Middle East


Steve Cook at CFR has offered his latest analysis of the rapprochement between Israel and Turkey, a thing he readily admits to having incorrectly dismissed. In it, he points to several matters of shared strategic interests and material concerns (energy and possibly Iran) that might encourage such a renewal of ties, and some that might not (Syria) – all of which I largely agree with.

What’s interesting is that having laid the groundwork for the materialist/realist argument, he then concludes that it is a result purely of personalistic politics; that President Obama essentially shamed Erdogan and Netanyahu into making up. I can’t help but wonder if this explanation overlooks the deep history that these two states share. Maybe it was the breakup that had more to do with personalities and politics than does the reunification?

A new strategic alliance between Egypt and Iran is not likely in a region currently being contested by four would-be hegemons, though the US might find unintended consequences stemming from its attempts to further isolate Tehran, or in leaving Cairo to collapse.

 

While most attention is on renewed protests throughout the Arab Spring countries, I wanted to look briefly at news this past week of Iranian President Ahmedinijad’s visit to Cairo. This is the second time leaders from the two countries have met, the first being President Moursi’s visit to Tehran last August. This time, Ahmedinijan called for a strategic alliance between the two countries. So, do we have the beginnings of a new power axis across the Middle East that will redefine international affairs for generations to come? I rather doubt it.

There is some historical precedent for an alliance. Before the 1979 Iranian Revolution and before Egyptian President Mubarak’s reign, the two countries had some ties and the exiled Shah is even still buried in Egypt. But even if the only thing holding back diplomatic relations until now was just the personal enmity between rulers, I’d argue that the Middle East is no longer an environment supportive of such a friendship.

The MENA region is developing into a four-way contest between Iran, Egypt, Saudi, and Turkey, each seeking to assert their control. Each can lay claim to being a regional power with a certain manifest destiny, and each sees great opportunity in the new Middle East. Egypt desperately wants to be the center of power it once was, but its economy is in tatters and its political situation dangerously unstable. Iran has a leg up on Egypt, but that leg’s pretty firmly weighted down by sanctions just now.

This is not to say that the two countries won’t be able to improve their relations or manage some form of cooperation on certain issues, and certainly Egypt could use some cash about now (though sanction-beset Iran is not in the best position to offer any), but whatever ties resurface now that Mubarak is out of the way, they will likely stop prior to true friendship. Simply put, this region ain’t big enough for the both of ’em.

But is there anything that could change that calculus and get Iran and Egypt on the same side? I think the defining of sides in this case from the US might, under the right circumstances, lead to such an arrangement. Ahmedinijad’s call for an alliance is based on the idea that each country has more to lose in a region controlled by the US and its allies (read Israel) than in one controlled by either of them. Right now, I don’t think Egypt’s leaders see it that way, but the  US’ policy of trying to turn the entire world against Iran for the sake of Israel doesn’t go down very well with people in the region (in Egypt any more than in Iran), and an Iran seeking to recoup its losses from a chaotic Syria might just redouble its charm offensive elsewhere. Also, if both countries are teetering on their own, there might be some appeal in trying to hold each other up instead.

On a side note, it is good to see that the shoe-throwing-protest meme from several years ago is alive and well. Also, the triple slow-mo in this video is amazing.

After passing a flawed constitution through brutal intimidation and attempts to silence political opposition leaders, Egypt may follow the Iranian model of a religiously based underground movement appropriating a revolution that it did not start and  creating authoritarian system as stringent and intolerant as the one it replaced. But hope endures so long as political opposition remains vocal.

Been away a long time; my apologies. But at least nothing important was happening in the region during my absence.

Of course, the big stories have been Egypt’s stumbling revolution and the Syrian civil war. Of the latter, I’ll have more to say in another post. Of the former, I tend to agree with Marc Lynch’s summation:

What has unfolded in Egypt is not a morality play, with good and evil clashing by night. Nor was it the unfolding of an Islamist master plan.  This was … hardball, strategic power plays by sometimes obtuse and occasionally shrewd actors in a polarized political environment with no clear rules, unsettled institutions, high stakes, intense mutual mistrust and extremely imperfect information.

However, I disagree with Lynch that hope for a successful democratic outcome remains even a modest possibility. He maintains that passing a flawed constitution under specious means could still put Egypt in a “good place”:

It would not be the worst outcome for a chaotic transition if Egypt emerges in March with a constitution establishing institutional powers and limiting the powers of the Presidency, a democratically elected but weakened President, a Muslim Brotherhood in power but facing unprecedented levels of scrutiny and political opposition, the military back in the barracks, a mobilized and newly relevant political opposition, and a legitimately elected Parliament with a strong opposition bloc.  The costs may have been too high and the process a horror movie, but getting a Constitution in place and Parliamentary elections on the books puts Egypt just a bit closer to that vision.

If that were all that has been going on, I’d agree (and have), but the investigation of all of Moursi’s opponents for sedition and the virtually unnoticed presidential decree neutering independent labor unions add additional layers to this. I think we have to consider that Egypt may well follow the Iranian model, in that a religiously based underground movement has appropriated a revolution that it did not start and seems to slowly be moving towards an authoritarian system as stringent and intolerant as the one it replaced. Whether or not that is a “good place” is debatable – I am no ideologue and do not hold that democracy is necessarily a good in and of itself or that all societies must adopt such a system of governance – but we’ve countless examples of worthless constitutions, and Egypt does not have a strong tradition of being bound by one.

Not everything is doom and gloom, of course. While ElBaradei, Mousa, and Sabahi are under investigation, they weren’t arrested and are currently “free.” The threat of incarceration looms over them no doubt as an attempt to keep them in line, but that Mousri feels compelled (by an insecure political base or true love of democracy) to hold back is a good sign. This situation is a bellwether for Egypt, and we should all be watching closely what happens. So long as Moursi is constrained in exerting power, I’ll go along with Lynch and hope that the passing of a constitution – any constitution – ultimately proves to be a good thing. But my optimism is wearing extremely thin.

Israel’s offensive in Gaza is not likely in preparation for a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, though such a disastrous campaign cannot be dismissed.   Israeli feelings of being besieged from twin threats – external enemies and internal demographic changes – make it possible, if unlikely, that Israel might engage in otherwise counterproductive behavior.

In my last post, I looked at some of the strategic considerations for Israel in manning a ground campaign in Gaza versus its current airstrikes in terms of the costs of operating in the Arab Spring-thawed Middle East. Mostly, I was looking at its relationship with Egypt and just how far it would be willing to go without endangering the peace treaty. But it is worth pivoting east, as some have, to look at what this might mean in terms of Israel’s continuing confrontation with Iran.

Jerry Seib suggested in a Wall Street Journal blog post that Iran might have promoted HAMAS to attack Israel in order to tie them up militarily. Iran has, after all, been HAMAS’ main supplier of weapons, including the more advanced missiles seen over the last week. Then again, he also points out that this course might backfire and allow Israel to free itself of the HAMAS deterrent.

In short, this would be a stupid plan for Iran even if the assumed relationship between Iran and HAMAS were true. HAMAS is not a proxy for Iran in the same way that one could describe Hizballah – and even there, you run into problems thinking the relationship so unidirectional.

I think it likely that HAMAS wasn’t pressured by anyone (other than Israel) to resume its missile strikes. And its building of a better arsenal over the past year or so doesn’t have to stray beyond basic military precautions to make sense (those home-made mortars weren’t doing anything other than making potholes in the desert).

Others have  further speculated that the campaign in Gaza might be but a precursor to an offensive in Iran to destroy that country’s nuclear program. The logic goes that Iran supplied the advanced missiles to HAMAS as a deterrent against Israeli aggression, and so by dismantling that deterrent  Israel should feel more free to act directly against Iran.

I’m sure that Israel would feel much better knowing that Iran’s supply of arms to HAMAS has been weakened, but I don’t think that the situation is quite so simple. Deterrence probably was part of Iran’s reasons for supplying HAMAS, as it also supplies Hizballah and Islamic Jihad, as might the general theory that the enemy of my enemy is my friend; however, none of these are probably a large enough deterrence to stop Israel from striking Iran if it thought it could take our that country’s program. It after all did exactly that to Iraq and Syria.

The largest deterrence to Israel in striking Iran is that Iran’s program is much bigger, more complex, more advanced, and better defended than either Syria or Iraq’s programs were. A full-on war effort by Israel would be unlikely to do more than set Iran back a few months or maybe a year.

The second biggest deterrence to Israel is the US, which thus far has managed to hold its ally back from the brink. But the US is limited in its ability to do this, and Israel is spurred on to action by domestic political interests as well as security concerns.

That same mixture of concern for security and political machination also goes far towards explaining Israel’s offensive in Gaza on its own. Israel has always verged on paranoia in its foreign policy, and the Tip O’Neill axiom that all politics are local is far more true of Israel than it ever was for the US. It is evident in its concern over Iran’s nuclear program and in HAMAS’ rocket campaign, neither of which could ever constitute a existential threat. That said, Israel’s paranoia is occasionally justified, and it has fought its fair share of defensive wars over the years.

Politically, Israel has seen a massive shift towards the right – defined in Israel between Hawks and Doves – in the last decade, in part because of structural considerations that gives inordinate political weight to fringe groups and in part due to demographic changes that threaten to to make Jews a minority. Feelings of being besieged from twin threats make it possible, if unlikely, that Israel might engage in otherwise counterproductive behavior. So we can’t rule out an Israeli strike on Iran, but we can be reasonably sure that whatever its motivations in Gaza, preparing the ground for a strike on Iran isn’t among them.

The past several days have seemed like a nostalgic return to the MENA of old, with HAMAS launching rockets into Israel and Israel responding with air strikes and threats of a ground invasion. So repetitive has been this pattern that one could almost forget that the region within which it is occurring now is so very different than the one in which that pattern emerged and, more or less, worked for Israel.

Israel (and HAMAS) now have to deal with a region in which the Muslim Brotherhood rules Egypt (albeit in a sort of power-sharing agreement with a partially reformed military which still benefits from its peace agreement with Israel) within a democratic framework, HAMAS’ traditional power base in Damascus is gone along with Assad’s support, Lebanon is caught up in the Syrian fight, Jordan is facing its first serious calls for the overthrow of the monarchy (in part from Palestinians, who make up the majority of the population), and Israel’s traditional ally of Turkey has shown itself unwilling to back Israel against Palestinian resistance. The ties between HAMAS and the Islamist governments of Egypt and Turkey can easily be overstated–HAMAS is NOT the Muslim Brotherhood, though it does share an ideological heritage and members of both groups hold affinities for one another–but it is a thing to be reckoned with from the perspective of Israel.

What then does all this mean? Will there be a ground war? What will be the repercussions, for Israel, HAMAS, FATAH, Egypt, and your grandmother?

By far the biggest, and least asked, question from all of this is, so what? Whether Israel invades on the ground of continues to pummel and kill from the air, does it make a difference to the regional political situation, to states’ security, or to US interests? I like it when others ask the right questions:

This poses the first real test of some of the biggest questions about the real strategic significance of the Arab uprisings of the last two years.  Do the uprisings really constrain Israel’s ability to wage wars such as the 2006 war against Hezbollah or 2008/09 war against Gaza?  In what way?  Would the empowerment of a mobilized Arab public force Arab leaders to adopt significantly different policies towards Israel?  Would democratically elected Islamist leaders like Morsi really change core foreign policy positions such as the commitment to the Camp David peace treaty? Would intense political competition, popular mobilization, or different ideologies outweigh the cold calculations of Realpolitik and hopes for international acceptance?  

Mubarak would have crushed real dissent, allowing only a show of solidarity while maintaining the peace with Israel; Moursi may not have that leeway. My own assessment is that this will not likely lead to a ground war, as that may be the line that Egypt cannot allow Israel to cross. They will strive to maintain the status quo that so benefits them, especially in the current uncertain period of transition, but in the face of a ground occupation, they be compelled to act by the vast majority of Egyptians angry over their Muslim brethren (and blood relatives in many cases) being killed.

But what of the last part of my question? Would any outcome affect US interests, and therefore get the US to intervene on either side?

Since the US is still trying to build relations with the new Egypt, it is unlikely to have much in the game at this point. And the US is likely still to back Israel no matter what. So regardless of what Israel does, it is essentially guaranteed political (and military, if need be) support from the US and there will be no major changes in the US-Egypt relationship.

Ah, nostalgia.

The protests that raged across the Middle East and North Africa over the last week have prompted many questions, but perhaps not the right ones. The attacks on American embassies in nascent democracies are not betrayals of some utopic, democratic future, but the a further playing out of larger geopolitical forces we are still struggling to understand. 

I may be coming a little bit late to the game on this one, but the protests throughout the MENA region last week, while now thankfully died down, have raised a number of questions back in the US region. Most of these questions are quite old and tend to resurface as new and salient any time people “over there” act or react in ways that uncomfortably call attention to what might not be as impartial, mature, logical, and just generally correct behavior on our part as we would like to think.

“Why do they hate us?” “Why can’t they take criticism?” “So illogical!” (note this last might as well read: “how uncivilized!”) Some commentators have seemed shocked that the new political openings in the region hadn’t precluded such a thing, that this was a betrayal of the democratic promise made to us (thus adding the idea that not only are they irrational, but they are untrustworthy as well). In some ways, then, asking these questions about the recent protests comes back to asking what the Arab Spring really is.

See for example, this op ed from Fouad Ajami in the Washington Post. As he makes clear from his introduction, “Modernity requires the willingness to be offended. And as anti-American violence across the Middle East and beyond shows, that willingness is something the Arab world, the heartland of Islam, still lacks.” What follows is a long summary of colonial history in the region and the general feeling that the Arabs just haven’t quite been able to get with it, to keep up with the times, to modernize. There is nothing imperialist about this; it is what the modern world demands of everyone.

Ajami’s recounting of history is correct in the details, but I disagree with his thesis and dangerous misuse of terms. By “modernity” – a term that can mean everything and nothing – what he really means is “Western culture.” So, Arab culture is lacking Western culture. I see where this is going. Ajami in effect says that decades of colonialism and historical humiliation have led Arabs to be perpetually thin-skinned. They are trapped by history, as unchanging in their ways as the great deserts they inhabit.

The idea that a century or more of being a “subject people” is solely responsible for rough relations with Western society is pretty specious, given that more than half of the cultures in the world can be described in the same way. It doesn’t help, but there’s nothing particularly exceptional about the Arab or Muslim worlds in this regard.

One might say that to the extent that societies are not secularized, that any political differences of significance are bound to be religious in appearance. But that, I fear, misunderstands the secular mindset as a norm (and monolithic) and once again places the arguer in a position of self-defined superiority.

One possible argument for an essential cultural component to what’s going on is that Arab culture (and most others except ours) places a high priority on honor (or “face”). Disagreement is fine and healthy, but public insults are another matter. In America, we thrive on insults (giving more than getting, of course). I would hardly put that on the list of essential elements of our way of life, but it is a vibrant character trait/flaw.

I have no doubt that the history of Imperialism is terribly important and is material for resentment. From the American standpoint – and it is that standpoint which is of primary concern to me – we must find ways to “bridge the gap” with these societies, help with their disastrous youth-unemployment problems, and somehow desist from playing the role of regnant Imperialist power.

More and more, I think Sam Huntington had it right. This is one aspect of what he would have termed a “fault-line conflict,” which also helps to explain why it never goes away. Elites manipulate issues to gain and  retain power, and such a public clash of cultures (or civilizations) is an expedient means to do it.

So then, if not oriental thin-skinnedness, what are/were the protests about? How much is religious? How much political? As to the political: why?

I suspect that the attack in Libya wasn’t entirely linked to the anti-Muslim film that spurred on the Egyptian riots and which then spread to Pakistan and elsewhere. Of the others, who really needs a reason to protest the US? People have been deeply resentful of the US for decades. The yoke of empire sits heavy, and without a unifying story of a battle of good vs evil (the Cold War) to justify hegemony, it is not just heavy but unjust.

But it is far more complicated than that, of course.Tony Karon wrote a good overall assessment of the situation in Libya shortly after the attack. I think he overplays the danger in Libya and also doesn’t distinguish between different types of salafis; however, he does help to show the ways that elites manipulate issues in the region to their own advantage and he highlights the ways that the new political situation in Libya (and perhaps elsewhere) presents challenges and opportunities.

People don’t like the US. The US and Israel, in the local mindset, are responsible for every ill. That’s silly, of course, but also understandable to a degree. People in the region now have the physical ability to mobilize and act, where they couldn’t before under dictatorial rule. They also have the the encouragement to act, in that they’ve seen what collective action can bring.

Getting back to Huntington, I do think that the end of the Cold War is largely responsible for the Arab Spring generally (and I include the earlier Iranian Green Movement here) in that, along with a growing “middle-ish class” and 20% youth bulge, it upset the traditional balance of powers. We are in the process of seeing the cards settle after a good shuffle.

In many ways, I think events today resemble 1848, with a series of revolutions that produced, in that case, the dawn of ideological politics in Europe and throughout the world. That year saw the publication of the Communist Manifesto, and while communism played little to no part in any of the revolutions then underway, the “specter” of communism (to use Marx’s phrase) thereafter became the most potent ideological force available to anti-establishment forces. If the parallel is a good one, however, I think we have to ask what is the “specter” today? Is it Islamism or salafism, as some suggest? Or is it a greater geopolitical shift?

Egypt, according to seasoned Middle East diplomat Dennis Ross, is living in denial. Ross says in an op ed in the Washington Post that Egyptian President Moursi and the Muslim Brotherhood are denying reality by disavowing sending a response message to Israeli President Perez’s note even while bowing to pragmatic pressures by reversing its stance on accepting IMF assistance. From this, Ross interprets a dangerous “alternative reality” forming in the mindset of the Brotherhood; something for the US to steadfastly confront in its dealings with the new government.

What conclusions should be drawn about an organization that cannot admit the truth? That insists on living in its own reality? If nothing else, it’s clear that the group the Brotherhood [sic] is wedded to its ideology and cannot admit anything that might call its basic philosophy into question.

What conclusions should be drawn about an organization that cannot admit the truth? Possibly that they are in politics?

Not being able to admit fault in its central tenets is a quality of ideology—political or religious—to be sure, but public statements disavowing unpopular but pragmatic actions is also the hallmark of politics. That the Brotherhood is unused to playing such politics and may stumble embarrassingly upon occasion is to be expected. One could point to any number of incidents in American politics as proof of either party in the US insisting on living in its own reality despite overwhelming evidence of “truth” to the contrary.

Ross is, of course, a diplomat, and his overall point is that the US should not tolerate actions or statements by foreign powers that it doesn’t agree with. Particularly as the Moursi government is in the process of forming what Egyptian politics is the mean, this is a critical period in which to establish the bases of the bilateral relationship and the US should take a hard stand now or lose the ability to do so later on.

Fair enough, but his chosen argument is a poor one. Most other states contend that the US doesn’t abide by the arbitrary rules it sets for others, that it punishes others for unfair trade relations while enacting protectionist measures at home, that it insists upon democratic reforms abroad while stifling dissent at home and supporting friendly dictatorships around the world.

And what conclusions should be drawn about a state that cannot admit the truth but insists on living in its own reality?

Politics as usual.

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