February 22, 2011

Bush & Libya

Abe Greenwald gives the Bush administration credit for disarming Gaddafi:

In other words, he saw that WMD, radical Islam, and Middle East autocracy were on a collision course, and that the American promotion of democracy abroad was the best chance at averting disaster. With new reports that Qaddafi has fled the capital, while his military jets fire on Libyan protestors, and that extremists from all over the region are looking to exploit new power vacuums, it’s worth considering what role Libyan WMD might have played in these events. Thankfully, that is now a question of speculation rather than observation.

And he's right, kind of. While there is some debate about how much weight should be accorded the Iraq war in spurring Gaddafi to dump his WMD (and whether that remotely justifies the war), getting him to do so was a clear policy success of the Bush administration. But it's worth thinking this through because President Bush's success with Libya had nothing to do with democracy promotion. Just the opposite: the bargain the Bush administration made to get Gaddafi to drop his nukes was to solidify his grip on the country, ease international sanctions and legitimize his regime. In other words, Bush pursued a "realist" course with Libya.

Dept. of Incoherence

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While in the Middle East, British Prime Minister David Cameron said the West shared the blame for the Middle East's oppressive political environment:

"For decades, some have argued that stability required highly controlling regimes, and that reform and openness would put that stability at risk. So, the argument went, countries like Britain faced a choice between our interests and our values.

"And to be honest, we should acknowledge that sometimes we have made such calculations in the past. But I say that is a false choice.

"As recent events have confirmed, denying people their basic rights does not preserve stability, rather the reverse."

He said that Britain's economic and security interests would ultimately be advanced by a more democratic Middle East.

And just who did the prime minister bring with him on his trip through the Middle East to signify the harmony between Britain's values and interests? Representative from Britain's arms industry.

(AP Photo)

Help Libya?

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Muammer Gaddafi is not leaving the scene gracefully, using shocking violence against his own people. Naturally, the question in the U.S. is what role, if any, we should play in stopping the crackdown. The Wall Street Journal urges the U.S. to go all in:

We'd go further and tell the Libyan armed forces that the West will bomb their airfields if they continue to slaughter their people. Arming the demonstrators also cannot be ruled out. The Libyan government is already blaming the protests on foreign help, and the protesters are facing a life or death struggle. The worst policy would be to encourage the demonstrators without giving them the tools to prevail….

Is this before or after we help overthrow the Mullahs in Iran?

The Obama administration urged Mubarak to the door, so it seems at a minimum it should be calling for the same in Libya. Sanctions, too, make sense. But the idea that we should arm demonstrators and bomb airfields seems rather reckless. The question, as always, is: and then what? Help Libyans rebuild their country? Sit on the sidelines as chaos engulfs the country? Elliott Abrams, no fan of Gaddafi, describes Libya as a "shattered land with no alternative government, no real political parties, and no experience with free elections, a free press, independent courts, or any of the building blocks of democracy."

The last thing a broke United States needs is another Middle Eastern basket case as its ward.

(AP Photo)

February 18, 2011

Middle East Unrest: Bad for Business

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The risk consultancy Maplecroft has updated their Middle East and North Africa (MENA) risk analysis, and, not surprisingly, it seems that massive upheavel and government suppression efforts make for a less-than-ideal business climate. They also single out food prices as a key cause of ongoing instability:

The susceptibility of MENA countries to food price hikes will continue to act as a trigger for social unrest and pose risks to businesses. Countries in the MENA region are particularly at risk from high global food prices and this has been the cause of much social unrest since prices began to climb at the end of 2010. Countries such as Algeria, Jordan and Egypt have been acutely affected by the sharp rise in food prices and this in turn causes disruptions which can affect the operational running of businesses. The need for the government to placate protesters through increasing subsidies for foodstuffs and oil based products such as petrol means that there is less money to spend on other areas of pressing need such as infrastructure. The importance of food subsidies can be seen in how the ruler of Kuwait, Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, has promised the distribution of US$4bn and free food for 14 months to all citizens despite not facing any direct threats to his rule.

(AP Photo)

February 17, 2011

Rejecting Middle Eastern Autocrats? Not So Fast

Josh Rogin reports:

"The old days of ‘as long as we can make a positive relationship with the autocrat who's running the place, then we are friends with the country' are dead and gone," Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) told a group of reporters over breakfast on Wednesday.

"We have to be much more interested in trying to get the actual populations in those countries to be supportive of us," Smith said. "What we have to start thinking about in the foreign policy establishment is what shifts in our foreign policy do we need to make to target the populations."

This sounds like a great headline, but is it going to happen? Color me skeptical. The U.S. didn't undertake a comprehensive rethink of its Middle East policy following 9/11, why would it do so now? Consider just how serious the changes would be if the U.S. dumped its favored autocrats in favor of newly empowered democratic governments. It would be far more difficult to keep a "cold peace" between Israel and her neighbors, something American foreign policy is currently heavily invested in. Then there's basing rights. It will be difficult to sustain a forward operating presence in a region that manifestly rejects it if that region suddenly gets a say.

As we have seen following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, American foreign policy is very, very slow to react to these kinds of seismic shifts (and let's not put the cart before the horse here, no autocracy has actually been replaced with a democracy yet). And Washington has shown zero willingness to dismantle or reject a hegemonic position in any region of the world once it's established itself, as it has in the Middle East.

Right now, we have a rather odd dynamic in the U.S. where many of the champions of American hegemony in the Middle East are urging on the very steps that would make the Middle East far more hostile to that hegemony. This is an incoherent position and if the Middle East does truly move toward democracy, and if countries like Egypt start behaving like Turkey, this incoherence will only become more obvious.

Monitoring Oil

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Mark Thompson notes that unrest in Bahrain has some major strategic consequences for America's forward deployments in the Middle East:

The home of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet -- and a recently-launched $580 million U.S. expansion effort slated to double the U.S. Navy's acreage there -- could be in jeopardy if Bahrain's monarchy falls....

The (Iran-friendly) Shiite majority, which accounts for almost 70% of the population, wants the (Saudi-friendly) king, Sheik Hamid bin Isa al-Khalifa, to rewrite the constitution to give Shiites more power and opportunity, while also seeking investigations into allegations of torture and corruption (sound familiar?).

The downside to all this unpleasantness is that Bahrain is the U.S.'s most important post in the Persian Gulf. It's ground zero when it comes to monitoring the oil flow -- nearly one gallon of every five used worldwide -- down the gulf and through the narrow Strait of Hormuz. It's also a key base from which to eyeball Iran on the other side of the gulf.

Fortunately, just when the entire Middle East seems to be fracturing under Uncle Sam's feet, Jeremy Khan writes in the Boston Globe that the basic strategic consideration supporting America's Middle East policy - the defense of oil supplies to global markets - is mostly unnecessary in the first place, given that 'oil shocks' are largely a myth and don't do nearly as much damage to the U.S. economy as is casually presumed.

That said, it's highly unlikely that anyone in Washington is going to be receptive to the argument that the U.S. doesn't have to station large numbers of U.S. troops in the region to defend the free flow of oil.

(AP Photo)

February 11, 2011

Wasted Youth

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According to Gallup, young people in several Arab countries feel their leadership is not taking advantage of the country's human capital. During the 2010 survey, Gallup found that Egypt's youth experienced the largest declines:

Fewer than 3 in 10 15- to 29-year-olds say Egypt's leadership maximizes youth potential, down from almost 4 in 10 in 2009.
Other countries notching declines: Jordan, Sudan and Iraq.

(AP Photo)

February 10, 2011

Obama's Global Zero (Not So Much)

According to proliferation expert Henry Sokolski, the Obama administration is seeking nuclear deals with Jordan and Saudi Arabia that would eschew needed safeguards:

What is truly flabbergasting, though, is the fact that the Obama administration seems willing to accede to both Jordan’s and Saudi Arabia’s demands. At almost exactly the same time Egyptian protestors were filing into Tahrir Square on January 25, a highly respected arms control news service reported that the U.S. government was discussing nuclear deals with Jordan and Saudi Arabia which would not include the “gold standard” safeguards that the Obama administration has demanded from other countries, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to ensure that nuclear cooperation is less likely to enable nuclear proliferation. In specific, these deals lacked any requirement that Saudi Arabia or Jordan forswear making nuclear fuel or ratify a new, tougher nuclear inspections regime known as the IAEA Additional Protocol.
It's early still in the Egyptian crisis, but it's not hard to see how a democratic Egypt could potentially develop a weapon of its own on the usual grounds that it lives in a rough neighborhood with one nuclear state near its border and Iran on the cusp. As Sokolski notes, Cairo has already "made several haphazard attempts to get a bomb." Good times.

America Profits from Mideast Unrest?

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There's plenty to criticize in America's Middle East policy, but this is off-base:

The flames in the Middle East serve the American economy. In this context, it is enough to mention the $60 billion arms deal signed with Saudi Arabia last year - the largest in U.S. history. The deal will provide tens of thousands of jobs within American industries.

Given this background, it is easy to understand Washington's interest in continued tension in the Middle East. The tension pushes countries to sign large arms deals, which produce tens of thousands of jobs in the United States. As such, the American interest lies in its continued policy of inflaming passions - through Al Jazeera as well - to perpetuate concern within the Arab regimes, whose existence depends on American support. Thus the United States can continue claiming that promoting arms deals with the wealthy countries of the Mideast stems from concern for the region.

$60 billion is a lot of money, of course, but it pales in comparison to the impact of high oil prices:

At $90 a barrel, Americans this year will pay $720 billion for oil. This is an increase of more than $500 billion over what we paid in 2003, equal in economic burden to a 20 percent increase in income taxes.

I think it's safe to say we'd gladly forsake the arms deals if the price of oil plummeted.

(AP Photo)

February 9, 2011

Can Saudi Arabia Keep Up?

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This is disconcerting:

The US fears that Saudi Arabia, the world's largest crude oil exporter, may not have enough reserves to prevent oil prices escalating, confidential cables from its embassy in Riyadh show.

The cables, released by WikiLeaks, urge Washington to take seriously a warning from a senior Saudi government oil executive that the kingdom's crude oil reserves may have been overstated by as much as 300bn barrels – nearly 40%.

The revelation comes as the oil price has soared in recent weeks to more than $100 a barrel on global demand and tensions in the Middle East. Many analysts expect that the Saudis and their Opec cartel partners would pump more oil if rising prices threatened to choke off demand.

However, Sadad al-Husseini, a geologist and former head of exploration at the Saudi oil monopoly Aramco, met the US consul general in Riyadh in November 2007 and told the US diplomat that Aramco's 12.5m barrel-a-day capacity needed to keep a lid on prices could not be reached.

In December, the International Energy Agency noted (pdf) that Saudi Arabia was pumping 8.6m barrels a day.

(AP Photo)

February 1, 2011

Egypt's Democratic Foreign Policy

Larison sees it veering against Israel and making things worse for U.S. foreign policy:

Invoking democratic elections is the standard answer that everyone now gives as the way to resolve the crisis in Egypt, and Prof. Walt is arguing for the same thing, but what if it really is the wrong answer? If these elections empower the opposition united behind ElBaradei, they would also empower his allies in the Brotherhood, for which ElBaradei has been making excuses since he arrived on the scene.
It's true some of those urging democracy on Egypt right now are arrogantly presuming not only that we know best, but that we can ride and steer the various currents of Egyptian society toward an end point that satisfies them, us and Israel. While that's not completely impossible, it sounds quite ambitious.

That said, is there really a "do nothing" option now? Doing nothing means that we are defacto allies of the ancien regime, one that looks increasingly likely to fall.

(AP Photo)

How Do Egyptians Feel About Democracy?

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In light of recent events, Pew Research reposted some of their April 2010 polling in Egypt and the Middle East:

A 59%-majority of Muslims in Egypt believed that democracy was preferable to any other kind of government. About one-in-five (22%), however, said that in some circumstances, a non-democratic government could be preferable, and another 16% said it did not matter what kind of government is in place for a person in their situation....

By wide margins, Muslims surveyed in the spring of 2010 believed that Islam's influence in politics was positive rather than negative. In Egypt, Islam's role in politics was seen favorably by an overwhelming 85%-to-2% margin among Muslims....

Asked whether there is a struggle in their nations between those who want to modernize their country and Islamic fundamentalists, a 61%-majority of Muslims in Egypt said they did not see a struggle. Just 31% of Egyptian Muslims saw a struggle between modernizers and fundamentalists in their country. Among the seven Muslim publics surveyed in 2010, only in Jordan (20%) did fewer say they saw such a struggle.

Among Egyptian Muslims who did see a struggle, a 59%-majority sided with the fundamentalists. Just 27% of those who saw such struggle sided with the modernizers.

Obviously, views may have shifted a bit!

(AP Photo)

January 31, 2011

Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood

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Earlier this month I wrote about the Muslim Brotherhood and the challenges they present within Egypt. I asked a few questions of Shadi Hamid, director of research at The Brookings Institution's Doha Center, and he had this to say at the time:

"In recent years, the Egyptian regime has adopted a new, troubling character, moving from autocracy with a liberal veneer to full-blown autocracy. The most recent elections suggest the regime no longer has much interest in pretending," Hamid told me. "In the 2005 elections, the Brotherhood won 20 percent of the seats in what seemed a victory for Egyptian Islamism. Since then, the Brotherhood has experienced the worst period of anti-Islamist repression since the 1960s. This coincides with the rise of a new faction of neo-liberal, Western-educated technocrats in the ruling party, who, somewhat ironically, seem to have less tolerance for opposition than the regime's 'old guard.'"

Hamid maintains that the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups are in a state of increasing crisis in response to this repression.

"The Brotherhood has struggled to respond to the regime repression and failed to articulate a clear vision for change," Hamid told me. "The 2010 elections - quite possibly the most rigged in Egyptian history -- further showed a movement hedging its bets, unsure of where to go and how to get there. Their half-hearted participation -- they only ran about 130 candidates out of a possible 518 -- came after difficult internal debates over whether and how to participate in elections that they knew would be worse than anything in recent memory."

My own opinion after speaking to many experts is that the Brotherhood is an area of some concern, yes, but it's difficult to judge their real power or impact - and even with that being the case, the concerns are not so great as to be worth shoring up corrupt autocracies on their last legs.

A few weeks later, the answers to these questions of course carry far more weigh. Even as some now claim that the Brotherhood is nothing to worry about, there remains significant concerns about how much of a role they would play in any new Egyptian government. Hamid has now called the Obama administration's initial response to the Egyptian revolt "disappointing, but not surprising." That's certainly my reaction to today's uncomfortable Q&A at the White House, courtesy of ABC News' Jake Tapper, in the wake of Mohammed ElBaradei's defense of the Brotherhood:

TAPPER: ElBaradei told ABC News this weekend that the Muslim Brotherhood is no more extremist -- is not an extremist organization and is no different from Orthodox Jews in Israel or evangelical Christians in the United States. Does the Obama administration agree with that?

GIBBS: Well, let me -- without getting into a discussion about them, I think there are certain standards that we believe everybody should adhere to as being part of this process; one that is, to participate in this ongoing democratic process, one has to take part in it but not use it as a way of simply becoming -- simply becoming or taking over that process simply to put themselves in power. We believe that any group should strongly weigh in on the side of nonviolence and adherence to the law.

Meanwhile, a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood has apparently called for a war on Israel. I would expect a followup or two, Mr. Gibbs.

(AP Photo)

Will Egypt Split the U.S. & Israel?

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Walter Russell Mead argues that the current tumult in Egypt may bring the U.S. and Israel closer together:

If a radical regime emerges in Egypt that repudiates the peace treaty, supports violence by Hamas or in other ways threatens Israel’s security, the United States is unlikely to leave Israel twisting in the wind.

At the same time, a vocal American minority — ranging from the “truther” far left through parts of the respectable foreign policy establishment and extending out into the Buchananite far right — asserts that strong U.S. support for Israel endangers our vital interests throughout the Middle East....

The Egyptian upheaval could be an important turning point in world history. The consolidation of a reasonably moderate and democratic government in the cultural capital of the Arab world could put the region, and the world, on the road to a more durable peace. A radical victory could drive a wedge not only between Israel and the Arab world, but deepen the divide between the West and the whole Islamic world.

The problem with this analysis is that something other than a "radical" regime could nonetheless embrace policies that Israel would characterize as harming its security. Egypt plays a critical role in enforcing the blockade in Gaza. It's not unreasonable to think that a new, 'moderate' government would want to loosen that cordon or take a more vocal stance against some Israeli policies on the international stage (much like Turkey). That's a long way away from waging open war on Israel, but moves to strengthen Hamas in Gaza would rightfully be viewed fearfully by Israel.

That would complicate things for the United States, as it would put its interests in Israeli security in direct conflict with its desire for Egyptian (and Middle East) democracy. Mead seems to argue that if these two interests were to collide, America's support for Israel would trump democratic reforms in the Middle East - and he's right. But the problem is that the U.S. may not be able to stop those reforms, or revolutions, even if it wanted to. Then what?

(AP Photo)

Defining American Interests

John Quiggan hits on an important point:

More generally, the whole approach of US foreign policy towards the “Middle East” rests on assumptions that will be hard to sustain when the existing dictatorships are gone. Most fundamentally, how can the idea that the US has “strategic interests” in the region be justified? In some sense, this idea rests on the assumption that the existing governments are less than legitimate, and can be dealt with in terms of traditional Great Power politics, with spheres of influence, secret deals and so on. Even weak democratic states display much more effective resistance to external interference in their domestic affairs than do typical autocratic regimes.

I think the U.S. can justify the fact that it has "interests" in the region without simultaneously justifying everything it does to defend those interests. It's the latter, not the former, that is being thrown into sharp relief with the protests across the region.

Consider that no matter who rules the various states of the Middle East, Americans will still drive cars (as will the Chinese and Europeans, etc.). American - and global - industry will still require oil to function. Also, crucially, Middle Eastern governments will still need to sell oil to earn income. There's a convergence of interests there that we should be able to leverage to everyone's mutual benefit no matter who's running the show in the Middle East.

January 30, 2011

Elliott Abrams on Egypt and Class Revolution

I had the opportunity to interview Elliott Abrams this morning on the situation in Egypt. His take on this subject is fascinating to me for a number of reasons, particularly because of his outspoken defense of George W. Bush's approach to Middle East policy. On Egypt, he raised several points of note in the interview, including this one about the nature of class and revolution:

If you look at Egypt over the past ten years, there's been a tremendous amount of foreign investment, and the Egyptian stock market has been fabulous -- you would've been a lot better investing in it than in the New York Stock Exchange or the London Stock Exchange. But there's no trickle down -- the rich get richer. If you look at the Forbes list of billionaires, you'll see a number of Egyptians on it now. The rich in Egypt are very rich indeed -- their own planes, their own yachts, so there's a lot of money floating around -- but it's floating around at the top levels. The Egyptian office worker, the Egyptian farmer is still exceptionally poor. And what this has done is create a sense, in Tunisia and in much of Egypt, a sense that everything is being stolen, that there's nothing here for the common man, it's just all for the rich.

And that is exacerbated by a second thing: there's a ruling system here, there's a ruling party -- the National Democratic Party and the security forces -- and if you're plugged into those, you have ways of beating the system. If you're not plugged in -- if you don't have people who can look out for you inside the system, officials of the party -- then you're not going to see any money, you just work and work and work and get nothing for it.

You were born in a social and economic class. You die there. Your children will die there, too. There's no social mobility.

The podcast is here. I hope you'll listen to the whole thing.

January 28, 2011

All Neo-Cons Now?

The American Enterprise Institute's Danielle Pletka tweets:

Fascinated by sudden interest in democracy from certain quarters that believed US role in democracy promotion stupid.

It gets more fascinating still, when you consider that the U.S. didn't play any role at all in the protests now roiling the region. Perhaps that's why they have succeeded (provisionally) in Tunisia and may (I stress may) change things in Egypt?

The second point of interest is who's not all that interested in the protests in Egypt: neoconservatives. Clicking over to the Weekly Standard and Commentary - not much going on there about the protests (as of this writing). What gives?

Egypt Minus the Internet

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This is what it looks like when a country leaves the Internet:


Renesys observed the virtually simultaneous withdrawal of all routes to Egyptian networks in the Internet's global routing table. Approximately 3,500 individual BGP routes were withdrawn, leaving no valid paths by which the rest of the world could continue to exchange Internet traffic with Egypt's service providers. Virtually all of Egypt's Internet addresses are now unreachable, worldwide.

[Hat tip: MSNBC]

January 27, 2011

Is It All About U.S.?

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Blake Hounshell believes that American vanity leads Americans to believe that U.S. policies regarding the Middle East have a great deal to do with the current movements in Egypt:

It's not about us. Indeed, what's been refreshing about the events in Tunisia and Egypt has been that very little of it has anything to do with the United States. For the most part, the demonstrators aren't chanting anti-American slogans; they're calling on their own corrupt, sclerotic rulers to stand aside. And that's a very healthy phenomenon.

This seems to be quite true of the populace at large, but I doubt it will be true of the success or failure of the overall movement. The key to success of the uprising in Tunisia was the defection of the police and army from Ben Ali. Whether or not the Army supports Mubarak or not could definitely hinge on what signals the United States sends. It is for this reason that the U.S. is playing it particularly cagey when in the Middle East.

In a very uncomfortable interview on Al Jazeera English, P.J. Crowley tried very hard to show tepid support for Mubarak, while at the same time looking supportive of democracy. I for one never thought I would see the day when Al Jazeera seemed like more of a champion of democracy than the U.S. State Department. Perhaps more telling is the report from STRATFOR that the Egyptian Chief of Staff is currently in Washington D.C. discussing the Army's position vis-a-vis Mubarak.

(AP Photo)

Aid to Egypt

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When the Obama administration was dealing with Iran, there were accusations the administration was "supporting the Mullahs" against their own people. That was nonsense. But in the case of Egypt it's a material fact that the U.S. is supporting the regime. It's also the case that American support for autocratic regimes in the Middle East is a motivator of Islamic radicalism (it's no coincidence that many of the early al-Qaeda leadership were members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad). In light of the beatings and killings presently occurring in Egypt, it's worth asking whether it might be time (or past time) to revisit whether this aid is actually necessary.

Every year, American taxpayers pony up $1.3 billion for Egypt, on top of nearly $30 billion in other assistance offered since the 1970s. The ostensible rationale for this aid is to keep Egypt at peace with Israel and to keep them on good terms with the U.S. so maritime traffic can transit the Suez without hassle.

The first of these rationales has long stopped making sense. Egypt has kept peace with Israel not out of an abundance of good will but because they understand the folly of trying to defeat them. American aid or no, it's quite difficult to imagine the Egyptian military getting it into their heads that a war with Israel would be a good thing to start in the 21st century. The second rationale is somewhat more persuasive - although Egypt is treaty-bound to keep the Suez Canal open to any ship in both peace time and war, there's no guarantee that a different regime might not seek to change the ground rules.

So the basic question confronting the U.S. is as straightforward as it is vexing: should the U.S. continue to transfer its wealth to the Mubarak regime in light of its treatment of Egyptian protesters?

I don't believe the U.S. should be in the business of micro-managing other country's politics, but it should certainly be in the business of deciding who gets its money. In this case, giving any more of it to Mubarak & Sons seems like a pretty lousy investment.

(AP Photo)

Linkage in the Mideast

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Elliott Abrams offers some thoughts on what we can learn from recent events in the Middle East:

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not central: Arab affairs reflect the internal crises of Arab countries and regimes and are not built around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What has been happening in Tunisia and Egypt is about Tunisia and Egypt. Same for the crisis in Lebanon, recent rioting in Jordan, and other key issues throughout the Arab world (stasis in Algeria, succession in Saudi Arabia, and so on). What unites these events is their relationship to the democracy deficit and to internal social and economic problems, not to Israel.

I'd second that. What's brought people out into the streets are local grievances. Abrams' conclusion also undermines the assertion that the Iraq war is somehow responsible for these protests.

(AP Photo)

January 26, 2011

Social Media in the Egypt Protests


Luke Allnut examines its impact.

Egypt's Denialism

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CFR's Steven Cook is in Egypt and offers his thoughts:

It’s not clear at all whether they believe them or not, but the Egyptian elite have been telling themselves lies and half truths for years. Today may have been the day when those lies and half truths caught up with them. Clearly, the many thousands of people in Tahrir Square today/tonight don’t take the regime’s claims about reform seriously. The press has focused on economic grievances—perhaps taking their cues from government spokesmen—but the only demands I heard tonight were political. The young men and (some) women in Tahrir want freedom and liberation from Hosni Mubarak, his family, and the National Democratic Party. As an aside, no matter how this thing turns out, it seems far less likely that Gamal Mubarak will succeed his father.

So far, this is an event of mostly 30 and under with the exception of a number of notables including Dr. Alaa al Aswany, the author of The Yacoubian Building. The police cracked down heavily tonight, but there is a sense this is not over. Cairo was not the only place that experienced big demonstrations. Something is deeply wrong in Egypt. If the protests continue and ordinary Egyptians decide to join the students and other young people in the streets today, something very big is going to happen—perhaps even the end of the Free Officers regime.

Standing By Egypt?

This raises a thorny question for the U.S.: If tens of thousands take to the streets - and stay on the streets - what will it do? The U.S. is the primary benefactor of the Egyptian regime, which, in turn, has reliably supported American regional priorities. After Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel, Egypt is the largest recipient of U.S. assistance, including $1.3 billion in annual military aid. In other words, if the army ever decides to shoot into a crowd of unarmed protestors, it will be shooting with hardware provided by the United States. As Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations points out, the Egyptian military is "not there to project power, but to protect the regime."

The U.S. can opt for relative silence, as it did in Tunisia. In Egypt, however, deep support of the Mubarak regime means that silence will be interpreted as complicity. On the other hand, if the U.S. offers moral support to embattled protestors, it will be actively undermining a government it considers critical to its security interests....

But the problem the U.S. faces currently is the same it faced during the short-lived "Arab spring" of 2005: For now, it is difficult, if not impossible to have both a democratic Middle East and a pro-American one. Because anti-Americanism is so widespread (in part because the U.S. supports reviled autocrats), and because Islamist groups represent the largest oppositions, any freely elected government will want to distance itself from U.S policies. - Shadi Hamid

President Obama is very much in a "damned if you, damned if you don't" position with respect to Egypt. If he follows the advice of the Washington Post and begins publicly calling for "change" in Egypt, and the country falls into the hands of Islamists with less-than-pro-American leanings, he's going to be accused of "losing Egypt." If he stands aside and lets Mubarak bring the hammer down, he'll be charged with standing on the side of tyrants.

January 24, 2011

China, America & the Middle East

Yiyi Chen, a professor at the Shanghai Jiaotong University and an adviser on Middle East affairs to the Beijing government, told The Media Line that Beijing in no hurry to significantly increase its role in the region. Right now, its focus is on studying the region and its problems carefully before deepening its involvement.

“The Western way isn’t the only way. The U.S. way has its value, but apparently it hasn’t solved the crises and conflicts of the region,” Chen said. “China has experienced the problem of foreign cultures and foreign value systems trying to impose their views on others ...We don’t have a view that we want to impose on the countries of the region.”

China’s growing economic and political clout hasn’t yet made itself felt in the Middle East, even as it has become the largest importer of the region’s oil, buying just over a tenth of the Gulf’s output and a quarter of Iran’s. But Beijing is starting to exercise unprecedented influence on critical issues, most notably by objecting efforts by the West to impose tougher sanctions on Iran. - David Rosenberg

From an American perspective, there's two ways to look at this. First, one can be enraged (or bemused) at how China is free-riding on America's provision of Persian Gulf security. While the American taxpayer and U.S. military bear the costs of keeping the region (relatively) stable, China bears none of those costs but enjoys all the benefits. The second way to view this is that the U.S. has China by the proverbial short hairs should relations deteriorate between the two great powers. With so much U.S. military power in the Gulf, it would be easy to disrupt energy shipments to China, but hard for China to inflict such a blow on the U.S.

What's interesting is Chinese thinking on the matter - insofar as Chen is a representative example. For the moment at least it looks like China is happy playing an "off-shore" role, which means the first interpretation mentioned above (free-rider) is perhaps a more accurate description of what's going on. Of course, China could very well want to play a more overt role in the region and simply lack the capacity or opportunity.

The Palestinian Papers & Mideast Democracy

Perhaps more damning, in Arab eyes, is the language used by some Palestinian leaders. Longtime peace negotiator Saeb Erekat is quoted in one document, a writeup of a Jan. 15, 2010, meeting with U.S. envoy David Hale, saying he had offered Israel "the biggest Yerushalayim in Jewish history, symbolic number of refugees return, demilitarized state... what more can I give?"

Erekat and other Palestinian leaders have made no effort to prepare their public for these kinds of concessions. In 2009, for instance, Erekat appeared on Al Jazeera and said, "There will be no peace whatsoever unless East Jerusalem -- with every single stone in it -- becomes the capital of Palestine."

No wonder Palestinian leaders are scrambling to contain the damage, ripping Al Jazeera and even the emir of Qatar, which sponsors the satellite channel. Erekat told reporters that the documents have been "taken out of context and contain lies ... Al-Jazeera's information is full of distortions and fraud." For its part, the network says it has "taken great care over an extended period of time to assure ourselves of their authenticity," as has the Guardian. The State Department says it's looking into them. - Blake Hounshell

I'm not sure this revelation is going to be all that damaging - politicians say different things to please different constituencies! I'm shocked, shocked.

Beyond that, this does raise the question - made urgent by the Tunisian revolution - about the role of democracy in the Middle East. A more democratically accountable West Bank leadership might find itself with less wiggle room between what they tell their publics and what they're prepared to concede at the negotiating table.

January 19, 2011

Controlling Events

In Lebanon’s worst crisis in years, whose resolution may determine whether Hezbollah controls a government allied with the United States, American diplomacy has become the butt of jokes here. Once a decisive player here, Saudi Arabia has all but given up. In their stead is Turkey, which has sought to mediate a crisis that, given events on Tuesday in Beirut’s streets, threatens to turn violent before it is resolved.

The confrontation here is the latest sign of a shifting map of the Middle East, where longtime stalwarts like Saudi Arabia and Egypt have further receded in influence, and emerging powers like Turkey, Iran and even the tiny Persian Gulf state of Qatar have decisively emerged in just a matter of a few years. It is yet another episode in which the United States has watched — seemingly helplessly — as events in places like Tunisia, Lebanon and even Iraq unfold unexpectedly and beyond its ability to control.

The jockeying might be a glimpse of a post-American Middle East, where the United States’ allies and foes, brought together in the interests of stability, plot foreign policies that intersect in initiatives the United States must grudgingly accept. - Anthony Shadid, New York Times

I think the framing of this is problematic - when could America ever "control events" in the Middle East, or elsewhere?

Shadid goes onto to chronicle how Turkey and other regional players are taking a more active role in trying to mediate the Lebanon crisis, but that's not a bad thing. Turkey and Lebanon's neighbors have a much larger stake in the outcome of the crisis than the United States, so it's natural that they should be out in front trying to resolve it.

January 17, 2011

Has Tunisia Sparked a Wave?

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Events are moving fast, with a sudden rash of self-immolations in Algeria, Egypt and Mauritania, plus protests in Jordan. But Stephen Walt argues that Tunisia's revolution probably won't be contagious:

There are three other reasons why the Tunisian example is unlikely to lead to similar upheavals elsewhere. First, as Timur Kuran and others have shown, the actual revolutionary potential of any society is very difficult to read in advance, and a rising revolutionary wave often depends on very particular preferences and information effects within society. Put differently, whether a genuine upheavel breaks out and gathers steam is a highly contingent process. Second, Tunisia is an obvious warning sign to other Arab dictatorships, and they are bound to be especially vigilant in the months ahead, lest some sort of similar revolutionary wave begin to emerge. Third, Tunisia's experience may not look very attractive over the next few weeks or months, especially if the collapse of the government leads to widespread anarchy, violence and economic hardship. If that is the case, then restive populations elsewhere may be less inclined to challenge unpopular leaders, reasoning that "hey, our government sucks, but it's better than no government at all."

Walt adds that he's not saying some kind of revolutionary cascade is impossible, just unlikely.

The direction other authoritarian governments take toward any incipient protest movements will be instructive. Ben Ali began to toss out concession after rapid concession before he ended up on the tarmac. Do the region's other autocrats think it was a case of too little too late and move to accommodation, or do they opt for more brutal suppression?

(AP Photo)

January 14, 2011

Coverage of Tunisia

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George Brock explains why the coverage of the protests in Tunisia haven't garnered as much Western press as Iran's 2009 Green Movement:

* The difference in excitement levels is largely confined to America. There is a huge Iranian diaspora in the US and that helped to spread new of what was happening in Tehran (also less than a revolution) very fast.

* Tunisia has always belonged to the French-speaking world and not the Anglo-Saxon. The French media established media have covered the story.

* It’s a big story in the Middle East. I’m writing from Dubai, where the story is on the front pages and satellite channels day after day. Even in the more circumspect newspapers of Saudi Arabia (where I’ve just been), it’s still a big item.

* Working as a foreign correspondent in Tunisia is more difficult and dangerous than often supposed. As Bassam Bounenni recalls, “in 2005, on the eve of the World Summit on Information Society in Tunis, Christophe Boltanski, a reporter with the French daily Libération, was beaten and stabbed. His colleague, Florence Beaugé, from Le Monde, was luckier because she was only stopped at the Tunis airport and expelled from the country hours before the 2009 presidential election.”

* Tunisia is smaller and geopolitically less significant than Iran.

Read the whole thing. Meanwhile, Shadi Hamid argued yesterday that the U.S. should get off the sidelines:

Morally speaking, there is a right side and a wrong side. Practically speaking, Ben Ali, however brutal, has been an "ally" for a considerable amount of time. This is why US policy in the Arab world has always struck me as fundamentally untenable in the long-run. Autocracies, to my knowledge, do not last forever. But we never took even preliminary steps of distancing ourselves from them, to prepare ourselves for the eventuality that they might fall. So now when tens of thousands of Arabs all across the region are stating, with unmistakable clarity, that they will no longer accept the authoritarian status quo, they are forcing us to take sides, testing our so-called "moral clarity." What they are really doing, I suspect, is forcing us to fall on the wrong side of history. This is not a good place to be.

As much as I agree that the U.S. should not be on the side of Middle Eastern/North African autocrats, the idea that we can simply throw those same autocrats under the bus while simultaneously holding onto the notion that America is the provider of stability and security in the Middle East is untenable. The U.S. pact with the devil in the region is born directly from a set of U.S. interests in the region - the defense of Israel and the stability and security of oil exporters. If you want to junk the autocrats, as I think would be wise over the medium term, then you have to redefine America's role with respect to those interests.

For what will happen in a more democratic Middle East is likely what we see happening in Turkey - countries that were "allied" to us when there was no democratic accountability will start to distance themselves from the United States when there is. I think in the longer term, if the U.S. gets on the "right side" of the democracy question, liberalizing states in the region would eventually lesson their hostility toward the U.S. and (possibly) Israel and appreciate the fact that we stepped back from our Faustian bargain with their autocratic rulers. But there doesn't seem to be any indication that the U.S. is willing to rethink its current set of regional interests in light of longer-term considerations.

(AP Photo)

January 13, 2011

Elliott Abrams on Lebanon

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If you haven't bookmarked it yet, Elliott Abrams' excellent new blog, Pressure Points, is already a must-read. His take on Lebanon and Hezbollah:

The United States has been firm, verbally, in backing Hariri and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is perhaps all we can do for now; in the long run, the greatest contribution we can make would be to reassert American influence in the region and diminish the sense that Iran and its ally Hizballah are the rising powers. We should also make it very clear that sending an ambassador to Damascus—and I, like Young, believe that was an error—was not meant to symbolize a reduction in support for Lebanon or an agreement that Syria may increase its influence there.

But at bottom this is far less a test of the United States than of the Lebanese. No one will resist Hizballah unless they do. The majority of Lebanese who oppose Hizballah, and who are mostly Maronite Catholics, Druze, and Sunni, must demonstrate that they have the will to keep their country from complete domination by the Shia terrorist group. This is asking quite a bit, to be sure, but Lebanese should have learned from the impact of their March 14, 2005 demonstrations that world support can be rallied and their opponents can pushed back. But they must take the lead.

Read the whole thing.

(AP Photo)

January 12, 2011

Playing the Middle East

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Stephen Kinzer imagines U.S. foreign policy doing a 180:

One could be a "power triangle" linking the US with Turkey and Iran. These two countries make intriguing partners for two reasons. First, their societies have long experience with democracy – although for reasons having to do in part with foreign intervention, Iran has not managed to produce a government worthy of its vibrant society. Second, these two countries share many security interests with the west. Projecting Turkey's example as a counter-balance to Islamic radicalism should be a vital priority. As for Iran, it has unique ability to stabilise Iraq, can also do much to help calm Afghanistan, and is a bitter enemy of radical Sunni movements like al-Qaida and the Taliban. Contrast this alignment of interests to the dubious logic of western partnerships with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, so-called allies who also support some of the west's most violent enemies.

I think the point about close ties with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is well taken. When you look at the trajectory of America's post 9-11 foreign policy, the regimes most directly implicated in that slaughter were (with the exception of the Taliban) embraced by Washington, while those with very little to do with international terrorism of the al-Qaeda variety (Iran and Iraq) were made the object of our ire.

That said, and leaving aside the rather dubious assertion that Iran could stabilize Iraq (aren't they just as likely to destabilize Iraq's Sunni minority?) I think Kinzer is making much the same mistake he's decrying. Trying to play one set of Middle Eastern regimes of another set is a mug's game.

(AP Photo)

December 27, 2010

The Mideast's Other Border Dispute

With the discovery of massive gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea, Batsheva Sobelman reports on the maneuvering of Israel, Cyprus, Turkey and Lebanon for maritime claims:

The deposits extend into areas controlled by Lebanon, and it has accused Israel of moving in on its natural resources. Not so, says Israel, which maintains that the fields lie between its territory and Cyprus. Israel's minister of national infrastructures, Uzi Landau, even said Israel would "not hesitate to use force" to protect the fields and uphold international maritime law.

Then there's the Lebanese militia, Hezbollah. Israeli officials have expressed concern that gas rigs off its northern coast would make an attractive target for rockets and terrorist attacks.

Maritime borders are a fluid affair. There are several methods for calculating these in lieu of a direct bilateral agreement, which is not an option for Israel and Lebanon.

Israel had neglected to sort this out with Cyprus, which "owns" the other end of the Mediterranean. Now the two countries have divvied up the roughly 200 nautical miles between them and the maritime border was demarcated in a recent agreement signed in Nicosia by Cypriot Foreign Minister Markos Kyprianou and Landau. Israeli diplomats say the agreement should secure Israel's economic interests in the Mediterranean. Cyprus says this doesn't conflict with a similar agreement signed with Lebanon, still awaiting ratification in parliament.

Now Egypt is watching, to ensure the agreement doesn't infringe on Egyptian maritime territories and its interests. It too has signed a deal with Cyprus.

Agreement in the region is a short blanket; cover one side, and someone else's feet stick out. Now Turkey is angry.

The gas find is significant: Israel estimates it could boost the country's GDP by 4 or 5 percent in 2013.

December 13, 2010

Can America Walk Away from the Middle East?

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Thomas Friedman says America should wash her hands of the peace process and cut aid to both the Israelis and Palestinians until they're ready to be serious about peace. Blake Hounshell says the U.S. can't just walk away:

But unfortunately, it's not so easy to just walk away. Not only has the United States given billions in military and economic aid to Israel over the last three decades -- and provided Israel diplomatic cover at the United Nations and other fora -- it has also propped up the Palestinian Authority while Arab leaders have broken promise after promise to help. U.S. bases dot the region, and U.S. troops are currently occupying two Muslim countries. American money goes to build settlements in the West Bank.

Seems like all the more reason to begin searching for another strategy. Hounshell argues that rather than pull back, the U.S. should double down and "propose" its own solution (and then what?) or do something really clever and unseat Netanyahu to put in the supposedly more pliable Livni. At which point, the Obama administration, Arab world, Palestinian Authority and Israel will make peace.

Sound plausible?

Of course it isn't. In fact, sustaining the peace process and America's broad and increasingly untenable definition of its interests in the Middle East is just as unrealistic as the notion that we can simply pull up stumps and leave tomorrow. I think even the most earnest proponent of "off-shore balancing" or non-interventionism understands that changes to American policy couldn't happen instantly. But there is a vital question of trajectory. For thirty years - since the Carter Doctrine - the U.S. has taken a path of deepening involvement in Middle Easttern affairs. It was a slow but steady accumulation of interests, military bases, commitments and a sense among Washington elites that concepts like "American prestige" had become inseparable from whether or not it could keep its arms wrapped around this unwieldy bundle.

In an era where the great power competition that compelled the Carter Doctrine is over and one in which America is menaced by a transnational radicalism, sustaining or even deepening our ownership of various Middle Eastern conflicts seems lethally counter-productive. That American commitments can't be unwound overnight is no argument against the proposition that we should at least get started.

(AP Photo)

December 10, 2010

Taking on Iran's Supreme Leader

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The war of words and deeds is heating up even further between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s secular Chief of Staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who is rumored to be a presidential hopeful in 2013, and the mullahs wishing to sustain velayat-e faqih, or guardianship by the clerics, as the sole form of government in Iran.

Previously, Mashaei had criticized the clerics as incompetent politicians and tyrannical administrators who are out of touch with most Iranians. His website even called for their ouster. The mullahs in turn have labeled him a heretic and vowed to block his political ambitions.

Now Mashaei is taking on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei directly.

Lately the Supreme Leader has been denouncing music – both Persian and Western – as unsuitable for the Islamic Republic:

"Teaching and encouraging music is not compatible with the highest values of the sacred system of the Islamic Republic."

Khamenei reportedly prefers prayer and revolutionary chants.

However, Iran’s increasingly independent youth are turning amass to music as a form of rebellion against the Islamic regime and embracing globalization.

The 50-year old Mashaei, who has increasingly been positioning himself as the champion of younger Iranians, ridiculed the Supreme Leader’s anti-music stance while addressing a gathering of artists in the city of Arak (Sultanabad):

When I speak frankly, they [the mullahs] call me a blasphemer. But many of them don’t understand music and so they claim music is religiously unacceptable. They pray so much … that they have become unaware of God. They see not God but an illusion … for they pray facing the wrong Kaaba [in the Grand mosque at Mecca] and so don't understand music either. They are incapable of comprehending the world of poetry and arts which is the pinnacle [of civilization]. Unlike them I am an engineer; consequently I understand the seabed of the arts.

Mashaei is already on record as claiming that those Iranians who focus on religion rather than science will never see heaven.

So despite Supreme Leader Khamenei's attempts at reconciliation between the warring factions of Iran’s ruling class, to preserve his own authority, the breakup continues apace at his expense.

(AP Photo)

December 6, 2010

Muslim Public's View of Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Qaeda

Pew Research highlights this surveys Muslim publics for their views on Hezbollah, Hamas and al-Qaeda:

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It's worth noting here that Turkey is the least receptive to these groups. In a later question from Pew, on the whether Islam in politics is a good or bad thing, Turks had the lowest percent of respondents (45 percent) suggesting it was a good thing.

November 30, 2010

Does WikiLeaks Confirm Linkage?

There's many in U.S. foreign policy circles who believe that solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is the key to making America's life a lot easier - both in the Middle East and with the broader war on terror. Since the conflict is "linked" to the region's ills and to the broader threat of terrorism, it's imperative for the U.S. to try and solve it. Jennifer Rubin thinks the WikiLeak cables prove that "linkage" theory is bunk:

Recall that the Obama team over and over again has made the argument that progress on the Palestinian conflict was essential to obtaining the help of the Arab states in confronting Iran’s nuclear threat. We know that this is simply and completely false.

The documents show that the Arab states were hounding the administration to take action against Iran. The King of Bahrain urged Obama to rec0gnize that the danger of letting the Iranian nuclear program come to fruition was worse than the fallout from stopping it....

In short, there is zero evidence that the Palestinian non-peace talks were essential to obtaining the assistance of the Arab states on Iran.

Matt Duss argues that the case for linkage is more modest than Rubin claims, highlighting this quote from Dennis Ross as being the crux of the "real" linkage argument:

Pursuing peace is not a substitute for dealing with the other challenges… It is also not a panacea. But especially as it relates to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, if one could do that, it would deny state and non-state actors a tool they use to exploit anger and grievances.

He then notes several cables showing how Arab states, aside from asking for military action against Iran, were also privately urging on peace talks and arguing that a resolution to the conflict would help them and help stabilize the Middle East.

Much of this debate hinges on what you think the real linkage argument consists of - the more sweeping one that Rubin thinks is debunked by the cables, or the more modest one that Duss believes is bolstered by them.

But even accepting that the "modest" linkage argument is the real one, I'm not sure how this helps the administration. Bringing an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems like an awful lot of work for such a small payout.

November 29, 2010

WikiLeaks: The Arab World's Reaction

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One facet of the WikiLeaks document dump that has garnered several headlines is the not-very-surprising revelation that Arab autocrats say one thing publicly and another thing to U.S. officials in private. Marc Lynch wonders what impact this double-talk will have when (or if) it's reported on in Arab media:

So here's the million dollar question: were their fears of expressing these views in public justified? Let's assume that their efforts to keep the stories out of the mainstream Arab media will be only partially successful -- and watch al-Jazeera here, since it would traditionally relish this kind of story but may fear revelations about the Qatari royal family. Extremely important questions follow. Will Arab leaders pay any significant political price for these positions, as they clearly feared? Or will it turn out that in this era of authoritarian retrenchment they really can get away with whatever diplomatic heresies they like even if it outrages public opinion? Will the publication of their private views lead them to become less forthcoming in their behavior in order to prove their bona fides -- i.e. less supportive of containing or attacking Iran, or less willing to deal with Israel? Or will a limited public response to revelations about their private positions lead them to become bolder in acting on their true feelings? Will this great transgression of the private/public divide in Arab politics create a moment of reckoning in which the Arab public finally asserts itself... or will it be one in which Arab leaders finally stop deferring to Arab public opinion and start acting out on their private beliefs?

I find it hard to believe that any Arab ruler will pay a price for privately urging on the U.S. to attack Iran. What, exactly, would that price be? Will people be storming government offices on behalf of Iran's nuclear program? The more interesting question, as Lynch notes, is whether now-exposed Arab leaders continue to talk out of both sides of their mouth - and whether the U.S. will continue to define its interests in the region based on the security these incumbent autocrats.

(AP Photo)

November 28, 2010

WikiLeaks and American Leadership in the Middle East

We've heard a lot in recent months how "American leadership" in the Middle East has been called into question. David Ignatius put the conventional wisdom best when he wrote that "U.S. power in the region is perceived to be weakening." Senator Joseph Lieberman devoted an entire speech to the subject.

To understand what this actually means, it's useful to review some recently disclosed information:

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has repeatedly urged the United States to attack Iran to destroy its nuclear programme, according to leaked US diplomatic cables that describe how other Arab allies have secretly agitated for military action against Tehran.

The revelations, in secret memos from US embassies across the Middle East, expose behind-the-scenes pressures in the scramble to contain the Islamic Republic, which the US, Arab states and Israel suspect is close to acquiring nuclear weapons. Bombing Iranian nuclear facilities has hitherto been viewed as a desperate last resort that could ignite a far wider war....

Leaders in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt referred to Iran as "evil", an "existential threat" and a power that "is going to take us to war".

Now, we learn something else from these cables, namely:

Saudi donors remain the chief financiers of Sunni militant groups like Al Qaeda, and the tiny Persian Gulf state of Qatar, a generous host to the American military for years, was the “worst in the region” in counterterrorism efforts, according to a State Department cable last December. Qatar’s security service was “hesitant to act against known terrorists out of concern for appearing to be aligned with the U.S. and provoking reprisals,” the cable said.

There may be good reasons for the U.S. to use force to delay Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon, but to do so because the chief financiers of al-Qaeda asked us seems like a pretty lousy one to me. So the next time you hear some pundit or politician moan about American power or leadership in the Middle East, or how our "allies" are doubting our resolve, this is what it's about: having American men and women die on behalf of decadent monarchs and presidents-for-life who are unwilling to fight their own battles.

November 24, 2010

Did an Israeli Referendum Kill the Peace Process?

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In a recent column, Jackson Diehl mocked the Obama administration's supposedly retrograde fixation on stopping Israeli settlement building on behalf of the peace process:

The same might be said about Obama's preoccupation with stopping Israel's settlement expansion in the West Bank and Jerusalem - a campaign that even Palestinian and Arab leaders have watched with bafflement. True, almost everyone outside Israel regards the construction as counterproductive, and only a minority supports it inside Israel.

But that is just the point: The dream of a "greater Israel" died more than 15 years ago. Even the Israeli right now accepts that a Palestinian state will be created in the West Bank.

Perhaps, but the Israelis don't appear particularly eager to negotiate over annexed territory:

The Knesset passed the National Referendum Law during a late-night session Monday, approving legislation that will fundamentally alter Israeli negotiators’ ability to offer concrete peace deals involving the Golan Heights or east Jerusalem.

The law, which was approved by a vote of 65-33, will require either a Knesset super-majority or a national referendum in order to hand over any annexed territories as part of a future peace deal.

This law does not implicate the West Bank, so technically it's not aimed at protecting "Greater Israel" from whatever form of sovereignty the Palestinians are eventually granted over the remaining territory. But no country - including the United States - recognizes the annexation of either the Golan or East Jerusalem and the referendum is explicitly designed to forestall a settlement of those issues. Several commentators have argued that this vote has essentially killed the two state solution. I'm not sure, I think it effectively died when Hamas took over Gaza. But in any event, it would be wise for the Obama administration to dramatically rethink it's approach, as neither party to the conflict appears ready, willing or able to make peace.

(AP Photo)

November 16, 2010

China in the Middle East

In the LA Times, David Schenker & Chirstina Lin argue that we should be concerned about China's relationships in the Middle East:

Given China's extensive presence throughout the world — attributable at least in part to the fact that its foreign policy is devoid of moral concerns — it is unrealistic to expect that Washington could have somehow excluded Beijing from the Middle East. Indeed, the very absence of considerations other than national interest makes China an appealing partner to states in a region where authoritarianism is rife. Some Mideast states also likely view China as useful counterbalance against the West.

That first sentence is odd, no? If China's growing global role is at least partly attributable to a lack of "moral concerns" what do the authors think about the considerably larger U.S. global role? They continue:

What is of concern, however, is that the rapid rate of Chinese progress occurs amid a growing regional perception that the United States is withdrawing from the Middle East.

Although China holds a significant portion of U.S. debt, and trade relations are strong, at the end of the day the two nations are competitors — both strategic and economic — with profoundly differing worldviews. It may be that this great game will end with Washington and Beijing as allies. More likely, though, a modus vivendi will emerge between the two powers. Until then, Washington should work to strengthen its remaining regional allies and reestablish a presence in the region.

Unfortunately the piece ends there, so it's not clear what's entailed by "reestablishing" a presence (add more military bases, reoccupy Iraq?). It's also a bit ironic, given how the authors castigate China for being "devoid of moral concerns" in its foreign policy to then urge the U.S. to reinforce ties with "regional allies" in the Middle East. Those allies, with the exception of Israel, are uniformly autocratic, when they're not tyrannical. Of course, we can't boost ties with democratic Turkey because the authors spend the beginning of the piece bashing "Islamist" Turkey for partnering with China.

The more important question is why, exactly, we should worry about what China's doing in the Middle East. The authors advance the idea that the U.S. and China are competitors, so presumably we would guard our position in the Middle East to exercise some kind of leverage over China. But in reality, it doesn't work that way. We're the ones begging Beijing to sign onto our sanctions against countries in the region. If push came to shove, the U.S. could halt or massively disrupt oil shipments from the Middle East - but that would not only hurt China but every oil-importing country in Asia and beyond.

It seems to me that China has a logical strategy with respect to the Middle East - let the U.S. pick up the cost of stationing forces in the region and exhaust itself waging various wars and hatching clever "containment" schemes to manage this or that political actor it disapproves of while China makes deals and gets access to needed energy resources.

October 14, 2010

Suicide Terrorism & the U.S. Military

Robert Pape, a University of Chicago political science professor and former Air Force lecturer, will present findings on Capitol Hill on Tuesday that argue that the majority of suicide terrorism around the world since 1980 has had a common cause: military occupation.

Pape and his team of researchers draw on data produced by a six-year study of suicide terrorist attacks around the world that was partially funded by the Defense Department's Defense Threat Reduction Agency. They have compiled the terrorism statistics in a publicly available database comprising some 10,000 records on some 2,200 suicide terrorism attacks, dating back to the first suicide terrorism attack of modern times — the 1983 truck bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, which killed 241 U.S. Marines.

"We have lots of evidence now that when you put the foreign military presence in, it triggers suicide terrorism campaigns, ... and that when the foreign forces leave, it takes away almost 100 percent of the terrorist campaign," Pape said in an interview last week on his findings. - Laura Rozen

It's always struck me as a bit odd that the U.S. is willing to blithely assume huge costs in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the name of fighting terrorism while resolutely refusing to consider reducing our military footprint in the Middle East for fear of the costs. Perhaps Pape's research will help balance the ledger a bit.

October 11, 2010

Iranian Infighting Continues

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Political rivalries are intensifying between Iran’s fundamentalist ayatollahs and officeholders. It’s a clash between those who wish to hold on to theocracy and those who seek secular, but perhaps no less authoritarian, governance.

Here’s what Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi had to say recently about Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, chief of staff to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:

Mashaei is seeking to prepare the groundwork for his own presidency after Ahmadinejad by spending huge amounts of money in the provincial cities to court people. Mashaei thinks he can become president by drawing on his wealth and position. But if Mashaei runs for office, the first group that will oppose his presidency is the Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom. We won’t let Mashaei become president at any price.

Ayatollah Yazdi is Deputy Chairman of the Assembly of Experts. This conservative Shiite cleric also serves on the 12-member Guardian Council, regularly leads Friday prayer at the capital city of Tehran and directs the influential Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom. He led Iran’s judiciary from 1989 to 1999. Yazdi is a close ally of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as well.

In response the executive branch’s supporters in Iran’s government have been championing nationalism, blocking websites belonging to Yazdi and other fundamentalist ayatollahs, mocking the administrative and political skills of mullahs in general, and labeling the clergy-led crackdown on public behavior as ineffective and unworkable.

So the fragmentation of Iran’s revolutionary government continues apace.

October 6, 2010

Middle East Peace: Giving it Your All

Mark Landler notes how the Obama administration is dishing out the goodies to get the Israelis and Palestinians back to the table:

Not only is the Obama administration holding hands, they said, it is also handing out concessions to each side, in a bid to keep Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas at the table. The generosity of the American offers, and the reluctance of the Israelis or the Palestinians to accept them, have been telling.

On Tuesday, Mr. Netanyahu’s senior cabinet ministers convened in Jerusalem, officials said, and did not even take up a package of security guarantees being offered by the United States in return for Israel’s extending a freeze on the construction of settlements in the West Bank by 60 days.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, rejected a proposal by the administration that they keep negotiating without an extension, in return for an American endorsement of their position on the borders of a future Palestinian state. Without an extension, the Palestinians insist, the talks are dead.

So if the carrots fail, will the administration turn to sticks?

September 27, 2010

Zakaria: Israel Can't Afford a Rival Turkey

Zakaria, in his final column for Newsweek, elaborates on Turkey's new foreign policy.

September 23, 2010

Palestinian Views on Peace

A new poll from the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre offers a glimpse into Palestinian attitudes toward the peace process:

A public opinion poll released Thursday suggests that just over half of Palestinians support negotiations with Israel.

But a larger majority, 59 percent, say Palestinians were coerced into entering the talks, the first since 2008. Only one-third of respondents believe the negotiations will succeed, according to the poll conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.

Similarly slim majorities (52.9 percent) believe negotiations are the most effective strategy to achieve their national goals, compared with 25.7 percent who say violent resistance is a better route and 15.7 percent preferring non-violent resistance.

A willingness to negotiate rather than resist is a positive, but it would have been just as useful to get numbers on what Palestinians see as the "national goals" that they wish to negotiate toward.

UPDATE: Scratch that last part, the poll did put the question of national goals on the table. Slim majorities in the West Bank (54.7 percent) and Gaza (51.3 percent) favor a two state solution vs. 30 percent in both territories that favor a bi-national state and a further 4 percent in the West Bank and 9.6 percent in Gaza who would prefer single Palestinian state encompassing all the territory. Thanks to commenter HDarrow for pointing this out in comments.

September 21, 2010

Views on Mideast Peace Talks

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Angus Reid surveyed British, American and Canadian views of the peace process:

A large proportion of respondents in the three countries do not express sympathy for either of the two sides in the Middle East dispute. Americans favour Israel over the Palestinians (27% to 5%), while Britons pick the Palestinians ahead of Israel (19% to 10%). Canadians are evenly divided in their assessment (13% for Israel; 13% for the Palestinians).

Respondents in the three countries were also asked about the sympathies of their respective heads of government. Canadians clearly think of Stephen Harper as pro-Israel (36%) and Britons feel the same way about David Cameron (21%). In the United States, 18 per cent of respondents think Barack Obama sympathizes more with the Palestinians, while 15 per cent believe he is more considerate to the Israelis.

A large majority in all three countries feel the talks won't be successful and at least a third in all three nations feel a solution will never be reached. Optimistic bunch. Full results here. (pdf)

(AP Photo)

September 17, 2010

Egypt's State-Run Media Fail

September 14, 2010

Values and Interests in the Middle East

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Dov Zakheim comments on the news that a Saudi diplomat has sought asylum in the U.S because he's gay and, apparently, had a relationship with a Jewish woman. That's 0-2 in the Kingdom and, apparently, could cost the diplomat his life. This prompts Zakheim to write:

Since the onset of the Cold War, and, more recently, in the seemingly endless war on terrorism (or whatever euphemism is employed for the conflict with Islamic extremists), the United States has consistently given higher priority to its national security and economic interests than to the human rights and freedoms that it holds dear. This policy, which, with a few periodic exceptions, has been bipartisan for over a half century, invariably outrages those on the Left, who in any event have little sympathy for U.S. security or economic policies.

Most policymakers recognize the dilemma they face: yet, like Winston Churchill, who hated Communists but was prepared to ally himself with Stalin to defeat Hitler, they accept that circumstances will dictate whether, and for how long, one must, in Churchill's famous term, "sleep with the devil."

Two things to note about this. It's not just the left that expresses unhappiness with this arrangement. Zakheim's former boss did too. As noted below, it was conservatives during the Bush-era who took up the mantra that freedom in the Middle East was the only surefire antidote to terrorism.

The other issue is the question of necessity. The example Zakheim invokes as justification for America holding its nose and sleeping with the devil was rather extreme. The Cold War had its own exigencies and Saudi Arabia did prove to be a useful ally as well. But the Cold War is over and the 9/11 attacks revealed a much darker side to America's strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia.

Obviously, the U.S. needs a lot of oil and Saudi Arabia has a lot of oil, so it's natural to expect continued contact between the two countries. But because the Saudis are willing to sell their oil doesn't mean the U.S. has to bind itself as tightly to the monarchy as it has done in the past. You "sleep with the devil" when the alternatives are worse. If the U.S. starts to openly criticize Saudi Arabia on, for instance, human rights, they're not going to stop selling oil into world markets and if they raise the price and push the world into a recession, well, that hurts them too (not to mention the fact that it will aggravate China, a growing consumer of Saudi oil). There's a tendency to view America's reliance on oil as a hugely debilitating crutch but if it is, it's a two-way liability. It's worth nothing to those who have it if they can't sell it.

(AP Photo)

September 7, 2010

U.S. Views on Middle East Peace Treaty

Via Rasmussen:

With Israeli-Palestinian peace talks on the front-burner again, voters continue to believe strongly that any agreement must include recognition by Palestinian leaders of Israel’s right to exist. But most voters think that recognition is unlikely.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 77% of U.S. voters think Palestinian leaders must acknowledge Israel’s right to exist....

However, only 25% of voters think it is even somewhat likely that the Palestinian leadership will recognize Israel’s right to exist, while 64% say it is unlikely. This includes six percent (6%) who say recognition is Very Likely and 19% who say it’s Not At All Likely. These findings are unchanged from June 2009.

Voters remain less enthusiastic about requiring Israel to accept the creation of a Palestinian state as part of a peace agreement between the two sides. Fifty-one percent (51%) say Israel should be required to do so, down six points from the previous survey. Twenty-seven percent (27%) disagree, and 22% more are not sure.

Middle East Peace Talks

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Well, they're off to a good start aren't they:

Abbas stressed that he would not make any concessions to Israel.

“If they demand concessions on the rights of the refugees or the 1967 borders, I will quit. I can’t allow myself to make even one concession,” he said.

We also had Israel's foreign minister proclaiming that a peace deal was not possible "in a generation" let alone a year.

You could chalk this up to posturing, but given the long odds that already attend this particular effort, I'm not so sure.

(AP Photo)

September 4, 2010

Peace Processing

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Steve Clemons (via David Schorr) waxes ambitious about the peace process currently underway:

The United States and its core allies have decided to try and remake parts of the world and as might be expected, much of the Arab Middle East and the global Muslim community have institutionalized grievances about their place in the modern world and wonder if the West values their lives and societies. The Palestinian mess is for many of these people the packaged microcosm of their anger about exploitation and humiliation by the West and by their own governments.

Solving the Israel-Palestine conflict will not solve all the political and identity tensions which will continue to boil in Arab and Muslim-dominant states -- but the echo effect of resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians will knock down many walls in these societies that have been resisting change.

This strikes me as eerily similar to neoconservative promises of "regional transformation" following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Just as those proved to be bunk, I think it's safe to assume that any "echo effect" caused by resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute will be similarly insignificant. We should have learned by now that individual societies have their own grievances and their own dynamics and that basing U.S. policy on sweeping predictions about how they'll react to changes in other countries is a recipe for trouble.

Rather than pin our hopes on radical historical pivot points, I'd argue that it would be better to dial back - just a little! - the idea that we need to "remake parts of the world" to be secure. We also need to be thinking quite seriously about what happens when these talks fail - as they almost certainly will.

UPDATE: Daniel Larison has some additional thoughts about linkage and Iran.
(AP Photo)

August 13, 2010

Obama & Lebanon's Army

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Janine Zacharia reports that growing calls in Congress to cut aid to Lebanon's army are putting President Obama in a tight spot:

"From Congress, I think this is a classic mistake," said Paul Salem, an analyst who heads the Beirut office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "You have some misgivings about the Lebanese army so you strengthen Hezbollah and you make things much worse."

While saying it wants to bolster the army's capabilities, the United States has still remained queasy about supplying Lebanon, technically at war with Israel, with advanced weapons. The bulk of U.S. assistance, besides training for officers, is non-lethal equipment like body armor, boots, uniforms, and Humvees.

The Lebanese army's weakness was on display when it sought to dismantle an extremist Sunni group in 2007. During the army's operation in a Palestinian refugee camp, 168 Lebanese troops died, many from friendly fire, amid severe weapons shortages.

I think it's premature to conclude that American aid to Lebanon's army has "backfired" but this incident raises questions about just how promiscuous the U.S. should be in lavishing weapons and support around the world and particularly in a region as volatile as the Middle East. It also raises questions about just how effective we are at picking winners and losers inside Lebanon. In the grand scheme of the U.S. budget, the $700 million that the U.S. has thus far invested in Lebanon isn't much - but it is apparently not enough to make the army a viable counterweight to Hezbollah. Which presents an obvious choice: either raise our investment and commitment to the country or stop wasting money on ineffective meddling.

(AP Photo)

August 12, 2010

The Politics of Emotion

Daniel Drezner on the move to withhold aid from the Lebanese army:

Now, I understand the Congressional impulse to do something here -- I really do. What I don't understand is how Congress thinks that withholding aid from the Lebanese military will weaken Hezbollah. Congress seems to think that anything that aids the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) will concomitantly aid Hezbollah. The latter group, however, has independent sources of financial, political and military support. It's better to think of the LAF as a competing power base than as a conduit to Hezbollah. Anything that weakens national institutions in Lebanon empowers the groups that can survive in a more anarchical environment -- and gee, whaddaya know, that would include Hezbollah.

It's possible that these thoughts have passed through the staff of Berman, Cantor, Lowey and McKeon. It's also possible that these staffers simply sad "f*** it, this will look like our member of Congress is doing something." I can certainly respect the raw political calculation involved here. But it's a stupid, counterproductive move in terms of the national interest -- and they should know better.

Yes, but how many times does the national interest win when it clashes with "raw political calculation?"

August 9, 2010

France a Mideast Favorite

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Looking through the full release of the 2010 Arab Opinion poll published by Brookings, it seems that France comes out pretty highly regarded. When asked which country they would like to see be the world's only superpower, 35 percent of respondents said France. China followed with 16 percent, Germany with 13 and Britain with 9.

When asked which country they would like to live, 51 percent of respondents choose France, followed by Germany with 17 percent and Britain, with 10 percent. France is also seen as playing the most constructive role in the Middle East, ahead of Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

July 22, 2010

Why They Wear a Hijab (or Don't)


With the veil ban debate breaking out over Europe, Radio Free Europe asked Muslim women why they do, or don't, wear a hijab.

July 1, 2010

Asia vs. the Middle East

As someone who has spent the past decade getting to know the Arabic-speaking world, I should act in my interests and claim the Arabic-speaking world to be the single most important region from the perspective of U.S. interests. But I can't do that honestly. As I read documents like the National Intelligence Council's 2025 survey, I grow to suspect that specialists of East and South Asia will be far more important to the United States than we would-be Arabists going forward. - Andrew Exum
I think this is right but I don't think we're going to see a steady, linear march away from the Middle East toward Asia. Indeed, Washington's interest in the Middle East is likely to increase over the next decade as the consequences of Iran's nuclear program become apparent and, more importantly, as the world jockeys for increasingly scare energy resources.

We will ultimately get around to giving Asia the attention it deserves in the same way the U.S. tends to handle most strategic shifts - in an ad hoc and crisis-driven manner.

June 28, 2010

Misplaced Priorities?

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Robert Haddick has an interesting article in the American sketching out the costs of any potential Iranian containment regime. Haddick writes:

Left alone, the likely response would be a nuclear and missile arms race between Iran and the Persian Gulf’s Arab states. During the Cold War, U.S. security guarantees, backed up by U.S. military forces and theater nuclear weapons, allowed U.S. allies in Western Europe and East Asia to avoid having to develop their own nuclear weapon programs. Now, once more, Cold War-style deterrence over the Persian Gulf, bolstered by a United States security guarantee and military deployments, may seem an appealing option. But a security guarantee has its costs and risks, for which U.S. policy makers and the American public must prepare.

I tackled this issue a bit here, and Haddick provides a good tour of the horizon of some of the challenges and risks of a containment regime - but he overlooks the huge elephant in the living room when it comes to containing Iran - the threat of Sunni terrorism.

Any Iranian containment regime would, as Haddick writes, see the U.S. strengthening its forward military presence in the Middle East and its partnership with the sundry autocrats of the region. This is the very dynamic that propelled al Qaeda in the 1990s. It stands to reason that such a dynamic will funnel recruits to the movement in the future.

What makes this situation rather perverse is that Iran's nuclear program poses no threat to the U.S. homeland, while al Qaeda terrorism most assuredly does. Iran's nuclear program is clearly a threat to U.S. military deployments in the Middle East and is threatening to other nations in the region. You can make a plausible case that a nuclear Iran will become a hegemonic Iran and that the result would be a sharp spike in the price of oil. But you cannot claim that a nuclear Iran will lead to the deaths of U.S. citizens inside the United States. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the threat from al Qaeda.

The typical counter-argument here is that the geopolitical consequences of a nuclear Iran (higher oil prices, greater regional terrorism, etc.) trump concern for however many Americans wind up being slaughtered by al Qaeda terrorists. And it's not like declining to erect a militarized containment regime around Iran would prevent al Qaeda terrorism - that genie is long out of the bottle. But we need to be mindful of what the Cold War taught us about containment - there are a multitude of unintended consequences, especially with respect to terrorist movements and once-useful proxies. Reasonable people can weight these costs and arguments differently - but it's important to acknowledge them up front.

It's also worth pointing out that after years of living under the American defense umbrella, Germany, South Korea and Japan developed strong market economies and democratic institutions. Their citizens may have resented various American policies, but never got it into their heads to plow commercial airliners into American office buildings and launch an international terrorist war against Western interests. Can we say the same for our protectorates in the Middle East?

(AP Photo)

June 26, 2010

Abbas Would Win Palestinian Vote

Via Angus Reid:

Mahmoud Abbas would win a new election in the Palestinian territories, according to a poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. 54 per cent of respondents would vote for the current Palestinian Authority president and leader of Fatah in the next ballot, up four points since March.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh is second with 39 per cent.

June 23, 2010

How Bad Do Saudi Women Want to Drive?

This bad:

Many were stunned when Saudi cleric Sheik Abdel Mohsen Obeikan recently issued a fatwa, or Islamic ruling, calling on women to give breast milk to their male colleagues or men they come into regular contact with so as to avoid illicit mixing between the sexes.

But a group of Saudi women has taken the controversial decree a step further in a new campaign to gain the right to drive in the ultra-conservative kingdom, media reports say.

If they're not granted the right to drive, the women are threatening to breastfeed their drivers to establish a symbolic maternal bond.


You go girls.

June 21, 2010

Obama's Unpopular in the Middle East!

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Heritage's Helle Dale looks at the recent Pew Survey on international attitudes of the U.S.:

The one exception to these glowing attitudes is the Middle East, the centerpiece of the Obama foreign policy thrust when the president came into office. In major foreign policy addresses, such as the Cairo and the Ghana speeches, Mr. Obama presented much “hope and change,” but has so far failed to produce any measurable results. As a result, publics of largely Muslim countries continue to look at the United States in negative light. In both Turkey and Pakistan, two U.S. allies, only 17 percent hold a positive opinion. In Egypt, America’s favorability rating dropped from 27 percent to 17 percent – the lowest percentage since 2006 when the surveys were first done.
I was under the impression that this was a mostly liberal line of criticism - that the Arab world remained unmoved by Obama's charm offensive because he hasn't actually changed much of what they dislike about American policy in the region. If Obama had undertaken policies that the Arab world broadly approved of, wouldn't Dale & company be outraged?

(AP Photo)

June 10, 2010

The Powers of Imagination

Jennifer Rubin notes approvingly analysis from John Bolton and Elliott Abrams and laments: "In the category of “elections have consequences,” imagine if a Republican were in the White House taking advice from these two."

Hmmmm. Would it look something like this?

June 2, 2010

We Love Democracy! Oh Wait...

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Talk about cognitive dissonance. I was always under the impression that neoconservatives were enthusiastic supporters of the "freedom agenda" - especially in the Middle East. My mistake. Here's Matthew Continetti in the Weekly Standard on Turkey's support for the Gaza aid flotilla:

The main factor behind these developments is the rise of Recip Tayipp Erdogan's AKP. Some years ago, Christopher Caldwell pointed out in our pages that as Turkey democratized, it would also become more Islamic. And that means certain elements, influential elements, of its government and society would become more Islamist. The trend that few have noticed is that these elements are pulling Turkey out of the Western alliance structure and toward the Middle East. The break began in 2003 when the Turks denied the U.S. Fourth Infantry the ability to invade Iraq from the north.

Since 2005, Americans have been worrying about Iran's ambitions for regional hegemony. Maybe it's time we started worrying about Turkey's regional ambitions as well. The Turks ruled the region from 1453 to 1922, after all. A renascence of Turkish power, in an Islamist guise, would cause all sorts of troubles no one can anticipate.

I guess we should all be thankful that President Bush's "freedom agenda" failed, right? This is Turkey - a NATO ally and prospective (although increasingly less likely) candidate for EU membership. Now imagine democracy taking root in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Iran and elsewhere - would it surprise anyone if the regional atmosphere got a lot less friendly toward the U.S. and Israel?

As I said earlier, it's very difficult to be an honest proponent of Middle East democracy and an advocate for perpetual American hegemony in the region. The emergence of true democracies is likely to reorient the geopolitics of the region in a manner that the staunchest hegemonists would sharply disapprove of. I wonder which aspiration they'll jettison first.

Update: Daniel Larison has more thoughts on Turkey here and here:

The trouble that a lot of Americans seem to have with all this is that whenever Turkey deviates from Washington’s script they view Turkey’s relations with its eastern and northern neighbors as evidence of a “drift” out of the orbit of the West. Of course, we are the ones drawing the lines and defining Turkish behavior such that they cannot pursue their interests without being perceived as a competitor or worse. In many parts of the world the U.S. encourages and welcomes economic cooperation and improved relations between neighbors, but in other regions the very same behaviors that we laud in Europe are viewed with suspicion and alarm. After a while, any nation, even one with a long-standing good relationship with the U.S., would grow weary of this treatment.

(AP Photo)

April 22, 2010

Letting Them Play David

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Ezzedine Choukri Fishere argues for full nuclear disclosure in the Middle East:

First, it would lay to rest the complaints about double standards in the nonproliferation community and relieve the US - and Israel - from the untenable claim that Israel's nuclear arsenal should somehow be treated as exceptional (a claim that nobody outside Washington and Tel Aviv gives serious consideration). The double-standard argument has been the most successful weapon against nonproliferation, especially in mobilizing public support for nuclear projects like those of Saddam's Iraq, Ghaddafi's Libya or Iran (and you will hear a lot about it in the coming weeks leading up to the NPT review). Second, such a dialogue would significantly decrease the pressure on Arab governments to start their own nuclear programs and abort what could be the beginning of a nuclear race in the region. Third, this dialogue would pave the way for the establishment of a Middle East security regime, which could be the vehicle for addressing a wide range of security hazards in this troubled and troubling region. Finally, such a dialogue might offer a framework for addressing Iran's problematic nuclear activities, especially if accompanied by a package of stabilizing confidence-building measures.

The problem here isn't the substance, but the messenger. As Colum Lynch recently pointed out, Washington's sudden insistence that the world disarm and turn back the nuclear doomsday clock rings rather hollow to weaker nations mulling the nuclear weapons route. Once again - much like with the global emissions debate - the United States, having already developed, proliferated and polluted, is telling the rest of the world what's best. There are obviously finer points and nuances to this perception but, generally speaking, it comes across as more unilateral lecturing from the West.

This of course complicates Obama's rapprochement strategy with Iran. Nonproliferation is important, perhaps too important to rest entirely on the unpredictable - and often erratic - actions of the Iranian regime. And thus far, the case against Iran has been an internationalist and legalistic one; filled with violated protocols, perfunctory deadlines and deliberative hectoring. The president intended to engage - instead he audits.

And I get the idea: Halt Iran's nuclear intransigence, buy time on the so-called doomsday clock and create the necessary breathing room to discuss the litany of other issues in need of resolving. But Obama has instead given the Iranians an opening to make this a global 'north' vs. 'south' argument, which hurts your case when you need countries like Brazil, China and Russia to support an engage/sanction Iran strategy. Rather than providing breathing room, the nuclear debate has instead sucked all the oxygen out of the room.

It's a strategy, to be fair, that I supported - and continue to, albeit tentatively. And perhaps there's still a chance for a fuel swap deal, but I remain skeptical.

(AP Photo)

April 14, 2010

Was Bush Right About the Middle East?

For all its singularly destructive actions, the Bush administration might very well be the only administration to have ever challenged the fundamental premises of US policy in the Middle East.

After the attacks of Sept. 11, liberals complained that Republicans failed to grasp the root causes of terror. But in their own way they did. Republicans offered an intuitive, if overdue, interpretation: Without democracy, Arab citizens lacked peaceful means to express their grievances and were therefore more likely to resort to violence. Thus, in order to rid the region of extremism and political violence, an ambitious, transformative vision of promoting democracy became not only necessary but urgent. - Shadi Hamid

There are a few points to make here. The first is to question the very premise that political structures in the Middle East are fomenting terrorism. How, then, to explain the existence of America citizens, born and raised in a democratic culture, turning to terrorism? Or any of the plots hatched in Europe by European citizens. They had ample opportunities to channel whatever grievances they held through democratic means, and yet they still choose terror. I think you could make a fair case that a democratic Middle East would help ease the terrorist threat, but would it be decisive?

The other point to make is to note the disconnect between the Bush/neoconservative push for democracy in the Middle East and their conception of America's interests in the region. The argument for Middle East democracy that Hamid sketches above sees political participation as a release-valve for Arab grievances. But what are those grievances? As they relate to the United States they are: the basing of U.S. combat forces in the region and support for Israel.

So the idea that democratic participation would actually give aggrieved citizens some relief seems to imply that a democratic government would actually have to address and ameliorate those grievances.

In such a context, it wouldn't be unreasonable to conclude that the advance of democracy in the Middle East could mean empowering governments that take a decidedly colder attitude toward America (and Israel). They might not go so far as to sever ties, but if you consider that a long-standing and democratic ally like Japan wants to reconfigure America's basing agreements, it wouldn't be a stretch to see newly empowered democratic states in the Middle East start pushing back against American military power in the region.

If you'd like to see fewer American troops and less American meddling in the Middle East, in other words, than you should indeed be pushing for greater democratic participation in the region. And yet that sits at cross-purposes with much of what I understand the contemporary Republican and conservative position to be - which is to entrench American military power and influence over the region.

I suspect this is why, for all the talk, President Bush never really leveraged American aid and influence in the Middle East in such a way as to truly endanger any incumbent autocrats. If Bush grasped at the kernel of a sound idea, he and his advisers were likely scared off by its implications, especially after the elections in the Palestinian territories.

UPDATE: Daniel Larison has some good observations on the issue here and here.

April 9, 2010

If Kyrgyzstan, Why Not the Middle East?

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Golnaz Esfandiari notes that many Iranians are pondering the recent uprising in Kyrgyzstan, which saw the ancien regime run out of power in a mere two days. They're frustrated, she writes, by the Green Movement's lack of speedy progress.

Meanwhile, Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi examines why such uprisings don't occur against Arab autocracies:

The reason why Arabs are not more vocal about change in their countries varies from state to state. In the wealthy countries of the Gulf a sense of apathy can be felt that may be associated with materialism....

On the other hand are states that have largely been affected by former Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser's policies from financing coups to encouraging dissent including Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and until recently Iraq. In all cases corrupt leaders were replaced by equally corrupt leaders, so Arabs were back at square one.

In these less-wealthy states the opposition movements have floundered and have proven that they are either unable or unwilling to first and foremost instill good governance in themselves before they attempt to govern a state. The opposition movements' leaders have in most cases served in their positions for decades, appointed relatives to high ranks within the movement or demonstrated unrealistic expectations with regard to dealing with others – whether within the country or internationally – thereby leaving themselves largely without power or integrity.

On a ground level these states have perfected the notion of a police state. Rather unlike North Korea and China, they maintain the facade of democracy just enough to win praise or a blind eye from western leaders who are less inclined to host the opposition movements than they are the Dalai Lama, for instance.

Finally, Joseph Huff-Hannon finds a lesson for the United States:

But the unexpected swiftness with which an unpopular regime was swept aside, and the potentially seismic impact it has on the US war effort in Afghanistan – is a good reminder of the inevitable breaking point produced by a US foreign policy semantically dedicated to human rights – that looks the other way while "strategic allies" loot their countries' assets, murder their journalists, and send troops out to gun people down in the streets.

In central Asia this groaning contradiction is louder than usual. While the war and occupation in Afghanistan was framed by President Obama recently as an effort at protecting "America's vital interests" in the region, there is at least periodic lip service paid to democracy enhancement and institution building in that country. But when democratic norms are trampled left and right in a neighbouring country, and the US looks the other way because it happens to be sitting on some prime real estate, we shouldn't be too surprised when things blow up and "strategic allies" fall before a storm of popular outrage.

While we shouldn't be surprised this happens, I'm still not convinced there's much we can do about it, at least in this specific instance. The Manas air base serves what appears to be a very important logistical function for operations in Afghanistan. Obviously, the U.S. military could work around the loss of the base, but it's not like Afghanistan's surrounded by liberal democracies dying to lend a hand - and given Afghanistan's land-locked position, such facilities are important.

I think this does underscore the necessity of dialing back the self-righteous rhetoric about freedom and democracy promotion that so often lures American politicians to heights of verbal excess. It's impossible to design foreign policy free of all contradictions and hypocrisy. But it is possible, one would hope, for our leaders to bit more mindful of highlighting those contradictions.

(AP Photo)

April 6, 2010

A Qaddafi in Sheep's Clothing

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Michael Totten suggests that the West hit the brakes on embracing the Libyan president:

Libya, like Syria, is no longer ruled by one of the region’s “conservative” monarchies. Both are revolutionary regimes founded by leaders who came to power with ambitions beyond their own borders. Both are well-practiced in the art of using terrorism abroad as instruments of their foreign policies. Qaddafi formally renounced the practice to get back onto speaking terms with the West, but he and Assad together encouraged Palestinians to resume violent attacks against Israel just a few days ago. He hasn’t changed as much as he’d like us to think.

Totten also points us to an interesting Michael Moynihan dispatch from Libya.

(AP Photo)

Geostrategic Goalposts and Iran

I fear Andrew may have misunderstood my point on Iran-Iraq rapprochement. Perhaps Larison can clarify for me:

We could also draw another lesson from the growth of Iranian influence and power following the invasion of Iraq, and this is that policies that are supposed to increase and advance American power can be short-sighted and counterproductive. Indeed, these policies can ultimately produce the opposite result. More than that, we could conclude from this experience that the people most intent on securing and perpetuating U.S. hegemony are often the worst judges of how to do this.

Right, and as I argued yesterday, were Iranian influence in Iraq not marred by the ever-nebulous and changing concept of "American interests," we'd likely be cheering and gushing over such short order rapprochement between two bitter enemies.

And it should go without saying that there indeed are negative consequences for the United States should Iran exerts too much influence in Baghdad - especially if those interests are anything close to what we were told they'd be in 2003 and onward. Indeed, if keeping Iran isolated in its own neighborhood was imperative for American interests and security, then we basically acted in direct contradiction to that specific interest (there's a reason Iran rolled out the red carpet for the invasion of Afghanistan, after all).

And I believe the problem, as Larison notes, isn't just the policy, but the policymakers. The goalposts are constantly being moved on American interests in the Middle East, as wonks and writers jump from one bogeyman to the next. But this isn't strategy, it's just reaction; a bouncy ball of central front-ery.

March 29, 2010

Poll: U.S. Views on Mideast Peace

The Economist and YouGov have a new poll out on American attitudes toward Middle East Peace:

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Looking at the full top-lines, there's some uncertainty about whether the U.S. should support creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. 50% of respondents were unsure, whereas 33% were in favor and 18% were opposed to the idea.

Meanwhile, Zogby International also released some new poll data on U.S. views of the Middle East:

More than four-in-five Americans (81%) agree the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a negative impact on U.S. interests, including a majority of both Democrats (88%) and Republicans (77%), a new Zogby Interactive survey finds.

While Americans agree the conflict has a negative impact, they are split about how to deal with the situation. Fifty percent of Americans agree the Obama Administration should steer a middle course in pursing peace in the Middle East. There is a strong divide on this question with 73% of Democrats agreeing that the President should steer a middle course while only 24% of Republicans hold the same opinion. These numbers are largely unchanged from a similar survey conducted in April of 2009.

Zogby walked through the findings at a New America Foundation panel discussion.

March 28, 2010

Syria and Mideast Status Quo

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Joshua Landis is perplexed by America's Mideast priorities:

For some largely inexplicable reason, Washington has decided that Iran is its greatest foreign policy challenge and a risk to world peace that must be stopped. While the fear of Iran is being ginned up, the Arab-Israeli conflict, a problem that the US can actually do something about, will be set aside and ignored.

With this speech, Assad is recognizing this state of affairs. It means that his country will likely be pushed into greater conflict with Israel and the US. In a showdown, he will stand with Iran. The Arab League will be discussing the withdrawal of the Arab Peace Initiative during its meeting in Libya this weekend. What else can the Arabs do? The vast majority of Arabs are glad that Syria is keeping the pilot light of Arab resistance lit.

So is it the sixties all over again?

[h/t FP Watch]

(AP Photo)

March 24, 2010

Whitewashing Assad

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Totten scratches his head over the Obama administration's apparent Syria policy:

Engaging Syria and describing Assad as a reasonable man would make sense if something epic had just happened that might convince him to run his calculations again, such as the overthrow or collapse of Ali Khamenei’s government in Iran. Otherwise, the administration is setting itself up for another failure in the Middle East that will damage its — no, our — credibility. One good thing will probably come of it, though. The naifs will learn. They’ll learn it the hard way, which seems to be the only way most of us learn anything over there. But they’ll learn.

(AP Photo)

March 16, 2010

Glassman and Pape at New America

There are two great events happening today at the New America Foundation, and we have 'em both live right here at RealClearWorld.

The first event, starting at 12:15 pm EST, will be a discussion with former Undersecretary of State James Glassman on "the role strategic communications can play in helping the United States in Iran."

The second event, set to kick off at 3:30 pm EST, will be a discussion with Professor Robert Pape on the rise of suicide terrorism in Afghanistan.

Steve Clemons will be moderating the day's events, and you can watch them both at either The Washington Note or right here on The Compass following the jump:

Continue reading "Glassman and Pape at New America" »

March 11, 2010

Worst.Year.Ever.

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Danielle Pletka laments the end of American civilization as we know it:

Consider that the president’s own staff can’t gin up a single special relationship with a foreign leader and that the once “special relationship” with the United Kingdom is in tatters (note the latest contretemps over Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s bizarre intervention on the Falkland Islands); that neither China nor Russia will back the United States’s push for sanctions against Iran; that Iran, it seems, doesn’t want to “sit down” with the Obama administration and chat; that the “peace process” the president was determined to revive is limping pathetically, in no small amount due to missteps by the United States; that one of the key new relationships of the 21st century (advanced by the hated George W. Bush)—with India—is a total mess; that the hope kindled in the Arab world after Obama’s famous Cairo speech has dimmed; that hostility to America’s AfPak special envoy Richard Holbrooke is the only point of agreement between Delhi, Islamabad, and Kabul; that there isn’t a foreign ministry in Europe with a good word to say about working with the Obama White House; that there is a narrative afoot that began with the Obama apologia tour last year and will not go away: America is in decline.

Too many of these problems can be sourced back to the arrogance of the president and his top advisers. Many of Obama’s foreign policy soldiers are serious, keen, and experienced, but even they are afraid to speak to foreigners, to meet with Congress, or to trespass on the policy making politburo in the White House’s West Wing. Our allies are afraid of American retreat and our enemies are encouraged by that fear. George Bush was excoriated for suggesting that the nations of the world are either with us or against us. But there is something worse than that Manichean simplicity. Barack Obama doesn’t care whether they’re with us or against us.

And that's in just one year! Imagine how much he'll have ruined by 2012!

Needless to say, I find all of this to be a bit exaggerated, and even a bit disingenuous. Keep in mind that many once thought it cute or tough to alienate and insult allies; designating them as 'old' and 'new' Europe, for instance. When the Bush administration ruffled feathers it was decisive leadership; when Obama does it it's the collapse of Western society as we know it. Pick your hyperbole, I suppose.

After eight years in office, did President Bush actually leave us with a clear policy on ever-emerging China? How about the so-called road map for peace? How'd that work out? Did President Bush manage to halt Iranian nuclear enrichment, or did he simply leave Iran in a stronger geopolitical position vis-à-vis Iraq and Afghanistan?

Pletka attributes many of these perceived failings to "arrogance." But it has been well documented that the previous administration was also stubborn, resistant to consultation and set in its ways. How then, if Ms. Pletka is indeed correct, has this changed with administrations?

Pletka scoffs at the president's insistence that policy is "really hard," but he's right - as was George W. Bush when he said it. Perhaps, just perhaps, the problem isn't what our presidents have failed to do, but what we expect them to do in an increasingly multipolar, or even nonpolar world?

(AP Photo)

March 10, 2010

Just Like Syria?

A reader writes:

The Gulf States despite their endless rhetoric hold much more animus toward Iran than Israel by orders of magnitude.
2 years ago Israel took out another nuclear program in the region. Ask yourself what was the reaction? There was none. No Arab street, no Arab protestation, no Gulf outrage. All the American whipped up fears & punditry all out with a whimper. A few platitudes were issued here & there, to keep the fiddle sounding for outsiders ears.

A couple of points here. One, comparing a potential strike on Iran to the 2007 Syria strike is comparing apples and oranges. Damascus, for obvious reasons, had just as much reason to downplay the 2007 attack as Israel did, if not more so. As a result, the news trickled rather than gushing out. This allowed minimal impact on the region's economy. The same can't be said of Iran, which would likely be a protracted regional crisis played out in linear and asymmetric fashion. Under these conditions, Iran wouldn't need to 'win' in a conventional sense; not so long as it could turn off its energy spigots and hold the markets hostage during negotiations.

Secondly, I think the assumption that Arab leadership is secretly cheering for an attack on Iran is a terribly exaggerated, and often simplistic crutch relied on too heavily by Iran hawks. Would some Mideast regimes like to see the revolutionary regime in Tehran go away? Certainly, but at what cost? The Saudis might applaud, but they will not applaud an indefinite unilateral war, waged by Israel, on another Muslim country in the region. My guess is that they'd prefer the Iranian 'problem' be addressed by Washington, and not the regionally contentious and controversial government in Jerusalem. Washington can guarantee the Saudis against Iranian reprisal; Israel cannot. (Israel's ability to even attack Iran remains logistically unclear.)

Delving a bit deeper, I think there's something troubling about the idea that Israel can act with unchecked impunity throughout the region with minimal consequence. Turkey was a victim of that impunity in 2007, and its relationship with Israel has indeed taken a hit ever since. Israel needs friends in the region, and the fact that some consider this to be inconsequential should worry even its most ardent supporters.

As I've already argued, Washington in fact does a major disservice to Israel by offering so little oversight of aid and investment in the country. It's a problem if Jerusalem is as flippant about its behavior as this reader is, and that's ultimately a failure of American leadership in the Middle East.

March 9, 2010

The Costs of Dubai

Bob Baer, who knows a thing or two about covert operations, weighs in on the Dubai assassination and what it may have cost Israel:

If Netanyahu authorized the hit, though, the real question is whether he really considered the strategic implications. Look at the map. If Israel goes ahead and bombs Iran's nuclear facilities, it will need over-flight clearances from the Gulf Arabs. Antagonizing the U.A.E. in this way, leaving almost no doubt that Israel was behind Mabhouh's assassination, does not seem the best way to facilitate such clearances. Nor does it help build an Arab Sunni coalition against Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hizballah.
The Islamic Republic imports about a third of its [gas] needs. And unfortunately, 75% of Iran's gasoline imports pass through the U.A.E. I would bet that, right now, Netanyahu is wishing that Mossad had been just a little better at covering its tracks.

As is Washington, no doubt. Again I ask, is this how allies allegedly fighting the same war behave?

Russia's Hollow Energy Empire

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The Wilson Center's Stacey Closson argues that Russia's energy empire isn't exactly the over-powering entity many in the West fear:

Some 85 percent of the EU-12 (newer inductees to the European Union from Central and East Europe) still rely on Russian gas imports but, Closson said, this figure is misleading. While 40 percent of all gas entering Europe is from Russia, only about 6 percent of it is used for primary energy consumption. In other words, some 94 percent of European energy consumption comes from non-Russian gas.

Closson argues that Russia is not an emerging energy empire. “People may think Russia is in control,” said Closson, “but Russia depends on energy sales to Europe for more than 60 percent of its hard cash earnings, so there is a strong degree of interdependence."

There is a similar dynamic - between the anxiety of consuming countries and the perceived power of the exporting countries - when it comes to Middle Eastern oil. But in that case, the exporter's power is even weaker than in the case of Russia. Middle Eastern economies are even less diverse than Russia's, making them far more dependent on the export of oil. There's a reason why the so-called "oil weapon" was used once and never wielded again.

So much of American policy in the Middle East is predicated on the fear that the oil will stop flowing, but there's no indication that the various leaders of the Middle East want to starve. And that includes the leaders of Iran.

(AP Photo)

March 2, 2010

China in the Mideast

Dan Drezner chimes in:

1) China is cozying up to a powerful country on the periphery of the Middle East;

2) Because of its religion and periodically bellicose foreign policy, that country that is viewed as an outsider by the Arab Middle East;

3) This country is pursuing internal security policies that would generously be described as "controversial" by the rest of the world;

4) It's Middle East policy can have pronounced effects on China's own domestic politics;

5) All the while, Chinese energy dependence on the region is increasing rapidly.

Welcome to the Middle East, China!!

Indeed, although thus far that growing presence has been done on the cheap.

March 1, 2010

China's Mideast Security Detail

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Tom Barnett explains how China could reap the long-term benefits of the Iraq War:

Will the Chinese begin to assume the same kind of security role that the U.S. has historically played in the region anytime soon? Hardly. And yet China's increasing presence throughout the region already alters the correlation of forces. China's national oil company, Sinopec, is the only foreign firm to date to win oil access in both Iraq's Kurdish region and the south. Given Baghdad's ambition and Beijing's unquenchable thirst, the two are a match made in Big Oil heaven -- with Washington's blessing.

And more importantly, with Washington's security. China gets another energy source, minus the nasty byproducts and backlash that come with regional hegemony. Meanwhile, we will have spent approximately $2 Trillion to give China more markets in which they will attempt to supplant the dollar.

(AP Photo)

February 22, 2010

Targets and Tactics

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Max Boot writes:

Funny how no one seriously objects when U.S. Predators carry out similar hits on al-Qaeda operatives but the whole world is in uproar when the Israelis target members of Hamas — an organization that is morally indistinguishable from al-Qaeda. The Dubai uproar only highlights once again the double standard to which Israel is constantly subjected. But Israel cannot and should not use that double standard as an excuse to avoid taking vital action in its self-defense. The leaders of terrorist organizations are legitimate military targets, and Israel should spare itself the agonizing and hand-wringing over this targeted killing.

Daniel Larison pounces:

As atrocious and appalling as their past and present conduct is, Hamas still retains in much of the non-American West some minimal legitimacy as a major faction in Palestinian politics. Hamas and Al Qaeda may be morally indistinguishable, but politically they have very different standings in the eyes of many other states. Israel’s major regional ally Turkey has a ruling party that is somewhat sympathetic to Hamas, while it is resolutely hostile to Al Qaeda and its affiliates. These are rather obvious political distinctions that Boot ought to understand, and the Israeli government must also understand these things. It is pointless to pretend that these distinctions don’t exist and to complain that the different reactions to drone strikes and the Dubai assassination prove a double standard. Whether or not there should be a double standard, Israel’s government has to take for granted that there is one. If Israel’s patron and the global superpower can get away with something, however misguided it may be, it does not always follow that it can act with the same impunity.

Well put, but let me take it a step further and dismiss the notion that any double standard exists at all in this case. It's a convenient rhetorical crutch I suppose to scream hypocrisy every time a critique is made of Israeli behavior, but this time around it just doesn't pass muster.

Since he doesn't say, I'm left to assume Mr. Boot means predator strikes in Pakistan, and not Afghanistan. These strikes are the product of U.S.-Pakistani coordination spanning two administrations and two regimes in both Washington and Islamabad, respectively. The predators are likely based inside Pakistan, and the strikes are carried out with approval - albeit quiet and reluctant - from Islamabad.

Larison disapproves of the drone strikes, and I certainly won't deny him that right. Personally, I consider them the least bad alternative to a bad policy of prolonged regional occupation. If we're going to maintain a military presence in the region, then we should be targeting specific al-Qaeda-Taliban operatives and taking them out with limited civilian casualties. The drones accomplish this, which is why Pakistani concerns have been less about the civilian casualties involved and more about who gets to pull the trigger.

And there certainly has been debate in the West over these attacks, both public and private ones within the administration itself. Moreover, I cannot think of one pro-drone argument in the last two years that didn't involve a kind of resigned acceptance of the program's relative effectiveness. Who are these predator pom-pom wavers Boot alludes to? Name names, please.

One could go on at length about the differences between drones and Dubai, but let me try to sum it up in one word: sovereignty. What actually makes the drones controversial is the political backlash they create for our allies in Pakistan. Our presence in the country is a shadowy one, and the cost/benefit balance is rather sensitive. Washington views Pakistan as an important ally in an important war, and thus can't do too much to create domestic tensions for said ally. But these are considerations made in conjunction with that government, just as the strikes are ultimately approved and enabled by that government. Just imagine how much harder it would be if Western operatives went into Pakistan, unapproved, and carried out such strikes. The backlash would be both tremendous and justified. Now imagine how the UAE must feel.

The targets in each case may be "morally indistinguishable," but the tactics are not, and that's why Israel - if responsible - is in the wrong here.

(AP Photo)

February 18, 2010

Fighting & Fanning the Flames of Terrorism

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Is the Obama administration working at cross purposes in its battle with Islamic terrorism?

On the one hand, we have U.S. forces battling the Taliban in Helmand Province as part of an overall strategy to stabilize Afghanistan before a U.S. draw down begins in 2011. Thus far, the operation appears successful and is being complimented by a number of high-profile Taliban arrests in cooperation with Pakistan. India and Pakistan are engaged in peace talks. By all appearances, the administration's approach to South Asia is bearing (provisional) fruit.

Yet move to the Middle East and the position looks quite different. The administration failed - spectacularly and publicly - in its early efforts to jump start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. More importantly, it is moving to bulk up its forward military forces in the region in an effort to contain Iran.

It is a well documented fact that the presence of foreign military forces in the Middle East is a driver of terrorism. American forces stationed in Saudi Arabia to contain Iraq were a staple of al Qaeda propaganda throughout the 1990s so much so that former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz (hardly one to "blame America") cited their removal as one of the salutary effects of the Iraq invasion (never mind that that move injected orders of magnitude more troops into the region). It would be foolish to believe that the U.S. could undertake a similar buildup to contain Iran and not court the same wrath. But that is what the Obama administration is doing. It is fighting and hopefully winning a tactical battle in Afghanistan (and perhaps more if it does reorient the geopolitics of Pakistan and India) while entrenching the dangerous status quo in the Middle East that has driven Arab jihadists into the Pakistani hinterlands in the first place.

Hopefully the terrorist threat is now small enough that even with the negative dynamic in place in the Middle East we can contain it through intelligence work and homeland security. But such a reactive posture is bound to fail on occasion.

(AP Photo)

February 5, 2010

Muslim World's View on Hamas and Hezbollah

Pew Research has a new study on the attitudes of majority Muslim nations on Hamas and Hezbollah:

Four years after its victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections, Hamas receives relatively positive ratings in Jordan (56% favorable) and Egypt (52%). However, Palestinians are more likely to give the group a negative (52%) than a positive (44%) rating. And reservations about Hamas are particularly common in the portion of the Palestinian territories it controls -- just 37% in Gaza express a favorable opinion, compared with 47% in the West Bank.

A survey conducted May 18 to June 16, 2009 by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project also finds limited support for the Lebanese Shia organization Hezbollah.1 While most Palestinians (61%) and about half of Jordanians (51%) have a favorable view of Hezbollah, elsewhere opinions are less positive, including Egypt (43%) and Lebanon (35%). As with many issues in Lebanon, views of Hezbollah are sharply divided along religious lines: nearly all of the country's Shia Muslims (97%) express a positive opinion of the organization, while only 18% of Christians and 2% of Sunni Muslims feel this way.

Meanwhile, Turks overwhelmingly reject both groups -- just 5% give Hamas a positive rating and only 3% say this about Hezbollah. There is also little support among Israel's Arab population for either Hamas (21% favorable) or Hezbollah (27%).

Perhaps more important from a U.S. perspective, the nations polled by Pew don't have a very high regard for Iran's leadership. No majority in any Muslim country had a high confidence in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the best he did was 45 percent in the Palestinian territories (and this data was generated before the June 12th election dispute). If Iran desires regional hegemony it appears there will be significant push-back from all of her neighbors.

February 2, 2010

What Really Matters in Arab Capitals?

Thomas Ricks writes:

I wonder if something fundamental is going on in the Middle East. That is, Iran is getting more powerful, and that scares the Arab states. So they seem to be turning away from worrying about Israel and focusing more on Iran as it moves toward becoming a nuclear power. The Bush administration actually helped strengthen Iran a lot by knocking down Iraq as the great bulwark against the expansion of Persian power westward. Also, by occupying Iraq, it effectively gave Iran tens of thousands of potential hostages, lessening Western leverage and so the West's ability to curtail Iran's nuclear ambitions. And so on.

Bottom line: Will AQ Khan and the Bush administration together inadvertently have brought Arab-Israeli peace to the Middle East?

Is this really a new trend? While it's certainly important for Arab regimes to publicly pay lip service to the Arab-Israeli conflict, I thought it was rather common knowledge that the true concern for many Arab states was the Islamic Republic. There's a reason, after all, that the GCC exists today. There's a reason these regimes backed Saddam Huessin's quasi-secular Baathist regime during the Iran-Iraq War. There's a reason Iran has at times been put in the middle of the Yemen conflict.

Iran conspired to topple several of these regimes throughout the 1980's, and a few - such as Bahrain - have their own Shia majorities to worry about. The nuclear debate is simply the latest chapter in a long geo-political tug of war in the Middle East. Some have argued that the regional power structure has already shifted, as Ricks suggests. I believe the "Shia Crescent" stuff is often exaggerated, however Ricks is right to peg the Iraq invasion as a strategic victory for Tehran.

As to whether or not this regional realignment could accelerate Mideast peace, I'm not so sure. Despite their missteps in the region, even the Bush administration understood that Palestine offered Iran a kind of public relations coup in the region - this was a driving force behind the 2007 Annapolis Conference. Iran, for its own part, always gets fidgety whenever the Arab capitals are brought together on the issue.

But these entrenched positions can only go so far. Ultimately, it's up to Israel - an Iranian enemy - and Hamas - an Iranian ally - to reach a settlement before we'll see a peace agreement of any kind. Arab input may not account for much in the end.

(h/t Andrew Sullivan)

January 25, 2010

Justice, Saudi Style

Via the Gulf Blog, another example of Saudi justice:

An overseas Filipino worker launguishing in a Saudi Arabian jail suffered miscarriage and now fears getting a hundred lashes before finally being freed.

Camille (not her real name) has been in prison since August last year after her employer turned her over to authorities because she got pregnant out of wedlock by a co-worker who raped her.


January 22, 2010

Saudi Prince Missing

The London Review of Books blog says that a Saudi prince has gone missing:

Saudi Arabia’s former ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, has disappeared. In the absence of any official news about his health or whereabouts, the rumour mill has been working overtime. As is often the case with Saudi affairs, the truth is elusive. Those who know won’t talk and those who don’t know talk a lot.

Last August the Iranian media reported that Bandar had been put under house arrest, allegedly for plotting a coup to try and ensure the Kingdom would continue under the rule of the Sudairi branch of the Al Saud family. But Iran isn’t the most reliable source: al-Arabiya, Saudi Arabia’s news network, gibes Iran hourly over its ongoing political turmoil; Iran’s al-Alam and Press TV hit back at Saudi Arabia whenever they can.

Others say that Bandar is depressed or has been ordered by King Abdullah to keep a low profile because he meddled in Syrian affairs, trying to stir up the tribes against the Assad regime, without the king’s approval.

According to Saudi opposition sources, Bandar is now in Dhaban Prison, in north west Jeddah, a high security jail where terrorist suspects and political opposition figures are held. Bandar is said to be in a special wing where the other prisoners are four senior generals: one from the army, one from the royal guard, one from the national guard and one from internal security. Bandar’s lawyer in the US denies he is in prison and says he has been seen out and about recently, although he wouldn’t divulge when, where or even in which country.

If you're interested in learning about the succession struggle in Saudi Arabia, the Washington Institute published a good study on it here.

January 21, 2010

Arab League Views of U.S.

Mohamed Younis at Gallup surveys Arab League opinion of U.S. leadership:

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Younis concludes:

While approval ratings of U.S. leadership alone cannot serve as a proxy for evaluating U.S.-Arab world relations, Gallup's latest polling in the Arab world suggested some improvement at the time of the survey. Surprises were found in Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories, where opinions improved for the first time since the Bush administration. However, in Saudi Arabia and Algeria, no statistical change in approval ratings of U.S. leadership took place between the two polling periods in 2009. While the president's focus on outreach to the Arab and Muslim worlds may have had a positive effect on the attitudes of many, his ability to follow through on many of the proposed programs for cooperation and development will be crucial to adding more Arab countries to the list of those where a majority approve of the leadership of the United States.

January 9, 2010

The Path to Tehran

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I think Daniel Larison does a fine job of addressing one of Andrew Sullivan's readers regarding the Iranian Green Movement's future, so I would rather address some of the other points made by Sullivan in the same post. He writes:

It's a funny thing. Some neocons seem almost ambivalent about a revolution in Iran because it might lead to a nuclear-armed Iran not led by theo-fascists - which would complicate Israel's diplomatic and military position in the region. And many realists don't see a revolution because they remain wedded to the idea of the Iranian red staters rallying to their fundies the way Southerners rally to Cheney and Palin. Or perhaps because there's some kind of realist super-frisson in negotiating with the likes of Khamenei. I don't know. Skepticism is totally valid; but the measure of assurance that nothing has changed strikes me as off-base.

Dictionary.com tells me that frisson means "a sudden, passing sensation of excitement." I don't know that this is how I would describe the cold reality of negotiating with a regime's obvious leader -- much as we do with every other undemocratic or outright oppressive regime -- but how others get their kicks is really none of my business.

Moreover, is it a "realist super-frisson" when the United States does business with and/or engages China, Egypt, Russia, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Georgia and so on?

And who exactly are these neoconservatives doubting the spirit and efficacy of the Green Movement? Name names, please. As far as I can tell, most if not all of the leading neoconservative intellectuals and opinion makers have at the very least listed the unrest in Iran as one of several reasons for not engaging the Iranian regime. Their rhetoric sounds very similar to Andrew's, only we know what the former's intentions are: Regime change, be it through the support of revolution or outright attack.

But what does Sullivan hope to see in Iran? He goes on:

For what it's worth,I believe that a democratic revolution in Iran is both possible and would be the single most transformative event in global politics since the end of the Cold War. Especially for the US. I sure don't believe we should take it for granted; but I also see what is in front of us.

I happen to agree, but unlike Sullivan, I don't believe American policy toward Iran should be dramatically affected by the ebbs and flows of Iranian unrest. I've made the case before, so I'll keep it shorter here: if Iran gets the bomb I believe it will enable the regime to crackdown on dissidents with never before seen impunity. Thus, to accept a nuclear-armed Iran and hope for the best, as Andrew seems resigned to doing, strikes me as wrongheaded and harmful for everyone invested in a better Iran--both inside and outside of the country.

Meanwhile, we get a lot of pomp and punditry on Iran's pending Prague Spring, but few substantive policy suggestions for the United States. And I fear what we are seeing here is a repeat of the kind of rhetorical buildup that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Many well-intentioned analysts and foreign policy wonks made strange bedfellows at the time with a longstanding neoconservative agenda to topple Saddam Hussein, thus providing cover for Democrats and otherwise skeptical officials to support the invasion.

I think what The Daily Dish has done to educate its many, many readers on Iran's rich history, culture and politics is an overall good thing (this, in part, is also why I believe it makes sense to engage him on the topic so often--if you care about Iran, Andrew Sullivan matters). My hope though is that they can temper some of that enthusiasm in 2010 with a more sober debate on American policy alternatives, and not, as Laura Rozen recently noted, enable a war policy concocted in part by those with the best of intentions.

(AP Photo)

January 4, 2010

Admitting You Have a Problem

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Stephen Walt sounds off on the crotch-bomber:

Second, most of the commentary about the attack focused on the breakdown in security procedures and possible intelligence failures, but for me the real issue is to ask why groups like al Qaeda want to attack us in the first place. With a few exceptions, this is a question that rarely gets much scrutiny anymore; pundits just assume "terrorists" are inherently evil and that’s why they do evil things. (And some American extremists recommend that suspects like the Gitmo detainees be summarily executed without trial. I kid you not). But we really do need to spend some time asking why terrorists are targeting us, and whether we could alleviate (though not eliminate) the problem by adjusting some aspects of U.S. foreign policy.

In particular, I'm struck by the inability of most Americans to connect the continued risk of global terrorism with America's highly interventionist global policy. One can have a serious debate about whether that policy is the right one or not; my point is that we are kidding ourselves if we think we can behave this way and remain immune from any adverse consequences.

This is a point I've harped on as well and it's important to emphasize that the "most Americans" Walt refers to also includes senior officials in the previous and current administrations responsible for counter-terrorism policy. From Peter Baker's big piece in the Times today:

And so perhaps the biggest change Obama has made is what one former adviser calls the “mood music” — choice of language, outreach to Muslims, rhetorical fidelity to the rule of law and a shift in tone from the all-or-nothing days of the Bush administration. He is committed to taking aggressive actions to disrupt terrorist cells, aides said, but he also considers his speech in Cairo to the Islamic world in June central to his efforts to combat terrorism. “If you asked him what are the most important things he’s done to fight terrorism in his first year, he would put Cairo in the top three,” Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, told me....

....Yet even some of the Bush appointees were ready for change, appealing to Obama to revamp the struggle. “Mr. President-elect, we’re doing things very well, but we’re losing the messaging war,” Michael Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told him a week after the election, according to an official informed about the session. A significant share of the global population thought America was at war against the rest of the world, Leiter maintained. “You have an opportunity to change that message, to change how the struggle is perceived,” he said.

Obama was receptive to that mandate. “We’re going to do that,” he replied....

The entire subtext of the Obama administration argument is that the principle U.S. policies that catalyze Islamic terrorism were implemented circa 2001. True, those policies poured gasoline on the fire, but the fire was burning before George W. Bush took office. The kindling was American support for autocratic Middle Eastern governments, its support for Israel, and stationing of combat forces in the Middle East. Combine that with Islamic fundamentalism and you have the combustion that is the global terrorist threat. It is frankly delusional to think that a mere speech, however well intentioned, can suppress these flames.

The basic problem, as Walt eludes to, is that Washington has zero interest in re-examining these policies in light of the terrorist threat associated with them. And so instead we pretend that the two are fundamentally disconnected. It's not a matter of American policy making people angry, the Obama administration seems to be saying, it's a matter of them not understanding American intentions. We're "losing the messaging war" - and so a good speech can shore things up.

This mindset is not only patronizing to its intended subjects in the Arab and Muslim world, it's patronizing to Americans.

What the Obama administration cannot, apparently, do, is have an adult conversation with the American people about U.S. policy in the Middle East. Why not simply say that on balance the threat from international terrorism is a small price to pay to maintain American hegemony in the Middle East? It's what they obviously believe. And not without merit - American hegemony not only contributes to oil's safe transit to world markets but ensures that other states - particularly potential competitors such as China - have to rely on America to keep the flow going, thus giving us crucial leverage in the zero-sum world of international politics. They could argue that the costs imposed on the U.S. by terrorism are less than those that would result from a policy change in the Middle East. Given the mix of motivations that propel someone to actually become a terrorist, they could also argue that the causal links between American policy and Islamic terrorism are so diffuse (and the problem already so widespread) that an American policy change at this late stage wouldn't even work to reduce the threat.

None of that would be very difficult for President Obama, who is, if nothing else, an effective communicator. But instead, this is all ignored in favor of a self-serving and infantilizing narrative that it's all a big misunderstanding - that we have a "communications" problem.

(AP Photos)

December 30, 2009

Idle Hands Are the Terrorist's Tools

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As we all put on our junior counter-terror decoder rings and attempt to sort out the news surrounding al-Qaeda in Yemen, I thought it might make some sense to step back and look at what makes Yemen attractive for terrorists in the first place.

This graph of data collected by Gallup earlier in the year offers a useful visual:

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That's the same disgruntled south where al-Qaeda operatives are allegedly--and brazenly--staging public protests against Sana'a and the West; the same disgruntled south recently targeted by the Yemeni government with American assistance.

I think it makes strategic sense to work with an agreeable Yemeni government on counter-terrorism, but al-Qaeda finds an audience in Yemen for a litany of reasons. Geography and history are among them, but so are poverty and unemployment. Coupling military aid with multilateral assistance addressing jobs and, while we're at it, drought might make for a more well-rounded policy in the country.

(AP Photo)

December 29, 2009

The Good, the Bad and the Central

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Max Boot discusses Yemen and its place in the greater War on Terror:

We cannot ignore the terrorist threat emanating from Yemen or other states but nor should we use this undoubted danger as an excuse to lose the war of the moment–the one NATO troops are fighting in Afghanistan. Winning the “war on terror” will require prevailing on multiple battlefields–Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines, and a host of other countries, including, for that matter, Western Europe and the United States. The methods and techniques we will use in each place have to be tailored to the individual circumstances. Few countries will require the kind of massive troop presence needed in Afghanistan or Iraq. In most places we will fight on a lesser scale, using Special Forces and security assistance programs. But because a lower-profile presence may work elsewhere doesn’t mean that it will work in Afghanistan–or would have worked in Iraq. We know this because the Bush administration already tried the small-footprint strategy in Afghanistan. It is this strategy that allowed the Taliban to recover so much ground lost after 9/11–territory that can only be retaken by an influx of additional Western troops. There is no reason why we can’t fight and prevail in Afghanistan even as we are fighting in different ways in different countries.[emphasis added]

The point on the Bush strategy in Afghanistan is simply inaccurate. What Boot calls a "small-footprint strategy" was in fact a rather ambitious, rhetoric-laden, albeit poorly resourced nation building agenda (we all remember the purple and blue fingers, right?). The goals didn't match the muscle, requiring a "reduction in objectives" by the Obama administration, as Richard Haass put it. In other words, President Bush spoke boisterously while carrying a tiny, tiny stick.

But Boot never explains why Afghanistan is such a vital front in the War on Terrorism, nor does he explain what Iraq has to do with that war at all. And why the Taliban--along with roughly 100 al-Qaeda operatives in the Af-Pak region--require a heavier troop presence than other threats (such as al-Shabaab in Somalia, for example) remains unclear to me.

I agree with Boot that the "good war, bad war" stuff is no good, and migrating the designation from one front to the next for political expedience is irresponsible. The real question--one I feel Boot never properly addresses--is why we even need a central front in order to conduct this war.

He writes that "one of the key advantages gained by our presence in Afghanistan is that it makes it easier to target terrorist lairs in Pakistan." But presence and escalation are clearly two different things, and targeting said "lairs" does not require the latter--as was demonstrated two weeks ago in Yemen.

(AP Photo)

December 27, 2009

Is Yemen Tomorrow's War?

Very likely, says Sen. Joseph Lieberman. Spencer Ackerman pounces:


What are the local dynamics in Yemen that a military strike would impact? What would the goals of such strikes be? What are the underlying political effects that have allowed al-Qaeda to establish itself in Yemen? What measures short of war might be better targeted to addressing those conditions? These are just a few of the many prior questions that have to be answered before such a thing is considered. Instead, Lieberman just gets to go on Fox and monger away, unchallenged. Such is life.

Good questions all, but I think this war of tomorrow idea deserves some further unpacking. To me, targeted assaults on al-Qaeda operatives--alongside agreeable host governments--makes for a good counter-terrorism strategy. My question: if this is a sufficient tactic for dealing with one al-Qaeda safe haven, why then does another require costly occupation?

I hope Senator Lieberman will elaborate on what preemptive action would look like in Yemen. Favoring a reserved and targeted war there would seemingly undercut his support for escalation and occupation in Afghanistan, but no one ever accused U.S. senators of consistency.

December 22, 2009

Obama, the Prime Mover

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One of the chief criticisms I've read of President Obama is that he fancies himself the center of the universe. Funny, then, to read Jonathan Toobin confirm it, blaming President Obama for Syria's deepening hold over Lebanon:


All of which means that we can chalk up another defeat for the United States that can be put at the feet of Barack Obama’s fetish for diplomacy for its own sake. Like the opposition in Iran, the pro-independence Lebanese have been left in the lurch while Washington fecklessly pursues deals with dictators who have no intention of playing ball. And why should they, given the administration’s distaste for confrontations and its inability to rally international support for action on behalf of either a nuclear-free Iran or a free Lebanon?

Is it really the case that President Obama is the root cause of Syria's policy in Lebanon? That doesn't sound plausible to me. The Washington Institute's David Schenker offers a more nuanced take in the Weekly Standard:

Washington's increased diplomatic and military engagement with Damascus also appears to have had an effect, decreasing March 14 confidence in its most ardent supporter. Perhaps the leading factor in March 14 leadership's decision to return to Damascus, however, appears to be Saudi Arabia's equivocating. Riyadh had been a leading force in trying to dissuade Damascus from playing its traditionally pernicious role in Lebanon. Recently, however, Saudi appears to have made a concession on Lebanon in order to improve relations with Syria.

(AP Photos)

November 17, 2009

Meanwhile, in Yemen...

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From the AP:

Iran's chief of staff has warned Saudi Arabia over its military offensive against Shiite Yemeni rebels, saying it signals the start of "state terrorism" and endangers the entire region.

The official IRNA news agency Tuesday also quoted Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi as saying the actions of Yemen and Saudi Arabia would fuel militancy and spread violence to the rest of the Muslim world.

Shiite Iran is alarmed by the Yemeni and Saudi offensive against the rebels, whom the two Arab nations accuse of receiving arms and money from Iran.

The Saudi offensive began earlier this month, apparently to deny Iran a foothold on its doorsteps.

I wrote last month on the soft power opportunity this conflict offered Tehran. At that point, there was still a lot of pretense surrounding the actors involved, but that is deteriorating rapidly as a Saudi-Iranian proxy war is beginning to emerge.

The only problem is that it remains unclear just how much influence Iran genuinely has over the Houthis. Some allege an Iran-Eritrea- Houthi weapons triangle, but that evidence has thus far left me unconvinced.

But as I argued back in October, perception is key in this dispute. It serves Saudi-Yemeni interests to perpetuate the "Shia Crescent" theory, as it will no doubt draw Washington closer to both regimes.

As for Iran, these greatly exaggerated fears grant them a mostly undue influence in a conflict they may have little actual investment in. Tehran could leverage that paranoia into something positive--such as offering direct diplomatic and clerical mediation in north Yemen--and possibly improve its standing with the incredulous Arab world.

The Islamic Republic instead appears to be stirring the pot. Sticking it to the Saudis apparently never gets old.

(AP Photos)

Goldfarb on Obama on Jerusalem

Biting but true:

From the moment during the campaign that Obama declared "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided," to the subsequent walkback, to the demand that all settlement construction in East Jerusalem come to an end, to the subsequent walkback on that. Nobody knows what this administration's position is on Jerusalem, least of all the parties involved in the peace process.

The only "achievement" this administration can claim is having driven the Israeli public into Bibi's arms, helping him solidify his support across party lines, and destroying President Obama's credibility with the Israeli public -- smart power.

Choosing Palestines

David Hazony makes a fair point on the thought of the PA unilaterally declaring statehood:

Many of the world’s most successful countries achieved internationally recognized independence without the benefit of a negotiated agreement between conflicted parties, the United States and Israel being two obvious cases. If Palestinian national aspirations were so legitimate and a two-state solution the only answer, why wouldn’t the great powers recognize this much? And in such a scenario, what unilateral retaliation could Israel reasonably get away with?

Rather, the real problem with Palestinian independence — the elephant in the room, if you will — is that there is no viable Palestinian regime that can claim to run a sovereign country. Right now, the Palestinian territories are divided, ruled by two different Palestinian regimes. The one in Gaza is led by an internationally recognized terror organization supported by Iran and dedicated to war against Israel and violent conflict with the West. The other, in the West Bank, is led by a revolutionary-style regime that is deeply corrupt and still fosters and harbors terrorist groups like the Fatah-Tanzim, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. Efforts to negotiate a unification between the two sides have consistently failed, and one gets the sense that the only thing preventing an all-out civil war between Hamas and Fatah is the sliver of land that divides them (Israel, that is).

So the problem, it seems, is not between Israel and the Palestinians so much as among the Palestinians themselves.

True, however the legal establishment of a Palestinian state--hinging, of course, on UN approval-- would force world governments to be more selective in how they dole out their aid to the Palestinians. While much of the humanitarian aid flowing into Gaza would likely continue, the aid and support provided to Gaza--and by default Hamas--in the name of Palestinian statehood and support would become more complicated.

Furthermore, the asymmetric support provided to Hamas by Iran would lose a great deal of its validity. After all, to continue funneling weapons and resources toward Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian state would likely undercut Tehran's influence in the region.

In short, it could force Hamas' supporters to better justify and enumerate their investment in the territories. Even if dysfunction were to persist as Hazony suggests, at least the lines of culpability in that dysfunction would be made a little clearer.

November 12, 2009

Justice, Saudi Style, Ctd.

America's close ally demonstrates its enlightened justice system:


After a thorough trial consisting of 10 hearings spanning over 2 years, a Saudi court has reached the measured, judicious and – given the mounting evidence in the case – only reasonable course of action regarding a Lebanese man found guilty of practicing black magic: death....

The key evidence appears to have been finding the man in a hotel room with – people with a nervous disposition may wish to look away now – herbs, talismans and “some papers with strange drawings and writings”.

This follows the beheading and crucifixion of a Saudi found guilty of a considerably more serious crime.

September 1, 2009

Hariri's Hezbollah Decision Could Benefit Israel

Saad Hariri's pledge to include Hezbollah in his future cabinet, regardless of whether "Israel likes it or not" has raised some eyebrows in Jerusalem.

On the surface, such a decision is against the interests of Israel. Jerusalem was hoping that after Hezbollah's recent defeat in the Lebanese elections, the group's political power would dissipate, thus making it a marginalized political force. Eventually, the hope is that such marginalization would increase calls for the disarming of Hezbollah.

However, all is not lost. Inclusion of Hezbollah in Hariri's cabinet will mean that the organization will now be responsible not just for Shiites. In other words, as member of the cabinet it will now have other groups in Lebanon to answer to for its actions. This will make it more difficult for Hezbollah to start a new conflict with Israel, as the backlash will be much more widespread. More importantly, as well as its military arm, it would risk losing its political influence.

It has been suggested that Joe Biden's visit to Lebanon prior to the May elections was an important factor which helped Hariri win. By including Hezbollah in his cabinet, Israel's arch enemy Ayatollah Khamenei would be forgiven for worrying that his influence on Hezbollah may become diluted in the future. Such concern in Tehran, should be met with relief in Jerusalem. After all, taming Hezbollah politically by including it in Hariri's government is the most cost effective option of dissuading the organization from starting a new conflict against Israel. With Iran becoming increasingly isolated, this could provide a boost to Israel's efforts to maintain focus on Iran's nuclear program.

August 29, 2009

Admiral Mullen's Message

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Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has an interesting take on America's "strategic communications." He writes:


To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate. z

An excellent point. Policy and politics are what drives relations between states and people. America has a set of policies it has pursued in the Middle East. Those are, for the most part, deeply unpopular with most people in the Middle East. We know this. And obviously, we don't care (whether we should or not is a debate for another day). And yet, we engage in a very tedious, often expensive, kabuki dance pretending that we do, in fact, care.

It's a pointless exercise and one that Mullen is right to criticize. We're obviously not so concerned with our policies in the Middle East that we're going to, you know, change them. So why not just keep quiet and go about our business?

(AP Photos)

July 28, 2009

A Nuclear Arms Race in the Gulf? Not So Fast

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One of the legitimate worries about a nuclear Iran is that it will spark a regional arms race whereby Saudi Arabia and Egypt would seek their own nukes to deter Iran. This is in part the rationale behind Hillary Clinton's statement that the U.S. would put these nations and other allies in the gulf under the U.S. "defense umbrella" should Iran acquire a nuke.

Now Thomas Lipmann of the Middle East Institute is out with a report (pdf) on how Saudi Arabia might react to Iran's development of a nuclear weapon, and he pours some cold water on the idea that the Saudis would develop a weapon of their own (or import one "off the shelf" from Pakistan).

More broadly, aside from the fact that nuclear proliferation is a bad thing in and of itself, it's worth asking why we're particularly concerned with nuclear weapons in the hands of countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Could it be that given the illegitimate nature of both governments and the anti-Americanism of both populations, we're worried about those weapons falling into the wrong hands? And shouldn't that give us pause before we rush in to defend these regimes from Iran?

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Photo credit: AP Photos

July 22, 2009

Remember 9/11

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So Hillary Clinton thinks the U.S. will have to extend its defense umbrella to the impoverished, democratic, liberal autocracies of the Middle East if Iran succeeds in obtaining a nuclear bomb. Which got me thinking:

Just to recap: On September 11, 2001, 15 Saudis, one Egyptian, one Lebanese and two citizens of the United Arab Emirates crashed hijacked airliners into American targets, murdering close to 3,000 people. All 19 were Sunni Muslims, followers of a puritanical strain of Islam developed in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The ideology of jihad that lures recruits from the suburbs of London to the hinterlands of Waziristan is promulgated by Sunni Imams and financed overwhelmingly (if indirectly) by the Persian Gulf monarchies we're presently clamoring to reassure.

The two architects of 9/11 and the masterminds of the global jihadist movement - Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri - are Saudi and Egyptian, respectively. The captured "enemy combatants" in Guantanamo Bay hail from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria and even Australia. There is not a single Iranian among them. Nor have there been any Iranians implicated in the recent terrorist plots uncovered in Europe and the U.S.

In short, the global jihad that so dir