Tag: Iran

Peace picks November 20 – 24

  1. Is Lebanon Saudi Arabia’s New Zone of Confrontation with Iran? | Monday, November 20 | 12:00 – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | Under the new leadership of 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has found itself in the middle of a storm generated by internal opponents to his rule, the country’s foreign adversaries, and partly by the young ruler himself. Earlier in November, Saudi air defenses intercepted a missile fired at Riyadh by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. On the same day, Saudi authorities arrested dozens of senior figures, including well-connected royals like Prince Walid Bin Talal, on corruption charges and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, while traveling in Riyadh, announced his resignation and denounced Iran’s long arm in Lebanon, Hezbollah. Saudi officials followed Hariri’s statement with warnings of their own, explaining that as long as Lebanon was controlled by Hezbollah, it would be treated as an enemy. Is Lebanon Saudi Arabia’s newest regional theater of conflict with Iran, after Yemen and Syria? What’s the Crown Prince’s next move? What does it mean for Lebanon if Hezbollah’s base of operations is now a potential conflict zone? And how is the Trump administration managing its regional partners and the larger strategic picture in the Middle East? On November 20, join us at Hudson Institute for an important and timely lunchtime panel discussion moderated by Lee Smith of the Hudson Institute, and featuring Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute, Mohammed Alyahya of the Atlantic Council, and Tony Badran Foundation of Defense of Democracies.
  2. Iranian and Russian Involvement in Syria: Purposes and Prospects | Monday, November 20 | 10:00 – 11:00 am | International Institute for Strategic Studies | Register Here | Syria may be the theatre where Western interests clash most directly with those of Iran. Russian and Western policies have also come into direct clash over Syria. In these clashes, Russia and Iran have been tactical allies, but their goals are not wholly congruent and their partnership shows fragility. Please join us in the next installment in the IISS Manama Dialogue 2017 Discussion Series to explore the involvement by these two powers in Syria. This series, focusing on political, economic, social, and security challenges in and around the Middle East and North Africa, will be held before and after the December IISS Manama Dialogue. This event will be a timely discussion of the current security and political challenges in Syria, the roles that Iran and Russia have played in the conflict, and what can be expected in the months to come. Speakers include Dr. Mark N Katz of George Mason University and Dr. Neda Bolourchi of the Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory. Mark Fitzpatrick of IISS-Americas will chair the conversation.
  3. Costing U.S. Nuclear Forces | Monday, November 20 | 1:00 – 2:30 pm | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | Register Here | The United States has embarked on the process of modernizing almost every component of its nuclear forces, sparking a debate about the costs of such a project. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has released a report estimating that the nuclear force plans that the Trump administration inherited from its predecessor would cost $1.2 trillion between 2017 and 2046, and outlining options to reduce or delays costs. Michael Bennett from the CBO will present the report’s findings, and Kingston Reif of the Arms Control Association will discuss its implications for policy. Other speakers include Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute and James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
  4. Putting Sectarianism in Perspective | Tuesday, November 21 | 3:00 – 4:30 pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | The Middle East Institute is pleased to host a conversation with Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, editors of the new book Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East. Their book critiques the reliance on religious identity as the explanation for the region’s violence, and analyzes the ways in which geopolitical rivalries or domestic grievances have become, or been mobilized into, sectarian wars. How, Hashemi and Postel ask, can the region’s politics be “de-sectarianized” Register now to join this valuable conversation moderated by MEI senior vice president for policy research and programs Paul Salem.
  5. The U.S. Policy on Iran: The Way Forward | Tuesday, November 21 | 10:00 – 11:00 am | Organization of Iranian American Communities (held at the National Press Club) | Register Here | We are delighted to announce the upcoming event scheduled for November 21, 2017 at 10:00 am at the National Press Club, Holeman Lounge.  The event is the second in a series of discussions on “The U.S. Policy On Iran: The Way Forward”. As part of implementing its new Iran policy, the administration designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity (SDGT). Moderator Dr. Ivan Sascha Sheehan of the University of Baltimore will speak to Senator Joseph Lieberman, formerly of the U.S. Senate, and Gen. Chuck Wald, formerly of the U.S. air force.  
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Peace picks November 13 – 17

  1. Lebanon in Crisis? The Impact of the Hariri Resignation and the Saudi-Iranian Cold War | Monday, November 13 | 11:00 – 12:00 pm | Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (event held by phone) | Register Here | The resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri is threatening again to plunge Lebanon into political and economic crisis or worse. A number of developments, including longstanding but growing tensions between Iran and Hezbollah and Saudi Arabia may well presage a deteriorating regional situation that could draw Lebanon as well as Israel into the fray. Join us BY PHONE as three veteran observers of Lebanese and regional politics analyze these developments and others as we enter yet another period of potential turbulence in Middle Eastern politics. Jane Harman of the Wilson Center will deliver opening remarks, after which Aaron David Miller will moderate a conversation featuring Hanin Ghaddar of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Paul Salem of the Middle East Institute, and Bassel F. Salloukh of the Lebanese American University.
  2. Religion and Foreign Policy: Exploring the Legacy of “Mixed Blessings” | Monday, November 13 | 2:00 – 3:00 pm | Center for Strategic and International Studies | Register Here | Please join the Human Rights Initiative (HRI) and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs for a discussion marking the 10th anniversary of CSIS’s groundbreaking report, “Mixed Blessings: U.S. Government Engagement with Religion in Conflict-Prone Settings“. This report analyzed how religion affects international affairs, including through the faith and religious beliefs of politicians and elites; the belief structures that underlie national and international views; and the impact of religious organizations. At this event, Shaun Casey, former director of the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs, will interview Liora Danan, lead author of Mixed Blessings and former chief of staff for the Office of Religion and Global Affairs, to discuss the report’s goals and relevance in diplomacy today. Following their interview, Shannon N. Green, director and senior fellow of HRI, will moderate an expert panel to assess the impact of religion on foreign policy over the decade since the report’s release. Panelists include Rebecca Linder Blachly of  Episcopal Church and Eric Patterson of Georgetown University.
  3. 2017 Transatlantic Economic Forum – Day 1 | Monday, November 13 | 8:30 am – 5:30 pm | Center for Transatlantic Relations (held at SAIS Kenney Auditorium) | Register Here | The 5th annual Transatlantic Economic Forum will bring together government and business community leaders from 20 countries of the larger Mediterranean, including the Gulf and the Middle East, and is organized in partnership with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The first day will consist of four panels and three keynote addresses. The first panel, titled “Doing Business in Maghreb,” will include Mahieddine Taleb of Sonatrach (Algeria), Adel Mohsen Chaabane of AmCham (Tunisia), Mustafa Sanalla of the National Oil Corporation (Libya), Omar Mohanna of the Suez Cement Group of Companies (Egypt), and Asmaa El Mkhentar of the Ministry of Industry, Trade, Investment and Digital Economy (Morocco). Greg Lebedev of CIPE and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will moderate. The second panel, “Doing Business in The Balkans,” will consist of a conversation between Mujo Selimovic of the CTR-SAIS Mediterranean Basin Initiative Corporate Advisory Board and moderator Michael Haltzel, a CTR – SAIS Senior Fellow. The panel “Security and Military Cooperation: Safeguarding the Mediterranean part 1” will feature Mitar Klikovac of the Embassy of Montenegro to the United States, Dragan Galić of the Embassy of Serbia to the United States, and Khaled Shawky and Ayman Aldesouky Youssef of the Embassy of Egypt to the United States. Hans Binnendijk of CTR – SAIS will moderate. The final panel of the day, “Security and Military Cooperation: Safeguarding the Mediterranean part 2” will include Michael Barbero of the United States Army, Fahrudin Radoncic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, ambassador of Croatia in the United States Pjer Simunovic, Michael MacQueen of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and moderator Don Jensen of CTR – SAIS.
  4. Sectarianism and Conflict in the Middle East | Tuesday, November 14 | 9:00 am – 12:15 pm | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | Register Here | What’s driving the spread of Sunni-Shia identity politics in today’s Middle East? How is sectarianism contributing to the region’s instability and conflicts? The authors of a new edited volume, Beyond Sunni and Shia: The Roots of Sectarianism in a Changing Middle East, will discuss how geopolitics, governance, media, and other factors are fueling sectarianism. This event will consist of two panels. The first, titled, “Regional Cases and Geopolitical Sources of Sectarianism: Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, and Syria” will feature Cole Bunzel of Princeton University, Fanar Hadad of the National University of Singapore, Afshon Ostovar, of the Naval Postgraduate School, and Heiko Wimmen of the International Crisis Group. The second panel, moderated by Marc Lynch of Carnegie’s Middle East Program and titled “Domestic and Institutional Sources of Sectarianism: Governance, Political Economy, Clerics, and Social Media” will include Joseph Bahout of Carnegie’s Middle East Program, Justin Gengler of Qatar University, Alexander Henley of the University of Oxford, and Alexandra Siegel of New York University.
  5. Afghanistan 2017: A Survey of Public Perceptions | Tuesday, November 14 | 10:00 – 11:30 am | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | The recent escalation of attacks in Kabul underscores the crucial questions of security, economic stability and reconciliation that still confront President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah, despite the significant progress Afghanistan has made. Those questions and other pressing issues facing the country are the subject of the Asia Foundation’s 2017 Survey of the Afghan People. Join the U.S. Institute of Peace on Tuesday, November 14, for the foundation’s presentation of the findings and a discussion of the trends in citizens’ views over time. Speakers will include Dr. Tabasum Akseer of the Asia Foundation, Ambassador Daniel F. Feldman of Akin Gump, Dr. Zach Warren of The Asia Foundation, and Mr. Scott Worden of the U.S. Institute of Peace.
  6. 2017 Transatlantic Economic Forum – Day 2 | Tuesday, November 14 | 8:30 am – 6:45 pm | Center for Transatlantic Relations (held at SAIS Kenney Auditorium) | Register Here | The second day of the Transatlantic Economic Forum will consist of five panels. The first, “Working Through Reforms: What’s Next?” will feature Marinko Cavara, President of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bruce Berton, OSCE Ambassador in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Dejan Vanjek, Foreign Policy advisor to Dragan Covic, Chairman of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Daniel Serwer of CTR – SAIS will moderate. “Diversifying Economies: The Private Sector As The Key To Building Prosperity” will include panelists Dalibor Milos of Aluminij d.d. (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Ali Haddad of ETRHB Haddad Group (Algeria), Hisham Fahmy of AmCham Egypt, Inc., and moderator Andras Simonyi of CTR – SAIS. Participating in the panel “Macedonia: Turning New Page” will be Kocho Angjushev, Macedonian Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs, Lilica Kitanovska of Voice of America, and Edward Joseph of CTR – SAIS. The fourth panel, titled “The Gulf Countries: Strengthening Transatlantic Cooperation,” will include participants Omar A. Bahlaiwa of the Committee for International Trade (Saudi Arabia), Bilal Sabouni of the American Business Council in Dubai (UAE), and moderator Khush Choksy of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Mehdi Bendimerad of the Algerian Business Association, Jasmin Mahmuzic of the Banking Agency of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and moderator Steve Lutes of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will participate in the final panel, “Regional and Transatlantic Cooperation: A Key To Growth and Prosperity.”
  7. 71st Annual Conference: Conflicts, Costs, and Policy Pathways | Wednesday, November 15 | 9:00 am – 5:00 pm | Middle East Institute (held at The Capital Hilton) | Register Here | The Middle East Institute’s (MEI) 71st Annual Conference will convene innovative leaders, foreign policy practitioners, and analysts from the Middle East and the United States to explain the challenges and opportunities facing the region and assess current policies. The conference will feature four expert discussions that will delve into U.S. Middle East priorities, paths for resolving the region’s civil wars, the humanitarian outlook in countries plagued by conflict, and the growing impact of women’s activism. Amb. (ret.) Wendy J. Chamberlin of MEI will deliver opening remarks. Participants will include Gen. (ret.) John Allen of The Brookings Institution, Fawziah Bakr al-Bakr of Al Jazeera, Wafa Ben Hassine of Access Now, Amb. (ret.) Gerald Feierstein of MEI, Amb. (ret.) Robert Ford of the Middle East Institute, Philip Gordon of the Council on Foreign Relations, Simon Henshaw of the U.S. Department of State, Mary Louise Kelly of NPR, Hind Aboud Kabawat of the Syrian High Negotiations Committee, Michael Klosson of Save the Children, Nancy Lindborg of USIP, Clare Lockhart of the Institute for State Effectiveness, Rania A. Al‐Mashat of the International Monetary Fund, Hideki Matsunaga of the World Bank, Paul Salem of the Middle East Institute, Randa Slim of MEI and Johns Hopkins SAIS, Nafeesa Syeed of Bloomberg News, Jonathan Winer of the Middle East Institute, and Juan Zarate of the Financial Integrity Network.
  8. Water Security in the Middle East – Source of Tension or Avenue for Peace? | Wednesday, November 15 | 9:00 – 11:00 am | Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars | Register Here | In the Middle East, water scarcity is a source of tension. But some innovative leaders in the region have approached better water management as a shared priority that transcends borders and politics—and that could even serve as a potential platform for peace. For more than 20 years, EcoPeace Middle East has worked across the Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli borders to promote practical solutions to transboundary water scarcity and pollution. Join us for a unique conversation with EcoPeace’s three co-directors—representing Jordan, Palestine, and Israel—who will share their experiences using water diplomacy to improve livelihoods, create healthy interdependencies, and enhance regional stability. The discussion will also identify opportunities for progress on water issues within the peace process and the important role of the United States in fostering regional water security and stability. Speakers include Sherri Goodman, Former U.S. Deputy Under Secretary of Defense, Roger-Mark De Souza of the Wilson Center, Aaron Salzberg of the U.S. Department of State, and Gidon Bromberg, Nada Majdalani, and Yana Abu Taleb of EcoPeace Middle East.
  9. Deconflicting in Syria: Turkey’s Idlib Operation | Wednesday, November 15 | 2:30 – 4:00 pm | Foundation for Political, Economic, and Social Research (SETA) | Register Here | In early October, Turkey deployed its forces to establish a presence in Syria’s Idlib province. The deployment aims to establish a de-conflict zone in Idlib as part of a deal reached at negotiations in Astana between Turkey, Russia, and Iran. In addition to limiting conflict between the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army in Idlib and the Assad regime, Turkey has also characterized the operation as an effort to prevent further expansion by the PYD in northern Syria. The US has remained skeptical about the Astana process, particularly over Iran’s involvement as a guarantor. While the US said that it would not provide tangible support for Turkey’s operation in Idlib, the Department of Defense said that the US supports Turkey’s efforts to secure its borders against terror groups such as Al Qaeda. At the same time, the US continues to partner with the PYD in northern Syria, a long-standing point of contention in the US-Turkey relationship. Please join the SETA Foundation at Washington DC for a timely discussion on this crucial issue in the Syrian conflict and what Turkey’s operation in Idlib means for US-Turkey relations. Panelists include Luke Coffey of The Heritage Foundation, Kadir Ustun of The SETA Foundation, and Nidal Betare of People Demand Change. Kilic Kanat of the SETA Foundation will moderate.
  10. 2017 Transatlantic Economic Forum – Day 3 | Wednesday, November 15 |  10:00 am – 6:45 pm | Center for Transatlantic Relations (held at SAIS Kenney Auditorium) | Register Here | The final day of the Transatlantic Economic Forum will consist of three panels and will end with the CTR SAIS 2017 Mediterranean Basin Award Ceremony. The first panel, “Turkey and Transatlantic Relations Book launch,” will include panelists Donald Jensen of CTR – SAIS, Kilic Bugra Kanat of the SETA Foundation, Jennifer Miel of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Serdar Altay of ISPAT. Aylin Unver Noi of CTR – SAIS will moderate. The second panel, titled “Bosnia and Herzegovina: Towards It’s European Future,” will feature Lars-Gunnar Wigemark, Head of the EU Delegation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Goran Mirascic of The World Bank Group, Valentin Inzko of the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mak Kamenica of USAID, and Michael Haltzel of CTR – SAIS. Panelists participating in the final event, “Algeria and Transatlantic Relations Book Launch,” include Ismael Chikhoune of the US – Algeria Business Council, Jeremy Berndt of the Department of State, Mehdi Bendimerad of System Panneaux Sandwichs, and moderator Samy Boukaila of CTR – SAIS.
  11. Education for Displaced Syrians: Innovative Solutions to a Complex Challenge | Thursday, November 16 | 12:00 – 2:00 pm | Marvin Center, George Washington University | Register Here | Join George Washington University’s No Lost Generation chapter for an engaging discussion on innovative approaches to education for displaced Syrian communities, from after school programs in Turkey to international networks that connect Syrian students with higher education opportunities.This event has been made possible with support from Turkish Heritage Organization. Speakers include Lina Sergie Attar of the Karam Foundation, Katherine Miller of the Institute for International Education, George Batah of Syrian Youth Empowerment, and Dr. Jessica Anderson of George Washington and Georgetown Universities.
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The Saudi auto-coup

Thirty-two year-old Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has taken on a lot:

  • Domestic political and economic reforms, including partial privatization of Aramco, allowing women to drive, and shifting the economy away from oil and gas;
  • The war in Yemen against the Houthi takeover of part of the country, in cooperation with the United Arab Emirates and with sometimes reluctant support from the US;
  • A major diplomatic spat with Qatar over its alleged support of terrorists;
  • Removal of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hariri to protest Iran’s influence there;
  • Arrest of rival princes for corruption.

What could go wrong?

Each of these moves may have virtues. Certainly Saudi Arabia needs reforms to get it into the 20th century, never mind the 21st. The Houthis overreached and merit comeuppance. Qatar’s financial empathy with the Muslim Brotherhood has caused problems for Bahrain, Egypt and Syria. Iran-sponsored Hizbollah is an armed non-state actor within a state that merits opposition. Corruption is endemic in the Kingdom and needs countering.

But each also poses problems. The “Saudi Vision 2030” reforms that MbS has proposed are far-reaching, but implementation is likely to be problematic and lag. The war in Yemen is causing massive civilian suffering and political division. It will be difficult if not impossible to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. The blockade against Qatar has drive Doha in the direction of Ankara and Tehran, rather than bringing it back into the Gulf orbit. Hariri was a weak reed, but now there is none. Lebanese are united in wanting his return, which the State Department also supports. Countering corruption only among your political opponents is not a good way to clean up a system.

One other, less visible but important, initiative is the Saudi rapprochement with Israel, which shares the Kingdom’s hostility towards Iran. How far can this go? What are its implications for the geopolitics of the region?

But most of all: doing all these things at once, without ample consultation even within the royal family, is far from the Kingdom’s cautious tradition. A 32-year-old Crown Prince undertaking it amounts to an auto-coup: a takeover by someone already in power.

Some will argue that is the only way to get things done. The parallel to President Trump’s efforts to upset the apple cart in the US is obvious. It is no surprise that the White House (in the person of Jared Kushner) apparently encouraged the arrest of the royal opponents, and maybe even the resignation of Hariri, making the State Department statement against it moot. But how is Trump’s radical program working out in the US? The repudiation Trump suffered Tuesday in America’s equivalent of by elections was massive, even if concentrated in blue states (one-purple Virginia, New Jersey, and New York).

Of course there will be no voting in Saudi Arabia to test MbS’s initiatives. The consequences are likely to be less visible, at least initially, and possibly less peaceful, eventually. MbS has taken big risks for big gains. Pay day, if it happens, is still a long way off.

 

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Weak and getting weaker

President Trump said Saturday en route to Asia that

the reason our stock market is so successful is because of me. I’ve always been great with money, I’ve always been great with jobs, that’s what I do.

None of the these claims are true. Job and economic growth under Trump has been a bit slower than they were s under Obama, not faster. The previous presidency is a major factor in any first 6-10 months of any subsequent presidency, so you can blame that on Obama if you like, but there is no credit due to Trump on both grounds. The stock market is up sharply since Trump’s election, but I’ll only give him credit for that if he takes responsibility for when it falls. The factors determining stock prices are obviously unknown. Trump’s aggressive efforts to eliminate Obamacare and environmental regulations may be part of the story, but the inevitable fall may well erase current gains. Then Trump will no doubt stay silent, or blame Congress and the Democrats.

A president who thinks he determines stock prices is a president unaware of the limits on his power. But we knew that. His tweets this week suggested that the sentence handed down to a soldier who pleaded guilty to desertion was inadequate and that the perpetrator of the terrorist attack in New York City should get the death penalty. The judge in the soldier’s case made clear that it was a previous over-reaching presidential tweet that got the soldier off without prison time. No doubt the courts handling the terrorism case will eliminate consideration of the death penalty for the same reason.

Trump has likewise managed to be counterproductive in other areas as well. The failure to repeal and replace Obamacare is his biggest legislative debacle. The failure to pass his proposed tax cut for business and the rich will be the next. It is likely he will head into the second year of his presidency with no serious legislative accomplishments. His executive actions eliminating environmental and other regulations will be his main achievements, dubious as they may be. They certainly will not bring back coal, as he has repeatedly promised both as candidate and president, but they will still dirty the air Americans breath and the water in the nation’s streams and rivers, not to mention hasten the impact of global warming.

The story is similar in foreign policy, where a president in theory wields more unconstrained power, but Trump has managed to cripple himself by eviscerating the State Department and trying to do everything himself:

Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has undermined the American position in Asia, where the president will visit for the next 10 days. He is demanding that Russia and China help in stopping North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions, something he has given neither one much reason to do. His bravado talk of how strong America is in front of our troops in Japan contrasts sharply with his inability to counter North Korea in any meaningful way, including militarily. No doubt he will pronounce his meetings with Chinese President Xi and Russian President Putin great successes, but the fact remains that neither is willing to do much to restrain Pyongyang.

The President has talked a strong line against Iran but done little or nothing to limit its rise. His decertification of the Iran nuclear deal has so far had no consequences, because everyone understands that we are far better off with the deal than without it. The only serious concerns about it are its “sunset” (expiration) and access to Iranian military sites. To get fixed, both these issues will require major concessions from the US that Trump will be unwilling to make. Trump has done nothing against Iran’s surrogate, Hizbollah, in Syria. Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri’s resignation strengthens Hizbollah’s position there. Not to mention that the war against the Houthis in Yemen is not going well. Iran is far stronger regionally than it was when Trump took office.

The one country in which Trump seems to have a serious impact is Saudi Arabia. His appeal to the Saudis to stop terrorist financing led to Riyadh’s blockade of Qatar, driving it closer to Iran and splitting the Gulf Cooperation Council. That is not the Washington’s advantage. Now he seems to have greenlighted the Kingdom’s crackdown on corruption, leading to the arrest of princes uncomfortable with the meteoric rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Kingdom knows how to turn every phone call from the President into an instrument of royal advantage.

The net effect is clear: the US is weak and getting weaker. This will no doubt continue so long as the president fails to understand the limits on his power.

 

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Arabs like America, not its government

In a refreshing change to most conversations about the Middle East where narratives originating at the government level are given the most importance, the opening panel of the Arab Center Washington DC’s Second Annual Conference on Thursday, October 26, “What Arabs Want: Arab Public Opinion and US Policy” focused foremost on the societal level. Panelists Dalia Mogahed of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland-College Park and the Brookings Institution as well as moderator Tamara Kharroub of the Arab Center discussed a survey of Arab public opinion conducted by the Center over the past two months, analyzing the implications of its findings for US policy and making recommendations on how these findings could be better communicated to an American public.

Kharroub presented the survey, which tested attitudes towards the US, Arab perspectives on US president Trump and his policies, opinions on Middle East policy priorities, and thoughts on what the US president should be doing. This involved 400 respondents in eight Arab countries. Overwhelmingly, Arabs hold positive views of the United States and its people, but negative views on its foreign policy, President Trump, and Trump’s policies.

When asked about specific actions, the majority of respondents said that the US should not intervene in the region, followed closely by those who believed that the US has prioritized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and by those who think the US is focused on crises and conflicts in the region, such as those in Syria and Yemen.

Kharroub pointed out the limitations of the survey, highlighting the fact that around 40% of those approached declined to participate, which she attributed to the political environment in the region, especially since the majority of refusals took place in Egypt, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. Another limitation was the popularity of “I don’t know” as an option to the specific, policy-oriented questions at the end of the survey, making the majority findings partly due to the lack of participation.

Mogahed emphasized the importance of understanding that the Arab public has a nuanced perspective towards the US. Arabs distinguish between the American people and their government. This is important, particularly considering the rhetoric of the Trump administration. Referencing a different but poll, the American public, Mogahed underlined, is more likely to support discriminatory government policies when they believe that those affected by the policies have a negative, hateful view towards Americans. When made to believe that Muslims have a favorable view towards Americans, they are less likely to support such policies. Similarly, if Americans believe that the conflict that they are engaged in with others is due to cultural differences, they are more likely to support violence, but if they believe that it is due to politics, then they are more likely to call for peace.

Telhami focused his analysis on what he called the “Trump factor,” looking into opinions on President Trump and the reasons behind them. The survey revealed negative attitudes towards almost every one of the Trump administration’s policies, except for the improvement of relations with Arab allies. Telhami argued that the reason for this is the frequent visits made by government officials to the region (particularly to GCC countries) and the positive language that Arab regimes have been using to talk about the Trump administration. Trump’s hostility towards Iran is also welcomed by certain groups.

A policy issue that was negatively assessed was the Trump administration’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is unsurprising considering Trump’s asserted support for Israel and the commotion caused by his proposition of moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, but Telhami also noted that the Palestinian issue was not prioritized as it has been in previous years. This is primarily due to age differences, as older age groups tended to prioritize the issue more, while younger groups still deemed it important but not as urgent. Telhami suggested this may be due to the perceived urgency of more recent events, like the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Libya.

The most pertinent finding was the distinction Arab opinion makes between the American public and the American government. Mogahed urged that information be presented in more accessible formats, such as short videos that can be posted and circulated on social media. She stressed the importance of being “louder in our criticism of media bias,” especially its portrayal of marginalized groups, and asserted that the public has a responsibility to demand better.

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To the victor…

Moscow has decided to convene a November 18 all-Syria (presumably opposition and government) dialogue in Sochi. Having shaped the military situation on the ground with its air intervention starting more than two years ago, the Russians are figuring they have the clout to shape the political landscape as well. While nominally still committed to the Geneva process and UN Security Council resolution 2254, Moscow wants to short-circuit that laborious effort and try for a quick solution. The Security Council can endorse it after they fact, they figure.

The Syrian government says it will dialogue. It no longer fears the t-word: transition. The Americans will likely not oppose the effort, as they have little interest in Syria once the Islamic State and Al Qaeda are routed. The Iranians and Turks may not be pleased to see the Russians take the lead, but they won’t object either. Turkey is getting what it wants most: a license to keep the Syrian Kurds from lining their entire southern border. Ditto Iran, which wants to keep Bashar al Assad in place as president, as he will allow Hizbollah free rein in much of Syria, including transferring arms from the Iraqi border by land to Lebanon.

The opposition doesn’t like the idea. But it is fragmented and parts will go along to get along, hoping that something decent will emerge from the process, or just hoping to snag some benefits for themselves. The harder-line Islamists and some devoted liberals will likely continue the insurgency against Assad, but they are unlikely to get far any time soon. Both Tehran and Moscow will try to ensure that no significant threat to the regime emerges.

If the more moderate opposition can get itself organized at least in some communities and convince the Russians that local elections should be held even before a new constitution is approved, then some genuine, organic voices of political dissent might emerge. Otherwise, the most organized political force in the country–the Ba’ath party–is likely to win the day, even if national elections are not fixed. Assad won’t get his usual >90%, but he will win and claim democratic legitimacy, no matter how few people vote.

The Russians are figuring they are entitled to determine the political outcome, but they are also trying to avoid responsibility for the reconstruction of Syria. That’s where American indifference needs to give way to determination. Beyond its modest contributions in Raqqa–demining and rubble clearance are all the Americans want to do there–Washington should refuse to foot the bill, or allow the IMF and World Bank to do so, for what is mostly Russian, regime, and Iranian damage to the country’s housing, commerce and infrastructure.

Beyond the political realm, there are no real spoils to speak of in Syria, only a big bill for destruction. As Colin Powell said, you broke it, you bought it. To the victor…

 

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