Predicting the Outcome of the Arab Spring

March 30, 2012 § 3 Comments

I am once again going to step away from Israel and Turkey because I cannot let Walter Laqueur’s piece in World Affairs on misplaced optimism about the Arab Spring go uncommented upon. Laqueur’s argument is that most observers assumed that democracy was going to sweep the Middle East, which is now apparently not going to happen, and so we must ask why the chances against that happening were ignored. He cites the writing of Roger Cohen and Nick Kristof as leading the optimistic charge, and says that Westerners mistook Arab dissatisfaction with the status quo as a desire for democracy and universal human rights, and that “it should have been clear that the odds against the emergence of a democratic order in the foreseeable future in the Arab world were impossibly heavy.”

Agreed, I am 100% on board with this last observation. The problem is, by focusing on the reporting of a couple of New York Times columnists, Laqueur makes the same mistake that they committed in that he misses the big picture, which is that plenty of people made it very clear that the odds of democracy emerging were depressingly slim. Just because high profile journalists ignored the vast array of expert opinion that was out there at the time does not mean that we can somehow alter reality and act as if Kristof and Cohen represent the consensus opinion of the world. If you are looking for contemporary warnings from the leading ranks of Middle East analysts that democracy in Egypt was not imminent, you can try this or this or this. Just because Kristof and Cohen chose to ignore the vast weight of history and the crushing burden of institutional legacies in favor of the heady optimism of Tahrir Square protestors does not mean that there needs to be soul searching on the part of anyone save columnists who parachute into the midst of a revolution and deign to explain what is going on to the world without taking a step back to consider the various structural constraints that are constantly shaping the political sphere. Democracy does not happen overnight; it emerges following a long and difficult path in which literally thousands of little things have to go right, and even then it is a long shot unless the underlying conditions for democracy to flourish are present. I do not mean to take anything away from the thousands of Egyptians who demonstrated in Tahrir and elsewhere, standing up to Mubarak’s goons and then to the army in order to nurture a dream of a better political and social order. Their presence was and is remarkable, but it is not enough to make democracy appear out of thin air, not when there are so many countervailing forces pushing back.

Folks who study and write about the Middle East professionally are not surprised at what is taking place today. I am certainly no expert, just a small voice on the periphery, but even I saw what was coming. One of the main premises of my dissertation (which is merrily underway and nearing completion), which I came up with for the first time in the fall of 2007, is that Tunisia has long been the only Arab state in which conditions are favorable in almost every respect for democracy and that there is a particular ideological legacy that has been holding it back. On the day that Ben Ali fell, I argued in Foreign Policy that Tunisia is unique and that it was unlikely that any other Arab dictators would be joining Ben Ali soon. That prediction was obviously (and happily) wrong, but only because my language was far too imprecise. What I should have written, and what I have argued long and loudly ever since, is that other Arab regimes were unlikely to be replaced, and indeed anyone who has followed events in Egypt knows that Mubarak may be gone but the authoritarian regime has remained right where it always was. In February 2011, I wrote the following in a short essay that I could not convince anyone to publish:  “In Egypt, the military’s interests are too bound up with those of the regime to let it be overtaken, and as seen by events in Tahrir Square, where the army allowed violence to flare up but has now acted to simply keep both sides apart, the army is neither on the side of the demonstrators nor a force for democracy. In Syria, civil society is far weaker than in Egypt, making mass demonstrations difficult to sustain, and the army has a history of firing on civilians, unlike the Egyptian military. In short, Arab regimes and militaries are remarkably resilient and protective of their interests, and the chances of an outbreak of successful revolutions or democratic transitions are slim at best.” In hindsight, some parts of this are more correct than others – demonstrations have been going on in Syria for over a year, and Egypt and Libya carried out revolutions with varying degrees of success – but underlying analysis was right on point, which was not to expect democracy outside of Tunisia any time soon. I am not reprinting my thoughts from the first months of 2011 to make myself seem particularly prescient, but to highlight the fact that anything but the most shallow analysis easily led to a more pessimistic conclusion than the optimism Laqueur describes as widespread. Laqueur wants observers to reassess how their wishful thinking impacts their analysis, but the truth is that it is not Middle East analysts who got history wrong, only the wishful thinkers who moonlight as analysts.

Benny Begin vs. Bibi Netanyahu

March 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

Benny Begin, one of the members of the cabinet Octet that is presumed to be behind any major Israeli security decisions, said in a speech yesterday that support for a Palestinian state is not a policy binding on the Netanyahu government but is something that is advocated solely for international audiences (Hebrew only). Begin added that the decision to support two states side by side has not been formally discussed within the government, and furthermore that someone like him could only serve in the government because such an understanding does not exist. He also expressed the opinion that a Palestinian state is not viable in the current environment because Israel’s security needs would require it to be completely demilitarized, and that is something that a sovereign Arab state will not be willing to accept.

This double talk, where a politician says one thing to international audiences and something very different to a domestic audience in his own language when he thinks nobody is paying attention, is something that Israelis and American Jews condemn all the time when it is done by Palestinians, and rightly so. In this case, it was said by a cabinet minister rather than the prime minister himself, and Begin’s strange aside about how he respects the prime minister as first among equals but that no formal decision on a Palestinian state was made by the government indicates that Begin’s position on this is at odds with Netanyahu’s. That at least provides some measure of solace. But just as we American Jews blast Palestinian politicians like Abbas Zaki for saying that the ultimate goal is to destroy Israel itself but that such things shouldn’t be announced to the world, we need to call out Begin for doing the exact same thing. Netanyahu says that he supports a Palestinian state and that he is ready to negotiate whenever the Palestinians are willing to come to the table. He therefore needs to denounce Begin as going against official Israeli policy, or Begin needs to explain why what the world believes is Israel’s official position is not in fact Israel’s official position. This kind of nonsense is incredibly damaging to Israel by destroying any international credibility that it has, and it is patently dishonest to make a huge stink over Mahmoud Abbas’s refusal to negotiate if in fact the Israeli government has tacitly decided that it is not prepared under any circumstances to accept a Palestinian state. So c’mon Bibi, do the right thing here and make it crystal clear that Begin is wrong and speaks for nobody but himself. If you don’t, then your silence will send a very different message.

A Rare Miss From Walter Russell Mead

March 29, 2012 § 1 Comment

WRM is one of my favorite analysts because he is uncommonly thoughtful and erudite and often brings up points that I would not have thought to consider on my own. His latest missive on the Kadima election, however, is an anomaly for him as it seems like he dashed it off without really considering what actually went on over the past few weeks in Israeli politics. He contends that Kadima dumped Livni in favor of Mofaz because Kadima voters want to compete with Netanyahu on Iran and other defense issues, and that by “wrap[ping] itself in the khaki” the party is moving to the hawkish right. This sounds plausible as a surface explanation if you just look at Mofaz being a former defense minister and IDF chief, but it ignores the scope of the entire primary campaign, during which Mofaz explicitly campaigned on social issues rather than defense issues. It also breezes past the fact that Mofaz is on record as advocating negotiations with Hamas and that he blasted Netanyahu today for advocating a strike on Iran that Mofaz deems premature at this point and described as disastrous and ineffective. Most devastatingly, Mofaz blew out Livni on the strength of the 25% of Kadima’s voters who are Arab Israelis and who voted for Mofaz at a 71% clip. I agree with Mead that Mofaz is likely to eventually join the Likud coalition, but this election was certainly not an effort on the part of the Kadima rank and file to become more hawkish, nor was it a referendum on defense and security issues. In fact, it was precisely the opposite. Like I said, WRM’s analysis is all the more surprising considering how high he has set the bar for himself with his work, so I am confident that he simply wasn’t paying terribly close attention to the Kadima primary.

FT on Erdoğan

March 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

This is a sloppy sort of reporting/editorializing about trends taking place in Turkey during Erdoğan’s third term so far. It captures the general essence of the fact that there are some disturbing actions the government is taking, particularly in the use of the court system to go after potential political foes and critics, but there are some things in here that made me roll my eyes on both sides of the spectrum. First the line, “Along with a gathering air of authoritarianism, many detect the first whiff of hubris.” Really, FT? The “first whiff of hubris” from Uncle Tayyip is just now being detected? Erdoğan has been wildly successful on many fronts, and when all is said and done it’s tough to argue that he has up until now been anything but a net positive for Turkey, but I think the first whiff of hubris has been in the rearview mirror for a decade.

The real problem in this piece though is the impression given that Turkey was a problem-free democracy before the AKP came to power. The authors use the term “managed democracy” to describe decades of Kemalist-military rule, but this is rather generous. Turkey had some characteristics of a democracy and some characteristics of an autocracy, but the main difference between then and now is that the government’s priorities are different. The old establishment was most concerned with maintaing enforced secularism, whereas the new establishment has other things in mind. Turkey was certainly not a perfect constitutional democracy before 2002 – in fact, many of the thornier issues that Turkey is dealing with today are a direct result of the 1982 constitution. The article notes that Erdoğan’s moves to assert control over the military have “removed a check on executive power, however undemocratic,” but that last clause should not be glossed over as an afterthought. There is a tendency among Western observers to equate secularism with democracy, but the presence of the first does not guarantee the presence of the second. It’s difficult to take an argument seriously that asserts Erdoğan is destroying a heretofore democratic Turkey and that there has been a slide toward authoritarianism when you have a sense of where Turkey was before. I agree that Erdoğan and the AKP are in the midst of taking a series of worrying moves, and that Turkey in many ways is indeed becoming less democratic, but let’s not be blind to the fact that in other ways, the AKP has improved the quality of Turkish democracy. Turkey may yet end up more authoritarian than it was five years ago, but that will only return it to the status quo ante that existed before the AKP was even formed.

The Başbuğ Trial and Government Overreach

March 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

Former Turkish Chief of Staff Ilker Başbuğ’s trial is underway, and he made headlines on Tuesday by walking out of the courtroom after denouncing the entire proceedings as a sham and as a black stain on Turkey’s reputation. It probably did not help matters that the court is actively trying to appeal to the darker side of public sentiment by asking its very first question about a picture of Başbuğ in Israel at the Western Wall, as if this is somehow ipso facto proof of his guilt. Başbuğ is determined not to go down quietly, and his lack of reticence may highlight the fact that the government went too far in charging him and mark the beginning of a shift in the power imbalance that has developed between the civilian government and the army. This piece in Hurriyet is a good rundown of the various absurdities contained in the Başbuğ indictment, from conflicting claims as to the general’s place within Ergenekon to lack of evidence to support the charge of violence to whether the allegations even support the ultimate indictment.

Up until this point, however, such inconveniences have not prevented Turkey’s generals from being convicted and imprisoned. Aside from Başbuğ, prosecutors yesterday asked from 15-20 years for 365 officers who are Sledgehammer suspects, and half of all of Turkey’s admirals and 10% of its active duty generals are already in prison on charges of conspiring to overthrow the AKP government. The government has eviscerated the power and authority of the military and jailed generals almost at will, and there is no question that Erdoğan and other top officials clearly have the upper hand over the military. This is not generally a bad thing, as complete vertical accountability – in which there is no unelected official or group at the top that has the final say in state affairs – is a requirement of true democracy, but the pendulum has shifted so far in the government’s direction that few take the slew of allegations against members from every branch of the Turkish armed forces as legitimate. Indeed, it is almost certain that the Sledgehammer documents were forged but up until this point the government has not faced any real consequences or pubic outcry for its actions against military officers that are clearly trumped up.

With Başbuğ, however, the government went after its biggest target to date and it may have committed a bad misstep. If Başbuğ continues to push back hard against the legitimacy of the charges against him and even the authority of the special court set up to try him (rather than the Supreme State Council), it might be a turning point in the government’s efforts to root out military plots, imagined or otherwise.

Being Shaul Mofaz

March 29, 2012 § 2 Comments

After Kadima won the most Knesset seats in the 2009 elections and was unable to form a coalition, Tzipi Livni had a choice: she could either bring Kadima into the Netanyahu coalition or she could position Kadima as the primary opposition to Likud. She chose the latter, partly because she understandably could not stomach the thought of serving in a coalition in which her party had the most seats but someone else would get to be prime minister, and now it appears that her exit from politics is imminent. New Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz is about to face what appears to be a similar choice, and he also appears to be taking the Livni route, but I don’t think his strategy is going to last very long.

Mofaz is trying to position Kadima as the champion of social and economic equality, announcing that he will lead protests this summer against Haredi military exemptions and economic subsidies. It is an interesting tactic, since Kadima has not as of yet been viewed as leading the vanguard of the social protest movement, and his targeting of Haredim suggests that he believes there is a hole where Tommy Lapid’s Shinui party used to exist. Announcing his desire to lead a protest movement puts him squarely and clearly in the opposition, and going after Haredi sacred cows will earn him the wrath of Bibi’s coalition partners Shas and UTJ. This move makes sense in context; after all, Mofaz is now the head of Israel’s opposition and controls the mosts single party seats in the Knesset, and there is no reason why he should not make an attempt to succeed where Livni failed and become the next prime minister.

Ultimately though, it’s not going to happen. Polling after the Mofaz victory indicates that Kadima will only win 12 seats in the next Knesset, which will make Mofaz and his party irrelevant. No matter what happens between now and the next elections, Kadima is not going to make up enough ground to win outright or remain as the largest opposition party. Mofaz is not viewed as someone genuinely concerned with social issues given his history, and does not have the trust of Israeli voters or protest leaders who are predominantly concerned with inequality. Additionally, Yair Lapid’s new party will capture any secular anti-Haredi voters that Mofaz is trying to win over with the upcoming summer protests, so his new strategy is a losing one. Already, Interior Minister and Shas head Eli Yishai is calling for Mofaz to bring Kadima into the cabinet and as soon as Mofaz awakens to the fact that socially-minded Israelis will be voting for Lapid or for their traditional champions in Labor and Meretz, he will end up joining the coalition. Mofaz is gutsy by attempting to carve out a new space for himself and for Kadima, but he also has no desire to be consigned to irrelevance as Livni now is, and so my prediction is that he will give up sooner rather than later and join the Netanyahu government before his window to do so closes for good.

Time to Learn How To Spell Azerbaijan in Hebrew

March 28, 2012 § 2 Comments

Mark Perry has a long piece on the FP website contending that Israel is gearing up to use Azerbaijan as a possible staging ground for an attack on Iran, and that at the very least Azerbaijan will provide a safe landing point for Israeli bombers following a strike in addition to serving as a base for search and rescue operations. It is tough for me to know quite what to make of Perry’s reporting. At first glance, this seems like a strange move for the Azeris to make. They stand to create a diplomatic firestorm with Iran and Turkey, both of whom are Azerbaijan’s neighbors and both of whom are significantly larger and militarily more powerful than Azerbaijan. To openly assist Israel in attacking Iran would place Azerbaijan in the path of certain Iranian retaliation, and unlike U.S. backing of Israel, no such protection and military help is guaranteed to come Azerbaijan’s way. From an international relations perspective, given its proximity to Iran, the power imbalance between the two countries, and the absence of great power backing, it seems to make more sense for Azerbaijan to bandwagon with Iran than to help Israel balance against it.

On the other hand, in many ways Azeri assistance to Israel in an effort to poke Iran in the eye has been a long time coming. Iran and Azerbaijan have an extremely tense relationship dating back to the fact that Azerbaijan was once part of Iran and there are 20 million ethnic Azeris living in Iran over whom the Azeri government oftentimes claims sovereignty. The relationship between the Iranian government and its Azeri citizens mirrors that of Turkey and its Kurdish citizens, with the Iranian government discriminating against Azeri language and culture in an effort to make Azeris more Iranian. In addition, Azerbaijan recently arrested 22 people on charges of spying for Iran, and after Israel canceled its $140 million deal to provide Turkey with drones it turned around and announced a $1.5 billion arms deal with Azerbaijan that included drones and missile defense. Azerbaijan provides 30% of Israel’s oil and transports it there via an Azeri pipeline, which is another move that must antagonize the Iranian government. There are also lingering disputes over Iranian trade deals with Armenia and a host of other issues that make the Iran-Azerbaijan relationship one fraught with danger.

The sum total of all this is that it makes perfect sense to me that Israel is trying very hard to secure Azeri assistance for all sorts of contingencies as it makes military plans to deal with Iran. It does not necessarily follow, however, that Azerbaijan will take what would be a massive escalatory step forward in actively helping Israel attack Iran. I buy Perry’s argument on allowing Israel to launch search and rescue missions from Azeri territory more than I buy the notion of Israeli bombers using Azeri airfields as a secret staging ground for bombing runs. The first would come dangerously close to the line of open hostility toward Iran while the second would blow right past it, and I’m not sure that Azerbaijan is in a secure enough position to risk the latter scenario.

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