Saturday, May 28, 2011

Gaza Update

The opening of the Rafah border today has weakened the Israeli stranglehold, but Israel's barbaric collective punishment policy remains, for the moment at least, more or less intact.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Rafah: Opening the Gate to Mideast Change

Cairo has just taken the initiative, upping the ante for all those trying to woo her: Rafah will be opened. Now for the devil in the details: let the bidding begin.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Wooing Cairo

Everyone now wants to be friends with Egypt; to put it differently, everyone now wants to push Egypt to remake itself in a way convenient to them: Riyadh and Tel Aviv missing the nice, safe old dictatorship; Tehran searching for entrée into the Mideast community without having to bow down to Washington; Ankara looking to buttress its position as leader of the moderate middle. Meanwhile, Cairo’s face is properly veiled, as she considers her options.*

The Suitors.   Riyadh crassly flashed its wealth, first allegedly threatening economic punishment of Egypt were Egypt to pursue Mubarak and then offering a big ring (economic aid) at a price (“security”) that could be read as an insulting attempt to interfere in Egypt’s delicate domestic affairs, where the issue is not security but liberty. Riyadh also allowed Mubarak to make a speech on Saudi TV that widely irritated Egyptian reformers; Cairo’s investigation of a Saudi billionaire’s land deals in Egypt suggested a lack of proper deference to the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.

Tel Aviv’s influence over Cairo remains palpable, but a cautious Cairo has slightly softened its own blockade of Gaza (which still buttresses that of Israel), and a Cairo-sponsored Hamas-Fatah deal that leaves Tel Aviv out of the loop is breaking news. With the collapse of the Hamas-Israel ceasefire, it seems unlikely that Cairo can continue to keep the Gaza issue on the back burner. A newly free Egyptian populace demonstrated against Israel’s attack on Gaza on April 8 and again on April 12, and the newly independent Egyptian daily Al Ahram reported the events. Indeed, an Egyptian diplomat has reportedly stated that changes in Egyptian rules governing the Rafah border crossing, now that long-time critic of Mubarak’s Gaza policy--Nabil El-Arabi--is the new Egyptian foreign minister, are imminent. Tel Aviv needs a zero-based foreign policy rethink.

The tone of ties with Tehran has already improved, with the passage of Iranian warships through the Suez Canal in February and Foreign Minister El-Arabi’s recent public advocacy of the reestablishment of official relations. But Ankara has already traveled this path with Tehran, obtaining few Iranian concessions in return. Tehran needs to decide if it wants inclusion in a new Mideast that may be less dependent on Washington but still hardly “on Tehran’s side” or whether it prefers the status of remaining outsider and troublemaker.

Ankara faces both an opportunity and a trap. As Davutoglu’s discussions with the new Egyptian civilian leadership on April 10 illustrate, Turkey and Egypt can cooperate to resolve a host of regional problems, with Gaza perhaps the key test, assuming they can avoid falling into the trap of competing for leadership of a moderate bloc at the expense of substantive accomplishments.

Cairo’s Calculus. Egypt now has the opportunity to step into the limelight, with all those suitors precisely when Washington, having overplayed its regional hand, is nursing its wounds, struggling with the effects of mismanaged imperialist adventures and a mismanaged domestic economy. Whatever Egypt may lack in terms of money, oil, or military power, Egypt now has pride, stands center-stage with de facto leadership of the emerging bloc of post-dictator states, and has more flexibility than any other regional state: Cairo’s moment has arrived.

The mere hesitation of Cairo to commit herself creates a new regional fluidity: where diplomacy in the old Mideast tended to be zero-sum, it can now be positive-sum. Done carefully, Cairo can have her cake (independence) and eat it too (cooperation with Iran and Turkey, continued U.S. aid, peace with Israel, pride, status, and regional influence). Extremists, from Zionist expansionists to Salafi jihadists, won’t find such an outcome to be “positive-sum,” but all regional societies eventually will.

Ankara needs help making the case for a policy of good neighborliness to replace the old confrontationalism. Tehran needs the security guarantee of friendly ties with a major Sunni state to break the Arab-Israeli-U.S. front that has been opposing it. Saudi Arabia may find that it too has needs – the support of an independent regional power, rather than just a handful of sheikdom clients. Washington needs the cooperation of a Sunni power that is moderate, democratic, popular, and successful: what better antidote to jihadi terror could one imagine?

Storm Clouds.
So the storybook romance, in this case, is that the beautiful girl should marry no one, date everyone! But storm clouds darken the horizon:

Gaza. Israel has been playing Nazi Germany to Gaza’s Warsaw Ghetto. That approach is not working. Gaza, both literally as an incubator of extremism and figuratively as a global symbol of oppression, is a terrorism factory. If a new Egypt actually does emerge (not yet certain), Gaza will be an intolerable contradiction with an obvious “solution:” opening the Rafah border crossing. Can Cairo manage the instability that might result?

Positive-Sum Vision on Palestine
"With this united Palestinian [government] Israel can negotiate for real, can carry through the implementation of UN Resolution 181 of 1947 which called for an Israeli and a Palestinian state"
[ Israeli National News.]

Zero-Sum Israeli Policy
"My sense is that if Israel continues to ignore international calls for achieving peace on a just basis, and allowing the Palestinians to establish their state, there will be more and more bitter and negative feelings towards Israel, and the difference now, after January 25 [when the uprising began], is that no government in Egypt will be able to ignore those feelings'' [Hossam Zaki, senior advisor to Egyptian foreign minister]
The Egyptian Economy. If Egypt’s revolution produces a democracy without economic progress, the democracy will quickly give way to chaos, zenophobia, fundamentalism, chauvinism or some other process of desperation. Total GNP and corporate profits are not the issue; payoff for the population is.

Egypt’s Governance. Notwithstanding all the bravery by Egyptian democracy protesters over the last five months, the prospects of Egypt achieving responsible governance remain dim. With military aid pouring in from Washington and economic aid pouring in from Riyadh, the temptation on the part of the “temporary” military dictatorship to hold onto political power will be hard to resist.

Start With the Military Council
"You want a revolution in Egypt? You can't have one with Tantawi as the leader.  An Egyptian revolution would require the removal of the Egyptian military council which serves by order of the US/Israel.  You want to remove all appointees of Mubarak?  Don't start with the Ministry of Agriculture.  You will get there later. Start with the Military Council."  [, Angry Arab News Service.]

The Army is Fooling the People
Tahrir Square protests are starting up again, amid rising condemnation of Egypt's self-appointed military dictatorship. According to a protester, "The army is fooling the people." [Heba Fahmy, Daily News Egypt.]

Iran’s Neo-Cons. What highly factionalized Tehran really wants remains unclear. Although working with Ankara and Cairo might be a deal attractive to Tehran national security types, it would also come at a domestic political cost to the anti-Saddam war generation of “Iranian neo-cons,” a political clique exploiting Palestine’s plight to pad their own resumes. An Ankara-Tehran-Cairo partnership could trim Israel’s sails, but such a partnership would require Tehran to make hard choices.

Bahrain. Repression of dissent in Bahrain will empower hard-line Iranians, making more likely sectarian violence and an Iranian-Saudi military clash. Riyadh’s Bahraini chickens will come home to roost, undermining efforts to promote regional compromise.

Revenge of the Fanatics. Fanatics, extremists, those who believe that only those who obey are “friends,” will seek to punish Cairo for moderation; Egypt will need to get its own house in order quickly in order to keep its balance.

Yemen. Yemen is a disaster unfolding before our eyes and a potential trap that could once again entangle a reactionary Riyadh with a progressive Cairo. Alternatively, a post-Saleh Yemen could conceivably join Egypt and Tunisia in a new progressive bloc that, given well managed coordination with Turkey, could revolutionize Mideast politics.

Cairo’s Tipping Point.
Washington can play a critical supporting role by guiding rather than opposing change. It should stake out a position in support of Bahraini democracy that will offer Bahraini dissenters an alternative to putting themselves in the hands of Iran. Washington needs to demonstrate that ties with the U.S. can translate into a better life for a mistreated population and, specifically, for a Shi’i majority. Equally urgent is a solution for Gaza that would remove Israel from the equation, accept Hamas as the political party currently in charge, and provide Hamas with the means to govern well in return for mutual security along the Gaza-Israel border. Washington’s standards for interacting with Damascus and Sana’a also need to be brought into sync.

Whether Washington helps or hinders, Cairo now finds herself at a tipping point. She can try to hand victory back to the counter-revolution, thereby encouraging empire-builders and advocates of the Zionist garrison state while empowering both Iranian rejectionists and militant Sunnis to whom many embittered moderates will feel forced to turn. The rising frustration of Tahrir Square activists at the self-appointed Cairo military government’s agonizing crawl toward democracy, Cairo’s endless toying with a pro-Palestinian policy regarding its joint border with Gaza, and Cairo’s acceptance of a massive economic aid package with God knows what secret strings attached from arch-conservative Riyadh all illustrate the obstacles facing Egyptians who advocate change. Clearly, the danger of Egypt tipping back into dictatorship remains very real.

Alternatively, Cairo can make Egypt the center of a new moderate, democratizing movement to offer the Mideast a positive-sum vision of progress for all of Egyptian society and for the whole Mideast. Cairo can tip toward a combination of domestic democratization and foreign policy independence based on Arab nationalism.

May she choose wisely.

*My thanks to Media With Conscience for publishing a shorter version of this article.


Saturday, May 21, 2011

Question of the Day: Who Is the Real Friend of Americans?

Listen carefully the next time "your representatives" open their mouths...

Hard-core conservative McConnell defended his vote to keep giving $2B in federal welfare to Big Oil in a quarter when Big Oil profits hit $36B, with 20 million Americans unemployed, by saying it would defend the US from Chavez! I kid you not; some people actually believe this stuff.

Considering that Chavez is the guy who keeps faithfully selling oil to us and who gave discounted or free gasoline to the American poor a couple years back, while Tony Hayward was CEO of BP when BP poisoned the Gulf of Mexico, the question for the day is:

Who is a better friend of the US – Chavez or Tony Hayward?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Israeli Hidden Agenda On Iran

For examples of Israeli hidden agendas regarding Iran, see Trita Parsi's new article, which also discusses the cost of having hidden agendas. Sometimes, they can box you in. I discussed hidden agendas in theoretical terms here. Parsi also exposes inter alia how servile the U.S. media can be.

Parsi notes:
the huffing and puffing ensured that the American military option remained on the table; that Washington would not deviate from the Israeli red line of rejecting uranium enrichment on Iranian soil; and that the Iranian nuclear program was kept at the top of the international community's agenda.  
He also notes:

Inflating the Iranian threat served several purposes domestically. It provided Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres a rationale to push for peace with the Palestinians in the 1990s, while more recently Benjamin Netanyahu has used it to resist pressure from Washington to do just that. But the domestic benefits came at the price of limiting Israel's options and flexibility vis-à-vis Iran. As Israeli politicians built up the Iranian threat and established a near-consensus that Tehran constituted an existential threat, it became increasingly difficult for any Israeli politician to walk back the threat depiction without losing critical political capital at home. As a result, there was a steady escalation of the threat depiction from Iran and no clear ways to de-escalate.

Inter alia, one can also see something that is extremely important to Americans but denied by virtually all its politicians - the danger to U.S. national security of having an alliance with a country like Israel. It is one thing that Israeli politicians would play dangerous games with hidden agendas risking their own country's security and threatening an adversary, but this game tricked a lot of naive U.S. politicians and thus harmed U.S. security as well, and Israel is supposed to be a friend of the U.S.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Hidden Agendas

When politicians talk up tensions between two states, these tensions may be a game to satisfy hidden agendas or a reality artificially created by the irresponsible players. The citizens of the two sides, the ones paying the price, should open their eyes and reserve judgement.

State A and State B have long been at each other’s throats, both regularly engaging in insulting rhetoric and hostile maneuvers at every opportunity. Both societies suffer from governments that perform badly in terms of economic management and the protection of civil liberties at home. Each state sports a leader addicted to an aggressive international posture. Both states are theocracies, though both make obeisance to the modern god Democracy. Both states make laughable claims to exceptionalism. But there is a difference. State A is small, with few natural attributes of leadership but with an outsized military its leaders cannot resist using, regardless of whether it offers a long-term solution or not. State B is large, a natural power, but with a weak military, yet to reach its potential. The two states share no border and indeed have no obvious reason to pay any particular attention to each other.

One of the first distinctions one might notice about these two states is strategic: State A, with ample territory, a large population, and resources, seems destined, if it can get its house in order, to a bright future. It needs time, however, and could thus logically be expected to seek a stable and cooperative international environment. State B, with no obvious prospects over the long run for leadership but momentarily on a roll with a vastly greater relative superiority in strength than it could imaginably sustain, in fact has a brief chance to do what it wants but logically could be expected to foresee its inevitable loss of relative power in the midterm and therefore also be looking for a stable, cooperative environment that would facilitate the construction of lasting relationships. Nevertheless, the two cooperate only to the degree that they are, hand-in-hand, courting disaster. What is going on? How can one explain such mutually self-defeating behavior? What are the dynamics of this relationship?

Strategically, State A needs time to gather its strength, import advanced technology, achieve domestic political stability, develop its economy, and gain international support. Its forward-leaning foreign policy and egregiously hostile rhetoric appear ill-timed. Nevertheless, it has a logically defensible hidden agenda. State A appears strong and clearly is in the process of gaining strength, yet it presumably knows its own weakness and may well be acting tough on the basis of the perfectly defensible hidden strategic agenda of covering up its own weakness. In this dangerous game the slightest miscalculation may provoke precisely the attack it is attempting by bluffing to avoid. State A’s long history of suffering aggression from global powers combined with State B’s pattern of aggression against a variety of neighbors provide a persuasive body of evidence arguing in favor of bluffing rather than trying to accommodate State B. Clinching the case in the minds of many of State A’s national security thinkers may be a powerful pair of additional facts: the tight alliance between State B and the world’s only superpower and that superpower’s recent proclivity for attacking State A’s neighbors. When you really are being surrounded, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that you are under threat. State A’s behavior seems to be a dangerous miscalculation strategically but is explicable as a calculated risk to conceal a position of genuine weakness.

State B’s behavior also makes some sense strategically…but only as a risk-taking, short-term maximizing strategy. State B is, after all, in a temporary position of strength; it has a strategic opportunity that can be expected to dissipate, so the argument can be made that this is an historic opportunity to consolidate its position by seizing territory and retarding the development of potential adversaries. The strategic risk is that such a policy is also likely to maximize the hostility of its adversary. Given that its adversary is likely to gain strength relative to State B over the long run, a policy that stimulates hostility is logically questionable from a national security perspective. Defense of this strategy as a rational approach requires belief in the assumption that everyone else will always be hostile, a self-fulfilling prophesy of doom that is irrational by definition.

Both states, then, are pursuing what appear to be illogical and self-defeating policies of raising tensions and needlessly taking a real risk of provoking war of incalculable cost, yet each state actually can make a somewhat logical, if highly dangerous, case that it is pursuing a strategically valid policy. This conclusion is important because it portrays the respective decision-makers as carefully calculating risk-takers rather than the crazy militants they sometimes appear to be. Fighting to the death may be the only workable response to crazy militants who worship force; other, much cheaper solutions are available to persuade rational, calculating risk-takers that a particular risk may be too great.

This conclusion is also important because it suggests that national security thinkers in each state may well support these policies for a long time, regardless of how dangerous they are for the respective states as well as the rest of the world. No one can safely assume that either regime is suddenly likely to “wake up” and become risk-averse, renounce the use of force, and transform itself into a “good neighbor.” Like driving a sports car at top speed, a policy of force has momentum. This means the world needs to take very seriously the danger that this strategic competition might spin out of control; rather than just watching, or, as some are wont to do, cheering on one’s favorite side, the rest of the world needs to recognize that these two states are going through a period of extreme danger, like speed-crazed drivers entering a curvy section of highway but unwilling to slow down, and this highway is crowded. The period of danger will last as long as:

1. State A remains too weak to feel confident that it can protect itself without frightening its adversary;
2. State B remains convinced that it has a unique moment of power that it must exploit before it is too late.

It is thus in the interest of the rest of the world to consider how they might dissuade each side from these perceptions.

It may be concluded, then, that strategic claims are at least to some degree sincere and thus must be taken into account by analysts attempting to understand the curious behavior of these two states. That said, strategic considerations are clearly far from the whole story. More than one layer of hidden agenda lies inside the policy onions of these two states.

If a government is a group that gropes its way toward some (often least) common denominator called a policy, it is also a collection of individuals focused like a laser on their own personal careers. The behavior of States A and B cannot be understood without appreciating the degree to which the leaders of each benefits from, indeed survives politically as the result of, the garden of international tension which he so assiduously waters.

The leaders of States A and B would no doubt both be highly insulted were they informed of the degree to which they present mirror images of each other. Each has exacerbated domestic discord with ominous long-term implications for the stability of his society in order to form a winning coalition to enhance his own hold on power. Each has exploited and exacerbated international tensions to cover up his own failings as a leader. Each justifies his own failed leadership by then claiming to be defending his own country against the very hostility he himself has done so much to provoke. As obvious as this personal hidden agenda may be, the respective supporters of each seem utterly oblivious to it.

More, on each side, some of the supporters simply do not care; they themselves benefit too much to care. Superpower politicians share the hidden agenda of State B’s leader, exploiting the tensions they so loudly deride between State A and State B to pad their own resumes. Other enemies of State B are more than happy to profit from the tensions to gain the support of State A. Tensions, just short of war, offer many opportunities for profit. More technically, balancing on the fine edge of chaos maximizes performance (as long as it lasts).

International relations is described by the players in fine patriotic words. The reality is an onion of hidden agendas that make almost impossible rational policy-making.

The dynamics propelling behavior in this two-state system are complex. Expanding the analytical perspective to include domestic politics and external patron states makes the system dynamics almost defy comprehension.

The first dynamic is a vicious cycle of hostile behavior by one side provoking hostile behavior by the other side, which in turn provokes more hostile behavior…This cycle is real enough. The pursuit of a weapons system by one side provokes the pursuit of a weapons system by the other side.

A second dynamic is not “real” but “perception,” though its effects may be just as real. Each side interprets all defensive moves by the opponent as demonstrating offensive intent. Misperceptions can cause war as easily as real threats.

A third dynamic is a hidden state agenda to exploit tensions for national profit. A weak state can stride the international stage by providing cheap rhetorical support for an insurgency. A client state can manipulate a patron into providing an unneeded flow of aid. Foreign tensions serve as a marvelous cloaking device for regimes wishing to win votes or repress dissent at home. The leaders of both states exploit tensions for domestic partisan purposes, but both they and the voters misperceive that exploitation as sincere so tensions rise. Tensions also rise because the politicians talk themselves into believing their self-serving propaganda (cognitive dissonance).

A fourth dynamic is a hidden personal agenda to exploit tensions for personal profit. Waving the bloody flag is a tried and tested road to a brilliant political career. It is also the road to massive corporate profit. Who dares complain about the cost of “supporting our boys in uniform?”

These obvious points only deserve mention for two reasons:

1. Obvious or not, politicians get away with this nonsense every day, causing incalculable harm to society;

2. Even if all the individual points are obvious to a particularly aware individual, humans are poorly wired to “connect the dots” when the dots occur in a dynamic relationship, i.e., when interacting feedbacks generate exponential change and tipping points that suddenly reverse dominance (e.g., from intensifying patriotic fervor to sudden disenchantment with a crooked politician). Thus, we almost never understand the danger that results from these different dynamics when they interact.

The above account is a model. No pair of states in human history has ever precisely matched this model. Indeed, this model, as specified above, has no specificity. You must provide the specificity when you apply it to a real-world case, e.g., by determining the rate at which these various dynamics operate (all different from each other and all susceptible to variation depending on the context). Be that as it may, if the model seems to shed light on the behavior of any real pair of contending states, then it may provide a somewhat more useful starting point than screaming accusations of “insanity,” “fundamentalism,” “being the New Hitler,” “deserving to be wiped off the face of the earth,” or “representing evil incarnate.”

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Hubris in Tehran?

A Tehran diplomatic blunder threatens to undermine its rising regional influence.

Gen. Hasan Firouzabadi, Chairman of the Iranian military joint chiefs of staff since 1989, said on May 1:
Unfair and unIslamic (sic) moves will hurt the honor of Muslims in Saudi Arabia, and it will threaten the security of Saudi Arabia.
This is a hard statement to disagree with. Saudi Arabia’s blatantly sectarian move to suppress Shi’i Muslims in favor of Sunni Muslims certainly does seem to be both “unfair” and “un-Islamic.” The subsequent attacks on medical personnel are just one example of behavior that will “hurt the honor of Muslims in Saudi Arabia.” Whether Iran in any way threatens the security of Saudi Arabia as a result or not, others surely will. It seems impossible to imagine that Riyadh can escape negative consequences to its legitimacy and its stability.

One way or another, it seems almost certain that Washington, now standing almost silent on the sidelines, will see its valuable ally destabilized and its comfortable petroleum partnership with the Saudi kleptocracy impaired. Firouzabadi may be privately delighted to see the Saudis harm their own security while simultaneously empowering Iranian hard-liners or he may be genuinely outraged at the Saudi-Bahraini repression of Shi’i demanding justice…or both. But the bottom line is that Riyadh has undermined its long-term security, Iran looks good by comparison and has probably gained significant popularity in Iraq, and the chasm between the national security interests of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia has just widened.

Firouzabadi  continued:
The Arab dictatorial regimes in the Persian Gulf are unable to contain the popular uprisings. The dictators should relinquish power, end their savage crimes and let the people determine their own future instead of ... opening an unworkable front against Iran.
Again, the general seems on solid analytical ground. Riyadh has seized the regional hardline position, while both Iran and Israel suddenly find themselves in the background, looking relatively peaceful. Iran in particular is finding its rhetoric confirmed, its international stance justified, its influence probably enhanced.

But the general went further, noting that “The Persian Gulf has always, is and shall always belong to Iran,” a remark that can be taken as a threat to Saudi Arabia and the other Arab countries that share its shoreline. If a cautious Iran can benefit from Riyadh’s clumsy counter-revolutionary campaign, the blatantly one-sided claim that Iran “owns” the international waterway seems a blunder that can only undermine its prestige. It cannot credibly both claim to be supporting justice in the Arab world and “ownership” of an international waterway that belongs as much not just to Saudi Arabia but also to Bahrain and its new friend Iraq as it does to Iran. Indeed, given the bitter half-century competition between Iran and Iraq over access to the Persian Gulf, the last thing an Iranian decision-maker hoping for influence in Iraq would want to do is claim that Iran “owns” the Gulf. How much one should read into this remark is unclear, but to make it in the midst of the Arab revolt at a minimum demonstrates poor judgment. One wonders how many Iraqis noticed this blunder and how much it might offset the rise in Iran’s image due to its defense of repressed Bahraini Shi’a.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff since 1989, Firouzabadi called on Arab military commanders in February to defend their countries and “support popular movements.” He can feel somewhat satisfied that in Egypt and Tunisia they did; in Yemen, the military has split. But his remark about the Persian Gulf tarnishes his “democratic image.” He also warned Washington in 2010 against attacking Iran in no uncertain terms and lauded the anti-Zionist attitude of the Arab revolt in April.

The regional influence of Iran today is rising by itself; Iran’s adversaries are so busy dropping stones on their own feet that Iran looks better and better every minute that it does nothing. Insensitive remarks by senior military officials that effectively confirm imperialist intent on the part of Tehran risk alienating precisely the rising generation of young nationalist Arabs that Iran is currently applauding. His remark constitutes evidence that the normally cautious Iranian foreign policy may shift to a more risk-taking stance as Tehran’s star continues rising and its leaders begin to calculate that they no longer need be so patient.

Over the last decade, Iran saw a superpower adventure eradicate its main enemy and open the door to Iranian influence over Iraq, its main regional ally fight Israel to a draw without any overt Iranian intervention, the development of  broad diplomatic and economic cooperation with rising regional power Turkey, and then a wave of popular revolts that destabilized all its Arab opponents and opened the door to renewed ties with an emergent Egypt. But Iran remains a weak country, imperiled by domestic dissent, economic mismanagement, and regional distrust. It would be ironic if Tehran’s good fortune from the hubris of others came to naught because all that good fortune led to hubris on the part of Iran.