More White Helmets

For today, just the trailer for a forthcoming documentary on the White Helmets, about whom I’ve already written:

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This protest is not enough

I co-signed an “open letter” that protests media treatment in Turkey of Henri Barkey as well as other intimidation of scholars by Middle Eastern governments and media. It ends with this paragraph:

We find the Turkish media’s campaign against Henri Barkey, the latest in a series of outrages against academic and political freedom, offensive and personally threatening. We hope that Turkey’s leaders and the press that serves them will reverse course otherwise we will find it difficult to engage in any way with the Turkish government, its media outlets, or nominally independent organizations in Washington that work on behalf of Turkey’s leadership.

On reflection, there are two things I should have raised with my colleagues who drafted this letter:

  1. The focus on foreign scholars and journalists. There are lots of Turks, not to mention Egyptians and others, who are suffering even worse abuse than the foreigners. Solidarity with them is just as important as protesting mistreatment of Americans.
  2. Whether the threat to disengage from the Turkish government and affiliated media and other organizations is wise. My hunch is that the Turkish government doesn’t give a hoot about our engagement and might welcome cutting it off, as it would make repression of Turkey’s own dissenters easier.

Both of these shortcomings in the letter are reparable. I hereby set out to repair them.

The post coup failure crackdown in Turkey has gone too far in arresting and intimidating Turkish scholars and journalists, who have far less recourse than the foreigners. Academic and media institutions outside Turkey should keep the focus on this unwarranted repression and also prepare to welcome the refugees escaping it who are sure to begin leaking out of a country that is all too clearly establishing an illiberal electoral autocracy.

As for cutting off engagement, I’ll be inclined at least initially not to do that, but rather to use every interaction with Turkish officials and government supporters to express concern about the course their country has chosen. I know from my 21 years as a diplomat that such complaints do in fact reverberate inside an offending government and give courage to those who are oppressed. That is important too.

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No risk it will happen soon

The High Negotiations Commission (HNC), which represents the non-extremist Syrian revolution and opposition forces in UN-hosted talks to bring an end to the war, issued its “Executive Framework for a Political Solution in Syria” today. It lays out how the opposition foresees a political transition away from Bashar al Assad’s rule to the transitional governing body (TGB) with full executive authority foreseen in a 2012 UN communique, and eventually to a full-fledged democracy.

There is no risk any of this will happen soon. But it is good to see the HNC, which has taken over political leadership of the non-extremist opposition, articulating a plan that is an excellent response to those who claim there are no moderates in Syria. They start with a six-month truce to allow for humanitarian relief, lifting of sieges, release of prisoners, negotiations, and preparation of a temporary constitution. There follows a 1.5 year transition that starts with the exit of Bashar al Assad and proceeds with the formation of the TGB, preparation of new election laws, and writing of a new, secular and pluralist constitution. The third phase sees adoption of the new constitution and elections. The document is studded with reference to inclusion, human rights, a 30% set aside for women, independence of the judiciary, separation of powers, and lots of other good things.

Like many documents of this sort, it is the missing pieces that are most interesting. On the Syrian Kurds, the Framework says:

The Kurdish cause shall be considered a national Syrian cause and action shall be taken to ensure their ethnic, linguistic, and cultural rights in the constitution.

There is no promise of territorial separation or autonomy, as in Iraq. In fact, the first of its “general principles” is this:

Syria is an integral part of the Arab World, and Arabic is the official language of the state. Arab Islamic culture represents a fertile source for intellectual production and social relations amongst all Syrians of different ethnic backgrounds and religious beliefs as the majority of Syrians are Arabs and followers of Islam and its tolerant message which is distinctly moderate.

That isn’t likely to please the Kurds, who have been trying to carve out their own sub-state entity called Rojava along the border with Turkey. But it will please the Turks, who have been resisting emergence of a new Kurdish state (or sub-state) on their border.

Also missing is any clear idea of what happens to Assad. This is a virtue, since the people who wrote this document would like nothing better than to see him held accountable in a Syrian court, where the death penalty is still available. But that wouldn’t serve current purposes. Even in the wildest dreams of the Syrian opposition, Assad is not going to agree to his own execution. Implicitly, the HNC is prepared to see him escape Syria to go to wherever someone will have him, most likely Iran or Russia.

The HNC is proposing that fighting “sectarian militias, mercenaries, and terrorist groups designated as such by relevant Security Council Resolutions” should continue even after the political transition begins. That means the fight against the Islamic State and al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al Nusra (and its successor Jabhat Fateh al Sham?), both designated by the UNSC as terrorist, would continue. But it leaves ambiguity about other Islamist groups. The reference to sectarian militias and mercenaries is presumably to various Alawite National Defense Forces as well as Lebanese Hizbollah and other imported Shia militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The TGB would incorporate

…all components of the High Negotiations Commission, as the body responsible for managing the negotiation process…and representatives of the regime whose hands have not been stained with Syrian blood, in addition to ensuring the representation of all strata of Syrian society.

Therein lies a good part of the diplomatic trick: choosing who will have power, even if exercised collectively, after Assad. No one associated with the regime who doesn’t have Syrian blood on his hands will be acceptable to the regime, which has tried to ensure that as many people as possible have participated in the repression, one way or another. Representation of all strata of Syrian society is a nice sentiment, but what it means in practice is in the eye of the beholder. Witness the difficulties Libya has faced in forming and giving authority to its Government of National Accord.

So the overall message of this elaborate document is positive: the HNC understands what a transition to democracy entails and the need for broad inclusion. But for the moment its finely crafted document is a dead letter. The opposition will have to do better on the battlefield, with help from its friends, to impose anything like this admirable solution.

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Talk but little progress

The Middle East Institute published my brief on the G20 summit yesterday: 

The weekend’s G20 meeting in peaceful and prosperous Hangzhou, China focused on the world economy, especially trade and finance, as well as climate change. But President Barack Obama met on the sidelines with presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, while Secretary of State John Kerry tried and failed for the umpteenth time to hammer out an agreement on Syria with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The war-ravaged Middle East is never far from world leaders’ priorities these days, but progress is proving elusive.

The American proposal for Syria would renew the cessation of hostilities, allow delivery of humanitarian assistance, and enable joint U.S./Russian targeting of extremists while grounding the Syrian air force. The Russians ran out the clock in Hangzhou, enabling the Syrian army with Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah support to cut off access again to Aleppo, where opposition forces had managed to breach the siege of several hundred thousand civilians. The Russians may eventually agree to a cease-fire, while Syrian government forces pursue the “starve and surrender” tactics they have used successfully elsewhere. Without a rebalancing of the military situation in favor of the opposition, President Bashar al-Assad is likely to regain control of Syria’s largest city, by foul means.

Obama’s meeting with Turkey’s president focused on responsibility for July’s coup attempt, which the Turkish government blames on an erstwhile Erdogan ally who lives in Pennsylvania. While Obama lauded the survival of Erdogan and Turkish democracy and also promised cooperation on determining responsibility for the failed coup, he is unwilling to short-circuit the extradition procedures, which can be lengthy and complex. Erdogan was undoubtedly disappointed.

The Turkish and American presidents likely also discussed Syria. The Americans want to target the Islamic State and minimize Turkish and C.I.A.-supported Arab opposition clashes with Pentagon-supported Syrian Kurds—only making the contradictions in U.S. policy all too apparent.

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Brains for peace

Ross Hurwitz, a second year SAIS student, writes: 

Science has given the world heretofore unimagined access to the subconscious workings of the human brain. Every day we learn more about how human beings process their experiences of the world around them. These insights present a unique opportunity to reevaluate the strategies that have defined the work of peace builders throughout the latter half of the 20th century.

I had the privilege of spending the summer between my first and second year at Johns Hopkins SAIS exploring the potential of these advancements while working with Beyond Conflict, a Boston-based nongovernmental organization focused on finding innovative solutions to some of the world’s most intractable conflicts. For 25 years Beyond Conflict has engaged as a neutral facilitator with world leaders in over 20 countries. The small but dedicated team focuses on the human dimension of conflict, emphasizing the power of shared experiences to help parties see a way beyond obstacles to peace.

For the last 5 years Beyond Conflict has sought to build bridges between conflict management practitioners and scientists researching neuroscience and behavioral sciences. Their work to date has challenged the enlightenment notion that humans are rational actors who act in their own self-interest, influenced by facts and data. Advances in brain science contradict this established philosophy and show that humans are inherently emotional. We only make rational decisions when we feel our identity is safe and supported. This scientific understanding of human behavior is vital to preventing the destructive impact of emotionally based responses to conflicts.

My work with Beyond Conflict this summer focused primarily on the ongoing Syrian peace negotiations in Geneva, specifically how to use this psychological lens to mitigate the negative emotional impacts of victim-hood narratives, which are inevitable in times of conflict. They have occurred from time immemorial and are often used by political and military leaders to instigate crisis. Slobodan Milošević used the 14th century Battle of Kosovo Polje to stir Serbian nationalist sentiment in the rapidly disintegrating Yugoslavia. Hitler used the narrative of betrayal following the Treaty of Versailles to build membership to the Nazi Party. Even the American South still holds onto stories and symbols of its “glorious” defeat in the Civil War, including the Confederate Flag.

Narratives of this sort in post-conflict societies often signify the likelihood of resurgent violence. The recidivism rate of civil conflict in the later half of the 20th century is around 57%. While victim-hood narratives are far from the only factor in this trend, we would be remiss not to consider their influence and seek to temper it.

Victim-hood narratives often convey the emotional, psychological, and even physical impact of war, but they do not have to lead the parties toward future animosity and violence. Neuroscience and behavioral science have shown the potential of inclusive victim narratives, or the ability for societies to recognize a shared experience of trauma with other communities through powerful empathetic bonds.

Beyond Conflict has worked around the world bringing leaders from various conflict zones together to discuss the obstacles facing their respective communities. These discussions have developed into lasting relationships between individuals who, despite all their differences, connect through empathy for each other’s suffering. In this way, once destructively exclusive narratives of victimization become powerful stories that connect people around the world; their suffering is not unique nor do they have to face their challenges alone.

Facilitating the development of these inclusive narratives in Syria is vital to reducing the impact they will have on conflict resurgence. This isn’t an easy task and requires more study and practical execution, but I have no doubt that it is a vital step in creating a self-sustaining peace, both in Syria and around the world.

The human brain is remarkable. Its subconscious workings impact our lives in ways we can only begin to comprehend. It’s vital for future students and practitioners to continue to study this remarkable organ’s potential. Within it lies the key to achieving the lasting peace that so many have sought for so long.

The UNESCO Constitution touched on this idea when it stated: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” Research is only beginning to illuminate this potential, but in time I trust that these insights will revolutionize how we approach the important work of building sustainable peace.

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No matter how many black churches

Today is Labor Day in the U.S. We don’t commemorate it May 1 like the rest of the world. Why is pretty obscure, hidden in the mists of past American labor protests, though I’ve always thought it was to maintain the anti-Communist character of the mainstream American labor movement.

Labor Day for us marks the end of summer vacations (even if school has already begun in many places), a welcome day off, and the traditional start of election season, which this year ends November 8. The campaigns are already in full swing. The the probability of a Clinton win, which has been declining  from a figure ridiculously close to 90%, seems to be leveling off around 70%. But two months in American politics is a long time. A lot can still happen.

The labor market is one of the key variables. Average monthly job growth has been pretty steady, if relatively slow compared to previous recoveries, since the beginning of the economic recovery two years into the Obama administration:

Average monthly job growthThe cumulative impact is pretty dramatic: more than 15 million jobs added since early 2010, when things started looking up, and an unemployment rate today of 4.9%. This is a sterling record, even if marred by relatively slow economic growth and a decline in the percentage of people looking for jobs.

For electoral purposes, the main point is this: the pace of growth and job creation isn’t likely to change in the next two months, a factor that should favor a Clinton victory. The Federal Reserve is still considering a September rate increase, but a relatively weak job growth figure last month and the absence of inflation are likely to weigh against it.

The big risks to Clinton come from a Trump campaign that has mobilized two powerful forces against her: male white supremacy and distaste for her air of privilege. The former has roots in the economy, as white males have not benefited much from the Obama recovery. Some of them have been quick to blame blacks and Hispanics, who also haven’t benefited all that much from the Obama recovery.  The biggest benefits have gone to high-income people.

The air of privilege is something even Clinton supporters deplore. She all too often behaves as if the rules don’t apply to her. This is most obvious in her unauthorized use of a private email server as Secretary of State, which put classified material at risk and removed official communications from eventual public scrutiny. No one has demonstrated any harm to American national security as a result, and most of the emails have now been recovered and will be part of the public record, but appearances count.

The three presidential debates (September 26, October 9, and October 19) will be important moments as the campaign crescendos. Avoiding flubs is important, but so too is projecting an image that Americans will accept as “presidential.” Trump is thought to have the disadvantage in that respect, but Clinton has an uphill climb too: this will be the first time Americans see a woman in a presidential debate during the electoral campaign. She certainly knows her stuff, on that there should be little concern. But can she communicate the empathy and amiability she is often viewed as lacking?

I grew up thinking America’s political parties would never be able to offer us a real choice, because they nominated people who were indistinguishable in political philosophy and direction. Ironically that is even true of Trump and Clinton, because Trump is not a true conservative and offers ideas like infrastructure spending and “extreme” vetting of immigrants that are either part of the Obama/Clinton platform or already in place as government policy and practice.

But Trump’s lack of original ideas makes him no more acceptable to me than George Wallace a generation ago. He represents an effort to claw back white privilege from a demographic transition to a majority minority country (the Census Bureau projects that to happen by 2043). Those who treasure the most fundamental principles of American democracy–all of us are created equal–will reject him no matter how many black churches he visits in the next two months.

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