Archive for February, 2011

A Tale of Two Dictators

Posted in Egypt, Middle East Conflict, Middle East Peace, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , on February 27, 2011 by whatafteriraq

Neighboring Egypt and Libya are two very different places in many respects. Egypt’s historical pedigree is one of the oldest, and it is among the world’s civilizations, whereas Libya has historically been someplace that others occupied: the Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Ottomans, Italians, and after World War II, the British and the French. Egypt has also known its share of overlordship from the outside, but it still retains a historical pride manifested by its monuments to fallen pharoahs, the Pyramids. The Libyans have, well, sand.

Libya is physically a much bigger place than Egypt, with an area almost six times that of Egypt (680,000 square miles to 109,000 square miles of Egypt), but it has far fewer people (a little over 80 million Egyptians and about 6.5 million Libyans). Most of Libya’s territory is uninhabited desert wasteland, whereas the Nile Valley provides an inhabitable base for so many more Egyptians. The one thing of value that Libya has in its favor is oil: there are an estimated 43.76 billion barrels of sweet Libyan oil under the Libyan sands, compared to a paltry 4.76 billion barrels under Egypt (principally in the Sinai Desert,the discovery and exploitation of which was compliments of Israel during its occupation following the 1967 war. Without oil, Libya is not much of a world factor; Egypt is the largest power in the region, oil or not.

The other thing that contemporary Egyptians and Libyans have in common is that both have lived for long periods under authoritarian rule. Hosni Mubarak, until his recent cessation of rule (it may be more accurate but unnecessarily unkind to say his overthrow), had been in charge of Egypt for 32 years; Muammar Qaddadi, by contrast, has beenin power for 42 years of, shall we say, unsaintly rule. His passing from the roster of world heads of government will likely be lamented even less than Mubarak’s.

Both of these former air force officers presided over governments that were cruel, corrupt, and highly authoritarian, and it is little wonder that both accumulated–at least among those of their detractors they did not kill–a sizable level of opposition. In Egypt, the opposition congregated in Tahrir Square and grew (was allowed to grow?) until it reached such proportions that Mubarak was forced to step aside. Qaddafi, maybe learning from what transpired across his border, offers no such quarter to his growing opposition. When his own troops have shown reluctance to slaughter their fellow citizens, he has simply hired outside goons with no such compunction to do the dirty work. As the anti-Qaddafi revolution moves closer to Tripoli, Qaddafi is hunkering down and vowing to fight to the death. No graceful exit appears possible here, as in Egypt.

The two dictators do indeed offer different tales as power has slipped through their fingers. Mubarak always had the flair and charisma of your average mop handle, but when the inevitable began to surround him, he also had the dignity to step aside after seeing his pleas to his fellow citizens to let him stay rejected in the streets. He may have had to resign in some level of disgrace, but at least he has accepted his fate. How the Egyptian people will ultimately deal with him is uncertain, but it is unlikely the disposition will be as violent as the fate that met Saddam Hussein.

Qaddafi, however, is displaying the same kind of psychotic bravado that he always hasas the flames lick at his heels. Qaddafi is, and always has been, flamboyant, from his outlandish dress to his Castro-like (and length) rants about all who were out to get him. Mubarak will be remembered, Soviet-style, for his black suits, white shirts, and black ties; Qaddafi will be remembered for looking like something out of Haight-Ashbury during the height of the drug culture. He says he plans to live and die in Libya; it looks increasingly like he had better choose between the latter or living out his life somewhere else.

The other thing that strikes me about the contrast between the two people and places is how the United States is dealing with them. President Obama has been criticized (I think unfairly) for being too slow to dump Mubarak and come over to the revolution against him. This represents, in my view, two contradictory characteristics of American relations with Mubarak and a whole lot of other dictators with whom we have dealt in the past. The first, and guiding characteristic, has been that these dictators have been loyal allies, willing to cooperate with the United States in whatever we asked or demanded of them, whether it be opposition to communism or terrorism or, in the case of Egypt, making nice with Israel. This has, in turn, led to the second characteristic, which has been an American policy that has looked the other way regarding the untoward behavior of our friends and allies (while working behind the scenes to get them to clean up their acts). The result has been to align ourselves with regimes who support our geopolitical preferences but whose behavior toward their own citizens violates all or most of what Americans stand for. When things come unravelled, we are thus stuck with the dual emotions of gratitude for friendship and loathing of the records of our friends (and thus support for those who seek to overthrow them).

None of this is a problem with Qaddafi. He has never been a friend or ally of the United States–if anything, he has always been our opponent. It was his regime, after all, that blew up the Berlin nightclub that became a major reason for our 1986 air strike against him and the attack on Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland (which was at least in part a retaliation for the 1986 raid). Qaddafi has, in recent years, backed away from some of his more egregious behavior (e.g. weapons of mass destruction programs), but has never been anything resembling a friend (and we get hardly any oil from him). 

In these circumstances, there are no nostalgic obligations to come to the aid of an old ally as the Libyan noose tightens around the dictator’s neck. Instead of hedging and softening our criticism because we owe him for past favors, we are free to denounce Qaddafi and enthusiastically join the chorus demanding his removal, as the President has done. Having stayed out of the Libyan muck, we don’t have to take a shower before joining the dissent, and there is no hypocrisy in our support for transplanting American values onto another shore.  That, of course, feels pretty good. Maybe it even suggests which tale to replicate in dealing with tomorrow’s dictators and their inevitable decline. Just a thought.

What Do We Wish For in the Middle East?

Posted in Egypt, Middle East Conflict, Middle East Peace, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , , , , on February 20, 2011 by whatafteriraq

There is an old saw that says, “Be careful what you wish for. You might just get it.” As the demonstrations/uprisings/potential revolutions continue to spread across the Middle East, it seems to me not an inappropriate consideration for the United States and the American people as we look at all this. What exactly do we wish for in the Middle East?

Answering that question begins with a problem. Who is the “we” we are talking about? To most Americans who have little understanding or detailed interest in the region, this may be a question that goes beyond their ability to answer in anything but the most general terms, and if pressed, the answer would clearly be something like freedom and democracy in the area, conditions we hold dear and believe represent the universal aspiration of all exposed to them. This Wilsonian image is not one that “savvy” elites can openly disdain, but it does not necessarily represent what they stand for or believe is realistic to attain. Their answer would, and generally has been, more veiled and geopolitical. In essence, it boils down to a preference for stability in the region, either to keep the flow of oil moving or to protect Israel from its enemies–the two most generally ascribed goals.

These two goals–freedom and stability–may be theoretically linked, but in fact they are often at odds with one another. Democratic peace theorists maintain they are compatible, at least in the long run, since free people living in democratic societies do not make war on one another, and that thus a democratized Middle East will become a peaceful one in the process. This explanation had public “legs” during the Bush neo-conservative foreign policy years, but it rarely got translated into policy. Oil, and in their case especially Israeli, security were more important goals, and so we talked democracy (e.g. Iraq) out of one side of our mouths while supporting those who preached stability behind the curtains. The problem was that actions and words were incompatible, and the movements that started in Tunisia and have landed most recently in Bahrain and Libya have pulled the veil away and left us with the stark choice: do we prefer non-democratic, sometimes authoritarian and repressive, regimes that emphasize order and stability, or do we want democracy and freedom for people who may express that freedom in ways we consider destabilizing? What do we wish for?

Because of the way we have answered that question in the past, the implications of our answer yield cloudy projections about the future. In regard to Egypt, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon made a deal in the 1970sthat put the United States firmly behind stability (in this case, the defanging of the war potential between Egypt and Israel) by agreeing to buy off both with military subsidies, a form of bribe continued gleefully by Hosni Mubarak for thirty years. In the process, freedom and democracy for Egyptians were sublimated as American goals at the altar of geopolitics. If Egyptians today are a tad suspicious when President Obama extols the emergence of freedom and democracy in their country, it should not be entirely surprising if the average Egyptian in the street treats our pronouncement with a grain of salt. In Bahrain,we have averted our gaze from Sunni suppression of the Shii majority because of our basing agreement for the Fifth Fleet. In Yemen, we have supported autocracy because the government promises to suppress Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula hiding in its remote mountains. In the past few days, the Yemeni people have gone into the streets and we worry publicly that if they are successful in their quest for freedom, it might embolden and strengthen Al Qaeda. In Libya, we can at least generally support those who are demonstrating for freedom, althoughwe have snuck quietly into bed with Muammar Qaddafi in a number of areas since he renounced nuclear weapons.

Publicly wishing for the success of those seeking freedom in the Middle East is a real policy shift for the United States. The end result of these movements, if they succeed, may be positive and stabilizing: it does not make much sense for us to profess evangelical adherence to democracy promotion if it will not. The process of moving from autocracy to democracy is not a linear or necessarily neat or stable process, however, and it is one fraught with the kinds of uncertainties that policy makers hate. What are not currently anti-American movements across the region (and it has been remarkable how little anti-Americanism has been expressed in them to this point) could turn on us, particularly if we somehow back our old buddies who are the objects of these movements. If our old friends succeed in putting the lid back on, they may reasonably wonder why we did not come more forthrightly to their defense and wonder about our steadfastness in the future. Our Israeli allies are particularly concerned that the movements could turn anti-Israeli, probably one reason they have, quite appropriately, kept their mouths shut through all this to date. And there is always the question of the oil.

All this suggests, as the old saw at the beginning states, is that we need to be careful what we wish for in all this. We are apparently backing the aspirations of those in the steeets, at least partly because it is hard to back the tank drivers and infantrymen who execute repression in places like Libya we see on global television. We wish for freedom but must recognize that we may not like what we get, at least in the short run. Behind the curtain, we also wish for stability and want to hedge our bets by supporting those who have maintained stability for so long. But what if they lose? Or more embarassingly, what if such efforts get “Wikileaked” and we are exposed as Oz-like humbugs or hypocrites? Which is better, which is worse?

Headless, Bottom-Up Revolution

Posted in Egypt, Middle East Conflict, Middle East Peace with tags , , , , , on February 13, 2011 by whatafteriraq

Now that Hosni Mubarak has finally ceded power and the demonstrators are filtering out of Tahrir Square (ready at an instant to return if they think the situation warrants it), there are more questions than answered about wht what happened occurred, and what all this means for the future of Egypt, and American interests in the Middle East. What happens now?

Anyone who thinks they can answer that question today with any certitude is kidding himself or herself. The quest for understanding what all this means for the future lies in the dynamics of what has just occurred, for at least two reasons. The first is that the underlying dynamics of the Egyptian uprising probably have within them somewhere the kernel of where the situation will head next. Unfortunately, we cannot be sure at this point. Second, the dynamics will also offer some as yet unknown guidance about how much the dynamics of Egypt are idiosyncratic or generalizble to other places. Still don’t know that either.

What is fairly clear (if not all that illuminating for either question) is that this was very much a bottom-up uprising that was started and proceeded without any obvious leadership. Its motive force was decidely populist–aimed at overthrowing an octogenarian dictator and replacing him with a people-run democracy. The first part of the goal was easy to articulate–it was a succinct, bumper-sticker kind of appeal. It was also a message of the kind and length that fits very well into the method by which it was spread, electronic social media. Moreover, its achievement was a discreet, measurable thing–the demonstrators stayed until Mubarak was gone. Game, set, but not yet match!

The problem, of course, is translating the bumper-sticker, “tweet” slogan of democracy into something meaningful. Doing so is immeasurably more difficult than the first part, for at least three reasons. One is that it is a goal not universally shared, within or outside Egypt. Does the ruling elite in Egypt really want democratization, given they benefited from and were associated with the autocracy? When the Egyptian prime minister went on state television today and said that restoring order was the first task, he was, of course, right in one sense, but is “order” a code word for returned repression? And can he be trusted, given that he was Mubarak’s prime minister? Even assuming the rank-and-file and younger officers of the Egyptian army support the popular movement, what about their leaders, who were, in many cases, cronies of the departed president? The Army is currently in charge, and they have not yet acted against the demonstrators. But can they be trusted to stay that way?

Outside Egypt, there is similar, if less overtly stated opposition. The Israelis in particular were comfortable with Mubarak because he was “the devil we know,” and they are almost certainly going to be less happy with whoever follows. The Army says it will honor the peace treaty, and there has been nothing that anyone within the “movement” has said that indicates that a democratic Egypt is violently anti-Israeli. At the same time, Israel and Mubarak are equated in many Egyptian minds. Similarly, the American government has also operated from the assumption that Mubarak was our stalwart in the region because he brought “stability.” It is not the first time we have backed a despot because of his commitment to a status quo with which we were happy; such support often turns sour, however, and we hope our long-time support for Mubarak will not translate into an anti-American successor. If it does, however, we will largely have no one to blame but ourselves.

The second reason is that since the revolution is headless, it is also in a sense mindless. What I mean by that is that there is no coherent philosophical base on which the demonstrators can base an orderly progression toward their generalized goal of democracy. The reason is, of course, the lack of revolutionary leadership, itself the large result of Mubarak’s systematic, 30-year suppression of anybody who opposed him. Somewhere out there is the next leadership, but it probably does not know who it is or what it will try to do, and neither do we. The hope is, of course, that it will be a leadership devoted to what we (and hopefully the Egyptians themselves) hope it is–movement toeard a secular democracy. But maybe it is not, which is the great fear for Egypt and its contagious potential. Third, fashioning and creating a new, democratic system is a lot more complicated and time-consuming than tearing the old one down. That takes leadership and intellectual coherence that has not yet popped to the surface.  

The Egyptian uprising stands on the cusp of Crane Brinton’s (Anatomy of Revolution) classic second step, “the reign of terror and virtue.” It is the unsettled period, when the most radical elements come out and in the struggle for power various groups emerge and vie for defining what is virtue. Every real revolution has such a period, which will eventually be followed by a cooling off period in which the winners consolidate the outcome (Brinton’s thermidor). The question is whether this stage becomes radicalized or not: in the American Revolution, it did not (although the British of the time would not have agreed); in Russia and France (two of Brinton’s other case studies) it did. Which way will Egypt go?

One can become too readily apocalytical about the prospects. Egypt is, happily, not Iran, which makes its headlessness a virtue of sorts: in radical fundamentalist Iran and its spokesman Ruhollah Khomeini, the Iranians had a charismatic leader who defined virtue and commissioned the terror to implement it; Egypt does not. Whether the Egyptian movement will follow a path toward the kind of democracy–secular sounds nice to us, but probably not so much to Muslim Egyptians–that would be a beacon to the region is still an open question the answer which will depend on what Egyptians and outsiders (but especially Egyptians) do in the months that follow. Sitting and waiting for what happens next is hard for activist Americans to do, but it is probably the best we can do.

Whence Egypt?

Posted in Diplomacy, Egypt, Middle East Conflict, Middle East Peace with tags , , , , , on February 6, 2011 by whatafteriraq

The news columns and airwaves are filled with speculation about what may happen next in Egypt. Egyptian president/strong man Hosni Mubarak is hanging on by his fingernails, having dismissed virtually everyone (except his former colleagues and supporters in the military) to try to assuage the throngs on the Cairo streets, but it is clear that the demonstrations will not end until he physically steps down. What remains of this phase of the process of change in Egypt (the removal of the old guard) is mostly negotiating the terms of departure.

This in itself is proving tricky, for two reasons. One is about what happens to Mubarak physically in the process. The president said in his interview with ABC News this week that he does not intend to leave the country–that he plans to die on Egyptian soil–but his detractors insist he must physically leave the scene–depart Egypt. This could all be solved either by letting him go somewhere in internal exile within Egypt, but the demonstrators do not trust him enough to want him to do so. A temporary exit from the country–an overseas “vacation” that included assurances he could return into retirementat some point–might satisfy the demonstrators, but Mubarak is likely to balk, for fear (probably well deserved) that a new government would renege on the promise to let him return to die on Egyptian soil. The other possibilities–he is simply allowed to stay, serve out his term, and then retire somewhere within the country or that he be consigned to permanent exile–will not please both sides. Fortunately, no one has yet suggested seriously a Shah of Iran or Saddam Hussein solution.

The other tricky part of the equation is that the uprising (and, at this point, it is pretentious to call it more) is headless. Neither what is left of the Mubarak government, the Egyptian military, or international intermediaries can negotiate with a quarter-million person assemblage. This is apparently a true “people’s” movement. The good news is that it apparently represents popular sentiment among a lot of Egyptians; the not so good news is that it has no leaders with whom to discuss what happens next. It is not at all clear how much of the popular will is represented by those trying to set up a process for orderly succession.

The headless nature of the movement is, of course, a result of the kind of regime that Mubarak has run and which we in the West (including prominently the United States and Israel in the current context) have at least implicitly endorsed with continuing diplomatic and economic support. A central feature of that authoritarian regime has been the systematic elimination of all forms of political opposition, almost all of which is either dead, imprisoned, or forced into an exile that has separated them from the people. The American and Israeli government have turned an essentially blind eye toward all this, because Mubarak has played a positive role in promoting a more stable (which is to say not anti-American) region that does not threaten Israel. Mubarak has been”the devil we know,” and now we are looking to see who the devil we may not know is. Unfortunately, supporting Mubarak has meant we have also supported his elimination of successors (other than his unpopular son Gamal), so our ability to identify successors is limited by the paucity of obvious choices. This also, of course, means it is hard for us to choose our own personal preference for the succession.

Lacking someone whom we would like to see come to power is not entirely bad. The uprising has not turned anti-American (except, interestingly, among Mubarak  “supporters” among the demonstrators, most of whom are almost certainly government employees) to this point, and one reason is that there is no American choice around which to organize resistance. The case is even clearer with regard to Israeli preferences: I cannot imagine any more effective way to to discredit an aspirant to power in Egypt than to bestow on him or her with the Israeli seal of approval. We have kept our mouths shut about successors, which probably means that the popular will is less likely to produce a violently anti-American successor than it would if we found another Ahmed Chalabi and tried to promote him. It also means we are rolling the dice more on the outcome, but that is probably better than acting in such a way as to create a self-fulfilling prophecy of an outcome that injures our interests. Although they will have to swallow hard to admit it, the same is true for the Israelis.

The unsettling part of all this is to leave us as interested bystanders in how this all evolves. To this point, the Obama administration has been entirely appropriately restrained in its role, admonishing Mubarak to give up power and the demonstrators to remain peaceful. Nick Kristof captured the public side of this approach in his “We are all Egyptians” column earlier in the week in the New York Times.

In this unsettled atmosphere, one can only speculate about where this all is heading: whence Egypt? In today’s (2/6/11) Washington Post, the headline of Janine Zacharia’s column suggests possible analogies with Gdansk, Poland (a true popular uprising with a spreading democratic outcome), Beijing (a suppression like thay in 1989), or Tehran (an Islamist fundamentalist outcome), and Stanford political scientist Larry Diamond suggests a South African possibility (gradual democratic takeover). To the extent analogies are ever very precise, Gdansk or South Africa are clearly more desirable from our vantage point, Bejing and especially Tehran clearly less desirable.

Which way will it all play out? Will Cairo turn out analogously to recent predecessors, or will it be sui generis? I have a feeling the latter is likely to be the case, but I don’t feel qualified to predict what that will mean. And probably, those in the middle of the process don’t know either.