Archive for category Israel
Right now President Obama’s chances of re-election look good. The Republicans are in disarray, he has no primary challenger and most importantly the economy appears on an upswing. Taken together, the stars are aligning for the President better than any time since early in his Administration. In politics, timing is everything. However, lurking under the radar screen of most Americans is the possibility of an Israeli or (less likely) American strike on suspected Iranian nuclear facilities.
Already President Obama is being criticized for not giving Israel high tech bunker busting weaponry that could increase the chances (but not guarantee) that an Israeli strike would work. The CIA has consistently said that they do not think Iran is close to possessing a nuclear weapon and many doubt they actually want to go through with producing one. There are also serious doubts about Iran’s delivery systems.
The reason both Presidents Bush and Obama have tried to hold Israel back is that such a strike is not at all in the US national interest. A nuclear Iran (like the nuclear North Korea) would be an irritant, but not a major threat.
If Israel or the US struck Iran, however, the results could be devastating. Oil prices would certainly skyrocket putting the economy back into recession just in time for the election. President Obama would likely lose, especially if his base was infuriated by him starting another offensive war. The Euro crisis would deepen as well, and the world economy would be back where it was in 2008 – or worse. And that’s a best case scenario!
In a worst case scenario the bombing unleashes a series of attacks on US interests in the region. The Shi’ites in Iraq radicalize and ally with Iran, the Taliban uses this to incite the youth in Afghanistan, Hezbollah and Hamas launch terror strikes against Israel, and the region drifts towards the worst regional war since 1973.
Oil prices could rise to astronomical heights, the straits of Hormuz could be closed, Saudi oil facilities attacked, and unrest against even stable regimes like that of Saudi Arabia could grow.
From the US perspective there is little upside to an attack on Iran. The only interest the Iranians can directly threaten is the oil supply, but the risk is small. Especially since prices are unlikely to drop precipitously, the US and Iran share an interest in keeping Persian Gulf oil flowing. And the Carter doctrine still applies – nobody thinks that Iranian nukes would deter a US response to Iranian aggression threatening the flow of oil. Iran would be loathe to escalate such a crisis to the nuclear level since that would mean the end of the Islamic Republic.
Iran’s power would grow in a region includes the Arab states, Israel, Russia, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan. All other things being equal the US would prefer Iran be a weaker rather than a stronger regional power, but there are many options to balance Iranian power and contain any effort to extend it. There would be concerns of further proliferation, but there would be many ways to prevent that.
Another indirect threat would be that Iran would give nuclear technology to terror organizations. That sounds scary, but a country that works hard to gain a nuclear weapon does not give up control of them to people they can’t control. Even now Iran limits what it gives groups like Hezbollah – and the Iranians certainly don’t want Hezbollah hotheads provoking a nuclear strike on Iran!
Remembering how wrong the US was about the Iraq war it would be a mistake to assume an attack on Iran would be low risk. The war in Iraq was supposed to be easy, cheap, and yield a stable, safe pro-American ally offering us permanent regional bases. None of that turned out to be the case.
The main dangers in striking Iran: 1) There might be no benefit at all as Iran may have successfully decoyed its program; 2) This could severely undercut the reform movement in Iran, whose success would do more than anything to support US regional interests; 3) After years of decreased influence and appeal, al qaeda and other radical groups could benefit from the US launching another war of aggression and the terrorist threat could spike dramatically, undermining our counter-terrorism efforts; 4) An oil price spike could not only bring us back into recession, but if the crisis were to drag on global depression is quite possible; 5) Iran could respond to an attack by escalating the war to create regional instability.
In the case of number 5, the US would see no alternative but to try to create “regime change” in Tehran. This would cause unrest in the US. Strong, angry domestic opposition to such a war would be far more intense than the opposition to the war in Iraq – national stability would be jeopardized, especially if an unpopular war were to be accompanied by deep recession or depression. In short, this could lead to a crisis far more severe than any yet faced by the US or perhaps the industrialized West in the modern era.
To be sure, it is possible that a strike could succeed and Iran would refrain from responding. That’s the best case scenario. The best case scenario is probably more likely than the worst case scenario, though most likely is something in between.
I cannot imagine people at the Pentagon and in the Department of Defense seeing any persuasive rationale for a strike against Iran. I can imagine they will pull all the stops to assure that Israel refrain from its own strike, perhaps even suggesting that US support for the Jewish state cannot be assured if they start the war.
The title of this post is a musical pun — I ran was a hit from Flock of Seagulls back in the early 80s (I’m listening to it as I type), and “Like a Rock” was a Bob Seger classic from that same era. Those songs still come into my head when I think about Iran and Iraq.
But the question now seems to be whether the US is nearing war with Iran. If so, will Iran be like Iraq? Or should we “run so far away” from even thinking about another military engagement?
Many signs indicate that something is brewing, as Sean at Reflections of a Rational Republican points out. He notes how Defense Secretary Leon Panetta claims there is a “good chance” that Israel will strike Iran between April and June, and speculates that this could be the start of an Obama administration sales pitch of war with Iran.
Foreign policy “realists” argue that as long as states are “status quo” states — ones that don’t want to alter borders or change the essential nature of the system, diplomacy can be effective and war should be avoided. If revolutionary states arise to threaten systemic stability, war may be necessary.
They key is to figure out what a state is. German Fuehrer Adolf Hitler insisted that once the Versailles treaty had been brushed aside Germany would be a status quo state, firmly protecting Europe from Bolshevism. Britain’s conservatives and their Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain gambled that Hitler was telling the truth with their appeasement policy — appease legitimate German interests in order to get them to support the system. Chamberlain himself thought war likely, but saw that policy as at least buying the British military time to prepare for war.
In any event, Hitler’s Germany was a revolutionary power, bent on changing the system. However, in the Cold War many Americans thought the Soviet Union a revolutionary power focused on spreading Communism. Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon bet that it was actually a status quo power wanting to maintain its systemic role, and the policy of detente brought some stability to the system and helped end the Vietnam war. In this case, Kissinger and Nixon were right, the Soviets were not focused on spreading communism.
Many say Iran is more like Hitler’s Germany, citing anti-Israeli comments and painting Iran’s leaders with the same brush as Islamic extremists. Others point out that Iran has been rational in its foreign policy since the revolution, and is simply trying to expand its regional influence than bring war to the Mideast.
The reality is probably inbetween, more like Bismarck’s Germany in the 1860s. Iran believes that although it is situated to be a major player in the region — larger than any other state, situated on the Persian Gulf between China and the Russia — US and Israel have prevented it from playing the regional role its power should allow. Support for Hezbollah is designed not out of psychopathic antipathy for Israel but to try to blunt Israeli power and send a message to the Arab Sunni states. Indeed, the Saudis are as scared of Iranian power as are the Israelis.
As with Bismarck’s Germany, nobody wants to see Iran move into a role of being a stronger regional power. The Saudis and Israelis want regional stability, and the US worries about Iran’s capacity to disrupt Persian gulf oil. Another US concern is that if Israel were to attack Iran the entire region would be destabilized, with oil prices likely doubling (or worse, depending on how events unfold). China and Russia are more friendly with Iran, perhaps seeing a partnership with Iran as a counter to what has been western dominance of the region. Accordingly, China and Russia have been vocal in warning against an attack on Iran, even hinting that they’d be on Iran’s side.
So what’s going on? First, I think the US wants to avoid a military strike on Iran at all costs. The rhetoric from Panetta is not the kind of thing we’d say if a strike were planned (you’re going to be attacked, and here’s when the attack is likely). It is designed to increase pressure on Iran, and perhaps even generate opposition within Israel against an attack. The Israeli military is not unified in thinking attacking Iran would be a good idea, even if Iran had nuclear weapons.
War in the region would be extremely dangerous and could yield global economic meltdown. The benefit of stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons is not worth that risk. Moreover, it’s not clear that a war would be successful.
US policy instead has been to use covert means to slow Iran’s nuclear progress while increasing pressure on Iran by expanding sanctions and boycotts. The EU has gone alone even more than they would otherwise wish out of a belief that’s the best way to avoid war. If the sanctions fail, the next step would be to contain Iran by expanding US presence in the region and connection with allies.
Another reason war would be disruptive is the Arab spring. The last thing the US wants when change is sweeping through the region is another war against an Islamic state. This would play into the hands of extremists. Iran can be contained, however, and internal change is likely to come sooner rather than later. One reason Iran’s leaders might be courting a crisis is to “wag the dog” – create a foreign policy event that brings the public together through nationalism, thereby undercutting the growing and increasingly powerful Iranian opposition.
I think the US government believes that patience, economic pressure, and if necessary containment will ultimately assist internal efforts for change within Iran.
In Iraq the US learned a very important lesson. One may think a war will be easy, have it planned out, and even achieve military success, only to have the political costs overwhelm any benefit of the victory. Moreover, the American public is much less tolerant of war now than it was in 2003, shortly after the emotion of the 9-11 attacks. It would be foolhardy for the US to pick a fight with a larger and much more powerful state than Iraq. The costs of war could be immense, the benefits uncertain, and the costs of not going to war even if Iran does not back down would be tolerable.
So war with Iran in 2012? I doubt it. I think we’re seeing a policy designed to minimize the likelihood of war rather than to prepare for one.
The good news that Egypt has finally had free elections was for many people overshadowed by the preliminary results of the first round of voting. While the face of the “Arab Spring” had been young and modern, the elections are currently being led by overtly Islamicist parties with a history of fundamentalism and extremism.
The largest party, the PLJ, defines itself as moderate Islamist and won 36.6% of the vote so far. The El-Nour fundamentalist party got 24.3%, while the liberal Egyptian block gained 13.4% and the Nationalist party 7%. What this means, however, is not as bad as the alarmists would claim. First, this is the first round of elections; there are a lot more votes to count before we know what the make up of parliament ultimately will be.
These elections were to the lower house, where 332 representatives are elected through party lists, while 166 are elected on a majoritarian system, which includes run off elections. The party list system is a multi member district system, with each district containing 4 to 12 seats. More rounds of voting will be held before we know the actual make up of the parliament, and what kind of ruling coalition will take over. Most likely it would not be the PLJ and the fundamentalist al-Nour because the former does not want to be painted with the extremist brush the latter inspires (they want to ban alcohol and take a Saudi like approach to the law).
In February the upper house (Shura Council) will be elected, with Presidential elections in March. The new Parliament is to choose a 100 member council to draft a new Constitution, but the Military Council now running Egypt will limit the power of the new parliament and claims it has the authority to name 80 of the 100 members to the constitution council. Meanwhile, youth protests continue and any new government (including the military council) knows that if protests could overthrow Mubarak, they can overthrow a new government that tries anything radical. Those who want to write Egypt off over incomplete early results are over-reacting.
The Arab spring – probably the most important event of 2011, though part of a series of transitions going on globally – was all but inevitable. Like most historical shifts from the reformation to the fall of Communism, it could have happened at a different time or in a different way, but the mix of globalization and demography — half of the Arab world is under age 22 — meant that the old order could not survive. The fact that it rose in a completely unexpected manner in response to the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi after his humiliation by the Tunisian bureaucracy shows something was boiling under the surface. The speed at which it spread across the Arab world shows the region had become a powder keg ready to explode
Yet the transition from being part of the most repressive part of the planet towards some kind of democratic future is not easy. We in the west sometimes romanticize democracy as some kind of natural form of government that all should aspire to. Yet democratic political cultures are hard to construct and maintain. Until they really gain acceptance in the broad public, they easily can be undermined. The difficulties across the Arab world are immense.
In Egypt one can imagine a scenario where the Islamic extremists try to take full power. That would likely lead to a war of sorts between the Egyptian military and the Muslim brotherhood and other such groups, with the military winning. Such a result would lead to a kind of militarized democracy, much like Turkey experienced in its early years.
Of course, groups like the Muslim Brotherhood know that, and realize that they have to walk a fine line between pushing for their agenda and not angering the military or protesters. They are just as likely to ally with a liberal party and work for a unified Egyptian voice. That could ultimately isolate the extremists and allow the development of an open, moderate form of political Islam alongside secular parties. That would be the best result, as ultimately political Islam should be part of the future, not an enemy of change.
Moreover, while one can point to a lot of extremism within the Islamic parties in Egypt, there is also diversity and considerable moderate and even modern ideals. The battle within political Islam for the Arab mind and soul is intense. They can’t ignore the factors of globalization and demographics, nor can they simply grab control of the military. The military sees itself like the old Turkish military after Attaturk, a guarantor of Egyptian stability and a protection against extremism. Egyptian military officials have close ties with Israel, and are no doubt working to assure the Israelis that they have the situation under control.
A best case scenario is the Egyptian military brokering deals between various interest groups and winning over support from protesters who start to realize that idealism alone does not bring freedom and prosperity. Political Islam can define itself by rejecting anti-Western activism, accepting the legitimacy of Israel (even while demanding a Palestinian state) and rejecting the extremes of al qaeda and al-Nour. This would play itself out over years, with parliaments and even the President gaining more control and authority slowly, based on a new Constitution that would limit what the government can do.
So is Arab spring slipping to Arab winter? No, at least not yet. We should be applauding Egypt’s first free election and recognizing that the task they are undertaking is exceedingly difficult. Most important, we should not write off political Islam as an enemy or a threat. That could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead we need to quietly offer support where we can, help if asked, and recognize that this is an Egyptian and Arab journey — their reality to make, not ours. And, though naive optimism for a sudden rise of democracy is misplaced, so is a similarly naive pessimism that the region will collapse into some kind of extremist Islamic state ready to battle the West.
It is good that they’ve begun this journey, and ultimately history suggests that those who go against the course of history the way the Islamic extremists do tend to lose. The Egyptians are trying to do within a generation what it took the west centuries to do — with a lot of violence and horrors along the way. The start of this journey has been delayed too long; now thanks to young people willing to risk their lives for freedom, Egyptians have a chance for a better future.
The Obama administration is being faced with one of its most difficult foreign policy dilemmas yet: how should the US react to an IAEA report that Iran may be close to producing a nuclear weapon? Iran, of course, continues to insist their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. To be sure, it is rational for them to pursue nuclear power. Due to refining limits Iran often suffers energy and gas shortages, despite being one of the major producers of crude oil. Russia, Iran and other states have claimed the report to have been ‘politically motivated.’ But what if it’s accurate?
Pressure is growing on President Obama to do something. Sanctions haven’t worked, Israel is threatening to act on its own unilaterally (Prime Minister Netanyahu has accused former high level officials of leaking Israeli plans to attack Iran to the press in order to force him to scuttle attack plans), and Republicans on the Presidential campaign trail are sounding a hawkish tone. Sunni states in the region such as Saudi Arabia quietly urge action, and plans no doubt exist for precision strikes on suspected Iranian nuclear sites. However, President Obama would be wise to avoid such pressure; bombing Iran is not in our national interest for four main reasons.
1. The US would be acting virtually alone. China and Russia are almost certain to oppose any action against Iran. They’ve publicly warned against such action and reinforced that with criticism of the IAEA report. This means an attack would not be authorized by the UN Security council. European allies also oppose military action. If something goes wrong and the operation is anything but a clear success the US will be responsible for the consequences. If the UN Security Council were to approve action and there was a broad multi-national coalition that would would be a different situation, but that’s not going to happen.
2. The Risks are immense. Let’s face it, US power is not what it used to be. While America can project military powerthere is strong domestic opposition to anything that isn’t a clear and decisive cheap victory, and with domestic wrangling over debt the danger that Iran could lead to a budget busting barrage of spending is very real. US clout on the world stage comes from economic strength more than military power. Iran could push the US further into the economic abyss, while China might see it as a rationale to shift even more towards Euros from dollars.
Moreover, Iran could respond to the attack by unleashing a wave of terrorism in the region, perhaps evem in the US. They could try to block the straits of Hormuz in order to cause a major oil crisis at the very point the economy is pulling itself out of the depths of the worst recession since WWII. Any military action is sure to see a spike in oil prices, even if it were successful.
Iran could also increase weapons flow to Hezbollah in Lebanon, potentially creating another crisis between Israel and Lebanon. All of this could unravel into one of the worst geopolitical disasters of history. Now the odds for a worst case scenario may be low, but President Obama should recall how the optimistic assumptions made about Iraq by the Bush Administration turned out to be very wrong. In war you control only the first shot — after the bombs hit, anything can happen.
3. The risk of doing nothing is mild. Even if Iran produced a bomb, it couldn’t produce many and the weapons would have limited value. Both the US and Israel have enough nuclear weapons to deter Iran. Iran knows an attack on Israel would lead to destruction of the Islamic Republic. Iran’s decision makers have been rational (if also ruthless) in pursuit of their goal of having regional power, they are not suicidal. Deterrence works. Moreover, Iran operates in a regional framework that includes China and Russia, who have a goal of assuring Iran does not upset the balance. They already calculate that they can live more easily with a nuclear Iran than with a major war in the region.
Iran as a stronger regional power would be a nuisance to the US, but not a major threat to our national interests. We could contain Iran and work to maintain a regional balance at far less cost then trying to make the problem go away with bombs. The US will have to accept that losing prestige and influence in the region, but that’s already happened — US power and influence isn’t what it used to be. The remedy for that is more cooperative ventures with the EU, Russia and China to help maintain stability and the flow of oil. The US could even consider a diplomatic ‘charm offense’ with a post-Ahmadinejad Iran, remembering how the “evil communists” became more malleable after Nixon and Kissinger started to work with them.
4. Iran is changing anyway. Iran has had a growing movement against its authoritarian rulers for some time, and it remains nominally a democracy with contested elections. Due to the power of the Guardian Council it’s only semi-Democratic, but with half the population under 24 and change already sweeping the region there is reason for optimism. Even if Iran’s conservative regime doesn’t fall there is immense pressure to liberalize and be more responsive to the people. A war with the US threatens that process. It would allow Iranian leaders to demonize the US and create anger throughout the region. The Saudi Royal family might welcome it, but they’re increasingly out of touch and vulnerable anyway. It will play into the hands of the already weakening anti-American Islamic extremist movements and risk exponentially expanding threats to the US and the West.
The bottom line: an military strike would have high risks, the potential benefits are low, the risks of not acting are low, and the unintended consequences could include undercutting domestic change already underway in Iran. Indeed, the conservatives in Iran may be hoping for a US attack in order to deflect attention away from their growing domestic problems. A staggering virtually leaderless and weakened al qaeda could use US aggression to regain attention stolen by the “Arab Spring” movement!
With the economy the main issue at home, adventurism abroad is dangerous. The public would not rally to support such action, and Obama’s core supporters would feel once more betrayed by a leader who would be acting more like what they would expect from President Bush than the candidate who promised a new path. Electoral concerns can’t shape foreign policy, but domestic support is essential for any successful foreign policy venture.
So while speculation about a war with Iran may grow, the arguments against it are so strong that I find it extremely unlikely that President Obama would support unilateral US military action. Beyond any moral or political concerns, it simply is not in the national interest.
When President Obama called on President Assad of Syria to leave office last week it was a sign that Gaddafi was the verge of losing Libya. Obama made clear that the West would continue the strategy of aiding popular uprisings through diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions and low levels of military support. His message to the Syrian people was clear: Don’t give up. President Obama, like President Bush before him, has a strategy designed to promote regime change. It’s less risky than the one embraced by Bush, but can it succeed?
President George W. Bush went into Iraq with a bold and risky foreign policy. He wanted regime change led by the US, so the US could shape the new regional order. The Bush Administration understood that the dictators of the Mideast were anachronistic — out of place in the globalizing 21st Century. Surveying the region directly after 9-11-01, while the fear of Islamic extremism was still intense, they reckoned that the benefactors of the coming instability would be Islamic extremists. This would create more terror threats and perhaps lead to an existential threat against Israel.
Emboldened by the end of the Cold War and the belief that the American economy was unstoppable, they gambled. What if the US went into Iraq, ousted Saddam, and then used Iraq as a take off point for further regime change throughout the region?
The formula was clear: invade, use America’s massive military to overthrow a regime, and then pour in resources to rebuild the country and make friends. The Bush Administration thoroughly under-estimated the task at hand and over-estimated the US capacity to control events. Their effort to reshape the Mideast failed. By 2006 Iraq was mired in civil war, and President Bush was forced to change strategy. Bush’s new realism was designed to simply create conditions of stability enough to allow the US to get out of Iraq with minimal damage to its prestige and national interests. President Obama has continued that policy.
However, when governments in Tunisia and Egypt fell in early 2011, and rebellions spread around the region creating the so called “Arab Spring,” it became clear that the dynamics the Bush Administration noticed a decade earlier were still in play. These dictatorships are not going to last. Some may hold on for years with state terror against their own citizens; others will buy time by making genuine reforms. But the old order in the Mideast is starting to crumble, and no one is sure what is next.
President Obama choose a new strategy in 2010, much maligned by both the right and left. Instead of standing back and letting Gaddafi simply use his military power to crush the rebellion, Obama supported NATO using its air power to grant support for the rebels. That, combined with diplomatic efforts to isolate Gaddafi and his supporters, financial moves to block Libyan access to its foreign holdings, and assistance in the forms of arms and intelligence to the rebels, assured that Gaddafi could not hold on.
Gaddafi’s fall creates the possibility that NATO assets could be used against Syria in a similar effort. Moreover, it shows that the argument that those who use force will survive while those who try to appease the protesters will fall is wrong. Survival is not assured by using force, the world community does not ‘forgive and forget’ like it did in the past.
The strategy is subtle. Like President Bush, Obama’s goal is a recasting of the entire region; unlike his predecessor, Obama’s chosen a lower risk, patient, longer-term strategy. If Bush was the Texas gambler, Obama is the Chicago chess master. But will it work? Is this really a better form of regime change?
President Bush’s policy was one with the US in control, calling the shots, and providing most of the resources. President Obama’s approach is to share the burden, but give up US control over how the policy operates. It is a true shift from unilateralism to multi-lateralism. While many on the left are against any use of the military, President Obama shares the Bush era view that doing nothing will harm US interests. The longer the dictatorships use repression, the more likely that Islamic extremism will grow. The more friendly the US is to dictatorial repression, the more likely it is that future regimes will be hostile.
So the US now backs a multi-faceted multi-national strategy whereby constant pressure to used to convince insiders within Syria (and other Mideast countries) that supporting the dictator is a long term losing proposition. Dictators cannot run the country on their own. Even a cadre of leaders rely on loyalty from top military officials, police, and economic actors. In most cases, their best bet is to support the dictator. This gives them inside perks, and can be sustained for generations. However, if the regime falls, these supporters lose everything.
The message President Obama and NATO are sending to the Syrians and others in the region is that they can’t assume that once stability is restored it will be business as usual. The pressure on the regime, the sanctions, the freezing of assets, and various kinds of support for the protesters will continue. As more insiders decide to bet against the regime a tipping point is reached whereby change becomes likely.
For this to work a number of things must happen. First, a stable government must emerge in Libya. It needs to be broad based, including (but co-opting) Islamic fundamentalists. The West has to foster good relations with the new government, building on how important western support was in toppling the Libyan regime. Second, the pressure on Syria cannot let up. There has to be the will to keep this up for as long as it takes. Third, the possibility of NATO air support has to be real — the idea is that if it appears that Syria might launch a devastating blow against the revolt, NATO will do what is necessary to bring it back to life. Finally, the costs and risks of the operation must be kept low so the dictators cannot expect to wait out the West.
If this works, there could be a slow modernization and ultimately democratization of the Arab world, perhaps even spreading into Persian Iran. If it fails the costs won’t be as monumental as the failure of the US in Iraq, but it will be a sign that Mideast instability in the future is unavoidable, and we have to be ready for dangerous instability. Has President Obama found a better style of regime change? Time will tell — and it may take years to know for sure.
Friday I came to my 9:15 World Politics class with an apology. Due to my late night obsession with events in Egypt, I had forgotten to write the quiz they were supposed to take. They didn’t seem to mind. And for the past week, this has been an obsession. Following al jazeera streaming video and reporting, watching events unfold in what I’m convinced is the start of an historic transformation of the Arab world, it’s hard not to be caught up in the emotion of the millions celebrating at Tahrir square in Cairo.
The news of Mubarak’s resignation was timely. I was about to go participate in a panel discussion about Egypt (which drew a nice crowd) just as the news came out. Some colleagues had al jazeera’s live video stream on the screen before the discussion began. We were watching history. It’s hard to over state the importance and drama of the Egyptian revolution; it may be for the Arab world what the French revolution was for the West.
Therein lies the problem. The French revolution, also greeted with relief and hope by enlightenment thinkers, didn’t turn out so well. The rule of an autocratic Monarch gave way to chaos and ultimately Napoleon Bonaparte, who would craft a French nationalism that would allow France to conquer Europe for a time. But Egypt isn’t France. Egypt isn’t Iran. Egypt isn’t Berlin of 1989 either. The path forward is unclear and difficult.
For the Arab world to truly progress a few things need to happen. First, real democratic reform must take place, and the people must work to assure they aren’t hijacked by well organized extremist groups. This will require the military perhaps moving faster and with less caution then they’d prefer, and the people will have to have more patience and trust in the military than they’d like. The military in Egypt is a key player in this; as in Turkey, the Egyptian military could make democracy it’s goal, while at the same time preventing it from collapse.
Second, we should get less caught up in the debate about “secular” vs. “religious” groups and think more broadly about the development of a true civil society. Technically civil society is defined as people voluntarily participating in social and civic organizations. But millions taking to the street to demand change is also a strong indication of a potential civil society. The key is to turn that desire for change into effective long term efforts to make Egypt a vibrant society.
The emphasis of especially western scholars on voluntary organizations is only one aspect of civil society. It misses the core issue — why it is that people might choose to get involved. Civil society is constructed first and foremost on a series of shared beliefs and understandings about society and the role of both the individual and government. Polities can function well even with very different governmental structures if the underlying shared norms and values fit with how the country operates. Social democracy works well in Sweden, but probably wouldn’t work in Alabama.
That also explains why ideologues tend be wrong about politics — they try to use reason to figure out the right form of government, rather than recognizing that a government has to fit the culture to function. To truly change politics, culture must change. Otherwise, you need force to prevent things from simply reverting to what they were before.
In Egypt the new generation — half the population is under 24 — has a very different set of cultural values than their elders. That’s why Mubarak and Suleiman were so clueless; their message of ‘stability and security’ spoke to an Egypt that is fading away. The new generation wants opportunity, freedom, global connections, and a voice. They now know they can change the world when they unite.
That’s why it is misguided to raise dire warnings about the Muslim Brotherhood or expect the extremists to benefit from this Arab transformation. The Brotherhood has a charter that sounds pretty extreme, but its make up is diverse, and in recent years has been moderating. Yet there are extremists amongst them, and a number of them would love to take whatever new freedoms are emerging and radicalize the youth. Their dream is that the Arab youth embrace fundamentalist Islam.
That’s not going to happen. Even in Iran where the Muslim clerics hold power, the people are not with them, especially not the youth. In the Arab world groups like al qaeda have also been rejected. In fact, it was probably torture and oppression at the hands of people like Mubarak that helped fan Islamic extremist flames in the first place. Given the rise of al jazeera and the desire of the youth for opportunity, the only way for extremists to gain traction is if a global depression creates true economic catastrophe in the Mideast.
The West can help by encouraging true acceptance of Muslims in our societies, modeling religious tolerance, and allowing western Muslims, who are mostly modern and anti-fundamentalist, to come up with a coherent theological counter to the extremists. They can even find it in their own past, before the Ottomans enforced a reactionary conservative Islam, Islamic rationalists saw the Koran as a human product, to be interpreted differently in changing times, and subject to human reason. It will be a difficult transition, the extremists will try to create instability and enemies, maybe lashing out at the West hoping create a conflict that will spread chaos. As long as we don’t let them goad us, they have a losing hand.
The image below is powerful; Coptic Christians encircling Muslims at prayer time to protect them from the police. Interfaith collaboration and cooperation can help all sides focus on the common values they promoted so powerfully in the last three weeks.
Perhaps I am too optimistic. It’s hard not to be moved by millions of people demanding liberty and democracy, willing to suffer long uncomfortable weeks of protest, to risk death (and many did die) and torture, and then to erupt in joy when the tyrant backed down. Yet if one cannot be optimistic about this, what does it say for the values we as a country hold true?
As was the case in 1989, the most moving aspect of this revolution is that it came non-violently from the people deciding they would no longer tolerate tyranny and oppression. When the people unite, they can bring down any government or ruler. The hard part is not to loss patience or interest during the difficult transition. There isn’t a lot the US government can do, but governments may not be as important as they used to be. We all can connect via social media, promote the values we believe in, make our voices known and recognize that the Egyptians have shown us a glimpse of what the new order could become: power to the people.
One of the criticisms being made of President Obama’s Egypt policy is his willingness to betray a “friend,” Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak, it is claimed, has been a friend of the US for thirty years. It is somehow ignoble to turn against him now.
That view is fundamentally flawed. First of all, if alliances in world politics were akin to friendships, then we’d never be close to someone like Mubarak. Egypt tortures, abuses and oppresses. Mubarak has amassed an empire worth over $70 billion, even as Egyptians overall get poorer. He runs Egypt like an organized criminal enterprise, with no regard for human rights.
The US has supported him because the realities of world politics made it in our interest to support him. Egypt recognized Israel’s existence, helped the US in a number of ways, and tried to prove itself a good ally. In exchange Egypt got billions of dollars of aid, a massive quid pro quo. So we owe Egypt nothing. They’ve done things to benefit us, we’ve paid them in response, be that right or wrong.
If we determine it’s not in our interest to support Egypt any more, then we owe a dictatorial corrupt thug like Mubarak no more respect than was due Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic. If it is not in our interest any more to support such a government, we should be breathing a sigh of relief and celebrating the fact we no longer have to have such a horrible ally. Good riddance!
But is it in our interest? Some people claim yes — that our support of dictators in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, and Kuwait could be undermined. Perhaps these brutal regimes won’t trust the US any more and be less malleable to US pressure. Spare me. The Saudis are hard nosed and have long been willing to counter the US and act against US interest, especially in terms of oil deals with China and support for extremists. There are only two reasons support for dictators could be seen as in our interest: Israel and Oil.
The biggest argument against support for Mubarak being in our interest is the fact that with most of the Arab world under 25, vast change in the region is inevitable. The idea that tottering corrupt regimes will be able to hold on to power in this new age of twitter feeds, al jazeera and social media is akin to those who said in November 1989 that communism could persist in East Europe despite the fall of the Berlin Wall. The changes are real and will grow in scope. To embrace the dictators as they fall would be suicidal. It would put the US clearly on the side of tyranny and against democracy and liberty. Moreover, if the dictatorships are too comfortable that the US will support them no matter what, they’ll fight against any kind of reform, thereby making it likely that when their inevitable collapse comes, it won’t be peaceful.
Being on the right side of history is important, especially if we want to have solid relations with the successor regimes to these dictatorships, and work with them to support a modern, progressive Arab world, and not one that sinks back into extremist fundamentalist religious belief. We don’t want to feed the flames of groups like Muslim Brotherhood, who would love to point at the US and say, “they are the reason for all the suffering and oppression.” So there is nothing wrong with cutting Mubarak lose. We paid for his assistance, but it’s more like a man who stops going to a prostitute once he finds a mate. Mubarak was a whore.
Yet Israel and oil are legitimate concerns. We don’t want to risk all out war in the region, or another round of Arab-Israeli fighting. We don’t want to empower groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, or do anything to aid Islamic extremism. We certainly do not want instability to drive up the cost of oil and undercut any recovery or restructuring of the national and global economy. Not only is it moral unacceptable to say we have to support dictators ad infinitum in order to support those interests, but given the changes sweeping the region, that policy isn’t going to work.
There are no clear answers, but its a good bet the youth in the Arab world aren’t striving for freedom just so they can go fight a war against Israel. That isn’t their generation’s battle. Stability in oil markets certainly doesn’t require dictatorship. The claim that all hell will break loose if we don’t stand by corrupt dictators is dubious. It represents taking what is a possible outcome and vastly over stating its probability.
Ultimately the US needs to stand by its principles. Yes, at times we make compromises, the world is such that one can’t be a starry eyed idealist. But compromise cannot be so deep that the principles drown or become unrecognizable. That’s what has happened in the Mideast. For a half century we’ve supported dictators, aided corruption, and rationalized it because it got us cheap oil good for the economy. Dictators have made it easy for Israel not to make the hard decisions required to finally make peace with their fellow inhabitants of Palestine. We’ve become addicted to supporting dictators because it makes the hard issues go away. The oil flows.
But this no longer works, Tunisia and Egypt are first signs of the coming change. We have to first make clear that Mubarak is not a friend, no matter how much our countries worked together the last thirty years. Moreover, we need to have a foreign policy that achieves our interests without requiring decades long support of corrupt tyrants. We need to support the growing voices calling for change in Africa and the Arab world.
Young people in Egypt and beyond want a 21st century with democracy, human rights, and hope. If the US rejects their cause, then what kind of country have we become?
Some pundits are comparing the situation in Egypt to the dilemma faced by President Carter when Iranians suddenly brought down the Shah in a revolt that virtually no one saw coming. At that time there was pressure on President Carter to support the Shah, even though the protesters wanted freedom and democracy, not oppressive dictatorship.
Iran, however, was a pillar ally to the US in the region. Bordering the Soviet Union, it was the regional power, receiving massive amounts of US military aid. It protected Persian Gulf oil from the Soviets or anyone else who might want to control or disrupt the oil fields. Iran is not Arab, and though Islam is the primary religion, the Shah was anti-religious, thinking only the weak minded needed such a crutch. As such he brutally put down religious extremists, and was a good friend to Israel. Losing Iran meant that suddenly Persian gulf oil was vulnerable and the regional powerhouse upon which US Mideast foreign policy depended became a potential adversary.
We know what happened next. The Shah fell, and the Ayatollah Khomeini, the most prominent face of the opposition, became leader. The Iranians stormed the US embassy and took the Americans there hostage. Khomeini used anti-Americanism to grip power even tighter (one of the first things the Obama Administration did when Egypt fell into disarray is to greatly reinforce security at the US embassy in Egypt). In 1980 Iraq under Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, and that sealed the deal. The religious fundamentalist government could say “you may disagree with us, but we have to come together to defeat the Arab invaders.” In the eight years that war went in, the clerics coalesced power and shaped what we now know as the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In Egypt there is another foreign policy priority at stake: Mideast peace. When Israel was formed in 1948 the Arab peoples were angry. They didn’t mind Jews living there, but they didn’t want what they considered to be Arab land taken and turned into a Jewish state. Four wars and 25 years later Israel had expanded its borders, and was occupying the West Bank (formerly controlled by Jordan), Gaza and the Sinai pennisula (formerly held by Egypt). At that point Egyptian President Anwar Sadat decided that just or not, Israel existed and that fact could not be overturned with military power. Rather than to condemn young people to continual (and pointless) war he made a deal: peace for land. Egypt got the Sinai back, Israel promised to work on a deal for the West Bank and Gaza, and Egypt formally recognized Israel and became an ally.
Since Egypt was the dominant Arab military, this made another Arab-Israeli war impossible, ending that cycle of wars. Israel couldn’t annex the occupied territories because that would give Arabs a majority in the Jewish state — they could vote it out of existence. But they haven’t been able to figure out what to do, and the situation has festered for nearly 45 years.
The alliance with Egypt took pressure off Israel to make a deal over the West Bank and Gaza. In the ensuing years frustration at being occupied and denied basic rights turned into anger, hate and violence. Groups like Hamas formed against the corruption in the Palestinian authority, and neighboring Syria joined with Iran to back the Lebanese group Hezbollah, creating new dangers for the Israeli state. Suicide bombers terrorized Israelis, as Palestinians lashed out against their occupation. But as long as Egypt and Israel are allies, total war is impossible. For 35 years Israel and Egypt have gotten the lion’s share of US foreign aid, most of it military. This year’s share for Egypt is $1.5 billion.
As was the case with Iran, there is an Islamic fundamentalist opposition in Egypt. In Egypt it is Islamic Brotherhood. Started in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, it sought to promote the creation of a pure Islamic state. Islam was not a strong political force in the early days. Egypt’s first President, Abdul Nasser, came to power by joining other military officers in overthrowing King Faruk in 1952. He espoused a kind of Arab Socialism, a non-Marxist non-aligned ideal of promoting Arab values. He died in 1970, and replaced by Anwar Sadat. Sadat was assassinated by an Islamic extremist in 1981 because of his deal with Israel. Hosni Mubarak has been in power ever since.
Most foreign policy elite are used to the Egypt of Sadat and the early days of Mubarak. Egypt’s government allows people to live relatively free lives and do business as long as they do not threaten political instability. The Muslim Brotherhood was banned (though some members do run as independents and get into the parliament). Most citizens were satisfied that elections were being held, and though dominated by the ruling National Democratic Party, some opposition was allowed. But in the last election, in 2005, the NDP got 80% of the votes and Mubarak near 90%. Effective opposition is not allowed.
The demographic trends I talked about two weeks ago conspire with the increasing ease of gaining information and organizing opposition to make this Egypt very different than the one foreign policy elites are accustomed to. This is a new generation, a new century. They are not satisfied with relative stability, and given rising food costs and increasing poverty (in part because of the population growth), there is a desire for change that goes far beyond groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Mubarak’s government — like those in much of the rest of the Arab world — has become obsolete. Obsolete governments can hang on, sometimes for quite awhile, but sooner or later reality gets to them. Trying to maintain the status quo by helping Mubarak will at best succeed for only a short time.
Yet the idea that Muslim Brotherhood will come to power like the clerics in Iran and set up a radical Islamic state is not a probable outcome. Egyptians do not want to be like Iran, or like Saudi Arabia, and there is no reason to expect that the Muslim Brotherhood can do there what the Ayatollahs did in Iran. Sunni Islam has a different sense of politics than does Shi’ite (Egyptians are Sunni, the Iranians are Shi’ite), and the Muslim Brotherhood does not provide the ‘face of the opposition’ by Khomeini did. Indeed, the protesters are mostly unaligned with the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, Iran has oil, it had the resources to be more independent. Any new government in Egypt has to deal with the problems of poverty and economic weakness. The US and the EU will be in a position to make deals that the Egyptians cannot simply reject.
If one reads the alarmists, something which I labeled in my last post a “worst case scenario” gets put forth as if it’s likely. War will break out, oil prices will skyrocket, a new Islamic state will emerge and further radicalize the Arab world! Perhaps, but not likely. Those who want to fear Islam see the worst case scenario as more likely than it is, just as those who yearn for change in Egypt see the best case scenario as more likely than it is.
Egypt is not Iran. History has yet to be written. The US can’t shape events, but how we and our allies react to them will help guide the trajectory of history. So far the Obama administration has done the right things and adopted the right tone — President George H.W. Bush’s former Secretary of State James Baker made that point publicly. The test, however, is yet to come. As protesters and “pro-Mubarak thugs” fight it out in Tahir square, the diplomats have to get ready to be creative and innovative as they move into uncharted territory. That’s probably something they’ll need to get used to.
We still don’t know where the protest movement in Egypt will go. Word is that the Obama Administration doesn’t think Mubarak can last, but also doesn’t want American fingerprints on the transition. They are taking a wait and see approach, as is the world. People are drawing comparisons to the Iranian revolution in 1979, and some say that the US should take a stand to support Mubarak or Obama will have “lost Egypt.”
This is no longer the 20th Century. The idea that the US can prop up dictatorships and treat third world states as pawns in power political games is obsolete. That simply won’t work. As I noted last week, demographics and the information revolution make change in the Arab world inevitable. So what if this is a start of a great transformation in the Mideast, the start of a process of modernization that at some point could yield democratic, modern societies? How will this unfold?
Alas, just as the US can’t simply prop up Mubarak and hold back the change, neither can the US or anyone wave a magic wand and dictate that Egyptians will peacefully go to the polls and vote in a reasonable moderate government. Forces of Islamic extremism, secular modernism, moderate Islam and democratic human rights advocacy co-exist. They may unite against Mubarak, but will fight with each other.
Moreover, if Egypt is a canary in a coal mine, the first of the authoritarian post-Ottoman states to throw off the shackles of an oppressive government (Iran was never part of the Ottoman Empire), what will happen if this spreads? Already Jordan and Yemen have growing protests, while tensions exist in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis’ oil money can buy them support Mubarak could not afford, but no government will likely last. Much as Communism fell virtually overnight in Eastern Europe, change may come more swiftly than people realize in the Arab world. What will it be like?
If Europe’s modernization process is any guide, it may be very messy. To be sure, the Europeans modernized at their own pace, with no one ahead of them either pushing them faster than they wanted to go, or showing them the way with aid and advice. The Arab world is modernizing in a global interdependent system which itself is undergoing transition. When Europe modernized there was blowback. The Church fought capitalism and modernism, ideologies like communism and fascism emerged to offer new threats. There were civil wars, holocausts, purges and ultimately two world wars engulfing Europe, taking countless millions of lives, before the Europeans found something that works — a stable cooperative economic and political arrangement known as the ‘European Union.’
A new political culture needs to emerge; a new set of norms, understandings and shared values upon which a stable political system can be built. There is no “right” political system or government, only ones which work because the underlying culture fosters values that promote stability. To build that from an authoritarian state where dissent is violently repressed is very difficult and usually follows a rocky path.
This opens the real possibility that this wave of protest could unleash a war against Israel fought not by Arab armies easily defeated by the IDF, but rather waves of terrorism and fighting by young people — again, the population of the Arab world is almost half under 23 and the population keeps growing. One can imagine Iran challenging the Arab world and a potential war between the Arabs and the Persians, this time with Iraq as a battleground (and host to a civil war).
A best case scenario would be for Egypt to model a kind of “government of national unity” that would forge compromises between the various groups. Moderate elements of the Muslim Brotherhood would need to have considerable influence to make that happen, though there is evidence that even Muslim fundamentalists are dubious of the violence and desire for conflict against the West that drives groups like al qaeda. In a “best case” scenario, Egypt’s turmoil convinces other states to proactively reform, trading power for a comfortable future (no violent overthrow, but instead protection of wealth in exchange for giving up power).
The US and the West walk a tightrope. Intervention and support for dictators makes it more likely the extremists can exercise influence by playing the anti-Americanism card. If the West is generally supportive and non-interventionist, letting events work themselves out as they will, a quiet role of helping create stability could be played. This would be at the invitation of Arab governments, not through a forceful desire to create “regime change.”
If it weren’t for two issues — Israel and oil — the West could probably just sit this out and let that region change on its own. The Israelis were shocked by the 2006 war with Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s continuing strength in Lebanon along with the possibility of a resurgent, nuclear Iran, has already unnerved the Israelis. The possibility that their Egyptian ally could totter likely brings them close to panic. The good news is that confronted with the possibility of all out war with a nuclear Israel, the Muslim Brotherhood, which contains moderate elements, might join Hamas to hammer out a peace deal with Israel. The logic of this view rests with the fact that right now Israel has no reason to truly compromise, they are in a position of relative strength. If that changes, then perhaps Israel will be forced to compromise in ways that can lead to an effective solution.
Another possibility is all out war — with Israel’s survival in doubt. When these changes sweep the Arab world, something will give in the Israeli-Arab conflict. Either there will be war, perhaps involving nuclear weapons and the end of the Israeli state, or there could be a move towards peace. It’s impossible to accurately set the odds for either outcome. If there is war, then oil supplies will likely suffer dramatic cuts. Even if there is some turmoil in Saudi Arabia oil prices will rise. This could usher in another recessionary wave, perhaps bad enough to push the global economy into clear depression.
So the stakes are high, yet the US is not and can not control how things develop. We are in a position of having to react. Iraq taught us the limits of our military power, Iran in 1979 showed the impact of being too closely associated with the former dictator, and though President Obama has restored some prestige to the US in that part of the world, we are mostly spectators in this historical transformation of the Mideast.
And what if Mubarak pulls through, and the protests die out? That will mean that the leaders in the Mideast have been served notice — there is a storm brewing below them if they don’t make clear and consequential changes. I get the sense that something big is starting, something that will shift the course of history in ways we cannot yet know.
Pundits left and right are falling over themselves to make what seems to be a no-risk prediction: the Mideast peace talks President Obama has initiated will fail. For almost twenty years success has been elusive in Mideast negotiations, and after the failure of the Clinton talks in 2000 the region has become riveted by war, uprisings, and now the threat of a nuclear Iran. Many on the right are all but begging Israel to strike Iranian nuclear sights, while many on the left want President Obama to dump Israel if it doesn’t change its tune.
It is always darkest before the dawn, and I think that perhaps now the time is right for a major turn around in the Israeli-Palestinian saga. Perhaps a move towards peace is closer than we realize. A few reasons:
A) Only Nixon could go to China. One problem in Israel is the ability of the Israeli hardliners to scuttle efforts by those who want serious negotiations to succeed. Any Hamas attack is turned into a reason why compromise is futile, and emotional themes push Israelis away from reconciliation. Current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, has won his credentials as a hard core Israeli hawk. He has constantly opposed negotiations on anything but Israeli terms, and has been harshly critical of doves both in Israel and the US. He is a hero to conservatives in the US who are pro-Israel, steadfastly defending the Jewish state against criticism. He has the “street cred” to deal with the Palestinians, and perhaps create a two state solution. The ground work has be laid by other hawks — Yitzak Rabin, the general hero of the 1967 war who later made peace with the PLO, and Ariel Sharon, the hard core militarist who unilaterally withdrew from the West Bank.
B) Israel needs American support. Israel is concerned about the fact that Iran is likely to become a rival nuclear power in the region. On the one hand, most Israelis recognize Iran is not going to simply attack Israel to destroy the Jewish state — that kind of rhetoric is used to get public support, but they know the Iranian leadership isn’t suicidal. Rather, it alters the regional balance, especially as Iran directly backs Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah fought Israel to a draw (something Israel’s not used to) in the summer of 2006, and could pose serious threats to Israeli security. If the US sets the price of unequivocal support against Iran as working hard towards peace with the Palestinians, Netanyahu is likely to see it worth the cost.
C) Arab states want the conflict settled. Most Arab states have resigned themselves to co-existing with Israel. The days of wanting Israel “wiped off the map” are over. In fact, Arabs are more concerned about Iranian power than Israeli power, and the leaders of most Arab states are adamantly opposed to extremist movements that want to disrupt the system. They know that peace in Palestine would undercut the most emotional strain of the radical Islamist movement. Pressure from Arab states (even if they rhetorically remain anti-Israel) will be for compromise from the Palestinian side. They may also offer private assurances to Israel.
D) Palestinian impatience with Hamas. Hamas won elections in Gaza because of widespread anger over corruption and incompetence in the Palestinian Authority. They did not win because of their radical anti-Israeli stance. Most Palestinians are ambivalent about the existence of Israel, they simply want to make a living and have economic opportunity.
Add to that the wane in anti-American sentiment due to the US withdrawal from Iraq (and the lack of headlines of dead Arabs at the hands of western forces) and Palestinian rejection of the radical agenda, and conditions are ripe for a real move towards long term peace. Ironically President Obama, seen by many as having a questionable commitment to Israel, and Benjamin Netanyahu, seen by many as having no desire to reach a two state agreement with the Palestinians, may be poised for a dramatic and unexpected breakthrough in the Mideast. Stay tuned!