Friday, April 29, 2011

Dealing with Denial

Let's imagine that a decision-maker admits that he might be in denial but denies that it is intentional. How might he or she crawl out of the mental box?

Take the contentious issues of the degree to which Saudi Arabia and Israel may share strategic interests with the U.S. How might one move beyond fruitless argument? The simplest step that occurs to me would be to list the ways in which strategic interests coincide and the ways in which they clash.

Shared & Conflicting Strategic Interests: US-Israel & US-Saudi Arabia
Imagine! Merely to admit that such a list could be created would constitute a foreign policy revolution...or is it revelation(???) Washington. An initial version of such a list is provided as a target. I will be the first to attack it for not distinguishing between the "strategic interests" of the elite and the "strategic interests" of the societies. Making a simple list is not quite as simple as one might think!

More seriously, the obvious point is that the relative merits of an alliance are not really so obvious when one thinks about it. When you reach the (almost inevitable) conclusion that this is a less-than-satisfying approach, try Venn diagrams. But that's a tale for another day...

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Saudi-American Clash of Strategic Interests

In order to calculate U.S. self-interest, Washington decision-makers need to escape from denial about the alleged "common strategic interests" between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

Denial is self-defeating: aspire to whatever goal you choose, but do yourself the favor of recognizing the potholes before you break an axle. Much blood is being spilled and much treasure wasted because of Washington’s proclivity to indulge in dangerous groupthink, its tendency to be in a state of denial about obvious dangers imperiling U.S. national security. Few examples are more egregious than the pretense that Saudi Arabia is a “friend.”

Yes, technically, the Saudis are “allies,” but that word simply means that at the moment, the Saudi elite finds cooperation with the U.S. to be beneficial. Of course it has beneficial aspects along with some that are highly injurious, but to call Saudi Arabia an "ally" implies nothing about the future, not does it in any way imply the absence of all manner of counterplot. When a secular, status-quo democracy is “befriended” by a repressive kleptocracy that rests its legitimacy on a deal that gives violence-prone fundamentalist crusaders control over domestic education and “morals” police plus a carte blanche for running an extremist sectarian international crusade, then that secular democracy should begin to worry.

Yet, respectable and recognized experts can make statements such as this blithely optimistic opening remark by Anthony Cordesman in a new summary of U.S.-Saudi ties:

Saudi Arabia and the United States may not share the same political system and culture, but they do share broad strategic interests.

Without citing the missing evidence of fundamental conflicts of strategic interest between the Saudi sectarian religious dictatorship and the U.S., Cordesman’s statement amounts to blind denial of the threat to U.S. national security posed by Saudi Arabia. The stunningly rapid collapse of the Shah, whose hoard of modern U.S. weapons proved useless in maintaining his dictatorship over an angry population, should have taught Washington that piling weapons designed for a world war against traditional Soviet-style forces into the lap of a pre-modern dictator just sets the U.S. up for future problems. Arming the house of cards and encouraging Saudi kleptocracy is the first level on which U.S.-Saudi cooperation endangers U.S. interests.

The second level is the sectarian implications of the Saudi elite campaign not just to repress Shi’a but to promote a hard-line version of Sunni beliefs. One of the core pillars of Saudi foreign policy is the encouragement of a militant version of Islam that has already led directly to al Qua’ida and is provoking sectarian conflict in Bahrain by converting popular aspirations for democracy into repression of the majority not because it wants freedom but because it happens to be Shi’i. This policy only provokes Tehran sectarian hard-liners to take an even harder line and empowers them by demonstrating that they really are under attack. Provoking sectarian conflict in the Mideast is a great cover for Saudi kleptocracy (not to mention Israeli expansion), but it is not in the interests of a weakened U.S. that desperately needs a breathing space to escape from regional misadventures and get its own rotting house back in order. Leading Saudi analyst Madawi al-Rasheed notes the dilemma for Washington:
The fusion of oil interests and Wahhabi Islam became a form of blackmail of the west, extracting from it an eternal silence over the regime’s abuse of human rights.
When Riyadh’s sectarian chickens come home, many will roost on the U.S., and this is definitely not in the interest of U.S. national security.

The third level of strategic clash of interests between Riyadh and the U.S. is the counter-revolutionary policy of the Saudis, whose insistence on standing in the path of Arab socio-political history risks alienating the rising generation of leaders throughout the Arab world from a U.S. that claims to support democratization. In this context, Cordesman’s statement that “in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the United States agree that Yemeni stability and reform are critical in limiting Iran’s influence” is simply beyond belief. From both Riyadh’s vicious campaign against Bahraini democracy advocates [thanks to Augustus Norton for bring attention to the Saudi-Bahraini war against doctors] and the public terms of the deal it is advocating in Yemen, which would leave the structure of the Saleh dictatorship entirely intact, it seems clear that Riyadh is in fact utterly dedicated to preventing reform in Yemen, and that it wants “stability” only in the narrowest, most short-term (and short-sighted) sense of clamping the lid on as tight as possible. The socio-political fire, fed by Arab revolt, is roaring hot; fuel, delivered daily by Saleh’s murderous security goons, is plentiful. What happens to a pressure cooker with the heat on full, lots of fuel, and the lid screwed tight? “Stability” is not the word that comes to mind.

Surely, cooperation with the Saudis offers certain enticements, but they are just a part of the whole meal, most of which will prove indigestible. Policy-makers can of course weigh the potential advantages and disadvantages of eating with the Saudis, but pretending a mixture of sweet desserts and rotten meat constitutes a royal banquet will only get them an upset stomach. Half the truth is that short-term interests in common with the Saudis are mixed with serious conflicts of interest; the other half of the truth is that U.S. antagonism toward Iran (which comes at a given when you buy into the myth that Saudi Arabia and the U.S. share common strategic interests) is so much of a knee-jerk reaction that it prevents recognition of the host of interests in common between the U.S. and Iran. Put honestly, neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia is a “friend” of the U.S.; neither should be labeled an “ally.” Each, like the U.S., works in its own interests; each, like the U.S., follows numerous policies that serve only the interests of narrow elite factions. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have goals that the U.S. should view with a jaundiced eye, but on specific issues, cooperation with each on an issue-by-issue basis could be highly beneficial. Americans will remain blind to all that, however, as long as they remain trapped in a state of denial.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The New Mideast...Simplified

Are you confused about the Mideast? Are you an overworked decision-maker, too busy running the world to figure out what is going on? Stay calm. Just a bit of political science theory can actually make your life easier. Try it!

The Mideast has irrevocably changed—at the fundamental social level, just as the Soviet Bloc irrevocably changed after Prague Spring, although, again like the Soviet Bloc, it may take some time for these changes to impact the visible political structure. Given the change, new policy is necessary, but given the undeniable complexity of current events, how is one to simplify the picture—or, perhaps to put it better, how is one to perceive the real currents and topography of the New Mideast beneath the whitecaps of the stormy sea of daily events?

Decision-makers are clearly confused, yet if one focuses correctly, one can perceive a relatively simple underlying political system that, while surely only one view of a vastly more complex reality, nevertheless sufficiently exposes the core attributes of the new political Mideast to serve as a practical foundation for effective policy-making.

This perspective sets to the side all discussion of the personalities of individual leaders, whose “friendship” or “hostility” is discounted as so much fluff on a wind-swept sea. Professional decision-makers do not base national security on the “loyalty” of foreign leaders (they do not say, as politician Reagan did, that Marcos is my “friend,” as though that were a responsible basis for determining interstate relations). This perspective sets to the side the national distinctions among the two dozen or so regional states. This perspective also sets to the side the particular goals of this or that political faction.

The core attributes of the new Mideast are a simple combination of four actors and the dynamics that link them. “Simple” is obviously a relative term, since a system of four actors linked by multiple dynamics working at cross-purposes and according to different time-scales would not really be “simple” even if we knew exactly what the dynamics were. Unfortunately for those readers hoping to have the Mideast “explained,” even naming those dynamics correctly will, upon reflection, be seen to be perhaps just a bit beyond anyone’s capacity, and determining how they interact certainly will be. Nevertheless, a perspective that focuses on core attributes offers some hope:

  1. Only four actors;
  2. A goal of identifying a minimal set of dynamics;
  3. Two further goals of estimating A) the direction and B) the relative power of those dynamics.

I propose that the essential list of Mideast actors decision-makers need to consider is simply this:

Actor 1. The Population. This is a new actor, a group we all knew existed but have always pretended, without many negative consequences, did not exist. Decision-makers wishing to avoid the charge of being in a state of “terminal denial” must now avoid that pretense. All populations of all states should now be assumed to be: politically aware and willing to fight for the hope of a better life. Take their interests into account or earn their enmity and pay the price.

Actor 2. The Elites. Elites want privilege: Arabs, Americans, Christians, Jews, Muslims, fundamentalists, secularists…it does not matter. Based on the first premise, elites all cut deals, but the existence of Actor 1 means that deals with Actor 2 come at a new price.

Actor 3. The Boss. It is still a unipolar world, and it is still U.S.-centric. Much that occurs will be in reaction to the behavior of the boss. The first thing Washington needs to understand about the Mideast is the impact of what Washington does; for the Boss, nothing can ever come out of the blue; sorry, Boss, that excuse just won’t fly.

Actor 4. The Pretender. A pretender to the throne will always exist. The big secret that the Boss never understands is that eliminating the pretender will only create an environmental niche for a new pretender, perhaps one better adapted to succeed. The hidden message in this secret is that the influence of the pretender is usually more a function of the behavior of the Boss than a result of anything the Pretender can do. The barbarians did not destroy Rome; Rome, through the unbelievable stupidity of corruption and financial mismanagement, destroyed itself. Revolution usually is the fault of the Boss not the revolutionaries. In the Mideast, there is really only one serious pretender – Iran.

Dynamic 1. Control provokes resistance. Dynamics are much harder to identify, but one is both easy (at least for those in charge) to ignore and utterly predictable: control provokes resistance. The harder the boss tries to control, the greater will be the resistance: micromanagement is counterproductive. Much of politics at every level is attributable to the irony that the only actor incapable of seeing the idiocy of micromanagement is the micromanager.

Dynamic 2. Power corrupts. No matter how much wealth or power an elite accumulates, it tries to get more, even to the point of destroying the goose that lays the golden egg. Henry Ford made an exception when he advocated paying his workers enough so they could afford to buy the cars he was selling.

Dynamic 3. People are self-organizing. This is a new one, more-or-less. Any reader of Dickens (Tale of Two Cities) or Hugo (Ninety-Three) will know that the people have always had the theoretical ability to self-organize, but in today’s tightly connected world, self-organization is moving from the exception to the norm.

The New Mideast
Ignoring, for the moment, the admittedly important issue of whether or not the above list of dynamics is sufficiently all-inclusive, this vastly simplified model of the political disputes raging across the Mideast today already contains some key lessons:

  • The traditional practice of indulging in deals with corrupt leaders will henceforth come at a price; cutting the masses in for a share might have a better pay-off since failure to do so can easily provoke their self-organization and lead quickly to the needless empowerment of the Pretender.
  • Relying on elites is naïve; rather, the Boss should anticipate that they will betray their own people and prepare to deal with the trouble that these short-sighted elites will cause. Like Henry Ford, give the people the means to be productive supporters because opposition to your plans is now a very live alternative.
  • Rather than trying to eliminate the Pretender, consider how his pretense can be exposed. What is it that the people think the Pretender can provide that you cannot? The chances are that you could perfectly well afford to offer more than enough to satisfy them.

Most of all, decision-makers need to appreciate the degree to which this is a system in flux (hence the metaphor of the storm-swept sea). A bit too much acquisitiveness on the part of a domestic elite can generate a huge amount of hostile popular self-organization and vastly inflate the influence of an otherwise hapless pretender. Once a tipping point is reached (say, an unknown worker burns himself in public protest or the idiot thugs employed by a careless dictator abuse a bunch of kids), the time-frame over which a dynamic plays out can shrink far faster than a distant decision-maker can react. Read that sentence again: dynamics are…dynamic! They not only cause behavior to change but are themselves capable of pushing faster or slower. If reaction is ineffective because always behind the curve, then planning ahead—which increasingly will mean offering a better deal to one’s adversaries than “appears” necessary—becomes the better part of valor.

As for what to do with the simplified perspective on the new Mideast, it's not quite as obvious as you may think. More later...
Disclaimer: If you are thinking about this, then all the above probably strikes you as rather obvious. Great. You passed your test and are appointed “Decision-Maker-in-Chief.” If, conversely, you find yourself tensing up and feeling insulted, then you may be terminally in denial. In the new, fast-moving World in Flux, good luck, buddy. Emotion really is not a cost-effective approach to decision-making.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Selling Tehran's Rejectionist Stance

Having tossed out a poorly explained assertion that Tehran has little attractive ideology to offer the world in its campaign to lead a challenge to the U.S.-centric world political system, I would like to underscore the distinction between an "ideology" and a "policy position." An ideology, I would argue, is a broad construct, much more substantive than a simple policy position. Ideologies include capitalism, communism, socialism, and Khomenei's version of Shi'i clerical dictatorship. I would maintain that this ideology offers little attraction to the rest of the world, even its mistreated Shi'a. Be they Pakistani, Iraqi, Lebanese, Bahraini, or Saudi, Shi'a in general do not appear to find the idea of submitting to Khomenei's particular vision as very attractive. (Comments from those who have more expertise on this issue would be more than welcome.)

Policy is another matter, and Tehran offers the disadvantaged of the world some (potentially) very attractive policies. In a unipolar world, the big guy of course gets blamed for everything that goes wrong, and indeed when you strive to be Numero Uno, you deserve it. Tehran is the world's most open critic of the U.S.-centric global political system. Tehran may not have a very inspirational ideology, but it does offer a clear policy: replace unipolarity with...whatever. More specifically, it has a policy of rejecting Israeli military dominance over the Mideast and Israeli exceptionalism (e.g., only Israel is allowed nuclear arms, only Israel is allowed to maintain occupation forces outside its legally recognized borders).

Tehran becomes a significant player for free simply because it is essentially has a monopoly on that policy line of "resistance." This position is "free" because it does not actually have to do anything except assert the policy position and accrue the benefit of being the only actor in the world with the guts to "say no."

What Washington needs to understand is that this puts Tehran in a fundamentally passive position - its dissident stance is significant only to the degree that Washington takes such a hard-line counter-position as to make Tehran look like Robin Hood to Washington's King John. If King John had been just a bit more generous with the poor and had been a bit more willing to share power with the nobles, he could have pulled the rug out from under his opponents and been a popular king. An Obama calling for Arab democracy and insisting on the rights of Palestinians leaves Tehran rejectionists out in the cold, talking to themselves. An Obama protecting individual Arab dictators against the interests of the Arab people or kowtowing to an extremist and expansionist Israeli faction, however, hands to Tehran rejectionists a degree of global political influence they could never obtain for themselves. Tehran's future is in the hands of Washington, and so far Washington is giving Tehran exactly what it wants: an easy target.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Empowering Iran’s New World Order

Now that Riyadh seems to be trapping Washington into supporting its counterrevolution, the fate of Iranian crusaders for a new, anti-American world order seems to be in good hands with...Washington. Tehran is on a strategic roll playing the good guy, cheering Arab democracy against the Saudi-Israeli-U.S. axis of dictatorship. In a word, Washington is empowering the Iranian World Order, and all Tehran needs to do is be patient.

The American World Order has always been schizophrenic, the imperial face biting the democratic face. Aspiring to lead a new world order, Iranian rejectionists—be they nationalists or militant Shi’a—have a simple theoretical answer to what liberals see in the American World Order as a fundamental dilemma: the Iranian rejectionists dismiss both faces. Whether Washington aspires to lead a global crusade to establish empire or to spread democracy makes little difference to Iranians dedicated to domestic supremacy of the state over the people and international overthrow of a U.S.-centric international order.

Theory is one thing, practice another, however, and the relative emphasis Washington gives to its imperial tendencies vis-à-vis its democratizing tendencies has enormous impact on the practical difficulties facing Iranians on a crusade to upset the global political system. As long as Iran remains the only serious challenger to the corporate-friendly American World Order, Iran’s real goals are less the issue than Iran’s symbolic position of exceptionalism as the only defender of liberty (though, to be sure, Iran is only defending the liberty of the state vis-à-vis the international system, not the liberty of individuals, but that is a distinction that will be lost on young Arabs being murdered in the street by their own governments). To the degree that people worldwide begin to see Iran as the sole champion of liberty, its dissident crusade becomes immeasurably empowered.

Such a perception would be worth far more than a primitive collection of nuclear bombs to Iranian crusaders, but there is probably little Iran, by itself, can do to spread such perceptions. Ironically, there is much that Washington can do: all it will take is a few simple foreign policy miscalculations in Washington, the type of miscalculations Washington decision-makers are quite prone to make, to hand Iranian crusaders this present on a silver platter. It is ironic that confident, forward-leaning Tehran must rely on its main adversary to open the door for it to make progress. It is even more ironic that it is precisely the Zionists’ fears of a nuclear Iran that induce them to engage in the most short-sighted oppression of civil liberties in the Mideast, “short-sighted” because it plays so neatly into the hands of precisely those Iranians most interested in acquiring nuclear arms.

Again, the issue is not the real goals of Iranian crusaders but the degree to which people, for the moment specifically the people of the Mideast and Central Asia, perceive Iran as their only ally in their struggle for liberty and justice. The virulence of repression in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Palestine will not allow those repressed populations the luxury of examining the motives of a potential supporter.

Tehran could of course always snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by making its own mistakes. Tehran could terrify the Mideast with nuclear threats, drive its own people into revolt, or alienate democratizing Arabs with images of fundamentalist Shi’i velayat-e faqih (Khomenei’s theory of rule by religious dictators responsible only to Allah). One of the difficulties in predicting political events is the ever-present possibility that politicians will manage to defeat themselves by overreach regardless of how certain their victory appears. But as long as Iranians avoid such blunders, with the U.S. dog on the leash of the Saudi billionaires,  time is on Tehran's side.

Ironically, in view of the panic they provoke, Iranian crusaders actually have yet to demonstrate that they have much to offer the Mideast or any other part of the world that many would find attractive. Aside from talking a good talk (and even then frequently lapsing into clumsy, self-defeating rhetoric), Iranian crusaders have little military power, little money, little attractive ideology. They have not succeeded in accomplishing much that is very impressive in Iraq, despite the strong position the neo-con adventure granted them. What improvements in living standards do Iraqis credit Iran with having given them over the last decade? Similarly, what improvements in the lives of the average poor Shi’a in Lebanon would the average person there thank Iran for. The truth is that Iranian crusaders, their noise notwithstanding, have yet to demonstrate that their opponents need fear them very much.

But if Washington succeeds in alienating the rising generation of Arab youth--just as it begins to assert itself--by allowing the American imperial face unambiguously to take precedence over the American democratizing face, then where else will Arabs have to turn? Communism is gone. Salafi jihadis have slaughtered so many Sunnis that they have managed thoroughly to discredit their vision of a new Caliphate in the eyes of the Sunnis masses. Only one symbol of an alternative to the American World Order exists: Iran. (Mr. Davutoglu, if you disagree, please step forward and make your case.) But it is, for obvious reasons, a tarnished symbol, and can only be made attractive by comparison with the degree to which Arabs perceive that the American World Order will or will not permit them to have a decent future within its constraints. If Washington defines the masses of the whole Arab world as rebels to be crushed by the American World Order, it will give Tehran a victory it could never achieve for itself.

Riyadh has clearly thrown down the gauntlet, its savage repression of Bahraini hopes for a new dawn spelling out exactly what the old guard is willing to offer the Arab people. Iranian crusaders presumably have no interest in a genuine flowering of democracy in the Muslim world; that would put them in a highly unstable and marginalized position. But to be the only country unconditionally cheering for Arab democracy against the unholy trio of Zionist Israel, salafi Saudi Arabia, and an imperial U.S. would be a dream come true for Iranian crusaders in which they could finally dominate the Arab street…and do so at no cost.

Whether or not the Iranian crusaders are smart and patient enough to play this game remains to be seen, but initial indications are that they are doing so far more skillfully than Obama, who, after a good start in response to Tahrir Square, now  appears to be falling solidly under the spell of the Saudi sheikhs. The game, admittedly, is hard for the U.S.: it must figure out how to balance the removal of bad allies so that new and independent regimes arise in a context that leads them to chart their own course in a way compatible with U.S. interests: that will be a tricky thing to pull off. For Iran, things are easier. Iran’s strategic position is so much improved with Iraq in its orbit, Afghanistan imploding, Turkey friendly, and Egypt warming up that it (i.e., the ruling elite) can afford to be patient (whether particular individual Iranian leaders will calculate that they personally can afford to be patient is another thing). In essence, Washington must work assiduously to balance contradictions, while all Iran need do is…nothing. Given the daily slaughter by murderous security forces in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and Syria, Iran’s call for a new world order can hardly help but shine brighter and brighter over the desert sands. Terrified at the thought of its old alliance system crumbling, Washington is busily empowering Iran’s crusaders for a new world order.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Tehran's National Security Opportunity

Tehran has done an impressive job of managing its national security challenges over the last 20 years. Can it now put the icing on its national security cake by teaming up with Arab moderates, especially the new Egypt, and isolating Saudi Arabia in embarrassed league with Israel?

One of the major questions regarding the long-term state of Mideast affairs is how Tehran will react to the simultaneous Arab democratization wave and sectarian Saudi challenge. By itself, a democratizing wave would not seem likely to attract very serious Iranian support nor offer Tehran’s hard-line leadership much opportunity, since it contradicts the militant foreign policy and domestic repression dominant in Iran. However, the Saudi counterrevolution makes Riyadh the leader of the region’s anti-democratic forces, and the brutal, obviously sectarian approach of Riyadh offers Tehran an opportunity to enhance its regional image, enhance its national security at low cost simply by supporting the newly emerging moderate Arab regimes. These regimes, to a discerning and patient Tehranian eye, could be seen as legitimate partners over a fairly long period on the simple basis of their desire for foreign policy independence. The more Tel Aviv and Riyadh team up to undermine Arab liberty, the easier it will be for Tehran to strike a tactical deal with any neutral, democratic Arab regimes that may emerge.

Whether such a deal actually transforms Iran into just another Turkey or in the end proves little more than a cloaking device for hard-line Iranian nationalism devoted to establishing a new world order is a question that will only be answered years from now, and will depend greatly on how things work out in the meantime: the answer is not preordained. Tehran kept its cool in the face of the flood of the U.S. military into its backyard and smoothly emerged the victor in the 20-year-long war between Washington and Saddam, while simultaneously maintaining its independence and avoiding Israeli attack. Now, Tehran has an opportunity to improve on this impressive record by “joining” an emerging Arab moderate center and thus isolating Israel and Saudi Arabia far off in right field. In five years, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, and perhaps a couple other regional states could be comfortably tied by a booming hydrocarbon network of priceless strategic value to Western Europe and thus also of priceless strategic value to Iran. As the source of most of the gas, Iran could become, in European eyes, “too big to fail,” and thus protected from Israeli attack.

The big payoff for Washington would be if Tehran decided that the energy superpower game was more attractive than the game of leading the campaign to overthrow the U.S.-centric global political system.

The first move is up to Tehran, and so far, it is choosing the road of moderation and cooperation. Tehran has responded only with words to Riyadh’s brutal repression of Bahraini Shi’a, but simultaneously Tehran is moving steadily to shift regional strategic relations by pulling Egypt away from the Saudis. By ineptly interfering with the democratization process in Egpyt, the Saudis are only facilitating Iran’s way forward. Trading Egypt for Bahrain can hardly be a wise strategic move for Saudi Arabia.

The next move is up to Cairo and seems likely to come in Gaza. An Egyptian move to bring any significant measure of justice to the people of Gaza would simultaneous cause a fundamental rift with Riyadh and pave the road to normalization with Tehran.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Mideast Political Mess

A month after Riyadh launched its counterrevolution, a moderate bloc continues slowly to emerge, offering new regional flexibility, even as the counterrevolution strengthens and slowly radicalizes the region, risking sectarian violence and Saudi-Iranian war.

The determination of the old regimes to view politics as a zero-sum game in which the only acceptable outcome is the complete submission and exploitation of the people to maintain their privileges combined with the willingness of outsiders—both elsewhere in the region and in the rest of the world--to continue cutting deals with any criminal gang that happens to gain state power mean that the likelihood of moderate reform succeeding is declining with every passing day. The people of the Arab world are being forced into a corner from which they will have, most unfortunately, to fight to the death. When this happens, we should all be very clear that the fault will lie with the rapacious elite and its foreign supporters.

Conservatives in the U.S., Israel, and throughout the Arab world are not just betraying their own fellow-citizens, however, but are also betraying the interests of the elite more broadly. Their selfishness, their short-sightedness in defining politics as a zero-sum game will be self-fulfilling. Some will win, for the moment, but over the long term, the self-defeating approach of today’s rulers will poison the well for everyone – commoners and elite alike. In payment for supporting today’s rulers, many current members of the Arab elite will die on the streets or in jail unless they stop enraging and energizing the Arab masses by arresting doctors, abusing women, and murdering people for opening their mouths.

If Arab dictators are endangering themselves strategically because of their zero-sum attitude, they are also hurting themselves tactically--effectively throwing stones at hornets betting that the hornets will simply run away and hide--by shooting a few demonstrators here and there. More, they repeatedly offer paper reforms that do not seem to be fooling anyone in the suddenly sophisticated Mideast. The result of these two tactics, in country after country, is increasing isolation of the leaders plus a magnificent, if horrifyingly dangerous, mass training program in democratic and revolutionary activism. If, a year or so from now, Arab activists conclude that peaceful reform is impossible, they will by then be well educated in how to launch a violent revolution.

Election of a constituent assembly to write a new constitution will occur on July 24. The justice minister is trying to bring the former dictator, being protected by Saudi Arabia, to trial, Riyadh’s stance provoking Tunisian feeling against it. Several dozen members of Ben Ali’s family have already been arrested, while the ex-leader himself is officially being accused of “murder, conspiracy against the security of the state as well as trafficking and the use of drugs.”

Bouteflika campaigned on TV April 15, offering a “personal” guarantee of a new reform program, only days after police once again used violence against demonstrators. Meanwhile, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is being blamed for several recent ambushes of security forces. Politics remains on ice, with the real threat to the dictator reportedly coming from Gen. Mohammed "Tewfik" Mediene, head of the Directorate of Intelligence and Security (DRS).

Jordan has received a warning that the dictators of the whole Arab world will no doubt refuse to heed, in the form of a violent attack on police. The patience of the Arab democracy protesters in the face of criminal regime repression over the last three months has been nearly beyond belief. It cannot last: either people will start to defend themselves or extremists will provoke violence to exploit the resulting chaos. For insightful views of Jordan, see Black Iris.

Riyadh’s effort to find a negotiated settlement to the Yemeni political conflict has failed. Democracy advocates in Yemen should probably consider themselves lucky to have evaded a Saudi trap by rejecting a deal that would have allowed the fox to continue guarding the hen house just a little bit longer, while the ruling Yemeni elite appears to have missed a chance to pull victory out of defeat due to their unwillingness to sacrifice Saleh. Meanwhile, Saleh has unwittingly given the protesters a victory by irritating and thus empowering Yemeni women, whose sudden political activism seems likely to make Yemen much more resistant to repression. For a strong taste of the flavor of the New Yemeni Woman, see the Woman From Yemen blog. Another courageous Yemeni woman, Afrah Nasser, had already put the issue succinctly two weeks before Saleh’s verbal attack on his country’s women:

Traditionally in Yemen, women are – literally – not allowed to raise their voices. In peaceful circumstances, even calling out in the street to attract someone’s attention is considered unacceptable behaviour. But now, in the protests, it is very much welcomed and there is an amazing response when we raise our voices.

Everybody acknowledges that yes, we do have a voice, and the role of women in this uprising is increasing day by day as we enter a new time of freedom for everyone.

Another (Yemeni-American) woman’s experience spelled out the change:
I was suddenly surrounded. The march is massive and growing by the minute. I turn around to find two men making way for me. I began to rotate, observing my surroundings. I realize the men in the rally have created a human barrier circling around me. Their hands locked, so at to protect me from the suffocating mass. Amid the tens of thousands of Yemeni men, I’ve never felt so empowered. This march was in reaction to President Saleh’s statements against gender integration at Tagheer “Change” square; yet another statement towards the degradation of women in Yemen.  This time, the people had enough. These throngs of men were here in uproar, condemning his misogynistic utterances.

Congratulations, Yemeni men: you are learning the meaning of democracy! Not “me first” but cooperation. When you finish with your revolution, please come to the U.S. and teach us…

Benjamin Wiacek gives a dramatic portrayal of the patience with which Yemeni protesters are enduring regime violence.


Egypt’s newly empowered Al Ahram daily describes the virtual state of war by Assad against the Syria people, with his reform announcements serving as window-dressing for military siege of cities and regime-sponsored gangs attacking citizens.

The pace of change in Egypt is impressive. Mubarak, once again demonstrating his political genius and oneness with the people, emerged from seclusion to talk his way into jail, where he found a host of old friends. Not to pick on an old man, his stalwart sons soon joined him, and now his wife—perhaps a corrupt individual in her own right--has become a object of judicial interest. So the revolutionary net has now gathered not just the dictator, but also his family and his cabinet. More, all the provincial governors have been replaced. The revolution seems to be gaining momentum, and yet, as Amnesty International stresses, the critically important purge of criminals from the ranks of security personnel has yet to occur.

It would be ironic if tiny Bahrain ended up provoking the most fundamental change in the Mideast, but its radicalizing effect should not be overlooked. The Bahraini decision to submit to Saudi counterrevolution, which has now reached the point of overt religious war against the Bahraini people--is ominously tightening regional alliances. The new wave of Pakistani mercenaries, manpower for the counterrevolution, is sure to provoke more Iranian reaction than just the current official protest. The idea of a Saudi threat to Iran may by itself be little more than propaganda, but one could well imagine national security decision-makers in Tehran becoming genuinely concerned about the potential danger of an activist, militant alliance between rich Saudi Arabia and populous, nuclear Pakistan. A proud veteran of the long war against Saddam could be excused for seeing an emerging Sunni military encirclement inside the larger U.S./Israeli military encirclement.

As Pakistan recruits mercenaries to oppress Bahrainis, Iran protests. In contrast to Riyadh, which seems to be backing itself into a counterrevolutionary cul-de-sac, Tehran has multiplying options: not just to resist Saudi military moves but alternatively to take the high road as defender of peaceful democratization by continuing to improve ties with an Egypt that, albeit uncomfortably moderate, has the virtue of a relatively independent stance. Whether Tehran would prefer that to clearcut leadership of the rejectionist bloc remains to be seen. As Riyadh foments both counterrevolution and sectarianism, it also remains to be seen if Tehran will in the end even have a choice.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Israel Must Face Reality to Protect Itself

To understand how Israeli politicians have harmed Israeli national security, don't waste time listening to their guilty leaders or even to their enemies: listen to patriotic Israeli intellectuals. Uri Avnery is one of the best on both counts and has identified the way forward to address the open wound of Gaza:

In a word, Hamas = reality, and denial of reality is no basis for a successful foreign policy.

Mideast Turning Point

Washington has always been involved: either it supports kleptocracy for short-term gain or it supports a healthy development of human society, for long-term gain.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Dictatorship and Religious Extremism: Two Sides of the Same Coin

A popular false dichotomy in the West--promoted partly by those who can see only black and white, partly by those with a private agenda to profit from chaos--holds that the choice in the Mideast lies between dictatorships and religious extremism. Don't fall into this trap: dictatorships and religious extremism are two sides of the same coin.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Riyadh Tries a Neat Trick to Promote Its Counterrevolution

Behind the superficial news reports lie layers of maneuver and counter-maneuver, with innocent-sounding initiatives sometimes hiding ominous implications.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Arab Leaders Can't Do the Math

Politicians--all self-appointed, one may note--in the Arab world have recently been teaching us all lessons in how to win the love and support of the people. You achieve this by establishing clear rules that create an ordered society.

How To Spot a Hypocrite

How do we distinguish trustworthy politicians from hypocrites? On the budget war, there is a simple test.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Emulating Barbarians

In the global struggle between populations demanding justice and elites defending privilege, it is important to note how the forces of conservatism efficiently share tactics. We must look both over time and across societies to see the pattern of new precedents for oppressing the people being established by virtue of the impunity with which most elites operate and their facility for adopting the worst practices of their peers in other societies.