bin Laden, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the value of disproportionate response

I’d like to do something very unusual in this post: argue that a policy of George W. Bush, and not just any policy, but his policy of starting land wars in Asia, may have had a good effect.

I’ve been thinking this week about the death of Osama bin Laden, and in particular how it profoundly changes the narrative of the American military presence in central Asia over the past decade. Prior to this, there were plenty of stories about “the US is only there for their own interests” (which is undoubtedly true, and continues to be so) as well as a story about bin Laden as a sort of terrorist Robin Hood: he smacks the Americans in the nose and gets away with it, escapes to fight another day. Now, his political capital has greatly eroded over the past decade; after the disassembly of his logistical infrastructure in Afghanistan, and perhaps even more so after his faction’s behavior in Iraq (both their bloody-mindedness towards Iraqis and their inability to function against direct, prepared American resistance), he has long-since ceased to be a figure of much veneration, even among the bulk of the radical lunatic community. So his “Robin Hood” points are mostly evaporated.

But in the context of last week’s raid, there’s a new story: if you pick a fight with the United States, they will hunt you down. Even if it requires an absolutely absurd expenditure of human lives and resources, even if it means starting not just one but two wars which frankly make no logical sense. And this story has tremendous value to the US, quite independently of bin Laden’s actual significance; it’s the threat of disproportionate response, the visible reminder that the US has a truly tremendous range of assets which can be brought to bear on any potential enemy. And in an era when people may have believed themselves to be immune to such response because of their small size or non-state nature, while still capable of causing asymmetric harm by means of modern “force multipliers,” the vivid embodiment of that warning may have a powerful effect on the next few decades of our history.

Am I recanting my earlier opposition to these wars? Only in small part. There has been tremendous mismanagement of these wars at the policy level, and I shudder to think how many more people were killed than needed to be. There are going to be many other long-term consequences of these wars, such as increased regional power for Iran, which may be considerably greater in scope than we can guess today. But as time progresses and more consequences fall out, our analyses of these events will have to change, and of their rightness or wrongness in retrospect.

Perhaps more to the point, what we’re seeing here is the notion of the “enforcer” in repeated games. (See Boyd et al., “Coordinated Punishment of Defectors Sustains Cooperation and Can Proliferate When Rare,” and Posner, “Social Norms and the Law: An Economic Approach,” two classic papers on the subject) Humans seem to have evolved such that a certain fraction of our species is prone to disproportionate reaction in response to “cheaters” (i.e., violators of norms); even though these enforcers tend to win less on the whole than the average person, because of this tendency to spend more energy than they rationally (individually) ought to, the society as a whole turns out to win considerably from the presence of a certain number of such people. It’s the deterrence scheme of the madman; you never know when they might flip out and kill everyone in sight.

Our system of government seems to have found a unique method of amplifying this in political or military situations; when something sufficiently severe happens, the enforcers in society raise an outcry, and everyone else’s attempt to mute this is tepid or restrained at best. As a result, even if the sitting president isn’t an enforcer by nature, he will find himself under pressure to become one – or rapidly be replaced by someone who is. It’s a way of pulling enforcers to the fore on an as-needed basis, which acts as a tremendous boost to the credibility of the threat.

But there’s a problem, of course. To have the deterrent that the leader of the United States just might be a violent madman and capable of anything, you need to have (at least occasionally) as leader of the United States a violent madman who is capable of anything. Enforcers are fairly specifically chosen for their irrationality, not for their ability to make wise or reasoned decisions; and they tend to wrack up a tremendous body count (of their own people) in the process. The fact that we had an extreme enforcer already in office at the time of 9/11 actually strikes me as somewhat alarming; he went off for the right reason, but even so did it in far from the wisest way, and we as a society will be paying the consequences for a long time to come.

A side benefit of the fact that Obama was the president who ended this is that he isn’t known as an enforcer; he was hailed from the moment of his election as a wiser, more understanding (and more rational!) president. The signal that even if a “calmer” person is in office, the rules of an appropriately timed disproportionate response are still in play, is an extra and valuable booster to this policy of deterrence. Waiting for someone else to come into office is not a good strategy. This is a nuance which is particularly commonly seen in Israel; every time a new PM comes to the fore, Hamas &co. start trying some terror attacks, to see if this one will be easily pushed around. It never works, but it gets tried every time nonetheless.

With all this said, there was a deep and significant victory achieved this past week. It wasn’t a victory over a particular terrorist; it was a victory over hostile state and non-state actors as a whole. It wasn’t just the victory of the team that did it, and it wasn’t even the victory of one administration or the other; it was a victory for our society as a whole.

And with that I can say, to all those who sacrificed for this moment – in their lives, in their families, in their economies – this sacrifice has bought our country, and our world, something of great value which could not have been bought in any lesser way.

(Addendum: It occurred to me after posting that I should have mentioned that the fact that Iraq was completely irrelevant to 9/11, bin Laden, etc., doesn’t affect this reasoning. It’s the fact that the President might go off and lay waste to two countries which just happened to be in the wrong area, and to have pissed off the wrong people, just in order to make the point which is the deterrent. We live in a strange world.)

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Published in: on May 6, 2011 at 21:28  Comments (3)  
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He’s dead, Jim.

So I know that everyone is expecting me to write a long post about bin Laden’s death, and I was planning it, but then I saw this LOLbama (thanks to David Nachum) and it just said it better than anything else could:

Sorry it took so long to get you a copy of my birth certificate. I was too busy killing Osama bin Laden.

Serious kudos (and areté, and timé, though those are not in my power to grant; but they have been earned, indeed) to everyone who was involved in this, from the initial intelligence gathering and assessment all the way out to the strike team that actually did the deed. It really couldn’t have happened to a more deserving guy. A few interesting points to mention:

  • Looks like a notably flawless execution. Zero US casualties, and on the other side bin Laden plus three other henchmen dead, two women wounded. For an operation like this, that’s absolutely amazing.
  • Pretty importantly, we recovered the body and buried it at sea. This is actually very important, and tells me that Obama really gets how to play this game; in the Islamic world, funerals are often the initiating points for mass movements, and tombs of martyrs become pilgrimage sites. I had been hoping they would at least do unmarked-grave-in-the-desert; the sea is even better. Top marks for strategy.
  • Obama’s remarks indicated thanks to the Pakistani government and so on, but were notably vague about whether they were notified before or after the operation. Not that I really give much of a damn, but it’s an interesting bellwether of our relationship with Pakistan.

On a slightly more general note, I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff which could be written about America’s changing attitudes towards assassination over the past few decades, going from loud protestations of “oh, we would never do that” to the President coming out to give a press conference about it. But that’s an article for another day.

In other Middle East news, Syria has been continuing to heat up, with protests continuing unabated despite a serious attempt to shut them down (very violently) by the government. al-Assad has signaled that he’s willing to play this one Hama-style, with a siege in progress at Dara’a that could easily turn into a massacre of the entire city. But I heard an interesting report this morning that Hezbollah has decided that the risk is too high, and is voting with their feet — they’ve started to move their heavy weapons stores out of Syria and into Lebanon. This could be a very tempting target, so if you hear that Israel decides to bomb the crap out of some targets in Lebanon in the next few weeks, don’t be surprised.

Published in: on May 2, 2011 at 10:46  Comments (3)  
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A few quick Middle East notes

Libya: This post by Barkley Rosser is, I think, bang on. The most likely outcome at this point is partition; Qaddafi will maintain control of the western (Berber) half of the country, based out of Tripoli, while the (Arab) East will separate out into its own country. This may slightly increase the highlighting of the line between the Arabs and the Berbers as you move westward through North Africa, and Qaddafi will continue to be bugfuck insane and bloodthirsty, but that’s not really so far out of the ordinary for the Middle East.

Egypt: The news from Egypt is, I think, positive. True to its word, the Army helped organize a nationwide election about revising the constitution, and the proposal passed what appears to be a fair election with 77% of the vote. However, the support was largely from the countryside, and the measure was backed by a coalition of the old ruling party and the Muslim Brotherhood, and opposed largely by the cities (esp. Cairo and Alexandria) and by the activists who had led the revolution, including Mohammed el-Baradei. Their main contention is that rushing elections will be counterproductive to democracy. I’ll refer back to my previous notes that, if the Mubarak regime were to go away, power would likely flow into the hands of those best-prepared to take advantage of a relative vacuum – and lo and behold, the biggest supporters of prompt elections etc. are the most organized forces. So I’ll count this overall as neutral-positive; on the one hand, I would rather that the election had gone the other way, but on the other hand, I’m pretty happy that there was an election, period. Let’s hope that the resulting government which forms will be committed to maintaining democracy going forward.

Bahrain: This is where I think the most dangerous action is right now. The Saudis sent a thousand troops in to help quell the uprising, but it’s just highlighting all of the problems I mentioned before. 20% of the world’s oil going through Manama, and the 5th Fleet and CENTCOM are based out of there, so it’s very important to the US that it still be run by a friendly regime. That, in turn, makes it very important to Iran that it instead be run by a regime friendly to them. The large Shi’ite population gives Iran a natural means of infiltration and a natural excuse to try to take power, but also gives the Saudis a really good incentive not to let them – the last thing they want is a hostile regime land-adjacent to them from yet another side. Within the country, the conflict seems to be hardening along sectarian lines, much to nobody’s surprise. My guess is that the Arab League (by which I principally mean “the Saudis and whatever other forces they buy”) will come down pretty hard in favor of the regime, and the US and Iran will both play somewhat more subtle games, but that ultimately the old regime will win. And it will be violent.

Elsewhere: Protests have actually started to happen in Syria, and are being met with predictable violence. It’s not yet clear to me if these will gain any traction. Yemen’s president apparently sacked his cabinet, after troops opened fire on protesters and killed 45. This one is going straight to hell in a handbasket, but I don’t think it should come as a tremendous surprise that Yemen is falling apart; its government always struck me as having only nominal control over much of the country. (But, of course, it’s got some critical locations too – Aden is a major port, and Yemen sits on one side of the pinch-point at the end of the Red Sea, opposite Djibouti and Somalia.) (I almost wrote “the Pirate Kingdoms of Djibouti and Somalia” there, those being the first descriptives which came to mind – and although those countries do have nominal governments, this does raise a rather important point about the state of that sea right now)

Published in: on March 21, 2011 at 09:00  Comments (2)  
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State of the Middle East Update

So, after all of the excitement, I haven’t posted an update in a few weeks. Apologies; daily life intervened. Quite a bit has happened; not as much as you may think on some fronts, and more than you may think on others.

Let’s start with Egypt. Mubarak stepped down, the Army has stepped in. Democracy in action, right? Well, maybe. So far, the Army seems to be saying the right things – elections in 6 months, new constitution early next week – but several things remain to be seen. First, who will be running in these elections? It’s not like opposition parties have been able to get amazingly well-organized under Mubarak. (But honestly, I think this one will resolve itself; unlike many other dictatorships, this one didn’t completely grind any potential political opposition into dust, it simply kept them from doing anything. People like el-Baradei can exist in Egypt in a way that they never could in, say, Syria) Second, will the Army follow through, or will it try to hold on to more power for itself? (Which is how we’ve gotten most of our secular dictatorships in the past) Some role for the Army isn’t a disaster, necessarily; if Egypt follows the Turkish example, with the Army viewing itself as the guarantor of secular democracy (and if you do anything they think threatens that, they’ll shoot you) you can end up with something at least basically functional. On the other hand, if they follow Mubarak’s example, well…

The big question still on the table in Egypt is the economic one. Revolutions don’t happen in a vacuum, and pervasive poverty, unemployment, lack of opportunity, and so on are rampant; and they didn’t go away when Mubarak did. As a result, protests have been continuing (although not at quite a frenetic pace as the ones from a few weeks ago); the risk is that these could turn into lots of general strikes, and during this interim phase when there’s not much central government, that could start to destabilize a lot of local-level “keep-the-trains-running” sorts of government, which could make things fall apart badly and open the game up for (e.g.) the Army or another dictator to take power.

But that said, I’m still guardedly optimistic about Egypt’s future. The prevailing attitude appears to have been one of the people getting together to fix things, which I think is one of the best predictors of a successful revolution.

For an example of a different attitude, let’s go to the eastern side of the Arabian Peninsula, over to Bahrain. Here the protests have gotten violent, with the BDF (the local army) opening fire with live ammunition against demonstrators early today. (I listened to audio recordings from journalists; they were definitely firing freely, and by all accounts aiming low and with live ammo.) No good estimates of casualties yet, but the violence is brewing fast. On the other hand, there are angry counter-protests in favor of the local absolute monarchy. Why? This is a pattern that’s very common in the eastern Middle East (the various emirates, Kuwait, Iraq, etc) with a large, and fairly poor Shi’ite majority being ruled over by a small and fairly rich Sunni minority. The tone of the rhetoric in Bahrain is very different from that in Egypt; it’s sounding like it’s all about the ethnic* anger here, and this could quickly manifest as a bloodbath.

Two things which further complicate Bahrain: the US and Iran. The US Navy has a major base in Bahrain, which is the headquarters of the Fifth Fleet and CENTCOM. This is a key, key location and not one which the US is likely to give up. (It’s the major logistical support point for all activity from the eastern coast of Africa all the way to the Pacific, which therefore also means logistics for Iraq and Afghanistan) The US made deals with the monarchy in order to set up shop there, and so it has a vested interest in the place staying stable.

Iran, on the other hand, learned some very important arts of infiltration and subversion from the Soviets. Every country with a significant Shi’ite population – and several areas without one, such as Gaza – has been set up with a fairly deep penetration by Iranian intelligence, which sets up, trains, supplies and supports local “organizations.” When it’s convenient (as it recently was, e.g., in Lebanon and in Gaza) those organizations take over the local government and set up satellite Iranian regimes. This one looks awfully convenient for Iran, and they would have to be fools not to make a play for it. (And needless to say, an Iran-backed regime would not be friendly to a US naval base, nor vice-versa)

So we have a major regional power and a (possibly overextended) superpower both with serious, and conflicting, stakes in a local revolution which could easily slip into ethnic bloodshed, with all sides having very large volumes of armaments sitting around in the region.

Meanwhile in Libya, it’s even harder to get information on what’s going on, but what we can tell for sure is that there have been large demonstrations in the two largest cities, Tripoli and Benghazi, and the government has cracked down with great force. The numbers I’m hearing (although unconfirmed) are dozens of dead, hundreds wounded, and the situation is escalating rapidly. The “good” news is that this is unlikely to act as a tinderbox for anything else in the region; its three Middle Eastern neighbors are Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt, all of which are already part of the situation.

And what about the calls for protests in Syria? They largely didn’t happen, because the military turned out in force, and the Syrians have figured out by now that the al-Assad family isn’t exactly gentle about the way it handles dissent. The Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and the Jordanian government have all managed to keep protest levels fairly low without resorting to quite as much violence, but it’s pretty clear (especially in the case of Hamas) that violence is most certainly an option if needed. Yemen continues its violent protests, and my guess is that the already-weak government will collapse; this is probably the biggest boon to the preexisting rebels (nothing whatsoever to do with the current run of protests, much more to do with Islamist terror groups) who will be able to firmly grab control of… well, whatever they decide to grab control of.

So looking at the map, my current estimate is:

  • The more peaceful Middle Eastern countries – Egypt, Jordan, Morocco – will probably fare the best, with either mostly peaceful regime changes or with existing regimes remaining in power and making varying amounts of concessions. These will be the bastions of stability.
  • Less stable countries which don’t have a deep background of ethnic instability, such as Libya and Yemen, will see more violence, and if their governments collapse the results are likely to be long-lasting and strongly favor the most brutal groups around. At the best they’ll trade one dictator for another; at the worst, they’ll dissolve into failed states.
  • States with sufficiently brutal governments, such as Syria and Iran, will remain quite stable, because anyone who tries anything will rapidly end up disappearing. Along, possibly, with their entire neighborhood. Some less stable countries may decide to copy a page from their playbook in order to keep their status quo.
  • States with a deep background of ethnic tension, especially ones with a deep Sunni-Shi’ite split, will likely fare the worst. Their governments will likely follow the brutal route, but the likelihood of Iranian intervention, and the likelihood of pent-up tension erupting far beyond anyone’s control, will remain high. If the dam breaks in such a country the result is likely to be similar to Iraq in 2004-5, or Bosnia in 1992-5, with localized “ethnic cleansing” (gods, what a euphemism for genocide) and equilibration only after the country has ended up effectively physically segregated.
  • Places with a lot of money (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, etc.) or with key strategic value (Bahrain) are likely to play out a much more complicated game, because outside forces have a lot more reason to intervene, whether they want to or not. Bahrain in particular looks like it could be the first flashpoint for many things, and the way it plays out could easily determine the fate of the eastern Middle East. Serious violence there could easily and rapidly spread up the coast of the Arabian Peninsula, into Kuwait, and thence back into Iraq in an unpredictable way.

Oh, and just to make it more fun? Iran is asking permission to send some warships through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean. Where they would be in an excellent position to support Gazan and Lebanese forces in an attempt to hold on to power. Or in an attempt to invade, oh, I dunno, someone…

Remember when I said the protests in Egypt could turn out very, very badly for the Middle East as a whole? I really wasn’t kidding.

* I really need to make a post sometime about the relationship of ethnicity, language, religion and tribe in the Middle East.

Published in: on February 18, 2011 at 19:00  Comments (3)  
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The Middle East heats up

Well, it looks like things are going to get much hotter. A roundup of what I think are the key developments:

  • Serious violence in Egypt: Cairo has devolved into major violence, as Mubarak’s supporters went on the offensive. The security services appear to be coordinating their operations, and have particularly targeted foreigners and journalists. The party line is that “foreign elements” are responsible for all of these protests, which is traditional but honestly, isn’t it a bit silly to be saying that at this point? Surely the Egyptians aren’t likely to take that even a little seriously? al-Jazeera has been a major target.
  • The opposition has declared Friday (i.e., tomorrow) to be Mubarak’s “day of departure,” saying that they’ll storm the presidential palace that day if he isn’t gone before.*
  • The US appears to be working on a deal to get rid of Mubarak, although some rumors suggest that the deal would put his newly-named VP Omar Suleiman in power over a “transitional regime” to last until September. I would guess that the odds of the Egyptian public accepting Mubarak’s hand-picked successor from the security forces to be less than great.

Beyond Egypt, even more news:

  • In Yemen, President Saleh has agreed not to run again for the presidency in 2013. (He’s been in power for 32 years) Protests continue, but they don’t seem nearly as angry as Egypt’s.
  • In Jordan, King Abdullah II sacked the government and replaced it with a new one, led by Marouf al-Bakhit as the new PM. al-Bakhit has a reputation for honesty, and this move was specifically aimed at public anger over corruption. He’s also agreed to meet with the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood. Protests are happening, but the King appears to be moving fast to head off popular anger by making at least some reforms.
  • In Algeria, President Bouteflika has ended the 19-year-long state of emergency following protests.
  • Major protests in Syria, which is likely to turn really nasty – President-for-life al-Assad is not a nice fellow. Opposition promises major protests on Friday.
  • No news of major action in Lebanon, but Hezbollah has just formally taken power.
  • No clear info yet out of Saudi, but I’m particularly interested in that.
  • In Pakistan, the case of Raymond Davis, an American accused of killing two Pakistanis, seems to be heating up, and it’s a strange one. He says that they threatened his life, he drew his pistol and shot both; an (American) SUV rushed to his aid, hitting and killing a third Pakistani. He then has claimed diplomatic immunity, which the US is backing.** The Pakistani courts have just remanded him over to keep him in jail; the procedure was apparently done without any trial, lawyers, or even translators. The main reason for that is that anti-US sentiment has been boiling up lately, and radical elements have been turning this case into a cause célèbre; there are angry mobs in the streets calling for Davis’ blood. The situation is mostly decoupled from Egypt but not really; the rate of terrorism in Pakistan seems to have just shot up over the past two years, and the whole country seems ready to blow. The schedule, however, is hard to estimate, and may depend on how the effects from Egypt radiate outwards.

So in summary, the situation across the entire Middle East has heated up considerably, and more and more countries are being forced to act fast. It looks like Mubarak is reaching the end of his regime, but has decided to go out in a blaze of violence. Expect the shit to really hit the fan all over the place on Friday mideast morning if it hasn’t before that. (Which means in just a few hours…)

To those of you with friends and family in Egypt, my thoughts are with you.


* Explanatory note: this means Friday after morning prayers. This is common across the Islamic world; after everyone goes to Friday prayers (and sermons!), the large crowds come out of the mosques, and this is traditionally the time most likely to turn into a mass protest. Marking Friday as the day is basically saying that people will come out of the mosques in unified force, which is pretty likely true. NB also that mosques are deeply immune in a conflict like this – were Mubarak’s forces to storm mosques directly on Friday in an attempt to head this off, they would very possibly be shot by their own men.

** Fascinating questions, answers unknown: What kind of diplomat is he? What does he do? Why is a US diplomat travelling armed through the streets of Lahore? Nobody is talking. My conclusion: probably someone from the intel or military community, very possibly US special forces or ex-special forces. Possibly one of the civilian “contractors,” which is what the mob seems to think – and if you think that Blackwater has a bad reputation in the US, that’s nothing compared to their reputation in the rest of the world.

Published in: on February 3, 2011 at 18:42  Comments (1)  
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And the US makes its move…

Good update on how the US has started to make its diplomatic move in Egypt. The cautious phase is now over; strong condemnation of Mubarak’s government for the violence today, and a statement that the political has to begin “now” – and “‘Now’ started yesterday,” said the President’s press secretary.

It’s pretty obvious at this point that Mubarak is on his way out, that the changes sweeping Egypt are going to be sweeping far more broadly across the Middle East, and that there’s going to be a major realignment; it’s a lot less clear what this realignment will look like. My post earlier today covered what might go wrong, but I’m still optimistic – the Egyptian people seem very determined to stand up for their rights in this, and the craziest fundamentalist elements seem to be finding themselves on the sidelines rather than driving the whole thing.

So: odds of Mubarak leaving Real Soon Now going up; clear transitions going on in Yemen, Jordan, Tunisia; and I’d say good odds of something big shifting in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon, and maybe even Syria over the next few months. And who knows, Qaddafi may decide to reinvent himself as the champion of the people and lead democracy marches through the streets of Tripoli.

Published in: on February 2, 2011 at 20:30  Comments Off on And the US makes its move…  
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The potentially bad news from Egypt

This is the companion post to the one from a few days ago on how things could go well in Egypt — given the changes of the past few days, it’s worth taking a look at how things could go badly in Egypt as well. I should say that at this point I’m not betting either way; but it’s worth seeing the factors which are pointing in each of the various directions in order to try to imagine what the future could look like.

So what are features which militate against a happy outcome? Largely, they’re forces which would encourage either mass violence or dictatorship.  And there are a few significant ones.

One of the biggest threats for violence happens if there’s prolonged uncertainty about government, a de facto power vacuum. This seems to have started to set in; the past week’s relatively peaceful protests have turned violent, with an apparently organized group of pro-Mubarak demonstrators riding in to Tahrir square yesterday. One of my first question is who these Mubarak supporters are; I wasn’t under the impression that he had a sufficient street-level power base remaining, and his support came more from those in power. I think that we’ve started to hit a critical point; if there isn’t a transition to a new government within a few days — which looks increasingly unlikely, as Mubarak seems determined to hold on to power — violence will rise to much higher levels. The possibility of a “velvet revolution” will pretty much go out the window.

If violence kicks in, the biggest risk is always if it will expose deeper underlying rifts. (e.g., between Muslims and Christians, or between city Arabs and Bedouin, or between various tribes with long-standing grudges) Once exposed, such things have a tendency to persist, and if large enough groups get involved either pogroms or long-lasting civil wars become a possibility. The latter could lead to Egypt becoming unstable in the long term.

If this is somehow mitigated or averted, any delayed power transfer (such as Mubarak’s proposal that he serve out his term and a new election be held in September) increases the odds of dictatorship. A long run-up to handover gives everyone a chance to organize, but the people best able to capitalize on that are what you might politely call Unsavory Elements: people who have become powerful under Mubarak’s rule, key members of the security services, provincial governors who are real sons of bitches, the Muslim Brotherhood. Even in a perfectly fair election it’s quite possible that anti-democratic forces will quickly seize power; but if people like provincial governors are in play, the odds of a fair election start to go down considerably. (I would keep an eye in particular on people like Samir Farag, the governor of Luxor province. He’s smelled to me for a while like someone getting ready to make a bigger power play)

Now with that said, let’s look at the longer-term consequences of transition in Egypt. I think that the biggest thing to remember is that Egypt is seen by the Arab world as a powerful bellwether, and anything that happens there is likely to be emulated far and wide. It serves as the western counterweight to Iran, who is trying to spread its influence as far as possible through the Islamic world, often through puppet organizations and fifth columns. Egypt hasn’t been installing friendly regimes so much as providing the huge economic and military backstop to vaguely secular dictatorships; the Saudis have in effect been their partners in this, providing the cash backing. (NB the difference: Egypt and the Saudis are backing dictatorships who favor some sort of stability, and bankrolling radical religious elements to stay quiet, whereas Iran backs those radical elements into taking power themselves, and sets up revolutionary Islamist dictatorships. Don’t you love the Middle East?)

If a genuine democracy were to emerge from this week’s events, the consequences could be profound. I would guess that several countries would feel immediate pressure to follow suit — Jordan, Yemen and Oman first, perhaps. The more powerful monarchies or oligarchies wouldn’t feel the same impetus, since they’re small enough that their aristocracies are a decent-sized portion of the population, but they would now find themselves operating against the backdrop of democratic neighbors. OTOH, it’s hard to tell who would come into power in such a democracy. Israel fears that it would allow radicals to come to power through the ballot box, as Hamas did a few years ago in the Palestinian Territories. I suspect that the answer would be country-dependent, although one could count on Iran to play KGB-style games and back their parties of choice in every country. In Kuwait (which would probably come under pressure to democratize soon after) this could mean a Shi’ite ascendancy, with uncertain consequences for its foreign and domestic policy, but a real possibility of some Bad Shit to go down. In Egypt, that would probably mean a sharp (further) radicalization of the Muslim Brotherhood as its more extreme elements found themselves with greater financial support. So there’s a real possibility for nefarious actors to spread via democracy, but there are also possibilities to mitigate that, especially by backing relatively sane people like el-Baradei with international support.

(And NB that international support shouldn’t simply take the form of cash, military aid, and the like. It has to be support for Egypt being a functional democracy, not for any particular ruler or party, and would most effectively take the form of things like free trade agreements and further pulling Egypt into the broader international community. That helps cement the vested interest that the Egyptian people have in preserving their freedom, by making it also in the interest of those in power to preserve that freedom rather than curtail it to maximize their own longevity in office.)

If a new secular dictatorship emerges, which I think is unlikely, we’d see a reversion to the status quo ante. If an Islamist dictatorship emerges, the exact effect depends on who is ultimately bankrolling it: a Saudi one would probably be more quiet (but potentially in the long term, an even bigger factory of trouble) than an Iranian one. I would note that such a dictatorship would of necessity be much milder than the Hamas variety, because of the critical importance of tourism to Egypt’s economy; think Saudi Arabia + increased use of medieval law codes rather than Afghanistan. But the hit to Egypt’s economy would be intense nonetheless; fundamentalist regimes generally aren’t great at encouraging large numbers of visitors, or other kinds of large-scale trade and innovation. This could exacerbate existing problems of poverty and food shortages and lead to recurring political instability down the road. One could easily imagine Egypt turning into a much larger, and less stable, version of Jordan in this case. (Economically, that is, not socially) There are other alternatives, of course; e.g., some kind of pan-Islamic “nationalism” leading up to an attempt to form a broader empire of alliances. I can’t imagine this actually working, but it would lead to some spectacular upheavals in the area.

If short-term but intense violence were to occur, the results would be bloody but (alas!) would probably have no more long-term effect than to more deeply cement the tensions already in the region, before proceeding on to one of the other solutions. One crazy wild card could be if significant Muslim-Christian violence would occur; that could cause American Evangelicals to suddenly put sharp pressure on the US government to intervene more directly, even militarily, and all sorts of shit could hit the fan. I’m going to pass over this briefly, not because it isn’t important, but because we presumably all know what this sort of thing looks like. And it’s bad.

If long-term civil violence were to occur, that’s probably the worst result of all. Tribal warfare could make the area dangerous for decades to come, essentially ending tourism and forcing the area to revert to its dwindling agricultural economy. In the long term, geography would rule: Egypt is basically a long, narrow strip of land, with its cities all clustered in the north and the absolutely critical Aswan dam infrastructure in the far south. A handful of key cities such as Luxor sit in between. Cairo and Alexandria would naturally fall into a single political domain; Aswan would naturally fall under the domain of whoever controlled the nearer cities to it, with Luxor probably being the natural base for that. The Sinai peninsula could be under Cairene control, or it could revert to Bedouin control, or Israel could preemptively reoccupy it as a buffer. One could easily see Egypt falling into such a partition in the medium- to long-term; here the problem is that the individual countries would be desperately short on resources and unable to coordinate. Effects such as desertification of the Nile valley would likely accelerate, leading to even worse problems in the long term.

So in conclusion, there are quite a few ways in which the Egypt situation could go extremely wrong at this point. My instinct is that the sooner the situation is resolved, the better for all concerned; a peaceful transition of power is still possible for the next few days, but after that the odds will start to get rapidly worse, and the chances that the ultimate result will be civil war, dictatorship, or mass poverty increase. The fastest way to end this would be for Mubarak to (peacefully!) leave the country; if any such negotiations are going on, as they presumably are, I can only wish them Godspede.

Published in: on February 2, 2011 at 11:15  Comments Off on The potentially bad news from Egypt  
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More from the Middle East

Just some random blurbs. The situation in Egypt continues to develop slowly; lots of marches, Mubarak has told his new VP to negotiate with el-Baradei, while presumably he himself is negotiating with various other countries for asylum.

Interestingly, King Abdullah of Jordan just dismissed his entire government and appointed Marou al-Bakhit as prime minister. Looks like a move to head off similar trouble in his country. That’s reasonably likely to work; while it’s not exactly a bunny-rabbits-and-kittens sort of regime, his government seems to be viewed as considerably less repressive than that of most of his neighbors.

Side thought on Jordan: The country is incredibly poor; it has two cities, a small strip of villages, and a great deal of open desert. Along with Israel and Lebanon, it’s one of only three countries in the Middle East not to have any oil. (“Dear God. You couldn’t have put the Holy Land somewhere else?”) In terms of population, it’s got three major groups: Arabs (dominant in the cities and the villages), Palestinians (which have largely been kept in giant refugee camps ever since 1967 — the government doesn’t really want them) and Bedouins. (Who live in the desert) It’s a constitutional monarchy, but with emphasis on the “monarchy” part. The city Arabs and the Bedouins both see themselves as the ones who are really the upper class. The villages — I have no idea how they actually survive or eat there. It’s not like the land is suitable for agriculture. But the relatively low overall population, and the attention that the government has paid to “security,” seems to make it a better bet than most countries in its area to maintain a stable regime. All told, this isn’t so bad.

Fatah and Hamas, meanwhile, have found one thing they agree upon — allowing absolutely no protests, clamping down on news, and so on. Unlikely that this will actually work, but they’re hoping to avert a popular uprising. My guess is that Fatah is much more vulnerable to this than Hamas, even though both are highly corrupt, because Hamas has a much more effective security apparatus. (Which is a euphemism for “secret police”)

Published in: on February 1, 2011 at 11:16  Comments (2)  
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Potentially good news from Egypt

What with all of my earlier warnings about the ways in which things could go catastrophically wrong in Egypt, it was good to wake up today and see a few signs that things may end up turning out better than expected. On top of the lack of looting, there have been a few really positive developments in the past day:

  • The army seems to have stayed on the sidelines. That’s generally a really good sign in revolutions; armies tend to either take advantage of revolutions to further separate themselves from the masses and basically take power, or to side with the people and stand by the sidelines. The army is typically much larger than the police force, and if it’s more grounded in the common people – rather than socially separated out – it can be a strong normalizing force in situations like these. (Compare e.g. the Russian army during the 1991 August Coup to the Burmese army)
  • The protesters seem to have fixed on Mohamed el-Baradei as their representative and spokesman. To quote a NYT piece:

“The Egyptian uprising, which emerged as a disparate and spontaneous grass-roots movement, began to coalesce Sunday, as the largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, threw its support behind a leading secular opposition figure, Mohamed el-Baradei, to negotiate on behalf of the forces seeking the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.”

This is great news for a number of reasons, the first of which is that Mr. el-Baradei – while not an experienced political leader – is by all accounts an upright and honest man, and one who seems to really understand how democracies work and believe in them. If he is really pushed to the fore, and if he receives the support from all sides needed to pull everyone together (by which I mean, he won’t have all of the contacts and experience to do this himself) then he could be the Lech Walesa of Egypt. The support of the Muslim Brotherhood suggests that at this point, their commitment to ensuring a stable political future for Egypt may outweigh their commitment to establishing a particular sort of future. They may well be betting that, in a functioning democracy, they will have the votes to achieve their key aims without violence – and much more importantly, that to do so would be better than to do so by seizing control themselves.

  • Finally, we’ve got some magic words from the US Secretary of State: she called for “an orderly transition to meet the democratic and economic needs of the people.” Parsing diplomatic-speak for a moment: the Secretary wouldn’t say anything in public unless it was fairly clear that there was going to be a transition, so it’s a pretty clear signal that the US has acknowledged that Mubarak is done with. “An orderly transition” is what you say when there’s a clear new government model in place (as opposed to outright anarchy) and you want to encourage this. It’s a signal that the US would back el-Baradei and help him with that support which he’s going to need.

Now, a note for those who have been wondering why the US didn’t declaim Mubarak more openly earlier on: I think the reason is pretty much that Mubarak was being considered as the lesser of several possible evils for a while, and the US knew that openly calling him out would simply sacrifice whatever leverage the US had with him in exchange for not very much at all. It wasn’t clear when his reign would end, or if it would end in a public revolution or a coup, or most importantly who would end up after him, and one thing that the US seems to finally be learning is that engineering coups to install “better” rulers is a recipe for disaster. And even now, with change in the offing, the US doesn’t want to be too loud about its support; being perceived as the US favorite wouldn’t do el-Baradei any favors. Even though I’d be willing to bet money that there’s a good deal of cheering going on right now in Foggy Bottom.

So this situation is nowhere near over yet, but I’d say that today showed some really positive signals for Egypt. If this manages to play out like it seems, we could have an actual democracy in the most populous Arab state; and the consequences of that for the rest of the Middle East could be fascinating.

Published in: on January 30, 2011 at 13:20  Comments (2)  
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Some more Egypt notes

Continuing our all-Egypt-all-the-time theme from the past few days, a few more small tidbits.

Per the NYT, last night’s riots seem to have specifically targeted government buildings, police stations, etc, and (significantly) left shops largely undamaged; many were reopening for business this morning, even as the party headquarters is still on fire. This is a good sign; shop looting during riots generally indicates that people are using a period of anarchy for score-settling, or (worse) that absent centralized control deeper faults in the society, especially along class or ethnic lines, are opening up. In short-term riots (such as e.g. the Rodney King riots in 1992 or the Crown Heights riots in 1991) this can exacerbate preexisting tensions; in situations where the existing government is likely to collapse altogether, that can quickly lead to large-scale internecine violence. Let’s hope this situation persists.

Mubarak appointed Omar Suleiman, his head of security services, as VP. I don’t think this is meant as a signal of proposed successorship (because, seriously, who would listen to that now?) but rather as a signal to the security forces of handing them more overt power and control in exchange for their loyalty. It’s not horribly surprising that those forces would ally with Mubarak, but it’s definitely to his advantage that they did so openly. The position of the army appears to still be ambiguous.

Finally, the important piece of background info which I keep forgetting to mention in these posts. About a week ago, al-Jazeera leaked a huge trove of documents from the past decade of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. These didn’t seem to get much news coverage in the US for some reason, but they’re a really big deal. Europeans were mentioning how they were harmful to Israel, because they show the Israelis rejecting significant Palestinian concessions as insufficient – but in the short term, these documents are potentially much more damaging to Fatah, since they show them not only negotiating in good faith, but offering significant concessions. This isn’t the sort of leak you dump out lightly; it’s the sort of thing which has the potential to lead to a popular (/Hamas- and Iran-guided) uprising in the West Bank, and the collapse of what’s left of the PLO/Fatah in favor of Hamas and more radical organizations. It plays well with al-Jazeera’s overall slant towards encouraging radicalism, and it could be a brilliant stroke against the last few relatively moderate people in the region. The impact so far seems at least somewhat limited; polls indicate that Fatah supporters largely believe the papers to be fabricated, while Hamas supporters largely believe them to be real. External corroboration from Israeli and US sources seems to indicate that the docs are in fact legit.

Basically, this was an attempt to throw a grenade into the middle of Middle East politics, set off a quick bloodbath, replace moderates with Iran-backed radicals, and in the long term do some damage to Israeli standing in the Western community. I suspect that it would have been more effective had the instabilities in Tunis and Egypt not grabbed the headlines away so dramatically, but they could still have an impact down the line. Keep your eyes open on this one.

Published in: on January 29, 2011 at 16:00  Comments (1)  
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