Category Archives: Middle East

The Arab Spring at Nine Months

What a whirlwind nine months it’s been for the Arab world. As I wrote at a much earlier point in this phenomenon called the ‘Arab Spring’, it is as if some tremor in the long-frozen tectonic plates of the region’s political geography had suddenly burst through all those plates, freeing up waves of long-frozen political energy that have ricocheted– and continue to ricochet– through all the region’s countries.
This is a phenomenon of an almost Biblical 40-year periodicity: After all, it was back in around 1970 that the Arab world’s political shape settled into broadly the same pattern that it then retained until January of this year.
(As it happens, I made my first visit to the region– to Beirut– in 1970. This is, I realize, neither here nor there… Mainly, it makes me feel old.)
It was in 1969 that a young colonel called Muammar Qadhafi had toppled “King” Idris in Libya… The political shifts that occurred in the Arab world the following year were more closely related to Palestine since they stemmed in good part from the tragic battles of 1970’s ‘Black September’. In those battles, Jordan’s U.S.-backed (and discreetly Israeli-backed) King Hussein reimposed an oppressive system of total control on his kingdom (and on its national population which then as now included a numerical majority of ‘West Bank’ Palestinians) by chasing out the Palestinian guerrillas who had become well established there over the preceding three years… Provocatively well established, one could say. The king’s Black September campaign was, indeed, directly precipitated by an action in which the PLO-affiliated Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked four international aircraft and landed them at an airstrip in northern Jordan…
During Black September, the Cairo-based Arab League worked hard to try to negotiate a settlement between Hussein and the Palestinians. On September 27, Egypt’s iconic, strongly Arab-nationalist president Gamal Abdel-Nasser convened an emergency summit meeting of Arab leaders in Cairo in an attempt to hammer out an agreement. The next day, he suffered a heart attack and died. (Five million Egyptians flocked to the streets to witness the passing of his cortege.)
Nasser was succeeded in the presidency by his vice-president, Anwar Sadat, a man who shared Nasser’s military background but not his commitment to a broadly ‘non-aligned’ form of Arab nationalism. Throughout Sadat’s eleven years in office, his main goal was to steer Egypt into a close alliance with Washington; and he seemed more than willing to enter into the bilateral peace agreement with Israel that was the entry-fee for that alliance. The Egyptian-Israeli peace of 1979 decoupled mighty Egypt from the Palestinians’ long-running quest for national liberation. After Sadat was assassinated in 1981, his vice-president, Hosni Mubarak, succeeded him. Mubarak hewed just as closely to the pro-American path as his predecessor. His longevity and the hyper-alertness of his ever-repressive mukhabarat gave him the time in office that neither Nasser nor Sadat had, in which to build the basis of dynastic rule..
Notably, in all the time Mubarak was president, he never named a vice-president… He also increasingly evidently started to groom his son Gamal to succeed him.
Meantime, back in the Black September of 1970, the conflict in Jordan soon enough made its effects felt on Syria, as well. The ‘leftist’ wing of the Baath Party, which until then was in power in Syria, had sent tanks into northern Jordan to help the Palestinians. But when those tanks came under threat of serious attack from Hussein’s tanks, the ground forces commanders in Damascus begged for air support from Syria’s air force. The air force commander, Hafez al-Asad, turned down their request. Without any air support, the Syrian tanks retreated speedily back to Syria; and amidst the political chaos and bouts of recriminations that ensued he undertook a swift coup in Damascus that brought his much more cautious, centrist wing of the Baath Party into power…
Where it has stayed until today.
Asadist Syria pursued, by and large, a much more ‘statist’ and less ideological set of policies than its predecessor. On many occasions that involved taking very harsh actions– against Syrians, against Lebanese, and against the Palestinians in both Syria and Lebanon.
… In Syria, Hafez al-Asad was almost seamlessly followed into power by his son, Bashar. In Jordan, Hussein was almost seamlessly followed by his son, Abdullah II. In Egypt and Libya, over the decade of the 2000s, it became increasingly clear that the rulers, despite claims of allegiance to republican idealism, were preparing an ‘Asadist’ type of familial succession…
In the PLO, Yasser Arafat was followed into power by his decades-long Fateh colleague Abu Mazen. No generation change there. And over the years Fateh, too long in power with too little to show for it except the continuous expansion of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, suffered increasing internal rot.
* * *
Of course, many other huge things were happening in the Arab world in the 40 years that followed 1970. There were numerous important wars. There was the landmark Madrid peace conference of almost exactly 20 years ago today. There was the whole inglorious ‘Oslo’ episode, whose endless rounds of useless negotiations ended up merely providing cover for Israel’s continued paving over of the West Bank… There was the bloody and horrendously traumatic American invasion of Iraq… an action that– as soon as it became abundantly clear that the original casus belli of forestalling a ready-to-go Iraqi WMDs program was a figment only of the U.S. neocons’ over-active imaginations– was retroactively redefined as having had the purpose of “bringing democracy to the Arab world.”
That ideological repositioning of what, as everyone in the region quickly saw, turned out to be a bloody and longlasting disaster, wrought havoc on the dreams and projects of the many democrats throughout the Arab world. Along with all their other compatriots, those democrats looked at the fitna (social breakdown) and grand-scale human suffering that followed the conducting of no less than three popular votes in Iraq, under the auspices of the US military occupation, in the period 2005-06… And they concluded, quite reasonably, that U.S.-imposed democracy was certainly not the way to go.
Indeed, it’s quite possible to surmise that the ‘Arab Spring’ might have happened several years earlier, if the dead weight of the Iraqi experience had not been hung around the neck of Arab democrats over the past few years.
* * *
A full history of the ‘Arab Spring’ needs to take into account the many more proximate influences that led up to it… The inspiration of the Palestinians’ First Intifada of 1987-93… and of the early months of the Second Intifada of late 2000. (Westerners forget too often that the first 6-8 weeks of the Second Intifada were almost wholly nonviolent on the Palestinian side. It was only after the Israeli forces had killed more than 200 unarmed Palestinians that the Palestinian factions decided to take up arms.) … The disturbing sight of Pres. Mubarak (and Jordan’s King Abdullah) lining up time after time after time to support Israel’s extremely destructive and lethal attacks against its neighbors… The rampant takeover of so many economies in the Arab Mashreq by self-interested crony capitalists, and all the disruption, privation, and human misery that resulted from that (See this recent strong reporting on the role that US aid programs played in this regard, in Egypt. Also, go and buy Rami Zurayk’s fabulous book, Food, Farming, and Freedom, to see the account he gives of the role that US-imposed trade and aid policies played in bringing about the destruction of rural livelihoods and rural communities all around the Arab world.)… The intensification of campaigns of repression by so many Arab governments, that in the cases of Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Libya, and the Palestinian Authority– okay, not strictly a ‘government’, but still– were all actively supported by Washington… The repeated, glaring instances of the double standards Washington applied to any matter concerning the region, running the gamut from accusations of nuclear weapons programs (Iran’s, vs. Israel’s), to support for democratization and freedom of expression (Iran, vs. Egypt, the PA, Jordan)… The humiliating knowledge that all the important decisions in so many Arab countries were being taken with Washington and Israel’s interests in mind, way above any interest in the citizens’ own wellbeing…
Yes, no wonder that under the tectonic plates of the long-ossified Arab political system, huge forces of dissent were simmering.
Starting last December 17, within short order, the following things happened:

  • Vegetable vendor Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated in a provincial town in Tunisia, sparking a mass protest movement nationwide;
  • Tunisian president Ben Ali fled the country (January 14);
  • mass demonstrations convened in Cairo’s Tahrir Square (January 25 and 28);
  • the Egyptian military stepped in and removed Mubarak from power (February 11);
  • the Security Council issued a first stern demarche to Libyan ruler Qadhafi warning him to stop armed attacks against unarmed civilian demonstrators (February 26– in resolution 1970);
  • and followed up (March 17, resolution 1973) with a resolution authorizing members states, “to take all necessary measures… to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory”…and two days later, French jets roared over Benghazi to start the NATO-plus, stand-off operations against Libya that seven months later resulted in the rebels’ takeover of the whole country and the grisly killing in captivity (October 20) of Muammar Qadhafi.

* * *
Meanwhile, extremely large-scale and well-organized pro-democracy movements in two key countries in the Arabian Peninsula– Bahrain and Yemen– were being very violently repulsed by national governments that have long been key allies of the United States.
In the tiny island monarchy of Bahrain (home to the U.S. Navy’s ‘Fifth’ Fleet), an amazingly well disciplined pro-democracy movement had grown up over the years and, as the Tunisian and Egyptian mass movements came out onto the streets, Bahrain’s democrats decided to do the same, as well. Their main occupation/claiming of public space occurred at the Pearl Roundabout, a hub graced by a towering sculpture of a pearl… (Pearl diving had been the traditional occupation of the Bahraini indigenes, most of them Shiite, long before Sunni travelers from across the water in the Arabian mainland had come across and established trading-posts, followed by an ’emirate’, and even more recently, a ‘monarchy’.)
On March 16– just one day before Washington so hypocritically supported resolution 1973 against Qadhafi– the Bahraini forces, aided by Saudi forces sent in along the causeway Saudi Arabia had built to Bahrain some years ago– moved in to crush the democracy movement. Two days later, they even demolished the whole of the ‘Pearl’ monument. Read Amnesty International’s reports of continuing gross rights violations in Bahrain since then.
The situation in Yemen is at this point far less clear-cut. Indeed, it has always been so, Yemen is a massive country. Its population of 23.5 million citizens is easily the largest citizen body on the whole Arabian Peninsula. But it doesn’t have oil; and it is far and away the poorest country on the Peninsula.
Look, I don’t know a lot of detail about Yemen’s internal politics. It is a mountainous country, and as a result home to many different kinds of social groups, nearly all of them Arabic-speaking. There are reportedly some strongly matrilineal tribes there, where the men sit around and braid their hair all day. There are very dark-complected African communities that retain many of their African folkways. There are some expanses of flat cultivated land where farmers wear conical straw hats. There are northerners and southerners, easterners and westerners, Zaidis and Houthis and Hadhramautis and more… (Probably one of the best sources for good information about Yemen– as for so much else– is the Jadaliyya website, where you can find the work of Sheila Carapico, Stephen Day, Fawwaz Trabulsi, and more… Or, these two very informative recent pieces in Middle East Report: by Sheila Carapico, in May, and Stacey Philbrick Yadav, last week.)
One snapshot picture I have of Yemen is that it is “Saudi Arabia’s Gaza.” That is, it’s the place from which Saudi Arabia took some of the best land– and then, to which, in 1991, it relegated huge numbers of people who had previously labored hard in the Saudi economy… in this case, more than a million… while it replaced them with short-term contract laborers imported on very short-term and repressive contracts from Asia.
Just like Israel, with the Palestinians of Gaza…
Pertinent fact: GDP per capita in SA (2005):$14,979. GDP per capita in Yemen (2005): $923.
But I do recognize that the situation in Yemen is far more complicated, politically, than the situation in Gaza.
One of the complications is the U.S. hand in Yemen, which is exercised almost wholly by the U.S. military, in its pursuit-by-drone of alleged leaders and members of the group described as “Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula” (AQAP). Pres. Ali Abdullah Saleh evidently entered some years ago into a pact with Centcom whereby Centcom or the Special Operations Command had considerable freedom to “hunt down” alleged AQAP people in broad areas of Yemen on the basis of “plausible deniability” by Saleh himself– and in return for significant, broader security and political support by the U.S. (and Saudi Arabia) for Saleh, against any domestic opponents.
(Okay, in this respect, much like Washington’s relationship with the Pakistani military.)
Politically, the Obama administration has apparently reached the (not unreasonable) conclusion that it really does not know how to “intervene” effectively in Yemen; and it has subcontracted this job– as in Bahrain?– to the Saudis. Hence, Saleh has made a number of trips to Saudi Arabia over recent years– and remember, the intense internal unrest in Yemen antedates Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation, by several years, going back (at least) to the outbreak of the Houthi rebellion in 2004-2005. Some of those trips by Saleh to Saudi Arabia were under the guise of “getting medical help”; some under other pretexts. Earlier this year, it seemed that the Saudis had “decided” to replace him in power in Sana’a during one of his absences from the city– but then, there he was again recently, back in Yemen with the apparent blessing of the Saudis.
We should not, of course, in this survey of “where we are the Arab Spring”, ignore the role that the Saudis– and to a lesser extent the Qataris– have played… At the regionwide level, the Saudis’ main contribution has been to bankroll the counter-revolutionary (anti-democratic) forces. But for the Saudi rulers, both Bahrain and Yemen are crucial components of their own back yard.
Of course, Saudi Arabia is now itself in the midst of an extremely long-drawn-out succession crisis. Saudi “diplomacy” has anyway always been a very episodic, personality-driven business, with very little institutional basis for sustained follow-through or monitoring of anything that’s happening in foreign affairs. But now, King Abdullah is stumbling ever closer to his 90th birthday. (Question of the day: How much longer can the most expensive advances in American medical science keep this man alive?) His designated ‘Crown Prince’, Prince Sultan, finally passed away last week. (As’ad AbouKhalil thinks he died a long time ago. But anyway, the death got announced last week.) And then, as I’ve noted here before… the crown is likely to pass along the long line of still-surviving sons of King Abdul-Aziz bin Saud, all of them now aged between their late 60s and their late 80s, before a transition of some peaceable or non-peaceable form takes place to a member of the next generation.
So we should not necessarily expect any very intelligent or reasoned set of policies to be emanating from Riyadh, with regard to any of these ‘Arab Spring’ developments.
This is probably a very important place to note the importance of Sunni-Shia differences, or perceptions or fears of such, in what’s happening in many places during this ‘Arab Spring’– most especially in all the Gulf Countries (including inside Saudi Arabia), and also in Syria.
Yes, I’m getting to Syria here. Bear with me.
In regard to the Sunni-Shia ‘issue’, the experience of Iraq in the wake of the U.S. invasion of 2003 has had huge effects in the region. Prior to March 2003, Saddam’s regime was seen by all the Sunni-dominated regimes of the Gulf as a very valuable “bulwark” against any encroachment of Shiite power from Iran. In the view of the GCC monarchs, the U.S. invasion ended up simply “giving” Iraq to the Shiites and also to Iran. They don’t tend to focus on the fact that the vast majority of the Shiites in Iraq– as in their own countries– are ethnically Arabs, not Persians; and they are not necessarily pre-disposed to prefer Tehran’s rule over self-rule. Shiaphobia, that is, an exaggerated fear of Shiites, is a huge driver of the foreign policies pursued by all the GCC governments; and as in the case of all such phobias, this one cannot easily be assuaged by reference to such mundane things as facts, or the existence of a long history of a shared life together, or even much basic human decency…
Bottom line on the Saudis: expect continued erratic flip-flops in the way they pursue their regional interests. Also, expect that the succession issue will dominate the attention of all senior princes; and it may well interact in interesting and surprising ways with Riyadh’s pursuit of its regional diplomacy.
Bottom line on Yemen: expect a lot more tragedy, conflict, and suffering ahead– unless the forces of the country’s impressively resilient and focused opposition movement can succeed in slowly expanding their power until Saleh decides to do the decent thing and follow Ben Ali into exile.
* * *
So now, Syria.
Back in May, I was articulating my judgment that the country has both a resilient government and a resilient opposition movement… And therefore, sadly, that the stand-off between them would most likely continue for a further long while. And that has been the case.
Back in May, I was arguing that the best way to break this stalemate, and thereby to save the Syrian people from the huge amount of suffering that it would necessarily involve, would be to have some kind of authoritative, externally mediated negotiation between the regime and the opposition, over the modalities of how real democratic reform could speedily be instituted in the country.
Neither side was willing to enter such a reform process voluntarily. For the regime, any hint of entering serious negotiations with the opposition would seem to give the opposition some legitimacy. For the opposition, the only thing that most of its supporters were willing to negotiate about back then– and probably, still today– was the exit of the regime. Many of these oppositionists felt, too, that even letting the regime’s leaders leave the country safely, in the manner of Ben Ali, would not be enough: They wanted to see Asad and his cronies “brought to justice”, “held fully accountable”, humiliated, punished, and brought low.
There was also (and remains) the question of the ability of leaders on each side to enter into a negotiation, as well. On the regime side, how much freedom of action does Pres. Bashar al-Asad actually have, in such matters? And on the opposition side, it is not as if you have one single, dominating and disciplined pro-democracy movement along the lines of, say, the ANC in late-apartheid South Africa. The Syrian opposition has been marked by a cacophony of voices (despite the best efforts of the U.S. government, Turkey, and others, to persuade its figures and personalities to try to unify and get their act together.)
Back in May, I was arguing that of the available outside negotiators, the government of Turkey seemed to be the one best placed– and also, most highly motivated– to try to lead the mediation mission. The good positioning came, I thought, from the good relations that Ankara had built with both the regime and some parts of the Syrian opposition– as well as from the general attitudes of Syria’s people toward Turkey, which shifted to being extremely favorable over the past few years, especially in light of the “no visa” policy between them and the attractiveness of the “Turkish model” for economic affairs and governance, which a vast majority of Syrians have seen as distinctly preferable to that offered by their other major partner in the region, Iran.
Turkey’s motivation, I argued, would come from the facts that its border with Syria is by far the longest of any of its land borders; and that Syria is an important transit country for Turkish companies doing business with Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and several other Arab countries.
But I guess that Turkey’s AK Party leaders saw things differently. In the weeks after I was writing and speaking about this topic back in May, Ankara (and perhaps a large part of Turkish public opinion, as well?) started shifting noticeably toward giving ever stronger support to the Syrian opposition. I have wondered what motivated this shift, which seemed to fly in the face of the AK Party’s longstanding policy of seeking “zero problems with the neighbors”. Was it merely a desire to try to be “on the right side of history”, that was arrived at after conducting some form of analysis that the Asad regime’s days were numbered? Earlier in the spring, Ankara had undertaken just that kind of a recalibration with respect to Libya: There, Turkey had previously had extensive business links with the Qadhafi regime. But on March 19 (or shortly thereafter), Ankara was lining itself up with those of the NATO forces who were participating in the sea blockade of Libya– that, after it had successfully extracted the thousands of Turkish workers who had previously been working on huge construction contracts in Libya (along with, as I recall, some number of wounded Libyans who needed to be evacuated from encircled cities.)
Or was Ankara’s shift motivated by more ideological, Sunni-ist concerns? Who knows?
Anyway, suffice it to say that Ankara’s increasing identification with the Syrian opposition played a role in hardening the political positions espoused by many oppositionists. In addition, various outside forces proved themselves able to push significant amounts of arms into Central Syria (to Homs, from the north Lebanese city of Tripoli and elsewhere in Lebanon), and into northeastern Syria, from Iraq. The fact that the Israeli secret services have strong networks in both some areas of Lebanon and some areas of northern Iraq should not be ignored– but there are plenty of other actors who could also be suspected of having a hand in this.
It has been really hard to get solid news out of Syria. Nir Rosen has done some good work for the Al-Jazeera website. But much of Al-Jazeera’s reporting has been hyperbolic and based on the thinnest of sourcing. Since Qatar started working openly with NATO in Libya, the Qatari government seems to have exercised a lot more control over Al-Jazeera’s reporting; and in Syria, Qatar’s deeply Wahhabist government seems to have decided at some point– along with the Saudis– to throw its weight behind the Sunni-ist portions of the Syrian opposition.
For a while, some opposition voices in Syria were openly calling for NATO to repeat, in their country, the same kind of operations they had mounted against Libya. But a number of things stopped that from happening. The most important was the veto that both China and Russia cast on October 4, against a resolution that seemed (though in slightly softer tones) to deliver the same kind of demarche to Syria that resolution 1970 had earlier delivered to Libya, and thus to prepare the way for a military intervention-enabling resolution like 1973 at some later point.
That draft resolution did receive the nine votes that, absent any vetoes, would have allowed it to pass. It was a notable moment in the dynamics of the world system when China and Russia delivered their vetoes. Brazil, India, South Africa, and Lebanon also abstained during that vote. It is entirely possible that the two veto-wielders– and possibly the other ‘BRICS’ members on the Security Council, where by chance all five were present– were worried about the ‘R2P’-derived precedent that the Libyan intervention had set, which might one day be used against any of them. It is possible that many of those BRICS countries found that the way the situation had unfolded in Libya (where the anti-Qadhafi rebels had already seized Tripoli and were exhibiting a notable lack of ability to govern fairly and effectively) was also of great concern to them. And it is possible that for some of them, the sovereignty of Asad’s Syria was seen as in some way more deserving of their support than that of Qadhafi’s Libya– especially given Qadhafi’s wholesale leap into the pro-western camp in recent years. We should note, however, that South Africa was already strongly opposed, for African-solidarity reasons, to the NATO intervention in Libya; so its failure to support the west’s resolution on Syria was really no surprise.
No matter what the motivations of individual BRICS countries, the fact of the Russian and Chinese vetoes changed the calculus of all involved in Syria, making it very clear that no Libya-style, overt western military intervention would be happening there any time soon.
Another development that almost has almost certainly affected the regional environment around Syria has been the resurgence of Kurdish (PKK) anti-regime violence in Turkey. Activating “the Kurdish issue” is something that all those four countries with significant Kurdish populations– Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey– know how to do against each other. And of those four countries, probably Turkey, with its in-my-opinion genuine aspirations to move toward greater democracy and its very significant Kurdish population, is more vulnerable to the re-emergence of a “Kurdish issue” than any. Regardless of the nature of any external sponsorship Turkey’s Kurdish militants may have received– and both Iran and Syria have their own separate reasons to have done this– the re-emergence of PKK violence was doubtless a huge headache for Ankara.
In the end, though, in the aftermath of the failure of the western move at the Security Council, it was the Arab League, not Turkey, that stepped in to explore the possibilities for brokering a negotiated end to Syria’s internal strife. An Arab League delegation arrived in Damascus yesterday. It was greeted by large pro-Asad demonstrations in the capital and some reported instances of anti-Asad strikes being observed in Homs and other cities.
(One word of warning to the Arab League negotiators: Remember the fate of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, 41 years ago.)
The commentary that the FT’s Roula Khalaf had on the Arab League mission yesterday is probably worth reading. She wrote:

    Qatar, the exceedingly wealthy autocracy which has emerged as the unlikely champion of the oppressed across the Arab world, is leading the delegation, despite initial grumbles from Damascus. But the six-member mission also includes Egypt, Oman, Algeria and Yemen…
    Needless to say the presence of the foreign minister of Yemen on the delegation to Damascus should reassure Assad. In fact, Sana’a could give the Syrian strongmen some good advice – namely to take a page out of Saleh’s book and pretend to agree to Arab initiatives without implementing any of their stipulations…
    The whole point of the Arab League mission is also puzzling. The foreign ministers are giving Assad and the Syrian opposition two weeks to hold a national dialogue. But, as many diplomats in the Arab world know, if such a meeting were ever to take place – and it is unlikely – it will be based on a reform plan that seems to be unworkable. Assad is not about to agree to share power with the opposition. And after nearly seven months of atrocities, the Syrian national council, the umbrella opposition group, is not about compromise with the regime or wait, as the plan suggests, until 2013 to have free presidential elections.
    Diplomats tell me that the Arab League has no choice but to tread carefully when it comes to Syria, which is far too important strategically and still has a few good friends in the region…

And from Washington, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, seemed to confirm the need for the Arab states to tread carefully when it comes to Syria. He told journos at a press breakfast on Tuesday that “We do see a possible ouster of Mr. Assad as affording an opportunity to us.”
* * *
So, there is a massive amount of geopolitics swirling around– and often penetrating deeply inside– the politics of the Arab Spring. And there remains a lot of uncertainty about the outcomes– in all the Arab countries, and indeed in the region as a whole. Here, though, are some of my preliminary thoughts at this stage:

    1. The overwhelmingly peaceable and overwhelmingly civilian mass movements that swept the dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt from power were unalloyed good news. The outcomes in both those countries may not be as truly wonderful as we might hope. But the peoples of the two countries have provided themselves with a decent chance of being able to build robust and largely accountable and democratic political systems, in place for the repressive systems they have labored under for so many years. Read this account, from JWB’s upcoming, Cairo-based author Issandr El-Amrani, on how exhilarating he found Tunisia’s recent elections… (Okay, Issandr is less optimistic regarding Egypt. But still, I am sure he would agree with me that the prospects for serious positive political developments there are still far, far greater than any of us would have imagined just one year ago.)
    2. The overwhelmingly civilian mass pro-democracy movements in Bahrain and Yemen also been deeply inspiring. Hey– I never gave a shout-out yet to Yemen’s fabulous, inspiring leader Tawakkol Karman for being a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize this year. Huge congratulations, Ms. Karman! despite the creativity and commitment of the members of the movements in those two countries, however, both have met serious resistance… And in both cases, that resistance has been supported by Washington. Shame, shame shame! (And something that all of us in the pro-justice movement here in the United States ought to be working hard to reverse.)
    3. In Syria and elsewhere there have also been large-scale civilian mass movements taking real risks to fight for political reform. But it’s been harder to gauge the real reach and influence of those movements. And in Syria, as in Yemen, there have been serious armed elements involved alongside the unarmed mass movements.
    4. Libya has been seen as a real test case for the whole western liberal notion of ‘R2P’– which far too many western liberals take to mean that “international community” (however fuzzily defined) has a prima facie duty to support the human rights of beleaguered peoples in all other countries. Actually, the UN’s R2P documents don’t say that. They say that governments everywhere have the first duty to protect the the lives and safety of their peoples; but that if they fail to do so, then the UN can step in to take such steps as are deemed necessary to save the peoples’ lives. Big difference.
    So what we saw in Libya was a UN-allowed, NATO-led military intervention that was launched in the first instance under the rubric of enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya in order to protect the civilians of Benghazi from what was described to us all as a completely certain humanitarian disaster. The western leaders never paid any heed to the facts that– as I blogged at the time– the humanitarian situation in Benghazi was actually getting better in the days immediately before their bombings started; or, that the African Union leaders were poised to undertake the kind of tension-deescalating negotiations that resolution 1973 had also specifically called for.
    Since March 19, Libya has seen scores of thousands of conflict-related deaths and maimings, and the country’s political space has been largely taken over by a clutch of mutually competing armed gangs. It looks very like Iraq in 2006 or so. And in keeping with that “Iraqi” theme, we saw the disgusting scenes of Muammar Qadhafi being brutalized while in captivity and then turning up shortly afterwards having been executed by a gunshot to the head.

Is this what the building a strong democracy looks like? No, no, no! I am in great fear as to the suffering and continued conflicts that the Libyan people will see over the months and years ahead.
Like Iraq before it, what happened in Libya is surely not a “model” for any people– in the Arab world or elsewhere– who seek a life of human dignity, security for their families, and accountable governance.
So the “balance sheet” for the Arab Spring is at this point decidedly mixed, but still on balance positive. What is clear is that the social and political forces that were unfrozen by Mohamed Bouazizi (and before him, to be fair, by Khaled Said in Egypt) have set the whole Middle East on a political course whose dynamism still has a lot more unfolding to do.
In upcoming blog posts I plan to examine the effects of the Arab Spring so far on the Palestinian issue; and also (in more depth than previously), on the response of the western media to the Arab Spring. Stay tuned.

Two months of tumult: Pointers for the global tomorrow

The two months since the fall of Tunisia’s Pres. Zein el-Abidine Ben Ali have been marked by tumult throughout the Arab world and now, most recently, by the mega-lethal effects that geological and oceanic activity have had in Japan: effects that remind us again how vulnerable is all human life on this earth, and how unsustainable have become many of the economic and power generation systems the modern world relies on.

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Libya: What can and should outsiders do?

I’ve been following the news of the carnage in Libya with huge sorrow, and there seems little hope it can be ended soon. Anti-Qadhafi forces seem to have taken control of large portions of the east of the country, while the country’s dangerous and possibly deranged long-time leader has been reinforcing his positions in the capital, Tripoli.
There has been a lot of anguished discussion over what outside powers should “do” about Libya, with a lot of this focusing on imposing a “no-fly zone” over the whole country, presumably with the aim of preventing Qadhafi from rushing in any more reinforcements or resupplies from elsewhere, concentrating his forces within Libya, or using his air force once again to bomb the insurgents from the air. (One good critique of this idea came from Bob Dreyfuss, here.)
Realistically, the only bodies with the capability of enforcing a no-fly zone– in a country that is v. close to Europe’s southern shores– are those associated with NATO. And they are all currently tied up in Afghanistan (where one of the main things NATO’s air assets are doing is, um, bombing insurgents.) So it is unlikely that an internationally authorized no-fly zone as such will be declared or enforced any time soon– though there is a lot that African, European, Arab, and other governments can do to ensure that flights do not leave their countries bearing suspect cargoes or passengers, and bound for Libyan airspace.
There has also been some focus on the evacuations of their nationals that various outside powers have been trying to organize (along with more than a hint that until those evacuations have been completed, the governments concerned will hold off on doing anything to antagonize Qadhafi.)
I have grave doubts about the ethics of such evacuations, as well as the broader efficacy of making them any country’s top priority. If emergency missions are dispatched to save lives, should they not save the lives of all who need to be saved, regardless of citizenship?
Hillary Clinton was quoted in today’s WaPo as saying, “In any situation, our foremost concern has to be for the safety and security of our own citizens.” Why does she still talk like a domestic politician instead of a stateswoman? Also, it simply is not true that in “any” situation the foremost concern of the U.S. government is for the safety and security of its own citizens.
The always thoughtful Issandr Amrani, writing from Egypt, considers the various options open to non-Libyan powers and says,

    Another concept one hears about is a ground invasion by Egypt to restore order. While I kind of like this concept, the Egyptian military has a country to run at the moment and no appetite for adventurism. Let’s be satisfied at least that the Arab League two days ago actually issued a condemnation of what was happening in Libya, a historic first. Arab countries are unfortunately not able to address these kinds of crises, although they should certainly move towards being able to. Even then, I doubt Libyans would be thrilled at having Egyptians in their country, and to Egyptians it might be a very foreign territory considering Libya’s tribal make-up.

We should remember, too, that Libyans are even less likely to be thrilled by any lasting footprint from Italians, Europeans, or other non-Arab powers inside their country. Reports from the “liberated” zone of Benghazi have described the emergence of large Omar Mukhtar posters there, post-liberation.
Issandr continues:

    Another possibility is a decapitation mission against the Libyan leadership, particularly Muammar Qadhafi. I think that this mission with clearly defined and limited aims is the best choice if intervention of any kind is chosen. The only problem is that it might deprive Libyans of the pleasure of doing it themselves (although perhaps those defector pilots could be put to good use). It would obviously rely either [on] an aerial bombing mission (hard to verify success) or a special forces operation (difficult to pull off without good intelligence).

I guess I would just tweak his proposal by changing “decapitation mission” to “incapacitation mission.” I think it’s both wrong and unwise to plan outright to kill anyone, even someone who’s done such heinous things as Muammar Qadhafi. But incapacitating him– and also, crucially, the command-and-control networks through which he exercises his power– is another matter completely.
It is of course possible that he would resist an incapacitation attempt with a bloody use of force, in which context he and others may end up getting killed. I just don’t think that should be the goal.
Another consideration: If Qadhafi himself is the victim of yet another assassination attempt launched by outside powers but his network of repression and brutality still survives, his death could end up simply hardening the resolve of the its members, led perhaps after his demise by his dreadful son Saif. Thus, the goal should be a lasting incapacitation of the network, not just the killing of the man who currently heads it.
Incapacitation could consist of a range of different actions. Qadhafi’s communications networks are an evident part of this. I imagine there are more than a few outside powers who know how these work, including maybe the Chinese and Russians.
Stopping him getting any reinforcements from outside the areas he still controls is another part of it.
Anyway, I am sure that the many defectors from the high levels of the regime– including the interior minister, for goodness’ sake!– must all have good ideas for how to incapacitate what remains of it, along with much of the information that such an effort would require. Let us not imagine for a moment that this needs to be planned or implemented by outsiders! But the Libyan oppositionists themselves need to be given all the support they need.
Issandr ends with this very important note:

    Finally, we should consider the possibility of a prolonged civil war in Libya, with or without the Qadhafis, and no foreign intervention. Someone will be selling weapons to one side or the other. Perhaps some are even considering arming one side, at least so they can defend themselves. I doubt many people want more weapons in Libya, but this is the way things are likely to head if there is no decisive victory by one side or the other. And the best way to avoid that would be to start the political contacts between former Qadhafi regime members, opposition figures and tribal leaders as soon as possible. And that’s something that Egypt and Tunisia, with their familiarity with this little-known country, might be in the best position to offer.

Actually, prolonged civil war or not, the kind of political contacts Issandr is urging are surely a key both to the speedy success of the campaign to oust Qadhafi, and to maximizing the chances that a stable and accountable successor regime can be be established in that long-traumatized country, as soon as possible after his departure. And he’s right that in helping to orchestrate such contacts, Egypt and Tunisia both have a lot to offer. Except that, um, those countries do also have some other urgent challenges of their own right now…
The very best of luck to the peoples of all three of these countries as they deal with the huge challenges they now face.

Watching the imperium collapse

I apologize that I got too busy doing book publishing over the past few days to comment directly on the shameful decision by the Obama administration to veto last Friday’s Security Council resolution that condemned Israel’s continued settlement building program.
What on earth were they thinking?
Answer: They weren’t doing any real-world strategic “thinking”, as such. They were triangulating their chances of being able to retain AIPAC’s powerful financial-aid program through the next electoral cycle here in the U.S. (Which– hullo!– we’re still at the very beginning of, anyway.
Luckily, others have written good analyses of what was happening. Including Steve Walt, and Glenn Greenwald.
Greenwald included his little analysis of the terrible effects, as well as the terrible nature, of the veto decision as one of four items in a great piece titled (with great irony) “This week in winning hearts and minds.”
The other three were:

  • The Raymond Davis incident in Pakistan. (Today, by the way, the CIA admitted that Davis, who killed two people in Lahore last week, was indeed working on contract for them.)
  • The fact that most– though not all- of the dictatorial regimes that have been toppling and coming under threat over these past weeks have been “cherished allies” of Washington; and
  • The fact that the local tribal elders in Kunar, Afghanistan, say that many or most of the 64 people killed in NATO’s latest air-raids there were civilians…

    There are many other ways, too, in which the heavily militarized and diplomatically tone-deaf policies that Washington has pursued for many years now toward the majority-Muslim parts of the world (and elsewhere) have ended up actually undercutting the American people’s interests around the world.
    And now, with Washington continuing these policies in an almost completely solipsistic way, the imperium that the US military has been maintaining throughout (and over) most of the Greater Middle East is crumbling more and more visibly every day.
    I believe they don’t have any idea what to do about the vast challenge of (not entirely irrational) anti-Americanism in Pakistan. The WaPo’s Gregg Miller wrote this morning that though, under Pres. Obama, the CIA has significantly stepped up the use of killer drones to launch extrajudicial killings against “suspects” in the northwest of the country, they’re still not managing to kill any more of the (allegedly) “high value targets”:

      CIA drone attacks in Pakistan killed at least 581 militants last year, according to independent estimates. The number of those militants noteworthy enough to appear on a U.S. list of most-wanted terrorists: two.

    See the graphics here.
    In Afghanistan, NATO (most likely U.S.) air raids have been busy killing scores of people in Kunar province (as noted by Greenwald)… and the very best case anyone can make as to how the U.S. could be described as “winning” this war, as made here yesterday by Fick and Nagl, was just a mishmash of wishful thinking.
    In Tunisia and Egypt, the U.S. has lost the compliant, totally toadying leaders it had been relying on for many decades– and whatever governments now get formed in those countries will have to be a lot more responsive to the popular will than Presidents Ben Ali and Mubarak ever felt they needed to be.
    Libya is in the middle of an extreme, megalethal crisis. Right now. With citizens being mowed down in their hundreds by a gun-happy military.
    Bahrain– home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet– is in the midst of huge upheavals.
    The rulers of Saudi Arabia, long a key pillar of the U.S. imperium in an area stretching from north Africa to Pakistan, are almost unable to do anything to arrest the decay. They are (as I’ve noted here several times before) locked into their own very long-drawn-out succession struggle. They have a crazily misdesigned society that is totally reliant on the contribution of contract laborers from elsewhere (including a large proportion from Pakistan) and on the deliberate exclusion of people from neighboring countries like Yemen… Where there is also right now, let’s not forget, a major social-political upheaval (along with truly shocking levels of mass impoverishment and also, ta-da, intermittent killings from U.S. drones.)
    * * *
    There is, indeed, too much going on right now to make easy or swift sense of it all. What is clear, though, is that throughout the Arab parts of the Middle East, a new spirit of liberation and self-empowerment has been unleashed that will change the politics of the region forever.
    What is also clear is that the the great big structures of war-fighting that the U.S. has supported throughout the Middle East, and the actual wars it has waged within it, have done nothing to protect the interests of the American people, but rather, have massively undercut our ability to have sane, friendly relations of mutual respect with the peoples of the region.
    And that is even without looking at the vast financial burden that all this militarization has imposed on us. Add that in, and the true craziness of the way our policies have been militarized since 2001– under George W. Bush and also under Obama– becomes stunningly, tragically clear.
    Time for a large-scale “re-set” in our priorities.

Quick notes for a quickly changing world

1.
Just 30 days ago, on January 14, I was making the 3.5-hour drive down from Charlottesville, VA to Greensboro, NC, for the Quaker conference held to mark the 50th anniversary of Pres. Eisenhower’s prescient 1961 warning about the dangers of a ‘Military-Industrial Complex’ arising in the U.S.
As I drove, I was listening to the BBC’s live coverage of the day’s events in Tunis. That was the day the growing but determinedly peaceful anti-government demonstrations there were (amazingly!) able to ‘persuade’ Pres. Zein el-Abideen Ben Ali to leave the country.
The conference was really good. I got to speak after lunch on Saturday, with my designated topic being the MIC in the Middle East. I reminded the audience that for the past 15-20 years, the MIC’s project in the Middle East has been far and away its biggest (and costliest) overseas project; and that the situation there has been used by the bosses of the MIC back here at home to continue to justify the obscene amounts of spending they get from U.S. taxpayers.
But I was also able to share with them the good news that (1) In the Middle East more than anywhere else, the actual utility of military force had been shown to be either nil or negative. What did the US achieve, of lasting geopolitical value, with its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan? What did Israel achieve of lasting geopolitical value with its obscene assaults against Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008?… and also that (2) The events then unfolding in Tunis were demonstrating for all to see that the MIC’s vast, sprawling project in the Middle East was beginning to crumble– and the crumbling would doubtless continue.
I told them that the two key places to watch for further crumbling of the U.S. MIC’s Middle East project– “within either a shorter or longer time frame; but almost certainly within the coming months”– were Egypt and Jordan.
And then, the heroic pro-democracy activists and organizers in Egypt achieved what they achieved last Friday. Far faster than I had dared to hope.
2.
Of course the democracy movement has a lot further to go– in those two countries, and elsewhere around the globe. (Including here at home in the United States, folks. Wake up!)
But today I am just feeling so joyous to be able to witness this.
Honestly, I never thought I would live to see this day. Throughout all of the 35-year-plus professional life that I have devoted to a study of foreign affairs, and principally Middle East affairs, the situation in the Middle East has been gloomy and getting gloomier. Autocracy was becoming ever deeper and deeper embedded in many countries, including in Egypt which is truly for that whole region “Um al-Dunya” (The mother of the world.) Periodic wars wracked the region, culminating in George W. Bush’s obscene invasion of Iraq.
… Which, remember, had come after a period of 13 years in which the U.S. and Britain forced the U.N to maintain a punishing sanctions regime against Iraq which resulted in the deaths of perhaps 500,000 of the country’s most vulnerable citizens. And no other government in the Arab world wanted to (or was able to) prevent those atrocities from happening.
Egypt’s Pres. Mubarak was at the heart of Washington’s imperial planning for the region. As were the two successive kings of Jordan and the monarchs of Saudi Arabia. Tunisia’s Pres. Ben Ali was also a small-scale, but loyal, supporter of it.
Plus, throughout all these years, successive governments in Israel– Labour as well as Likud and Kadima– continued their longterm project of implanting their illegal settlers into the heart of Arab land in Palestine, including in the heart of occupied East Jerusalem.
Since 1993, Washington has taken not one single effective step to rein in Israel’s settlement-construction program. Indeed, in the way it implemented the Oslo Accords, by insisting on building (and even having the US taxpayer pay for) big new highway systems for the settlers, they gave the settlement-building project a massive new shot in the arm.
And Washington covered the vast, multi-pronged support it gave to Israel in every field during these years with this thin fig leaf of a myth that there was some kind of a meaningful “peace process” underway. (That myth was also cited as a justification for stamping down on Palestinian democracy when it dared to raise its head in January 2006: We can’t allow anything to damage the peace process,” they said, as they armed Mohamed Dahlan’s coup plotters and helped him in his ugly coup attempt against the Palestinians’ elected leadership, in 2007… )
Pres. Mubarak and his intelligence sidekick Omar Suleiman were big players in every single one of those imperial schemes.
Now they are out. And Washington’s policy in the Middle East is going to have to change. A lot. And rapidly.
Hallelujah! What a day of joy!
3.
As I’ve noted here many times before, it turns out we’re no longer living in the 19th century! We’re not even living in the 20th century. The crucial change in world affairs, as the 21st century progresses, is that the global information environment has become so transparent and so inter-connected that any more major wars or invasions (such as what we saw the Bush administration launching against Iraq in 2003) are becoming increasingly unthinkable.
Already, during those fateful days in March 2003 when the invasion was launched, we were having real-time blogging from within Baghdad, in searingly beautiful English, telling us of the horrors of how it was to cower under that bombardment and live through the terrors of the civil collapse that followed.
(And what did the U.S. “achieve” for all those expensive bombs dropped, and all those expensive soldier deployed?? Nothing of any lasting value except the destruction of an entire society there in Iraq… An “achievement” that surely will continue to haunt us for many years into the future.)
Yes, I was part of the emerging global blogosphere back then: Reading, sharing, and interacting with the work of fabulous Iraqi writers like Riverbend, Faiza, or Salam/Pax. That already felt heady enough.
Then, this past Thursday and Friday, I was spending most of my time on Twitter (@justworldbooks). It was amazing. There, we were having a strange form of free-form “conversation” about what was happening, in real time with fellow tweeps who were on the ground in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt, and with people around the world who were also glued to the situation.
In Twitter, in case you don’t know about this, there’s a simple content-aggregating tool called a hashtag. They always start with what Europeans call a hash-mark. So there has been #Tunisia, #egypt, #jan25, #tahrir, etc. If you put that hashtag into your tweet, the tweet then shows up in the relevant aggregator. And if you want to see what everyone else has been saying about that same subject, you just search for the hashtag.
On Thursday evening (U.S. Eastern time), everyone around the world was waiting and waiting for the speech that, several hours earlier, Mubarak had promised he would be making. As we were all waiting, someone came up with the idea of launching the hashtag #reasonsmubarakislate. And it took off like wildfire!
All the contributions to it were jokes, including some that were very childish. (“#reasonsmubarakislate The situation in his pants is very fluid”, etc.) Others were very clever– but always within the 140-character limit.
So for an hour or two there, as we were waiting, we were sharing these jokes– with people from all around the world, most of whom were unknown to each other.
And then, finally, Mubarak came onto the screen and gave his terrible speech. People immediately stopped feeling jokey and excited, and the hashtag died almost immediately. If you have a Twitter account– and you should! follow me there @justworldbooks! –go and read the RMIL hashtag. You’ll see the most recent entry there is from Feb. 10.
This amazing ability of the internet to help create a single, inter-connected international public is one part of this story.
The other is what happened in Egypt when the government “turned off” the internet and all cellphone coverage for a couple of days there: The large “modern” portion of the economy got stuck in its tracks! Routine banking or commercial transactions all, with the flick of a switch, became impossible. Tourists, travelers, and millions of Egyptian family members all lost the connections with each other and the outside world that they had come to rely on.
Of course, regime apologists immediately tried to lay the blame on the protesters: “These protests are costing our economy billions of dollars a day and causing chaos and uncertainty in our lives!” But everyone in Egypt knew who had turned off the internet and the cell-phones. It was not the protesters. (And the behavior of the protesters– non-violent, orderly, well organized, dignified– was not seen by any observers as having sowed any chaos.)
After two days, the government decided to turn the intertubes and cell-phone service back on again.
Autocrats everywhere, beware.
4.
Everything is changing with dizzying speed. It turns out the long-feared Israel is now “just a small, slightly troublesome country off the northeast tip of Egypt”, not some massive and all-powerful global behemoth.
True, it still has something of an iron grip on the “thinking” (or more to the point, the campaign financing) of most members of the U.S. Congress. But in the American public sphere, there have been remarkably few voices echoing the strong advice from Netanyahu and Co. that “all of us in the west should support Mubarak and Suleiman because they are ‘our guys’.”
Of course, many people in the United States have a lot of questions about the role the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamists might have in the next Egyptian government.
Of course, voices have been raised warning that the democratic euphoria that followed Mubarak’s departure on Feb. 11, 2011 might soon turn to dust if “the mullahs” come into power in Egypt as they did in the years that followed the Shah’s departure from power on Feb. 11, 1979.
This is natural. Most westerners don’t know anyone associated with the Muslim Brotherhood or with other Islamist organizations. We have all been subjected in recent years to repeated barrages of anti-Muslim, anti-Islamist hate speech. Many of us (self included) do have some very deep and genuine concerns about the practices of the current Iranian government– as, of course, those of Al-Qaeda or the Taliban.
There has been, in the general discourse here in the U.S., remarkably little ability to discern the differences among these different forms of Islamist organizations. In my life and career, I have had the good fortune to meet and interview representatives of many different kinds of Islamist organizations; and I have tried to do what I can to explain the differences to my readers and the general public. One distinction I always try to make is between organizations that are deeply rooted in the societies in which they operate and are willing to participate in fully democratic, one-person-one-vote elections, and those (like Al-Qaeda) who share neither of those attributes.
And we are all very lucky today that there is, in the Middle East today, one democracy in which a moderately Islamist government has held sway for nearly a decade now– and has performed very well in that role, in both the technocratic sense of delivering good services on a sound basis, and the civil-liberties sense of respecting and strengthening the rule of law and the democratic basis of society.
This is the AK (‘Justice and Development’) Party in Turkey. So it is not the case today that the only possible “model” one could point to of a republic dominated by an avowedly Islamist party would be Iran under the mullahs, or Afghanistan under the Taliban. Hello! Go to Turkey, people! See how things are proceeding in the politics and society of that vital NATO member!
Also, neither I nor anyone else can tell you what the political favor of a freely elected parliament in Egypt will be. The MB have said they won’t run for the presidency, but they will likely run for parliament.
All I’m saying here is that even if they end up with a strong showing in the next government, this is not the end of the world. (And to understand more of my reasons for reaching that conclusion, go read the piece I had on ForPol’s Middle East Channel about them, back on January 31.)
Egypt’s economy and society have some way to go before its 83 million people can catch up with the living and economic standards of Turkey’s 75 million. In Turkey, businesses and industrial conglomerates from throughout the country have been building up huge operations throughout the whole of the former Soviet space, as well as in the Arab world and have pulled the country’s per-capita GDP up to about twice the level in Egypt. But if Egypt’s businesswomen and -men can be freed from the terrible yoke of corruption under which they’ve labored so long, they’ll be able to compete soon enough.
5.
Many of my Egyptian friends are saying that if westerners really want to support Egypt’s democracy, the best thing we can do is go and take vacations there. Well, I guess I can support that (and yes, I am really eager to come back!)
But I think maybe the very best thing we can do is to stop using our taxpayer dollars to provide completely illegal subsidies to the U.S. Big Cotton cartel. Here are some resources I quickly gathered on this issue: 1, 2, 3. The last one notes that,

    According to the Environmental Working Group, American cotton growers are among the largest recipients of U.S. Department of Agriculture subsidies. They receive a total of more than $3 billion a year in payments each year.

And the vast majority of that money goes to just 2,000 Big Cotton companies, not to family farmers…
The first source I link to (the FT, from summer 2009), has this:

    In Egypt, the area to be cultivated with cotton this season has shrunk by 10 per cent to 300,000 acres, its lowest ever, says Mefreh El Beltagui, a cotton exporter and an official of Alcotexa, the Alexandria-based association of cotton exporters.
    “If the US were to remove its cotton subsidy, they would not be able to compete with us,” he says. “Here there are no subsidies for cotton exports. The state needs to intervene, because here we have mostly small farmers who cannot deal with price fluctuations. Also because we need to preserve our [international] customers for Egyptian cotton. Once you lose a customer it is hard to get them back.”

Of course, the other thing we need to do to help the Egyptian democrats is scale back our aid to the Egyptian military considerably, and divert it instead to an Egyptan-controlled fund to support the social reconstruction the country so badly needs after the deformation it has suffered as a result of 35 years of being integrated into the U.S. military-industrial complex.
A fund to support the rehabilitation of the thousands of Egyptians (and others) tortured in the U.S.-supported prisons in Egypt run by U.S. (and Israeli) ally Omar Suleiman would be a fine place to start that project.
6.
Democracy and national self-determination in Tunisia and Egypt: What a beautiful idea!
I have such a lot of confidence in all my friends in both countries that they can do this: That they can rewrite their constitutions to the degree that they all agree on; that they can figure out the rules they want for free and fair elections; that they can fashion new and fairer rules for their economy; that they can define and pursue a role in the world that is both dignified and consonant with their values.
Some people here in the U.S. have been worried, regarding Egypt, about things like “What will become of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel? What will become of the ‘peace process’?” I think those are so far from being the first concerns of Egypt’s democrats today. (The very first one, of course, is to preserve their revolution from the machinations that anyone else– including the Mossad— might be planning to undertake against it.)
The army has said they will stick by the bilateral peace treaty. And there is no current ‘peace process’ in existence. So what’s the bother?
As Egypt does generate its new, much more transparent and accountable system of governance, we can all be certain, I think, that it will be one that is much less willing to see Cairo act as a cat’s-paw of Israel and of the AIPAC-dominated U.S. Congress, and much more determined to stand up for Palestinian and Arab rights.
Deal with it, Israel.
And if democracy and national self-determination are such a beautiful idea in Egypt, are they not equally beautiful in Palestine, as well?
7.
The whole region– and the whole world– is changing. That region-spanning Apartheid system that Israel and its friends in the U.S. Congress have been running for so long– the one in which “Egypt” and “Jordan” and to some extent “Saudi Arabia” were all just treated like little subservient homelands within Apartheid South Africa– is starting to slit apart at the seams.
The era of human equality and an end to war has been brought 100 times closer by the stupendous events of the past month.
Thank you, thank you, the Tunisian and Egyptian people.

Egypt’s MB joining protest tomorrow. End of US-Israel imperium in ME?

Today, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt announced their decision to join the mass protest in the country tomorrow. (That’s #jan28 in Tweetspeak.) This is huge. The MB is far and away the largest force in Egypt’s opposition. It has pursued a determinedly nonviolent path for nearly 30 years now– though that has not prevented the Mubarak regime from engaging in a sustained campaign of often horrendously abusive repression against its leaders and many of its cadres. The MB’s leaders have responded to the repression by sticking to a political course that is very conservative and non-confrontational. Often, in recent years, they have been criticized by members of other movements or even younger members of their own for not joining in or giving any support to the various waves of street protests or labor activity that have erupted around the country.
But now, they are joining in. This could very well mean the end of the Mubarak regime. Which has, of course, been the central pillar of the US-Israeli imperium in the region ever since the 1979 signing of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty.
I do not rule out the possibility that Mubarak and his people may try to cut a last-minute deal with the MB, in a last attempt to avoid the humiliating fate of his Tunisian friend, former Pres. Z. ben Ali. Or, that the MB’s leaders may be open to such a deal. Actually, I think the MB would be more open to discussing such a deal than Mubarak would be, to offering it. After all, for the guy who has been Pharaoh of all the Egyptians for 30 years now, and whose family and hangers-on have all profited very nicely thank-you from their control of the country’s economy, the idea of cutting a deal with these stern and powerful contenders for power must seem very threatening. Perhaps just flying to Saudi Arabia or Morocco while sending his son to watch over the bank accounts in Zurich would seem more attractive for an old guy now certainly ready to enjoy his “retirement”?
He and his American advisers probably have a few other ideas and/or tricks up their sleeves.
For now, the word from Washington seems– realistically– to be one of trying to urge Mubarak’s security forces not to use live fire against the protesters. That is certainly very welcome.
I imagine that Mubarak, the Americans, and maybe even the Israelis have networks inside Egyptian society that they might be tempted to activate, to act as agents provocateurs and undertake those kinds of acts that might, in the view of some, “justify” an escalation in the use of force by the Amn al-Merkezi riot police– or even, the intervention of the army.
It is not entirely clear, though, that in a situation of massive unrest, the regime could rely on the army.
Also, the acts of agents provocateurs can only really be successful in a situation where the opposition is ill-organized and/or lacks discipline. If the MB does bring its heft onto the streets tomorrow, they will bring correspondingly massive amounts of organization and discipline.
* * *
What changes might we see if an MB-dominated or heavily MB-influenced government emerges in Cairo? Would such a government “immediately” revoke the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979– a step that has been part of the MB’s political program, ever since the program was first promulgated? Not necessarily. But the Cairo government’s policy on all (other) matters Palestinian would be very different from today. No longer would it merely act as the cat’s-paw of Israel and Washington in repressing Gaza, supporting a broad range of activities to undercut and destroy Hamas, and staying quite silent internationally on Israel’s many gross transgressions in the OPTs.
But (gasp!) such a deviation from the US-Israeli line might result– almost certainly would result– in the US Congress cutting off the $2.3 billion $1.55 billion in aid that it sends to Egypt every year! Big deal. The vast majority of that aid never benefitted real Egyptians. Instead, it went to prop up the very same security forces whose main purpose has been to oppress them.
* * *
By the way, the MB in Jordan is also calling for its supporters to participate in the popular protests there, after Friday prayers tomorrow. And Mahmoud Abbas is on the ropes. Good luck, Israel’s “peace partners” in the region, eh?
* * *
I do not expect the US-Israeli imperium that has held sway over the whole of the Mashreq (Arab east) region– with the exception of Syria– for the past 40 years to disappear quickly, easily, or without putting up a fight. But after watching the region fairly closely for all these years I find the hollowness of the imperium now that it is being challenged to be quite notable.
There is an important confluence of events right now:

    * The US’s so-called “peace process”, that has been the cover and excuse for all sorts of misdeeds for most of the past 40 years, has now been revealed as consisting, over the past 15-plus years, only of a US attempt to support Israel in all its ventures, including its colonial aggrandizement and its systematic use of repression in the OPTs, and its recourse to periodic wars of aggression against its neighbors. Ever since the killing of Rabin in 1995 (and perhaps before then) there has been no peace in the peace “process.” That has been made clear for all to see.
    * The degree of over-reach of the US military both within the Middle East and in Afghanistan has been made clear for all to see, both in the region and beyond it. As I (but woefully few other Americans) argued forcefully back in 2002 and early 2003, Pres. Bush’s decision to wilfully and quite unjustifiedly invade Iraq was a “bridge too far” for the country. It brought about a situation in which our country is now financially in a deep, deep hole; in which the credibility of US commitments to international law or values such as respect for national independence and the “consent of the governed” were speedily revealed as hollow; and even the ability of the US “model” to bring about fair and accountable governance was shown to be nonexistent… All this, at the cost of the enormous hardships and cruelty visited upon the Iraqi people.
    * And then, finally, there is the “new” media. As I have remarked numerous times before, the development of border-crossing means of direct communication and the inability of the imperial governors to completely monopolize the discourse nationally or internationally means that the 21st century is very different from the heyday of imperialism back in the 19th century.

* * *
I think this also needs underlining: the degree to which today, in 2011, the United States is incapable of offering any kind of an attractive “model” to the peoples of the Arab world. For a long time, prior to 1970, the U.S. did offer such a model. It presented itself as– and was widely seen in the region as– anti-colonialist, a supporter of national liberation movements, generous, good at solving the problems of socio-economic development, the author of good ideas on tricky issues of political accountability and good governance, an upholder of human rights, etc.
No longer. (See “Iraq”, above.)
* * *
Another, albeit minor, aspect of the imperium’s current hollowness is the absence from the scene of the third significant Arab pillar of it: Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s diplomacy has always had an episodic, slightly elusive quality. But at some stages it has played a significant role: in supporting the US war against the Soviets in Afghanistan; in brokering the Taef Agreement for Lebanon in 1989; in spearheading the Arab Peace Peace Plan offer to Israel, of 2002…
Well, that last one got speedily broken off at the knees by the imperium, didn’t it?
And now, where are the Saudis? Can the monarch not be persuaded to intervene (somehow!) and deploy some of his billions to try to “save” the Mubarak or Hashemite regimes?
No, for a number of reasons. First, since the king and crown prince have both suddenly run up against the limits of medical and organ-replacement technology, the princes are all in the middle of their own succession struggle. Second, quite a lot of them– probably, the majority– are so alienated from Washington by its clear Zionist tilt over recent years that they would not be inclined to help even if there were no succession struggle to attend to. Third– what plan is it they would be supposed to be supporting, anyway?? There is no discernible plan.
* * *
What happens to Israel if the “shield” that Mubarak, the Jordanian king, and Mahmoud Abbas have all provided to it for so long suddenly disappears?
That is a big question. It is very, very far from being the only big question– or even, the biggest of the many questions that are out there.
After all, the US’s sway over most of the Middle East until now has been a huge factor contributing to the US’s worldwide political position. Because of this, the rapid retraction of US power from the Middle East that we will be seeing over the coming two years will certainly have ramifications for US power at the global level.
I shall engage here in three seconds of sympathy for Pres. Obama. I mean, how unfair is it that he gets to be the president who has to preside over a retraction of US power spurred to a large degree by the decision his predecessor made in 2002-03 to launch a war that Obama himself clearly opposed at that time?
On the other hand, Obama did not have to continue and indeed intensify the clear pro-Zionist partisanship that GWB (and before him, Clinton) had manifested– which is what he did. That was a choice Obama made. He could have made different– and much, much wiser– choices on the core issues regarding the Palestine Question. He could have reframed the issue from the beginning as one of fairness, decency, human rights, and international law– and he could have spoken seriously and directly to the American people, using the unique “bully pulpit” that the presidency provides, about the need for our country to pursue a policy based on these important values. But no. He chose not to do that. Instead, he simply caved to the very short-term, myopic, Rahm Emanuel/Dennis Ross view that he needed above all to appease the always insatiable attack dogs (both Jewish and Christian) of pro-Israeli activism within this country.
So that pro-Zionist partisanship is now majorly helping to drag our country down. So be it. Let all Americans know and understand what is happening, and what gross follies (if not, crimes) have been committed by our leaders in the region, in our name.
* * *
There will be major change in the Middle East. Though the US-Israeli imperium may find a way to survive in the region beyond tomorrow (#jan28), there is no way it can survive in its present form beyond the end of 2012.
And you know what? That will be a good thing for the vast majority of Americans and our country as a whole. After the imperium is brought to an end, it will be a whole lot easier for Americans to have good relations with both Israelis and the peoples of the Arab world– and they, with us– than it has been for the past 15 years. Ending the imperium is not a recipe for any kind of “clash of civilizations”. It is, rather, an essential prerequisite for being able to build a decent relationship based on fairness, mutual respect, and shared commitment to the values that all of us hold dear.

Arab world waking from 40-year sleep?

The Arab world has been in a state of increasing ossification ever since I started following its affairs closely in 1970. That was the year that King Hussein beat back the Palestinian-radical challenge to his regime in Jordan, and that Egypt’s President Jamal Abdel-Nasser died. Also, the year that Hafez al-Asad’s relatively conservative “Corrective movement” seized power from its more radical Baathist colleagues in Damascus.
1970 was also the year that– in line with the plans announced in the wake of the debacle at Suez 14 years earlier– the British navy finally withdrew from the positions it had long held “East of Suez.”
We can therefore say that 1970 was the year the British handed over the baton of “dominant western power” in the Middle East, to Washington. Washington’s power became considerably strengthened when Nasser’s successor, Anwar al-Sadat, made a strategic shift over from the pro-Soviet to the pro-American camp in 1972. (Kissinger was slow to understand what Sadat was doing. If he had understood, Sadat’s attention-grabbing move of undertaking the 1973 war– with its clearly defined aim of starting peace negotiations with Israel in earnest– could have been avoided.)
So now, let’s go to Liberation Square in downtown Cairo. Right now! With this livestreamed filming of what’s happening there.
This has to be a short blog post. But I want to list the many places in the long US-dominated Middle east in which US power is right now eroding:

    In Egypt, the long-entrenched, US-backed-to-the-repressive-hilt Mubarak regime is facing one of the most serious challenges yet to its control.
    In Tunisia, the long-entrenched, strongly US-backed Ben Ali regime is history, and citizens on the streets and in their gathering places are right now determining how their country will governed in the future.
    In Lebanon, Hizbullah and its allies– who span all the country’s different religious groups– today succeeded in having their candidate, Najib Mikati, named as the next Prime Minister. The pundits at the NYT might huff and puff (and the news editors give massive amounts of space to reporting on how Israel views matters in Lebanon– much more, I think, than they have ever given to how Lebanese people view matter in Israel!) But this is what has happened. And though notable Israeli securocrat Giora Eiland warned yesterday that “Now all of Lebanon looks like Hizbullah, and could therefore be a legitimate target for Israeli attack”– Well, Israel and whose political support is going to undertake such an attack? (The ambitious young US military analyst Andrew Exum parroted Eland’s argument today. Quite without thinking through the many changes in the M.E. region between Israel’s last attack on Lebanon in 2006, and today. Also, back in 2006, did Hizbullah’s much greater distance from the halls of power in Beirut’s Serail save the country from massive devastation by the Israeli air force? It did not.)
    In Palestine, Abu Mazen and his long-entrenched, strongly US-backed “PA” regime are buckling under the facts of its complete failure in its pursuit of diplomacy with Israel and its failure to protect East Jerusalem and other occupied Palestinian land from the depradations of Israel’s continuing colonial juggernaut– as well as under the clear revelation of those facts through the most recent “Palestine Papers” distribution.

Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, and other Arab countries have also been seeing some significant popular unrest… However, one other player in the Middle East is currently notable because it is “the dog that isn’t barking” (pardon the metaphor, which is derived from Sherlock Holmes.) This is Saudi Arabia, which throughout these past 41 years– and most particularly since the killing (assassination?) of King Faisal in 1975– has been a central bulwark of U.S. policy both within the Middle East and far beyond.
In Lebanon, it was the Saudi monarch’s stalwart support of Saad Hariri, and his equally stalwart opposition to the government in Damascus, that sustained (financially and in other ways) the whole anti-Syria, anti-Hizbullah, and “March 14” phenomenon from 2004 until the Doha summit in 2008. And this time around, when Hariri desperately sought the support of King Abdullah in New York, instead of giving him what he sought, Abdullah checked out of playing any continuing active role in the negotiations over Lebanon. So when I say Saudi Arabia is the “dog that isn’t barking” this is not a comment on the absence of popular protest in Saudi Arabia (which may or may not be happening; but it isn’t being reported at this point.) It’s a comment on the fact that Saudi diplomacy is playing no discernible role these days in trying to prop up the pro-U.S. order of which it has for so long been a key pillar.
The Saudi princes are, anyway, locked (as Ben Ali, Mubarak, and so many of the Arab world’s other fairly ossified, US-backed leaders have been) into the long, slow dance of a succession struggle. Quite likely, as the 40-plus princely lines that descended from King Abdul-Aziz negotiate with each other over how the succession (and all those fabulous bennies from ruling Saudi Arabia!) will be decided once the present, very aged King and Crown Prince both totter from the stage, they have little mental bandwidth to pay much attention to anything else outside Riyadh. But I suspect other factors are at play, too; not least, a deep disgust with the effect that 40 years of U.S. domination of the laughably misnamed “peace process” has now so evidently had on the situation in their beloved Jerusalem, and therefore, a mounting disgust with U.S. diplomacy itself.
Well, I shan’t spend too much time here trying to read the motivations of the Saudi princes. Too much of great interest is happening in the Middle East today.
Today!
Of course there is no clear picture of where all the present developments will lead. They may or may not topple additional regimes, in addition to those in Tunis and Beirut. We still have no idea how Israel and a long deeply Israel-influenced regime in Washington will react. With or without Israeli or U.S. intervention, we still have no idea at all of the future directions that any “post-American” regimes in the region may take.
But something big is stirring in the Arab world. Thus far, it has been overwhelmingly peaceable, and overwhelmingly based on mass civilian organizing. Those two features of the movement need to be guarded closely.

Open thread, MIC, Tunisia, etc

I am in North Carolina for much of the weekend, presenting at this conference on the military-industrial complex.
Amazing yesterday, driving down here, to hear so many great news reports on the car radio about the unraveling of one small corner of the complex, in Tunisia. There may yet be bloody attempts at a counter-revolution there, of course. But the “big guns” of the MIC are all pretty much well tied up elsewhere and the credibility of the U.S. imperial venture in the region has been in tatters for a long time…
So anyway, this space is for comments. I’ll even try to turn the “pre-moderation” switch off. But I rely on you all to stick to the discourse guidelines. Otherwise, it’ll be instant IP banning for any violators.

Tunis: Curtains for Ben Ali?

Just looking at this coverage from Al-Jaz of the day’s massive and nonviolent protests in the Tunisian capital, Tunis.
As Trotsky so elegantly described in his “History of the Russian Revolution”, when the Cossacks start fraternizing with the protesters this signals the imminent end of the regime.
In today’s Tunisia, the “Cossacks” are the special armed police/gendarmerie tasked with guarding central government institutions. To see the protesters reaching out and high-fiving with the sparse numbers of police who remain, and embracing them, indicates to me that Pres. Ben Ali better rush to implement the Plan B he no doubt has hidden away somewhere: The helicopter ride to a French warship, perhaps, along with his family, and then speedy onward flight to some lovely, family-owned property on the Riviera…
And what of Tunisian politics? Bill the spouse was there for a short visit just last month, and knows a lot more about North African politics than I do. He applauded the dignity and discipline of the demonstrators on today’s newsfeeds, noted their numbers, and said he thinks the country’s people are really ready for a better and more equitably governed future…
It will be interesting to see which other citizenries elsewhere in the region become most inspired by the Tunisian example…

Malley & Harling on M.E. regional dynamics

Further to what I blogged here (and here) yesterday about the ever-shifting dynamics within the Middle East, Rob Malley and Peter Harling have an elegant op-ed in the WaPo today that picks up on many of the same themes.
Malley and Harling are both M.E. analysts for the International Crisis Group– Malley being in charge of their M.E. division and Harling their analyst for Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq.
They start off with this:

    Much as he would like to disentangle himself from his Middle East inheritance, President Obama is having a rough time doing so. The obvious legacy is an unwanted war in Iraq and a bankrupt Israeli-Arab peace process. But equally constraining is a popular way of conceiving of the region — divided, schematically, between militants beholden to Iran and moderates sympathetic to the United States. While there is some truth to this construct, it assumes a relatively static landscape and clear fault lines in a region that is highly fluid and home to growing fragmentation. By disregarding subtle shifts that have occurred and awaiting tectonic transformations that won’t, this mind-set risks missing realistic opportunities to help reshape the Middle East.

So far, so– generally– good. But I think they’re too kind to the Obama-ites (and their predecessors) by saying “there is some truth to this construct.”
Where, really, is there any “truth” in it?
The main problem with the way Malley and Harling describe the “bipolar” frame that just about all of official Washington applies to its analysis of the Middle East is that they do not mention the role of Israel and its entire, unquestioning cheering section inside the U.S., who between them are the main ideological enforcers of this frame. “Moderates”, within this frame, is nearly always code for “does not challenge Israel on anything, whether through inclination or by being in thrall to the power of U.S. Congress’s purse”, while “militants” is code for “is sometimes willing to criticize Israeli policies.”
Really, the way these issues are discussed, and largely “understood” (or more accurately, mis-understood) among members of the Washington power elite is that, for Middle Eastern governments or other actors to be thought of as “pro-American” (i.e. “moderate”) they must not openly challenge Israel on anything. Therefore, when an actor, such as, for example, the Turkish or Saudi government, starts to criticize an Israeli policy they are immediately vilifed within the Washington DC Beltway as being irredeemably “anti-Israeli” and very often “anti-Semitic” to boot… But either way, no longer “moderate”.
And that is the extent of what passes for “analysis” in nearly all of Washington.
Malley and Harling are right to note that the strictly bipolar “moderates versus militants” frame is no longer useful. But they fail to spell out:

    1. That actually, though they seem to ascribe it to Pres. G.W. Bush, it goes back a lot longer that– back, at least, through the Clinton presidency (during part of which, Rob Malley worked in the White House.)
    2. That this frame never has been useful, either analytically or as a guide to wise policy. The “fluidity” and political dynamism they describe as being “new” within the M.E. regional system has always been there. Use of the bipolar frame has always been an obstacle to sound understanding and sound policy.
    3. That you can’t truly understand the way the bipolar frame “works”, politically, unless you make clear that, when applied at the regional level (as opposed to, for example, within Iraq), it really is all about Israel; and it has almost nothing to do with whether the actors in question are “pro-American” in the content of their policies, or not. Once again, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are key examples. Turkey, for goodness sake, is a member of NATO and has troops risking their lives alongside the U.S. troops in Afghanistan (unlike many other NATO members; and completely unlike Israel!) So how come Turkey nowadays gets labeled by many in DC as problematic and “possibly anti-American”? Answer: It is all about Israel. Malley and Harling fail to make that clear.

I think I also disagree to some extent with their description of the way they see the “relevant” competition in the region today.
This, they say,

    is not between a pro-Iranian and a pro-American axis but between two homegrown visions. One, backed by Iran, emphasizes resistance to Israel and the West, speaks to the region’s thirst for dignity and prioritizes military cooperation. The other, symbolized by Turkey, highlights diplomacy, stresses engagement with all parties and values economic integration. Both outlooks are championed by non-Arab emerging regional powers and resonate with an Arab street as incensed by Israel as it is weary of its own leaders.

The first thing I note here is that the regional visions promulgated by the governments of Turkey and Iran are not as diametrically opposed as Malley and Harling make them out to be. Turkey certainly “speaks to the region’s thirst for dignity”, just as much as Iran does; and Iran “values economic integration”, and “highlights diplomacy” just as much as Turkey does– though many of its attempts to act on these precepts have, of course, been intentionally stymied by the U.S.
Also, Turkey and Iran have excellent working relations with each other. So if there is some “competition” between the visions promulgated by these two governments– as I believe there is– still, this “competition” is very far from being the kind of manichean, “with us or against us” form of competition that too many Americans lazily think is the only kind of competition there is.
In fact, there seem to me to be to be only two significant respects in which the policies of the two governments differ: (1) the way that each of them tries to push forward its explicitly Islamist agenda in domestic affairs– “softly” in the case of Turkey’s AK Party, and “harshly”, in the case of Tehran; and (2) the way that each of them chooses to deal with Israel– again, “softly” vs. “harshly.”
Now I recognize that, for citizens of a majority-Muslim country in the region like Syria, Jordan, or Iraq, the domestic agendas pursued by Ankara and Tehran provide two very different models of modernization, and that having those two different models is valuable and important. But note that, in international affairs, it is really only regarding Israel that these two governments have deep differences… So there, once again, if there is “competition”, it is all about Israel.
I wish Malley and Harling had spelled that out, too.
Look, I have huge respect for both Rob Malley and Peter Harling, both of whom I am proud to think of as my friends. But I don’t think they do the American public whom, presumably, they were hoping to address in this op-ed much good if they pussy-foot around the big Israeli elephant in the “room” of Middle Eastern regional dynamics, and of U.S. policy within the region, in the way they have in this article.
Yes, they’re quite right to argue that the “moderates vs. militants” frame used in Washington is analytically empty of content, inaccurate, and useless… and diplomatically counter-productive, as well. But if they want to provide a frame that is more useful, both analytically and as a guide to policy, then they need to clearly identify the highly politicized source of the vacuity of the “moderates vs. militants” frame that is currently in use in Washington; and by identifying that source spell out that Israel itself (along with its many acolytes in Washington) is a major player that has a strong effect on the politics of the region.
A more useful “frame”, it seems to me, would therefore be one that places the ruling elite of Israel (of all parties) and their allies in Washington at one pole of the region’s dynamics, and the government of Iran at the other, and then arrays the region’s many other actors in the multi-dimensional space between them– that is, not simply on a unidimensional straight line. This frame should also make explicit the fact that many of the other actors in the region, including Turkey, some European powers, other P-5 member states, and Saudi Arabia, also have varying amounts of power to attract other actors towards them, as well…
Bottom line: the region is not now (and never has been) simply “bipolar”, but is multi-dimensional. And though there are two largely competing “super-poles” of influence within it, these are not “Iran and the United States”, and not “Iran and Turkey”, but rather, “Israel and Iran”. (And note that under both the Malley/Harling schema and mine, the U.S. administration gets reduced to the role of something of a secondary actor.)