Monday, May 25, 2009

Reading Beyond the Lines

Political Science, and in particular international relations, can be a dodgy subject because practitioners often deal in documents or sources that are less than reliable. These then get picked up by other sources and after a few references are so lost in the chain of evidence that few people think to question their legitimacy.

For example, just reading a story on Syria from the JPost that includes the following "citations":

"Syria's actions are evidence of the reality of a Middle East Cold War"

Anytime someone uses the word "reality" in close proximity to some incredibly complex historical phenomenon like "Cold War" that's being transferred to a different regional and temporal context it makes me a little skeptical

The rest of the article contains the following appeals to evidence, without citation or significant elaboration. All these are meant as condemnations of the Obama Administration's recent efforts to engage with Syria, but when compared to the policies/practices of other countries in the region (esp. US allies like Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia) they just read like hypocritical exercises in shaping the opinions of policy-makers and issue publics.

"it is well known" (regarding the domiciling of Hamas and IJ leaders in Damascus, which is true, but to suggest that allowing Khalid Meshaal to reside in Damascus somehow makes Syria unfit for engagement is ridiculous)

"reports have surfaced" (on Syrian construction of a biological weapons facility)

"It is known" (about Syrian stockpiles of the nerve agent sarin)

"It is thought by Western governments" (about a biological warfare program)

"the latest news is that" (about Damascus 'recommencing' its practice of facilitating the entry of 'Sunni jihadi fighters into Iraq' - which I'm guessing is coming from the NYTimes article a few weeks ago, except that the intel sources cited in the article didn't suggest that the Syrian authorities were facilitating the movement, just that it was increasing)

If this is what passes for hard evidence we are all in a lot of trouble.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

How many times can you answer a question about Palestine with "Well, Iran . . . "

Unfortunately, if you're Jeffrey Goldberg from The Atlantic, pretty much every time. He was one of three guests on the Dian Rehm Show this morning (along with Daniel Levy and David Makovsky) in a segment on Mideast Peace. The transcript isn't available yet, but it was something to this effect: In response to a question about Isreali public support for a two-state solution Goldberg responded:

It's unclear whether Iran will even allow there to be a solution to the conflict, it controls Hezbollah . . . . . [the rest was hard to get since I was nearly stricken deaf by the first part]

Two issues: first, responding to a question about the issue of a two-state solution with a reference to Iran is counterproductive. The I/P conflict has gone on for nearly half a century, long before Iran started a nuclear weapons program. So blaming this issue for stalling the peace process is disingenuous to say the least.

Second, Hezbollah has outgrown its Iranian "suppliers" to become a participant in a unity government in Lebanon where it commands significant support from the Lebanese population. To treat it as a surrogate for Iranian interests in the region is misleading and ignores the last 15 years or so of political change in Lebanese domestic politics.

Goldberg also responded to questions about the "Arab Public" (distinct from Arab leaders, who reflect the opinions of their publics just about as much as Glenn Beck reflects mine) with stories about personal meetings with (probably Egyptian) intelligence officers who told him how concerned they were about the Iranian threat!

First, someone who specializes in torturing members of the public probably isn't going to give you a unbiased account of their sentiment. And,

Second, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are losing major ground in the region to Qatar and Oman (and to a lesser extent Syria). The two gulf nations have made significant inroads in regional peace initiatives (Lebanon comes to mind immediately) and Syria is getting some positive signals from the White House (exempting the continuation of the sanctions, which was unfortunate and probably unnecessary, since they are largely symbolic and make little difference in trade between the two countries anyway). Qatar and Oman have better relations with Iran than the other Gulf States and Syria is gaining legitimacy as an important player in lots of regional initiatives. This suggests that Saudi Arabia and Egypt may be losing influence with their US ally, especially given Egypt's democratic backsliding in recent years. Of course the Egyptian and Saudi regimes are going to play up fears of the Iranian threat - this would help them prevent a rapprochement between the US and Syria and prevent closer ties from developing between the US and other gulf nations.

Monday, May 18, 2009

New Crackdown on Shiites in Morocco

NPR has a story on recent Moroccan police activity in Tangier and across the country, targeting individuals suspected of being Shiite. Seems that the authorities were trying to get an idea of the number of Shiites in the major city centers, since sources say that most of the high profile Shiite leaders were not questioned. Fits well into the "Shiite Crescent" narrative currently plaguing all the states in the region (the suspected Hezbollah cells in Egypt, the disgruntled Shiia minorities (sometimes majorities) in the Gulf, etc.) Unfortunately, it also adds fuel to the "Iranian-Israeli confrontation" perspective currently making the rounds in Washington. And as history shows, Arab leaders have no qualms about killing tens-of-thousands of their own people to get a handle on social unrest. It is also true that Israeli intelligence cooperates with the Moroccan authorities. When I was in Tangier there were stories circulating of a pending attack by Islamic militants on American sites in the city, reports which local and mainstream international news sources indicated were provided by Israeli intelligence. I hope this isn't an Israeli effort to beef up the argument for a military confrontation with Iran, or that if it is, I hope someone with enough authority also possesses enough judgment to see through it.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sure, those nukes will be just fine . . . .

Perhaps I'm alone in enjoying a leisurely perusal of the Bureau of Industry and Security's monthly "Major Cases" list available at It's got all sorts of delicious little morsels of corporate wrong-doing, like for instance Chiquita Banana's financing of terrorism in Columbia for which they've been convicted in the US Department of Justice. But, that's really another post. What I love most about the Major Case report is the number of times "UAE" and "Iran" appear in the same case log. Essentially, every sensitive technology or piece of dual-use equipment that makes its way into Iran does so via the UAE. And it's probably with pretty high-level approval as well. Oman, the UAE neighbor, appears in a NYTimes article today on just such charges. That's why the Bush Administration's decision to sign a deal with the UAE on nuclear technology is so . . . well, stupid. FP has a story to this effect here. This comes (again, ironically) just as El Baradei points out in this Guardian article that the ME region is a nuclear powder keg just waiting for some short-sighted policy to ignite the . . . . oh wait, this UAE deal must be it.

The Middle East Comes to Town: The New America Foundation

My dissertation advisor, Professor Shibley Telhami, is first to speak on this panel. The consummate diplomat, he still feels it necessary to point out the danger in allowing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to be overshadowed by concerns over Iran's nuclear program. This is certainly a tactic employed by not only those who want to delay a solution to Israel/Palestine (which would enhance Israel's position, since it can continue to build settlements in the meantime) but also those who want a military solution to the issue of Iran. This is a powerful confluence of interests - and it will take the voices of all those in favor of a rational, diplomatic solution to both issues (separately) to drown them out. When I was at the Israeli Embassy one year ago, I was fed this same issue linkage that's now being trotted out by every hawk and Netanyahu apologist in town. The Palestinian conflict was referred to as "secondary" and dismissed as a topic of legitimate concern in the face of obvious Iranian designs to nuke Israel. Iran, and its anti-Israeli rhetoric, would be seriously ostracized in the region if there were a real solution to the Palestinian-Israeli issue. Again, we see a radical minority in all three polities (Israel, Palestine and the US) stonewalling a real solution. Most Israelis want a two-state solution, and they want the settlements stopped. Most Palestinians and Americans want the same. Someone in the administration needs to stand up and say "Enough!" No more hiding behind the Iranian threat - institute the changes embodied in previous peace accords (even unilaterally) and weaken Iran's political legitimacy in the region. This is the first step - unfortunately it's not one that any elected leader seems brave enough to take (until of course he's out of office, aka Olmert).

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Can Hearts and Minds Be Bought? The Economics of Counterinsurgency in Iraq

A really interesting and convincing effort to analyze the question using quantitative data by Eli Berman from UC San Diego, Jacob N. Shapiro from Princeton University and Joseph H. Felter from Stanford. Details Iraqi responses to different types of violence (coalition/insurgent/sectarian) and tries to tease out trends and statistical relationships. No doubt involved countless hours of scrutinizing data and coding techniques, but the result seems to have been worth it. The pdf is available here.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Financial Times: An Assured Assad

You can read the article here.

WaPo: Iraq Militant Group's Pipeline Through Syria Revives After Long Gap

WaPo: "What we think right now is that we just don't know how much their senior leaders know about the foreign fighter network," said the senior U.S. military official, who discussed intelligence matters last week on the condition of anonymity. "As you can imagine . . . if they knew, it's not something they would be talking about."

"But we do think that the knowledge of these networks exists at least within the Syrian intelligence community," he said. "What level, if it's low or high up, we just don't have a good gauge on."

Me: This is interesting, given the conventional wisdom on the split within the Syrian regime between the "old guard/hard-liners" (who made their political and economic fortunes under Bashar's father and were reluctant to support the new President because his economic policies shifted the patronage pipeline to a new group of elites), and those closer to the President himself, (composed jointly of modernizing government elites, many family members with significant capital assets and a healthy dose of traditional opportunists). It might be this "old guard" who have the personal contacts and institutional experience to track cross-border movements like this, and they might not be too eager to lend support to Bashar's regime (especially in support of Damascus' efforts to engage in a political dialogue with the US). If such a dialogue did take place and tangible benefits resulted, this would seriously compromise the resistance/nationalist/socialist rhetoric that this "old guard" relies on for public support.

The US bombing last fall on the Syria/Iraq border was allegedly targeting this very traffic, but in Syria the rumor was that there were Syrian intelligence officials at the sight that evening and they had some knowledge of the raid beforehand. It's hard to believe that US planes could cross into Syrian airspace completely undetected. It may be that they were aware of the raid, and that the Syrian security apparatus estimated that such an attack would weaken Bashar's public support (since a similar attack during his father's tenure would no doubt have triggered a stern response, a model that the security officials correctly estimated Bashar would not follow). However, it seems to have back-fired. The Syrian people took to the streets in protest and the American School was closed (and lots of Americans and Europeans who taught there were forced to leave the country). But instead of demanding action, most political elites used the raid as an example of Syrian restraint and the illegality of US military actions.

Despite the apparent "subversive Syrian intel" angle, I think the most interesting thing to come from the article is this:

WaPo: The flow of foreign fighters through Syria reached a high of 80 to 100 a month in mid-2007, the senior military official said, most of them would-be suicide "martyrs" increasingly recruited from extremist communities in North Africa by jihadist Web sites and networks abroad.

Me: So, although most of them passed through Syria, few if any of them are actually Syrian. I think this says a lot about the influence that domestic politics and economics can have on the creation or 'production' of terrorists. There are two possibilities: (1) the Syrian regime has been sufficiently cruel and barbarous to its indigenous religious opposition, preventing the rise of a uniquely Syrian terrorist network operating in Iraq or (2) the US allied regimes of North Africa (including Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia, although perhaps not Algeria) are for whatever reason not as effective at preventing the spread of extremism. This could be for a number of reasons, not all of them having to do with torturing religious opposition. For all its faults, Syria has significantly less income disparity and overall poverty than the countries of North Africa, and its government's refusal to adhere to US imperatives provides for a certain release valve. If Syrians cannot object to their own political system at least they can object to the US (and by extension Israel). Such talk is not tolerated in North Africa, and far from preventing the rise of extremism, it seems to channel it into concrete expressions of political violence.

You can read the article here.

Another Cabinet Shuffle in Syria

Conspiracy Theorists Rejoice! The release of four pro-Syria Lebanese Generals implicated in the Hariri assassination has been followed by the replacement of the Syrian Minister of the Interior. The position is usually reserved for what analysts would characterize as a member of the "old guard," that is the more hard-line politicians that make us the security-intelligence apparatus. The Justice Minister was also replaced (by Ahmad Younis, I think a former head of the Syrian Military Academy). According to this IWPR article, the shuffle was disappointing as most had hoped for more substantive change.

Fatah's Abbas to Visit Damascus Today

At least this means Khaled Meshaal (Chairman of Hamas Political Bureau) and Abbas will be in the same country. Not getting much news coverage, perhaps everyone is waiting for the post-meeting roundup. This is another reason why Damascus might have been a better locale for Obama's address than Cairo, since actually getting Fatah and Hamas leaders in geographic proximity is undoubtedly a first step toward a unity government and eventual peace with Israel. Also a direct challenge to Egypt's continued insistence that it is the best partner for catalyzing regional peace. Syria News Wire has a link here.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Sheikh Issa Torture Tapes

Grain merchant in the UAE tortured almost to death by Crown Prince's brother (Sheikh Issa) over equivalent of $5,000. Because the grain merchant doesn't actually die in these tapes, I'm sure this classifies as mere "enhanced interrogation methods." Really disturbing.