Soldiers from the United Nations intervention brigade in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2013.
[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section, November 28, 2014.]
MASISI, Democratic Republic of Congo—The massive peacekeeping effort undertaken here over the past 18 months hasn’t done much to slow the bloodshed in this central African nation. But it just might have destroyed a bold and hopeful new idea about how much the United Nations can accomplish.
Since Congo’s civil war broke out in 1994, it has become the world’s deadliest conflict, pitting neighboring governments and dozens of local warlords in a free-for-all over the prodigious profits to be made in eastern Congo’s mines. According to demographers, 5.4 million Congolese died during just one stretch from 1998 to 2006.
Fed up with the ineffectiveness of its traditional approach to peacekeeping, the United Nations Security Council decided last year to scrap its policy of firing only in self-defense. Instead, it launched a remarkable experiment: its first-ever “force intervention brigade,” a fully armed fighting unit to hunt down and stop predatory militias.
The goal was to put teeth in the UN’s promise to protect civilians in war zones. But after one early success routing the largest antigovernment militia, the brigade’s promise has faltered. The remaining militias have proved far harder to suppress, with foreign backers and sympathetic local supporters. And to some observers, the brigade has turned the United Nations into just another army in a war with too many armies already, helping hand territory over to a Congolese government that behaves just as badly as the militias it replaces.
For Congo, the failure of this experiment would mark a tragedy in a region already exhausted by tragedy. For the world at large, the test comes at a pivotal moment for the idea of international peacekeeping itself—a concept that is under increasing scrutiny from the nations upon whose money, troops, and political support its existence depends.
This year, the UN is taking a hard look at all its peacekeeping operations, trying to rethink how, and when, it should try to intervene in violent conflicts. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who normally has a reputation for avoiding conflict even within his own bureaucracy, called this summer for a formal review of peacekeeping, describing a crisis brought on by interventions in complex civil wars “where there is no peace to keep.” Congo is being watched closely, and observers are skeptical that the outcome there will be encouraging.
“Is this the future? I’d say no,” says retired Major General Patrick Cammaert, who commanded UN peacekeepers for decades, including in Congo, and who now writes about the endemic problems of peacekeeping. “What more can the international community do?” Cammaert asks. “That’s the frustrating question.”
He’s contributing to a debate that has erupted among experts who want the UN to do better in the world’s bleakest war zones. Some are convinced it only requires more resources and effort. Others, however, have come to believe that the best we can do is to drastically reduce expectations of how much the international community can help.
IN A SENSE, the experiment in Congo exposes a contradiction wound into the UN’s very DNA. One founding principle of the UN was neutrality: that it could be an outside arbiter, swooping in to resolve regional conflicts without preference for one side or the other. Another principle was humanitarianism—helping vulnerable civilians and children, through intervention if necessary.
Its architects, determined to prevent another global conflict like World War II, gave the UN the power to dispatch peacekeepers who could monitor cease-fires and truce lines, protect refugees, even end wars. They didn’t imagine how profoundly the principles of neutrality and humanitarianism might start to conflict, as states and nonstate actors fought complex multiplayer wars that blurred traditional categories.
Ironically, it was Congo that handed the UN its first major peacekeeping defeat in 1960. After a skirmish between UN troops and secessionists left hundreds of civilians dead, Western superpowers claimed the UN soldiers had acted beyond their orders, while the Soviet Union angrily accused the United States of supporting the assassination of Congo’s pro-independence prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. Compromised by political rivalries, the mission was effectively put into deep freeze until its official closure in 1964.
The UN stayed away from such controversial engagements until the Cold War had ended. In the 1990s, it began to venture again into complex civil wars. Peacekeepers were armed, often with top-of-the-line military equipment, but usually stayed out of the fray, like referees during a hockey brawl.
The failures of this approach mounted quickly and painfully. International peacekeepers were humiliatingly sidelined during the 1990s genocides of Rwanda and Bosnia. Hundreds of lightly armed UN peacekeepers were even taken hostage in Bosnia and used as bargaining chips by warlords. In Rwanda, the UN commander presciently warned of the coming genocide—and was ordered not to take any action to try to prevent it. Peacekeepers proved equally ineffective in Somalia.
Spurred by those failures, thinkers and policy makers began to push for a more muscular approach, giving rise to the somewhat paradoxical idea of “humanitarian intervention,” an anodyne term for the use of military force to help people and restore peace. Its supporters believed that in some wars, especially when governments or militias weren’t directly fighting each other but were instead killing civilians, neutrality no longer made sense. To end a civil war, it might be necessary to pick a side and help it prevail.
Congo became the lab for this new vision in 2012. After a relative calm of several years, the civil war had ramped up once again. The Rwandan-backed M23 militia was sweeping through the eastern provinces; warlords engaged in mass rape and murder while seizing control of the diamond trade and eastern Congo’s profitable coltan mines. Millions of civilians were displaced, again and again, in a shockingly poor and undeveloped state where it sometimes takes an entire day over rutted muddy tracks, on foot or motorcycle, to reach a nearby clinic or market town. Hundreds of militias vied for control of sometimes tiny areas. In what looked like a replay of past humiliations in Bosnia and Rwanda, M23 conquered even the city of Goma, where the UN had a headquarters and massive operation.
The embarrassment this time was a catalyst. The major powers at the UN and in Africa agreed they had to do more, and came up with the force intervention brigade, approved in March 2013.
THE PEACEKEEPERS in the UN stabilization mission—known by the acronym MONUSCO—wear the standard UN blue helmets and insignia, but there the resemblance to previous UN missions ends. Its highly trained infantry troops, from a variety of African states, are led by South African soldiers. They track Congolese militias using drones and the kind of surveillance technology that US special forces use to pursue Al Qaeda, swooping in the from the air to disarm or kill them. When civilians seek protection on UN bases, the peacekeepers go after the militias who threaten them. They pursue enemy fighters deep into the jungle.
In certain respects, the effort is working. During its first year, MONUSCO’s crack intervention brigade successfully routed M23, driving its leaders into exile or arresting them, and helping the Congolese government disarm or absorb most of its gunmen. It has presided over the restoration of a tenuous calm in places like Masisi, where farmers have resumed grazing profitable herds in the grassy hills after decades when violence made agriculture impossible. Motorcycle taxis ply roads that just a year ago were too dangerous to traverse. Commerce is haltingly returning to many villages, and some of the millions of displaced people are returning home.
But that’s where the first problem arises. The UN has chosen sides, which means supporting Congo’s current government. When the UN troops finish, they turn the cleared areas over the Congolese Army. Local residents frequently complain that these forces subject them to another wave of the same violence they experienced under militia rule. For residents mugged and shot by marauding gunmen, it makes no difference whether the overlords wear the insignia of a warlord’s militia or of the government. The government pressures the UN to criticize only the rebels; in October, it expelled the UN mission’s top human rights official after he released a report on the national police force’s abuses.
Meanwhile, dozens of militias are proving harder to dislodge. Local supporters of one formidable militia, backed by Uganda, staged demonstrations outside UN facilities this month against international efforts to drive it out of the northeast Congo. And there are policy thinkers who believe that the UN’s new approach makes it a legitimate military target. A report released this month by the International Peace Institute, a New York think tank, argues that the UN Congo mission’s aggressive mandate means that under international law, its “peacekeepers” no longer enjoy the legal protections that normally cover UN personnel.
The new approach has also split the UN and the peacekeeping world by creating fears that it might endanger humanitarian aid workers, from both the UN and unrelated nongovernmental organizations, who normally rely on the protection of neutrality. My own trip to Masisi in September took place under the auspices of the aid group Doctors Without Borders, whose volunteers and local staff expressed exactly this worry. So far, it appears that local antigovernment warlords haven’t turned against the group. But as I interviewed villagers, it became clear that plenty of them mistakenly believed that Doctors Without Borders was part of the UN.
AS WITH MOST OF THE UN’S most difficult missions, there is no end game for the Congo intervention. Peacekeepers were first deployed in 1999, and since then there have been many rounds of political negotiations involving the government, the rebels, and neighboring African countries. MONUSCO’s intervention brigade was deployed to support this vague and open-ended negotiation process, and thus has no stated timetable to leave the country.
To many, its failure would represent a particular disappointment. In a certain light, the brigade represents the UN and the Western powers at their most flexible and creative, trying to combine military might with a genuine commitment to the relief of suffering.
Chastened or emboldened by the lessons of Congo, UN leaders, the nations that pay for peacekeeping missions (led by the United States and Japan), and experts in the field are scrambling for new ideas for interventions that work—or whose failure or success can even be determined. Some experts now suggest that it would be wiser to embrace something more like “conflict management” than “conflict resolution,” an acceptance that outside powers can help save lives, but never actually end a civil war. Others argue for more investment on the political side, to force peace accords.
Richard Gowan, a peacekeeping expert at New York University, believes the international community should pick its shots—“Go big or go home,” he says—and stay away from incremental interventions that prolong conflict without resolving it.
Retired UN official Michael von den Schulenburg has worked with UN peacekeeping missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, and other hot spots and emerged as one of the system’s biggest critics, believing that Western powers have gotten addicted to the notion that there are military shortcuts to peace. “Peacebuilding is essentially cheating history. Look at our own states—our borders, what language we speak, which ethnic community predominates—it was always a bloody affair that went on for hundreds of years,” he says. “Now we want to solve these conflicts in 10 years.” He suggests dispensing with most peacekeeping altogether, and instead sending civilians to complicated war zones, in the full knowledge that they might be able to address small problems but not the big ones.
Slightly more optimistic is Severine Autesserre, a Barnard College political scientist who has spent years analyzing the dynamics and history of the Congo conflict. She embarked on a field study of all the reasons why foreign peacekeepers were destined to failure, and emerged with the opposite conclusion. In the book “Peaceland,” published this summer, she argues that through hundreds of minor, incremental improvements, the international community could dramatically boost the quality of life in conflict zones like those in Congo, thereby getting better value out of the troops it dispatches as peacekeepers.
If there is a lesson in the UN’s sporadic attempts to put weight behind its peacekeeping, it comes down to this: No outside power, not even an international mission blessed with moral authority and big guns, can unilaterally impose peace on a fractious war zone. An intractable stew of warlords, propped up by foreign states or nefarious funding networks, and a corrupt, authoritarian government prone to human rights abuses: This could easily describe Congo today, or Sudan, Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan. The West has tried all manner of approaches, from containment to invasion and occupation to staying out of it. That none of these tactics has reliably worked doesn’t mean that we should do nothing. But it does mean that whatever we do try is unlikely to bring a prompt end to the violence. It might, at best, save a few lives.
Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of the forthcoming “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story.” He is an Ideas columnist and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com.
[Originally published in The Boston Globe.]
THE GLOBAL energy market can be a scary place for America. For decades, one of the biggest reasons has been the cartel known as OPEC.
Saudi Arabia and the 11 other nations that make up the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries collude openly, setting production limits and shaping the world oil market in their interests. Concerns about OPEC have driven American energy policy ever since a devastating six-month embargo by Arab oil producers in 1973 plunged the nation into recession and seared the four-letter acronym into the national consciousness.
Today the group still holds 80 percent of world oil reserves; ambassadors from the most powerful economies in the world attend its biannual meetings with deference, and dangle aid and other enticements in the hopes of winning OPEC’s allegiance. With American antagonists like Iran and Venezuela in its membership, OPEC amplifies the ability of relatively small countries to buck the desires of Washington.
But a closer look at OPEC’s real influence over the oil market suggests that we’re making a huge mistake about its global power, says Brown University political scientist Jeff Colgan. A specialist in oil and global conflict, Colgan tracked almost three decades of oil production data and compared it to official OPEC policy, which sets quotas for member countries. What he found surprised him: OPEC’s decisions were all but irrelevant.
As formidable as OPEC is seen to be, its members appeared to produce whatever they felt like, regardless of official policy; Colgan found that OPEC decisions weren’t actually affecting world oil supplies, or world oil prices. The group seemed unable to control its members or accomplish the one thing that even its detractors might appreciate: bring stability to the market.
“It drives me nuts,” Colgan says. “Washington spends bandwidth on OPEC that could be better dedicated to something else.”
Colgan’s research, published this summer, made a splash within the small circle of OPEC scholars, and even his critics concede that his findings require a reassessment of our understanding of the cartel. His thinking has yet to trigger policy changes, however. Although skepticism about OPEC has been rising—just last week, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera wrote about a 2013 Foreign Policy article titled “The End of OPEC”—most policy makers and academics still consider OPEC the key player in world energy markets, and the only one in a position to unilaterally disrupt the global flow of petrochemicals.
If Colgan is right, the implications go beyond OPEC: They suggest that petroleum is not the global bugaboo that many politicians and policy makers think. In this argument, Colgan has company: His findings echo earlier research suggesting that today’s American economy is no longer vulnerable to shocks in oil prices, or temporary supply disruptions caused by Middle Eastern wars.
His meticulous research suggests that OPEC is a sort of high-level con, which awards its member states unwarranted influence, wastes US time and energy, and distorts our energy policy and even our military priorities. An honest reckoning of power in the oil market might not only lead the United States to fear OPEC less, but even to behave a little more like it.
WHEN OPEC was formed in 1960, the oil industry was dominated by a different cartel. It was called the “Seven Sisters,” and was made up of western companies. Many of them have changed their names since then but are still industry giants, like ExxonMobil, BP, and Royal Dutch Shell.
The developing countries that actually held the world’s oil reserves wanted more clout. Saudi Arabia, which had the world’s largest and most accessible oil fields, was joined by four other founding members: Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, and Venezuela. Soon, nine more nations joined the group and opened a headquarters in 1965 in Vienna, the home of other important international institutions like the International Atomic Energy Association.
OPEC became a household name after the infamous oil embargo of 1973, which left a lasting psychological imprint on Americans. Gas stations closed on Sundays. Customers waited in interminable lines for their ration. Homeowners and businesses couldn’t afford to leave their heaters running at full blast throughout the winter. The economy went into a tailspin.
Forgotten in the bitter memory is that the embargo wasn’t actually imposed by OPEC, but by the Arab members of the cartel, along with Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia, in retaliation for America’s support for Israel in the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War. That distinction was lost, and policy makers ever since have railed against the dangers of dependence on OPEC oil. The legacy of the oil embargo drives American diplomacy, the rules governing worldwide oil contracts, and even the US case for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which contends that the political benefits of “energy independence” outweigh fracking’s environmental and economic drawbacks.
Today, economists point out, the world energy market is far more integrated and interdependent than it was in 1973, when most oil was bought and sold in bulky, long-term contracts that made it hard for the market to quickly adjust to any change in supply.
Now producers need the profits as much as consumers need the gas. And despite the size of OPEC’s reserves—half of which are held by just two countries, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela—oil production is far more widely spread out than it used to be. Countries like the United States, Canada, and Mexico can satisfy a great deal of short-term demand even if their supplies will run low in a few decades. (In fact, the recent surge in US oil production last year made it the world’s largest oil producer, though its reserves are limited and the extraction process is only profitable when oil prices are high.) Oil is now bought and sold in a market that changes daily, so if one supply suddenly goes offline—like the oil industries of Libya and Iraq during various points of the last decade’s turmoil—other countries can step in to fill the gap in a matter of days.
Political scientists and economists have explored OPEC’s efficacy in multiple papers over the years, and almost all of them have concluded that even if it doesn’t function as a seamless cartel, it is the single most pivotal factor in setting global oil prices. It is this consensus that Colgan’s research punctures. He looked at official quotas since 1982, and found that OPEC member countries cheat an astonishing 96 percent of the time, pumping more than their permitted quota. He created a mathematical model to predict how much oil each country would produce if it were not constrained by the cartel’s quotas, and he found that when it came to a country’s oil production patterns, it didn’t seem to matter whether it was in OPEC or not. New members didn’t reduce production when they joined OPEC, and quota changes didn’t affect production levels.
Despite its reputation, Colgan found, OPEC simply doesn’t fit the definition of an effective cartel. Saudi Arabia—the sole producer with the spare capacity huge enough to unilaterally alter world supplies—floods the market or slashes capacity to suit its own needs, as it did in 2008 and is threatening to do again today in order to drive US fracking companies out of business. Almost all of the time, other OPEC members pumped as much as they could, whether prices were high or low.
Michael Levi, an energy and oil expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, acknowledges Colgan’s point that OPEC’s control of production and prices is not absolute, but believes he’s going too far in calling it powerless; cartels by definition aren’t transparent, and OPEC might still wield plenty of influence over member behavior. “It would be awfully unwise for policy makers or market participants to quickly flip to an equally over-confident belief that OPEC doesn’t matter,” he says.
American politics pretty much guarantees they won’t flip soon: In today’s debate over whether the United States should export its own oil, it’s still OPEC whose wrath the White House fears, rather than the more likely retaliation it might face from individual countries like Saudi Arabia. And OPEC is a convenient punching bag on Capitol Hill: Since 1999, the US Congress has introduced no fewer than 15 versions of a “NOPEC” bill, which would require the government to punish members of the international oil cartel. All the bills have failed, but they attract high-profile support. When they were senators, both Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton voted for NOPEC bills.
COLGAN CALLS the cartel’s reputation a “rational myth”—a made-up story perpetuated because it serves an interest. OPEC initially was founded to control the oil market, but by the time member countries realized it didn’t, they were reaping too many political benefits from OPEC’s perceived clout to dissolve the organization.
OPEC membership has unquestionable benefits on the world stage: Colgan measured the number of ambassadors to members and found that joining OPEC provides a noticeable bump in foreign missions. When countries like the United States are worried about global oil production levels, or prices, they make pleas to the biggest player in the market, and that means OPEC.
For America, though, the fear of OPEC has costs. For one thing, it means the United States misses opportunities to exploit the fissures between OPEC countries, which often have diametrically opposed interests (today for instance, Iran wants low production and high prices to help it survive sanctions; Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, wants low prices in order to regain its dominant market share). Since the 1973 embargo, almost every aspect of US energy policy appears designed to protect consumers and the economy from a price shock or supply disruption, even though today the United States is itself an oil giant that gets rich off the sale of oil and gas.
There are real lessons to take from OPEC as we have long understood it—and from comparing countries that have wisely managed their oil wealth, like Norway, to those that have used it to mask domestic stagnation, like Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Whether a country is an oil exporter or importer, it’s a smart investment to reduce consumption and diversify sources as much as possible, including toward wind and solar power. The most impressive oil exporters husband their energy profits, treating them as a limited windfall rather than a sustainable and permanent revenue stream.
The experience of the OPEC countries also highlights the tension between gas pricing, environmental stewardship, and national interests in ways that are increasingly relevant for the United States. Traditionally, low fuel prices have boosted the US economy, but increased pollution and dependency. High gas prices are good for an energy policy built around restraint—less consumption, less pollution—and now they actually have an economic benefit as well, boosting the burgeoning domestic oil sector.
Even if OPEC is not the power we thought, the group’s recent history has lessons for us, most simply that it’s not a bad idea to maximize the profits you can draw from your limited reserves of underground oil. Pump less to drive prices up, pump more when you need cash (or extra energy), and worry less about the global economy than about your own bottom line and long-term fiscal health. That might be the formula of a villainous cartel—or just good business sense for a nation.
[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]
THE RISE OF the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, took much of the world by surprise. When it swept into Mosul and swiftly turned most of northern Iraq into the cornerstone of a regressive new caliphate, the organization was an unknown quantity even to many professional analysts, reporters, and policy makers.
But very quickly, some new go-to sources emerged. Two of them were Twitter streams that unleashed a torrent of crucial links and information. They revealed the depth of the group’s beef with Al Qaeda, which ISIS seemed to consider a higher-priority enemy than even the unbelievers it had executed. They published extracts of the recruitment literature the group had used to lure Western fighters, and shared some of its previously unknown ideological treatises. They brought to light the extensive ISIS propaganda network, while countering some of its claims. Since the United States declared war on the group and started bombing sites in Iraq and Syria, the sources have continued their indispensable work, providing details on little known targets like the “Khorasan Group” and the reaction of ISIS to the American strikes.
These gushers of highly useful information were not coming from inside a formal intelligence operation, or even from the Middle East. Instead, they were being run by ordinary American civilians out of their own homes. One was J.M. Berger, 47, a former journalist turned freelance social network analyst and extremism expert, who published scoop after scoop from his home office in Cambridge. The other was Aaron Zelin, a 26-year-old graduate student in Washington, D.C., who made his name with a blog called Jihadology. The two researchers had been mining the jihadi Internet for years, tracking it with a combination of old-school scholarship and new purpose-built apps.
Zelin and Berger are something new in the intelligence world: part of an emerging breed of online jihadi-hunters who have done pathbreaking work, often independently of government and big media outlets, on a shoestring budget. Numbering less than a dozen, they have earned their reputations over the past four years by being the first to report key developments later confirmed by mainstream research and reporting—such as the split between the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, the burst of jihadi recruitment in the West, and the entry of Hezbollah into the Syrian battle. The meteoric rise of ISIS has been a catalyzing moment for these analysts, pushing them into the spotlight as one of the most important sources of information and context.
These freelance online analysts offer a counterweight to decentralized militant groups. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, America has struggled to grapple with nimble, stateless groups that can move faster than national governments. But the same tools that militant groups and jihadis have exploited so effectively cut both ways. Those who want to shut down violent networks have a new weapon in intelligence-gatherers who operate outside traditional channels and aren’t hindered by bureaucratic myopia.
Despite some friction, their research is forcing the academic and intelligence establishment to treat Twitter, Facebook, and other social media as important sources of data. The small world of social media analysts who have established reliable reputations over time, relying on information freely available in the public domain, implicitly challenges the US government’s claim that only massive, secret surveillance can penetrate jihadi networks.
“Some people say, ‘Who is this guy to be writing about this stuff?’” says Clint Watts, a former FBI agent who has developed an influential following for the analysis of global jihad that he writes after hours. Through Twitter, he’s been able to team up with dozens of experts who 15 years ago he wouldn’t have known how to contact. And through his blog, he’s found a high-level audience that government intelligence analysts could only dream of. “This is mostly a hobby for me,” he said. “The less involved I am in the terrorism analysis community, the more my posts get read.”
EONS AGO in Internet time, back in 2006, Hezbollah and Israel fought a quick and destructive war in Lebanon. I was one of the journalists who covered it on the front lines, and we struggled to report the precise nature of Hezbollah’s involvement. Hezbollah tried to obscure its hand, hiding the number of fighters under its command and even whether they were active in the war. It was rare to see a fighter in person at all, and those who were spotted often pretended to represent a local clan or a militia other than Hezbollah.
People guessed at the number of Hezbollah fighters killed, and ultimately had to rely on an unverifiable number issued by the party itself. It was the kind of information that watchers of the conflict had to resign themselves to never being able to know for sure.
During the recent conflict in Syria, Hezbollah denied taking part in combat altogether. But a 27-year-old self-taught analyst named Phillip Smyth, staying up all night in his Washington, D.C., home, began systematically to expose its denial as a lie. Smyth tracked deaths and funerals among Hezbollah supporters; he would identify the same funeral poster on as many as a hundred Facebook pages, then on Hezbollah’s television channel Al-Manar; finally, in some cases, he would telephone friends in Lebanon and ask them to look for and photograph the same poster on a wall. While Hezbollah was still claiming it had no military role in Syria’s civil war, Smyth had proved the group’s leaders were deploying fighters to the Syrian frontlines. He compiled lists of Hezbollah fighters killed in Syrian battles, complete with names and photographs, and posted them in a new Jihadology feature called Hizballah Cavalcade. Months later, Hezbollah finally admitted involvement.
A story like Smyth’s illustrates just how stark a change has come across the once-staid world of intelligence analysts. As recently as a decade ago, this kind of expertise resided almost entirely in government agencies like the CIA and the State Department, or in universities and think tanks with the resources to gather and sift through the data. And it might never surface in public at all.
But today some of the best data are in reach of anyone with an Internet connection—and the Web offers a public platform for anyone able and willing to do the work. Smyth, for example, never worked for the government and didn’t even finish college. He bounced around during adolescence and dropped out of Suffolk University after a year. From an early age he developed a fascination with Lebanon, however, and his mother helped him travel there as a teenager. Smyth learned Arabic and immersed himself in Lebanese culture, obsessively studying the Christian and then the Shia Muslims militant groups that took shape during the civil war. “I was a strange child,” he says.
What started as a lark led him to a job as a researcher at the University of Maryland’s Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics, but his passion was tracking the world of Shia militants. He chatted with them in forums, and built an enormous database of their tweets, Facebook posts, and websites. He listened to their pop music.
As the Arab Spring spiraled into regional upheaval, Smyth would stay up most of the night soaking up the militant movement’s social media feeds. Lurking on Shia militant forums, he learned that rebellion was brewing in Bahrain months before it escalated. Through his careful reading of religious pop music lyrics he learned that Iraqi Shia militias were preparing to join the Syrian civil war. In each case he amassed reams of evidence, running them by Zelin, an acquaintance who ultimately became a close friend. Finally he wrote about his conclusions. Mainstream media, and eventually the US government, picked up his evidence that an internal Syrian civil war had fully morphed into a regional conflagration.
In a sense, Smyth’s work, like Zelin’s and Berger’s, is as new as the media they use: It lies at the intersection of journalism, policy analysis, and intelligence. And fittingly, its practitioners have backgrounds that span those fields. Before he found a perch at a Washington think tank, Zelin was a master’s student with a prolific Web presence. Berger was a freelance journalist before he developed his own apps to scrape and analyze the jihadi Web after a collaboration with Google Ideas.
Clint Watts, on the other hand, was an insider: He spent more than a decade in the military and the FBI before setting out on his own as a consultant with an initially small blog called “Selected Wisdom.” These days, he still prepares his analysis using the same template he learned in 1992 in an entry-level military course, “Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield.” But it was only after Watts left the government that he began to build his reputation. The amount of information freely available on the Web, he said, was dizzying compared to what he could access on classified government computers. Liberated from the restrictions of classified computer systems and bosses looking for analysis on narrow subjects, he began to follow Al Qaeda and its offshoots across the world. He sparred on Twitter with Omar Hamami, the American who fought with Al Shabab in Somalia. He followed dozens of academic experts, drafting some of them as collaborators in his research.
“I was explaining to my parents just recently that most of what I do would be impossible just 10 years ago,” he said.
If the online ecosystem that these researchers are mining is surprisingly open, it is also uncharted territory. The Islamic State and Hezbollah are both savvy users of online propaganda, which means disinformation as well as the real stuff. For every piece of data Smyth has verified through his research, there are a hundred pieces of misinformation: fake websites, made-up militia names, descriptions of bombings that never happened, and fabricated death announcements. “They try to trick you,” Smyth said. “You’re dealing with some understandably very paranoid people.”
To combat this, the most respected new Web analysts (a group that also includes Charles Lister, a Brookings Institution fellow, and Aron Lund, who edits a Syria blog at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) tend to vet each other’s work, and prioritize accuracy over speed. They help each other with translations and argue over interpretation. They collaborate with an ease that traditional analysts, cut off in organizational silos, would scarcely recognize.
Some Twitter analysts do compete to break news first, but much of this crew would rather be late than wrong. Smyth sat for months on evidence of brewing militancy among Bahraini Shia until he could confirm it. In another instance, he encountered a trove of online evidence that Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr was working with Iran to send fighters to Syria, which would have been explosive news at the time; after months of work he concluded that all of it was fabricated, probably the work of Iranian psyops.
THE NEW BREED of online analysts has arisen entirely in the years since Sept. 11, when our government was so notably caught off guard by an underground terrorist threat. The value and speed of their work carries the strong implication that the business needs to change.
That’s not a message the establishment always welcomes. Smyth describes one encounter when a State Department employee bought him a drink to discuss Smyth’s work, before telling him he never could take seriously any research that cites Facebook. Watts recalls the disappointment of another speaker at a Washington conference when she learned that he was reaching all his conclusions without drawing on top-secret sources.
“There are still people who don’t view this as a real form of study,” said Zelin.
But as the online jihadi hunters have risen in prominence, the establishment has increasingly started to embrace their work. White House officials have privately circulated Watts’s memos on the trajectory of global jihad. Berger has found himself in demand as a consultant and commentator, and just got a book deal, his second, to write about ISIS with the Harvard-trained terrorism expert Jessica Stern. Zelin was hired full time as a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and has started a PhD at King’s College London. The university computer lab where Smyth works has asked him to continue his off-duty Hezbollah analysis at the office.
It is easy to imagine that this freewheeling analyst community is a new face of intelligence: decentralized, exciting, and hard to verify, like much about the online world. But it might also be the harbinger of a larger shift. Even in the Twitterverse—the Wild West of people who tweet about terrorism, jihad, and the American policy response—the dozen or so serious analysts in this group are exceptions; it’s much easier to find trolls taunting terrorists or self-appointed experts falling for friendly gambits from propagandists. In interviews, they admit that what they’re doing doesn’t follow an easily replicable template, and they don’t imagine doing it indefinitely. Smyth said it’s exhausting to check his social media sources throughout the night, and even now Zelin said he’s given up on his original goal of being in constant connection with the Twitterstream around the clock.
What they do hope, though, is that their efforts will give a push to the bigger community of well-funded, trained analysts who still provide the bulk of intelligence to the United States. Warfare and communication have changed, and Zelin and his peers expect that ultimately, their work will force academics and the intelligence community to expand their horizons. They will have to accept the value of new kinds of primary-source data, like Twitter, and take seriously the threats and ideas that percolate there.
International jihadis might one day abandon Twitter as quickly as they took it up, and groups like Hezbollah might find ways to police their members on Facebook. But after Facebook and Twitter, more platforms will surely follow. The true lesson of the independent jihadi trackers might be that the intelligence and policy establishment needs to be quicker to follow the culture wherever it chooses to communicate, sometimes leaving secret insights scattered in plain sight.
Why can’t Greece shake its corruption problem?
A report from a country where everyone knows a thousand ways around the rules
PAROS, Greece — A few summers ago, every merchant on this island—which means pretty much everybody with a job—faced ruin. Greece’s economic catastrophe had bankrupted the government and brought nearly every industry to a standstill. A modern European country faced the prospect of unthinkably widespread poverty. The local crisis reached up to the highest level: the European Union contemplated the collapse of the euro. Meanwhile, here on Paros, where the crisis was exacerbated by a global recession that had depressed tourism, mom-and-pop hotels, cafes, and tchotchke shops were going bust.
To avoid calamity, Europe agreed to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out Greece. In return, Greece pledged to overhaul nearly everything about its economy. The government promised to fire half its employees, and liberalized laws on everything from trucking to private universities. Generous pension benefits were slashed, and once-cushy lifetime government gigs were turned over to the free market.
Europe came through on its end of the deal: hundreds of billions flowed into the Greek treasury. This year, the island is flush again. The tourists are back, eager to spend their euros. New souvlaki joints fill once quiet alleys. Bars have sprung up in orchards. Small business owners who have exuded anxiety since 2008 are once again smiling and confident.
But not everything has changed in Greece. In daily life here, cheating, bribes, and tax evasion are still a matter of course. Even anticorruption officials reputedly accept bribes, and only one Cabinet minister has gone to prison for embezzlement. At the bottom level, freelance workers and shopowners still hide most of their income, like a workman who got angry when I filed a receipt for the repairs he did at my house.
What’s happened over the past five years shows Europe’s surprising ability to pull together as a region and avoid a financial disaster. But developments on the ground in Greece offer a less encouraging view of human nature. In response to additional laws and regulations, Greece’s corrupt system has simply upped its game. If anything, the new rules have just given Greeks more official protocol to maneuver around.
Why does this corrupt system survive, when everything points toward how it needs to be improved? Macroeconomists and development theorists have studied this problem for years, examining cases in countries that are abjectly poor and ones that are developed and comparatively rich, like Greece. There have been bold initiatives underwritten by international loans, and pointed local efforts like Italy’s long-losing battle against Mafia-driven graft. But conversations with ordinary people in Greece make it clear just why it’s so hard to reverse a culture of corruption once it becomes engrained. Even in a relatively prosperous European country, never mind Liberia or India, the most immediate self-interested move is for everyone to keep playing the game.
MY ANCESTORS HAVE LIVED for centuries on Paros, since before Greece fought for independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821. My grandparents were the first generation to leave the island for Athens, after World War II, but we’ve been coming here every summer since then.
Although my lineage is pure Greek, I grew up with American attitudes about cheating. I spent my childhood surrounded by a certain moralism that I found appealing: you don’t cheat not because you might get caught, but because it’s wrong. You pay taxes because it’s the law and the government provides security and services in return, regardless of whether your politics are welfare-state liberal or “don’t tread on me” libertarian.
This is not how people see the bargain in Greece. Individuals refuse to pay taxes or obey the rules not just because it’s cheaper and easier to do so, but also because they don’t want to be suckers.
“I took my daughter to the government day care and they put her on the waiting list. The waiting list! Can you imagine?” a man griped to me recently. “And then they expect me to pay taxes! I’ll pay taxes when they do their job.”
The man wasn’t a sidewalk souvenir vendor or otherwise working in the gray market. He was an insurance broker, making small talk in his office while filling out a 20-page form to insure my moped, a glorified bicycle whose Greek government-mandated paperwork was more complicated than an American mortgage application.
The Greek system can feel like a Mexican standoff. Citizens won’t obey the law until the government fulfills its duties. The government shirks its duties because it doesn’t have enough revenue to govern responsibly. Small-time tax cheats refuse to bend until the corrupt elite is tried and imprisoned. The government says it can’t punish scofflaws because it doesn’t have the resources. And so the vicious circle turns.
Merchants watch out for the tax man. If they know the customer, they don’t issue the legally required receipt. Workmen offer discounts: 20 percent off a job if you pay under the table. Beach touts pick up old receipts and give them to new customers. Only nerds check carefully and demand a fresh receipt.
The electrician who rewired my house called in a panic after I deposited the payment in his bank account.
“Can you take it back?” he pleaded. There was no way to erase the transaction. Now he would have to pay value-added tax (as he was legally obligated to do).
“There goes all my profit,” he complained. That wasn’t true, but it irked him that he’d have to share a few hundred euros of his take with the government.
Cheating is so common that the few who don’t do it feel like saps. Among them are salaried employees who don’t have the option to hide their income. They must pay their ever-increasing tax bills, carrying a disproportionate share of the burden, and yet they don’t see any improvement from the government. Complaining is a social lubricant, whether it’s about the tab you escaped, or the one you paid.
“Sixteen thousand euros, my friend, that’s the name of my pain,” an antique dealer told me. “After you pay that, nothing feels good.”
“You must have made a nice profit if your tax bill was that high,” I said.
“I’m barely living,” he said.
IT’S TEMPTING to blame all this misbehavior on some kind of national character. I admit at times I’ve thought that myself, but I’ve observed enough to know that it’s not that simple. A whole web of social structures undergirds bad attitudes and practices. Historians go even deeper; they start the story with the Ottoman Empire, which dominated the region, including most of Greece, from 1453 until the end of World War I.
Greece still carries the traces of Ottoman rule, under which it chafed for four centuries. The sultanate in Istanbul tried to crush provincial uprisings, but was remarkably tolerant toward territories that paid their tribute and created no problems. The Ottomans ruled through a combination of neglect and stifling bureaucracy, which gave rise to a system of institutionalized bribes. The sultan milked his provincial governors, who in turn squeezed the citizenry. Taxes were just another negotiable kickback.
That Ottoman legacy is still alive, nearly two centuries after the first parts of Greece won independence. The Greek elites mirror the predatory habits of the sultanate, while the citizens act as if evading taxes is a heroic act of revolt against the occupier. “You know what they say about the rotten fish, don’t you? It stinks from the head,” said a restaurant owner who for most of my lifetime has avoided ringing up dinner bills at the cash register.
Those officials and the plutocratic elite have escaped the crisis relatively unscathed. One minister, Akis Tsochadzopoulos, who stole an obscene amount of money from defense contracts, was sentenced to 20 years in jail. For the most part, however, the rich and powerful have been left alone even as small business owners and pensioners have been squeezed by huge tax hikes and massive cuts in benefits. For the vast numbers of Greeks in that category, it’s hard to appreciate why they should be more accountable than the government itself. Even the new tax inspectors sometimes turn out to be on the take, shopowners say, offering to take a bribe in exchange for a lower fine that goes to the treasury.
Suspicion breeds suspicion, and everyone has a horror story. A doctor who is a family acquaintance told me that he used to be a model citizen, declaring all his income and scrupulously paying taxes. Then, he said, some years ago he was hit with a huge bill by the tax inspector.
“We know you hide 40 percent of your income,” the inspector told him. “So we’ve charged you accordingly.” The doctor promptly stopped reporting his full income, and has been strategically lowballing it ever since.
Academic economists have been fascinated by the persistence of Greek corruption since the reforms. Yannis Ioannides, an economist at Tufts University, and Costas Azariadis, an economist at Washington University in St. Louis, surveyed the topic for a forthcoming book published by MIT. In it, they offer suggestions on stanching the corruption: they’d like to see the government mount a genuine effort to punish wrongdoers at the top, coupled with a robust new independent watchdog agency to catch tax cheats and embezzlers.
Still, they’re not optimistic these measures would change what they call “the entire value system of nihilism and antisocial behavior that parents and schools have allowed to percolate through Greek society.” Research has shown that Greece’s culture of mistrust and cheating is far more extreme than anywhere in Europe. According to surveys, 80 percent of Greeks believe it’s all right to claim government benefits to which they are not entitled, while 20 percent disapprove. In most of Europe, the ratio is almost exactly flipped.
A look around the world doesn’t offer much inspiration that corrupt cultures can mend their ways. There have been some successes: New York’s Tammany Hall was once synonymous with total corruption. So were Hong Kong and Singapore. Time and reform turned them into models of efficiency, relatively speaking, though the latter two are notably undemocratic today. More common are the kinds of marginal improvements seen in places like Rwanda or the former Soviet republic of Georgia, where reformers have steadily improved police, courts, and some other government services but where graft, bribery, and inefficiency are still serious problems.
Some observers argue that Greece’s economic near-death experience wasn’t deadly enough. “People didn’t starve in the streets,” said Yiannis Vlahos, a surgeon who also writes a column for Estia, one of Greece’s oldest newspapers. “We didn’t suffer enough. Now things are a little better and everyone thinks they got away with it.”
His daughter, a marketing executive, lists a litany of banal ignominies visited upon her by the state: she had to take three full days off work to stand in line to register with the Greek tax authorities so she could pay her taxes online. She can’t count on public education or health care for her children, and must instead pay for private schools and doctors. When a neighbor encroached on a family summer home, it took 20 years for the courts to issue a ruling.
“Only one thing has changed,” she said of the reformed Greece. “Now I ask for receipts.”
WHEN I WAS A KID in the 1970s, Paros regularly ran out of water during the summer. There was no sewer system, and mosquitoes flourished in the septic tanks whose stench marred the scenic whitewashed alleys. No one had a swimming pool, and most of the roads were unpaved.
Today Paros has a better infrastructure than Beirut, the far more cosmopolitan and wealthy capital city where I live and work. A custom-built miniature garbage truck circulates every morning through the ancient streets, and immigrant workers roam around picking up litter.
The carpenter drives an Audi and the restaurateurs send their kids to university in Athens or London, but almost everyone I talked to swears to me that they still have to cheat to make ends meet. No amount of unearned money, apparently, will ever be enough.
Jokes aside, it’s obvious that there’s really no such thing as national character—just culture and history. By their nature Americans aren’t less prone to lie, cheat, steal, or kill than people from any other country. Habitual high-scorers on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, like the Scandinavians and Singaporeans, aren’t wired to be more honest than low-scoring North Koreans and Somalis.
Corruption persists because it is a system, and it provides benefits in places where the state does not. Inefficient states create incentives for people to pay bribes to get things done—a building permit, a health department seal of approval, a new passport. Scandinavia is less corrupt than other parts of the world because it’s a better deal to not cheat; you pay really high taxes, but the government really does give you everything you need.
Overcoming corruption, therefore, requires almost unimaginable transformation. You have to build an entirely new system—for instance, a new tax code and incorruptible people to collect the taxes—and you have to convince individuals to completely overhaul their personal behavior and their view of authority. One only has to spend a few weeks in Greece to see why, not just here but in places like India and Afghanistan, this is such a Herculean task.
The resistance lies in institutions, in political cultures, and in expectations that have become deeply ingrained in daily life. Cultures and institutions are made of people; people and policies can both change. But some places, like Greece, have been stuck in these feedback loops of corruption and stagnation for so long—for their entire modern history—that it’s hard to see where the reservoir of a new public morality would come from. You’d have to look back to Pericles, two and a half millennia ago, to find a Greek leader who could claim with a straight face to be “not only a patriot but an honest one.”
It’s murderous, intolerant, and dangerous. But the group offers Sunnis something rare in the Middle East: a chance to feel like a citizen.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, smashed its way into the world’s consciousness earlier this month when it seized Mosul and the Beiji oil refinery in Iraq. Starting last fall, ISIS began imposing its theocratic rule over a wide swath of Syria, then quickly wrested control of the emblematic Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. With the more recent attacks, it menaced the government in Baghdad; it also forced President Obama to reengage with a war from which he thought he had extricated the United States.
In trying to explain ISIS’s rapid success, alarmed observers have pointed to the extreme tactics that drew condemnation even from Al Qaeda: mass executions, beheadings, and crucifixions. Some see local conspiracies, believing Arab governments allowed the group to grow in order to justify their own heavy-handed crackdowns. Others suggest that Shi’ite Iran indirectly funded the movement as part of its own strategy to divide the Sunnis from within.
But that view of ISIS’s success and prospects overlooks one key element. A look at both ISIS’s written edicts and its tactics suggest that the group has gotten one important thing right: It has created a clear—and to some, compelling—idea of citizenship and state-building in a region almost completely bereft of either.
ISIS’s support comes from a direct appeal to Sunni Muslims as a religious and political constituency. It has made clear that it expects people under its power to take an active role in establishing a new Islamic state. And it has enlisted them in a project to assert the power of their religious community over the Shia, who currently dominate the territory from Iran to Lebanon.
Its idea of statehood is far from the modern Western one, to say nothing of its idea of citizenship; anyone not considered part of ISIS’s goals is subject to death, the more grisly and public the better. But the brutality of ISIS can distract from the way it has offered its constituents something they’ve been denied by the despotic regimes of the region.
During decades of independence, post-colonial Middle Eastern governments have failed to establish national identities strong enough to counter the attraction of violent, intolerant groups that promise members a genuine stake in their own futures. Whether in fractured states like Lebanon, Iraq, and Libya, or strong centralized dictatorships like Egypt and, before its civil war, Syria, Middle Eastern governments have ruled more by force than persuasion, eliciting only shallow loyalty from their people. As repugnant as its tactics are, ISIS offers Sunnis a rare opportunity: a chance, in effect, to be a citizen. Irreconcilable fanatics might form the group’s core membership, but it has attracted broader support in the Sunni community. Understanding that appeal is the key to countering it.
THE REBELLIONS that have ripped apart Iraq since 2003 and Syria since 2011 are complex, pitting a confusing patchwork of militias against the regimes in Baghdad and Damascus, and often against one another. Even in that tortured context, ISIS stands out for its brutality, its uncompromising theology, and the rapidity of its success.
Originally established in 2004 as Al Qaeda in Iraq, the group changed its name after its founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed by the US military in 2006. Its current leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, took over in 2010, and has steadily expanded the group’s power and reach. (Al Qaeda formally disavowed ISIS at the beginning of this year.)
Olivier Roy, a French political scientist and author of several definitive books on political Islam, reflected the consensus on ISIS when he dismissed it as a classic jihadi group. “ISIS is an army of militants, not a political party, nor a social movement,” Roy told The New Republic. “It succeeds because the others failed; and as everywhere it will confront a backlash of the civil society.”
The extensive paper trail that ISIS leaves wherever it goes, however, suggests a more complex and deliberate strategy, combining a typical religious-splinter-group playbook with a genuine interest in building a state and a citizenry.
When ISIS stormed into Mosul in June and sent the Iraqi Army running, it did not begin governing by whim. Rather, it published rules. In a 16-point communiqué signed by the secretive al-Baghdadi, ISIS stated expectations for the local population that were clear, direct, and to the point. Women had to “dress decently” and only go outside “if needed.” Muslims must go to prayers on time, and thieves would have their hands cut off.
These requirements were placed in a larger ideological context. “People tried secular forms of government: republic, Baathist, Safavids,” ISIS declared. “It pained you. Now is time for an Islamic state.”
The decree announced that all Iraqi government property was confiscated and could only be distributed by ISIS leaders. Tribal leaders were warned not to cooperate with the government. Guns and flags were banned. Police and soldiers were instructed to register at special “repentance centers.”
In territory under its control, ISIS has followed a methodical script. Once it has established military dominance, it takes over power plants, factories, bakeries, and food supplies. Its lawyers draft modern contracts that spell out the Islamic responsibilities of local organizations that want to work with the displaced. Even its name is telling. Critics address it derisively by its acronym, but ISIS members call it “al-Dawla,” or “the state.”
Like all the movements that have built influence in the region, ISIS asks its constituents to take active responsibility—enforcing moral codes, reporting crime and corruption, spreading the call to God.
“It’s not the old model where the citizen is passive and plays no role,” said Brookings Institution scholar Shadi Hamid, author of the book “Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.” “Within certain limits, if you agree to abide by these strict rules, there is an active role for citizens under ISIS.”
In countries where citizens have well-established political rights, this level of participation might seem inconsequential. But in modern Middle Eastern states—where regimes rule through benign neglect or, worse, by deliberately seeking to keep their populations passive and disengaged—even the smallest call to action can feel appealing.
Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have all thrived by mobilizing members around a project and a shared identity. So have smaller groups led by clerics or militants in Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. Much of the early enthusiasm behind the Egyptian uprising of Jan. 25, 2011, arose from the promise that after decades of effective military dictatorship, Egyptians could finally live as citizens, with both rights and responsibilities.
To Westerners, ISIS’s combination of participatory, grass-roots governance with total rejection of pluralism and democracy can be puzzling. But like the Islamic Jihad and Al Qaeda, ISIS draws from the Sunni jihadi tradition, which has always demanded huge commitment and involvement from its followers while excluding everyone else. ISIS takes these concepts to their limits; in its view of sharia, or Islamic law, “heretical” sects like Shia Islam should be eliminated. Christians and Jews would theoretically be allowed to live under ISIS protection as heavily taxed second-class citizens.
That may strike observers as extremism, but in fact, sectarian governance is already the de facto rule in much of the Middle East. To supporters and fellow travelers, the ideology of groups like ISIS can seem like a rare acknowledgment of reality: Ruling parties only pretend to believe in a national identity while actually just enforcing the power of one sect or clique. Iran holds elections, but only to calibrate the balance of power within one faction of the Shia clerical establishment. Iraq is a multi-ethnic democracy that is in practice run by a Shia warlord. Saudi Arabia, the richest and possibly most influential state in the region, is run as a feudal monarchy by a single family that enforces many of the same intolerant religious rules as ISIS.
As a result, ISIS has won support, or at least acceptance, from people who would never identify as extremists. “They’re in control, and they’re no worse than the regime,” said one engineer named Abdullah. He was speaking at the bus station in Kilis, Turkey, where he had brought his family to escape regime bombing in Aleppo. Some of his relatives lived in ISIS-controlled areas, others under the Assad regime, and some, like Abdullah himself, under the less virulently Islamist Free Syrian Army. Abdullah said he didn’t share the views of ISIS but didn’t mind them either. “Their rules are clear. If they leave people alone, it’s not so bad.”
NIHILIST EXTREMISTS have managed to attract armed followers in corners of the United States, Europe, India, and elsewhere, but they remain nothing more than a violent nuisance when countered by an effective state that commands the loyalty of its citizens. Not so in the Arab world. So far ISIS has bested the armies of Syria and Iraq, which appeared unwilling to fight, and small Syrian militias that have gone head to head with ISIS but are at a colossal disadvantage in funds and firepower.
ISIS hasn’t yet clashed directly with the Shia sectarian militias, like Hezbollah and like the reconstituted Mahdi Army, Badr Brigades, and others in Iraq, which display a similar fanatical sectarian zeal and lack of restraint. It already has some advantages over some of these organizations, however. Unlike Al Qaeda’s vague vision of a borderless world run by extremist jihadis, ISIS has a plan to build a viable state right now. In less than a year it has secured a de facto country, and acquired an arsenal of American weapons as war booty. It has formed alliances with non-jihadi Sunni leaders, including Baathist allies of deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. And crucially, it has laid out a blueprint for a viable self-funding Islamic state, drawing a steady income instead from a commercial tax base and the crucial energy industry it has captured.
Until the Arab states come up with a counter-appeal, groups like ISIS will continue to rise and peel away the loyalty of their citizens. The obvious solution is a system of Middle Eastern government that grants genuine representation and a national identity to people regardless of sect or ethnicity. Two hundred years ago, the Ottoman Empire provided a template that allowed its subjects to live locally within their own religious and ethnic communities while leaving matters of law and commerce to a transnational authority. Fifty years ago, governments flirted with Baathism and Arab Nationalism, both ultimately failed experiments to create a transcendent and unifying ideological identity.
As the region has grown more diverse and its population more educated, its governments have moved in the opposite direction, acting more repressive, intolerant, religious, and antipluralistic. Today, there is not a single alternative vision of citizenship being offered in the region, not even a bad one. Groups like ISIS, or for that matter Hezbollah—which in all other matters is its polar opposite—thrive because they have an idea of what a citizen should do and be.
Today fragmentation and sectarianism seem to have the upper hand, but the regional uprisings that began in 2010 bespoke a widely shared desire to break free of the old categories of identity and the old relationship of omnipotent rulers and passive subjects. Unless those revolutions bear fruit, the people who rose up will face waves and counterwaves of domination from two difficult kinds of masters: tyrants who offer no shot at citizenship, or extremists who offer it to a select religious group on their own violent terms.
[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas]
GAZIANTEP, Turkey — In a provincial town previously known for its nuts, Byzantine fortress, and Ottoman souk, shiny trailers now nestle among the pistachio groves. Smugglers, businessmen, Western aid workers, and Turkish police greet each other with warm familiarity. Hundreds of trucks loaded with food baskets, tents, and other essentials hurtle out of town every day, headed for the nearby Kilis crossing on the rebel-controlled border to Syria.
In 2012, as the Syrian civil war escalated into the deadliest conflict of our day, a pop-up humanitarian aid city sprang up here virtually overnight. There’s a sparkling refugee camp and a busy shuttle bus service for Syrians; an army of humanitarian workers operates hundreds of millions of dollars worth of programs out of offices kitted out with particleboard furniture. Syrian aid workers can attend their choice of international “capacity building” conferences, which teach them human-resources tricks while doubling as rest and relaxation from the war that is gutting their country.
The town has become a showcase for a generation’s worth of learning about wartime aid. After the wars in Darfur, Afghanistan, Somalia, Bosnia, and Rwanda, aid groups and the governments that fund them refined their approaches, drawing lessons and crafting new tactics. As a result, messy as the Syrian conflict is, aid here has been a considerable success. International groups have continued to deliver vital food to areas that have switched hands over and over. Building on past experience with the Taliban, they’ve figured out how to help people living under the rule of militant Al Qaeda offshoots. Though an estimated 160,000 have died, the famine and epidemics predicted early in the conflict have, so far, failed to materialize.
Even so, many Syrians are still deeply unhappy with the aid effort here. “What is happening here will be a black mark for the world. It has nothing to do with humanitarianism,” said Sheikh Towfik, a lifelong farmer in Aleppo Province who since the war began has commanded an antigovernment militia called the Noureddin Zinky Brigade.
At the source of the tension is the political decision by the most important aid power of them all, the gargantuan United Nations agencies, to work with only one side of the conflict: the government of Bashar Assad. To preserve access to the Syrian capital of Damascus and avoid the risk of retribution, the UN aid agencies abide by Assad’s rules inside Syria, funneling funds through his bureaucracy and delivering aid only to the areas he permits.
Aid groups always face criticism in conflicts and natural disasters, the most piercing often from within their own ranks. But in Syria, the relatively effective technical response has intensified the focus on the political calculations of the aid industry and its overarching impact on the conflict. Even aid that seems impartial, like the food and blankets distributed by Western groups over the Turkish border, arguably extends the war, by taking good enough care of civilians that militants and the government are free to pour their resources into fighting.
What’s happening in Syria raises the unsettling question of whether humanitarian aid, in the largest sense, could actually sometimes do harm. Critics who study the aid industry point out that for all the short-term relief it provides, the flow of aid money can also help prop up warlords and militia leaders. And the more professionalized and better-funded the aid industry becomes, the more it can help prolong the very conflicts it is supposed to alleviate.
WARTIME AID as we understand it today has its roots in World War II. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees was established in response to the catastrophic displacement of millions of people across Europe, while Red Cross and Red Crescent societies expanded their reach and ambitions as well. By the 1970s, after the well-chronicled famine of the Biafran War in Nigeria, a host of smaller agencies and independent organizations sprang up to work with refugees, child soldiers, women, and others affected by conflict.
Under international law, humanitarian aid rests on the principle that people have a universal right to food, shelter, health care, and education even during a time of war. All the United Nations powers formally agree on this principle—even Russia, which this year used the threat of a Security Council veto to remove the enforcement provision from a resolution supporting equal access to civilians in all parts of Syria. This broad rights umbrella dictates that unarmed refugees should be free to leave conflict zones, and that neutral aid workers should be allowed unfettered access to provide medical care and deliver aid independently of combatant groups.
In real life, however, no one in a war zone can operate without regard for the people who carry the weapons. Aid workers, like everyone else, have to negotiate for access, and the more powerful the fighting groups, the more they may try to manipulate aid agencies and co-opt the flow of resources to their own ends.
In Syria, the Assad government declared from the beginning that it would deal only with groups that agreed to “respect Syria’s sovereignty” and avoid working in rebel areas. In the early years of the conflict, when the regime was on the verge of collapsing, it overlooked some aid groups that operated on both sides. But as Assad regained his footing he began to enforce the rules more aggressively, and today any aid group or individual who enters Syria through a rebel border crossing is blacklisted by the regime. In Syria, this has resulted in a stark split, in which aid groups must choose to serve only one side of the conflict: either the regime areas, reached from Damascus, or rebel areas, reached from Gaziantep and nearby towns along the Turkish border.
In May, the aid group Mercy Corps—one of the only groups still helping civilians on both sides of the conflict—was given an ultimatum by Assad: Stop working in rebel-held areas, or be evicted from Damascus. Reluctantly, Mercy Corps officials said, they closed their Damascus operation, which reached fewer people and had less freedom than the independent operation from Turkey. The message resonated with the rest of the aid community: Syria wouldn’t hesitate to kick out an aid agency even if it meant, in the case of Mercy Corps, depriving 350,000 people of help.
The major player in aid, however, has chosen Damascus: the United Nations, whose UNHCR and World Food Program account for the lion’s share of global humanitarian aid. When the war in Syria escalated in 2012 and the number of displaced reached 1 million, the UN expanded its small existing presence in Damascus to deliver aid to hungry or displaced people in areas under the regime’s control. (The UN had a Damascus operation in place to deal with refugees from the war in Iraq, and political staff handling negotiations between Assad and the West.)
International law ran squarely up against the demands of the Assad regime, which insisted it would expel the UN from the entire country if it worked in areas controlled by groups the regime considered “terrorists.” The stakes were high: Banned from Damascus, the UN would not only lose the ability to reach at least half the population, but it would be unable to conduct diplomacy between the regime, the opposition, and international powers. UN personnel feared harassment or violent retribution from the regime if they begin working on both sides of the conflict; some also saw the foothold in Damascus, and the relationship with the regime, as crucially important in the long run if Assad wins the civil war.
As a result, billions of dollars worth of supplies now go to areas designated by Assad; the president can essentially order the UN to send supplies to areas filled with his supporters or funnel it through Syrian nonprofits controlled by his allies. He can also cut off aid where he sees fit. The government routinely blocks food deliveries to the Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk camp, according to UN reports, creating a sustained emergency there.
“It’s insane. The United Nations is supporting a regime which is committing war crimes,” says Osama Kadi, director of the Syrian rebels’ Assistance Coordination Unit, which secures Western grants for local governance groups around Syria.
By humanitarian estimates, about half all Syrians, and two-thirds of those in need, live outside of regime control—and thus have no access to UN help. This means that a patchwork of aid groups is responsible for millions of displaced Syrians in the country’s north. Independent groups like Mercy Corps, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and Doctors Without Borders have set up shop in Turkey and Northern Syria, navigating among dozens of armed groups, from Al Qaeda to the Syrian army, to help civilians in areas where rebels have pushed out the government.
They run food and emergency winterization programs to make sure those who were pushed out of their homes inside Syria were able to survive. (The UN estimates 6.5 million Syrians are displaced inside the country, and another 2.5 million have fled across the border.) In many ways, their effort has become a model for how to do wartime aid right: The Turkish government set up refugee camps near the border that are so clean and well organized that Syrians call them “five-star camps.” When polio broke out, international organizations collaborated with a Syrian opposition group and a network of Syrian medical volunteers to organize a vaccination campaign, still ongoing. Think tanks have sprung up in Gaziantep to assist the humanitarian response.
But to be effective, the groups also need to work with some unsavory local players, just as the UN has to work with Assad. Independent aid groups are delivering food and tents in areas controlled by local warlords, Al Qaeda, and even the ultra-extremist group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which has declared war on Al Qaeda for being too moderate. They have invested considerable resources and training in local civilian Syrian groups who are supposed to be able to operate in the war zone independently of the different militias. But there are no peacekeepers or neutral guards to protect them.
FOR ALL ITS SUCCESSES, the Syrian conflict highlights a systemic problem that is becoming only more acute as aid becomes more professionalized and more effective. In principle, humanitarian aid represents an independent international effort based on universal norms. In practice, it’s an industry that has to work in the world’s most dangerous environments, in uneasy cooperation with precisely the regimes and militants causing the conflict.
On the UN side, it’s clear that the heavy flow of aid to areas selected for government largesse allows Bashar Assad to harness foreign aid as another patronage stream. On the other side, independent aid to civilians in areas under the control of warlords or Al Qaeda-style extremists effectively buttresses their local power. On balance, the flow of aid greatly favors Assad: For a sense of comparative scale, last year the Syrian political opposition’s humanitarian budget was $44 million, while the American and European international aid groups run several hundred million worth of programs; the UN’s humanitarian aid budget for the Syria crisis in 2014 is $4.2 billion.
As the aid industry grows, critics have become concerned that it is helping prolong the conflict it’s supposed to relieve. On a political level, the more effective the humanitarian aid, the easier it is for Western superpowers to contain the humanitarian spillover and ignore the conflict itself. In a recent study, a Harvard and a Yale economist found that an increase in food aid directly correlates with an increase in violence and the length of civil conflicts.
No one can quantify whether the huge flow of UN aid to Syria has conclusively tipped the balance in Assad’s favor, but many policy analysts believe it has bought him considerable breathing room. They also point out that it is profoundly inconsistent, at best, for the United States and other governments to fund aid programs that are effectively under the control of a dictator who they are also trying to indict for war crimes.
Aid organizations and the UN have struggled with this dilemma before: They had to negotiate access to southern Sudan with the dictator Omar al-Bashir, who was later indicted for war crimes. In Afghanistan, they’ve dealt for decades with health care, education, and food programs in areas where the Taliban sometimes tolerates and other times targets aid workers.
In Syria, however, the political conflict is perhaps starker than it has ever been. UN aid is going through a regime that has plenty of its own resources to provide food and health care to its citizens, and the aid is largely directed away from where it’s most needed.
Not even the fiercest critics of the aid establishment would say that wartime aid should cease. Even the rebel commanders most incensed about the imbalance said in interviews that everyone deserved an equal share. “The answer isn’t to stop aid,” one commander said in an interview. “The answer is to give the same amount to everyone.”
But when it comes to how that is supposed to happen, answers are scarce. Tellingly, a recent UN Security Council resolution upheld the principle that access to aid should be equal throughout Syria—but didn’t include any enforcement mechanism. Every decision about access carries such urgent life-or-death consequences for both the recipients and aid workers that it has been hard to have a serious debate about the implications.
After decades of practice, the aid community has shown that it’s made great strides in overcoming the technical challenges to helping people during wartime. But the debate over “how” has submerged other questions—including where the limits should be, and at what point an environment or a regime becomes so noxious that the aid community, or more importantly the UN, would decide to pull out. It’s easy to agree that the aid community must do anything it can to help a starving family or a sick child. It’s harder to confront the prospect that a clean, well-run aid village could be the very thing that allows the war over the border to continue.
Of all the authoritarian Arab states researchers studied, only one now meets the standards of electoral democracy.
[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]
MODERN DEMOCRACY tends to come with a strong evangelical spirit. If voting and personal liberty are good for us, the thinking goes, surely they’re worth spreading to the world as well.
The foreign policy driven by this belief is known as “democracy promotion,” and has long been an explicit goal of Western governments. At least since the 1950s, institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have aimed to promote democratic values in the economic and political life of developing countries.
The favored method is a top-down approach: Democracy-promotion groups funnel money to nascent political parties and help train people to run the institutions considered central to democracy, from elections commissions to associations for judges and lawyers. Western advisers push democratic ideas and try to strengthen local civic organizations. Then, when the opportunity for a new government arises, the wisdom goes, we have only to step back and watch citizens embrace it.
AMINE LANDOULSI/ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE 2011
Tunisian voters lined up at a polling station in Menzeh, near Tunis.
It may sound naive to think you can midwife societal change or transplant political ideals, but this method has long been almost universally accepted among policy makers. Even those lukewarm in their support for democracy promotion itself have believed it can work this way.
Then came the Arab uprisings that began in 2010. America and other Western nations had been working for decades and investing hundreds of millions of dollars to support a vast network of pro-democracy organizations across the Arab world. Based on prevailing theories, once protests started to shake one authoritarian government after another, the popular momentum should have been unstoppable.
Instead, the results have been dismal. In nearly every case—arguably, the only exception is Tunisia—the countries that rose up against dictators ended up less democratic than they began. Now, armed with new case studies from the Arab uprisings, a group of contrarian political scientists is arguing for a radical reconsideration of the whole notion of how to spread democracy to other nations—or if it’s even possible at all.
“We should be much more humble about what the best possible outcomes are,” said Tarek Masoud, a political scientist at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government who recently coauthored a study of the Arab transitions titled “Why the Modest Harvest?” The study, which took a systematic look at the results of the Arab Spring, concluded that the authoritarian regimes enjoyed a structural stability that no amount of Western-funded political idealism was likely to displace.
Masoud, once a believer in traditional democracy promotion, has become a vociferous new critic of its tactics and ambitions. Based on his research, he has come to believe that a more effective approach would be to focus on the underlying conditions that allow democracies to flourish—skipping the election coaching and party-building in favor of basics like education, health, and economic growth. If it means working with nondemocratic regimes to help get there, and giving up our vision of democracy sweeping out tyranny at the first opportunity, so be it. “Maybe in a place like Syria or Libya,” he said, “the best possible outcome is one in which the old regime is at the table.”
Masoud and other skeptics aren’t ideologues. They profess a deep personal preference for democratic rule, and sympathize with oppressed peoples who oppose tyranny. But, they say, our desire to see freedom spread has been clouding our judgment about what actually allows it to take root.
ALTHOUGH MODERN democracy promotion has ideological roots in the Cold War, with the United States and the Soviet Union competing for influence in smaller countries around the world, by the 1980s it began to be accepted as a common-sense investment in human well-being. As an increasing number of nations climbed the economic ladder, and some replaced authoritarian regimes with democratic ones, most political scientists came to agree that bolstering civil society and good governance helped bring about both prosperity and democratic rule.
This dominant school of thought is called “voluntarism,” and it is fundamentally optimistic: It assumes that individual actions can change the course of nations, and that democracy can be nurtured by giving the right skills to promising leaders and activists. Duke political scientist Timur Kuran, in a highly influential 1991 paper on the Eastern European revolutions, put forth the notion of “cascades.” In a fear-based dictatorship everyone hides their opposition, he wrote, but if one or a few courageous individuals take a public stand, they might suddenly be joined by great waves of supporters emboldened to reveal their preferences.
In policy terms, the conventional wisdom on democracy promotion has translated into billions of cumulative foreign-aid dollars earmarked for programs that train everything from young journalists to labor organizers to members of parliament. The underlying assumption is that even when they don’t lead directly to democracy, these efforts are good for society, and from time to time they’ll yield a great leap forward in freedom.
While it started with national governments and intergovernmental organizations, democracy promotion has grown into an industry of its own. High profile groups funded by the US government, like the National Endowment for Democracy and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, have became ubiquitous on the international scene. They help design elections, train political parties, and give advice to student groups and labor unions. A plethora of less-well-known organizations fund workshops and international travel for lawyers, human rights advocates, and community organizers.
Although George W. Bush talked about democracy more pointedly than Barack Obama, the amount of money invested in democracy promotion has steadily grown even under the current administration, according to Thomas Carothers, a democratization expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Today, Carothers estimates, about $10 billion a year is spent worldwide promoting democracy in countries from Iraq to Mongolia, from Honduras to Pakistan.
At the time that the Arab uprisings broke out in late 2010, Masoud says, he was firmly persuaded by the conventional wisdom about democratization and transitions. Buoyed by the brave actions of so many individual activists and politicians across the Arab world, he expected to see the dictatorships replaced by a wave of democratic, or at least more democratic, regimes. Even in the worst cases, most scholars and policy makers assumed, surviving authoritarian regimes would be held to new standards and forced to govern more transparently.
Of course, that is not what happened. Instead of falling like dominoes, most of the Arab regimes prevented or crushed popular uprisings. In cases like Egypt, where longstanding president Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011, the current military regime has turned out to be even more repressive.
Masoud and two fellow political scientists studied 14 Arab states under authoritarian rule and found that in the end only Tunisia experienced an unequivocal improvement on the democracy scale. Elsewhere, within a few years of the revolts, even countries that had appeared promising, like Egypt, Syria, and Libya, were headed in a negative direction, their hopeful democratic movements having crashed against an immovable structural obstacle.
What made the difference? Masoud and his fellow researchers found that the biggest determinant of whether authoritarian regimes survived had nothing to do with civil society, individual protest leaders, or even the workings of the political system. The calculus turned out to be much simpler. As long as regimes had sufficient money and loyal security forces, they seemed able to ward off any pressure to democratize, regardless of whether they were monarchies or republics, or whether they were endowed with oil wealth. Though Western countries had spent enormous money and effort to support the development of democratic institutions in these places, this factor seemed to make little difference.
So what does help democracies take root? Even amid the mass support for the voluntarism theory, there’s always been a contrarian school of thought. “Modernization theory” argues that for any democracy to thrive, economic development must come first—and that the most useful way to encourage struggling countries is to help them improve literacy, per-capita GDP, and other benchmarks economists use to measure human development levels. Once a country is wealthy enough, better institutions, governance, laws, and political systems can take root and thrive. An influential 1997 paper by NYU political scientist Adam Przeworski argued that wealth didn’t cause democracy—the prosperous but authoritarian nation of Singapore shows that clearly enough—but in wealthy states that achieved democracy, the new order tended to hold.
For Masoud and other critics, the Arab uprisings made this view suddenly far more persuasive. The failures there couldn’t be blamed on lack of desire or exposure to democratic ideas. Rather, they pointed toward structural factors that had nothing to do with civic groups or courageous individuals.
Once the dust had settled on the Arab uprisings, Masoud began a separate research project comparing conditions in the Arab world to other nations that successfully made a transition to democracy, measuring literacy, per capita GDP, and other indicators of modern development. The results were striking. Egypt, he found, had literacy levels comparable to England in 1850, long before universal suffrage there. And Egypt’s per capita GDP wasn’t even where Argentina’s was in 1970, when that country embarked on a final round of dictatorial rule before emerging as a democracy.
It was this lack of wealth and development, Masoud concluded, that is currently impeding democracy in the Arab world. No one knows what causes democracy to break out, but Masoud believes the evidence shows what’s necessary to sustain it: an advanced economy. Otherwise, strong authoritarian regimes will be able to rebound even after a brief bout of democracy, just as has happened in Egypt.
MASOUD AND HIS two coauthors—political scientists Andrew Reynolds at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Jason Brownlee at the University of Texas at Austin—have expanded their research into a book to be released this fall, which takes a deeper look at the structures that enable or prevent new, more democratic politics.
Though the three differ in their prescriptions for US policy, they all agree that the prevailing expectations for our abilities to seed change are unrealistic. “We need to recognize that there is a historical time to these processes that can take generations,” Brownlee said. “There’s an impulse to want to accelerate these processes, to think that because we’re in the 21st century things move more quickly.”
Reynolds has spent decades designing new electoral systems for nations in transition; currently he’s helping to set up a regional parliament in a new semi-autonomous zone of the Philippines. The Arab revolts have made him “more pessimistic” about democracy support, he said. Now, he thinks only limited assistance can work. Instead of the vague and sprawling complex of democracy promotion programs we currently fund, he suggests, we should invest in technical help in situations where local powers have already agreed to do something.
Masoud, the most skeptical of the three, sees the policy implications as quite stark. The United States should preserve small, values-based programs, he says, like promoting human rights and opposing torture, in the hope of encouraging small but tangible improvements even in authoritarian countries. But we should dispense entirely with the fiction that our policies can bring about democracy directly. Not only doesn’t it work, he says, but it gives a false expectation of US support to antiregime activists challenging despots in places like Syria or Ukraine.
Not everyone is rallying to their position. Eva Bellin, a political scientist across town at Brandeis, looked at the Arab Spring and came to exactly the opposite conclusion: that ideology and individual choice really did matter, at least in Egypt and Tunisia. Once a dedicated believer in the importance of modernization, she has effectively switched places with Masoud in the debate. “The events of the last three years in the Arab world have persuaded me of the crucial importance of individual choice,” Bellin said. “As my 17-year-old daughter tells me, I have embraced the old ‘great man in history’ approach.”
There’s also an argument that we simply can’t tell how well democracy-promotion efforts work, since they’re always happening in the context of other foreign policy operations as well—some of them working at cross-purposes, and at a much larger scale. In Egypt, for example, the United States spends a few millions on overt democracy-promotion efforts, supporting civil society groups that monitor the regime’s abuses of human rights, while simultaneously giving billions to support the same repressive regime as a political ally. In Iran, the United States aims to empower citizens to challenge the ayatollahs in street demonstrations and on Twitter, but at the same time impoverishes them through economic sanctions. In Bahrain, which depends on a US naval base for military protection, the United States stood aside while the government violently crushed its pro-democracy movement in 2011, apparently deciding the security relationship trumped its interest in nudging a nation toward democracy.
It may be, as Masoud suggests, that international democracy training programs amount to well-intentioned but ineffectual junkets. But there is another possible reading of this complicated picture as well. When those unexpected jumps toward democracy do happen—in Mongolia in 1990, Indonesia in 1998, Tunisia in 2011, Burma’s halting moves toward democracy today—it’s surely because of a web of factors.
It may be that we need to put more money into basic development for authoritarian countries—education, health, and so on—and put less faith in our ability to promote democracy directly. But it may be premature to cut off democracy promotion efforts as sharply as their harshest critics suggest. In the mysterious and complex picture of what leads countries toward democracy, it seems that we’re still figuring out which tools actually work. Until we do, it may not pay to get rid of the one that probably does the least harm.
[The Internationalist column published in the The Boston Globe Ideas.]
WHAT HAPPENED IN UKRAINE over the past month left even veteran policy-watchers shaking their heads. One day, citizens were serving tea to the heroic demonstrators in Kiev’s Euromaidan, united against an authoritarian president. Almost the next, anonymous special forces fighters in balaclavas were swarming Crimea, answering to no known leader or government, while Europe and the United States grasped in vain for ways to influence events.
Within days, the population of Crimea had voted in a hastily organized referendum to join Russia, and Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, had signed the annexation treaty formally absorbing the strategic peninsula into his nation.
As the dust settles, Western leaders have had to come to terms not only with a new division of Ukraine, but its unsettling implications for how the world works. Part of the shock is in Putin’s tactics, which blended an old-fashioned invasion with some degree of democratic process within the region, and added a dollop of modern insurgent strategies for good measure.
Vladimir Putin at the Plesetsk cosmodrome launch site in northern Russia./PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE VIA REUTERS
But when policy specialists look at the results, they see a starker turning point. Putin’s annexation of the Crimea is a break in the order that America and its allies have come to rely on since the end of the Cold War—namely, one in which major powers only intervene militarily when they have an international consensus on their side, or failing that, when they’re not crossing a rival power’s red lines. It is a balance that has kept the world free of confrontations between its most powerful militaries, and which has, in particular, given the United States, as the most powerful superpower of all, an unusually wide range of motion in the world. As it crumbles, it has left policymakers scrambling to figure out both how to respond, and just how far an emboldened Russia might go.
“WE LIVE IN A DIFFERENT WORLD than we did less than a month ago,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in March. Ukraine could witness more fighting, he warned; the conflict could also spread to other countries on Russia’s borders.
Up until the Crimea crisis began, the world we lived in looked more predictable. The fall of the Berlin Wall a quarter century ago ushered in an era of international comity and institution building not seen since the birth of the United Nations in 1945. International trade agreements proliferated at a dizzying speed. NATO quickly expanded into the heart of the former Soviet bloc, and lawyers designed an International Criminal Court to punish war crimes and constrain state interests.
Only small-to-middling powers like Iran, Israel, and North Korea ignored the conventions of the age of integration and humanitarianism—and their actions only had regional impact, never posing a global strategic threat. The largest powers—the United States, Russia, and China—abided by what amounted to an international gentleman’s agreement not to use their military for direct territorial gains or to meddle in a rival’s immediate sphere of influence. European powers, through NATO, adopted a defensive crouch. The United States, as the world’s dominant military and economic power, maintained the most freedom to act unilaterally, as long as it steered clear of confrontation with Russia or China. It carefully sought international support for its military interventions, even building a “Coalition of the Willing” for its 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was not approved by the United Nations. The Iraq war grated at other world powers that couldn’t embark on military adventures of their own; but despite the irritation the United States provoked, American policymakers and strategists felt confident that the United States was obeying the unspoken rules.
If the world community has seemed bewildered by how to respond to Putin’s moves in Crimea over the last month, it’s because Russia has so abruptly interrupted this narrative. Using Russia’s incontestable military might, with the backing of Ukrainians in a subset of that country, he took over a chunk of territory featuring the valuable warm-water port of Sevastopol. The boldness of this move left behind the sanctions and other delicate moves that have become established as persuasive tactics. Suddenly, it seemed, there was no way to halt Russia without outright war.
Some analysts say that Putin appears to have identified a loophole in the post-Cold War world. The sole superpower, the United States, likes to put problems in neat, separate categories that can be dealt with by the military, by police action or by international institutions. When a problem blurs those boundaries—pirates on the high seas, drug cartels with submarines and military-grade weapons—Western governments don’t know what to do. Today, international norms and institutions aren’t configured to react quickly to a legitimate great power willing to use force to get what it wants.
“We have these paradigms in the West about what’s considered policing, and what’s considered warfare, and Putin is riding right up the middle of that,” said Janine Davidson, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former US Air Force officer who believes that Putin’s actions will force the United States to update its approach to modern warfare. “What he’s doing is very clever.”
For obvious reasons, a central concern is how Putin might make use of his Crimean playbook next. He could, for example, try to engineer an ethnic provocation, or a supposedly spontaneous uprising, in any of the near-Russian republics that threatens to ally too closely with the West. Mark Kramer, director of Harvard University’s Project on Cold War Studies, said that Putin has “enunciated his own doctrine of preemptive intervention on behalf of Russian communities in neighboring countries.”
There have been intimations of this approach before. In 2008, Russian infantry pushed into two enclaves in neighboring Georgia, citing claims—which later proved false—that thousands of ethnic Russians were being massacred. Russia quickly routed the Georgian military and took over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Today the disputed enclaves hover in a sort of twilight zone; they’ve declared independence but were recognized only by Moscow and a few of its allies. Ever since then, Georgian politicians have warned that Russia might do the same thing again: The country could seize a land corridor to Armenia, or try to absorb Moldova, the rest of Ukraine, or even the Baltic States, the only former Soviet Republics to join both NATO and the European Union.
Others see Putin’s reach as limited at best to places where meaningful military resistance is absent and state control weak. Even in Ukraine, Russia experts say, Putin seemed content to wield influence through friendly leaders until protests ran the Ukrainian president out of town and left a power vacuum that alarmed Moscow. Graham, the former Bush administration official, said it would be a long shot for Putin to move his military into other republics: There are few places with Crimea’s combination of an ethnic Russian enclave, an absence of state authority, and little risk of Western intervention.
The larger worry, of course, is who else might want to follow Russia’s example. China is the clearest concern, and from time to time has shown signs of trying to throw its weight around its region, especially in disputed areas of the South China Sea. But so far it has been Chinese fishing boats and coast guard vessels harassing foreign fishermen, with the Chinese navy carefully staying away in order not to trigger a military response. For the moment, at least, Putin seems willing to upend this delicately balanced world order on his own.
THE INTERNATIONAL community’s flat-footed response in Crimea raises clear questions: What should the United States and its allies do if this kind of land grab happens again—and is there a way to prevent such moves in the first place?
“This is a new period that calls for a new strategy,” said Michael A. McFaul, who stepped down as US ambassador to Russia a few weeks before the Crimea crisis. “Putin has made it clear that he doesn’t care what the West thinks.”
So far the international response has entailed soft power pressure that is designed to have an effect over the long term. The United States and some European governments have instated limited economic sanctions targeting some of Putin’s close advisers, and Russia has been kicked out of the G-8. There’s talk of reinvigorating NATO to discourage Putin from further adventurism. So far, though, NATO has turned out to be a blunt instrument: great for unifying its members to respond to a direct attack, but clumsy at projecting power beyond its boundaries. As Putin reorients away from the West and toward a Greater Russia, it remains to be seen whether soft-power deterrents matter to him at all.
Beyond these immediate measures, American experts are surprisingly short on specific suggestions about what more to do, perhaps because it’s been so long since they’ve had to contemplate a major rival engaging in such aggressive behavior. At the hawkish end, people like Davidson worry that Putin could repeat his expansion unless he sees a clear threat of military intervention to stop him. She thinks the United States and NATO ought to place advisers and hardware in the former Soviet republics, creating arrangements that signal Western military commitment. It’s a delicate dance, she said; the West has to be careful not to provoke further aggression while creating enough uncertainty to deter Putin.
Other observers in the field have made more modest economic proposals. Some have urged major investment in the economies of contested countries like Ukraine and Moldova, at the scale of the post-World War II Marshall Plan, and a long-term plan to wean Western Europe off Russian natural gas supplies, through which Moscow has gained enormous leverage, especially over Germany.
Davidson, however, believes that a deeper rethink is necessary, so that the United States won’t get tied up in knots or outflanked every time a powerful nation like Russia uses the stealthy¸ unpredictable tactics of non-state actors to pursue its goals. “We need to look at our definitions of military and law enforcement,” she said. “What’s a crime? What’s an aggressive act that requires a military response?”
McFaul, the former ambassador, said we’re in for a new age of confrontation because of Putin’s choices, and both the United States and Russia will find it more difficult to achieve their goals. In retrospect, he said, we’ll realize that the first decades after the Cold War offered a unique kind of safety, a de facto moratorium on Great Power hardball. That lull now seems to be over.
“It’s a tragic moment,” McFaul said.
[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]
BEIRUT — The medical students disappeared on a run to the Aleppo suburbs. It was 2011, the first year of the Syrian uprising, and they were taking bandages and medicine to communities that had rebelled against the brutal Assad regime. A few days later, the students’ bodies, bruised and broken, were dumped on their parents’ doorsteps.
Dr. Fouad M. Fouad, a surgeon and prominent figure in Syrian public health, knew some of the students who had been killed. And he knew what their deaths meant. The laws of war—in which medical personnel are allowed to treat everybody equally, combatants and civilians from any side—no longer applied in Syria.
“The message was clear: Even taking medicine to civilians in opposition areas was a crime,” he recalled.
As the war accelerated, Syria’s medical system was dragged further into the conflict. Government officials ordered Fouad and his colleagues to withhold treatment from people who supported the opposition, even if they weren’t combatants. The regime canceled polio vaccinations in opposition areas, allowing a preventable disease to take hold. And it wasn’t just the regime: Opposition fighters found doctors and their families a soft target for kidnapping; doctors always had some cash and tended not to have special protection like other wealthy Syrians.
Doctors began to flee Syria, Fouad among them. He left for Beirut in 2012. By last year, according to a United Nations working group, the number of doctors in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, had plummeted from more than 5,000 to just 36.
Since then, Fouad has joined a small but growing group of doctors trying to persuade global policy makers—starting with the world’s public health community—to pay more urgent attention to how profoundly new types of war are transforming medicine and public health. In a recent article in the medical journal The Lancet, Fouad and a team of researchers looked closely at the conflicts in Iraq and Syria and found that the impact of what they call the “militarization of health care” in modern wars goes far beyond the safety of combat zone doctors, ensnaring even uninvolved civilians, with effects that can persist for years.
Other groups have begun focusing on the change as well. The International Committee of the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders have documented and condemned disruptions of medical care by combatants. The entirety of the most recent issue of the journal Public Health is dedicated to a critical assessment of the failure of the World Health Organization to adapt to the new realities of conflict.
Fouad and his Lancet coauthors say—reasonably—that any new global policy norms for wartime health care ultimately need to be hashed out in the security and political realms, not by doctors. But doctors, especially public-health specialists, have a crucial role to play: They gather the data and define the issues that drive much of global health policy. And as war has become a free-for-all, dissolving the rules that long protected medical care, Fouad and his coauthors suggest that their own field has been slow to awaken to the importance of that change.
“To be honest, we are stuck in this problem, and we don’t know what to do,” said Omar Al-Dewachi, a physician and anthropologist at the American University of Beirut, and the lead author of the Lancet paper. “The first thing is to start a conversation, and come up with new tools.”
What will replace the current system is far from clear, they say, but it’s time to start figuring it out: Right now, war has a quarter-century headstart.
UNTIL RECENTLY, medical care was something of a bright spot in the history of conflict. Major European powers, shocked by the suffering and grisly deaths of their soldiers in the Crimean War, agreed in 1864 to the First Geneva Convention. It granted medical workers a special neutral status on the battlefield, and upheld the right of all wounded to medical care regardless of nationality.
It was the first article of international humanitarian law and became the cornerstone of all subsequent Geneva Conventions. When we talk about “crimes against humanity” and “war crimes,” we’re usually referring to the body of law that arose over the next century and half, built on the narrow foundation of neutral, universal medical care for combatants in the battle zone. There were always breakdowns and violations, but the laws of war were remarkably effective at limiting abuse, establishing taboos, and shaming the worst offenders.
That relative comity disappeared with the end of the Cold War. When the rival superpowers were locked in combat, they had an incentive to promote the laws of war; they didn’t want their own fighters mistreated if there were another world war. But with the United States and Soviet Union no longer in direct armed confrontation, small wars across the globe flared with new ferocity and fewer scruples.
The wars of the 1990s spread in shocking new ways, with widespread torture, starvation, and genocidal murder campaigns. Rather than fighting other soldiers, armed groups often concentrated on battling civilians. The Geneva Conventions barely figured for the combatants in the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Rwanda, the Congo, and Afghanistan. The United States contributed to that decline after 9/11 when it suspended Geneva Convention protections for prisoners in the “war on terror,” and normalized drone strikes against targets in civilian areas.
The protections around medical care started to collapse as well. Dr. Jennifer Leaning, director of Harvard University’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, has worked in conflict zones for decades and has surveyed the eroding conditions of medical care. Increasingly, she found, the biggest victims in armed conflicts weren’t the combatants but the civilian populations suffering in scorched-earth or ethnic cleansing campaigns in which doctors and hospitals became explicit, rather than incidental, targets.
The final strike against medical neutrality, Leaning says, came in the last decade during America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Insurgents targeted anyone connected to the “Western” side of the conflict, even local health care workers treating patients in public hospitals. The CIA used a polio inoculation campaign to gather information in its hunt for Osama bin Laden; ever since, Pakistani mullahs have condemned vaccination workers. By the time civil war broke out in Syria, the equal right to medical care in combat zones existed only on paper.
“What is now happening is the violation of deeply held legal norms that have taken 150 years of work,” Leaning said in an interview. “That is what is appalling.”
It’s been commonplace in the last decade in Iraq and Syria for militias to enter hospitals with guns drawn, and order doctors to treat their comrades instead of civilians. In the early 1990s in Mogadishu, such behavior was an oddity. In Baghdad in 2006, Shia death squads took over entire hospitals and infiltrated the health ministry, denying health care to Sunnis and even hunting down rivals in their sickbeds.
Doctors are also starting to document how a war-torn region’s health problems can continue even when dramatic violence subsides. Once a functioning health care system is destroyed, it can take years or decades to rebuild. Al-Dewachi worked as a physician in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, and has had a close view of how a war’s medical impact can persist and spread. With Iraq’s hospital system in shambles and doctors constantly emigrating to safer places, patients have flowed over borders, often seeking medical treatment at great cost in the relatively stable hospitals of Beirut. Even when Iraq is supposedly calm, the stream of patients never abates, he said. “It’s an invisible story of the war,” Al-Dewachi said. “The long-term effects continue even when the fighting stops.”
WITH THE OLD SYSTEM broken, what should replace it? This is where it gets hard. Stateless rebels and insurgent groups, by definition, aren’t signatories to any international agreements. And the entire shape of modern warfare looks nothing like the formal battlefields that gave rise to the Geneva Conventions.
“We have to build new tools, new concepts, new institutions, that adapt to this concept of conflict,” Fouad said.
On the ground, under fire, health workers have improvised solutions. One common response has been to withdraw completely, only returning if combatants agree to respect the neutrality of clinics. At various times, groups as tough as Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross have temporarily shut down operations when they were targeted in vicious conflict zone. Some aid groups have used private diplomacy to negotiate protected, equal access to government and rebel areas.
Leaning notes that some medical-aid groups have resorted to armed guards for clinics and vaccine workers, while other health care workers have evolved to function like military medics, embedded with combat forces and providing care on the run.
As for the longer-term effects, the recent Lancet paper suggests some ways for the public health community to rethink its approach to medical care in war zones—starting with its definition of what counts as a war zone.
Health care is normally a massive undertaking that operates through fixed channels—governments, national budgets, and clinics, with clear borders and supply chains. The paper suggests it’s time to scrap this notion when it comes to war zones: One facet of modern conflict is that it obeys no geographical limits. The researchers suggest that the global health community adopt a notion of shifting “therapeutic geographies” that acknowledges people caught in modern conflicts may change where they live—and where they get health care—from day to day, week to week.
That concept, abstract as it sounds, would mark a significant departure in global public health. The World Health Organization, the single most important international body dealing with health matters, still operates almost entirely through diplomatic channels, dealing only with the sovereign government even in complex, multisided conflicts like Syria’s. That means that when the regime wants to isolate a rebel province, WHO can’t vaccinate people there and other UN agencies might not be allowed to deliver emergency food aid. Health organizations and other humanitarian agencies will have to work with nonstate actors and militias, as well as governments, if they want to be able to operate throughout a war-affected area.
Public health research can also put more energy into measuring the human toll of war beyond the battlefield. Part of the recent Lancet paper is a strong call for doctors to start quantifying the effects of modern war on health, looking broadly at its full impact. “At this point, we need to just pay attention and describe what’s going on,” said Al-Dewachi.
The effects of better data could be political as well as medical, the authors suggest: A clear picture of the full health impact of war might well change the justification for future “humanitarian interventions.”
Today, Fouad’s former home of Aleppo is largely a ghost town, its population displaced to safer parts of Syria or across the border to Turkey and Lebanon. The city’s former residents carry the medical consequences of war to their new homes, Fouad said—not just injuries, but effects as varied as smoking rates, untreated cancer, and scabies. Wars like those in Syria and Iraq don’t follow the old rules, and their effects don’t stop at the border.
The researchers are energized by their quest to reorient the public health field, but they betray a certain world weariness when asked what might replace the current order, and provide better care for the millions harmed by today’s boundary-less wars.
“If I knew,” Al-Dewachi said, “I would be involved with it.”
Steve Wakeem, as Sheikh Qassim, the Mufti, delivers a religious decree. Photo: ALEXY FRANGIEH
[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]
Citizens in Damascus were up in arms. An autocrat’s impetuous power grabs and flagrant infidelity had split the city’s ruling clans, while fundamentalist clerics issued blanket fatwas against “immoral behavior.”
The year was 1880. The contretemps quickly subsided, a footnote in Ottoman history. But in December it formed the backbone of a gripping play that delivered a stark critique of power and conservative social mores in the Arab world.
Staged for the first time in English by the American University of Beirut, “Rituals of Signs and Transformations,” a 1994 play by the late Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous, made a splash even in a city known for its relatively freewheeling culture. In literary circles, Wannous has long been considered a giant of Arab literature, but his work has rarely been performed in the region where he lived and worked.
Before his death in 1997, Wannous achieved renown not just as a Syrian dissident writer, but as a playwright on a par with Bertolt Brecht and Wole Soyinka. Politically, his plays in Arabic were akin to Vaclav Havel’s in Iron Curtain Czechoslovakia: They used the thin fictions of the theater to offer social criticism that would be otherwise unthinkable.
Like Havel, Wannous always saw himself as more than a playwright: He spent his life articulating a critique of authoritarianism, religious hypocrisy, and social repression. Up until his death, he was convinced that his plays were laying the groundwork for a complete reinvention of Arab society.
Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous reads a message at UNESCO’s World Theatre Day.
Today, something of a rediscovery of Wannous’s work is underway: “Rituals” has been performed recently in Cairo and Paris, and a collection of his plays has just been published by the City University of New York. Despite it being in English translation, every performance of the play “Rituals” this month played to a full house of people eager to see Wannous’s ribald skewering of official sanctimony and social rigidity.
But the social revolution the playwright hoped for is still far off—and the eager audience for his rarely performed work is evidence of the immense hunger for an honest intellectual dialogue about the crisis in Arab society. Today, even in the arts, dissent like Wannous’s remains unusual here. And that work like his is so compelling, and yet hard to find, is a testament to just how narrow the scope of the region’s political dialogue has become.
WANNOUS WAS BORN in a poor rural village in 1941, a member of the Alawite minority whose members would come to control the Syrian government, and came of age during the 1960s, the peak years of both the Cold War and Arab nationalism. Syria tried to solve its domestic problems by uniting with Egypt, part of a doomed project to create single “pan-Arab” government for the Middle East and North Africa. It failed, leaving Syria and the rest of the Arab world to seek protection as clients of the Cold War powers. Damascus fell squarely in the Soviet camp, and the authoritarian state it created was modeled directly on those of its Eastern bloc counterparts.
In an irony that many in those Communist states would have recognized, Wannous drew a paycheck for much of his life from the very regime that he excoriated in his plays. After studying journalism in Cairo, he held jobs as a critic and a government bureaucrat, while writing plays on his own time. He edited cultural coverage for government newspapers, and established his own journals when his critical views made that impossible. During a stint in Paris as a cultural journalist, he met key writers of his time, including Jean Genet and Eugène Ionesco. Wannous ended up in charge of the Syrian government’s theater administration, which followed a Soviet model, generously supporting an arts scene that buttressed the regime’s values.
By the 1970s, the Assad regime had consolidated power and was fomenting anti-Israel militants around the region while avoiding direct conflict on its own border. Wannous rejected wholesale the primacy of the ruling Alawite minority, and his moral stances, presented in unusually vital dialogue and characters drawn as human beings rather than archetypes, established him as a major Arab writer of his generation.
Wannous’s work shares themes with other global dissident literature: In his play “The King is the King,” for example, a beggar successfully takes the place of the monarch, putting the lie to the claim that there’s anything unique about a divine ruler—or the dictator of Syria, for that matter. Every night at curtain call during its Damascus run, the director placed the stage-prop crown on Wannous’s head, to thundering applause.
“To this day, I don’t understand why it was allowed,” his daughter Dima said in an interview.
During his lifetime, Wannous himself said that he was allowed to write and live in Syria only so that the regime could pretend to the world that it tolerated free speech. He took full advantage of that liberty, savaging the failures of Arab nationalism and the autocrats who spawned it. He broke several taboos in “The Rape,” which as an epilogue featured a character named Wannous discussing the prospects for healing with an Israeli psychiatrist—a conversation that in real life would have been illegal.
As a body of work, his plays amounted to an argument that Arab society needed to break out of the political and social constraints that kept it locked in place. Confronted by his region’s stagnation and powerlessness, Wannous preserved a kind of optimism: The solution, he believed, lay within the Arab world and its citizens. He chafed at the convention of writing in classical Arabic, and wished writers felt free to reach more people by addressing their audience in colloquial language. He himself wrote his first drafts in the colloquial and then translated them into classical Arabic.
He bucked convention in other ways, too. In “Rape,” he depicts an Israeli soldier whose crimes against Palestinians distort his own psyche. But, crucially, he portrays other Israeli characters with empathy—not everyone is a villain—and he suggests there is value in engagement between Arabs and their Israeli enemies.
In “Rituals of Signs and Transformations,” which many critics consider his masterpiece, Wannous took aim at all the Arab world’s sacred cows in one shot. In the play, the mufti of Damascus—the city’s top religious official—feuds with a local rival, the naqib, leader of the nobility. But then the naqib is arrested cavorting with a prostitute, threatening the authority of all the religious leaders. The mufti sets aside his religious principles and schemes to save his erstwhile enemy. The only completely honorable characters are the naqib’s wife, who divorces him and chooses to work as a prostitute herself, and a local tough who’s dumped by his male lover when he decides he wants to be open about his love. A policeman who tries to enforce the law and tell the truth is thrown in jail and branded insane.
The play was never performed in Syria during Wannous’s lifetime. The official excuse was that the sets were too bulky to import from Beirut, where a truncated version had been staged, but it couldn’t have helped that the real-life mufti of Aleppo issued a fatwa against the play. Even in Beirut, the director avoided state censorship by calling the mufti by another name.
That might sound like an evasion from another era, but little has changed. The director of last month’s production also changed the title of the mufti, using the less-religious “sheikh.” Lebanon’s censor regularly shuts down plays, concerts, and other performances; to reduce the likelihood of censorship, the AUB producers didn’t charge for tickets. During the final performance, emboldened by the show’s success, some of the actors reverted to Wannous’ original language, calling the character “mufti.”
“I told them that if we got fined, they would have to pay it,” said the director, Sahar Assaf.
SEEN TODAY, “Rituals” still falls afoul of numerous taboos in the Middle East, from its attack on authority and religious hypocrisy to its unvarnished portrayal of child abuse, rape, and the persecution of gay people and women who seek equal rights. The audiences squirmed as much during the tender love scene between two men as during the soliloquies that reveal the mufti as a power-hungry schemer and another vaunted religious scholar as a serial child molester.
The continued power of Wannous’s work illustrates both his success as an artist and his failure, at least so far, to unleash the societal transformation for which he yearned. He aspired for a society where individuals could live free from tyranny, including the tyranny of his own Alawite sect. These are still not opinions that establishment Syrians are expected to discuss aloud. His daughter Dima, a journalist and fiction writer, last summer wrote approvingly about the spread of the war to Alawite areas. “Now they too will know what it means to be Syrian,” she said. She drew death threats from her father’s relatives.
“He thought his plays would transform Arab society, and all his life he was disappointed that they did not,” said Robert Myers, the playwright and AUB professor who cotranslated “Rituals.” “He thought his plays would ignite a revolution in thinking.”
One of the Wannous’s best-known lines comes not from a play but from the speech he delivered for UNESCO’s World Theater Day in 1996. It was the first time an Arab had been granted the honor, and it’s fair to assume Wannous knew he was speaking for posterity. “We are condemned to hope,” he said, “and what is taking place today cannot be the end of history.” At the time, he was speaking of the decrepit state of theater in the Arab world, but the phrase has lived on as a wider slogan.
Today the tradition Wannous embodied—the high-profile artist-intellectual driving a national conversation—is almost vanished itself. Throughout the Arab world, the publishing business has long been in decline. Millions watch high-end Arabic television serials, but only a few thousand attend theater productions. Most of the great dissident intellectuals are dead, and none in the new generation have achieved political influence. “Today’s intellectuals didn’t start the revolutions. That’s why they have to follow the people instead of leading them,” said Dima Wannous. She finds it particularly galling that sectarian religious fundamentalists have come to dominate the uprising in Syria, which she has been forced to flee because of threats.
Yet it’s also possible to see in Syria a testament to the staying power of Wannous’s ideas. The dream of a secular democratic state, the local initiatives to deliver food and health care, and especially, the early days of the revolt that pitted nonviolent citizens against a pitiless regime, all hark back to the ideals of Wannous—namely, his rejection of received authority and belief that if something better happens, it will arise from within. In 2011, when demonstrators first marched demanding the resignation of Bashar Assad, the signs some brandished read: “We are condemned to hope.”
AFP PHOTO/MARWAN NAAMANI/GETTY IMAGES
Burj Khalifa soars above the other buildings in Dubai.
[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]
BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Palestinian poet and filmmaker Hind Shoufani moved to Dubai for the same reasons that have attracted millions of other expatriates to the glitzy emirate. In 2009, after decades in the storied and mercurial Arab capital cities of Damascus and Beirut and a sojourn in New York, she wanted to live somewhere stable and cosmopolitan where she also could earn a living.
Five years later, she’s won a devoted following for the Poeticians, a Dubai spoken-word literary performance collective she founded. The group has created a vibrant subculture of writers, all of them expats.
To its critics—and even many of its fans—“culture” and “Dubai” barely belong in the same sentence. The city is perhaps the world’s most extreme example of a business-first, built-from-the-sand boomtown. But Shoufani and her fellow Poeticians have become a prime exhibit in a debate that has broken out with renewed vigor in the Arab world and among urban theorists worldwide: whether the gleaming boomtowns of the Gulf are finally establishing themselves as true cities with a sustainable economy and an authentic culture, and, in the process, creating a genuine new path for the Middle East.
KARIM SAHIB/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower.
This is a question of both economic interest and huge sentimental importance. The Arab world is already home to a series of capitals whose greatness reaches deep into antiquity. The urban fabric and dense ancient quarters of Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, and Beirut have long nourished Arab culture and politics. But, racked by insurrection, unemployment, and fading fortunes, they have also begun to seem, to many observers, more mired in the past than a template for the future.
The Dubai debate broke out again in October when Sultan Al Qassemi, a widely read gadfly and member of one of the United Arab Emirates’ ruling families, wrote a provocative essay arguing that the new Gulf cities, Dubai most notable among them, had once and for all eclipsed the ancient capitals as the “new centers of the Arab world.” A flurry ofwithering essays, newspaper articles, and denunciations followed. “I touched a sensitive nerve,” Al Qassemi said in an interview.
His critics object that Dubai is hardly a model—as they point out, 95 percent of the city’s population is not even naturalized, but made up of expatriates with limited rights. And there’s another problem as well. Every one of the Gulf boomtowns—besides Dubai, they include Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Manama, and Kuwait City—has been underwritten, directly or indirectly, by windfall oil profits that won’t last forever.
AMRO MARAGHI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
A mosque in Cairo.
In her seminal work “Cities and the Wealth of Nations,” Jane Jacobs argued that cities that were a “monoculture” last only as long as the boom that created them, whether it involved bauxite, rubber plants, or oil. To thrive in the long term, cities need adaptable, productive economies with diverse, high-quality workers and enough capitalist free-for-all so that unsuccessful businesses fail and new ones spring up. Otherwise they risk the fate of single-industry cities like New Bedford, Detroit, or the completely abandoned onetime mining city at Hashima Island in Japan.
Can Dubai and its peers successfully make that transition? Started as the kind of monocultures that Jacobs argued are doomed to fail, they are now trying to harness their money and top-down management to create a broader web of interconnected industries in the cities and their surrounds.
Dubai is the cutting edge of this experiment. With its reserves depleted, its growth comes from a diverse, post-oil economy, although it still receives significant financial support from other Emirates that are still pumping petrochemicals. Its rulers are determined to make their city a center for culture and education, building museums and institutes, sponsoringfestivals and conferences, with the expectation that they can successfully promote an artistic ecosystem through the same methods that attracted new business. What happens next stands to tell us a lot about whether an artificial urban economy can be molded into one that is complex and sustainable. If it can, that may matter not just for the Middle East, but for cities everywhere.
JACOBS, A PIONEERING WRITER on cities and urban economics who died in 2006, is perhaps best known for “The Death and Life of the Great American City,” her paean to Greenwich Village and small-scale urban planning. But in her 1984 follow-up about the economies of cities and their surrounding hinterlands, Jacobs showed a harder nose for business. To be wealthy and dynamic, she argued, cities needed not to depend on military contracts or to be hampered by having to subsidize other, poorer territories—pitfalls that have driven the decline of many a capital city. In her book, she touted Boston and Tokyo as creative, diversified economic engines. But many of the world’s storied capital cities, like Istanbul and Paris, she wrote, were fatally bound to declining industries and poor, dependent provinces.
Today, that description perfectly encapsulates the burden carried by the Arab world’s great cities. Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo historically hosted multiple vibrant economic sectors: finance, research, manufacturing, design, and architecture. Eventually, though, they were hollowed out. Oil money, aid, and trade eliminated local industry, and the profits of these cities were siphoned away to support the poverty-stricken rural areas around them.
As these cities fell behind, a very different new urban model was rising nearby, along the Persian Gulf. As the caricature of the Gulf states goes, nomadic tribes unchanged for millennia suddenly found themselves enriched beyond belief when oil was discovered. The nouveaux riches cities of the Gulf were born of this encounter between the Bedouin and the global oil market.
The reality is more nuanced and interesting. The small emirates along the Gulf coast had long been trade entrepôts, and Dubai was among the most active. Its residents were renowned smugglers, with connections to Persia, the Arabian peninsula, and the Horn of Africa. When oil came, the Emirates already had a flourishing economy. And because their reserves were relatively small, they moved quickly to invest the petro-profits into other sectors that could keep them wealthy when the oil and gas ran out. Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah (all in the Emirates) pioneered this model, with neighboring Manama, Qatar, and Kuwait City following it closely.
Skeptics have decried the new Gulf cities, often vociferously, ever since the oil sheikhs announced their grand ambitions to build them in the 1970s. In his 1984 classic “Cities of Salt,” the great novelist Abdelrahman Munif chronicled the rise of the Arab monarchs in the Gulf. He explained the title to Tariq Ali in an interview: “Cities of salt means cities that offer no sustainable existence,” Munif said. “When the waters come in, the first waves will dissolve the salt and reduce these great glass cities to dust. With no means of livelihood they won’t survive.”
And yet, despite the apparent contempt of cultural elites, when civil war swept Lebanon, the Arab world’s financial center moved to the Gulf. Soon other sectors blossomed: light manufacturing, tourism, technology, eventually music and television production.
Dubai led the way. It built the infrastructure for business, and business quickly came. Over the decades, investment and workers flowed to a desert city of malls and gated communities, which had a huge airport, well-maintained streets, and clear rules of the road. Abu Dhabi, Manama, and Doha followed suit, although they took it more slowly; with continuing oil and gas revenue, they didn’t need to take the risk of growth as explosive as Dubai’s. Unlike the austere cities of Saudi Arabia, all the Gulf’s coastal trading cities had a tradition of a kind of tolerance. Other religions were welcome, and so were foreigners, so long as they didn’t question the absolute authority of the ruling family.
In the last four decades of the oil era, that model has evolved into the peculiar institution of a city-state dependent on a short-term foreign labor pool from top to bottom. The most extreme case is Dubai, where less than 5 percent of the 2 million people are citizens. Citizens form a minority in all the other Gulf cities as well. Wages for expatriates—especially workers in construction and service sectors like the airlines—are kept low, and foreign laborers are isolated from better-off city residents in labor camps. Construction workers who complain or try to unionize have been deported. White-collar residents who have criticized Emirati rulers or who have supported movements like the Muslim Brotherhood have had their contracts canceled or their residencies not renewed.
The economic crash of 2008 wiped out some of Dubai’s more excessive projects (although the signature underwater hotel finally opened this year). The real estate bubble burst; expats abandoned their fancy cars at the airport. “There was this glee that the city was over. But it was resilient,” said Yaser Elsheshtawy, a professor of architecture at the UAE University. The Gulf cities bounced back. Millions of new workers, from Asia, Europe, as well as the Arab world, have migrated to the Gulf since then.
“The Dubai model might be good, it might be bad, but it deserves to be looked at with respect,” Elsheshtawy said. Egyptian by birth, Elsheshtawy has lived on three continents, and he’s grown tired of having to defend his choice to work in the Emirates. After he read dozens of ripostes to Al Qassemi’s polemic, including many that he felt smacked of cultural snobbery toward anyone who lived in the “superficial” Gulf cities, Elsheshtawy penned an eloquent defense of Dubai called “Tribes with Cities” on his blog Dubaization. He doesn’t like everything about the Gulf, but Elsheshtawy believes that Dubai and the other booming Gulf cities, “unburdened by ancient history” and blessed by a mix of cultures, can provide the world “the blueprint for our urban future.”
DUBAI AND ABU DHABI, the showcase cities of the Emirates, often seem like a they’re run by a sci-fi chamber of commerce. They’ve got the world’s tallest building, the biggest new art collections in starchitect-designed museums, the busiest airports, and growing populations. Beneath that surface, though, lies a structure that worries even many supporters: Freedoms are tightly constrained, and most of the population is made of explicitly second-class noncitizens. Other growing cities chafe under censorship or political restrictions—Beijing, Hong Kong, and Singapore spring to mind. But there’s a difference between those places, where citizen-stakeholders live out their entire lifetimes, and a city where almost everyone is fundamentally a visitor.
Even Al Qassemi, the Emirati who believes the new cities have pioneered a better economic model, has argued that the citizenship restriction will hurt Dubai and cities that follow its model. “Without naturalization, all the Arabs who move here and are creating these cities will see them only as stepping stones to greener pastures,” Al Qassemi said. “People make money and they leave.”
There’s a glaring moral problem with a city ruled by a tiny clan where most of the workers have no rights. But the last few decades suggest that citizenship and political freedom aren’t prerequisites for GDP growth. Jacobs wrote a lot about what cities need, but the only kind of freedom she wrote about was the freedom to innovate and create wealth. The new Gulf cities have carefully provided a state-of-the-art, fairly enforced body of regulations for corporations—precisely the kind of rule of law they actively deny to foreign workers.
In treating businesses more solicitously than individuals, the Gulf city model may depend on a twist that Jacobs never foresaw: They don’t care whether people stick around. In fact, these new cities assume they will be able to innovate precisely because they won’t be encumbered by citizens whose skills are no longer needed. If Dubai needs fewer construction and more service workers, or fewer film producers and more computer programmers, it simply lets its existing contracts lapse and hires the people it needs on the global market. The churn isn’t a flaw in the model; it’s part of its foundation.
That may explain why even Dubai’s defenders are not planning to stick around. Shoufani, the poet, says she cherishes the secure space to create that Dubai has given her, but she still plans to move on in a few years. So does Elsheshtawy, the architecture professor whose academic studies of urban space have helped counter the narrative of Dubai as a joyless, dystopian city interested only in the pursuit of money. He plans to retire somewhere else. It may not matter to Dubai’s fortunes, however, as long as people arrive to take their place.
The next few years will begin to tell how this experiment has turned out. Just as Jane Jacobs said, it doesn’t matter so much how a city was born. It matters how its economy operates. If Dubai and its imitators outlive the oil revenues and regional instability that helped them boom, it will be a lesson for cities everywhere in how to invent a viable urban economy—even if it leads to a kind of city that Jacobs herself might have loathed to live in.
PABLO AMARGO FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE
[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]
BEIRUT—In any American university, what the six researchers in this room are doing would be totally unremarkable: launching a new project to use the tools of social science to solve urgent problems in their home countries.
But for the young Arab Council for the Social Sciences, this work is anything but routine. The group’s fall meeting, initially planned for Cairo, was canceled at the last minute when Egyptian state security agents demanded a list of participants and research questions. The group relocated its meeting to Beirut, meaning some researchers couldn’t come because of visa problems. Still others feared traveling to Lebanon during a week when the United States was considering air strikes against neighboring Syria. Ultimately, the team met in an out-of-the-way hotel, with one participant joining via Skype.
Their first, impromptu agenda item: whether any Arab country could host their future meetings without any political or security risk.
The council’s struggle reflects, in microcosm, a much bigger problem facing the Middle East. With old regimes overthrown or tottering, for the first time in generations a spirit of optimism about change has swept through the region. The Arab uprisings cracked open the door to new ideas for how a modern Arab nation should govern itself—how it could rebalance authority and freedom, religious tradition and civil rights. But a key source of those new ideas is almost completely shut off. With few exceptions, universities and think tanks have been yoked under tight state control for decades. Military and intelligence officials closely monitor research, fearing subversion from political scientists, historians, anthropologists, and other scholars whose work might challenge official narratives and government power.
Just one year after its launch, the ACSS is hoping to fill that vacuum, giving backing and support to scholars who want to do independent, even critical thinking on the problems their societies face. It’s a daunting order in a region where for generations talented scholars have routinely fled abroad, mostly to Europe and North America.
“There’s been almost a criminalization of research here,” says Seteney Shami, the Jordanian-born, American-trained anthropologist tapped to get the new council running. “We want to change the way people think about the region.”
It took nearly five years of planning, but the new council is now finishing its first year of operation. It has awarded roughly $500,000 to 50 researchers. Its goal is ambitious: to build an enduring network that will connect individual researchers who until now have mostly labored alone, under censorship, or overseas. The council aims to give those thinkers institutional punch—not just funding for projects that aren’t popular with local regimes or Western universities, but muscle to fight authorities who still maneuver to block even the most innocuous-sounding research missions. Today issues of ethnic, sectarian, and sexual identity are still taboo for governments—and they’re precisely the focus for most of the researchers who met in Beirut.
Shami and the other founders envision the council as only a first step, helping push for new openness in universities and in publishing. Ultimately, they believe, it stands to change not only how Arab countries are perceived abroad, but the way those countries are governed. Given the incredible turbulence in the Arab world today, it’s easy to see why a new flowering of social science is needed—and also why it’s a risky proposition for whoever hopes to set it in motion.
WHEN WE THINK about where ideas come from, we often picture lone thinkers toiling indefatigably until they achieve their “eureka” moments. But in fact, the ideas that change the way we organize or understand our daily world grow most readily from ecosystems that can train such scholars, test their claims, and ultimately spread and promote their new thinking. The modern West takes this system for granted; universities are perhaps the most important nodes in a network that also includes foundations, think tanks, and relatively hands-off government funding agencies.
Even societies like China, with its tradition of centralized state control, support a vigorous web of universities and institutes that produce and test ideas. In China, the government might drive the research agenda—rural educational outcomes, say, or international trade negotiations—but researchers are expected to produce rigorous results that stand up to outside scrutiny.
Not so in the Arab world. Despite a historic scholarly tradition, and a vigorous cohort of contemporary thinkers, the intellectual institutions in Arab countries are today almost universally subordinated to state control. As the dictators of the 1950s matured and grew stronger, they feared—correctly—that universities would nurture political dissent and that students were susceptible to free-thinking. (Even today, groups like the Muslim Brotherhood induct most of their leaders into politics through university student unions.) So they dispatched intelligence officers to control what professors taught, researched, and published, and to curtail student activism of a political flavor.
To the extent that think tanks, institutes, and journals were allowed to exist at all, they became either government mouthpieces or patronage sinecures. Plenty of individual scholars have continued to work in an independent vein, and many do research or publish work outside the influence of the ruling regime. For the most part, though, they do so abroad; those who speak openly in their home countries have often encountered gross repression, like the Egyptian sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an establishment thinker who was imprisoned in 2000 for taking foreign grant money. His prosecution—despite his close ties to the ruling dictator’s family— served as a reminder to other scholars not to stray too far from the state’s goals.
The obstacles to researchers who hope to confront the region’s problems run even deeper than that: in most Arab nations, even basic data on public issues like water consumption, childhood education, and women’s health are treated as state secrets. So are government budgets, and anything to do with the military, the police, and industry. Egypt still tightly guards access to land registries running as far back as the Ottoman Era; Lebanon famously hasn’t conducted a census since 1932, and refuses to release any government data about the population size or its religious composition. International agencies like the World Bank are allowed to conduct surveys and research as part of development aid projects, but only on the condition that they keep the data confidential.
As a result, great Arab capitals like Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad, and Cairo, once among the world’s great centers of learning, have suffered a systematic impoverishment of intellectual life, especially in the realms in which it is now most needed.
IN MANY WAYS Seteney Shami’s career illuminates those challenges precisely. She left her native Jordan first for the American University of Beirut and then to earn an anthropology PhD from the University of California at Berkeley. Even as a young scholar, she knew she might face problems at home simply for writing about matters of identity among her own ethnic group, the minority Circassians, so she had her dissertation removed from public circulation. In the 1990s, she returned to the Middle East and built a well-regarded graduate program in anthropology at Jordan’s Yarmouk University—one of few rigorous graduate-level social sciences departments in the region. The experiment was short-lived, collapsing after only a few years when government patronage hires swamped the university faculty. Several scholars, including Shami, left.
She spent the next decade at US-funded foundations, working in Cairo for the Population Council and later in New York for the Social Science Research Council. She found that the scholars with whom she collaborated—and to whom she sometimes gave grants—relished the networks they built and the ideas that flowed when they had a chance to work with colleagues from different Arab countries, as well as in Europe and the United States. But there was a hitch: When the grant money ended, so did the network. In the West, such a change wouldn’t matter so much; the scholars would always have their home institutions to fall back on. Not so for a scholar in Jordan or Egypt, whose home institution might be far from supportive of his or her work.
“There is no institutional incentive to produce research in most Arab universities,” says Sari Hanafi, a sociologist at the American University of Beirut who is on the board of the new council. Hanafi conducted his own study of academic elites in the region, and discovered that most regional research was confined to safe descriptive projects—“production that will not question religious authority or the political system.” Essentially, it’s scholarship that doesn’t produce any new knowledge, or offer the possibility of change.
So a group of scholars including Shami and Hanafi began to conceive of something that would rectify the problem. Their vision isn’t a “think tank” in the Washington sense, but really almost a substitute for what universities do, creating a new and permanent forum to research, talk about, and solve serious social problems, outside government influence.
They secured funding from the Swedish government and later from Canada, the Carnegie Corporation, and the Ford Foundation. Among Arab countries, only Lebanon had laws that allowed a foreign international organization to operate free from government interference; even here, it took two full years for ACSS to clear all the red tape. In a way, the group’s timing was fortuitous: By the time the organization came online in 2011, with a few dozen scholars participating, the Arab uprisings were in full swing.
The first projects illustrate the flair ACSS is bringing to the sometimes stuffy world of social science. One study focuses on inequality, mobility, and development, and has brought together economists and other “hard” social scientists to explore issues like the impact of refugees from Syria’s civil war. A second, called “New Paradigms Factory,” unabashedly seeks to midwife the region’s next big ideas, asking scholars to challenge its dominant notions of sovereignty, national identity, and government power. The third major project, “Producing the Public in Arab Societies,” probes minority identity, community organizing, and alternative media sources—sensitive issues that governments steer away from, but that will be key to any new ordering of Arab civic life.
SOME AMONG the inaugural crop of researchers worry that despite its forward-looking visions, the window for an experiment like the Arab Council for the Social Sciences might already be closing. Two years ago, when Shami recruited her first team of scholars and grant recipients, a wave of optimism was washing over the Arab world. “It was a time to be brave, to test the boundaries of free expression,” she said.
Now, many of the same old restrictions have returned: Egyptian secret police, who had backed off after dictator Hosni Mubarak’s fall, resumed their open scrutiny of intellectuals after the military coup in July. Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, fearing revolts from their own citizens, have also tightened their approach to academic inquiry, shutting down local research institutes and banning critical academics from attending conferences and teaching at international universities. Several of the scholars who met in Beirut as part of the “Producing the Public” working group declined to speak on the record even in general terms about the ACSS, fearing that any publicity at all might interfere with their work.
The first ACSS projects will take several years to yield results, and Shami says the long-term impact will depend, in part, on whether Arab governments continue to actively persecute intellectuals they perceive as critics. Meanwhile, Shami says, the group intends to go where it is most acutely needed—funding the edgiest and most relevant scholarship, and pushing for more open access to archives and data. To make up for the lack of regional peer-reviewed journals, it might begin publishing research itself. With the grandiose-sounding goal of transforming the entire discourse about the Arab world, Shami is aware that ACSS might fail; but she’s not interested, she said, “in biding our time and holding annual conferences.” If it proves necessary, she said, ACSS might create its own university.
Already, though, ACSS has had some visible impact. Omar Dahi, an economist at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, won a grant from the new council to study the way Syrian refugees are supporting themselves and how they are transforming the nations to which they’ve fled. He’s spending the semester in Beirut, and he expects to produce a series of articles that will bring rigor to a heated and topical policy debate. The council, he says, allows Arab scholars “to answer their own questions, and not only the questions being asked in North American and Western European academia.”
“It’s not easy, and ACSS alone is not going to be able to do it,” Dahi said. “But you have to start somewhere.”
Supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi protested at the Republican Guard building in Nasr City, Cairo. AP PHOTO/HASSAN AMMAR
IS DEMOCRACY POSSIBLE in the Middle East? When observers worry about the future of the region, it’s in part because of the dispiriting political narrative that has held sway for much of the last half century.
The conventional wisdom is that secular liberalism has been all but wiped out as a political idea in the Middle East. The strains of the 20th century—Western colonial interference, wars with Israel, windfall oil profits, impoverished populations—long ago extinguished any meaningful tradition of openness in its young nations. Totalitarian ideas won the day, whether in the form of repressive Islamic rule, capricious secular dictatorships, or hereditary oligarchs. As a result, the recent flowerings of democracy are planted in such thin soil they may be hopeless.
This understanding shapes policy not only in the West, but in the Middle East itself. The American government approaches “democracy promotion” in the Middle East as if it’s introducing some exotic foreign species. Reformists in the Arab world often repeat the canard that politicized Islam is incompatible with democracy to justify savage repression of religious activists. And even after the revolts that began in 2010, a majority of the power brokers in the wider Middle East govern as if popular forces were a nuisance to be placated rather than the source of sovereignty.
An alternative strain of thinking, however, is starting to turn those long-held assumptions on their head. Historians and activists are unearthing forgotten chapters of the region’s history, and reassessing well-known figures and incidents, to find a long, deep, indigenous history of democracy, justice, and constitutionalism. They see the recent uprisings in the Arab world as part of a thread that has run through its story for more than a century—and not, as often depicted, a historical fluke.
The case is most clearly and recently laid out in a new book called “Justice Interrupted: The Struggle for Constitutional Government in the Middle East” by Elizabeth F. Thompson, a historian at the University of Virginia, who tries to provide a scholarly historical foundation to a view gaining traction among activists, politicians, and scholars.
Thompson sees the thirst for justice and reform blossoming as long as 400 years ago, when the region was in the hands of the Ottoman Empire. In the generations since, bureaucrats, intellectuals, workers, and peasants have seized on the language of empire, law, and even Islam to agitate for rights and due process. Though Thompson is an academic historian, she sees her work as not just descriptive but useful, helping Arabs and Iranians revive stories that were deliberately suppressed by political and religious leaders. “A goal of this book is to give people a toolkit to take up strands of their own history that have been dropped,” Thompson said in an interview.
Not everyone agrees with her view: Canonical Middle Eastern history, exemplified by Albert Hourani’s 1962 study “Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age,” holds that liberalism did flourish briefly, but was extinguished as a meaningful force in the early years of the Cold War. Even today Hourani’s analysis is invoked to argue that there’s no authentic democratic current to fuel contemporary Arab politics.
But Thompson’s work resonates with a host of Middle Eastern academics, as well as activists, who are advocating new forms of government and who see their efforts as consistent with local culture and history. It may offer a way out of the pessimism gripping many Arab political activists today, finding connections between apparently disparate reformist forces in the region, and political ideas that are often seen as irreconcilably opposed. Most intriguing, she finds elements of this constitutional liberalism even within fundamentalist Islamist movements that democratizers most worry about. These threads suggest a possible way forward, a way to build a constitutional, democratic consensus on indigenous if often overlooked traditions. Islamists and secular Arabs, it turns out, have found common ground in the past, even written constitutions together. The same could happen again now.
NO ONE , including Thompson, would claim that democracy and individual freedom have been the main driver of Middle Eastern politics. Before World War I, almost the entire region lay under the dominion of absolute monarchs claiming a mandate from God—either the Ottoman Sultan, or the Shah of Iran. Later, Western colonial powers divided up the region in search of cheap resources and markets for their goods.
Yet lost in this history of despots and corrupt dealers is a long stream of democratizing ideas, sometimes percolating from common citizens and sometimes from among the ruling elite. In the 19th and 20th centuries, western countries were beginning to move away from authoritarian monarchies and toward the belief that more people deserved legal rights. During this same time period in the Middle East, a similar conversation about law, sovereignty, and democracy was taking place, encompassing everything from the role of religion in the state to the right of women to vote.
Although authoritarian governments largely won the day, Thompson argues that the story doesn’t end there: Instead, she weaves together a series of biographies to trace the persistence of more liberal notions of Middle Eastern society. She begins with an Ottoman civil servant named Mustafa Ali who, in 1599, wrote a passionate memo exhorting the Sultan to reform endemic corruption and judicial mismanagement, because injustices were causing subjects to revolt—thus making the empire less profitable.
From 1858 to 2011, a series of leaders—most of them politicians and also prolific writers—amassed substantial public followings and pushed, though usually without success, for constitutional reforms, transparent accountable governments, and the institutions key to a sustainable democracy. Thompson was surprised, she said, to find the case for liberal democracy and rights in the writings of Iranian clerics, Zionist Jews, Palestinian militants, and early Arab Islamists.
With support from the Maronite church, a group of Lebanese peasants formed a short-lived breakaway mountain republic in 1858, dedicated to egalitarian principles. The blacksmith who led the revolt, Tanyus Shahin, insisted on fair taxation and equal protection of the law. His followers took over the great estates and evicted the landlords, but their main demand was for legal equality between peasants and landowners.
An Egyptian colonel named Ahmed Urabi led a revolt against the Ottoman ruler in 1882, inaugurating a tradition of mass revolt that had its echo in Tahrir Square in 2011. Urabi in his memoir recounts that when the Ottoman monarch dismissed his demands for popular sovereignty in their final confrontation, Urabi replied: “We are God’s creation and free. He did not create us as your property.” Decades later, in 1951, Akram Hourani rallied 10,000 peasants to resist Western colonialism and local corruption in Syria. Eventually, he and his followers in the Baath Party were sidelined by generals who turned the party into a military vehicle.
Some of the stories that Thompson tells are less obscure, like those of the founders of modern Turkey—the one sizable Islamic democracy to emerge from the former Ottoman empire or the Iraqi Communist Party, which had its heyday in the decade after World War II, and whose constitutional traditions remain an important force today even if the party itself is almost completely irrelevant.
Perhaps most encouragingly, in a region known for clashes of absolutes, she finds an encouraging strain of compromise—in particular in the early 20th century, when secular nationalists negotiated with Islamists in Syria to hammer out a constitution they could both support. It was swept aside when France took over in 1923.
“The Middle East is going to see these crises in Tahrir and Taksim and Iran until it can get back to a moment of compromise, which existed a hundred years ago with Islamic liberalism, where you can have your religion and your democracy, too,” Thompson said.
Thompson said she was surprised to find support for constitutionalism and due process in the writings of Hassan El-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and even Sayyid Qutb, the ideologue whose writings inspired Al Qaeda. They believed that consensual constitutions could achieve even their religious aims, without disenfranchising citizens who opposed them.
Some of the characters in this tale have largely vanished to history. Others remain hotly contested symbols in today’s politics. The name of Halide Edib, a feminist and avatar of Turkish nationalism in the early 1900s, is still invoked by the governing Islamist party as well as its secular critics. In Egypt, which enjoyed a period of boisterous liberal parliamentary politics between the two world wars, activists today are trying to revive the writings of early Islamists who believed that an accountable constitutional state, with rights for all, would be better than theocracy.
IN THOMPSON’S VIEW , this world did not simply vanish: It lives on in contemporary Arab political thought, most interestingly in Islamist politics.
It’s easy to assume that religiously driven movements are all antidemocratic—and indeed, some have proven so in practice, like the ayatollahs in Iran or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. But Thompson offers a more nuanced view, showing that many of these religious movements have internalized central elements of liberal discourse. The Muslim Brothers wanted to dominate Egypt, but they attempted to do so not by fiat but through a new constitution and a free-market economy.
Princeton historian Max Weiss says his own study of the Levant backs Thompson’s central argument that constitutionalism thrives in the Middle East: For more than a century, a powerful contingent of thinkers, activists, and politicians in the region have embraced rule of law, constitutional checks and balances, and liberal economics. Even when they’ve lost the political struggles of the day, they’ve remained active, shaped institutions like courts and universities, and provided an important pole within national debates.
For those in power, “constitutional” government can often be used as a fig leaf: Nathan Brown, an expert on Islamism and Arab legal systems at The George Washington University, observes that leaders like the monarchs in the Persian Gulf have often wielded constitutions as just another means of extending their absolute rule. And they’re not alone: Egyptian judges, Syrian rebels, and Gulf sheikhs often use law and constitution to “entrench and regularize authoritarianism, not to limit it,” he says.
But among the people themselves, there is a longstanding hope for the rule of law rather than the rule of generals, or of imams. Knowing this history is important, Thompson argues, because it establishes that democracy is a local tradition, with roots among secular as well as religious Middle Easterners. Reformers, liberals, even otherwise conservative advocates for transparency and human rights are often tainted as “foreign” or “Western agents,” imposing alien ideas on Middle Eastern culture. This slur is especially potent given the West’s checkered history in the region, which more often than not involved intervention on behalf of despots rather than reformers.
Even if democracy is far from winning the race, its supporters can take courage from how many Middle Easterners have demanded it in their own vernacular. As Thompson’s book demonstrates, it’s very much a local legacy to claim.
[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]
BEIRUT — Alex, a Swiss bicyclist and Internet geek, thought he’d get a welcome break from his work as a computer engineer and a teacher when he moved to Damascus for a year to study Arabic. It was January 2011, a few months before the Arab uprisings spread to Syria.
But once he was there, Alex noticed with irritation that he couldn’t access Facebook and a seemingly random assortment of websites. Some Google search results were blocked, especially if they turned up pages containing forbidden terms like “Israel.”
He developed tricks to navigate the Internet freely, and sharpened his online evasion skills. If the government was so heavily monitoring and censoring Web surfing, he reasoned, it was surely spying on Internet users in other ways as well. He beefed up ways to encrypt his e-mail and Skype, and learned how to scour his own computer for remote eavesdropping software.
These skills ended up being more than just a personal hobby. When Syrians began to demonstrate against the regime of Bashar Assad, Alex found that his techniques were of urgent use to the friends he had made in the cafes of Damascus. Syrians were turning to activism, and they needed help.
“What was before a nuisance for me was now a danger to my friends,” said Alex, who didn’t want his last name published so as not to endanger any of his Syrian contacts.
Alex ended up spending two years in Beirut training Syrian antiregime activists on how to encrypt their data and protect their phones and laptops from the secret police, in what turned into a full-time job. Alex had become one of a small and secretive group of Internet security experts who work not with governments or companies but with individuals, teaching dissidents the skills they need to evade regime surveillance. Internet activists estimate there are about a hundred technical experts worldwide who work directly with dissidents.
As surveillance steps up and activists get more wired, the practical challenges for these digital security experts offer a unique glimpse of the frontline struggle between free speech and government control, or, as many of them put it, between freedom and authoritarianism. And with surveillance more than ever a concern for Americans at home, the knowledge of these security activists casts a revealing light on the peculiar role of the United States, home of both a powerful tech sector that has generated some of the most skillful evaders of surveillance and a government with an unparalleled ability to peer into our activities.
Indeed, even the people who know how to keep e-mail secret from the Syrians or Iranians say that it would be difficult to make sure the American government cannot eavesdrop on you. “It’s hard to find a service that it isn’t vulnerable to the CIA or NSA,” Alex said in an interview in Beirut. “It’s easier if you’re here, or in Syria.”
ACTIVISTS IN AUTHORITARIAN states face a range of basic problems when they sit down at a computer. They need to communicate privately in an environment where the regime likely runs the local Internet service. They may want to send news about domestic problems to international audiences; they may want to mobilize their fellow citizens for a cause the regime is trying to suppress. Whatever they do, they need to keep themselves out of trouble, and also avoid endangering their collaborators by unwittingly revealing their identities to the government
Tech experts like Alex offer them a mix of standard security protocols and tools designed specifically with lone activists in mind. The first step is “threat modeling.” Where does the danger come from and what are you trying to hide? A well-known dissident might not be worried about revealing her identity, but might want to protect the content of her phone conversations or e-mails. A relatively unknown activist might be more concerned with hiding her online identity, so that the government won’t connect her real-life identity to her blog posts.
Users new to the world of surveillance and evasion must master a new set of tools. There are proxy servers that allow access to blocked websites without tracking users’ browsing history or revealing their IP address. Security trainers teach activists how to encrypt all their data and communications. And because circumstances change, Web security advocates emphasize the importance of multiple, redundant channels—different e-mails, messaging programs and social media platforms—so that when one is compromised, there are other alternatives.
A repressive regime like Bashar Assad’s can effectively stymie dissent with crude old-fashioned ruses. On one occasion, the government arrested a rebel doctor while he was logged in to his Skype account. Agents posed as the doctor, sending all his contacts a file that supposedly contained a list of field hospitals. Instead, it installed program called a keylogger that allowed the Syrians to monitor everything the doctor’s contacts did on their computers.
Alex warns all the activists he trains that all their encryption measures could come to naught if they are caught, like the doctor was, while their computer is running—or if they give up their encryption password under interrogation. “They can always torture you for your password, and then all your data is compromised,” he said. There’s no foolproof protection against that.
Though these security measures can go a long way, consultants also find themselves needing to balance the effort it takes with the unique urgency of some of the dissidents’ lives. In the heat of violent conflict, encryption doesn’t always take priority. “Many of them are just too busy to care, to follow all the disciplined procedures,” Alex said. “It got to the point where it felt useless to teach them how to encrypt Skype when thousands of tons of TNT were falling from the sky.”
AS ACTIVISTS have tapped online resources in their struggles, a range of security specialists have sprung up to assist them. Some, like Alex, are independent operators; many of them arose loosely around a single crisis and then expanded their efforts.
In response to Tehran’s Web censorship in 2009, a group of Iranian-Americans established an organization called Access Now to train human rights groups and other organizations on more secure communications. In the four years since it has expanded worldwide and now sends technical specialists to work with activists in the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, and Africa. It also acts as a lobbying group, pressing for uncensored access to the Internet. “Access to an unfiltered and unsurveilled Internet is a human right,” says Katherine Maher, the group’s spokeswoman. “We should have the rights to free speech and assembly online as we have offline in the real world.”
A few years later, when the Arab uprisings began, activists again faced crucial concerns about technology and surveillance. Activists throughout the Arab world planned demonstrations online, and used social media as a major artery of communication. In Egypt, the government was so desperate to thwart the protest movement that in January 2011 it briefly cut off the entire nation’s Internet. Telecomix, a freewheeling collective that began in response to privacy concerns in Europe, was one of many groups that helped build workarounds so that Egyptians could communicate with one another and with the outside world in the early days of the uprising.
In Egypt, Alix Dunn cofounded a sort of nerd-wonk research group called The Engine Room in early 2011 to study and improve the ways that activists get tech support from the small community of available experts. “There are people who got really excited because all of a sudden IT infrastructure suddenly became part of something so political,” Dunn said. “They could be geeky and politically supportive at the same time.”
The advice is not always technical. For instance, in Egypt, Alaa Abdel Fattah, one of the country’s first bloggers and later a strategist for the 2011 uprising, championed a strategy of complete “radical openness.” He convinced other activists that they should assume that any meetings or communications could probably be monitored by the secret police, so activists should assume they’re always being overheard. Secret planning for protests should take place person to person, off the grid; in all other matters, activists should be completely open and swamp the secret police with more information than they could process. In the early stages of Egypt’s revolution, that strategy arguably worked; activists were able to outwit the authorities, starting marches in out-of-the-way locations before police could get there.
GIVEN THE RECENTrevelations about the US government’s online surveillance programs, it’s striking to note that much of the effort to improve international digital security for dissidents has been spurred by aid from the US government. The month after the Arab uprisings began, the US Department of State pledged $30 million in “Internet Freedom” grants; most of them have gone, directly or indirectly, to the sort of activist training that Alex was doing in Damascus.
In some ways, the latest American surveillance revelations haven’t changed the calculus for activists on the ground. Maher notes that almost all the State Department-funded training instructs activists around the world to assume that their communications are being intercepted. (Her organization doesn’t take any US government funding.)
“It’s broadly known that almost every third-party tool that you can take is fundamentally compromised, or could be compromised with enough time and computing power,” Maher said.
But there are new wrinkles. Some of the safest channels for dissidents have been Skype and Gmail—two services to which the US government has apparently unfettered access. It’s virtually impossible for a government like Iran’s to break the powerful encryption used by these companies. Alex, the trainer who worked with Syrians, says that a doctor in Aleppo doesn’t need to worry about the NSA listening to Skype calls, but an activist doing battle with a US corporation might.
Officially, American policy promotes a surveillance-free Internet around the world, although Washington’s actual practices have undercut the credibility of the US government on this issue. How will Washington continue to insist, for example, that Iranian activists should be able to plan protests and have political discussions online without government surveillance, when Americans cannot be sure that they are free to do the same?
For activists grappling with real-time emergencies in places like Syria or long-term repression in China, Russia, and elsewhere, the latest news doesn’t change their basic strategy—but it may make the outlook for Internet freedom darker.
“These revelations set a terrible precedent that could be used to justify pervasive surveillance elsewhere,” Maher said. “Americans can go to the courts or their legislators to try and challenge these programs, but individuals in authoritarian states won’t have these options.”
[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]
EVER SINCE AMERICANS had to briefly ration gas in 1973, “energy independence” has been one of the long-range goals of US policy. Presidents since Richard Nixon have promised that America would someday wean itself of its reliance on foreign oil and gas, which leaves us vulnerable to the outside world in a way that was seen as a gaping hole in America’s national security. It also handcuffs our foreign policy, entangling America in unstable petroleum-producing regions like the Middle East and West Africa.
Given the United States’ huge appetite for fuel, energy independence has always seemed more of a dream than a realistic prospect. But today, nearly four decades later, energy independence is starting to loom in sight. Sustained high oil prices have made it economically viable to exploit harder-to-reach deposits. Techniques pioneered over the last decade, with US government support, have made it possible to extract shale oil more efficiently. It helps, too, that Americans have kept reducing their petrochemical consumption, a trend driven as much by high prices as by official policy. Total oil consumption peaked at 20.7 million barrels per day in 2004. By 2010, the most recent year tracked in the CIA Factbook, consumption had fallen by nearly a tenth.
Last year, the United States imported only 40 percent of the oil it consumed, down from 60 percent in 2005. And by next year, according to the US Energy Information Administration, the United States will need to import only 30 percent of its oil. That’s been driven by an almost overnight jump in domestic oil production, which had remained static at about 5 million barrels per day for years, but is at 7 million now and will be at 8.5 million by the end of 2014. If these trends continue, the United States will be able to supply all its own energy needs by 2030 and be able to export oil by 2035. In fact, according to the government’s latest projections, the country is on track to become the world’s largest oil producer in less than a decade.
Yet as this once unimaginable prospect becomes a realistic possibility, it’s far from clear that it will solve all the problems it was supposed to. As much as boosters hope otherwise, energy independence isn’t likely to free America from its foreign policy entanglements. And at worst, say some skeptics who specialize in energy markets, it might create a whole new host of them, subjecting America to the same economic buffeting that plagues most oil exporters, and handing China even more global influence as the world’s behemoth consumer.
As much as the shift brings opportunities, however, it is also likely to open the United States up to liabilities we have not yet had to face. The consequences may be both good and bad, enriching and destabilizing for US interests—but they will certainly have a major impact on our geopolitics, in ways that the policy world is only just beginning to understand.
WHEN RICHARD NIXON was president, America consumed about one-third of the world’s oil, importing about 8.4 million barrels per day chiefly from the Middle East. The status quo hummed along until the Arab-Israeli war of 1973. The United States sent weapons to Israel, and the Arab states retaliated with a six-month oil embargo, refusing to sell oil to America. It was the only time in history that the “oil weapon” was effectively used, and it made a permanent impression on the United States.
Over time, the American response to the embargo came to include three major initiatives that still shape energy policy today. First, the government promoted lower oil consumption by pushing coal and natural gas power plants, home insulation, and mileage standards for cars. Second, the country drilled for more of its own oil. Third, and perhaps most important from a foreign-policy standpoint, the United States promoted a unified global oil market in which any country had the practical means to buy oil from any other. That meant that even if some countries couldn’t do business with each other—say, Iran and the United States—it wouldn’t affect the overall price and availability of oil. Other countries could fill in the gap.
The dreams of energy independence crossed party lines. Though liberals and conservatives differ on the means—how much we should rely on new drilling versus energy conservation—both parties have endorsed the quest. It was one of the few issues on which Presidents Carter and Reagan agreed.
America has made steady progress over the years, to the point where the nation’s total oil consumption has actually begun to drop. As this has happened, the high cost of global energy has also made it profitable to increase domestic production of natural gas and oil. A few months ago, both the US Energy Information Administration and the International Energy Agency predicted that if current production trends continue, the United States will overtake Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world’s largest oil producer in 2017.
Taken together, our slowing appetite and booming production mean that with a suddenness that has surprised many observers, the prospect of energy independence—technically speaking, at least—looms in the windshield.
Energy independence looks different today, however, than it did in the oil-shocked 1970s. For one thing, the energy market is a linchpin of the world order, and any big shift is likely to have costs to stability. Some analysts have warned that America’s growing oil production will create a glut that lowers prices, eating up the profits of oil countries and destabilizing their regimes. (That’s in the short term, anyway; worldwide, oil demand is still rising fast.) Falling prices mean that countries that depend on oil will face sudden cash shortages. It’s easy to imagine how destabilizing that could be for a natural-resource power like Russia, for the monarchs of the Persian Gulf, or for the dictators in Central Asia. No matter how distasteful their rule, the prospect of an unruly transition, or worse still, a protracted conflict, in any of those countries could cause havoc.
In the long term, this is not necessarily a bad thing: Weakening oppressive or corrupt governments could ultimately be beneficial for the people of those countries. And a shift in the balance of power away from the Gulf monarchies of OPEC and toward the United States could have a democratizing effect. In any event, though, lower oil prices and a dynamic energy market make the current stable order unpredictable.
China’s economic rise has also changed the global energy equation. For now, China is largely without its own petroleum supplies and is replacing the United States as the largest importer. As China steps into the United States’ shoes as the world’s largest oil customer, it will gain influence in oil-producing regions as American influence wanes. It might also feel compelled to invest more heavily in an aggressive navy, fearing that the United States will no longer shoulder the responsibility of policing shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere—a costly security service that America pays for but which benefits the entire network of global trade.
Domestically, there’s also the “resource curse,” which afflicts countries that depend too heavily on extracted commodities like minerals or petroleum. Such industries don’t add much value to a society beyond the price the commodity fetches at market, and that price is notoriously fickle, meaning fortunes and jobs rise and fall with swings in global prices. The resource curse often implies corruption and autocracy as well. But economists are less concerned about that, since the United States already has an effective government and laws to thwart corruption, and because oil will still make up a minuscule overall share of the economy. Last year oil and gas extraction amounted to just 1.2 percent of the American gross domestic product.
THERE ARE STILL plenty of people who think that energy self-sufficiency will be an unalloyed good. Jay Hakes, who has pursued the goal as an energy official under the last three Democratic presidents, says that America will reap countless political and economic dividends. It will help the trade deficit, give American companies and workers benefits when oil prices are high, and insulate the country from supply shocks. It will also give Washington wider latitude when dealing with oil-producing countries, on which it will depend less. “There are some downsides,” he acknowledges, “but they’re outweighed by all the positives.”
One benefit that self-sufficiency won’t bring, it seems clear, is a sudden independence from the politics of the Middle East. The region produces about half the world’s oil, and Saudi Arabia alone has so much oil that it can raise its capacity at a moment’s notice to make up for a shortfall anywhere else in the world.
Already, America is largely independent of Middle Eastern oil as a consumer: Only about 15 percent of our supply comes from the region. But we do depend on a stable world market—even more so if we become a net exporter ourselves. So even if we don’t buy Saudi oil, we’ll still need a stable Saudi regime that can add a few million barrels a day to world flows, at a moment’s notice, to offset a disruption somewhere else.
Michael Levi, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the book “The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America’s Future,” believes that the biggest risk of achieving a goal like energy independence is complacency: Without the pressures that importing oil has brought, we may have little reason to innovate our way out of fossil fuels altogether. The policies themselves have achieved a great deal of good, he points out—stabilizing the world’s energy markets, reducing consumption, and pushing us beyond “independence” toward renewable sources like wind and solar power (though today these still make up a vanishingly small portion of the US energy supply).
Levi argues that an American oil bonanza could easily remove the political incentives for long-term planning and sacrifice. “I get scared that we’ll become complacent and make foolish decisions because we believe we’ve become energy independent,” Levi says. Energy independence was a useful slogan to motivate America, but in reality, a sensible energy policy has to balance a plethora of competing concerns, from geopolitics and the environment to consumer demand and fuel’s importance to the economy.
“The real way to be energy independent,” he said, “is actually to not use oil.”
Blast barriers in Baghdad, 2008. DONOVAN WYLIE / MAGNUM PHOTOS
[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]
BEIRUT — Everything that people love and hate about cities stems from the agglomeration of humanity packed into a tight space: the traffic, the culture, the chance encounters, the anxious bustle. Along with this proximity come certain feelings, a relative sense of security or of fear.
Over the last 13 years I have lived in a magical succession of cities: Boston, Baghdad, New York, and Beirut. They all made lovely and surprising homes—and they all were distorted to varying degrees by fear and threat.
At root, cities depend on constant leaps of faith. You cross paths every hour with people of vastly different backgrounds and trust that you’ll emerge safely. Each act of violence—a mugging, a murder, a bombing—erodes that faith. Over time, especially if there are more attacks, a city will adapt in subtle but profound and insidious ways.
The bombing last week was a shock to Boston, and a violation. As long as it’s isolated, the city will recover. But three people have died, and more than 170 have been wounded, and the scar will remain. As we think about how to respond, it’s worth also considering what happens when cities become driven by fear.
NEW YORK, WASHINGTON, and to a lesser extent the rest of America have exchanged some of the trappings of an open society for extra security since the Sept. 11 attacks. Metal detectors and guards have become fixtures at government buildings and airports, and it’s not unusual to see a SWAT team with machine guns patrolling in Manhattan. Police conduct random searches in subways, and new buildings feature barriers and setbacks that isolate them from the city’s pedestrian life.
Baghdad and Beirut, however, are reminders of the far greater changes wrought by wars and ubiquitous random violence. A city of about 7 million, low-slung Baghdad sprawls along the banks of the Tigris River. It’s the kind of place where almost everyone has a car, and it blends into expansive suburbs on its fringes. When I first arrived in 2003, the city was reeling from the shock-and-awe bombing and the US invasion. But it was the year that followed that slowly and inexorably transformed the way people lived. First, the US military closed roads and erected checkpoints. Then, militants started ambushing American troops and planting roadside bombs; the ensuing shootouts often engulfed passersby. Finally, extremists and sectarian militias began indiscriminately targeting Iraqi civilians and government personnel—in queues at public buildings, at markets, in mosques, virtually everywhere. Order crumbled.
Baghdad became a city of walls. Wealthy homeowners blocked their own streets with piles of gravel. Jersey barriers sprang up around every ministry, office, and hotel. As the conflict widened, entire neighborhoods were sealed off. People adjusted their commutes to avoid tedious checkpoints and areas with frequent car bombings. Drive times doubled or tripled. Long lines, with invasive searches, became an everyday fact of life. The geography of the city changed. Markets moved, even the old-fashioned outdoor kind where merchants sell livestock or vegetables. Entire sub-cities sprang up to serve Shia and Sunni Baghdadis who no longer could travel through each other’s areas.
Simple civic pleasures atrophied almost overnight. No one wanted to get blown up because they insisted on going out for ice cream. The famed riverfront restaurants went dormant; no more live carp hammered with a mallet and grilled before our eyes. The water-pipe joints in the parks went out of business. Most of the social spaces that defined the city shut down. Booksellers fled Mutanabe Street, the intellectual center of the city with its antique cafes. The amusement park at the Martyrs Monument shut its gates. Hotel bar pianists emigrated. Dust settled over the playgrounds and fountains at the strip of grassy family restaurants near Baghdad University.
In Beirut, where I moved with my family earlier this year, a generation-long conflict has Balkanized the city’s population. Here, most groups no longer trust each other at all. From 1975 to 1991 the city was split by civil war, and people moved where they felt safest. A cosmopolitan city fragmented into enclaves. Christians flocked to East Beirut, spawning a dozen new commercial hubs. Shiites squatted in the village orchards south of Beirut, and within a decade had built a city-within-a-city almost a million strong—the Dahieh, or “the Suburb.” The original downtown became a demilitarized zone, its Arabesque arcades reduced to rubble, and today has been rebuilt as a sterile, Disney-like tourist and office sector. Ras Beirut, my neighborhood, deteriorated from proudly diverse (and secular) to “Sunni West Beirut,” although it still boasts pockets of stubborn coexistence. In today’s Beirut, my block, where a Druze warlord lives across the street from a church and subsidizes the parking fees of his Shia, Sunni, and Christian neighbors, is a stark exception.
Mixing takes place, but tentatively, and because of frequent outbreaks of violence over the years, Beirutis have internalized the reflexes to fight, defend, and isolate. The result is a city alight with street life, cafes, and boutiques but which can instantaneously shift to war footing. One friend ran into his bartender on a night off at a checkpoint with bandoliers of bullets strapped to his chest. Even when the city appears calm, most people have laid in supplies in case an armed flare-up forces them to stay in their homes for a week. My friend’s teenage daughter keeps a change of clothes in her schoolbag in case she can’t return to her house. Uniformed private guards are everywhere, in every park, on every promenade, at every mall.
WITHIN A FEW weeks of our move to Beirut this year, my 5-year-old son traded his old fantasy, in which he played the doctor and assigned us roles as patients and nurses, for a new one: security guard. While we were setting up for a yard party, he arranged a few plastic chairs by the door. “I’ll check people here,” he declared. He also asked me a lot of questions about the heavily armed soldiers who stand watch on our street: “Will the army shoot me if I make a mistake?”
This is not the childhood he would have in Boston, even after this week. War-molded cities are nightmare reflections of failed states, places where government has gone into free fall, police don’t or can’t do their jobs, and normal life feels out of reach. Beirut is a kind of warning: Physically it appears normal on most days. But trust is gone. The public sphere feels wobbly and impermanent.
Boston is still lucky, with assets that Beirut lost generations ago; it has functional institutions, old communities with tangled but shared histories, and unifying cultural traditions. Boston has police that can get a job done and a baseball team that ties together otherwise divided corners of the city. One lesson of the city I live in now is that circumstances can sever these lifelines faster than we expect. Our connections require continued, perhaps redoubled, care. Without trust, a city can still be a magnificent place to live. Until all at once, it isn’t.
Syrian rebel fighters posed for a photo after several days of intense clashes with the Syrian army in Aleppo, Syria, in October. (AP: NARCISO CONTRERAS)
[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]
THE NEWS FROM SYRIA keeps getting worse. As it enters its third year, the civil war between the ruthless Assad regime and groups of mostly Sunni rebels has taken nearly 100,000 lives and settled into a violent, deadly stalemate. Beyond the humanitarian costs, it threatens to engulf the entire region: Syria’s rival militias have set up camp beyond the nation’s borders, destabilizing Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. Refugees have made frontier areas of those countries ungovernable.
United Nations peace talks have never really gotten off the ground, and as the conflict gets worse, voices in Europe and America, from both the left and right, have begun to press urgently for some kind of intervention. So far the Obama administration has largely stayed out, trying to identify moderate rebels to back, and officially hoping for a negotiated settlement—a peace deal between Assad’s regime and its collection of enemies.
Given the importance of what’s happening in Syria, it might seem puzzling that the United States is still so much on the sidelines, waiting for a resolution that seems more and more elusive with each passing week. But it is also becoming clear that for America, there’s another way to look at what’s happening. A handful of voices in the Western foreign policy world are quietly starting to acknowledge that a long, drawn-out conflict in Syria doesn’t threaten American interests; to put it coldly, it might even serve them. Assad might be a monster and a despot, they point out, but there is a good chance that whoever replaces him will be worse for the United States. And as long as the war continues, it has some clear benefits for America: It distracts Iran, Hezbollah, and Assad’s government, traditional American antagonists in the region. In the most purely pragmatic policy calculus, they point out, the best solution to Syria’s problems, as far as US interests go, might be no solution at all.
If it’s true that the Syrian war serves American interests, that unsettling insight leads to an even more unsettling question: what to do with that knowledge. No matter how the rest of the world sees the United States, Americans like to think of themselves as moral actors, not the kind of nation that would stand by as another country destroys itself through civil war. Yet as time goes on, it’s starting to look—especially to outsiders—as if America is enabling a massacre that it could do considerably more to end.
For now, the public debate over intervention in America has a whiff of hand-wringing theatricality. We could intervene to staunch the suffering but for circumstances beyond our control: the financial crisis, worries about Assad’s successor, the lingering consequences of the Iraq war. These might explain why America doesn’t stage a costly outright invasion. But they don’t explain why it isn’t sending vastly more assistance to the rebels.
The more Machiavellian analysis of Syria’s war helps clarify the disturbing set of choices before us. It’s unlikely that America would alter the balance in Syria unless the situation worsens and protracted civil war begins to threaten, rather than quietly advance, core US interests. And if we don’t want to wait for things to get that bad, then it is time for America’s policy leaders to start talking more concretely—and more honestly—about when humanitarian concerns should trump our more naked state interests.
MANY AMERICAN observers were heartened when the Arab uprisings spread to Syria in the spring of 2011, starting with peaceful demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad’s police state. Given Assad’s long and murderous reign, a democratic revolution seemed to offer hope. But the regime immediately responded with maximum lethality, arresting protesters and torturing some to death.
Armed rebel groups began to surface around the country, harassing Assad’s military and claiming control over a belt of provincial cities. Assad has pursued a scorched earth strategy, raining shells, missiles, and bombs on any neighborhood that rises up. Rebel areas have suffered for the better part of a year under constant strafing and sniper fire, without access to water, health care, or electricity. Iran and Russia have kept the military pipeline open, and Assad has a major storehouse of chemical weapons. While some rebel groups have been accused of crimes, the regime is disproportionately responsible for the killing, which earlier this year passed the 70,000 mark by a United Nations estimate that close observers consider an undercount.
As the civil war has hardened into a bloody, damaging standoff, many have called for a military intervention, pressing for the United States to side with one of the moderate rebel factions and do whatever it takes to propel it to victory. Liberal humanitarians focus on the dead and the millions driven from their homes by the fighting, and have urged the United States to join the rebel campaign. The right wants intervention on different grounds, arguing that the regional security implications of a failed Syria are too dangerous to ignore; the country occupies a significant strategic location, and the strongest rebel coalition, the Nusra Front, is an Al Qaeda affiliate. Given all those concerns, both sides suggest that it’s only a question of when, not if, the United States gets drawn in.
“Syria’s current trajectory is toward total state failure and a humanitarian catastrophe that will overwhelm at least two of its neighbors, to say nothing of 22 million Syrians,” said Fred Hof, an ambassador who ran Obama’s Syria policy at the State Department until last year, when he quit the administration and became a leading advocate for intervention. His feelings are widely shared in the foreign policy establishment: Liberals like Princeton’s Anne-Marie Slaughter and conservatives like Fouad Ajami have made the interventionist case, as have State Department officials behind the scenes.
Intervention is always risky, and in Syria it’s riskier than elsewhere. The regime has a powerful military at its disposal and major foreign backers in Russia and Iran. An intervention could dramatically escalate the loss of life and inflame a proxy struggle into a regional conflagration.
And yet there’s a flip side to the risks: The war is also becoming a sinkhole for America’s enemies. Iran and Hezbollah, the region’s most persistent irritants to the United States and Israel, have tied up considerable resources and manpower propping up Assad’s regime and establishing new militias. Russia remains a key guarantor of the government, costing Russia support throughout the rest of the Arab world. Gulf monarchies, which tend to be troublesome American allies, have invested small fortunes on the rebel side, sending weapons and establishing exile political organizations. The more the Syrian war sucks up the attention and resources of its entire neighborhood, the greater America’s relative influence in the Middle East.
If that makes Syria an unattractive target for intervention, so too do the politics and position of the combatants. For now, jihadist groups have established themselves as the most effective rebel fighters—and their distaste for Washington approaches their rage against Assad. Egos have fractured the rebellion, with new leaders emerging and falling every week, leaving no unified government-in-waiting for outsiders to support. The violent regime, meanwhile, is no friend to the West.
“I’ll come out and say it,” wrote the American historian and polemicist Daniel Pipes, in an e-mail. “Western powers should guide the conflict to stalemate by helping whichever side is losing. The danger of evil forces lessens when they make war on each other.”
Pipes is a polarizing figure, best known for his broadsides against Islamists and his critique of US policy toward the Middle East, which he usually says is naive. But in this case he’s voicing a sentiment that several diplomats, policy makers, and foreign policy thinkers have expressed to me in private. Some are career diplomats who follow the Syrian war closely. None wants to see the carnage continue, but one said to me with resignation: “For now, the war is helping America, so there’s no incentive to change policy.”
Analysts who follow the conflict up close almost universally want more involvement because they are maddened by the human toll—but many of them see national interests clearly standing in the way. “Russia gets to feel like it’s standing up to America, and America watches its enemies suffer,” one complained. “They don’t care that the Syrian state is hollowing itself out in ways that will come back to haunt everyone.”
IS IT EVER ACCEPTABLE to encourage a war to continue? In the policy world it’s seen as the grittiest kind of realpolitik, a throwback to the imperial age when competing powers often encouraged distant wars to weaken rivals, or to keep colonized nations compliant. During the Cold War the United States fanned proxy wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Angola to Nicaragua but invoked the higher principle of stopping the spread of communism, rather than admitting it was simply trying to wear out the Soviet Union.
In Syria it’s impossible to pretend that the prolonging of the civil war is serving a higher goal, and nobody, even Pipes, wants the United States to occupy the position of abetting a human-rights catastrophe. But the tradeoffs illustrate why Syria has become such a murky problem to solve. Even in an intervention that is humanitarian rather than primarily self-interested, a country needs to weigh the costs and risks of trying to help against the benefit we might realistically expect to bring—and it’s a difficult decision to get involved when those potential costs include threats to our own political interests.
So just what would be bad enough to induce the United States to intervene? An especially egregious massacre—a present-day Srebenica or Rwanda—could fan such outrage that the White House changes its position. So too would a large-scale violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention—signed by most states in the world, but not Syria. But far more likely is that the war simmers on, ever deadlier, until one side scores a military victory big enough to convince the outside powers to pick a winner. The White House hopes that with time, rebels more to its liking will gain influence and perhaps eclipse the alarming jihadists. That could take years. Many observers fear that Assad will fall and open the way to a five- or ten-year civil war between his successor and a well-armed coalition of Islamist militias, turning Syria into an Afghanistan on the Euphrates. The only thing that seems likely is that whatever comes next will be tragic for the people of Syria.
Because this chilly if practical logic is largely unspoken, the current hands-off policy continues to bewilder many American onlookers. It would be easier to navigate the conversation about intervention if the White House, and the policy community, admit what observers are starting to describe as the benefits of the war. Only then can we move forward to the real moral and political calculations at stake: for example, whether giving Iran a black eye is worth having a hand in the tally of Syria’s dead and displaced.
For those up close, it’s looking unhappily like a trip to a bygone era. Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze warlord, spent much of the last two years trying fruitlessly to persuade Washington and Moscow to midwife a political solution. Now he’s given up. Atop the pile of books on his coffee table sits “The Great Game,” a tale of how superpowers coldly schemed for centuries over Central Asia, heedless of the consequences for the region’s citizens. When he looks at Syria he sees a new incarnation of the same contest, where Russia and America both seek what they want at the expense of Syrians caught in the conflict.
“It’s cynical,” he said in a recent interview. “Now we are headed for a long civil war.”
A street poster from Cairo that reads, “My God, my freedom, O my country.” Photo: NEMO.
CAIRO — Every night, Egypt’s current comedic sensation, a doctor hailed as his country’s Jon Stewart, lambastes the nation’s president on TV, mocking his authoritarian dictates and airing montages that reveal apparent lies. On talk shows, opposition politicians hold forth for hours, excoriating government policy and new Islamist president Mohammed Morsi. Protesters use the earthiest of language to compare their political leaders to donkeys, clowns, and worse. Meanwhile, the president’s supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood respond in kind on their new satellite television station and in mass counter-rallies.
Before Egypt’s uprising two years ago, this kind of open debate about the president would have been unthinkable. For nearly three decades, former president Hosni Mubarak exerted near total control over the public sphere. In the twilight of his term, he imprisoned a famous newspaper editor who dared to publish speculation about the ailing president’s declining health. No one else touched the story again.
To Western observers, the freewheeling back-and-forth in Egypt right now might sound like the flowering of a young open society, one of the revolution’s few unalloyed triumphs. But amid the explosion of debate, something less wholesome has begun to arise as well. Though speech is far more open, it now carries a new and different kind of risk, one more unpredictable and sudden. Islamist officials and citizens have begun going after individuals for crimes such as blasphemy and insulting the president, and vaguer charges like sedition and serving foreign interests. The elected Islamist ruling party, the Muslim Brotherhood, pushed a new constitution through Egypt’s constituent assembly in December that expanded the number of possible free speech offenses—including insults to “all prophets.”
Worryingly, a recent report showed that President Morsi—a Brotherhood member, and Egypt’s first-ever genuinely elected, civilian leader—has invoked the law against insulting the presidency far more frequently than any of the dictators who preceded him, and has even directed a full-time prosecutor to summon journalists and others suspected of that crime.
The Muslim Brotherhood, as it rises to power, is playing host to conflicting ideas. It wants the United States to view it as a tolerant modern movement that doesn’t arbitrarily silence critics, but at the same time it needs to show its political base of socially conservative constituents in rural Egypt that it won’t tolerate irreligious speech at home. And it wants to argue that despite its religious pedigree, it is behaving within the constraints of the law.
For the time being, Egypt’s proliferating free expression still outstrips government efforts to shut it down. But as the new open society engenders pushback, what’s happening here is in many ways a test case for Islamist rule over a secular state. What’s at stake is whether Islamists—who are vying for elected power in countries around the Muslim world—really only respect the rules until they have enough clout to ignore them.
The text on this Cairo street poster reads, “As they breathe, they lie.” Photo: NEMO
EGYPTIANS ARE RENOWNED throughout the Arab world for jokes and wordplay, as likely to fall from the mouth of a sweet potato peddler as a society journalist. Much of daily life takes place in the crowded public social spaces where people shop, drink hand-pressed sugarcane juice, loiter with friends, or picnic with their families. But under the stifling police state built by Mubarak, that vitality was undercut by fear of the undercover police and informants who lurked everywhere, declaring themselves at sheesha joints or cafes when the conversation veered toward politics.
As a result, a prudent self-censorship ruled the day. State security officials had desks at all the major newspapers, but top editors usually saved them the trouble, restraining their own reporters in advance. In 2005, when one publisher took the bold step of publishing a judge’s letter critical of the regime, he confiscated the cellphones of all his editors and sequestered them in a conference room so they couldn’t tip off authorities before the paper reached the streets.
It wasn’t technically illegal to be a dissident in Egypt; that the paper could be published at all was testament to the fact that some tolerance existed. Egypt’s system was less draconian and violent than the police states in Syria and Iraq, where dissidents were routinely assassinated and tortured. But the limits of public speech were well understood, and Egyptians who cared to criticize the state carefully stayed on the accepted side of the line. Activists would speak out about electoral fraud by the ministry of the interior or against corruption by businesspeople, for example, but would carefully refrain from criticizing the military or Mubarak’s family. Political life as we understand it barely existed.
Egypt’s uprising marked an abrupt break in this long cultural balancing act. For the first time, millions of Egyptians expressed themselves freely and in public, openly defying the intelligence minions and the guns of the police. It was shocking when people in the streets called directly for the fall of the regime. Within weeks, previously unimaginable acts had become commonplace. Mubarak’s effigy hung in Tahrir Square. Military generals were mocked as corrupt, sadistic toadies in cartoons and banners. Establishment figures called for trials of former officials and limits on renegade security officials.
In the two years since, free speech has spread with dizzying speed—on buses, during marches, around grocery stalls, everywhere that people congregate. Today there are fewer sacred cows, although even at the peak of revolutionary fervor few Egyptians were willing to risk publicly impugning the military, which was imprisoning thousands without any due process. (An elected member of parliament faced charges when he compared the interim military dictator to a donkey.)
Mohammed Morsi was inaugurated in June, after a tight election that pitted him against a former Mubarak crony. Morsi campaigned on a promise to excise the old regime’s ways from the state, and on a grandiose Islamist platform called “The Renaissance.” His regime has fared poorly in its efforts to take control of the police and judiciary. Nor has it made much progress on its sweeping but impractical proposals to end poverty and save the Egyptian economy. It has proven easier to talk about Islamic social issues: allegations of blasphemy by Christians and atheist bloggers; alcohol consumption and the sexual norms of secular Egyptians; and the idea, widely held among Brotherhood supporters, that a godless cabal of old-regime supporters is secretly plotting to seize power.
Before it won the presidency, the Muslim Brotherhood emphasized it had been fairly elected; the party was Islamist, it said, but from the pragmatic, democratic end of the spectrum. But in recent months, there’s been more than a whiff of Big Brother about the Brotherhood. Supposed volunteers attacked demonstrators outside Morsi’s presidential palace—and then were videotaped turning over their victims to Brotherhood operatives. Allegations of torture, illegal detention, and murder by state agents pile up uninvestigated.
As revolutionaries and other critical Egyptians have turned their ire from the old regime to the new, the Brotherhood also has begun targeting political speech. The new constitution, authored by the Brotherhood and forced through Egypt’s constituent assembly in an overnight session over the objections of the secular opposition and even some mainstream religious clerics, criminalized blasphemy and expanded older statutes against insults to leaders, state institutions like the courts, and religious figures. Popular journalists have been threatened with arrest, while less famous individuals, including children improbably accused of desecrating a Koran, have been thrown into detention. Morsi’s presidential advisers regularly contact human rights activists and journalists to challenge their reports, a level of attention and pressure previously unknown here.
In addition to the old legal tools to limit free expression, which are now more heavily used by the Islamists than they were by Mubarak, the new constitution has added criminal penalties for insulting all religions and empowers courts to shut down media outlets that don’t “respect the sanctity of the private lives of citizens and the requirements of national security.”
The Egyptian government began an investigation of TV comedian Baseem Yousef but dropped its charges after a public outcry.
Egyptian human rights monitors have tracked dozens of such cases, including three that were filed by the president’s own legal team. Gamal Eid at the Arab Network for Human Rights Information charted 40 cases that prosecuted political critics for what amounted to dissenting speech in the first 200 days of Morsi’s regime. That’s more, he claims, than during Mubarak’s entire reign, and more charges of insulting the president than were filed since 1909, when the law was first written.
IT’S A WELL-KNOWN PRECEPT in politics that times of transition are the most unstable, and that the fight to establish civil liberties carries risks. The current speech crackdown may just be an expected symptom of the shift from an effective authoritarian state to competitive politics. Mubarak, of course, had less need to prosecute a population that mostly kept quiet.
It could also be a sign of desperation on the part of the Brotherhood, as it struggles to rule without buy-in from the police and state bureaucracy. Or it could, more alarmingly, mark a transition to a genuine new era of censorship in the most populous Arab country, this time driven as much by the Islamist cultural agenda as by the quest to keep a grip on power.
It is that last prospect that makes the path Egypt takes so important. By dint of its size and cultural heft, the country remains a major influence across the Arab world, and both in Egypt and elsewhere, the Muslim Brotherhood is at the front lines of political Islam—trying to balance the cultural conservatism of its rank-and-file supporters with the openness the world expects from democratic society.
There are signs that the Brotherhood wants to at least make gestures toward Western norms, though it remains hard to gauge exactly how open an Egypt its members would like to see. At one point the government began an investigation of Baseem Yousef, the Jon Stewart-like TV comedian, but abruptly dropped its charges in January after a public outcry.
During the wave of bad publicity around the investigation, one of President Morsi’s advisers issued a statement claiming that the state would never interfere in free speech—so long as citizens and the press worked to raise their “level of credibility.”
“Human dignity has been a core demand of the revolution and should not be undermined under the guise of ‘free speech,’” presidential adviser Esam El-Haddad said in a statement that placed ominous boundaries on the very idea of free speech that it purported to advance. “Rather, with freedom of speech comes responsibility to fellow citizens.”
What scares many people, is how they define “responsibility.” A widely watched video clip portrays a Salafi cleric lecturing his followers about how Egypt’s new constitution will allow pious Muslims to limit Christian freedoms and silence secular critics (the cleric, Sheikh Yasser Borhami, is from a more fundamentalist current, separate from but allied with the Brotherhood). When critics look at the Brotherhood’s current spate of investigations and threatened prosecutions, they see the political manifestation of the same exclusionary impulse: the polarizing notion that the Islamists’ actions are blessed by God and, by implication, that to criticize them is sacrilege.
Modern Islamism hasn’t reckoned with this implicit conflict yet, even internally. Officially, one current of the Brotherhood’s ideology prioritizes social activism over politics, and eschews coercion in religious matters. But another, perhaps more popular strain in Brotherhood thinking agitates for a religious revolution in people’s daily lives, and that strain appears to be driving the behavior of the Brothers suddenly in charge of the nation. Their fervor is colliding squarely with the secular responsibility of running a state like Egypt, which for all its shortcomings has real institutions, laws, and a civil society that expects modern freedoms and protections. The first stage of Egypt’s transition from military dictatorship has ended, but the great clash between religious and secular politics is just beginning to unfold.
Christia Fotini with a Syrian girl in a camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Syria in the village of Atmeh.
[Originally published in The Boston Globe.]
WHAT IS a civil war, really?
At one level the answer is obvious: an internal fight for control of a nation. But in the bloody conflicts that split modern states, our policy makers often understand something deeper to be at work. The vengeful slaughter that has ripped apart Bosnia, Rwanda, Syria, and Yemen is most often seen as the armed eruption of ancient and complex hatreds. Afghanistan is embroiled in a nearly impenetrable melee between Pashtuns and smaller ethnic groups, according to this thinking; Iraq is split by a long-suppressed Sunni-Shia feud. The coalitions fighting these wars are seen as motivated by the deepest sort of identity politics, ideologies concerned with group survival and the essence of who we are.
This view has long shaped America’s engagement with countries enmeshed in civil war. It is also wrong, argues Fotini Christia, an up-and-coming political scientist at MIT.
In a new book, “Alliance Formation in Civil Wars,” Christia marshals in-depth studies of the recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Bosnia, along with empirical data from 53 civil conflicts, to show that in one civil war after another, the factions behave less like enraged siblings and more like clinically rational actors, switching sides and making deals in pursuit of power. They might use compelling stories about religion or ethnicity to justify their decisions, but their real motives aren’t all that different from armies squaring off in any other kind of conflict.
How we understand civil wars matters. Most civil wars drag on until they’re resolved by a foreign power, which in this era almost always includes the United States. If she’s right, if we’re mistaken about what motivates the groups fighting in these internecine free-for-alls, we’re likely to misjudge our inevitable interventions—waiting too long, or guessing wrong about what to do.
CIVIL WARS ALWAYS have loomed large in the collective consciousness. Americans still debate theirs so vociferously that a blockbuster film about Abraham Lincoln feels topical 150 years after his death. Eastern Europe saw several years of ferocious killing in the round of civil wars that followed World War II.
Such wars have been understood as fights over differences that can’t be resolved any other way: fundamental questions of ideology, identity, creed. A disputed border can be redrawn; not so an ethnic grudge. In the last two decades, identity has become the preferred explanation for persistent conflicts around the world, from Chechnya to Armenia and Azerbaijan to cleavages between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria.
This thinking allows for a simple understanding, and conveniently limits the prospect for a solution. Any identity-based cleavage—Jew vs. Muslim, Bosnian vs. Serb, Catholic vs. Orthodox—is so profoundly personal as to be immutable. The conventional wisdom is best exemplified by a seminal 1996 paper by political scientist Chaim Kaufmann, “Possible and Impossible Solutions to Ethnic Civil Wars,” which argues that bitterly opposed populations will only stop fighting when separated from each other, preferably by a major natural barrier like a river or mountain range.
During the 1990s, this sort of ethnic determinism drove American policy toward Bosnia and Rwanda. It was popularized by Robert Kaplan’s book “Balkan Ghosts,” which was read in the Clinton White House and presented the wars in the former Yugoslavia as just the latest chapter in an insoluble, four-century ethnic feud. Like Kaufmann, Kaplan suggested that the grievances in civil wars could only be managed, never reconciled.
After 9/11, policy makers in Washington continued to view civil wars through this prism, talking about tribes and sects and ethnic groups rather than minority rights, systems of government, and resource-sharing. That view was so dominant that President Bush’s team insisted on designing Iraq’s first post-Saddam governing council with seats designated by sect and ethnicity, against the advice of Iraqis and foreign experts. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy as Iraq’s ethnic civil war peaked in 2006; things settled down only after death squads had cleansed most of Iraq’s mixed neighborhoods, turning the country into a patchwork of ethnically homogenous enclaves. Similarly, this thinking has shaped US policy in Afghanistan, where the military even sent anthropologists to help its troops understand the local culture that was considered the driving factor in the conflict.
Christia grew in up in the northern Greek city of Salonica in the 1990s, with the Bosnian war raging just over the border. “It was in our neighborhood and we discussed it vividly every night over dinner,” she says. The question of ethnicity seized her imagination: Were different peoples doomed to conflict by incompatible identities? Or were the decision-makers in civil wars working on a different calculus from their emotional followers? As a graduate student at Harvard, Christia flew to Afghanistan and tried to turn a dispassionate political scientist’s eye to the question of why warlords behave the way they do.
Christia spent years studying these warlords, the factional leaders in a civil war that broke out in the late 1970s. As a graduate student and later as a professor, she returned to Afghanistan to interview some of the nastiest war criminals in the country. She concluded that culture and identity, while important for their adherents, did not seem to factor into the motives of the warlords themselves, and specifically not in their choices of wartime allies. Despite the powerful rhetoric about ethnic alliances forged in blood, warlords repeatedly flipped and switched sides. They used the same language—about tribe, religion, or ethnicity—whether they were fighting yesterday’s foe or joining him.
If ethnicity, religion, and other markers of identity didn’t matter to warlords, Christia asked, what did? It turns out the answer was simple: power. After studying the cases of Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Iraq in intricate detail, Christia built a database of 53 conflicts to test whether her theory applied more widely. She ran regression analyses and showed that it did: Warlords adjusted their loyalties opportunistically, always angling for the best slice of the future government. It’s not quite as simple as siding with the presumed winner, she says: It’s picking the weakest likely winner, and therefore the one most likely to share power with an ally.
In this model of warlord behavior, the many factions in a civil war are less like Cain and Abel and more like the mafia families in “The Godfather” trilogy. Loyalties follow business interests, and business interests change; meanwhile, the talk about family and blood keeps the foot soldiers motivated. In Bosnia, one Muslim warlord joined forces with the Serbs after the Serbs’ horrific massacre of Muslims at Srebenica, and justified his switch by saying that the central government in Sarajevo was run by fanatics while he represented the true, moderate Islam. In case after case of intractable civil wars—Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq, the former Yugoslavia—Christia found similar patterns of fluid alliances.
“The elites make the decision, and then sell it to the people who follow them with whatever narrative sticks,” Christia said. “We’re both Christians? Or we’re both minorities? Or we’re both anti-communist? Whatever sticks.”
CHRISTIA’S WORK has been received with great interest, though not all her academic colleagues agree with her conclusions. Critics say identity is more important in civil wars than she gives it credit for, and we ignore it at our peril. Roger Petersen, an expert on ethnic war and Eastern Europe who is a colleague of Christia’s at MIT and supervised her dissertation, argues that in some conflicts, identity—ethnic, religious, or ideological—is truly the most important factor. Leaders might make a pact with the devil to survive, but once a conflict heads to its conclusion, irreconcilable conflicts often end with a fight to the death. Communists and nationalists fought for total victory in Eastern Europe’s civil wars, with no regard to their fleeting coalitions of opportunity against foreign occupiers during World War II. More recently, Bosnia’s war only ended after the country had split into ethnically cleansed cantons.
Christia acknowledges that her theory needs further testing to see if it applies in every case. She is currently studying how identity politics play out at most local level in present-day Syria and Yemen.
If it holds up, though, Christia’s research has direct bearing on how we ought to view the conflict today in a nation like Syria. The teetering dictatorship is the stronghold of the minority Allawite sect in a Sunni-majority nation. And leader Bashar Assad has rallied his constituents on sectarian grounds, saying his regime offers the only protection for Syria’s minorities against an increasingly Sunni uprising. But Syria’s rebellion comprises dozens of armed factions, and Christia suggests that these militants, which run the gamut of ethnic and sectarian communities, will be swayed more by the prospect of power in a post-Assad Syria than by ethnic loyalty. That would mean the United States could win the loyalty of different fighting factions by ignoring who they are—Sunni, Kurd, secular, Armenian, Allawite—and by focusing instead on their willingness to side with America or international forces in exchange for guns, money, or promises of future political power.
For America, civil wars elsewhere in the world might seem like somebody else’s problem. But in reality we’re very likely to end up playing a role: Most civil wars don’t end without foreign intervention, and America is the lone global superpower, with huge sway at the United Nations. Christia suggests that Washington would do well to acknowledge early on that it will end up intervening in some form in any civil war that threatens a strategic interest. That doesn’t necessarily mean boots on the ground, but it means active funding of factions and shaping of the alliances that are doing the fighting. In a war like Syria’s, that means the United States has wasted precious time on the sidelines.
Despite her sustained look at the worst of human conflict, Christia says she considers herself an optimist: People spend most of their history peacefully coexisting with different groups, and only a tiny portion of the time fighting. And once civil wars do break out, the empirical evidence shows that hatreds aren’t eternal. “If identities mattered so much,” she says, “you wouldn’t see so much shifting around.”
[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]
ROCKETS AND MORTARS have stopped flying over the border between Gaza and Israel, a temporary lull in one of the most intractable, hot-and-cold wars of our time. The hostilities of late November ended after negotiators for Hamas and Israel—who refused to talk face-to-face, preferring to send messages via Egyptian diplomats—agreed to a rudimentary cease-fire. Their tenuous accord has no enforcement mechanism and doesn’t even nod to discussing the festering problems that underlie the most recent crisis. Both sides say they expect another conflict; experience suggests it’s just a question of when.
Generations of negotiators have cut their teeth trying to forge a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, and their failures are as varied as they are numerous: Camp David, Madrid, the Oslo Accords, Wye River, Taba, the Road Map. For diplomats and deal-makers around the world—even those with no particular stake in Middle East peace—Israel and Palestine have become the ultimate test of international negotiations.
For Guy Olivier Faure, a French sociologist who has dedicated his career to figuring out how to solve intractable international problems, they’re something else as well: an almost unparalleled trove of insights into how negotiations can go wrong.
For more than 20 years, Faure has studied not only what makes negotiations around the world succeed, but how they break down. From Israel and the Palestinians to the Biological Weapons Convention protocol to the ongoing talks about Iran’s nuclear program, it’s far more common for negotiations to fail than to work out. And it’s from these failures, Faure says, that we can harvest a more pragmatic idea of what we should be doing instead. “In order to not endlessly repeat the same mistakes, it is essential to understand their causes,” he says.
TODAY’S INTERNATIONAL order turns on successful negotiation. When we think about what’s right in the world, we’re often thinking about the results of agreements like the START treaties, which ended the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union; the Geneva Conventions, which govern the conduct of war; or even the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, drafted in 1948, which still underpins globalized free trade.
But in negotiations over the most vexing international problems—a hostage situation, a war between a central government and terrorist insurgents, a new multinational agreement—such successes are few and far between. Failure is the norm. Understandably, experts tend to focus on the wins. From US presidents to obscure third-party diplomats, negotiators pore over rare historical successes for tips rather than face the copious and dreary overall record.
Faure wants to change that focus. As an expert he straddles two worlds: He studies diplomacy academically as a sociologist at the Sorbonne, in Paris, and has also trained actual negotiators for decades, at the European Union, the World Trade Organization, and UN agencies. Over his career, he has produced 15 books spanning all the different theories behind negotiation, and ultimately concluded that negotiations that failed, or simply sputtered out inconclusively, were the most interesting. Each failure had multiple causes, but it was possible to compile a comprehensive list, and from that, consistent patterns.
“Unfinished Business” takes a look at what happened during a number of high-profile failures, and examines the underlying conditions of each set of talks: trust, cultural differences, psychology, the role of intermediaries, and outsiders who can derail negotiations or overload them with extraneous demands.
One of Faure’s insights concerns the mindset of negotiators—a factor negotiators themselves often believe is irrelevant, but which Faure and his colleagues believe can often determine the outcome. Incompatible values on the two sides of the table, he says, are much harder to bridge than practical differences, like an argument over a boundary or the mechanics of a cease-fire. As Faure says, “A quantity can be split, but not a value.” This is what Faure saw at work when the Palestinians and Israelis embarked on a rushed negotiation at the Egyptian seaside resort of Taba during Bill Clinton’s final month in office. The two sides had already reached an impasse at a lengthier negotiation in 2000 at Camp David. With the end of his presidency looming and Israeli elections coming up, Clinton summoned them back to the table for a no-nonsense session he hoped would bring speedy closure to disputes over borders, Jerusalem, and refugees. The Palestinians, however, felt that the two sides simply didn’t share the same view of justice and weren’t truly aiming at the same goal of two sovereign states—and so didn’t feel driven to make a deal. That mismatch of long-term beliefs, Faure says, doomed the talks.
There are other warning signs that emerge as patterns in failed talks. Time and again, parties embark on tough negotiations already convinced they will fail—a defeatism that becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. In interviewing professional negotiators, Faure and his colleagues found that they often don’t pay that much attention to the practical aspects of how to run a negotiation—a surprising lapse.
Faure and his team have found that a well-planned process is one of the best predictors of success, and that many negotiations are terrible at it. When the European Union and the United States talked to Iran about its nuclear program, various European countries kept adding extraneous issues to the talks, for instance linking Iran’s behavior with nukes to existing trade agreements. The additions made the negotiations unwieldy, and provoked crises over matters peripheral to the actual subject. In the case of the mediation over Cyprus, the Greek and Turkish sides didn’t bother coming up with any tangible proposed solution to negotiate over, instead talking vaguely about a Swiss model. Negotiations failed in part because neither side knew what that would mean for Cyprus.
Ultimately, Faure argues, mistrust and inflexibility tangle up negotiators more than any other factor. Negotiators often end up demonizing the other side, and as a result might embark on a process that by its structure encourages failure. For instance, Israeli and Palestinian reliance on mediators to ferry messages—even between delegations in the same resort—maximizes misunderstandings and minimizes the possibility that either side will sense a genuine opening.
WHAT EMERGES FROM Faure’s work, overall, is that the outlook for negotiations is usually pretty bleak—certainly bleaker than Faure himself prefers to highlight. In some cases, he suggests that diplomats should put off an outright negotiation until they’ve dealt with gaps in trust and cultural communication, or until the conflict feels “ripe” for solution to the parties involved. There’s no point, he suggests, in embarking on a negotiation if all the stakeholders are convinced it’s a waste of time—indeed, a failed negotiation can sometimes exacerbate a problem.
The most promising scenarios occur when both sides are suffering under the status quo, which creates what social scientists call a “mutually hurting stalemate,” with soldiers or civilians dying on both sides, and a “mutually enticing opportunity” if there’s a peace agreement or a prisoner swap. In that case, a decent deal will give both sides a chance to genuinely improve their lot.
Unfortunately for the many whose hopes are riding on negotiations, the truly challenging international problems of our age don’t always come with a strong incentive to compromise. In military conflicts, there is little incentive to resolve matters when a conflict is lopsided in one side’s favor (Shia versus Sunni in Iraq, Israel versus Hamas, the Taliban versus the United States in Afghanistan). The same holds in broader international agreements: They’re complicated and intractable largely because the states involved are—no matter what they say—quite comfortable with the status quo. Think about climate change: The biggest gas-guzzlers and polluters, the ones whose assent matters the most for a carbon-reduction treaty, are often the last states that will pay the price for rising oceans. Meanwhile, the poorer nations whose populations are most at the mercy of sea levels or changing weather have little clout. Just as it’s easy for a relatively secure Israel to stand pat on the Palestinian question, there are few immediate consequences for the United States and China if they sit out climate talks.
It’s not all bleak news. Even in cases where negotiations appear hamstrung—like climate change and Palestine—there are, Faure points out, plenty of other reasons to continue negotiating. Negotiations are a form of diplomacy, dialogue, and recognition, and even in failure can serve some other interests of the parties involved. But—as the impressive historical record of failed international agreements shows—it’s naive to think that they will always yield a solution.