Sunday, March 27, 2011

Dispelling the Sorrow of Daraa

The Syrian Ambassador to the US, Imad Moustapha, just posted a new blog "On Woe and Sorrow or How to Dispel Sadness." He dedicates the entry to "the martyrs of Daraa."

For background, protests in Daraa erupted after some youths were arrested last week. The government has since killed dozens and the protests have spread throughout the country. For video of some of the protests, you can watch here. For VERY GRAPHIC videos of the government response, you can watch here and here. In the last video, you can hear protesters chanting "Selmiyya Selmiyya" or "Peaceful peaceful" as government forces shoot them with live ammunition.

Given the brutality of the government crackdown, it's quite surprising Ambassador Moustapha would dedicate a blog - especially as one as reflective and thought-provoking, to the victims of the government he serves.

In the post, he draws upon the work of medieval Iraqi philosopher, scientist and physician, al-Kindi. As the Ambassador explains, "sorrow is akin to desire not to be, because calamities befall us as a result of being mortals. Had there been no decay, there would have been no being." In other words, tragedy is an integral part of what it means to be alive.

But that doesn't mean al-Kindi believes we must give in to suffering. Rather, to "not be overwhelmed by misery, we must only value that which is within our means and under our control." For al-Kindi, this necessitates detaching ourselves from material goods "in favor of a thoroughly vigorous ethical system based on intellect and reason."

It's striking that Ambassador Moustapha speaks of the events of Daraa as if the victims died of some natural disaster. Yet the deaths at Daraa were no accident. They were government policy.

Poignantly, if we follow al-Kindi's advice, we should not grieve for the fallen in Daraa. For under the regime of al-Assad, the right to life does not belong to the people, but to the government. For Syrians, avoiding governmental oppression is not within their means and not under their control. In fact, it is the very struggle to assert such agency over their lives that too many in Syria have paid a terrible price.

Now I don't know enough about the Ambassador to say whether his silence over the cause for Syria's grief reflects a desire to whitewash or the limitations placed upon him by his position. Either way, I have one question for the Ambassador. How can the cultivation of an ethical framework built upon intellect and reason dispel sorrow when tragedy is inflicted by an unethical, unintellectual, and unreasonable regime?

Friday, March 25, 2011

Tragedy of the Revolutionary Commons

With so many breaking events across the Middle East, it's become increasingly hard to keep up, even for those like myself who consider it their job. Quite simply, my attention and time are limited resources, and I have to choose how to best allocate them. In the process, things fall through the cracks.

The international media face the same problem. Even with a 24 hour news cycle, they can only cover so much. There are simply not enough correspondents and foreign bureaus. Nor is there enough attention span amongst the public. They can only absorb so much information at once. Bandwidth is limited.

International resources are limited too. Our overworked staffers in DC can work only so many hours in a day. Our coffers can afford only so many economic packages. Our diplomats can host only so many meetings. While our military could enforce more no-fly zones, our political will can only stomach so much.

This problem reminds me of Garrett Hardin's article on "The Tragedy of the Commons." Writing about limited environmental resources, he describes the dilemma of cows grazing on common pastures. Every farmer has the individual incentive to graze his cows as much as possible. But if every farmer acts in such a self-interested way, all the combined cows will overgraze the pasture and the community will collectively suffer.

International attention to the Arab revolutions presents its own version of Hardin's tragedy. Citizens in every individual country have an incentive to protest now while the momentum is in democracy's favor and their leaders have lost their balance. But if every Arab population acts for their own interest, international media and resources can only focus on so much.

While international media and resources will not determine the outcome of these revolutions, they can undeniably shift the balance in democracy's favor by supporting efforts on the ground. Yet with every Arab country in revolt, attention is necessarily split, its effect on any given case diminished. Some countries may not get any attention at all.

What can be done then?

The traditional solution to Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons is privatization. If every farmer gets his own little parcel of pasture, then he will protect its sustainability out of self-interest. He will only graze as many cows as his land can support.

This is where the analogy to the Arab revolutions breaks down somewhat. We cannot actually "privatize" international attention to the Arab revolutions. But what Arabs can and have done is take the issue in their own hands. They have done so with social media and diaspora networks.

Social media "privatizes" international media by placing the production and dissemination of news in the hands of the people. If I had relied on the international media today, I would not have known about the protests in Jordan today. But thanks to Hafsa Halawa on Twitter, I know all about it.

Diaspora networks "privatize" international attention by providing an alternative source of economic, political, and technical support to the revolutions. For example, at a recent conference called "Together for a New Egypt," Egyptian-Americans joined together to discuss how they can contribute to the revolution in their homeland. The conference harnessed their resurgent pride in their home country and channeled it into productive avenues for action.

While these social media and diaspora efforts will not replace international media and resources, they can and will play an essential role in helping turn the Tragedy of the Revolutionary Commons into a historic victory only dictators will find tragic.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Taking Sides against Islamists?

Ray Takeyh worries in the Washington Post that the Islamists will take over the democratizing Middle East. He therefore argues the U.S. must uphold its "moral obligation of political partiality" towards secular democrats. To do so, he recommends economic aid packages and "standing with emerging secular parties and youth activists."

While I understand his concern about Islamists, his second recommendation is misguided. First, it's not clear what exactly "standing with" actually means. Presumably he means giving money and technical assistance. But it's not certain whether these groups actually want that kind of help. While Takeyh rightly reminds us that the democracy protests have not been anti-American, they really haven't been pro-American either. Rather, they have been pro-Tunisian, pro-Egyptian, pro-Bahraini, etc.

For a long time, many pro-democratic groups in the Middle East have expressed ambivalance and even rejected American support for a variety of reasons. They didn't want to be painted as pawns of external forces. They disagreed with key U.S. foreign policies. They worried about the strings attached. These worries still remain.

Second, the U.S. has made serious mistakes in the past when choosing sides. As a recent and especially damaging example, we became enamored with Ahmed Chalabi, whose machinations not only propelled us to war in Iraq, but stymied our efforts at nearly every turn after 2003. We now consider him an Iranian agent.

Third, from a more philosophical standpoint, by choosing sides in a democratic system, we oddly imply that we do not trust democracy to produce just outcomes. Too much of the debate over Islamists have focused on whether they will "moderate" in a democratic system. Instead, we should consider how successful democratic systems force a moderation of political outcomes.

In the Federalist Papers, James Madison wrote:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
In other words, a true democratic system does not only reflect the will of the people. It also establishes checks and balances to prevent the abuse of power. Men aren't angels, and therefore rules and institutions must curb his baser instincts.
It is that observation that has ensured America's success as the oldest democracy in the world. It is why our system can absorb everyone from Glenn Beck to Code Pink. It is also what can ensure the building of a sound foundation for the world's newest democracies in Tunisia and Egypt.
Far from choosing sides, we must help the Middle East build systems that favor all sides and therefore favor no side. Legitimate constitutions. Free and fair elections. Independent judiciaries. Empowered legislatures. Unfettered press. Such institutions, if properly established and preserved, will render fears of an Islamist (or any other) takeover obsolete. Luckily, it is also exactly the kind of assistance most Arabs will accept graciously.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Terror Attacks, Israeli Reprisals, and Arab Democracy

We've seen a disturbing escalation of violence in Palestine and Israel over the past few days. Rockets from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Shelling from Israel. Indiscriminate bombs from, so far, an unknown source.

If this trend continues, what will be its effect on the pro-democracy movements across the region?

We should first consider the motives behind the attacks. Arab dictators have long used attacks on Israel to distract from domestic problems. Currently, neither Hamas nor Fatah enjoy significant popular support. Just last week, Human Rights Watch criticized Hamas for violently suppressing peaceful protests in Gaza. Is it a coincidence that, just as people began to liken Hamas to Mubarak, rockets began to fly? Doubtful.

Until we have evidence about who bombed the Jerusalem bus stop today (there was also a pipe bomb two weeks ago), we shouldn't jump to conclusions over who is to blame. It may well be a Palestinian faction. Less likely but still possible, it could be a disillusioned lone actor. Perhaps more intriguing, some have suggested it very well could be a foreign government, such as Syria which has suddenly seen an uptick in unrest.

Regardless of who is responsible, it is far from clear that the violence will achieve its objective of displacing domestic discontent upon foreign enemies. For one, such old tricks have lost their effectiveness over time (fool me once...). But more importantly, for the first time Arabs believe they may finally have a real opportunity to effect change in their countries. Absorbed in their own righteous struggles, they will not be easily distracted. Just as Iranians have chanted "Neither Gaza, nor Lebanon, I will give my life for Iran," so are Arabs giving their lives - quite literally - for the sake of their own countries.

Thus while an Israeli-Palestinian flare-up may dampen Arab democratic movements, it will be far from a fatal blow. That, of course, does not mean that Arabs no longer care about the plight of the Palestinians. Quite the opposite, as many directly link the overthrow of their dictators to the eventual liberation of Palestine. But at least for now, focus has been turned inward.

While the violence will not end Arab demands for democracy, it will likely color how Arabs interpret American and European military intervention in Libya. Already, the Arab world - with the obvious exception of Libyans - has split on whether to support the mission in Libya. See, for example, how the outgoing Arab League head Amr Moussa has played rhetorical twister over the past week. That uneasiness will turn to outright indignation if violence escalates in Israel and Palestine. Many Arabs will simply not distinguish Israel F-16s flying over Gaza from American F-16s flying over Libya.

We have three purposes in Libya: protect civilians, preserve democracy's momentum in the region, and garner good will for joining the right side of history. If violence escalates in Israel and Palestine, the humanitarian component will remain, as well democracy's momentum for reasons described above. However, any good will we may have earned will be lost. Such perceptions of the U.S. will become increasingly important as Arab countries democratize.

Stopping the violence now is therefore essential. Because we have no influence over Palestinian violent extremists, we will have to primarily focus our efforts to ensure Israeli restraint. This will not be easy. Already, Israel has entered a bunker mentality, especially after the overthrow of Mubarak and the empowerment of Hezbollah. It is no coincidence they will likely ask for $20 billion more in U.S. foreign assistance. Moreover, as President Obama just affirmed, Israel clearly retains the right of self-defense. But sometimes the best defense is heroic restraint. And we will have to win that argument with the Israelis.

UPDATE: Hussein Ibish writes about the same topic here at Foreign Policy. He correctly points out that while increased Israeli-Palestinian violence "won't stop the reform movement dead in its tracks," it will alter the tone of these movements by adding fuel to an anti-Western Islamist narrative.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Fickle American Relationships

Bruce Reidel just posted an update on why India abstained from the UNSC resolution authorizing military intervention in Libya. According to Reidel, Indians are "puzzled" by America's inconsistency. He quotes one Indian observer, "the U.S. is both promiscuous and flighty" with its relationships.

Certainly our intervention in Libya is arbitrary. Plenty of other dictators have taken a far larger toll on their populations while incurring little more than an expression of American dismay. Moreover, while Qaddafi was never anything close to our ally, we certainly had a working relationship with him only two months ago.

Yet the fact India feels troubled by our about-face in Libya reflects a significant communication failure. This is especially troubling considering both the Bush and Obama administration has worked hard to forge stronger ties with New Dehli. Nuclear deals, state dinners, and support for permanent status at the UNSC apparently have not adequately proven our commitment to our friendship with India.

We must make it clear to the world that we have two kinds of allies abroad: transactional and substantial. We work with transactional allies because it serves our immediate interests. Mubarak got his fiefdom, and we got counter-terrorism and peace with Israel. While abandoning these relationships can be painful, we will do so once our interests are no longer served.

India is not a transactional ally. Our friendship is far more substantial. Of course, we gain significant benefits from our relationship with India. But that relationship runs deeper than simple trade-offs because we share values of democracy, freedom and pluralism. Just as with our European allies, we will not abandon India for near-term gain. Rather, we have every intention to deepen and broaden our ties.

Moreover, as those ties strengthen, pro-Indian constituencies will coalesce in the U.S. just as pro-American constituencies will coalesce in India. Unlike diaspora groups of authoritarian regimes who lobby for their home goverment's overthrow (e.g. Egyptians and Iranians), diasporas from democratic regimes push for stronger economic, political, and cultural ties. It is these groups that will ensure a strong U.S.-Indian friendship in the future.

If we make the distinction between transactional and substantive allies clear abroad, it will naturally apply pressure to leaders to make essential political reforms. Foreign leaders will come to understand that the only way to secure their permenant friendship with the United States is to uphold the universal rights of their populations. If they can only offer us temporary stability, as Mubarak did, then they will always have to fear their transactional relationship may fall victim one day to American fickleness.

If our close friend India has not heard that message, then it is unlikely any other leader, democratic or authoritarian, has heard it either. And that is a problem.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

UNSC Resolution on Libya and Regional Strategy

The Security Council just passed a resolution authorizing military intervention in Libya. I agree wholeheartedly with Abu Muqawama's concerns here:
And while there are a lot of questions left to be answered -- Who pays for this war? Does the Congress need to authorize anything? What are the vital U.S. interests we are trying to protect? -- the question that most concerns me and pertains to readers of this blog is what happens next?

What happens if Gadhafi pulls back? Do we continue to try and press the advantage of the rebels until his government falls? Do we have the authorization to do that? Do we expect a civil war in Libya to drag out, and if so, how will we take sides? If Gadhafi falls, what comes next? What will the new Libyan government look like? Will they be friendly to U.S. interests? Someone please tell me how this ends.

All of these questions are essential. But there's one question he misses: how does intervention in Libya affect prospects for democratization in the rest of the Middle East?

While the plight of the Libyans has been no less than gut-wrenching, we cannot forget the other waves of Arabs who are making the exact same demands for their rights across the region.

Most importantly, we cannot lose sight of Tahrir Square. In every aspect - militarily, economically, politically, historically, religiously/morally - Egypt is far more important to the region than Libya. Egypt is the true domino that the rest of the region will follow. If we can help support a stable transition to a responsible and responsive government in Cairo, regardless of what happens elsewhere, we will have helped score an incredible victory for Egypt, the region, and our own interests in the long run.

We cannot become so engulfed in Libya that we lose sight of the real prize to the east. By dealing with each country on a case-by-case basis, we run exactly that risk.

That is not to say Libyans deserve freedom any less than Egyptians or anyone else. Rather, it is just the recognition of the need for a regional strategy that identifies priorities, deploys our limited resources effectively, and avoids confusion of efforts.

Lessons for Libya from the Iraqi Intifada

I wrote the following almost a week ago hoping to get it published. It wasn't. By now, both the argument and the historical analogy have been made in several places, including one that rejected my piece. Oh well, at least the idea was alright, even if the execution wasn't.

This past week the Libyan revolutionaries have suffered a series of serious setbacks. The “Brother Leader” Muammar Qaddafi has successfully pushed back the motley collection of defected soldiers, tribal militias, and untrained Libyan citizens that dare stand up for their freedom. Even the rebel stronghold of Benghazi is now under threat.

Increasingly desperate, Libya’s revolutionaries have called for military intervention to help remove their dictator. In return, they’ve only received humanitarian assistance and rhetoric.

Importantly, Libya would not be the first time a would-be Arab revolution nearly brought a dictator to his knees, only to flounder when the world failed to assist.

Nearly twenty years ago, Iraq’s Shia and Kurds rose up in an intifada that shook Saddam Hussein’s regime to the core. The uprisings took place in the immediate aftermath of the Persian Gulf War after the American-led coalition had decimated the Iraqi military. Disgruntled soldiers fleeing from the front unleashed a torrent of anti-regime sentiment. Saddam lost control of large swaths of Iraqi territory as the people rose up in anger over decades of war, economic stagnation, political oppression, and religious repression.

President Bush even encouraged the uprisings, suggesting Iraqis should “take matters into their own hands” and overthrow Saddam. But that rhetoric never materialized into actual support. Instead, American and coalition soldiers stood by as they watched Iraqi helicopters operate with impunity on the horizon.

Thus Saddam regained his balance, crushing the rebellion methodically and brutally. Countless thousands were killed, their aspirations for a better future dying with them. To this day, Iraqis have not forgiven the U.S. for abandoning the intifada of 1991.

There were plenty of reasons for the U.S. to not assist the rebels – the fear of Iranian influence, the fragility of the military coalition, the worry that Iraq would split along sectarian lines, the unknown of what would come after Saddam, the potential cost in American lives, among others. In fact, many today praise President Bush for showing the prudence that his son would seemingly abandon in 2003.

Yet it is exactly that prudence that cemented American military involvement in Iraq for twenty years. Failing to help when the insurgency could have succeeded, the U.S. was forced to intervene once the rebellion faltered and Saddam threatened to once again massacre his own people.

Over the following two decades, the U.S. deployed troops to the Kurdish north, established no-fly zones in the north and south, trained anti-Saddam militias, supported failed coup-attempts, and bombed Iraqi targets on several occasions. On top of all of these military actions, the U.S. enforced crippling sanctions that devastated Iraq’s society and economy.

But all of these measures came only once Saddam regained his grip on power. In fact, some of these actions, such as the sanctions, perversely strengthened Saddam’s stranglehold over the country by forcing the Iraqi people to rely on the regime for survival. As such, the U.S. counterproductively decided to oust Saddam only after his removal became increasingly unlikely. Meanwhile, international resolve to maintain pressure on Saddam predictably faded and fractured over time, especially as the humanitarian toll of sanctions became increasingly pronounced.

This untenable situation of escalating tension between the U.S. and Iraq, an ever-more obstinate Saddam, and fading international support culminated with the disastrous invasion of 2003. In fact, many of America’s greatest difficulties since the invasion of Iraq, such as widespread distrust of our intentions, the absolute collapse of key infrastructure, and the comatose economy, are all remnants of the policy decisions made since the abandonment of the 1991 intifada.

So what lessons can we learn from our experiences in Iraq to help guide us with Libya?

First, if we do decide to intervene, we must do it now. With each passing day, the revolution loses momentum and Qaddafi reasserts his power. The longer we wait to intervene, the harder it will be to remove Qaddafi. If we make the same mistake as we did in Iraq by intervening only after Qaddafi regains the initiative, we will pay the cost in blood and treasure.

Second, if we decide against intervention, we must plan for the humanitarian consequences. Like Saddam, Qaddafi won’t stop his counter-revolution when the rebels put down their arms. He will seek to squash, in his words, every “rat” and “cockroach” he can find. In Iraq, millions of refugees fled to neighboring countries, especially Iran and Turkey. As more Libyans flee to already-beleaguered Egypt and Tunisia, we will have to increase our assistance.

Third, beyond the humanitarian consequences of non-intervention, we must also prepare for dealing with an angry, resurgent Qaddafi who will not forget that President Obama demanded his resignation. The so-called reformed Qaddafi who abandoned his nuclear program and cooperated with counterterrorism efforts will be no more. In his place, we will once again deal with the rogue Qaddafi who blew up planes over Lockerbie and nightclubs in Germany, who befriended dictators like Idi Amin, and who trained ruthless militias globally.

It is that Qaddafi, whom President Reagan dubbed the “mad dog of the Middle East,” we felt to obligated to occasionally bomb and sanction. Just like Saddam, he will present a persistent threat to our interests and security. Moreover, we will risk entering an escalating cycle of tension, threats and violence that could lead to war and fracture international support – an all too familiar dynamic we must avoid.

Just as with the Iraqi intifada, there are many reasons to reject military intervention. We don’t really know who the rebels are. We don’t know what comes after Qaddafi. We don’t want to risk American lives and spend American money. We don't want a war in yet another Muslim-majority country. But the most important reason may soon be that we already missed our chance to remove Qaddafi when we could. If that is the case, then we will have to learn to live with the ramifications.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Military Intervention - Works Well With Others

My friend at The Camel's Nose argues that the U.S. should be wary of "buck-passing" in the Middle East, where we take on all the costs of providing public goods like security. I agree with him, but for different reasons.

He says we have no special obligation to countries like Libya and therefore we should conserve our resources by working with others.

For me, whether one has an "obligation" or not isn't so important. Nor is whether everyone lifts their fair share. Rather, it's just a matter of costs and benefits.

Working with others tends to decrease economic, military, and moral costs of intervention, but it does entail some loss of efficiency. At the same time, international cooperation also increases the likelihood of success. In short, costs go down, benefits go up.

But that doesn't mean there's a general rule that intervention requires multilateralism. Some interventions, even with support, just aren't worth it. Other interventions, even without support, are still worth it.

In cases like Libya where there are good arguments for and against intervention, international support - or the lack thereof - can tilt the scales.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Sayyid Qutb and Jihad

Earlier this week, the Washington Post ran an article by Lorenzo Vidino on "Five myths about the Muslim Brotherhood." Here's an unpublished letter to the editor I wrote in response:

In “Five myths about the Muslim Brotherhood” (3/4/11), Lorenzo Vidino contends Sayyid Qutb “opted for violence” and has “inspired jihadists worldwide.” While true, these observations require some context.

After years of torture in Egyptian prison, Qutb published his political and religious treatise Milestones. While he vigorously defends the Islamic obligation of “jihad of the sword,” Qutb also argues a true Islamic society must fulfill that obligation. Importantly, Qutb laments that no such society exists. Thus as a first step, a “vanguard” of true believers must leave unbelieving society in order to study the Qur’an and determine how such a society can be formed.

In short, Qutb believed the times call for religious introspection, not violence. Yet there is no question his argument has been misconstrued by countless violent extremists, cherry picking Qutb’s arguments just as they cherry pick the Qur’an itself.

Some of the blame for this confusion lies with Qutb himself. Not long after he published Milestones, he was implicated in a conspiracy to overthrow the Egyptian regime. While his exact role is not clear, the Egyptian court misinterpreted Milestones just as modern violent extremists do today – twisting Qutb’s arguments as an immediate call for jihad.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Conceptualizing the War on Terror

I just got back from an event at AEI on the release of a new report, "Al Qaeda's Operating Environments: A New Approach to The War on Terror."

With the caveat I haven't read the full report yet, it argues that we must develop a better understanding of how AQ operates in different kinds of physical and human terrains. It conceptualizes three kinds of terrains: the Islamist Quasi State (e.g. Somalia), the Limited Safe Haven (e.g. FATA in Pakistan), and the Distressed Zone (e.g. Iraq). These different categories are divided based on how much freedom AQ has to operate. The ultimate point is that fighting AQ in these different terrains require different strategies.

While I agree it's essential to disaggregate AQ in order to fight them more effectively, I have two critiques. First, the threat of anti-American terror extends beyond AQ. By focusing on AQ, we not only risk missing other threats, but we are also prone to conflating different threats as all AQ. But that doesn't present a problem for the main thrust of the report, and in fact it makes disaggregation of these different terrains all the more important.

Second, I believe the report is missing two other terrain categories. The first, as Michael O'Hanlon pointed out, is an urban terrain like Karachi that offers ripe opportunities for AQ despite government control. The other is enemy terrain (i.e. the US and the EU). Even though the report focuses on foreign policy, I pushed the authors to explain in the Q&A why they leave out enemy terrain as a key operating environment for AQ. They responded that the financing, planning, and training for attacks all occur overseas, and therefore once the threat resides in the homeland, it's too late.

I think this is a mistake for a few reasons. One, we've seen violent extremists use the US and EU as safe havens in the past. Most notably, the Islamic Group's Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman helped plan the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and was stopped from launching more attacks shortly thereafter. Just because it's easier to fundraise, organize, and train abroad currently, doesn't mean that they can't or won't find ways of doing so here.

Two, even after the financing, planning and training have all taken place, there are still many opportunities to thwart terror attacks in the target country. It's not ideal to having to foil individual plots versus stopping them at their source, but that doesn't mean we should ignore the homeland as an essential operating environment of violent extremists.

Three, AQ clearly wants to turn the US and Europe into a new operating environment on the model of Nidal Hassan. It'd be a mistake to exclude this terrain in our analysis just because it's downstream or because it's the most restrictive for AQ. The framework should include the entire spectrum of environments violent extremists can and do operate in. Otherwise we're allowing a potentially vulnerable blind spot to go unstudied.

Fourth and finally, as we place more pressure on AQ's operating environments abroad (which is the ultimate goal of this report), there will be greater incentive for AQ to seek operational capabilities within the US and EU. In fact, some believe AQ has been forced to give up on large scale attacks due to US pressure, instead opting for smaller, more amateurish attacks in recent years that rely upon citizens and residents of the target countries.

In short, this report aims to take a step back and reconceptualize the war on terror in broad terms. Yet it needlessly limits itself to one particular group and three particular terrains that, while obviously presenting the greatest threats, do not constitute the entire universe of violent extremism that endangers our national security.

Update: Here is video of the event. I ask my question at 57:30.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

End of Poverty and Islam

In his latest op ed, Nick Kristof gives a good argument why Islam is neither the problem nor the solution for the Middle East's economic woes. The article hinges upon a new book by Timur Kuran that shows how specific Islamic legal institutions hindered economic growth. I haven't read the book yet, so I'll focus on Kristof. While he gets the conclusion right, the framing of his argument is incomplete.

He begins with an obvious observation: the Middle East has fallen behind economically from the West. Many often assume that this difference must be caused from something specific about the Middle East. Somehow, something, at some time, went wrong in the region.

Because Islam is the most salient characteristic of the Middle East, it often gets blamed. Kristof rightly dismisses that argument. If Islam were the problem, it's hard to explain why the Middle East used to flourish economically. Moreover, the economic effects of religion varies over time - not only because the economic and political environment changes, but also because religion itself evolves.

But what gets lost in that debate is that perhaps nothing went wrong in the Middle East, but rather, something went right in the West. As Jeffrey Sachs shows in The End of Poverty, standards of living were relatively similar on a global level only a few hundred years ago. But starting with the agricultural revolution, Europe began to shoot ahead. A small growth percentage advantage per year accumulated over several centuries, transforming a small discrepancy into a yawning schism.

The relevant questions are therefore what did Europe do right? Why has it taken the Middle East so long to follow suit? And perhaps the most difficult: are there other ways of getting things right?

None of this suggests Kristof comes to the wrong conclusions. In fact, I think he's completely right. It's just a matter of framing the argment differently.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Nitpicking Egypt's Constitutional Amendments

A committee appointed by the military council in charge in Egypt recently released several proposed amendments to the constitution. They will be voted on by the people within the next few weeks. For a full review, check out Nathan Brown and Michele Dunne's piece here. For this blog, I'm going to focus on one of the proposed changes: Article 189.

Originally, it was expected that this committee would propose changes to the constitution essential for fair elections, elections would be held for parliament and then president, and finally the newly elected officials would take a more thorough look at how to change the constitution more broadly (or write an entirely new one). The proposed Article 189 changes that plan.

Instead of mandating further constitutional changes after elections, it instead offers a procedure for how and when a new constitution can be written and adopted. Specifically, either the president or a majority in both houses of parliament can vote in favor of a new constitution. If that vote passes, parliament forms a 100 member constituent assembly to draft a new constitution to be voted upon by the people within 6 months.

If this measure passes, notice that it'll be easier to change the constitution in Egypt than it is to pass a law in the United States. This is a problem. Constitutions are supposed to act as the bedrock of politics, stable enough to provide security, flexible enough to ensure relativity. That's why after over two centuries, we've only amended our constitution 27 times. Of those, 10 were added simultaneously with ratification and two cancel each other out. So practically, we've only passed 15 amendments that stuck.

Yet if Article 189 passes, it'll be far too easy to amend the Egyptian constitution, defeating its purpose of providing political stability. Instead, with every shift in of the political winds, the constitution will be at threat. The temptation to seek amendments to gain political advantage will always be lurking behind every legislative debate and electoral challenge.

Now admittedly, it is likely the committee proposed Article 189 with the intention of making constitutional change easy the first time around, expecting the article to be removed in the next round of amendments. Practically, this plan makes sense as a political compromise in a time of immense uncertainty.

But here's the problem. Democracy isn't just about institutions and processes. It's a deeply-engrained understanding that a government serves its people. While not all democracies have constitutions, all democracies understand that a contract between people and government form the foundation of politics. The Egyptian constitution should outline that social contract and give life to its budding democracy. Adding amendments to that fundamental contract with the intention that they should be removed when convenient is not exactly an auspicious start.

It sets a bad precedent. Moreover, it echoes the worst of its antecedents. Mubarak lasted for nearly three decades by creating what political scientists call a liberalizing autocracy. Essentially, he set up all the bells and whistles of democracy - constitutions, elections, parliaments, etc - while squashing any force that truly portended democratic values. Mubarak's democracy was a sham democracy. Mubarak's constitution was a sham constitution. It helped him stay in power, and when it didn't, he changed it to keep him in power. After Mubarak forced through several devastating amendments in 2007, some government websites failed to even bother updating their websites.

That is what the constitution was worth in the old Egypt. In the new Egypt, a constitution must mean so much more. It must not only capture the organic spirit of Tahrir, but also organize that spirit into a workable and stable politics. By proposing Article 189 that is not intended to last, the committee has focused too keenly on the momentarily pragmatic at the expense of an enduring ideal.

I recognize I'm nitpicking here. There are so many things to worry about in Egypt right now. Amendment 189 is far down on that list. But this is the future Egyptian constitution we're talking about here. It should be nitpicked.