Tag Archives: Middle East

Foreign Policy, Strategy, and Warmaking

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?

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Water Wars

The Tigris River

The Tigris River. Photo by Charles Fred

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.

The Paradox of Democracy in US Foreign Policy

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.

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.

It is now believed that the attack was launched by Islamic militants who used ongoing protests against the United States in Benghazi as cover to launch their operation. But the protests which were initially exploited to cover the operation have since spread. By Friday, US, German, and British embassies in Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Tunisia, and Yemen were the scenes of often violent protest by demonstrators who objected to an obscure online video produced by an American mocked the Prophet Mohammed as a womanizer, child molester, and ruthless killer.

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.

Democratization and Popular Protest in the Middle East

Libyan Protestors in Benghazi city.

Libyan Protestors in Benghazi city.

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 GreenGideon 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.

Benjamin Barber is probably already well-known to most readers of this blog. His work on democratic politics (strong vs. thin democracy) as well as his work on globalization (Jihad vs. McWorld) make him a staple in most comparative politics and international relations programs. Writing at the Huffington Post last week, Barber made the case that whether or not Gadhafi is able to hold on to power Libya will likely face ongoing domestic turmoil—if not outright civil war—rather than the establishment of a democratic polis.

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.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

It was a busy week for the Obama administration, as the president made the rounds. On Wednesday, President Obama met with King Abudllah of Saudi Arabia to discuss the “strategic relationship” between the two countries.  On Thursday, the President followed up on a campaign promise, delivering a major foreign policy speech in Cairo, Egypt, where he outlined his vision for Middle East peace. In typical Obama fashion, the speech was balanced and generally well-received. (The video footage of the speech is available on the White House blog). In the speech, he reiterated U.S. support for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine dispute, called on Israel to cease all settlement expansion in the West Bank, and called on Palestinians to renounce the use of violence. Demonstrating a cultural and technical sophistication, the White House ensured the speech was simultaneously available through Facebook and other social networking sites in English, Arabic, Urdu, and Turkish. On Friday, the President visited the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. And on Saturday, Obama participated in the 65th anniversary celebration of the D-Day landings before meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy to discuss Iran’s nuclear program.

A busy week for the president, but here are five stories you might have missed if you were only watching his travels:

1. A new audio tape was released by Osama bin Laden, denouncing Obama’s policies as a mere continuation of the previous administration and warning the United States to prepare for war. According to many analysts, the release of the audio tape signals a growing concern from al Qaeda about Obama’s policies. Al Qaeda fears that Obama may be successful in reaching out to moderate Arab states, weakening support for the brand of radical Islam preached by al Qaeda.

2. Elections for the European Parliament took place last week. Although results are still being tabulated, the low level of voter turnout is expected to benefit smaller fringe parties, particularly those on the far right. In the Netherlands, unofficial results indicate that the Party for Freedom will become the second-largest Dutch party in European Parliament, capturing 4 of the country’s 25 seats. The party campaigned on a platform opposing immigration and Turkish ascension to the E.U. In the United Kingdom, voters are expected to hand the ruling Labour party a stinging defeat, with a real possibility that the party may place third in European elections. Similarly, in Ireland, the ruling centrist Fianna Fáil is expected to place second behind its center-right rival Fine Gael

3. The results of Iranian presidential election scheduled for Friday could hinge on…wait for it…the results of Saturday’s World Cup qualifier between Iran and North Korea. In order to qualify for next year’s World Cup finals in South Africa, Iran must win its three remaining matches: the first against North Korea on Saturday, then against the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday, and finally against South Korea on June 17. A loss either of the pre-election matches could produce a sharp backlash against President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, particularly among the 60 percent of Iran’s citizens under 30—a group already inclined to support his rival, Mir-Hossein Moussavi.

4. In a dramatic sign of just how bad the global economic downturn has become, the government of Botswana was forced to turn to the African Development Bank last week for a record $1.5 billion loan. Botswana has long been heralded as one of Africa’s strongest and best-managed economies. Its president, Ian Khama, has a reputation as a reformer and statesman. But even he has been humbled by the problems faced by the economy of Botswana, which depends on diamonds for 80 percent of its foreign exchange earnings and about 30 percent of its gross domestic product. And as the price of diamonds has collapsed, the country has found itself increasingly facing economic difficulties.

5. On Friday, clashes between police and indigenous Amazonian protestors in Peru claimed more than 30 lives. Peru’s President, Alan Garcia, urged calm, but both sides appear to be escalating a standoff which has been ongoing for two months. At issue are indigenous land right claims, which they feel the government has abrogated in order to attract more foreign investment.