Thinking Aloud: The Drawbacks of Looking for a Regional Solution

Nov. 23, 2014 by Darius 

What’s the best way to go about intervening in a conflict zone?

One of George Washington University professor Bill Lawrence’s observations at the Middle East Institute’s annual conference on Thursday, was that the US tends to prefer regionalism when dealing with the world’s problems.  Regionalism means looking to neighboring countries to be part of the solution.  It sounds good in principle: Africa should solve Africa’s problems, the Middle East should solve the Middle East’s problems, etc.  The drawback, though, as Lawrence suggested, is that often, neighboring countries are very much a part of the problem.  They all have their own interests and agendas, and they push these agendas even while under the aegis of being the “solution.”

The United Nations often pursues a different alternative.  Because the UN is a worldwide organization, its peacekeepers are drawn from across the globe.  Peacekeepers intervening in a conflict are very often not from the same neighborhood at all.  To be sure, UN peacekeepers often face language difficulties—not many UN peacekeepers from Nepal, for example, speak the local language in an intervention in central Africa.  But the benefits are equally obvious: the Nepalese don’t have a horse in the local race, so to speak.  They can focus on solving the problem, not shaping the conflict to the benefit of their country.

Each conflict is different, so each solution should be, too.  Often, though, the UN’s approach of internationalism seems to get better results than the US’s approach of regionalism.  Every intervention faces challenges but impartiality is helpful in crafting an enduring resolution in a conflict zone.

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News You Really Need To See: “Europe Takes Stronger Measures, Albeit Symbolic, to Condemn Israeli Policies”

“Europe Takes Stronger Measures, Albeit Symbolic, to Condemn Israeli Policies”

The New York Times, November 23, 2014, p.A6

“European nations, Israel’s largest trading partners and a historical bastion of support, are taking stronger measures to support Palestinian sovereignty and condemn what many see as aggressive, expansionist Israeli policies.  After years of mounting frustrations widely expressed but rarely acted on, politicians from Britain, France, Spain and Sweden have embraced symbolic steps to pressure Israel into a more accommodating stance toward the Palestinians.  Last week, European Union foreign ministers issued a statement that condemned the growing violence in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, Israeli expropriation of land near Bethlehem in the West Bank, and plans for new settlement construction, and urged Israel to change its policy on Gaza. … Statements and nonbinding votes in support of a Palestinian state do not seem likely to have an immediate, tangible impact on Israel’s core political or economic interests.  Israel continues to enjoy good diplomatic relations with the major European powers.  Yet the actions reflect surging antipathy in Europe’s public discourse that threatens to drown out residual support for the Jewish state.  Many leaders do not rule out sanctions on Israeli interests, especially in territories beyond the country’s 1967 boundaries, if they see no progress toward a two-state solution.  The tone sharpened in response to the war in Gaza this summer and to continuing Israeli settlement expansion, which European leaders call illegal.  European diplomats have been discussing what actions the European Union might take — in addition to recognizing a Palestinian state, symbolically or otherwise — to promote a two-state solution in the absence of negotiations toward that end.  Perhaps most of all, said Vincent Fean, Britain’s consul general in Jerusalem from 2010 until this year, Europe is deeply troubled by ‘the one-state outcome, where Israel is heading fast.'”

Quickie Analysis:  Europe seems to be the only power truly willing to go to bat for the two-state solution by creating accountability.

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Thinking Aloud: Bill Lawrence on Tunisia

Nov. 22, 2014 by Darius 

Tunisians go to the polls tomorrow to choose their next president.  Earlier this week, I attended a panel discussion at the Middle East Institute’s annual conference.  One of the panelists was Bill Lawrence, currently a visiting professor at George Washington University and an expert on North Africa.  Lawrence had a number of very insightful comments about Tunisia.

According to Lawrence, there were really two revolutions in Tunisia.  The first was driven primarily by angry, rural men concentrated near the Algerian border.  The second was a much more urban, middle-class, gender-balanced and photogenic movement.  According to Lawrence, the first revolution largely failed, while the second largely succeeded.

These two revolutions have led to two distinct narratives emerging in Tunisia.  The first narrative, which stems primarily from the successful second revolution, is that Tunisia has succeeded against all odds.  Lawrence feels this success was not pre-ordained or due to prior conditions like Tunisia’s strong civic institutions but because the leaders of the primary political factions agreed to compromise on the major issues of contention.  The second narrative, which stems primarily from the failed first revolution, is that despite its initial successes, Tunisia is entering a very difficult period indeed.  To begin with, the economy is poor for all levels of society, largely due to continuing recession in Europe, on which Tunisia’s economy heavily depends.  Second, there is deep political disillusionment: 65% of Tunisians didn’t vote in the latest parliamentary elections.  Third, there is a security crisis stemming from events across Tunisia’s borders.  Many Tunisian fighters are returning from Syria and Iraq.  According to Lawrence, most of these fighters are thoroughly disillusioned with jihad, but some seek to continue the fight in Tunisia.  Finally, there remains the massive challenge of transitional justice.

Lawrence discussed how events outside of Tunisia are impacting Tunisia.  He quoted an old proverb: “When Libya and Algeria sneeze, Tunisia catches a cold.”  He said that all the countries influencing the conflict next door in Libya are also influencing Tunisia, or at least perceived as such.  Additionally, Lawrence felt the West’s non-action on General Sisi in Egypt created confusion for Tunisians and others in North Africa and the Middle East.  Previously, in the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring, people in Tunisia thought the West cared about democracy in the Middle East.  The West’s acceptance of Sisi, though, showed that the West didn’t care about democracy.  The result in Tunisia has been political indifference, alienation, and even jihadism.

Lawrence was optimistic about tomorrow’s elections, though.  He felt that many of the candidates on the ballot have the leadership skills necessary to be an effective president of Tunisia.

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News You Really Need To See: “In a Shift, Obama Extends U.S. Role in Afghan Combat”

“In a Shift, Obama Extends U.S. Role in Afghan Combat”

The New York Times, November 22, 2014, p.A1

“President Obama decided in recent weeks to authorize a more expansive mission for the military in Afghanistan in 2015 than originally planned, a move that ensures American troops will have a direct role in fighting in the war-ravaged country for at least another year.  Mr. Obama’s order allows American forces to carry out missions against theTaliban and other militant groups threatening American troops or the Afghan government, a broader mission than the president described to the public earlier this year, according to several administration, military and congressional officials with knowledge of the decision. The new authorization also allows American jets, bombers and drones to support Afghan troops on combat missions. … Mr. Obama’s decision, made during a White House meeting in recent weeks with his senior national security advisers, came over the objection of some of his top civilian aides, who argued that American lives should not be put at risk next year in any operations against the Taliban — and that they should have only a narrow counterterrorism mission against Al Qaeda.  But the military pushed back, and generals both at the Pentagon and in Afghanistan urged Mr. Obama to define the mission more broadly to allow American troops to attack the Taliban, the Haqqani network and other militants if intelligence revealed that the extremists were threatening American forces in the country. … In effect, Mr. Obama’s decision largely extends much of the current American military role for another year.  Mr. Obama and his aides were forced to make a decision because the 13-year old mission, Operation Enduring Freedom, is set to end on Dec. 31.”

Quickie Analysis:  The Afghan government certainly isn’t in a position to fend for itself.  You do what you have to do.

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Thinking Aloud: 2014 Global Terrorism Index

Nov. 21, 2014 by Darius 

This week, the Institute for Economics and Peace released its 2014 Global Terrorism Index.  Here are a few of the report’s main findings:

  • Nearly 18,000 people were killed by terrorist attacks worldwide last year, an increase of more than 60% from the previous year.
  • Iraq was the country most impacted by terrorism last year, suffering nearly 2,500 attacks, which caused more than 6,300 deaths. (Keep in mind: these numbers are for 2013 and highlight the persistent sectarian violence that preceded ISIS’s return to Iraq in the middle of 2014.)  Afghanistan and Pakistan were numbers two and three, respectively, while Nigeria and Syria rounded out the top five countries most impacted by terrorism.  More than 80% of global terrorism-related fatalities came in those five countries.  Perhaps surprisingly, India ranked as the sixth most-affected country.
  • Four terrorist groups (the Taliban, ISIS, al-Qaeda and Boko Haram) together caused 66% of terrorism-related fatalities last year.
  • Suicide attacks, despite their headline-grabbing nature, have accounted for only 5% of terrorist attacks since 2000.
  • There were 24 countries that experienced a terrorist attack that killed more than 50 people last year. On a more positive note, 75 countries did not experience a terrorist attack at all.
  • Terrorism does not occur in a vacuum, and it doesn’t come from nowhere: 90% of terrorist fatalities occurred in a country with gross human rights violations.

Finally, the report made the point that while terrorism is a major threat, it is not the primary danger to people around the world.  Regular homicides killed 40 times as many people as terrorist attacks around the world last year.

You can read the full report at

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News You Really Need To See: “France Tempers Iran Nuclear Stance in Nod to Wider Diplomatic Needs”

“France Tempers Iran Nuclear Stance in Nod to Wider Diplomatic Needs”

Reuters, November 21, 2014

“A year after France scuppered a deal on Iran’s nuclear program it is taking a softer stance in current talks, encouraged by a more inclusive U.S. approach and the knowledge that failure this year could have grim repercussions across the broader region. … The discovery last year that the U.S. was holding secret talks with the Iranians was an opportunity for France, by saying ‘no’ to a deal, to assert itself internationally and rebuke Washington for backing down on bombing Syria as punishment for using chemical arms.  It also helped Paris to cement new commercial ties with Gulf Arab states.  This time round however a failed agreement would have potentially dire consequences given Iran’s important role among international powers trying to push Islamic State out of Iraq and Syria and stabilize other parts of the Middle East.  That’s something France’s diplomats do not want to take responsibility for. … The Americans have also learned from last year: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has gone to great lengths to ensure that Paris is kept abreast of U.S.-Iran talks.”

Quickie Analysis:  Point made, economic benefits cashed in, France can now stop being a roadblock.  Now it’s someone else’s turn to do that.

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Thinking Aloud: “Reimagining Saudi Petro-Modernity”

Nov. 20, 2014 by Darius 

Earlier this week, I saw Yale history professor Rosie Bsheer talk about “Reimagining Saudi Petro-Modernity: History and Space in a Post-Rentier State.”  Behind the rather dense and scholarly title, Bsheer’s talk had a number of interesting observations about Saudi Arabia.

The modern Saudi state was founded in 1932 when the al-Saud family, which hailed from the interior of the country around Riyadh, defeated rivals to unify two geographically large kingdoms on the Arabian Peninsula.  The founding father of modern Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz al-Saud (also known as Ibn Saud), had been fighting first the Ottomans and later other Arab families, occasionally with the assistance of the British, for nearly 30 years before his creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  He ruled the kingdom for 21 years, until his death in 1953.  During his reign, oil was discovered in the kingdom’s Eastern Province, and the al-Saud family’s alliance with the US and with the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO) was firmly cemented.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Saudi state was confronted with a number of social movements promoting various “isms,” chief among them Communism and Nasserism.  With the help of ARAMCO, which Prof. Bsheer described as the State Department and CIA’s arm in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi royal family was able to counter these movements.

It was at this point that one of Ibn Saud’s successors, King Faisal, strengthened official Saudi ideology’s ties to Wahhabism—the fundamentalist form of Sunni Islam that the al-Saud family had been associated with since the 18th century—and especially Wahhabism’s tenet that obedience to the Saudi royal family was obedience to God.  The Saud family had used Wahhabism previously as a rallying cry to fight the more religiously liberal Ottomans and were using it now to fight secular nationalism.

It was also at that point that Faisal and his successors began in earnest to craft an official Saudi narrative concerning the formation of the Saudi state.  This narrative claims that there was a continuous Saudi state, ruled of course by the al-Saud family, stretching from the 18th century to the present.  This continuity is the basis for modern Saudi identity.

According to Bsheer, the Saudi state faced its greatest internal challenge in the aftermath of the 1990-91 Gulf War.  For the first time, the royal family’s political opponents used its own Wahhabist ideology against it.  The opposition, largely made up of clerics, alleged that the Saud family was (a) not truly Muslim, since it allowed US troops to be based on Saudi soil, (b) promoted great social inequality, and (c) was completely dependent on foreign powers.  In response, the Saudi royal family embarked on a plan to maintain their legitimacy by harnessing the power of history and diversifying the economy.

Bsheer explained these divergent goals through the strikingly different treatment of the history of Mecca, the location of Islam’s holiest shrine, and Riyadh, the traditional power base of the Sauds.  Historic Mecca has been largely demolished and redeveloped.  This development has accomplished three things important for the Saudi regime.  First, it has kept the clerics happy, since their Wahhabist version of Islam prohibits anything that looks remotely like idol worship, including veneration of tombs and other historic sites.  Second, it removes from sight “alternate” versions of history, since Mecca and its surroundings were not actually under Saud family control for most of history.  Finally, the redevelopment of Mecca helps bring in tourism revenues and economic diversification.  For example, a major hotel complex directly adjacent to the Grand Mosque has been declared to be theologically equivalent to being in the Grand Mosque itself.  For $3,000 per night, wealthy visitors can do much of their pilgrimage duties without encountering the crowds outside the hotel.  As a result of Mecca’s development, real estate in the heart of Mecca sells for $9,000 per square foot—compared with $2,000 per square foot in New York City.

In Riyadh, the royal family has taken a sharply different approach.  There, historical buildings, forts, and other places have been memorialized, restored, and publicized.  Historic Riyadh is seen as “proof” of the al-Saud family’s right to rule.

Bsheer also devoted considerable time to detailing the Saudi state’s relationship with archives.  In Saudi Arabia today, several factions of the royal family all maintain separate archives, and many private families, including powerful families that challenged Saudi rule, have private archives as well.  In the last few years, there has been a push from a high-ranking prince to centralize the archives into one collection—ostensibly to preserve them but in Bsheer’s view to make inaccessible any documents that demonstrate a history of Arabian pluralism contrary to what the regime seeks to promote.  The royal family is taking such great pains to ensure that they maintain a lid on history that, according to Bsheer, the first thing the Saudi government did after the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt was to dispatch a “cultural mission” to ensure that Egyptian archives detailing Egypt’s “Cold War” with Saudi Arabia in the 1950s-1970s remained sealed.  Other sensitive stories in modern Saudi history that the royal family wants to control or suppress include the regime’s treatment of the social movements of the 1950s and ‘60s and the controversial 11-year reign and eventual internal family overthrow of Ibn Saud’s first successor, King Saud.  Interestingly, Bsheer noted that many U.S. documents dealing with Saudi Arabia from this period are also still classified.

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