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Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and President Gerald Ford met in Helsinki at the All European Conference on Security and Cooperation in July 1975.
[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]
EIGHT HUNDRED YEARS AGO this summer, King John and a group of feudal barons gathered at Runnymede on the banks of the Thames River. There he agreed to the Magna Carta, which for the first time limited the absolute power of the monarch and established a contract between ruler and ruled. The mother of modern treaties and law, the Magna Carta began a global conversation about the responsibility of the powerful toward people under their control.
A scant four decades ago, also this summer, another gathering in the Finnish capital of Helsinki produced a second series of accords. While far less well known, the signing of the Helsinki Accords was a critical juncture in the long struggle of the individual against state authority. Building on some of the same ideas that undergirded the Magna Carta, the Helsinki Accords codified a broad set of individual liberties, human rights, and state responsibilities, which remain strikingly relevant today, whether the subject is China’s Internet policy, the Islamic State’s latest outrage, or the American “war on terror.” The language of human rights has become the lingua franca for criticizing misbehavior by states or quasi-governments.
Today, most governments have signed on to the United Nations’ definition of universal human rights, only disagreeing about whether their own transgressions run afoul of them. Rights groups are ubiquitous, criticizing the treatment of American prisoners, Chinese sweatshop workers, Iranian dissidents, and other groups whose rights are abridged.
Yet for the widespread agreement that human rights represent shared, universal values, it’s still hard to predict when a campaign based on moral accusation can change the actions of a state. Indeed, the question is no longer whether human rights can make a difference, it’s whether they will in any particular case.
It wasn’t always so. Until recently, human rights were hardly part of the realpolitik discourse and were certainly not considered an effective cudgel against powerful regimes. That changed 40 years ago, when powers from both sides of the Iron Curtain signed the Helsinki Final Act and unwittingly ushered in the era of the human rights group.
Solidarity in Poland, Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, and the Moscow Helsinki Group played key roles in the fall of the Soviet Union. They galvanized public dissatisfaction at home, embarrassed their governments abroad, and catalyzed the Soviet bloc’s loss of legitimacy. Many historians now believe that the 1975 Helsinki Accords and the human rights movement they engendered played a pivotal role in ending the Cold War, far exceeding the humble expectations of the diplomats who brokered the agreement.
“The most important legacy of the Helsinki Final Act today is that citizens have the right to monitor and report on the human rights records in their own country,” said Sarah Snyder, a historian at American University who has written a book called “Human Rights Activism and the End of the Cold War.” Prior to 1975, groups like Amnesty International tried to create international pressure with letter-writing campaigns, usually from outside the country where an injustice was occurring. Snyder believes that Helsinki created a new paradigm of human rights and a global slate of organizations that pursued them, with lasting impact — all the more impressive, Snyder said, because Helsinki wasn’t a legally binding treaty. “The only way it was binding was morally,” she said.
Academics have given a name to the idea that human rights advocacy can change facts on the ground: “The Helsinki Effect,” also the title of a 2001 book by political scientist Daniel Thomas, which popularized the argument that human rights trumped geopolitics and economics in resolving the Cold War.
How did a nonbinding, lumbering bureaucratic agreement reached four decades ago spawn the modern human rights movement? And what’s left of the legacy of Helsinki?
Members of the Polish trade union, Solidarity, on strike at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk in August 1980.
AT THE HEIGHT of the Cold War, the Soviet bloc was a closed and inaccessible society. Many people who lived behind the Iron Curtain weren’t allowed to leave, and outsiders were permitted only tightly controlled, limited glimpses at life inside. The specter of cataclysmic conflict hung over East and West, with both sides brandishing thermonuclear and conventional arsenals that were unthinkably vast and destructive.
Throughout the Cold War, there were points of tension followed by periods of accommodation. The Helsinki Accords marked one of the latter. Relations across Europe had become so strained and so dangerous that Moscow, Washington, and all the capitals in between agreed there had to be some degree of relaxation. Both sides wanted to avoid a continental war between the superpowers. Both sides sought to end what they saw as belligerent expansion by the other.
They gathered in Helsinki on Aug. 1, 1975, to sign an agreement that turned out to be a seminal breakthrough — although not in the way that either side expected. The agreement signed by 35 states, including the United States and the USSR, focused for the most part on reestablishing respect for borders, national sovereignty, and peaceful resolution for future disputes between states. It also included a clause recognizing universal human rights, including freedoms of thought, conscience, and belief.
President Gerald Ford was castigated by his domestic critics for signing away the farm, because he had acknowledged Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, the Soviets trumpeted Helsinki as a tremendous victory, enshrining their sphere of influence and providing international legitimacy to their repression of citizens and governments in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere. They were so unconcerned about the human rights provisions that they published the Helsinki Final Act in full in the pages of the state newspaper, Pravda.
Western diplomats had modest hopes that the personal freedoms enumerated at Helsinki would ease the way for Eastern Bloc spouses married to Westerners, and for cultural and academic exchanges that promoted international dialogue.
But the importance of Principle Seven became evident almost before the ink was dry. Civic groups sprung up across the Eastern Bloc, determined to exercise their right to monitor their own governments’ compliance with Helsinki. Andrei Sakharov, the famous Soviet dissident, oversaw the founding of the Moscow Helsinki Group at his apartment in 1976. Activist playwright Vaclav Havel helped set up Charter 77 in Prague the following year. A Helsinki watch group opened in Poland in 1979.
The watch groups became very public thorns in the side of Communist governments. Their leaders were well known domestically and had contacts in the West, particularly in the press. They mobilized global attention to the human rights abuses of the Soviet Union and its client dictators.
And when governments subjected the watch groups to withering pressure, the activists asked their supporters outside the Iron Curtain to establish a unified organization that could defend the Helsinki Watch monitors. Human Rights Watch, perhaps the best-known and farthest-reaching global rights advocacy group today, originated with the Helsinki Watch group founded in 1978.
A brilliant, if perhaps unintended, enforcement system was built into Helsinki. All the signatory nations agreed to reconvene regularly, and the 10-point document contained many items of great political and security import to the Soviet Union. If the Soviets wanted to keep the benefits of Helsinki, they’d have to put up with attacks on their human rights record at the follow-up meetings.
“Without this follow-up mechanism, I think there would have been a big celebration after the signing, and we never would have heard of the Helsinki Final Agreement again,” Snyder said.
Instead, a panoply of Eastern Bloc activists and their Western supporters flooded diplomatic confabs at Belgrade, Madrid, and Vienna with details about oppression and abuses. Often, the Helsinki monitors became celebrities themselves, drawing widespread attention when they were persecuted and detained by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies.
The Helsinki-inspired human rights movements put a face on government oppression and placed rights atop the Cold War agenda alongside arms control. To the frustration of Soviet leaders, the world became absorbed by the plight of jailed activists and refuseniks denied exit visas.
By time Mikhail Gorbachev took over the leadership of the Soviet Union in 1985, he couldn’t sidestep human rights concerns when he began to negotiate a full détente.
THE NAMING AND SHAMING techniques pioneered by the Helsinki monitors run deep in the DNA of contemporary human rights groups. “The mechanisms that were so essential to Helsinki remain a key tool of the human rights movement today,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “How does the human rights movement get anything done? By shaming, and by enlisting powerful governments to act on behalf of victims of human rights violations.”
For decades after the ratification of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, human rights remained largely an abstract concept in world politics. Most governments agreed with the principle but comfortably ignored human rights in practice.
The crumbling of the Soviet empire gave the human rights movement both experience and legitimacy. The Berlin Wall came down, and Eastern Bloc countries toppled their homegrown dictators. Lech Walesa, head of the Solidarity trade union, was elected president of Poland. Vaclav Havel, a playwright and signatory of Charter 77, won the presidency of Czechoslovakia and worldwide renown as a highly cultured philosopher-king. A generation after the Helsinki monitors came to prominence as victims of tyranny, they had become the face of a new democratic political elite.
The changing values that elevated them have become part of the world’s political orthodoxy; even governments that routinely violate human rights still pay them lip service.
“Even North Korea is pretending to accept human rights,” Roth said. “Governments care about their reputation and don’t want to be seen as violating human rights norms.”
Authoritarian backlash is another legacy of the Helsinki era. Dictators have also studied the rise of the civic monitors, and concluded that groups like Human Rights Watch really could cause them problems. A common result has been to strike hard and quickly against human rights groups, especially when they are run by locals who have moral authority. Vladimir Putin’s rise to power has been accompanied by the silencing and killing of many credible rights monitors. Iran’s ayatollahs deployed maximal force to destroy the “Green Revolution” of 2009. Egypt’s dictatorship rails against any criticism of its human rights record as meddling and foreign interference, and prosecutes domestic rights group with the same zeal that it pursues armed antigovernment insurgents. Despotic regimes have made it common practice to starve rights groups of funding and deny them permits to operate.
Given the success of authoritarian regimes, not everyone is convinced that the Helsinki effect is as pronounced as its champions claim. Among the many commemorations scheduled for the 40th anniversary year, a group of scholars is gathering at the Sorbonne in Paris this December to explore how much the agreement and the human rights movements it created really were responsible for social and political change.
“My feeling is that we really don’t know that much, beyond generalities, that is, in terms of how the ‘Helsinki effect’ effectively operated by way of changing East European societies from within,” one of the organizers, Frédéric Bozo, a historian the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, wrote in an e-mail. He’s also not sure whether anything about the Helsinki era applies to today’s thorny nexus of human rights and political power — another area he said is ripe for further inquiry.
Skeptics of the narrative of human rights triumphalism point out that the US government always paid more attention to transgressions committed by its rivals than by its friends. That pattern continues today in Washington, with pointed human rights criticism of China, Russia, Cuba, and Iran. There’s far less enthusiasm in the West for documenting human rights abuses by allies like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel — or for that matter, addressing the plight of those held without trial at Guantanamo Bay or killed in drone strikes.
In some ways, the world was more binary during the Helsinki era. Two major superpowers dominated the world; if they agreed, most other nations fell into place. Nonstate actors hadn’t assumed their central role in international politics, with their destabilizing penchant for asymmetric warfare.
Even pessimists like Anne-Marie Le Gloannec, a political scientist at Sciences Po in Paris, admit that Helsinki produced an enduring change. Le Gloannec believes the world is headed for dark times, with resentment driving an anti-Western wave led by tyrannical demagogues like Russia’s Putin. The war in Ukraine could spread farther into Europe, she believes, and human rights norms won’t do anything to calm tensions.
Despite her grim forecast, Le Gloannec belives that civic and human rights are here to stay — thanks to Helsinki. “We have a new paradigm,” she said. “People have the right to defend their rights, to fight for their rights.” However fragile, it’s a paradigm that for the first time placed individuals, rather than nation states, at the center of international relations.
Photo: MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]
LEBANON’S MOST powerful Sunni and Shia warlords entered delicate negotiations to calm sectarian strife earlier this year, terrified that the mass killing in next-door Syria was about to engulf their own country.
There were many prickly agenda items: the central role that the Shia party Hezbollah plays in propping up Syria’s dictatorship; the cozy relationship between rich Sunni bosses and the crop of nihilist jihadis who are responsible for some of the most chilling murders; and a spate of beheadings and riots.
In the end, the two sides could agree on only one major concession to cool the conflict from the boiling point it had reached: Take down the big posters.
This compromise, at first glance, may sound almost pitifully small. At the time, Sunni jihadists were killing national army soldiers in the mountain town of Arsal, while Shia neighborhoods were celebrating their war martyrs as the only defense against the creation of a stifling, genocidal caliphate. And the only thing that sectarian leaders could agree on was a moratorium on images and iconography.
Yet the accord makes a powerful true-life argument about incitement.
The ubiquitous images of martyrs, religious leaders, and warlords, the slogans about death, sacrifice, and religions painted on walls and banners, both sides agreed, posed a genuine risk. Taking down some of the most intense signs of sectarian propaganda isn’t as big a step as disarming a militia, but in Lebanon’s ongoing experiment with religious and communal tension, this spring’s accord over visual propaganda marks an important test.
If the architects of the agreement and the social scientists who argue that the visual displays of sectarianism raise fears and the risk of violence are right, then Lebanon will reap major dividends from the iconography gambit — and in the process, give credence to the argument that visual propaganda plays an integral role in conflict.
But just how important are these signs and slogans? Can posters actually shape people’s identities and political views, mobilize them to fight, prime them to enter a zero-sum struggle against other people whom they consider different and less human? Or do they merely reflect discord and sectarianism that come from conflicts over resources and are nurtured slowly in places like schools, mosques, and churches?
“These flags are everywhere. We need a break from them,” said Jeanine Jalkh, a Lebanese journalist who has written extensively about ways to heal war-torn societies.
Tens of thousands of dead from the Lebanese Civil War, which raged from 1975 to 1991, are still unaccounted for; many victims are believed to have been killed by warlords and factions that still predominate today. So for many Lebanese, Jalkh said, the banners and flags they pass every day serve as a painful reminder of an enemy group that might still control their neighborhood — and that they hold responsible for a major, unprocessed loss. “To make peace, we’re going to need a multifaceted process,” she said. “We’re going to have to deal with memory, and with accountability.” Toning down the symbols, Jalkh believes, is a great place to start.
ACROSS THE ARAB world, the fight for power increasingly is being waged in sectarian terms, by militias whose loyalists and leaders identify themselves as Sunni, Shia, Christian, or some offshoot sect rather than by any other ethnic or political identity.
It’s not always accurate, but the signs and banners make a good bellwether of where the conflict stands. When sectarian militias are enjoying an entente, the peacocking subsides: no new posters and flags, none of the enormous billboards, and building-sized banners. When tensions run high, on the other hand, sectarian iconography proliferates.
The first steps to remove the icons in Lebanon went smoothly. In March, Hezbollah and its biggest Shia ally, the Amal movement, dismantled some of their largest party banners hanging in Beirut. The main Sunni party, the Future Movement, took down many of its posters and banners in Beirut and the cities of Sidon and Tripoli, which have diverse populations but also host concentrations of Sunni jihadists.
Mixed neighborhoods and sectarian borders have, not surprisingly, been the biggest flashpoints in Lebanon. As a result, these areas also host some of the more in-your-face iconography. The main highway to the airport, for instance, is a road that nearly everyone in the country travels. It also passes through Hezbollah’s heartland in South Beirut. The party has erected dozens of massive posters featuring Hezbollah martyrs along the motorway and raised hackles when they erected photographs of visiting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad in 2010, an event that many Sunnis still bring up today. Entrances to Christian neighborhoods, meanwhile, are often marked by spray-painted or stenciled crosses on walls — most often a stylized cross of the Lebanese Forces, a militia responsible for many of the worst atrocities of the civil war — and photographs of their militia-leaders-turned-politicians.
It was in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, that the campaign to calm sectarian tensions hit a bump. Since 2011, rounds of violence have wracked the city, pitting local Sunnis, who support the Syrian uprising, against Alawites, who support the Assad regime. Both communities have been sending fighters and weapons to Syria since fighting broke out there, and Lebanese politicians have tried in vain to keep their fighting on the far side of the border.
The city’s Sunni majority nurses a host of grievances. Poverty and unemployment are endemic. The central government has neglected Tripoli for decades. The city’s Sunni leaders, many of whom are multimillionaires and at least one of whom is a billionaire former prime minister, have stoked a sense of sectarian grievance while doing nothing themselves to help the city. Militancy and jihadist thought has proliferated among the Sunni populace, along with a sense that they are subject to punishment only because they are Sunni while the Lebanese Army and government are dominated by Shia and Christian movements.
One night this spring, Khaled el-Daher, a populist Sunni Islamist member of parliament, heard that the regional governor was removing jihadist flags from Nour Square, the symbolic gateway to Tripoli. He instantly framed it as a religious war against Sunnis and summoned a who’s-who of hard-core religious activists and jihadi sympathizers to join him in the square after midnight.
“This is a humiliation for the Sunnis!” he shouted to the crowd and assembled media. “If there is a decision to remove religious flags, let it be imposed on all religions, Muslim and Christian. Let them start with the crosses on the churches in Beirut and the statue of Christ the King in Jounieh!”
Daher’s stand brought Tripoli to the verge of open warfare, as Lebanese Christians, many of whom already feel politically marginalized and vulnerable, were stirred into action. The central importance of the sectarian symbols that adorn conflict in the region became immediately clear — as was the difficulty of taking even the most extreme of those down.
The centerpiece of Nour Square is a statue, about 10 feet high, of the word “God” written in simple Arabic calligraphy. A smaller sign identifies Tripoli as “the citadel of the Muslims.” Around the statue hang flags with verses of the Koran in Arabic script. Daher, an influential boss who was a member of the Sunni Future Movement until he was expelled as a result of his grandstanding about the flags, is unapologetic.
“This is God!” he explained in an interview. “Will you remove God from our city?”
JOSEPH EID/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
The centerpiece of Nour Square in Tripoli is a statue of the word “God” written in Arabic calligraphy.
Islamic leaders and movements have flown flags with professions of faith ever since the time of the Prophet Mohammed. Today extremist groups, including ISIS and Al Qaeda, have adopted one form of this traditional flag as their battle standard, creating a vexing issue for purists like Daher.
Some Sunni leaders have found an easy workaround: Hang the same slogans on white flags, to keep the focus clearly on the religious dictates and not the contemporary political conflict. But it is on this score that Daher and other militant leaders in Tripoli expose themselves to charges of incitement.
“If criminals from ISIS kill under this flag that reads ‘No God but God,’ must we remove it?” Daher says. “Should we ask to Christians to remove the cross because it was used by the Crusaders?”
Daher defends all the symbols as a benign Lebanese tradition, a way of building community around leaders and shared values.
“The criminal is committing his crime under a flag — let us talk about the criminals, not the flag,” Daher said. “The problem is not with the pictures. It is with the practices: the weapons, the militias.”
SOCIOLOGIST SARI HANAFI at the American University of Beirut has been studying the process of incitement. He says that simplistic sectarian discourse has created a receptive audience for extremist recruitment: people deluged with banners and slogans, assertions about identity and threat that are not based on arguments and evidence.
“At one end of the spectrum, it’s about ignoring others, constructing a sense of otherness,” Hanafi says. “At the extreme, it becomes incitement, like ISIS.”
The peace process in Northern Ireland included a careful study of the use of flags and symbols to intimidate and mark territory, and efforts to change the way that symbols were used to heighten tensions. Researchers and peace advocates there recommended stringent regulation of flags and banners in public spaces, and the replacement of sectarian motifs with national, neutral, or intercommunal symbols.
Post-conflict reconciliation in places like Northern Ireland, Rwanda, and South Africa gave careful consideration to the creation of national symbols and efforts to deflate old sectarian or racial symbols. But Lebanon can only borrow a little from those other countries, because in Lebanon there hasn’t been any process to reconcile the civil war-era sectarian militias or to process the crimes of that era. Lebanon has enjoyed a sort of durable truce among sectarian factions since 1991, but nothing like an actual peace and reconciliation agreement that could lead to a nonsectarian order.
According to the Sunni and Shia politicians in Lebanon who agreed to take down the imagery, the move has two aims: The first goal is to make rival communities feel less threatened, and the second is to reduce the sense of urgency and mobilization that the ubiquitous signs provoke. Their experiment will ultimately show whether the simple act of removing some of those pointed symbols can slacken people’s thirst to fight.
Around Tripoli many of the most visible signs, banners, and photographs are gone.
Two black flags fly outside the Tripoli office of Bilal Doqmaq, a firebrand Sunni Salafi cleric who has been accused of rampant incitement and who was briefly detained this spring on charges of weapons trafficking. He likens the black flag to the cross over the Vatican or the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.
“We lie to ourselves when we say the problem is gone when we remove these flags,” Doqmaq said. “That is the first step, when we need a million.”
This pessimism, however, belies Doqmaq’s true message. He is as responsible as any other militant for fanning the flames of violence. But what he is saying is that, to get groups like Hezbollah to moderate, symbols are a key part of the campaign. When the ubiquitous flags of war stop billowing, that will be a real first step to calming down the men and boys who do the shooting.
Illustration: KIM MAXWELL VU/GLOBE STAFF
[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas section]
BEIRUT — On the day that Houthi rebels took over the capital of Yemen in February, US diplomats moved into high gear to do what they are increasingly tasked with doing when the countries they cover explode into crisis: Pack up and leave.
In the month that has followed, Yemen has erupted into one of the scariest hot spots in the world, hosting a high-stakes regional war entangling most of America’s allies and enemies on top of one of the busiest shipping lanes for the global oil supply. Additionally, there is the threat of terrorism: Yemen has produced some of the most significant Al Qaeda plots against American targets since 9/11, but counter-terrorism and intelligence-gathering efforts have collapsed along with the US diplomatic exit.
With no diplomats, counter-terrorism operatives, or top-secret spies on the ground, the United States is left with less visibility than ever into a rapidly shifting conflict.
It’s not that foreign service officers suddenly lack the courage or desire to stay put when the countries where they’re stationed go haywire. Rather, a succession of United States administrations has increasingly decided that, in a post-9/11, post-Benghazi era, the stakes for putting civilian diplomats in harm’s way are too high. President Obama’s political wrangle with Congress in the aftermath of the 2012 murder of J. Christopher Stevens, the American ambassador to Libya, made an already deteriorating situation even worse. Few, if any, US diplomats today are given the freedom to exercise their professional judgment of what risks are worth taking.
Throughout the combustible region stretching from Pakistan to Morocco, where America has expended most of its foreign policy energy in the last four decades, its diplomatic presence operates at a paralyzing remove, behind concrete as well as perceptual barriers. And intentionally or not, the result leaves the United States flying blind in places where information is the hardest to obtain and where diplomacy may be the most vital.
“WE ARE NOW too restrictive. We need a course correction,” said Ronald E. Neumann, who served as an American ambassador in volatile spots including Afghanistan and Algeria, before retiring in 2007.
Crafting foreign policy requires information and judgments that even the most skilled diplomats and observers can’t cull from afar, Neumann explained. In Yemen, for instance, with the well-connected ambassador now having to work remotely by phone and in meetings abroad, the United States is forced to rely much more on the biased analysis of allies like Saudi Arabia.
“If you’re going to avoid a civil war, it requires understanding what the parties want and being able to broker solutions,” Neumann said. “You can’t do this from a distance.”
But a great distance is exactly what separates American diplomats from flashpoints like Yemen, Syria, and Libya today. In other war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States retains an information network from its long periods of military occupation, but that too is shrinking. American understanding and insight into global conflicts are as limited as ever.
What is lost when diplomats must withdraw — or are forced to operate out of fortress embassies with elaborate security protocols restricting their ability to meet with the people who provide crucial analysis and avenues of influence? Can America even properly understand the places that top its list of threats?
THE DANGERS TO Americans serving the country’s interests abroad are very real and long-running.
“If you’re an American, you’ve got a bull’s-eye on you that others don’t,” said Ryan C. Crocker, who has served as ambassador in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon, and Kuwait.
In 1979, Iranian radicals took over the US Embassy and held 52 hostages for more than a year; that crisis fatally hobbled Jimmy Carter’s presidency. In April 1983, a suicide bomber blew up the US Embassy in Beirut, killing 63. In 1998, massive bombs ravaged the American missions in Kenya and Tanzania. These attacks are only the most scarring of dozens of bombings, assassinations, and other assaults that have targeted US diplomats over the years — so many that the State Department collected them into a glossy brochure.
The consensus among career diplomats is that there’s a way to do an effective job despite threats — so long as they’re allowed to take some risks and keep missions open even in turbulent countries.
But at least two factors have conspired to dramatically reduce America’s diplomatic footprint. The first is the complexity of the threats and violence in trouble areas like Yemen, Libya, and Syria.
The United States shut down its embassy in Damascus in 2012 because of the risk of suicide car bomb attacks. As Libya melted down in the summer of 2014, diplomats were ordered to leave. The same thing happened when the war in Yemen spiraled this February. In three of the four war zones presently raging in the Arab world — all conflicts in which the United States is either directly involved or has close allies fighting for critical interests — the State Department has no eyes on the ground.
“You lose an enormous amount when you’re no longer in the country. You have a reduced ability to persuade and influence, and a reduced ability to understand,” said Robert Ford, who served as the last US ambassador to Syria.
When the uprising began in 2011, Ford was omnipresent, cutting an unusually visible profile for an American diplomat, even paying a surprise visit to antiregime protesters in the city of Hama in July that year. He reluctantly closed the Damascus embassy in early 2012 but continued the job for several years at a distance before retiring and becoming a critic of US policy on Syria from his perch at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank.
The second factor hampering diplomats is the political skittishness that followed the murder of Stevens and three other Americans at the hands of extremists in Benghazi in 2012.
The Benghazi killings have made it even harder for diplomats to take what they consider reasonable risks. Stevens dedicated his career to tireless outreach and interpersonal contact. Former colleagues, including Crocker, Neumann, and Ford, said it was ironic that the political fallout from Stevens’s murder had curtailed the very brand of diplomacy that Stevens championed.
As Crocker put it, “Chris Stevens would roll over in his grave if he knew how his death has been misused.”
VISITING US EMBASSIES these days can entail running a humiliating gauntlet of body searches, blast barriers, and walled holding areas. And if a US diplomat comes to you, it often means invasive searches beforehand with bomb-sniffing dogs and obtrusive security details. In places like Iraq, where meeting with Americans can put someone’s life in danger, potential interlocutors often prefer not to run the risk if it is overly complicated to talk.
In other words, American diplomacy is becoming increasingly fearful and hidebound. But what is the cost to our foreign policy? How much have we lost in actual influence and actual knowledge because of this bunker diplomacy?
We’re in the process of finding out. In Yemen, the United States is supporting a foreign war against a tough nation that has frustrated every previous foreign military intervention. America might be making decisions based on simplified assertions that its own diplomats contradict: for instance, the characterization of the Houthis as a simple Iranian proxy rather than as a formidable local alliance supported by Yemen’s former president (who is not a Houthi). Elsewhere, the United States seems fuzzy on the dynamics of tribes, of disenfranchised Sunnis, even on the breadth and depth of support for jihadist movements. It’ll be hard to contain ISIS, or prop up the Iraqi government, or limit the repercussion of the regional wars in Yemen, Syria, and Libya if the United States is no longer sure of basic descriptive facts — who supports warring parties and powerful ideologies, what’s at stake in the tangled alliances, what complexities underlie the region’s sometimes simplistic sectarian rhetoric.
Mokhtar Lamani, an international diplomat from Morocco who ran an Arab League mission in Iraq at the height of the civil war and later worked for the United Nations in Syria, said he felt sorry for his American colleagues and their oppressive security protocols, which he believes lost them a wide array of contacts and insights.
In Baghdad in 2006, Lamani lived outside the Green Zone, where he regularly met with Iraqis who opposed the US occupation. Eventually he gave up hosting Americans at his mission because of the exhaustive advance searches that he feared would tip off extremists to his whereabouts. “It was easier for me to go see them in the Green Zone,” he said. “But life in the Green Zone had nothing in common with the rest of Iraq.”
One seasoned observer of Middle East diplomacy, the scholar Randa Slim, argues that the Americans relied too heavily on second-hand information from exiles like Ahmad Chalabi during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, resulting in major missteps, including the decisions to disband the military and to dismantle the Baath Party.
“The United States went into a country in which we have not had a diplomatic presence since 1991 and, as a result, had no active on-the-ground intelligence since that date,” Slim said.
Lamani noted that Americans often suffer analytical lapses because they don’t talk to politically unpalatable or contentious players. In Syria, American diplomats avoided meeting with extremists from the opposition even when they were the ones in control of the military uprising. In Iraq, many of the hostile factions and religious leaders refused to meet with Americans on principle, and the Americans didn’t always find ways to bring them to the table.
“In diplomacy, you have to be in contact with everybody,” Lamani said. “There are two kinds of rules that harm American diplomats: the physical rules that keep them from being on the ground, and the political isolation they have imposed on them.”
Even the Americans know from experience that there’s no substitute for being there. Neumann recalls that at the peak of the Algerian war in the 1990s against an Islamic fundamentalist insurgency, experts agreed that the fight was a stalemate and that eventually the secular government would have to reach a political settlement with the Islamists. Despite a very restrictive security environment, Neumann and his political staff spent a year interviewing Algerians, collecting all the information they could, and reached a surprising conclusion: The government was actually winning. Armed with this new analysis, the United States could update its own strategy.
“There’s a lot of things you can do if you’re not stupid,” says Neumann, clarifying that he means so long as diplomats take calculated risks rather than behaving recklessly.
Yet in Lebanon, seven years after the bombing, the United States reopened its embassy on a hilltop far north of Beirut, surrounded by an army of private mercenary guards. Even today, more than three decades after the 1983 attack, diplomats visit Beirut in convoys, with armed guards, sometimes clearing cafes of their patrons to hold meetings. In contrast, European diplomats work in the Beirut city center, traveling independently by taxis or driving their own cars, and they’re free to meet activists, dissidents, Hezbollah members — whoever will talk to them.
THE UNITED STATES now relies extensively on second-hand reports: from British diplomats, who are allowed to move around more; problematic allies like the Saudis; or local politicians, who also can’t be fully trusted. Other limitations are self-inflicted — the United States legally prohibits itself from talking to groups that it labels terrorists, making it harder to deal with critical players, especially foes such as the Taliban or Hezbollah. The United States has not had an embassy in Iran since 1979, making it harder to manage relations with perhaps the most important adversarial actor in the Middle East.
Diplomats, for their part, have tried to make up for the security mentality with creative workarounds. They call old contacts on the phone or on Skype and invite people they know from the past to meet them at the embassy or on neutral ground, like in a Baghdad hotel lobby or at the Kandahar Airport. Others elude threats — and tight budgets — by traveling incognito to meetings in beat-up old cars rather than in attention-grabbing convoys of SUVs with tinted windows.
Ford recalls as a political officer in Algeria, when it became too dangerous to move comfortably around the countryside, he lured reluctant guests to the embassy by inviting them for Lebanese takeout. Eventually he hosted hundreds of meetings that way.
Neumann suggests that the United States could mitigate some of its lost access by extending the length of diplomatic tours, keeping political officers and ambassadors in their posts for two or three years instead of one. Some regional actors like Iran keep their envoys on the same portfolios for a decade or more.
Crocker believes the damage is getting worse. Until now, the United States has been saved from falling totally out of touch by a generation of diplomats who had a chance 20 or 30 years ago to build contacts with whom they could communicate closely in the new era of fortress diplomacy. Despite their zeal, younger diplomats never got the chance to drive themselves around the countryside meeting the dissidents, intellectuals, business people, journalists, and regular people who become any diplomat’s most important informants.
“It’s our future that’s at peril more than our present,” Crocker says. “You cannot practice diplomacy with a zero-loss mentality.”
In Yemen, the United States has withdrawn all civilian, military, and intelligence personnel. That move likely relinquished its only opportunity to affect or even end the war. Instead, Saudi Arabia, which has a stake in pushing back the Iran-backed Houthis, is, more or less, dictating US policy.
“There’s no question that we don’t have as much information as we would like,” Ford said. “And we have less ability to persuade people to move in directions that might resolve the conflict.”
[Published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]
THE ISLAMIC STATE long ago pushed beyond society’s boundaries with its shocking acts of violence and repression. In choreographed, well-documented acts clearly intended to horrify people under its control and across the world, the militant group, also known as ISIS, has produced a parade of horrors: It has enslaved Yazidi women. It has murdered hundreds of defenseless people on camera after all manner of torture. It has thrown homosexuals to their death from towers.
And yet, when the movement’s brazen fundamentalists took sledgehammers and bulldozers to the remains of the ancient Assyrian civilization in Nineveh province at the end of February, the sense of outrage and loss that they provoked was astounding. Here was a totalitarian movement that had banned everything from smoking to the teaching of biology in the sprawling, nation-sized territory under its control, and which had produced so many televised murders that close observers had become inured. So what was it about the slow-motion video of glassy-eyed fundamentalists smashing statues to the ground that elicited such a pained reaction? Why did the attack on the Mosul Museum hit such a nerve?
On the day that the footage first began to circulate of the rampage in Mosul, I was with a Lebanese journalist who has spent more than four decades absorbed in war, either living through it or covering it obsessively. She has watched countless videos of murder, torture, and combat from the Syrian war as part of her job. Despite all that, the museum’s destruction was too much for her. Not a drop of blood had been spilled, but it opened in her the floodgates of hopelessness.
“That’s it, it’s gone. When they’re done, all our culture will be gone,” she said, in tears. “If I want to see the great history of my region, I’ll have to visit a museum in London.”
Her reaction wasn’t unique. The Islamic State’s acts of cultural destruction have prompted profound grief among people who already are deeply engaged with the loss of human life: humanitarians, activists, politicians, scholars, journalists — the small community that has continued to pay attention to the conflict even when most of the world hasn’t been interested.
Over and over, I encountered hardened observers of the Middle East who admitted to breaking into tears upon learning of the Mosul Museum’s fate. Iraqi-American constitutional scholar Feisal Istrabadi choked up, unable to speak for several minutes in recalling his reaction. “Why, when we’ve seen people burnt alive, murdered in ways that you wouldn’t butcher an animal, does this resonate to much?” he said finally. “I can’t explain it.”
Why does the nihilistic effort to wipe out an ancient civilization echo so strongly? For people in the region already reeling from the epic human cost in families divided, displaced, and grieving so many murdered, the answer begins with a senseless loss of life now accentuated by a crude erasing of the historical record.
“They are killing the diversity of this region,” says Hélène Sader, an archaeologist at the American University of Beirut who has spent her career studying the ancient Assyrian civilization whose most precious artifacts and sites might have been annihilated in the last few weeks. “This is ethnic cleansing. You throw the people out, erase their history, and you can claim they were never there.”
ACCORDING TO still-emerging reports from the ancient cities of Nimrod and Hatra, members of the Islamic State group have bulldozed some of the Middle East’s most impressively preserved excavation sites, including entire temples and some of the most familiar ancient symbols, like the winged-bull statues that stand at the gates of the palace of Ashurnasirpal II.
In the video circulated at the end of February, a deadpan Islamic State member intones what he claims is the religious obligation to destroy all false idols, a museum gallery in the background. “Since God commanded us to shatter and destroy these statues, idols, and remains, it is easy for us to obey,” says the unnamed narrator of the video, which, like most ISIS propaganda offerings, is slickly produced.
Footage then shows a crew rampaging through the Mosul Museum with sledgehammers, knocking statues to the ground and pounding them into rubble, and tearing other artifacts from their wall mountings. Slow-motion replays show the artifacts shattering. The video ends with what appears to be a pair of ISIS members taking power tools to an enormous statue at the entrance to Nimrod, a sprawling ancient site outside Mosul.
This symbolic destruction goes hand in hand with a very tangible decimation of the minority communities of northern Iraq, including the Assyrian Christians who identify as direct descendants of the people who once occupied Hatra and Nimrod.
There were as many as 1.5 million Christians living in Iraq during the rule of Saddam Hussein. After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Islamic extremists began targeting Christians for kidnapping, beheading, and assassination. Hundreds of thousands fled to Syria and the West. Today, an estimated 300,000 Christians remain in Iraq. ISIS militants have massacred another, smaller minority, the Yazidis. Any survivors have been enslaved.
The Islamic State has openly embraced an extreme project: to establish a fundamentalist realm unlike any ever before encountered in the history of Islam. Some minorities would be permitted to live in submission, but others, specifically members of religious sects considered deviant, would be wiped out, including Shiite Muslims or mainstream Sunnis who reject the vision of the Islamic State.
“It’s a remarkable form of monotheism,” Elliott Colla, a professor of Arabic literature at Georgetown University who has written about conflicts over antiquities in the Arab world, said in an e-mail. “They attack any objects that people worship, be it tombs where Shiites venerate saints or temples where non-Muslims worship. In this context, it is natural that they would also target museums, since these also represent false forms of worship.”
The gleeful nature of the propaganda suggests that perhaps the Islamic State leaders know that the destruction of antiquities will provoke the kind of global outrage the organization seems to relish. Those who don’t fit — conservative Sunni tribesmen who refuse the authority of the ISIS “caliph,” smokers, alleged homosexuals, religious minorities, intellectuals — are gruesomely executed, often in videotaped ceremonies that are then widely broadcast to others.
Nuri Kino, an Assyrian now living in Sweden, founded the group A Demand for Actionto call attention to the plight of minorities in Syria and Iraq. Stretching back to the Ottoman genocide against the Armenians in 1915, Kino points to an unending cycle of attacks on Christians in the Middle East. The Islamic State, in his view, has just accelerated a dismal trend.
“We are fleeing from one place to the other. We have been doing it for 100 years,” Kino said. “Yes, Muslims are, of course, also heavily affected — and killed — in the war, but there is a difference: They want to erase us, our history, people, and religion.”
NATURALLY IT’S a shock to contemplate another unfolding genocide, especially for a generation raised with the slogan “never again” and a living memory of the Nazi Holocaust, which was followed for complex reasons by the departure of most Middle Eastern Jews from Arab countries.
And the loss of antiquities should pale in light of the human loss in the region. It would be easy, then, to dismiss the outpouring of concern as a kind of vanity, or worse, as inhumanity.
Countless Syrian activists have suggested as much, lamenting that some Westerners appear to care more about the smashing of a winged lion than about the deaths of hundreds of thousands of human beings. “When did we start caring about history? Now we want to carve our new history, so we forgot our old one,” said an activist in Homs reached by Skype, who goes by the pseudonym Abu Yamen because he is still fighting the Syrian regime. “I don’t understand why the whole world feels sorry for the destruction of a couple of statues and not for the people who are being killed every day.”
But that doesn’t change the pain caused by the iconoclastic destruction of Hatra, Nimrod, and the Mosul Museum collection. Nor explain it.
One theory offered by several close observers has to do with the crime of erasing history. Murder, mayhem, and terror reverberate throughout the ages, says Columbia University historian Rashid Khalidi, but attempts to purge a group and its memory entirely out of existence are relatively rare. Before the rash of genocides in the 20th century, he said, the next previous crime of equal magnitude might have been the Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258, when Hulagu Khan burnt the library, slaughtered so many people that the Tigris ran red with blood, and erected a pyramid of skulls to deter others who might resist him.
“The spectacle of destroying a 2,500-year-old statue is meant to telegraph naked power,” Khalidi said in an interview.
The Islamic State, he added, has invented an entirely new, ahistorical vision of society, misleadingly packaged as Islamic and which it is willing to go to any length to force into being.
Traditionally, conquerors in history absorb subjected populations, incorporating their architecture, culture, even some of their religious practices or deities. The Islamic State is bucking that path with its outright assault on the historical record. Murder and warfare are the organization’s central tools, but the willingness to transcend taboos respected for millennia adds another level of horror.
“They are postmodern authoritarians,” Khalidi explained. “These are people from the belly of the beast: a snuff movie, war game, YouTube, and Google beast. This is not a Middle Eastern beast.”
Then there’s also the rift between the Islamic State and the Muslims it purports to represent.
The Islamic State has undoubtedly found some support within the Sunni community, some of it from true believers and some from opportunists in Syria and Iraq who see the group as a convenient spearhead. It has taken advantage of that support to accumulate power and wealth, which it has used to trumpet a vision of a pure, monotheistic, and fiery society without any precedent Islamic history. The Prophet Mohammed shattered the pagan idols that were being worshiped in Mecca and which directly competed with his new monotheism — but the century of Islamic conquest that followed left intact the monuments and relics of other faiths. Only the 18th-century fundamentalist Wahhabis of the Arabian Peninsula went after symbols with similar zeal, but they weren’t operating in an area as packed with historical artifacts as northern Iraq.
There’s plenty of reason, too, for tolerant Middle Easterners to feel their identity is under assault from many directions. Sectarian militias dominate Iraq and Syria. Torrents of money from the Arabian Peninsula promote the intolerant strains of Wahhabi-inflected Salafi Islam, the progenitor of the Islamic State’s ideology. Secular and nationalist identities are in retreat, while narrow religious and sectarian ones are ascendant.
Salafi sheikhs in Egypt have suggested demolishing the pyramids and Sphinx, or covering the faces of “idolatrous” Pharaonic statues with wax, acts of iconoclasm endorsed in a 2012 fatwa. Mainstream religious scholars around the region have decried the destruction in Iraq and warn against its replication elsewhere.
In just one week of massive historical vandalism, the Islamic State has produced a stark coda to a century that has transformed the Middle East from one of the world’s most diverse and cosmopolitan regions into a sterile, ethnically cleansed patchwork.
“It’s never about artifacts. It’s about people’s right to exist, their right to live in their homeland,” says Zainab Bahrani, a Columbia University archaeologist who has worked as an antiquities adviser for the Iraqi government. “You destroy people’s history by destroying their monuments and artifacts. It’s similar to having the Athenian acropolis destroyed, or thugs going to Versailles and blowing up the whole palace.”
Bahrani was one of the first to sound the alarm about the importance of cultural objects in 2003, when the Baghdad Museum was looted during the US invasion. At the time Istrabadi, the constitutional scholar and her cousin, recalls telling Bahrani that the overthrow of the tyrant Saddam Hussein was worth the loss of some prized objects.
Bahrani got angry: “This is our entire historical identity,” she told him.
Now, more than a decade later, both cousins have left Iraq. Their extended family exemplified a mid-20th century ideal of cosmopolitan, secular Sunnis who felt at home throughout the Arab world and beyond, choosing their friends without regard to religion or nationality.
Istrabadi has come around to his cousin’s way of seeing things.
Iraq, the place that gave the world written language and the first code of law, today plays host to its most savage nihilists — and as much as he would like to think otherwise, Istrabadi believes that there is some constituency for the Islamic State’s program of destruction and cultural erasure.
“For those of us who hold a belief in the ascent of man, it refutes the idea that we’re heading to a better level of humanity,” he said. “It’s just incredible to watch. I feel helpless. ”
The statues, for Istrabadi, were the final straw. For everything else, he said, you can fool yourself “we can have a better tomorrow, we can turn back the sectarian tide,” he said. “Someone destroys a 3,000-year-old statue with a sledgehammer, there’s no bringing that back. There’s no fooling yourself. It’s proof that these people are not a transient phenomenon. They will be defeated, but they will leave a residue behind.”
The souk in Aleppo, before and after its destruction in 2012. LEFT: WIKICOMMONS; RIGHT: MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas section.]
BEIRUT—The first year of Syria’s uprising, 2011, largely spared Aleppo, the country’s economic engine, largest city, and home of its most prized heritage sites. Fighting engulfed Aleppo in 2012 and has never let up since, making the city a symbol of the civil war’s grinding destruction. Rebels captured the eastern side of the city while the government held the west. The regime dropped conventional munitions and then barrel bombs on the rebels, who fought back with rockets and mortars. In 2012, the historical Ottoman covered souk was destroyed. In 2013, shelling destroyed the storied minaret of the 11th-century Ummayid Mosque. Apartment blocks were reduced to rubble. More than 3 million residents fled, out of a prewar population of 5 million. Today, residents say the city is virtually uninhabitable; most who remain have nowhere else to go.
In terms of sheer devastation, Syria today is worse off than Germany at the end of World War II. Bashar Assad’s regime and the original nationalist opposition are locked in combat with each other and also with a third axis, the powerful jihadist current led by the Islamic State. And yet, even as the fighting continues, a movement is brewing among planners, activists and bureaucrats—some still in Aleppo, others in Damascus, Turkey, and Lebanon—to prepare, right now, for the reconstruction effort that will come whenever peace finally arrives.
In downtown Beirut, a day’s drive from the worst of the war zone, a team of Syrians is undertaking an experiment without precedent. In a glass tower belonging to the United Nations’ Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, a project called the National Agenda for the Future of Syria has brought together teams of engineers, architects, water experts, conservationists, and development experts to grapple with seemingly impossible technical problems. How many years will it take to remove the unexploded bombs and rubble and then restore basic water, sewerage, and power? How many tons of cement and liters of water will be needed to replace destroyed infrastructure? How many cranes? Where could the 3 million displaced Aleppans be temporarily housed during the years or decades it might take to restore their city? And beneath all these technical questions they face a deeper one, as old as urban warfare itself: How do you bring a destroyed city back to life?
Critics dismiss the ongoing planning effort as a premature boondoggle, keeping technocrats busy creating blueprints that will have to be revised when fighting finally ebbs. But Thierry Grandin, a consultant for the World Monuments Fund who has worked and lived in Aleppo since the 1980s and is currently involved in reconstruction planning, disagrees. “It is good to do the planning now, because on day one we will be ready,” Grandin says. “It might come in a year, it might come in 20, but eventually there will be a day one. Our job is to prepare.”
The team planning the country’s future is a diverse one. Some are employed by the government of Syria, others by the rebels’ rival provisional government. Still others work for the UN, private construction companies, or nongovernmental organizations involved in conservation, like the World Monuments Fund. The Future of Syria project aims to serve as a clearinghouse, and to create a master menu of postwar planning options. As the group’s members outline a path toward renewal, they’re considering everything from corruption and constitutional reform to power grids, antiquities, and health care systems.
The task they have before them beggars comprehension. Across Syria, more than one-third of the population is displaced. Aleppo is in tatters, its center completely destroyed. The population exodus has claimed most of the city’s craftsmen, medical personnel, academics, and industrialists.
A modern country has been unmade during four years of conflict, and nowhere is the toll more apparent than in once-alluring Aleppo. But after horrifying conflict, countless places have found a way to return to functionality. What’s new in Syria is the attempt to come up with a neutral plan while the conflict is still in train. And Aleppo, the country’s historic urban jewel, will be the central test.
TO FIND A SIMILAR example of planning during wartime before the outcome was known, you have to go back to World War II. Allied forces spent years preparing for the physical, economic, and political reconstruction of Germany and Japan even before they could be sure who would win. Today, Americans tend mostly to recall the symbolic reconstruction after the war: the Nuremberg trials and the Marshall Plan, a colossal foreign aid program.
But undergirding those triumphs was the vast logistical operation of erecting new cities. It took decades to clear the moonscapes of rubble and to rebuild, in famous targets like Dresden and Hiroshima but in countless other places as well, from Coventry to Nanking. Some places never recovered their vitality.
Since then, a litany of divided and devastated cities has been left by other conflicts. Even those that eventually regained a sense of normalcy, like Beirut, Sarajevo, or Grozny, generally survived rather than thrived. Only a few countries—East Timor, Angola, Rwanda—offer what Syrian planners call “glimmers of hope,” as places that suffered terrible man-made disasters and then bounced back.
Of course, Syrian planners cannot help but pay attention to the model closest to home: Beirut, a city almost synonymous with civil war and flawed reconstruction. The planners and technocrats in the UN ESCWA tower overlook a gleamingly restored but vacant downtown from behind a veritable moat of blast barriers and sealed roads. Shell-pocked abandoned buildings stand as evidence of the tangled ownership disputes that have held back reconstruction a full quarter-century after the Lebanese civil war.
“We don’t want to end up like Beirut,” one of the Syrian planners says, referring to the physical problems but also to a postwar process in which militia leaders turned to corrupt reconstruction ventures as a new source of funds and power. He spoke anonymously; the Future of Syria team, which is led by a former Syrian deputy prime minister named Abdallah Al Dardari, doesn’t give on-the-record briefings. Since their top priority is to maintain buy-in from Syrians on all sides, they try to avoid naming names so as not to dissuade people they hope will use their plans when the war ends.
Syria’s national recovery will depend in large part on whether its industrial powerhouse Aleppo can bounce back. Until 2011, Aleppo had been celebrated for millenniums for its beauty and commerce. The citadel overlooking the center is a world heritage site. The old city and its covered market were vibrant, functioning exemplars of Islamic and Ottoman architecture, surrounded by the wide leafy avenues of the modern city. Aleppan traders plied their wares in Turkey, Iraq, the Levant, and all the way south to the Arabian peninsula. The city’s workshops, famed above all for their fine textiles, export millions of dollars’ worth of goods every week even now, and the economy has expanded to include modern industry as well.
Today, however, the city’s water and power supply are under the control of the Islamic State. Entire neighborhoods have collapsed under regime bombing and shelling: government buildings, hospitals, landmark hotels, schools, prisons. Aleppo is split between a regime side with vestiges of basic services, and a mostly depopulated rebel-controlled zone, into which the Islamic State and the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front have made inroads over the last year. A river of rubble marks the no-man’s land separating the two sides. The only way to cross is to leave the city, follow a wide arc, and reenter from the far side.
For now, said an architect who works for the rebel government in Aleppo under the pseudonym Tamer el Halaby, today’s business is simply survival, like digging 20 makeshift wells that fulfill minimal water needs. (He prefers not to have his real name published for fear that the government might target relatives on the other side of Aleppo.) Parts of the old city won’t be inhabitable for years, he told me by Skype, because the ground has literally shifted as a result of bombing and shelling.
“It will take a long time and cost a lot of money for this city to work again,” he said.
CLOSE TO A THOUSAND Syrians have consulted on the Future of Syria project, which comprises at least two ambitious initiatives rolled into one. The first and more obvious is creating realistic options to fix the country after the war—in some cases literal plans for building infrastructure systems and positioning construction equipment, in other cases guidelines for shaping governance.
At the Future of Syria, hospital administrators, civil engineers, and traffic coordinators each work on their given fields. They’re familiar with global “best practices,” but also with how things work in Syria, so they’re not going to propose pie-in-the-sky ideas. These planners also understand that who wins the construction contracts will depend on who wins the war. If some version of the current regime remains in charge, it will probably direct massive contracts toward patrons in Russia, China, or Iran. The opposition, by contrast, would lean toward firms from the West, Turkey, and the Gulf.
“Who will have the influence in Syria after the conflict? That will dictate who is involved in redevelopment. It all depends on who ends up being in political control,” says Richard J. Cook, a longtime UN official who supervised postconflict construction in Palestinian refugee camps and now works for one of the Middle East’s largest construction conglomerates, Dar Al-Handasah Consultants (Shair and Partners). Along with other companies, Dar Al-Handasah has offered its lessons learned from Lebanon’s reconstruction process to Syrian planners, and plans to compete to work in postwar Syria.
That leads to the second, more subtle, innovation of the Future of Syria project. For its plans to matter, they need to be politically viable no matter who is governing. So the planners have worked hard to persuade experts from all factions to contribute to the 57 different sectoral studies, hoping to come up with feasible rebuilding options that would be considered by a future Syrian authority of any stripe. Today, nearly 200 experts work full time for the project.
At the current level of destruction, the project planners estimate the reconstruction will cost at least $100 billion. Regardless of how it’s financed—loans, foreign aid, bonds—that’s a financial bonanza for whoever controls the reconstruction process. Some would-be peacemakers have suggested that reconstruction plans could even be used as enticements. If opposition militants and regime constituents think they’ll make more money rebuilding than fighting, they might have a Machiavellian incentive to make peace.
Underlying the details—mapping destroyed blocks, surveying the condition of the citadel, studying sewers—are bigger philosophical questions. How can a destroyed city be rebuilt, when the combination of people, economy, and buildings can never be reconstituted? Can you use reconstruction to undo the human damage of sectarianism and conflict? Recently a panel of architects and heritage experts from Sweden, Bosnia, Syria, and Lebanon convened in Beirut to discuss lessons for Syria’s reconstruction—one of the many distinct initiatives parallel to the Future of Syria project.
“You should never rebuild the way it was,” said Arna Mackic, an architect from Mostar. That Bosnian city was divided during the 1990s civil war into Muslim and Catholic sides, destroying the city center and the famous Stari Most bridge over the Neretva River. “The war changes us. You should show that in rebuilding.”
In the case of Mostar, the UN agency UNESCO reconstructed the bridge and built a restored central zone where Muslims and Catholics were supposed to create a harmonious new postwar culture. Instead, Mackik says, the sectarian communities keep to their own enclaves. Bereft of any common symbols, the city took a poll to figure out what kind of statue to erect in the city center. All the local figures were too polarizing. In the end they settled on a gold-colored statue of the martial arts star Bruce Lee.
“It belongs to no one,” Mackic says. “What does Bruce Lee mean to me?”
Despite such pitfalls, one area of potential for the planning process—and eventually for the reconstruction of Aleppo—is that it could offer the city’s people a form of participatory democracy that has so far eluded the Syrian regime and sadly, the opposition as well. People consulted about the shape of their reconstituted neighborhoods or roads will have been offered a slice of citizenship alien to most top-down Syrian leadership.
“You are being democratic without the consequences of all the hullabaloo of formal democratization,” says one of the Syrian planners who has contributed to the Future of Syria project and spoke on condition of anonymity.
What is certain is that putting Syria back together again is likely to be as least as expensive as imploding it. A great deal of money has been invested in Syria’s destruction— by the regime, the local parties to the conflict, and many foreign powers. A great deal of money will be made in the aftermath, in a reconstruction project that stands to dwarf anything seen since after World War II.
How that recovery is designed will help determine whether Syria returns to business as usual, sowing the seeds for a reprise of the same conflict—or whether reconstruction allows the kind of lasting change that the resolution of war itself might not.
GLOBE STAFF PHOTO ILLUSTRATION
Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.
LAST MONTH, in a pre-Christmas surprise, the White House announced a major foreign policy breakthrough on a front that almost nobody was watching: Cuba and the United States were ending nearly a half century of hostility, after secret negotiations authorized by the president and undertaken with help from the pope. Lately, America’s zigzagging on the grinding war in Syria and Iraq has attracted the most attention, but President Obama has punctuated his six years in power with a series of foreign policy flourishes, among them ending the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; launching an international military intervention in Libya; and a “reset” with Russia, which ultimately failed.
Time is running short. Obama has only two more years in office, and an oppositional Congress that will likely block any major domestic policy initiatives. But the president’s opening with Cuba raises a question. What other foreign-policy rabbits might this lame-duck president try to pull out of his hat?
Obama often talks about the arc of his history and his legacy. And we know from history that presidents in the sunset of their terms often turn their focus to foreign policy, where they have a freer hand. The presidential drift abroad has been even more pronounced in administrations that face an opposition Congress and limited support for any ambitious domestic agenda items.
Despite keeping his promises to end two wars and to reestablish America’s power to persuade, not just coerce, Obama has drawn some scorn as a foreign policy president. Poobahs across the spectrum from right to left have derided him for not having a policy (drifting on Syria, passively responding to the Arab Spring), for naively pursuing diplomacy (the reset with Russia, the pivot to Asia), for adopting his predecessor’s militarism (the surge in Afghanistan, the war on ISIS).
But, free from any future elections, the president may finally be at liberty to engineer bigger symbolic moves, like the recent rapprochement with Cuba. He can even try for politically unpopular policy realignments that would ultimately benefit his successor.
So what bold gambits might Obama reach for in his final two years? We’re talking here about unlikely developments, but ones that, with a push from a willing White House, could actually happen. Here’s a look at what might be on Obama’s wish list, and his real chances of grabbing any of these wonky Holy Grails.
A stand on torture
IN ITS WAR ON TERROR, America adopted a number of tactics that its leaders used to call un-American. Some of them appear here to stay, like remote-control bombing runs by robot planes (known by the anodyne moniker “drone strikes”), which have killed more than 2,400 people and have become the most common way Obama pursues suspected militants in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen.
But other tactics have lingered long after the White House has concluded they are counterproductive: most notably the use of torture, and the indefinite detention of enemies without charge or trial in the limbo prison at Guantanamo Bay. President George W. Bush, toward the end of his term, backtracked on both policies, quietly roping in the use of torture and exploring ways to shut down Gitmo. Obama has taken a more assertive moral stance on the issue, perhaps because he realized that America’s treatment of detainees delivered a propaganda boon to its enemies—and increased the risk of similar mistreatment for American detainees. But though he ended torture, he hasn’t settled the political debate, nor has he managed to close Guantanamo Bay.
This is one problem that Obama could resolve by fiat, if he were willing to deal with the inevitable political yelps. He could close Guantanamo Bay overnight, sending dangerous detainees to face trial in the United States, shipping others to allied states like Saudi Arabia, and releasing the rest (many of whom have spent more than a decade incarcerated). To those who would accuse him of putting America at risk by not detaining accused terrorists without charge forever, Obama could point to the US Constitution and shrug his shoulders. As for torture, some believe the best move would be to follow the South African model of a truth commission that airs all the grisly details, while granting immunity from prosecution to those who testify. Of course, critics of torture would decry the amnesty, and supporters would decry the release of narrative details.
Harvard political scientist Stephen Walt says to forget the truth commission. The simplest way for Obama to end one of the most contentious debates in America, he argues, is with a set of sweeping pardons for all those involved in torture. That could include officials from Bush on down, as well as leakers like Chelsea Manning. In an e-mail, Walt said such a move would be a “game changer,” although one with odds so long that he put it in the category of “foreign policy black swans.” “I regard it as very, very unlikely, but it would be a huge step,” he said.
Presidential pardons could make clear that torture and extrajudicial detention were illegal mistakes, while simultaneously freeing whistle-blowers and closing the books on the whole affair. Obama could even wait until after the 2016 presidential election has been decided, altogether eliminating political risk.
A détente with North Korea
EPA/KCNA ; GLOBE STAFF PHOTO ILLUSTRATION
NORTH KOREA entered the news recently because of its alleged role in the Sony hack over the silly film “The Interview.” But the hermit kingdom isn’t a problem because of its leader Kim Jong-un’s absurd cult of personality. No, North Korea poses a problem because it’s a belligerent, opaque, hyper-militarized state that stands outside the international system and is armed with serious rockets, nuclear warheads, and a powerful military.
One fraught area remains the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. About 30,000 American personnel are deployed there, and North Korea routinely provokes deadly clashes to remind the world of its resolve.
If Obama could finally end the Korean war—officially just in a cease-fire since 1953—he would resolve the most dangerous flashpoint in Asia and perhaps the world. Kim Jong-un, like his father and grandfather, has an almost mythic status among villainous world leaders. Millions have suffered in North Korea’s prison camps, and the militarized state maintains a hysterical level of propaganda that makes it stand out even among other “rogue” states. Even China, long the dynasty’s primary backer, has begun to express irritation with North Korean’s volatility.
But all this creates an opportunity, according to veteran Korea watchers. “There’s an opportunity, oddly enough,” says Barbara Demick, author of “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.” “It would require a bold gesture on somebody’s part.”
Kim Jong-un, third in the family dynasty, has lived abroad and appears more open-minded than his father, Demick says. More importantly, despite the anti-American rhetoric, North Korea might want to end its comparatively young feud with the United States, which dates only to the 1950s, to better protect itself from the local threat from its millennial rival China.
Earlier efforts at reconciliation in the early 1990s foundered and collapsed after Kim Jong-il cheated on an agreement to freeze his nuclear weapons program. Demick and other experts are more hopeful that his son will be more interested in negotiating. Three years after taking over, Kim Jong-un seems to have consolidated power. He has relaxed some control over private trade, and he executed a senior member of his own regime who was considered China’s man in Pyongyang, asserting himself over rivals within his family and government.
“Unlike his father, Kim Jong-un doesn’t seem to want to spend his whole life as the head of a pariah state,” Demick says.
It’s quite difficult to imagine North Korea doing an about face and becoming a friendly US ally in Asia, but surprising things have happened. Vietnam, just a few decades after its horrifying war with the United States, is now as warm to Washington as it is to Beijing. Obama could try to end one of the world’s longest lingering hot wars by forging a peace treaty with Pyongyang.
A grand bargain with Iran
AMERICA’S RELATIONSHIP with Iran never recovered from the trauma of the US embassy takeover and hostage crisis of 1980. Iran, flush with oil cash and the messianic fervor of Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution, has been at the center of regional events ever since. Iran has been perhaps the most influential force in the Arab world, helping to form Hezbollah, prop up the Assad dictatorship in Syria, and foiling America’s plans in Iraq.
Of late, attention has focused on negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, but that’s arguably not the most problematic aspect of Iran’s power in the region. A regional proxy war between two Islamic theocracies awash in petrodollars—Shia Iran and Sunni Iraq—has contaminated the entire Arab world. Resolving Iran’s major grievances and reintegrating it into the regional security architecture would reduce tensions in several ongoing hot wars and dramatically reduce risks across the board.
Obama could seek an overall deal with Iran, in which Tehran and its Arab rivals would agree to separate spheres of influence in the region and the United States could reopen its embassy. A Tehran-Riyadh-Washington accord could signal a major realignment in the region and a move toward a more stable state order, and is actually possible—not likely, but possible.
The big protagonists here, Iran and Saudi Arabia, lose a lot of money in their proxy fighting. It’s been 35 years since the 1979 Iranian revolution that brought the ayatollahs to power, and both sides—Riyadh’s Sunni theocrats and Tehran’s Shia ones—have learned that no matter what human and financial resources they pour in, they can’t achieve regional hegemony. Eventually, they’re going to have to coexist. Israel, meanwhile, has maintained a fever pitch about Iran, and should welcome a calming shift.
The trick for today’s White House is what’s going on internally in Iran. “My sense is that if Obama and Kerry could push a button and normalize relations with Iran they’d do so in a heartbeat,” says Karim Sadjadpour, who studies Iran at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The biggest obstacle to normalization is not in Washington, it’s in Tehran. When your official slogan for 35 years is ‘Death to America,’ it’s not easy to make such a fundamental shift.” But if Iran’s president can find a way to de-fang the hard-liners in his own country, Sadjadpour believes, there’d be a strong constituency among the political elites in Iran and the United States for a grand bargain.
A step back from Israel
PRESIDENT AFTER presidenthas poured time and energy into a Middle East peace process that never works. Failures have cost America political prestige around the world. As more governments lose patience with the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, America has found itself defending the Israeli government at the United Nations even as the same Israeli government openly mocks Washington’s agenda.
The bold move that the president could make—potentially changing the parameters of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—would be not to invest more in some new variant of the peace process, but simply to care less. Cooling our relations with the Israeli government could reestablish the strategic calculations at the core of the relationship and remove the distracting secondary issues that have accumulated around it. Israel is one of America’s closest military and economic allies, and the tightly woven relationship will survive a political shift. Obama could simply announce that the United States would no longer act as Israel’s main international political advocate, and that we would be happy to let other actors try to negotiate agreements, as the Norwegians did in the early 1990s.
Such a move would not resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it would go a long way toward reducing costs for the United States. Washington doesn’t need to own the baggage of its close allies. It could treat Israel like it treats the United Kingdom: as a special ally with extra privileges, but one whose bilateral conflicts are its own business.
“I realize that a president’s hands are tied by Congress when it comes to Israel, but there is plenty that the president can do without congressional approval,” says Diana Buttu, a lawyer and former adviser to the Palestinian Authority. She said that Obama has plenty of options, from using his bully pulpit to condemn Israeli actions to not blocking Palestinian UN resolutions.
Duke political scientist Bruce Jentleson suggests another kind of US surprise: incorporating Hamas into peace talks. “A delicate dance no matter what,” he wrote in an e-mail. “But Middle East peace breakthroughs have usually been through the unexpected,” like Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem, or the secretly negotiated Oslo Accords.
What Jentleson says of Middle East breakthroughs may well be true of other ones as well. Global politics never loses its capacity to catch us off guard, regularly delivering events that experts say are impossible. Only an inveterate optimist would bet money on any of these slim possibilities coming to pass. But only a fool would be certain that they won’t.
A terraced garden outside Mansion in Beirut. Photo: Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The Boston Globe.
[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]
BEIRUT — As a symbol of a lost era in a region full of them, Beirut stands apart. For generations it thrived as a center of culture, commerce, and education, until the 16-year Lebanese civil war fragmented the city’s diverse population and shelled its vitality into rubble.
The war ended in 1991, and today Beirut is mostly peaceful. Some of its glamour and wealth have started to return. Dazzlingly dressed Lebanese fill gallery openings; boutique wineries do a brisk business. Glass towers have sprung up around the new marina.
But in many ways, Beirut is still a failed city. Hobbled by ubiquitous corruption, rampant criminality, and the legacy of sectarian militias, Beirut still doesn’t have any of the basic amenities of urban life, like traffic police, a planning board, even a functioning sewer, water, or electrical system. It is no longer a business capital; the money on display here was mostly made somewhere else. The war-shattered UNESCO building squats in the heart of the city like a crash-landed spaceship. To the west, two shell-pocked skyscrapers mark the horizon, both them uninhabited since the civil war broke out in 1975.
Most obviously, Beirut needs to attract investment and solve its infrastructure problems. But to truly revitalize the region, it will need to do more than that: It will need to recapture the cultural energy that long marked Beirut as the intellectual capital of the Arab world. A small city that welcomed big thinkers, it was historically home to writers, philosophers, political dissidents, artists, and other creative types from around the region. That, more than any of the trappings of wealth and celebrity, made it a beacon.
This is where Ghassan Maasri comes in, or hopes to. Maasri is an architect who grew up amid the rubble piles, collapsing old houses, and construction sites of post-shelling Beirut. Today, he is two years into an experiment called “Mansion.”
Picturesque old family villas still dot the city, often in disrepair. More and more are being torn down to make way for profitable condos and office towers. Maasri convinced the owner of one to to let him create a nonprofit experimental collective there. His idea was to use it to foster a community of “Beirut city users,” ambitious professionals as well as creative artists, who would use the space to launch projects that make the city a better place to live.
“I want to be able to meet artists on the street,” Maasri says. “The process of producing art is very important for the modern city. Filmmakers, theater, fine artists, architects, designers—these are the things that make a city livable or interesting.”
Maasri’s Mansion collective has emerged as a nucleus for engaged Beirutis, and a fixture on the city’s cultural circuit. It’s too early to measure whether the initiative will help revive Beirut as an intellectual and cultural center, but Mansion is now part of a small ecosystem of institutions trying to redirect the way the city works. Nearby is another collective that’s trying to serve as incubator for Lebanese startups; other cultural organizations are trying to promote mainstream audiences for local filmmakers and artists. On the preservation front, a well-known painter has launched a campaign to save Rose House, an iconic mansion overlooking the sea from West Beirut’s bluffs.
Elsewhere in the world today it’s taken for granted that cities are engines for culture and growth, a place for creativity, money, and smarts to meet. Authoritarian rule has greatly diminished those expectations in the Middle East. If Mansion works, it will be a step toward restoring that spirit to a region where it’s been gutted by war and political stasis.
“I’m trying to find a way so that people can produce things inside the city,” Maasri says. “It’s an experiment. Let’s see how it goes.”
Ghassan Maasari, an architect who grew up among the rubble of the city, convinced the home’s owner to to let him create a nonprofit experimental collective. Photo: Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The Boston Globe.
IN ITS PRIME, Beirut was the kind of rich, important, stimulating place that today would be called a global city. The city supported daily newspapers in Arabic, French, and English. The most ambitious students in the region filled its universities. Its bankers were high-powered and urbane.
It was a city of beautiful alleys and an open waterfront, with an intimacy beloved by its admirers. The Rolling Stones liked to hang out here; an entire book was written about the writers, spies, and artists who orbited around one bar, in the St. George Hotel.
Money, not culture, has driven Beirut’s rebound since the end of the civil war. Political infighting has frozen the effort to fix the St. George, whose ruins blight the edge of the new marina, a soulless anyplace that’s hard to distinguish from Santa Monica. The old downtown, rebuilt by a politically connected developer, is an unused pedestrian area guarded by an army of private security officers. Martyr’s Square, the historic center, remains a sprawling unpaved parking lot because of a property standoff. The one major park that survived the war has been closed to the public ever since.
Warlords reached a compromise to end the war: Communities would coexist peacefully amid a low-grade simmering anarchy. As long as there was no national authority, no group could use it to dominate the others. As a result, Beirut is a city with few rules and no enforcement of building codes.
Maasri’s insight was to realize the anarchy might also have created a space to try something new. Now 42, he moved to Beirut as a child in the thick of the civil war; his family was fleeing the fighting in the nearby mountains. As the city came back to life in the 1990s, Maasri was horrified by the sheer waste. Artists were fleeing the city in search of affordable studio space, while thousands of buildings in prime locations sat empty and decaying.
Maasri first tried turning rental properties into communal studios, at cost, but found it too expensive. He won grant money to establish short-term artist-in-residence projects in abandoned properties in his hometown of Aley. With an eye to doing the same in Beirut, he wandered the city on foot, scoping out dozens of dilapidated Ottoman mansions that he thought would make an ideal space for a cultural collective. Every time he tried to contact an owner, he said, “I could never get past the lawyer.”
Finally in 2012 he got lucky. The owner of a grand three-story villa on Abdulkader Street was willing to meet Maasri directly, without any intermediaries. He had kept up his family’s 80-year-old Ottoman-style villa better than most; it was decrepit, but still had its doors, windows, and roof, which meant that unlike most of the similar homes around the city, it was inhabitable—if not comfortable. He was willing to loan it to Maasri for five years, free of charge.
The house couldn’t have been more centrally located: It was a few hundred yards from the Serail, the Ottoman barracks that now serve as the headquarters of the Lebanese government. Typically for modern Beirut, it is surrounded by four brand-new condo towers, an illegal squat, and a parking lot.
Maasri invited architects, artists, and people whom he loosely defined as urbanists to come populate it and fix it up. They cleared the vines and brush that had overrun the yard and were spilling into the street. They strung bare light bulbs from the ceiling, and turned the grand ground-floor entry hall into communal space that could host lectures, panel discussions, film screenings, and musical performances.
On a recent Saturday, a children’s event called “Mini Mansion” screened Charlie Chaplin movies. A party that evening promoted recycled glass. Earlier that week, Mansion had hosted a series of discussions about urban renewal, with panelists from Europe and the Middle East. There’s a design and architecture studio on the top floor, a silk-screen workshop, and a film archive. Upstairs, artists work on paintings and sculptures in their studios. A bike messaging startup called Deghri (Direct in Arabic) has its headquarters at Mansion, and is trying to establish bike repair clinics and a recycle-a-bike program for Beirut.
Residents pay a nominal rent to help cover water, electricity, food, and repairs. Most importantly, they are required to use their space, and ideally intended to bring even more people in. An urban gardening initiative was supposed to start a pilot program on Mansion’s roof, but never followed through; Maasri gave their spot to someone else.
Maasri himself lives in the crumbling but still grand three-story mansion. To make sure he isn’t breaking any occupancy rules, he has been officially designated the building’s doorman.
MANSION’S FOUNDER wants its spirit to spill beyond its walls. In January, Maasri is launching an “Inquisitive Citizens Urban Club” which will convene anyone interested in Beirut for a three-month study of public space in the city, with the ultimate goal of catalyzing urban activism. Other cities in Europe and United States have plenty of civic-minded urbanist groups. Here, however, it is groundbreaking.
The common theme running through Mansion’s projects is a hunger to reclaim public space. That’s a politically charged project in a city where big money drives the major development projects, and where the lack of public space is inextricably connected to the erosion of political and civic rights for citizens.
Beirut is the forefront of many interlocking debates about cities and the way people live in them. And that debate is critical right now in the Arab world. Increasingly, it has become a region of cities, as the population abandons the countryside in search of work and education. Yet the role of those cities is in flux.
Traditionally, Arab cities were cosmopolitan commercial and trading hubs, open zones with mixed populations. Today, the most dynamic examples of urban vitality in the region are the tightly controlled metropolises of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, wealthy cities with limited freedom and an economic model based on oil wealth, finance, and omnipotent royal families. A revitalized Beirut, with an openness to art, public initiatives, and intellectual culture, could be an alternative.
“If I have an idea, I don’t need money or approval to experiment,” says Ayssar Arida, an architect and urban designer who grew up in Lebanon and returned to Beirut two years ago after more than a decade in London and Paris. He was attracted to the freedom from authority. “Beirut is fantastic thinking matter,” he says. “It’s not totally gone to the dogs yet.”
His wife, French-Iraqi curator Sabine de Maussion, works out of a studio at Mansion, where the couple collaborated on their latest invention: a high-end construction toy called Urbacraft. Mansion is littered with conceptual models made from Urbacraft blocks (imagine an Erector set crossed with Lego, for design nerds).
Mansion can sound a little like a party for cool, arty elites. But that is not Maasri’s goal; he is wary of drawing shallow, trendy support. He wants people who are committed and willing to work to save a building, as a way of learning how to save the city around it. For now, Mansion is thriving, and it is his hope to leave the building and its neighborhood better off than he found them. Although he is hopeful that the owner will be impressed enough to extend the experiment, he won’t mind if three years from now he has to find a new home for Mansion.
To Maasri and his colleagues, it’s not buildings that make a city, but people who create things. They’re sad that so much of Beirut’s architectural heritage has been torn down in the rush to rebuild, but they have set their sights on something harder to define than preservation. If they can figure out how to keep creating in Beirut without depending on grant money or wealthy patrons, he believes they can bring back the best thing about Beirut—even if the glory days of its architecture have passed.
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.