Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap passed away at 102 years of age on Friday. Giap was the leader of communist forces during the Vietnam War, and he was celebrated as a tactical and military genius, having defeated superior American and French forces over a period of more than 20 years. Giap’s success centered not just on his battlefield prowess, but on his understanding that the war in Vietnam would ultimately be determined by the political dynamics of the conflict, that winning the war would depend on defeating not the opposing military but civilian support for the war in France and the United States. The brief biography presented on CNN on Friday provides a good starting point for making sense of his role.
But the broader question of what lessons were learned is also interesting. What lessons from Giap’s strategy in Vietnam might we learn for contemporary conflicts in the Middle East? Does US foreign policy now account for the Vietnam lesson that popular support for the war is just as important as military victory son the battlefield?
A NASA study released earlier this week concluded that freshwater losses in the Middle East are increasing. Using satellite data, scientists confirmed that between 2003 and 2010, the Tigris and Euphrates river basins (an area that includes parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq, lost 144 cubic kilometers of stored freshwater, an area about the same size as the Dead Sea. Most of the losses are associated with increasing levels of freshwater consumption from groundwater stores.
Blogging at Foreign Policy, Marya Hannun notes that the countries implicated in the study already suffer from a high level of instability, resulting from border disputes, conflicts over Kurdish minorities, and ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Could disputes over water resources add to that list of irretraceable disputes?
Concerns over resource wars have longed plagued foreign policy makers. Indeed, water itself has been implicated in several recent conflicts, though most observers have concluded that water conflicts tend to arise as a result of other, preexisting tensions, rather than serving as the primary or proximate cause itself. Nevertheless, some fear that increasing demand for water may intensify existing concerns. Already, more than 780 million people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water. The US Director of National Intelligence in 2012 concluded that the risk of conflict over water would continue to increase, as water demand would outstrip supply by 40 percent by 2030. A United nations Report concluded that 47 percent of the world’s population would be living in areas of high water stress by 2030. The hardest hit regions would be in the developing world, and particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, where Egypt, Israel, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen could all face scarce supplies.
What do you think? Will future wars be fought primarily over water? Or will we find solutions to address the impending water crisis? Take the poll below or leave a comment and let us know what you think.
There’s a famous saying that we should “be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.”
A car burns outside the US Embassy in Libya on Tuesday.
Last week was a difficult one for the US foreign policy establishment. On Tuesday, the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was stormed by militants, who killed the US Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and three other American personnel. Stevens had worked closely with the rebel movement that overthrew Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in last year. Fluent in French and Arabic, he was, in many ways, the ideal US representative to the troubled region.
The growing protests have been strongest in countries which experienced the Arab Spring, where longstanding dictatorships were overthrown and replaced with fledgling democracies. The leaders of those countries must play a dangerous balancing game. While seeking to retain good relations with the United States, they must also keep an eye on reelection campaigns. When Anti-Americanism runs high, one of the two competing goals has to give.
This tension marks an interesting turn from the historical foreign policy of the United States. During the Cold War, the United States was often criticized for supporting dictators who, while not democratic, were certainly anti-communist. While the promotion of democracy often remained an ideal objective of US foreign policy during the Cold War, in many cases, such as that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the United States was willing to overlook democracy for a firm commitment to anti-communism. Now, the emphasis on democratization has raised new questions arising from the competing demands faced by the fledgling democracies in the Middle East. How do we reconcile those demands?
What do you think? How should US foreign policy engage with democratically-elected governments expressing anti-American sentiment? What is the most effective way to engage with governments like those of Libya, Egypt, and Afghanistan, where leaders balance a desire with closer ties with the United States against popular expressions of anti-Americanism? And more fundamentally, what role should the promotion of and support for democratization play in US foreign policy? Let us know what you think.
For several weeks I’ve resisted the temptation to blog on groundswell of popular protest rocketing across the Middle East. In part, my hesitation was driven by the expansive coverage already offered by some of the best bloggers on the internet: Daniel Drezner, David Rothkopf, Duncan Green, Gideon Rachman, and Stephen Walt have all blogged on events in recent days. In part, my hesitation was also driven by the excellent coverage offered by the Daily Show in recent days as well. But recent events in Libya, where Moammar Gadhafi, who has been in power for more than 40 years, has been engaged in a desperate struggle to put down popular protests by ordinary Libyans demanding democratization—and more specifically a recent blog post by political scientist Benjamin Barber—sparked my curiosity.
In Egypt, despite the success of popular protests in forcing the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, there is similar reason to suspect that the democratic hopes of the masses will be dashed. Remember that it was the military that assumed control of the Egyptian government following Mubarak’s resignation, despite constitutional provisions that his successor should have been the head of the Egyptian parliament. The military is promising elections in September, but that remains months away.
And even if democratic elections are held in countries like Egypt, we still have to be aware of the limits of elections as a proxy for democracy. Real democracy—strong democracy, in Barber’s terms—requires more than elections. As Barber notes, the notion of radical individualism that lies at the heart of liberal political theory produces a limited form of democracy which negates the idea of community central to real (or strong) democracy. For Barber, then, it is the excess of liberalism that undermines democratic structures in the west and facilities cynicism and alienation.
The popular protests taking place across the Middle East in recent weeks is a sign of the strength of civil society in these countries. Despite decades of suppression, civil society in these countries is proving its vitality. Translating the strength of the popular protests into a democratic polis will clearly be a major challenge for the countries of the Middle East in the near future. Clearly there is reason for doubt. But there’s also reason for hope.