Commentary Magazine


Topic: Arab Spring

Democracy in Tunisia

This was a busy weekend for elections–a presidential race in Brazil (which saw the reelection of Dilma Rousseff) and parliamentary elections in Ukraine (which saw a victory for pro-European candidates) and in Tunisia (a victory for secularists over Islamists). From the American perspective it is tempting to see this as generally good news–Rousseff may be a leftist who has presided over a slide in the Brazilian economy but she is no threat to the U.S. The victory of pro-European parliamentarians is a welcome rebuke to Vladimir Putin’s attempts to fragment Ukraine.

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This was a busy weekend for elections–a presidential race in Brazil (which saw the reelection of Dilma Rousseff) and parliamentary elections in Ukraine (which saw a victory for pro-European candidates) and in Tunisia (a victory for secularists over Islamists). From the American perspective it is tempting to see this as generally good news–Rousseff may be a leftist who has presided over a slide in the Brazilian economy but she is no threat to the U.S. The victory of pro-European parliamentarians is a welcome rebuke to Vladimir Putin’s attempts to fragment Ukraine.

And what of Tunisia? That’s where I spent the last few days serving as an election observer for the International Republican Institute, a foundation supported by the U.S. government (along with the National Democratic Institute and others) to promote democracy. I was heartened to see how free and fair Tunisia’s election was–the second held by that country since longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country in 2011.

It was actually his overthrow which triggered what became the Arab Spring and which elsewhere has turned into the winter of our discontent. Tunisia, along among the states in the region, has continued to make democratic progress even though it faces big problems from a stagnant economy and a worrisome security situation–a Salafist terrorist group known as Ansar al-Sharia has been held responsible for storming the U.S. Embassy in Tunis in 2012 and assassinating a couple of leftist politicians in 2013.

From what I could tell, as I visited polling places in the northwest of the country, Tunisia’s voting was transparent and honest. The problem is that voting is only one stage toward the blooming of liberal democracy. You also need a free press, freedom of assembly, free speech, an independent judiciary, an active opposition, and a general climate of peaceful resolution of differences. Tunisia has made some progress toward the independent press, free speech, and freedom of assembly–it is now possible to vent one’s public views without fear of a visit from the secret police. But much of the old corrupt bureaucracy which once served Ben Ali remains on the job, serving as a bar to further progress and stifling economic development with its heavy-handed, French-style socialism and cronyism.

Interestingly enough, the Islamist party, known as Ennahda, is more committed to free-market reforms than the big secular bloc known as Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia), which bested it in Sunday’s voting. Ennahda shares this characteristic with the Turkish AKP party which, while Islamist, has also been more free-market oriented than most of its secular predecessors. And indeed Ennahda is trying to position itself as the “moderate” face of Islam, claiming it is committed both to Islam and to pluralistic democracy.

It tried to prove its bona fides by avoiding the kind of power grab that characterized Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. After winning power in the first post-Ben Ali election in 2011, Ennahda governed in cooperation with secular parties and gave up power altogether when it was criticized for not doing more to crack down on Salafist terrorists. But most secularists are not convinced–they think Ennahda is pursuing a policy of dissimulation and that, if granted power, it would try to create an Islamist dictatorship.

Now Ennahda won’t take power except possible as part of a ruling coalition and it will be up to Nidaa Tounes to reform a moribund bureaucracy and get the economy moving again. There is little reason to expect that Nidaa Tounes will be up to the task; its leaders appear to be united by little more than their opposition to Ennahda. Many of them have backgrounds in the Ben Ali administration, which they tout as evidence of their managerial experience–but keep in mind that it was the very stagnation of the country in those years that led to the revolution that toppled Ben Ali.

I came away from Tunisia cheered that democracy is functioning and happy that it is not leading automatically in an Islamist direction, but I also came away skeptical about the ability of Tunisia’s political class to address its deep-seated malaise. It tells you something that hope for change rests with the frontrunner for president in next month’s elections, the leader of Nidaa Tounes, Beji Caid Essebsi, who happens to be 87 years old. Can an octogenarian really shake a country out of its lethargy? We are about to find out.

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Reform Conservatism, Foreign Policy, and Epistemic Closure

The rise of the “reformicons”–reform conservatives–is one of the more encouraging developments in the conservative movement’s introspection during its time (mostly) in the wilderness. It hasn’t said much on foreign policy, however, a fact which Ross Douthat mentions in a post on the subject. But Douthat–generally one of the sharpest policy minds in the commentariat–makes a crucial, and inexplicable, mistake: he ignores the debate taking place on the right, rather than joining it, and then wonders where the debate is.

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The rise of the “reformicons”–reform conservatives–is one of the more encouraging developments in the conservative movement’s introspection during its time (mostly) in the wilderness. It hasn’t said much on foreign policy, however, a fact which Ross Douthat mentions in a post on the subject. But Douthat–generally one of the sharpest policy minds in the commentariat–makes a crucial, and inexplicable, mistake: he ignores the debate taking place on the right, rather than joining it, and then wonders where the debate is.

In making the case for the necessity of an expanded debate on foreign policy, Douthat references two prominent paleocons, a left-wing opinion writer, and the “Israel Lobby” conspiracist Andrew Sullivan, none of whom has a fresh or coherent take on GOP foreign policy. In his one exception, he briefly mentions his coauthor Reihan Salam, a self-described neoconservative, but quickly insists that Salam’s worldview is “highly idiosyncratic, and takes as a given that the Iraq invasion was a folly”–in other words, he’s far enough removed from what Douthat refers to as “Cheneyism.”

I have a few thoughts. The first is that, if I conducted a discussion on domestic-policy reform conservatism while excluding actual reform conservatives, how informative do you suppose that would be? The second is, Douthat worries about affiliation with identifiably neoconservative and hawkish organizations, which presumably is why he doesn’t even mention our own Pete Wehner, himself one of the prominent reformicons.

And that leads to the third point, which is closely related. I understand the realist right’s desire to see their own policy preferences reflected in the Republican Party’s agenda. And I welcome them to the debate many of us are already having, regardless of the mistakes I think they made. For example, the realist approach to Russia has been a complete and total failure–one with consequences. The realist fantasy of strongman-stability in the Middle East is currently in flames, with the death toll rising (and rising and rising). The realist take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as we see, is disastrous, etc. But I’m happy for the realists to finally be engaging this debate, and I’m not interested in putting them in cherem just because they’ve been wrong as often as they have.

If you can’t name any hawks you’ve been reading on the subject, perhaps you haven’t been reading enough hawks. So let me do some outreach. Here at COMMENTARY, we’ve been having this debate for years, and it continues. Here, for example, is John Agresto–who served in the Bush administration in Iraq–critiquing the policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East and Central Asia. The article is followed by Abe Greenwald’s response. It’s a thoughtful debate on the relationship between democracy and liberalism and the thorny issue of culture.

More recently, here is my essay on the war on terror in which I engage the criticism of it from all sides–left, right, and center, and offer my own critique of some of the right’s approach to the war on terror. Here is Joshua Muravchik on “Neoconservatives and the Arab Spring.” Those are broad topics, and perhaps reformicons would like discussions with specific relevance to current debates. Should we arm the Syrian rebels? Here is Michael Rubin arguing no; here is Max Boot arguing yes. Here is Pete Wehner on nonintervention and global instability. Here is Michael Auslin on Ukraine and North Korea; Jamie Kirchick on Russia; Jonathan Foreman on Afghanistan.

I could go on. And it’s certainly not just here at COMMENTARY either. I realize that none of the links I’ve offered are in themselves a complete blueprint for a foreign-policy agenda. But neither is vague nostalgia for the days of James Baker. (Reform conservatives looking to shake things up by revivifying the administration of George H.W. Bush because they’re unhappy with the administration of George W. Bush is no more groundbreaking or creative than those on the right who just repeat the word “Reagan” over and over again–which, by the way, includes the realists’ beloved Rand Paul.)

My point in here is that there has been an ongoing debate, assessment, and reassessment of conservative internationalism, neoconservative foreign policy, and interventionist strategy on the right. If conservative reformers truly want a debate, they’ll need to engage the arguments already taking place instead of talking amongst themselves about the conservative movement’s hawkish establishment.

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Hillary’s Flawed Hindsight on Mubarak

Hillary Clinton is dealing with the challenge of running for president while the failed foreign policy of the administration she served–as its chief diplomat, no less–is ongoing. But at least that gives her the opportunity to respond to events as they happen. Her memoir, by contrast, required her to record her pronouncements on events and hope they aren’t made irrelevant (or can be updated for the paperback edition).

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Hillary Clinton is dealing with the challenge of running for president while the failed foreign policy of the administration she served–as its chief diplomat, no less–is ongoing. But at least that gives her the opportunity to respond to events as they happen. Her memoir, by contrast, required her to record her pronouncements on events and hope they aren’t made irrelevant (or can be updated for the paperback edition).

This has made her book, according to pretty much every reviewer in the world, painfully, almost abusively boring. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting tidbits. One that has not received much attention is her discussion in the book of her disagreement with President Obama over how to handle Tahrir Square. When the crowds became impossible to ignore, the president called for Hosni Mubarak to step down. It put Obama on the side of the people in the streets instead of the ruthless dictator oppressing them–a lesson Obama may have learned from his experience turning his back on the Iranian people in 2009.

But it put him at odds with some in his own administration, Clinton among them. The former secretary of state portrays her side of the equation as realist, Obama’s as idealist, and claims Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Bob Gates, and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon shared her concerns. She was, she said, “concerned that we not be seen as pushing a longtime partner out the door, leaving Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and the region to an uncertain, dangerous future.”

Clinton then writes what may look in hindsight like prescience, but that view is flawed:

Historically, transitions from dictatorship to democracy are fraught with challenges and can easily go terribly wrong. In Iran in 1979, for example, extremists hijacked the broad-based popular revolution against the Shah and established a brutal theocracy. If something similar happened in Egypt, it would be a catastrophe, for the people of Egypt as well as for Israeli and U.S. interests.

Despite the size of the protests in Tahrir Square, they were largely leaderless, driven by social media and word of mouth rather than a coherent opposition movement. After years of one-party rule, Egypt’s protesters were ill prepared to contest open elections or build credible democratic institutions. By contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood, an eighty-year-old Islamist organization, was well positioned to fill a vacuum if the regime fell. Mubarak had driven the Brotherhood underground, but it had followers all over the country and a tightly organized power structure. The group had renounced violence and made some efforts to appear more moderate. But it was impossible to know how it would behave and what would happen if it gained control.

In fact we really did know how the Brotherhood would behave in power, but that should only strengthen Hillary’s perceived caution here. She recommended the president send an envoy to Mubarak with a few concessions: “an end to the country’s repressive emergency law that had been in effect since 1981, a pledge not to run in the elections already planned for September, and an agreement not to put forward his son Gamal as his successor.” None of this would have placated the opposition, but it didn’t matter: the envoy presented the proposal, and Mubarak wasn’t even listening. “Like so many autocrats before him,” Clinton writes of Mubarak, “he had come to view himself as inseparable from the state.”

And that is why Clinton’s proposal to keep Mubarak in place and buy time would have been doomed as well. Her assessment of the political organization of the Muslim Brotherhood is correct, but she’s wrong to think a minor delay in Mubarak’s ouster would have made a difference.

Political liberalism needs its own institutions to flourish. Egypt didn’t have the civil society infrastructure for democracy, and it would have taken years to build even a rudimentary foundation. That’s why Clinton’s own administration dropped the ball on Egypt and the Arab world in part by cutting funding for democracy promotion and civil society groups there. And it’s a mistake the Obama administration is intent on repeating. As Jamie Dettmer reports, Obama is not only seeking further cuts in democracy programs, but wants to remove important safeguards for civil society programs that it will fund. “This is turning the clock back to when the State Department would avoid funding civil society groups blacklisted by their governments,” the director of one D.C.-based nonprofit told Dettmer.

As Elliott Abrams wrote in this magazine in 2012, “I well remember a leading Egyptian liberal saying to me in 2003 that she did not favor free elections right then in Egypt; she favored them in a decade’s time if she and others had those 10 years to organize freely.” A free election right away meant a victory for either the Brotherhood or the regime. Which is what Hillary feared, and what happened.

But the real solution would have been to use America’s leverage over the army–the Egyptian army, remember, abandoned Mubarak when the time came–to open up the political system, gradually if necessary, to the liberals. It was already de facto open to Islamist organizing, which took place in the mosques.

Even if Mubarak announced some reforms to Tahrir Square, would they have believed him? He had liberalized, albeit only slightly, in the past only to tighten his grip again when the Americans’ backs were turned. The Mubarak regime was a recipe for perpetual oppression and was responsible, like it or not, for the simultaneous strengthening of the Brotherhood.

The “stability” mirage, for which Hillary argued, fooled a lot people–maybe even most. But it has now been exposed as the mirage it was. The administration’s policy needn’t have propped up an aging dictator for a few more months, it only needed to stop abandoning Egypt’s true democrats.

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Why Hillary Complained About America’s “Brutal” Politics

In late June 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia. That same day, the New York Times carried a Reuters dispatch by Chrystia Freeland arguing that–paraphrasing Canadian political figure Michael Ignatieff–dealing with Russia and China “is the greatest strategic and moral question the West faces today.”

Clinton had some experience with both: as secretary of state, she criticized Russia’s imprisonment of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had his assets seized by the state and was thrown in prison for having the temerity to challenge Vladimir Putin in the political arena. And the month before her trip to St. Petersburg, Clinton had been involved in negotiations with the Chinese government for the release of dissident Chen Guangcheng.

Politics is a rough business in China and Russia, as well as a great many other countries Clinton visited as secretary of state. Which makes comments like these seem even more waterlogged with grievance and victimhood than usual:

“Who is the viable woman of either party who could win a primary nomination in 2016, if who not you?” CBS Sunday host Jane Pauley asked Clinton in yet another interview the former First Lady has given during the week of the release of her latest memoir, “Hard Choices.”

“Politics is so unpredictable,” Clinton responded. “Whoever runs has to recognize that the American political system is probably the most difficult, even brutal, in the world.”

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In late June 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia. That same day, the New York Times carried a Reuters dispatch by Chrystia Freeland arguing that–paraphrasing Canadian political figure Michael Ignatieff–dealing with Russia and China “is the greatest strategic and moral question the West faces today.”

Clinton had some experience with both: as secretary of state, she criticized Russia’s imprisonment of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had his assets seized by the state and was thrown in prison for having the temerity to challenge Vladimir Putin in the political arena. And the month before her trip to St. Petersburg, Clinton had been involved in negotiations with the Chinese government for the release of dissident Chen Guangcheng.

Politics is a rough business in China and Russia, as well as a great many other countries Clinton visited as secretary of state. Which makes comments like these seem even more waterlogged with grievance and victimhood than usual:

“Who is the viable woman of either party who could win a primary nomination in 2016, if who not you?” CBS Sunday host Jane Pauley asked Clinton in yet another interview the former First Lady has given during the week of the release of her latest memoir, “Hard Choices.”

“Politics is so unpredictable,” Clinton responded. “Whoever runs has to recognize that the American political system is probably the most difficult, even brutal, in the world.”

Ed Morrissey notes at the link that “there was never going to be a good time for a gaffe of this scale, but it’s hard to think of a worse time for it,” considering the raging sectarian conflict in Iraq that has ISIS marching toward Baghdad, the bloody election season in Afghanistan, the setbacks in Burma, and the Assad “election” in Syria, where the body count has been in the six digits for some time now. He adds:

Hillary wants to run on her record as Secretary of State, in part based on the amount of travel she undertook in that role. It’s indisputable that she traveled around the world, but she doesn’t appear to have learned anything from her travels. Aung Sang Suu Kyi might have a different perspective on brutal in relation to political systems, or perhaps the anti-Chavistas in Venezuela could have informed Hillary of what the word actually means. For that matter, nearly everyone in Syria could have explained it to her back in 2011.

That’s an important point. She went into her job at State with an eye toward 2016. So she studiously avoided the kinds of issues that would bog her down, risk adding major failures to her resume, or prejudice the sides in a dispute she would want to take up later on if she won the presidency. That left traveling. A lot. When asked to name her accomplishments at State, she can’t. Neither can her defenders (try as they might). It always comes down to traveling. She’s been everywhere, man.

But what did she learn? Not enough, apparently. Not that anyone really takes this comment at face value. Rather, this is another instance of Clinton’s overly defensive reflex to work the refs. American politics ain’t beanbag, it’s true. But it’s closer to it than much of the world’s politics.

Clinton has been subject to some unfair attacks–just like other would-be presidents–but she has always taken a conspiratorial view of the world bordering on paranoia. She will be treated far better on the campaign trail than any Republican, and if she wins her party’s nomination she’ll see that right away. She will persist, however, in treating all criticism of her as part of the battle progress (represented by Clinton) must fight against bias, bigotry, and regression (represented chiefly by Republicans, but also journalists who ask her questions).

Clinton was secretary of state at a momentous time (isn’t it always?) for the world, with revolutions sweeping across the Middle East and all the way to Russia’s borders. But in Russia, as in countries such as Egypt, Syria, and Iran, those looking to overthrow their rulers could only have dreamed of the task that faces Hillary: a free and fair election and a peaceful transfer of power. She does the many brave and brutalized dissidents around the world a disservice by putting herself in their company.

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Return of the War That Never Went Away

The crisis in Iraq is certainly testing President Obama’s desire to wash the administration’s hands of that country, its politics, and its violence. Conservatives predicted precisely this outcome when warning of a precipitous withdrawal of troops according to arbitrary timelines or magical thinking–both of which the Obama administration relied on–though the speed of the collapse has been surprising.

But it’s also testing Obama’s desire to abstain from involvement in other conflicts as well because Obama seems to realize, correctly, that borders in the Middle East are becoming increasingly abstract. If the president intervenes further in Iraq, for example, he will be essentially intervening in Syria as well, because those two conflicts are bleeding into one another. The terrorist group causing the most trouble there tellingly calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which at first appeared arrogant but now seems to simply reflect reality.

In its story on Obama’s decision to deny Iraqi requests for airstrikes, the New York Times explains:

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The crisis in Iraq is certainly testing President Obama’s desire to wash the administration’s hands of that country, its politics, and its violence. Conservatives predicted precisely this outcome when warning of a precipitous withdrawal of troops according to arbitrary timelines or magical thinking–both of which the Obama administration relied on–though the speed of the collapse has been surprising.

But it’s also testing Obama’s desire to abstain from involvement in other conflicts as well because Obama seems to realize, correctly, that borders in the Middle East are becoming increasingly abstract. If the president intervenes further in Iraq, for example, he will be essentially intervening in Syria as well, because those two conflicts are bleeding into one another. The terrorist group causing the most trouble there tellingly calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which at first appeared arrogant but now seems to simply reflect reality.

In its story on Obama’s decision to deny Iraqi requests for airstrikes, the New York Times explains:

The swift capture of Mosul by militants aligned with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has underscored how the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have converged into one widening regional insurgency with fighters coursing back and forth through the porous border between the two countries. But it has also called attention to the limits the White House has imposed on the use of American power in an increasingly violent and volatile region.

There is an obvious argument to be made for intervening in Iraq but not Syria: our previous involvement there. But that argument faded greatly after Obama decided the war was over and our combat mission ended. Now we’re back basically on the outside looking in. At this point, can Obama clearly make a case for additional strikes in Iraq that would still logically avoid implicitly making the case for the same in Syria? Sentimental value won’t count for much.

Obama has put great effort into differentiating conflicts so as to avoid a game of intervention dominoes, for instance by agreeing to decapitate the Gaddafi regime but not the house of Assad. He rejected the idea of humanitarian intervention in Syria as well, arguing that that the U.S. did not have a responsibility to protect but did have an obligation to curtail the use of chemical weapons. Seeking to build a case for possibly stepping up its aid to the Syrian rebels, Obama was shifting to “emphasize Syria’s growing status as a haven for terrorist groups, some of which are linked to Al Qaeda.” By that standard, Iraq beckons as well.

Perhaps Obama could at least make the argument that Syria and Iraq can be taken together as one conflict and thus not a harbinger of broader military action in the region. But the Times report shows why that would be a tall order:

The Obama administration has carried out drone strikes against militants in Yemen and Pakistan, where it fears terrorists have been hatching plans to attack the United States. But despite the fact that Sunni militants have been making steady advances and may be carving out new havens from which they could carry out attacks against the West, administration spokesmen have insisted that the United States is not actively considering using warplanes or armed drones to strike them.

Right. And suddenly it becomes clear: We’re fighting a (gasp!) global war on terror.

The compartmentalization of conflicts by Obama and others was a necessary element for them to oppose the Bush administration’s war on terror because it was the only way to conceptually remove the common thread that held together Bush’s strategy. But that relied on the belief that the international state system was intact and robust enough to deal with international terrorism. It was a nice idea, but it proved naïve and dangerous.

Obama learned this when he sent forces into Pakistan to get Osama bin Laden. He learned it again when he had to send drones after Yemen-based terrorists. He learned and relearned it throughout the Arab Spring, as dictatorships fell and transnational terror networks like the Muslim Brotherhood rose. He learned it when weapons from the Libyan civil war fueled a military coup in Mali. He learned it when his administration practically begged the Russian government to accept American counterterrorism help to safeguard the Olympics in Sochi.

And now he’s looking at a stateless mass of terrorism stretching across the Middle East but specifically melding the Syria and Iraq conflicts. He’s looking at a global terror war and trying to figure out increasingly creative ways not to say so. Obama wanted this war to be a different war, and to be over. But he forgot that the enemy always gets a vote. And we still have a lot of enemies.

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Arab Spring Comes to Polisario Front?

I have written here before about the Polisario Front, a Cold War throw-back and authoritarian cult funded by the Algerian military regime as a tool against Morocco. The Department of Homeland Security classifies the Polisario Front as a terrorist group. Polisario leaders seek to cloak themselves in a shroud of anti-colonial legitimacy saying they are fighting for a Sahrawi state in the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colonial territory now autonomous under Moroccan control. That is enough for many leftist journalists and progressive academics to embrace them, and even President Obama took a photo with the Polisario Front’s autocratic leader, but the reality is their constituency is tiny and growing smaller every day.

While the Polisario imagines themselves leading a state, the sad truth is they reign over little more than a handful of refugee camps in the Tindouf province of Algeria which house not more than 100,000 Sahrawi, of whom perhaps only 40,000 are refugees from the Western Sahara. These refugees live in a political culture as authoritarian and as that of Turkmenistan, Eritrea, North Korea, or the Mujahedin al-Khalq. Here, for example, is a report that the Polisario has forced youth into marriages in order to create new constituents. The Polisario notoriously separated children from their parents and shipped them to Cuba for indoctrination. The Polisario taxes residents to fund the profligate lifestyles of its leaders. Party membership—and blind loyalty to Mohamed Abdelaziz, the Polisario’s dictator—is required for employment and to receive other benefits. The group prevents residents of the Tindouf camps from returning home. While the United Nations facilitates some family visits between Moroccan Tindouf refugees and their families, the Polisario refuses to allow husbands and wives and children to travel together, treating those left behind as hostages in order to guarantee the return of the camp residents. In short, to be born into the Polisario-run camps is to be born into an authoritarian hell.

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I have written here before about the Polisario Front, a Cold War throw-back and authoritarian cult funded by the Algerian military regime as a tool against Morocco. The Department of Homeland Security classifies the Polisario Front as a terrorist group. Polisario leaders seek to cloak themselves in a shroud of anti-colonial legitimacy saying they are fighting for a Sahrawi state in the Western Sahara, a former Spanish colonial territory now autonomous under Moroccan control. That is enough for many leftist journalists and progressive academics to embrace them, and even President Obama took a photo with the Polisario Front’s autocratic leader, but the reality is their constituency is tiny and growing smaller every day.

While the Polisario imagines themselves leading a state, the sad truth is they reign over little more than a handful of refugee camps in the Tindouf province of Algeria which house not more than 100,000 Sahrawi, of whom perhaps only 40,000 are refugees from the Western Sahara. These refugees live in a political culture as authoritarian and as that of Turkmenistan, Eritrea, North Korea, or the Mujahedin al-Khalq. Here, for example, is a report that the Polisario has forced youth into marriages in order to create new constituents. The Polisario notoriously separated children from their parents and shipped them to Cuba for indoctrination. The Polisario taxes residents to fund the profligate lifestyles of its leaders. Party membership—and blind loyalty to Mohamed Abdelaziz, the Polisario’s dictator—is required for employment and to receive other benefits. The group prevents residents of the Tindouf camps from returning home. While the United Nations facilitates some family visits between Moroccan Tindouf refugees and their families, the Polisario refuses to allow husbands and wives and children to travel together, treating those left behind as hostages in order to guarantee the return of the camp residents. In short, to be born into the Polisario-run camps is to be born into an authoritarian hell.

Just as the White House remained largely silent when Iranians rose up for freedom in 2009, and remains muted on similar anti-authoritarian protests in Venezuela today, so too is it now silent on a nascent freedom movement in the Polisario-run camps. According to al-Arabiya:

The so-called “Youth Movement for Change” released a video accusing the Polisario Front’s leadership of corruption and called for improving the conditions of Sahrawi refugees in Tindouf. The movement also demanded the departure of the Front’s aging figures, including its 66-year-old leader Mohammad Abdelaziz who has been in control since 1976. The youth group, which was founded in February this year, accused Abdelaziz and his associates of “trading in the suffering of the Sahrawi refugees.” “We have suffered from injustice for more than 40 years. We demand the departure of this corrupt leadership, which is the oldest, most corrupt leadership in the world,” Mohammad Lamine, a spokesman for the nascent group, told Al Arabiya News Channel from the Tindouf refugee camp. “They have been stealing humanitarian aid provided by international organizations to the refugee camps and whenever we raise our voices against [this] they accuse us of being agents of Morocco,” he added.

Susan Rice, currently Obama’s national security advisor, has twice during the Obama administration promoted policies which would impose a politically-charged ‘human rights monitoring’ regime in the Western Sahara, a move that would effectively undercut Morocco’s security and empower Polisario Front propaganda in the Western Sahara. She did so supposedly in the name of the interests of the Sahrawi population (most of whom, it seems, prefer to reintegrate into Morocco or into the Western Sahara to which Morocco granted autonomy). But when she and President Obama have the opportunity truly to support liberty, freedom, and human rights for Sahrawis, they remain silent. That silence simply makes the Polisario’s oppression easier. How sad. And how telling.

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What Next for Egyptian Islamists?

Cairo has an outsized role in Islamic history. Alongside Baghdad and Damascus, it has always served as a cultural, intellectual, and often political capital for the Arab world. Thanks in large part to Al-Azhar University, perhaps the most prestigious center of Sunni learning in the Islamic world, it has also been a center for religious thought. In the modern era, it was home for a time to Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, an Iranian pan-Islamist thinker who called Cairo home, and later Muhammad Abduh, a nineteenth and early twentieth century Muslim reformer. In the twentieth century, Cairo was the home base of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement founded by schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna, which soon grew to become the preeminent Islamist movement challenging the established political order.  

The Muslim Brotherhood, seldom far beneath the surface, rose to prominence in the wake of the Arab Spring protests that led to President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. But the movement was hardly the only Islamist group to seek political power, nor was it necessarily a monolith, although Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi sought to run it as one.

Since the July 2013 coup, the Egyptian government has moved to delegitimize the Muslim Brotherhood, and drive its remnants underground, a policy which, quite frankly, I support. Still, it’s important to embark on any such policy with eyes wide open. While I believe the interim Egyptian government is, frankly, a better match for U.S. national security than Morsi’s government, and while I also believe Egypt is more likely to achieve a more democratic order from the current situation than from when the Muslim Brotherhood was in control, it would be foolish to consider the current Egyptian government democratic and fully committed to the rule of law. What goes on inside Egyptian prisons remains atrocious, and the Egyptian military remains as involved in the crony capitalist order as it was in the decades before the Arab Spring.

In assessing Egyptian Islamism in the wake of the coup, the Center for American Progress has just published an excellent new study that maps out the current state of Egypt’s Islamist movements. Based on a series of recent interviews, they depict a Brotherhood still in disarray amidst the new government’s crackdown:

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Cairo has an outsized role in Islamic history. Alongside Baghdad and Damascus, it has always served as a cultural, intellectual, and often political capital for the Arab world. Thanks in large part to Al-Azhar University, perhaps the most prestigious center of Sunni learning in the Islamic world, it has also been a center for religious thought. In the modern era, it was home for a time to Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, an Iranian pan-Islamist thinker who called Cairo home, and later Muhammad Abduh, a nineteenth and early twentieth century Muslim reformer. In the twentieth century, Cairo was the home base of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement founded by schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna, which soon grew to become the preeminent Islamist movement challenging the established political order.  

The Muslim Brotherhood, seldom far beneath the surface, rose to prominence in the wake of the Arab Spring protests that led to President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. But the movement was hardly the only Islamist group to seek political power, nor was it necessarily a monolith, although Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi sought to run it as one.

Since the July 2013 coup, the Egyptian government has moved to delegitimize the Muslim Brotherhood, and drive its remnants underground, a policy which, quite frankly, I support. Still, it’s important to embark on any such policy with eyes wide open. While I believe the interim Egyptian government is, frankly, a better match for U.S. national security than Morsi’s government, and while I also believe Egypt is more likely to achieve a more democratic order from the current situation than from when the Muslim Brotherhood was in control, it would be foolish to consider the current Egyptian government democratic and fully committed to the rule of law. What goes on inside Egyptian prisons remains atrocious, and the Egyptian military remains as involved in the crony capitalist order as it was in the decades before the Arab Spring.

In assessing Egyptian Islamism in the wake of the coup, the Center for American Progress has just published an excellent new study that maps out the current state of Egypt’s Islamist movements. Based on a series of recent interviews, they depict a Brotherhood still in disarray amidst the new government’s crackdown:

These Brothers remain steadfast in the face of state repression. Their commitment to continued street mobilization is firm, and they help organize and fund the protests to bring pressure on the interim government. While they express concern over the growing tendency by some youth in their ranks to engage in violence, they are increasingly unlikely to condemn the use of violence by protestors considered to be acting in self-defense. But the impact of the crackdown is palpable. In speaking with members up the chain of command and across Cairo and Alexandria, differing opinions emerged on key issues and core challenges before the Brotherhood. While they are shoulder to shoulder in skirmishing with the security forces, their views diverge as they look back over Morsi’s tenure and forward to matters of politics and reconciliation. At times, this dissonance borders on incoherence and draws into question their ability to maintain unity of purpose.

Nor is there consensus about a way forward for those who have fled into exile:

Further complicating the group’s cohesiveness is the growing number of Brotherhood leaders and members outside Egypt that try to influence the actions and strategy of the group. Many of these leaders have sought shelter in Qatar and Turkey, while others have set up shop in London. The largely uncoordinated and seemingly haphazard efforts have ranged from dead-on-arrival calls to form a government in exile to more ambitious designs to take the group’s fight to the International Criminal Court whose governing Rome Statute was blocked from ratification by the group when it was in power.

While many young Egyptians gave the Brotherhood a shot but abandoned it when they saw the group’s rhetoric of democracy did not match the reality of its internal decision-making culture, other young Egyptians drew opposite conclusions, and determined that the problem was that the Brotherhood wasn’t hardcore enough:

These activists resent the senior Brotherhood leadership, whom they believe abandoned core Islamist principles, and are actively seeking to convince the rank and file of the necessity to resort to violence… These youth have come to reject the Egyptian state and believe that the country can progress only if the traditional centers of power—the military, the intelligence, the police, bureaucracy, and business networks—are taken apart rather than co-opted.

As valuable is the report’s survey of Egypt’s other Islamists: the Salafi Da’wa and the Nour Party, the Watan Party, as well as other Salafi splinter groups and factions.

While the Muslim Brotherhood seeks “to kill the state through a thousand cuts,” hoping that the new government’s brutal reaction will turn public opinion against it, the Salafi Da’wa has aligned itself with the state and against the Brotherhood. While this weakens the Brotherhood somewhat, it also suggests that the post-Brotherhood order will not be as secular as many in the West imagine. Whatever the tactical political maneuvering of their leaders, some within the Salafi Da’wa and Nour Party may ultimately put religion above politics. This might encourage further radicalization, especially among the youth who face the same problems as before the Arab Spring.

While I disagree with some of the report’s recommendations—promoting political dialogue sounds good, but in a battle of absolutist ideologies, it seldom does any good—“Fragmenting Under Pressure,” is probably the best platform from which to have a real debate about a pro-active rather than reactive U.S. policy toward Egypt, and is certainly worth a read not only by the Center for American Progress’s normal political allies on the left, but also by any serious political analyst on the right as well, for quality should never be defined by politics.

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Victory Is the Only Legitimacy Assad Needs

Consumers of news are well aware that the old saw “if it bleeds, it leads” comes with an unstated qualification: it depends who else is bleeding. This isn’t the only variable, but it’s a potent one. And so the current age of global instability–the Arab Spring, European protest movements, etc.–has meant that no matter how much Syria bleeds, it rarely leads. While the conflict has not experienced any major transformations recently, the lack of interest in Syria compared to, say, Egypt or Ukraine or the perennial newsmakers in Israel and the Palestinian territories means it’s possible, even likely, we’ll miss subtle shifts.

And Syria has undergone such a shift. The New York Times reports that Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, believes Bashar al-Assad will stay in power. This isn’t breaking news. But it’s a significant story because it’s not breaking news. We’ve written here over the last year or so that Assad’s survival has gone from unlikely to tenuous to probable, culminating in the Russian-brokered deal to pretend to eliminate all of Syria’s chemical weapons, a deal which (as the Times notes) did more to solidify Assad’s hold on power than virtually any other development there since the beginning of the uprising.

Assad’s survival, then, has become the new conventional wisdom, ushering Syria into an era of status quo chaos. The Times adds that this story appears in today’s print edition of the paper on page A10. Assad’s survival means Syria will continue to bleed, but won’t come close to leading.

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Consumers of news are well aware that the old saw “if it bleeds, it leads” comes with an unstated qualification: it depends who else is bleeding. This isn’t the only variable, but it’s a potent one. And so the current age of global instability–the Arab Spring, European protest movements, etc.–has meant that no matter how much Syria bleeds, it rarely leads. While the conflict has not experienced any major transformations recently, the lack of interest in Syria compared to, say, Egypt or Ukraine or the perennial newsmakers in Israel and the Palestinian territories means it’s possible, even likely, we’ll miss subtle shifts.

And Syria has undergone such a shift. The New York Times reports that Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, believes Bashar al-Assad will stay in power. This isn’t breaking news. But it’s a significant story because it’s not breaking news. We’ve written here over the last year or so that Assad’s survival has gone from unlikely to tenuous to probable, culminating in the Russian-brokered deal to pretend to eliminate all of Syria’s chemical weapons, a deal which (as the Times notes) did more to solidify Assad’s hold on power than virtually any other development there since the beginning of the uprising.

Assad’s survival, then, has become the new conventional wisdom, ushering Syria into an era of status quo chaos. The Times adds that this story appears in today’s print edition of the paper on page A10. Assad’s survival means Syria will continue to bleed, but won’t come close to leading.

The Times mentions that Ford’s “assessment was starkly different from one the Obama administration presented as recently as last year, when it insisted that Mr. Assad’s days were numbered and that he was losing a battle of attrition with the moderate opposition.” Syria was always a prime example of the president’s belief that he could make something so by simply saying it. Obama declared Assad’s days to be numbered; what else could possibly have been needed?

The Times asks Ford why Assad is now expected to stay in power–that is, why Assad might have won. Here’s his response:

Mr. Ford said there were three reasons Mr. Assad had been able to hang on to power. First, Mr. Ford said, the Syrian opposition had been unable to assure the Alawite minority that it would not be threatened by Mr. Assad’s overthrow. “First and foremost,” Mr. Ford said, the Syrian opposition “has been very unsuccessful at explaining an agenda that would not threaten the communities that are the pillars of support for the regime, first and foremost the Alawite community.” Mr. Assad himself is an Alawite.

Another factor that has helped Mr. Assad’s prospects has been “Iranian and Russian financing and huge amounts of arms coming from both Russia and Iran.” Tehran’s decision to encourage Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia, and Iraqi Shiite fighters to join the fray has also provided the Syrian government with badly needed manpower, Mr. Ford said.

The third factor is that the Assad government has had a “certain unity and coherence, which is lacking on the opposition side,” he said.

Mr. Ford appeared to hold out little hope that diplomacy could resolve the crisis anytime soon. He said the Syrian government was not interested in negotiating the establishment of a transitional administration that could govern the country if Mr. Assad yielded power. Nor, he added, has the United States had any serious negotiations over the Syria crisis with Tehran.

In other words, Assad had received significant help from his backers, while the Obama administration has neither given such help to Assad’s opposition nor seriously engaged in diplomacy with Assad’s benefactors. Of course, the window for significant material support to the rebels has probably closed, and been closed for some time. At the outset of the uprising, there seemed to be an opportunity to try and pick winners and losers among the rebel groups. The ever-contemplative Obama just had to think about it for a while, say, several years.

It’s not just Ford or U.S. intelligence officials who admit the odds in favor of Assad’s continued reign. Wherever there is a foreign-policy crisis, you are likely to find an insipid and dismissive quote from this nation’s chief diplomat, the blundering John Kerry. And Syria is no different. Here is Kerry’s acknowledgement of the current state of the conflict:

On Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to recognize Mr. Assad’s tenacity on the battlefield in remarks to a group of university students.

“Whether they win, don’t win, they can’t regain legitimacy,” said Mr. Kerry, who argued that the Syrian leader would face armed opposition as long as he sought to hold power.

The most charitable explanation is that Kerry simply doesn’t understand how offensive and callous his statements are to the many, many, many victims and their families of this incredibly bloody civil war. Is that their consolation prize from the leader of the free world? The Obama administration may not lift a finger to stem the barbarous mass murder they are subjected to, but rest assured the president has resolutely extracted from Assad his international legitimacy.

What the president and his embarrassing secretary of state don’t say is that such legitimacy may not be theirs to bestow anyway. Victors tend to accrue legitimacy in the real world. And Assad is on pace to claim a costly, but no less real, victory.

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The Unfairly Maligned Francis Fukuyama

A common theme of the current crisis in Ukraine, as well as other major foreign-policy challenges to the American-led global order, is that it represents the “return of history.” It’s a not-so-subtle rebuke not only to apparently naïve Western statesmen but to Francis Fukuyama, the justly distinguished political scientist who, twenty-five years ago, wrote one of the most famous political science essays of the 20th century.

Fukuyama wrote “The End of History?” in 1989, as the revolutionary spirit in Europe gained the upper hand over Soviet tyranny. “In watching the flow of events over the past decade or so, it is hard to avoid the feeling that something very fundamental has happened in world history,” Fukuyama wrote. A couple of paragraphs later came the grand thesis: “The triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.”

Thus did Fukuyama’s thesis get boiled down to a romantic flight from reality, the disintegration of which has supposedly struck a blow for realism and against what Samuel Huntington termed the trend of “endism.” The latest to take what has become an obligatory swipe at Fukuyama came from Paul Berman, in a piece on the Ukraine crisis being an extension of 1989, a thesis earlier espoused by George Will. Berman writes of the aftermath of the Orange Revolution:

It felt as if 1989’s revolutions had revealed the secret of world history, as per Hegel (whose most imaginative modern disciple proved to be Francis Fukuyama). And human nature had discovered its proper political expression, and the worldwide liberal future had become, for better and for worse, visible on the horizon. Which was delusionary.

When you use a phrase like the “end of history,” you create an index-card mnemonic for your theory, as Fukuyama should have known (and certainly knows now). But many of these criticisms miss the mark, and in important ways, Fukuyama has been vindicated, rather than discredited, by recent events. This is not to claim that Fukuyama was right on every count. But his argument was built around the realization of Western liberalism’s superiority as a political system, not around the acceptance of such by those opposed to Western liberalism. He writes:

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A common theme of the current crisis in Ukraine, as well as other major foreign-policy challenges to the American-led global order, is that it represents the “return of history.” It’s a not-so-subtle rebuke not only to apparently naïve Western statesmen but to Francis Fukuyama, the justly distinguished political scientist who, twenty-five years ago, wrote one of the most famous political science essays of the 20th century.

Fukuyama wrote “The End of History?” in 1989, as the revolutionary spirit in Europe gained the upper hand over Soviet tyranny. “In watching the flow of events over the past decade or so, it is hard to avoid the feeling that something very fundamental has happened in world history,” Fukuyama wrote. A couple of paragraphs later came the grand thesis: “The triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.”

Thus did Fukuyama’s thesis get boiled down to a romantic flight from reality, the disintegration of which has supposedly struck a blow for realism and against what Samuel Huntington termed the trend of “endism.” The latest to take what has become an obligatory swipe at Fukuyama came from Paul Berman, in a piece on the Ukraine crisis being an extension of 1989, a thesis earlier espoused by George Will. Berman writes of the aftermath of the Orange Revolution:

It felt as if 1989’s revolutions had revealed the secret of world history, as per Hegel (whose most imaginative modern disciple proved to be Francis Fukuyama). And human nature had discovered its proper political expression, and the worldwide liberal future had become, for better and for worse, visible on the horizon. Which was delusionary.

When you use a phrase like the “end of history,” you create an index-card mnemonic for your theory, as Fukuyama should have known (and certainly knows now). But many of these criticisms miss the mark, and in important ways, Fukuyama has been vindicated, rather than discredited, by recent events. This is not to claim that Fukuyama was right on every count. But his argument was built around the realization of Western liberalism’s superiority as a political system, not around the acceptance of such by those opposed to Western liberalism. He writes:

Have we in fact reached the end of history? Are there, in other words, any fundamental “contradictions” in human life that cannot be resolved in the context of modern liberalism, that would be resolvable by an alternative political-economic structure?

He reviews the ideological challengers, and concludes (correctly) that they have been defeated in the battle of ideas, though he–like a great many observers in 1989–underestimates the expansionist appeal of Islamism. And he makes a point of saying that “This does not by any means imply the end of international conflict per se.” Indeed, Fukuyama expected states put at risk by this development to fight it tooth and nail, with an explicit desire “to get history started once again.”

The uprising in Ukraine followed by the Russian invasion; the Arab Spring followed by the Muslim Brotherhood’s authoritarianism in Egypt which was followed by a military coup to reestablish secular authoritarianism; and other such seesaw struggles are fully consistent with Fukuyama’s argument. The challenge comes in the fact that it’s far from clear that these “revolutionaries” desire Western liberalism. It’s debatable, however, whether they must want liberalism for the “end of history” to be asserting itself, or if it’s enough that the failure of the alternatives to liberalism which they are overthrowing provides the necessary consistency with the thesis.

The certainty with which the intelligentsia treat their understanding of Fukuyama’s thesis now is in stark contrast with the utter confusion and chaos that greeted the original essay. The New York Times published a piece in October 1989 hilariously headlined “What Is Fukuyama Saying? And To Whom Is He Saying It?” The Times continued:

”Controversial” didn’t begin to cover the case. Unlike that other recent philosophical cause celebre, Allan Bloom’s ”The Closing of the American Mind,” Fukuyama’s essay was the work of a representative from what is often referred to in academic circles as the real world. This was no professor, according to the contributor’s note that ran in the magazine, but the ”deputy director of the State Department’s policy planning staff.”

“This was no professor,” the Times exclaims, indicating that Fukuyama was an ostensibly serious person. One wonders how American academia felt about that sentence. So the Times went to Fukuyama’s office to find out just who this non-professor was. What followed was a bizarrely and condescendingly anthropological study of Fukuyama, as if the very idea of a person in government–or at least in a Republican government–having an original idea was impossible to compute. (Such skepticism toward government from the Times is sorely missed.)

Although it’s only fair to judge Fukuyama’s essay on its own terms, it’s worth noting that Fukuyama developed his work on political theory in the ensuing quarter-century, with impressive results. His most recent book is “The Origins of Political Order,” easily one of the most significant works of political science in years. In Origins, he comes to a conclusion that can offer a kind of addendum to his previous championing of liberal democracy.

He describes three categories of political institutions: the state, the rule of law, and accountable government. “A successful modern liberal democracy combines all three sets of institutions in a stable balance,” he writes. This is a crucial distinction: Fukuyama is not saying “one man, one vote” popular democracy is the primary yardstick of political development, but emphasizes accountability, which requires a degree of the consent of the governed. Fukuyama’s work has much of relevance to say about the current pattern of global political disorder, and those dismissing him as a false prophet of endism would do well to reconsider.

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From Kabul to Kiev

A subtle shift in the way Americans process foreign affairs has become apparent, and it’s one that will likely have far-reaching ramifications. That shift presented itself in two news stories today. The first was Gallup’s report that “For the first time since the U.S. initially became involved in Afghanistan in 2001, Americans are as likely to say U.S. military involvement there was a mistake as to say it was not.” And in fact those who thought it was a mistake had the one-point edge in the poll.

It’s a bit jarring: the desire to be out of Afghanistan is one thing, but Americans saying they wish we never went into Afghanistan to root out the Taliban after 9/11 is really something else. It’s not war-weariness; it’s regret.

The other story was the continuing chaos in Ukraine. The death toll from the last two days of clashes in Kiev keeps rising, and the Ukrainian government seems to be losing even more control away from the capital. According to the New York Times, activists in Lviv, for example, claimed to have “taken control of the central government’s main offices in the region, resuming an occupation that had ended last Sunday. [An activist] said they had also raided the local headquarters of the state prosecutor, the Ukrainian security service and several district police stations.”

The crisis in Ukraine is getting far more attention. This is perfectly understandable: central Kiev is ringed by fire and the images, and the action they depict, demand attention. The Arab Spring earned this kind of coverage as well (if not more, at least in Tahrir Square). But the juxtaposition of the two stories is what makes the shift feel more pronounced: the Arab Spring, after all, had direct relevance to the war on terror. Americans today are having a very different conversation about matters of war and peace from the one we’ve been conducting for over a decade.

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A subtle shift in the way Americans process foreign affairs has become apparent, and it’s one that will likely have far-reaching ramifications. That shift presented itself in two news stories today. The first was Gallup’s report that “For the first time since the U.S. initially became involved in Afghanistan in 2001, Americans are as likely to say U.S. military involvement there was a mistake as to say it was not.” And in fact those who thought it was a mistake had the one-point edge in the poll.

It’s a bit jarring: the desire to be out of Afghanistan is one thing, but Americans saying they wish we never went into Afghanistan to root out the Taliban after 9/11 is really something else. It’s not war-weariness; it’s regret.

The other story was the continuing chaos in Ukraine. The death toll from the last two days of clashes in Kiev keeps rising, and the Ukrainian government seems to be losing even more control away from the capital. According to the New York Times, activists in Lviv, for example, claimed to have “taken control of the central government’s main offices in the region, resuming an occupation that had ended last Sunday. [An activist] said they had also raided the local headquarters of the state prosecutor, the Ukrainian security service and several district police stations.”

The crisis in Ukraine is getting far more attention. This is perfectly understandable: central Kiev is ringed by fire and the images, and the action they depict, demand attention. The Arab Spring earned this kind of coverage as well (if not more, at least in Tahrir Square). But the juxtaposition of the two stories is what makes the shift feel more pronounced: the Arab Spring, after all, had direct relevance to the war on terror. Americans today are having a very different conversation about matters of war and peace from the one we’ve been conducting for over a decade.

The shift away from wars that are winding down anyway is natural, but the focus on Ukraine should be more than a space-filler or the crisis flavor of the week. Indeed, as the right debates the future of conservative foreign policy after Iraq and Afghanistan, Ukraine (and situations like it) represents an integral part that debate. That fact was not lost on Marco Rubio, considered a 2016 contender, who put out a statement today standing with the Ukrainian opposition and urging sanctions on those involved in government-sponsored violence.

But it would be a shame if the debate on the right ends there. These sorts of events are likely to intrude on a presidential election. That happened in 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia. John McCain, an experienced foreign-policy candidate with a particular distaste for Vladimir Putin, responded forcefully. Barack Obama, woefully inexperienced and confused by the issue, put out a bland statement urging restraint on both sides. Within a couple of days, Obama had changed his mind and began echoing McCain. The Russia-Georgia war, and the fraught history of the post-Soviet sphere, intruded on the campaign and Obama was completely unprepared.

But it’s not just the possibility of such violent flare-ups surprising the candidates while on the campaign trail. Ukraine represents the kind of conflict that is complicated and nuanced and does not involve an American military component. The Obama administration’s spectacular diplomatic failures should serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of clinging to preconceived notions as a substitute for genuine curiosity about the world.

And how conservatives in general view such crises is probably as important now as it’s ever been. At no previous time have the Republican Party’s candidates been so responsive to the grassroots. (The party’s base might think those candidates are still not responsive enough, but that’s a different story.) Part of this has to do with the effect of social media and the breakdown of the GOP’s next-in-linism. Over at the Federalist, Ben Domenech gets at this point with regard to Rand Paul’s prospective candidacy:

Paul can control that aspect of how he presents himself. What he cannot control is the chaos of world events, which may in the intervening time send the Republican Party’s Jacksonians back to their traditional ways. Today protesters are filling the streets in Venezuela; the Iran talks are struggling; the administration’s Syria strategy is proving the clusterfail we all expected; Japan is brandishing the sword; the North Korean human rights debacle is well in evidence; and Ukraine is literally on fire. How the Republican Party’s base reacts to this instability, and to Obama’s meandering foreign policy, remains an open question.

Look how many of those subjects have almost nothing to do with war-weariness or domestic surveillance–the two issues on which Paul leads and which have dominated the foreign-policy conversation. They have to do with building alliances, sending messages, choosing sides, standing consistently on principle, practicing attentive diplomacy, and understanding America’s adversaries.

Essentially, they require a coherent worldview that is absent from the current Democratic administration and which will be applied to a world different enough from the one confronted by the last Republican White House. If conservatives are prepared to have that conversation even while ObamaCare remains a potent issue and the economy trudges along, it will be an illuminating presidential election. If not, it will be a missed opportunity.

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Will Tunisia Defy Arab Spring Pessimism?

Many writers at COMMENTARY cautiously welcomed the Arab Spring, myself included, even with a dose of caution about what might happen should the Muslim Brotherhood hijack the popular uprising that caught them as much as the regimes against which they plotted by surprise.

It was not long before the Arab Spring turned chilly. The Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates rose to dominate Egypt and Tunisia. Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, and Syria descended into violence. While some analysts pointed out that the monarchies—Bahrain excepted—showed particular resilience amidst the winds of the Arab Spring, this might have less to do with fundamentals and could instead have been sheer dumb luck. Jordan, for example, remains highly susceptible to an uprising that could challenge if not unseat the regime. Stability in Saudi Arabia remains far from assured.

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Many writers at COMMENTARY cautiously welcomed the Arab Spring, myself included, even with a dose of caution about what might happen should the Muslim Brotherhood hijack the popular uprising that caught them as much as the regimes against which they plotted by surprise.

It was not long before the Arab Spring turned chilly. The Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates rose to dominate Egypt and Tunisia. Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, and Syria descended into violence. While some analysts pointed out that the monarchies—Bahrain excepted—showed particular resilience amidst the winds of the Arab Spring, this might have less to do with fundamentals and could instead have been sheer dumb luck. Jordan, for example, remains highly susceptible to an uprising that could challenge if not unseat the regime. Stability in Saudi Arabia remains far from assured.

The fundamental problem has been that both governments and opposition movements have embraced the rhetoric of democracy, but not its spirit. Opposition groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have looked at the Arab Spring as an opportunity to seize power and replicate the same dictatorship against which they once fought.

The exception, of course, has been Tunisia. Ennahda, an Islamist party affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, won a plurality in elections to form the government which would oversee drafting of a new constitution but, against the backdrop of popular discord with its conservatism, it agreed to step down last month in favor of a caretaker government rather than seek to dominate as have Islamist parties elsewhere in the Middle East. Today, polls show that 70 percent of Tunisians believe their country is heading in the right direction, a sharp uptick since only 15 percent believed it was before Ennahda agreed to step down.

Tunisia isn’t out of the woods yet. Oussama Romdhani, a former communications minister under the Ben Ali government, yet a figure widely respected as a self-made and honest man despite his association with the previous regime, has a must-read column in Al-Arabiya assessing the current state of Tunisian politics and the dangers which lurk ahead. Every post-Arab Spring government, even the best intentioned, has had to confront unrealistic expectations of supporters and the conspiracy theories of critics. Still, rather than give into America’s new isolation trend, it is important to support Tunisia as it moves forward, because if one Arab state can navigate Arab Spring turbulence into a more tranquil future, then it can become a model for others who otherwise might teeter between Islamist dictatorship or regression to more secular authoritarianism.

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History, Democracy, and Egypt’s Revolution

In his 2001 book on Russia’s post-Soviet political development, Michael McFaul makes an incisive point about the role of history in a country’s progression. Not all history influences the future, and of the history that does, its distribution of influence is unequal. McFaul explains the importance of timing: “It is precisely during periods of institutional breakdown or crisis that the greatest opportunity occurs for initial decisions to have lasting, path-dependent effects.”

The Soviet experience shaped how Russian society would react to the introduction of a market economy, and that rocky transition shaped how many Russians would view the idea of democracy: in the end, with suspicion and from a distance. This was always a risk with the Arab Spring as well. Dictatorships that disappear not through gradual reform but through sudden uprisings experience democracy in the wrong order: without the institutions that make it stick and insulate the public from its initial turbulence. The Soviet Union was ended after a period of real reform, and yet still experienced the convulsions of national rebirth.

Thus one of the lessons of the Arab Spring, as the “realist” illusion of stability was in ruins across the Middle East, was that the freedoms won were immediately at risk of being lost. That is unfortunately exactly what has happened in Egypt, as both Jonathan and Max discussed yesterday. The Muslim Brotherhood, currently on the receiving end of the country’s newest authoritarianism, is not blameless in finding itself there, and here it’s worth recalling that the pro-democracy voices in the West were sometimes far more realistic in their assessments at the outset of the Egyptian turmoil.

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In his 2001 book on Russia’s post-Soviet political development, Michael McFaul makes an incisive point about the role of history in a country’s progression. Not all history influences the future, and of the history that does, its distribution of influence is unequal. McFaul explains the importance of timing: “It is precisely during periods of institutional breakdown or crisis that the greatest opportunity occurs for initial decisions to have lasting, path-dependent effects.”

The Soviet experience shaped how Russian society would react to the introduction of a market economy, and that rocky transition shaped how many Russians would view the idea of democracy: in the end, with suspicion and from a distance. This was always a risk with the Arab Spring as well. Dictatorships that disappear not through gradual reform but through sudden uprisings experience democracy in the wrong order: without the institutions that make it stick and insulate the public from its initial turbulence. The Soviet Union was ended after a period of real reform, and yet still experienced the convulsions of national rebirth.

Thus one of the lessons of the Arab Spring, as the “realist” illusion of stability was in ruins across the Middle East, was that the freedoms won were immediately at risk of being lost. That is unfortunately exactly what has happened in Egypt, as both Jonathan and Max discussed yesterday. The Muslim Brotherhood, currently on the receiving end of the country’s newest authoritarianism, is not blameless in finding itself there, and here it’s worth recalling that the pro-democracy voices in the West were sometimes far more realistic in their assessments at the outset of the Egyptian turmoil.

On February 5, 2011, CNN featured the Egyptian-American leftist Mona Eltahawy and Alan Dershowitz arguing over Egypt’s future. Eltahawy was filled with righteous anger and a sense of her own superior perspective on the issue. She also turned out to be wrong on everything, and Dershowitz right. That in itself isn’t too surprising; Eltahawy flaunts her hostility to Western liberalism, which often leads her down the path of spite and illogic when she claims to know better. But it was Dershowitz’s caution that was notable: he understood from the outset that the worst outcome for Egypt would be a replica of Hamas’s rise next door in Gaza, when the Islamist terrorist group won an election and immediately rolled back any scrap of democracy to secure its tyrannical rule.

Dershowitz warned that the strongest party in the emerging Egyptian power vacuum was the Muslim Brotherhood, and that a Brotherhood election victory could actually be a setback for democracy in Egypt. Of course he was obviously correct even then, but Eltahawy angrily shot back that Dershowitz was a hypocrite, and the following discussion ensued:

ELTAHAWY: You know, it’s interesting to hear Alan used the word democracy because that’s exactly what Egypt is working on right now. These millions of Egyptians who have been on the streets for the past 12 days want to be democratic.

So it’s very hypocritical to describe Israel as a democracy and be alarmist about what’s happening in Egypt because surely you and everyone in Israel should be happy that your neighbor wants to be a democracy and democratic neighbors are happy.

DERSHOWITZ: If it’s a real democracy, not a Hamas-type democracy.

ELTAHAWY: You know, you can’t label democracy. Democracy is the people choosing the government they want and what you’re doing is being alarmist. This is not about Muslim Brotherhood. This is about Egyptians determining their future without anyone else’s interference.

MALVEAUX: David, you want to respond –

DERSHOWITZ: The people chose Adolf Hitler in 1932 by democratic means and the people would probably have chosen Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by democratic means. So democracy has to be both structural that is elections, but also functional. If you elect people who then take away all the rights and make women wear Burqas and deny people the right of –

ELTAHAWY: Wait, wait, wait. Who said — this is utter nonsense. This has nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood and burqas. You’re talking nonsense.

DERSHOWITZ: You’re just wrong. You’re just wrong. Of course, it has everything to do with the Muslim Brotherhood.

I remembered the debate at the time because it was so typical of the two sides of this argument: Eltahawy’s ignorance (“you can’t label democracy”; “This has nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood”) and Dershowitz’s historical awareness. It turned out that past was prologue, in Egypt as elsewhere.

The Egyptian army’s displacement of the Brotherhood government was indeed a military coup. But the Brotherhood government not only wasn’t a democracy; it actually went a long way toward discrediting democracy in the region precisely because of the principle McFaul espoused with regard to Russia. Westerners may be criticized for a bias toward democracy abroad, but in some cases–as with Egypt–they are more realistic about the nature of democracy than they are usually given credit for.

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Israel’s “Natural Allies”?

Israelis often ask themselves whether they have any “natural allies” in the Middle East. When they do, they usually settle either on nearby minorities or states on the far edges of the Middle East. Israel is located in the heart of a region that is overwhelmingly Muslim and Arab, so there have been times when it has fostered ties with those who aren’t Muslim or Arab. This approach is often attributed to David Ben-Gurion, who pursued it in the early years of the state, but it began even earlier. It reached a culmination in the early 1970s, when Israel was busy cultivating the Maronites of Lebanon, the Kurds of northern Iraq, and secessionists in southern Sudan. Israel also tried to outflank the Arab world by bonding with the Shah’s Iran. It all made perfect sense.

Except that it didn’t work. The policy was meant to create difficulties on the Arab flank, but none of these efforts relieved Arab pressure on Israel’s borders, which erupted in war after war. The policy came to an end between 1978 and 1982, following three developments: Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution turned Iran into an implacable foe of Israel; the peace treaty with Egypt broke the key link in the chain of Arab Muslim hostility; and the war in Lebanon exposed Israel’s decades-long ties to the Maronites as a liability. Since then, Israel has pursued a policy of cutting deals with its nearer Arab Muslim neighbors: Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinians. For all the limitations of these accommodations, they have effectively precluded state-to-state wars. Israel hasn’t had to fight one since 1973.

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Israelis often ask themselves whether they have any “natural allies” in the Middle East. When they do, they usually settle either on nearby minorities or states on the far edges of the Middle East. Israel is located in the heart of a region that is overwhelmingly Muslim and Arab, so there have been times when it has fostered ties with those who aren’t Muslim or Arab. This approach is often attributed to David Ben-Gurion, who pursued it in the early years of the state, but it began even earlier. It reached a culmination in the early 1970s, when Israel was busy cultivating the Maronites of Lebanon, the Kurds of northern Iraq, and secessionists in southern Sudan. Israel also tried to outflank the Arab world by bonding with the Shah’s Iran. It all made perfect sense.

Except that it didn’t work. The policy was meant to create difficulties on the Arab flank, but none of these efforts relieved Arab pressure on Israel’s borders, which erupted in war after war. The policy came to an end between 1978 and 1982, following three developments: Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution turned Iran into an implacable foe of Israel; the peace treaty with Egypt broke the key link in the chain of Arab Muslim hostility; and the war in Lebanon exposed Israel’s decades-long ties to the Maronites as a liability. Since then, Israel has pursued a policy of cutting deals with its nearer Arab Muslim neighbors: Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinians. For all the limitations of these accommodations, they have effectively precluded state-to-state wars. Israel hasn’t had to fight one since 1973.

The so-called “Arab spring” has created turmoil around Israel, casting doubt on the stability of Israel’s Arab partners. In turn, some analysts have argued that Israel should return to its earlier policy of cultivating minorities and states on the periphery, from Kurdistan to Greece. Ofir Haivry of the new Herzl Institute has made just that case at Mosaic Magazine. I’ve offered a response, arguing against alliances with the weak and suggesting other alternatives. Israel isn’t alone in worrying about American retrenchment, and that may open opportunities. (See also responses by Michael Doran and Efraim Inbar, my own “natural allies” of long standing.) After reading, be sure to check back later at Mosaic Magazine, where Haivry will have the last word.

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Morocco Should Be the Model

It has long been fashionable to describe Turkey as a model for the Middle East, if not the Islamic world. I’ve written on these pages many times how this notion is outdated as Turkey’s government has moved to undo the separation between mosque and state, and how the prime minister himself has acknowledged his goal to be to raise a religious generation.

American reliance on Turkey during and after the Arab Spring has been nothing short of disastrous. In Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere, Turkey has moved to privilege the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups over relative moderates. Of greater concern to U.S. national and regional security, Turkey has become the chief transit center for religious radicals and al-Qaeda sympathizers entering Syria. Rather than stop Libyans, Mauritanians, Chechens, Uighurs, and Saudis who disembark Turkish Air flights in Gaziantep and ask them why their sudden interest in a location they previously avoided, Turkish police simply demand $40 and wave the jihadists on across the border.

The contrast with Morocco could not be sharper. While Jews are fleeing Turkey, and anti-Semitism appears rife at senior ranks of the Turkish government, Jews are returning to Morocco, if only as tourists. According to Jeune Afrique, 45,000 Israelis visited Morocco in the past year. Between 1993 and 1995, Morocco’s minister of tourism was Jewish. The Moroccan constitution of 2011 enshrines not only the Kingdom’s Arab and Berber identity, but also its “Hebraic heritage.” Such constitutional prerogatives and monarchy’s moderation dampen the populism of some parties which in the last month, for example, proposed a bill banning contacts with Israelis. That such a hateful bill stands no chance at passage underscores the checks and balances inherent in the system. In Turkey, by contrast, the prime minister himself led a campaign to boycott Israel and Israelis.

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It has long been fashionable to describe Turkey as a model for the Middle East, if not the Islamic world. I’ve written on these pages many times how this notion is outdated as Turkey’s government has moved to undo the separation between mosque and state, and how the prime minister himself has acknowledged his goal to be to raise a religious generation.

American reliance on Turkey during and after the Arab Spring has been nothing short of disastrous. In Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere, Turkey has moved to privilege the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups over relative moderates. Of greater concern to U.S. national and regional security, Turkey has become the chief transit center for religious radicals and al-Qaeda sympathizers entering Syria. Rather than stop Libyans, Mauritanians, Chechens, Uighurs, and Saudis who disembark Turkish Air flights in Gaziantep and ask them why their sudden interest in a location they previously avoided, Turkish police simply demand $40 and wave the jihadists on across the border.

The contrast with Morocco could not be sharper. While Jews are fleeing Turkey, and anti-Semitism appears rife at senior ranks of the Turkish government, Jews are returning to Morocco, if only as tourists. According to Jeune Afrique, 45,000 Israelis visited Morocco in the past year. Between 1993 and 1995, Morocco’s minister of tourism was Jewish. The Moroccan constitution of 2011 enshrines not only the Kingdom’s Arab and Berber identity, but also its “Hebraic heritage.” Such constitutional prerogatives and monarchy’s moderation dampen the populism of some parties which in the last month, for example, proposed a bill banning contacts with Israelis. That such a hateful bill stands no chance at passage underscores the checks and balances inherent in the system. In Turkey, by contrast, the prime minister himself led a campaign to boycott Israel and Israelis.

Morocco has consciously embraced religious moderation. Imams go through rigorous training and must continually renew their licenses. Those who promote intolerance or religious hatred quickly find themselves out of a job. While freedoms plunge throughout the region, Moroccans enjoy an increasingly free and vibrant press and readily engage in public demonstrations. During a trip to Rabat this past week, I saw separate demonstrations relating to unemployment and demands for the court to dismiss charges against a journalist who linked to a website hosting an al-Qaeda call for violent jihad. Moroccan police kept their distance from the demonstrators, and directed their attention instead to directing traffic around the demonstrators. Contrast that with Turkey, where the government’s response to a protest against the paving over of a park was to fire tens of thousands of tear gas canisters, beat scores of protestors, and kill at least four.

While Turkey embraces Hamas, Morocco broke diplomatic relations with Iran over that country’s attempts to promote radical religious interpretation. And rather than support religious extremists, Morocco has lent its expertise to promote constitutional checks and balances and women’s rights in countries like Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen. While the Turkish ambassador to Chad openly endorsed al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb when fighting erupted in Mali, Morocco continues to help Mali reconstruct itself and defeat all remnants of al-Qaeda.

Morocco increasingly also provides a model for justice. Just as in Turkey, serious human-rights abuses marked the 1970s, 1980s, and perhaps even 1990s in Morocco. In recent years, though, the two countries have again diverged. Morocco implemented a new, quite progressive constitution in 2011. Rather than sweep past abuses under the rug, the Moroccan state sponsored a truth and reconciliation committee in which citizens across the spectrum embraced, giving the Kingdom a chance at a fresh start. Not so in Turkey. When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took over in 2003, he drew a sharp distinction between past and future, but used his power not to reconcile but rather to seek revenge against first real and perceived enemies, and increasingly against anyone who might develop an independent political base. While Moroccan press freedom and political space has increased over the years, Turkish press freedom has retracted to the point that Turkey now rests behind even Russia in watchdog rankings.

Neither Morocco nor Turkey is perfect, but trajectory is important. Morocco provides a path toward reconciliation and moderation, while Turkey’s political leadership has increasingly turned that country into a beacon for populism and hate. Generations of diplomats have become accustomed to thinking of Turkey as a partner and a model for the region. But autopilot should never be a substitute for wisdom. Increasingly, it is apparent that a moderate, more democratic future for the Middle East lies not in the Turkish model but rather the Moroccan one.

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Haneen Zoabi’s Threat to Nazareth’s Christian Heritage

At first glance, Haneen Zoabi might seem a strange candidate for Israeli efforts to burnish its democratic reputation abroad. Zoabi spends much of her time and energy trying to tear down Israel’s public image, and would have you believe Israel is no democracy at all, but rather an apartheid, fascist state. But that very same behavior is, to many, sufficient to disprove Zoabi’s claims.

That’s because Zoabi makes those claims from her perch as an Arab Muslim member of Israel’s Knesset. She keeps that lofty place in the parliament while doing far more than agitating against Zionism: her actions speak louder than–though still in concert with–her words. In 2010, Zoabi and another Arab legislator were passengers on the infamous Mavi Marmara, the Turkish ship of armed activists attempting to break Israel’s military blockade of Gaza and to help the Hamas government of the Gaza Strip.

Now Zoabi is attempting to make a related career move, though this one would concern Israel’s Christian minority more than its Jewish majority. The New York Times notes that Zoabi’s entry into the Nazareth mayoral election threatens to unseat its mayor of 20 years as well as stir up local tensions:

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At first glance, Haneen Zoabi might seem a strange candidate for Israeli efforts to burnish its democratic reputation abroad. Zoabi spends much of her time and energy trying to tear down Israel’s public image, and would have you believe Israel is no democracy at all, but rather an apartheid, fascist state. But that very same behavior is, to many, sufficient to disprove Zoabi’s claims.

That’s because Zoabi makes those claims from her perch as an Arab Muslim member of Israel’s Knesset. She keeps that lofty place in the parliament while doing far more than agitating against Zionism: her actions speak louder than–though still in concert with–her words. In 2010, Zoabi and another Arab legislator were passengers on the infamous Mavi Marmara, the Turkish ship of armed activists attempting to break Israel’s military blockade of Gaza and to help the Hamas government of the Gaza Strip.

Now Zoabi is attempting to make a related career move, though this one would concern Israel’s Christian minority more than its Jewish majority. The New York Times notes that Zoabi’s entry into the Nazareth mayoral election threatens to unseat its mayor of 20 years as well as stir up local tensions:

There is a lot to be said for tradition and continuity in a city revered by Christians as the childhood home of Jesus. Though the city’s population of 80,000 is now about 70 percent Muslim, much of the economy of Nazareth, considered the capital of Israel’s Arab minority, depends on the tourism generated by its Christian past.

“This is one of the most well-known cities in the world, the place where Christianity started,” said Mr. Jaraisi, a Christian, whose hair and mustache have turned white on the job.

But others in Nazareth say it is time for change. Mr. Jaraisi has been elected mayor four times, with the votes of both Muslims and Christians, he is quick to point out. Now, in the municipal elections scheduled for Israel’s local authorities on Tuesday, he is facing a serious challenge.

Even if the city weren’t majority-Muslim there would be nothing inherently upsetting, one would hope, about the prospect of a Muslim candidate defeating a Christian candidate for the mayoralty. Nazareth is symbolic of Israel’s Christian minority; that they happen to be a minority in Nazareth isn’t exactly shocking.

But the Times projects an air of nervousness in the city about Jaraisi’s possible defeat at Zoabi’s hands, and this has much to do with how Zoabi personifies two trends in the Arab world that have not been too kind to Christians. The first, and most obvious trend, is referred to outright in the Times piece:

One of the challenges that Mr. Jaraisi is facing is what Wadie Abu Nassar, an Arab Israeli political analyst, calls “the Arab Spring argument — that it is time to change.” Another is an accusation of mismanagement, Mr. Abu Nassar said.

As just the latest brutal attack on Egyptian Copts attests, the Arab Spring does not conjure images of freedom for the Christians of the Arab world. It has instead been open season on this persecuted minority, and any suggestion that the tide of the Arab Spring would come to Nazareth would be a frightening prospect, to say the least.

And Zoabi has long been at the forefront of the other trend, though the Times’s subtle presentation of it shows its mainstream appeal:

Nazareth, Ms. Zoabi said, should be a cultural center for the 1.6 million Palestinian citizens of Israel. “Nazareth is not just a city,” she said. “It is a symbol of the homeland that we lost.”

Notice that first part is not in quotes. The reporter, Isabel Kershner, simply writes that Israel’s Arabs are all Palestinians. The identification of Israeli Arabs as Palestinians is not automatic or universal. Israeli Arabs who consider themselves Palestinians tend to either claim roots in Mandatory Palestine before 1948 or consider the entire State of Israel occupied territory and an illegitimate state. (Or both.)

Zoabi embraces this merging of the Palestinian identity with the Israeli-Arab identity–which, in many cases, simply replaces Arab identity with Zoabi’s ideology of armed resistance against the state in whose parliament she serves. It erases, for example, the identity of Israel’s Arab Christians who don’t identify with the Palestinian cause.

In July, a group of Greek Orthodox Christians in Israel formed a political party to support Arab participation in the Israel Defense Forces. The group was led by a Christian Arab from Nazareth and had the support of Father Gabriel Naddaf, a Greek Orthodox priest against whom Zoabi reportedly led a vicious campaign and who was banned from entering Nazareth’s famed Church of the Annunciation for his show of patriotism and loyalty to Israel.

These Arab Christians from Nazareth (and elsewhere) proudly identify as Israelis. Zoabi and the New York Times plainly ignore that and label them Palestinian. The only way, in fact, that the categorization of all Israel’s Arabs as Palestinians could make any sense (to use that term loosely) is to someone who believes that the entire land is rightfully and legally Palestine. That Zoabi seems to buy into this bodes ill for Nazareth’s Christians. That the Times plays along suggests the media’s attitude toward the plight of Christians under the Arab Spring, which often borders on indifference, will only continue.

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Egypt’s Prognosis Goes from Bad to Worse

Every year, the World Economic Forum releases The Global Competitiveness Report. The report shows just how desperate the situation has become in Egypt. In quality of primary education, for example, Egypt now ranks 148th out of 148 countries surveyed. That puts it behind such countries as Chad, Burkina Faso, and Sierra Leone. Its higher education system is 145th, beating out only South Africa, Libya, and Yemen. And it comes in 143rd in women in the labor force as a ratio to men, ahead of only Pakistan, Iran, Algeria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

The tsunami over the horizon is Egypt’s poor economic performance; no politician, whether Islamist or pro-military, appears ready to end Egypt’s subsidies of food and fuel, and so Egypt continues to hemorrhage whatever money allies grant it. In the category “Government Budget Balance, as percent of GDP,” Egypt again comes in dead last.

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Every year, the World Economic Forum releases The Global Competitiveness Report. The report shows just how desperate the situation has become in Egypt. In quality of primary education, for example, Egypt now ranks 148th out of 148 countries surveyed. That puts it behind such countries as Chad, Burkina Faso, and Sierra Leone. Its higher education system is 145th, beating out only South Africa, Libya, and Yemen. And it comes in 143rd in women in the labor force as a ratio to men, ahead of only Pakistan, Iran, Algeria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

The tsunami over the horizon is Egypt’s poor economic performance; no politician, whether Islamist or pro-military, appears ready to end Egypt’s subsidies of food and fuel, and so Egypt continues to hemorrhage whatever money allies grant it. In the category “Government Budget Balance, as percent of GDP,” Egypt again comes in dead last.

Other Arab Spring countries do not do much better. Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen hug the bottom rung throughout. Tunisia is supposed to be the shining star of the Arab Spring—but with a female labor participation ranking of 136 out of 146, that’s like saying we should celebrate Jersey City because it’s not Newark.

Part of the problem might be the chicken-and-egg conundrum: Perhaps the Arab Spring has turned out so badly (and Islamists have been so successful exploiting popular ignorance) because the education system has long been abysmal and the financial system so poor. Regardless, the question of how Egypt and other states can break out of such a cycle is unclear, but their inability to rise in the ranking has long-term security implications for the region. What an indictment it is of decades of poor leadership that these states cannot even beat a place like Zimbabwe where it counts.

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Kuwait as a Model

The bad news continues to flood in from across the Middle East: Tunisia—the best hope for the Arab Spring—is unstable after political assassinations against leading non-Islamist politicians. While I don’t shed any tears over the Egyptian government’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement which for decades has inspired terrorism and hatred, at best Egypt faces years of Islamist insurgency and economic life support. The Syrian civil war goes from bad to worse. Bahrain remains tense and what Bahraini police occasion do with rubber bullets, their Saudi counterparts in the Eastern Province do with live ammunition. Iraq is not the basket case many assume, but it has faced a wave of renewed terrorism as bad as anything experienced prior to the U.S.-led surge.

Is there any good news or responsible governance coming from the region? Certainly, Morocco is navigating the waters of the Arab Spring fairly well, with the king seemingly sincere in his reform. So too is Oman, where Sultan Qaboos’s regime has always been an example of moderation and responsibility. But Qaboos has no heir apparent and he’s not going to have one, meaning that the Sultanate of Oman upon which the United States and so many moderate regional states have come to rely may have an uncertain future as Iran and other nearby powers will try to muck about in his succession in order to further their own illiberal interests.

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The bad news continues to flood in from across the Middle East: Tunisia—the best hope for the Arab Spring—is unstable after political assassinations against leading non-Islamist politicians. While I don’t shed any tears over the Egyptian government’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement which for decades has inspired terrorism and hatred, at best Egypt faces years of Islamist insurgency and economic life support. The Syrian civil war goes from bad to worse. Bahrain remains tense and what Bahraini police occasion do with rubber bullets, their Saudi counterparts in the Eastern Province do with live ammunition. Iraq is not the basket case many assume, but it has faced a wave of renewed terrorism as bad as anything experienced prior to the U.S.-led surge.

Is there any good news or responsible governance coming from the region? Certainly, Morocco is navigating the waters of the Arab Spring fairly well, with the king seemingly sincere in his reform. So too is Oman, where Sultan Qaboos’s regime has always been an example of moderation and responsibility. But Qaboos has no heir apparent and he’s not going to have one, meaning that the Sultanate of Oman upon which the United States and so many moderate regional states have come to rely may have an uncertain future as Iran and other nearby powers will try to muck about in his succession in order to further their own illiberal interests.

I had the privilege of visiting Kuwait last year, my first extended stay in the country for almost two decades. Kuwait has had some rough patches over recent years both because of changing demography but also because the government has pushed forward with real attempts at reform, encouraging real dynamism, and giving women a long-overdue vote. At the same time, the Kuwaitis have had to navigate dangerous sectarian trends as they find themselves wedged between Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. This, they seem to have done masterfully, even as trouble continues to brew on the horizon. At any rate, I’ve delved into the issue of sectarianism in Kuwait and Kuwait’s response to it in this detailed essay, for those who want reassurance that some states actually do try to temper incitement rather than rely on shallow populism for immediate political purposes.

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How Can Israel Entrust Its Security to People Who Got Egypt So Wrong?

To the many reasons why the current Israeli-Palestinian “peace talks” are a nonstarter, we can now add another: the situation in Egypt. The problem isn’t just that the chaos on Israel’s previously stable southern border decreases its willingness to take “risks for peace” that could replicate this situation in the West Bank. It’s also what the situation says about the Obama administration’s judgment.

As the Hudson Institute’s Samuel Tadros reminds us, when the Egyptian revolution broke out two years ago, the administration sought guidance in historical precedents:

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To the many reasons why the current Israeli-Palestinian “peace talks” are a nonstarter, we can now add another: the situation in Egypt. The problem isn’t just that the chaos on Israel’s previously stable southern border decreases its willingness to take “risks for peace” that could replicate this situation in the West Bank. It’s also what the situation says about the Obama administration’s judgment.

As the Hudson Institute’s Samuel Tadros reminds us, when the Egyptian revolution broke out two years ago, the administration sought guidance in historical precedents:

According to the New York Times, President Obama asked his staff to study transitions in more than 50 countries around the world in order to understand and predict where Egypt and other countries in the Middle East might be heading. After extensive study, his staffers predicted “that Egypt is analogous to South Korea, the Philippines and Chile.” Months later, the administration was still confident in its assessment. While aware of the obstacles that were on the way during the desired transition to democracy, Benjamin Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor was adamant that, “The trajectory of change is in the right direction.”

Needless to say, Egypt turned out nothing like South Korea, the Philippines, or Chile. The Muslim Brotherhood took power, only to prove both so incompetent and so anti-democratic that a year later, the military ousted it by popular demand (anti-Brotherhood demonstrations drew an incredible 14 million people into the streets). The Brotherhood didn’t go quietly, and now there’s a risk that this week’s carnage in Cairo will spark a civil war.

None of this was unpredictable. Indeed, from the very beginning, Israeli officials warned unanimously that nothing good would come of Egypt’s revolution, and most Israeli commentators (myself included) agreed–for which we were roundly condemned by members of America’s foreign-policy establishment. Nor is it really surprising that Israel’s assessments proved more accurate than America’s: What happens in Israel’s immediate neighborhood has far more impact on Israelis’ lives than it does on Americans, and therefore Israelis invest more time and effort in trying to understand it.

Yet now the same people who got Egypt so badly wrong are demanding that Israelis trust them to referee an Israeli-Palestinian deal. The administration even sent a senior general, former U.S. commander in Afghanistan John Allen, “to define Israel’s security requirements” for it–and woe betide Israel if it begs to differ. But actually, President Barack Obama didn’t bother waiting for Allen’s conclusions; he asserted two years ago that the border must be “based on the 1967 lines,” and that this is perfectly compatible with Israel’s security needs. Never mind that no Israeli map of defensible borders has ever agreed.

In other words, the administration has already made clear that it won’t support Israel’s security demands; it expects Israel to bow to its judgment. But the people who thought Egypt’s revolution was going to resemble Chile or South Korea aren’t people whose judgment Israel can possibly rely on to assure its vital security needs. Under this situation, reaching a deal that satisfies Israel’s minimum security needs would be impossible even if all the other issues were somehow magically resolved.

But in fact, Secretary of State John Kerry has made it clear he wants to deal with borders and security first. And that means the blow-up won’t be long in coming.

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Don’t Back the Wrong Side in Egypt

The resignation of Mohamed ElBaradei as vice president of Egypt’s interim government and the declaration of a state of emergency in the wake of the violence in the streets of Cairo today will, no doubt, add to the pressure on President Obama to cut off aid to the Egyptian military. With hundreds dead and the pretense that the post-coup regime is anything but a rerun of Hosni Mubarak’s military dictatorship debunked, the impulse in Washington will be to express outrage and to say or do something to disassociate the United States from what has happened. After Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham went to Cairo last week and asked the military to avoid a conflict and to negotiate some sort of agreement that would bring the ousted Muslim Brotherhood back into the government, the decision of General al-Sisi to ignore their advice and unleash his troops will be regarded as reason enough to cut off U.S. aid to Egypt.

That is, to some extent, understandable. But it would be a terrible mistake for the administration to do anything that would worsen the burgeoning conflict in Egypt. The coup that ousted Mohamed Morsi as well as the police action in Cairo contradicts American principles as well as specific warnings issued by Washington. But it needs to be reiterated that democracy is not one of the choices available in Egypt. An Obama condemnation of the Egyptian military might make some Americans feel good. But far better would be a presidential acknowledgment that the Arab Spring is over and that the priority is not the resurrection of a fake democracy there but to prevent Islamists from ever getting another chance of imposing their extreme ideology on Egypt or the entire region.

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The resignation of Mohamed ElBaradei as vice president of Egypt’s interim government and the declaration of a state of emergency in the wake of the violence in the streets of Cairo today will, no doubt, add to the pressure on President Obama to cut off aid to the Egyptian military. With hundreds dead and the pretense that the post-coup regime is anything but a rerun of Hosni Mubarak’s military dictatorship debunked, the impulse in Washington will be to express outrage and to say or do something to disassociate the United States from what has happened. After Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham went to Cairo last week and asked the military to avoid a conflict and to negotiate some sort of agreement that would bring the ousted Muslim Brotherhood back into the government, the decision of General al-Sisi to ignore their advice and unleash his troops will be regarded as reason enough to cut off U.S. aid to Egypt.

That is, to some extent, understandable. But it would be a terrible mistake for the administration to do anything that would worsen the burgeoning conflict in Egypt. The coup that ousted Mohamed Morsi as well as the police action in Cairo contradicts American principles as well as specific warnings issued by Washington. But it needs to be reiterated that democracy is not one of the choices available in Egypt. An Obama condemnation of the Egyptian military might make some Americans feel good. But far better would be a presidential acknowledgment that the Arab Spring is over and that the priority is not the resurrection of a fake democracy there but to prevent Islamists from ever getting another chance of imposing their extreme ideology on Egypt or the entire region.

As disturbing as the video coming out of Cairo today may be, it should be remembered that the victims of the military crackdown are not the peaceful democratic protesters that they are sometimes depicted as being. The Brotherhood is a totalitarian Islamist movement that would never have peacefully relinquished power if it had not been overthrown by the military. Though it embraced democracy as a tactic to attain power, it did not and does not believe in it. Its protest sites in Cairo were armed camps, befitting an organization that was always more of an Islamist militia than a political party.

That means that the calls issued by Americans for a peaceful resolution to the standoff were largely meaningless. Nothing short of a full-fledged military operation would have ever persuaded the Brotherhood to go home. Brutal though the attack on these encampments was, the notion that it could have been accomplished by more pacific methods is probably absurd.

The United States should always advocate for democracy and respect for human rights. But it needs to be understood that releasing Morsi or bringing the Brotherhood into a new government would not have advanced those goals. Egypt’s current leaders understand something that President Obama and his foreign policy advisors never have: the struggle in Egypt has always been a zero-sum game in which the choices are reduced to the military or the Brotherhood.

Now is the time for Washington to stay the course and to refuse to give in to the impulse to cut off Egypt. After more than a year of embracing the Brotherhood government of Morsi, it has been hard for Obama to realize that he made a mistake. But if he seeks to punish the Egyptian military for doing exactly what the majority of the Egyptian people want them to do, he will be compounding that error. 

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America’s Priority? Stop the Brotherhood

While Secretary of State John Kerry is spending most of his time in office desperately trying to revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the administration has seemingly struggled mightily to find a coherent approach to the turmoil in Egypt. After a year of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood government of deposed President Mohamed Morsi, the Obama foreign policy team was slow to wake up to the outrage this decision had generated inside Egypt or to understand the threat that the Islamist movement posed to the country’s future or American interests. Though this realization has been grudging, it is to their credit that they have resisted the impulse to label the Egyptian military’s actions as a coup (which is nothing less than the truth) or to exert much pressure on it to release Morsi or to cease its efforts to stifle the movement’s protests. But the escalating violence inside Egypt has heightened pressure on the administration to join the voices of outrage at the military’s violence against demonstrators or to use American aid to force it to stand down and restore what we are continually told was a democratically-elected government.

Some, including our Max Boot, believe this is exactly the time when American influence must be exerted to pressure Cairo to respect the human rights of its people and create an opening for moderate opposition figures that will gradually create a transition to genuine democracy. He’s right to point out that decades of U.S. support for tyrannies, such as the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt, in the name of stability was a strategic mistake. Democracy promotion is not just an expression of idealism but a wise investment that will pay off in the long run. But though, along with many others, I might have been fooled into thinking the Arab Spring protests of 2011 in Cairo were the harbinger of democratic change, it’s now clear that such an outcome was never a possibility. America’s dilemma in Egypt today is not whether it will be associated with a military government but whether it will do whatever it can to aid the generals in their efforts to ensure that the Brotherhood never gets another chance to remake Egypt in their own image.

While encouraging democracy is embedded in America’s foreign policy DNA, it is vital that the administration understands that the main threat to both Egypt’s future and U.S. interests is the Brotherhood, not their military antagonists. Any effort or American pressure aimed at allowing the Brotherhood to get another shot at power, even by peaceful means, would, like the year of support for Morsi, be a tragic mistake.

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While Secretary of State John Kerry is spending most of his time in office desperately trying to revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the administration has seemingly struggled mightily to find a coherent approach to the turmoil in Egypt. After a year of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood government of deposed President Mohamed Morsi, the Obama foreign policy team was slow to wake up to the outrage this decision had generated inside Egypt or to understand the threat that the Islamist movement posed to the country’s future or American interests. Though this realization has been grudging, it is to their credit that they have resisted the impulse to label the Egyptian military’s actions as a coup (which is nothing less than the truth) or to exert much pressure on it to release Morsi or to cease its efforts to stifle the movement’s protests. But the escalating violence inside Egypt has heightened pressure on the administration to join the voices of outrage at the military’s violence against demonstrators or to use American aid to force it to stand down and restore what we are continually told was a democratically-elected government.

Some, including our Max Boot, believe this is exactly the time when American influence must be exerted to pressure Cairo to respect the human rights of its people and create an opening for moderate opposition figures that will gradually create a transition to genuine democracy. He’s right to point out that decades of U.S. support for tyrannies, such as the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt, in the name of stability was a strategic mistake. Democracy promotion is not just an expression of idealism but a wise investment that will pay off in the long run. But though, along with many others, I might have been fooled into thinking the Arab Spring protests of 2011 in Cairo were the harbinger of democratic change, it’s now clear that such an outcome was never a possibility. America’s dilemma in Egypt today is not whether it will be associated with a military government but whether it will do whatever it can to aid the generals in their efforts to ensure that the Brotherhood never gets another chance to remake Egypt in their own image.

While encouraging democracy is embedded in America’s foreign policy DNA, it is vital that the administration understands that the main threat to both Egypt’s future and U.S. interests is the Brotherhood, not their military antagonists. Any effort or American pressure aimed at allowing the Brotherhood to get another shot at power, even by peaceful means, would, like the year of support for Morsi, be a tragic mistake.

Like other totalitarian movements, Islamists may use democracy as a tool to gain power but they neither believe in it nor do they feel bound by it once in power. That point was demonstrated many times throughout the 20th century, but up until this month’s coup halted Morsi’s drive for hegemony, it was also being illustrated in Egypt. The coup was the last chance for secular and liberal Egyptians to stop the Brotherhood before it was too late. Had they been allowed to go on consolidating power, the idea that they would have ever relinquished it by peaceful means is farcical. Indeed, the only way to create even a minimal space for democratic development is for the military to ensure that the Brotherhood is permanently excluded from positions of power. Rather than urging the military to allow the Brotherhood a political outlet, the U.S. should be standing behind its efforts to forever end the threat of another Brotherhood government. In this case, it would be the lack of a crackdown on the Islamists that would set the stage for future problems rather than the opposite.

This opens the U.S. up to charges of hypocrisy when Washington speaks out against other tyrannies that may not be friendly to America. But taking a stand against the Brotherhood is not antithetical to democracy promotion. Indeed, struggling against it is the prerequisite for any hope for Egypt. While it may be wise for the administration to urge, as Max advises, repressive Arab monarchies that are U.S. allies to move toward democracy, that can’t mean tolerating Islamists whose only goal is to impose their theocratic views on the region. While Obama rightly doesn’t wish to be associated with shootings in the streets of Cairo, pressuring the military to let up in what may prove to be a life and death struggle against the Brotherhood would be a critical error. The president has gone from blunder to blunder ever since the beginning of the Arab Spring. It is vital that he doesn’t take another misstep and do anything, even in the name of the cause of democracy, that would serve to complicate the efforts of Egyptians seeking to stop the Brotherhood.

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