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Trumped Up Diplomacy in the Middle East

20 May

 

In his first overseas trip since moving into the White House, Donald Trump is leaving behind the frustrations, allegations, rumors, and an increasing sense of implosion that seems to be dooming his presidency during its second hundred days. At the same time, a mixture of curiosity and apprehension awaits this new leader wherever he goes making his visit to the Middle East and Europe momentous occasions for the host governments, wide eyed public, and rapacious media. We need to remember that in this era of popular autocrats and surging right-wing populists, Trump is a ‘hero of our time.’

 

Even if all had gone smoothly for the new president in his home country, there should be expressions of deep concern about his travel itinerary. He visits first the two countries with which the United States has ‘special relationships’ in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Israel. What has long made them ‘special’ are a series of pre-Trump departures from realist and normative foreign policy orientations by successive American presidencies. These departures were motivated by oil geopolitics, arms sales and strategic alliances, hostility to Iran, and a disguised American sweet spot for foreign royalty. It is has long been obvious that uncritical deference to Israeli priorities has seriously undermined U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, which would have benefitted much more from policies designed to encourage peace and stability by refraining from regime-changing interventions, massive arms sales, and a diplomacy of respect for the politics of national self-determination.

 

Most remarkably, the U.S. Government has for decades winked at the billions of support given by Saudi members of the royal family to Wahabism, that is, to promote fundamentalist Islam, throughout the Muslim world. The first words uttered by Trump on his arrival in Riyadh were that it ‘an honor’ to be visiting.

Then came signed deals adding up to $110 billions in arms sales and the declaration of a common strategic vision, that is, a super-alliance, called an ‘Arab NATO’ in some circles, a dagger aimed at Iran’s heart. Why turn a blind eye toward the Saudi role in fanning the flames of jihadism while ramping up a military threat to relatively passive Iran that reelected Hassan Rouhani as its president, who has consistently championed moderation at home and normalization abroad.

 

How can we explain this? Trump has been critical of most aspects of the foreign policy agenda of his predecessors, but on the promotion of the special relationships he seems intent on doubling down on the most misguided aspects of earlier approaches to the region. The shape of his travel itinerary during his days confirms this impression. In this regard, Trump repudiates Obama’s hesitant, but in the end successful, efforts to bring Iran in from the cold, while trying to please Saudi Arabia by ignoring its extreme denial of human rights to its own people as well as its contributions to anti-Western terrorism.

 

If Trump was truly intent on putting America first, as he insistently asserts, then he could do so very directly and effectively by taking three major steps toward the protection of national interests: first, demand a firm commitment from the Saudi government to cease using private funds and public diplomacy to spread Wahabism beyond its borders. Any credible public statement along these lines would weaken ISIS and other terrorist movements throughout the world far more than cascades of Tomahawk missiles dumped on a Syrian airfield. Such a challenge to Saudi policies also raises the possibility, however remote, of an endgame in the ‘war on terror.’ If such a reset of Saudi relations could be coupled with an indefinite freeze on arms sales to the Gulf countries that would have been even better, sending a signal throughout the region that America will no longer engage with the bloody conflicts that have brought so much suffering and devastation to the Middle East. This might give some belated meaning to ‘America first.’

 

The second step would have been even harder for an American president to take. It would require Trump to tell Mr. Netanyahu that no further military assistance for Israel would be authorized until an unconditional freeze on settlement expansion was in place and enforced, and the blockade of Gaza lifted once and for all.

 

It does not require a PhD in Middle Eastern Studies to appreciate that the establishment of a nuclear free zone in the region and the adoption of effective steps to minimize the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia Islam would improve future prospects for this horrendously disrupted political realities, at last reducing tensions and risks of wars. Nor does it require special knowledge to identify the obstacles such actions—the one government that already possesses nuclear weapons and the government that feels threatened by a challenge to its regional preeminence. Saudi Arabia and Israel both regard Iran as enemy number one, although it poses no existential threat to either one, and Israel will not even discuss giving up its nuclear arsenal despite being assured by Washington that its qualitative edge in conventional weaponry relative to its neighbors will be upheld.

 

The special relationships block even the consideration of enlightened initiatives, take them entirely off the table. This contrasts with the American proclivity for coercive diplomacy, which always assertively leaves the military option on the table. Without tension-reducing measures, a few false moves could easily give rise to a major war with Iran, which might bring smiles to leaders in Riyadh and Tel Aviv, but would be disastrous for the societies involved and for the United States, as well as for the region.

 

Given the leverage and militancy of pro-Israeli lobbies in the United States, more realistically pursuing American national interests toward Israel and the Middle East, seems tantamount to issuing invitations to Trump’s beheading, and despite his wildly gyrations of policy and mood, he has shown no disposition whatsoever to take on AIPAC, inc.. Quite the contrary.

 

Of course, I am not so naïve to think that the advocacy of rationality in foreign policy will have the slightest echo in Washington in the course of Trump’s current diplomatic foray into uncharted territories. What I wish to point out is that this kind of foreign policy fantasy, however desirable if it were to be enacted, has become a species of political suicide. Any political leader who moved in more rational directions would be risking his own life, at least politically. The proposals mentioned above tells us what an American president should do if a rational and humane political system was in place and organized in such ways as to allow the pursuit of national interests, the realization of values associated with peace and human rights, and to attain the benefits of just and sustainable Isreali/Palestinian peace arrangements.

 

As long as these dysfunctional special relationships are relied upon to define American national interests in the Middle East, violent extremism and turmoil will persist, the authority of the United Nations and international law will suffer, and the credibility of American regional and global leadership will further erode. And maybe worst of all, the mounting ecological and nuclear challenges of global scope and apocalyptical risk will be remain unattended in what has become the greatest display of species indifference to its own survival throughout human history.

 

Mainstream advice on the Middle East being proffered to the Trump presidency by Beltway sharpshooters takes for granted the geopolitical status quo questioned above. The problems presented by the two special relationships are not even mentioned. Given these perspectives there are three broad kinds of approaches recommended for the region: (1) don’t aim too high, lower expectations, and don’t touch raw nerves in Israel or the Arab world (e.g. moving the American embassy to Jerusalem or telling Israel to dismantle the separation wall, stop expanding settlements, or handle the ongoing hunger strike humanely)[See Aaron David Miller, “From My Twenty Years of Failing at Middle East Peace,” Foreign Policy online, May 19, 2017]; (2) gang up on Iran, which will please both Israel and Saudi Arabia, and will have some positive resonance back in the United States [e.g. Michael Doran, “A Trump Plan for the Middle East,” NY Times, May 19, 2017]; (3) adopt the Israeli hard right view, now pushed within the United States, that the best road to ‘peace’ is to give Israel a green light to exert even greater pressure on the Palestinians to the point of their surrender. [a position repeatedly advocated by Daniel Pipes on the online listserv Middle East Forum and elsewhere, see Pipes, “The Way to Peace: Israeli Victory and Palestinian Defeat,” Commentary, Jan. 2017; Pipes boasts of his work with the Congressional Israel Victory Caucus that wants the U.S. Government to stop talking about ‘the two state solution,’ and support an Israeli shift from managing the status quo to launching a campaign to defeat Palestinians so decisively as to end the conflict.]

 

The first of these approaches is a cautionary warning to Trump the maker of grand deals not to exceed the boundaries of the feasible. The Israel/Palestine conflict is not ripe for resolution, Israel has no incentive or inclination to reach a fair compromise and even if it were, the Palestinians are currently too fragmented and poorly led to provide a reliable negotiating partner. The second geopolitically oriented approach makes matters worse, pushing the sectarian and secular divides in the direction of a regional confrontation, even combat. The third is geopolitically triumphalist, assuming that the Palestinians can be induced to give up their century old struggle, and go the way of other indigenous lost causes that have succumbed to predatory settler movements.

 

As Trump dominates the news by his visits to Saudi Arabia and Israel we should not be tricked into thinking that his ‘achievements’ are hopeful developments. The only true beacons of hope for the peoples of the Middle East are the contrarian affirmations of the Palestinian hunger strike, the Rouhani electoral victory, and the BDS Campaign. The fact that such developments are ignored or condemned by the dominant political forces in the West should at least alert us to gathering storm clouds in that tormented region and elsewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Weak UN Ensures a Weak Secretary General

13 Jun

 

 

There are many angles of interpretation relevant to the startling admission by Ban Ki-moon that he succumbed to undisguised diplomatic pressure when removing Saudi Arabia from the ‘shame list’ of countries whose armies are found responsible the maiming and killing of children, earning them dishonorable mentioned in an annex to the annual UN report on violations of children’s rights. The scale and severe nature of such violations, committed in the course of the Yemeni intervention carried out by the Saudi led coalition of countries is beyond serious doubt, detailed in the UN report and strongly endorsed by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. These most respected of human rights NGOs reacted with moral outrage that the SG would give way to such unseemly and crude pressure, which has the effect of undermining the precarious stature of the UN making visible for all to see how geopolitical considerations outweigh even these most fundamental of humanitarian concerns, the protection of children in war zones..

 

There is more to this incident than one more demonstration that this particular SG lacks the political will to uphold the integrity and autonomy of the UN. On display, as well, was the crude manner in which the UN Saudi ambassador, Abdullah al-Mouallami, threw around his political weight without enduring any backlash. This diplomat openly is accused of threatening the UN with ‘adverse consequences,’ and also with issuing a warning that UN emergency programs in such distressed areas as Gaza, Syria, and South Sudan would lose their Saudi (and Gulf coaltion) funding. Apparently, rather pathetically, Ban Ki-moon, thought it better to give ground, and so explained removing Saudi Arabia from the shame list until a joint review determined what to do as the lesser of evils. The greater evil the SG suggested would be to lose financial support for vital programs that affect a far greater number of children.

 

The ambassador made clear that this face saving procedure to review the listing was not to be construed as consenting to an objective inquiry, declaring that the removal of Saudi Arabia from the list was ‘unconditional and irreversible.’ Whether the disclosure of these sordid happenings will challenge the Saudi insistence remains to be seen. What is evident, and offers the world a glimmer of encouragement, is that Saudi Arabia, despite its notorious human rights record, takes seriously enough its international reputation as to make such use of strong arm tactics that are as demeaning as the UN report itself. The SG retreat also shows to the world that being a monetary heavyweight can matter in the UN as much as being a P-5 member or geopolitical leader.

 

What Saudi Arabia had achieved by relying on its economic leverage, Israel and the United States manage to gain more subtly by persuasion. Both governments leaned heavily on the SG to ensure that Israel would not be on the shame list in view of its violations of the rights of children in the course of the bloody 2014 Gaza War. In an earlier massive attack started at the end of 2008, the SG dutifully buried a report strongly condemning Israel for deliberately targeting UN facilities where Palestinian civilians were receiving shelter. So it is important to appreciate that Saudi Arabia is not by any means alone in applying extra-legal pressure to avoid losing face by adverse findings. The fact that the U.S. special relationship with Israel includes helping Israel cover up such serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights standards is also an added reason for disappointment.

 

The good news is that governments do their upmost to avoid moral and legal opprobrium as a result of UN initiatives, and this is because it matters. Recall the furious Israeli reaction to the infamous Goldstone Report of 2009 that found Israel guilty of numerous violations of the law of war in the course of its attack on Gaza months earlier, which had the effect of burying the report’s recommendations for further action but did validate the allegations of criminality made in civil society, contributing to the discrediting of Israel’s occupation policies and practices, especially as enacted in Gaza. The bad news is that the leverage of the powerful and rich consistently leads the UN to buckle beneath the weight of backroom influence.

What gives this Saudi event salience is the transparency and effectiveness of the inappropriate behavior, which includes the SG’s unusually candid acknowledgement of what took place, producing a media shout out that encourages a critical assessment of the UN and its leadership. Perhaps, Ban Ki-moon in his final months as SG has decided to tell it like it is, having kept his mouth shut and mostly doing what he was told to do for the nearly ten years that he occupied the highest UN post.

 

There are two ways to view Ban Ki-moon’s handling of Saudi pressure. The first impulse is to condemn the SG for cavalierly disregarding the values of the UN Charter, human rights, and international law. From this perspective, Ban Ki-moon reinforced his overall image throughout his two terms as a weak international civil servant who is blown in whatever the direction of the prevailing wind happens to be. A second line of interpretation is more charitable, suggesting that Ban Ki-moon was confronted by a ‘Sophie’s choice’ dilemma: either to insist on the integrity of the shame list or balance the competing costs, and thus exhibit flexibility by opting to keep the economic assistance flowing to places of dire need.

 

What both interpretations suggest is the subordination of UN operations to geopolitical realities, not only as this incident unfolded, but also more tellingly with respect to the underlying structural characteristics of the UN. The manner of choosing a SG, requiring endorsement by each of the P-5, virtually guarantees the selection of a person of weak character and strong ambition. The fact that there have been some partial exceptions among the eight SGs that have so far served is mainly an indication that the gatekeepers have not always succeeded in doing their job of making sure that a person of unshakable moral character is ever selected. Political astuteness, which is understood to me a realistic willingness to be responsive to geopolitical pressures has been part of the job description all along. We can still hope for another Dag Hammarskjold, U Thant, or Kofi Annan who will somehow get through the gate, imparting dignity once more to the office of Secretary General, but from a structural point of view such a happy outcome must still be viewed essentially as an accident.

 

Closely related is the even more fundamental recognition that the funding supply chains of the UN are tied directly to these geopolitical levers of influence. The UN is kept on a short financial leash so that the leaders of the Organization will not get the wrong idea, and think of themselves as independent political actors owing primary loyalty to the UN Charter and the ideals set forth in its Preamble. It would be a simple matter to impose a tax on international financial transactions or international flights that would generate the revenue needed to fund the entire UN system. This idea has been around for decades, earlier discussed as ‘the Tobin tax,’ named after the Yale Nobel Prize economist, James Tobin, who is credited with first proposing such a tax in 1972. Why it has never happened should not be a mystery. Those who control the UN have no incentive to loosen their grip. Civil society, although supportive of such an initiative, has never been sufficiently motivated to mount the sort of transnational campaign that succeeded in getting the International Criminal Court established despite geopolitical resistance. Absent political will from above or mobilization from below there is no prospect of achieving the degree of financial independence that would allow a SG in the future to react with anger to the sort of demand made effectively by the current Saudi Arabia ambassador.

 

It is evident that the combination of a discretionary veto conferred upon the P-5, which is a legalized exemption of unlimited scope from UN authority, and the leverage provided by the way the Organization is financed, ensures the primacy of geopolitics in the principal operations of the UN. This is what was intended from the beginning of the UN, and this is what has happened all along. It is written into the UN Charter, which provides the constitutional framework and is veto proof against any geopolitically unwanted modification intended to make the UN more responsive to international law rather than to the grand strategies of its dominant members and their closest friends.

 

Despite such disappointments and shortcomings, the UN plays a vital role on the global stage, and its contributions, actual and potential, should not be overlooked. The UN provides a forum available to all states, raising to global visibility the concerns of the weaker governments in a manner that can make a difference. The UN also provides the principal auspices for multilateral diplomacy, as in relation to such lawmaking events as the Paris Climate Change Agreement of a year ago.

 

As an organization of states, the UN fails to address the agendas of the peoples of the world, especially those so marginalized and vulnerable as not to be adequately represented by governments. Proposals for the establishment of a Global Peoples Assembly, parallel to the General Assembly, have been forward over the years, but have not been realized because opposed by the representatives of a state-centric world order that are unwilling to share the formal stage of authority with civil society representatives even as the actualities of globalization have drained power and energy away from states.

 

Perhaps, the most overlooked, yet significant role of the UN is to be a major player in Legitimacy Wars, throwing their weight on one side or the other in the many ongoing struggles around the world. The UN can also issue reports and gather reliable information that disclose ‘inconvenient truths,’ which are influential with world public opinion, and provoke the sort of awkward responses that led to Saudi embarrassment, followed by anger, leading to the even more embarrassing accommodation by a much compromised Ban Ki-moon. At the same time, the incident also called wider attention to the abuse of children in the Yemen intervention than would have followed by its inclusion in a UN report. Political influence and change work in strange ways, and we cannot yet know whether the disgraceful, yet understandable, behavior of the SG will yet persuade the Saudi led coalition to abandon quietly their intervention in Yemen, or at least modify their tactics.

 

What needs to be understood is that symbolic issues with law, morality, and justice have exerted a major impact on the resolution of conflicts since 1945. It is the normative revolution principally brought about through the achievement of the right of self-determination that has changed the map of the world, and indicated that the anti-colonial flow of history has shaped the narrative of recent decades to a greater extent even than the series of startling innovations in the weaponry and tactics of warfare. The UN seems weak when challenged by geopolitics, yet its mark on the history of our time is the clearest demonstration that its presence still matters, and will continue to do so despite the likelihood of future weak SGs and in the face of its deep structural failings to fulfill the promise of the stirring words set forth in the Preamble of the UN Charter.

 

 

 

The Failure of U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East

22 Nov

[Prefatory Note: What follows is a modified version of the Morton-Kenney annual public lecture given at the University of Southern Illinois in Carbondale on November 18, 2015 under the joint sponsorship of the Department of Political Science and the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.]

 

The Failure of U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East

While focusing on the ‘failure’ of American foreign policy in the Middle East it is relevant to acknowledge that given the circumstances of the region failure to some degree was probably unavoidable. The argument put forward here is that the degree and form of failure reflected avoidable choices that could and should have been corrected, or at least mitigated over time, but by and large this has not happened and it is important to understand why. This analysis concludes with a consideration of three correctible mistakes of policy.

 

It is also true that the Middle East is a region of great complexity reflecting overlapping contradictory features at all levels of political organization, especially the interplay of ethnic, tribal, and religious tensions internal to states as intensified by regional and geopolitical actors pursuing antagonistic policy agendas. Additionally, of particular importance recently is the emergence of non-state actors and movements that accord priority to the establishment and control of non-territorial political communities, giving primary legitimacy to Islamic affinities while withdrawing legitimacy from the modern state as it took shape in Western Europe. Comprehending this complexity requires attention to historical and cultural background, societal context, and shifting grand strategies of geopolitical actors.

 

 

I

 

From many points of view American foreign policy in the Middle East has been worse than a disappointment. It has been an outright failure, especially in the period following the 9/11 attacks of 2001. Even such an ardent supporter and collaborator of the U.S. government as Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, has acknowledged as much in a recent set of comments where he basically says that the West has tried everything, and whatever the tactics were relied upon, the outcome was one of frustration and failure. In Blair’s telling words:

“We have tried intervention and putting down troops in Iraq; we’ve tried intervention without putting in troops in Libya; and we’ve tried no intervention at all but demanding regime change in Syria. It’s not clear to me that, even if our policy did not work, subsequent policies would have worked better.” [as quoted in David Swanson, “Tony Blair is Sorry, a Little,” http://davidswanson.org/node/4960] In Blair’s either/or world the political imagination is militarized to the extent that the only viable alternatives are to intervene/or not to intervene, suggestive of that most celebrated of binaries, Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be,’ an utterance relating to whether or not he should kill the usurping king, the presumed murderer of his father.

 

Several comments are worth observing: first, the scope of inquiry in Blair’s comment is limited to an assessment of military intervention as a tactic, without any consideration of diplomacy or respect for the dynamics of self-determination; secondly, the ‘we’ in his comments is the West, which mainly has meant the United States, rather than the UN or the wider international community; it is a geopolitical ‘we’; thirdly, the fact that intervention violates the UN Charter and international law is irrelevant for a post-colonial advocate of Western militarism, such as Blair. This comment is revealing in the same way that Sherlock Holmes famously perceived the nature of a crime by noticing that a dog was not barking in its habitual manner, that is, identifying what is omitted from Blair’s assessment is far more interesting and illuminating than what is acknowledged, which is the frustrations of interventionist statecraft in the Middle East; fourthly, it is a misrepresentation of Western policy toward the Syrian conflict to classify it as an instance of ‘nonintervention’ because there has been no concerted air campaign or ground forces mounted by external actors; fifthly, and perhaps most important of all, Blair’s focus on intervention as a Western instrument to control behavior in particular countries does not attempt to encompass the blowback or boomerang effects of intervention as being increasingly unconstrained by the territorial geography of the combat zone; this extra-regional extension of intervention is being most vividly experienced in the contradictory forms of the migration crisis and the horrifying Paris attacks; the point here being that the reverberations of Western intervention can no longer be reliably confined to non-Western battlefields as was the case during the colonial era.

 

Tom Mayer gives a more satisfactory gloss on this same range of experience. Mayer is a peace activist in Boulder Colorado who manages a very perceptive listserv with the name “Just Peace in the Middle East.” His assessment: “US military intervention has been a calamity in the Middle East. They have destroyed Iraq, destabilized Libya, fostered dictatorship in Egypt, accelerated civil war in Syria, and the destruction of Yemen, and helped squelch a pro-democracy movement in Bahrain.” [Oct. 25, 2015] The difference in outlook between Blair and Mayer is evident: Blair is exclusively concerned with whether Western policy attained its goals or not, while Mayer emphasizes the harmful effects on the society that is on the receiving end of intervention. Blair epitomizes what I regard as an obsolete yet dangerous form of ‘geopolitical thinking’ while Mayer focuses on the primacy of people and the suffering brought about by a misguided reliance on military solutions for conflicts in the Middle East. Mayer’s consequentialist thinking is also like Blair, not overtly sensitive to the relevance of restraints associated with the United Nations or international law but puts all his emphasis on the effects of these Middle Eastern uses of force. He also does not here mention the post-colonial globalization of conflict, the non-localization of Western political violence in the non-Western world, or more dramatically, the recourse by non-Western extremist forms of resistance to striking back at Western civilian or ‘soft’ targets. In my view, this last point is great significance signaling the end of a long era of one-sided violence in which non-Western resistance was confined to the territorial limits of the combat zone.

 

 

 

 

 

II

 

Before proceeding on the facile assumption of the ‘failure’ of American foreign policy in the Middle East, it is illuminating to consider alternative interpretations of recent developments.

 

There are important senses in which American foreign policy in the Middle East has not failed given certain assumptions about its character and priorities. If U.S. priorities are oil, Israel, non-proliferation, and the containment of political Islam, then American policy in the region, despite the collateral devastation and suffering entailed, has been surprisingly successful. For decades U.S. strategic relationships with the Gulf states have been successfully balanced with support for Israel. Oil has continued to keep the world economy going at affordable prices during a period when additional energy sources outside the region have been under development and exploration. After being a strategic burden during the early stages of its existence, Israel emerged as a valued strategic asset and partner with the United States in the region, especially since 1967. The U.S. together with Israel has successfully challenged all instances of the threatened proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region, while quite remarkably enabling Israel to maintain its regional monopoly of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, even to the extent of being insulated from criticism and pressure that should have been expected given such a blatant double standard as well as its process of covert acquisition. [Israel’s attack destroying Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981; Seymour Hersh, The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy (1991)]

 

Beyond these central points, it is relevant that both Israel and Saudi Arabia are also valued as major purchasers of American weaponry, and that Israel has field tested new tactics and weaponry in relation to the Palestinians that seem to have had a particular influence on Washington since the 9/11 attacks. Israel has joined with Washington in the development of counter-terrorism doctrine and tactic in all phases, including shared intelligence. In addition, Saudi Arabia has, despite its own fundamentalist orientation, operated as an unlikely counterweight in the region to the spread of Islamic radicalism, especially due to its bitter rivalry with Iran and hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus, by relying on the cool abstractions of geopolitics it is possible to make a strong case for concluding that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, given the priorities, has been a success, and the current devastation chaos, and oppressiveness in several of the countries is a diversionary sideshow that should not be understood as outweighing the benefits.

 

It must be acknowledged that this positive assessment is no very convincing given the inability to prevent the turbulence of the Middle East from spilling over to the West is taken into account. The migration crisis confronting Europe and the extra-regional terrorism of jihadism must now be included in any credible calculation of foreign policy success and failure. Put differently, those countries not militarily engaged in the region, including China and Brazil, have not yet experienced the lethal backlash of Middle East turbulence and the related jihadi backlash.

 

As indicated, much depends on whether the prevailing geopolitical outlook of dominant states in the West is the criterion of success or failure rather than the normative criteria of peace, human rights and justice in the region. I am far more inclined to rely on the latter evaluative approach as coupled with a revisionist interpretation of 21st Century geopolitics. I contend that given the realities of the contemporary world, a nonviolent geopolitics respectful of international law, the authority of the United Nations, and the primacy of the politics of self-determination, despite some difficulties, best serves the strategic interest of the United States. [See Jens David Ohlin, The Assault on International Law (2015)] In effect, the United States position in the Middle East and the world would have been much more successful if built around adherence to international law and respect for UN authority than it has been by the refusal to accept the dynamics of self-determination. In this primary sense there is no conflict between affirming normative priorities and geopolitics, that is, presupposing reliance on this revisionist version of geopolitics.

 

This refusal to accept the political verdicts of self-determination remains in my view the unlearned major lesson of the American defeat in the Vietnam War, a lesson reinforced by the outcome of a series of wars against European colonial powers and by the unhappy post-Vietnam experiences of the United States with military intervention, most notably in Afghanistan and Iraq. The only convincing reading of international history since the end of World War II is that military superiority does not produce political victories in struggles for national independence waged against foreign domination and generates a number of extra-geographical negative effects. These results are unlike the experience of earlier centuries when military superiority did largely shape the historical process. It is quite understandable that this decline in the agency of military policy is hard to difficult to integrate into the thinking and behavior of Western elites.

 

After the Vietnam War, a conversation between an American colonel who was a counterinsurgency specialist and his Vietnamese counterpart makes this essential point. The American declares, “You know that you never defeated us on the battlefield,” to which the Vietnamese colonel replies, “Yes that is true, but it is irrelevant.” From my perspective, the failures of American foreign policy in the Middle East, and elsewhere, is largely a consequence of the inability and unwillingness to comprehend this irrelevance. General David Petraeus, rose to the top of the military bureaucracy by reinventing counterinsurgency warfare in the late 1980s as part of the effort to overcome what American policymakers were derisively calling ‘the Vietnam Syndrome,’ that is, the post-Vietnam inhibition on the use of force due in the pursuit of international goals. I would argue that until the U.S. Government and its political leaders are ready to think outside this military box, we should expect more calls in the future for intervention, followed by new instances of frustration, failure, and non-territorial blowback. If you have watched the presidential debates there is no sign at all given by the candidates of either party of any understanding of the questionable role of military power in addressing characteristic 21st century conflicts. This understanding of the limited usefulness of military power has yet to penetrate the political consciousness of leaders and the public, and is rarely reflected in the media treatments of the Middle East. The consensus in Washington remains that it is military power that best correlates with American security and strategic interests in the Middle East and elsewhere. It had seemed for a while that the ex-colonial powers in Europe had learned this preeminently important lesson, and were successfully creating a culture of peace in Europe that included a reluctance to use force internationally except in self-defense as set forth in the UN Charter. Then the Libyan temptation came along in 2011, and spoiled this impression, which has now

all but disappeared given the challenges posed for Europe by mass migration and ISIS.

 

Against this background, it seems helpful to depict the historical depth of the present circumstances together with a discussion of events that have shaped the

challenge faced by American foreign policy in the region, and then reach for some partial explanations of what went wrong, followed by some thoughts as to what might be done by way of corrective. The distorting impact on American foreign policy of the two so-called special relationships that the United States maintains with Israel and Saudi Arabia deserves special attention. A critical attitude toward these special relationships is at the core of my revisionist approach to the regional turmoil and its extra-regional spillover. At the very point where grand strategists in the old realist tradition think American foreign policy has been most effective is where I think it has gone off the tracks if objectively appraised from the perspective of interests, policies, and values of the United States. In my view fixing these special relationships would initiate a long journey that will be needed if American foreign policy in the Middle East is to more effective and more consistent with international norms and proclaimed American values.

 

III.

 

I am fully aware that there is something arbitrary and opinionated about any insistence that certain lines of historical explanation should be labeled ‘root causes.’ My effort is to highlight some historically rather remote happenings that are not often enough mentioned when discussing policy options in the region. Also, as my focus is on the conceptual and normative failures of American foreign policy in the Middle East, I point to these early developments without any implication of a direct American responsibility, unlike the more recent proximate causes for which there exists a definite and direct American role. Indeed, here the responsibility that is asserted relates not to participation in misguided policies of past colonial actors but to the national failure of policymakers and leaders to make the effort to learn from the past.

 

Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. An initially secret agreement between Britain and France on how to divide up the Middle East in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The goal of the agreement was to extend European colonial rule to the region, thereby circumventing the self-determination aspirations of Woodrow Wilson and the United States as well as breaking promises to Arab leaders that assured sovereign independence. Russia had originally been party to this colonial diplomacy, but after the Russian Revolution, the agreement was made public by the new Soviet leadership with the intention of discrediting such diplomatic maneuvering.

 

What emerged were two developments that have significant relevance to the current turbulence and coercive ordering of the region: first, the establishment of artificial political communities with borders determined by colonial convenience rather than by historical and ethnic circumstances, completely neglecting the will of the relevant population or its prior experiences of community and culture. To give an example, Lebanon was carved out of Ottoman Syria to satisfy the French desire to have a Christian majority country in the region. In fact, all of the contemporary Middle Eastern territorial sovereign states were imposed from above and without, and lack indigenous legitimacy. Hence, when Osama Bin Laden, and more recently, ISIS, talk about the end of Sykes-Picot and the renewal of the Islamic caliphate, there is a cultural and historical resonance. The modern territorial sovereign state may seem like an inevitable choice given the character of world order and the persisting Orientalist mentality, but its legitimacy in the Middle East is fragile because the states failed to emerge as a consequence of the trials and errors of self-determination. From this perspective it is not so surprising that transnational non-state actors have emerged as the most formidable challengers of the established order in the Middle East, and no where else.

 

I encountered a similar non-territorial mindset when interviewing Ayatollah Khomeini in early 1979. On that occasion he made clear that the victory in Iran should not be grasped by reference to national or territorial parameters suggested by the label ‘the Iranian Revolution.’ He insisted on the primacy of community as religious conceived, that is as an ‘Islamic Revolution.’ In passing I would note that the state system is constitutive of world order, and that Iran as political actor has been challenged and responded since 1979 as a typical Westphalian state, especially given the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s and the Israeli-American policy of aggressive containment of subsequent years.

 

Secondly, in such countries as Iraq, Libya, and Yemen the governance role of the state has been challenged from below. The idea of ‘the nation’ so vital to the coherence and success of the modern European state was relatively weak in the Middle East, and never succeeded in displacing the primacy of tribal loyalties in many countries and regions within countries, eroding the capacity of the state to maintain order and control except by highly coercive methods. Further, in many states a particular tribal or kinship group would gain control of the state, and privilege their own group while discriminating against and persecuting rival tribes.

 

Thirdly, the inability after World War I to implement the Sykes-Picot vision of the Middle East leading to a kind of compromise in the form of the mandate system that combined colonial paternalism with a sacred trust given to the organized international community that these peoples subject to administrative rule by the European colonial powers would when ‘ready’ be granted independence. In effect, this arrangement satisfied the substance of colonial ambition (trade routes, access to Suez Canal, resources) while ambiguously compromising its formal legitimacy. Without the weakening of Europe as a result of World War II, it is not clear that such independence would have been achieved, at least without lengthy wars of liberation of the sort fought in Indochina and North Africa.

 

Balfour Declaration 1917. Also initially secret, and equally colonialist, was the promise made by the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Alfred Balfour, to the World Zionist movement to look with favor on the establishment of a Jewish Homeland in

Palestine. Such an initiative was an enormous morale boost for the fledgling Zionist project, and can be seen as a decisive negative turning point for the Palestinian people. It was a pure colonialist gesture, both the form of the declaration and the complete disregard of the wishes of the indigenous population. What Balfour proposed was written into the mandate arrangement for Palestine administered by Britain, which leaned toward the Zionist side at first because there was more of a convergence of interest than with the native Arab population. In the end, when Zionism became more robust, and aimed for the establishment of a Jewish state, it turned against the British, relying on terrorist tactics to induce the British to abandon the mandate, and give responsibility for the future of Palestine to the UN, which as we know, carried forward the colonialist approach by proposing a partition plan that was adopted without the participation or agreement of the people living in Palestine, two-thirds of whom at the time were Palestinian Arabs, and about one-third Jews. Perhaps, the intentions underlying the UN proposal were benign, seeking some formula for peace and reconciliation, but the approach lacked the political will to implement the plan embodied in GA Resolution 181 and suffered from a process that was insensitive to the self-determination imperative.

 

Geopolitics also played a part in completing this Zionist project. The combination of the Holocaust and the guilty conscience of the liberal democracies led the international community to endow the state of Israel with immediate membership in the UN and left the Palestinian people in a permanent condition of limbo where they remain 68 years later. We hear frequent complaints from the U.S. Government and Israel that the UN pays disproportionate attention to Israel and Palestine, forgetting that unlike the other unresolved self-determination struggles in the world such as Kashmir, Western Sahara, Sri Lanka, the UN was from the outset directly implicated and responsible for the flawed approach to the post-Ottoman evolution of Palestine.

 

The Suez War of 1956. Without going into detail, the Suez War in which Britain, France, and Israel collaborated in waging war against Egypt in retaliation for the nationalization of the Suez Canal and the harassment of Israel by guerrilla fighters based in Egypt, had the major geopolitical impact of shifting the burden of protecting Western interests from Europe to the United States. At the time, it seemed like a benevolent sequel to the colonial era, but after the passage of 59 years it is not evident that this was helpful to the peoples of the region or for that matter to the United States. Put provocatively, the subsequent period might have had a different character if under the waning colonialism of a weak Europe rather than a strong and proactive United States (as complemented during the Cold War by a strong Soviet Union).

 

In conclusion, we cannot adequately grasp the depth of turmoil in the Middle East without looking back a century ago at the diplomacy associated with World War I.

The denial of Kurdish rights, the questionable legitimacy of the borders of the countries in the region, and the frustration of Palestinian self-determination are persisting unresolved issues that offer insight into present challenges, and the difficulties of response. The region, and even the world, is paying the deferred costs of these policies in the form of chaos, oppression, severe civil strife, and terrorist blowback.

 

 

 

III

 

By moving from root causes to proximate causes the methodological claim is being made that the present regional turmoil was significantly generated by several seismic happenings in recent decades. Again these events singled out should be understood as shorthand designations of turning points that have had a lasting impact on the political life of the region, and are themselves a product of the earlier root causes. Because they occurred after the enhanced American engagement in the Middle East after 1956 the United States was more of a participant, with more at stake.

 

The 1967 War. This war was a turning point in the strategic perception of Israel, changing its relationship to the United States rather dramatically from being a burden undertaken for moral and political reasons in defiance of realist calculations to becoming a strategic asset that could facilitate American hegemonic goals in the region. In this way the special relationship with Israel began to be perceived in terms of mutual benefits, and this was reinforced by the growth and influence of the Israel Lobby within the country. There is another more controversial view that the special relationship, at least as enacted, continued to distort American foreign policy, a position articulated by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in their book. [The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007)] It can be illustrated by the added complexities of the relationship with Iran and its nuclear program due to the need to insulate Israel’s nuclear weapons monopoly in the region; similarly diplomacy to end the Syrian War has been definitely inhibited by giving in to Israel (and Saudi Arabia) on the role of Iran in seeking a negotiated end to the war.

 

Perhaps, the biggest detrimental effect of the special relationship in relation to the greatly expanded territorial expanse of Israel after the 1967 War was the U.S. unwillingness to exert effective pressure on Israel to withdraw to the ‘green line’ boundaries, which was the unanimously decreed directive of Security Council Resolution 242. I would imagine that if the withdrawal core of the resolution had been implemented, we would today have a two state solution rather than a single Israeli apartheid state that seems destined to sustain in one form or another its unilateral control over the whole of historic Palestine for the indefinite future. To give greater credence to this conjecture we should take into account both the 1988 PLO/PLC acceptance of the legitimacy of the Israeli presence within these 1967 green line borders on the basis of implementing 242 and the 2002 Arab Initiative along the same lines that offered Israel legitimacy and normalization. The United States has consistently affirmed this basis of Israel/Palestine peace, but it has been unwilling to use its geopolitical muscle to make it happen, and in fact has done the opposite, shielded Israel from criticism while the settlements expanded, and various steps were taken to make a viable Palestinian state incapable of realization. This double game of the United States that has bipartisan backing is to proclaim in public diplomacy its commitment to an independent Palestinian states and yet through the maneuverings of private diplomacy conspire with Israel’s increasingly evident resistance to the emergence of a Palestinian state.

 

The Islamic Revolution in Iran (1978-79). Without elaborating on this unexpected challenge to Western interests, the overthrow of the Shah and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran had a profoundly unsettling effect on American behavior in the region. First of all, it reversed the apparent success of the 1953 geopolitical move that had returned the Shah to his throne with the help of the CIA; secondly, it led to the shocked realization that political Islam was becoming a greater threat to American interests in the Middle East than either Marxism or Soviet encroachment; thirdly, it introduced the notion of Islam as the natural political community in the Islamic world, with its ideas of a non-territorial caliphate and umma, which contrasted with the post-Ottoman imposition on the region of territorial sovereign states, which were not legitimate or natural even by Westphalian criteria.

 

The United States reacted hostilely to the popular movement that arose in Iran to displace its imperial ally in Tehran. Again, the root failure of American foreign policy was its unwillingness to respect the principle of self-determination if it seemed to go against its grand strategy in the region, which was then built around anti-Communism, oil, and Israel, soon supplemented by a strong commitment to oppose the spread of political Islam (unless serving Western interests as was the case with Saudi Arabia).

 

The Fall of the Berlin Wall (1989). The fall of the Berlin Wall, followed by the collapse of the Soviet empire, contributed dramatically to upgrading the American role in the Middle East. It removed the Soviet Union as rival and left the United States as the uncontested external political actor in the region. It also had the effect, given salience by Israeli strategic thinking coupled with the rise of neo-conservative foreign policy in Washington, of shifting the central venue of geopolitical significance from Europe to the Middle East. [See neocon report “Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies (1996, 2006); also reports of Project for a New American Century] What followed were years of supposed unipolarity in which the United States was being criticized in conservative circles for its passivity in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War in which a dramatic military victory was not followed up by imposing a regime-changing political solution that removed Saddam Hussein from control over the Baghdad government. Such a shift has been somewhat diluted during the Obama presidency by the so-called ‘pivot to Asia,’ but the persistence of chaos, warfare, and sectarian rivalries continues the preoccupation with the Middle East of American foreign policy.

 

IV

 

The Al Qaeda 9/11 Attacks. The fact that the Al Qaeda attacks in 2001 were carried out by Middle Easterners (manly Saudis) and that Al Qaeda, as led by Osama Bin Laden, took responsibility sharpened the perception that the main strategic threat to the United States now emanated from religious extremism in the Middle East as materialized through the medium of a non-state and non-territorial actor. Such a traumatic event has had lasting impacts by way of focusing attention on counter-terrorism and global securitization of foreign policy, categorizing terrorism as a mode of warfare rather than as crime as in the past, and transforming warfare from a territorial encounter to engage with on a global battlefield. It also led to a further positive perception of the special relationship with Israel as counterterrorist mentor. Ariel Sharon’s remark that Yasir Arafat was Israel’s Osama Bin Laden summarized this sentiment of solidarity, which Netanyahu repeated in crude form after the 2015 Paris attack. This mentorship I believe encouraged drone warfare, targeted assassinations, and even led to extensive reliance on Israel to train American police forces in a paramilitary approach to opposition. President François Hollande of France has taken the same path, calling the Paris terrorist attacks as ‘an act of war’ by ISIS, adopting the disastrous Bush discourse of warfare, rather than elaborating upon the European counter-terrorist path of cooperative criminal law enforcement. [Philip Bobbitt, Terror and Consent: Wars for the Twenty-first Century (2008)]

 

In light of the foregoing, what may seem more surprising is the resilience of the special relationship with Saudi Arabia, given its connections with 9/11. Notable Saudis were alone allowed to leave the United States on 9/12, and more relevantly, the Saudi role in the worldwide financing of Wahabbist jihadism was publically ignored by American leaders, and implicitly tolerated, which seems a perverse contradiction with the securitization of American global policy based on a post-9/11 counterterrorist rationale. What seems shocking is that this tolerance persists even in the face of the terrorist spillovers beyond the Middle East.

 

The Iraq War and Occupation. (2003-2014). The main response to 9/11 was George W. Bush’s declaration of war on global terror, starting with the attack on Afghanistan, governed by harsh Taliban rule and offering Al Qaeda its base area for training and ideological leadership. In many ways this American shift from crime to war is most responsible for the severity and spread of the regional turmoil. This approach reached its climax with the attack on Iraq, which lacked a foundation in international law, and could not gain an endorsement at the UN Security Council. In this regard, the Iraq War of 2003, which was misleadingly principally justified by efforts to remove weapons of mass destruction from the country and to react to the false alleged complicity in the 9/11 attacks, was the occasion for bringing an American military presence into the center of the Middle East, and connecting this with safeguarding Israel and Saudi Arabia, confronting Iran, and establishing permanent military bases and assured access to the oil and natural gas reserves of the Gulf.

 

After a heavy expenditure of military personnel and resources, the outcome in Iraq after a decade of occupation and economic reconstruction aid, has been dismal. Instead of a partner with the West, there is a Shi’ia leadership in Iraq that is pledged to Iran, instead of constitutional democracy there is civil strife and chaos, instead of security there is ISIS control over a large portion of Iraqi territory, instead of some kind of regional collective security arrangement there is sectarian rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Under such circumstances is it any surprise that the United States policy planners dream of a second coming of Saddam Hussein? Once again American failure was mainly associated with trying to impose an external solution that defied the logic of self-determination.

 

The Arab Spring (20ll). It is impossible to overlook the impact of the Arab uprisings of 2011. What occurred was first an unexpected challenge from below to secular autocracies throughout the region. It caught the United States by surprise, and alarmed to various degrees the two beneficiaries of special relationships—Israel and Saudi Arabia—although for somewhat different reasons. After calling for democratization in the Middle East for many years, the actuality of democratic glimmerings was greeted in Washington with ambivalence, at best, and more accurately, as an occasion of tension as between democratic values and geopolitical goals. This tension rose to the surface in the counterrevolutionary aftermath in which the United States sided with suppression in Bahrain, intervention in Libya, looked the other way when the Egyptian armed forces staged a bloody coup to overthrow the first ever democratically elected leader in the country’s history, and seemed bewildered by what to do in Syria, even seeming to give tacit tactical backing to jihadist anti-regime forces and to Kurdish militant entities previously regarded as ‘terrorist organizations.’

 

V

 

Conclusion: What should be done to calm the situation is in sharp tension with the realistic assessment of what is politically possible. For example, the special relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia should be abandoned, and replaced by normal relationships based on true mutuality and respect for human rights and international law. Pressure should be mounted to establish a just and sustainable peace that acknowledges rights of self-determination of both Israeli and Palestinians. Further, foreign policy in the Middle East should be carried out in accord with the guidelines of international law and with respect for the authority of the United Nations. Finally, self-determination of peoples in the Middle East offers the only hope for legitimating the state system within the region. It seems obvious that without a sea change in perceptions and behavior of the West there is no prospect for overcoming the failures of American foreign policy in the Middle East. These failures have contributed to the turmoil, oppressiveness, and migratory and terrorist spillovers from the region. At present, there seems no likelihood of such a sea change, and so we must expect more of the same sense of failure and frustration.

At least, the citizenry can begin to understand what is wrong with American foreign policy in the Middle East.

 

Al Jazeera Turka Interview on Turkish Foreign and National Policy

28 Oct

[Prefatory Note: This is a modified text of an interview conducted by Semin Gumusel Guner of Al Jazeera Turka, and published online in abbreviated form on October 19, 2015. The situation in Turkey is increasingly precarious and troublesome: extremist violence; intensifying polarization; governmental uncertainty due to absence of electoral majority for governing AKP, and inability to form coalition; obsession with leadership issues associated with the controversial personality of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; the refugee spillover from the Syrian War; the revived violence and strife associated with the unresolved conflict with the Kurdish national movement. The interview touches on many of these issues, indicating my own distance from either pole presently seeking to control Turkish destiny. I have spent part of each year during the past 20 in Turkey, and have observed as closely as possible the simultaneous parallel developments of an unyielding and dogmatic opposition giving way to a dangerous spiral of polarization. In my view, the prevailing leadership of the AKP, governing Turkey since 2002, has made its share of mistakes, but it has put the country on a course of development that raised living standards, improved public services, exhibited sensitivity to minority rights, and did its best to reconcile the secular orientation of the constitution with a broadened conception of religious freedom. Compared to other countries in the region, and indeed worldwide, this is a record to engender pride, but increasingly it gives rise to bitter recrimination, a variety of conspiracy allegations, and an atmosphere inimical to compromise and the public good. It is a truism that the rotation of governing parties is a sign of political health, suggesting that it makes sense to seek alternative leadership after 13 years of AKP governance, but it makes greater sense not to express this desire by a change through a predominantly negative approach that seems to be lurching toward a crisis of political legitimacy. Just as there is wisdom in the conventional wisdom of the saying, “the best is the enemy of the good,” so is there reason to ponder whether change for change sake is not irrational when there is no political alternative to AKP leadership, possibly best exercised at this stage in coalition with the CHP, in sight.]

 

 

Syria has become gridlocked. Following the West’s operation against ISIS, now Russia is conducting an air operation claiming that the operation is against ISIS. However, it is openly saying “I am here”. What does Russia want to do? Tense messages are being exchanged among NATO, Turkey and Russia. Are you worried about these developments? How long can Russia continue to cause this tension? For example, what would happen if Russian warplanes, that have violated the Turkish airspace for the last few days, shoot down a Turkish warplane?

 

Of course it would be a catastrophe to widen the Syrian combat zone to include a confrontation between Turkey and Russia: it would be politically catastrophic for a region already suffering from multiple conflicts and in danger of producing a larger war zone. In order to understand Russian foreign policy in Syria, it is necessary to realize that after the Cold War, Russia was more or less pushed out of the region. In the Cold War, it was a player, US and Soviet Union were more or less balancing each other in the spirit of bipolarity. I think Putin is a strong leader now, and has done his best to make Russia to be taken as seriously globally as the Soviet Union was taken. I would interpret this Russian move as part of a broader pattern of reassertion of Russian influence in the world. But it’s a dangerous game because of the fragility of the situation in Syria, the multiple players in this complex game, states, non-states, regional actors, non-regional actors, as well as the bad record of military intervention in the region, and beyond. It is always destabilizing when major states seek to alter their relative status in the geopolitical hierarchy. In the Asian setting this kind of issue takes the form of China’s rise and America’s decline, always believed since ancient times to be an occasion for war-generating confrontations.

 

I think there never has been a conflict such as Syria in the modern world that has such a complex cast of characters or political actors on all sides giving rise to many contradictions of alignment and opposition. One particularly dismaying contradiction is of course between the so-called opposition to Assad and the attack on ISIS since ISIS is also seeking the overthrow of the Damascus regime.

 

The US and Turkey trapped by similar contradictions. Turkey has the problem on the one side of not wanting its Syrian policies to have the side effect of strengthening the Kurdish movements in the region while at the same time wanting to cause the downfall of the Assad regime. So multiple contradictions, multiple tensions are present. One can only hope that Russia, the US, and Turkey each act prudently and sensibly, and don’t push their various involvements across thresholds where a regional war of even greater magnitude results.

 

To what extent Russia could increase the tension? What’s the plan of Russia? Why now?

 

These are difficult questions that are virtually unanswerable at this time. I think there is a danger of misinterpreting the Russian point of view, especially given American behavior in the world, which has included the marginalization of Russia in the period since the end of the Cold War. US behavior has been provocative on Russia’s borders with respect to Georgia a few years ago and more recently in Ukraine. Again maybe this Moscow diplomacy is nothing other than an attempt for Russia to say to the West, “If you don’t want a second Cold War, you better respect our vital security interests. You are not the only country with security interests. We have interests too. We’re tired of being ignored, and put under pressure. We are not a minor power, and seek to resume our rightful place in world politics. We have long been a great power and we demand to be taken once more as a great power. And that requires mutual respect.” I think this is the main goal of Russian policy in the Middle East and elsewhere.

 

The encounter with Turkey seems to be a sideshow, it’s not the main priority of Moscow, whose main objective is the reset of the relationship with the West, particularly with the US., but also Europe. We need to keep in mind that the US and NATO has not taken appropriate account of Russian interests since the end of the Cold War, promoting policies that from Moscow’s perspective were aggressive and provocative, including weapons deployments in neighboring countries including Turkey. Of course, these comments on Russia’s intention is speculation on my part. Overall, it’s much too soon to tell what really Russia wants, which may depend on how the West reacts, which so far has been ambiguously.

 

There is another line of speculative interpretation that pays more attention to the Syrian situation. It calls attention to recent reports that Russia had privately or secretly offered an accommodation on Syria to the West two or three years ago. That was the period when Turkey and the US believed the Assad regime was about to collapse, and there was thus no reason to compromise. In such an atmosphere, Washington and Ankara refused even to consider such a Russian initiative. One way of understanding the recent Russian involvement is to say “This time you better accept a political compromise or the situation in Syria is going to get even worse”.

 

Whether such a compromise emphasizes agreeing on a ceasefire but leaving Assad in power remains unclear. The US, NATO, and Turkey have been saying “we can’t tolerate Assad as the leader.” In the background are some bad memories. Earlier Turkey made a major mistake by embracing too quickly the Assad regime. It was never a good decision to make Syria the poster child of the zero problems diplomacy. The Turkish leadership tried to persuade Assad to undertake democratic reforms after the outbreak of an anti-regime uprising in 2011. When Assad evidently failed to follow through on informal agreements to do so, an extremely awkward challenge was presented to Davutoğlu and Erdoğan. They had taken a controversial step by promoting accommodation with Syria and then in 2011 when Assad reacted in a very harsh way to the Arab Spring uprising that started in Dera’a shortly after the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt. It seems important to take this history into account in grasping the evolution of Turkey’s policy toward Syria.

 

It should be appreciated that Turkey has played, in my view, an admirable humanitarian role with respect to Syrian refugees that now number over two million. It has done so far more for refugees than any other country in the region or in Europe, and it has done so quietly and in a humane way. I think the Turkish government has not been given proper credit for its various humanitarian initiatives. For instance, its support for Somalia several years ago was a notable contribution to avoiding a human catastrophe. At the time the rest of the world refused to do anything, regarding Somalia as a failed state and hopelessly chaotic situation. Despite the challenge, Turkey took this bold initiative; with impressive commitment, they tried to restore some kind of normalcy to Somalia, financing some major civic projects.

 

I would make the general point that Turkey has done some very good things internationally and regionally during the period of AKP governance for which the government, and especially its leadership, has not received deserved credit. Such a withholding of credit is one symptom of severe polarization that is destructive of the kind of policy debate and political conversation that is a sign of a functioning democracy of high quality.

 

Turkey’s reaction to Syria seemed emotional as it stopped all the relations when Assad refused to make the agreed reforms. Finally Turkey lost its chance to be in a position to influence Assad. 

 

I agree. I think Turkey resorted to a kind of impulsive diplomacy, which is not a good idea in international relations. It is true that not only did Ankara shift its policy when Assad failed to follow through after seeming to agree leading the Turkish leaders to interpret this failure of diplomacy as a personal betrayal of trust that ended any possibility of cooperation and compromise. We should remember that Assad did repress the early uprisings in Syria very brutally, including widely confirmed reports of the torture of Syrian children who had been part of the protest activity. It was morally unacceptable behavior on Assad’s part. I think the Turkish official reaction was understandable on a moral level, but did not provide a calculated basis for the interventionary policies that followed. Ankara jumped too quickly given the realities of the situation and seems to have misunderstood the Syrian internal conflict, badly underestimating the capabilities of the Damascus regime to withstand these challenges to its authoritarian and minority rule. The Turkish leadership seemed to act and think that Syria was similar to Libya, supposing Assad to be as isolated and weak as Qaddafi turned out to be, and would quickly collapse in the event of a small push from below and without.

 

At this point, don’t you think that Turkey underestimated Russia and Iran in their role as the main supporters of Syria? 

 

Yes, without a doubt, but it goes deeper. It’s not only Iran and Russia that lent Damascus support, but also the non-Sunni minorities within Syria that make up almost half of the population, and who believed they would be at risk if the Assad regime was overthrown. It was even clear to an outsider like myself that the Syrian government was also well-armed and trained, and quite relevantly possessed modern and extensive anti-aircraft capabilities. Even without taking account of Iran and Russia as allies of Assad, regime change in Syria should never have been perceived as a foregone conclusion. Turkish policy was mistaken during the early stages of Syrian strife when a quick victory of the sort that NATO achieved in Libya was anticipated. In retrospect, given the chaotic aftermath, observers now question whether the Libyan outcome, considered four years later, should ever have been treated as ‘a victory’ for the regime-changing intervention.

 

If the involvement of Iran and Russia are added to the political mix in Syria, Turkey’s Syrian policy becomes even more problematic as it seemed to assume that by helping in a minor way the array of anti-regime forces it would be enough to change the political balance, and produce the collapse of the Syrian state. Actually, the Turkish policy had the unintended effect of expanding the conflict.
In my judgment this failed policy reflected Ankara’s mistaken assessment of the power relationships in Syria and the region. Given the way the conflict in Syria has evolved the Turkish interpretation of the Syrian developments seemed quite unreliable, and not knowledge based. The Turkish approach especially tarnished the previously high reputation of Davutoğlu that had been built during his period as foreign minister, and even earlier when he served as chief advisor on foreign policy. Davutoğlu’s energy and intelligence were widely admired in this pre-Syrian period, and this had a major beneficial impact on Turkey’s standing in the region and world. His diplomatic skill put Turkey on the international diplomatic map. This was no small achievement, helping to modify the prior image of Turkey as the passive and subordinate junior partner of US, an image that lasted during the entire Cold War period. Despite the somewhat more independent foreign policy of the Ozel period, Turkey was widely perceived before Davutoğlu exerted his influence as having no significant foreign policy goals on Middle East issues that transcended Turkish borders.

 

Davutoğlu’s personal efforts really made a difference, which was confirmed for me by the reaction of some of the foreign officials who had related to him.

I had conversation with the Brazilian foreign minister who was deeply impressed by Davutoğlu’s statesmanship, by his search for a measure of independence in the face of America’s domination of the geopolitical scene, and by his intelligent understanding of diplomacy displayed during the joint Brazil/Turkey bold initiative to resolve the dangerous conflict associated with Iran’s nuclear program. As well, a leading Egyptian diplomate who had become foreign minister immediately after the overthrow of Mubarek and is currently serving as Secretary General of the Arab League, held a similar view of Davutoğlu. He was particularly impressed by Davutoglu’s intelligence, energy, social skills, and constructive diplomatic initiatives.

 

Syria was the first real break in that positive image, which was given greater weight for a series of reasons unrelated to Syria. Turkey began experiencing an unfair negative backlash in the media because of its clash with Israel. Until 2009 -2010 Turkey had very positive international image despite the intensity of the domestic polarization that has existed ever since 2002 when the AKP came to power. After the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, which followed upon Erdoğan‘s confrontation with Peres at the World Economic Forum in 2009, the international media and diplomatic treatment of Turkey shifted abruptly. Israel pushed back hard using its considerable influence within the international media, and giving adding weight to the preexisting secularist critiques of the AKP, which were especially prominent among the diaspora of Turkish academics and think tank experts living in Europe and North America. The failure of the Syria policy and the deterioration of relations with Israel need to be taken into account in understanding how Turkey is now perceived internationally.

 

Do you think this misperception is linked to Israel’s reaction?

 

It’s a complicated situation as my prior response tried to suggest. Many Turkish intellectuals overseas are very strong Kemalists, or at least ‘secularists,’ who have always been opposed to and threatened by the AKP. Ever since 2002, they tried their best to discredit Erdoğan and the AKP from the outset. I have had contact during the past 20 years with the secular elites here, regarding the ascent of the AKP as doomsday for republican Turkey. There is some tendency in 2015 to say that from 2002 until 2011 the AKP did fine, but since 2011 there has been a sharp decline. This kind of secularist revisionism will not withstand scrutiny of the pre-2011 political debate in Turkey, and is deeply ideological, seeking to insist that after 2011 Erdoğan changed his identity or revealed his true identity, namely the pursuit of authoritarian goals. I share some of this sense that the AKP political direction after 2011 moved toward the embrace of ‘majoritarian democracy’ as conferring a mandate to govern in accord with the values and expectation of the electoral majority without sufficient sensitivity to minority views and anxieties. In other words, what is most misleading is not the critique of recent policies and style, but the false claim that this attitude should now be given special credibility because earlier the current critics claim to have been positive about AKP governance during its early years in power.

 

The confrontation with Israeli expanded the political space for the articulation of anti-AKP points of view. Such a consideration puts the extremity of criticism of Turkey in its proper context. These Turkish intellectuals who were always been against this government were granted greater access to the international media. This intensified the already difficult situation in Turkey, and shaped what I regard as a distorted image Turkey’s political realities.

 

It is perverse to compare Erdoğan with Putin given the radical differences in the manner in which they shape their role as political leaders, as well as the great differences in political background and current agendas. Such a comment is not meant to whitewash the record of Erdoğan and the AKP or to deny that he exhibits some authoritarian tendencies, and has engaged in some unpardonable wrongdoing, including the endorsement of the police tactics used to control the Gezi Park demonstrations.

 

I just spent most of the day in the main immigration office in Istanbul trying to correct my own visa problems. I was struck by the presence of a huge portrait of Atatürk in all these government offices and not a single picture of the current Turkish leadership. This made a strong impression, reminding me of one dimension of Turkish originality that rarely attracts commentary. It is impossible to find another country where a dead leader continues to be the dominant and essentially uncontested iconic image of national political identity. Such reverence is especially striking given the degree to which the approach to Turkish identity associated with the AKP is at variance with

the Atatürk legacy as championed by the secularist opposition.

 

Atatürk’s lingering legacy was undoubtedly even greater in 1990’s when I first came to Turkey. Yet it is still rather unprecedented to have the current supposedly authoritarian figure without a portrait in government offices, and seen only in public spaces Turkey in the posters of political parties. Only Atatürk’s picture is omni-present in Turkish society. People should think about this. Such a visual imagery is important in the shaping of public consciousness, and invites claims by various oppositional groups of being the true heir of the Atatürk legacy.

 

What is going on in Syria? Is the country splitting up?

Certainly I am not intelligent or clairvoyant enough to peer into such a fogged up crystal ball. Only a fool would give a clear answer to such a question. We need to acknowledge that the Syrian reality in late 2015 is far too confused, too complicated to lend itself to a predicted future. And in fairness to Turkey and the criticism made earlier about misinterpreting the Syrian conflict it is helpful to realize that all the political actors who became involved either misinterpreted or manipulated the conflict. Turkey wasn’t alone. It was more intimately involved in Syria than most other countries. But all of them misunderstood the situation. So we have to conclude that what has been happening in the region during the last several years was not predictable. Even the most respected experts did not anticipate the convulsive events that have shaken the foundations of the region since 2011. This includes the extraordinary events that led observers to speak about ‘the Arab Spring.’ The Arab Spring surprised the world. No one predicted it and few predicted its counterrevolutionary aftermath.

I was in Egypt in February 2011, right after Tahrir Square. I felt at the time that the Egyptians didn’t understand that getting rid of an individual autocrat while leaving the whole bureaucracy, including the armed forces, in place was unlikely to produce the desired political changes. Hence, I was not surprised by the counterrevolutionary developments that followed, but I never expected the restoration of authoritarian rule to be as bloody, as sectarian as is turned out to be.

With respect to Syria, I think the best hope remains some kind of inclusive diplomatic process at the earliest possible time that searches for enough common ground to establish a durable ceasefire along with a political atmosphere that encourages compromise and patience. Nothing less will save the remnants of what was a country with a deep historical and cultural past.

Do you think there is hope for a ceasefire and diplomatic solution? Or is only solution partition at this point?

I think the most probable futures are either some kind of partition or some kind of inclusive diplomatic process. And I think the fragile diplomatic process is probably better of the two options but at this point it may be the less likely one. I think that Russia and the US at least under the Obama presidency – it’s not clear what will happen afterwards – have come to two connected conclusions about Syria: “it’s better to get a political compromise, it’s better not to allow ISIS to spread beyond its present area of control.” The Russians have their own worries about a further spread of Islamic extremism to their Central Asian region. Moscow faces a continuing challenge in Chechnya that could explain part of the motivation for their risky and controversial Syrian intervention.

Turkey too has been accused of claiming to be fighting against ISIS but really giving military priority to its effort to contain the Kurdish movements in and around Turkey. I would need an operational awareness of the battlefield realities to assess such an argument. Part of what makes Syria so confusing is that all the various actors have disclosed and undisclosed complex, contradictory agendas. Reductive binary formulas such as state v. society, Sunni v. Shia, Saudi Arabia v. Iran, United States/Turkey v. Assad regime all evade the centrality of this complexity that follows from the multi-dimensionality of the various overlapping tensions and interests.

I know of no other political conflict that has had such complexity and contains so many contradictory and hidden elements. This feature alone is worth pondering. Maybe the Syrian anticipates the characteristic way we will come to understand conflict in the 21st century: patterns of multiple involvements by states, non-states and movements pursuing contradictory and cross-cutting goals, augmented or obstructed by the active participation of a range of regional and global actors. This kind of configuration may increasingly become the bewildering shape of warfare as the century continues to unfold.

Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Is the map of the Middle East being redrawn?

I think that the Sykes-Picot agreement is responsible for some of the present troubles in the region because it helped to form political communities that were convenient for the colonial powers but didn’t reflect the national identities and the affinities of ethnic and religious communities that had long existed in the region. This current turmoil can be interpreted as a deferred revolt against the colonialist legacy of Sykes-Picot, which offers an example of extreme Orientalist diplomacy with disastrous results for the societies affected.

But having emphasized this revolt as being partly against those boundaries imposed a century ago, I think for state system remains quite strong in the Middle East given the absence of viable alternatives. There is lots of pressure not to revert to some variant of the pre-state fragmented international world that preceded the modern state system. And if the politics of fragmentation succeeds in this region, there are many other subnational movements in Asia, in Africa, in Latin America likely to seek their own sovereign destiny. I think a strong geopolitical interest persists for better or worse to keep the borders of the Middle East more or less as they are even while acknowledging their inadequacy, but less so than the turmoil associated with conscious efforts to break up the existing sovereign states. Whether the state system survives its various challenges in the Middle East will also depend on the wisdom and prudence of territorial governments in protecting the rights of distinct ethnicities and religions, and more generally the extent to which these governments respect the rights of all who live within their boundaries.

It is certainly true that if I were a Kurdish nationalist, I would see this as an opportune moment to achieve the national goals for Kurdish movement. And I think the Iraqi and the Syrian Kurds have taken advantage of the fluidity of the situation to further their ambitions. The success of Kurdish movements in neighboring countries partly explains the breakdown, at least temporarily, of the so-called peace or reconciliation process here in Turkey. It is my suspicion that the PKK decided at some point that it should be able to achieve as good an outcome in Turkey as the Iraqis and the Syrians seem to be getting in their struggles. Further, it seems plausible that the PKK current leadership decided HDP was not a suitable vehicle by which to reach this desired outcome as it was committed to some sort of accommodation without exerting sufficient pressure on the Turkish government.

So as an outsider to Turkey, I don’t have any claims to special knowledge. Nevertheless, according to my observations, I think there exists a split in the Kurdish movement. Part of the reason for this belief is that the ceasefire was repudiated by the PKK shortly after the June elections in which the HDP had performed so impressively. The repudiation doesn’t make sense unless the PKK wanted to spoil that political victory of the HDP. From this angle the renewal of violence that has emerged in recent weeks is a tactical move by the PKK reflecting its more ambitious agenda for resolving the conflict with the Turkish state that has lasted for decades.

In my opinion, the AKP also shares some responsibility for this renewal of violence as between the PKK and the Turkish state. Erdoğan cast doubt on the legitimacy of the reconciliation process by the way he campaigned before the June 7th elections. In this period he seemed often to be appealing to the MHP constituency in an effort to attract ultra-nationalist votes. And by adopting such an approach, Erdoğan definitely created the impression, whether or not intended, that he was no longer committed to the reconciliation process that he himself had earlier initiated. Under these circumstances, it would be quite natural for Kurds to react by themselves withdrawing from such unpromising negotiations. Kurdish reactions can be summarized: “We don’t want to get tricked and fooled by engaging in a reconciliation process that will go nowhere,” especially as led by someone who is a Turkish nationalist that does not want to solve the Kurdish problem in a manner that respects Kurdish hopes and reasonable expectations.

PYD is trying to establish cantons on Turkey’s southern border. It has become an ally of the US in the fight against ISIS. At the same time, the ceasefire with the PKK has ended. The opposition movement against Barzani has become stronger in Northern Iraq. Barzani’s chair is shaking. What do the Kurds want to do in the current conjuncture?

 

I think the situation is fluid as I said, can go in many directions. It’s like a river with no clear riverbanks. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that I believe it is important to realize that the Kurdish movement has always been quite divided and there are several diverse tendencies within the Kurdish national movement. The fact that Öcalan who remains in prison – despite this, he remains the only potentially unifying and authoritative Kurdish voice. Whether he still has this credibility with the PKK and HDP leadership is rather uncertain as of 2015. If Öcalan were to deliver a moderating message at this time that was received as an authentic expression of his views, it could help end this recurrence of civil strife. If he was released from prison or shifted from prison to house arrest it could allow him to play a more active constructive role that might calm the broader situation while furthering Kurdish attainable goals. It’s in Turkey’s great interest, in my view, to solve the Kurdish problem in a durable way. And I think the government and the Kurdish people seemed to have been on a path to find a solution. It should be appreciated that the AKP has made a stronger effort than any earlier political leadership in the country to address the Kurdish challenge through a process of humane accommodation. Now sadly we must ask whether the Turkish president in his ambition to control the June elections spoiled this possibility. It’s hard to tell what will happen but there are several reasons to fear that the renewal of Kurdish violence is spinning out of control. If this is so it will have very serious repercussions, and not only Turkey but for the whole region. You may be familiar with the expression ‘perfect storm’ to describe a situation in which several adverse developments come together at the same time. I am afraid that such a perfect strorm is enveloping the region, and threatens the relative calm of Turkey.

 

Do you think the Kurds in Iraq, in Syria and in Turkey have as a goal the creation of a new Kurdish entity in the form of a state? Is it possible that we will witness the emergence of a Kurdish state?

I think this is certainly the dream of some Kurds, which indeed has been the case ever since the end of World War I. Yes, the emergence of a Kurdish political entity remains a possibility but seems unlikely to happen because of a lack of flexibility in these three countries to allow some kind of autonomous of confederal association of these distinct Kurdish national movement to come into being. It is possible that the best solution for all sides would be to invent a new and creative form of political association for the Kurdish peoples in the region that enjoyed transnational autonomy, but did not undermine territorial sovereignty. In an extreme form Kurdish nationalism could force the redrawing of existing state boundaries so as to delimit an emergent Kurdish state. As mentioned earlier such a development would be resisted vigorously both by the three governments of the present states faced with secessionist threats and also by the international community that is generally opposed to any further fragmentation of existing territorial states. India, Russia, and China are confronted by secessionist movements that pose threats to territorial unity.

Today non-state actors are very active in the Middle East and the most important of them is ISIS. Hezbollah, the al-Nusra Front and ISIS are major players in the main continuing struggles in Syria and Iraq. As the media frequently says, ISIS in the Middle East now controls a piece of land bigger than the UK, so it is very dominant. What do you think about ISIS? In your opinion, how strong is this non-state actors’ effect? How long can ISIS continue to exist?

I think the salience of these non-state and often transnational political actors is a 21st century phenomenon. It reflects the impact of the new technologies, the social media, and the discovery that you don’t need to be a government to organize widely, effectively, and inexpensively. Every country is vulnerable to such challenges. The most important disclosure of this new political situation took place in 2001 in the form of the 9/11 attacks on the US. Prior to these shocking attacks the US projected itself as the most powerful country in the history of the world, seemingly invulnerable to any attack by another state. What these attacks demonstrated was that despite the mighty American military machine the country was acutely vulnerable, but not from traditional adversaries. These 19 unarmed extremists who were prepared to give up their life exposed this vulnerability for the world to witness. These al-Qaeda hijackers were able without any weapons to cause a major trauma in West with lasting radical effects on security policy, and not only in US. The US Government aggravated the situation by reacting inappropriately, declaring a global war on terror rather than treating the attacks in a similar way to how terrorism had been treated in past—namely, as a crime. In my opinion, if the US had adopted such an approach it would have produced a very different set of outcomes, and that in my view would have enhanced rather than diminished national and global security. To understand why the war option was chosen it is necessary to consider the wider political context. The neoconservative Bush presidency was intent on finding a convincing pretext for launching an attack on Iraq, and this was provided by 9/11. In other words, the US sought to bring into being a war mentality so as to be in a position to pursue its preexisting foreign policy goals that were present quite independent of responding to the al-Qaeda challenge. This reality of the situation was most unfortunate, and many societies in the Middle East and Asia are living with the tragic consequences of this unduly militarized response.

Particularly in the Middle East, this role of non-state movements and organizations has turned out to be historically influential. To comprehend this development it is helpful to consider the Iranian revolution of 1978-79. At the time few observers expected the regime of the Shah to collapse in response to such an unarmed populist challenge. The government was very well equipped and quite brutal, repressive and violent in reacting to oppositional activity. Few observers expected the movement against the Shah to be so successful. This surprising outcome in Iran inspired movements elsewhere in the Islamic World

On one side, you have a popular movement of radical discontent from below as in Iran, and on the other side, you have the kind of 9/11 scenario where a small number of people are capable of disrupting a major modern country and permanently revising its whole approach to security and stability.

These developments have altered the nature of international conflict in fundamental ways. And again Syria as with so many other current issues helps us understand this new set of circumstances: when Hezbollah entered the war on the side of Assad it shifted the balance, at least temporarily.

How can we explain this seemingly sectarian response? There are present these crosscutting dimensions of conflict that make any interpretation contingent and complex. It’s not just state against state as in traditional forms of international conflict. Additional dimensions include the sectarian division between Sunni and Shia, and also a resurgent tribalism, revealing its relevance in Yemen and in Libya, as well as in Iraq (and also Afghanistan). Political leaders have underestimated the degree to which these old forms of political organizations and collective loyalty have reasserted their relevance in conflict situations, both assuming a religious form as here in Turkey and political forms as in these other countries. A major aspect of this mishandling of the post World War I diplomacy was to treat tribalism and religion as irrelevant to the establishment of stable and legitimate political communities. The region is living with these fundamental oversights of a hundred years ago.

ISIS? They’re so brutal, and also exhibit a sophisticated approach to media. What does ISIS symbolize in Middle East? Will they survive?

 

I hope that ISIS will disintegrate or disappear, but this may be wishful thinking. At this time it is difficult to tell. One thing that’s very interesting about ISIS in comparison to Al Qaeda is that while its modes of combat and tactics are barbaric, its operational sensibility is more modern in the sense of being in tune with the digital age. It has demonstrated a sophisticated mastery of new communications technologies that Al Qaeda never possessed. ISIS represents a strange new phenomenon in the contemporary world, but we should be careful about considering it unique with respect to the depravity of its behavior. We need to take some note of comparable behavior by governments that are accepted as legitimate members of international society. We can ask in this spirit “Is ISIS really more barbaric than Saudi Arabia that has presided over more than 100 beheadings in the first six months of this year, that is, more than two a day.” There is a relevant saying “It’s not where you look, it’s what you see”. There are public lashings in Saudi Arabia. Saudi judicial authorities just sentenced a 17-year-old boy who participated in a demonstration that was critical of the monarchy. He was sentenced to death, but that is not all. It was officially decreed that he be crucified in public. You rarely hear anything at all about that kind of state barbarism, and even the UN signals its indifference. Saudi Arabia has just been elected to become a member of the UN Human Rights Council, and beyond this, their ambassador has been selected to chair the most influential committee within the organization. This is just one small illustration of the many contradictions we must live with given the way the world is organized.

 

There is something else that deserves comment. We need to remember that it is not only these non-state organizations that are engaged in terrorism. If you look at the suffering Israel has inflicted on the people of Gaza, it becomes clearer that state terrorism also is a part of the picture, especially if you want to understand the process by which political violence has escalated beyond reasonable limits in many different conflict settings.

 

ISIS has shocked us most. It is not only the way they entered the political stage and behaved, but the alarming realization that ISIS was able to develop so quickly an effective military and political capability. This contrasts with the US experience. US spent billions in Afghanistan and in Iraq to train national armies but they have ended up being almost useless. We need to reflect upon how ISIS managed to produce seemingly overnight this extraordinary military capability. How did they do it?

And why – which is another thing I can’t explain – why is ISIS not more vulnerable to the kind of weaponry that the US, Russia, and Turkey each possess? If, as seems to be true, that it is possible to target an individual car, and the news media shows ISIS convoys moving from one place to another in areas under its control. You would think that these convoys offer an easy target, but they never seem to be attacked. There is also drone warfare that seems to have not affected the level or nature of ISIS combat activity. This is a mystery.

 

From what we know, Saudi Arabia had some role in the emergence of ISIS by way of early financing, and according to some reports, struck a deal with ISIS leadership– in exchange for support ISIS promised not to attack anything directly involving Saudi Arabia. Was this true? What is perplexing is that we have no way of confirming or disconfirming such reports. It is more conclusive that the US contributed to the rise of ISIS through its encouragement of sectarianism as a tactic of its ill-fated occupation in Iraq. This sectarian move took the form of purging the top Sunni military leadership from the Iraqi armed forces. Many of those purged apparently later provided the personnel to shape the military command structure of ISIS. There is much conjecture about how Turkey and the US acted toward ISIS in its early period when the Western priority was the overthrow of the Assad regime, and ISIS seemed to offer the most effective anti-Assad military option. As of now this attempt to explain the underpinning and background of ISIS is based on conjecture and bits of information, and is in no way reliable.

 

Recently we have seen Iran’s nuclear deal and the likelihood of re-participation in the Western system, no embargoes, Tehran gaining respect, etc. What changed on Iran’s side to make them accept this deal? What’s Iran’s next step?

 

You can’t think of Iran in isolation from the Israel, the US, and Saudi Arabia. Iran is not acting in a political vacuum. In recent years Iran was being threatened over and over again with unlawful military attacks on its nuclear program and it was subjected to harsh international sanctions that were having a major impact on the economy and on the people. From Iran’s point of view, especially after the elections of Rouhani on 2013, and with the support of the Supreme Leader Khamenei, a calculation was evidently made that the country and its people would be better off with an accommodation with the West and normalization than by a continuing confrontation. Further, as seems probable, Iran never intended to have nuclear weapons, beyond creating some kind of option to protect against being bullied or attacked. From this perspective Iran gave up nothing that mattered to get out of this trap, although it will be obliged to accept a more intrusive and rigorous inspection regime than has been established for any other country. The Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, has issued a fatwa saying that nuclear weapons contradict the values of Islam. It would be wrong to disregard something as clear as this from a religious leader. My view is that there is little evidence that Iran was an aspiring nuclear weapons state, and even if it was, there is no legal bar to acquiring nuclear weapons under the circumstances, especially if Iran exercised its NPT treaty withdrawal option. At the same Iran undoubtedly felt that it was prudent to create at least some kind of non-nuclear deterrent force sufficient to offset the aggression of Saudi Arabia, Israel, and US consisting of destabilization interferences in its domestic life as well as threats of future large-scale attacks.

 

I view this agreement as a constructive development for the Middle East and I think that overriding the intense opposition to the agreement from Israel and Saudi Arabia is significant. For the first time it puts limits on these two special relationships with the US that have proved so harmful to the Middle East, and displayed a capacity to override a determined effort by AIPAC, the Israeli lobbying group that has been so effective in the past.

 

The region is very complex, filled with tensions and contradictions and uncertainties and unknowns and unknowable factors. As I said earlier, anyone who sets forth and unqualified answers to these policy questions seems to me a dogmatic fool out of touch with the confused, contradictory, and overlapping layers of complexity.

 

Everybody agrees that the world order established after World War I is collapsing. We have been suffering from pains of that since the Arab Spring, right? How long will this suffering last? Where do you think this will lead? Where is the region heading? How you expect to be the Middle East in 2025?

 

The regional order imposed and established after World War I is being tested as never before. During the Cold War there occurred many internal revolts, coup d’etats, but never this kind of turmoil and complexity, and never the current forms of proxy warfare engaging external actors. And this political reality must also be combined with the behavior of elites in these countries whose destinies are tied closely to the world economy. Economic globalization is part of this picture that has created a very unfair distribution of wealth as between the upper classes and the rest of the population in many countries. Such a pattern is an essential feature of the Egyptian reality and is characteristic of the situation that exists in most Arab countries. To alter such a structure depends on the success of a radical transformative movement. To maintain this inequitable structure of power and wealth presupposes autocratic, and often highly repressive, control of the society. The notion that you can bring Western liberal democracy to these countries with such an unfair economic structure is quite delusional. Throughout the Bush presidency that featured democracy promotion goals its preferred national candidates failed consistently to win much political support. The same thing occurred in Egypt after 2011 when the hopes and expectations in the West was focused a known secular liberal figure like Amr Moussa. It was hoped and widely believed by the Cairo elites that the Egyptian people would elect Moussa as their president. This expectation grossly underestimating the strength of Muslim Brotherhood, which was further enhanced at the time by the Salafi entry into the political arena.

 

There were many geopolitical miscalculations. It was thought that the displacement of Saddam Hussein in Iraq would produce a major political and economic victory for the West with positive regional reverberations. Instead it produced strategic gains for Iran and national chaos in Iraq that shows few signs of abating. In other words despite the battlefield dominance surrounding the American military intervention the result has been the direct opposite of what was intended–chaos in the country and alignment with Iran.

 

A similar reversal of expectations has resulted in Egypt. Instead of Western style secular democracy Egypt is experiencing worse autocracy than during the period of Mubarak’s rule. The Sisi government is more repressive. The governmental alternatives for the states in the Middle East at this time seem to be chaos or autocratic government. Turkey is so far a major exception to this dismaying regional pattern, although sadly many Turkish people don’t realize this, or appreciate their relatively good fortune. In the current political environment it is very dangerous for Turks not to protect the gains that have been achieved in Turkey during the last 13 years, and indeed since the establishment of the Republic. Such an assertion is mindful of the failures of AKP leadership and governmental policies, especially since 2011, but the potentiality for constructive governance in an essentially democratic framework remains, and should not be further jeopardized by irresponsible opposition tactics.

 

How these various conflicts in the region will work out is impossible to predict at this point. We can venture the opinion that unless some radical challenge leads to a second Arab Spring there seems no way to escape the terrible dilemma confronting the region as between chaotic conflict and authoritarian order. A popular saying that I quote in my book [Chaos and Counterrevolution: After the Arab Spring] on the region: “The people prefer a 100 years of tyranny to a single year of chaos” Overcoming this dilemma, which has terrible consequences for ordinary human beings is a great challenge that anyone who seeks to envision and realize a better future in the region. I don’t pretend to have the political imagination that can identify how this challenge might best be met, and those political actors that have intervened, trumpeting such democratizing intentions, have consistently made the situation worse. Only Tunisia where the West has remained mainly aloof seems to have some chance of making the transition from corrupt autocracy to a governance structure that is somewhat more equitable and less repressive.

 

In your last book you say: “The sharply falling price of oil in recent months has led to further uncertainties in the region and world and, if this continues, will likely somewhat diminish the geopolitical importance of the Middle East.” If the oil prices continue to fall, what could happen in the Middle East?

 

This assertion didn’t mean to suggest that the Middle East becomes unimportant, only somewhat less geopolitically contested. Besides the energy dimension there are other reasons to think that the region will remain important, including tensions surrounding the role of Israel and efforts to contain the further spread of Islamic radicalism. And then there are geopolitical habits that do not change quickly. The West has been involved for so long in seeking to control the region that it is unlikely to suddenly abandon the region. I think what I meant to express by pointing to the falling price of oil is that oil had been the most important economic and geostrategic interest in the entire world, and this salience might lessen given the expansion of non-Middle Eastern energy sources. Europe could not maintain its economy without reliable access to Middle Eastern oil during the Cold War and the last portion of the 20th century. More recently, with the development of alternative energy capabilities in Germany and France, there is a reduced feeling of dependence on Middle Eastern oil than existed earlier. The West seemed ready to fight World War III to prevent Saudi Arabia oil reserves from falling into Soviet hands. Jimmy Carter made it clear in 1979 that the US would use nuclear weapons to defend the Western interests in the Middle East in reaction to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan invasion.

 

Also relevant here is what Obama has called “the pivot to Asia” expressive of a sense that the new center of world politics is likely to be the contest for control of the Asia Pacific region. First there was a shift after the Cold War, from Europe to the Middle East and now the next shift of emphasis may be from the Middle East to Asia, although this is far from clear at this point. But that should not be interpreted to mean that the Middle East will lose its importance as a zone of turmoil and rivalry.

 

Turkey’s biggest ally, the US is cooperating with the PKK which Turkey is at war with. Its biggest neighbor, Russia is militarily standing behind a regime Turkey is trying to topple. Do you still think Davutoğlu’s foreign policy is successful?

 

Unless I misunderstand your intention, this strikes me as a loaded question. First of all, I am not clear that you can say that the US is in really active collaboration with PKK. NATO and the US continue to view the PKK as a terrorist organization. This unexpected convergence of interests between adversaries does produce temporary impressions of collaboration, which reflects the contradictory and crosscutting patterns of overlapping conflicts in the region. It is an aspect of this bewildering new phase of international relations. For the US this is strange and unfamiliar territory. It claims to be fighting a war against terror, but at the same time it tacitly allies with terrorist organizations yet continues to classify such expedient allies as ‘terrorist.” This seems self-contradictory. All of the political actors in the region are somewhat engaged in this self-contradictory geopolitics which, as I say, seems to be the new signature of 21st century conflict. These kinds of questions did not arise to any serious degree throughout the Cold War that was dominated by the bipolar standoff between the US and the Soviet Union. Prior to this, during the first half of the 20th century, the colonial system still controlled the region, although confronted by various types of sporadic resistance.

 

There is one important facet of the situation in the Middle East that we haven’t touched on, namely, the reality of a post-colonial world. And this means, above all, that there is far less West-centric control of what’s going on in this region. The West has lost most of its capacity to shape the politics of the region, which it retained until the end of the Cold War. I think the US Government, especially under the banner of neo-conservatism and ‘democracy promotion,’ was primarily responsible for the idea that it could and should establish a new political architecture in the region after the Cold War. The failure of the 2003 Iraq intervention also confirmed that this vision of a new future for the region was driven partly by Israeli priorities, being responsible for a terrible geopolitical disaster that deeply discredited American foreign policy in the Middle East, and has continued to have detrimental effects. If we are reluctant to treat the Sykes-Picot Agreement as the root cause of the regional turmoil, then we should probably point the finger of blame at the Iraqi war, especially because it greatly intensified the sectarian dimension of the overall İslamic configuration of forces during the American led occupation that lasted more than a decade. This sectarian occupation policy arguably led indirectly to the emergence of ISIS, created or at least strengthened Al Qaeda of Iraq and Al Qaeda of the Arab peninsula, which seems now to be the strongest and most active branch of the Al Qaeda terrorist network. There are many wrongdoing actors in the region. It is misleading to assign causal primacy to any one issue. Many irresponsible and destructive actions were undertaken by the variety of actors pursuing their own agendas without regard for the general circumstances prevailing in the region.

 

There are additional unresolved problems in the region: above all the Israel-Palestine encounter that for the people of the Arab world is a very important part of the explanation for why Israel becomes so nervous whenever there is a democratic movement in its neighborhood. Israel realizes that the more democratic an Arab government becomes, the more likely it is that it will be exert pressures on its leadership to adopt a stronger anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian position. These overlapping complexities makes it difficult to the point of impossibility to interpret in any useful way how the interplay of forces will play out in the future.

 

To summarize, Davutoğlu couldn’t be expected to have anticipated this present set of circumstances in the Middle East. The supposed collaboration between the US and the PKK in the context of the anti-Assad and anti-ISIS struggle is something that continues to work against a coherent depiction of the conflict pattern. When evaluating Davutoğlu’s foreign policy record it seems appropriate to distinguish the period before the Arab Spring from what came later. I believe that Davutoğlu’s diplomacy was extraordinarily successful up to the Arab Spring. It is also helpful to realize that no political leader could be expected to have anticipated the ruptures brought about by the Arab Spring. The unfolding developments were not grasped by the political imagination of any the actors, and the events confused and surprised academic experts, as well. Davutoğlu’s affirmative reaction to the Arab Spring does now seem premature and overly optimistic. It included the faulty assessment that the mass dissatisfaction with authoritarian government exhibited by the various uprisings was irreversible. He was enthusiastic about the events in Egypt and Tunisia as heralding inevitable further transformations in the region. He was particularly positive about the agency or the new role of Arab youth in transforming the politics of the region.

 

What Davutoğlu and others underestimated, which bears comparison with his miscalculations in Syria, is the strength, resolve, and effectiveness of counterrevolutionary forces in the region. In fairness to him, others also didn’t anticipate the convulsive aftermath of 2011, although some wise voices were more cautious in their efforts to depict what to expect, realizing that the fragility of the uprisings and their supportive movements made the future opaque. He along with others in the region were also mistaken in the belief that it was possible to create a coherent policy to moderate the counterrevolutionary developments that have been dominating the political scene since 2011.

 

I continue to believe that Turkey had persuasive principled reasons for opposing the 2013 Sisi coup in Egypt. Unfortunately, given the balance of regional forces led by Saudi Arabia and international forces led by the United States, the Sisi coup was widely encouraged by an array of forces that were deeply opposed to the continuation of the Muslim Brotherhood’s control of Egypt. As a result, Turkey found itself at odds with the new regional consensus, led by the Gulf monarchies and quietly endorsed by Israel and the United States, which welcomed this counterrevolutionary backlash. One consequence has been the decline of Turkish influence in the Middle East.

 

It should be recalled that in the months during and after the Arab Spring, Erdogan was the most popular political leader in the region and indeed in the world. He was greeted very positively when he visited Egypt in the spring of 2011. While there he even annoyed the Brotherhood by encouraging Egypt to adopt a secular approach to its political future in a speech given at Cairo University. Erdoğan’s advocacy of such an inclusive and pluralist approach to the post-Mubarak situation was ignored in Turkey where it should have been welcomed by the secular opposition. Looking back, it seems evident that what Erdoğan was then advocating, if followed, would likely have produced a more moderate and less stressful future for Egypt. There were thus two misfortunes: Turkish polarization turned a deaf ear to Erdoğan’s message, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s triumphalism repudiated his counsel of secular pluralism.

 

Before passing any adverse judgment, as I have been saying, it is only fair to take account of the fact that no one has successfully ridden this wild horse that emerged from the Arab Spring. It is certainly true that Davutoğlu hasn’t been successful in riding it, nor has Erdoğan. It seems appropriate to be critical in a constructive way by understanding that faced with such an unpredictable set of developments it is impossible for anyone to comprehend how the situation will evolve, and therefore it is wise to be cautious and non-committal while voicing hopes amid such fluidity. At this point the challenge facing the Turkish government is how to recover some kind of control over events that is firm while opposing the brutal and violent tactics of both ISIS and the Assad regime. Both of these political actors, and others, are guilty of massive atrocities. It suggests the distortion of perception that is produced by anti-terrorist propaganda. If ISIS is made the focus of condemnation, as in the recent Western media coverage of conflict in the region, the effect is to downplay the atrocities committed by the Assad regime, the wrongdoing of the Saudi government, and the unacceptable behavior of a range of other political actors. Tragically, there is throughout the region much blood on many hands.

 

In an interview you gave in 2010 you said “Everyone in the world admires Turkey. Turkey has achieved what the UN could not do”. What do you think about the situation now? Does the world still admire Turkey?  Turkey was a role model, a success story for many countries in the Middle East. With their support of Palestine, with the soft power they created, zero problems with neighbors, developing trade and investments with neighbors, etc. How about now? How is Turkey seen now in Middle East?

 

I don’t recall my statement in 2010, but it strikes me now as an unfortunate exaggeration on my part even in the atmosphere of widespread admiration and respect for Turkey that existed back then. There are many reasons for the international shift in the attitude toward Turkey that has taken place in the last five years. More than anything else, it is important to realize that Arab elites are primarily preoccupied with their own survival. These elites believe that their survival is threatened by democratic nationalist movements in the region, whether in Egypt with the Tahrir uprising or the Palestinian movement. They view stability as the prime value and in this post Arab Spring period the Turkish government is regarded as following a different agenda, more oriented around ideological issues of Sunni nationalism than supportive of the Arab consensus seeking to restore political quietism. Because Turkey favored the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria, and is supportive of Hamas in Gaza it is treated as an unreliable collaborator by these Arab elites.

 

On a popular level, there’s a much more mixed perception and Turkey is generally appreciated for its support of the Palestinians. Turkey is more likely to be seen as following a principled position in relation to Egypt and in relation to some of the other conflicts in the region. If a sustainable diplomatic solution can be soon found in Syria, a big if, then I think Turkey could very quickly recover its positive image in the region, and a renewed effort by other Middle Eastern governments to emulate its economic growth policies and its political stablity. Although the economy and the political situation have definitely deteriorated, Turkey still remains the only genuine success story in the region. Despite all the efforts to discredit Turkey, if you look beneath the surface of the barrage of current criticisms, Turkey is, on balance, by far the most promising country in the region. And one hopes and even prays that Turkey can overcome its immediate challenges with respect to the Kurds, ISIS, and the Syrian spillover. If these challenges can be met Turkey will be able to resume the role that it had played so promisingly in the years preceding the Arab Spring.

 

According to you, what’s the biggest success of Turkey since 2002?

 

The most obvious answer is to put restraints on the role of the Turkish military with respect to the governing process. This is a domestic development, but it affects Turkey’s international behavior because it means that policy formation became more subject to civilian control. Despite all the criticisms of the Turkish leadership, Turkey is no longer the sort of national security state that it used to be. It is well to recall that the international discourse on the ‘deep state’ arose to describe the degree to which Turkey’s foreign policy was shaped by unaccountable and unelected forces hidden from public view within its security and intelligence bureaucracies, a set of circumstances incompatible with the functioning of democratic governance.

 

The fact that in 2003 – 2004 a coup against the AKP did not happen represented an extraordinary achievement by the Erdoğan leadership for which he and the party have been given almost no credit, especially by the internal opposition in Turkey. As far as foreign policy concerned, I think Ankara’s most impressive achievement was to depart from the Cold War passivity of Turkey and to create an independent and constructive regional and even global role that was tied to Washington. Along these lines, especially given the contentious mood of the present, it should be remembered that Turkey emerged between 2002 and 2011 as the most trusted, intelligent, reliable international voice for much of the non-aligned movement. Quite remarkably Turkish influence was felt not only in the Middle East, but in Africa, and to some extent in parts of Asia.

 

Turkey along with Brazil even challenged U.S. strategic dominance in this period. While it was not an accident, it came as a surprise that these two countries could emerge from the shadows so impressively, and despite the stark differences in the orientation and outlook of their respective leaders, the conservative Erdoğan in Turkey, and the leftist Lula in Brazil. It was in this period that the proactive foreign policy of the AKP were put forward, gaining widespread respect for Turkey. As mentioned earlier, after 2011 this positive image of Turkey’s assertiveness lost its glamor, and was even discredited in some quarters. I think this loss of influence was partly a side effect of overconfidence on the part of the AKP and Erdoğan, who after winning eight consecutive elections became more antagonistic at home and more controversial abroad. Erdoğan may have become exasperated by the relentless criticism of an opposition never acknowledged the impressive successes of the early AKP years. In an unfortunate display of defiance Erdoğan seemed to embrace so-called majoritarian democracy, apparently believing that because he had won all these elections he could justifiably claim a mandate to govern from the Turkish people, and could overlook the objections of an embittered opposition that was determined, whatever he might do, to denigrate and undermine the policies being pursued.

 

And what’s the biggest mistake?

 

Jumping on the Syrian horse too quickly and then jumping off too abruptly. Beyond this, Erdoğan abandoned his earlier political style of compromise and pragmatic goals. He increasingly vented controversial opinions that enraged the opposition and overreacted, as with respect to Gezi in 2013, to challenges from the Turkish citizenry that contributed to a worsening of polarization.

 

What are the main criticisms of AKP’s foreign policy. Do you think Davutoğlu’s foreign policy was enacting a Pan-Islamist ideology? Do you think Turkey is a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East? Is Turkish foreign policy sectarian?

On the question of pan-Islamic ideology, I think Davutoğlu may be sympathetic with such a vision but his understanding and world view as embodied in his Strategic Depth book, is one that is both multicivilizational and transcivilizational, as well as being deeply rooted in a strong sense of the distinctiveness of Turkey’s national culture and political history. I find it misleading to accuse him of pursuing as Foreign Minister a pan-Islamic ideology. I think it is more accurate to think of Davutoğlu as a visionary and ethical nationalist who looks back upon the Ottoman period mainly as a time of Turkish achievement and glory. And now he looks forward to a Turkey that doesn’t dominate other countries, leads by example, and is on the giving and receiving end of mutual enrichment through cultural contact. He favors an international role for Turkey that is inconsistent with a pan-Islamic approach and from its outset gave the highest priority to an all out Turkish effort to be accepted as a full EU member. His animating dream was for Turkey to participate meaningfully in Europe, Africa, and Asia, serving as an intercivilizational hinge, but without the promotion of a pan-islamic agenda.

As far as sectarianism is concerned, I think Turkey did its best in this first years of AKP ascendancy to avoid any kind of sectarianism in shaping its policies within and beyond its borders. In this regard it is notable that reconciliation with Assad was the first notable initiative of the Zero Problems foreign policy that Davutoğlu initiated. If Turkey had pursued a strictly Sunni dominated agenda, surely they would have chosen Qaddafi or some other leader in the region but surely not the Alewite led regime of Assad.

And if you remember, it was Turkey, jointly with Brazil, that took the initiative with Iran on the nuclear issue in 2010. Turkey was heavily criticized in the West for exceeding its proper place in the geopolitical problem-solving hierarchy applicable to the region. Turkey was guilty of stepping on sensitive geopolitical toes by acting without a green light from Washington. Overall, I think it is completely inaccurate to blame Turkey for sectarianism in the pre-Arab Spring period.

In the post-Arab Spring period, there was a convergence of views as between the democratic tendencies in some countries and the rise of Sunni movements in Syria, in Egypt and in Yemen. There seemed present a temptation to align Turkish foreign policy with support for these Sunni movements. But as I say, such support was a consistent response to democratizing tendencies and opposition to cruel authoritarian regimes that used great violence against their people. This was Ankara’s original argument for turning against Assad. In reaction to what took place in Syria Davutoğlu was compelled to refine and clarify his doctrine. Now it became zero problems with people rather than governments, and if governments kill their own citizens then problems with inter-governmental relations will emerge. In retrospect, we can criticize Davutoğlu for not making this distinction evident from the outset.

If you consider the Sisi coup against the Brotherhood, it was the overthrow of an elected government and the commission of atrocities that are offer the best justification for Turkey’s hostility to the military takeover. On the basis of Turkey’s foreign policy record, I find this justification persuasive.

I think Erdoğan’s reaction, going back to World Economic Forum, against Shimon Peres was a genuine and spontaneous expression of solidarity with the Palestinian people. And for better and worse, Erdoğan says what he feels and gets himself in lots of trouble as a result. But on that occasion, he was expressing a widely shared moral and political repudiation of Israel’s recent attack on Gaza. Erdoğan was voicing his opposition to the kind of tactics Israel used in Gaza, including its reliance on excessive force and the repeated attacks directed at the civilian population.

As far as I know, in each of these situations, Turkey has opposed leaders that massively attack their own people or engage aggression against a foreign people in ways that are inconsistent with international humanitarian law and normal moral principles.  

Turkey claims that it is pursuing a foreign policy based on ethics and conscience. And it is insisting on this policy saying such an approach is compatible with the Zeitgeist and the course of history. Is Turkey strong enough to continue this policy?

 

I hope so. It is very important for a peaceful world order that an ethics driven foreign policy not be discredited as being naïve or sentimental. I think Davutoğlu is genuine when he professes these commitments. From long experience of personal contact, I believe him to be a person who combines a measure of realism with a strong ethical commitment and as someone who also holds the view that politics endeavor to the extent possible to merge ethics with a realistic understanding of national interests. In that sense I think Turkey has been very fortunate to have someone of his character and intelligence in such an influential position. Very few countries can claim to have that quality of leadership near the top of the governmental pyramid.

Of course the current relationship between the prime minister and the president is complicated, and may even have become problematic. The Turkish political future may hinge of whether these leaders are able to distribute power and authority among themselves in ways that promote stable governance and are responsive to the democratic requirements of accountability, transparency, and adherence to the rule of law.

Do you think Erdoğan has become more authoritarian? There are critics claiming that Turkey turned out to be a tyranny because of Erdoğan? What do you think about these critics?

 

I think that while this criticism of Erdoğan has not been convincingly demonstrated, there are some disturbing signs of authoritarian tendencies, especially in the 2011–2015 period. I think Erdoğan did give the impression of shifting from being a rather prudent constitutionally oriented leader to invoking a mandate from the Turkish people and insisting on the prerogatives of majoritarian democracy. I find it helpful to distinguish majoritarian democracy from what I called republican democracy that is restrained by checks and balances, separation of powers, and respect for fundamental rights. The American political system illustrates the republican model when it functions properly.

 

I believe it is that grossly misleading to equate Erdoğan with either Putin or Sisi. Turks who do make such comparisons are being irresponsible and provocative, unintentionally inviting a future that they will regret if it were to come about. At the same time, I agree that in a democracy it’s important not to be silent when an elected leader seems to be ignoring constitutional constraints. Let’s remember that Erdoğan made in 2014 the most forward-looking and sensitive statement about the Armenian issue of any Turkish leader.

 

Again one needs to look at both the dark and the light sides. They are both real. Erdogan is a gifted political leader and despite all the attacks, he continues to enjoy by far the strongest popular following of any individual in the country. That should count for something in a constitutional democracy. Of course, it doesn’t count for everything. Erdoğan should be held accountable for upholding the rule of law and I think he has been damaged by the corruption allegations leveled against him and his family. We haven’t mentioned the split with Hizmet. I think that has been a difficult issue for the Erdoğan-Davutoğlu leadership, especially deciding how to deal with what they call ‘a parallel government,’ resulting from alleged penetration of the governmental bureaucracy, but exhibiting primary loyalty to the movement rather than to the government.

 

So Turkey has faced a series of challenges that very few governments could handle successfully in this period, regional challenges, domestic challenges and discovering a significant disloyal presence within the Turkish police and judiciary. Such questioning of the integrity of your own government is extremely threatening to any political leadership, and has been deeply upsetting to the AKP leadership.

 

 

 

 

 

In the last days, we see some positive news about Erdoğan and Turkey in the Western media which are normally criticizes Erdoğan. Can we interpret this by the argument that Europe needs Erdoğan because of the refugee crisis? Do you think Europe needs Erdoğan to handle this problem?

 

Yes. I think Europe’s renewed friendly approach to Turkey is opportunistic, pragmatic. And one more thing, I always say to my anti- Erdoğan Turkish friends. What if Erdoğan disappeared, would Turkey’s array of problems disappear with him? It seems far easier for the opposition to concentrate all blame on Erdoğan than to wrestle with the serious problems confronting the country. There is a national obsession with him. He is far from completely innocent with respect to this obsession. He has sought to accumulate power and to associate his person with the destiny of the country. Yet, even when he was being a careful political leader in that post 2002 period during a time when the AKP leadership was properly worried about being overthrown by a military coup he was the target of unremitting hostility. Irresponsibly he was being falsely accused of trying to produce a second Iran in Turkey, a very divisive message and without any credible supportive evidence.

 

Did Arab Spring end? What has Arab Spring changed in the Middle East?

 

The process that originated with the Arab Spring hasn’t ended. It is important to compare the Arab Spring with Iranian revolution of 1979. The leadership in Tehran understood that it was necessary to transform the bureaucracy to make the revolution. It is unrealistic to adopt revolutionary goals without adopting revolutionary means. In Egypt it was not enough to get rid of autocratic leaders and their immediate entourage. The Egyptian movement didn’t understand that trusting the national armed forces and relying on the former governmental elites that ran the government was not going to achieve their ends. When it turned out that the people selected the Brotherhood as their democratic choice this accentuated the problem of not going far enough in mounting a challenge to the established status quo.

 

Such thin transformations also underestimated the political will of forces of reaction that wanted to retain the old system. Those who had benefitted in the Mubarak period were unwilling to accept a new system dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood or Islamic radicals that threatened their economic privileges as well as their political and cultural ascendancy. This turned out to be a tragic political miscalculation on the part of the activist leadership that had been the spearhead of the anti-Mubarak movement.

 

But the Arab Spring has had some durable consequences. Above all, it changed the political subjectivity of the people, and its associated former consciousness of fear. Before the Arab Spring, there was no confidence or belief that people by their actions could change politics, and there existed widespread fear that any attempt to do so would produce disastrous results. Since the Arab Spring, this understanding that people can have agency in history, that they can actually make history is widely held. History in the past had always been made from above, but now it could also be made from below. In the second phase of the Arab Spring, it is clear that in the Egyptian development, the Sisi coup was not an isolated military phenomenon but was conditioned and prepared, in the end enjoying broad popular support. Undoubtedly this show of support was manipulated and orchestrated from above, but it gave the appearance of being mandated from below. In my view this more robust Arab subjectivity remains a source of potential change in the region.

 

A third factor that we should consider is the manipulation by external forces of neoliberalism and its relation to economic globalization and the geopolitical links to Israel and the US who were very nervous about impending political changes that seemed to follow from the Arab uprisings. There exists a great amount of what I describe as “popular discontent” in the region. The entrenched elites are aware that this popular discontent could now be translated into a political movement that would be very dangerous for their strategic, economic, and political interests. But there are also very big obstacles in the way of reform, much less revolution: Strong security forces with a large economic stake in the old order, an apparatus power imbued with the belief that state terror works, and if pursued vigorously enough will be successful. There are also many destabilizing extremist forces in the region, as well as the renewal of the rivalry between the United States and Russia.

 

Can we say that Tunisia is a successful result of Arab Spring?

 

We should hesitate before making this affirmation. It seems too soon. Tunisia’s experience since 2011 can be situated somewhere between what happened in Egypt and what happened in Libya. In a stunning reversal, the citizenry elected a leadership for the country that has returned the old order to power by peaceful means. We must ask whether this is transformation, or even serious democratic reform? Is this development evidence of change or merely the restoration of the old arrangements? The Islamic movement in Tunisia has been led by Gannushi, and has been far more open to dialogue and pluralism than its Islamic counterpart in Egypt. Tunisia has a decent prospect of stability and moderation, but it still has to cope with some problematic elements like a dissatisfied Salafi movement, the restored Ben Ali elites, and tensions between secularists and Islamists. Tunisia is not a clear success, certainly not yet, but it has also avoided chaos and sustained violence.

 

Is there a winner after Arab Spring?

 

The temporary winner is the counterrevolutionary forces that have restored the pre-Arab Spring autocracies and the monarchies, the Gulf monarchies, Morocco, they have survived the political storm very well up to this point. These governments made some small, little cosmetic adjustments but nothing really fundamental with respect to either the distribution of power or wealth.

 

The West especially US didn’t support the movement, the yourh at the streets. Finally they all preferred Sisi to Morsi. Why did they afraid from this movement and not support?

 

I think there was a fair amount of support in America for the Arab Spring in its early phases. But there was a fear that the movement in Egypt was more radical than turned out to be the case, and that the new leadership was poised to pursue policies threatening to Western economic and strategic interests. There was also concerns that the unexpected strength of Muslim movements would lead to a second and third Iran in the region. There were those anxieties about changing the status quo. America had lived relatively happily with the former status quo for a long time. I would describe the early reaction to the Arab Spring as one of ambivalence, uncertainty, a worried wait and see approach. It wasn’t outright opposition, but it was certainly not strongly in favor of what was happening. There were some inconsistencies within governments in the West as to how best to respond. The American president, Barack Obama epitomized this posture of uncertainty by the indecisiveness of his reactions and policies, especially played out in relation to Egypt, Libya, and Syria.

 

What has happened to American values, democracy, freedom of expression, human rights?

 

American policy toward the region reflects what I call ‘the primacy of geopolitics.’ I keep coming back to Saudi Arabia. If America and the West can partner with Saudi Arabia, they can live with any political order, however distasteful to Western liberal values, if it serves major strategic interests.

 

But Washington didn’t want to live with Morsi.

 

Yes. The US can live with anything that is perceived to be consistent with their interests, but the American government is far less insistent on compatibility with its professed values. Values are largely window-dressing, interests account for the real policy of nations. The American public is quite unsophisticated about its understanding of the Middle East. And the people that know more are mostly people who are very pro-Israeli. Jewish public opinion is important in big cities in America, and there is evangelical Christian support for Israel in other parts of the country. After the American failure in Iraq many people have privately come to the conclusion that Iraq and American interests would better off with Saddam Hussein in power than they were after this regime change in Baghdad with its radiating detrimental impact on the stability of the region.

 

A Third Intifada? Do you think this might happen?

 

It is certainly possible, and maybe we are witnessing these days its first phase. The political will is certainly present because there’s a great deal of frustration and despair among the Palestinians, especially among young people who increasingly feel that resistance is their only and last hope. Beyond this, they feel discouraged, if not dismayed, by the Palestinian Authority and the quasi-collaborative kind of leadership that Abbas has provided. I think there will be very serious bloodshed if there is a third Intifada, that is, if Palestinian resistance takes the form of a sustained and widespread form of popular resistance. The current leadership in Israel is very far to the right and exceedingly violent itself. Any harm on Israelis that the resistance produces will lead Israel to try to do something 100 times worse. Israel consistently overkills when they feel challenged and endure losses.

 

On the other hand, if the Palestinians are remain passive, they’ll soon confront a situation in which Israel will likely declare the conflict over and incorporate the whole West Bank or most of the West Bank and proclaim the establishment of a greater Israel. So both sides face a fork in the road, the situation can either witness intensified struggle or an Israeli fait accomplis. There is an international mood that has concluded that diplomacy has failed, and some confusion about what to do in light of this.

 

 

 

 

And what about the insufficiency of UN?

 

The UN is no better or no worst than its powerful members. It was setup to operate in this way. Conferring the veto right on the five most influential states in the world in 1945 delivered a somewhat coded message: “You’re not bound by international law or UN authority, you are fully sovereign, you’re not accountable.” The structure of the system makes this reality unavoidable if the big states are not by their own choice acting in a responsible and constructing way. The UN system is fully dependent on how these leading governments behave. Of course, there is the second set of issues associated with the reality that the geopolitical landscape in 2015 is not what it was 70 years ago, and yet the structure of influence has not changed. The same five permanent members of the Security Council have exclusive rights to exercise the veto power for themselves and their friends.

 

You cannot blame the UN for not doing more because it was created not to do more than these big states wanted it to do. When geopolitics supports a UN initiative, it can be act powerfully, maybe too much so as it did in Libya in 2011. It’s the primacy of geopolitics that is the real explanation of why international law and the UN are not more effective. At the same time we couldn’t live in this complicated, globalized world without an operationally reliable legal framework governing trade, investments, diplomacy, communications, travel, and many other spheres of transnational activity. Considering the role of the UN and international law only in relation to war/peace issues is misleading, and ignores the importance of its contributions to reliable order for routine transnational interactions of many varieties.

 

 

Saudi Arabia, Royal Impunity, and the Quicksand of Special Relationships

20 Oct

(Prefatory Note: This post is a substantially revised version of an opinion piece published online by Middle East Eye on October 6, 2015; it challenges the geopolitics of impunity from both principled and pragmatic perspectives, and also casts doubts on ‘special relationships’ that the United States has established in the Middle East with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Finally, an effort is made to suggest that there is an alternative based essentially on the practical wisdom in the 21st century of upholding and strengthening the global rule of law.)

 

Saudi Arabia enjoys a spectacular level of impunity from international accountability. This is not only because it a powerful monarchy or has the world’s richest and largest royal family with influence spread far and wide. And it is not even just about oil, although having a quarter of the world’s pre-fracking energy reserves still engenders utmost deference from those many modern economies that will depend on Gulf oil and gas for as long as this precious black stuff lasts. The Saudi comfort zone is also sustained by its special relationship with the United States that provides geopolitical backing of great benefit.

 

This refusal to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for upholding law and morality raised mainstream eyebrows that have usually looked the other way when it came to the Saudi record on human rights. Recently electing Saudi Arabia to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), partly due to a secret vote swap with the UK, seemed to cross a hereto invisible line. And if that was not enough of an affront to cosmetic morality in the sphere of human rights, the Saudi UN ambassador has been recently selected to chair the influential HRC ‘ consultative panel that recommends to the President of the Council a short-list of whom shall be appointed as Special Rapporteurs, including on such issues as right to women, freedom of expression, and religious freedom.

 

This news is coupled with confirmation that Saudi Arabia has inflicted more beheadings than ISIS this year, over 2 a day, and has ordered Ali Mohammed al-Nimr to be executed by crucifixion for taking part in an anti-monarchy demonstration when he was 17.  In a second representative case, the popular blogger, Raif Badawi, was sentenced to a long prison term and 1000 lashes in public for criticizing the monarchy.  This behavior resembles the barbarism of ISIS more than it exhibits qualifications to occupy senior UN positions dealing with human rights.

 

Additionally, Riyadh like Damascus, seems guilty of severe war crimes due to its repeated and indiscriminate targeting of civilians during its dubious Yemen intervention. The worst incident of late was an air strike targeting a wedding party on September 29th, killing 131 civilians, including many women and children, but the overall pattern of the Saudi military onslaught has been oblivious to the constraints of international humanitarian law as embodied in the Geneva Conventions of 1949.  

 

The Saudi mismatch between stature and behavior cannot be considered, as it appears to be, a grotesque anomaly in the global normative order. Instead, it fits neatly into a coherent geopolitical pattern.  Ever since World War II Saudi Arabia has been an indispensable strategic asset for the West. Oil is the core explanation of this affinity, but it is far from the whole story. Earlier Saudi anti-Communism was important, a kind of health insurance policy for the West that the government would not lured into the Soviet orbit or adopt a non-aligned position in the manner of Nasser’s Egypt, which would have dangerously undermined energy security for Western Europe.

 

In recent years, converging patterns of extreme hostility toward Iran that Saudi Arabia shares with Israel has delighted Washington planners who had long been challenged by the difficulty of juggling unconditional support for Israel with an almost absolute dependence of the West on keeping Gulf oil flowing at affordable prices. This potential vulnerability was vividly revealed in the aftermath of the 1973 Middle East War when Saudi Arabia expressed the dissatisfaction of the Arab world with Western pro-Israel positioning by persuading OPEC to impose an oil embargo that caused a global panic attack. This crisis unfolded on two levels– a high road revealing Western vulnerability to Middle Eastern oil and a low road of severe consumer discontent in reaction to long gas lines and higher prices at the pump attributable to the embargo.

 

It was then that war hawks in the West murmured aloud about coercively ending the embargo by landing paratroopers on Saudi oil fields. Henry Kissinger, never troubled by war scenarios, speculated that such an intervention might be ‘necessary’ for the economic security of the West. The Saudi rulers heard this ‘never again’ pledge from the custodians of world order, and have since been careful not to step on Western toes.

 

Against such a background, it is hardly surprising that NGO concerns about the dreadful human rights landscape in Saudi Arabia falls on deaf ears. President Obama who never tires of telling the world that the national character of America requires it to live accord with its values, centering on human rights and democracy, holds his otherwise active tongue when it comes to Saudi Arabia. He is busy reassuring the new Saudi king that the US remains as committed as ever to this second ‘special relationship’ in the Middle East, the first being, of course, with Israel.

 

If we look beneath the word ‘special,’ which conveys the added importance attached of the relationship, it seems to imply unconditional support, including a refusal to voice criticism in public. US geopolitical backing confers impunity, shielding a beneficiary from any pushback by the international community at the UN or elsewhere. There are other perks that come with this status additional to impunity. Perhaps none more notable than the embarrassment associated with hustling Saudi notables out of the United States the day after the 9/11 attacks. Remember that 15 of the 19 plane hijackers were Saudi nationals, and the US Government still refuses to release 28 pages of detailed evidence on alleged Saudi connections with Al Qaeda gathered by the 9/11 investigative commission.

 

Surely if Iran had remotely comparable linkages to those notorious events it would likely have produced a casus belli; recall that the justification for attacking Iraq in 2003 was partially based on flimsy fictitious allegations of Baghdad’s 9/11 complicity. 

 

The Saudi special relationship (unlike that with Israel) is more mutually beneficial. Because of the enormous revenues earned by selling 10 million barrels of oil a day for decades, Saudi unwavering support for the dollar as the currency of account has been of crucial help to the American ambition to dominate the global economy. Beyond this, the Saudis after pushing the world price of oil up by as much as 400% in the 1970s quickly healed the wounds by a massive recycling of so-called petrodollars through investments in Europe and North America, and especially appreciated, have been the Saudi purchase of many billions of dollars worth of arms over the years. The United States did its part to uphold the relationship, especially by responding to the 1990 Iraqi attack on Kuwait that also menaced Saudi Arabia. By deploying 400,000 troops in Saudi Arabia and leading the successful effort to compel Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, American reliability as Saudis protective big brother was convincingly upheld. Of course, in this interest there was a genuine convergence of interests. Western policy as shaped by American foreign policy accorded an absolute priority to keeping Gulf oil in friendly hands.

 

Despite the major strategic benefits to both sides, the most remarkable aspect of this special relationship is its survival in the face of the Saudi role in its massive worldwide funding of Islamic anti-Western militancy or jihadism. Saudi promotion of religious education with a Wahhabist slant is widely believed to be largely responsible for the rise and spread of jihadism, and the resultant turmoil.

 

I would have thought that the West, especially after 9/11 would insist that Saudi Arabia stop supporting Wahhabist style extremism abroad, even if it overlooked denials of human rights at home due to the imposition of harsh controls upon freedom of expression, of association, women’s rights, cruel and unusual punishments. More damaging in its political consequences than being the shield of Saudi impunity is the willingness of the US to go along with the anti-Iranian sectarian line that the Saudi leadership relies upon to justify such controversial moves as direct interventions in Bahrain and Yemen, as well as the provision of  weapons and money to anti-Assad forces in Syria.

 

Saudi opportunism became evident when the kingdom threw its diplomatic support and a large bundle of cash to an anti-Sunni coup in Egypt against the elected Muslim Brotherhood government. Saudi’s true enemies are determined by the threat posed to the stability of the monarchy, and not by their sectarian identity. In this sense Iran is an enemy because it is a regional rival that threatens to impinge upon the role and influence of Saudi Arabia, and not because of its adherence to a Shia variety of Islam. Similarly the Muslim Brotherhood, despite being of Sunni persuasion, was perceived as as a threat to royal absolutism by its democratizing challenge directed at the Mubarak autocracy. Sectarian identity is distinctly secondary, especially for the Saudi monarchy that is responsible for the conduct of foreign policy. At home, the stability of royal governance is sustained by allowing a free rein to the Wahhabi religious leadership that subject the Saudi people to its severe sectarian constraints.

 

Saudi impunity makes us appreciate the value of normal relationships among sovereign states. These do not entail exemptions from accountability in relation to international crimes and human rights violations. These special relationships have become politically costly in this century, especially if used to protect rogue states from international scrutiny. Accountability based on the rule of law is far better for stability, security, and sustainable peace than impunity. It has become increasingly awkward for US Government to validate, in part, its global role by championing human rights while refusing to blink when it comes to the most minimum expectations of accountability for Saudi Arabia or Israel.

 

I would go further, and argue that such special relationships, although expressions of the primacy of geopolitics (as over against the implementation of a global rule of law), do not serve on balance to uphold national interests in the course of abandoning national values. Contrary to the precepts of political realism, in the Middle East these two special relationships unthinkingly bind the United States and its European allies to a failing foreign policy that has occasioned great suffering for many of the peoples of the region. The migration crisis that is one direct effect of these unfortunate policies, especially military intervention, is finally leading observers to connect some dots, and recognize that what is done in the Middle East has menacing reverberations for Europe. As well, it further damages the reputation of the United States as a principled leader in a global setting that is serving the global public good as well as promoting its national policy priorities.  Perhaps, that reputation is tarnished beyond recovery at this point in any event, making repetitional considerations almost irrelevant.

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The Yemen Catastrophe: Beset by Contradictions of Will and Intellect

28 Sep

[Prefatory Note: This post modifies an article published in Middle East Eye on September 21, 2015, with title, “Yemen pays the price for Saudis’ sectarian paranoia.” Whether the Saudis are being paranoid about political developments in their neighbors (Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen) or prudent in view of regional threats to the stability of the Kingdom is difficult to ascertain. However this issue is resolved, portraying what has gone wrong as a consequence of sectarianism or an expansionist Iran, evades the real challenges being posed in Yemen, in Syria, and elsewhere in the region. Only in Iraq, where American occupation policy injected

a self-defeating sectarianism as the centerpiece of its post-Saddam Hussein state-building project, does this optic misused when applied to Middle East conflict seem to explain the course of developments, including the alignment of Iraq’s current leaders with Iran rather than with their supposed liberators from the West!]

 

 

 

Yemen Catastrophe: Beset by Contradictions of Will and Intellect

 

Any attempt to provide a coherent account of the political strife afflicting Yemen is bound to fail. The country is crucible of contradictions that defy normal categories of rational analysis. If we look beyond the political fog that envelops the conflict the tragic circumstances of acute suffering imposed on the civilian population do emerge with stark clarity. Long before the outbreak of civil warfare, Yemen was known to be the poorest country in the region, faced with looming food and water scarcities. The UN estimates 80% of the population is in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, 40% live on less than $2 per day. Further there are high risks of mass famine and epidemic outbreaks of disease will occur, while continuing chaos is a near certainty, with the prospect of yet another wave of desperate migrants swept ashore in Europe.

 

Against this background, the UN Security Council seems shockingly supportive of a major Saudi military intervention via sustained air attacks that started in March 2015, severely aggravating the overall situation by unanimously adopting a one-sided anti-Houthi Resolution 2216. This Saudi use of force is contrary to international law, violates the core principle of the UN Charter, and magnifies the violent disruption of Yemeni society. The success of the Houthi insurgency from the north that swept the Yemeni leadership from power, taking over the capital city of Sanaa, was perversely treated by the Security Council as a military coup somehow justifying the intervention by a Saudi led coalition of Gulf countries pledged to restore the ‘legitimate’ government to power. To grasp the geopolitics at play it is clarifying to recall that the 2013 blatant military coup in Egypt, with much bloodier reprisals against the displaced elected rulers, aroused not a murmur of protest in the halls of the UN. Once more the primacy of geopolitics is showcased in the Middle East. It’s not what you do, but who does it, that matters when it comes to a UN response.

 

What makes it even more difficult to make sense of developments in Yemen is the geopolitical tendency, as abetted by the media, to reduce incredibly complex national histories and the interplay of multiple contending forces to a simplistic story of Sunni versus Shia rivalry for the control of the country. Such a prism of interpretation, above all, allows Saudi Arabia to portray once again the strife in Yemen as another theater of the wider region proxy war pitting Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies against Iran, which is a guaranteed way of securing U.S. and Israeli backing. The same rationale has served the Kingdom well (and the world badly) in explaining why it supports anti-Assad forces in Syria during the last several years. It also was the pretext for intervening in Bahrain in 2011 to crush a popular pro-democracy uprising. If considered more objectively we begin to understand that this sectarian optic obscures more than it reveals, and not accidentally.

 

For instance, when it came to Egypt, however, the sectarian template was completely discarded, and the Saudis immediately used their financial muscle to help the anti-Muslim Brotherhood coup in 2012 led by General Sisi to consolidate its control over the country. Even when Israel attacked Gaza a year ago, seeking to destroy Hamas, a Sunni Islamic version of the Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia made no secret of the startling fact that it gave Tel Aviv a green light. What emerges, then, is not a regional politics based on sectarian priorities, but rather a pathological preoccupation with regime stability in the Saudi monarchy, with anxieties arising whenever political tendencies emerge in the region that elude its control, and are perceived as threatening. Part of the truer explanation of Saudi pattern of behavior also has to do with the Faustian Bargain struck with the powerful Wahabi establishment, which has allowed the Saud royal clan to flourish at home while spending billions to spread the most repressive version of Islam far and wide to madrassas throughout Asia. The fact that the application of Wahabism at home, including more than 100 beheadings already this year and confinement of women to an extent that makes the Islamic Republic of Iran appear liberal by comparison, is a further sign that international clamor of human rights is selective to put it mildly.

 

The people of Yemen are paying a huge price for this brand of Saudi violent security politics. Whether it is paranoia at work or a healthy respect for the mass unpopularity of its policies, or some mixture, is difficult to assess. Yet what seems clear is that much of the world is lulled to sleep, not taking the trouble to peer below this sectarian cover story. Only scant account taken of the fact that the real threats to regional order in Yemen do not come from a reasonable Houthi insistence on power-sharing political arrangements, but mainly arise from the presence in Yemen of Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS that have been long targeted by American drones as part of the war of the terror ever since 2007. So while the West supports the Saudi fight against the Shia Houthis at the same time it does its best to weaken their most formidable domestic opposition, and in the process further alienates the Yemeni civilian population by its military tactics, which recruits more extremists committed to fighting against this second form of external intervention that finds no basis in international law and enjoys the tacit support of the UN Security Council.

 

If this was not enough to make the Yemeni crystal ball opaque, there is the internal alignment of forces. On the one side, the 2012 successor regime to the corrupt dictatorial rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh that is headed by its equally corrupt former vice president, Abd Rabbaah Mansour Hadi, now apparently ‘governing’ from exile, although rumored to be seeking a return to Aden. On the anti-regime side, in addition to the Houthis, are the main military and police forces that still respond to the authority of the ousted leader, Saleh, who has returned to the Yemen struggle to oppose the Saudi intervention and have helped turn the tide of battle on the ground against the Hadi-led government. Despite this adverse battlefield reality, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Adel al-Jubeir, was quoted as saying “We will do whatever it takes to protect the legitimate government of Yemen from falling.” Tragically, what this seems to mean, is reducing the country to a shambles that brings starvation and disease to the population, and possibly escalating at some future point of frustration by the launch of a ground offensive. There are confirmed reports of a massing of Saudi troops close to the Yemen border.

 

At this point, it is difficult to know what would bring some kind of peace and stability to Yemen. What we do know is that both the sectarian optic, Saudi intervention, and American drone warfare are dead end options. The beginning of a constructive approach is to take root causes of the current conflict into account. Several need to be considered. There is a long experience of division in the country between the north and the south, and this means that any unity government for the whole of Yemen can only be sustained by an iron-fisted dictator like Saleh or through a genuine power-sharing federalist kind of arrangement based on decentralized autonomy and a weak central governmental structure. Beyond this, the country bears the scars of Ottoman rule intermixed with a British presence in Aden and the surrounding area, vital to earlier colonial priorities of controlling the Suez and the trade routes to the East.

 

Additionally, and often forgotten and ignored, Yemen remains a composite of tribes that still command the major loyalty of people and reign supreme in many locales. The modern European insistence on sovereign states in the Middle East never succeeded in overcoming the primacy of Yemeni tribal identities. Any possibility of political stability requires subsidizing and respecting Yemen’s tribes as Saudi Arabia did during Saleh’s dictatorship (1990-2012) or creating a multi-colored quilt of autonomous tribal polities. When the background of the north/south split and persisting tribalism are taken into account recourse to the Shia/Sunni divide or the Riyadh/Tehran rivalry as an explanation of Yemen’s strife-ridden country is more than a simplistic evasion of a far more complicated reality. It is a cruel and futile fantasy.

 

What should be done, given this overall situation? One potential key to achieving some kind of peace in Yemen is held by policymakers in Washington. So long as the U.S. Government remains beholden to the rulers in Saudi monarchy, to the extremists running Israel, and insistent on striking at AQAP targets with drone missiles, this key is unusable. This combination of factors is what makes the wider political turmoil in the Middle East stuck on a lethal fast moving treadmill. How to get off the treadmill, that is the question for which there answers, but as yet no relevant political will.

 

There are two obvious moves, neither ideal, but with the modest goal of a first step in creating a new political order: first, negotiate a ceasefire that includes an end to the Saudi intervention; secondly, establish a more credible revival of the National Dialogue Conference that two years ago made a failed attempt at Gulf initiative in Sanaa to find a power-sharing arrangement. It did not help matters then that two successive Houthi representatives at the diplomatic discussions were assassinated on their way to participate. What is needed is establishing a political transition sensitive both to the north/south split and the strength of Yemeni tribes coupled with massive economic assistance from outside, as well as the establishment of a UN peacekeeping presence tasked with implementation and the termination of all forms of external armed intervention. Nothing less has any chance of working.

 

Such a rational path is currently blocked, especially by the intense militancy of the aggressive Saudi leadership of King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, and his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Secretary of Defense, the apparent champion of military intervention. The United States, with its special relationship to Israel, its strong ties to Saudi Arabia, and faith in drone led counterterrorism seems to be swallowing the central contradiction between opposing both its real adversaries, AQAP and ISIS, and its implicit ally, the Houthis. Instead of treating the enemy of their enemy as a friend, Washington has reversed the proverb. This Gordian Knot is strangling the people of Yemen. Cutting it will require a drastic break with current policy. The way forward is evident, but how to get there is not, in the meantime the bodies pile up in what has long been considered the poorest country in the region severely stressed by the prospect of severe water scarcities.

  

Strange Regional Alignments in the Gaza Massacre

11 Aug

Neighborly Crimes of Complicity in Gaza

 

[Prefatory Note: my post below, an earlier version of which was published in AlJazeera English as an opinion piece. It was written before I had the opportunity to read an illuminating assessment of the regional and global turmoil that culminated for now in the massacre carried out by Israeli armed forces in Gaza. I highly recommend “The Tragedy of Great Power: The Massacre of Gaza and the Inevitable Failure of the Arab Spring” written by the learned Islamic jurist and scholar, Khaled Abou El Fadl, a distinguished professor at UCLA School of Law, with the link to the article below:

http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2014/08/08/4064106.htm

 What makes Professor El Fadl profound essay particularly valuable is his ability to fit the regional pieces together in a convincing manner, showing how and why governments that rule in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, encouraged the overthrow of Egypt’s elected government headed by Mohamed Morsi in mid-2013 and more recently encouraged Israel to destroy Hamas. He also shows that Hamas is not accurately perceived as a byproduct of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, but has its own “very distinct pedagogies, objectives and methodologies.” In depicting the forces of resistance and transformation as opposed to the geopolitics of counterrevolution as constituting the core struggle taking place throughout the region it becomes clear why the alignments in the Middle East are assuming their current configurations.

 It is telling and provocative for Professor El Fadl to situate the Palestinian Liberation Organization (and by implication, the Palestinian Authority) as de facto allies of Sisi’s Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE as well as being existential partners of the United States and Israel in subjugating the region to Western goals. What has developed further since the end of the Cold War rivalry that long dominated the region should be considered a geopolitical protection racket that gained political salience in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. The upheavals of 2011 shook the foundations of the old order, and led to renewals throughout the region of Faustian Bargains by which various authoritarian regimes receive protection, including help with the destruction of any political actor, whether Islamic or not, that dares to challenge this established order composed of ultra-rich native elites claiming dynastic privileges conferred by colonial powers then seeking native collaborators to manage exploited and oppressed populations. While these elites appease Israel, the masses in the same political space remain passionately and symbolically dedicated to the Palestinian struggle as became evident in the September 9, 2011 attack by several thousand Egyptians on the Israeli Embassy shortly while the heroic memories of the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak were still fresh.]

 

Of all the complexities surrounding the reaction of the world to the horrifying spectacle of Israel’s severe criminality in Gaza none is more perplexing than the complicity of most governments throughout the Arab world. What makes their political posture particularly bewildering is the degree of ethnic, religious, cultural, and historical commonality that creates such close ties of identity among the peoples of the region. And no single issue has been as unifying over the decades for these people than has their long intensely felt opposition to the injustice, suffering, and exploitation that the Palestinian people have endured for the past century as a result of the encroachments of the Zionist movement on their lands. It should be recalled that at earlier stages of the Palestinian ordeal, the governments of the neighboring Arab countries did exhibit strong, if ineffectual, solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. Several Arab states jointly attacked Israel, initially in 1948 to prevent the establishment of Israel, and later in the failed wars of 1967 and 1973 that challenged Israel’s existence. These defeats together with Egypt’s accommodation via the peace treaty of 1979 was a defining moment at which the Arab neighbors of Israel abandoned the Palestinians politically, but not yet diplomatically or economically. At this time any tangible form solidarity at the level of Arab governments is now a distant and ironic memory, and has been supplanted in the main by active hostility to Palestinian aspirations and implicit sympathy with, or at least acquiescence in Israel’s regional ambitions in conjunction with U.S. grand strategy in the region .

 

Some official formal hostility to Israel and sympathy for the Palestinian struggle persists at rhetorical levels, but rings hollow. It is true that many Arab countries to this day refuse entry to anyone with an Israeli entry or exit stamp in their passport. Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981 was widely interpreted at the time as a populist response in Egypt to his willingness to sign a peace treaty with Israel without simultaneously securing justice for the Palestinians, thereby crossing what was then a red line of betrayal. It was observed by the Western media that few Egyptians bothered to leave their apartments as a show of respect as Sadat’s funeral procession as it passed through the streets of Cairo because the slain leader was so reviled for shamelessly appeasing the enemy of the Palestinian people.

 

Above all, the ongoing struggle for Palestinian self-determination is understood by the peoples of the Middle East, and indeed the world over, as a struggle for the empowerment and liberation of the Palestinian people in the face of severe injustices done unto them over a long period of time, and involving such crimes against humanity as apartheid and massacre, verging on genocide. Increasingly, and never more than in reaction to this recent Gaza horror show, the Palestinian struggle will have to be waged not only against Israel, and its American and European allies, but also against the Arab collaborationist governments in the region that have betrayed their own larger religious and cultural identities, and more revealingly, the most fundamental ideas of justice and compassion associated with ideals of humanity and the ethical underpinnings of Islamic unity.

 

It is notable that only non-Arab Turkey and Qatar have acted responsibly in response to the Israeli attacks that commenced on July under the IDF code name of Protective Edge. The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has spoken movingly, without hiding his condemnation of Israeli behavior behind the euphemisms of diplomacy, in characterizing Israel’s behavior in Gaza as criminal. Even a group of distant Latin American countries, including Brazil and Chile, have at least shown the depth of their disapproval of Israel’s conduct by withdrawing their ambassadors from Israel. This symbolic expression of disapproval is something that not one government in Europe or North America, the self-proclaimed centers of world civilization, has yet done. The countries of the South have by and large also turned their backs to the Palestinians and the confrontation in Gaza, with the exception of South Africa.

 

Taken together these considerations make it morally distressing and politically mystifying to observe that almost every Arab governments has seemed either to be flashing a green light in Israel’s direction or pointedly looking away. Given the criminality of the Israeli attack and the tragic suffering inflicted on the Palestinian people, complicity by way of such diplomatic endorsements, or even stony silent acquiescence, is at the very least a breach in Arab and Islamic identity, and worse, seems to be an unimaginable case of aiding and abetting genocidal political violence directed at the Palestinian people. Such a diplomacy of indifference is especially notable as expressed toward Gaza, which is governed by a Moslem-oriented leadership. Israel’s persistence in a massacre mode despite the near universal calls for a responsibly negotiated ceasefire was widely attributed to the fact that the Netanyahu government was being encouraged behind the scenes by Egypt and Saudi Arabia ‘to finish the job,’ not of the tunnels and rockets that served as the security pretext, but of Hamas itself as ‘the head of the snake,’ the one Palestinian actor that continued to believe in a politics of resistance. For these Arab governments to act so opportunistically, particularly given the frequency and magnitude of Israeli atrocities is shocking to all but the most numbed of political imaginations.

 

To be sure, the behavior of these Arab governments as mystifying, legally and morally unacceptable, and politically self-destructive warrants condemnation, but it also needs to be understood and explained as clearly as possible. What quirks of political realism led these Arab regimes to so calculate their future?

           

The Enemy of my Enemy

 

The core explanation of Arab complicity (excepting Qatar) has to do with the Arab governments hating and fearing the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) far more than they resent Israel. This logic is then extended to Hamas, which is misleadingly treated as nothing other than a branch of this supposedly poisonous tree. This hostility to an Islamic movement authenticated from below overshadows Israel’s encroachment on their region, and even its appropriation and control of Muslim sacred places in Jerusalem. In effect what is going on in these top heavy monarchies is a passionate search for protection from possible uprisings by their own populations, which are feared as potential adversaries. Such an initial assessment pushes the question one step further but it does not give us any insight into why this should be so.

 

What are the sources of this hatred of the MB? The MB is perceived as the essential expression in the Arab world of bottom up political Islam that is viewed as toxic by the established order because of its grassroots legitimacy. This reality has induced panic among these Arab regimes that goes back at least as far as the explosive regional reverberations unleashed by the revolution that overthrew the Shah’s supposedly secure imperial rule in Iran (1979). This revolutionary process caused high intensity tremors, especially throughout the Arab world, and especially among the monarchies nurturing privileged and unscrupulous elites that have long kept their populations cruelly repressed and in backward conditions of mass misery. These regimes, generally aligned with the United States, remain obsessed with the maintaining stability of their own rule, and seem to feel that stifling all voices calling for change is a vital ingredient of their own survival.

 

Hamas as an active resistance movement is in this sense perceived as an acute threat to the kind of future that these Arab governments are intent of achieving no matter what the costs in lives and societal wellbeing. First of all, Has has historical ties to the Egyptian MB, the older organization of Muslim activists that has kept the flame of political Islam burning despite enduring harsh suppression dating back to decades before Israel came into existence. Secondly, Hamas demonstrated its legitimacy, and credibility as a voice of the Palestinians living in Gaza by its electoral victory in 2006, and more recently by its resilience (sumud) and resistance to Israeli tactics of aggression and massacre. Thirdly, Sunni Hamas crossed sectarian boundaries by having its closest political ties with Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, and the Alawite regime in Syria, and although these relationships have grown weaker as a result of recent regional developments, their very existence further alarms the Sunni supremacists in Riyadh whose second source of anxiety is associated with a sectarian/nationalist struggle that pits Saudi Arabia and its allies against Iran and its allies. The terrible carnage in Syria is one expression of this sectarian dimension of the regional struggle that complements efforts to crush any expression of political Islam with a strong societal base of support.

 

Egypt’s Betrayal

 

Of course, in the foreground is the experience of the Arab anti-authoritarian upheavals in 2011, especially the dislodging of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, followed by expressions of far greater popular electoral support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi candidates throughout Egypt than had been expected by the anti-Mubarak liberals and progressive youth who had earlier dominated the crowds in Tahrir Square. The Gulf countries made no secret of their disappointment with Washington’s refusal to do more to beat back this populist tide that swept over the Mubarak regime, who like the Shah in Iran 30 years earlier, had seemed to offer leaders of these Arab monarchies a model of invulnerability in relation to popular upheavals.

 

And so two years later in 2013 when the chance came, as it did during the faltering presidential term of Mohamed Morsi, it is no secret that the counterrevolutionary coup led by General Ahmed Fattah el-Sisi was most warmly welcomed by Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Sisi coup won immediate aid bestowed in huge quantities (at least $8 billion) from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, hoping that such a large infusion of cash would create a soft economic landing for the new regime, and set up a contrast with the economic failures of the Morsi government. It was hoped that a rapid economic recovery would reassure the majority of Egyptians that they were experiencing a change for the better even if there was little effort by the new leaders to hide the return to the methods and style of the previously despised Mubarak rule that had prompted the earlier upheaval. What is startling is that these Arab supporters never blinked in the face of the crimes of Sisi’s military leadership in Cairo, which featured a bloody crackdowns of anti-government demonstrations in Cario, including even the killing of many MB members while they were at prayer. Sisi proceeded to move against the MB as an organization, having it criminalized and defined legally as ‘a terrorist organization,’ encouraging judicial action that included imposing mass death sentences on many of its members, and generally engaging in state crime on a scale that far exceeded the abuses of the Mubarak period. Even Washington was embarrassed by these excesses, although it maintained a pragmatic silence that overlooked the tensions between its calls for democracy and its actual strategic goal of restoring the regionalstability of the pre-Arab Spring status quo.

 

 

 

Iran Explodes the Myth of Regional Stability

 

Until this pattern became evident I didn’t appreciate the relevance of some remarks made to me by Ayatollah Khomeini while in Paris just as he was about to return to Iran from exile to lead the new Islamic Republic in January 1979. This austere religious leader was very clear about rejecting the then prevailing idea that a national revolution was taking place in Iran. He said again and again during the meeting, “This is an Islamic revolution, not an Iranian revolution.” He went on to observe that the dynastic regime in Saudi Arabia was decadent and oriented toward the West. In his view it was as illegitimate a source of governance as was the Shah’s regime that had just been overthrown in Iran, and a justifiable target for further political initiatives by those societal forces that were infused with Islamic values.

 

The revolution in Iran, whether understood as a national or ideological phenomenon, was deeply threatening to political stability of the region. It was a political movement from below that shattered a monarchic power structure in Iran that was viewed in the region and by the West as invulnerable to internal challenge, once described by Kissinger “as that rarest of things, an unconditional ally.” In other words, it was not just that the foundations of the status quo gave way in Iran, but that their crumbling was brought about by populist tremors that enjoyed widespread cultural legitimacy. It was this cultural legitimacy that again surfaced in the immediate aftermath of the Arab upheavals in 2011, and sent tremors of fear throughout the region, and could not be dismissed on sectarian grounds.

 

The explosive emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIS) reinforces Ayatollah Khomeini’s central message. Its proclamation of a new caliphate is precisely in line with this type of thinking. The whole carving up of the Arab world into a series of sovereign states is seen from these perspectives as an imposition of European civilization, destroying and destabilizing the only true political community, that of the Islamic uma.

 

Israel’s Parallel Universe

 

Israeli strategists over the years have been divided about their regional priorities, but agreed on the general contour of principal goals. Israel’s preferred Middle East would consist of governments that were both friendly and stable, which made Iran a favorite until it unexpectedly fell apart in 1978-79. Next best, were governments that were formally cool, or even hostile, but remained mostly on the sidelines in relation to the conflict of with the Palestinians, such as King Hussein’s Jordan, Mubarak’s Egypt, and the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia. If such stability was not attainable, then strife in a country that was politically hostile was viewed as next best, which is the story of Syria, and to a degree Iraq, in recent years. In other words, Israel could live with regional actors that were rhetorically hostile, as with passport exclusions or UN speeches, but not with states that were politically hostile, and perceived as allies of Palestinian resistance struggle. In that sense, Israel pushed behind the scenes for the American attack on Iraq after 2001 and has done its best to push the United States into a belligerent encounter with Iran in recent years.

 

When it comes to Gaza, and Hamas, the convergence of the Israeli approach and the Arab governmental consensus is an invaluable political blessing for Tel Aviv. It gives Israel unlimited space to push its militarist agenda, however great the carnage and devastation, and even if much the rest of the world may lament the assault upon international law and morality. Even the United States, and its ‘subaltern’ UN Secretary General, have felt the pressure to use their influence to establish a ceasefire, although without daring to lift a critical finger in Israel’s direction and following an Egyptian-oriented peremptory diplomacy that seems more concerned about PR dimensions than achieving an end to the violence. This skeptical reflection was confirmed by the initial ceasefire proposal that was presented to Hamas on a take it or leave it basis, and quite incredibly, that its leaders were informed about only through its media publication. The newer ceasefire approach, based on a sequence of 72 hour truces, follows the same pattern with Israeli and American negotiators refusing to sit at the same table as the representative of Hamas, and yet claiming to seek an agreement that would end the violence.

 

While Israel talks about rockets and tunnels, its massive military operation is being increasingly interpreted by knowledgeable commentators as punitive, and directed not only at Hamas but at Palestinians generally. Some Israeli leaders and their prominent supporters seem to believe that Gazans deserve to die because they voted for Hamas back in 2006, although many Gazans who are dying didn’t back Hamas then or now, and certainly not the Palestinian children who were not even born when Hamas won the elections. A second punitive motivation, and more explicitly endorsed, is a punishment directed at Palestinians in general for daring to form a unity government back in early June, thus challenging ever so slightly the illusion that Israelis had successfully crushed Palestinian political ambition to pursue self-determination by any means other than the futile charade of periodic spurts of diplomacy. Crushing Hamas is seen as a way to make Palestinians submit to the permanence of occupation, the annexation of most of the West Bank, the realities of apartheid administrative and detention policies, and the burial of any prospect of an independent Palestinian state. The Palestinian Authority had been awkwardly docile until it timidly went forward with the unity government, and now must be disciplined by Israel for getting out of line, being taught a lesson once and for all that if it has any future it is to collaborate with Israel, as it had done in the past, with the suppression of Palestinian resistance, above all Hamas, as a telltale sign of its political outlook.

 

A Concluding Word

 

More than anything else, these terrible happenings in Gaza should lead to a realization that the future of the Palestinian people and of the region as a whole depends on finding a just solution of the conflict. The abysmal failure of the Kerry induced talks showed definitively that Israel has lost all interest in a diplomacy that promises the Palestinians a viable and independent sovereign state at the end of the road. With a show of self-confidence the Knesset made clear its own rejection of the two-state diversion by choosing an ardent Likud one-stater, Reuven Rivlin, to replace Shimon Peres, as President of Israel. It is past time for the peoples of the world to wake up to the real nature of the challenge and support a more militant international campaign of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, and insist on boycott and divestment in all venues, working to support arms embargoes and sanctions on the part of as many governments as possible.