Dominoes anyone?

The metaphorical game in international relations is often chess, or escalation, or maybe just the adjectival “great” game.  But these days we seem to be playing that old standby, dominoes, more than anything else:  will Iran getting nuclear weapons lead to others getting them?  will Tunisia’s revolt spread? will North Korea’s erratic behavior precipitate in one way or another refugee flows into China that Beijing will want to prevent?

As Stephen Walt points out, revolutions don’t usually spread like wildfire.  The demonstration effect of what happens in Tunisia may be strong, but it is uncertain what the outcome is and therefore what events there will “demonstrate.”  I still wouldn’t call it a revolution, since the prior regime is very much in place, not only in the salubrious sense that the constitution is being implemented but in the less salubrious sense that the old guard remains in key offices.  Only the President and his coterie are gone.  Tunisia is looking for the moment more like a palace or military coup in response to popular uprising than like a real revolution. I can imagine that being imitated in more than one Arab country.

With respect to Iran and nuclear weapons, Johan Bergenas argues his case against the dominoes falling well, but unfortunately the argument against a nuclear Iran remains strong even without the worst case scenario, as he acknowledges.  While diplomats, spooks and geeks (or maybe I should say spoogeeks?) in the U.S. and Israel are chuckling over Stuxnet’s damage to Iranian centrifuges, the problem remains as great as always.  We just have more time to find, or not to find, a solution.  I’m no fan of Hillary Mann and Flynt Leverett’s triumphalist version of today’s Iran, but I also don’t buy Tehran Bureau’s defeatist version. President Ahmedinejad still looks pretty strong, having managed his personnel challenges to the Supreme Leader as well as his economic reforms and their political impact better than many expected.

China’s willingness to save our bacon with North Korea is but one of the Washington myths that Mort Abramowitz pooh-poohs, suggesting that if we had a clearer and more consistent policy of our own we might be better off than relying on Beijing to do the right thing.  In any event, the Chinese seem to be finding the discomfort that North Korea causes “not unwelcome,” as the diplomats say, and they fear more refugee flows arising from the regime change Washington might like than anything else.

So dominoes don’t look like such a good game, and in my experience they are not, being a Vietnam generation fogy.  That said, I feel reasonably certain that our weak response to North Korea’s nuclear testing has in fact encouraged the Iranians to move ahead to acquiring whatever technology they think they need to become at least a virtual nuclear power.  Did we ever deprive Brazil of its technology after it forswore nuclear weapons and signed the Treaty of Tlatelolco?  Or South Africa?

That is the thing about dominoes.  When they fall, the consequences are often irreversible, and the directions they fall in unpredictable.  I hope that the outcome of last week’s events in Tunisia is not only democratic but relatively liberal and Western-oriented.  Many of us–I include myself–will regret the cheering we did from the sidelines if Al Qaeda in the Maghreb finds haven in North Africa, where its recruiting efforts are already strong.

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What would MLK say?

The rash of suicides and attempted suicides associated with popular rebellions in Tunisia, Algeria and now Egypt naturally raises the question, on Martin Luther King Day:  is suicide a useful, effective or legitimate tactic against autocratic regimes?

Let’s admit right off that in one sense it is useful:  self immolation attracts a lot of attention today, as it did decades ago during the Vietnam war.  The press seems barely able to get its fill of such stories, and if there are photographs in addition you can be sure they will run on the front page in the West.  Self immolation is treated as the ultimate testimonial to how desperate people are.  I suppose that makes it effective as well.  These protests are largely indigenous, but you can be sure that Western attention to them will still be an important factor in how the Arab regimes react.  And what are you going to do to someone who has already doused himself in gasoline and tried to light it afire?

I am not a King scholar, and the day is not long enough yet for me to have checked out his writings carefully on this subject.  But I grew up with MLK’s words ringing in my ears from well before attending the March on Washington in 1963.  This was a man whose opposition to violence and respect for human life would not permit him to support suicide of any type to prove a point.  Yes, he expected himself and his supporters to run gigantic risks and to suffer brutality at the hands of police and thugs.  But this was to bear witness, to confront oppression with human dignity, not to get killed.

This is an important message just now, as the demonstrations in several countries seem to be deteriorating into street brawls and looting.  If something good is to come of the sacrifices people are making, nonviolence and dignity–including respect for property–are vital.  If the regimes can credibly call the demonstrators criminals, decent people will hesitate to join them and the security forces will feel free to crack down.

Nonviolence for Martin Luther King was a moral as well as a practical imperative.  It was a high calling, one that really did appear to give his movement divine blessings, as it did Gandhi’s.  But not everyone can adhere to that calling.  I admit to having seen things in this world that merit a violent response.  The trouble is that violence, even violence against oneself, begets more violence.  What the demonstrations need now is MLK’s recipe of nonviolence and respect for human dignity.  The demonstrators should not be attacking the security forces but inviting the security forces to their side, as they did in the days leading up to President Ben Ali’s flight.  Self immolation will not be effective in that sense.

I have just returned this morning from Baghdad.  I can only wonder what might have happened there had demonstrations of the sort now seen in North Africa broken out against Saddam Hussein.  It would have been bloody and nasty, but could it have been as bloody and nasty as these last eight years?  I played a role in advocating the support for the Serbian opposition that brought down Slobodan Milosevic just a few years before the American invasion of Iraq.  There is no question but that Serbia is better off for having dealt with its own autocracy by largely nonviolent means.

That is what I might wish for our North African friends on Martin Luther King day:  disciplined nonviolence and respect for human dignity have the best chance of winning the day and bringing about regimes that in turn will respect human dignity and not use violence against their own people.

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Double double toil and trouble

With Tunisia in a kind of constitutionally correct and militarily enforced limbo between dictatorship and the possibility of real democracy, demonstrations and rioting are popping up elsewhere in the Arab World.  Qadhafi has been reduced to stuttering regret for the impatience of the Tunisians while two unemployed men reportedly tried to immolate themselves in Algeria.

. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is testing the waters while in Jordan people take to the streets.  So what might all this amount to, and what determines the course it takes?

With the obvious exception of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, none of the current protests seems to have a clear political matrix.  Some people will tell you that is important–without a clearly defined political leadership and goals, nothing much can come of spontaneous protest over food prices and corruption.  I don’t believe that.  Political leadership often emerges during the events, not in advance of them, and the lack of clearly defined leadership makes it difficult for repressive regimes to decapitate popular movements.

My own view is that the vital thing to watch is the relationship between protesters and security forces.  If the protesters attack the security forces, they will respond with violence and more often than not sufficient force to win the day, even if doing so generates another day of protests.  The objective of the protesters needs to be the strategic one of depriving the dictatorship of the security force protection that enables it to stay in place.

The way to achieve this is not to attack the security forces but to try to win them over.  Often this will be difficult in the capital, where the best and most loyal of the uniformed and non-uniformed security forces are usually deployed.  But somewhere on the periphery, likely in the provinces, there will be security forces with little brief for the regime they ostensibly defend. Non-violent protest is what can win them over:  sticking flowers in their gun barrels is the international photojournalists’ image of choice.  Ben Ali did not flee because there were so many people in the streets.  He fled because someone told him the army would no longer protect him.

That of course leaves Tunisia in the limbo I mentioned at first.  Now the effort has to become more politically astute, using the demonstrators to guarantee free and fair elections open to serious competition.  This will not be easy, in part because the crowds in the street may not see the relevance of elections to what they went there for in the first place:  jobs and food above all. That is where political leadership is needed: to show the connection. Otherwise, demonstrations may lead to a non-democratic political takeover that promises more immediate results.

This is all discussed amply on the website of the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, or if you prefer your protests with an accent of Serbian experience at Canvasopedia.

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Fire burn and cauldron trouble in Arabia

Yesterday I tweeted two pieces on events in Tunisia: one by Juan Cole calling the events there the first revolution in the Middle East since 1979, the other by Brian Whitaker calling it a moment in history but hesitating to use the R word.  So which is it, revolution or not?

Ten hours or so later, I think Brian Whitaker has the edge still, though it may still bend Juan Cole’s way.  The flight of a president may be the first stage of a revolution, but it really depends on what comes thereafter.  The regime has not fallen, yet.  The prime minister claims to be holding on to power, whether constitutionally or not is unclear.  Can he continue to do so?  Will he be forced into making fundamental changes? Or will he be able to reestablish order without promising anything significant?  Will he in turn be chased out?

This morning, Ben Wedeman of CNN is broadcasting that the anticipated “jasmine” revolution looks more like a military coup, at least on the streets of Tunis, where the soldiers have restored a modicum of calm.  A great deal depends on what happens today and tomorrow, and in particular whether the demonstrators reappear and whether they attack the army or maintain nonviolent discipline.  Violence at this stage is likely to harden the response of the security forces and end any hope for fundamental change in a more democratic direction.

How will events in Tunisia affect the rest of the Arab world?  This is a big question, which Marc Lynch asked several days ago. Algeria has already seen similar demonstrations precipitated by rising food prices and unemployment.  It is easy to imagine that Egypt, facing a problematic succession, might see something similar, as its regime is a sham democracy/kleptocracy similar to Tunisia’s.  How about Jordan?

Also interesting is that no one is asking these questions about Iran, which recently reduced food and fuel subsidies and suffers many of the same ills–underemployment and unemployment in particular–that plague Arab countries.  President Ahmedinejad appears to have planned and executed his price-increasing economic reforms relatively well, cushioning them with welfare payments.  And if Iran is a bridge too far out of the Arab world, what about Syria, whose regime isn’t even a pretend democracy? No sign of protest there, or in Libya, at least for the moment.

Two other, unrelated but interesting, bits of news from the Arab world and its environs:  the Hariri government in Lebanon has fallen and South Sudan has successfully completed its independence referendum, with a minimum of violence and disruption.

I confess to finding it hard to get excited about Lebanese politics.  It is small and its unusual ethnic makeup makes it unique.  But Hizbollah, which precipitated the government’s fall because it didn’t get the guarantees it wanted from the prime minister concerning the Special Tribunal’s much-anticipated indictments of Hizbollah leaders for the murder of his father, is a force to be reckoned with, not only inside Lebanon.  How far will it go in pushing to end confessional representation in Lebanon and demanding Shia rights to govern there?

The South Sudan referendum is the success story of the week.  As it ends today, it seems the referendum has met the requirement that 60 per cent of registered voters vote, and the vote is assumed to be heavily in favor of independence, since no one seems to have found a South Sudanese who would vote for anything else.  Definite results will not be certified for some time.  The week was relatively violence free.  The longer term consequences may, however, still present serious problems:  there are many issues to be settled between north and south before the July declaration of independence, and Khartoum may well take a sharp turn in the Islamist direction as it loses a good part of its non-Muslim population.  Khartoum shares many ills with its Arab neighbors to the north.

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Oil, oil everywhere, and not a drop…

…for the benefit of ordinary Iraqis.  That has been the situation since well before the fall of Saddam Hussein.   Moqtada al Sadr is reported (I read it in Juan Cole, who got it from Al Hayat) to be reviving the idea the Americans pushed in 2003/4 of distributing oil revenues to Iraqi citizens.  Though I have yet to hear Sarah Palin mention that she and every member of her family usually gets between $600 and $1500 in “rebate” (or should we call them welfare?) payments per year, the Alaskan system is widely praised. It makes citizens into shareholders in a $28 billion oil and gas fund and removes that money from what would otherwise likely be government control (which is the case, for example, in Texas, “fed” up as its governor claims to be).

This raises the interesting issue of the role of oil in the future of Iraq, in particular the future of national reconciliation.  Iraq has oodles of oil, possibly more in reserves than Saudi Arabia.  Most of that oil is in the Shia-populated south, where production costs are extremely low, but some of it is in the center (including near Baghdad) and in Kurdistan in the north.  Little of it is in Sunni-majority areas, which may however contain substantial gas reserves (exploration contracts have only recently been signed).

Current Iraqi production is around 2.4 barrels/day, marginally below the peak in Saddam Hussein’s time of 2.8 million barrels/day but increasing rapidly with the signature of 12 international contracts for oil field development.  If the contractual terms are fulfilled, Iraqi production would increase to 12 million barrels per day in 2017.  This would be a huge increase, likely the largest increase anywhere in the world in those years, as many fields (especially the cheaper producing ones) are in decline.

As a relatively low-cost, high-volume, high-reserve producer, Iraq would then have an interest in relatively moderate oil prices and maintaining higher volumes of exports.  Since the U.S. has been unwilling to constrain its own oil consumption in any serious way, and therefore needs oil production to be maximized worldwide, this will make Iraq a key player in world oil markets from the American perspective and a possible long-term partner, in somewhat the same way that Saudi Arabia has been.

It will also make Iraq fabulously wealthy.  Even the current $90+ oil is pouring revenue into Iraq’s coffers at substantially above the rate on which its current budget was calculated (virtually all government revenue in Iraq comes from oil at this point).  Oil at $100 per barrel or more in the future, with Iraqi production doubling, tripling, quadrupling and even eventually quintupling, is an extraordinary windfall. Even if production remains below 5 or 6 million barrels/day, Iraq will have mountains of cash.  And of course there is the possibility that prices might rise, rather than staying at $100 or less.

There are two politically sensitive issues attached to this magnificent growth in oil revenue (there are many other technical constraints that I won’t discuss):  how does Iraq get the oil to the international market?  what does Iraq do with the revenue?

Today most Iraqi oil goes out through Basra, where current infrastructure is limited to something like 2 million barrels/day, then through the Gulf and out to the Indian Ocean through the strait of Hormuz, a route exposed to Iran’s growing military capacity.  Some of the oil goes north to Turkey from Kurdistan. If Iraq is going to become an important and moderate partner in the international oil market, it is important that it enhance export capacity not subject to Iranian pressure.  This means settling current disputes with Kurdistan over oil production and exports and building new pipelines to the north and west, providing alternatives to the Gulf and more direct (and cheaper) access to Turkey and European markets.

What Iraq does with the oil revenue is also vitally important.  Already today the Kurdish leadership is hesitating to align itself with popular opinion in Kurdistan, which favors independence, at least in part because the 17 per cent share of Iraq’s total oil revenue (minus “sovereign expenses”) that Kurdistan gets today is likely a much better deal than the 100 per cent of its own oil revenue Kurdistan might get if it were independent (not to mention the many perils and costs of an attempt at independence).  Likewise, those Iraqi provinces that lack significant oil resources, like Sunni-majority Anbar in the west, are gratified to get their fair share of the oil revenue (which constitutionally goes to the provinces primarily in accordance with population). This has been an important factor in bringing Sunnis back into the political process.

So oil is already a cohesive political force in Iraq, one that would become even more so if at least a part of the revenue were distributed to the population, as Moqtada is apparently proposing.  The proposal would have the added benefit of limiting the resources available for corrupt distribution among government employees, a habit common in most oil-producing countries and one Iraq will find it hard to break. While there are other things Iraq could do–Norway puts invests its oil and gas revenue abroad and spends only the dividends, but does not distribute them to citizens on a per capita basis–redistribution of at least a substantial slice of oil revenue to Iraqi citizens would go a long way to convincing them, as it has Alaskans like Sarah Palin, that their state is a wonderful place to live.

There are of course many technical problems with distributing cash to Iraqis, not the least of which is that no one knows how many Iraqis there are.  A new census is needed, and new identity cards and procedures.  But none of those problems are insurmountable.

On the bigger issues, maybe a deal can be struck:  distribution of at least some oil revenue, provided major infrastructure investments are made to get the oil out of Iraq on routes not controlled by the Iranians.  That would be a fine test of the nationalist credentials Moqtada has  been flaunting lately.

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The changing face of Iraqi national reconciliation

Vice President Biden’s visit to Baghdad yesterday and today is getting scarce mention in the U.S. press, with the emphasis mainly on talk about economic cooperation and a few well-time bombs that killed two Iraqis.  But far bigger things are happening here.

The atmosphere, as I posted yesterday, is a good deal brighter and more optimistic than it has been for a long time.  The “national partnership” government, while recognized as less than ideal in the way it assigned ministries to coalition partners according to a weighting system, is a symbol of success in Iraqi eyes, opening up the possibility of a broader social and civic effort to limit violence and bring an end to the militias that have plagued Iraqi streets for too many years.  Iraqi investigative capacities are not getting much stronger, but the population is giving the security forces a lot more help with tips about where to find weapons and who is planning attacks.

The new parliament and government are viewed as distinctly different from their predecessors, despite the repeating figure of the prime minister.  The previous parliament was strongly affected by the violence of 2006/7, which created serious political problems.  The broad distribution of ministerial portfolios in the new government is expected to pacify the situation, or as Arab League secretary general said this week during his visit to Baghdad “the political situation has matured.”  The national partnership government will not necessarily be the most effective, but it is expected to prevent a return to war.  That is good news for Americans, who want nothing to prevent most of their forces from getting out of Iraq by the December 31 deadline, even if they might like to be asked to leave behind a significant contingent of trainers.

In the past, national reconciliation in Iraq meant things like paying or reintegrating the Sahwa (tribal anti-insurgent forces) into the security services, getting some of the former soldiers and police back to their jobs (or at least paying their pensions), and amending the constitution, which many Sunnis view as favoring the Shia and Kurds who dominated its drafting.  But those tasks, while not completed, are no longer topmost on peoples‘ minds.

The emphasis now is on more far reaching measures.  While some claim the problems are purely political and do not concern ordinary people in the street, the fact is that many Iraqis no longer trust those beyond their own sectarian or ethnic group.  Arabs don’t think Kurds regard themselves as Iraqi.  Kurds don’t think Arabs respect their rights.  Sunnis will sometimes refer to Shia derogatorily as Iranians, while Shia view Sunnis as beholden to Saudi money.  Violence has undermined confidence.  What is needed is a “culture of forgiveness,” one that will restore confidence and mutual respect.

How to create such a “culture of forgiveness”?  Would it be sufficient to ignore the past and start anew?  After all, no accounting–or accountability–will ever cover everything that has happened.  A major public campaign in favor of reconciliation might help.  Or is accountability vital, at least for key leaders who back Saddam Hussein?  Is there a need for apology, which is unusual in Iraqi culture because it is regarded as suggesting weakness, not strength?  Would it make any sense for the current government, which bears no responsibility for what Saddam Hussein did, to apologize for the gassing of Kurds at Halabja? Is compensation appropriate? Virtually everyone has been harmed at one point or another in Iraq’s recent history–it wouldn’t be right for some that were harmed in one way to be paying off others who were harmed in another way.

The search for national reconciliation will take the Iraqis in many directions:  it will affect their concept of citizenship and who is eligible to participate in public life, the way they teach history, their notions of equitable treatment, their views on what constitutes incitement, and their relations with Iran and Arab neighbors.  Iraq is in a process of redefining itself, or perhaps defining itself for the first time, since in its earlier incarnations it was largely defined first by the British and later by Saddam Hussein.  This is not an easy task, though oil–if wisely used–can lubricate the machinery of state and provide a lot of ways of satisfying people who otherwise might be fighting over unworthy scraps.

All this makes me think of other situations in which I’ve seen these problems arise:  in Bosnia, in Serbia and Kosovo, among Afghans, between north and south Sudanese.  I do not know any magic formulas, though I do think some documentation and acknowledgment of harm is an important element in getting forgiveness to stick, even if a formal apology is not feasible.  There is no recipe though for national reconciliation.  Each country seems to find, or fail to find, its own balance among the many ingredients available.

NOTE TO THE PRESS:  please cite when quoting or reproducing this piece in any language.

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