Monday, September 19, 2011

US Foreign Policy in Post-SOFA Iraq

The end of 2011 will mark a watershed in U.S.-Iraqi relations. The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that the United States and Iraq signed in December 2008 calls for all American forces to leave Iraq by December 31, 2011. While it is still unclear whether U.S. troops will remain in Iraq beyond this year, there is little doubt that U.S.-Iraqi relations will undergo significant change. What will that change look like? Will it mean a substantial decline in U.S. influence in Iraq? In light of Iraq’s strategic importance both in the Middle East, and to U.S. regional interests, as well as the importance of its continued efforts at democratization, what form should U.S. policy take after the drawdown of U.S. troops?

U.S. policy in post-SOFA Iraq will need to focus on five main areas of mutual interest to both countries, all of which are interrelated. Their focal points include: security, governance and institution building, democracy promotion, economic growth and development, and regional, bi-lateral relations. As a proviso, the United States will need to be sensitive to the legacy of tensions that developed with Iraq following the 2003 invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein’s Ba'thist regime. An effective U.S. foreign policy will require treading softly as it pursues its national interests in Iraq.

The following article was published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute. It can be read in its entirety by clicking here.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Syria’s Arab Spring: Phase Two of the Crisis

Guest writer Ghaidaa Hetou has conducted extensive research in Syria during the past year. She is currently writing her PhD dissertation on alliance behavior in Syrian foreign policy and the determinants of Syrian foreign policy making between 1970 and 2010.

It has been six months since protests erupted in Syria. The current political sluggishness in Syria, where calm has not been completely restored by the government, nor have the protests gained traction in major cities such as Damascus and Aleppo, has ushered in the next phase in the ongoing crisis.

During the first six months, various opposition groups have insisted on the peaceful nature of the protests. However, violent clashes that have occurred in Jisr al-Shughur, Homs, Hama and other towns. In addition, the declarations of the armed Syrian opposition committee have marred the efforts of thousands of Syrians who have continued to peacefully brave the wrath of the totalitarian apparatus of Bashar al-Asad's Ba’thist regime.

The conflicting efforts of protesters and armed rebels mirror the ideological competition among the various opposition groups. From the secular left to the religious conservatives, such as members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the contrasting political agendas of the Syrian opposition are impeding its ability to develop a united front. It has now become the norm for these various opposition groups to send their delegates to Washington, Europe and Moscow to meet separately with government representatives. A number of Syrian opposition conferences - in Turkey, Qatar, France and Germany - have tried to narrow the gap between the opposition group’s conflicting ideological agendas, but with little success.

On the domestic front, two minority groups in Syria, the Kurds and Christians, have adopted a position of neutrality towards the uprising. Their position has been reinforced, especially after recent chants of some demonstrators of “" عربية, عربية “"عمر, عمر” and “ المسيحي على بيروت أو للتابوت”, the first saying that this is solely an “Arab movement,” the second using the slogan of “Omar” in an effort to underscore the Sunni nature of the movement, and the last chant stating that the Christians have two choices, either to leave Syria for Beirut or in a casket. These chants prevail among groups that are calling for armed confrontation. In a demographically diverse society, social movements can easily, in an effort to garner popularity, alienate minority groups who might have otherwise tipped the scale in their favor.

What has ushered in the next phase in Syria’s crisis is precisely the country’s stagnant situation, with neither the government nor the opposition able to achieve their objectives. It is clearly a time of reassessment of means and ends by both sides in the conflict. Recent statements by opposition figures, like Ammar al-Qurabi in Moscow, indicate that they are ready for a “conditional dialogue with the regime.” From its part, the Syrian government has recently encouraged its allies, especially Moscow and Iran, to host these negotiations. Dr. Nabil al-Arabi, head of the Arab League, visited Damascus today to hand the Syrian president an Arab endorsed proposal containing 13 provisions to end the crises.

Due to lack of a unified opposition, any perceived attempt by one opposition group to negotiate with the government is sidetracked by another group, accusing it of treason and short selling Syrian sacrifices to date. Unfortunately, the stagnant situation, characterized by protests, bloody crackdowns and confrontations, will continue, until a number of opposition groups are able to consolidate their positions and form a majority in order to coordinate and legitimize their strategies.

The dust that has been stirred up by the sudden political awakening in Syria is settling. The euphoria that the protestors created by breaking the wall of fear and silence is being replaced, among many Syrians, by a frantic search for a political outlet, reflecting decades of frustration. The political upheaval that was silenced in 1962 has reawakened with the same political fury that prevailed in the 1950s in Syria, namely the struggle between conservatives and progressives, large urban areas and their suburbs, and between more prosperous cities and smaller towns that are outside the economic mainstream. This struggle manifests itself in a dispute over political identities and loyalties, which are all symptoms of a painful and ongoing process of state formation and the slow evolution of what it means to be a “citizen” in post-colonial Middle East.

Nevertheless, one thing is absolutely clear. Syria is on the road to transition and there is no possibility of a return to the status quo ante.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Tea Party and the Middle East

As President Barack Obama's approval ratings decline, pushed ever downward by a global and domestic recession that shows little sign of abating, the prospects of a Republican in the White House in 2012 loom ever larger. It is not at all out of the question that, if a Republican is elected, she or he will have strong ties to the Tea Party.

Thus far, little attention has been given to the implications of a Tea Party dominated White House for US foreign policy, especially in one of the world's most volatile regions, the Middle East. What would be the consequences of a Tea Party administration for US policy and interests in that region?

As others have already been noted, there are (at least) two trends in the Tea Party movement regarding US foreign policy. One, a neo-isolationism advocated by the supporters of Ron Paul (but perhaps by those of Rick Perry as well), reflects the isolationism that characterized much of US history prior to World War II.

The other, which argues for the decisive use of force against our enemies in the region, calls for strong support for Israel and relying on it to fight terrorism in the Middle East and to help restrain Iran. This policy is considered especially important for the US and the international community's efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. At least two candidates with close ties to the Tea Party, Michelle Bachmann and Rick Santorum, fall into this camp.

The problem with the Tea Party is that it has no policy for reconciling declining American economic power - both in absolute and relative terms (especially in relation to China) - with sustaining US global influence. The US has faced severe constraints in fighting two wars simultaneously in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the US were forced to militarily engage Iran, especially if it were to attack Israel, as well as simultaneously confront an outbreak of hostilities in the Korean Peninsula, an unlikely but possible scenario, the US would be hard pressed to mount the forces necessary to meet such as a challenge.

Tea Party advocates either call for US withdrawal from much of the world to improve the budget deficit or the use of military force to intimidate our enemies. Both of these perspectives fail to appreciate the implications of our economic crisis for US "hard power" (the use of military force). They also fail to comprehend the opportunities for enhancing US policy in the area of "soft power" (public diplomacy, technical and educational support, and direct engagement of our adversaries where appropriate).

Tea Party supporters make an important point when they argue that US government spending has outstripped its ability to pay for this spending. Clearly the US economy is experiencing serious economic difficulties caused largely by the mortgage lending debacle that came to a head in 2008.

But do the US' financial problems imply the need for an isolationist strategy? Likewise, is there an alternative to the second policy prescription, namely a reliance on force as the primary element of our foreign policy in the Middle East? Is there not a third way that could achieve our objectives in the Middle East but without "breaking the bank"?

As the "Arab Spring" has shown, there is considerable convergence between Arab and US political interests in the Middle East. The warmth of the Libyan people towards the US over the past 6 months, especially now that the Libyan dictator, Mu'ammar al-Qaddafi has been overthrown, is just one indicator of those interests. It suggests that, even in a country that has been under repressive authoritarian rule, citizens can both quickly embrace democracy and reject decades of anti-American and and anti-Western rhetoric and propaganda.

Rather than making an effort to better understand the political, cultural and economic dynamics that currently engulf the Middle East, Tea Party candidates have, to date, opted instead for a simplistic approach to US foreign policy. Either we need to withdraw into "fortress America" or hit our enemies hard when they challenge our interests in the Middle East or elsewhere. The problem is that neither of these approaches will work, Indeed, they both pose a serious threat to the US' national interests in the region.

What, then, are the dynamics that Tea Partiers have failed to grasp? First, the Middle East is ripe for serious and positive change. It has a "youth bulge" which means that a large percentage of the region's youth, 70%, is under the age of 30. As my current research with Iraqi and other youth in the region indicates, many of these youth admire American popular culture and values, especially our values of freedom of expression and creative freedom.

Although most youth in the Middle East have not had the benefit of a social science education, either in secondary schools or at the university level, many intuitively understand that there is a strong relationship between individual freedoms and personal success. They also realize that the countries where individual freedoms reign are precisely those countries that enjoy prosperity and political stability - key factors for these youth if they are to have any hope in the future.

Second, Tea Partiers fail to see the need to reach out to other cultures which they often assume are hostile to American values. Many Tea Partiers have wrapped themselves in a mythical American Golden Age during which the United States was supposedly close to being a perfect society.

While the US did make tremendous progress throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries to become the world's industrial and military superpower, such thinking forgets that such growth had its dark side - the political and economic marginalization of women and African Americans, labor strife, the Great Depression, two world wars and the struggle against communism. This is not to direct criticism at the US, but simply to point out that selective readings of history do not produce good domestic or foreign policy.

The US should be proud of its values and accomplishments. The desire of so much of the world's population to emigrate to the US is a striking reminder of that. However, we are now a global society in which "Golden Age" politics, in whatever form, no longer has a place. Inter-cultural understanding is not a matter of being "politically correct." Rather, it is absolutely necessary that our political leaders make a serious effort to understand the cultures of the Middle East and engage its peoples so that they can make the most effective decisions as they affect US interests in the region.

While Israel is a strong and trusted ally, the idea that we can rely on Israel alone to pursue American interests in the Middle East is naive. To link US support for Israel to Christian Biblical injunctions is no substitute for a rational foreign policy, nor is it in the interest of Israel, much less the peoples of the Middle East. As the most prominent Tea Party candidate to view the Middle East through the prism of the Bible, Michelle Bachman's advocacy of a foreign policy based on her interpretations of Biblical texts is a strong example of why our Founding Fathers sought to keep religion out of politics.

In the Christian world, the idea that God has bestowed His (Her?)grace on a particular group of people brought us the the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the 100 Years War, and many other examples of religious intolerance. Voltaire noted the absurdity of the notion of a "Chosen People" in Candide when he described the (Christian) Bulgars and the (Muslim) Ottoman Turks praying to God for victory over their enemy as the sun began to rise over the battlefield on which they would fight later that day.

The US has lost many allies in the Middle East in recent years. Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Yemen, and Libya (yes Qaddafi supplied the US with intelligence after agreeing to end his WMD program in 2006) are the most prominent examples. Likewise, Israel finds itself more isolated than ever in the Middle East.

With the election of an Islamist government in 2002, Israel no longer has a close ally in Turkey. Following Husni Mubarak's ouster in Egypt, ties with that country have deteriorated as well. Turkey's recent recall of its ambassador from Israel and the conflict with Egypt over containing Hamas in the Gaza Strip are only the most recent examples of Israel's deteriorating relations with its former allies.

If the Tea Partiers sincerely want to reduce the deficit, enhance our influence in the Middle East, and help strengthen Israel, our closest ally in the region, they need to eschew basing foreign policy on Biblical injunctions, and prescribing withdrawal, or an exclusive use of force as the main tools in the US' foreign policy arsenal. The NATO success in Libya is probably not going to be replicated elsewhere in the region anytime soon (although US and EU cooperation in squeezing Syria economically may end up ousting the Ba'thist regime of Bashar al-Asad as well).

Using American technical expertise in the Middle East, much as it has been done by developing Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Iraq and Afghanistan, should become the model for encouraging economic growth and development, along with improvements in education, health care, housing and agriculture. Such assistance, especially if it is based on local needs (rather than prescribed by the West), can help to develop close ties with the countries of the Middle East. There is a reason why developed countries do not engage in wars or experience serious political instability - the citizens of these countries have very little incentive to engage in such activity, especially when they have hope in the future.

Offering US technical assistance (a great way to put unemployed American professionals to work overseas), offering Middle Easterners scholarships to study at American universities, and engaging the peoples of the Middle East, especially youth, whether thorough social media and/or exchange programs, would cost much less than military engagement and building new weapons systems that were appropriate for an earlier era of wars among nation-states, but now are much less effective in fighting terrorism and "asymmetric war."

Engaging the youth who have been the main force behind the Arab Spring will demonstrate that our rhetoric of supporting democracy has teeth. Many Middle Eastern youth realize that autocrats such as Qaddafi used anti-Zionism as a propaganda tool to distract attention from domestic repression and lack of government services. If the US can move forward the creation of Palestinian state, living side by side in peace with Israel, along with engaging the peoples of the region, much of the region's anti-American rhetoric and radicalism will dissipate.

As we approach the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001, all those who aspire to the US presidency owe it to the American people to offer them well thought through foreign policy alternatives. We need to develop a smart foreign policy in the Middle East which views the peoples of the region as potential allies, not as inherently hostile to our interests and way of life. With the stakes so high in the Middle East, and with the economic challenges facing the US, empty rhetoric is clearly unpatriotic.