Photo credit: MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images
[Published in Foreign Policy.]
The outrageous death sentences in Egypt over the weekend, and the muted reaction from Western governments, suggest that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has cemented a ruling coalition that will propel him out of a transitional phase into a long-term project of power consolidation.
Lost amid the court ruling against more than 100 defendants — which include academics and senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood, even Egypt’s sole elected civilian president, Mohamed Morsi — is the mounting evidence that Sisi has cobbled together a workable formula for ruling Egypt. This formula might be doomed in the long run, but the long run can be very far off indeed.
Today’s governing agenda in Egypt centers around three things: a crackdown on “terror” and dissent, maintaining a steady flow of cash from the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, and modest economic reforms that at a minimum give the impression of vision and positive momentum.
The government’s “war on terror” will resonate with Egyptians for quite some time. Jihadi attacks have proliferated since Morsi was deposed in July 2013; one fact sheet released by the government last year documented more than 700 people killed in the attacks. There have been dozens since, mostly targeting security forces and government facilities.
The public is repulsed by the bomb attacks on the police, army, and other government branches. Even most of the Muslim Brotherhood supporters of the deposed Morsi also condemn the insurgency and its terrorist tactics. As a unifying ideology for the Egyptian state, a war on terror might not suffice — but it will go a long way to mobilize what might be otherwise tepid support for Sisi and the military.
In prosecuting its war on terror, Egypt has lumped the Muslim Brotherhood together with the jihadi Ansar Beit al-Maqdis — equating dissent in the vernacular of political Islam with bombings and assassinations. “The Muslim Brotherhood is the parent organization of extreme ideology,” Sisi told the Washington Post in March. “They are the godfather of all terrorist organizations. They spread it all over the world.”
Perhaps Sisi is motivated by a sincere belief that the entire Islamist current is collectively responsible for the recent attacks, or perhaps he’s made a cynical calculation that the spate of violence offers an opportunity to eliminate the mainstream Islamist opposition under the cover of fighting an insurgency.
The battle against Islamists has given Sisi some legitimacy — but it isn’t what brought him to power. For that he counted on Gulf money, an initial precondition of the coup that toppled Morsi. As we’ve heard in great detail on leaked recordings from the office of Sisi’s chief of staff, the president made clear that he expected the billions to flow unabated from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies: “Man, they have money like rice,” a man who sounds like Sisi famously says in one of the leaks.
This might sound like thuggish extortion, but it’s also shrewd politics. Sisi recognizes that the Gulf can afford to underwrite Egypt, and that it’s willing to indefinitely pay $10 billion or more a year for a dependable ally in Cairo. Egypt struggles to import enough fuel and food staples to keep the country functioning and the poor quiescent; without Gulf money, the summertime power outages would likely turn into long-term blackouts and electricity rationing.
Egypt’s rulers have historically feared a “revolution of the hungry” if the circumstances decline for the nation’s many poor.
Economic reform, the last piece of the formula, is trickier. It’s become clear that Sisi’s autocratic ways and narrow, nepotistic circle of military advisors will preclude creative governance. But while significant reform is off the table, piecemeal improvements to the subsidy system could serve Sisi adequately for the medium-term. Meanwhile, theatrical flourishes like the $45-billion new capital planned for the desert outside of Cairo — a boondoggle for Emirati construction conglomerates which will probably never be built — and massive proposed public housing, irrigation, and road works projects give the impression of a nation on the move.
If even a small fraction of these projects materialize, Sisi will cement deep support in some quarters. Wealthy business owners and the small but politically influential middle class have both reliably remained in Sisi’s corner, and could benefit from infrastructure development. The military will also play a major role in any large-scale construction projects and, if shrewdly distributed, new housing or other perks could neutralize some of the few potential oases of organized political opposition, such as factory workers in the cities of the Suez Canal zone and the Nile Delta.
The medium-term stability of Sisi’s regime, however, may lead to more trouble for Egypt down the road. His repressive policies will not cure the country’s many ills, and are guaranteed to drive Egypt into even worse shape that it was when it rose up against Hosni Mubarak in January 2011. Recent events underscore Sisi’s paranoid style, punctuated over the weekend by banning soccer fan clubs known as Ultras and sentencing exiled political science professor Emad Shahin to death. As Shahin put it in a statement, the show trials are a centerpiece of Sisi’s effort “to reconstitute the security state and intimidate all opponents.”
The pattern of prosecutions fits that argument. If the government casts its net wide enough, it won’t have to worry about student union protests or critical university professors, because the majority of Egyptians will be frightened into silence.
Sisi’s paranoid style appears to be the product of a coherent view among Egypt’s fractious security services, which are showing a unity of purpose in carrying out the campaign against all political dissent. The military, police, intelligence agencies, and courts are pulling together to carry out the government’s political vision — an impressive bureaucratic achievement, but one that bodes poorly for democratic reform.
The downsides of the new dictatorship’s governing approach will be toxic for Egypt over the long haul. Securing the cooperation of a balkanized bureaucracy is not the same as controlling it: Sisi has the courts in lockstep on his side, but at the expense of their reputation. The courts have clearly abetted military rule, disbanding the elected parliament on flimsy pretexts, barring popular presidential candidates, and certifying election laws that served the military’s aims.
As a result of these machinations, no one will be able to take the judiciary seriously as a branch of government — and a future ruler, even an unelected autocrat, who wants to restore some semblance of the rule of law will face a daunting rebuilding job. The situation only deteriorated further today, with the appointment of Ahmed el-Zend as justice minister: The head of the influential “Judge’s Club” famously told a television show that judges “are masters in our homeland. Everyone else are slaves.”
The army, which paved Sisi’s path to power, remains the president’s only native constituency. But there’s no evidence to suggest that in a crisis — say, an economic collapse or a widespread popular uprising — Egypt’s generals would sacrifice their own institutional privileges to protect Sisi.
Even authoritarian rulers must play politics to retain power, pacifying the key organizations and constituencies that support them. Under the former dictator Hosni Mubarak, the military had to compete against the police, the intelligence services, and the circle of business moguls around the ruling family for its perks. Today, the military possesses unchecked power, which is likely to lead to greater corruption, unaccountability, and serial failures to accomplish the basic bread-and-butter business of the state.
This incompetence will negatively affect the very war on terror upon which Sisi is building his legitimacy. Jihadis are openly operating out of the Sinai, but according to the few independent reports that come out of the peninsula, poorly trained soldiers have employed scorched-earth tactics in retaliation, bombing towns and arresting random men while actual jihadis escape. Convicting and trying men for crimes theyprobably didn’t commit — as appeared to occur over the weekend in aballyhooed terror trial — won’t end the destabilizing domestic insurgency either.
Sisi also faces other long-term threats that are not solely of his making. These include an untenable national balance sheet, subsidies too expensive to maintain and too crucial to eliminate without massive social dislocation, growing unemployment, and inadequate water for agriculture under current usage practices.
Ultimately, any economic reform will depend on foreign pressure — a formula that didn’t work when the United States was the primary donor. Perhaps financial advisers from the United Arab Emirates will have better luck as they try to implement better practices in the ministries and government offices that will absorbed upward of $32 billion from the Gulf monarchies ever since Sisi’s coup. If those massive sums can’t buy meaningful political influence or instill sound economic practices, no amount of foreign money will.
The new regime is clearly unable to resolve these challenges, but history suggests that mismanagement can continue for a long time. Indeed, perhaps the greatest threat to Egypt is that Sisi simply muddles through. There are surely fissures within the regime, but he doesn’t need a monolithic ruling elite: He needs just enough power to stay in charge, and enough international support to ignore the outrage of Egyptians who want civil rights, political freedom, and genuine economic development.
Munir Makdah, Fatah boss of the camp and commander of the Joint Security Committee. Photo: Thanassis Cambanis
[Published in Foreign Policy.]
AIN EL HILWEH, Lebanon — The gunmen who control this tiny, cramped Palestinian refugee camp in south Lebanon are uncharacteristically eager to please. Hardened militants scurry to meetings with political rivals, and speak with newfound candor to journalists about past unsuccessful efforts to overcome a history of deadly feuds in the camp.
For decades, the coveted slot of camp boss has gone to the man able to deploy the most shooters and force Ain el Hilweh’s unruly clans and factions to fall in line. Today, however, an unlikely new order prevails: Bitter rivals have forged an unprecedented level of cooperation to police their sometimes-anarchic camp, forcing the most violent jihadists to lay low, and even turning over Palestinian suspects to the Lebanese Army, an act that just a few years ago would have been considered an unpardonable treason. Strongman Munir Makdah, a member of the Fatah movement, presides over a special council of 17 militia leaders — including some borderline jihadists — who must approve the most sensitive moves.
“It’s very important: This is the first time we’ve done anything like this,” Makdah said during a recent visit to his headquarters, nestled in Ain el Hilweh’s claustrophobic horizon of apartment blocs. “I call it the democracy of the gun. We tell our brothers when they visit that they can do the same thing in Palestine.”
Since its establishment in 1948, Ain el Hilweh has been a byword for militancy — a haven for fugitives and a bête noir (at different times) to the Lebanese government, the Israeli military, even the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
An estimated 100,000 people live in the camp, which is rimmed by walls, barbed wire, and army checkpoints. Under a convoluted agreement, Lebanese soldiers search the cars going in and out, but don’t enter the camp itself, leaving policing inside to the Palestinian factions.
The experiment underway in this camp represents a rare instance of cooperation and pragmatism in a region where fragmentation and infighting is the norm. Much more is at stake than simply the stability of an overpopulated square kilometer: There is a widespread fear that if the Islamic State, or jihadists sympathetic to the group, ever gained a foothold in Lebanon, it will be in a place like Ain el Hilweh — where residents are poor, politically disenfranchised, and ineffectively policed.
The agreement in Ain el Hilweh presents significant potential upside, too, in a region currently short of examples of political progress. The camp is home to actors who can impact flashpoints all over the region: It could contain the seeds of reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza and the West Bank, while authorities everywhere might look it as a model for a successful initiative to curb jihadists.
“Syria’s war was like a storm coming to us,” Makdah said. “Everyone was worried about the camps. We reflect society.”
When it comes to security, senior Hamas officials in Ain el Hilweh amiably take orders from Makdah. At the camp’s Hamas office, a visiting Fatah official refilled the Hamas chief’s coffee cup as the Hamas official gave his unvarnished assessment of the regional security situation. “Honestly, we Palestinians are in a weak position,” said the official, Abu Ahmed Fadel.
Fadel said it took the factions much too long to learn the lesson of the crisis in the Nahr el Bared refugee camp in north Lebanon in 2007, when jihadists battled the Lebanese Army. That fight destroyed the entire camp and left 27,000 residents homeless. Ever since then, Fadel said, Lebanese leaders suggested that the Palestinians set aside their internal differences and form a united front. It took what Fadel called “the fires in Syria” to finally push the sides to agree.
“Compared to what’s happening around us, we’re a stable river,” said Khalid al-Shayeb, the Fatah deputy who’s in charge of the patrols in Ain el Hilweh and the neighboring Mieh Mieh camp. “We managed to neutralize the threats from Palestinians much more effectively than the Lebanese Army has managed to neutralize the threats from the rest of Lebanon.”
There’s no sign here of the discord that forced a bitter break between Hamas and its long-time patrons in Damascus, or the blood feud between Hamas and Fatah, or between Hamas and the more extreme religious factions like Islamic Jihad and Ansar Allah. One fear has managed to outweigh all that acrimony: the dread of an encroachment by the Islamic State, whose entry into the camp could provoke outsiders to destroy it and cost the grand old factions everything.
“People should be united because there is a threat to everybody,” said Ali Baraka, a senior Hamas official based in Beirut.
That’s not to say that the camp’s residents have entirely stayed out of the Syrian war. Some reports say that one of Makdah’s own sons snuck into Syria to join the jihadists. Makdah has figures of his own: precisely 52 Palestinians from all the camps in Lebanon, he says, have been tracked joining the Syrian jihadists.
The impact of the war is felt everywhere in Ain el Hilweh. A human flood of refugees has entered over the past several years, filling the impossibly crowded camp to its breaking point. According to Makdah, at least 20,000 newcomers moved to the camp since 2011, when war broke out in Syria. Officials have struggled to maintain the camp’s fragile water supply and say they can’t provide adequate education, housing, and health care to the camp’s residents. Until last week, Makdah said, he had turned over his offices to refugees. Now that they’ve found better dwellings, he’s moved back in.
A murder in April tested Makdah’s efforts to construct a new order in the camp. A Lebanese supporter of Hezbollah named Marwan Issa was dragged into Ain el Hilweh and murdered. According to Palestinian security officials, Issa was a member of a Hezbollah auxiliary militia called the Resistance Brigades, and his suspected killers were known arms dealers. They believe the murder was related to a weapons deal gone awry. Two suspects were quickly apprehended. Leaders of the 17 factions called an emergency meeting to vote on whether to hand them over to the Lebanese authorities.
“Usually the Islamic factions object,” said Bilal Selwan Aboul Nour, the camp security officer in charge of liaising with the Lebanese security establishment. “In this case, it was different. The victim was Lebanese. And if we didn’t cooperate, it could bring trouble on the entire camp.”
Aboul Nour immediately delivered the captives himself to the Lebanese Army barracks up the road.
A third suspect in the murder remains at large in the camp, however, illustrating the limits of this new cooperative order. That suspect is under the protection of Jund el-Sham, a jihadist faction, in the Taamir area of the camp. “We can’t use force,” Aboul Nour said. “He’s in an area outside our control.”
Hezbollah and the Lebanese government have been patient and understanding, according to the Palestinians, although Hezbollah called the killing a “stab in the back of the Lebanese resistance.”
It was the Islamic State’s infiltration of the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk in Damascus that motivated the dithering Palestinian factions to unite last summer. At the time, the already unraveling region was experiencing extra strain: The Islamic State had seized much of northern Iraq and declared a caliphate, and had seized control of some entrances to Yarmouk and assassinated Palestinian operatives, according to Baraka. Senior officials from Fatah, Hamas, and the Lebanese government quickly agreed that if the Islamic State could win followers in Yarmouk, it could easily do the same in Lebanese camps.
Since September, the Palestinian Joint Security Committee has doubled the number of camp police in Ain el Hilweh from 200 to 400. Fatah supplies the top commanders and foots 70 percent of the cost of the committee, and Hamas provides the rest. The officers are mostly familiar faces in the camp, some of them veteran fighters in their fifties. Now they wear red armbands that identify themselves as Joint Security Committee fighters. Makdah has not only brought together Fatah and Hamas, he has also convinced jihadists and secular Marxists to police the camp in joint patrols — a success that eluded generations of Arab leaders before him.
Most of the fighters still stay close to their factions: In the headquarters, Fatah old-timers cluster around the small fountain full of goldfish. Outside, Ansar Allah’s fighters — identifiable by their long Salafi-style beards — politely decline to talk to reporters. Near the hospital, the clean-shaven leftists of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine shun the uniform altogether; their unit commander, Ali Rashid, wears blue jeans and a brown leather jacket. The groups sometimes organize joint patrols, and the major checkpoints include fighters from all the factions.
It was especially difficult for secular leftists to join forces with Islamist jihadists, Rashid said.
“We agreed that we would cut off any hand that tries to mess with security in the camp,” Rashid said. “We cannot tolerate even the smallest action from any takfiri [extremist] who enters here.”
So far, he said, the extremists in the camp have obeyed the new order. They might shelter fugitives — but so long as the fugitives are in the camp they refrain from any active role in militant operations.
Makdah says the camp really needs 1,000 police officers. In March, he extended his writ to the nearby camp of Mieh Mieh. If the experiment continues to succeed, Palestinian and Lebanese security officials said they hope to spread the experiment to all the Palestinian refugee camps in the country.
Ain el Hilweh’s unique circumstances make it an unlikely template for other places: It’s a hyper-politicized area whose claustrophobic living conditions make the Gaza Strip appear positively suburban by comparison. But sudden and intense collaboration between militants of secular, Marxist, Islamist and jihadist pedigrees show just how dramatically the Syrian war has shaken the old order. And it provides a fleeting glimpse of the kind of politicking — and transcending of old divisions — that has so far escaped mainstream Palestinian politics and the revolutionary movements that fueled the Arab Spring uprisings.
Photo Credit: Mohammed Huwais / Stringer
[Published in Foreign Policy.]
By Thanassis Cambanis
BEIRUT — The war in Yemen and the breakthrough nuclear agreement between Iran and the United States have sent the already frenzied Middle East analysis machine into meltdown mode. These developments come fast on the heels of almost too many changes to keep track of: the Iraqi government’s capture of the city of Tikrit, rebel gains in northern and southern Syria, and mass-casualty terrorist attacks in Tunis and Sanaa.
This drumbeat of headlines, however, should not distract us from the larger meaning of events in the Middle East. We are witnessing a struggle for regional dominance between two loose and shifting coalitions — one roughly grouped around Saudi Arabia and one around Iran. Despite the sectarian hue of the coalitions, Sunni-Shiite enmity is not the best explanation for today’s regional war. This is a naked struggle for power: Neither of these coalitions has fixed membership or a monolithic ideology, and neither has any commitment whatsoever to the bedrock issues that would promote good governance in the region.
This is, in some ways, an updated version of the vast and bloody struggle for hegemony that shook the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s. In that era, a coalition of reactionary monarchs, led by Saudi Arabia, did battle with a coalition of Arab nationalist military dictators, led by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. Just like in that past era, every single major player today is opposed to genuine reform and popular sovereignty.
Today’s ascendant regimes are all reactionary survivors — and sworn enemies — of the Arab Spring. The Iranians mercilessly crushed the Green Revolution in 2009, and have invested heavily in authoritarian partners in Iraq and Syria, paramilitary group such as Hezbollah, and non-democratic movements in Bahrain and Yemen. Iran’s leaders are theocrats, but they are savvy and pragmatic geopolitical worker bees: They have backed Sunni Islamists and Christians, while even some of their close Shiite partners — like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite, and the Zaidi Houthis in Yemen — belong to heterodox sects and don’t share their views on religious rule.
On the other side of the struggle are the Arab monarchs from the Gulf, run by the same families that brought us the Yemeni war of the 1960s. They have extended their writ through generous payoffs and occasional violence, like the Saudi-led invasion of Bahrain in 2011, which saved the minority Sunni royal family from being overrun by the island kingdom’s disenfranchised Shiite majority.
This Saudi-led alliance is Sunni-flavored, but it would be incorrect to see it as monolithically sectarian.
This Saudi-led alliance is Sunni-flavored, but it would be incorrect to see it as monolithically sectarian. Not long ago, in fact, Saudi Arabia underwrote the same Zaydis it is now bombing in Yemen. The current coalition relies for populist credibility on Egypt, whose governing class is dominated by secular, anti-Islamist military officers. It enjoys dalliances in various conflict theaters like Syria and the Palestinian territories with Muslim Brothers and jihadis. It has drawn extensively on help from the United States — and on occasion from its supposedly sworn enemy, Israel.
Perhaps the best glimpse of the Saudi-led alliance’s goals came when Kuwaiti emir Sabah al-Sabah addressed the Arab League at the end of March, in the meeting that inaugurated the war in Yemen.
“A four-year phase of chaos and instability, which some called the Arab Spring, shook our region’s security and eroded our stability,” the emir thundered. The uprisings, he said, encouraged “delusional thinking” about reshaping the region — perhaps a reference to Iran’s ambitions of regional influence, perhaps a reference to the ambitions of Arab reformers to limit the influence of the repressive states propped up by the Gulf monarchies. To the emir, the only outcome of uprisings was “a sharp setback in growth and noticeable delay in our progress and development.”
This is the crux of the regional fight underway: the old order, or a new one that would transform the balance of power — while changing little else about the way the Middle East is governed. The Saudi bloc wants to turn back the clock to the status quo ante that existed before the uprisings. The Iranian bloc wants to permanently alter the region’s balance of power. Both factions are run by opaque, secretive, repressive, and violent leaders. Neither side is interested in popular accountability, better governance, or the rights of citizens.
For all the doubts about Saudi Arabia’s capacity to craft and execute complex policy, the kingdom has cobbled together a formidable coalition. It quickly signed up most of its clients and partners for the air campaign, including Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Sudan, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. The United States supported the war, despite its reservations. Of the kingdom’s close allies, only Pakistan has so far resisted pressure to join the fight.
In just the last year, we’ve seen at least two major volte-face. Riyadh helped engineer a regime change in Egypt, ushering President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power. After experimenting with quasi-democracy and a Muslim Brotherhood presidency that defied the powerful Gulf monarchies, Cairo is now governed by a military dictator who walks firmly in lockstep with Riyadh — even promising to dispatch ground troops to a war in Yemen of which he would have probably preferred to steer clear. Qatar, the unbelievably rich emirate that has long cultivated an independent foreign policy, also found itself strong-armed by Saudi Arabia and finally caved. Its emir abdicated in favor of his son, a 34-year-old political novice, and today Doha is reading from Saudi Arabia’s song sheet.
Both examples show that this is not a monolithic bloc bound by uniform ideas of authoritarian rule or Sunni supremacy. Instead, it is a messy realpolitik coalition hammered together by shared interests — and at times by bribes and blackmail. Its members don’t agree on everything: Saudi Arabia hates Russia, in part because Moscow backs Iran and Syria. Egypt loves Saudi Arabia because Riyadh keeps its economy afloat — but it also loves Russia, because it can play off military aid from Vladimir Putin against that from the United States. In public, Sisi praises the Gulf leaders — but in leaked private recordings, he dismisses them as oil bumpkins who can be bilked of their money by more dynamic Arab nations. Qatar no longer openly defies Saudi Arabia, but it still supports Muslim Brothers and jihadis in Syria to the extent it can, and in opposition to Saudi preferences.
Since Saudi Arabia’s gloves came off in Yemen,
Sunnis across the region have expressed a kind of fatalistic relief: At last someone is doing something to confront Iranian influence.
Sunnis across the region have expressed a kind of fatalistic relief: At last someone is doing something to confront Iranian influence. But Tehran has extended its influence carefully, hedging its bets by supporting multiple groups in every conflict zone and always maintaining a degree of remove — if their investments fail, it will have not lost a war in which it was a declared combatant. This blueprint has served Iran well during 30-plus years of intervention in Lebanon and Iraq, and four years of orchestrating major combat in Syria. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has entered the Yemen war directly, and therefore has no cover. It will own the civilian casualties, and inevitably — when the war has no clear and easy outcome — it will own a failure.
History is not on Riyadh’s side in this campaign. Regional wars tend not to go well for invaders; just think of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait or the last Yemen war in the 1960s. The U.S. invasion of Iraq should also offer a cautionary lesson: Many people at the time, including some Iraqis, felt that some major action was better than the status quo, that toppling Saddam Hussein would at the least get a hairy situation unstuck. They were soon disabused of that notion, as Iraq spiraled into chaos.
America should take particular care in this conflict. It has built deep alliances with Saudi Arabia, and it has been far too hesitant to reinvent its dysfunctional relationship with Egypt in the post-Mubarak era. It should act as a brake on Saudi Arabia’s outsized expectations in Yemen, and it should exact a price for any support it gives the war there. Any campaign in Yemen should strengthen, rather than undermine, counterterrorism efforts there, and the United States should share its military know-how in exchange for Saudi cooperation on the Iran deal.
Sure, it’s bizarre to see the U.S. military working with Iran to battle the Islamic State in Iraq, while working against Tehran in Yemen. It’s also refreshing. This isn’t a homily; it’s foreign policy. It’s encouraging to see the United States operating around the edges of a complex, multiparty conflict and finding ways to advance American interests. Its next challenge will be finding new ways to simultaneously pressure rivals like Iran and recalcitrant allies like Saudi Arabia.
But to a large extent, the United States is a sideshow: The main event is the regional struggle for influence between the Iran and Saudi blocs. One need only look at the two major events this spring — the Iran nuclear deal and the capture of Tikrit with the help of Tehran’s military advisors — to get a sense of who’s winning. America’s preferred side has bumbled impulsively from crisis to crisis, buying or strong-arming support and launching military adventures that are likely to produce inconclusive results. Iran’s side, meanwhile, has crafted tight state-to-state relations with Syria and its onetime enemy Iraq, and has deepened its influence in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen. Despite the theocratic dogma of Iran’s Shiite ayatollahs, the regime in Tehran has managed to position itself as the regional champion of pluralism and minorities, against a Saudi grouping whose philosophy has drifted dangerously close to the nihilism of al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Unless Saudi Arabia and its allies can learn a new, more durable style of power projection, their costly feints will only buy short-term gains. The kingdom might manage to bomb the Houthis back to their corner of Yemen, and its Syrian clients may seize some more towns and cities from Assad, but the long-term trend points in Iran’s favor.
[Originally published in The Boston Globe.]
During the presidential campaign, two issues often seemed like the only foreign policy topics in the entire world: the Middle East and China. Those are unquestionably important: The wider Middle East contains most of the world’s oil and, currently, much of its conflict; and China is the world’s manufacturing base and America’s primary lender. But there are a host of other issues that are going to demand Washington’s sustained attention over the next four years, and don’t occupy anywhere near the same amount of Americans’ attention.
You could call them the icebergs, largely hidden challenges that lie in wait for the second Obama administration. Like all of us, when it comes to priorities, the people in Washington assume that the thing that comes to mind first must be the most important. The recent crises or tensions with Afghanistan, Benghazi, and China make these feel like the whole story. But in fact they are really just a few chapters, and the ones we’re ignoring completely may actually have the most surprises in store.
If the administration wants to stay ahead of the game, here’s what it will need to spend more of its time and energy dealing with in the coming four years.
Europe’s recovery needs to be managed, and that requires global cooperation and money.
Washington and China, along with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, will have to be closely involved, and that won’t happen without American leadership. Though the European crisis has already been a front-burner problem for two years, in the United States it barely cracks the public agenda except as a rhetorical bludgeon: “That guy wants to turn America into Greece!” But Europe’s importance to the global economy, and to America, is staggering: It’s the world’s largest economic bloc, worth $17 trillion, and it’s the US’s largest trading partner. If Europe goes down, we all go down.
Climate change. No politician likes to talk about climate change. It’s depressing news. It’s become highly partisan in this country, and it has no obvious solution even for those who understand the threat. It requires discussion of all kinds of hugely complex, dull-sounding science. When we do talk about it as a political issue, it’s largely as a domestic one: saving energy, dealing with the increasing fury and frequency of storms like Hurricane Sandy, investing in new infrastructure.
In fact, climate change is a massive foreign policy issue as well. On the preventive side, any emissions reduction requires cooperation across borders—between small numbers of powerful nations, like America and China, along with massive worldwide accords like the failed Kyoto Protocol. The responses will often need to be global as well. Rising oceans and temperatures have no regard for national boundaries, and most of the world’s population lives near soon-to-be-vulnerable coastlines. Entire cities might have to move, or be rebuilt, often across
borders. Sandy could cost the American Northeast close to $100 billion when all is said and done (current damage estimates already top $50
billion). Imagine the price of climate-proofing the cities where most of the world lives—Mumbai, Shangahi, Lagos, Alexandria, and so on. Climate change, if unaddressed, could well become an American security issue, propelling unrest and failed states that will spur threats against the US.
Pakistan. Like our tendency to obsess over shark attacks rather than, say, the more significant risk of getting hit by a car, we often find our foreign policy elite preoccupied with rare, dramatic potential threats rather than actual banal ones. You’ll keep hearing about Iran, which might one day have a bomb and which emits noxious rhetoric while supporting well-documented militant groups like Hezbollah. What we really need to hear more and do more about, however, is a regional power that already has nukes (90 to 120 warheads), that is reportedly planning for battlefield bombs that are easier to misplace or steal, and that sponsors rogue terrorist groups that have been regularly killing people in Afghanistan and India for years.
That country is Pakistan. Power there is split among an unstable cast of characters: a dictatorial military, super-empowered Islamic fundamentalists, and a corrupt civilian elite. A significant portion of its huge population has been radicalized, and can easily flit across borders with Iran, Afghanistan, and India. Pakistan isn’t a potential problem; it’s a huge actual problem, a driver of war in Afghanistan, a sponsor of killers of Americans, and perennially, the only actor in the world that actively poses the threat of nuclear war. (The hot war between India and Pakistan in Kargil in 1999 was the first active conflict between two nuclear powers. It’s not talked about much, but remains a genuine nightmare scenario.) Pakistan is also a huge recipient of American aid. We need to find leverage and work to contain, restrain, and stabilize Pakistan.
Transnational crime and drugs. When it comes to violence in the world, foreign-policy thinkers tend to think first about wars, militaries, and diplomacy. But to save money and lives, it would be smarter to think about drugs. In much of the world, the resources spent and lives lost to criminal syndicates in the drug war rival the costs of traditional conflict. Narco-states in the Andes and, increasingly, Central America, make life miserable for their own inhabitants. Criminal off-the-book profits symbiotically feed international crime and terrorism. And in every region of the world, drugs provide the economic engine and financing for militias and terrorist groups; they fuel innumerable security problems, such as human trafficking, illicit weapons sales, piracy, and smuggling. Ultimately, wherever the drug business flourishes, it tends to corrode state authority, leaving vast ungoverned swaths of territory and promoting political violence and weak policing.
The United States pays a lot of attention to this problem in Afghanistan and Mexico, but it’s a drain on resources in corners of the globe that get less attention, from Southeast Asia to Africa. Washington needs to approach the international illegal drug trade like the globalized, multifaceted problem that it is, requiring international law enforcement cooperation but also smart economic solutions to change the market, including legalization.
Mexico. It feels almost painfully obvious, but it’s been a long time since a US president has prioritized our next-door neighbor. Our economies are inextricably linked. America’s supposed problem with illegal immigration is actually the organic
development of a fluid shared labor market across the US-Mexico border. Meanwhile, the distant war in Afghanistan eats up an enormous amount of resources while another conflict races on next door: Mexico’s increasingly violent drug war. Since 2006, it has claimed 50,000 lives, and the violence regularly spills over the border. Washington has collaborated piecemeal with Mexico’s government, but this is a regional conflict, involving criminal syndicates indifferent to jurisdiction. The United States needs to persuade Mexico to pursue a less violent, more sustainable strategy to counter the drug gangs, and then partner with the government there wholeheartedly.
The dangerous Internet. Cyber security might sound like a boondoogle for defense contractors looking for more money to spend on a ginned-up threat. Yet in the last year we’ve seen the real-world consequences of cyber attacks on Iran’s nuclear program, apparently orchestrated by the
United States and Israel, and an effective cyber response apparently by Iran that hobbled Saudi Arabia’s oil industry. Harvard’s Joseph Nye points out that cyber espionage and crime already pose serious transnational threats, and recent developments show how war and terrorism will spill into our online networks, potentially threatening everything from our power supply to our personal data.
The US budget. Elementary economics usually begins with the discussion of guns vs. butter: You can’t pay for everything given limited resources, so do you eat or defend yourself? For generations, America has had the luxury of not really having to choose: The economy has mostly boomed since
World War II, meaning we never had to cut anything fundamentally important. But America now faces a contracting global economy and a world in which it increasingly has to share resources with other rising powers. This is unfamiliar, and unhappy, territory: America’s next defense and foreign affairs budgets will probably be the first since the Second World War to require serious downsizing at a time when there are actual credible threats to the United States.
The Americans who reelected President Obama didn’t care that much about his foreign policy, according to polls. And, perhaps fittingly, Obama dealt with the rest of world during his first term with competence and caution rather than with flair and executive drive. His impressive focus on Al Qaeda hasn’t been mirrored so far in the rest of his national security policy, made by a team better known for its meetings than for setting clear priorities.
In the wake of a decisive reelection, Obama will have the political latitude to shape a more creative and forward-thinking foreign policy in his second term. If he does, he’ll have to work around both deeply divided legislators and a constrained budget: We simply can’t pay for everything, from land wars to cyber threats to sea walls to protected American industries. The priorities the next administration chooses—and its ability to pass any budget—will dramatically shape the kind of foreign influence America yields over the next four years.