People Power and Its Limits

Posted March 29th, 2017 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

[Forthcoming book chapter, published at The Century Foundation. Download PDF of People Power and Its Limits here.]

Citizen-activists created a new type of popular movement in Lebanon in the spring of 2016, building on a history of activism to contest municipal elections. Their campaign, “Beirut Madinati,” or “Beirut Is My City,” captivated public opinion. It won an impressive 30 percent of the city vote, rattling the country’s corrupt political establishment even though it fell short of obtaining any city council seats because of winner-takes-all election rules. The group’s limited success illustrates the hunger for reform in the Arab world and the ongoing process of organizational learning taking place within and across borders. But Beirut Madinati’s struggle to articulate an overtly political or ideological central animating idea has limited the group’s impact. Its members chose not to compete in the 2017 Lebanese parliamentary elections, and are now trying to build an enduring political organization with roots in Beirut’s neighborhoods. If the group survives and expands, it will represent a new threshold in activist, reformist politics. Its enduring struggles to resolve internal and ideological disputes, however, echo a wider regional problem among secular, anti-sectarian reform movements.

For most of its recent history, Lebanon has hosted an ongoing experiment in abusive governance. The country’s tiny ruling class has grown even more dominant since the civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1991. A few dozen dynastic families hold the reins of a weak state. Collectively, they have ruled as an oligarchic kleptocracy, preserving the state almost solely as a means to extract rents. This small circle of rulers has grown richer and richer as the quality of life in modern Lebanon has eroded beyond recognition for anyone old enough to remember even the early 1970s. This process of immiseration reached a nadir in the summer of 2015, when a dispute between the warlords who dominate the Lebanese government brought garbage collection to a halt. Suddenly, Beirut and its environs were literally awash in waste. Mass protests broke out in August 2015 in response to the garbage crisis, briefly mobilizing Lebanese from across a spectrum, including followers of rival sectarian warlords and people who normally defined themselves as apolitical.

The warlords swiftly united to stave off the popular challenge to their legitimacy, deploying security forces to crush protests and intelligence operatives to orchestrate sophisticated smear campaigns against protest leaders.1 The people-power mobilization faded as quickly as it had appeared, like many street protest movements in the Arab world since 2010. Yet something new emerged in its wake. A core group of committed activists, technocrats, and citizens organized an overtly political movement, “Beirut Madinati,” or “Beirut Is My City,” which competed for the Beirut municipal council in the May 2016 elections. The organizers were determined to put into practice the lessons learned from decades of activism and from the Arab uprisings, and to seize the momentum of the garbage crisis. Beirut Madinati sought power, not as a protest movement but as a political party.

After an energetic campaign, Beirut Madinati surprised the political establishment by winning 30 percent of the vote—enough to claim a symbolic victory but not to win a single seat on the city council. The group then spent months deliberating whether to continue as a political party. Its members finally opted out of the parliamentary elections expected to take place in 2017, and decided, for the time being, to continue primarily as a watchdog group, pressuring the Beirut municipal council to do a better job.

This report’s close narrative analysis of Beirut Madinati helps identify barriers to entry and electoral success for antiestablishment movements. Given the impossibility of prediction, narrative case studies and other qualitative ethnographic methods open a door to understanding the forces of popular dissatisfaction and the paths through which some movements blossom into high-impact groups.

The story of Beirut Madinati, in itself, illuminates at least three overararching reasons that it should command our attention. Firstly, it sought to attain power rather than protest. Few popular movements since the Arab uprisings have entered directly into politics, abandoning the civil society label to contest elections; still fewer have had staying power. Secondly, it overtly sought to learn from other movements in Lebanon, the Arab world, and other non-Arab countries.2 Finally, it refused on principle to draw on existing ideologies—political or sectarian—or power structures like the ruling families and their heads, the “zu’ama.” The normally fractious rival sectarian warlords and their parties understood the threat, and united to stave off the insurgents.3

The experience of Beirut Madinati shows the benefit of organizational learning and opportunism, but also the limitations of an initiative that lacks an ideological core or animating central idea.

These distinguishing features contributed to Beirut Madinati’s initial success but might ultimately limit its impact. The movement’s meteoric rise, its failure to achieve tangible power or attempt an entrée into national politics, and its long-term trajectory as a reform movement hold important lessons for would-be reformers in the Arab world and beyond. The experience of Beirut Madinati shows the benefit of organizational learning and opportunism, but also the limitations of an initiative that lacks an ideological core or animating central idea.

Taking Back the City: Origins of a Movement

Lebanon’s peak in popular mobilization and protest came in 2005, when mass protests, perhaps involving half the country’s total population, broke out after the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.4 In quick succession followed a war with Israel, then an ultimately violent internal feud between Lebanon’s sectarian factions over Hezbollah’s rightful share of executive power. The showdown unfolded over nearly two years and climaxed in May 2008 with street battles in Ras Beirut and other flashpoints around the country, which finally prompted the country’s ruling zu’ama to adjust their shares of government power. The outcome of the 2005–8 crises demonstrated that Lebanon’s rulers were incapable of correctly estimating their actual relative power. More troubling, they had no mechanisms of negotiation and conflict resolution short of brinkmanship, confrontation, or violence. The cascades of protests in the end had no impact on the negotiations among the country’s rulers. The system allowed no point of entry for citizens to shape policy, and ruling factions paid no price for destructive behavior.

The regional context also played a major role in shaping events in Lebanon. The constant threat of war with Israel hangs over Lebanon. Since 2011, the civil war in Syria has encroached on Lebanon’s national security. The specter of communal conflict perpetually spurs anxiety among Lebanese: unique among Arab countries, Lebanon has eighteen officially recognized sects with relatively balanced population shares. These demographics fuel conflict, but also preserve a degree of pluralism and consociational decision-making rare in the region. In a regional context of crippled governance, frustrated people-power uprisings, and nascent initiatives for reform and revolution, Lebanon always faces the threat of foreign intervention and catastrophic security breakdown. For most Lebanese, day-to-day peace depends not on the state but on interpersonal neighborhood dynamics, the vagaries of competing foreign governments, self-serving political bosses, and transnational movements. As a result, Lebanon functions as a sort of showcase for the region’s political experiments. Despite its official population, an estimated four to four-and-a-half million,5 Lebanon carries outsize importance for the rest of the Arab world. Lebanon’s strange governing recipe—with corrupt warlords and their militias securing the loyalty of their fiefdoms through patronage—has made for an oddly stable species of postwar recovery.

When revolts swept the Arab world in 2010 and 2011, many Lebanese were wary. On the one hand, the country had a free press, flourishing civil society, and organized political opposition. On the other, it also had fresh memories of the civil war and the 2008 clashes. The country’s rulers had made their fortunes as warlords, and constantly reminded the public that a hard push for reform could easily spark a repeat of the civil war. Fear of anarchy meant that popular revolt had less appeal as a political tool in Lebanon than it did elsewhere in the early years of the Arab uprisings. The war that broke out in Syria in 2011 only exacerbated the anxiety, as Lebanese factions took opposite sides in their neighbor’s strife. Fighting seeped across the border,6 and refugees swelled to 20–25 percent of Lebanon’s total population.7 Even more so than in 2005–8, Lebanon appeared at risk of a violent collapse.

Garbage Piles Up

Inept at so many other aspects of governance, Lebanon’s warlords proved resilient and resourceful at muddling through an acute security crisis from 2011 to 2013. Factional leaders who encouraged their followers to fight to the death under sectarian banners in Syria ordered them to show restraint at home in Lebanon. Their security efforts were surprisingly effective. When their interests were threatened, the zu’ama were capable of coordination and expeditious action. Meanwhile, as security was restored, traditional patronage and corruption thrived, salaries stalled, the cost of living rose, and basic services continually deteriorated. Electricity, water, and garbage collection, which had improved in the 1990s, had declined for a decade and a half. By 2015, the Lebanese infrastructure was experiencing unprecedented levels of strain, and the government refused to take even the most basic action to maintain the existing, poor quality of service. The collapse of governance highlighted an enraging reality: Lebanon’s services were appalling by design, the result of a division of rackets among warlords, whose profits grew as official services declined and citizens were forced to turn to profiteering networks to provide everything from gas and power to, in some cases, neighborhood security.

The garbage crisis marked a turning point for many Lebanese who had been hitherto willing to accede to the ruling clique’s paralyzing logic. Protests in August and September 2015 were the largest and most intense that Lebanon had seen in a decade. The climactic demonstrations on August 22–23 drew an estimated ten thousand protesters8 and were attacked by security forces.9 A week later maybe twenty thousand attended a peaceful follow-up march on downtown Beirut—a small number compared to the millions who demonstrated in 2005 but nevertheless a threat to the status quo because of their simple, radical, and popular message against government corruption, incompetence, and inaction.10 The protests were catalyzed by an antiestablishment group called You Stink, whose name addressed the political class. A small core of activists carefully limited You Stink’s message: the government needed to solve the garbage crisis, and all the existing movements and leaders were guilty. “We insist we don’t want to have a leader or an ideology,” explained one of the You Stink founders, an activist and advertising professional named Assad Thebian.11 “We don’t want to be kidnapped by the left, the right, or civil society. We don’t believe in revolution. We believe in change. We believe all public figures are corrupt.”

You Stink initially resisted calls to expand its critique to the sectarian political system, the electoral law, or other manifestations of public corruption. In keeping with wider regional trends from the 2010–11 Arab uprisings, it tried to divorce “legitimate” protest and popular anger, from the “tainted” game of politics. (Eventually You Stink officially expanded its critique to include Lebanese election laws.) The protest movement quickly balkanized.12 Some factions did embrace an ideological critique of the government, usually from the left. Others targeted elections or corruption, or worked in sync with establishment political parties. Important political blocs took umbrage at You Stink, including the Future Movement, the Free Patriotic Movement, Hezbollah, Amal, and the Progressive Socialist Party, representing the bulk of Sunni, Shia, Druze, and the single most important Maronite faction.

Authorities quickly closed ranks. Police turned tear gas and water cannons against demonstrators. Many were arrested after clashes that appeared incited by agents provocateurs; activists claimed that state security services and political parties deployed violent infiltrators among the ranks of peaceful demonstrators to discredit the protests. Political leaders levied baseless but incendiary allegations that You Stink was destabilizing the country, creating sectarian strife, and insulting religion. Some politicians decried You Stink’s methods but publicly sympathized with the protesters’ demands for an end to corruption—even though they and their parties were integrally tied to the corruption. Government and political party officials released leaks, sometimes false, sometimes culled from sources such as individual Facebook pages and taken out of context, to paint You Stink leaders as atheists, hedonists, al-Qaeda sympathizers, foreign agents, or spoiled out-of-touch members of the elite.13Protests’ leaders faced threats and were sometimes attacked. One political party, the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, mustered a demonstration of its own that dwarfed the anti-garbage protests, as a reminder that the status quo powers had massive reserves of resources and obedient loyalists. The campaign offered a glimpse of the machinery the state could deploy to shut down any popular movement that it considered a threat.

Government and political party officials released leaks, sometimes false, sometimes culled from sources such as individual Facebook pages and taken out of context, to paint You Stink leaders as atheists, hedonists, al-Qaeda sympathizers, foreign agents, or spoiled out-of-touch members of the elite.

Many of the activists in You Stink, as well as those who went on to establish Beirut Madinati, believe that the establishment parties were behind the sudden proliferation of rival protest groups.14 Competing messages from AstroTurf groups sapped the popular garbage protests of their vigor and drowned out You Stink’s message. Fewer people joined each successive demonstration, and even supporters of You Stink feared that the movement—even unintentionally— created a risk of violence, even by threatening a corrupt status quo.15 The waste crisis worsened, and when the winter rains came and washed through the proliferating illegal dump sites to which Lebanese had resorted, the country’s rivers, streets, and seafront were flooded with garbage. But the political class remained secure, calculating that wider fears—the war in Syria, regional rivalries between Saudi Arabia and Iran, latent sectarian tensions, the threat of violence orchestrated by the very same warlords in order to preserve their fiefs—would suffice to mute popular anger. Nonetheless, they worked hard to demonize the protesters, and their smears found echoes even among fellow dissidents, who whispered that their rivals were paid foreign agents.16

Some protesters were arrested. One was threatened with blasphemy charges. Thebian for a time moved out of his house after receiving threats. “We are fighting a system with no mercy,” Thebian said, assessing his movement’s record after its public activities had dwindled to occasional, small, symbolic anti-corruption actions.17 “Everyone thinks this system is fragile, but I think it’s one of the strongest governing systems.” Because all the major political parties and leaders benefit from corruption, any challenge to the way the system operates, like the assault on the garbage contract, threatens the entire system. You Stink, and the public protests, brought enormous public attention to one particularly egregious example of Lebanese corruption and dysfunction. Lebanon’s rulers weathered the bump in public anger without making any concessions, or reaching a solution to the garbage issue that prompted it. Apparently, the profits to be had through a secret, extortionate waste management contract were worth any short-term political discomfort.

The Legacy of “You Stink”

The activists involved in the garbage campaign, along with many others who were watching sympathetically, or allied with the movement as technical advisers or casual protesters, internalized several lessons about organizing public opinion, and the simultaneous strength and insecurity of the ruling elite. You Stink performed well with a simple, targeted message, and the technocratic expertise it developed about the issue on which it focused. By avoiding direct attacks on specific politicians and on the sectarian system per se, it coined a message about corruption and fixing services that even politicians found themselves forced to agree with, at least rhetorically.18 The movement galvanized a wide array of Lebanese, including some elites and some working class and unemployed, some critics of the system and some political activists who came from established parties. It also brought together a group of political activists, technical experts, and urban planners to propose alternatives to the government’s garbage proposals, and some of them found a voice articulating policy plans rather than simply voicing opposition to the government.19

On the flip side, You Stink’s reliance on volunteer work from young activists who had to support themselves with full-time jobs while simultaneously trying to run a movement left it vulnerable to organization fatigue. Its insistence on internal transparency and a horizontal, leaderless structure made it difficult to make decisions and act quickly. The unexpected vehemence of the official smear campaign, and the sudden spread of rival factions, swamped You Stink’s public message. Finally, because its only tactic was protest and its only issue was garbage, the You Stink movement found itself with no raison d’être when large crowds stopped showing up for demonstrations and the government stalled on the garbage issue. It simply had nothing to do. Its core members, like Thebian, went back to their day jobs. Its main victory had been revealing just how easily spooked the country’s political bosses were. “People were actually demanding a change in the pattern in which we were being governed since the 1990s,” Thebian said.20 “This frightened the politicians. Every political party that has been part of the system has been part of the corruption. This is not something they will sacrifice easily. It is something they took with power, and they will use their power to keep it.”

During the garbage protests, a wide range of veteran activists and new entrants into the public sphere tackled the question of how best to improve Lebanon’s entrenched political system. Arguments took place during street protests, on televised talk shows, and in private activist strategy meetings.21 Competing protest groups contemplated mergers, and some discussed founding a political party. The youth movement galvanized cascades of conversation in different circles, including older activists who had been involved in a variety of campaigns going back decades, including labor organizing, and a loose community of Beirut urban planners, most of whom had some connection to the American University of Beirut (AUB).

Beirut Madinati took shape as the garbage movement lost coherence. By September 2015, a group of activist professionals and academics agreed that they wanted to harness the energy in the You Stink protests into a tangible project. Many ideas were floated: establishing a political party, promoting urban reform in Beirut, fighting corruption, contesting the upcoming municipal elections. Jad Chaaban, an AUB economist, brought in a circle of activists interested in traditional politics and elections, including former journalist Rana Khoury and human rights lawyer Nayla Geagea. Mona Fawaz, an urban planner at AUB, invited planners and architects. They were joined by journalists, engineers, advertising executives, AUB faculty members, and dozens of veterans of past campaigns on causes ranging from civil marriage to the Fouad Boutros Highway, a proposed road through an old neighborhood in Beirut. “It’s not just about making change, but creating a nucleus of people who can create change,” said Fawaz, recalling the early discussions in August and September 2015.22 Chaaban drafted a political party platform, and Fawaz tried to formalize a core group at a dinner party at her home in September.

“It’s not just about making change, but creating a nucleus of people who can create change,”

This core group of Beirut Madinati founders, candidates and volunteers could be roughly described as the secular middle and upper-middle class. Its membership was evenly divided among Lebanon’s sects, but few of its founders or volunteers identified as observant or devoutly religious. Some had family or historical connections to dynastic clans or major political parties, but identified personally as secular, anti-sectarian, and/or independent. With some exceptions, the younger generation of volunteers were educated and activist. Some had been involved with the Secular Club at AUB, a student organization that tried to galvanize anti-sectarian politics and craft an alternative to the existing Lebanese political groupings. The older generation of activists, including the founders, represented, loosely put, the secular Beiruti professional class, traditionally identified with the Ras Beirut area. They were not, as the establishment would later allege, ultrarich, out-of-touch, Francophone, Christian elites; many came from humble or middle-class backgrounds and they operated within the solidly middle-class confines of urban Beirut. Many were white-collar professionals, in advertising, architecture, academia, or the arts, but none were members of the ultrawealthy circle that dominates Lebanese business and politics.

LEFT: BEIRUT MADINATI HOLD THEIR FIRST DISCUSSION SPACE EVENT ON THE PUBLIC STAIRS IN MAR MIKHAEL NEIGHBORHOOD TO HEAR PEOPLE’S CONCERNS. APRIL 9TH 2016. BEIRUT, LEBANON. RIGHT: ONE OF THE ATTENDEES IS HOLDING BEIRUT MADINATI’S MUNICIPAL PROGRAM. SOURCE: KARIM SAKR/ BEIRUT MADINATI FACEBOOK PAGE.

By November a group of political activists, academics and professionals coalesced with the specific goal of competing in the Beirut municipal elections. Within a month, they had created committees, and by January 2016, the program committee had researched and drafted what became the Beirut Madinati electoral campaign platform, which they summarized in a succinct ten-point plan that avoided Lebanese politics and focused on technocratic quality-of-life issues: traffic, parks, public transportation, housing, waste management, and the like.23 Professionals, with experience in political campaigns, marketing, and advertising, contributed their expertise. All told, the dedicated activists and volunteers that drove Beirut Madinati numbered just a few hundred individuals, who raised and spent a total of $415,000 over the course of their campaign. They were arrayed against established parties with legions of paid employees, massive advertising budgets, and full-time operatives and loyalists throughout the city. The founders decided from the start not to include any established politicians, even if they shared the nascent movement’s views, in order to avoid any taint by association with the existing system. They chose a sunny, apolitical name: Beirut Madinati, or Beirut Is My City. “The shift from You Stink to us is from saying, ‘This political class is untenable, rotten, we can’t work with it.’ The next stop is to say, ‘This is what we must do, and this is what the political class should be doing,’” Fawaz said. 24

A Program to Make Life Better

The platform carefully enumerated a to-do list and touted the probity, expertise, and independence of the Beirut Madinati technocrats. The language studiously avoided sounding political. Beirut Madinati was a “campaign,” not a political party, with a “program,” not a platform. The city’s inept leaders had refused all input and had failed in their obligations to citizens. Beirut Madinati’s “primary objective is to make Beirut more livable: more affordable, more walkable, more green, more accessible, and, simply, more pleasant.” Who could oppose such goals? Critics rarely disagreed with the aims, only expressing doubts that technocrats, even in control of the city council, would have enough authority to thwart the wealthy, politically-connected cabal of developers and family dynasties that had driven the city to ruin.

The program’s mission statement imagines Beirut as a city where working people can raise children and grow old with a modicum of comfort and dignity, and where the city government serves the population. In the context of Beirut’s daily dysfunction, such an image is almost fantastical. But the program tries to paint improvement as feasible, breaking down problems by sector and proposing solutions that include minimal, feasible workarounds and building up to bigger, more dreamy improvements. The campaign tended to focus on the most feasible reforms with the most immediate impact: traffic, public transportation, parks and public space, affordable housing in the rampant new construction around the city, waste management, and more transparent and inclusive administration. These weren’t necessarily the most important problems in people’s lives, like health care and education, but they were more easily addressed and fell under the prerogative of municipal authorities.

The movement’s founders had long labored on urban issues, lobbying the city council, with occasional success. As a result, they were familiar with the actual powers of the city council in a system where the national government held most of the purse strings, and authorities crafted their proposals accordingly. If they won seats on the council, they wanted an agenda that was practical and achievable. At the top of the list was transportation. Although Beirut is a small city, geographically, there is no centrally planned public transportation system. Residents rely disproportionately on private cars (70 percent of all trips in the city, according to the Beirut Madinati platform), and an organic, uncoordinated system of privately operated minivans and buses. Beirut Madinati’s platform sought to unify and rationalize the existing routes, and introduce rapid-transit bus routes. They also promised to improve traffic flow by deploying police or traffic monitors, which are currently almost nonexistent unless a VIP is trying to pass through a traffic jam. The urban planning tenor of the traffic proposals masked their profoundly political nature; traditional warlords’ parties could not coordinate across municipal boundaries because of their competition and dysfunction, whereas a nonaligned group like Beirut Madinati could try to coordinate between, for example, minibus drivers based in a Hezbollah area and others from a Future Movement neighborhood.

The urban planning tenor of the traffic proposals masked their profoundly political nature; traditional warlords’ parties could not coordinate across municipal boundaries because of their competition and dysfunction.

The campaign promised, if elected, to increase the amount of green space per person in Beirut from one square meter to five. The city has almost no public parks, and what little open or green space exists is often closed to the public or slated for construction. The campaign’s plan would mark a radical improvement in congested neighborhoods without any expensive intervention: the city could use its legal authority to open access to existing but inaccessible open spaces. Beirut Madinati promised to create a city recycling program to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills. Municipal buildings would be renovated in keeping with ecologically sound “green” principles. In office, Beirut Madinati would aggressively oversee existing authorities that barely functioned but could improve public safety: monitoring water quality, street lights, and the placement of garbage bins. Finally, and easiest of all to implement, a city council with Beirut Madinati members would hold meetings, publish its records, and attend public hearings—all of which are practices that are already required by law yet do not occur.

The remaining proposals on the program were in a similar vein, but less easily accomplished. Beirut Madinati promised to open public access to the city’s waterfront, establish new markets that encouraged small local producers, add social impact clauses to public contracts, and double the number of public libraries. Hardest of all to achieve, the campaign proposed to convince developers to include affordable housing units in new construction and address the problem of deteriorated housing stock for the poor, and to reform a rent-regulation regime that protected only a small number of tenants. The first items on the program could conceptually be implemented through city council authority without antagonizing any entrenched constituencies. On the other hand, the more ambitious proposals, relating to housing, development, and parking lots, were likely to face stiff opposition from wealthy individuals and constituencies who profit handsomely from the current dysfunction.

The founders of Beirut Madinati hailed from a diversity of professional backgrounds, and as a group they were connected to almost all the well-known reform efforts in Lebanon. This collective record of fighting the system, rather than any expectation of success, endowed the Beirut Madinati team with an aura of optimism and integrity. These were people who had consistently stood against efforts by the elite to take away public goods such as affordable housing, parks, public waterfront areas, union contracts, and a long list of other things. They had campaigned for the rights of the disadvantaged. They had challenged the zu’ama, the ruling families, and had even scored the occasional success. They had blocked a throughway favored by the government and big developers that would have destroyed one of Beirut’s few surviving old-fashioned neighborhoods with an economically diverse population. After years of legwork, one Beirut Madinati candidate had successfully transformed an iconic building ravaged by the civil war into a museum. Several, working together, were fighting a pair of projects that are in the process of destroying the last two remaining natural spaces on the waterfront where Beirut residents can convene. Some had brought attention to the systemic mistreatment of refugees.

Beirut Madinati’s founders repeated in public statements that they thought their movement’s appeal stemmed from the content of its platform, and from the belief they exuded that change was possible. Interviews with volunteers, voters, and sympathizers—as well as the ultimate results—raise the possibility that the movement’s popularity drew more heavily on the personal appeal of the candidates, and frustration with the status quo. In other words, the basket of technical issues—with which no one theoretically disagreed, even the ruling party bosses—were not what inspired volunteers to join Beirut Madinati. Instead, what volunteers and voters said they liked was the integrity of the candidates, their optimism, their refusal to concede defeat to the corrupt government, and the movement’s orientation toward the concerns of regular citizens struggling to make ends meet in a city plagued by traffic and lacking the essential amenities of most cities in the developed world.

This dissonance has characterized Beirut Madinati throughout its existence. Some of its founders speak of the urban platform with genuine conviction, and believe the movement’s longevity relies on achieving tangible results on traffic, development, pollution, and so on. Citizens and voters, on the other hand, seem to be seeking a rallying idea, along with a concrete, mobilizing activity, that will restore any level of accountability and check the runaway powers of an extractive and predatory government. My impression from extensive interviews with Beirut residents is that those who were attracted to Beirut Madinati liked the personalities involved and the sense of possibility and citizen agency that they fostered—much more so than the platform specifics.

Through word of mouth and personal circles, Beirut Madinati assembled a campaign team and solicited volunteers for the election. Traditional campaigns cost an enormous amount of money, much of it spent on advertising and personnel, including thousands of canvassers and election day monitors for the city’s approximately 850 polling stations. Beirut Madinati intended to rely almost exclusively on volunteers and on free or cheap advertising, with the bulk of publicity coming through media coverage and social media shares.25 “The experiment is very simple,” said Chaaban, the AUB economist, during Beirut Madinati’s launch period.26 “There are no political parties in Lebanon. There is a leader, and followers. We want to test this with a focused objective.”

The Election Campaign

Previous Beirut elections had witnessed declining turnout, dropping from a peak of 33 percent in 1998 to 21 percent in 2010 (the same proportion that voted in 2016).27 Popular anger was high in the wake of the garbage protests and other serial governance failures. While the state was weak and municipal government had limited powers, the city council of Beirut had a $240 million operating budget.28 Lebanon at the time had no president, and no parliamentary elections scheduled; the sitting parliament, stuffed with hereditary politicians, had unconstitutionally extended its own mandate by nearly three years in November 2014 on the grounds that a country with a vacant presidency could ill afford a disbanded parliament, and the caretaker government in place could not stage elections for a new one. Municipal elections were the only opportunity to have any impact at all. “People have had enough. It is not enough to have success in our NGOs,” Chaaban said. “We need people like us in power. You can’t just demonstrate and get teargassed.”

Machine politics guaranteed that Lebanese elections, even at the local level, were not genuinely competitive. In most cases, the dominant parties came to agreements beforehand and avoided direct competition. Further complicating matters, Lebanese are forced to vote in their area of origin rather than where they live. The government does not print standardized ballots, and most voters use ballots distributed by parties and local chieftains that, through careful coding such as the font or order of names on the ballot, allow parties to keep track of how people vote. Such practices reinforce vote buying and bloc voting by families and other groupings. Beirut’s electoral boundaries include a Sunni majority, dominated by Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, and a sizable Christian population that supports multiple competing Christian parties. The city limits include about five hundred thousand registered voters, far fewer than the actual population, and do not include adjoining, Shia-dominated areas, which fall in different electoral districts. With the blessing of the other ruling parties in Lebanon, Hariri and his party select the municipal list for Beirut, negotiating with the Christian parties and other smaller groups for shares of the twenty-four seats. By tradition, the slate of candidates on the council is half Christian and half Muslim, in keeping with Beirut’s identity as a mixed city. This precooked system can create interesting paradoxes. For instance, because Hezbollah is not directly involved in the Beirut elections or the city governance, its media outlets have a history of fair, aggressive, and investigative coverage of Beirut city politics. Similarly, the neighborhood bosses who instruct people how to vote hold less sway over Christians and middle-class Sunnis not embedded in Hariri patronage networks.

Normally, a group of activists from the secular intellectual elite would stand almost no chance against the well-oiled political machine of a “zaim” (the singular of zu’ama). But the municipal elections of 2016 offered a rare opportunity, because the city’s dominant political boss had suffered numerous setbacks and was uncharacteristically vulnerable and distracted. As a result of various regional machinations, Saudi Arabia had withdrawn its patronage of Hariri after decades supporting the family dynasty.29 Nearly bankrupt, Hariri faced challenges from other politicians eager to replace him as the nation’s preeminent Sunni leader. This confluence of factors weakened the governing slate and meant that a challenger in the Beirut municipal race would benefit from a historical opening.

Beirut Madinati’s founders conceived it as an organization that would be egalitarian, inclusive and immune to bossman rule—leading by example in a country where “every party has evolved into a one-man show.”30 The group had a general assembly, which voted on major decisions. A campaign general coordinator and a steering committee oversaw daily operations during the campaign. Beirut Madinati’s strategists might have overestimated their organizational prowess, and initially underestimated how much money they’d be able to raise. Like many reform movements of the era, the insistence on horizontal, consensus-driven, leaderless, transparent internal decision-making put a low ceiling on ideological appeal, flexibility, and speedy decision making.31 The campaign officially launched on March 23 with a press conference at a seaside restaurant in Ras Beirut. A full slate of twenty-four candidates was unveiled. A month earlier Chaaban had expressed modest hopes for success, but heartened by the response they’d elicited in their call for volunteers and donations, the campaign steering committee now hoped to win a significant share, maybe even a majority, of the city council seats.

BEIRUT MADINATI HOLDS ITS FOURTH DISCUSSION SPACE EVENT IN THE SIOUFI PULIC GARDENS IN BEIRUT. APRIL 23 2016. SOURCE: HABIB BATTAH, BLOGGER. BLOG: THE BEIRUT REPORT.

Good governance undergirded the platform. The slate intended to campaign door to door and neighborhood by neighborhood, relying on volunteer canvassers and open public events called “discussion spaces” or “open squares” (masahet naqash in Arabic) that would take place in underutilized public spaces and call attention to the city government’s marginalization of neighborhoods and citizens. Meanwhile, the established parties opted not to fight each other and instead assembled a single establishment “Beirutis” list, which unsubtly marketed itself as the rightful guardians of the city’s old-timers against a destabilizing, rabble-rousing group of upstart newcomers.

With less than two months to campaign and long odds, Beirut Madinati generated a fair amount of buzz. Lebanese media gave its candidates and founders extensive coverage, another result of Lebanon’s open, pluralistic system, which meant that political bosses couldn’t simply quash media coverage they didn’t like.32 Among educated, online networks, the campaign dominated social media streams. But many of the scheduled public assemblies were cancelled or failed to materialized; in some instances, Beirut Madinati blamed the Future Movement or conservative city notables for strong-arming neighborhood power brokers into cancelling support for Beirut Madinati’s public meetings, while in other cases, cancellations seemed to result from gaps in organizational capacity. Discussion spaces in marginalized neighborhoods drew modest crowds, and often half or more of the attendees were already Beirut Madinati volunteers, rather than prospective voters drawn by a neighborhood forum. The organization couldn’t absorb all the volunteers, and voter outreach was underwhelming: Beirut Madinati did not engage in systematic door-to-door canvassing.

In some cases, Beirut Madinati volunteers faced direct intimidation, especially in neighborhoods where established parties like the Future Movement or Amal routinely deployed thuggish cadres to signal their party’s hold over an area.

In some cases, Beirut Madinati volunteers faced direct intimidation, especially in neighborhoods where established parties like the Future Movement or Amal routinely deployed thuggish cadres to signal their party’s hold over an area. Many of these areas were also the most neglected, like the poor Sunni quarter of Tariq al-Jadideh, which consistently voted for Saad Hariri as a sort of tribal sectarian protector, and in return, received even less than neighborhoods of shifting loyalty. “We don’t trust anyone, but we’ll vote for Hariri in order to show that we exist,” a Tariq al-Jadideh local boss named Ahmed Shara’l explained. “With the leaders we know, we’re still losing. Imagine how much more we lose if they’re gone.” Against this zero-sum logic, Beirut Madinati struggled to make inroads. Even mistreated clientelistic voters understood the logic of the system, and they reasonably doubted that a movement like Beirut Madinati, even if victorious, would be able to offer them anything at all: services, security, or representation within the narrow circles of power where decisions are made.

The establishment alliance seemed to take seriously the threat posed by Beirut Madinati, but considered it a “friendly” challenge. Hariri later described it as a well-meaning list that “shares our ambitions and values.”33 In any case, the establishment list added some fresh faces and adopted much of the rhetoric of Beirut Madinati, speaking suddenly of green spaces and quality of life. Major figures, including the minister of the interior, who by law is supposed to be a neutral figure overseeing the integrity of elections, endorsed Hariri’s list in the last weeks of the campaign, which also witnessed a sudden spree of billboards and radio ads. An orchestrated whisper campaign painted Beirut Madinati as Christian, elitist, and likely ineffectual—a rich claim coming from a list dominated by ultrawealthy clans and business interests. The establishment apparently calculated it could win without employing any harder tactics against Beirut Madinati.

For its part, Beirut Madinati campaigned politely, taking care not to provoke the establishment by frontal attacks. It did, however, raise expectations of an electoral victory among the core group of several hundred volunteers who immersed themselves nearly full-time in the effort in the month before the election, on May 8, 2016. Beirut Madinati spurred a national conversation about reform and obliquely raised the central concerns with the sectarian political system: that it had failed in even the most easily addressed practical ways. Members of Beirut Madinati’s steering committee telephoned officials in the Future Movement, asking them to use their influence to discourage the intimidation tactics being deployed against Beirut Madinati. The request did not yield any result. Such is the power and mystique of the country’s warlords that many Beirut Madinati activists worried that Saad Hariri would be able, if he chose, to simply shut down their campaign, or buy off critical activists with offers of lucrative consultancies or political positions. In any event, Hariri’s alliance copied some of the urban reform policy messages of Beirut Madinati, and made clear that a loss of control over the city could create a serious risk of sectarian violence—but nevertheless allowed its rivals to campaign.

Despite the media buzz that preceded it, election day in Beirut was quiet. “We’ve opened a Pandora’s Box,” said Ibrahim Mneimneh, an engineer who headed the Beirut Madinati candidates list, awaiting results at Beirut Madinati’s temporary headquarters.34 “People wanted to give a slap in the face to their sectarian leaders, without taking a huge risk. It’s just the right dose.” When the votes were counted, though, it appeared that far fewer Beirutis were willing to give that slap in the face to their established leaders than Beirut Madinati strategists had predicted.

Initial results showed that Beirut Madinati performed impressively, and most media reports carried an assessment based on partial returns.35 When final tallies were published, however, Beirut Madinati had won only 30 percent of the vote (not the 40 percent initially reported); still an impressive showing.36Under proportional representation, Beirut Madinati’s votes might have given it ten of the twenty-four seats on the council. But under the existing rules, despite the group’s performance, it did not win a single city council seat. Only 20 percent of registered voters actually voted, but Beirut Madinati won the city’s mostly Christian parliamentary first district. According to Ramez Dagher’s analysis on his blog Moulahazat, about 30 percent of the city’s Sunni voters defected, despite a drumbeat of scare tactics. The numbers involved were quite small in absolute terms. After all the campaigning, the establishment’s Beirutis list was able to sweep the council with just 47,465 people voting for the top finisher and 38,989 for the lowest. There was a sizable gap between the lowest-scoring winner and the top vote-getter from Beirut Madinati, the list leader Ibrahim Mneimneh, who won 31,933 votes. Compared to the campaign’s original predictions, the number of election day voters was a disappointment, even if it was impressive for an upstart campaign with little financing.37

To Continue in Politics or Work as an Urban NGO?

In some ways, Beirut Madinati was incredibly shrewd, opportunistic, and pragmatic, but from another angle the same virtues could be viewed as overly cautious, bland, politically shortsighted, and conservative. The movement wanted to reject sectarianism, but carefully balanced its list: half Christian, half Muslim, half male, half female.38 The caution didn’t insulate Beirut Madinati from the slur that it was a pet project of hypereducated cosmopolitans more comfortable in bars than Beirut’s hardscrabble streets, dominated by Francophone Christians. This stereotyping, backed by establishment media, completely misrepresented the reality of Beirut Madinati and ignored the fact that the establishment was decidedly richer, more elite, and packed with leaders who spent more time abroad than in Lebanon. Nonetheless the tactic worked, and Beirut Madinati’s choice not to confront Hariri or other leaders directly, or to criticize sectarianism directly, might have cost the movement an opportunity to motivate otherwise apathetic and dejected voters.

BEIRUT MADINATI ANNOUNCES AND INTRODUCES ITS FULL MUNICIPAL LIST ON BEIRUT’S PUBLIC CORNICE IN AIN EL MREISEH AREA. APRIL 30, 2016. BEIRUT, LEBANON. ARCHITECT IBRAHIM MNEIMNEH ANNOUNCES HE WAS VOTED AS THE HEAD OF THAT LIST. SOURCE: KARIM SAKR/ BEIRUT MADINATI FACEBOOK PAGE

Beirut Madinati carefully studied other movements and weighed the risks and possibilities of the current political moment in Lebanon. Its founders, candidates and volunteers were almost uniformly vocal critics of their country’s political leadership, endemic corruption, and governing system. Most were secular, anti-sectarian, and had no faith in the existing political parties. On the other hand, many of the secular anti-sectarians and technocrats had sectarian backgrounds, and affiliations to ideologies (leftism, socialism, resistance) or to specific political figures. They could set these differences aside for a short period while working on a ten-point quality-of-life improvement plan for Beirut, but when talk turned to national issues or root-and-branch reform of the system, the common ground quickly narrowed. Some had sympathies for the Future Movement, or for Hezbollah. Some considered themselves as communist or socialist, and had problems with what they saw as the neoliberal leanings of other members.

Elsewhere in Lebanon, voters had defected from the ruling parties in favor of groupings that were in some ways even more conservative and status quo than the ruling circle, representing tribes, families, or extreme populists from established political parties. The most successful were dissidents from within ruling circles who didn’t challenge corruption, sectarianism, or warlordism, but simply vowed to do a better job within its constrictions. A prime example is Ashraf Rifi, a former justice minister who resigned from the Sunni Future Movement and won the local elections in Tripoli.

The founders of Beirut Madinati were determined that their movement endure and preserve its unique internal character. They also felt a responsibility to their voters. After a “victory rally” in the parking lot by the Beirut Forum, despite disappointment over their loss, the group’s general assembly, consisting of about eighty members, met repeatedly over the summer to assess the election and choose a path forward. The internal debate quickly broke down into two almost evenly matched factions: one that wanted to focus on Beirut, and one that believed the movement should also address national politics. The Beirut faction believed the group should consolidate its electoral achievement, build a viable organization in the city, and spend the next six years of the city council’s term pushing for better governance and fighting various toxic urban development projects. The core of this group included some activists who had already spent decades working on urban causes in Beirut. The politics faction believed that the entire purpose had always been to challenge the failing sectarian political system; the municipal elections had been the vehicle available to challenge the status quo, and the future would soon bring more important targets, like the 2017 parliamentary elections.

In keeping with a dominant activist ethos, Beirut Madinati’s membership believed the process was as important as the outcome. They had run a leaderless campaign in order to show Lebanon it was possible to have a charismatic movement without a bossman. Now they wanted to take an existential decision in a deliberative, transparent, and inclusive fashion. In the event, the discussions turned acrimonious and stretched five months, from June through October of 2016. The debate—to run or not to run, to be a political party or an accountability movement—echoed the dilemma of anti-sectarian, secular, reform, and revolutionary movements almost everywhere. Opposition, protest, and citizen watchdog pressure were endowed with an air of unity, purity, and legitimacy, whereas power-seeking, election campaigning, and questions of national political allegiance or ideology were viewed as dirty, opportunistic, and dividing. “I’m afraid it will tear us apart,” said one leader of the organization during the final stages of the debate. “We’re stuck,” said another.39

This debate took place with an amount of self-awareness, openness and sophistication rarely seen in the Middle East. For many Beirut Madinati members, even the label “party” provoked almost an allergic reaction. “The word ‘politics’ in Lebanon has a negative connotation. It is a major hurdle to how to organize effectively,” Chaaban said during the early stages of the debate.40 “Maybe we can find an alternative to the word ‘hizb’ [party] in Arabic.”

In the end, the Beirut faction prevailed, and the group opted to proceed de facto as an NGO (although it employs the language of a “political platform”) and explicitly not as a political party. It would focus for the time being on pressuring the new municipal council, which had continued in the style of its predecessor, keeping the budget secret, holding no public meetings, ignoring all requests for information and hearings, while pushing forward private luxury projects on the city’s remaining waterfront and public land. Divisions had flared between left and right, sympathizers with Hezbollah and the Future Movement, outright secularists and more conservative incremental reformers, political savants, and idealistic activists.

“People hate politics. We want to reclaim the political,” said Fawaz, who was ambivalent about the wisest option for the movement.41 She believed that small victories were possible on practical urban issues, but that Lebanon was doomed without major national political reform. Ibrahim Mneimneh feared that politics would destroy the movement. People liked Beirut Madinati, he said, because it stayed away from sensitive issues. “Secularism is taboo,” he said. “We have to be clearly against the sectarian system. We can show this system has led to terrible results. Our key to success at a national level is finding a way to talk about an issue like security or corruption without singling out any political movement or sect and making them feel targeted.”

A further objection to politics was practical (and risk-averse). Under almost any imaginable scenario, Lebanon’s parliamentary election laws would overwhelmingly favor the existing dominant parties in some version of winner-takes-all voting. Beirut Madinati would face even longer odds in parliamentary elections than they did in the Beirut city race, because the districts are even more heavily gerrymandered and, with high stakes, the establishment would be unlikely to be caught unprepared like it was during the municipal races. Any campaign they ran would have to be intended largely for public education and organizational capacity building. “I believe you should be with the people on the ground,” said Mona El Hallak, an architect and founder of the Beit Beirut city museum, and one of the Beirut Madinati candidates.42 “That’s why I don’t see parliamentary elections as something of value. I don’t believe in the political discourse in this country.” The general assembly voted on October 29, 2017, not to run for parliamentary elections, by a narrow vote: thirty-one for, thirty-six against.43 Even ambivalent members said the movement just wasn’t mature enough, organizationally, for a national election campaign and inevitable strains it would bring. Inexperienced in politics, many members didn’t see any value in a campaign or, in the event of success, of serving as opposition members in the national legislature. “If we win parliamentary elections, what change would this bring to the people?” Mneimneh said.44 “We would be in the opposition and unable to deliver anything.”

As an organization, Beirut Madinati entered 2017 with a clear agenda to challenge the city municipality and focus on specific urban projects. Some of its activist members have mobilized to fight a major private development in Ramlet al-Baida, the only remaining public beach in Beirut.45 A newly elected leadership structure is working to build the organization and institutionalize its ideas of neighborhood engagement and local government advocacy. Some members are planning a spinoff to run for parliament anyway, in the hopes that they can build on their learning experience inside Beirut Madinati but not endanger the parent organization if their bid fails.

The Implications of Beirut Madinati

On the tangible plane, Beirut Madinati’s achievements remain modest, although important: it created a small but dynamic organization, it raised the profile of several urban planning issues in the Lebanese public discourse, and performed uniquely well for an independent movement in an Arab election. Its postelection triumphs lie in the intangible and less easily assessed: unlocked possibilities, a newfound sense of popular agency and power, and an organizational method that attempts to transcend the ideological divisions among Arab reform and opposition movements and chart a path to improve people’s lives through sustained, opportunistic assaults on poor government policies.46 At this early stage it is possible from Beirut Madinati’s performance to discern a few positive trends around organizational learning and diagnose a sharp, persistent problem with ideology and pure political content, which continues to hamper, and limit, anti-government activism.

Immediately after the election in May, Beirut Madinati’s achievements created a sense of possibility. “Beirut Madinati also introduced a new way of doing politics,” wrote Kim Ghattas, a longtime observer of Lebanese politics.47Headlines proliferated in the vein of the normally acerbic Dagher’s blog post, which was uncharacteristically titled “The Example of Beirut Madinati: Change Is Possible.” Several other bloggers and normally salty Lebanese commentators wrote analyses along the same lines, arguing that the style and content of political discourse, along with the parameters, of the possible, had changed “for good . . . we are winning the narrative war.”48 Sami Attalah, head of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, speculated that the 2017 parliamentary elections would be contested more spiritedly than ever, after the trail blazed by Beirut Madinati in the municipal polls.49 The new municipal council abandoned the conciliatory rhetoric of the election period and acted, if anything, even more impetuously and secretively than before. But the impact of Beirut Madinati and You Stink echoed in the system, for instance in the adoption of a progressive platform by the Kataeb Party, a traditional Christian party with a warlord history that in 2016 refashioned itself as a champion of reform, devolution, and environmental causes.50 Kataeb members joined garbage protests and sympathetically attended Beirut Madinati open discussion events. Whether or not they were opportunistically availing themselves of a new potential base as their support slipped as a result of an alliance between its Christian rivals, the Kataeb was following an agenda blazed by Beirut Madinati. Such emulation was among the movement’s original goals.

BEIRUT MADINATI BEGIN TO HOLD POST-ELECTION MEETINGS AND DISCUSSIONS ON THE FATE OF THE LAST REMAINING PUBLIC BEACH IN BEIRUT. NOVEMBER 7, 2016. SINCE THEY LOST THE ELECTIONS, BEIRUT MADINATI HAS BEEN PROTESTING AGAINST THE PRIVATE INFRINGEMENT OF DEVELOPERS AND PRIVATE BUSINESSES ON BEIRUT’S PUBLIC SPACES AS PART OF ITS ASSUMED ROLE AS SHADOW MUNICIPALITY. PHOTO CREDIT: MOBILE UPLOAD BEIRUT MADINATI FACEBOOK PAGE.

The triumphalist postelection mood might have been overblown, or intentionally exaggerated for effect. Months later, several Beirut Madinati founders and members collaborated on a case study that soberly situated the group’s electoral success in a context of failing trust in the Lebanese government and roiling regional insecurity, typified by the war in Syria.51 The elections, they argued, had broken into the stale monopoly over power of the dominant ruling political parties, and could pave the way to the introduction of new entrants into the country’s political scene. But the author-activists also sagely observe that their success could provoke the ruling warlords to “amplify their rhetoric of fear,” fighting the upstarts by rallying their constituents along sectarian lines.52 By their own assessment, even a limited success against entrenched powers created new dangers as well as opportunities.

Partisans of Beirut Madinati invest high hopes in the organization’s model, approach, tactics, and strategy. They are contending with the regional stigma against politics, and developing an organizational structure that they believe can sustain them over the long term.53 They correctly understand their movement, and public support, as products of unique and specific circumstances in Lebanon, the Arab region, and the modern world. Unlike some of their more idealistic counterparts during the Arab uprisings, they do not see themselves standing outside history or local context. They believe that political power requires small causes embedded in a grand vision. Even those members of Beirut Madinati who opposed entering national politics in time for the May 2017 parliamentary elections did not do so because they want to remain apolitical, but because they believed the most effective way to propel an anti-sectarian political agenda was to focus on a small arena—Beirut city politics—and deliver results. They might be mistaken in their specific choices, but they have moved from the politics of protest into long-term policy work and the pursuit of power and different modes of governance. They are opposing the status quo and simultaneously holding themselves responsible for proposing an alternative. This is credible, sustainable opposition political work.

The Case for Explicit, Mobilizing Ideology

Arab authoritarians and governing cliques might not truly believe the ideologies they invoke, but these ideologies are useful identifiers and for many of their followers, effective mobilizing tools. Without easily understandable, undeniably important core ideological markers, movements that oppose power structures and channel popular frustrations will struggle to cross a threshold from protest movement to sustainable political party or mass movement. Beirut Madinati exemplifies this “hollow core” problem.54 Its members and founders often have bold and clear ideological convictions, but the movement itself seeks to be inclusive and nonideological, at the expense of a coherent, constructive unifying principle. One founder, Khoury, neatly if unintentionally summed up the problem: “We are trying to be a positive campaign, and asking voters to vote FOR something not AGAINST something. We are trying to keep positive relations with all stakeholders.”55 Of course, even the most successful politicians and movements don’t appeal to everyone, and while it’s possible to strive for civility while addressing fundamental civic concerns, it is impossible to engage in meaningful politics and at the same time “keep positive relations” with everybody. That fear of offense, exclusion and conflict characterizes many activist movements, and beyond a certain point paralyzes them.

Beirut Madinati eschewed the ideological debates of its time and place, even hesitating to make clear that it was an almost entirely secular movement. Its campaign was based on vague concepts of reform and accountability and transparency, which elided its internal, ideological, and political contradictions between leftists and liberals, between secular anti-sectarians and sectarian reformers, and other important cleavages. The slick name worked well during the campaign but in its aftermath carried a whiff of vagueness, marketing over substance. The overall packaging echoed Islamists around the region who, although from a different starting point, seek to downplay core ideologies and appeal to quality of life concerns, running for office with long, detail-rich policy platforms and parties whose names are comprised in mix-and-match fashion of the words justice, reform, development and freedom. Beirut Madinati, in its quest for virtue, still carried many of the vices of the society it wished to reform.

“We don’t care about all your municipal bullshit, when the whole country and state is falling down. There is a possibility to change the whole system. Our objective is to build a political alternative.”

Any effective long-term mobilization will require a core committed cadre, resources, and ideological clarity—whether unity of purpose emerges in a negative project (oppose the corrupt state), a positive project (build a nonsectarian system of good governance), or a to-do list. One alternative to Beirut Madinati experimented with an ideological approach, but fared poorly in the municipal elections—perhaps because despite its message it looked like another one-man show in the model of the existing warlord parties. Charbel Nahhas in the spring of 2015 founded a national political party called “Citizens within a State,” which openly campaigned for a secular, democratic system of government. It had a clear ideology, with a socialist economic platform, and overt national aspirations. It ran municipal slates throughout Lebanon. But the movement attracted very few members, funds, or voters, despite its sharp critique of the system, perhaps because of Nahhas’s plodding rhetorical style, history as a minister, and continuing close ties to government figures.56 He predicted Beirut Madinati would fail because it was afraid to attack Lebanon’s corrupt leaders directly. “They had a managerial paradigm. They play a game within the logic of the system,” Nahhas said.57 “They present themselves as an effective alternative to the badly performing team. They are challenging the team, not the system.” Nahhas put pithily a concern about Beirut Madinati’s approach that speaks as well to a wide array of anti-sectarian, secular reform activists in the Arab world who focus on narrow platforms for fear of alienating a conservative, sectarian, or religious public: “We don’t care about all your municipal bullshit, when the whole country and state is falling down. There is a possibility to change the whole system. Our objective is to build a political alternative.”

Inclusive Organizing, Embedding Contradictions

Observers of Beirut Madinati and You Stink before it were far more likely to foist unrealistic expectations on the social movements than the actual activists involved. Internally, as we have seen, many of Beirut Madinati’s architects were sanguine about the limitations of its approach, and the internal divisions it had papered over. The initiative’s pragmatism, and lack of ideology, were among its central features. Researcher Deen Sharp aptly distinguished Beirut Madinati from other popular movements, in the Arab world and in Europe (like Podemos and Syriza). Beirut Madinati, “for better or worse” defined a limited program, marketed a message of hope rather than protest, embraced opportunistic tactics, and positioned itself as an urban campaign.58 Sharp argues that Beirut Madinati exemplifies a new type of social movement, but questions whether it can achieve tangible social change.

The case of Beirut Madinati has great resonance for advocates of citizenship and alternative bases for building governance legitimacy and statehood in the Arab world. Beirut Madinati’s performance, building on the record of other civil society and people-power political movements in Lebanon and the Arab region, suggests some necessary if insufficient preconditions for systemic change. Popular citizens’ movements in the region will need a coherent and identifiable ideology in order to mobilize on a sustained basis and contest power. (Protest fatigue and a fuzzy ideological core hampered and ultimately divided revolutionaries in Egypt from 2011 to 2013, leaving them at a gross disadvantage to authoritarians from Islamist or secular military backgrounds.)59 It is dreary, difficult, and often quixotic to seek to change the policies or composition of an authoritarian government. Echoing activists themselves, some researchers caution against overestimating the potential of civil society, or underestimating the resilience of malignant governing systems. Lebanese elections, like the trappings of democracy in Putin’s Russia and other post-Communist authoritarian societies, have been engineered by an entrenched elite to maintain power, not as an exercise in accountability. “Carefully managed elections can also provide elites with a safety valve to protect themselves from wholesale change,” write Stephen Deets and Jennifer Skulte-Ouaiss in an analysis that compares Beirut Madinati to the experience of Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the transition away from Communism.60 The system, they point out, possesses a powerful “combination of democratic stability and democratic dysfunction.”61

On the level of tactics, Beirut Madinati avoided many of the mistakes or limiting choices of their immediate past peers. While it had a “horizontal” and inclusive internal structure, despite its pretension to being leaderless, it also had a clear and nimble leadership structure during the campaign period. It did not waste time with the sort of debates that hobbled Egyptian revolutionaries and the Lebanese garbage protest movements, like whether to talk to and meet with governing powers. Beirut Madinati was willing to talk to anyone, correctly understanding that with confident political management it could explain the distinction between talking to the system and being co-opted by it. The activists also attempted to extricate themselves from a circular debate about legitimacy, authenticity and revolutionary purity, framing their mission as a quest for tangible results—in their case, quality of life and governance improvements for Beirut. Shrewdly, this framing will allow Beirut Madinati to claim credit in the future for small but tangible achievements that might result from pressure, lobbying and public campaigning—new parks, an improvement in public services, or land use.

Finally, although it is a work in progress, Beirut Madinati has advanced a conceptual and tactical discussion about how best to pursue an activist agenda in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings. To the questions of “protest or politics?” and “narrow issue-advocacy or broader electoral coalition-building?” Beirut Madinati has doubled down and answered, “both.” As a movement and organization it might well fail. But its roadmap tries to follow multiple paths simultaneously. Its next step proposes to build a citywide organization with permanent staff, and liaisons to the community as well as to the government. Beirut Madinati could accomplish a major feat if, under the guise of inclusive technocratic organizing, it propagates an ideology of secular, anti-sectarian state-building. If it can successfully muster the resources and personnel to develop an organization that plays a sustained watchdog function, encapsulates the notions of constituent services and community advocacy, and embodies anti-sectarian, anti-corruption, and consultative democracy in the guise of community planning, then Beirut Madinati will have smuggled radical political alternatives into the stultified realm of Lebanese politics. If, on the contrary, it pursues a solely incremental urban reform agenda and never matures into a full-fledged anti-sectarian political party, it will perhaps make a meaningful contribution to Lebanon’s already rich civic life, without producing fundamental change in its politics—joining the country’s ranks of illustrious NGOs.

Narrative and Other Qualitative Methods

The case of Beirut Madinati also brings to the foreground questions of analysts’ methods. A prevailing obsession with data and quantitative analysis often limits the ability of analysts, scholars, and participants to notice trends. A more narrative approach can inform analysis of political life, especially in contexts where there are few meaningful, easily measurable data points comparable to the constant churn of election results, opinion surveys, and household data available in open, democratic societies. Taken as a whole, the Arab uprisings and the continuing political efforts, like Beirut Madinati, suggest that political analysts should dispense with efforts at prediction, and should wholeheartedly embrace descriptive, narrative case studies, and other qualitative approaches. Quantitative analysis and other data-driven forms of analysis, which dominate some fields of social science and often seep into policy and political analysis, have their uses, especially when deployed with rich knowledge of historical context and local specifics. In fluid and opaque circumstances, however, it is important for researchers to embrace all effective methods. Ecumenical, descriptive case studies and contemporary narrative histories might provide the most important data available in politically stultified Arab countries, where ruling systems are spinning furiously to retain or reimpose control, where governance and quality of life have tumbled, and where popular movements and pressure groups have breached many thresholds in terms of organizing and mobilizing since the uprisings that began in 2010.

The framework and approaches that we have used over time to gauge citizens’ movements, reform, and revolutionary and pressure groups have proven insufficient. The target is murky to begin with. Scholars, analysts, and participants alike are trying to assess the prospective appeal, viability, and power of initiatives challenging autocratic states, with highly capable agencies of repression and copious resources. Public opinion is difficult to gauge. So too are the system’s weak points and the prospects for citizen engagement to cascade into effective challenges to power.

There are some useful frameworks that we use when we explore whether challenges to these autocratic systems are worth studying, whether as scholars or as policymakers who want to make sure we are looking carefully at spaces that might pose meaningful or enduring challenges to the status quo. That these challenges continue to surprise us is not only a testament to the failure of our imaginations but also to the poverty of our tools. Recent experience with the Arab uprisings, and I would suggest, with the rise of populist and right-wing leaders in the United States and Europe, suggest that we should more firmly embrace the tools of narrative, ethnography, social history, and narrow case study for their wealth of explanatory potential. No quasi-scientific tool can suffice to explain the unexpected emergence and appeal of a new movement or ideology, or sudden shifts in popular imagination that abruptly alter the boundaries of the possible. Descriptive tools can go a long way to remedy gaps in our understanding, especially if applied with an open acknowledgment of researcher bias. Analysts normatively in favor of political reform, or a certain basket of citizen rights, can openly state their preference to increase the likelihood that it won’t blind them to the conditions and qualities of the movements they study.

Finally, when we speak of change and reform in sclerotic authoritarian systems, we are often speaking about the possibility of a violent historical rupture. We ought to honestly reckon with the fear that popular, successful reformists generate in autocrats and their supporters, who have designed their systems expressly to break rather than bend when pushed. It is a form of self-defense, a built-in self-destruct switch that wires “après moi le déluge” into the system of rule. Arab citizens are well-aware that the threat is not idle, having watched Egypt’s security establishment and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria intentionally fuel violence and destruction to present any alternative to their continuing rule as toxic and untenable.

Conclusion: Further Questions

Lebanon is an important case; it is not an island. The same traits that make it a regional exception also make it relevant. It is an imperfect lab, but politics is not a pure science. Comparisons operate by analogy, and Lebanon offers a uniquely rich, and relevant, site for experimentation. Lebanon’s much-emulated experiments include the rise of Hezbollah and its entry into mainstream politics; the enduring viability of the corrupt clientilistic system of patronage politics; the endlessly effective deployment of the threat of security chaos as a bulwark against even the most minute reform; and the manipulation by a small ruling elite of sectarian identity politics as a tool to stave off all demands for accountability by constituents.

Beirut Madinati, and the groundswell of activism from which it rose, might also serve as a model—either for a new way forward for reformists, or as a cautionary tale about the perils of avoiding ideology and overt politics. Among opposition reform movements, difference and conviction need to be addressed, just as surely as issues of organization and corruption. Its founders and new members will labor onwards, perhaps successfully expanding their organization or spinning off new ones, perhaps joining preexisting groups or political parties, perhaps retreating from public life. But Lebanon’s political crisis is sure to continue. Its failures of governance and representation are part of a regional conundrum that at root is political and can only be addressed with a political solution that shifts the modes of governance and the distribution of power. Lebanon’s predicament differs from that of its Arab neighbors in degree and detail, not in kind. Its efforts to harness popular outrage and articulate a coherent identity for politically engaged reforms mark a vivid step forward in a regional struggle.

The Arab world’s experience since the most recent wave of revolts suggests that no change or reform of any sort is possible without challenging the status quo political system and administration of power. Brittle authoritarian systems around the region, including Lebanon, by design do not have feedback loops or release valves. It is nearly impossible to push for incremental change—to lobby for a new law, create different enforcement mechanisms, shift electoral processes, or change public contracting. Such shifts are the prerequisite of the actual holders of power, who are notoriously, and intentionally, opaque and unaccountable. Famously, even in relatively open systems like Lebanon’s where at least the identity of major players is known, dispute resolution barely exists and even straightforward negotiations usually devolve into stalemate, paralysis, or violence.

Lebanon’s most recent people-power success story enjoyed an initial burst of success, and despite its perhaps temporary stall over fundamental questions of political identity, it might well have an influential future. Beirut Madinati’s early record suggests a deep yearning for new, more accountable and modern civic political movements, and at the same time, a persistent struggle to overcome existing ideological divisions. Without a clear animating central idea and identity, change movements, whether reformist or revolutionary, will have difficulty challenging entrenched status quo forces.


About This Project

This policy report is part of “Arab Politics beyond the Uprisings: Experiments in an Era of Resurgent Authoritarianism,” a multi-year TCF project supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Studies in this series explore attempts to build institutions and ideologies during a period of resurgent authoritarianism, and at times amidst violent conflict and state collapse. The project documents some of the spaces where change is still emerging, as well as the dynamic forces arrayed against it. The collected essays will be published by TCF Press in June 2017.

Notes

  1. Rami G. Khouri, “Talking Trash in Lebanon,” Al Jazeera America, Aug. 24, 2015.
  2. For a discussion of the different mass protests that erupted across the Arab World in 2010–11, see Fawaz A. Gerges, ed., Contentious Politics in the Middle East: Popular Resistance and Marginalized Activism Beyond the Arab Uprisings, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
  3. Erica Solomon, “Lebanon’s Political Elite to See Off Challengers,” Financial Times, May 9, 2016.
  4. Hassan M. Fattah, “Pro-Syria Party in Beirut Holds Huge Protest, New York Times, March 9, 2005.
  5. If one counts all the refugees (mostly Palestinian and Syrian) residing in the country in addition to Lebanese citizens, the actual population is closer to six million. Population estimates for 2016 from UN Data, United Nations Statistics Division, “Lebanon Country Profile,”.
  6. Sami Nader, “Beirut Bombing Brings Lebanon’s Political Parties Together,” Al-Monitor, March 10, 2016.
  7. Sylvia Westall, “Syrian Refugees Set to Exceed a Third of Lebanon’s Population,” Reuters, July 3, 2014. Official UNHCR statistics note one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, but that number does not reflect the actual population because the United Nations stopped registering Syrian refugees in Lebanon in early 2015. UNHCR population statistics available here.
  8. Nour Samaha, “Riot Police Break up Beirut Anti-Government Protests,” Al Jazeera, August 30, 2015.
  9. Hwaida Saad, “Clashes Break out during Protests over Trash Crisis in Lebanon,” New York Times, August 23, 2015.
  10. “Lebanon Rubbish Crisis: Thousands Attend Anti-Government Rally,” BBC, August 30, 2015,.
  11. Assad Thebian comments at “Who Stinks? Social Protests and Political Change in Lebanon,” panel discussion, Carnegie Middle East Center, November 10, 2015, Beirut, Lebanon.
  12. For a description of the groups that emerged along with You Stink in the summer of 2015, see “Social Movement Responding to the Lebanese Garbage Crisis,” Civil Society Knowledge Center. For details on the government garbage contract, landfills, and a timeline of the crisis, see “Waste Management Conflict (Starting January 25, 2014),” Civil Society Knowledge Center.
  13. David Kenner, “There’s Something Rotten in Lebanon,” Foreign Policy, August 25, 2015; and Elias Muhanna, “The Death of Ideology and Beirut’s #YouStink Protests,” Qifa Nabki, September 1, 2015. See also the response of a Lebanese activist and blogger to the Free Patriotic Movement’s bashing of YouStink’s key representative, Asaad Thebian: Elie Fares, “When the FPM Is in Full Blown Despair: Asaad Thebian Did Nothing Wrong,” August 31, 2015.
  14. Interviews with the author, Beirut, Lebanon, September 2015.
  15. Josh Wood, “Rally in Beirut Postponed Amid Fears ‘Thugs’ May Hijack the Protests,” The National, August 24, 2015.
  16. The unsubstantiated slur was widely circulated in Lebanese media and affected You Stink’s public standing. As an example of how widespread the accusation was, even a former cabinet minister and outspoken critic of the sectarian political system, who ran his own independent slate for municipal elections in 2016, claimed that the activists in You Stink were paid, although when asked he could offer no evidence. Charbel Nahhas, interview with the author, Beirut, Lebanon, July 20, 2016.
  17. Assad Thebian, interview with the author, Beirut, Lebanon, February 24, 2016.
  18. Protesters attracted ire when they carried a banner including multiple photographs of politicians including Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, and in the slogan, “All of them means all of them,” a reference to the entire corrupt political class. But in its statements and actions, You Stink sought to target officials responsible for the garbage crisis over waste collection issues alone, in order to maintain a focused campaign. See Samia Nakhoul, “Lebanon’s Rubbish Crisis Exposes Political Rot,” Reuters, September 7, 2015.
  19. For a mention of policy proposals by environmentalists to end the garbage crisis by environmentalists, see “Social Movement Responding to the Lebanese Garbage Crisis,” Civil Society Knowledge Center; and “Interview with Paul Abi Rached: A Glimmer of Hope in Lebanon’s Garbage Crisis,” Tara Expeditions Foundation, 2016.
  20. Thebian, interview with the author.
  21. Ziad Abu-Rish, “Garbage Politics,” Middle East Research and Information Project 45, no. 277 (2015).
  22. Mona Fawaz, interview with the author, Beirut, Lebanon, July 22, 2016.
  23. “The Program,” Beirut Madinati.
  24. Fawaz, interview, July 22, 2016.
  25. Beirut Madinati set up an app to process and track volunteers. As a primary means of communicating with supporters and prospective voters, it relied on postings distributed on overlapping platforms: the personal WhatsApp networks of members, the official website, a Facebook page updated daily, and a Twitter feed.
  26. Jad Chaaban, interview with the author, Beirut, Lebanon, February 29, 2016.
  27. “The Text of the Press Conference After the Second Phase of the Municipal Elections,” Lebanese Association of Democratic Elections, May 10, 2010.
  28. Yassmine Alieh, “$240 Million Budget at the Municipality of Beirut,” Lebanon Opportunities, January 26, 2017.
  29. Aurélie Daher, “Saudi Arabia Is Pissed: What Are the Risks for Lebanon?” LobeLog, March 11, 2016; Tom Perry, “Cash Crunch at Saudi Firm Casts Shadow over Lebanon’s Hariris,” Reuters, September 5, 2016; and Yakir Gillis, “Why Lebanon’s Power Struggle Is Fueled by a Loss of Saudi Support,” Newsweek, October 3, 2016.
  30. Chaaban, interview with the author by telephone, Beirut, Lebanon, June 9, 2016.
  31. For more on youth-led leaderless movements in the Arab world since the uprisings and their organizational challenges, see Vincent Durac, “Social Movements, Protest Movements, and Cross-Ideological Coalitions—the Arab Uprisings Re-Appraised,” Democratization 22, no. 2 (2015): 239–58.
  32. Beirut Madinati was heavily covered by national, regional, and international media outlets. For Beirut Madinati candidates hosted on political TV programs, see “Kalam Ennas Report: The Cost of Garbage,” LBCI Lebanon, September 8, 2016; “Nharkom Said, Keeping up with the Municipal Wlections in Beirut,” LBCI Lebanon, May 6, 2016, ; “Beirut’s Municipal Elections of 2016,” Al Jadeed Online, May 2, 2016; “Bi Mawdouiyeh: The Municipal Elections,” MTV Lebanon News, May 4, 2016; “Rana Khoury on Al Arabiya Speaks about Beirut Madinati Municipal List,” Al Arabiya, May 3, 2016. For Beirut Madinati coverage on national news channels, see “Beirut Madinati continues its Tour of Beirut’s Neighborhoods” (Arabic), LBC Group, Lebanon, April 23, 2016; “Beirut Madinati Pledges to Defend Each and Every Beiruti” (Arabic), LBC Group, Lebanon, April 22 2016; “In Beirut Vote, Old Parties Face New Challenges,” MTV Lebanon, Lebanon, May 5, 2016. For coverage in national, regional and international newspapers, see Karim El Mufti, “Beirut Madinati: Change at the Tip of Your Vote,” Executive Magazine, May 3, 2016; “Au Liban, des Élections Municipales Test Pour la Société Civile,” France24, May 9, 2016; Verina Al Amil, “Beirut Madinati: Discussions and Art and Sports Activities, Optimistic to the Highest Limits” (Arabic), An-Nahar, April 28, 2016; “Beirut Madinati: Citizens Adopt Campaign that Challenges Political Class in Municipal Elections” (Arabic), Huffington Post Arabic, May 5, 2015; Muhanad Al Hajj Ali, “Beirut Madinati: The Beginning of the Line” (Arabic), AlModon, May 6, 2016; Eva Al Shoufi, “Beirut Madinati: Not ‘We Are The People’” (Arabic), Al-Akhbar, May 9, 2016.
  33. Saad Hariri, “Speech on Ramadan Iftaar,” June 9, 2016.
  34. Ibrahim Mneimneh, interview with the author, Beirut, Lebanon, May 8, 2016.
  35. Thanassis Cambanis, “Beirut Upstarts Gain Traction in Lebanon’s Political Quagmire,” New York Times, May 10, 2016.
  36. For a discussion of the results by area and a rich technical analysis, see Ramez Dagher, “What Beirut’s Election Results Tell: Lebanon Can Hope for Change,” Moulahazat, May 11, 2016. Full results by district from the Lebanon’s Ministry of the Interior in Arabic are available online.
  37. Lebanon Ministry of the Interior, official election results (Arabic).
  38. The candidate list and biographies are available on Beirut Madinati’s website.
  39. Interviews with the author, Beirut Madinati Discussion Square at Ghassan Tueni Park, Beirut, Lebanon, September 8, 2016.
  40. Chaaban, interview with the author by telephone, Beirut, Lebanon, June 9, 2016.
  41. Fawaz, interview with Sima Ghaddar, Beirut, Lebanon, June 9, 2016.
  42. Mona El Hallak, interview with the author, Beirut, Lebanon, July 27, 2016.
  43. Mona Fawaz, interview with the author by telephone, Cambridge, Mass., November, 19, 2016.
  44. Mneimneh, interview with the author by telephone, Beirut, Lebanon, November 17, 2016.
  45. Sally Haydan, “Barricades on the Beach: Beirut’s Residents Fight for Their Waterfront,” Reuters, December 2, 2016.
  46. In a campaign post-mortem on his personal blog, Chaaban credited Beirut Madinati with restoring democracy and political discourse in Lebanon. Jad Chaaban, “On Beirut Madinati, Some Preliminary Thoughts and Reflections,” Development in a Polarized Society, June 7, 2016.
  47. Kim Ghattas, “Beirut’s Lovable Losers,” Foreign Policy, May 26, 2016.
  48. Joey Ayoub, Facebook post, May 9, 2016.
  49. Scott Preston, “Can Coalition of Reformers Snag Lebanese Parliament Seats?” Al-Monitor, November 15, 2016.
  50. Nazih Osseiran, “Kataeb Resign from Cabinet over ‘Deal’ Grievances,” The Daily Star, June 15, 2016; and Ramez Dagher, “Did Ashraf Rifi’s Resignation Inspire the Kataeb?” Moulahazat, June 19, 2016.
  51. Jad Chaaban, Diala Haidar, Ryaan Ismail, Rana Khoury, and Mirna Shidrawi, “Beirut’s 2016 Municipal Elections: Did Beirut Madinati Permanently Change Lebanon’s Electoral Scene?,” Case Analysis, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Doha, Qatar, September 2016.
  52. Jad Chaaban, Diala Haidar, Ryaan Ismail, Rana Khoury, and Mirna Shidrawi, “Beirut’s 2016 Municipal Elections: Did Beirut Madinati Permanently Change Lebanon’s Electoral Scene?” Case Analysis, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Doha, Qatar, September 2016, p. 14.
  53. Thanassis Cambanis, “The Urban Mechanics of Beirut,” The Boston Globe, June 19, 2016.
  54. For more on the concept of the hollow core structure in elite networks, see Edward O. Laumann et al., “Inner Circles or Hollow Cores? Elite Networks in National Policy Systems,” Journal of Politics 52, no. 2 (1990): 356–90.
  55. “Interview with Beirut Madinati Candidate, Rana Khoury,” So Beirut, undated, https://www.sobeirut.com/features/59/meet-beirut-madinati. Emphasis in the original. After the campaign, Khoury expanded her ideas about political messaging. See Rana Khoury, “On positive political rhetoric and creating a space for love,” TEDxLAU, November 16, 2016.
  56. In the elections, Nahhas won 6,920 votes.
  57. Nahhas, interview with the author.
  58. Deen Sharp, “Beirut Madinati: Another Future Is Possible,” September 27, 2016, Middle East Institute.
  59. These revolutionary fissures have been dissected at length elsewhere, and are the focus of my narrative study of the activist struggle in Egypt from 2011 to 2013. See Thanassis Cambanis, Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015).
  60. Stephen Deets and Jennifer Skulte-Ouaiss, “Jumping Out of the ‘Hobbesian Fishbowl’ and into The Fire: Lebanon, Elections, and Chronic Crisis,” Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization 24, no. 4 (2016): 530.
  61. Ibid., 518.

We are the war on terror, and the war on terror is us

Posted March 24th, 2017 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]

THE FIRST signs of America’s transformation after 9/11 were obvious: mass deportations, foreign invasions, legalizing torture, indefinite detention, and the suspension of the laws of war for terror suspects. Some of the grosser violations of democratic norms we only learned about later, like the web of government surveillance. Optimists offered comforting analogies to past periods of threat and overreaction, in which after a few years and mistakes, balance was restored.

But more than 15 years later — nearly a generation — we have not changed back. Shocking policies abroad, like torture at Abu Ghraib and extrajudicial detention at Guantanamo Bay, today are reflected in policies at home, like for-profit prisons, roundups of immigrant children, and SWAT teams that rove through communities with Humvees and body armor. The global war on terror created an obsession with threats and fear — an obsession that has become so routine and institutionalized that it is the new normal.

The perpetual war footing has led to a militarization of policy problems under the Trump administration. The share of recently active-duty military officers in senior policy positions exceeds the era after World War II, historians say. Border police chase people down outside homeless shelters and clinics, deport legitimate visitors, and swagger around airplane jetways demanding identification. And another burst of defense spending is just around the corner.

All of this is a sign that the United States has fallen into a trap familiar to many former colonial powers: They brought home their foreign wars at great cost to their democracies. Colonial Great Britain normalized inhumane treatment of civilians abroad in service of empire, and then meted out the same Dickensian abuse to the poor at home. In its futile effort to hold onto its colony in Algeria, France rallied anti-Islamic sentiment and pioneered indiscriminate counterinsurgency; as a result, to this day in France, religious freedom and suspects’ legal rights still suffer. Liberals in Israel argue that the practices necessary to perpetuate the occupation of Palestinian territory have fatally eroded the rule of law.

Indeed, the longer a conflict endures, the more deeply all parties to it are corrupted; citizens asked to misbehave on behalf of their country find they can’t stop when they return home or go off duty.

For more than a decade and a half, America has embraced a vast military campaign that relied on major shifts in US values and policies. A covert assassination program targets terror suspects with no judicial process. Many bedrock civil liberties have been traded away. Some initial excesses, like the use of torture, were curbed. But the norm is still inhumane forms of detention, and abuse that meets the definition of torture. Meanwhile, the United States has maintained what is for all intents and purposes an extrajudicial gulag in Guantanamo Bay since 2001.

Collectively, all these data points have struck with the force of a meteor against America’s culture of due process and institutional checks and balances.

As this new mindset took root, even some of its architects took notice — and were alarmed. Midway through Obama’s presidency, a White House adviser confided concerns about the executive branch’s “kill list” and accelerating use of drone strikes. “One day historians are going to excoriate us for the kill list, and they’re going to ask why no one questioned what we’re doing,” this adviser said.

We’re still waiting for that day. In the meantime, we must understand the full extent of the damage. America became its war on terror, abandoned its principles to visit horrific violence abroad, and then brought into domestic politics an ease with lawlessness, caprice, imperial-style occupation. A global war, by definition, must also be waged at home.

A sizable contingent today believes that the military solution is the only and best one for many problems, from terrorism to corruption to managing diplomatic relations. And while knee-jerk militarism is poisonous for a republic, we would do well to remember the failures of civilian politics that make even generals of dubious repute like David Petraeus seem like potential saviors.

“We’re pell-mell down a road that we don’t even we realize we’re on anymore because we’ve got so used to the military option,” said Gordon Adams, a professor emeritus at American University and co-editor of the book “Mission Creep: The Militarization of US Foreign Policy?”

It’s not that military officers are bad or necessarily wrong — it’s that they offer just one perspective on policy problems, and they’ve been trained to consider one tool: force. That’s well and good when military officers are in a room with other experts with other perspectives, debating how best to deal with Osama bin Laden. It makes less sense when military officers, active-duty and retired, are the only people in the room debating US policy toward Russia, China, the Middle East, or issues even further from their lane, like airport security and international trade. It becomes absurd when doctrines that failed so spectacularly in Iraq and Afghanistan somehow worm their way into local police departments in the United States.

Immediately after the attacks of 9/11, America’s political class decided its only goal was stopping future terror strikes. Legislators forsook legislative oversight. Courts were reluctant to limit metastasizing executive power. Rights were stripped by laws like the USA Patriot Act, which watered down protections against overzealous law enforcement hard won over a century. It’s not hard today to draw a line from the bullying jingoism of 2001, when opposing the Patriot Act reeked of disloyalty or treason, to the election of President Trump, and his reckless “America First” positions that jeopardize global security in 2017.

A bipartisan consensus views remote strikes against suspected terrorists as an efficient refinement on the early, labor-intensive, versions of counterterrorism. Although the rest of the world still musters outrage when civilians are killed, the issue has all but vanished domestically. There is simply no domestic political cost for accidentally bombing a hospital in Afghanistan, or killing 10 children in Yemen, or the deaths of dozens of civilians in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. Think about the shock that the My Lai massacre caused to American politics less than half a century ago. Now consider the cultural shift whereby the public accepts and ignores routine massacres — usually committed with air power, and sometimes with a plausible claim that accidents were honest mistakes or not directly America’s fault or the victims were sympathetic to American enemies, if not actually guilty of anything.

This is a sea change. In the 1970s, when the Church Commission revealed that the CIA, sometimes with presidential support, had assassinated foreign leaders, it was a scandal. The uproar curbed the powers of the CIA for decades.

Compare that to the last 16 years; black ops are fetishized and widely supported. There are no checks and balances. The president can — and has — decided to assassinate terror suspects, including American citizens. Hardly anyone raises a peep except for the ACLU and a handful of other minor constituencies with a hard-line commitment to civil liberties. That’s how strange, and troubled, is our adoption of a heedless counterterror gospel. Obama seemed to order assassinations with such care and deliberation that criticism only came from the fringe; Trump critics will find it difficult now to object to a kill list on grounds not of principle but of personnel.

Afghan war veteran Brendan O’Byrne articulated this disturbing transformation in an essay this month in the Cape Cod Times. He likened the endless quest to kill terrorists to cycles of violent abuse inside families. As a troubled youth, he recalled, he attacked his father, who then shot O’Byrne in self-defense. “America is like my father, creating the very thing it has to kill before it kills them,” O’Byrne writes. “Where is our responsibility for creating the terrorists we are now fighting?”

America has confused self-defense with an impulse to kill “every possible threat,” O’Byrne continues: “We run the risk of becoming the very thing we claim to be fighting against — terrorism.”

Our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have stretched on so long they’ve become the fixed backdrop to a country at war against terror in more places than the average American can track. The Pentagon now operates in roughly 100 countries worldwide. To be American is to be at war.

“I’m teaching college students this semester — they can barely remember a time when these wars were not underway,” said Jon Finer, a former war correspondent in Iraq who later became chief of staff to then-secretary of state John Kerry. “Combat has become a normal, regular feature of American life.” Over a decade Finer switched careers, from journalist to senior national security official, only to find the American military still engaged in counterinsurgency with jihadis in the same provincial deserts of northern Iraq.

The war against terrorism aspired to reduce to zero the number of attacks on American territory — no matter how many attacks that would require America to conduct, and provoke, abroad.

A society that embraces war without end eventually stops recognizing that its initial adrenaline response is abnormal. Fear becomes the baseline. The mirage of zero-risk and the cult of war we embraced to find it have systematically warped our politics and society.

The extremes that led to Trump’s election — xenophobia, race-baiting, fear, disregard for rights — were nurtured by the many Americans mobilized to execute US foreign policy in the post-9/11 war zones. Military personnel, diplomats, aid workers, ideologues, apolitical contractors: Hundreds of thousands of Americans were steeped in war and brought that culture home. If you’ve learned one, brutal way to search cars at a checkpoint in Iraq, it’s hard to shift to the gentler methods when you’re working a few years later as an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent or police officer in middle America.

Trump’s America is our America, and it’s been taking shape for many long years. We won’t restore the balance and get the best of America back until we decide to end our war on terror and focus anew on the American rights that undergird our security even more than prisons and SWAT teams.

The perils of elected strongmen

Posted February 10th, 2017 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Rodrigo Duterte speaks to supporters during a campaign rally. MOHD RASFAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]

FORCEFUL, FOUL-MOUTHED, and willing, by his own account, to try any policy that worked, Rodrigo Duterte seemed like a new kind of politician when he swept to power by a decisive margin in the Philippines last year.

Today, his brash, often toxic, approach offers an early look at a leadership style suddenly more in vogue, with Donald Trump’s victory in the United States and a crop of populist authoritarians waiting in the wings in democracies around the world.

There are differences between the budding strongman in Philippines and his peers in other countries. Duterte hails from a left-wing background and has decades of government experience as mayor of a provincial city. His thirst for power does not seem to be matched by a propensity for personal corruption.

Still, Duterte’s recipe holds some alarming lessons about what can happen when an authoritarian wins a democratic election and rules with contempt for the rule of law — but with the blessing of passionate popular support.

Duterte is willing to attack shibboleths and savage his critics. He’s trashed the media and suggested that his most outspoken Senate critic kill herself. He approaches running a nation of 100 million people like a bigger version of being a mayor for whom there’s no coequal branch of government. However much these tactics endear him to voters who are fed up with conventional politics, they also erode the unwritten political norms that make a democracy work.

Duterte’s brief but already searing record in office demonstrates how quickly an elected leader can undermine the institutions of democracy and begin to transform a state. It also shows that, when aspiring leaders make extreme promises, we should take them at their word. We should pay attention to the devoted crowds who applaud them, and we should take seriously the threat they pose to democracy.

IT WAS ONLY AFTER its “people power” revolution in the late 1980s that the Philippines became a modern democracy — after a bloody century that included some genuinely contested elections but also decades of dictatorship and a lengthy American military occupation. The democratic experiment has been shaky but also pathbreaking.

The nonviolent popular movement that overthrew dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 presaged the European revolts that brought down the Iron Curtain a few years later. For years the lone democracy in Southeast Asia, the Philippines provided moral and sometimes practical support for liberalism and pluralism elsewhere in the region. With no-holds-barred politics and a large population, the Philippines showed that even a rowdy and flawed democracy could stand in the way of authoritarian rule.

For a time, the Philippines looked like a promising regional barometer. By 2009 neighboring Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and East Timor had followed its lead, scoring as “free” or “partly free” by Freedom House.

Once again, the Philippines seems to be leading a political trend — this one not so positive. Democracy and reforms have regressed in Thailand and Malaysia, and Duterte ran a fiery campaign as much against the inefficiencies of democracy as against his opponents.

Fledgling democracies have not instantly solved poverty, crime, and other problems left over from decades of authoritarianism. Some countries whose democratic transitions have fared better, like South Korea, pair stable politics with rising levels of prosperity and development. But the theory that democracy and national wealth grow in tandem — popular among some political scientists — has been contradicted not only by the success of democracy in India, despite continuing poverty, but also by the surge in authoritarian politics in rich Eastern European countries and, now, America.

Duterte tapped into specific grievances about corruption, crime, and drugs, but also into a wider global malaise about the methodical approach to government that so many countries have pursued. He sold himself as a rough-talking straight-shooter, unconcerned about the feelings of a political establishment he viewed as self-serving and corrupt.

He won the May elections handily, 15 percentage points ahead of his nearest competitor. Crude comments about rape and an open contempt for civil liberties appeared to only help his campaign. Soon after his June 30 inauguration, Duterte shook things up at every level. He called President Obama a “son of a bitch” and the pope a “son of a whore. (He later apologized for the latter comment, which provoked outrage in the overwhelmingly Catholic Philippines.)

He also inaugurated a war on drugs in which he swore to kill or lock up every drug dealer and user in the country. He ordered the national police to pursue suspects with a vengeance. Of the roughly 7,000 people killed in this brief but bloody war on drugs, about two-thirds were killed by unknown gunmen.

“What President Duterte calls a war on drugs, in essence, has been a war on the poor,” said Rawya Rageh, is a senior crisis adviser at Amnesty International. “This wave of extrajudicial executions targeting people suspected of using or selling drugs appears deliberate, widespread, and systematic and may amount to crimes against humanity.”

Amnesty and local human rights groups say that Duterte tolerates no dissent. He has threatened to reimpose a state of emergency, a hallmark of the Marcos dictatorship. Duterte has bullied domestic critics in the Legislature, the media, and the human rights sphere.

Nightly shootings and mass arrests have become a signature of Duterte’s war on drugs, about which he is unapologetic. Upward of 100,000 people have been taken into custody. He revels in rumors that as mayor of Mindanao he killed drug suspects himself.

Philippine voters have responded with fear and awe. Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore and expert on the Philippines, said surveys show about 80 percent support the war on drugs, but an equal number fear they will be personally victimized by it. “What makes him different is that he is such a maverick and attacking so many assumed norms of Philippine politics,” Cook said. “There is no sign that he is paying a political cost. After six months in office, his popularity ratings are very high.”

Meanwhile, Duterte’s foreign policy shifts demonstrate the impact a purposeful leader can have. For years, Southeast Asian countries, working closely with the United States, tried to check Chinese expansion in the strategic South China Sea. But Duterte made clear that he didn’t care for the ironclad military alliance with the United States and would be willing to overturn decades of regional orthodoxy to forge a new deal with Beijing over the South China Sea, one of the most dangerous flashpoints in the world.

In October, a few months after he took office and before he knew who would succeed Obama, Duterte announced his “separation from the United States” at a shock press conference in Beijing. “America has lost now,” Duterte declared, pledging to be “dependent” on China. Duterte’s sudden shift threw the regional balance into disarray. And that was before Trump was elected and promised to undo Obama’s pivot to Asia and conciliatory approach to China.

CONVENTIONAL POLITICIANS considered such abrupt moves inconceivable in democratic nations. Yes, strongmen could maneuver wildly in countries where public opinion can be suppressed or managed. But over time, governments as fundamentally different as China, the European Union, and the United States adopted a bland, nonconfrontational approach to global politics. Even when the effort to downplay conflict was superficial, it reinforced the idea that a growing global community of nations respected the same taboos.

But Duterte, like Trump, has thrived while radically reorienting long-settled policies. In the Philippines, a strategic divorce from America was unthinkable a year ago, but now it’s underway. Similarly, the White House has shifted America’s approach to Russia, and many voters don’t appear to mind.

How long can pluralism survive Duterte’s kind of rule? Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that the Philippine president’s most controversial moves, like his violent drug war and coarse talk, fit in with regional norms, but the most important danger comes from Duterte’s threat against democracy itself. “This is a fragile democracy,” Kurlantzick said. “We should worry.”

The Philippines, Kurlantzick said, has one of the strongest executive presidencies in the world, similar to France’s. When a member of the supreme court hinted that Duterte’s drug war could eventually face judicial review, Duterte immediately raised the prospect of martial law.

“It’s very much like Trump acting as CEO of his family business,” said Cook, the Philippines expert. “He seems to think that as president, he has power over everything.” The joke in the Philippines during the US election, Cook says, was, “If you want to see what will happen when Trump wins, just look at us!”

Donald Trump developed his own persona over a lifetime in New York, but the echoes with Duterte are uncanny. In one of his first calls to a foreign leader, Trump supposedly praised Duterte’s drug war and according to Duterte, said he looked forward to meeting Duterte and getting advice about how to deal with BS (Duterte didn’t use the abbreviation). The only readout came from the Philippines, but no one in Trump’s camp disputed the account.

Back when Rodrigo Duterte was elected president of the Philippines, his type seemed almost comic — a bit scary, but on the fringe. Today, he shows how a chauvinist can rise to power not in backwater coups or in countries like Egypt that were authoritarian to begin with, but in free elections.

For some time, the United States, too, had been concentrating power in the executive branch, to the point that even staid auditors like the Economist Intelligence Unit have downgraded their estimation of its institutional health. And that was before Trump. Especially now, the perilous state of civil liberties and Philippine institutions serve as a stark warning: Popular, elected leaders can undo democracy, with the full blessing of their constituents.

Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story.” He is a columnist for the Globe Ideas section and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com.

Why Youth Was Not Enough in Egypt

Posted February 7th, 2017 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Posting video from Tahrir Square, February 2011. Ed Ou for The New York Times

[Read original in The New York Times Book Review.]

GENERATION REVOLUTION 

On the Front Line Between Tradition and Change in the Middle East
By Rachel Aspden
262 pp. Other Press. $24.95.

What happened to Egypt’s revolution?

After January 2011, Tahrir Square became a byword for hope, defiance and the unpredictability of history. The Egyptian people’s unexpected revolt baffled political scientists and other experts. Equally puzzling was the alacrity with which so many of the same Egyptians welcomed a new strongman a few short years later.

Egypt’s volte-face forces important questions about what kind of change is possible in the Arab world, and more universally, about the indiscriminate and violent nature of both revolutionary and authoritarian politics. Why were so many Egyptians willing to risk everything in 2011, and why, just two years later in July 2013, were so many willing to make another devil’s bargain with a despot?

“Generation Revolution” is a whodunit that seeks to resolve these twin mysteries of geopolitics and human nature. Its author, Rachel Aspden, first moved to Egypt from England in 2003, diving into a culture that she clearly loved on first sight. She studied the language, worked as a journalist and tried her best to understand the worldview of her fellow 20-somethings. Through her long-running friendships Aspden is able to see the frustrations that have driven events in Egypt. The life stories of her characters come into focus long before Tahrir Square in 2011. In this way, Aspden does important work establishing context for Egypt’s stifling period of decay, and the improbable revolution and authoritarian backlash that followed. This is a chronicle of politics by other means.

Aspden clearly loves her characters, but she unflinchingly recounts their flaws too. One of the most surprising is Amal, a woman who breaks all taboos to leave her family and village to live on her own in Cairo. Amal finds that political activists and male peers aren’t interested in her kind of struggle for freedom. Her story exposes the sordid mechanics of control and the individual cost of rebellion. At one point Amal, who is Muslim, receives help from a Christian church congregation and is detained by authorities, who suspect her of converting. Back in her village, her family locks her up to stop her from making an independent career as a teacher. She manages to run away and assuages her relatives by sharing some of the money she earns. Ultimately, she marries a foreigner and prepares to emigrate.

Other young Egyptians invite Aspden to meetings of “Life Makers,” a self-improvement group founded by a charismatic Islamic televangelist. They are touchingly earnest and ambitious, perplexed by their secular peers but open-minded enough to nurture friendships with non-Muslims like Aspden.

Still, most of Aspden’s friends are willing to entertain change only in limited areas, like the man who sleeps around in a coastal resort but hopes to marry a virgin. She presents the sometimes distasteful choices of her characters with empathy. Mazen, a wealthy Muslim secularist with some enlightened ideas, unexpectedly oozes bigotry and intolerance for Christians.

Aspden’s reporting is always fascinating, if not always artfully or lyrically delivered. She cheerfully and honestly confronts her own outsider status and newcomer’s naïveté (as when she enjoys a respite from Cairo’s endemic sexual harassment at a cafe that turns out to be a rendezvous spot for prostitutes). Yet her prose can also be frustratingly chatty. In order to profile a wide cross-section of Egyptians over an extended period of time, Aspden has sacrificed depth and focus. Some characters flit in and out, disappearing for years on end. In her tableau, Tahrir Square is but a single inflection point in a long history of national atrophy (the 18 days of the revolt are awkwardly inserted mid-narrative in dated journal-entry format). It’s nice putting the uprising in context, but there’s not quite enough of it.

“Generation Revolution” is at its strongest when describing the thicket of its characters’ personal struggles — with faith, family, friendships and sex. The author introduces us to conversations about existential subjects that reveal character, like Islam, virginity and romantic dreams about marriage. For instance, we catch a rare if fleeting glimpse of atheism, a crime in Egypt, in the person of the young doctor Abu el-Hassan, a critical thinker who begins as a religious fundamentalist and ends up rejecting religion.

Aspden’s Egyptians are evolving people trying to balance faith, family, ambition and personal happiness against the broader imperatives of authoritarian leaders (at home, in the mosque or church, in the government and military). A diet of hypernationalism, propaganda about foreign conspirators and security paranoia imposes limits even on freethinkers, who often end up mirroring official intolerance in their own lives.

One of the saddest elements of the July 2013 coup that abruptly ended Egypt’s experiment with democracy and civilian rule was the popular acclaim that ushered Abdel Fattah el-Sisi from army intelligence to the presidency. A great swath of the public was actively complicit in the new dictatorship that killed the revolution it had unleashed in the first place. Aspden brings to her reporting enough insight to make sense of the public’s conflicting attitudes, and enough critical distance to acknowledge how Egyptians contributed to their country’s sad fate.

“Generation Revolution” is billed as a book about youth, or, as the subtitle puts it, the “front line between tradition and change in the Middle East.” In Aspden’s telling, the young, not yet ground into submission, have posed the greatest challenge to Egypt’s intolerable yet adaptive state. But the young can sustain resistance for only so long. The Tahrir Generation of 2011, she writes, may already be over the hill, though a new crop of restive Egyptians are reaching a boiling point, and they may not submit in the same way their grandparents did when the first military strongman took power in 1952. Nonetheless, Aspden notes, an empowered populace armed with education, modern communication tools and high expectations can repeatedly be dominated by an equally modern coercive state. Her conclusion is dispiriting, but she backs it with evidence. Youth alone, it seems, does not suffice to change tradition.

As Aspden demonstrates, all the well-intended characters in her book planted some of the seeds of their own downfall. Amal joined a popular protest movement unaware that it was being manipulated by intelligence agencies to bring Sisi to power. Islamists may have been willing to die opposing the coup, but they were uninterested in the fate of secular dissidents or democracy in general. Part-time revolutionaries mindlessly parroted state propaganda or the bigotry of Egypt’s religious establishment. Almost none were willing to defy their families for very long.

“Generation Revolution” is an excellent social history of Egypt’s persistent pathologies, as well as a universal story about the difficulty of changing deeply ingrained societal attitudes. The ambivalent Egyptians who struggle between radical modern aspirations and conservative community mores bear a more than passing resemblance to their American counterparts trying to reconcile Donald Trump’s vision for their country with Barack Obama’s, and no explanation for any of this can be complete without the kind of social history Aspden provides. The cumulative choices of millions, whether in protest, in voting or in docile compliance, are the indispensable ingredient.

So what did happen to Egypt’s revolution? Aspden, like most of its chroniclers, was rooting for it to succeed. Yet it failed, she says, not only because the police state adapted so efficaciously but also because the people who sparked the revolt ultimately remained faithful to too many reactionary ideas.

The character studies of “Generation Revolution” point to a single conclusion: Revolutionary Egyptians sought radical change only in the narrow lane of their relationship to the government and police. They did not reject the profoundly conservative mores of family, village, neighborhood and religious hierarchy, whose webs of control emerged relatively unscathed from the revolutionary period. Lasting change, however, cannot occur in isolation. Egyptians have proven remarkably inventive and good-humored at finding ways to circumvent or adapt to the state’s abuses, but less so at finding ways to stop them.

Trump’s Dangerous Attack on American Values

Posted January 31st, 2017 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

[Published at The Century Foundation.]

Why do so many people want to live in America? Why have so many, like my parents, emigrated to the United States, and why do so many prefer it over all other destinations? It’s not just because of America’s prosperous and diverse economy, or its promise of economic mobility and equality. It’s because America’s political, cultural, and religious freedoms have meant that people’s fates are less foreordained by last name, tribe, ethnicity, or religion than they are elsewhere. While imperfect, the American system has proven remarkably open to revision and improvement, trending over its history toward more openness and equality, and less discrimination and oppression. Individuals can choose their own course, and their own identity.

America’s story as an immigrant nation is neither all rosy nor simple. Racial and ethnic tensions have simmered along with every chapter of immigration, and for all the periods of openness, there have always been tragic moments when the gates were closed, including to many Jews during the Holocaust. And in many cases, America benefited economically and culturally from the arrival of refugees or immigrants created by America’s own foreign policy misadventures. My own parents came to the United States to study; one reason they stayed was because their home, Greece, was in the violent grasp of a military dictatorship that had been put in place with U.S. support. However, America also offered some Greeks like my parents a way out, and a new home. Such stories have been part of the American fabric since the beginning.

President Donald Trump’s executive order to close America’s borders to people from seven countries arbitrarily chosen as the most dangerous sources of terrorstrikes a body blow against a fundamental American conceit: that this country is a melting pot, and that we never discriminate on the basis of religion.

The anti-immigration measure unleashed over the weekend also attacked the fundamental notion of citizenship, by initially barring even permanent residents whose green card signifies they are in the last stage of the legal path toward citizenship (Trump was forced to walk back this element of the order). And it directly singled out Muslims as targets; whatever the verbal acrobatics Trump has engaged in since, his order and statements were clear; he wants to ban all Muslim immigration from these seven countries (and perhaps more later), while making special provisions to admit Christians from those same places.

Don’t Be Fooled: It’s a Muslim Ban

Of course, this is a Muslim ban, not a counter-terrorism measure. (Rudy Giuliani, a Trump adviser, confirmed as much talking to reporters.) It’s easy enough to see, if you’re open to fact-based policymaking, that a blanket ban on foreigners or members of some ethnic groups will do nothing to protect the United States from terrorist attacks, which in most cases have been perpetrated by attackers who were citizens, entered the country legally, or were members of groups not on the hot-button fear list of the day.

In standing against this shameful executive action, we certainly can and should make a case based on self interest. An immigration ban hurts America just as surely as it hurts many families and individuals. It hurts our economy, our workforce, our research and development prospects, our universities, and our vibrant tech sector. It will make our economy less competitive, our institutions weaker, and our companies less profitable. More broadly, it hurts us many times over as stewards and beneficiaries of an international order built on norms that if unevenly enforced were once quintessentially American in principle: equality, rights for all, opportunity, and colorblindness.

But most fundamentally, this outrage from the Trump White House harms us by damaging the foundation of American rule of law and equality, which are the very reasons this country has had such success and has grown into a worldwide beacon. Despite America’s checkered record, it remains a cherished home to that majority of its population descended from immigrants, and a choice destination for those seeking a freer life. There might be better places to live, but none, including the European nations with great social safety nets, offer an open society with equivalent individual rights and freedoms.

What we’ve witnessed over the last days has defied the already low expectations that Trump set in his first bellicose week in office. Unaccountable law enforcement officials denied lawyers and even members of Congress access to immigrants detained at airports. Unapologetic White House officials gloatedthat terrorists will be thwarted by an indiscriminate, punitive measure whose short-term harm is sure to be matched by its long-term ineffectiveness. While White House officials clarified parts of the order on TV and the president fanned the flames on Twitter, foreign governments began to take countermeasures and executive branch agencies appeared to trample on the separation of powers by ignoring court orders and legislative requests. Families separated by the order, and travelers whose visas and green cards were suddenly useless, scrambled to figure out when and if they could cross America’s threshold.

Under the current scheme it is likely that Trump will try to open America’s gates only, or primarily, to non-Muslims. I hope that such an effort will fall afoul of the letter of the American Constitution just as surely as it defiles its spirit. But as a longtime observer of the American political process and a student of some of its dark history, I fear that it will take uncomfortably long to reestablish a just order. Courts move slowly and deliberately. Even if they get it right on the first try, it might take years before a Supreme Court ruling strikes down a de facto Muslim ban. And maybe Donald Trump will find legalistic detours around justice, implementing his isolationist, racist, and xenophobic plan with just enough attention to detail that it squeaks through the judicial process. As George W. Bush’s torture policy showed, much can be accomplished that is against our laws and our values.

We are a stronger nation with our immigrants, those who assimilate as well as those who struggle. We are stronger for our establishment clause which separates not just church but synagogue, mosque and all other religious belief from our state. The day we make religion part of the litmus test for American belonging is the day we turn our backs on the most American idea of all: that America can always, in theory, be home to anyone who wants it badly enough. America today is neither a Christian nor chauvinist nation; it is a nation built on a communal belief, and its success is a testament to change, inclusion and secularism, to the power of a collective national ideal that accommodates all takers.

America Doesn’t Live in a Vacuum

Trump’s excesses are possible because of the abusive bloating of executive authority and security state powers. Rights-stripping, unfortunately, is also as American as apple pie, and many of George W. Bush’s escalations of federal power, fear-mongering, and immigrant abuse after 9/11 were built on erosions of rights contained in two signal pieces of legislation by Bill Clinton that were supposed to reform immigration and the legal process in death penalty and terrorism cases. As a journalist covering federal court in Boston after 9/11, I was aghast at the cavalier lack of concern among many law-abiding Americans for the legal rights of foreigners, terror suspects, and drug criminals. I was also surprised to learn how deep and bipartisan support ran for any action couched as anti-terrorism, even if its primary target was immigrants and nonviolent criminals, as demonstrated by Clinton’s “Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act” of 1996.

Obama walked back some of the worst crimes of the Bush era, ending torture, closing black sites, and rolling back some surveillance measures, but he enjoyed the perks of unfettered executive power. Guantanamo remained open, drone strikes accelerated, and America didn’t join Canada and Europe in shouldering the burden of today’s historic refugee crisis.

Now Trump has taken the tools assembled by his predecessors and is applying them to toxic ends.

What about other countries? Will they function as extras in a one-man play called “America First”? Doubtful. They will retaliate, and America will care; even Trump, probably, will care. Soon enough the world will react, and Trump and his sycophants will notice they don’t live in a vacuum. Unfortunately, like the valiant domestic protests, it will take quite a while for the response to curtain the abuse of power. But the response will be devastating. Iraq is imposing a reciprocal ban on Americans, which while mostly symbolic could undo that oh-so-important war against ISIS, whose frontline today runs through Mosul, where American and Iraqi troops are together pushing back a real terrorist threat.

And American allies, on whom America depends for so many economic and political benefits, might take umbrage at having their citizenship suddenly downgraded. Citizens of Canada, France, or the United Kingdom are suddenly demoted in the eyes of the United States to having lesser rights because of their origins—might not, in a reasonable world, the governments of Canada, France and the U.K. retaliate to make the point that all their citizens should be treated equally?

How we act in the world matters just as surely as how we act within our own borders. A parent who abuses strangers and cheats in the workplace can’t expect the same behavior to result in an ethical and peaceful home. Trump’s anti-immigrant policies won’t make us safer from terrorist attacks, nor will they solve any other American woes, real or imagined. But we shouldn’t only make the case against isolationism and chauvinism solely on efficacy. Because even if such policies worked, we should still oppose on principle all moves to close our borders, disavow American ideals, and discriminate against religious groups. We have no interest in prevailing as an authoritarian state.

Our Better Angels

Donald Trump and his team will have to moderate their contempt for political life and dissent. Even autocrats in weaker states find they have to manage and sometimes cave to public opinion. Even outright tyrants can’t ignore street protests or the discontent of vast swathes of the public. So too, Trump, even in his first climbdown on Sunday when he relented on green card holders, will learn that public support matters in political life, all the more so in a democracy, which America today most resolutely still is.

Since 9/11, Americans have struggled to find the right balance between our security and trespass against our freedoms, all too often accepting compromises on core values in a devil’s bargain to fight terrorism. In the end, our security comes from both our readiness and our values, our laws and our fundamentally democratic melting pot ideal.

For most of my life, I have tried to explain what makes America special to skeptical relatives, friends, and interlocutors from all over the world. Donald Trump’s immigration ban makes that job all the harder. But there is an answer, and it comes from the legions of Americans who instantaneously rose to fight the unjust measure. The Bill of Rights, the traditions of American citizenship, our institutions, and constitutional rule of law together pose formidable obstacles to a would-be tyrant. American history tells us that justice can prevail, even if it takes a long time. Let’s hope that we’ve learned our lessons from the last century, and that Donald Trump’s attempt to rewrite the American compact as a nativist, racist, and isolationist screed shatters before its first draft is finished.

Why It Pays to Be the World’s Policeman—Literally

Posted January 9th, 2017 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

[Published in Politico Magazine.]

One of Donald Trump’s campaign applause lines held that it was time for the United States to quit serving as the world’s policeman and take care of business at home.

Isolationist chestnuts like this are standard campaign fare for a certain kind of conservative; just before he embarked on the biggest expansion of American military interventionism, George W. Bush, too, ran against the idea of “nation-building.”

Set aside for a minute the fact that even during years of unabated war following Sept. 11, 2001, America has done very little nation-building. Forget, also, that it’s questionable just how accurate the shorthand of “world policeman” is to describe America’s role in today’s international security architecture.

The essential fact is that the United States sits at the pinnacle of a world order that it played a central role in designing, and which benefits no other country so much as it does — you might have guessed — America itself.
America runs a world order that might have some collateral benefits for other countries, but is largely built around US interests: to enrich America and American business; to keep Americans safe while creating jobs and profits for America’s military-industrial complex; and to make sure that America retains, as long as possible, its position as the richest, dominant global superpower. Rather than global cop, it’s more accurate to call America the world’s majority shareholder, investing its resources in global stability less out of charity than self-interest.

What this means is that as Trump develops his foreign policy — a dealmaking approach whose ultimate outlines we can only guess at — he will eventually have to walk back his promise or confront its real costs. It’s easy to paint America as the rich uncle whom the world takes advantage of. That caricature certainly resonates with Trump’s voting base. But if Trump really tries to deliver on his promise and walk away from the world, the biggest price is likely to be borne by America itself.

***

The United States and its allies, in the wake of World War II, built a web of institutions that had an ideological goal: to reduce the risk of another murderous global conflagration. The United Nations would serve as a political-diplomatic talk shop that would reduce the chance of accidental superpower war and create avenues for managing the conflicts that did break out. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were designed to minimize the risk of another Great Depression. An acronym soup of other institutions sprang up along the same lines. When memories of fascism were fresh and Washington feared the allure of communism, it made some far-sighted, pragmatic moves. It funded the Marshall Plan for Europe, paying so the continent could recover economically and emerge to become a pivotal U.S. ally–and a profitable market for US companies. U.S. military occupiers in Japan and South Korea decreed progressive reforms and land redistributions in order to outflank communists.

In some cases, America really has underwritten most of the funding for international institutions, whether their purpose is to monitor ancient ruins (UNESCO) or inspect nuclear sites (IAEA). It hasn’t done so out of altruism. The investment has paid itself back many times over. These institutions have worked imperfectly, but they build goodwill and reduce risk. That’s good for the world in general, but it’s great for America.

It’s true that America’s role is expensive. In 2015, America spent more than the next seven nations combined on defense. Worried about this gap in the years after 9/11, some American officials and neoconservative ideologues complained that “Old Europe” should pay more for its defense. Like Trump, they argued that Europe has been able to reap an economic windfall because America shoulders so much of the NATO security umbrella.

At best, this analysis is a dangerous exaggeration; Europe could and probably should shoulder more of the cost, but the US investment in NATO is worthwhile for its own sake. At worst, by threatening NATO, the “free-rider” trope sets up America to shoot itself in the foot – shaking its security and breaking up a system with huge direct benefits to Americans.

Rather than a nation rooked by crafty foreigners, it makes more sense to see America at the center of a web of productive investments. Here’s how it works:

First, most of America’s defense spending functions as a massive, job creating subsidy for the U.S. defense industry. According to a Deloitte study, the aerospace and defense sector directly employed 1.2 million workers in 2014, and another 3.2 million indirectly. Obama’s 2017 budget calls for $619 billion in defense spending, which is a direct giveback to the American economy, and only $50 billion in foreign aid – and even that often ends up in American pockets through grants that benefit American farmers, aid organizations, and other US interest groups. The U.S. military, and the Veterans Administration, are an almost socialist paradise of equality, job security and full health care when compared to life for Americans not on the payroll of the Defense Department and its generously (even absurdly) remunerated contractors. The defense budget, by playing on America’s obsession with security rather than social welfare, allows Washington to pump a massive stimulus into the economy every year without triggering another Tea Party.

Second, America’s steering role in numerous regions — NATO, Latin America, and the Arabian peninsula — gives it leverage to call the shots on matters of great important to American security and the bottom line. For all the friction with Saudi Arabia, for instance, the Gulf monarchy has propped up the American economy with massive Treasury bill purchases, and by adjusting oil production at America’s request to cushion the effect of policy priorities like the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Third, and most importantly, if you listen the biggest critics of the new world order, what you’ll hear is that it’s rigged – in America’s favor. America’s “global cop” role means that shipping lanes, free trade agreements, oil exploration deals, ad hoc military coalitions, and so on are maintained to the benefit of the U.S. government or U.S. corporations. The truth is that America puts its thumb on the scale to tilt the world’s not-entirely free markets to America’s benefit. Nobody would be more thrilled for America to pull back than its economic rivals, like China.

Perhaps that’s why analysts in the business of predicting world affairs don’t think Trump is going to abandon America’s “world policeman” portfolio once he looks at the bottom line.

“Trump wants to be seen as projecting strength around the world and intends to expand spending on U.S. defense,” wrote Eurasia group’s Ian Bremmer shortly after the election. He might be more abrasive, and he might pressure some of America’s bottom-tier allies. But if he wants to be a strongman, he’ll have to keep America’s stick.

Obama, too, apparently thinks Trump will like being the world’s policeman even more than he’ll like being Putin’s friend. “There is no weakening of resolve when it comes to America’s commitment to maintaining a strong and robust NATO relationship and a recognition that those alliances aren’t just good for Europe, they’re good for the United States. And they’re vital for the world,” outgoing President Obama said on his valedictory trip to Europe, claiming confidence that Trump shared that view of global alliances.

Within Trumpworld, there’s no question a real rift exists on this question. Isolationist-nationalist America-firsters, like Steve Bannon, really do want to see America pull back, and downplay the costs in the interests of their ideological goals. Profit-driven internationalists like Rex Tillerson, however, are intimately acquainted with the benefits of keeping an American hand in global affairs.

Trump might like the sound of handing in America’s resignation as global cop. His voters might like it even more. But if pulling back makes America poorer and more vulnerable, the costs will land squarely on Trump.

When it comes time to choose between the two camps, Trump might find himself torn between an isolationist camp he connects with emotionally and an internationalist one that will — in the gross calculus of profits and power — be more of a winner. That’s a feeble rationale for a sound international order, but it might be the best one going in the age of Trump.

Moscow Is Ready to Rumble

Posted January 1st, 2017 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]

It should come as no surprise that many Russians will mourn this month, a quarter century after Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of the Soviet Union and overnight, one of the great world empires simply dissolved.

Today a tense realignment is underway, as a resurgent Russia jostles to the table and upends American nostrums about the post-Cold War order. Russia has given the United States plenty of grist for worry with its apparent meddling in the US presidential election. President Vladimir Putin’s hackers and propagandists appear ready and willing to work to tip the balance to the right in upcoming European elections as well.

While these Russian endeavors are important, they’re a sideshow to the main event: a long geopolitical struggle in which the United States briefly gained a dominant position, but which today is more evenly matched.

In many respects, Russia’s position has been consistent so long as Putin has been in power. When it comes to terrorists, separatists, or defiant neighbors, force matters more than moral jockeying. Recent events confirm Russia’s view of itself. Aleppo’s rebels collapsed before a Russian-led onslaught. Turkey is desperate to remain in Russia’s good graces; the theatrical assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey in an art gallery Monday only brings the two countries into closer cooperation.

Incoming President Donald Trump, meanwhile, appears willing to grant Russia the official recognition that Putin has always craved.

Trump and Putin — two macho leaders with empire-sized egos — tempt analysts to reduce the US-Russia relationship to personalities. But the unfolding clash stems from essentials. Russia has considerable hard power, starting with its nuclear arsenal and enormous territory. Its interests conflict with those of the United States and frequently of Europe, through tsarist and Soviet times down to the present. And finally, Moscow’s acerbic rhetoric and commitment to sovereignty and consistency place it in constant opposition in international forums to the United States, with its moralistic style and constant talk of human rights and democracy.

“Putin is about restoring his country as a major power recognized by the world,” said Dmitri V. Trenin, a former officer in the Soviet and Russian armies who now heads the Carnegie Moscow Center, an international think tank.

No amount of affection between Trump and Putin will change the fact that Russia’s interests never really overlapped with America’s. “The best we can hope for is to turn confrontation into competition,” Trenin said.

Trump won’t be the first recent US leader to woo Moscow. Every president since George H. W. Bush has tried to cultivate harmonious ties. Clinton might have helped Boris Yeltsin win a second term. George W. Bush famously waxed rhapsodic about Putin’s eyes. Barack Obama tried to reset. Trump will come into office on a wave of gushing rhetoric.

(Of course, all bets are off if some of the more unlikely theories turn out to be true and Trump turns out to be a sort of Manchurian Candidate with preexisting ties to Putin and a secret plan to realign the United States with Russia. But unless and until evidence emerges, we’ll have to chart the future based on what we’ve heard and observed so far.)

Through all these zigs and zags, Russia has consistently reasserted its alpha position in the former Soviet space while consolidating authoritarian state power in its heartland. Its techniques and rhetoric — against Chechen separatists, Russian oligarchs, political dissenters, suspected terrorists — won’t play by rules it considers rigged in favor of the West.

For Trump, this fundamental divergence means that despite any honeymoon period, the conversations are going to be difficult and full of disagreement.

Trump might see eye to eye with Putin when it comes to the Russian president’s reflex to crush dissent, and he may accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But Russian expansion will clash with America’s sphere of interests, and new boundaries will have to be negotiated.

Russia wants full hegemony in its old sphere of influence, which means a NATO rollback, and it wants a transactional international order stripped of even the rhetoric of international humanitarian law and its moral accoutrements.

Meanwhile, the United States will continue to preach a prosperity gospel built on capitalism, democracy, and lower-case liberalism.

Putin wants to erase once and for all the image of Russia as the tottering, ex-empire low on cash, trying to bully the world with a limping army whose rusty equipment is staffed by alcoholics with truncated life spans.

A multipolar world is full of fuzzy boundaries that breed conflict and uncertainty. The United States might be in first place, but China is gaining, and neither can patronizingly dismiss Russia as a “regional power.” The European Union is politically fragmented and economically hobbled, but it remains one of the richest markets in the world and, like Russia, possesses geostrategic depth. The fallacy of the American interregnum after 1991 was that old standards of geopolitical power no longer applied. Now the world has been put back on notice that they do, but that doesn’t answer the specific question: What should the United States do about Russia?

The first step toward a more effective Russia policy is to understand Moscow’s grievances. The sudden collapse of an empire of global scope traumatized many former Soviet citizens.

After Gorbachev’s Christmas-day resignation, Boris Yeltsin led an independent Russia into what was supposed to be a bright new age of capitalist democracy. Expert American advisers helped usher in a headlong rush to privatize state-owned industries. Whatever their intention, the chaotic process amounted to a looting of some of the former Soviet Union’s prized assets by a tiny circle of corrupt oligarchs. Yeltsin’s inner circle engaged in epic corruption. Some of the experts argued that a flawed sell-off of Communist-era industries was a necessary shock to shed Soviet mores. The result was catastrophic. Citizens lost the social safety net, while gaining very little in return. The visible results of capitalism piled up only for a tiny elite.

Added to the quotidian discomfort was a wrenching loss of national status. An ailing Yeltsin lurked out of view, while oligarchs ran riot and former Soviet republics made a mockery of Russia’s former primacy. NATO spread closer to Russia’s borders.

“Russia’s brief experience of democratic life was an experience of being pushed around by the United States,” said Mark MacKinnon, a Canadian journalist and author of “The New Cold War.”

Yeltsin’s Communist challenger was expected to win in 1996, but a unified front of oligarchs, worried they might lose their privileges, and campaign experts dispatched by Clinton, saved the day for Yeltsin, if not for his constituents. The episode was memorialized in the 2003 American comedy “Spinning Boris.”

“Many Russians look at what’s happening now in the United States and giggle that it’s payback time,” MacKinnon said.

Russian influence reached its nadir when NATO intervened in Bosnia and Kosovo, which Russia considered parts of its sphere of influence. Putin took power the year after the Kosovo campaign, and doggedly began rebuilding Russia’s military and intelligence prowess. His scorched-earth tactics in Chechnya presaged his approach to Syria.

By 2008, Putin felt confident and invaded Georgia, on the pretext of defending the ethnic Russian minority there. The act of aggression provoked apoplectic rhetoric but little else.

Meanwhile, analysts say, Putin was frustrated that America didn’t show more gratitude that Russia had not opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and campaign in Libya in 2011.

Ever since, he has sought opportunities to exploit Western disarray, as he did with the 2014 invasion of Ukraine and annexation of the Crimea, and the 2015 intervention in Syria.

Russian diplomats have crowed about American fecklessness in Syria and were visibly buoyed when over the Pentagon’s objections the US State Department negotiated an agreement in September — which never was implemented — to cooperate with Russian forces against terrorists in Syria.

The path forward is risky. A belligerent Russia can cause a great deal of destruction and spread instability. Russia threatened Europe’s natural gas supply. It lied about its military activities in Crimea. Its muscle-flexing has rattled Europe and NATO. Turkey challenged Russia, shooting down a fighter plane, and quickly lost the ensuing face-off. Russia played hardball, putting tourism and economic relations on ice until Turkey apologized and scaled back its ambitions in Syria where those ambitions clashed with Russia’s. Russia won that round, and other countries noticed.

Some analysts, like Nikolay Kozhanov, an expert at the British think tank Chatham House, have argued that Putin’s most disruptive moves came largely as the result of Western mistakes. As a result, Western unity could severely limit Russian capacity.

Sooner or later, Russia experts agree that Putin will test Trump. Clashes could come in Poland, or the Baltics, where Trump has suggested NATO is overextended. Tensions could flare in places where Russia already chafes at the proximity of NATO forces, such as around the Arctic and the North and Baltic seas.

“Trump will identify his red lines, because Putin is going to test them,” MacKinnon said. “The feeling in Moscow will be, how can we take advantage of this period, now that there’s a leader in Washington willing to let Russia get away with things it couldn’t have otherwise.”

On a November visit to Moscow, he said many of his Russian contacts expressed surprise that Trump had won the election. Initial concern that Trump could be a loose cannon turned to glee when he announced a series of Cabinet picks viewed sympathetically by the Kremlin.

Derek Chollet, who dealt with the Russians as an official on Obama’s National Security Council, said that Russia will take advantage of the new administration. Putin, he predicted, will do all he can to undermine NATO and the EU, influence energy markets, and drive a wedge between the United States and Europe.

“Judging on his rhetoric so far, Trump will be the most pro-Russian president since World War II,” Chollet said. “He likes the art of the deal, but to what end?”

We’ll find out where the United States will check Putin’s expansionism when we learn Trump’s priorities, whether they have to do with security alliances, business partnerships, or something else.

The first seminal crisis will come when Putin challenges an interest dear to the Trump administration. Perhaps the Russian government will confiscate the assets of an American corporation or clash with NATO forces or invade the Baltic republics or enter a showdown with Europe.

Trump will presumably have the advantage, from America’s unparalleled military and the imposing NATO infrastructure, to an economy orders of magnitude richer and more productive than Russia’s. But if America has squandered international goodwill and allowed alliances to fray, those assets will prove as ineffectual as they have in the most recent contests in which Putin has outfoxed the West.

The chapter in contemporary history in which America stood alone at the top has come to a close. Russia will return to the top tier, along with the United States, China, and potentially other alliances. But the natural size of its power, whether measured in wealth, military power, or global political influence, is not as great as Putin appears to think it is. Trump might be willing to accept a bigger Russian role than his predecessors, but he’s unlikely to forfeit first place.

Aleppo’s fall is our shame, too

Posted December 14th, 2016 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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Syrian residents, fleeing violence elsewhere in Aleppo, arrive in the city’s Fardos neighborhood Tuesday. STRINGER/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

[Published in The Boston Globe.]

As the last rebel neighborhoods in Aleppo fell this week, Samantha Power, America’s ambassador to the United Nations, excoriated Russia, Syria, and Iran for authoring what will prove to be the signal atrocity of our time.

“Are you truly incapable of shame?” Power asked. “Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin?”

Hundreds of thousands chose to stay in what they proudly called “Free Aleppo,” eschewing safe routes when they still existed and vowing to preserve their alternative to Syrian President Bashar Assad even if it meant death.

This week, that horrific choice materialized. Assad’s regime destroyed rebel Aleppo step by step, using Russian airpower; legions of militiamen from Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon; and the barrel bomb, another of the war’s sad innovations. Syrian rebels in Aleppo had warned for a year and a half that a siege was inevitable unless their backers, including the United States, provided them at least with air support and a steady supply of bullets and cash.

Western officials decried the unfolding tragedy in Aleppo, but their actions guaranteed this week’s genocidal denouement. The United States withheld basic support to vetted rebels. Turkey diverted its proxies to deal with the Kurdish problem on the border. And the West continued to negotiate after Russia engaged in blatant subterfuge and spectacular war crimes, emboldening the scorched earth campaign in Aleppo.

Ambassador Power is right to ask about shame. Ultimately, a great share of it will belong to her government and the other fair-weather “friends of Syria” who supported the country’s revolution only half-heartedly — enough to prolong it while also sealing its failure.

For a quarter-century, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the international order trended toward more accountability and cooperation. Sure, international law is most often honored in the breach, and institutions like the International Criminal Court have no enforcement arm. But for a time, the international community was a meaningful forum with a conscience, and it created new doctrines like the “responsibility to protect,” which held that any state that wantonly murders its citizens forsakes its sovereignty. New norms took root: War crimes still occurred but invited wider and wider condemnation, military interventions required legal justification, and humanitarian concerns achieved the status of core national interests.

Altruism and self-interest were crucially intertwined in doctrines that aimed to make the world a less cruel but also a more stable place. We opposed torture and war crimes elsewhere because they’re dead wrong, but also because we don’t want out own citizens subjected to them.

Today, an opposite calculus is in effect. We don’t stand against the leveling of Aleppo because we reserve the right not to be judged for similar crimes. It will be difficult for America to invoke human rights as a cornerstone of foreign policy.

On a human level, Aleppo’s fall is nearly unbearable. Citizens, volunteer doctors, children, and others are hunted from neighborhood to neighborhood in the city’s shrinking Assad-free patch. Shells and bombs fall indiscriminately. Those who flee risk massacre by pro-government militias. If they make it to safety, they face torture or even death in Assad’s gulag. We can hear their pride and desperation in videos, tweets, and phone calls, often broadcast live as the battle for Aleppo climaxes.

Many of us knew the end was coming, but when it finally did this week, it was a sucker punch to the gut. Even if we expected it, we hoped Aleppo would not finish this way.

While this personalized violence is horrifying, it is hardly unique to Aleppo. Yet this apex of expedient, Machiavellian criminality caps off a long period when norms have eroded and international law has been undermined by its most important sponsors. Everyone has a stake in the erasure of Aleppo — not just the trigger-pulling governments in Damascus, Tehran, and Moscow.

Aleppo has thrived for millennia and one day will recover as a city. The prognosis is not as good for the ideas we have cherished since World War II and which we hoped would prevent any repeats.

Syria’s war will continue for some time — probably years. But barring a major and unexpected global shift, its outcome is no longer in doubt. Assad’s government will stay in power, slowly re-extending its reach over the entire territory of Syria and cobbling together some new version of the terror-and-torture apparatus through which it coerced the compliance of its population until 2011.

We watched the block-by-block incineration of a free city. Its rubble will build the foundation of our century’s pessimistic new world order.

Arab Politics beyond the Uprisings: Project Launch

Posted November 29th, 2016 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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[Introduction to Arab Politics project at The Century Foundation.]

The Arab world continues its intense, long reckoning with new political forces even as authoritarian systems reassert control and some states devolve into violent conflict. The Middle East and North Africa are in the middle of an era of epochal contestation and conflict. Tectonic processes burst to the surface with the popular uprisings of 2010–2011, and continue today, albeit often in less visible forms. The region’s political energies run the gamut from radical and revolutionary to reactionary and repressive, and are engaged in serious efforts to rearrange the map of hard power and governance. At stake is control, legitimacy, and competition between established and emerging ideologies.

Arab Politics beyond the Uprisings,” a multi-year TCF effort supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, studies and charts some of the considerable ongoing political energy that continues to shape the Arab world. Political thought and organization persist even in quiescent or violent times. The regional restoration of authoritarianism has not resolved the pivotal struggle underway, although for the time being it has shifted momentum in favor of the reactionary constituency.

Keeping an Eye on Political Ferment

The reports in this series seek to identify the ideas and mechanics at play in a region where the very essence of governance, state control, and legitimacy, are being contested—by established forces as well as new constituencies empowered since the peak of the uprisings. No longer is Arab politics a slow-moving competition dominated by dictators, monarchs, and organized Islamist parties. Political space is being contested by a host of actors, including empowered bureaucracies and institutional players, wealthy individuals, militants, populist political movements, civil society organizations, journalists, artists, protesters, and others. Generations of repression failed to erase political life, which has sprouted in marginal and at times unexpected spaces. And from some of these other quarters, new thinkers and activists have proceeded to challenge the power of the state, lay their own claims to hard power, and articulate different visions of political life and governance. These energies and movements are by no means always benign or idealistic. Their ideology and goals vary, and they include many actors whose primary focus is the construction of a more resilient authoritarian order. Quite clearly, political energy and aspiration have survived the political uprisings and their short-term defeat; it is less clear in what direction that energy will push the Arab states and whether the reversal of the popular revolts will become permanent.

Nearly six years have passed since much of the Arab world erupted in revolt against an epoch of corrupt authoritarian misrule. Today, the region’s story is largely one of authoritarianism restored or fiercely defending itself in civil wars that are reducing some states to ruin. The optimism of 2011 can feel like a historical artifact, an idealistic, perhaps naïve aspiration built on hope without any firm analytical foundations.

However, the underlying causes of the uprisings for the most part remain unresolved. And political life throughout the region has irreducibly changed, even in places like Syria or Egypt that have suffered pronounced backlash and repression since the peak revolutionary moments of 2011. These changes are not always for the better, and in some cases have quite clearly been for the worse. Yet there are considerable forces at play in the Middle East and North Africa region today, engaged directly in the political sphere as never before. Existing communities and institutions, such as the independent media, have engaged in political discourse and idea creation with renewed vigor. Plutocrats and wealthy individuals, always a key adjunct to ruling regimes, have expanded their political agency. As resurgent authoritarians increase pressure on civil society, political efforts have continued in the human rights and reform communities. In some cases, authoritarian pressure has spawned new, sometimes radical political challenges from political organizers determined to throw off old ideological and sectarian labels. Spaces with traditionally tangential relationships to politics, like fine arts, have become more intensely political as official pressure has silenced politics in traditional venues such as labor unions and television talk shows. Weakened states at war, a sadly prominent feature of the current period of Arab crisis, have also opened new ungoverned spaces. In them, experiments at self-rule and new politics have flared; some are malignant, like the exertions of the Islamic State group, some carry on the inclusive reform rhetoric of the early uprisings, and some fall in between.

 

This extensive energy—efforts at creation, and the backlash against them; the erosion of state institutions and local initiatives to replace them; fragmented challenges to fragmenting ideologies of legitimacy—characterize a region still in dramatic flux. There is no evidence-based reason to believe that progress is inevitable in the Arab world, any more than there is evidence that it is doomed to an eternity of sclerotic despotism. It is clear, however, that a wide array of experiments are underway that contain a vast quantity of political energy and aspirations.

Better Techniques for Understanding Arab Politics

TCF conceived this project with two primary aims. First, to document with clarity and precision the forces at play in the region, with special attention to under-studied regional interactions, ideological shifts, and political spaces not traditionally associated with the pursuit of hard power or political change. Second, to showcase an approach steeped in granular detail and historical context, so as to record some of the region’s contemporary political history before it fades from living memory. This approach, we hope, will enrich the understanding of policy makers, analysts, and scholars who are rooted outside the region, bring them in closer contact with those from and based in the Arab world, and foster a spirit of communal inquiry and cooperation.

During the last wave of popular uprisings, many close observers of Arab political life, including some of its central participants, were shocked by the widespread popular anger that coalesced in 2010–2011, and by the unexpected potential of people power to bring recalcitrant governments to heel. In fact, much of the thinking and organizing that bubbled into public view during the revolts had long been coalescing, at least in plain enough sight for a few activists and researchers who were interested and receptive.

Many factors contributed to the failure to fully appreciate Arab political dynamics prior to 2010, especially the growing energy and courage of the constituencies willing to oppose government policies. It is easy in hindsight to pinpoint crises or movements that later proved important. One lesson of the uprisings is that it pays for researchers and policy analysts to invest attention in a wide array of political and social actors. Traditional power centers and institutions remained important throughout the peak period of popular revolt, but were joined by a host of suddenly important new entrants to the political arena. Effective research and analysis required quickly adapting to an expanded range of actors. Looking ahead to the coming period of political ferment and contestation in the Arab world, observers, analysts, and policymakers should position themselves to best understand the forces at play and the drivers of instability, transition, and restoration.

Prior to 2010, many observers of Arab politics tracked popular movements and smaller activist efforts, although few expected them to play an important or influential role. Analysts looking for drivers of political instability often discounted activity in marginal or secondary spaces such as the arts, among students and the wealthy, and in civil society. Soft politics and culture were often considered separate and unrelated to the pursuit of hard power, which supposedly only took place in political parties, labor unions, and other spaces traditionally considered the battleground for power. It is not possible to predict which social phenomena will play future roles as drivers of instability or change. These studies should encourage a broad and agnostic analysis of a wide range of political spaces. These contemporary histories and ethnographic reports improve the analytical tools at our disposal and contribute important qualitative data. This is not to suggest that a deeper and more nuanced understanding of political, social, and cultural dynamics will allow for more accurate predictions of coming instability. Instead, as a result of this type of research, analysts might be in a better position to understand the next unexpected political events that occur in the Arab world.

Historical Perspective

The popular uprisings that began in December 2010 in Tunisia sparked a wave of engagement across the Middle East and North Africa, the reverberations of which continue to this day. Throughout 2011, the region was enthralled by bold aspirations for a new dawn of accountable governance, transparency, and rights. It was considered inevitable that an old generation of dictators would be swept away, and it was widely believed that massive change, driven by inchoate people power, would manage to implement revolutionary change without violence or civil strife.

Tunisia alone seems to have charted a relatively positive course. Elsewhere, the best scenarios are where the status quo survived without widespread violence, as in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, or Morocco. Elsewhere, uprisings were quashed, as in Bahrain; dictatorships returned, as in Egypt; or war decimated the state, as in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya.

Human rights monitoring, advocacy, direct action, and documentary journalism all have critical roles to play in holding state power accountable. But none function by design as a pathway to power, or even to reform or change. They are adjuncts, not levers—and certainly not direct sources of hard power. One of the distortions of authoritarianism is that it neuters representative and mobilizing hard-power institutions—labor unions, political parties, and so on—that normally act to check and balance the government. As a result, ill-equipped soft spaces often take up the role of balancing and challenging the state. In authoritarian states, journalists, human rights monitors, and other entities conceived as referees or watchdogs, end up substituting for the opposition, since the state has eliminated all formal rivals. For decades, this set-up neutralized challenges to the state. But the endemic, generational failures of states to deliver on promises of services, security, and citizenship has exposed them to challenges from multiple directions.

We at TCF hope that these studies encourage detail-rich studies that are overtly engaged in policy analysis and addressing the needs of policy makers. Better information about political forces and actors will help shape more effective policy analysis and decision-making. The method and cases chosen are as important as the policy goal. If the community of analysts, academics, policy makers, journalists and others concerned with the political condition of the Arab states is to better understand it, there needs to be an accurate map of the political landscape and the forces at play. Traditional power centers remain pivotal and are often the only elements of the political equation subjected to thorough study and analysis. But as the last few decades have showed, Arab political efforts are underway beyond known spaces such as the military, ruling party, official opposition and labor unions.

This project emphasizes the basic tools of qualitative research, with detailed descriptions, interviews, and contemporary histories that enable comparative analysis. A firmly grounded understanding of what has happened and what is happening today makes the best starting point for any policy analysis about what is to be done and what might happen next. The approach employed in this case can and should be fruitfully extended to other cases, including but not limited to economic actors, burgeoning institutions like the civil defense corps in rebel Syria (known as the White Helmets), initiatives to document history and culture across the region, sports fan clubs, informal groupings of rich individuals, militias, and prisons as incubators of political ideation. This project puts forward analyses based on illustrations that should be useful even to readers unpersuaded by the arguments, and the case studies of enduring use to those who study and observe the Arab region.

Publication of Research

TCF will release research reports produced by the Arab Politics beyond the Uprisings project on our website. The collected project, Arab Politics beyond the Uprisings: Experiments in an Era of Resurgent Authoritarianism (edited by Thanassis Cambanis and Michael Wahid Hanna), is expected to be published in book form in June 2017 by TCF Press.

Political experimentation and invention survive in unlikely places half a decade after the Arab region erupted in revolt. Attempts to build institutions and ideologies have continued during a period of resurgent authoritarianism and at times amidst violent conflict and state collapse. In this volume, established researchers, new scholars, and active participants in the region’s politics explore some of the spaces where change is still emerging, as well as the dynamic forces arrayed against it.

With rich ethnographic detail, these studies pay special attention to efforts in culture, media, provincial and municipal governance, civil society organizations, and even in social movements whose revolutionary moment might seem to have passed. They explore regional dynamics and the local intellectual history of ideas central to the uprisings, such as secularism, liberalism, and human rights, and the reaction against them. They reveal an Arab region experiencing unprecedented cross-border learning and an unresolved struggle between resilient authoritarian structures and an array of alternative nodes of political power.

Significant political phenomena, whether progressive or reactionary, can be easy to miss in their early stages. These instructive studies can inform policy making that is aware of the varied attempts at social and political change in the Arab world and the forces competing to affect that change, many of which remain overlooked or under examined.

Contributors include Samer Abboud, Khaled Mansour, Nathan J. Brown, Benjamin J. Helfand, Yasser Munif, Asya El-Meehy, Aron Lund, Sam Heller, Cilja Harders, Dina Wahba, Monica Marks, Michael Stephens, Ursula Lindsey, Marc Lynch, Jonathan Guyer, Laura C. Dean, Sima Ghaddar, and Sultan al-Qassemi.

Lame-Duck Maneuvers in the Middle East

Posted November 15th, 2016 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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[Report for The Century Foundation.]

The Middle East’s roiling risk level will rise another notch during the window of instability created by the American presidential transition. A crowd of regional governments, non-state actors, and foreign intervening powers are jockeying for position in a region undergoing a historical period of crisis. Many of them will be tempted to make bold or maximalist moves during the lame-duck period, hoping to position themselves better vis-à-vis Obama’s successor, Donald J. Trump, who will reassess U.S. policy in the region and could subsequently shift or reorder priorities. History has yielded a steady stream of lame-duck maneuvers in the Middle East, from the resolution of the Iran hostage crisis in 1981 to the Israeli blitz in Gaza in December 2008.

This policy brief assesses the climate for unilateral gambits in the Middle East during the ten-week lame-duck period, with an eye toward managing risk and maximizing the pursuit of interests for the United States. Some Middle Eastern leaders already have expressed high hopes for a Trump presidency, hoping he will abandon even rhetorical pressure over human rights and embrace strongman rulers in Turkey, Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. Underlying these hopes, however, is anxiety; none of the Middle East’s leaders know what policies to expect from Trump, and because he doesn’t have a foreign policy records or a well-known coterie of advisers, his rise to the presidency injects even more than the usual amount of uncertainty into the lame-duck period. What are the new or increased risks during the transition period? How can the United States best avert them? Are there foreign policy surprises that President Obama himself might want to unveil in the Middle East during his lame-duck period?

Read the rest at the TCF website.

Interview with TCF’s Sam Heller about Damascus trip

Posted November 7th, 2016 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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Century Foundation fellow Sam Heller returned to Beirut from Syria over the weekend, where he attended a government-backed conference—the first of its kind in years, with Western journalists, analysts and political researchers invited to hear the government’s point of view. He spent a week in Damascus. Century Foundation fellow Thanassis Cambanis talks with Sam about his first impressions.

Thanassis: Welcome back from Syria, Sam. We’re glad to have you back in Beirut. When was the last time you were in Syria prior to this trip?

Sam: I lived in Syria between 2009 and 2010, but I haven’t been back since. I actually left Syria to do a two-year master’s degree in Arabic that would have taken me back to Damascus for its second year—but that was 2011, so that obviously didn’t happen.

Since I turned back full-time to researching Syria in 2013, I’ve devoted most of my time and energy to looking at the Syrian opposition and Syria’s opposition-held areas. What I’ve understood about conditions inside regime-held western Syria, including Damascus, has been filtered through the media or second-hand fragments, from people who travel in and out.

But for all I’ve written about Idlib, I’ve never actually been there. It’s Damascus—and, to a lesser extent, al-Hasakeh in Syria’s east—that reflects my actual, lived experience in Syria. And so it’s good to be back and see the situation in the part of the country I knew best, if only to further ground myself in something real.

Thanassis: What was your first impression on this trip?

Sam: I don’t think this trip necessarily upturned my understanding of conditions inside. But it was useful to see things firsthand and to be able to put some meat on my existing impressions of the functioning of the regime and life in government-held areas.

And this might be shallow, but for me—as an outsider, and as someone who missed the worst years of the war in Damascus in 2013 and 2014—I was struck by how much was the same. The city and the society have obviously been militarized; Damascus is filled with checkpoints and uniformed men. And it seems like everyone, if you ask, has a story of economic hardship, displacement, or the death of friends and family. And yet, even while everything is sort of worse, much of what I knew about Damascus is still there.

Read the full interview on The Century Foundation website.

October surprise? No, beware the November blitz

Posted November 4th, 2016 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]

AMERICAN ELECTION OBSERVERS often talk about the October surprise, the last-minute revelation that can shift the outcome. In international affairs, there’s a potentially more dangerous phenomenon: the November blitz.

When American presidential elections produce a transition — a sure thing when the incumbent isn’t running, like this year — the 10 weeks between Election Day and the inauguration can produce a jumble of last-minute power grabs and other maneuvers by governments overseas.

Sensing danger ahead under a new president, or gambling that America will be busy with its leadership transition, foreign powers often make bold, risky, or destabilizing moves during the lame-duck period of an outgoing president. Sometimes the architects think they’ll never get a better deal. In other cases, they expect to irritate the United States but figure they’ll escape with minimal backlash from a president on the way out.

The most recent example came in 2008 after Barack Obama’s election, when Israel unleashed a war in Gaza. The operation prompted international opprobrium for the widespread strikes against civilian targets. Israel launched the war on Dec. 28, 2008, and ended it just two days before Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009. Officials gambled that George W. Bush, the pro-Israel president they knew, would be angry but not enough to withhold weapons deliveries or otherwise punish Israel — and they were right. It was a classic November blitz, even though it took place in December and January.

Reaching further back to the closing months of 2000, President Bill Clinton pulled every string he could conjure to force Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to reach a historic peace deal. With just days left in his presidency the effort unraveled.

Today, the world feels even more unsettled than it did eight years ago. Predictability is the grease that keeps the international system humming, and it’s in short supply. Nowadays figures such as Vladimir Putin — not to mention the GOP presidential nominee, Donald Trump — have injected unprecedented unpredictability into international rhetoric. Oil prices and financial markets haven’t behaved consistently, and hot wars in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Libya have to some degree drawn in almost every major military power in the world. Far-right movements in Europe and the United States have opened up new, dark possibilities: The age of open borders could be drawing to a close, while the supposedly stabilizing umbrella of international agreements and institutions is being strained more than at any point since the end of World War II.

That volatile mix opens the door to gambles. What kind of lame-duck period meltdowns and provocations can the United States expect after Nov. 8, and can it do anything to minimize the risk?

THE TOP FOREIGN contender for machinations in the lame-duck period is the same culprit already blamed for an October surprise: Russia. Just as Putin’s security state is alleged to be behind hacking and other shady moves to help Trump, Russia’s preferred candidate, win the US election, it is highly likely to move in the interregnum to shore up its position.

“Americans voting for a president on Nov. 8 must realize that they are voting for peace on planet Earth if they vote for Trump,” Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky said, according to Reuters. “But if they vote for Hillary, it’s war. It will be a short movie. There will be Hiroshimas and Nagasakis everywhere.”

Zhirinovsky is a bombastic bit player in Russia, but his aggressive rhetoric comes as part of a Kremlin campaign to reassert Russian power and roll back American gains since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Putin has long been irked that NATO, America’s original anti-Soviet alliance, absorbed most of the former Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe and expanded right up to Russia’s borders in the Baltic republics of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. In October, he issued a list of specific demands to the United States, including the end of all anti-Russia sanctions, the rollback of NATO, and compensation to Russia.

While these demands might seem crazy from an American perspective, they form a negotiating position. If Putin can create a rash of new facts on the ground in a hurry, before Obama’s successor gets installed in the White House, then his agenda will have to be taken more seriously.

The Russian leader could try to put an incoming US president on the defensive by provoking a crisis with the Baltic republics. (Trump has made comments during the campaign to suggest if he were president, he might not honor NATO’s commitment to defend the vulnerable Baltics from Russia.)

Putin could also scrap more of the US-Russia nuclear agreements, in order to shift the conflict with Washington away from conventional wars, like the fights in Syria and Ukraine, and onto the much scarier plane of nuclear war. Since 1991, we’ve grown inured to the risk of Armageddon, a fear that Putin seems eager to revive.

A really shocking November maneuver could take surprising forms. Putin could threaten to deploy nuclear-capable weapons to Syria or Cuba. He could aggressively deploy his navy and air force in close proximity to NATO. He could send flash-mob invaders into the Baltics and annex territory, like he did in Crimea.

DISRUPTORS WITH A long-term agenda have the biggest incentive to strike during the lame-duck period, since they are trying not only to provoke a reaction but set the stage for a later negotiation. That’s why the lame-duck period is not such fertile ground for nihilist terrorist groups whose main goal is to goad the US leadership into overreaction; they are more likely to want to target a early-term president.

In the Middle East, some of the usual culprits are also unlikely to act. Israel has had a testy relationship with Obama. But it considers Clinton a stalwart supporter of Israeli government policy, and Trump, despite some boisterous comments during the campaign, has gone out of his way to reassure boosters of the Israeli government. Unlike in 2008, Israeli officials seem confident that they’ll get a more sympathetic ear in the next White House, so they’ll have little interest in major lame-duck period shifts with Gaza or along the borders with Lebanon and Syria.

On the contrary, Saudi Arabia has every reason to accelerate its ill-conceived war in Yemen, which the United States unwisely backed as a concession to a Saudi monarchy that felt sidelined by Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. As the war crimes have piled up, Obama at last in October ordered a long-overdue review over American support for the Yemen war. Reading the tea leaves, Saudi Arabia’s leaders can expect the United States to curtail or even cut off military support in the near future. Certainly, the next US president will have a free hand to pull out of the ugly Yemen war.

This is precisely the most combustible recipe for a desperate November blitz. Knowing that it can’t win the war outright and install its preferred leader in Yemen, Saudi Arabia might seek to hobble its Yemen opponents as much as possible with more of the same sort of widespread bombing with which it has targeted Yemen’s political class and infrastructure.

Not all lame-duck foreign policy flare-ups occur in the Middle East. The main issues confronting the United States remain the same: countering great power threats, containing nuclear proliferation, and battling terrorism, most prominently from the Islamic State.

Beyond the already boiling Middle East, there are other pressure points ripe for November surprises. In the South China Sea and its disputed islands, for instance, China has been pushing hard. It could make a further show of force, further entrenching its claims over what promises to be a focal point of dangerous great-power competition on the next president’s watch.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, the man who proudly compared himself to Hitler on account of his campaign to capture or kill millions of drug addicts, has said Obama can “go to hell” while threatening to “break up” with America. America’s Asia strategy relies on a unified, concerted counterweight to China — a carefully crafted entente that Duterte seems gleefully willing to shatter. A break in the US-Philippines relationship could drastically shift the balance of power in Asia. Duterte seems both reckless and shrewd enough to use a realistic breakup threat as leverage to force America to back down on its threats to punish him for his endemic abuse of human rights.

The lame-duck period invites malingerers, spoilers, rogues, and all manner of American rivals to fire shots across Washington’s bow. North Korea already periodically rattles the world with rocket launches and nuclear tests. It might feel the need to do so again now as a warning to Clinton or Trump.

WHAT CAN OBAMA do to get out ahead of these kind of prospective lame-duck period spoiler moves? Are there spoiler moves of his own that Obama could make, as a gift to America — or his successor?

In foreign affairs, Obama has been systematic and cerebral; he has tried to follow the policies that he laid out in his own speeches. He has also been very open with his frustrations about annoying allies that pursue their own ends and flout their American patron.

Free to pursue his conscience without risk in any future election campaign, Obama could make unilateral foreign policy moves that could catch America’s rivals off guard. For an opportunist, the lame-duck period cuts both ways.

For starters, Obama could sow heartache among whiny allies, cutting or freezing military aid that foreign governments would then have to earn back, through better cooperation, from Obama’s successor. The list is long and insalubrious, but Obama could take some of the political blowback for himself and turn the tables on entitled clients who act like aid and weapons from America are their birthright.

Saudi Arabia relies exclusively on America’s defense umbrella for its security. Any threat that it could seek weapons elsewhere, such as Russia or China, rings hollow, since its entire defense establishment is built on American hardware, resupply, and trainers. Washington could freeze arms sales, pending a lengthy review of rights violations in the Yemen war — pointedly reminding its brittle Gulf ally that Washington also holds cards in the relationship.

Other relationships ready for “right-sizing” include Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, and Turkey. In each case, Obama could slow down or stall existing aid, on entirely procedural grounds, to remind each one of these sometimes quarrelsome client states that they need to earn their special relationships with the United States, rather than straining them.

This year’s ugly presidential campaign has stoked racism and xenophobia. As a result, the United States, already a malingerer when it comes to admitting refugees, has lagged worldwide. Obama raised America’s tiny quota, but it remains at symbolic levels, with few slots reserved for people displaced from key trouble spots like Syria and Iraq.

Obama could rip a page out of the playbook of his Canadian colleague Justin Trudeau, who promised to admit 25,000 Syrian refugees in his first two months in office. (It took him four months, but he accomplished the target in February.) Surely if Canada can manage such a feat, so can the far larger United States.

An Obama November surprise to admit refugees would be a generous about-face. It would shift politics away from fear of terrorism to embrace America’s melting-pot identity — and create a fait accompli for his successor. Even if Clinton wins, she would be unlikely to take such an initiative in the face of political challenges from the anti-immigrant right, which Trump exemplifies.

Obama could also erase a blot on America’s reputation by closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, where 61 detainees — many of them held indefinitely and without charge — languish in legal limbo. America’s island prison is the most egregious symbol of the post-9/11 overreaction, which enshrined the notion of an endless war against terrorism, a tactic which will never disappear from the face of the earth. Obama promised in his 2008 campaign to close Guantanamo, but his determination was foiled by the complicated politics and logistics. However, he has the executive authority to close this loophole in America’s constitutional rule of law. Come Nov. 8, he’ll have the political freedom to do it.

Washington can even use the lame-duck leverage in sectors removed from the usual business of war and peace, like the airline industry. The United States is in trade talks right now with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar over a persistent source of discord: the subsidies that give those countries’ airlines a competitive edge over US airlines. There’s now reportedly a move afoot by the Gulf monarchies to take whatever deal they can get now from Obama’s State Department. After a campaign that raised protectionist ire and anger about unfair advantages to foreign competitors, there would be increased scrutiny on those subsidies.

Powerful governments with nothing to lose can be dangerous. And as we’ve painfully learned over the last year, uncertainty in international relations can breed violent and destabilizing competition for power.

The 10 weeks that follow American Election Day — the single most important date on the calendars of schemers and plotters worldwide — offer peril. For a departing American president who’s looking toward the history books, they also offer opportunity.

NYBR essay on Middle East democracy

Posted November 3rd, 2016 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Interesting review essay by Gerard Russell includes Once Upon a Revolution in its discussion. Read the whole essay the New York Review of Books or below.

What Chance for Democracy in the Middle East?

By Gerard RussellOCTOBER 27, 2016 ISSUE

From Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution and Its Jihadi Legacyby Jean-Pierre Filiu, Oxford University Press, 311 pp., $24.95

Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Storyby Thanassis Cambanis, Simon and Schuster, 274 pp., $26.00

A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISISby Robert F. Worth, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 259 pp., $26.00

Our recent attempt to run an Arab state did not end well. During just over a year in which the US- and UK-staffed Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) administered Iraq, that country began its descent into the abyss of violence and political and economic dysfunction in which it has languished ever since. In Britain on July 6 an exhaustive public inquiry led by the former civil servant Sir John Chilcot concluded seven years of work in which it tried to understand what went wrong. Its conclusion, in essence: Don’t do it again.

I did not serve in the CPA myself, but I did subsequently go out to assist Iraq’s first elected prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, in 2005. I hoped that a government of Iraqis, elected by Iraqis, would solve the problems that foreigners had been unable to address. I was disappointed to find that this did not happen. Violence worsened; many sectors of government barely functioned; Jaafari himself, a kindly man, behaved as a scholar rather than a statesman. Western visitors were baffled to be engaged in discussions of the minutiae of American history, while not far away Baghdad was literally burning. People began to long for a stronger leader. In due course autocratic Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was brought in to replace Jaafari.

There are many lessons to take from the Iraq debacle. The postwar missteps were legion. If the CPA had enfranchised Iraqis faster, instead of trying to install a blatantly American occupation government; if it had not rushed ahead with de-Baathification and the disbanding of the army; if it had paid more attention to the religious divide that was tearing the country apart—if, if, if. I myself doubt that it could ever have been a success. For one thing, such missteps were inevitable when the CPA’s principal loyalty was not to the Iraqi people but to the American government. Few Iraqis, furthermore, were willing to invest in an occupation that was self-declared to be a short-term one.

Second, based on my own experience, I do not think that the Iraqi politicians themselves had particularly good answers to their country’s problems. Perhaps there were no quick solutions to be had, but only the slow rebuilding of an abused and shattered state. If so, the most important lesson for us is that we should be doubly and triply cautious about breaking something that is so hard to reassemble.

That leaves the possibility that such regimes can be overthrown by their own people. InFrom Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution and Its Jihadi Legacy, Jean-Pierre Filiu, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Sciences Po in Paris, looks at just a few of the countries in which there were waves of protests from the end of 2010 until 2012: Yemen, Syria, Tunisia, and Egypt. These differ widely, especially since Filiu also adds Algeria, in which there were not only protests but bitter, violent conflict. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak resigned but the military, which had propped up his rule, ultimately regained power. In Tunisia, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled and a democracy was peacefully installed. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad has used barrel bombs and Russian and Iranian help to remain in power; while in Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh has turned to the Houthi rebels to back him in a civil war. Filiu omits Libya, for reasons that do not quite convince, and Iraq.

What all these countries except Tunisia did share in the twentieth century was the melancholy and ironic fate of Arab nationalist revolutions—against British-backed monarchy or French direct rule—for the most part resulting in regimes that were more authoritarian, and in certain ways more self-seeking, than the ones they replaced. In 1952, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser deposed King Farouk of Egypt in the name of Arab freedom, but he then abolished or controlled the courts, parliament, and press and launched external military adventures to undermine his rivals. French rule in Syria gave way in the 1940s to a chaotic sequence of different governments before Hafez al-Assad violently took and maintained control in 1970. The Algerian revolutionaries who overthrew French rule in 1962 then divided up power among themselves and later canceled an election that would have displaced them. These leaders used external wars, internal witch-hunts, and talk of foreign conspiracies to legitimize their rule; and at the same time, to subsidize it, they tolerated or brought about huge black economies.

If they had oil, they used it to keep themselves in power. Without oil, Filiu observes, they used the very instability resulting from their own policies as evidence that they needed US aid in order to keep terrorists from taking over. The fall of Mosul to the Islamic State in 2014, he hints, could have been contrived by then Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki as a way to make himself indispensable. (To understand the full horror of such a suggestion, one must know that Maliki, who was installed by the US, is a Shia, and that the Shia are enemies and the principal targets of the Islamic State.)

Bashar al-Assad today says that we should stand against Islamic terrorism. It was only five years ago, Filiu points out, that he was setting terrorists free from his prisons—a cunning and ruthless Saddam-style maneuver designed to undermine more moderate opponents. Just over ten years ago Assad helped to send terrorists across the border into Iraq. Himself an Alawite, regarded by these same jihadi terrorists as an apostate deserving death, he nonetheless helped the jihadi movements gain strength. Why? Because doing it created a threat to Western and Russian interests to which Assad could present himself as the solution.

Likewise, when Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen became America’s ally against terrorism, it would have done him no good at all if terrorism had truly been wiped out in his country. He would then have had no value for the Americans. He needed to be a good ally against the terrorist threat, but in order to stay in power, Filiu writes, he needed that threat to continue to exist. In February 2006, twenty-three al-Qaeda detainees were mysteriously able to escape from a high-security Yemeni jail. The outcome was that more American money was paid to Saleh in order to combat the increased threat of terrorism that the jailbreak had caused.

Filiu’s analysis is acute in providing such explanations of how the terror threat is used in order to obtain money and power from the West, but his prescription may sound too easy. “More democracy should be the answer,” he says—but some democracies behave in the same way. Bin Laden lived near one of Pakistan’s military academies for several years while Pakistan—ostensibly democratic when not a dictatorship—presented itself as a necessary ally in the war against al-Qaeda. The Afghan government elected after 2001 solicited funds to fight the drug trade, while being very heavily invested in the drug trade. Assad and Saleh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, deceive the United States in their counterterrorist activities because their relations with the US are based on manipulation on both sides. Neither side likes or trusts the other. Elections alone will not change that.

Still, Filiu’s book should make us think harder about the economics of power. When I was a political officer in Afghanistan we lacked an understanding of the hidden profits driving the conflict, the secret ways in which government officials made money from the war, and the financial deals done under the table between ostensible enemies. Such networks of corruption, once established, are uncontrollable. Like drugs in sport, corruption confers a competitive advantage that few can resist. In turn, the widespread practice of corrupt payoffs creates secret Mafia-like networks of shared criminality.

Once the use of corrupt money becomes a standard practice, it is the official who stays clean who’s taking the risk: he might be seen by his corrupt colleagues as dangerous. Sometimes those who are at the apex of the pyramid of corruption may be so much in hock to their criminal cronies that they fear to go straight. An Afghan politician widely rumored to be a kingpin in the drug trade spoke to me with a candor masked by the pretense that he was speaking hypothetically. A politician who has a narcotics network, he said, cannot simply walk away from crime: his family and dependents, his entire group of political associates, would turn on him if he did. No, he said with feigned weariness, such a person would have to stick with it.

I have thought of that comment when people have predicted that Bashar al-Assad could easily be persuaded to leave Syria and go into exile in Russia. They ignore that he is to some extent caught in the web of loyalties that he himself spun. To leave, and abandon his clients and backers, would be a risky betrayal. He might never make it to the airport.

In Assad’s case, of course, the allegiances were to some extent strengthened by the complex religious makeup of Syria, whose minorities in some cases fear Islamism more than they fear Assad’s continued rule. In Afghanistan, tribes had a part in cementing these relationships. Elsewhere they have to be built through intermarriage and institutional loyalties. It can be hard to see the strands of the web, let alone unpick them. This is another reason why occupying and trying to run a foreign country is a doomed endeavor. Some smaller lessons, though, do occur to me that could be learned from Filiu and applied to situations like Afghanistan.

Corruption is a weed whose roots go deep and wide; if possible, it has to be torn up quickly. Our Afghanistan aid policy should have done that, instead of flooding the Afghan economy with money that heightened economic divisions and provided ample opportunities for unscrupulous people to enrich themselves. We should have been more careful whom we helped. We should, too, have been tougher in confronting official criminality. The Afghan election in 2009 was riddled with it, on both sides—because, as I’ve mentioned, it gives a competitive advantage.

Filiu does not take up such reforms in convincing detail; but as a diagnosis his book is written with scholarship, passion, and clarity. Still, a central question did not seem addressed. What price is worth paying to change a corrupt or dictatorial government? I felt that the omission of Libya from the book was a missed opportunity to confront this question. Muammar Qaddafi was an appalling dictator; his overthrow, however, led to violent chaos involving a variety of competing factions, in which thousands have been killed. Can the struggle for democracy be conducted with less cost? Is the cost worth it?

In A Rage for Order, Robert Worth takes a much more pessimistic view than Filiu. It was, he writes, a “willed refusal” of the US and its allies to see that the Arab uprisings of 2011 would end in “civil war and Islamist bloodlust.” But the protesters, he writes, stood for hope instead of despair, and “you couldn’t help rooting for them.”

Yet against relentless enemies, the protesters, as Worth closely and perceptively observed them, lacked cohesion, guile, and pragmatism. That is also the view of Thanassis Cambanis, a journalist and a teacher at Columbia University, who in Once Upon a Revolution follows some of Egypt’s young secular activists and the story of Tahrir Square from the first surprisingly successful march against then President Mubarak in 2011, through to the election of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2014 and the reemergence of the security forces as Egypt’s ruling class. He laments the revolutionaries’ mistakes: “their incoherence, their absence of tactical innovation, their inability to forge ideas.” Well-intentioned secular liberals were quickly brushed aside by Egypt’s two most powerful factions—the Islamists and the security forces. The result in 2012 was the doomed pact by which the Muslim Brotherhood would be elected to the presidency on condition that the military’s privileges remain intact.

Cambanis seems to me too harsh: the secular liberal revolutionaries, who wanted the downfall of the entire government system but not religious rule, never had a chance. For one thing, as Filiu observes, it can take decades to build a cohesive group capable of holding power. Filiu argues that the Egyptian army officer caste has evolved over the past decades into a semihereditary “Mamluk” elite, since members of top military families marry among themselves. The Muslim Brotherhood is famously secretive, with a strong sense of discipline adopted from Islam’s old Sufi orders, and an element of fascism that was much admired in the Arab world when the Brotherhood was founded in 1928. Again, its families tend to intermarry, cementing loyalties. The revolutionaries, by contrast, were mostly surprised to find themselves in Tahrir Square at all. They had no time to build a movement that could protect itself, make alliances, and have plausible plans to govern.

Furthermore, in Egypt, large parts of the population were willing to accept the power of the military or were sympathetic to it. When the army turned against the protesters, their cause was lost. “In Egypt’s case,” Cambanis writes, “love of the military and comfort with authoritarianism run deep.” Many people preferred stability above all, believing “that freedoms are luxuries to be enjoyed only when existential threats have been tamed.” Cambanis disagrees, seeing pluralism and due process as the best long-term guarantees of security; but he does not show how they could be introduced.

A third factor affected the events in Egypt. It was easier than many expected to gather a crowd for Mubarak’s ouster. He had no great accomplishments, his repression of dissidents could be brutal, and the ostentatious wealth of his new elite was grating. Yet some of those in the crowd waving placards against Mubarak are now firm supporters of President Sisi. They were in Tahrir not to bring an end to military rule, but to bring an end to Mubarak. The initial astonishing success of the demonstrations masked the fact that many who took part in them had little sense of how to deal with the forces they would face when Mubarak left.

A problem with secular revolution in much of the contemporary Arab world is that religion, usually of a rather intolerant kind, is often popular. Egypt, post-Tahrir, elected a Muslim Brother as its president. The representation of women and minorities in government promptly diminished. Turkish democracy, too, has been tending toward the religious right. There is a long-standing history of such tendencies. During the 1970s, when Anwar Sadat wanted to establish his own base of support in Egypt, he decided that official support for Islam and for religious authorities would be the best way to do it. When facing protests after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Saudi Arabia toughened its religious laws, calculating that this would be popular.

Far from wanting a separation of church and state, two thirds of Egyptians in 2010 (according to a Zogby poll) wanted the clergy to have more of a role in government. As Worth ably describes, an increasingly aggressive piety had been one of the results of the country’s mass migration from the countryside into shantytowns and shabby suburbs skirting Cairo:

In the misery of these new surroundings, populist preachers gradually transformed Islam from the traditional religion of the migrants’ ancestors into something new…. It became a shield they could rattle at infidels at home and abroad. It made them feel they belonged to something higher and better than the Westernized urban elite who despised them.

Partly in response to the growth of Islamism, secular and liberal opposition groups have often successfully been co-opted by governments. This in turn has made Islamist parties the main beneficiaries of revolution. More liberal figures are often easy to denounce as feloul, meaning adherents of the past regime. Few liberals, too, have made the intensive efforts to cultivate relations with the working classes that have been made by the Islamists.

The power of religious extremism and the damage it did to protest movements is a theme that comes across in Worth’s subtly insightful survey of the Arab uprisings. The emergence of the Islamic State has taken the pressure off Assad, just as he may have known it could when he released jihadis from prison in 2011. Islamic extremists likewise have emerged in Yemen, as part of a rebellion against its ruler in 2011, which now has become a civil war. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood acted so arbitrarily that it unified, as Worth shows, much of the population against it, making victory easy for President Sisi. The power vacuum created by the war in Libya has opened up space for violent Islamists as well.

It might be that in order for democracy to succeed in the Middle East, the nature of religion there must change as well. Intolerant Islamism may have to weaken before democracy can take root. A sense of national loyalty must take precedence over religious solidarity.

These conditions may exist in Tunisia. In one of the final sections of A Rage for Order, Worth describes the country’s efforts to form and maintain a democratic society. Tunisia, he writes,

had been the cradle of the 2011 uprisings, and in many ways the most hopeful. This was a small, pacific country that seemed—on the map—to hover in the Mediterranean between Africa and Europe. It had none of the gunpowder of its neighbors: no sectarian rifts, no tribal strife, no violent insurgencies, no oil. The army was weak and apolitical.

Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the country’s dictator, fled just days after protesters reached the capital, and by the fall of 2011 Tunisia held elections in which Ennahda, “the mildest and most democratic Islamist party in history,” won enough of the Tunisian parliament to form a government.

Still, Worth writes, Ennahda was “reluctant to alienate its ideological base, which included many harder-line Islamists.” Led by the liberal Islamist Rachid Ghannouchi, the party allowed these hard-line groups to flourish, and before long Ansar al-Sharia—a Salafist organization calling for the creation of an Islamic state—was holding rallies across the country. In 2013, two leftist politicians were assassinated by jihadis with ties to Ansar al-Sharia. Facing an anti-Islamist backlash, and fearing a civil war, Ennahda resigned from the government and agreed to new elections.

In his final chapter, Worth gives a remarkable account of the way in which this transition of power was made. It offers some hope for a better way forward in handling the disputes that arise between the revolutionaries and the feloul, or the Islamists and the religious liberals, or indeed between different factions of any kind in a region where politics is too often a winner-take-all game. Relying on interviews and other accounts, Worth describes in detail the two men mainly responsible for averting civil war in Tunisia: Rachid Ghannouchi and Beji Caid Essebsi, founder of the secular Nidaa Tounes party and now president.

Ghannouchi and Essebsi came from very different backgrounds. One was a poor rural Islamist, the other a dedicated secularist from a long line of landed Tunisian aristocrats who had worked for the modernizing dictator Habib Bourguiba, and had been an ambassador under Ben Ali. The mere announcement that they were holding talks brought outraged condemnations, each accused of betraying his respective side. But the negotiations continued, and, as Worth writes, the two men

discovered that they had some things in common…. For all his secularism, Essebsi knew the Koran well, and often quoted it. Both men had been traumatized as boys by encounters with the French military, at almost exactly the same age…. Essebsi began to feel that his Islamist counterpart was a Tunisian patriot. And Ghannouchi realized that Essebsi had—like him—grown uncomfortable with Bourguiba’s autocratic ways long before the Ben Ali era began.

In January 2014, a new constitution was adopted, thanks largely to the work of these two men, each of whom faced fierce resistance from his own party. In the elections that followed, Ennahda received 27.8 percent of the vote, while Nidaa Tounes received 37.6 percent, and the two formed the coalition government now in power.

Tunisia’s current state is nevertheless fragile—it faces not only a crisis of lack of jobs and foreign investment, but also the threat of terror attacks from groups like al-Qaeda’s North African branch. Tunisia is per capita the biggest source of volunteers for the Islamic State including the assailant in the July 14 massacre in Nice. Two recent terror attacks have badly damaged the country’s tourism industry, which accounts for roughly 14.5 percent of its GDP. Worth’s conclusion about Tunisia strikes the note of realism that characterizes his book: “Even if the equilibrium holds,” he writes,

it is hard to say what kind of legacy will be granted to Tunisia’s grand old men. The idea that they achieved a historic synthesis, a reweaving of the country’s Islamic and Western ancestries, is an appealing one. And in many ways, Tunisia did seem to have pulled back from the crater’s edge in mid-2015. The coalition government was coalescing and planning reforms, albeit slowly. Most of the Islamists seemed to have come around to the belief in compromise and reconciliation. Leftists spoke optimistically about a working relationship with the people they’d once hoped to eradicate.

But the greatest dangers and the greatest opportunities lay beyond the country’s borders. Five years after the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, Tunisians still hoped that their small country could be a model, spreading its dream of reconciliation across a region troubled by war and tyranny. They also knew the same winds could blow in reverse and smash everything they had built.

One Less Danger but No New Hope as Lebanon Finally Elects a President

Posted November 1st, 2016 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

aoun-presidential-chair-otv

Aoun sits at Baabda on election day. Source: OTV screen grab

[Commentary for The Century Foundation.]

Michel Aoun’s ascendance to the presidency of Lebanon on Monday three decades after he first sought the office represents not a sea-change in regional power dynamics but an incremental step in the hard slog of making politics. Nearly two and a half years after the previous president left Baabda Palace and after forty-five failed parliamentary sessions to select a new leader, a thorny dispute with many players was peacefully negotiated. Remarkably, the maneuvers unfolded peacefully despite the pressure caused by a state collapse next door in Syria and with considerable threat of violence hanging over Lebanon itself.

The outcome of the Lebanese presidential selection has been oversold in some quarters as a big victory for Iran in its regional struggle against Saudi Arabia. The truth is more prosaic, complicated, and local.

None of the major political factions can justly be considered to have won outright, and the mind-numbing turns of the deal make clear that there aren’t any simplistic sides in Lebanon (or for that matter, in political life throughout the Arab region).

Political alliances in Lebanon—like in the rest of the region and the world—are in fact fluid and partial, by turn ideological and transactional.The anticlimactic election and the ongoing limping politics that are sure to follow make clear that no simple equation can reduce Arab politics to glib but ultimately misleading formulations, like those who lump together Shia, the Iraqi government, Hezbollah, Iran, and one Lebanese Christian faction into a single monolithic construct. Nor were Aoun’s opponents a unified bloc connecting Sunnis, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Syria’s opposition.

In short, the messy deal for Lebanon’s presidency, while hardly a triumph for any single idea or movement, provides a sharp reminder that politics and negotiation continue to play a key role in forging paths forward in a region where violent contestation of power usually grabs most of the attention.

All Politics Is Local—and International

The decision of Lebanon’s parliament to bless the Aoun deal says as much about the evolution of Lebanon’s model of power-sharing-cum-paralysis as it does about the region’s increasingly interwoven struggle for influence. On Monday, the Lebanese parliament—itself an arguably illegal body because it extended its own mandate—ratified a backroom deal to make Aoun president and down the road, to give the prime minister’s job to his rival, Saad Hariri.

This same deal was floated in 2014 after the previous president’s term expired. Back then, supporters of Hariri believed that Sunni rebels might win the Syrian civil war and that political tide in the region would shift, empowering them to sweep to power rather than accept the middling share of it they already possessed. Hezbollah and its allies, meanwhile, were content to muddle forward without a president at all, since they held the position of primus inter pares among Lebanon’s factions and stood to gain nothing important from a functioning executive branch.

After twenty-five months, only the expectations of the major players have changed. Hezbollah is willing to accept a president who, after all, was its candidate, if only to escape domestic blame for leaving the state in limbo. And the weakened party of Saad Hariri, facing fragmentation among its Sunni base and fading confidence from its Saudi sponsors and financial backers, has grown desperate. Hence it was willing to accept any terms to put its man back in the premiership, without any accompanying concessions that would boost its electoral chances later on or award it a bigger share of public sector spoils to loot.

Much went into the Aoun deal, most of it concerning Lebanese internal dynamics. Longtime rival Christian warlords Aoun and Samir Geagea made peace with each other earlier this year, realizing that the country’s Christian minority was losing even more relevance if it remained split between pro-Sunni and pro-Shia factions. Hariri struggled to maintain his position as his family company went bankrupt and Saudi Arabia, briefly but flamboyantly, hung him out to dry—canceling a grant to Lebanon’s military and standing by as its man in Lebanon, Hariri, was humiliated in municipal elections this spring.

In the view of his Saudi sponsors, Hariri had not done enough to stop Hezbollah and Iran from dominating Lebanon, so he deserved a comeuppance; that, according to Saudi watchers in Lebanon, was the message the Saudi royal family wanted to send this past year. But they realized that theatrical shows of pique do not wise policy make, and that by cutting off Hariri they made it easier for Hezbollah and Iran to conduct their political business in Lebanon. In the end, Lebanon mattered to the Saudis more than they initially thought.

It also ultimately turned out that Lebanon had some say over its own choice of leader. Aoun is not a president built and chosen by foreign powers, or at least not 100 percent so (his followers like to say that “the General” is 100 percent “made in Lebanon,” which exaggerates the point in the other direction).

Aoun formed a tight political partnership with Hezbollah in 2006, a surprising move at the time for a leading Christian warlord who had made his reputation by going to war against Hezbollah’s patron Syria in 1989.

But Aoun is not purely Hezbollah’s man, which is one reason why Hezbollah was willing to wait so long to help him get elected by parliament.

The General is considered unpredictable, headstrong, vain, ambitious, and a bit mad. Those are the characteristics which lead his most ardent admirers to see him as a charismatic leader and his enemies to fear him as unpredictable and prone to authoritarianism.In office, he will polarize and hector. Already in his inaugural speech on Monday he made chauvinistic, unfulfillable promises to try to send some of the 1.5 million-plus Syrian refugees in the country back home. He vowed to defend his nation against terrorists and Israel, to strengthen the military, and a cleaner government. But he will be hemmed in by Lebanon’s dysfunctional political power-sharing system, which his election does nothing to change.

Low Expectations

Given the tradition of painstaking and painful political negotiation in Lebanon, it might take a year, even two, for Saad Hariri to form a government and take office as prime minister. By then, new parliamentary elections will be underway. No one in Lebanon expects the state to function like a state any more than it has during the last five years of permanent crisis during which electricity, education, and health care have been in scarce supply, but graft and uncollected garbage have risen to historically high levels.

Events in Lebanon are not solely a byproduct of regional competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Nor can they be read simply as a fight between Shia Hezbollah and the Sunni Future Movement.

It is instructive to remember that initially, two sectarian Muslim factions, the Sunni Future Movement and Shia Hezbollah, were negotiating over the outcome of the most senior post in Lebanon still reserved for Christians; in Lebanon’s sectarian political game, the Christians had largely sidelined themselves from their own remaining political fiefs. Eventually, intra-Christian competition made a greater number of Lebanese warlords relevant: not exactly a step toward democracy, but new alliances between Christians kept an oligarchy from sliding into a duopoly. Those who describe Aoun’s victory as a win for Iran should reckon honestly with the fact that the alternative candidate backed by Saudi Arabia was Suleiman Frangieh, a Christian warlord whose fealty to Damascus, Hezbollah and Iran is far more ironclad than Aoun’s.

In a region where the local, regional, and international all interact, Lebanon’s presidential crisis embodied all three levels, and its resolution offers one image of how plodding, incremental, and frustrating it is to seek progress on any level at all.

On Monday, Lebanon moved one step away from the abyss of total paralysis. It is, however, hardly any closer to restoring a state that can manage anything remotely resembling governance.

It might not seem like much, but the Lebanese system has managed one feat that can allow its citizens, however modestly, to maintain their claim to provide a model for regional politics: against considerable odds and obstacles, many of their own making, Lebanon’s politicians have pursued political compromise by nonviolent means. That’s no small feat.

Michel Aoun Rises to Lebanese Presidency, Ending Power Vacuum

Posted November 1st, 2016 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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[Published in The New York Times.]

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Michel Aoun, a charismatic retired general, polarizing Christian politician and ally to Hezbollah, was chosen president of Lebanon on Monday morning, ending a two-and-a-half-year vacuum that had tested the country’s ability to function without political leadership.

Mr. Aoun, 81, has developed a fervent political base of supporters who consider him a last hope for the country’s dwindling Maronite Christian community. But his detractors are just as passionate, blaming him for allying with his onetime enemies, the Syrian government, and with the militant group Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and Syria and listed as a terrorist group by the United States.

The Lebanese Parliament met in a ceremonial session in Beirut on Monday to formally anoint Mr. Aoun, who secured the requisite number of ballots after four rounds of voting. Gunfire and honking broke out in East Beirut after Mr. Aoun passed the voting threshold in Parliament, and the proceedings were broadcast on every major TV network.

The voting itself made clear the condition of a legislature that failed on 45 previous occasions to even muster a quorum for a presidential ballot. On Monday, the speaker of Parliament had to cancel two rounds of voting simply because someone had slipped an extra ballot into the transparent box. The whole process took two hours and included votes cast for the pop star Myriam Klink and Zorba the Greek.

For all that, Mr. Aoun’s ascendancy was assured last week, when the main Lebanese political parties finally brokered a deal that would put Mr. Aoun, Hezbollah’s favored candidate, in the presidential palace. That agreement gave the prime minister’s post to Saad Hariri, a Sunni Muslim and former prime minister who is preferred by Saudi Arabia. Top positions in Lebanon are allocated by religious sect in a delicate balancing act.

The resolution of Lebanon’s painfully drawn-out leadership battle marks a small victory for Iran on the score card of its regional struggle against Saudi Arabia, which had indirectly pushed for a different presidential candidate, Suleiman Frangieh.

The choice kicks down the road any decisive action to revamp the dysfunctional consensus model for Lebanon’s political system, which enables any of the country’s sectarian warlords to veto government decisions. As a result, Lebanon has been unable to effectively address any of its recurring crises, including questions as diverse as how to manage millions of refugees or how to pick up the garbage.

“I believe that for the time being and for the foreseeable future, nothing is going to change,” said Ramez Dagher, an analyst who runs a blog about Lebanese politics called Moulahazat. Unless there are other secret agreements, Mr. Dagher said, Mr. Aoun comes into office unusually free from constraints, other than choosing Mr. Hariri as prime minister.

“He is in a better position to maneuver,” Mr. Dagher said. “But that might also mean that the deadlock might be transferred from the presidential elections to the government formation and everything else that comes afterward.”

In a combative inaugural address to Parliament, Mr. Aoun vowed to defend Lebanon from terrorism, strengthen the military and take measures to push Syrian refugees to return home.

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Lebanese took to the streets of the coastal city of Batroun, north of Beirut, to celebrate the election of the former general Michel Aoun as president. CreditIbrahim Chalhoub/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“Lebanon is walking through a minefield but is still at a safe distance from the flames in the region,” he said. “One of our priorities is to prevent igniting a spark and to adopt an independent foreign policy.”

Known to his followers as “the General,” Mr. Aoun has pursued the presidency for decades. In the 1980s, during Lebanon’s civil war, he served as chief of staff of the army and led one of two rival Lebanese governments. During the last two years of that war, from 1989 to 1991, Mr. Aoun’s forces clashed with rival Christian militia groups and with the Syrian military — a round of fighting that did nothing to alter the final outcome of the conflict but was one of its most destructive and violent chapters. Mr. Aoun boycotted the peace talks that ended the war.

Mr. Aoun won much of his popular support because of his reputation for independence. He has railed against Lebanese corruption and the tradition of warlords’ handing political parties from father to son. The political party that Mr. Aoun founded in 2005 upon return from a 15-year exile in France, the Free Patriotic Movement, immediately emerged as the dominant Christian party.

Soon after, Mr. Aoun rocked Lebanon’s political landscape by making peace with Syria, his longtime enemy, during a visit to Damascus. In 2006, he formed an alliance with Hezbollah.

As his party garnered greater power, however, Mr. Aoun’s maverick reputation took a beating. His son-in-law, Gebran Bassil, has been accused of graft and corruption. But that did not stop Mr. Aoun from handing over the party’s leadership to Mr. Bassil in 2015, in an opaque transition that many party activists decried as antithetical to the party’s stated democratic principles.

Lebanon has reeled under the strain of the civil war next door in Syria, which at times has spilled over the border. At least 1.5 million displaced Syrians have fled to Lebanon, meaning that one in three residents of Lebanon is a refugee. And the country’s main political factions support opposing sides in Syria.

The previous president, Michel Suleiman — also a former army chief of staff — finished his term in May 2014. Since then, Lebanon has navigated a series of political crises with a caretaker cabinet but with no president.

The major political parties in the country had been deadlocked in the search for a consensus president. They failed to negotiate a new election law, which had been another major sticking point, but finally reached a deal on Mr. Aoun and Mr. Hariri, while leaving the rest of Lebanon’s affairs in limbo. The parties reached the agreement after years of discussions, in close consultation with representatives from foreign powers including Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Traditionally, Lebanese politics has reflected regional and international power struggles, most notably the competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia for influence across the Arab world. But, some analysts say, those two regional powers largely lost interest in Lebanon as their power struggle intensified in Syria. The Saudis grew disenchanted with Mr. Hariri and his political vehicle, the Future Movement, which steadily lost influence over its Sunni constituents after the assassination of Mr. Hariri’s father, Rafik, in 2005.

“As the theater of conflict between the stakeholders in the Middle East has shifted to places like Syria and Yemen, Lebanon has become less significant,” said Elias Muhanna, a historian at Brown University and an expert on Lebanese politics. “The reins have slackened between Lebanon’s political parties and their regional backers, and the country has drifted aimlessly for the past five years.”

Iran and its local ally, Hezbollah, have had the upper hand in Lebanon since Saad Hariri was forced to resign as prime minister in January 2011.

Are we all interventionists now?

Posted October 14th, 2016 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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[Published in War on the Rocks.]

Ever since Russia reneged on an ill-conceived ceasefire plan for Syria in September and participated in a barbarous military campaign in Aleppo, the crescendo of American voices calling for some action in Syria has risen a notch, apparently reaching the White House this week.

Throughout the Syria crisis, the U.S. government bureaucracy and key power centers in the foreign policy elite have espoused Obama’s version of restraint and resignation, toeing a position along the lines of “Syria is a mess, but there’s little we can do.” Lately, though, an escalatory mindset has taken hold, with analysts and politicians floating proposals to defend Syrian civilians and confront an expansionist Russia.

“I advocate today a no-fly zone and safe zones,” Hillary Clinton said in the most recent debate, taking a position starkly more interventionist than the president she served as secretary of state. She continued: “We need some leverage with the Russians, because they are not going to come to the negotiating table for a diplomatic resolution, unless there is some leverage over them.”

Does this kind of talk represent a sea change in decision-making circles? After years of decrying missteps in the ill-begotten wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and debating America’s shrinking footprint, is there now a convergence to once again embrace interventionism among politicians, public opinion and the foreign policy elite that some in the White House derided as “the blob”?

I think there is, and those of us who have espoused a more vigorous intervention in Syria and a more activist response to the Arab uprisings need now to take extra care in the policies we propose. As the pendulum swings back toward a bolder, more assertive American foreign policy, we must eschew simplistic triumphalism and an unfounded assumption that America can determine world events. Otherwise we risk repeating the mistakes of America’s last, disastrous wave of moralism and interventionism after 9/11.

It’s important not to overstate the backlash to Obama’s calls for humility and restraint, and not too ignore the activist and moralistic strains that connect Obama’s foreign policy to that of his predecessors. With those caveats, it seems like we’re on the cusp of a return to a more activist foreign policy.

That doesn’t make us all interventionists yet, but it does expose the United States to renewed risk, making it all the more important to restore some honesty and clarity to the debate. Any discussion about America’s global footprint has to acknowledge that it’s still huge. America has not retrenched or turned its back on the world. Any discussion about Syria has to acknowledge from the get-go that America already is running a billion-dollar military intervention there. So when we talk about escalating or de-escalating, we need to be clear where we’re starting. The United States is heavily implicated in all the Arab world’s wars, with few of its strategic aims yet secured. This unrealized promise has fueled frustration about America’s role.

Even Trump’s isolationist calls to tank the international order and make America great by impoverishing the rest of the world echo, in part, a desire for strength and moral clarity. The likely next president, Hillary Clinton, has steadily stood in the American tradition of liberal internationalism which has been the dominant school of foreign policy thought since World War II. That history embraces an international order dominated by the United States and trending toward market economies, free trade, liberal rights, and a rhetorical commitment to freedom, democracy and human rights, which even in its inconsistent and opportunistic pursuit, has been considered anything from an irritant to a major threat to the world’s autocracies. This ideological package has underwritten America’s best foreign policy, like Cold War containment, and its worst, like the invasion of Iraq and the post-9/11 savaging of the rule of law.

Syria’s war has been the graveyard of the comforting, but vague, idea that America could lead from behind and serve as a global ballast while somehow keeping its paws to itself. Other destabilizing realities helped upend this dream, among them Europe’s financial crisis, the rise of the extreme right, the Arab uprisings, the collapse of the Arab state system and a new wave of wars, unprecedented refugee flows, and the expansionist moves of a belligerent, resurgent Russia.

Pointedly, however, Syria has embodied the failure of the hands-off approach. Its complexity also serves as a warning to anyone eager to oversimplify. Just as it was foolish to pretend that the meltdown of Iraq and Syria, and the rise of the Islamic State, were some kind of local, containable imbroglio, it is also foolish to pretend that a robust, interventionist America can resolve the world’s problems. Neither notion is true.

America is the preeminent world power. It can use its resources to manage conflicts like Syria’s in order to pursue its interests. Success flows from clearly defining those interests and intervening sagely, in a coordinated fashion across the globe. America has played a disproportionate role in designing the international institutions that created a new world order after World War II. For a a time after the end of the Cold War, it enjoyed being alone at the top of the global power pyramid. American influence swelled for many reasons, highest among them American wealth, comprehensible policy goals, and appealing values. But dominance is not the same thing as total control, and a newly assertive U.S. foreign policy still can achieve only limited aims.

The next president will have to recalibrate America’s approach to power projection – how to deter powerful bullies like Russia, how to manage toxic partnerships with allies like Saudi Arabia, how to contain the strategic fallout of wars and state failure in Iraq, Syria, and the world’s ungoverned zones. The most visible test right now is Syria. Syria is important – not least because of the 10 million displaced, the 5-plus million refugees, the half million dead. It is also important as the catalyst of widespread regional collapse in the Arab world, the source of an unprecedented refugee crisis, a hothouse for jihadi groups, and as a test of American resolve.

It’s harder and harder to find foreign policy experts willing, like Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson recently did inThe New York Times, to argue that any American effort to steer the course of Syria’s war will only make things worse. (British journalist Jonathan Steele made a similar argument this week in The Guardian that any Western effort to contain war crimes in Aleppo “threatens to engulf us all.”)

Figures from both major U.S. parties have increasingly shifted to arguing that the United States will have to experiment with some form of escalation, because the existing approach just hasn’t worked. Hillary Clinton’s team is apparently considering a range of options including no-fly zones or strikes on Syrian government targets. The ongoing shift is less the result of a revelation about Syria’s meltdown and more a reflection of American domestic politics and a consensus that it’s time to recalibrate America’s geostrategic great power projection.

As this debate gets underway in earnest, it is crucial to force all sides to draw on the same facts, and be honest about the elements of their policy proposals that are guesses. For example: It is a fact that Syria is in free fall and Iraq barely functions as a unitary state, with fragmenting civilian and military authority on all sides of the related conflicts. It is a guess that Russia has escalation dominance and is willing to pursue all options, including nuclear conflict, if the United States intervenes more forcefully in Syria. It is a fact that tensions between the United States and Russia are at a post-Cold War high. It is a guess that they will clash directly over Syria rather than Kaliningrad or Ukraine or some other matter. It is a fact that the rise of the Islamic State and the flow of millions of displaced Syrians has destabilized the entire Middle East and reshaped politics in Europe. It is a guess that if the United States shoots down some of Bashar al-Assad’s helicopters it will lead to more fruitful political negotiations among Syrian factions and their foreign sponsors.

Many of the competing poles of the American debate begin with assumptions that are shaky or downright false, and ignore the lion’s share of facts on the ground in Syria. Any honest assessment of the crisis demands humility. Any serious analyst taking a position on Syria has to acknowledge that there is no possibility of a neat solution, and no outcome that precludes civilian suffering, regional instability, and strategic blowback — whether one argues for increasing America’s intervention, as I have, or for further restraint, in keeping with President Obama’s position (or, for that matter, for an admission of rebel defeat and an acceptance of Bashar al-Assad’s enduring role).

Unfortunately, many interventionists ignore the low likelihood of success and the danger of escalating the war, while many restrainers downplay the major ongoing strategic risks posed by Syria’s meltdown. Marc Lynch, himself of the school of restraint, neatly dissected the incoherent underpinnings of the American debate in a recent War on the Rockspiece.

America cannot direct the course of events in Syria because the war is too complex and Russia too committed to Assad, Lynch argues. But with the regime’s war crimes accelerating, for political reasons America can no longer afford to be perceived as not trying harder, even if any extra effort is destined to fail. Lynch predicts that Hillary Clinton will win the presidency and pursue an escalation in Syria, which will fail for all the same reasons as America’s existing intervention. In a year’s time, Lynch argues, Syria will be worse off, and America will either back down or sink deeper into yet another doomed Middle Eastern war.

Sadly, Lynch might be right. But – and the tone of certainty in all the polemics and analysis makes it easy to forget – he might also be wrong. Happily, for the prospects of the debate over Syria, Lynch offers an example of striking the right tone. He is confident in his analysis but not sloppy with the facts. Now that escalation is more seriously on the table, we need a more honest debate.

While Lynch contributes a welcome measure of sobriety to the debate, even he sidesteps the initial fact that Obama’s policy has been to pursue a military intervention, leaving the implication that the status quo doesn’t somehow involve a major U.S. role in the Syrian war. That gets to the heart of the problem: Anti-interventionists won the internal debate in the Obama administration, swatting down proposals from cabinet members to expand the U.S. role, strike Assad when he used chemical weapons, and push harder for regime change.  Instead, a Goldilocks notion of the “just-right” intervention governed U.S. policy in Syria since 2011 — enough to say we did something, not enough to be determinative. Yet this policy’s authors often present themselves as an embattled minority facing down the interventionist blob — a foreign policy establishment caricatured as prone to groupthink and which never met an intervention it didn’t like. The actual debate is between limited interventionists like Obama and expanded interventionists like Clinton. On the far ends are those who want a full withdrawal from the Levant and the mad hawks who’d like to see U.S. troops foment regime change in Damascus.

No serious position on Syria can ignore America’s existing, major and ongoing military intervention, or the frustrating reality that the United States and its allies tried and failed to steer the conflict in another direction. No serious position on Syria can ignore the war crimes, sectarianism, and intractability of Assad and his supporters. No serious position on Syria can ignore the very real risks of a direct conflict between the United States and Russia.

The big picture in Syria is daunting indeed. It encompasses a region in the grips of state failure. A coherent Syria policy cannot be divorced from the volatile region of which it is a lynchpin; nor can it be divorced from grand strategy and geopolitics. What happens in Syria affects American relations with much of the world.

America’s strategic depth and deterrent power are tangible assets that have taken a beating as a result of Washington’s contradictory, halting, and passive response to the Arab uprisings. The United States postponed a rethink of its relationship with Saudi Arabia, corroding the most productive aspects of the partnership while remaining wedded to the most toxic. America’s Saudi plight is most bitterly apparent in Washington’s almost casual, and fantastically wrong-headed, decision to support Saudi Arabia’s criminally executed war in Yemen — as if in apology for America’s pursuit of the Iran nuclear deal over Saudi objections.

British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson reflected the growing understanding that Western inaction has persisted long past the breaking point when he told a U.K. parliamentary committee yesterday that the siege of Aleppo had dramatically changed public opinion. “We cannot let this go on forever,” Johnson said. “We cannot just see Aleppo pulverized in this way. We have to do something.” Reportedly, British defense officials are considering how to enforce a no-fly zone without getting into a shooting war with Russia and are also considering attacks on the Syrian military.

It might be true, as analysts and former Obama administration officials keep pointing out, that the existing policy has been driven by good intentions and that any shifts or tweaks are unlikely to save Syria from ruination. It might be true that there are no pat solutions to the Syria crisis.

But that’s misleading, only part of the story. When America changes course, so will other players, including Russia, Iran, and the government of Syria. A different style of intervention from the one America is pursuing now could save some lives, which is no small accomplishment. And finally, while it’s not only about America, (or about Syria), an escalation in Syria that is designed to send messages to American rivals and contain the strategic fallout could, if well executed, produce yields in surprising places, as America’s deterrent stock rises and a renewed belief in American activism and engagement restores the U.S. role as global ballast.

We are not all interventionists yet, no matter how shrill the protests from the camp that has tried to defend every twist and turn of Obama’s Middle East policy and now finds itself suddenly on the losing side of the debate. But it is not foolish to hope that somewhere between the destructive overreach of George W. Bush’s militaristic foreign policy and Barack Obama’s pursuit of balance and restraint, there exists a happier medium where America’s never-ending engagement with the most troubled parts of the world yields better results.

What Aleppo Is

Posted October 4th, 2016 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Boys make their way through the rubble of damaged buildings in the rebel held area of al-Kalaseh neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria, September 29, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail - RTSQ2OO

Boys make their way through the rubble of damaged buildings in the rebel held area of al-Kalaseh neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, September 29, 2016. Reuters/Abdalrhman Ismail

[Published in The Atlantic.]

BEIRUT—For at least a year before the summer of 2016, civilians and fighters in rebel-held East Aleppo prepared for a siege they believed was both avoidable and inevitable. Correctly, it turns out, they calculated that the opposition’s bankrollers and arms suppliers—the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other “friends of Syria”—cared little for the well-being of civilians in rebel-held areas. Through the spring, contacts inside Aleppo prepared for the siege, expending minimal effort on appeals to the international community, which they assumed would be futile.

For all the world-weary resignation of the opposition fighters and other residents of rebel Aleppo, they have a well-earned pride in what they’ve done. They’ve maintained their hold on half of the jewel of Syria, and under withering assault, have cobbled together an alternative to Bashar al-Assad’s rule. “From the beginning of the revolution, we held Aleppo as the role model of the liberated city, that holds free elections, has an elected city council, and elected local committees that truly represent the people,” Osama Taljo, a member of the rebel city council in East Aleppo, explained over the phone after the siege began in earnest. “We insisted to make out of Aleppo an exemplar of the free Syria that we aspire to.”
Unfortunately, Aleppo has become an exemplar of something else: Western indifference to human suffering and, perhaps more surprisingly, fecklessness in the face of a swelling strategic threat that transcends one catastrophic war.

The last few weeks have piled humiliation upon misfortune for Aleppo, one of the world’s great cities, and already a longtime hostage of Syria’s never-ending conflict. Aided by the Russian military and foreign sectarian mercenaries, Syrian forces encircled East Aleppo over the summer. Rebels briefly broke the siege, but Assad’s forces fully isolated them just as Russia and the United States put the finishing touches on a dead-on-arrival ceasefire agreement that, contrary to its stated purpose, ushered in one of the war’s most violent phases yet. Instead of a cessation of hostilities, Syria witnessed an acceleration of the war against civilians, with East Aleppo as the showcase of the worst war-criminal tactics Assad has refined through more than five years of war.

Sieges violate international law, as well as specific United Nations resolutions, that, on paper, guarantee access to humanitarian aid to all Syrians but which in practice the government has disregarded. Aleppo—the biggest prize yet for Assad—has also been subjected to his most destructive assault. Throughout East Aleppo, Syrian or Russian aircraft have ruthlessly bombed civilians, singling out all healthcare facilities and first-responder bases. Bombs have ravaged well-known hospitals supported by international aid groups, along with the facilities of the White Helmets, the civil defense volunteers famous for digging casualties from rubble.

As if to test the proposition that the international community has just as little concern for its own reputation as it does for the lives of Syrian civilians—nearly half of whom have been displaced from their homes nationwide—Russia apparently chose, on September 19, the seventh day of the ceasefire, to bomb the first aid convoy en route to rebel-held Aleppo. That decision will be remembered as a fateful one.

Russia and Syria were following a timeworn blueprint: Use force to kill and starve civilians, then lie brazenly to avoid responsibility. In this case, the evidence is too clear and the trespass too toxic to let pass. So far, we’ve seen a sharp turn in rhetoric from the UN and Washington. Sooner or later, whether in the twilight of the Obama administration or in the dawn of his successor’s, we will see a much harder “reset” in Western relations with Russia.

For years, voices from Syria have raised the alarm. After years of dithering, even some members of the international community had the decency to follow suit, like Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “The country is already a gigantic, devastated graveyard,” al Hussein said this summer, warning Syria’s belligerents that sieges and intentional starvation campaigns amount to war crimes. “Even if they have become so brutalized [that] they do not care about the innocent women, children, and men whose lives are in their hands, they should bear in mind that one day there will be a reckoning for all these crimes.”

Belatedly, Western leaders are joining the chorus. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, who avoided taking a stand during years of violence against humanitarian organizations by the Assad regime, now publicly accuses Syria and Russia of war crimes. On September 30, the one-year anniversary of Russia’s direct entry into the war, Gareth Bayley, Britain’s Special Representative to Syria, issued a broadside. “From Russia’s first airstrikes in Syria, it has hit civilian areas and increasingly used indiscriminate weapons, including cluster and incendiary munitions. Its campaign has dramatically increased violence and prolonged the suffering of hundreds of thousands of civilians,” he said, blaming Russia for at least 2,700 civilian deaths. “Russia has proved to be either unwilling or unable to influence Assad and must bear its responsibility for the Assad regime’s atrocities.

America’s top diplomats, too, rail against Russia futilely. In a recently leaked recording of a meeting between a ham-handed but apparently sincere U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and members of the Syrian opposition, Kerry admitted that he lost the internal debate in the administration for greater intervention, more protection of civilians, and a stiffer stand against Russia’s triumphalist expansionism. But like a good soldier, he has continued to flog a bad policy, pushing perhaps much too hard on the small constituency of opposition Syrians who remain committed to a pluralistic, unified, democratic Syria.

Perhaps Russia has been searching for the West’s actual red lines all along, exploring how far it could go in Syria without provoking any push back from the United States and its allies. Maybe it finally found them after it bombed the UN aid convoy in September. Only time will tell if the recent pitched rhetoric translates into action.

One of the few consistent goals of U.S. policy in Syria over the last year was to shift the burden of responsibility for the crisis, or even guilt, to Russia. Throughout long negotiations, Washington has bent over backwards to act in good faith, trusting against all evidence that Russia was willing to act in concert to push Syria toward a political settlement. America’s leaders today appear shocked that Russia was acting as a spoiler, a fact clear to most observers long ago.

With the latest agreement in ashes—literally—and an ebullient Russia convinced it will encounter no blowback for its war crimes, America has a political chit in its hands. For now, Russia thinks it can achieve its strategic goals by relentlessly destabilizing the international order and lying as gleefully and willfully as the Assad regime. The United States helped underwrite that international order when the UN came into being in 1945, laying down moral markers on atrocities like genocide and war crimes, and crafting a web of interlocking institutions that increased global security and prosperity. As its primary enforcer, the United States also has been its primary beneficiary.

Now that Russia, determined to reestablish its status after the humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union, has pushed the United States into a humiliating corner and weakened that international order, it is raising the stakes. Either the United States will push back, or the disequilibrium will spread even further. In either case, many thousands more Syrians will perish. As Bassam Hajji Mustafa, a spokesman for the Nour al-Din al-Zinki Movement, one of the more effective, if violent, rebel militias influential around Aleppo, put it, “People have adapted to death, so scaring them with this siege is not going to work.” Those who remain in Aleppo echo this refrain again and again: The last holdouts have stayed out of conviction. It’s hard to imagine anything but death driving them out. “If Aleppo falls and the world stays silent, then that will be the end of the revolution,” Hajji Mustafa said.

In the end, Aleppo is not a story about the West; it is a cornerstone of Syria and an engine of wealth and culture for the entire Levant. Aleppo is the story of the willful destruction of a pivotal Arab state, a center of gravity in a tumultuous region in sore need of anchors. It’s a story of entirely avoidable human misery: the murder of babies, the destruction of homes, the dismantling of a powerful industrial and craft economy.

The institutions of global governance are under strain and international comity is frayed; as yet, however, none of the steps toward dissolution are irreversible. Such shifts take place over decades, not months. But the crisis in Syria presents the most acute test yet, and demands of the United States an active, robust, and strategic response that reinforces its commitment to the architecture of global governance—a system threatened by spoiler powers like Russia and ideological attacks from nativists, the right-wing fringe, and other domestic extremists in the West.

Ignoring its responsibilities in Syria—and opening the door for Russia to pound away at the foundations of the international order—hurts not only Syrians but the entire world. Perhaps, finally, Assad and his backers have gone far enough to provoke an American defense of that indispensable order that America helped construct.

Turkey’s model of democracy

Posted August 11th, 2016 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan spoke during a visit to the Turkish police special forces base, which was allegedly damaged by a coup attempt. Photo: KAYHAN OZER/COURTESY OF PRESIDENTIAL PALACE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS

[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]

THE “TURKISH MODEL” has been upheld as an exemplar of how democracy could come to the Middle East since 2002, when a once-banned Islamist party won free elections and took power under the wary eye of a military accustomed to calling the shots.

In the aftermath of a failed coup attempt on July 15, Turkey’s increasingly erratic and authoritarian strongman leader, President Recep Tayyep Erdogan, has been busily erasing some of the signatures of that democracy: jailing journalists, banning academics from travel, purging hundreds of thousands of civil servants from the state’s payroll.

Erdogan is at the same time under threat from dark antidemocratic forces and posing such a threat to his own nation. This conundrum, more than anything else, is the Turkish model’s contribution. In a region that hosts hardly any experiments with democracy or accountable governance at all, Turkey is still grappling with the messy, destabilizing process of transitioning from poor military dictatorship to modern, developing democracy.

Turkey’s path under Erdogan embodies far more than the megalomania of its neo-Ottoman president; it reflects a popular desire for economic prosperity as well as political rights, for security along with freedom. While fending off a military that has continually tried to reassert control over national politics, Erdogan has shifted the balance of Turkey’s republic away from secular nationalist pluralism toward majoritarian Islamism. The once-oppressed rural and religious have acquired new rights and in the process have taken away some rights from the secular and urban.

As elected Islamists gained authority, Turkey accommodated the aspirations of a socially conservative, religious, and Islamist plurality. As the country became more democratic in electoral terms, it became less so from the perspective of secular liberals and nationalists in the mold of modern Turkey’s founder, Kemal Ataturk. Secularism had been zealously protected not by courts, rule of law, or accountable institutions, but by the heavy interventionist hand of the military, which until Erdogan’s rise had simply dismissed governments it did not like.

Clearly, Turkey offers an ambiguous blueprint for democracy. Sadly, in its neighborhood, it offers one of the only blueprints. What can the rest of the Middle East, laboring under monarchs and dictators and runaway generals, learn from Erdogan’s style of government and the shaky aftermath of the latest effort by the military to cancel Turkey’s experiment with democracy?

Erdogan consciously evokes Ataturk’s creation myth with his grand sense of historical purpose. A popular mayor of Istanbul and a charismatic Islamist, he was banned from politics in 1998 for reciting a militant religious poem. He went on to cofound the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in 2001 and led it to victory the next year.

He and his party have been in power ever since, at first governing as pragmatists with a religious background, but over the years adopting Islamist policies and dispensing with liberal niceties that got in the way of power. Erdogan even jettisoned founding figures of the AKP when he feared they could challenge his primacy.

What was most surprising about Erdogan’s rise was the absence of violence. To be sure, many have died in the conflict between the government and the Kurdish minority, and there has been some apparently government-orchestrated rioting against opposition political parties. Then there are the proven and alleged coup attempts. But until this July, there hadn’t been anything approaching widespread civil strife, and, even in this case, the coup plotters appear to have been swiftly routed.

Since the rise of a Turkish model touted as simultaneously democratic, Islamic, and Middle Eastern, its checkered history has defied easy categorization. Turkey is a lonely republic in a region ruled by dictators, kings, and ayatollahs. (The only other republic is tiny Tunisia, which exerts far less influence.) It is a country of ethnic Turks and Kurds facing a mostly Arab hinterland. Its imperial Ottoman history remains fresh in the minds of its neighbors.

Erdogan neutered the military and demonstrated that it was possible to have relations with powers like the United States and Israel without being their toady. But his methods have shown a contempt for rule of law and for Turkey’s democratic institutions. Turkey’s president has eroded the same traditions that brought him to power — Erdogan’s secular rivals in politics and the press have opposed military rule and defended electoral politics even when Erdogan has persecuted them for criticizing him.

Worried observers have been describing Erdogan as a dictator and a thug for some time, all the more vociferously since 2008, when he outflanked the military with a dazzling indictment. The ensuing Ergenekon trials defanged the military and allegedly stopped a pervasive conspiracy to overthrow the state, even if some of the evidence appeared to have been manufactured.

As with so much about Erdogan and his Turkish model, during the Ergenekon trials and the ensuing purge (which foreshadowed today’s ongoing and broader one), good and bad were both in evidence: A coup genuinely appeared to have been averted while at the same time strongman norms trumped institution-building. The republic was preserved, the republic was weakened.

This kind of yin-yang push-pull has repeated itself over and over in Turkey’s recent history, culminating with this summer’s chilling events. The military made its move late on a Friday night, attacking parliament and police stations, closing a bridge between Europe and Asia, and firing on civilians. Erdogan and his allies rallied support through the same independent news media that it has relentlessly undermined and, more crucially perhaps, through mosque loudspeakers.

Public opinion ran strongly against the coup, evinced in the great number of Erdogan supporters and detractors alike who took to the street against the military plotters. Crucially, so did official weight; the military hierarchy and rank and file did not support the coup plotters. Nor did any opposition political party or faction of the state bureaucracy.

A coup would have set back Turkey’s democratic trajectory. In a different way, some argue, so is Erdogan, with his encouragement of vigilantism against political rivals (predating the coup attempt) and his massive purge under the cover of a state of emergency since the failed putsch.

Amnesty International estimates that 45,000 government employees had been fired or suspended from their jobs, and more than 15,000 people had been detained. According to the government, 8,651 military personnel participated in the mutiny. The purges have so far affected about 1.3 percent of the entire civil service. And 131 media outlets and publishing houses have been shut down.

Surely there are criminals and coup plotters among the hundreds of thousands arrested, fired, beaten, harassed, or investigated since July 15. But just as surely, the disproportionate size of the dragnet and the speed with which it was rolled out suggest that its purpose is not merely to ferret out lawbreakers but also to stifle dissent once and for all.

It is hard to imagine how the Turkish military today, reeling from the purges (whether deserved or unjustified) will be able to effectively curtail attacks by the Islamic State or the Kurdish PKK, both of which have targeted civilians.

It’s also hard to imagine that Turkey’s overall progress and growth can continue in the wake of a government-led war against itself.

In a move that clearly went beyond the hunt for coup accomplices and metastasized into a war on any independent institution or patch of civil society, the government savaged education. It fired 1,577 university deans and rectors, revoked licenses for 21,000 teachers, and banned all academics from foreign travel. It closed more than 1,000 private schools.

“More than a decade after getting a formal invitation to begin EU membership negotiations, Turkey looks less like a liberal European democracy than a one-man autocracy that you’d find, you know, in the Middle East,” said Steven A. Cook, a Turkey expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The other way of looking at it is from the vantage point of Turkey’s neighbors to the south, the heartland of the former Ottoman Empire. Istanbul’s historical hinterland stretches to Egypt and the Arabian peninsula. European Union members probably aren’t taking notes on how Erdogan squares his constituents conflicting desires for economic growth, religious freedom, and civil liberties — but many people in places like Syria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia are.

Erdogan has taken some bold stances that have had major ripple effects around the region. He has continued a lukewarm alliance with Israel marked by occasional confrontations over episodes like Israel’s catastrophic war on Gaza and its attack on a ship full of unarmed peace activists. He has supported Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and given it a welcoming exile base after the 2013 military coup ousted elected president Mohammed Morsi. He has been a partner to the United States but not a patsy — Washington still remembers with irritation his refusal to let US troops invade Iraq in 2003 from Turkish territory. Such independence is noticed in a region where despotic rulers tend to do anything to please their most important foreign backers.

On Syria, Erdogan has taken a hard-line position against Bashar Assad and Russia, costing Turkey extensively, especially after Turkey shot down a Russian jet last year and Russia retaliated with cuts to trade and the lucrative flow of Russian tourists.

Unlike any other government in the region (and virtually alone in the world), Turkey has welcome Syrian refugees — 3 million of them — and given them a clear path to citizenship.

Perhaps that is the most unique contribution of the Turkish model. For all the strains between Kurds and Turks, Islamists and secularists, and the troublesome identity politics and laws that reinforce denial of the 1915 Armenian genocide, Turkey boasts a national identity and an idea of citizenship that is flexible, open to multiple faiths and ethnicities, and has proven able to adapt and evolve far more than any of its peers in the neighborhoods.

Turkey is not an ethnocracy, or a theocracy.

And its elected leaders have bested would-be military dictators multiple times since 2002, in a region and historical period where authoritarianism in the norm and almost every state has regressed in terms of rights and freedoms.

Loss of some rights has also been the norm in Erdogan’s Turkey but not loss of all rights, or for all citizens. It’s hardly a Platonic ideal, but given the alternatives, it’s hardly a model to scoff at. Turkey’s approach, at least, offers a starting point toward two concepts in painfully short supply in the Middle East: elected civilian rule and a flexible concept of citizenship.

The one silver lining in Turkey’s attempted coup is that military dictatorship — for a change — didn’t win the day. In an era of authoritarian relapse, that’s no small matter. Even American and European politics today contain frightening doses of chauvinism, fear-mongering, and incitement to violence, reminding us that no one is immune to dangerous trends that have eroded freedom and security in places like the Middle East and former Soviet republics.

Turkey has offered a counterexample in the age of awful. Despite Erdogan’s increasingly tight grip, Turkey’s course since its last successful military coup in 1997 (dubbed the “postmodern coup” because the military managed to force a change in government without suspending the constitution or parliament) has offered an alternative to civil war, military, or sectarian dictatorship, royal or clan kleptocracy. It isn’t free or fair, but it also isn’t awful — or as bloody — as the rest of the neighborhood.

Obama’s Fantasy of Disengagement

Posted July 19th, 2016 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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President Obama reflects during a meeting at the White House, March 15, 2009. The White House/Wikicommons

[Published in The Cairo Review.]

A generational war has engulfed the Levant. The ruination of Iraq and Syria is akin to a core meltdown within the Arab state system, with consequences that already have rocked the world: new wars flaring across the Middle East, political ferment in Turkey, a global refugee crisis, and the rise of the Islamic State group, to name just a few.

Today we can begin the sad work of taking inventory of an American presidency that aspired to a humane and humble foreign policy. President Barack Obama didn’t start the Levantine conflagration—that ignoble credit belongs to his predecessor—but he has kept America fighting in Iraq and deployed forces in Syria to support a vast, billion-dollar covert proxy effort. All to little effect.

The long, horrific war that President George W. Bush launched in March 2003, with his illegal invasion of Iraq under false pretenses, has shattered the cradle of civilization beyond all recognition. During the subsequent occupation, U.S. officials dismantled the pillars of the Iraqi state, including its military and bureaucracy, and then stood by as newly empowered sectarian warlords and mob bosses tore apart the country. Many wars flared simultaneously in Iraq, some of which spread to neighboring Syria after the popular uprising sparked there in 2011.

President Obama’s signal intellectual and policy contribution was his minimalist response towards the chaos left behind by Bush. American policy at turns sought to contain the implosion of Syria and the ongoing fighting in Iraq, and at others accelerated or tried to steer the conflict, often by trying to balance ethnic or sectarian militias in a manner that, perhaps inadvertently, deepened the hold of sectarian warlords.

The president’s lackluster attitude has poisoned much of the serious policy conversation in Washington. His policies have spread the spurious conviction that whatever happens in the Middle East is not a core U.S. or international interest, but rather a sad and regional affair. Days before Mosul fell to ISIS, an expert with the White House’s ear insisted to me that the jihadi movement was a containable local problem.

The folly of the Obama doctrine is reinforced by the conviction that violence in Mesopotamia and the Levant is neither of America’s making nor America’s responsibility to manage. Yet state failure in the wealthy, oil-rich, politically interconnected Arab heartland has fundamentally diminished global security—unfortunately just as some Middle East experts predicted.

What happens in Iraq doesn’t stay in Iraq. Politics and war are dynamic processes. There is mirroring, learning, exporting, and knowledge sharing among all manner of actors, including authoritarian rulers, local warlords, non-state militias, and terrorist movements. The experience gained by fighters of many stripes in Iraq’s first stage of civil war and anti-American resistance, from 2003 to 2006, has fed conflicts and militancy far afield in the Arab World. Today, the wars in Iraq, Syria, and surrounding the Islamic State cannot meaningfully be considered separate conflicts, as U.S. policymakers still vainly try to do.

American policy in a fragmenting wider Middle East has systematically failed to bridge the gap between its rhetoric and realities on the ground. In principle, the Middle East has been “right-sized” on the foreign policy agenda as a midlevel interest behind global warming, trade, and China, among others. In practice, Obama’s national security and foreign policy teams have focused the plurality of their energy on the Middle East.

Yet through all this dislocating turbulence, characterized by levels of murder, death and displacement not seen since the Second World War, President Obama has demurred that there isn’t anything more that the United States could do to cushion or even shape the partial disintegration of the Arab state system. Obama, reasonably, wanted to repair the toxic legacy of his predecessor. He was driven by negative aspirations—a desire not invade more Muslim countries, not to waste lives and colossal resources in military folly, not to behave as if the military were America’s only foreign policy tool. But that does not justify his belief that the Middle East is less important than claimed by foreign policy experts, whom the president’s close adviser Ben Rhodes collectively dismisses as “the blob.” The president appears to believe that the United States cannot direct events in places like Iraq and Syria, or anywhere else, and when it does try to steer events through military intervention, the result is usually a tragic parade of errors, like in Iraq.

It’s understandable that President Obama harbored a fantasy of washing his hands of the whole mess. The United States failed to achieve its goals in Iraq and Afghanistan despite killing many people and committing a great deal of resources. The results in Libya are more equivocal and America’s responsibility more broadly shared, but hardly make a case for successful U.S. intervention.

But the alternative to reckless interventionism cannot realistically be disengagement. The region’s conflicts implicate the United States and plenty of other foreign powers, along with the whole ethnic, sectarian and ideological panoply of a region that, despite generations of ethnic cleansing, hosts a staggering amount of diversity. America bears heavy responsibility as Israel’s guarantor power, which inextricably ties Washington to Israel’s conflicts with Palestinians and other regional players.

Far too late in the game, Obama has learned that saying that something doesn’t matter doesn’t necessarily make it so. Efforts to cauterize the Middle East and keep it at arm’s length have proved even more destabilizing (and attention-sucking) than a full-fledged policy commitment from the get-go. On what subjects do Obama and his national security advisers spend their time? Grudgingly, the Levant and its neighborhood. Obama’s agenda since 2011 has been hogged by, to a name few, Israel’s expansionism and its conflicts with Palestinians and others; the Arab revolts; Iran, the nuclear deal and its regional contest with Saudi Arabia; and the Yemen war. Grinding all along at the heart of the unending crisis is the Levant war, which America launched by choice with the invasion of Iraq.

The fantasy of American disengagement in the Middle East is just that: a fantasy.

Time for the US to act in Syria

Posted July 5th, 2016 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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Civilians inspected a burnt car after an airstrike in the rebel-controlled city of Idlib on Wednesday. Photo: AMMAR ABDULLAH/REUTERS

[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]

SYRIA HAS BROKEN down much worse than anyone expected. For more than five years, a wide and mostly unsavory cast of Syrians and foreigners has been going for broke fighting over the pivotal Levantine state — settling for massive amounts of human suffering and breakdown of order in the short term while gambling on total victory in the long term.

A quick inventory beggars the mind: hundreds of thousands dead, millions displaced, the rise of the nihilistic jihadi Islamic State, a refugee crisis that has fractured the European Union, violence and instability across most of the Middle East, a superpower standoff between Russia and the United States, and finally, the teetering of the entire Arab state system.

That’s just the major items on the list.

The Arab state system’s collapse today threatens basic order and livelihood in many areas, including war-torn Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. It also has corroded the European Union, with an immigration crisis that has strained Turkey’s relations with the bloc and fueled a climate so toxic that it has spurred British voters to quit the European project.

The war’s consequences and scope appeared dramatically different from a few short years ago. Previously, Washington thought that Syria’s crisis would have limited consequences, no matter how terrible for the country’s citizens. President Obama staked his position on a well-intentioned read of recent history. After America’s failed Iraqi policy and ineffective regional intervention, the president reasoned that the United States could at least do less harm, for if Syria was going to be ripped apart, let others be to blame.

In the early years of Syria’s war, analysts and politicians who claimed the Levant was more important than the White House realized were dismissed as credulous rebel partisans or knee-jerk interventionists. Today the consequences of Syria’s meltdown have proven even more far-reaching than almost anyone predicted in 2011.

MILITARY ESCALATION IN Syria today is the best of a set of bad options. Even dissidents in the US Department of State have gone public with their desire for it. The United States is already deeply involved in the Syrian conflict and has declared its desire to use force and humanitarian aid to promote a political solution to the conflict. The idea is sound but requires a greater commitment — a final chance to do better, with some of Syria’s infrastructure and institutions still intact, Turkey undergoing a regional realignment, and with interventionists in Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah reassessing their own goals with Syrian President Bashar Assad. The only intransigent parties, in fact, are Assad and the Islamic State — neither of whom is likely to be part of any political solution in Syria.

For the United States, the question is profoundly unsettling — how is it possible to do the right thing in a conflict this messy? Indeed, it might already be too late to save Syria. But if no one tries, more catastrophic outcomes are all but guaranteed: the full collapse of Iraq and Syria, the long-term enshrinement of the Islamic State, an acceleration of the regional war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and a wave of state implosions around the entire Arab world that will resonate for generations.

In Washington, the debate has tended to break along two lines — extreme isolationists, who think the United States can only do harm by getting more involved, and extreme interventionists, who’d like to see the Pentagon invade. White House policy has actually straddled the divide, dedicating considerable resources to managing the conflict but claiming that it can’t do more. The United States has deemed Syria’s survival important but not so important as to be classified a core national interest.

The time has come, however, to admit that the policy hasn’t achieved its aims. At this stage, probably, no course correction will be able to restore Syria to its pre-war level of development and unity. But the fallout from Syria has proven that the integrity of the Arab state system, as flawed as it is, is a vital interest for the United States as well as for the denizens of the Middle East and their neighbors.

So, help Syria’s neighbors staunch the bleeding or intervene more actively in the conflict? It’s a painful question, especially in light of the historical destruction that the United States wrought with its invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the cavalierly mismanaged military occupation.

Escalation appears to be plagued by a range of dangerous and risky options. (A study I recently conducted for The Century Foundation explores America’s choices in detail.) The United States has the power to end the Assad government’s indiscriminate use of air power to drop barrel bombs on civilians and make life impossible in rebel-held areas. With occasional retribution against government air assets and targets, it can raise the cost of tactics that are also war crimes. It can also use military assets to directly protect its vetted armed proxies, so they can more effectively fight the Syrian government and the Islamic State, and gain stature within the non-jihadi armed opposition.

After years of eyeing the United States, America’s rivals have assessed that Obama would stay out of Syria. They probably think the same today, given that the president has only a few more months in office. As a result, Syria has become a wild playground for the militaristic excesses of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, the pivotal supporters of Assad’s government. These powers have opportunistically taken advantage of a void left by the United States, which has continued to intervene in the Syrian conflict but at a low ebb.

But a reinvigorated American role in the conflict would, paradoxically, make a political solution more likely once it became clear that Assad could never win outright. The greater chance of a political solution would not only save lives but also reestablish American stewardship of a world order that punishes war crimes, values civilians lives, and promotes rights, good governance, and open societies.

Unfortunately, a more robust American intervention would also bring the United States face to face with an expansionist Russia and Iran. Washington would have to use its military force with considerable skill and restraint in order to check these belligerent powers without being drawn into direct conflict. Fortunately, the US military has the technical capacity and experience to tilt the balance in Syria’s war without become a central party in the fight, and the last five years of conflict show that for all its bluster, the pro-Assad alliance has always carefully watched the United States and calibrated its war crimes and expansionist campaigns in line with its perception of what Washington will tolerate.

Left unchecked, Syria’s war will continue for another five to 10 years at least, with a full breakdown of the remaining national order. Syria will become a patchwork of villages ruled by competing warlords, without national institutions to govern and provide services. It will continue to export human suffering, refugees, and virulent ideologies like sectarianism and the Islamic State’s version of takfiri jihad.

The alternative — a US military intervention in Syria — is neither clean nor neat. With its local and regional partners, the United States would save some civilian lives and force some restraint onto the government side, perhaps reducing its worst war crimes. It would raise from zero to maybe 30 percent the chance of a negotiated settlement. It would also raise tensions between the United States and Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah.

Perhaps most importantly, however, military intervention would show allies and rivals in the region that the United States still takes seriously its responsibilities as the single most dominant world power. By escalating in Syria, the United States would lay down a marker that Washington sees an interest in the Middle East and in a global order that stops rogue governments like Assad’s. Unless it wants to be seen as a force for entropy, state breakup, and fragmentation, Washington needs to put is muscle behind the goal of national coexistence, starting in Syria, where it should do what it can at this late stage to preserve a unitary state that grants equal rights to citizens of different sects and ethnicities.

President Obama tried to steer a middle course, backing away from direct intervention, despite initially drawing a red line if Assad used chemical weapons. While seemingly every country with a finger in the Middle East has funneled weapons, trainers, or fighters into Syria, the United States has spent billions of dollars on humanitarian aid and has provided just enough military assistance to the armed opposition to prevent it from being wiped out. But it has studiously avoided any action that would topple Assad.

Nearly a year ago, in September, Russia stepped into the void with a major military campaign to help Assad reclaim territory he had lost. Even Russia’s massive aid has failed to restore the regime’s position from a few years earlier, despite indiscriminate bombing of civilians in rebel-held areas and a systematic campaign to destroy hospitals, clinics, and other key infrastructure.

Furthermore, the United Nations has strained under the pressure of the Syria conflict, which officials describe as the greatest challenge in the UN’s history. UN officials have chosen to partner with Assad’s government, allowing it to block access to areas inhabited by rebel supporters. As a result, the supposedly impartial UN has become party to starvation and siege tactics employed by the government to force rebel communities to surrender.

Even with a history of failure and seemingly endless complications of future engagement, America can still positively shape the situation. It’s time for more action — humanitarian, military, and political — in order to reduce the catastrophic human toll, contain the strategic fallout, and reduce the chance of Syria becoming a fully failed state.

If we stay on the same course, Syria is guaranteed to collapse with even more of the toxic consequences we’re already suffering — the Islamic State, refugee flows, violence spreading into neighboring countries that are allies. It might already be too late to prevent a full meltdown, but if the United States doesn’t try to stave off the collapse, a vacuum is guaranteed.