Archive for ‘Arab Spring’

February 7, 2012

Arab Spring, One Year Later

I did a Q & A on the one-year anniversary of the Arab uprisings.

January 27, 2012

Conference on Arab Uprisings, March 27 at UConn

If you are in the CT, New England, or NY area, come join us for a one-day conference at UConn in Storrs, CT:

“The Arab Uprisings and the Changing Global Order” (flyer)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Student Union 330 (Storrs, CT)

9:00 am — Opening remarks

Panel #1: Political Change in the Arab World
9:15 – 10:45 am

Issandr El Amrani, The Arabist
Eva Bellin, Brandeis University
Amaney Jamal, Princeton University

[coffee break]

Panel #2: Regional Dynamics
11:00 am – 12:30 pm

Robert Blecher, International Crisis Group
Gregory Gause, University of Vermont
Jillian Schwedler, University of Massachusetts

[lunch break]

Panel #3: The Uprisings and the United States
2:00 – 3:30 pm

Brian Katulis, Center for American Progress
Sarah Kreps, Cornell University
Malik Mufti, Tufts University

[coffee break]

Panel #4: Concluding Roundtable
3:45 – 4:30 pm

Sponsored by the Alan R. Bennett Professor, CLAS, and POLS.
Co-sponsored by the Human Rights Institute and Middle Eastern Studies.

For questions, please contact


December 5, 2011

New post on Iran and US Foreign Policy

Over at Mideast Matrix, I posted on the recent explosion at an Iranian nuclear facility and set it within the larger context of Obama foreign policy.

August 31, 2011

The I-Get-Credit Contest for Libya

So Stephen Zunes warns against giving NATO too much credit and, furthermore, highlights the importance of the Libyan people’s non-violent resistance (in addition to the rebel fighters). Glenn Robinson agrees about the importance of the Libyan people:

Importantly, NATO did not free Libya from tyranny; the Libyan people did it themselves. NATO simply evened the playing field, which had pitted the trained and well-supplied military and security forces of the Libyan state against a civilian population forced to learn how to fight on the fly. The rebels always had more enthusiasm than competence, but it was clear they also had the support of the vast majority of the population.

Meanwhile, the Daily Beast gives a detailed list of how much MORE involved the United States was in toppling Qadhafi than had been widely reported. (close to $1 billion)

I must admit, I don’t get the either-or nature of this argument. In theory, it is certainly possible that Libyan non-violent action, Libyan violent action, and the NATO intervention all helped topple Qadhafi. Or that some aspects helped and hurt at the same time. Maybe Robinson is correct that NATO leveled the playing field and Zunes is correct that “foreign intervention…was successfully manipulated by Qaddafi to rally far more support to his side in his final months than would have been the case had he been faced with a largely nonviolent indigenous, civil insurrection.”

With a hated dictator gone, everyone wants a share of the credit. But what will happen if the Libyan domestic situation deteriorates in the coming months and years? Robinson concludes “any decent regime that emerges in Tripoli will be a huge improvement over Gadhafi’s reign of terror.” But that just begs the question: will a decent regime emerge? Let’s hope so.

Update #1: Though he hedges (“It was a unique case and is unlikely to be repeated”), Stewart Patrick sees Libya as the basis for more interventions down the road:

Libya has demonstrated the viability of a well-implemented RtoP intervention. Yet just because the doctrine has survived a significant test, one should not assume that the United States and its allies will apply it universally. As atrocities emerge in other contexts, the international community will need to cultivate and weigh other policy options against armed intervention, so it is not faced with stark choice of military action or inaction. The Obama administration’s PSD-10 is a step in that direction.

Update #2: Juan Cole on how it all unfolded and who was right and who was wrong.

August 24, 2011

US Stay Out of Libya, Except…

As Libya appears poised to transition to the post-Qadhafi era, the debate has already started about the proper international role in the next phase. Max Hastings warned against British involvement, “not as peacekeepers, or as a ‘stabilisation force’, or even to distribute Christmas parcels.” (re: parcels, probably a small loss given that Libya is 97% Sunni Muslim)

I am very wary of U.S. military personnel officially entering Libya as part of a nation-building effort. I’ll keep the explanation brief:
1. The US is cutting costs these days.
2. The US experience with nation-building is mixed. (see Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti)
3. While the US military has a significant edge in many aspects of conventional military operations, the US military is not considered a world leader in nation-building. The US is not indispensable for nation-building or peacekeeping.
4. With a small fiscal and political investment, the initial US/NATO involvement in Libya has gone well. We should not assume that that guarantees the post-conflict phase will go well. Perhaps ‘quit while you’re ahead’ should be the US motto in this case.
5. Fears that the rebel alliance (sorry to get all Star Warsy on you) may fracture are not illusory.
6. We don’t have a sense yet as to what government will emerge in Libya and what help it will want or need.
7. Does the US need to deepen its role in another Middle East country? That often has not played very well across the region. The US has a lot of baggage; maybe other prospective international contributors have less history.
In short, this seems like a perfect opportunity to let Libyans decide what they need and to let others in the international community meet those needs.
All that said, if the US is needed at the margin, a few helpers here or there, I am okay with that as long as it is a small number. I don’t worry much about mission creep (but maybe I am being naive).
One open question is whether this would be nation-building or stabilization. How extensive is the damage from the war? How quickly can a national government seek to assert control over all of Libya, east and west?
I am not dead set against a US role, but as you can see, I strongly lean that way barring a  compelling argument to the contrary.
August 19, 2011

Eiran: The Terror Attacks in Israel’s Southern Sector (fixed format)

My colleague Dr. Ehud Eiran offers preliminary thoughts on the terror attacks in Israel: (same text but better formatting than first time)

The rather internally-focused Israeli political summer turned again to the external Arab-Israeli conflict following the deadly terror attack in Israel’s southern sector. There are four immediate possible implications:

1. The attacks, the Israeli causalities (eight dead, dozens wounded), and the Israeli retributions in Gaza, all provide potential for further Israeli-Palestinian escalation. This latest interaction adds to concerns that the coming fall may see another large round of Israeli-Palestinian violence following an expected Palestinian move to declare a state at the United Nations.

2. The proximity to the Egyptian border adds the potential of tension between Israel and Egypt. Egypt’s own power shift (struggle?) creates internal incentives for the Egyptian army and the Islamists – for their own, different reasons – to focus on tensions with Israel. Further tensions could occur, for example, if Israel chooses to act militarily in Sinai.

3. Assuming the attackers used the Sinai Peninsula as base, or passed through it, one can see why Israelis did not welcome the Arab Spring: the demise of the Arab security state opened the way for non-state actors to operate against Israel. A weak Lebanon dragged Israel into a four-decade long military engagement in its northern border. Will there be a similar southern exposure?

4. And internally: The renewed concern over security may weaken the potential of the Israeli left to develop a serious challenge to Prime Minister Netanyahu over his socio-economic agenda, as reflected in the “Israeli Spring” demonstrations. The demonstrators canceled a mass event planned for this weekend, and one of their leaders, Itzik Shmuly, explained that if called to reserve duty, he will, in effect, put his involvement in the socio-economic struggle on hold. The attacks will also weaken calls to direct some of the funds from the defense budget to social welfare programs.

August 5, 2011

Mubarak on trial

While Egypt’s political direction remains uncertain, it is worth pausing to simply note that former President Hosni Mubarak is on trial. The pictures of him, with his sons, in a cage at the trial are stunning if one thinks about the fact that he ruled Egypt for 30 years. Just stunning.

The Egypt story has gotten buried under many other stories in the region and around the world. I assume it will come back as we get to elections.


August 4, 2011

Zehavi: Inside the Economics & Politics of the Israeli Protests

My colleague Dr. Amos Zehavi offers insights on Israeli political economy, democracy, and the current protests.

Israel’s protest leaders have compared them to the Arab protests and also to protests in Greece and Spain. Both comparisons are superficial but contain a grain of truth.

First, unlike the Arab countries, we have a democracy in which people can vote their preferences. Hence, a toppling of government due to public unrest could be construed not as a democratic victory, but as quite the opposite: a victory of the rabble over the vote. Nevertheless, the similarity is to be found on how socio-economic issues are debated and made into policy in Israel. Unlike virtually all other OECD countries, socio-economic debates are not a central determinant of voting behavior in Israel: peace-security and religious-secular are far more important cleavages. Politicians are aware of this and consequently are not concerned about democratic discipline (i.e., they would incur electorate wrath) and support policy that could be in opposition to voter preferences.

In fact, this is precisely what is happening. Economic policy in Israel is well to the right of the OECD norm while public preferences on social and economic issues (based on both ISSP and WVS comparative surveys) is well to the left. The result is that there is a democratic deficit with respect to socio-economic policies. Hence, the protestors are in fact filling a democratic void in the center of the Israeli democracy.

Second, European protests occur on the backdrop of economic failure and painful austerity plans. In Israel, in contrast, the current economic situation appears bright. GDP growth in 2010 was 4.6% and unemployment is now 5.7%: its lowest rate since the early 1970s. Nevertheless, these rosy figures cover up a reality which is a bit more complex. Real wages of the median worker have stagnated since the mid-1990s; housing prices have risen precipitously since 2008 (although this could work to the benefit of home owners); and certain public services – but not all – have eroded, primarily healthcare. I have yet to see a longitudinal study that analyzes the Israeli citizen’s consumption of goods (private and public combined), but my guess would be that for people in the 3rd and 4th quintiles (5th is the top), things really didn’t improve over the last fifteen years. Given Israel’s economic growth, they are right to ask why.

July 14, 2011

Update on US-Israel-PA (talk)

Some skeletal notes from a talk I gave last night:

1. US-Israel alliance

The common explanations for the alliance are shared values and shared government type (democracies); domestic interest groups in the US, including American Jews and Evangelical Christians; and strategic relations based on counter-terrorism, intelligence sharing, developing and testing military equipment. I was noting, not endorsing, the explanations.

(I should add that I’ve talked about an additional motivation, alliance restraint, in chapter four of Warring Friends.)(Also, whatever led to the original alliance, the fact that it has endured means it has some institutional and organizational staying power.)

2. The Peace Process

There is a split in the United States about the causal logic. Some like Gen. David Petraeus, have argued that solving the peace process is the key to unlocking other regional issues. Others, like former VP Dick Cheney, have argued that addressing other regional issues is a precursor for success in the peace process. (The road to Jerusalem runs through Baghdad.)

Obama and Netanyahu obviously don’t get along that well. But the structural US-Israeli relationship is still strong with military cooperation as deep as it ever has been. Netanyahu does not support a two-state solution that looks anything like what former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was talking about in 2008. (see my comparison here of what different people mean by two states)

3. The Arab Upheaval

The outcome of the Arab protests is an issue of great uncertainty. It could change the strategic equation for Israel if the Syrian regime falls and a new one came to power that is not close to Iran, thereby cutting off Iran’s land connection to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Egypt under Mubarak was tight with Israel but it may also be less so in the post-Mubarak era.

The Palestinians have not adopted the tactics of the Arab “Spring.” They have used similar tactics but not on a mass-scale without the mixing in of some violent tactics, e.g. during the first intifada (uprising), 1987-1993. (I’ll post a longer post on this soon.)

4. Palestine, September, and the UN

The Palestinian appeal to the UN is more bark than bite. The day after, the occupation will still be in force. The Palestinian Authority (PA) prefers negotiations (but talks don’t seem to be an option). Israel fears a UN resolution will lead to violence and is preparing for that prospect. The PA does not think Palestinian violence is likely.

5. Israel

Israel feels a high sense of threat especially from Iran. The majority of Israelis see no Arab partner with whom to make peace – Abbas is weak, Hamas rejectionist. Many Israelis, including the government, believe the world is lined up against Israel. Any pressure reinforces this view. Thus the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement is considered further proof that the world is against Israel, not that Israel needs to change its occupation policy. BDS speaks 1967 and Israelis hear 1948.

Settlement building continues. The Israeli public supports the Netanyahu government, but there are sparks of alternative viewpoints such as the Israel Peace Initiative or other protests.

A vigorous discussion followed! Many thanks to Joyce for the invitation.

June 20, 2011

The Arab Spring and Israel

In considering the impact of the Arab Spring on Israel, much of the attention has been on two issues, the peace treaty with Egypt and the Israeli-Syrian border. But a fuller picture of the impact offers a more varied set of questions and issues for Israel and in some ways may even bolster Israel’s strategic position. If Asad falls and Iran is left out in the cold by a new Syrian regime, Israel would greatly benefit.

Mubarak’s fall has already changed Egyptian policy at the Rafah border crossing. As has been widely noted, if a working democracy develops in Egypt and public opinion has greater bearing on policy, one would expect greater Egyptian pressure on Israel. But given the close ties between the Mubarak regime and Israeli governments, that still leaves a lot of room for change in Cairo. In other words, Egypt could rigorously adhere to the peace treaty and still act very much unlike Mubarak by pressing Israel on the peace process or its nuclear program, working closely with and advocating for the Palestinians, and in particular, helping Hamas in Gaza.

Whatever has changed and will change in Egyptian governance, the underlying Egyptian-Israeli strategic balance is the same and that suggests limits to Egypt’s revisions of its Israel policy. At the end of the day, the Israel military still could best the Egyptian military. Israel, not Egypt, has nuclear weapons, and Israel is much closer to the United States. To break the treaty and risk open warfare is a recipe for Egyptian military disaster.

Israel’s challenge, however, is the continual need to secure allies in an unfriendly region. Like in 1979 after the fall of Israel’s ally, the Shah of Iran, Israel wants to replace the loss of close friend. Ironically, that the Egyptian-Israeli peace process was at an advanced stage when the Shah fell made that transition easier in 1979 than today. Out went Iran, in came Egypt.

The choice today is not obvious. Israeli-Turkish ties remain strong behind the scenes, but the public aspect is mixed. Israel has accepted Turkish mediation in the past with regard to Syria, but would it do so again in a post-flotilla relationship? Neither of the other aspirants for regional leadership – Iran, Saudi Arabia – are about to get closer to Israel either.

Maybe the answer is to rely even more heavily on the United States. Despite the Obama-Netanyahu differences over the peace process, the US-Israeli strategic relationship is closer than ever. (as Israeli Amb. Michael Oren recently argued in Foreign Policy) The Israeli line: friends must hug each other even tighter in the face of regional storms and upheavals.

The Arab Spring’s mass protest model surely scares the Israeli government, and the intensity of the Israeli reaction along the Syrian border is a testament to that fear. The Palestinians have used such tactics on a smaller scale before, such as in Bil’in on the West Bank. But if tens of thousands of Arabs ever marched on Jerusalem or the Israeli borders and repeated it day after day in the face of Israeli snipers, tear gas, and detention, Israel’s ability to hold the line would weaken. Mass protests create exactly the kind of images Israel would rather avoid seeing plastered across the media and the web. It would make the Netanyahu’s government’s resistance to the American-Palestinian versions of a two-state solution that much more difficult. And it might force average Israeli Jews to confront the occupation in a way they have not had to do over the last couple of years.

Meanwhile, the impact of so many Arab states consumed by internal matters cuts both ways. Israel could become a political football as old and new politicians compete for power. Who can hammer Israel the most has long been political currency in the Arab World and diversionary politics, if not violence, is a recurring trope.

At the same time, the depth of the Arab political mobilization and the many social and economic demands may mean little substantive attention is paid to Israel. Furthermore, if things really deteriorate as in Libya or Syria, one could argue the bloodletting leaves few resources and political energy for anti-Israel tirades and physical confrontations.

Of all the chaos, the future of Syria is central for Israel. If the Asad regime falls, Iran’s core link to the Levant will be broken, assuming a Sunni-led regime in Damascus is less interested in close ties with Tehran. Hamas and Hezbollah may lose not only an ally in Syria but also a link to their Iranian patron. That matters for Israel, and it matters a lot. It would be both a symbolic and political defeat for Iran.

If I were Israel, I’d be happy to trade an Iranian-allied Syria for a more critical Egyptian government.