I think it's safe to say that the Middle East is in flux. It's during moments like these, when uncertainty seems to be pretty high, that a grand strategy is useful. A key point of a good grand strategy is to guide action when new circumstances present themselves. I wrote about Obama's grand strategy a few years ago -- has his thinking changed? What is the United States foreign policy machinery currently thinking?
the White House staff leaking an explanation the New York Times' Mark Landler, we have something in the way of an answer. Susan Rice has a plan:
Each Saturday morning in July and August,Susan E. Rice, President Obama’s new national security adviser, gathered half a dozen aides in her corner office in the White House to plot America’s future in the Middle East. The policy review, a kind of midcourse correction, has set the United States on a new heading in the world’s most turbulent region.
At the United Nations last month, Mr. Obama laid out the priorities he has adopted as a result of the review. The United States, he declared, would focus on negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, brokering peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians and mitigating the strife in Syria. Everything else would take a back seat.
That includes Egypt, which was once a central pillar of American foreign policy. Mr. Obama, who hailed the crowds on the streets of Cairo in 2011 and pledged to heed the cries for change across the region, made clear that there were limits to what the United States would do to nurture democracy, whether there, or in Bahrain, Libya, Tunisia or Yemen.
The president’s goal, said Ms. Rice, who discussed the review for the first time in an interview last week, is to avoid having events in the Middle East swallow his foreign policy agenda, as it had those of presidents before him....
[NSC coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Philip] Gordon took part in the Saturday sessions, along with two of Ms. Rice’s deputies, Antony J. Blinken and Benjamin J. Rhodes; the national security adviser to the vice president, Jake Sullivan; the president’s counterterrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco; a senior economic official, Caroline Atkinson; and a handful of others.
It was a tight group that included no one outside the White House, a stark contrast to Mr. Obama’s Afghanistan review in 2009, which involved dozens of officials from the Pentagon, the State Department, and the Central Intelligence Agency. Ms. Rice said she briefed Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel over weekly lunches.
Some priorities were clear. The election of Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran presents the West with perhaps its last good chance to curb its nuclear program. Mr. Rouhani has a mandate to ease sanctions on Iran and has signaled an eagerness to negotiate.
But other goals appear to have been dictated as much as by personnel as by policy. After vigorous debate, the group decided to make the Middle East peace process a top priority — even after failing to broker an agreement during the administration’s first term — in part because Mr. Kerry had already thrown himself into the role of peacemaker.
More than anything, the policy review was driven by Mr. Obama’s desire to turn his gaze elsewhere, notably Asia.
Now, on the strategic level, there's some compelling logic to having the president focus more on the Pacific Rim than the Middle East. The whole point of the rebalancing strategy in the first place was to prioritize scarce U.S. resources towards those parts of the globe that are deemed economically dynamic and strategically significant. That's the Pacific Rim, and it sure as hell ain't the Middle East.
That said, there are some reasons to be perturbed after reading Landler's article. Walter Russell Mead has pointed out one possible logical flaw:
There’s... a tension between the top two objectives. The tougher the US is on Iran, the more leverage it has pushing Israel toward concessions on the Palestinians. The more risks the administration takes and concessions it makes to get a deal with Iran, the tighter the Israelis are tempted to circle the wagons. Pursuing both objectives simultaneously risks a car crash, but then the Middle East is littered with wrecked cars from this and past administrations.
This is a good point, and it would trouble me more if I believed that the White House really cared that much about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Landler's article suggests, however, that this is not the case. Rather, it seems clear that the administration has put that item on its strategic priorities list because John Kerry has leaned in. From the White House perspective, it seems like the WMD issue -- which covers both Iran and Syria -- is the only priority.
Is this a good strategy? Well, no.... because this isn't so much a strategy as a list of presidential priorities. On the one hand, the priorities seem just about right. Iran is the most important issue for the United States in the Middle East. A world in which Iran's nuclear program is no longer perceived as a threat opens up all sorts of intriguing possibilities.
Establishing priorities is a useful starting point for developing a regional strategy -- but it can't end there. I can only hope the NSC is also thinking about the following:
1) The means to achieve success in Iran and Israel/Palestine;
2) Response strategies in case negotiations with Iran or those between Israel and Palestine break down/never start up. Or, in the case of Iran, next steps if a deal is actually brokered -- just how far can/should an Iranian/American rapprochement go?
3) Wild card contingencies -- what happens if Al Qaeda establishes a safe haven in Syria? What happens if the Egyptian government disintegrates? What happens if Saudi Arabia or Israel decide that they don't trust the Iranians no matter what deal they sign?
4) Coordinating the rest of the foreign policy bureaucracy. Remember them? It's fine for the White House to establish the administration's foreign policy priorities. But it sure would help if there was some better interagency policy coordination about what to do on these issues. Not to mention....
5) The back seat stuff. Just because President Obama doesn't want to devote his scarce time to democratization in the Middle East means the rest of the U.S. foreign policy machinery can kick back and go on cruise control. Indeed, it is precisely when the president is not engaged on an issue that it matters what the rest of the government is doing.
And the U.S. government needs to be doing something on these other questions. The thing about being the most powerful country in the world is that the idea of complete non-intervention is an illusion. There's always an incentive for one actor or another to pull you back in. The only way that the United States can cope with this is to articulate policies and strategies even in those areas where President Obama doesn't care. It's the only way the U.S. can pursue its foreign policy rather than simply react to others' foreign policy.
Am I missing anything?
I go on vacation for one week -- one week -- and all hell breaks loose in Egypt.
Unfortunately, given this morning's events, it seems increasingly likely that the best-case scenario for last week's coup will not come to pass. In the wake of today's violence, the New York Times' David Kirkpatrick reports that the broad-based coalition backing the extralegal change in power is now less broad-based:
A party of ultraconservative Islamists that emerged as an unexpected political kingmaker in Egypt after the military’s ouster of President Mohamed Morsi said on Monday that it was suspending its participation in efforts to form an interim government.
A spokesman for the Al Nour party said its decision was a reaction to a “massacre” hours earlier at an officers’ club here in which security officials said more than 40 people had been killed. The decision brought new complexities and unanswered questions to the effort to create a transitional political order.
The Al Nour party was the only Islamist party to support removing Mr. Morsi, despite his ties to the more moderate Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood. And the sight of Al Nour’s bearded sheik, standing behind the general who announced the takeover on television, was the only signal to Egyptian voters that the move had not been an attack on Islam, as some of the ousted president’s supporters are saying.
With continued unrest now seemingly guaranteed, a rather delicate question is gonna be raised: who pays for Egypt?
I mean that question literally. One of the reasons that Morsi was ousted was that the Egyptian economy was in freefall prior to the 2011 power transition, and Morsi did not help matters
in no small part due to the instability generated by the 2011 power transition:
It's not like another power transition is gonna make things more stable in the short run.
Egypt's bloated state sector is an economic problem, but at the moment it's also a political problem. Simply put, someone has to pay the salaries. Furthermore, if this public opinion data suggests anything, it's that the only way to sustain the support of the Egyptian people is to revive the economy.... making the Egyptians remarkably similar to everyone else in the globe.
So, who will be Egypt's benefactor? It was supposed to be the IMF, but as the Wall Street Journal's Ian Talley noted last week, the coup complicates matters greatly:
The deposing of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi by the military Wednesday likely freezes any chance for an International Monetary Fund bailout for the ailing economy until an internationally-recognized government is installed.
In recent months, a handful of neighboring countries such as Qatar have been keeping Egypt’s economy afloat by loaning the country’s central bank cash. That has bought Morsi government time to delay implementing the politically-sensitive measures the IMF has sought as a precondition before it gives Cairo a $4.8 billion credit line. In particular, the IMF had said that Egypt must raise taxes and begin phasing out fuel subsidies.
It’s not the only cash at stake. Other international donors have vowed another $9.7 billion for the country once the IMF program is in place. Roughly $1.55 billion in bilateral aid from Washington could also be held up: under U.S. law, the administration can’t loan money to countries where the military is involved in an unconstitutional change in government.
If this Financial Times story by Borzou Daragahi is correct, however, then it looks like the new Egyptian government is gonna try to do the same thing that the old Egyptian government did -- look to benefactors in the Persian Gulf:
Egypt’s central bank governor flew to Abu Dhabi on Sunday to drum up badly needed financial support as cracks appeared within the political coalition that backed last week’s military overthrow of the country’s first elected leader....
The central bank announced on Sunday that the country’s foreign currency and gold reserves had dropped to $14.9bn at the end of June, down from $16bn a month earlier and $36bn at the start of the January 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak....
The United Arab Emirates, which pledged $3bn in aid for Egypt in 2011 but never disbursed any, and Saudi Arabia have been the principal foreign backers of overthrowing Mr Morsi. One Egyptian official was cited by local media at the weekend as saying that Riyadh had agreed to a $500m loan to Egypt.
Qatar had been one of the biggest foreign backers of Mr Morsi and his Brotherhood, having pledged some $8bn in aid to his government. It was unclear if Mr Ramez would be travelling to Doha.
A close read of that last story suggests two things. First, the money from Qatar has likely dried up. Second, the sums that the other Gulf states are pledging are not gonna be enough to stop Egypt from having to go back to the IMF. [It's possible that the Gulf states -- particularly the Saudis -- will decide to pump even more money into Egypt. That said, again, today's events might make it juuuust a bit more awkward for the Saudis to do that.]
Please bear all of this in mind as you read about the alleged decline of U.S. influence in the region. There's a difference between declining salience and declining influence. Because if I'm reading this correctly, Egypt will have no choice but to go back to the IMF -- and the United States still has a wee bit of influence within that international organization.
Am I missing anything?
Your humble blogger has been pretty quiet about this week's Israeli/Hamas conflict. That's for a bunch of reasons:
1) I've had a few day job papers to bang out;
3) My bar to blogging about Israel and Palestine is whether I can offer anything more insightful than The Onion. It's a disturbingly high bar.
That said, I do think there are a few interesting political science questions that are worth asking after the past week. After all, we've just had an election in this country where it turns out that political science explained an awful goddamned lot. I wonder if some of that knowledge is being imbibed -- in uneven amounts -- in the Middle East.
In particular, I have three questions:
1) Has Bibi Netanyahu been reading Romer and Rosenthal? One of the landmark articles in political science is Thomas Romer and Howard Rosenthal's paper on the effect of the status quo on political positioning. One of the key takeaways is that in a two candidate race, if Candidate A takes an extreme position on the central policy issue, it allows Candidate B to adopt a policy position that is further away from the median voter and still win.
After reading Ethan Bronner's story in the New York Times on how the Gaza conflict is radicalizing the West Bank away from Fatah and towards Hamas (see also Haaretz), I wonder if Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu has figured out the following political jujitsu:
STEP 1: Take actions that radicalize the Palestinian population -- particularly in the West Bank;
STEP 2: Have Fatah look less and less like a credible negotiating partner, have the world acknowledge that Hamas now represents the median Palestinian preference on peace talks;
STEP 3: Have Likus win Israeli election without changing its policy position, which suddenly doesn't look so bad to Israeli voters.
Actually, I'd posit that there's an element of this in the Israeli's right's strategy of the past decade, but it seems to be particularly blatant this time around.
2) Has Hamas been reading Stephen Walt? And if so, which Stephen Walt? No, I don't mean that Stephen Walt. I mean the author of The Origins of Alliances and Revolution and War. I bring this up cause those books would offer contrasting takes on what Hamas would expect the rest of the Middle East to do. It seems pretty clear from the press reportage that Hamas believed that This Time Was Different: the Arab Spring had eliminated authoritarian despots who had used the Palestinian issue as a useful vent for domestic unrest. Newly democratic regimes would -- according to Walt's Revolution and War -- be more likely to identify with Hamas' cause, thereby taking more aggressive action to undermine and isolate Israel. And, indeed, at the rhetorical and symbolic level, this has happened. Libya is sending a "solidarity delegation" to Gaza, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has labeled Israel a "terrorist state," and Egypt's Morsi governmment has been pretty plain in blaming Israel for the latest hostilities.
The thing is, my bet would be on Walt's Origins of Alliances playing the larger role here. What's interesting about Arab government's reactions to this Operation Pillar of Defense is that they seem.... an awful lot like how Mubarak et al would have reacted. It would seem that once Islamic movements are charged with running a government, they suddenly start to care about things other than the occupied territories (this appears to be Dennis Ross' take as well, by the way). For example, I'd argue that these negotiations matter far more to the Morsi government than brokering a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.
3) Does the Israeli right really want to make U.S. Middle East policy a partisan football? CNN polled Americans on the conflict in Gaza, and just like every other poll on this question, Americans backed Israel pretty strongly. 57% of American sympathize with the Israelis; only 13% side with the Palestinians. But as The Weekly Standard's Daniel Halper notes, there's a catch:
CNN's poll director, Keating Holland, finds that there is a great discrepancy in which Americans think the action is justified, however. Of particular note is that only about 40 percent of Democrats believe the self-defense measures are "justified."
"Although most Americans think the Israeli actions are justified, there are key segments of the public who don't necessarily feel that way," Holland tells CNN. "Only four in ten Democrats think the Israeli actions in Gaza are justified, compared to 74% of Republicans and 59% of independents. Support for Israel's military action is 13 points higher among men than among women, and 15 points higher among older Americans than among younger Americans."
Now, you can speculate all you want about the source of this partisan divergence -- *COUGH* Netanyahu gambled on Obama being a one-termer and lost *COUGH* -- but friends of Israel should be disturbed by this growing split. If Israel becomes a partisan issue, it's not really going to help Republicans all that much, because all it will do is mobilize the evangelical vote -- which they've already pocketed. And eventually, Israel will have to face a Democratic president with a base that no longer cares about Israel's security. That's not going to be a good day for Israel.
[Yeah, we still liked the Onion story better--ed. Yeah, me too.]
It's been half a year since I did a bloggingheads, so Heather Hurlburt and I donned our headsets to gab away on Mitt Romney's foreign policy travails, the negotiations with Iran, and Egypt's elections. It's the perfect way to while away your Friday morning. The bonus comes when I utter the words "Bolton-curious":
Your humble blogger is busy
going into carbohydrate withdrawal celebrating Passover this week. I blogged about the international relations implications of this holiday a few years ago -- but that was pre-Arab Spring. This (and a few glasses of kosher wine) got me to thinking: what would happen if the event that inspires the Passover holiday -- the Exodus -- were to happen today?
With apologies to Colum Lynch, I suspect the reportage would be something like this:
U.N. SECURITY COUNCIL MEETING ON JEWISH EXODUS ENDS IN CHAOS: Permanent Five split on who to sanction for loss of life
Colum Lynch, Foreign Policy
NEW YORK: Attempts by the U.N. Security Council to reach consensus on an approach to the situation in Egypt came to naught earlier today, as different members of the Security Council blamed different actors in the region for the growing human rights and humanitarian disaster.
U.S. Ambassdor to the United Natuons Susan Rice, addressing the Council, blasted China and Russia for their "addiction to obduracy." She concluded, "Over the past decade we have continually raised the repeated human rights abuses and acts of genocide committed by the Phaaroh's regime against the Jewish population in Egypt. Each time, China and Russia have vetoed even the mildest of condemnations, arguing that it was a matter of Egyptian sovereignty. Only now, with the desperate escape of that minority from the Phaaroh's clutches, do the governments of Russia and China take such an acute interest in the welfare of the Egyptian people. "
The United States, France, and United Kingdom have indeed introduced thirteen separate resolutions on human rights abuses in Egypt since the advent of the Phaaroh who knew not Joseph.
Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin delivered a blistering response, arguing that it was the radical Jewsish leaders who had escalated the situation by resorting to weapons of mass destruction and demanding that Moses be indicted by the International Criminal Court as a war criminal: "It was not the Phaaroh who imposed unspeakable sanctions against the Egyptian people. It was not the Phaaroh who slaughtered every first-born male child in Egypt -- except the Jews -- in a flagrant violation of the Geneva Conventions. Surely, not a house in Egypt was spared from this , this plague. It was not the Phaaroh who resorted to trickery in the Red Sea, luring innocent Egyptian troops into the kill zone before massacring them. Both sides are equally guilty in the bloodshed, and until both sides renounce violence, a peaceful solution will be nothing but a mirage of the desert."
No agreement on any resolutions were reached. British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant flatly rejected many of the Russian assertions, arguing that only soldiers were afffected by the Red Sea disaster, and that it was not immediately obvious whether the Jews were actually responsible for the harsh sanctions that befell Egypt prior to the Jewish Exodus.
Doctors Without Borders upped the number of Egyptian dead into the five figures, but those figures could not be independently confirmed. The Phaaroh's government again rejected the entry of the U.N. Secretary-General's fact-finding mission on the grounds that it represented an intrusion of sovereignty. Russian and Chinese officials blamed this inflexible position on the civil society campaign to label the Egyptian Pyramids the "Slavery Pyramids."
Humanitarian officials are not sure about the current status of the Jewish refugees. According to unconfirmed reports from Egypt, the Jews left in such a hurry that they lacked basic provisions like bread or yeast, carrying only crude rations into the desert. The disputed status of the Sinai makes drone overflights impossible in that area. The "final status" of the Jews is also unclear, as the Assyrians, Moabites, and Philistines all declared the refugees to be persona non grata in their jurisdictions.
Outside the UN building, the NGO Inside Children annnounced that they planned to release a video entitled "LetMyPeopleGo2012," demanding that the Phaaroh release all Egyptian Jews immediately. The group rebuffed criticisms that this problem had been overtaken by events, saying that calling attention to the cruel despotism in Egypt was still "a worthwhile and noble cause."
Comment away on what's going to happen in Egypt after Hosni Mubarak's
resignation third unsatisfying speech.
Ironically, I think if Mubarak had said what he just said on the night of his first speech, things would be far more stable. As it currently stands, however, it's painful to hear Hosni Mubarak
referring to himself in the third person trying to give up as little as possible, even as his various power bases erode and more social strata join in the opposition.
I think Mubarak agreed to transfer some powers to his Vice President, and he promised some constitutional chanes. To be honest, however, that wasn't the primary theme of the speech, and I don't think this is remote close to ending the crisis.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.