Posts Tagged Middle East

The Middle East Circa 2016

I have been remiss in not posting my remarks on a panel held on May 12, at the annual Soref Conference of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. I shared the podium with Robert Kagan and Robin Wright, and the assignment was to envision the Middle East five years hence, in 2016. The Institute has published a précis of the entire conference, including my panel. Below, my remarks as delivered (or you can watch me say the same thing here).

When I received the assignment for today, it reminded me of that 1999 book, Dow 36,000. At the time the authors wrote it, the Dow stood at 10,300, and the book became a bestseller. But today the Dow is only 20 percent higher than it was then—it’s only at 12,700. Last February, one of the co-authors wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Why I Was Wrong About ‘Dow 36,000′.” “What happened?” he wrote. “The world changed.” Well, what a surprise.

Now there was a lot of talk that sounded like “Middle East 36,000″ just a couple of months ago. This is a new Middle East, everything you thought you knew is wrong, bet on revolution and you’ll be rewarded handsomely with democracy. Let’s face it: Americans like optimistic scenarios that end with all of us rich and the the rest of the world democratic. There’s much in the American century since World War Two to foster such optimism. But while you enjoy reading your copy of “Middle East 36,000,” I’m going to quickly tell you what’s in the small print in the prospectus—the part that’s in Arabic.

First, the competition. For years, the structure was defined by what I’ll call, for short, the circle and the crescent. The circle was comprised of Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states, wrapping around the region. It was an informal alliance of unnatural allies. American credibility and the willingness to use its power kept the circle intact. Opposite it was the crescent, beginning in Iran and stretching westward through Iraq, Syria, and into Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamists. Iran’s skill in using its leverage has kept the crescent in alignment. The crescent is smaller but more cohesive and integrated than the circle—largely because it’s mostly Shiite.

These two formations are being transformed. In fact, the circle is pretty much broken, a scene of elbowing and shoving. The deterioration between Turkey and Israel started it, now the scuffling has commenced between Egypt and Israel, and this is only the beginning. In contrast, the crescent is still intact. As Syria wobbles, the Western end of the crescent could come undone. But the crescent is a more natural formation than the circle. Some of those in it happen to be cousins, so it’s more resilient. And even as Iran represses its own people, it’s been able to build bridges to Erdogan’s Turkey and post-Mubarak Egypt, capitalizing on disarray in the circle.

Now, what the competition might look like in 2016 is anyone’s guess. Alliances will have shifted; some states may flip alliances. But the key variable, I think, is whether the United States can or can’t resurrect a stable coalition of unnatural allies. If it can’t, a few cohesive middle powers are going to emerge as rivals for dominance, and they will be testing one another as they jostle to fill the void left behind by the United States.

There are four middle powers: Turkey, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. They are already operating beyond their borders, with flotillas to Gaza, and rockets to Lebanon, and secret bombings of Syria, and troops into Bahrain. By 2016, the middle powers will have developed more capabilities to do these sorts of things, from long-range missiles to surveillance satellites, and nuclear weapons will be next. And their competition will have intensified. In this respect, the Middle East in 2011 bears a certain resemblance to Europe in 1911. Looking five years out, that’s not an analogy we would want to see fulfilled.

Now you notice I didn’t include Egypt as a middle power. There has been much talk of Egypt returning to its Arab vocation, to its past role as a regional leader. It’s unlikely. Egypt is going to have to recover from the revolution, which will depress the economy as long as uncertainty lasts. Is Egypt too big to fail? That’s going to be the Egyptian question in Washington between now and 2016. Egypt desperately needs to raise the rent others pay for its good will, so while we’ll hear the sound of the rattling sabre, more insistent will be the sound of the rattling cup.

What about the other countries that aren’t middle powers? Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Yemen, the Palestinians? The defining character of these states is that they are highly segmented. Under a ruthless dictator, they have played larger roles—think of Iraq under Saddam, Syria under Hafez Asad, even the Palestinians under Arafat. But as the era of the dictators winds down, the likely outcome will be a mix of quasi-democratic practices with regionalism, sectarianism, and even tribalism. Violence will be endemic, and disaffected groups on the margins will seek to break away from ineffectual central governments. In some places, the very map may be redrawn. Some of these states are little empires, preserving in amber the interests of the long-defunct empires of Europe circa 1916. By 2016, some of these mini-empires could fracture. And in this volatile situation, Israel is unlikely to part from its own best lines of defense, the Jordan Valley and the Golan Heights.

Finally, a warning label on Islamism. Those who were mesmerized by images from Tahrir Square, and thought that Islamism was passé, saw only what they wanted to see. Today Islamists call the shots in Lebanon, they’ve survived a serious challenge in Iran, they dominate the scene in Turkey, they’re busy planning their creeping takeover in Egypt, and they’re poised to set the agenda for the Palestinians. Democracy, such as it is in these places, is usually a mechanism of Islamist empowerment. No one knows how this will play out by 2016. It does mean that Islamism’s opponents will have to be much more agile than they were when the dictators were doing the work.

So I’ve read you the small print. But this is just a caveat, not a prediction, and the story can be changed. It can be changed by what used to be called a “wild card,” but is now called a “black swan”—something unpredictable yet decisive. There could be an Iranian spring. There could be a breakthrough on energy. China could propel itself into the Middle East. Who knows? No one does.

More to the point, though, the United States could do something to help improve the story. Earlier I said that the key variable is whether the United States can or can’t resurrect a stable coalition of unnatural allies. The way to do this isn’t to resolve their age-old differences—you can’t, and you end up looking weaker for failing. The way to do it is to be consistent in rewarding your friends and punishing your enemies. Then people will want to be your friends, even if they don’t like the company. In other words, to resurrect the circle, you have to clip the crescent. You might not get to “Middle East 36,000.” But you might just prevent a crash.

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    A Zero-Sum Game

    This is Martin Kramer’s contribution to a roundtable on “Obama in the Mideast” organized by Lee Smith for Tablet Magazine. Other contributers: Elliott Abrams, Ramin Ahmadi, Andrew Exum, Dore Gold, Robert Malley, Lokman Slim, and Jacob Weisberg. Read in full here and here.

    “Power is no longer a zero-sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold.” Thus spoke Barack Obama to the U.N. General Assembly last September. This must rank with George W. Bush’s “bring ‘em on” as an invitation to America’s adversaries to defy it. Bush later expressed regret that he said his words, noting that “in certain parts of the world they were misinterpreted.” Obama likewise may rue having spoken his.

    In the Middle East, power is a zero-sum game, domination by a benevolent hegemon creates order, and the regional balance of power is the foundation of peace. It’s the pax Americana, and while it may be stressful to uphold it, the alternative is more stressful still. And as the impression of American power wanes, we are getting a foretaste of “post-American” disorder. A struggle has begun among the middle powers—Iran, Turkey, and Israel—to fill the vacuum. Iran floods Lebanon with rockets, Turkey sends a flotilla to Gaza, Israel sends an assassination squad to Dubai—these are all the signs of an accelerating regional cold war. Each middle power seeks to demonstrate its reach, around, above, and behind the fading superpower.

    The response in Washington is to huff and puff, imposing settlement “freezes” and “crippling” sanctions. This is the illusion of power, not its substance. The Obama Administration is bringing the United States out of the Middle East, to a position from which it believes it can “contain” threats with diplomacy, deterrence, and drones. As the United States decamps, its allies will feel insecure, its enemies emboldened. The Middle East’s stress test has begun.

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      How not to fix the Middle East

      My Columbia lecture has been published in the Middle East Papers series of Middle East Strategy at Harvard. My core argument is that the Obama administration is thwarting itself, by seeming reluctant to uphold American primacy in the region. More troops in Afghanistan are unlikely to change the Middle Eastern perception that the United States is something less than it was. That’s because Iran is seen as the true test of American resolve. Download the paper here.

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        Southwest Asia

        The appointment of Dennis Ross as “Special Advisor to the Secretary of State for The Gulf and Southwest Asia” (announcement here) has caused some puzzlement, in part because the geographic focus of his title seems fuzzy. This is especially so for “Southwest Asia.”

        On the face of it, “Southwest Asia” looks like a geographic reference, and it has always had a few enthusiasts among geographers. It’s also been favored by those who deem it less Eurocentric than “Middle East” or “Near East.” (Maybe it is, but since Asia as a continent is a European idea, calling any region “Southwest Asia” hardly solves the problem.) Once there was even a maverick academic program, at SUNY Binghamton, called the Program in Southwest Asian and North African Studies (SWANA for short). But “Southwest Asia” got no traction in American academe, and even the SUNY program eventually swapped SWANA for MENA (Middle East and North Africa).

        So when did “Southwest Asia” finally get its big break, and begin to turn up in high places as a near-synonym for the Middle East? “From the moment of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979,” wrote U.S. diplomat and strategist John C. Campbell, “Washington began to talk of ‘Southwest Asia’ instead of the Middle East as the area of crisis and of American concern.” Cold War strategists wished to emphasize that the region was crucial not because it was east of us, but because it was immediately southwest of the Soviet Union, which had a plan to push through to the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. The sooner Americans started thinking about the region as “Southwest Asia,” the sooner they would grasp the nature of the threat.

        National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski effected the shift in labeling. Two days after the Soviet invasion, he warned President Jimmy Carter that “the collapse of the balance of power in Southwest Asia… could produce Soviet presence right down on the edge of the Arabian and Oman Gulfs.” Carter, reeling from the combined effects of the invasion and the Iran hostage crisis, opened a dramatic television address to the nation some days later with these words: “I come to you this evening to discuss important and rapidly changing circumstances in Southwest Asia.” Carter proceeded to warn Americans of “a threat of further Soviet expansion into neighboring countries in Southwest Asia.” A month later, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee jumped on board, and held a series of landmark hearings later published as “U.S. Security Interests and Policies in Southwest Asia.”

        “A new name has been devised to cover these counties on which attention has been concentrated during the past 12 months,” wrote the military historian Sir Michael Howard in Foreign Affairs a year later. “Southwest Asia: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and the oil-bearing states bordering what now must tactfully be termed simply ‘the Gulf,’ all constituting a politically seismic zone of incalculable explosive potential.” Campbell later gave a similar definition: “‘Southwest Asia’ includes everything from the eastern fringes of the Arab world to the western limits of the Indian subcontinent.” (Campbell also added that “roughly, it is Zbigniew Brzezinski’s ‘arc of crisis.'” Brzezinski had coined that phrase a year before the Soviet invasion, and it figured prominently in a January 1979 story in TIME magazine, whose cover showed a Soviet bear looming over the Persian Gulf. TIME explained that Brzezinski’s “arc of crisis” consisted of “the nations that stretch across the southern flank of the Soviet Union from the Indian subcontinent to Turkey, and southward through the Arabian Peninsula to the Horn of Africa.”)

        This “Southwest Asia,” then, wasn’t a geographic reference at all, but a strategic one with a Cold War application. Not surprisingly, both the CIA and the Pentagon quickly picked up the term and ran with it. The CIA established a Southwest Asia Analytic Center, which produced papers like “The Soviets and the Tribes of Southwest Asia.” The Defense Department acted similarly, applying “Southwest Asia” (SWA) to a large area centered in the Gulf, but extending far beyond it. “Southwest Asia” is now the core of CENTCOM’s “Area of Responsibility” (AOR), which runs from Kazakhstan to Kenya.

        Which brings us back to the Ross appointment at the State Department. “Southwest Asia” isn’t much used at State, which still prefers “Middle East” and hasn’t even given up entirely on “Near East.” (“Southwest Asia” is regularly used only in the Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, where it includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, India, and Sri Lanka.) After the Ross announcement, journalists wanted to know exactly what Ross’s own area of responsibility covered. In particular, did it include Afghanistan and Pakistan, the original entry point to “Southwest Asia” of the Cold War strategists? Hadn’t responsibllity for both countries already been given to Richard Holbrooke, named only a month earlier as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan?

        At first, even the acting State Department spokesman, Robert Wood, didn’t know just what “Southwest Asia” included, which made for an embarrassing exchange at the Department’s daily press briefing. (Question: “You guys named an envoy for Southwest Asia. I presume that you know what countries that includes.” Wood: “Yes. Of course, we know. I just—I don’t have the list to run off—you know, right off the top of my head here.”

        But the next day, Wood had an answer:

        MR. WOOD: Let me give you my best—our best read of this. From our standpoint, the countries that make up areas of the Gulf and Southwest Asia include Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Yemen, and those are the countries.

        QUESTION: Not—not Afghanistan and Pakistan?

        MR. WOOD: Look, Ambassador Ross will look at the entire region, should he be asked to, including Afghanistan. But this is something that would be worked out. You were—you asked the question yesterday about Ambassador Holbrooke and whether there was going to be some kind of, I don’t know, conflict over who is working in—on that particular issues in that country.

        Look, Ambassador Ross and Ambassador Holbrooke will work together where necessary if they need to, if there’s some kind of overlap. But that’s, in essence, the State Department’s geographical breakdown of Southwest Asia.

        QUESTION: Okay. So it does not—it is not the same breakdown as the military uses?

        MR. WOOD: No, the military uses a different breakdown, but I’d have to refer you to them for their specific breakdown.

        QUESTION: So it doesn’t include Jordan? It doesn’t include—

        MR. WOOD: I just gave you the breakdown as I—as the State Department breaks it down.

        QUESTION: So if Ambassador Ross is special envoy—special advisor for Gulf and Southwest Asia, what is the difference between Gulf and Southwest Asia?

        MR. WOOD: Look—

        QUESTION: For me, this is Gulf.

        MR. WOOD: Well, it may be for you. For others, it may be different. I’d have to—I’ve given you what the Department’s position is with regard to the geographic makeup of the region.

        Why did the State Department construe “Southwest Asia” so narrowly—so much so that it really is indistinguishable from “The Gulf”? That’s a matter for speculation. One report says Ross did have Afghanistan and Pakistan on the list of countries he thought belonged in the package. Holbrooke reportedly insisted they both be dropped, and got his way.

        But it’s already clear that last week added yet another layer of confusion to the terminology the United States inflicts on the region to suit its own political, diplomatic, and strategic requirements. There is a “Near East” and a “Middle East” and a “Greater Middle East” (GME) and a “Middle East and North Africa” (MENA) and a “Broader Middle East and North Africa” (BMENA). And now, alongside the Defense Department’s greater “Southwest Asia,” we have the lesser “Southwest Asia” of the State Department as scaled down for Ross. (This is not to be confused with the “Southwest Asia” of the State Department’s own Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. Not a single country in that bureau’s “Southwest Asia” is identical to Ross’s.) Of course, labels tend to slip and slide across the map over time, depending on circumstance. It’s just remarkable to see them slip and slide at one time, in one building.

        Meanwhile, in Iran, there is no confusion, only outrage that the appointment of Ross mentions “The Gulf,” as opposed to the Persian Gulf. Iran has waged a persistent campaign to keep the Persian adjective firmly fastened to the Gulf. But the Iranian government won’t take offense at Iran’s inclusion in “Southwest Asia”—to the contrary. Last year a leading Iranian journalist wrote a column entitled “There Is No Middle East.” The message:

        The people of Southwest Asia and North Africa should not use the appellation Middle East to describe their home region because it was coined by European imperialists. The use of such non-indigenous terms only serves to reinforce mental slavery and subjugation…. The vocabulary that we use influences our thought patterns. If Muslims use Eurocentric vocabulary, even when speaking our own languages, it will undermine our sense of identity. A better substitute for the Middle East/North Africa would be Southwest Asia/North Africa, which could be abbreviated as SWANA.

        Don’t Persians know that the naming of Asia is owed to… the Greeks?.

        Reposted from Middle East Strategy at Harvard.

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        Below: Jimmy Carter delivers his January 4, 1980 televised address concerning the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. (There is a brief preface on the Iran hostages.) His White House diary records this as an “Address to the Nation on the situation in Southwest Asia.” Notice the prop in the opening shot: a globe positioned so as to show the region. Toward the end of this segment, the camera pans across a map. (If you cannot see the embedded clip, or wish to view the entire address, click here.)

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