Military escalation is happening in several places these days:

  1. Syria:  in addition to the March cruise missile strike on a Syrian base in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons, we’ve seen in the past couple of weeks US attacks on Iranian-backed forces approaching US-backed forces, downing of at least two Iranian-built drones, and downing of a Syrian warplane. Tehran and Damascus are pressing hard in eastern Syria, in an effort to deny the US and its allies post-war dominance there.
  2. Yemen: the Saudis and Emirates are continuing their campaign against the Houthis while the Americans amp up their campaign against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Today’s promotion of Mohammed bin Salman, the architect of the Saudi intervention in Yemen, to Crown Prince of the Kingdom presages more rather than less war there.
  3. Somalia: the Administration has expanded AFRICOM’s latitude in attacking al Shabaab militants, who are proving more resilient than many anticipated.
  4. Afghanistan: the White House has delegated authority to increase US forces to the military, which intends to deploy several thousand more Americans to help the Afghans counter the Taliban.
  5. Russia: Moscow’s warplanes have been conducting provocative maneuvers against NATO for some time, and yesterday a NATO F-16 allegedly approached a Russian plane carrying the Defense Minister.

Meanwhile Iraq’s disparate security forces are closing in on Mosul, civil wars continue in Libya and Mali, and North Korea continues to test its increasingly long-range missiles.

This military escalation is occurring in a vacuum of diplomatic and civilian efforts. Syria talks sponsored by Turkey, Iran and Russia are slated to reconvene soon in Astana, but prospects for serious progress there on military de-escalation are poor. The UN-sponsored political talks in Geneva are stalled. Planning for governance of Raqqa after the defeat of the Islamic State there is unclear.

The UN has announced a new Yemen Special Representative of the Secretary General, but it will be some time before he can relaunch its efforts. The UN-backed government in Libya is still unable to exert authority, especially over the eastern part of the country. The UN’s Mali mission has been suffering casualties, inhibiting any civilian efforts there. President Trump has tweeted the failure of Chinese diplomacy (more accurately, his diplomacy with China) to produce results with North Korea.

None of this should surprise. Apart from North Korea, the Americans are committed to not relying on diplomacy (in particular through the UN) and to avoiding anything resembling state-building. While they may sometimes think about financing removal of rubble or mines in newly liberated areas of Syria, they are determined to avoid any responsibility for governance or law and order. The Trump Administration wants to follow the formula Bush 43 tried in Afghanistan: kill the Islamic State and Al Qaeda enemies and get out. The failure of that approach has apparently been forgotten.

The only substantial diplomatic effort the Trump Administration has been pursuing is with Israel and Palestine, where there is an almost 70-year record of failures, with only occasional, if important, moments of partial success (I am thinking of the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, not the Oslo accords). No one is taking bets that Jason Greenblatt’s efforts will succeed, though they may restrain the Israelis a bit and produce some modest improvements in the conditions under which Palestinians live. The two-state solution is, however, as far off as it has ever been.

The worst may be yet to come. The Trump Administration has aligned itself firmly with Israel, the Saudis, and the UAE against Iran. The Iranians seem increasingly determined to carve out their Shia crescent from Iraq through Syria and Lebanon all the way to the Mediterranean. We are on a collision course with Tehran, even if the nuclear deal hold for now

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New directions for South Africa

Since the end of apartheid in 1994, a coalition of African nationalists, communists, and trade unionists allied with the African National Congress (ANC) have governed South Africa. In the wake of the 2016 local elections, a new contender emerged: the Democratic Alliance. On Friday, the Cato Institute hosted a conversation entitled “South Africa at a Crossroad: Will Growing Opposition Remove the African National Congress from Power?” with Executive Mayor of Johannesburg Herman Mashaba and comments by Richard Tren, Program Officer at the Searle Freedom Trust. Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity Marian L. Tupy moderated the discussion.

[Herman Mashaba, Executive Mayor of Johannesburg]

Despite significant progress in education, healthcare, and economic wellbeing for black South Africans since the days of apartheid, South Africa finds itself in dire straits. The country has fallen into recession for the second time in nine years. The unemployment rate for black youth is above 50%. President Jacob Zuma is embroiled in an email scandal disclosing patronage of the prominent Gupta family, a revelation both Mashaba and Tren identified with a “culture of corruption.”

“The dream of democracy is a dream deferred,” remarked Mashaba. “This is not Nelson Mandela’s dream.”

Following the August 2016 local elections, in which a coalition government headed by the Democratic Alliance beat out the African National Congress for the Johannesburg mayoral seat, Mashaba believes that voters are signaling frustration with the ANC and with corruption.

“In a few years’ time,” he affirmed confidently, “the ANC will be in our history books.”

“Corruption takes food out of the mouth of the poor to fatten the rich, who already live in wasteful abundance,” he continued. Citing his commitment to the creation of an “honest, responsive, and productive government,” Mashaba detailed his initiatives to suspend Johannesburg public servants suspected of corruption. Tren—a white South African—related concerns about ongoing ANC black economic empowerment programs, which he associated with the corruption and cronyism ravaging the country. The ANC’s mandate that mining operations should be 30% black-owned, he opined, was unreasonable.

Tren advised Mashaba not to align himself or the Democratic Alliance too closely with ANC policy in an effort to garner popular support, denouncing the ANC for its habit of choosing “the path of greater government involvement.” President Zuma doesn’t believe in “growing the pie,” he claimed, but rather in “dividing it up and redistributing it.”

In contrast and against the trepidation of at least one audience member, Mashaba praised the Economic Freedom Fighters—a revolutionary socialist political party in coalition with the Democratic Alliance—for their support in helping to pass the Johannesburg municipal budget two weeks ago. “We share the same passion: South Africa,” the self-declared “proud capitalist” insisted.

Among Mashaba’s mayoral objectives are improved social services, care for the environment, pro-poor development, and the safety and security of Johannesburg communities. Although he consistently espoused the importance of supporting small- and medium-sized businesses and cutting red tape, these stances put him at odds with his co-speaker. Tren voiced concerns about the growing welfare state in South Africa and criticized the country’s progressive constitution for its guarantee of “positive rights” such as healthcare and education.

What, then, is the vision for the new, potentially post-ANC South Africa? If the 2016 local elections and Mashaba’s platform are any indication, immediate concerns such as access to basic social services for the poor will continue to figure large in political discourse. Attaining racial equality will exist as an important, but secondary, goal to economic development. In Mashaba’s own words: “Achieving Black ownership is a good [goal], but it has to take place in a stable economic environment with trust between government and business.”

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A delicate balance

The Western Balkans: A Delicate Balance

The collapse of Yugoslavia twenty-six years ago unleashed brutal wars and a huge humanitarian catastrophe. Today the delicate order in the Balkans is under threat again. Serbia aspires to join the European Union, but is strengthening its ties with Russia, despite the growing strains in the West’s relationship with Moscow. The relations between Kosovo and Serbia are tense. Unable to embrace necessary reforms, Bosnia is on the edge again, while Macedonia and Montenegro suffer from deep divisions. Continued recovery and peace in the Balkans require sustained Western engagement and the prospects of integration into the European Union. But Europe is tired of enlargement and its authority in the Balkans is weakening. Meanwhile, the influences of Russia and radical Islamist ideology are growing in the region. Join us at the Wilson Center as experts discuss the challenges in the Western Balkans and the policy options for preserving the region’s fragile order and recovery.


Ross Johnson
History and Public Policy Fellow, Wilson Center
Visiting Scholar, Hoover Institution
John R. Lampe
Senior Scholar, Wilson Center
Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland, College Park
Daniel Serwer
Senior Fellow, Center for Transatlantic Relations
Professor, School of Advanced International Studies, John Hopkins University
Marta Vrbetic
Wilson Center Global Fellow, Global Europe Program
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Monday, June 26th, 2017

5th Floor Conference Room


Wilson Center
Ronald Reagan Building and
International Trade Center
One Woodrow Wilson Plaza
1300 Pennsylvania, Ave., NW
Washington, D.C. 20004

Phone: 202.691.4000

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Peace picks June 19-23

  1. Losing An Enemy: Can the Iran Nuclear Deal Survive Trump? | Monday, June 19 | 12 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was an unlikely diplomatic collaboration initiated by three European countries and realized only after the United States took a leading role. Join founder and president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) Trita Parsi for a conversation about the history, success, and challenges facing the Iran nuclear deal. Parsi is the author of three books about U.S.-Iran relations. The discussion will be moderated by career journalist and Acting Director for the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council Barbara Slavin.
  2. The Origins and Evolution of ISIS in Libya | Tuesday, June 20 | 12:30 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | The Rafik Hariri Center will convene a discussion on its new report, The Origins and Evolution of ISIS in Libya, shedding light on the rise of jihadist actors in Libya and the dangers they pose for post-conflict state-building. As Libya continues to hold an important position in the global jihadist network, understanding the trajectories of groups like ISIS will be crucial to understanding the fate of the country and sources of its instability. The report, co-authored by panelists Jason Pack, Rhiannon Smith, and Karim Mezran, examines jihadist dynamics in Libya and offers recommendations to address this threat. RAND Corporation’s Christopher Chivvis will also join the discussion.
  3. Indian Prime Minister Modi visits the U.S. and Israel | Wednesday, June 21 | 9:30 am – 12 pm | Brookings Institute | Register Here | On June 25-26, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will meet with President Trump for the first time. Shortly after, he will travel to Israel for the first-ever visit by an Indian premier. Join The India Project and the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings for one panel each focused on India’s relationship with the United States and Israel – two countries with which it enjoys close partnerships. Panelists will discuss prospects for bilateral, trilateral, and international cooperation. After each session, panelists will take audience questions.
  4. Securing Stability in the Middle East and North Africa: How Should the U.S. and the European Union Work Together? | Wednesday, June 21 5:30-6:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | As war rages on in Syria and Yemen, instability persists in the Sinai and Libya, and the recent Qatar crisis underscores rivalries and animosities in the Middle East and North Africa, American and European actors search for ways to bring stability to the MENA region. Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Mike Doran welcomes Nick Westcott, European External Action Service Managing Director for the MENA, for a discussion about European policy and cooperation moving forward. Doors open at 5:00 pm.
  5. The Refugee Crisis: Dispelling Myths and Misconceptions | Wednesday, June 21 | 6:30-8 pm | United Nations Association – National Capital Area | Register Here | Since President Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, negative perceptions of immigrants and refugees have been on the rise. Against this climate, the UNA-NCA presents personal accounts of refugees in the D.C. area and a panel discussion featuring Niemat Ahmadi, president of the Darfur Women Action Group; Faith Akovi Cooper, regional advisor at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre; Larry Yungk, Senior Resettlement Officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; and Daniel Sullivan, senior advocate at Refugees International, to dispel myths and misconceptions. The panel will be moderated by Patrick Realiza, chair of the UNA-NCA Sustainable Development Committee.
  6. Settlements at 50 Years – An Obstacle to Peace and Democracy | Friday, June 23 | 12:30-1:45 pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | This month marks 50 years of Israeli control over the West Bank. Although most Israelis support peace negotiations with the Palestinians and oppose annexing large parts of the Palestinian Territories, the Israeli government continues to expand settlements and is considering annexing portions of the West Bank. What drives the Israeli government in this regard? What are the implications for future peace? Join president of the New Israel Fund (NIF) Talia Sasson for a conversation moderated by Haaretz‘s Washington correspondent Amir Tibon.
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A tense and perpetual peace

The Middle East Institute Wednesday hosted a conversation on Iran-Pakistan relations featuring senior fellow Alex Vatanka, retired ambassador to Sri Lanka Teresita C. Schaffer, and MEI’s director of the Center for Pakistan Studies Marvin Weinbaum. The panel—promoting Vatanka’s book Iran and Pakistan: Security, Diplomacy, and American Influence—shed light on the tense and cautious relations between almost-allies and almost-enemies at the crossroads of West and South Asia.

The relationship between Iran and Pakistan is a tale of two regional superpowers. Pakistan boasts a population of 189 million; Iran counts 79 million. Pakistan, noted Vatanka, is nuclear armed; Iran aspires to be. Pakistan is majority Sunni Muslim; Iran is majority Shia. The two countries are embroiled in a proxy war in Yemen. There even exist certain pervasive stereotypes, reported Ambassador Schaffer: Pakistanis view Iranians as weak and Iranians see the Pakistanis as provincial.

Yet the countries do not erupt in open conflict.

One factor that does not contribute to enmity is the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide. Ambassador Schaffer stressed in her remarks that Pakistan has always had an aversion to Sunni-Shia squabbles, for good reasons. Pakistan has a significant Shia minority, including prominent families in politics and business. They comprise approximately 10-15% of the country’s population. Pakistani nationalism draws heavily on Islam as a unifying factor—to the point that proposals to replace the country’s secular laws with Sharia have always faltered at the question of which school of Islam would define legal doctrine.

This preoccupation with national interests over sectarian ones is a defining feature of the relationship between Iran and Pakistan. There is an understanding, notes Vatanka, that all-out conflict must be scrupulously avoided. Pakistan’s number one foreign policy priority is its relationship with India, followed by its relationship with Afghanistan. Iran is preoccupied with its Arab neighbors. Neither country stands to benefit from violence along the Iran-Pakistan border.

This distinctive disregard of religious tensions holds true despite Pakistan’s recent decision to join the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance, a coalition of Muslim countries committed to fighting terrorism that has been criticized for its predominantly Sunni membership and an alleged sectarian bent. In fact, noted Schaffer, sparsely populated Saudi Arabia has a long history of drawing upon Pakistani military support. Pakistan’s decision to join the IMA is nothing really new.

Yet the Iranian-Pakistani relationship is strained. Vatanka traces tensions between the two countries back to 1971—before the Iranian Revolution—when the Shah decided to remain neutral in the war between Pakistan and India. This policy of neutrality outlasted the Shah, who was deposed in 1979. The relationship between Iran and Pakistan worsened post-revolution, as Iran’s cozy relationship with the United States abruptly ended. The ideological gulf between the two countries widened: Iran’s zeal for revolution did not match Pakistan’s self-interested nationalism. In addition, the revolution cut off Pakistan’s supply of subsidized Iranian oil. From the Pakistani perspective, Iran’s diplomatic value plummeted.

Despite these historical rifts, Vatanka predicts a cool and reserved future for Iran-Pakistan relations, marked by military caution and mutual indifference. Iran, a natural gas goldmine starved for markets, trades more with Armenia than with its energy-poor neighbor to the east. For the time being, Iran and Pakistan appear locked in a tense and perpetual peace.

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Why so many Tunisian terrorists?

More than six years after their Arab spring uprising and two national elections, Tunisians still really don’t like their own political elite, according to recently published International Republican Institute polling. None of the major political parties or labor unions get more than 28% approval. Some individual leaders do a bit better, but only President Essebsi breaks 31%. And 77% of Tunisians agree that “Politicians do not pay attention to the needs and ideas of young people.” To be fair, they aren’t viewed as paying much attention to anyone’s needs but there own.

What do Tunisians want their government to do? Above all: provide jobs, preferably government jobs. This seems to be a congenital expectation in Tunisia that relative democracy has not yet extinguished. Private sector jobs are still less sought. But how Tunisians think the economy should be improved is interesting: fighting corruption and bribery, land reform, making it easier for entrepreneurs to start businesses, and increasing infrastructure investment are among the top policy choices. The trouble is no one thinks the government is doing those things, at least partly because it doesn’t communicate well.

What does it do well? Security, according to Tunisians. They are strongly positive not only about their apolitical national army but only marginally less so about the national police and national guard. I doubt there are many countries in the region where such positive numbers–upwards of 70% or so–prevail for the security forces. More than 61% give the government “somewhat good” or “very good” marks for keeping the country safe from terrorism. That will surprise many readers who remember the 2015 attack on tourists near Sousse, but that is also the most recent major attack. Yes, you can visit Tunisia without too much concern about terrorism, though past performance is no guarantee of future results.

The trouble is this: Tunisia, the one Arab spring country that has undergone at least a partial democratic transition, is also a major source of international terrorists. IRI has helpfully also looked into the reasons for this, by conducting focus groups and interviews in Beja, a Tunisian governorate that has produced many terrorist fighters. This is what they found as contributing factors:

discrimination, socio-economic marginalization, lack of opportunities, poverty, and unemployment.

I’d put all of that under the heading of marginalization. But the key difference between those more vulnerable to radicalization (as determined by “their stated support for foreign fighters in Syria, Iraq, and Libya”) and those who are more resilient appears to be disappointed expectations, causing lack of hope:

This sentiment was linked to grievances related to negative interactions with government officials or law enforcement and poor economic conditions.

That does not however enable you to anticipate who will become a terrorist. We are talking, after all, about a very small sample, compared to the population of Tunisia, or even young males 20-35. We know that variability is high in small populations. Looking for a single profile is a mistake. There likely is none.

So how does all this help you understand what to do? The key issue here is governance. Bad governance sets unrealistic expectations and disappoints them. Good governance sets realistic expectations and demonstrably meets them. There are going to be terrorists flowing out of Tunisia so long as the government there continues to disappoint, in particular expectations for jobs and less corruption.

The situation in Tunisia is not unique. Arab governments underperformed for decades without generating anything like the number of terrorists we are suffering from today. The Arab spring raised expectations. Its defeat in Syria, Libya, and Yemen has generated hopelessness. It’s not one of Newton’s three laws, but it is a formula for spawning young people who are willing to kill others or blow themselves up. There is no substitute for improved governance if we are going to undermine terrorism.

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