Month: May 2015

A snapshot of Sisi’s Egypt

I’ve spent the last few days in Cairo, where little has visibly changed since my visits in September 2011 (something like a revolution was still in progress then) and January 2014, when I observed the referendum that approved the current constitution (over 98% of those 39% who voted were in favor). The city still bussles day and night, the Nile flows gently, the traffic is only marginally better behaved then in 2011, the air is hot, dusty and polluted, the contrasts of rich and poor are still dramatic.

I haven’t spent any quality time talking to ordinary Egyptians. Mostly I’ve been hearing from the educated and sometimes wealthy elite that supports President Sisi’s efforts to restore order and improve the economy, without (at least for now) expanding civil liberties.

The predominant sentiment towards the US among those I talked with is resentment. Egypt, they think, deserves better and more than it is getting from the US, which was slow to recognize that former President Morsi had lost legitimacy and quick to suspend aid. Washington follows a “double standard.” It provides too much support to Israel and too little to the Arabs, especially the Palestine and Egypt.

The Americans are also failing to counter Iranian troublemaking in the region, failing to stop financing for the Islamic State, failing to bring down Bashar al Assad or support the intervention against the Houthi (sic), and failing to recognize the peril of the Muslim Brotherhood. The US government, some think, may even be playing a role in supporting one or more of these malign factors in the region.

Lack of confidence in official America is coupled with an all too apparent affection for American society and hunger for American culture, education, technology, trade and investment. Sisi’s Egypt is hoping to upgrade Egypt’s technical and educational levels and improve its economy, in part through cooperation with the US, while continuing its crackdown on nongovernmental organizations, the Muslim Brotherhood, street demonstrations and media.

The model is a technocratic one: use expertise and money effectively while blocking political challenges.

Some Egyptians characterize the Middle East today as “a Fascist moment.” They argue there can be no compromise with the Islamic State, or those in the Muslim Brotherhood or elsewhere who take up arms against state structures, anywhere in the region. The Arabs need to reassert themselves, resist the American intention of empowering Iran, and join together to counter foreign hegemony, including by forming the united Arab army Egypt has proposed.

The Egyptians I heard from welcome the upcoming bilateral “strategic dialogue” with the US, which is supposed to meet in July. They hope this will be an opportunity to reframe the relationship in a way that will be more satisfactory to Egypt and less dominated by the US. Cairo will try to convince the Americans that the Muslim Brotherhood is in fact a terrorist organization and that a broad crackdown is therefore justified. Some might be ready to give a little on NGOs and street demonstrations, though resentment of American “interference” in these internal matters is strong. Building an effective regional counterweight to Iran will be an important part of the conversation, as will be moving the relationship more definitively in the direction of trade and investment (a free trade agreement is one possibility).

While privatization and other structural economic reforms seem still far off, the Egyptians are reasonably pleased with what President Sisi has achieved so far, including reduction of subsidies and his flagship project to expand the capacity of the Suez Canal. They hope a more stable and prosperous Egypt will mean return to a leading regional role in the future, even without more political opening.

Was this Mamluk mosque called Mohammed Nasr?


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Vučić at SAIS

The Conflict Management Program and Center for Transatlantic Relations
at The Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies

cordially invite you to

Remarks on Serbia’s Strategic Choices
Prime Minister of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić

Thursday, June 4
10 AM to 11 AM

Is it possible to smooth and accelerate Serbia’s movement towards Europe, while balancing its relations with Brussels, Washington, Moscow and NATO? Prime Minister Vučić will discuss Serbia’s strategic options and dilemmas.

Please RSVP at:

Please note:
Guests must be registered in order to attend the event and must provide a government-issued photo ID at the check-in table (no exceptions).

Check-in opens at 9:30 a.m. and closes promptly at 10:00 a.m.

Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies
Kenney Herter Auditorium
1740 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20036

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Memorial Day for all

I have little to add to what I said the past four years on Memorial Day, which this year is tomorrow. So I am republishing what I wrote originally in 2011 with slight updates and two short additional paragraphs:

I spent my high school years marching in the Memorial Day parade in New Rochelle, New York and have never lost respect for those who serve and make sacrifices in uniform.  Even as an anti-war protester in the Vietnam era, I thought denigration of those in uniform heinous, not to mention counterproductive.

It is impossible to feel anything but pride and gratitude to those who have  served in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention Kosovo, Bosnia, Panama, Somalia, Kuwait and Iraq during the previous decade.  Nor will I forget my  Memorial Day visit to the American cemetery in Nettuno accompanying Defense Secretary Les Aspin in the early 1990s, or my visit to the Florence cemetery the next year.  These extraordinarily manicured places are the ultimate in peaceful.  It is unimaginable what their inhabitants endured.  No matter what we say during the speechifying on Memorial Day, there is little glory in what the troops do and a whole lot of hard work, dedication, professionalism and horror.

That said, it is a mistake to forget those who serve out of uniform, as we habitually do.  Numbers are hard to come by, but a quick internet search suggests that at at least 2000 U.S. civilians have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus quite a few “third country” nationals.  They come in many different varieties:  journalists, policemen, judges, private security guards, agriculturalists, local government experts, computer geeks, engineers, relief and development workers, trainers, spies, diplomats and who knows what else.  I think of these people as our “pinstripe soldiers,” even if most of them don’t in fact wear pinstripes.  But they are a key component of building the states that we hope will some day redeem the sacrifices they and their uniformed comrades have endured.

We are losing that long war. Not because our soldiers lack courage or technology, but rather because our civilian instruments for preventing war and rebuilding afterwards are inadequate. There will be no victory in Libya, Syria or Yemen without the effective civilian instruments needed to restore some kind of inclusive governance to states torn apart by uncivil war.

Host country civilians killed in all these conflicts far outnumber the number of Americans killed, by a factor of 100 or more.  Numbers this large become unfathomable.  Of course some–and maybe more–would have died under Saddam Hussein, the Taliban or Muammar Qaddafi, but that is not what happened.  They died fighting American or Coalition forces, or by accident, or caught in a crossfire, or trying to defend themselves, or in internecine violence, or because a soldier got nervous or went berserk, or….

Memorial Day in this age of “war among the people” should be about the people, civilian as well as military, non-American as well as American, not only about the uniform, the flag or the cause.

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Macedonia hangout

I did a Hangout with Radio Free Europe yesterday on the situation in Macedonia. Here it is:

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We are losing the long war

SAIS commencement is today. I’m going, for the first time in my almost five years here. In fact, I haven’t been to a commencement for 10 years, since my sons graduated from Vassar College and Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in 2005.

The speaker at SAIS is former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. But that is far from good enough reason to attend. I didn’t even attend the awarding of my own master’s and doctoral degrees at Princeton or my master’s degree at the University of Chicago. But as I am taking over direction of the SAIS conflict management program on July 1, attending seemed appropriate.

The main pleasures at commencement in my experience are the personal and visual ones. If you know people who are graduating, it is a great satisfaction to see them line up and collect their degrees. I’ll enjoy seeing some of my students from this year and last “walk.”

The visual pageantry is always terrific. The faculty processions on a verdant hillside at Vassar (even if it was raining) and in the Yard at Harvard were a great riot of stripes, tassles and gowns. I expect nothing less today.

SAIS’s commencement will be indoors (good thing, as it is raining in DC today) at Constitution Hall, best known for the refusal of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) to allow soprano Marian Anderson to perform in 1939, because of her race. The DAR website informs that she performed there subsequently. That is what we call progress, which is a very good thing.

We can hope to see a good deal more of it, though not for right now in the two parts of the world I follow most closely: the greater Middle East and the Balkans. Violence is prevailing in large parts of Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. Only Tunisia of the “Arab spring” countries is managing something like progress. The Balkans are far calmer than they were 20 years ago, but it is hard to miss the instability in Macedonia, the unease in Kosovo and the continuing political struggle among ethnic nationalists in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

I joke with my students that turmoil is a career opportunity for them. If you study conflict management, you wouldn’t want peace and tranquility to arrive before you have a chance to practice your profession. There seems little risk of that. While I hope to see the Balkans calm down with some effort by the US and EU, the Middle East is posing truly wicked problems. Our military instruments can kill just about anyone they can find, but that hasn’t and won’t calm things down.

We launched the war against violent Islamic extremism in 2001 with the invasion of Afghanistan. There were then at most a few thousand jihadi fighters in a handful of countries. Almost 15 years later, there are at least several tens of thousands in a dozen countries or more. It is certainly arguable that things would be no worse had we never intervened. We win a lot of battles against extremists, but we are losing the long war.

That is one of the great challenges for this year’s crop of SAIS graduates, not only in conflict management but in other fields as well. Is military intervention making things worse? How can things be made better? What is wrong with what we are doing, and what can we do to improve our effectiveness?

Those are questions that will be on my mind today as I enjoy a great spectacle and wish the next generation more success than mine is enjoying at the moment.


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Half hearted

The Gulf leaders’ meetings with President Obama last Wednesday evening at the White House and Thursday at Camp David resulted in conditional, half-hearted pledges from both parties. The Gulf leaders recognized that if a verifiable and comprehensive (that’s one that cuts off all routes to a bomb) nuclear agreement with Iran can be reached, it will be in their interest. President Obama pledged to deter and confront any external threats to Gulf states.

But external threats are not the Gulf’s main concern. Iran’s efforts against its Arab neighbors are not overtly aggressive. Compared to the Gulf countries, Iran is strikingly weak in conventional military terms. It should not be able to win a force-on-force war with Saudi Arabia.

Tehran’s regional efforts are mainly subversive, aimed at undermining the internal security of their neighbors. Tehran supports non-state actors–Shia militias in Iraq, Hizbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and the Houthis in Yemen–who operate within weak states. This “asymmetric” strategy has produced good results at extraordinarily low cost.

The response has to be more than military. In what I regard as his most positive remark about state-building in a long time, the President said after his meeting with the Gulf states:

When you look at a place like Yemen, the issue there is that the state itself was crumbling, and that if we can do a better job in places like Syria, Yemen, Libya, in building up functioning political structures, then it’s less likely that anybody, including Iran, can exploit some of the divisions that exist there.

That makes a lot of sense, but we are a long way from doing the better job he says is needed. The Syrian state is collapsing. Yemen’s has already collapsed. Libya’s is hanging on by a thread. And there is no sign of a renewed effort to do much about any of them.

Nor are the Gulf states the ideal partners to join us in the effort. The President was at pains to articulate

core principles to guide our efforts:  respect for state sovereignty; recognition that these conflicts can only be resolved politically; and acknowledgment of the importance of inclusive governance and the need to respect minorities and protect human rights.

The Gulf states are big on state sovereignty, but they haven’t been as keen on political solutions, few of them practice anything like inclusive governance, and most of them are sorely lacking when it comes to respect for minorities and protection of human rights. The elaborate annex to the official statement on the Camp David talks is notably silent on these issues so far as the Gulf states are concerned.

Nor is the United States pristine in these respects, but it seems to me clear we embrace the ideals more than the Gulf does, with the exception of state sovereignty. That we sometimes honor more in the breach than in the observance.

The Gulfies would have liked a clear signal that the United States is prepared to do what it will take to get rid of Bashar al Assad. There too the President’s signal was half-hearted:

With respect to Syria, we committed to continuing to strengthen the moderate opposition, to oppose all violent extremist groups, and to intensify our efforts to achieve a negotiated political transition toward an inclusive government — without Bashar Assad — that serves all Syrians.

That would be nice, but it isn’t happening. Instead extremists are leading the opposition advances in northern Syria and UN mediation efforts have been reducedd to a slow-motion consultation in Geneva. The only really good news is the advance of moderate opposition forces on the southern front in Syria, where they have formed a joint command and seem to be coordinating well while marginalizing extremists. But President Obama clearly remains concerned that an opposition victory would open the door to an extremist takeover. Sometimes there are reasons to be half-hearted.


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