The West in the Arab world, between ennui and ecstasy

The West in the Arab world, between ennui and ecstasy

This essay was contributed by Peter Harling and Alex Simon.

To outsiders, the Middle East usually is an intellectual object—a place on a map onto which they project their fears, fantasies and interests. But to many it is a home to live and despair in, to flee and to cling to, to loath and to love. When writing for the truly concerned, commentary has become futile: what is there to say that they do not already know? The ideals and hopes we could once believe in have disintegrated as a bewildering array of players wrought destruction, seemingly teaming up in the region’s devastation rather than fighting each other as they claim—let alone seeking solutions. 

With suffering and complexity relentlessly on the uptick, even well-intentioned observers are tempted to simplify what we cannot fully understand, focusing excessively on the distraction of daily news and drifting toward some convenient intellectual extreme. It is a constant struggle to rebalance one’s positions, resume analysis of meaningful, underlying trends, and attempt to contribute responsibly. At the heart of this ambition is a need for honesty and humility rather than partisan hackery and hubris—acknowledging our failures and our limitations and our inability to fully comprehend, let alone effectively correct, the course of events in the Middle East. From there we may step back and appraise how best to play a positive rather than destructive role in shaping the region’s trajectory. 

The dominant trend, however, has been in the opposite direction. Most conversations are self-centered and reductive. This reality is starkest in the debate about the Islamic State (hereafter “Daesh”) and the Iran nuclear deal, but the tendency is pervasive: the Russian intervention in Syria, a mushrooming refugee crisis, pulverizing wars in Libya and Yemen, only enter the discussion inasmuch as they disturb our “national interests” as we narrowly and shortsightedly define them. In Washington, the brutal execution of one American journalist has approximately the same galvanizing potential as the large-scale persecution and enslavement of Iraq’s Yazidi minority. Both are more compelling than the arrival of several hundred thousand refugees on the shores of Europe, who are in turn of far greater concern than the millions more stranded in their own countries and those throughout the region who are routinely bombed into nothingness.

More than well-defined interests, the Western response to a given Middle Eastern tragedy is often dictated by knee-jerk, emotional factors—cultural affinities (or lack thereof) with the victims, an enduring obsession with “terrorism”, and sheer visual potency (whether Daesh’s horror-movie barbarism or the occasional heart-wrenching image of a drowned child) are but a few. While understandable, these are not a basis for strategy. 

The United States, of course, is not the lone culprit. Key players across the board are acting less on the basis of interest than obsession, pursuing ad hoc and reactive means in support of amorphous and ill-defined ends. While Washington proposes to destroy the mind-bogglingly complex socio-economic-political-military entity that is Daesh through airstrikes (and a dash of social media evangelism and tepid support to whomever appears willing to pitch in), Moscow seeks to restore its prestige and cut Obama down to size by pummeling what remains of Syria’s non-jihadist opposition; Tehran works its way to regional leadership by pumping more weapons, money and hubris into whichever proxy is most expedient at a given moment in a given country; Riyadh clambers to head off presumed Persian scheming by whatever means necessary, while Cairo does the same toward the Muslim Brotherhood bogeyman. And so on and so forth.

Behind all of this posturing are incoherent binaries of good versus evil—typically euphemized in the language of “stability versus terrorism”—whereby states attempt to reduce the pandemonium to one or two irreconcilable enemies, one or two overarching goals and however many direct or proxy wars appear necessary to suppress the former and achieve the latter. In other words, keep it simple: pick your mania, ignore all else, and it will finally make sense. 

The reality, of course, is precisely the opposite. In a region so chaotic and fluid, monomaniacal policies will unfailingly make matters worse, compounding polarization when success rests on building bridges. The result has been a dizzying spectrum of overlapping and ever-shifting alliances, rivalries, and proxy wars that regional and international players continue to escalate despite usually lacking an end game. 
 
Increasingly, this state of affairs feeds into self-enforcing loops where governments seek to reverse or simply distract from their past failures by doubling down on the most belligerent aspects of what were initially ambivalent, multifaceted postures. Iran has shifted in Iraq from a relatively balanced approach to overt, unqualified support for Shiite militias that further alienate Sunnis, divide Shiite and Kurdish constituencies, undermine what is left of a state, and will leave a lasting and dangerous legacy of nihilism; the same can be said of Iranian policy in Syria. Russia has evolved from exercising and imposing restraint in Syria to throwing its lot in with one camp and escalating the war in a manner that almost automatically invites one-upmanship from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In Yemen and the Sinai, Riyadh and Cairo have filled their own political vacuum by adopting war as a policy by default. In all cases, fresh escalation makes pulling back all the more difficult.

Western states have veered in the opposite direction, attempting to cut their losses and save face in the process. The White House, for all its posturing toward Daesh, has in reality come to view the Iranian nuclear deal as the one issue where it can hope to make a difference, resulting in a largely unintelligible withdrawal from the region that has sucked others into the void—exacerbating the deadly confusion it struggled to grapple with in the first place. In Europe, half-baked attempts at pursuing democratization, sanctioning human rights abuse, engaging Islamists, developing a humanitarian response, resorting to diplomacy and articulating a refugee policy are being eclipsed by one idea: accepting whatever power structures exist that might protect against the Islamic State.  

Underlying all of these tendencies is the disturbing reality that the Middle East has reached a state of such abject convolution that quite literally no one can altogether grasp the dynamics at play, let alone articulate a constructive path forward. In this milieu, everyone seems to be nurturing his own illusory, revisionist vision of a region where his own views would ultimately dominate. Listen to the various parties, close your eyes, and imagine a Middle East that would stabilize through the embrace of Western values; or submit to rising Russian influence as the only sensible alternative; or accept inevitable Iranian leadership; or roll back Persian hegemonic designs decisively; or rid itself of the Islamist cancer; or finally reinvent its true self by bringing the secular anomaly to an end. Now open your eyes, shake your head, and take another Valium.   

Our challenge is to resist two temptations. The first is the comfort of our own hopes, fears and biases, which we are tempted to substitute for hard-headed analysis, in the process compromising any chance of a coherent and far-sighted policy. The second is the desire to retreat altogether in the face of the Middle East’s complexity, washing our hands of problems that we helped create and that will continue to affect us profoundly and unpredictably. 

The rehabilitation of Western policy in the Middle East will, therefore, rest upon a paradigm shift. Its potential contours are outlined in this essay’s conclusion, but a first step is to explore the dynamics that have brought the Middle East to its current state and will continue to shape the region for years to come.

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On Obama's foreign policy

Via Andrew Sullivan, some interesting posts on judging Obama’s foreign policy by Conor Friedersdorf and Daniel Larison. The latter writes:

Among post-WWII Presidents, Obama’s foreign policy record has been competent enough that it shouldn’t be ranked anywhere near the real failures (e.g., LBJ, Bush II, Kennedy, etc.), but it shouldn’t be confused with one of the very best records, either. It’s true that Obama’s record seems much better than it is when compared with George W. Bush’s, but then that is the relevant comparison for political purposes. Even when Obama blunders, he doesn’t suffer as much political damage because we still remember how badly Bush performed and we are regularly reminded of what the terrifying practical alternative to Obama was every time McCain sounds off on an international crisis. Judged by those admittedly low standards, Obama’s record looks a lot better than if we assessed his overall record simply on the merits. Bush’s foreign policy failures helped make Obama President, and they continue to make his own record look better by comparison, and I’m not sure that it’s possible for people who lived through the Bush years to avoid making that comparison when judging Obama’s record.

It all depends on the standards you apply. By GWB standards he’s fantastic. By US post-WW2 standards he’s alright — especially, he is cautious and pragmatic. By mainstream human rights standards he’s pretty awful, mostly because of the continued use of rendition, Guantanamo Bay, assassinations and drones — in which he continues GWB policies. One of the more recurrent criticism of Obama is his lack of overarching doctrine, precisely because of his pragmatic case-by-case approach. The bottom line, compared with most other presidents, he’s OK and performed well in some instances, such as the Libyan intervention (in the sense that he did it in a manner that minimized possibility for US overreach, which was the stated goal), and pretty embarrassingly in other cases (Israel).

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Things fall apart

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Yeats, The Second Coming

I don't have much to add to all the noise around the Mabhuh assassination, except to say that this is the opportunity to pressure European governments to distance themselves from Israel, notably by freezing any further advanced status talks between the EU and Israel. Ideally, a review of visa regulations for Israeli citizens should also be considered. Politicians need to latch on to this seriously, especially in Britain. Considering what've seen so far is mostly indignation without consequences (and that we can't really rule out the possibility of European cooperation — see Fisk's rant on this, although I am pretty agnostic about it).
I am still forming my own take on the impact of the assassination for the region (as opposed to Europe.) One of the most important things I think it reveals is the level of instability of the regional order — it suggests to me that since at least 2006 if not earlier the dynamic is one of chronic instability where open war is generally avoided (except by the Israelis) but all kinds of dirty games and pressures are being played. Think of the Bush administration's role in training Palestinian Authority forces, the Gaza clashes that led to the Hamas takeover, Hamas being pushed into an incredibly difficult position, the Syrians and Saudis playing all sides, Lebanon entering a post-post-Hariri phase, Iraq still to find a role for itself post-Saddam, Egypt's loss of control internally and externally, and so on and so forth. It's hard to describe today's Middle East, except that it is no longer the Middle East of the Oslo / dual containment era, nor is it something altogether new yet. Birth pangs indeed. 
The other thing that comes to mind is that Mossad was taken off-guard at crime-fighting capabilities of Dubai (despite its slightly buffoonish police chief). The fact is Dubai has been under considerable pressure to bring its role as a Mecca of arms dealers, money launderers, sanction busters and other shady characters under control for the past decade. Tremendous efforts were made by the US to control terrorism financing, and more still to monitor if not stop Dubai's connection with Iran. The fascinating thing about the Mabhuh tapes is that they were probably made using a British CCTV system that was built to keep track of these things, not Mossad operations. Likewise, as mentioned in the Economist story below on Lebanon, the monitoring equipment Lebanon used to uncover Israel's spy network was the result of French and/or Russian equipment brought in in part to improve the monitoring of Hizbullah.  O happy unintended consequences!
(Update: I just saw this WSJ piece that is exactly along these lines. It's by Robert Baer, the former CIA field operative.)
Here's a few links to some of the more interesting coverage I've seen, do send more!
And not really Mabhuh assassination related, but telling of Dubai's role as an international zone of shady deals:
Finally, via The National, this map of the comings and goings of the hit team:
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Links for 09.14.09

Why I Love Al Jazeera - The Atlantic (October 2009) | Robert Kaplan. Incidentally, while some of what he says about al-J (here he means the English channel) is interesting, he does not seem to be conscious that The Atlantic is one of the most biased publications among the mainstream pseudo-highbrow mags in the US. ✪ Osama bin Laden: in it for the long haul | World news | guardian.co.uk | Ian Black on the new Bin Laden audio tape. ✪ Middle East Report 252 contents: Pakistan Under Pressure | New issue of Middle East Report, Getting By in the Global Downturn," with selected articles available online. ✪ A la Mostra, le déroutant voyage d'Ahmed Maher - LeMonde.fr | Success for Egyptian director Ahmed Maher at Venice Film Festival. ✪ The five ages of al-Qaida | World news | guardian.co.uk | Infographic.
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Links for 07.21.09 to 07.22.09

جريدة الراية -مجرد سؤال .. ماذا تريد القاهرة من دارفور المنتدى | Qatari columnist complains "what does Egypt want from Darfur?", says Egypt is trying to start a separate track for negotiations even though Qatar's track working well. The Egyptians certainly hate seeing Qatar getting busy in their near-abroad. The List: The Middle East's Most Powerful Spooks | Foreign Policy | It's missing a few... will try to work on a complete list. Also not sure whether Assef Shakwat is still at the top of his game in Damascus. Facebook | Protest Facebook's categorisation of Israeli settlements as "Israel" | Tell Facebook to correct itself. From gods to garbage dwellers | GlobalPost | On Egypt's cats. Israeli funding angers filmmaker | "ENGLISH filmmaker Ken Loach has withdrawn his film Looking for Eric from the Melbourne International Film Festival because the festival receives funding from the Israeli Government."
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Middle East diplomacy: Myths, illusions and peace | The Economist

Middle East diplomacy: Myths, illusions and peace | The Economist
A blandly positive review of Dennis Ross and David Makovsky's new book (which takes an opposite position on engagement with Iran than official Obama policy, which this review does not note), in which they argue against talking to "the Khamas and the Khizbullah".
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A New Number One

A New Number One
From the always excellent Silk Road Economy blog: "China overtook the United States earlier this year as the world’s largest exporter to the Middle East. It’s the first time the United States has lost its number one ranking since at least the 1960s, or as far back as there is data available. I haven’t seen the figure reported in the media. But I don’t expect to wait long. This is the type of easy to understand statistic that will rattle doors in Washington. I can see the cable news stations going into hyper-drive."
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NAF: The Middle East Comes To Town

From the New America Foundation, a conference on the Middle East peace process and the Obama administration's upcoming diplomacy: "The Middle East Task Force Directors Daniel Levy and Amjad Atallah will be joined by Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, and Rob Malley, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the International Crisis Group, to walk us through expectations for the next two weeks."
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