Tag Archives: Middle East

An Unlikely AMEXIT: Pivoting Away from the Middle East  

14 Jul

[Prefatory Note: The post that follows is a modified version of an opinion piece that was published by Al Jazeera English on July 10, 2016; it examines the argument for disengagement from the Middle East by analogizing a plausible AMEXIT to BREXIT.]


The Case for Disengagement


A few years ago Barack Obama made much of an American pivot to East Asia, a recognition of China’s emergence and regional assertiveness, and the related claim that the American role in Asia-Pacific should be treated as a prime strategic interest that China needed to be made to respect. The shift also involved the recognition by Obama that the United States had become overly and unsuccessfully engaged in Middle Eastern politics creating incentives to adjust foreign policy priorities. The 2012 pivot was an overdue correction of the neocon approach to the region during the presidency of George W. Bush that reached its climax with the disastrous 2003 intervention in Iraq, which continues to cause negative reverberations throughout the region. It was then that the idiocy of ‘democracy promotion’ gave an idealistic edge to America’s military intervention and the delusion prospect of the occupiers receiving a warm welcome from the Iraqi people hit a stone wall of unanticipated resistance.


In retrospect, it seems evident that despite the much publicized ‘pivot’ the United States has not disengaged from the Middle East. Its policies are tied as ever to Israel, and its fully engaged in the military campaigns taking place in Syria and against DAESH. In a recent article in The National Interest, Mohammed Ayoob, proposes a gradual American disengagement from the region. He makes a highly intelligent and informed strategic interest argument based on Israel’s military superiority, the reduced Western dependence on Gulf oil, and the nuclear agreement with Iran. In effect, Ayoob convincingly contends that circumstances no longer justify a major American engagement in the region, and that to maintain the commitment at present levels adds to Middle East turmoil, and its extra-regional terrorist spillover, in ways that harms American interests.


Why Disengagement Won’t Happen


Ayoob’s reasoning is flawless, but disengagement won’t happen, and not because Americans are not smart enough to recognize changed circumstances. The pivot to East Asia was a recent instance of such an adjustment based on an assessment of changed geopolitical circumstances. Actually, the high degree of American involvement in the Middle East was itself the result of an adjustment to changed circumstances. After the Soviet collapse, the earlyier geopolitical preoccupation with Europe seemed superfluous and outmoded, and the Middle East with its oil, Israel, expanding Islamic influence, risky nuclear proliferation potential seemed then like a region where a strong American commitment would solidify its role as global leader. This perception was reinforced after the Al Qaeda 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, which gave neocon hawks a pretext for a regime-changing attack on Iraq, which the neocons hoped was but a prelude to a more elaborate political reconfiguring of the region by way of regime-changing interventions. [See ‘Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm’ (1996) for a fuller understanding of the Israeli oriented neocon mindset] The Iraqi undertaking failed miserably during the state-rebuilding occupation that followed upon the attack and overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime. The master plan involved reconstructing the government and economy of Iraq to serve Western interests while at the same time supposedly democratizing the country. It totally backfired. This American pivot to the Middle East after the Cold War was based on the geopolitical opportunism of Washington in a context of a persisting failure to understand the changing circumstances of the post-colonial world, and especially the altered balance between the military superiority associated with foreign intervention and the resourcefulness of territorial resistance.


So why the inflexibility with respect to the Middle East when disengagement brings immediate major practical advantages? Part of the explanation is surely governmental inertia, reinforced by the belief that the changes in conditions are not as clear and favorable as Ayoob contends, making disengagement seem geopolitically vulnerable to future charges that the Obama presidency was responsible for ‘losing the Middle East,’ as if it was ever America’s to lose!


More to the point is a range of other reasons militating against disengagement. Perhaps, most significant, is the militarist bias of American foreign policy that is even unable to acknowledge that the attacks on Iraq or Libya were failures. This refusal to think outside the military box prevails in American policy circles, making the debate on what to do about Syria or DAESH center on the single question of how much American military power should be deployed to resolve these conflicts. What Eisenhower called the military industrial complex has come to dominate the machinery of government in Washington, further abetted by the accretion of a huge homeland security bureaucracy since 9/11. Real threats to American interests exist in the Middle East, and given this unwillingness to rely on political or diplomatic solutions for the resolution of most disputes, virtually requires the United States to retain its military presence to ensure the availability of options to intervene militarily whenever the occasion arises.


Then there is the anti-international mood that has taken over American domestic politics. It is hostile to every kind of international commitment other than military action against real and imagined Islamic enemies. Additionally, the US Congress has been completely captured by the Israeli Lobby, which puts a high premium on maintaining the American geopolitical engagement so as to share with Israel the burdens and risks associated with the management of regional turbulence. As neither the Arab uprisings of 2011 nor the robust counterrevolutionary aftermath were anticipated, it is argued that there is too uncertainty to risk any further disengagement. This is coupled with the claim that the rapid drawdown of American combat forces in Iraq was actually premature, and led to a resurgence of civil strife that has persuaded the Obama administration to redeploy American troops both to aid in the fight to regain territory occupied by ISIS and to help the government to establish some degree of stability.


Why Disengagement Should Happen


Neither realist arguments about interests nor ethical considerations of principle will lead to an overdue American disengagement. Washington refuses to understand why intervention by Western military forces in the post-colonial Middle East generates dangerous extremist forms of resistance (e.g. DAESH) magnifying the problems that prompted intervention in the first place. In essence, the intervention option is a lose/lose proposition, but without it American engagement makes no sense.


Unfortunately, for America and the peoples throughout the Middle East the US seems incapable of extricating itself from yet another geopolitical quagmire that is partly responsible for generating extra-regional terrorism of the sort that has afflicted Europe in the last two years. And so although disengagement is a sensible course of action, it won’t happen for a long, long time, if at all. Unlike BREXIT, for AMEXIT, and geopolitics generally, there are no referenda offered the citizenry.




Are We Heading Toward Global Autocracy, Ecological Collapse, Political Malaise?

29 Jun



What follows are preliminary reactions to both the BREXIT vote and the world according to Trump, but also a commentary on the related alienation of large segments of the public that are being badly served by both the established elites and their demagogic adversaries. The failures of neoliberalism, the successes of digitization, the scourge of random violence, and more broadly, the dilemmas posed by late modernity are among the root causes of this global crisis of legitimate governance, which is deepened while being mishandled by unprecedented ecological challenges, extremely irresponsible geopolitical leadership, and a variety of ultra-nationalist backlashes against the encroachments of economic globalization.



Imagining the World After the Cold War


After the end of the Cold War there were various projections that tried to anticipate the likely future of the world in broad interpretative strokes. Three of the most influential conjectures by three prominent American authors received attention in the public sphere: those of Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, and Robert Kaplan.


Fukuyama challenged conventional political imagination with his provocative claim that with the collapse of the Soviet version of state socialism and the triumph of capitalist liberalism the world had reached ‘the end of history.’ It was also somewhat dubious that Fukuyama validated his views by reference to the Hegelian contention that history is made by the march and interplay of ideas rather than through the agency of material forces. In this respect history came to a supposedly glorious end because there was no grander possible political vision than that of market-based constitutionalism, epitomized by the American political system. Even the most casual observer of the global scene must have noticed the befogged Western optic through which Fukuyama saw

the world.


Huntington, no less provocative or biased, although less comforting for the West, anticipated a ‘the clash of civilizations’ as the sequel to the Cold War, especially stressing the confrontation between the liberal West and the non-West or simply ‘the rest.’ His suggestive emphasis was on blood-soaked fault lines between states, civilizations, and peoples associated with Islam and the Western polities descending from the Enlightenment tradition as it unfolded in Europe, taking root in North America and elsewhere.


Kaplan, also punctured the Fukuyama triumphalist tone of geopolitical serenity, by writing of ‘the coming anarchy,’ the breakdown of order at the level of the state. His views were shaped by perceptions of decolonization leading to ungovernable and essentially non-viable political spaces, particularly in Africa where he regarded many of the post-colonial states as incapable of achieving minimum order within territorial space.


25 years later it appears that each of these authors saw part of the elephant, but none of the three managed to capture this imposing animal in its majestic totality. Fukuyama was importantly correct in positing market-driven liberalism as the hegemonic ideology of the global future for decades to come, and especially so with respect to the ascendancy of the transnational private sector as shaped by financial flows in a borderless world. The universalization of the liberal international order was devised by and for the West after World War II with the overriding goal of avoiding a return of the Great Depression and retaining as many of the benefits of colonialism as possible in the aftermath of its collapse. This globalizing arrangement of economic and political forces proved robust enough to generate sustained economic growth, as well as to crowd out rivals, thereby making itself into ‘the only game in town.’ That this phase of globalization was grossly uneven in the distribution of benefits and burdens was generally overlooked, as was its predatory character as viewed from the perspective of the economic losers.


At the same time, the idea of reaching an endpoint in history even if conceived in Hegelian terms of ideas seemed rather absurd, if not grotesque, to many from its moment of utterance. Given the ideological assault on modernity that has been mounted from the perspective of religion, drawing into question secularism and rationalism, the liberal vision was indeed being challenged from a number of angles. In this regard, transnational terrorism viewed in isolation is a less radical repudiation of Fukuyama’s blueprint for the future than are the various associated challenges to Westphalian territorial sovereignty that have been mounted by Islamic leaders, articulated clearly by both Ayatollah Khomeini and Osama Bin Laden. Both insisted that the territorial sovereignty was not the primary legitimate basis for political community, and indeed put forward less convincing claims to political community than were the organic identities that had been shaped by centries of religious and civilizational traditions and devotional practices.


ISIS added its own version of this world order stance in a less reflective modality. Its leaders gave voice to the view that in the Middle East, in particular, armed struggle was undoing the harm done a hundred years earlier. ISIS bluntly repudiated the territorial legacies and authority of the Sykes-Picot Agreement that in 1916 had carved up the Ottoman Empire to satisfy British and French colonial ambitions. Such European hubris had cast the region adrift by creating governance zones that were, at best, artificial political communities that could only be held together by the iron fist of state power, which if removed would lead to chaos. The effect of giving over the fate of the peoples to the mercies of European colonial powers fractured the natural community of Islam and did away with the more ethnically constituted units (or millets) established by the Ottoman Empire. It is hard to be confident about whether the peoples of the region as of 2016, if left free to choose, would prefer the distortions of imposed Westphalian states or opt for boundaries that better reflected the existential sentiments and values of the current national majorities among those living in the region.



The Unexpected Appeal and Rise of the Reactionary Right


Perhaps, more fundamental in its implications for the future, is the shifting ground shaking the foundations of the edifice of ideas and interest upholding neoliberal globalization. That the ground is shaking has been revealed for most crisis deniers by the surge of populist support that allowed Trump to crush a wide field of Republican presidential aspirants with mainstream party credentials. This astonishing outcome has been strongly reinforced by the electrifying vote by Britain in June 2016 to exit the European Union, so-called BREXIT, and what that portends for Britain, the EU, and even the world.


We can also throw into the new mix the Sanders Phenomenon, essentially a youth revolt against what the man from Vermont kept calling ‘a rigged system’ good for the 1%, horrible for the other 99%, and especially for the bottom 40-60%. We will not grasp the full meaning of what has occurred for years to come, and surely the November 2016 American presidential election will either be a restorative moment for the established socio-economic order or a death warrant portending that radical, most likely disruptive, change is on its way. Should Hilary Clinton win, especially if she wins decisively as even most of the Republican leadership fear and some even wish for, it will quiet some of the voices on right and left calling for change, but only temporarily, and this is the point as the roots of the crisis are far deeper than this or that election or referendum result.



An Establishment Out of Touch


What strikes me most forcefully, aside from these unexpected outcomes, is how out of touch liberal, urban elites seem to be with the sharply alienated mood of the populace as a whole. This first struck me while visiting Cairo in the months after the overthrow of Mubarak in early 2011 when Egyptians across a wide spectrum welcomed change, and were naively expecting the political transition to be managed according to the will of the people by the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces. The political analogue to this trust displayed by the leaders of the uprising in the military wing of the former oppressive regime was the widespread expectation that Amr Moussa, Secretary General of the Arab League and once the Foreign Minister under Mubarak e would overwhelm opponents in the promised presidential elections.


Many in Cairo voiced their personal doubts about Moussa’s suitability, complaining of his complicity with the prior regime and wondering whether he had a genuine willingness and capability to push through a liberal agenda of national reform and manage an economic program that offered some hope to the poor and marginalized Egyptian masses. What representatives of the Cairo establishment and even its critics didn’t disagree about was the near certainty of a Moussa victory in the scheduled 2012 presidential elections because no other candidate had comparable name recognition or possessed elite credibility. As it turned out Moussa, despite his acceptability to urban elites, ended up with less than 12% of the vote in the first round, disqualifying him from competing in the second and final round of the electoral process that surprisingly pitted an undisguised Murarak loyalist, Ahmed Shafek, against the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Morsi. There has been much commentary on this sequence of developments, but what I want to stress is how out of touch the Cairo policymakers and media were with ‘the people’ of Egypt, especially the poor and those living around the country outside the two urban centers of Cairo and Alexandria.



Losing it in America


The utterly unanticipated success of Trump, Sanders, and BREXIT left those who earn their livings by telling us what to think and what will happen in an apparently shell shocked. Because policy wonks can lose their relevance quickly, and maybe their jobs, if they are honest enough to dwell upon their mistaken judgments, they tend to shift the conversation to what these unexpected developments tell us about the vagaries of mass public opinion. They continue to write with the same old assurance and command over details, articulating anew as (un)knowingly as ever their views about what is to come, earning them invitations to influential talk shows and the like. They have no shame. At this moment the prevailing wonk consensus is that Trump cannot possibly win in the national elections next November, and will probably lead the Republicans to a devastating national defeat leaving the party discredited even among its most faithful followers. This scenario has become the latest American version of the liberal wet dream.


What is so far missing, or almost so, from the public discourse is a soul searching assessment of why the underclass anger, why the magnetic appeal of political personalities who are ‘outsiders,’ and why the loopy defensiveness and seeming irrelevance of those who speak softly, wrongly supposing that the voice of reason and moderation will win out. Even now there is little discussion of how best to account for this ‘revolt of the masses,’ why it is happening now and not earlier, as well as what can and should be thought and done.

Sanders alone pointed to the relevance of acute inequality as discrediting the prevailing political order and what the two political parties were offering the American people. He was sensitive to social dislocations caused by this inequality being closely linked to the declining real incomes of the middle classes and the poor. He also recognized that such a downward spiral is further aggravated by a dysfunctionally expensive health system, intolerable burdens of student debt, and a bipartisan willingness to sacrifice the fundamental wellbeing of workers in a deindustrializing America on the altar of free trade. In effect, Sanders was putting before the American people a sharply critical diagnosis of the ills besetting the country together with a laundry list of social democratic correctives.


Trump, despite being himself a major economic predator, has enjoyed this surge of fanatical backing due to his diabolical talent for blaming ‘the other’ for the failures being experienced by large disaffected sectors of the American people. From this paranoid standpoint it becomes almost logical to threaten China with a trade war, to bar all Muslims from entering the country, and to build a high wall that keeps illegal Latinos from coming across the Mexican border as well as getting rid as rapidly as possible all those who managed to enter illegally in the past, and to accomplish this massive dispossession through the medium of cruel and indiscriminate deportation. All of this negativity is given a smiling face by the catchy, yet vauous, Trump slogan “to make America great again.” Such a heartwarming slogan makes Trump into a kind of political alchemist transforming the base metals of xenophobic negativity into the glow that will follow from recovering a lost never existing American positive exceptionalism, which if decoded simply promises to restore a social order presided over by white men.



The Global Landscape

Looking around the world is a disquieting complement to myopic readings of these potentially earth shattering recent developments as happening only in Anglo-American political space. What seems evident is that there are throughout the planet converging trends reflecting some widely shared societal grievances coupled with a mood of disillusionment about the purported achievements and promises of democratic forms of governance. It is difficult to recall that after the Cold War a major aspect of American triumphalism was the confidence that the political embrace of American style democracy (what was then being called ‘market-oriented constitutionalism’) would spread to more and more countries in the world, and that this trend should be welcomed everywhere as an irreversible sign that a higher stage of political evolution had been reached. Bill Clinton liberals were forever talking up ‘enlargement’ (the expanding community of democratic states) while subscribing to the tenuous and vague claims of ‘democratic peace’ (the Kantian idea that democracies do not make war against one another).


Later George W. Bush neocons more belligerently pushed ‘democracy promotion,’ being impatient or distrustful of leaving the future to the workings of internal political dynamics and the flow of history. They held the geopolitically convenient, yet totally ahistorical, belief that military intervention would be popularly received as a liberating gift even by peoples newly freed from the shackles of European colonialism. In 2003, this commitment to coercing a democratic future was put into practice in Iraq, failing miserably and in an incredibly costly manner. Again what should be a cause for reflection is the misperception of the historical circumstances by the American establishment. This belief is abetted by the accompanying false assumption that if democracy is formally established, ex-colonial societies will docilely accept a prolonged foreign occupation of their country while continuing to endure high levels of chronic unemployment and mass poverty, a situation inflamed by national elites wallowing in luxury, having often gained their wealth by rapacious levels of corruption, rewards for serving the foreign occupiers and associated representatives of global capital.



‘It’s the System, Stupid’


If democratization seemed the wave of the global future as seen from the perspective of the 1990s there are now different horizons of expectation that darkly dominate the political imagination with a blending of fear, rage, and despair. What has so far emerged is a series of drastic political moves in a diverse group of countries that is cumulatively leading national governing processes in inward-looking authoritarian directions. Each national narrative can offer its own plausible explanation of such developments by focusing on the particularities of the national situation without paying much attention to external factors.


Yet the fact that such diverse countries share this experience of diminishing democracy and increasing authoritarianism suggests that wider systemic factors are at play. To some extent, this disturbing set of developments is disguised in the constitutional societies of the West where these trends are being validated by popular forces, that is, in full accord with the discipline and legitimacy of what might be understood as procedural democracy, that is, free and fair elections as supplemented by rivalry between political parties, a seemingly free press, referenda, legislation, judicial action, and executive initiatives that appears respectful of the constraints of the rule of law. These authoritarian outcomes should be interpreted mainly as failures of substantive democracy as obscured by the persistence of procedural democracy. This reality is beginning to be perceived by large portions of the population, especially those struggling with poverty, joblessness, and declining standards of living, although it is not articulated by reference to the substantive shortcomings of contemporary democracy. What makes this context so confusing is this tension within democracy between its procedural and substantive dimensions.


These substantive democratic failures of equity and performance are not generally experienced by those leading comfortable lives even if unlike earlier generations, expectations about the future at all levels of society are far less hopeful than during the last decades of the 20th century. Gone are the days when it was widely believed that children would almost certainly fare better than their parents. Those who are experiencing this sharp downturn in expectations are just now awakening to insist upon answers, and the easiest place to find them is through scapegoating. In this regard, the influx of foreign cheap labor is believed, and not always inaccurately, to exert downward pressures on wages and cause disquieting increases in the local crime rate. It also tempts many to regard the present challenges to homeland security as the work of ‘Islamic radicalism,’ while the widening gap between rich and poor is depicted as a mixture of corruption and free trade that pushes jobs out of the country to foreign labor markets with low wages, weak or no unions,lax safety and environmental regulations, and bribery as a way of life.


Although this shift from democratization to autocratization is being mainly experienced as a national phenomenon or as a series of distinct national dramas, the systemic aspects are crucial. An essential part of the socio-economic mixture of causes is the replacement of human labor by machine labor, a process that is accelerating via automation, and likely to increase at a geometrical pace for many years to come. As a result, a new source of chronic unemployment affecting all classes is occurring. Another aggravating feature results from migration flows escaping from war torn regions or from ecological collapse brought about by climate change. Further, the rise and manipulation of transnational terrorism and counterterrorism gives priority to the security agenda, lending support to a vast expansion of state police powers at the expense of societal autonomy and personal freedom.


What such developments portend is the presence of large numbers of desperate people within most national spaces who are blocked in their search for a decent life, are made to feel unnecessary and unwanted or treated, and are regarded as a burdensome democratic surplus by the established order. All that most of these persons want is social change and a recovery of their sense of societal worth, creating a frightening vulnerability to the siren calls of demagogues. Such a pattern is already visible on the global stage, although it tends to be blurred by relying on this still dominant optic of state-by-state developments that suppresses the reality of systemic pressures, and diverts attention from the kind of radical political therapy that is needed.


Current global trends exhibit two equally devastating approaches, which are in some settings combined. The most prevalent tendency is to mandate the state to impose order at any cost involving increasing levels of coercion, reinforced by intrusive surveillance, seeking its own legitimacy by claiming fear-mongering alarmism and through scapegoating of immigrants, Muslims, and all outsiders, those ethnically and religiously ‘other.’ A complementary tendency is associated with the demagogic arousal of populist masses that also mandate the state to carry out similar kinds of order-maintaining policies. In effect, the somewhat more cosmopolitan middle is being squeezed between the elites seeking to withstand anti-establishment politics and the aroused masses eager to smash the established order. Both sources of anti-democratic pressure favor closing borders, building walls, and deporting those whose very existence assaults nativist conceptions of the nation.


As previously assessed, procedural democracy is not currently much of an obstacle in the face of various populist embraces of proto-fascist political appeals that is offering aspiring demagogues a field day. The advocacy of extremist, simplistic, and violent solutions to complex problems is on the rise, and yet we should know that the present agenda of concerns cannot be effectively addressed until a structural analysis is acted upon and the neoliberal underpinning of the status quo is significantly adjusted. A correct political diagnosis would emphasize the alienating shortcomings of substantive democracy given the degree to which neoliberal capitalism is seen as responsible for accentuating inequality, corruption, and downward standards of living for the majority leaving many without adequate material security as it relates to employment, shelter, health, and education.


Overall as the world confronts such challenges as climate change, diminishing biodiversity, and nuclear weaponry that are cumulatively threatening humanity with catastrophe, this emergent reality of global autocracy may be the worst news of all.

Slouching Toward Global Disaster: Chaos and Intervention in the Middle East  

22 Dec


The Geopolitical Foreground


There are many disturbing signs that the West is creating conditions in the Middle East and Asia that could produce a wider war, most likely a new Cold War, containing, as well, menacing risks of World War III. The reckless confrontation with Russia along its borders, reinforced by provocative weapons deployments in several NATO countries and the promotion of governing regimes hostile to Russia in such countries as Ukraine and Georgia seems to exhibit Cold War nostalgia, and is certainly not the way to preserve peace.


Add to this the increasingly belligerent approach recently taken by the United States naval officers and defense officials to China with respect to island disputes and navigational rights in the South China Seas. Such posturing has all the ingredients needed for intensifying international conflict, giving a militarist signature to Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia.’


These developments are happening during the supposedly conflict averse Obama presidency. Looking ahead to new leadership, even the most optimistic scenario that brings Hilary Clinton to the White House is sure to make these pre-war drum beats even louder. From a more detached perspective it is fair to observe that Obama seems rather peace-oriented only because American political leaders and the Beltway/media mainstream have become so accustomed to relying on military solutions whether successful or not, whether dangerous and wasteful or not, that is, only by comparison with more hawkish alternatives.


The current paranoid political atmosphere in the United States is a further relevant concern, calling for police state governmental authority at home, increased weapons budgets, and the continuing militarization of policing and law enforcement. Such moves encourage an even more militaristic approach to foreign challenges that seem aimed at American and Israeli interests by ISIS, Iran, and China. Where this kind of war-mongering will lead is unknowable, but what is frighteningly clear is that this dangerous geopolitical bravado is likely to become even more strident as the 2016 campaign unfolds to choose the next American president. Already Donald Trump, the clear Republican frontrunner, has seemed to commit the United States to a struggle against all of Islam by his foolish effort to insist that every Muslim is terrorist suspect Islam as a potential terrorist who should be so treated. Even Samuel Huntington were he still alive might not welcome such an advocate of ‘the clash of civilizations’!



 Historical Deep Roots

 It has taken almost a century for the breakup of the Ottoman Empire to reap the colonialist harvest that was sown in the peace diplomacy that followed World War I. In the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement diplomats of England and France in 1916 secretly negotiated arrangements that would divide up the Middle East into a series of artificially delimited territorial states to be administered as colonies by the respective European governments. Among other wrongs, this devious undertaking representing a betrayal of promises made to Arab leaders that Britain, in particular, would support true independence in exchange for joining the anti-Ottoman and anti-German alliance formed to fight World War I. Such a division of the Ottoman spoils not only betrayed wartime promises of political independence to Arab leaders, but also undermined the efforts of Woodrow Wilson to apply the principle of ethnic self-determination to the Ottoman aftermath.


As a result of diplomatic maneuvers the compromise reached at Versailles in 1919 was to accept the Sykes-Picot borders that were drawn to satisfy colonial ambitions for trade routes and spheres of influence, but to disguise slightly its colonialist character, by creating an international system of mandates for the Middle East in which London and Paris would administer the territories, accepting a vague commitment to lead the various societies to eventual political independence at some unspecified future time. These Sykes-Picot ‘states’ were artificial political communities that never overcame the indigenous primacy of ethnic, tribal, and religious affinities, and could be maintained as coherent political realities only by creating oppressive state structures. If World War II had not sapped European colonial will and capabilities, it is easy to imagine that the societies of the Middle East would remain subjugated under mandate banners.


After World War II


Is it any wonder, then, that the region has been extremely beset by various forms of authoritarian rule ever since the countries of the Middle East gained their independence after the end of the Second World War? Whether in the form of dynastic monarchies or secular governments, the stability that was achieved in the region depended on the denial of human rights, including rights of democratic participation, as well as the buildup of small privileged and exploitative elites that linked national markets and resources to the global economic order. And as oil became the prime strategic resource, the dominance of the region became for the West led by the United States as absolutely vital. From these perspectives the stable authoritarianism of the region was quite congenial with the Cold War standoff between the United States and Soviet Union that was interested in securing strategic and economic partnerships reflecting the ideological rivalries, while being indifferent to whether or not the people were being victimized by abusive and brutal governments.


The American commitment to this status quo in the Middle East was most vividly expressed in 1980 after the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and the Iranian Revolution of the prior year by the enunciation of the Carter Doctrine. President Carter in his State of the Union Address was warning the Soviet Union by a strong diplomatic signal that the United States was ready to defend its interests in the Persian Gulf by force, which because of supposed Soviet superiority in ground warfare was understood at the time as making an implied threat to use nuclear weapons if necessary.


After the Cold War

 When the Cold War ended, the United States unthinkingly promoted the spread of capitalist style constitutional democracy wherever it could, including the Middle East. The Clinton presidency (1992-2000) talked about the ‘enlargement’ of the community of democratic states, implying that any other political option lacked legitimacy (unless of course it was a friendly oil producer or strategic ally). The neocon presidency of George W. Bush (2000-2008) with its interventionist bent invoked ‘democracy promotion’ as its goal, and became clear in its official formulation of security doctrine in 2002 that only capitalist democracies were legitimate Westphalian states whose sovereign rights were entitled to respect.


This kind of strident militarism reached a new climax after 9/11. The White House apparently hoped to embark on a series regime-changing interventions in the Middle East and Asia with the expectation of producing at minimal cost shining examples of liberation and democratization, as well as secure the Gulf oil reserves and establish military bases to undergird its regional ambitions. The attacks on Afghanistan, and especially Iraq, were the most notorious applications of this misguided approach. Instead of ‘democracy’ (Washington’s code word for integration into its version of neoliberal globalization), what emerged was strife and chaos, and the collapse of stable internal governance. The strong state that preceded the intervention gave way to localized militias and resurgent tribal, clan, and religious rivalries leading domestic populations to wish for a return to the relative stability of the preceding authoritarian arrangements, despite their brutality and corruption. And even in Washington one encounters whispered admissions that Iraq was better off, after all, under Saddam Hussein than under the kind of sectarian and divisive leaders that governed the country since the American occupation began in 2003, and now threaten Iraq with an implosion that will produce at least two states replacing the shattered one.



 The Arab Spring

 Then came the Arab Spring in 2011 creating an awkward tension between the professed wish in Washington for democracy in the Arab world and the overriding commitment to upholding strategic interests throughout the Middle East. At first, the West reacted ambivalently to the Arab uprisings, not knowing whether to welcome, and then try to tame, these anti-authoritarian movements of the Arab masses or to lament the risks of new elites that were likely to turn away from neoliberal capitalism and strategic partnerships, and worst of all, might be more inclined to challenge Israel.


What happened in the years that followed removed the ambiguity, confirming that material and ideological interests took precedence over visionary endorsements of Arab democracy. The reality that emerged indicated that neither the domestic setting nor the international context was compatible with the existence of democratic forms of governance. What unsurprisingly followed was a series of further military interventions and strategic confrontations either via NATO as in Libya or by way of its regional partners, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates as in Iran, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen. With few tears shed in Washington, the authentic and promising democratic beginnings in Egypt that excited the world in the aftermath of the 2011 Tahrir Square were crushed two years later by a populist military coup that restored Mubarak Era authoritarianism, accentuating its worst features. What amounted to the revenge of the urban secular elites in Cairo included a genuine bonding between a new majority of the Egyptian people and its armed forces in a bloody struggle to challenge and destroy the Muslim Brotherhood that had taken control of the government by winning a series of elections. Despite its supposed liberalism the Obama leadership played along with these developments. It obliged the new Sisi-led leadership by avoiding the term ‘coup’ although the military takeover was followed by a bloody crackdown on the elected leadership and civil society leadership. This Orwellian trope of refusing to call a coup by its real name enabled the United States to continue military assistance to Egypt without requiring a new Congressional authorization.


The folk wisdom of the Arab world gives insight into the counterrevolutionary backlash that has crushed the populist hopes of 2011: “People prefer 100 years of tyranny to a single year of chaos.” And this kind of priority is shared by most of those who make and manage American foreign policy. Just as clearly as the Arab masses, the Pentagon planners prefer the stability of authoritarianism to the anarchistic uncertainties of ethnic and tribal strife, militia forms of governance that so often come in the wake of the collapse of both dictatorial rule and democratic governance. And the masters of business and finance, aside from the lure of post-conflict markets for the reconstruction of what has been destroyed militarily, prefer to work with dependable and familiar national elites that welcome foreign capital on lucrative terms that benefit insiders and outsiders alike, while keeping the masses in conditions of impoverished thralldom.


In many respects, Syria and Iraq illustrate the terrible human tragedies that have been visited on the peoples of these two countries. In Syria a popular uprising in 2011 was unforgivably crushed by the Basher el-Assad regime in Damascus, leading to a series of disastrous interventions on both sides of the internal war that erupted, with Saudi Arabia and Iran engaged in a proxy war on Syrian soil while Israel uses its diplomatic leverage to ensure that the unresolved war would last as long as possible as Tel Aviv wanted neither the regime nor its opponents to win a clear victory. During this strife, Russia, Turkey, and the United States were intervening with a bewildering blend of common and contradictory goals ranging from pro-government stabilization to a variety of regime changing scenarios. These external actors held conflicting views of the Kurdish fighters as either coveted allies or dangerous adversaries. In the process several hundred thousand Syrians have lost their lives, almost half the population have become refugees and internally displaced persons, much of the country and its ancient heritage sites devastated, and no real end of the violence and devastation is in sight.


The Iraq experience is only marginally better. After a dozen years of punitive sanctions following the 1991 ceasefire that exacted a heavy toll on the civilian population, the ‘shock and awe’ of US/UK attacks of 2003, an occupation began that rid the country of its cruel and oppressive leader, Saddam Hussein, and his entourage. What followed politically became over time deeply disillusioning, and actually worse than the overthrown regime, which had been hardly imaginable when the American-led occupation began. The Iraqi state was being reconstructed along sectarian lines, purging the Sunni minority elites from the Baghdad bureaucracy and armed forces, thereby generating a widespread internal violent opposition against foreign occupation and a resistance movement against the Iraqi leadership that had gained power with the help of the American presence. This combination of insurgency and resistance also gave rise to widespread feelings of humiliation and alienation, which proved to be conducive to the rise of jihadi extremism, first in the form of al-Qaeda in Iraq and later as ISIS.


Toxic Geopolitics 

It is impossible to understand and explain such a disastrous failure of military interventionism without considering the effects of two toxic ‘special relationships’ formed by the United States, with Israel and Saudi Arabia. The basic feature of such special relationships is an unconditional partnership in which the Israelis and Saudis can do whatever they wish, including pursuing policies antagonistic to U.S. interests without encountering any meaningful opposition from either Washington or Europe. This zone of discretion has allowed Israel to keep Palestinians from achieving self-determination while pursuing its own territorial ambitions via constantly expanding settlements on occupied Palestinian territory, fueling grassroots anti-Western sentiment throughout the Arab world because of this persisting reliance on a cruel settler colonialist approach to block for seven decades the Palestinian struggle for fundamental and minimal national rights.


The special relationship with Saudi Arabia is even more astonishing until one considers the primacy of economic strategic priorities, especially the importance of oil supplied at affordable prices. Having by far the worst human rights record in the region, replete with judicially decreed beheadings and executions by stoning, the Riyadh leadership continues to be warmly courted in Western capitals as allies and friends. At the same time, equally theocratic Iran is hypocritically bashed and internationally punished in retaliation for its far less oppressive governing abuses.


Of course, looking the other way, is what is to be expected in the cynical conduct of opportunistic geopolitics, but to indulge the Saudi role in the worldwide promotion of jihadism while spending trillion on counter-terrorism is much more difficult to fathom until one shifts attention from the cover story of counter-terrorism to the more illuminating narrative of petropolitics. Despite fracking and natural gas discoveries lessening Western dependence on Middle Eastern oil, old capitalist habits persist long after their economic justifications have lapsed and this seems true even when such policies have become damaging in lives and financial burdens.


Finding Hope is Difficult

 In such circumstances, it is difficult to find much hope in the current cosmodrama of world politics. It is possible, although unlikely, that geopolitical sanity will prevail to the extent of finding a diplomatic formula to end the violence in Syria and Yemen, as well as to normalize relations with Iran, restore order in Iraq and Libya, although such sensible outcomes face many obstacles, and may be years away. The alternatives for the Middle East in the near future, barring the political miracle of a much more revolutionary and emancipatory second Arab Spring, seems to be authoritarian stability or anarchic strife and chaos, which seems far preferable if the alternative is the deep trauma associated with enduring further American military interventions. If you happen to hear the Republican candidates give their prescriptions for fixing the Middle East it comes down to ‘toughness,’ including the scary recommendations of ‘carpet bombing’ and a greatly heightened American military presence. Even the more thoughtful Democrats limit their proposals to enhanced militarism, hoping to induce the Arab countries to put ‘the boots on the ground’ with nary a worry about either igniting a regional war or the imaginative collapse that can only contemplate war as the recipe for peace, again recalling the degree to which Orwellian satiric irony is relied upon to shape foreign policy prescriptions by ambitious politicians. Imaginative diplomacy, talking and listening to the enemy, and engaging in self-scrutiny remains outside the cast iron cage of the military mentality that has long dominated most of the political space in American foreign policy debates with the conspicuous help of the passive aggressive mainstream media. In this respect, American democracy is a broken reality, and conscientious citizens must look elsewhere as a prison break of the political imagination is long overdue.








































A New World Order? ISIS and the Sykes-Picot Backlash

17 Dec




One of the seemingly permanent contributions of Europe to the manner of organizing international society was to create a strong consensus in support of the idea that only a territorially delimited sovereign state is entitled to the full privileges of membership. The United Nations, the institutional embodiment of international society recognizes this principle by limiting membership in the Organization to ‘states.’ Of course, there is an enormous variation in the size, population, military capabilities, resource endowments, and de facto autonomy among states. At one extreme are gigantic states such as China and India with populations of over 1 billion, while at the other are such tiny countries such as Liechtenstein or Vanuatu that mostly rely on diplomacy and police rather than gun powder and armies for security. All four of these political entities have the same single vote when it comes to action in the General Assembly or as participants at global conferences such at the recently concluded Paris Summit on climate change, although the geopolitics is supreme in the Security Council and the corridors outside the meeting rooms.


From the point of view of international law and organizational theory we continue to live in a state-centric world order early in the 21st century. At the same time, the juridical notion of the equality of states that is the foundation of diplomatic protocol should not lead us astray. The shaping of world order remains mainly the work of the heavyweight states that act on the basis of geopolitical calculations with respect for international law and morality displayed only as convenient. Yet the political monoculture of territorial states remains formally the exclusive foundation of world order, but its political reality is being challenged in various settings, and no where more so than in the Middle East.


This is somewhat surprising. It might have been expected in past decades, especially in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa where the ‘states’ were often arbitrarily imposed a century or more ago to satisfy colonial ambitions and took little or no account of the wishes and identities of the people living in a particular geographic space. Yet without exception nationalist movements and their leaders throughout the world, although aware that the colonial demarcations of boundaries were arbitrary and exploitative, thus lacking the legitimacy of ethnic, religious, and historic experience, nevertheless refrained from challenging the idea that a politically independent state should be delimited by the same boundaries as the prior colonial state. It seems that this worldwide acceptance of the territorial status quo reflected two different considerations. Questioning colonial boundaries would open a dangerous Pandora’s Box filled to overflowing with nasty ethnic conflicts and contradictory territorial claims. Beyond this, achieving control over an existing territorial state was seen in international law as the proper fulfillment for a people seeking liberation through the exercise of their right of national self-determination. Such an outcome was increasingly endorsed as the proper goal of nationalist movements throughout the global South, regardless of whether the ideological animus of a given movement leaned left or right. This conception of self-determination was also endorsed at the United Nations, thereby reversing the earlier acceptance of colonial rule as consistent with international law.


Of course, here and there were some rough edges and intense splits at the dawn of the post-colonial era, but surprisingly few of such a character as to produce new delimitations of territorial domain. Malaya split into Malaysia and Singapore, and more significantly, Pakistan broke off from India, and then Bangladesh later split from Pakistan in a bloody struggle. Yet in all these instances the result of political fragmentation was the establishment of an additional coherent territorial sovereign state that had some sort of cultural, religious, or historical rationale. There remain several thwarted movements of national liberation, most notably Palestine, Western Sahara, Kashmir, Tibet, Chechnya, Kurdistan, that is national movements to create independent states that have been under prolonged occupation. It is appropriate to regard these peoples as living in ‘captive nations’ contained by oppressive structure imposed by the dominating state. There is a small degree of ambiguity present as the right of self-determination cannot supposed be validly exercised in any manner that results in the fragmentation of an existing sovereign state. For clarification see UN General Assembly Resolution 2625 on International Law Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, with particular attention to the commentary given with respect to the principle of self-determination. In practice, however, when fragmentation results from successful movements of secession, the new political entities are accepted as ‘states’ for purposes of membership in international society. The breakup of Yugoslavia into component parts illustrates the subordination of the legal principle of state unity to the political realities of fragmentation.


There seemed to be no other concept of sovereign political community that challenged the European notion of the state as it evolved out of the Peace of Westphalia (1648). Again there are a few inconsequential exceptions. The Vatican despite being an essentially religious community is acknowledged for some purposes as a state, although denied full membership in the UN. More recently, as a result of decades of frustration, Palestine has succeeded in being accepted by the UN General Assembly as a non-member observer state, but without any right to vote or participate as a member in debates within the General Assembly or Security Council. Palestine as a kind of ‘ghost state’ is accepted as a member of UNESCO, as a state party at the International Criminal Court, and even allowed to fly its national flag outside of UN Headquarters.


Perhaps, the most fundamental formal challenge to a purely statist world order arose from the emergence of the European Union. The EU does represent the interests of its 25 member states for many purposes, including at some international conferences. And yet the EU has not been given membership or an independent vote at the UN, nor have there been objections to the permanent membership of both the United Kingdom and France in the UN Security Council. Despite recent tensions associated with fiscal policy, counter-terrorism, and statist reactions to refugee flows, the EU retains the possibility of evolving at some point into some novel kind of post-Westphalian regional polity that represents its members in a variety of global venues, and thus challenges the foundational principles of state-centric world order. Just now the European Commission has issued new rules strengthening European border control in a manner given precedence over Westphalian traditions of national border control.


More challenging at present is the meta-territorial operational provenance of the United States, with its vast network of foreign bases, its naval and space capabilities able to target any point on the planet, and its claim of ‘presence’ in all regions of the world. The United States is the first ‘global state’ in world history, with its territorial sovereignty only the psychophysical basis of its non-territorial global reach. It is not an empire as that term was understood to rest on formal and overt control, yet it far from being a normal state that generally confines its security operations and diplomatic claims to its geographic boundaries unless it finds itself involved in a distant war.


Sporadic efforts to endow civil society with international status have not gained political traction despite widespread support for the establishment of a ‘global peoples parliament’ modeled on the European Parliament. Populist support for some kind of policy role for civil society at a global level has been reffectively esisted by governments and international institutions opposed to any dilution of the Westphalian template.




It is against this statist background that some recent Islamic practices with regard to political community and world order is innovative and challenging. When explaining the revolutionary process in Iran that unfolded in 1978-79, Ayatollah Khomeini insisted that what was happening in Iran should be treated as an ‘Islamic Revolution’ rather than an ‘Iranian Revolution.’ What was being asserted was that the most relevant community was the Muslim umma, which has not been actualized in recent times but deserves the primary loyalty and adherence of believers whatever their location in national space happens to be. Such a view was more aggressively articulated in the declarations of Osama Bin Laden whose worldview was Islamic, transcending the secular realities of statehood and nationalism, and expressing what might be described as an Islamic Cosmopolitan worldview.


The most significant challenge of all directed toward state-centricism has been mounted by ISIS, and especially its proclamation of a new caliphate in the Middle East, whose contours were based on its de facto territorial governance patterns in Syria and Iraq rather than on the boundaries of existing sovereign states. ISIS leaders also boasted of ‘the end of Sykes-Picot,’ the Anglo-French originally secret agreement in 1916 that led to the formation of the modern statist Middle East in the territories formerly administered by the Ottoman Empire. It was this Sykes-Picot colonialist vision that successfully undermined Woodrow Wilson’s post-colonial advocacy of self-determination as the organizing basis delimiting the Middle East after World War I. So far, ISIS has made good on its claim to govern the area it controls by sharia law strictly applied, and has thus managed to defy the sovereign territorial authority of both Syria and Iraq. ISIS is sometimes described as a ‘quasi-state’ because of its territorial control but utter lack of international diplomatic legitimacy, and perhaps because its durability has not been established for a sufficient length of time.


There are at least three elements of this non-state pattern of control that are worth noticing. First, ISIS seems to have no current goal or prospect of being internationally accepted as a state or to be treated as a vehicle of self-determination for Syrians and Iraqis living under its authority. ISIS rests its authority to govern exclusively on a sectarian Sunni claim to be applying sharia to those living under its authority. Secondly, by discrediting those Sykes-Picot states that were imposed on the region after World War I ISIS is claiming for itself a superior political legitimacy to that conferred by international diplomatic procedures or through admission to the United Nations, and the claim has some resonance for those living under its dominion. Thirdly, significant portions of the Sunni population that is dominant presence in the ‘caliphate’ welcomed ISIS, at least at first, as a liberating force freeing the population from Shia oppression and discrimination and more effectively offering social services at a grassroots level.


In effect, ISIS has effectively, if harshly, raised questions about the political legitimacy of states imposed by colonial authority and accepted by indigenous nationalist movements during the process of achieving political independence. This questioning of European statism in the Middle East is likely to be more enduring than ISIS itself. From an ethnic angle, the Kurdish movements in Iraq, Turkey, and Syria, never having been content with Sykes-Picot borders are now constituting new ethnically delimited political communities that in Iraq and Syria possess the attributes of de facto states. As with ISIS, these emergent entities are being called quasi-states or states within states. In other words we are so entrapped in statist language that we must misleadingly link these innovative political realities to the statist framework.


From this perspective it is worth noticing the double proposal of the neocon former American ambassador to the UN, John Bolton. [See “To Defeat ISIS, Create a Sunni State,” NY Times, Nov. 24, 2015] As a resolute interventionist, Bolton wants the West to go all out to destroy the ISIS caliphate, but couples this militarist initiative with the rather startling assertion that Iraq and Syria have lost their statist entitlement to reclaim these territories. Instead, “Washington should recognize the new geopolitics. The best alternative to the Islamic State in northeastern Syria and Western Iraq is a new, independent Sunni state.” As might be expected, Bolton’s rationale is totally neo-colonial in conception and implementation, proposed by a Washington insider, designed to keep Moscow out, to restore U.S. influence in the region, and to support indirectly the anti-Shiite goals of the Gulf monarchies. In other words, what Bolton favors is remote both from Westphalian logic and from the practice of self-determination.


True, Bolton’s Sunni state is an externally imposed political construction that is expected to be accepted as a traditional state with authority limited to its international borders. This contrasts with the ISIS caliphate that claims authority based on its extreme Salafi interpretation of Islam, and while it maintains and guards the borders that define the territory under its control, its claimed community of adherents is non-geographical, and notions of citizenship and nationality do not apply. It is suggestive that even Bolton opposes an American approach based on “striving to recreate the post-World War I map.” What makes Bolton’s proposal of interest is only that it unwittingly confirms the ISIS challenge to the legitimacy of how Europe constructed the post-Ottoman Middle East in the colonialist atmosphere that remained dominant after World War I.




It seems obvious when considering the complexity of the world as it now functions that the Westphalian model of state-centricism is no longer, if it ever was, descriptive. To take account of the realities of the U.S. global state, the EU, and ISIS requires a more hybrid framework of concepts, policies, and practices that also is more sensitive to multi-level linkages of authority and power, as well as the elaborate patterns of transnational networks and localized systems of control that produce the complex governance structures that provide billions of people with order and stability on a daily basis. A fuller inquiry into these diverse organizational structures would also need to incorporate the role of transnational corporations and financial institutions that create the operational and exploitative realities of neoliberal globalization.  


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.



Is the Middle East America’s to Lose?

14 Jun


I was appalled by the embedded colonialism of a recent issue of The Economist [June 6-12, 2015], boldly proclaiming its mood of geopolitical angst on its cover titling its featured story “Losing the Middle East.” Any glimmer of doubt about the intent of the magazine’s editors is removed by displaying a somewhat bedraggled American flag on the cover accompanied by the sub-title “Why American must not abandon the region.” The rationale offered for this political imperative within this most revered journal of intelligent establishment guidance strikes me as even more appalling than this provocative packaging giving the plot away before we even begin reading the story.


What The Economist Proposes


The argument set forth rests on the colonialist assumption that the Middle East is America’s to lose, although not quite, as the lead editorial ends with an enigmatic distinction: “The idea has taken root that America no longer has what it takes to run the Middle East. That it ever could was an illusion. But America has a vital part to play. If it continues to stand back, everyone will be worse of—including the Americans.” We are never told whether the catchall ‘everyone’ includes the people of the region, and whether they even matter in the calculations of this organ of elite opinion primarily concerned with the wellbeing of the West, which is linked seamlessly to the operations of the neoliberal world economy. The strong implication of this lead editorial, never adequately explained, is that America should intervene more throughout the Middle East to reverse, or at least contain, present disruptive trends. Why this is so is never really explored beyond the misleading supposition that American military capabilities can improve the situation if brought more directly to bear and without explaining why, insisting that existing alignments with political actors in the region, regardless of their character, should be reinforced and strengthened.


The pragmatic side of what The Economist seems to be proposing is two-fold:First, a militarist prescription for the pursuit of America’s regional interests, which are identified as counter-terrorism, oil, and preventing nuclear proliferation; secondly, a willingness to accept contradictions in protecting these interests, such as siding with Iran against IS [Islamic State] in Iran and opposing Iran in Syria. It is within this framing that “[t]he Middle East desperately needs a new, invigorated engagement from America. That would not only be within America’s power, it would also be in America’s interest.” Its central critique is that President Obama’s policy is too weak and wavering to be effective, which is clarified by the insistence that “[h]e must be ready to use force. Mr. Obama’s taboo about deploying American soldiers against IS in Iraq has led to a self-defeating shortage of special forces to guide air strikes to their targets.” In their view, Obama’s approach has created a ‘vacuum’ that has “exacerbated the strife and disorder.” The fuller story in the body of the magazine also welcomes the prospect that either Hilary Clinton or any of the Republican presidential hopefuls seem determined to be far readier than Obama to intervene forcibly throughout the region.


Behind this scathing criticism of Obama is the evident belief that America’s geopolitical muscle if applied with skill, militarily and diplomatically, could have lessened the chaos and violence that now pervades the region. Such an argument seems deeply flawed. To begin with, it is hardly accurate to portray Obama as standing aloof from the struggles going on in the Middle East. It is actively militarily engaged against IS and Syria and is in the process of becoming militarily reengaged in Iraq at the present time. It was a strong advocate of the regime changing NATO intervention against Qaddafi’s dictatorial rule in Libya, and it has quietly gone along with the counter-revolutionary shift in Egypt that destroyed the hopes of humane governance, at least temporarily, that surfaced with such excitement in early 2011 throughout the region. My own view is that this degree of American military and diplomatic engagement brought more, not less, chaos to the Middle East. And now, as if to take the critique of The Economist immediately to heart the U.S. Government has announced plans to pre-position heavy weaponry and military personnel in several points in the region so as to be in a better position to intervene rapidly should further crises emerge.


Criticizing the Obama Approach


In my view, the burden of persuasion should always be upon those who favor greater reliance on military force whether in the Middle East or elsewhere. Without acknowledging any inconsistency, The Economist concedes that the Bush invasion of 2003 and subsequent occupation of Iraq was a disaster, illustrative of imprudently intervening in a massive fashion. As every major effort at intervention by the United States has revealed, upping the ante by intervening a bit more, is a slippery slope that has eventually led to defeat after defeat, most vividly evident in the trajectory and outcome of the Vietnam War. This unquestioning militarization of the political imagination, which is what comes through in this sharp criticism of Obama’s approach, does not even pause to consider the benefits of allowing the dynamics of self-determination to control political outcomes in the 21st century.


An unlearned lesson of geopolitics in the post-colonial world is that the power balance has decisively shifted as between intervention by the West and national forces of resistance. These forces have learned to be more effective in their combat tactics, but above all, have come to understand that time is on their side, that a foreign intervener will give up the quest at some point implicitly acknowledging that military dominance is not able to impose a political outcome at acceptable costs. This is not just a matter of democratic societies becoming impatient in the face of a drawn out distant wars with questionable justifications, which causes death and injury to its young citizens, but the deeper realization that the post-colonial politics of resistance over time subverts the will and morale of the intervener. This happened as clearly to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan as it did to the United States in Vietnam, or later in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is more of a reflection of the structure of shifting power relations than of a weakening of ideological resolve.


The central metaphor of ‘losing the Middle East’ presupposes that it was America’s to lose rather than an acknowledgement of the empowerment of the peoples of the region and their governments with respect to the control of national and regional destinies. The metaphor of winning and losing is a colonialist framing of geopolitics that amorally vindicates hegemonic ambitions, especially the virtues of Western control. It gives priority to Western interests in a non-Western geographic domain, and pretends that such an orientation conveniently also happens to be an expression of fidelity to Western values, including democracy and human rights, and of benefit to the affected societies. No where in the extensive article are doubts raised about the unconditionality of support for Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies that oppress their populations and subject women to humiliating social constraints or to Israel that has dispossessed most Palestinians from their own homeland, and held the rest captive.


The Economist has the temerity to couple its sharp criticism of Obama’s allegedly soft diplomacy by anticipating what is misleadingly described as a “return to the center” that is expected to occur after the U.S. presidential elections in 2016: “The next American president may well be warmer towards Israel, and more willing to turn a blind eye to new settlements in the occupied territories. He or she might do more to reassure Gulf monarchies and speak more sternly to Iran.” What a strange set of hopeful expectations! Obama turned a pretty blind eye to Israeli settlement expansion during the last several years, even instructing his representatives to vote in isolation to shield Israel from UN censure over settlement expansion. His administration has also gone along with the basic approach of the Gulf monarchies, although timidly voicing some recent doubts about the wisdom of respected Saudi air strikes directed against the Houthis in Yemen.


And it is astonishing to note that the Obama presidency is situated by The Economist in the political spectrum as left of center? The idea of returning to the center implies that American regional policy these last six years had somehow veered toward the left. And therefore, for me what The Economist calls the center would more accurately be described as the right, or even the hard right. In most respects, including policy toward Iran, Iraq, and Israel, Obama’s essential approach has been to sustain continuity with the policies of the George W. Bush presidency. There was the same willingness to threaten Iran with a military attack if seen to be crossing the nuclear threshold, a similar stance toward supporting the Shia governing process in Iraq, and the same endorsement of Israel’s defiance of international law, as well as insulating its nuclear weapons capability from even a whispered challenge.


There are more fundamental deficiencies in this analysis by The Economist of what has gone wrong in the region and what to do about it. There is a seemingly blind eye toward the relevance of the history of Western responsibilities for the unfolding political ordeal that is being enacted throughout the Middle East. This perspective overlooks such defining antecedents as the playing out of British and French overt colonial ambitions in the aftermath of World War I and of the statist goals of the Zionist Movement as abetted by British policies during its period of mandate administration. Imposing arbitrary boundaries on the region by Europe meant establishing unnatural political communities that could be held together (or broken apart) only by violence from above (or below). In a revealing respect Lebanon is a poster child of this era of Sykes-Picot diplomacy, having been carved out of Ottoman Syria to satisfy France’s egocentric craving at the time for a colonial possession in the region with a Christian majority.


The Economist’s policy prescriptions are also notable for their failure even to mention international law or the United Nation. These normative sources of authority and constraint are evidently seen as of utterly no concern to the geopolitical optic through which the magazine’s august editors perceive policy options for the region. But if China were to assess its approach to the sovereignty disputes involving the Spratly Islands with the same cavalier attitudes toward the relevance of normative authority, the West would be up in arms, persuasively contending that such behavior is dangerously destructive of a moderate political order in the Pacific.


The Old Geopolitics versus the New Geopolitics


Even when it comes to the pragmatic level of analysis, I find that The Economist’s sense of editorial guidance is woefully shortsighted. Let’s accept their focus on terrorism, oil, and nuclear proliferation even accepting as accurate their portrayal of American interests. Surely, the best way to combat jihadism is a measured withdrawal from the region. As for oil, the Arab producers in the region have shown through the years that their policies are market-driven with scant attention to ideology as shown by their readiness to throw the Palestinians under the bus. Most persuasive of all, nuclear proliferation would be best prevented by establishing a nuclear free zone in the Middle East, which all governments except Israel favor, and have done so for several years. In other words, the idea of trying to fill the so-called vacuum following the European retreat, which began during World War II and was consummated by the 1956 Suez War, with American military power and diplomatic muscle epitomizes the ‘old geopolitics’ of Western hegemony rather than relying on a potential ‘new geopolitics’ of self-determination.


There is, of course, little assurance that the outcome of the interplay of domestic and regional forces in the Middle East will be ethically satisfying or politically stable, but there is at least some likelihood that going with the post-colonial historical flow will produce better results than further reliance on the United States to continue battling the strong currents of nationalism. This clarion call for enhanced trust in the nostalgic imaginary of the old geopolitics seems historically tone deaf. It represents a reliance on the old geopolitics of militarism that should have been discredited long ago by its record of failure and its incredibly high opportunity costs. At the very least, adopting this new geopolitics of self-determination might enable the politicians and citizenry of the United States to take a much needed and long overdue look within its own borders, and devote much more of its imaginative and material resources to creating a humane society at home, starting with its physical and moral infrastructure.


One good starting point for such a program is with the language of political discourse. This idea of the West ‘losing’ a country or, as with The Economist’s cover story, losing a whole region, should be banished from the 21st century political imaginary, and with it the realization that such a concept of winning and losing is worse than anachronistic, it is obsolete. It might be helpful to recall that for many years the American political right accused the U.S. Government of ‘losing China’ only to discover later in the Cold War that China had become a valuable geopolitical ally in the core struggle with the Soviet Union, and still later, that China as much as any country, keeps the world economy from unraveling.

When a Terrorist Is Not a Terrorist

20 Feb



What the Chapel Hill police in North Carolina initially pitched to the world as ‘a parking dispute’ was the deliberate killing of three young and devout Muslim American students by an ideologically driven ‘new atheist’ killer named Craig Stephen Hicks. What the The Economist unhesitatingly calls ‘terrorism in Copenhagen’ involved the attempted shooting of a Danish cartoonist who repeatedly mocks the Prophet and Islamic beliefs as well as the lethal shooting of a Jewish security guard outside a synagogue. A friend understandably poses a serious question on Twitter that might have been dismissed as rhetorical overkill just a few years ago: “Are only Muslims capable of terrorism?”


I find it deeply disturbing that while the Chapel Hill tragedy is given marginal media attention except among groups previously worried about Islamophobia and racism, The Economist considers that important principles of Western liberal democracy are at stake apparently only in the European context. In the words of Zanny Minton Beddoes, the new editor of the magazine: “Jacob Mchangama, a lawyer and founder of a human-rights think-tank called Justitia, told me it would be a disaster if his country were to grow faint-hearted in its defense of free speech. ‘There can be no truce in the struggle between secular democracy and extremism,’ he says. Above all, politicians should avoid the trap of saying or implying that violence was really the fault of provocateurs, or that religious insult was to be equated with physical injury. Giving in to that sort of relativism would be letting down those followers of Islam who were brave enough to stand up for free speech, and indulging in a sort of “bigotry of low expectations”, said Mr Mchangama, whose paternal forebears were Muslims from the Comoros Islands. A good point.”


I am quite sure that this is not a good point, at least as phrased by Mr. Mchangama. Of course, governments should take action to protect all who are violently threatened, but to refuse to regard Islamophobic messaging as a species of hate speech while so regarding anti-Semitiic slurs or Holocaust denial is to combine two things that are both unacceptable: ignoring the root causes of political extremism and pathological violence; and prohibiting and punishing anti-Semitic utterances as hate speech while treating anti-Islamic or Islamophobic speech as requiring protection from the perspective of ‘freedom of expression.’ Admittedly, these outer bondaries are difficult to draw. Should the views of professional historians that cast doubt on the magnitude of the Holocaust be forbidden? Should critical literary and satiric treatments of Mohammed and the Koran be suppressed for the sake of public order? In the former case we have the experience of the French historian, Robert Faurisson, while in the latter case, that of Salman Rushdie. In my view, the writings of both should be regarded as forms of protected speech, and if a government is unable or unwilling to do this, it compromises its own claims to legitimacy. And what it certainly should not do, is defend Rushdie on freedom of expression grounds while punishing Faurisson on the basis of defamation or collective hate laws.


Another trope along a similar trajectory is the push toward acknowledging ‘war’ between the West and Islam, an embrace of the infamous Huntington thesis of ‘the clash of civilizations.’ Roger Cohen, an ethically oriented regular contributor to the opinion page of the New York Times, in a column headlined as “Islam and the West at War” [Feb. 17, 2015] criticizes the Danish prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, as well as Barack Obama, for describing the adversary as a ‘dark ideology’ and as ‘violent extremists.’ Cohen insists that such terms are euphemisms that evade the central reality of our time, namely, that the West is confronting Islamic movements and governments throughout the world, and even argues that Islam is ‘fair game’ because it “has spawned multifaceted political movements whose goal is power.”


The article also observes that young Muslims feel alienated and are drawn toward ISIS and other radical Islamic movements. Cohen asks the central question “Who or what is to blame?” and then suggests that there are two opposing sets of responses. His descriptions are worth quoting in full: “For the first, it is the West that is to blame through its support for Israel (seen as the latest iteration of Western imperialism in the Levant); its wars (Iraq); its brutality (Gunatanamo, Abu Ghraib); its killings of civilians (drones); its oil-driven hypocrisy (a Jihadi-funding Saudi ally).”


And then comes the second type of response: “… it is rather the abject failure of the Arab world, its blocked societies where dictators face off against political Islam, its repression, its feeble institutions, its sectarianism precluding the practice of participatory citizenship, its wild conspiracy theories, its inability to provide jobs or hope for its youth, that gives the Islamic state its appeal.”


I find several serious flaws in this way of presenting the issue. It should be obvious to any objective commentator that both sets of issues are interwoven, and cannot be separated except for polemical purposes. Furthermore, the failures of the Arab world are presented as detached realities, implying that the Western colonial legacies endured by the Arab world are irrelevant. We need to recall that following World War I, almost one hundred years ago, the European colonial powers effectively insinuated their national ambitions into the diplomatic process that produced the Middle East as we know it today. Such moves undermined Woodrow Wilson’s advocacy of self-determination for the peoples comprising the collapsed Ottoman Empire as well as the promises of a unified country made to enlist Arab support for the war against Germany and the Ottomans.


These historical antecedents certainly contributed to the authoritarianism of the region as the only basis for sustaining a coherent order in the artificial political communities with which the region experienced the transition to political independence. And the sectarianism that Cohen laments was clearly inflamed by American occupation policy in Iraq, as well as providing the most palatable way for Saudi Arabia to justify its hostility to Iran, deflecting attention from corruption and gender cruelty of its dynastic rule.


Overlooking this legacy of colonialism also ignores the effects of the Balfour Declaration, which gave the imperial blessings of British Foreign Office to the Zionist project for Jewish homeland in historic Palestine that were later endorsed by the League of Nation and the UN. It is debatable as to how much of the turmoil and violence in the region is attributable to the open wounds caused by the dispossession and occupation of the Palesinian people, but it is certainly part of the sad regional story that has unfolded in the last several decades.



Not surprisingly, Cohen finds the second series of explanations “more persuasive” and especially so in light of “the failure of the Arab Spring,” which he believe is partly a consequence of Obama’s refusal to do more to promote and sustain democratic outcomes in the Middle East by way of intervention. Somewhat mysteriously he blames the Syrian tragedy on American ‘nonintervention’ without bothering to consider the prolonged national disasters that have followed from such interventions as the sustained ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the more limited one under NATO auspices in Libya. In each instance the aftermath of intervention was not democracy, or even stability, but chaos, strife, and a worsening of human security.


Cohen never ventures to suggest that in light of the colonial legacies in the region, abetted by the oil lust of the West, the least bad arrangement at this point that can be fashioned is a less corrupt and more responsible authoritarianism. As deficient as Saddam Hussein and Muamar Qaddafi were from the perspective of human rights and democracy, they did maintain order within their borders and their countries were rated rather highly by the Human Development Indicators (HDI) of the UNDP. If the United States is to be blamed for its diplomacy during the recent past, it would seem much more convincing to hold the Bush Administration responsible for the downward spiral of politics in the region than to point a critical finger at Obama. It was after all during the Bush presidency that an American interventionary resolve was linked to and justified as ‘democracy promotion.’ If we focus on the alienation of Arab youth, it would seem to be much more the result of these military and political interventions than a consequence of the Obama reluctance to engage the United States in yet another war with a Muslim country. Indeed, Obama can be faulted for being too quick to authorize drone and other air strikes, while pursuing an unimaginative diplomacy that remains the best hope for achieving sustainable peace in the region.


Cohen’s diagnosis and allocation of responsibility is a telling expression of the liberal mind-set as it addresses the interlinked agendas of anti-terrorism and Middle East politics. Liberals both minimize Western and American responsibility for what has gone wrong in the spirit of Bernard Lewis and make the partisan United States relationship to Israel seem almost irrelevant to the troubles of the region, thereby overlooking the high costs of the policy. For instance, many knowledgeable observers agree that regional stability would be dramatically enhanced by the establishment of a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East. Yet such a policy option was never even considered in diplomatic settings, apparently because it would exert too much pressure on Israel to give up its arsenal of nuclear weaponry, which has given Israel a monopoly on nuclear weapons in the region that insists on preserving at all costs, including risking a disastrous war with Iran.


At this stage there are no easy answers as to allocating responsibility or producing causal explanations for terrible realities being endured by the peoples of the region. Quite clearly there are no good military answers to the various unresolved disasters in the region, although that is where the sort of ‘war thinking’ that Cohen affirms continues to place its bets.


In contrast, I would contend that a more imaginative diplomacy responsive to international law remains the only way forward. Such an orientation would look with favor on Iran’s active participation, especially in relation to Syria and to the possible negotiation of a regional security framework. It would also presuppose the relevance of a just and sustainable resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which it turn depends upon the adoption of a normal approach by the U.S. Government to its relationship to Israel. Until such a reorientation on the part of Washington policymakers occurs, the path of least resistance is to engage in one air war after another, and mindlessly lend aid and comfort to Sisi’s harsh oppression in Egypt and the dismaying blend of autocracy and theocracy in Saudi Arabia.