Thursday, February 24, 2011

New Mideast Rules

For several decades, the rules most of the world’s elite took for granted in Mideast politics were pretty simple:

  • Conservative dictators could be trusted to sell oil in a way that, regardless of market price, would end up putting the profits in the hands of Western corporations (oil for high prices would be offset by large purchases of expensive, unneeded arms);
  • The Arab street would never mount a significant nationalist demand for liberty or justice;
  • Israel would have a regional blank check to do whatever it wanted because Arab dictators, dependent on Western support, would do no more than talk about justice for Palestine;
  • Anyone who seriously tried to overthrow this system would be marginalized or attacked.

Although it remains unclear what the new rules for the Mideast political system will be, it is clear that the old rules can no longer be taken for granted. All Arabs now know that an Arab population can rise up with essentially no organization and figure out in the space of a few days how to defeat an oppressive and heavily armed regime. Even the most extreme example of criminal behavior by a regime, Gaddafi’s attempt to use both the full power of his military forces plus a barbarian horde of foreign mercenaries to slaughter the Libyan protesters now seems almost certain to fail: the more extreme the efforts of Arab dictators to impose criminal rule, the more rapidly even regime officials withdraw their personal support.

Conservative dictators now know they must pay more attention to popular feelings, which will constrain the deals they cut with regimes elsewhere. Arab leaders will have a lot more reason in the future than they have had in the past to advocate policies in tune with popular opinion. Out-of-power parties will automatically have greater influence to the degree that leaders begin to feel the need to create a ruling coalition encompassing majority opinion.

These constraints on arbitrary policy-making will make it more difficult for any Arab regime to cooperate with an aggressive Israel; whether Israel’s policy changes or not, the policy of Arab states toward Israel is likely to become more critical, more demanding of Israeli responsiveness to Arab feelings because Arab leaders will simultaneously be less dependent on Washington’s largesse and more dependent on the popular mood.

Numerous milestones have occurred over the past two months, from the evaporation of the Egyptian police as a force for oppression to the decision by the Egyptian military not to murder peaceful demonstrators to the flood of Libyan officials who have had the moral courage to resign and denounce their leader. As the precedents of official organs of power failing to support a ruler at the expense of the people mount in number from one regional state to another, it becomes increasingly difficult for the next ruler to resist the popular will.

Progress toward democracy has also been notable in a wholly different dimension, as well. The learning curve of various Arab populations about how to defend human rights against the brute force of criminal regimes has been nothing short of phenomenal. Handing flowers to soldiers, sitting on tanks, using the Internet to schedule “revolutionary action” publicly have not prevented attacks by police goon squads or massacres, but they have made the point that regime terrorism can be defeated. Only the Israeli regime in Palestine and the Iranian regime have, so far, succeeded in achieving victory through violence.

Dictators, so far, are behaving with mind-numbing predictability, employing every self-defeating tactic in the traditional totalitarian handbook. Well, it still works in Tehran and perhaps in Algers, so why not? Whatever one can say about dictators, they are not known to be creative, unless the combination of foreign mercenary mobs covered by the air force—a tactical innovation from the tactical genius Gaddafi—may be deemed to count. But now that the Arab people have suddenly learned creativity, betting on the regimes of Algeria, Yemen, and Bahrain would not be advised for the risk-averse.

The outcome remains far beyond prediction. A long process of negotiation, which will vary by state, is ahead as a comfortable and security-conscious military negotiates with a broad mass of reformers. One key ingredient seems already to have been answered: this time, it seems unlikely that Washington will send troops to decide the issue. The days of Lebanon 1958 or Lebanon 1983 or Iraq 2003 seem, for the foreseeable future, to be behind us. That leaves the key to the outcome in the hands of the protesters, who include civil rights idealists, labor union activists with an eye to economic conditions, and the religiously motivated, with all three groups overlapping in unpredictable ways. So two key tactical questions are:

  1. Can the protesters find united positions on core issues?
  2. Can the protesters negotiate a compromise with the military?

Although the Arab military forces have, so far, proven to be far more humane than the People’s Liberation Army during Tiananmen, the Basij during the Green Movement protests against electoral fraud, the various warlords of Lebanon’s agonizing civil war,  the military and the Islamic fundamentalists during Algeria’s equally agonizing civil war, or the IDF in Gaza (2009) or Lebanon (2006), these examples of regime security force brutality nevertheless serve as cautionary tales of what can happen to a peaceful protest* that lacks overwhelming popular support. And even in Bahrain, Yemen, and Egypt—not to mention Libya, regime terrorism against citizens doing no more than what the citizens of Madison, Wisconsin are doing this week has been all too common. The protesters will serve themselves well if they keep these precedents in mind as they search for a united political platform and sit down to serious policy negotiations with their respective militaries.

As long as Arab regime attitudes were predictable and virtually all regional governments were using force against their own people (including Iran, the prime claimant to leadership of a new regional political system, and even democratic Turkey—vis-à-vis its Kurds), Israel had a certain degree of cover for its repression of Palestinians. If civil rights become the new fad in the Mideast, however, Israel will look very exposed.

Israel is not the only violence-prone Mideast regime that will look exposed if the protesters succeed in establishing democratic regimes across the Arab world. Iran will undermine its own pretenses of becoming a regional leader to the degree that it continues to commit a degree of violence against its people that has been renounced in the Arab (and Turkish) portions of the region. Iran may be relatively immune to Arab pressure, but it will weaken its political position.

The other country that may rapidly find itself isolated is Algeria, which appears very much ready to continue its long tradition of violence against those who wish to express their own political opinions. Whether Bouteflika’s resistance to popular demands will be weakened by popular victories across most of the rest of North Africa and to what degree the newly empowered societies of North Africa will be able and willing to provide assistance to an Algerian protest movement that has so far been stopped cold by regime security forces remains to be seen.

As for the U.S., it has an historic opportunity now to get on “the right side of history.” Having evidently made the decision not to intervene militarily against Arab protesters and having publicly asserted their right to freedom of expression, it faces a fundamental policy contradiction as long as it continues to serve as the last defender on earth of the Israeli right-wing ruling elite’s policy of oppressing and (in the sense of an organized society) destroying the Palestinian people. Washington would be well served if it could marshal the courage to get out in front of the situation by brokering, as a first step, an end to the collective punishment and continued incarceration in their ghetto of the 1.5 million people of Gaza. It has this opportunity today, but Egypt is quite likely very soon to take that opportunity away…by simply opening the Rafah gate, recognizing Hamas-issued passports, and allowing Gaza to trade with the world via Sinai. For Washington then to rush to concur that “of course the people of Gaza have the same right as everyone else to freedom of trade, freedom of travel, freedom of expression" will sound just a bit insincere and gain Washington little credit on the Arab street, which may by that point be selecting Arab leaders.

Perhaps the key strategic question at this point, in contrast to the tactical questions discussed above, is:

To what degree will the victory of similar popular protests demanding human rights for Arab populations result in a single pan-Arab movement?

A pan-Arab movement could turn into a crusade to keep oil profits or a crusade against Israel. It could also be hijacked by a new class of dictators – either traditional ones or of the religious variety. All of these unsettling possibilities will be made more likely by a West that proves reluctant to welcome Arab societies into the ranks of world democracies. But welcoming them will entail far more than just words. It will entail first of all a restructuring of aid away from exotic and profitable Western offensive weapons toward the type of trade and economic aid programs that will improve the lives of the people who are fighting for their liberty. It will entail reining in Israeli expansionists and defining a new regional security regime—one that this time is inclusive and positive-sum rather than being focused on Israel. It will entail developing society-to-society or at least state-to-state relationships, rather than leader-to-leader relationships, with all the implied implications for value judgments.

The Arab Revolt of 2011 is inspired by Western ideals and targets Western lackeys, but because of their governance not because they cooperate with the West. The West needs to choose which side it is on and should be happy that it has such an easy choice: if the choice becomes one between Western lackeys and a popular Arab revolt inspired by religious fundamentalism or virulent nationalism, the choice will be much more difficult for the West. The Arab Revolt of 2011 is not about foreign policy, but it is a short step from its domestic focus to a focus on how the West is treating the Arab world; one can only hope that some serious introspection is now occurring in Western policy-making circles.

The Arab world was united once, it was a leading global civilization once. Already it is apparent that Americans trying to defend their environment and their right to collective bargaining against right-wing political campaigns financed by hundreds of millions of dollars from a tiny handful of billionaires and corporations interested either in union-bashing or irresponsible new mining ventures in pristine locations (e.g., Wisconsin river valleys) might take some organizational tips from a young but well-educated Arab generation that includes both the Internet-savvy and some with a profound comprehension of the meaning of democracy. What else might the Arab world, if united by a new (for the Mideast) set of principles about the rights of man, contribute to human civilization?

*For those who wonder how I can include Gaza during Israel’s recent attack as a “peaceful protest,” recall that Hamas—which had won a democratic election to govern all of Palestine in 2006 only to be forced out of the West Bank by Israeli- and U.S-instigated violence, had agreed to halt rocket attacks on Israel the previous summer and was attempting with some effectiveness to enforce that agreement but continued to protest Israeli collective punishment, incursions, etc.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A New U.S. Mideast Policy?

After two years of steady failure across the board, culminating in an embarrassing mid-term defeat and an obsequious public acceptance of that defeat, Obama was immediately knocked further off balance by the Arab Revolt. Suddenly, he seems to be recovering his poise, having nearly caught up with events, and is even showing signs of the kind of foreign policy creativity his supporters have been waiting for.

Obama’s record after two years in office included: 1) a total failure to articulate the moral and legal case against the neo-con policies that imperiled national security, wrecked U.S. claims to moral leadership of the world, and undermined constitutional guarantees of civil rights; 2) utter defeat by Israeli extremists; 3) failure to establish the principle that health care is a civil right for all rather than a for-profit business; and 4) kowtowing to corrupt Wall Street millionaires. Unsurprisingly, neo-con-lite impressed no one, and the War Party elitists rolled him over in the mid-terms. Obama looked both like a has-been and a neo-con lackey. Then, the Arab Revolt left him scrambling for two weeks, every step of the way a dollar short and just a bit too late.

But the fall of Mubarak was evidently a dash of cold water in the face, and Obama seems for the moment at least suddenly to have his feet on the ground. Always the diplomat, which may or may not be a good thing, he did not fire his pro-Israel, pro-Arab dictator Secretary of State, who got the job for political reasons and still seems totally out of her element and doing little more than aping Rice. However, Obama did send Clinton a message to shape up and stop defending dictators. One could even be excused for reading between the lines and imagining Obama might ever so gently have been suggesting that Clinton defend U.S. national interests rather than Israeli right-wing partisan interests. On that, time will tell. Political correctness in the U.S. forbids making explicit the moral linkage (obvious to everyone else in the world) between liberty for Egyptians and liberty for Palestinians, between the rise of moderate Arab democracy and the decline of Israeli expansion beyond its 1967 borders.

More interestingly, Obama came up with a new policy toward Iran so ingenious it sounds like it came from an academic political scientist: instead of the usual neo-con/Israeli right-wing threats of aggression, Obama simply noted that the freedom of opinion that the new Washington is now supporting in Egypt (also loudly supported by Tehran) should also apply to Iran! Obama would have been on much stronger ground if he had articulated liberty as a principle, rather than picking and choosing which countries should have it. If he has supported—sincerely—the idea of liberty for Palestinians or Jordanians or Algerians, I am not aware of the fact. Nevertheless, he hit the nail on the head, hoisted Tehran hardliners on their own petard, and moved the U.S. a huge step back toward moral leadership with one simple, logical remark.

Rather than discriminating against Iran’s legal rights to nuclear technology or threatening aggression in a way that only cheapens the image of the U.S. as a civilized nation, he has issued a perfectly reasonable challenge to Tehran: put your money where your very loud mouth is, or, implicitly, stop claiming to be a regional leader. A repressive military-religious regime attacking democracy at home is hardly qualified to lead a liberation movement abroad.

The opportunity for Obama and for U.S. national security is significant. If he follows this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, he can rescue U.S. Mideast policy. At present he is verbally supporting the right of Egyptians and Iranians to have democracy. In the great contest for Mideast influence between an emerging Iran and a declining U.S., articulation by Obama of the right to liberty and democracy for all would constitute a powerful weapon for winning Mideast hearts and minds. It would put Iran, where brutal oppression is a way of life and the existing features of democracy are under severe attack by the hardline military-religious elite, very much on the defensive. That would constitute a major strategic shift from the past decade during which Washington, perhaps unintentionally, opened the door wide for the expansion of Iranian influence by giving force preeminence in its own stance toward Muslim societies.

Of course, to be effective, changes in U.S. behavior would have to follow: a real peace process would have to replace the Palestinian-Israeli charade, the Egyptian military would have to actually step aside and defend the people rather than controlling them to merit continued U.S. military aid, Washington would have to recognize that democracy means that voters—even if they are Palestinian or Lebanese—rather than superpowers choose leaders, and Washington would have to distinguish between supporting the Israeli right-wing ruling elite and the Israeli people (just as it is now agonizing over the  distinction between the Egyptian right-wing ruling elite and the Egyptian people). Washington would have to accept that Muslim parties cannot be excluded from the democratic process without driving them to the extremism practiced by Sam Adams and others Americans now view as patriots.

All this will not be easy to accomplish, but once done, it would remove the fatal inconsistencies that currently cripple U.S. efforts to retain influence in the Mideast. Iranian hardliners, certain individual dictators, and al Qua’ida would all be undercut. Political Islam in a broad range of variations would gain influence and occasionally form regimes, at which point it would have to bear the burden of formulating and implementing policy—with a newly politicized and empowered public carefully watching. Enormous change would result, with unforeseeable effects, but compared to the horrors of global jihad and the endless destruction of the so-called war on terror, an American-supported, non-violent, heterogeneous, competitive, democratic Arab liberation movement does not sound so bad.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

After Mubarak...the Army

Amidst rumors that Mubarak will finally "step down," it is important to realize that the removal of an aged dictator who has already appointed his clone to replace him is no victory. It is certainly not defeat, and the protesters did an impressive job of behaving with vastly more legality and decency than did the regime, including the army with its illegal arrests and torture of opponents and innocents alike and its repulsive non-action while Mubarak's goons attacked the people. Nevertheless, the vicious Egyptian security state remains astride the population, for the good of U.S. empire, Israeli mini-empire, and its own greed.

The significance of Mubarak's removal is the degree to which it is perceived by Egyptians--and the rest of the Muslim world--who are not yet in the streets as evidence that victory for democracy, civil rights, and a government based on law with the consent of the governed is now possible. Mubarak's removal would not be victory, but it might well provide the protesters with a winning hand.

That winning hand, in turn, could lead to the emergence of a new type of Muslim politics. Given the sophistication of the Egyptian and Tunisian transformations, a genuinely innovative combination of Arab nationalism, Islam, and Western civil rights just might be in the process of emerging and taking power in the Arab world. Precedents already exist in Indonesia, Lebanon, Turkey, and Pakistan, but moderates have almost always been on the defensive, pinned between the Scylla of imperial extremism and the Charybdis of Islamic extremism. The removal of Mubarak would be a big step in the direction of a most welcome combination of Arab moderation and justice, but that victory remains far from assured as the world awaits the decision of the Egyptian military high command.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Mideast Protest Scorecard: Friday, February 4

For the week ending Friday, February 4, popular achievements have enabled Arabs to stand tall, and Mubarak seems on the way out. However, dictatorial regimes are holding firm and even on the offensive. Popular fatigue may be as much an enemy of Arab liberation as the security forces. Nevertheless, the revolt continues to spread.

Egypt. The situation in Egypt has severely declined over the short-run, with clear regime warfare against the population under way. The Mubarak regime has now become clearly criminal and bears complete responsibility for whatever force ends up being used to destroy it. But with the army appearing now to be aiding police terror, the regime may well survive.

Mubarak’s appointment of Intel Chief Suleiman as vice president sends a very clear message: no change, no compromise. The criminal attack on the protesters only underscored Mubarak’s complete rejection of popular concerns. That appointment may have been made for personal reasons but also serves to reassure Washington and Tel Aviv, with which he reportedly has close ties. Again, the message is: no change. Moreover, it is hard to imagine that Mubarak’s attack on the demonstrators today was made behind Suleiman’s back: he is implicated. The point has been reached where, without evidence to the contrary, one seems justified in assuming that the removal of Mubarak without the removal of Suleiman essentially means nothing.

Raising the possibility of splits within Mubarak’s regime, the prime minister apologized for the violence in Tahrir Square, announced that it would be investigated, and agreed to talks with “all” opposition parties. The army finally began intervening to mitigate the violence but without

Hypocritical calls from Washington for both the victimized population and the criminal regime to remain peaceful are worse than silence. Clinton’s call to Suleiman to urge investigation of the apparent police attack [my words, not hers!] on protesters is hard to interpret—did she “wink” or chuckle? If he did not plan and authorize the attack, then he is a much less well informed intel guy than he is reputed to be. Of course, proof of who did it may not be in any foreigner’s hands, but what does seem clear is that the army avoided intervening to halt the attack and that Egyptian emergency rescue services delayed for several hours providing medical help for the injured.

Tunisia. Negotiations, fairly sophisticated for an oppressed and thus apolitical population, between such representative organs of the people as have managed to organize themselves and the army are proceeding. This stage, albeit less exciting than the demonstration phase, is far more significant.

Israel. The regime in Israel is trying to marshal support for its client, Mubarak. According to Israeli media reports, Netanyahu has been coordinating with Mubarak on ways to defend his regime and suppress the democracy advocates. Israel is also continuing to violate Lebanon’s sovereignty with illegal overflights – no grace period for Miqati, whether the rest of the world (with the exception of Israeli fellow traveler John Bolton) has refocused away from Lebanon onto Egypt or not.

More ominously, Netanyahu has been quoted in the Israeli media making the following observation about Egypt: “A peace agreement does not guarantee the existence of peace, so in order to protect it and ourselves, in cases in which the agreement disappears or is violated due to a regime change on the other side, we protect it with security arrangements on the ground.” Since there is no Israeli “ground separating Gaza from Egypt, this statement presumably either implies an Israeli incursion into Gaza or into Egypt. Perhaps Hamas has good reason for not cheering Egyptian events too loudly.

Palestine. The West Bank Palestinian client regime is toeing Israel’s line, but perhaps as much out of fear of losing power as because of their client status. Leadership of Palestinian liberation will have to come from others. Even the obvious candidate group, Hamas—2006 democratic hero of Palestine, is doing Israel’s work, guarding the Rafah border crossing into Egypt on behalf of the oppressors! Even more recently, Hamas police goons, taking a page from both the Israeli and Mubarak books, mistreated journalists at a Palestinian protest in support of Egyptian protesters. Are they too selling out to preserve their rule over Gaza or are they playing a cautious game of waiting to avoid getting out in front of the Egyptians? While everyone likes to cite the plight of Palestinians, no one, it seems, is willing to help them achieve freedom.

On Thursday, Hamas finally allowed the first demonstration in Gaza in support of Egyptian democracy.  Will Egyptian democracy lead to Palestinian democracy?

Lebanon. Although Miqati is having trouble forming a cabinet, Hariri’s allies, inclcuding former warlord Geagea, are calling for early elections rather than rioting. That is a step forward. Miqati is striking a conciliatory pose but avoiding any promises on the issues separating him from the Hariri camp.

Yemen. Protests against Saddam-wanna-be Saleh have induced him to declare that he will give up his rule at the end of his term, which is even further away than the end of Mubarak’s term. This game is transparent.

The street politics are heating up, with large protests now being met by counter-demonstrations, so far quite peaceful, which is surprising, given the civil war, Saudi military intervention, and U.S. bombing of alleged al Qua’ida operatives that has raged in Yemen in recent years.

Assuming Saleh survives, the impact the demonstrations may have on his ability to exploit a “threat” of al Qua’ida to milk Washington for arms is unclear.

Algeria.  The defiant regime is threatening the people, with popular calls for a major demonstration. The calm seems skin-deep.

Bouteflika has promised to lift the state of emergency imposed when the army seized power, destroying Algerian democracy to overturn the electoral victory of Islamic parties following the civil war in 1990…with the huge exception that demonstrations will continue to be banned in Algers (imagine the fate of Egyptian protesters in the provinces if the regime had been able to prevent protests in Cairo).

Turkey. One might have expected loud cheering from Ankara, given its efforts to create and lead a moderate middle, but Erdogan has been so silent that he is calling the sincerity of his overall foreign policy into question. Ankara seems to be avoiding the Egyptian crisis and has apparently given up its initial attempts to promote conciliation in Lebanon. Is he blowing his chance at regional leadership? Might the reason have anything to do with his hesitant steps toward equality for Turkey’s Kurds?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Egyptian Revolt: A Classroom Exercise

A scenario analysis is a provocative way to guide students to think about the implications of the Egyptian revolt. The gemstones of scenario analysis are revealed by asking not the traditional “what” but “how.”

Scenario analysis can be complicated to describe, but the steps flow naturally in a group discussion, allowing the students to take the initiative and figure out for themselves how to think about the future.

The basic steps are:

  1. Select the question: “Where is Egypt headed?”
  2. Identify the causal factors: desire for civil rights and desire for economic security.
  3. Draw a grid generating the scenarios. The graph is a useful aid to the real challenge of this step: identifying the likely differences in outcome of each scenario.
  4. Identify the key dynamic powering each scenario. Much more important than asking what might happen is explaining how your predicted outcome could occur.
  5. Identify at least one other scenario that would change behavior if it became dominant. Whatever you think will happen, some other invisible dynamic is surely present in the background and needs to be identified to avoid surprise.
  6. Explain possible tipping points. Ask how a tipping point leading to a shift in dominance might occur.

That process is plenty for two or three one-hour class sessions separated by a day or two for related homework. For further challenge and further realism, the whole system can fruitfully be considered as a complex adaptive system. This provides insight into the underlying evolutionary processes of the whole system within which, in the current case, Egypt exists.

Arab Revolt in Context

Americans can be forgiven for perplexity about the massive protests raging across the Arab world: the Boston Tea Party, the abolition movement, the women’s rights movement, and Bull Conner’s dogs threatening little black girls trying to go to school all seem to have occurred a long time ago. The Arab Revolt is all of these.

Three related questions may help to understand the big picture:

  1. What does “liberty” mean?
  2. What is the relationship between “liberty” and “national security?”
  3. How will the Arab revolt influence American liberty and national security?

1. Liberty.   
Forget the Arab world; think about a family with a domineering father. Suppose Dad decided who you could date, who you could marry, what you could read, when you could express your opinion, what you could study at college, where you would work, what party you could vote for? Imagine that Dad was a free man, free to make all the above decisions for himself. Would you describe your family as free?

How would you, in such a family, gain personal liberty? Would you somehow demonstrate your ability to handle freedom and bargain with Dad? Would you protest? Would you leave home? Most Arabs of course do not have all these choices vis-à-vis oppressive dictators: expressing an opinion can land you in jail, protesting can get you beaten by brutal police, Gazans are prohibited by Israel from leaving. The bottom line is that liberty is not “natural” but an achievement of human society at its very rare best, a goal to be pursued, a growth that survives only when nourished.

2. Liberty & National Security.
Some, usually those who have more money than they can spend and no intention of sharing any of it, make the argument that a trade-off exists between liberty and national security. It goes roughly like this: “If you sacrifice some of your (not ‘our’) liberty, then ‘we’ will protect you from ‘them.’” It is never quite clear why the “we”—e.g., Egyptian generals and secret police or Iranian mullahs who assert the right to pass judgment on the government and civil society or neo-cons who want to pass “patriot” acts to gain the power to watch what kind of books you check out of the library—actually need to circumscribe civil liberties in order to provide national security. The reason is that the whole argument is a cover for protecting something altogether different – not national security but elite privilege.

In Egypt this may be the ability of the elite to stifle a democracy that would instantly vote them out of power.

In Israel, it is increasingly the ability of the expansionist faction to suppress traditional Israeli democracy, as formerly exemplified by the Meretz Party and as currently exemplified by a long list of Israeli historians, peace activists, and journalists who defend traditional Israeli civil rights against an increasingly authoritarian ruling faction.

In the U.S., it includes protecting the ability of the financial elite to gamble investor funds and make a profit even when the investors lose their shirts…or get paid back by taxpayers as well as the ability of the military-industrial complex to make a profit selling weapons for wars that exploit the fear of terrorism but in fact provoke terrorism.

The case of Egypt illustrates a dangerous dynamic: repression by the elite in the false name of national security generates resentment leading to protest. The more the elite suppresses the protesters and refuses to listen to their grievances, the more likely it becomes that the population will turn to extremists. When moderation fails, violence or slavery are the only two choices that remain. And thus, the self-serving argument of the elite that liberty must be sacrificed for security turns out to be a false dichotomy. In truth, while liberty is a risky venture with no certain outcome, it opens the door to a stable, enduring security.

3. Arab liberty and U.S. national security. 
Liberty as the foundation for a stable national security supported by the whole population provides the link between Arab liberty and U.S. national security. Resting the fortress of U.S. national security on the foundation of hated right-wing Arab dictators and aggressive right-wing factions in Israel provides but a short-term expedient, and the longer such a strategy is pursued, the more repressive it must become to survive, thus making a catastrophic collapse ever more likely.

Rather than, in the Egyptian case, marginalizing the moderate (judging from their behavior for many years) Muslim Brotherhood as well as the mass of Egyptians who just want minimal civil rights, a wiser course for Americans interested in long-term, stable cooperation with Egypt would be to encourage all Egyptian groups to participate in a peaceful, open, democratic system. Let any that wins an election be put to the test of performance, with the world watching. The rising moderation of both Islamic parties and the military in Turkey, today probably the most democratic state in the Mideast (including Israel), exemplifies the promise of this strategy. The Islamic Revolution in Iran, provoked by short-sighted U.S. support for an increasingly repressive right-wing dictatorship by the Shah, exemplifies the failure of the elite’s false dichotomy between liberty and national security.

Liberty is a common good, stronger the more it is shared. King George denied this and provoked the American Revolution. With globalization and the Internet and al Jazeera, the principle of liberty as a common good is all the more true today.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Arabs Stand Tall

Liberty is a common good; it rests on a foundation of sand as long as it is not shared. During Democratic January, Arabs stood tall, teaching the world a lesson in democratic action. Democracy and liberty are not "natural;" they are among the most beautiful creations of the human mind. They exist only so long as sustained by the conscious exercise of human will. We should all thank Arabs for fighting our fight.*

January was a month of strategic evolution for the Mideast, with the Arab people doing much in a very short time to reverse the humiliation they have suffered at the hands of the West over the last 700 years. Only a very bitter and blind Islamophobe today could sneer, as Western racists and empire-builders have done since 9/11, at Arabs today. Throughout the month of January, Tunisians and Egyptians and Yemeni and Lebanese have stood tall, risked their lives, figured out on the fly how to organize and manage democratic action in the face of extraordinary pressures. Be it bloody dictators, terrorist police, Western blackmail, or illegal Israeli overflights and war threats, Arab people this month have taught the world a lesson in how to defend human rights against the abuse of power.

It does not matter whether Mubarak survives a few more days; he is permanently shamed and discredited. Even if he succeeds in passing his dictatorship on to a new dictator, the people of Egypt will still have sent a message. Even if the Egyptian army eventually cracks and starts slaughtering the people, no one will ever forget the young defenders of freedom sitting on the tanks smiling and waving.

Democratic January has changed the Mideast.

The Arab people gained the most. They have demonstrated power: dictators and empire-builders must now take their concerns into account. They have demonstrated sophistication: they can organize to defeat repressive police, they have the cool to welcome tanks with cheers and neatly divide the forces of oppression, they can self-organize neighborhood security systems and uncover police-terrorists masquerading as criminals. A violent militia born of the need to defend a defenseless population against invaders has learned to take power by the rules of parliamentary procedure and then share the power by supporting a professional politician of another faith.

Mideast moderates such as Ankara have gained by default, though Ankara’s performance was rather pathetic and unimaginative. Moderates searching for a new and less confrontational way of conducting business in the Mideast have so far missed a huge opportunity for weakening the zero-sum process that has traditionally guided regional affairs, though there is yet time to make progress on that score, thanks to the brilliant performance of the supposedly uneducated “Arab street.”

Iran has gained simply by not being the center of attention. The Mideast is today far less of a two-camp, "good vs. bad," "us vs. them" region. It is hard today to draw any line that validly divides the region on the basis of a single criterion, certainly not one as simplistic as "good vs. bad." The Mideast is more nuanced, more flexible, and that benefits those dissatisfied with the way it was, which happens to include Iran, along with many other groups.

Empire-builders and dictatorial clients have suffered a permanent defeat. This is not to say that either empires or dictators will disappear from the region but that their sins will henceforth be viewed more clearly and resisted more forcefully. One cannot help but be less easily intimidated now. The next time a police bully glares at someone walking down the street, the uniformed goon will know that misbehavior on his part might just possibly start a revolution; that outcome remains unlikely, of course, but the goon will have the thought in the back of his mind, and he will also know that the citizen with his groceries in his arms will have the same thought in his mind.

As for Obama, it remains unclear, and this is somewhat to his credit, whether he is an empire-builder or not, but he has managed to avoid major miscalculations, he has managed not to make a mess even worse, he has started no wars. Nevertheless, he clearly continues to play a very dangerous game of catch-up with the fast-moving Egyptian people. If empire-builders suffered a defeat in January, the American people probably have come out a bit ahead, though the American people would be better off if politicians did not keep obstructing the recognition of common interests with Arabs who want the same freedoms Americans so blithely take for granted. The U.S., its politicians continuing to cozy up to Mubarak security-state henchmen, did not exactly emerge as a champion of freedom, but it did not lead the forces of repression either and now probably looks better in the eyes of the world than it has for a decade. Old habits die hard, and there are plenty of Egyptian generals and security officials more than ready to return to business as usual and clamp down once again on their people if only Washington will once more give them the nod, but at the moment things could go either way, and Washington is grudgingly recognizing that the language of force is not the only language in which to speak with Muslims. That is not just good for Muslims; it is also good for those Americans who care about their own freedom.

As for religious fanatics willing to use violence against the innocent to achieve partisan goals (e.g., al Qua’ida, some Protestant fundamentalists anticipating the “end of days,” some Iranians anticipating the arrival of the Mahdi, Jewish extremists trying to recreate ancient empires), those enemies of freedom have suffered their worst defeat in years. Things could change – the Egyptian army could massacre protesters and the people could turn in desperation to Salafi fanatics, for example. Or empire-builders could interfere to re-impose dictatorship, as Tony Blair tried to do by ordering (!) the people of Egypt to avoid interfering with what he is pleased to see as “the peace process” via which Israel is repressing Palestinians. And one can think of other worst case scenarios. But January 2011 was a bad month for extremists, and that is good news for everyone else.

In fact, the logical next step, assuming the Egyptian people do in fact seize their freedom, is that they will invigorate the moribund “peace” process, which could be done simply by opening wide the gate of the Rafah border crossing and giving the people of the Gaza Ghetto access to the world.
* My thanks to Media With Conscience for first publishing this essay.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Washington Needs New Mideast Friends

For those who have not yet noticed, the Mideast is complicated, and U.S. national security requires that Americans avoid over-simplifying. The situation now is far more complex than “allies vs. adversaries.” Egyptians are asserting their liberty, and Washington must devise a new policy that responds to them. Unless and until someone imagines a better path, the conciliatory, positive-sum one Erdogan envisions seems by far the safest for a distant superpower that would like to continue buying oil.

A very misleading tendency is arising in the US to do what we always seem to do – oversimplify to the point of totally distorting–in this case, by grouping moderate, conciliatory Turkey with the far more hard-line Iran. Ankara and Tehran may both in some vague sense be Islamic, but that essentially tells us nothing about either their domestic policies or their foreign policies. Turkey is a country trying very hard to become democratic, while Iran–whose democratic revolution 60 years ago was destroyed by Washington and London in order to keep their ill-gotten oil gains–seems to be moving away from democracy toward conservative military dictatorship, but one based not on being a US client like Mubarak but on nationalism and a determination not to accept a US-managed regional political system.

The similarity between the two countries is that neither can any longer stomach the excesses of the recent US subservience to the Israeli right wing with its policies of apartheid, ethnic cleansing, expansion, and speaking the language of force to its neighbors.

The differences between the regional vision offered by Erdogan and that offered by Ahmadinejad (without for a moment buying into the self-serving Netanyahu myth of Ahmadinejad as the “new Hitler”) are enormous – far greater than the differences between Ahmadinejad with his Basij and Mubarak with his goons on camels. Washington urgently needs a policy that will encourage Egypt to move in a direction compatible with Erdogan's vision rather than a direction compatible with Iran's IRGC.

Erdogan offers a vision of the region that just might be the only path by which the US can ride out the Arab Revolt and end up with a workable degree of regional influence. There is a regional axis including Iran and another including the US. We all can see which is gaining and which is losing influence. Turkey really is not quite part of either, instead offering a new axis, if you wish, or perhaps the better analogy is, from Washington’s perspective, a lifeboat.

But if Americans insist on remaining addicted to the never accurate idea of Mideast axes, then it seems pretty obvious that the Washington-Tel Aviv imperial axis is not the way to go right now. Stuffing the Egyptian people back into a dictatorial box, perhaps under ex-intel guy Suleiman, is not the way to go right now. Continuing military aid to Egypt while security forces literally trample the people under a camel’s foot and the army fails to protect the people is not the way to go right now. Continuing the barbaric policy of collective punishment of Gaza is not the way to go right now.

The lame superpower needs a new axis, and it could do much, much worse than encouraging Erdogan and el Baradei to take the lead. As for the various Islamic movements of the region, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the rapidly organizing movement in Tunisia and Hamas and Hezbollah, the first two have a policy of non-violence that should be encouraged. The last two, under endless Israeli military pressure, obviously believe they have the right to defend themselves; the issue is not their use of violence but the environment that forces them to use violence. In fact, both have tried to take the democratic road: Hamas won election to administer Palestine in 2006 only to be betrayed for renouncing violence; Hezbollah is senior partner in the Lebanese government. Marginalizing them when they are accepting Western rules sends a lesson that harms U.S. national security. On U.S. policy toward the Mideast, it is time for change.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Tsunami of Arab Nationalism

It still remains unclear whether or not the phrase "tsunami of Arab nationalism" is justified, but with the astonishing image of perhaps 2,000,000 Egyptians all walking calmly through Tahrir Square, "tsunami" is beginning to sound about right. One wonders if we will see soldiers fighting against police goons, one begins to start looking for the next regime to be fired, and one seems justified in asking if demands for liberty will translate into a full-blown Arab nationalist movement.