December 6, 2012 § 3 Comments
As supporters and opponents of Mohamed Morsi square off with rocks and Molotov cocktails while Morsi hunkers down in the presidential palace and ponders whether or not to rescind his decree granting him powers beyond the scope of the courts, it is difficult for me to fathom that all of a sudden the military is nowhere to be seen. The same military that formed the SCAF and ran the country for over a year is now content to remain in the barracks while Egypt once again burns in an eerie repeat of the clashes that marked the end of Hosni Mubarak’s tenure as president. It seems that after cutting a deal with Morsi that allowed him to actually assume power in return for letting the military do its own thing away from the oversight of civilian government – and it is pretty obvious to me based on the new draft constitution that this is exactly what happened – the army is no longer interested in interfering and is going to let things play out.
In one sense, this is not at all surprising. My friend Steven Cook hit the nail on the head in his book Ruling But Not Governing in which he posited that the Egyptian military is content to maintain its prerogatives and special ruling status but does not want to have to be involved in actually governing on a day to day basis, and after a brief and relatively unsuccessful foray into governing, the Egyptian military probably does not want any more part of it. It has been assured that it will be left alone, and so it probably welcomes a return to its historical role of remaining behind the scenes while Egypt’s different factions feud amongst themselves. The flip side of this is that it is an odd spectacle watching Egypt’s officers do nothing as the Muslim Brotherhood, of whom it has historically been wary, beats protestors in the streets and does everything it can to consolidate its power.
The question is how long the army can actually stay on the sidelines given that Egypt looks to be getting closer and closer to a heightened state of internal conflict. In the Washington Post, Robert Springborg contends that the military may have to intervene sooner or later and that both the Muslim Brotherhood and its opponents may be looking to the army to decide Egypt’s future. While the fighting in the streets and the crisis between Morsi and Egypt’s judiciary is getting worse and does not have an obvious endgame as both sides dig in, turning to the military to resolve things would be the most damaging move that Egypt could inflict upon itself if it ever hopes to maintain long-term civilian rule. As much as an outside referee may be needed, it absolutely cannot be the Egyptian military.
Political patterns have a logic of their own and can rapidly become institutionalized once they are repeated. Look no further than the tradition of a strong Egyptian president and how the Muslim Brotherhood, a la John Kerry, was famously against it before it was for it. Or more saliently for the purposes of this discussion, take the experience of Turkey, which had its first military coup in 1960 intended to temporarily right the ship, and then went through both hard and soft military coups in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Once the army had stepped in once, it became much easier for it to happen a second time and then a third, and the rationale for doing so also became more justifiable. After all, since the army had restored civilian politics after the initial coup, a military course correction every ten years or so might not look so bad. Once military intervention in the political system was routinized, not only did it guarantee repetition, it turned into a pattern that was self-perpetuating and very difficult to break. It took jailing hundreds of officers and eviscerating the Turkish military in an undemocratic way to finally put an end to military interventions.
The Egyptian army has already stepped in once to try and steer the ship of the state on a temporary basis. The logic in doing so at the time was in many ways justifiable, and while the results were less than ideal, it was a popular move with many Egyptians who saw no good alternative. This time, however, if the army gets in the middle of the various parties and tries to intervene and sort things out, the long term results will be even more disastrous. Creating a pattern in which the military is expected to act as a referee and step in any time things get hairy will doom any hope for civilian rule or the semblance of democratic politics in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood is in my view acting in an extreme and inexcusable authoritarian manner, and while it may view its recent activities as being in the service of democracy I see that as a serious stretch. The liberal opposition, while at the moment protesting the MB’s anti-democratic moves, also does not have its own history of supporting democracy, and in fact is quite content to support anti-democratic measures that further its own objectives. So you have two sides, neither of whom has any demonstrable democratic credentials of which to speak, fighting over Egypt’s political future and what happens next. It does not give one any real hope that Egypt is going to come out of this post-revolutionary period having transitioned to democracy, and I have been extremely skeptical about the chances of that outcome from the start. One thing I can say for certain though is that another military intervention is not going to do the trick. If the Muslim Brotherhood and its opponents cannot figure out a mechanism for sorting this out and the army has to do it for them and arbitrate or even just choose sides, Egypt’s nascent civilian politics will be wiped out for the foreseeable future. So as bad as the scenes are coming in from Cairo, Alexandria, and other places, the fact that the military is nowhere to be seen might actually be a blessing in disguise.
December 4, 2012 § 9 Comments
Last night Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted an apt point that all supporters of Israel should think about very hard. He wrote, “Two things can be true at the same time: Israel is judged more harshly than any other nation–and, Netanyahu is behaving terribly.” Israel is subjected to double standards to which no other country is held, and if you think that isn’t true, consider the nearly single-minded focus on Israel that is the hallmark of the United Nations General Assembly and Human Rights Council, or the harsh spotlight trained upon Israel over civilian casualties relative to other countries. Israel behaves badly on plenty of occasions, but so do other countries with far less complex challenges, and yet a visitor from another planet encountering Earth for the first time would lump Israel together with North Korea based on the media coverage (and if you think that is a fair comparison, please just stop reading now since you’ll be wasting your time). Israel always starts off in any situation at a complete disadvantage, and this is something that no other country deals with on a similar scale. Yet, this does not mean that Israel is a completely blameless actor in every instance, and none of the above obviates the fact that not all criticism of the Netanyahu government is a result of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, dislike of Netanyahu personally, or driven by a hidden agenda. To take the case in point, Netanyahu’s actions since last Thursday are not only childish and puerile, they are weakening Israel to an immeasurable degree.
Let’s zoom out for a minute and look at the long term picture. Israel is now perhaps more isolated than it has ever been on a number of levels, and certainly the most isolated it has been since 1975 during the Arab oil boycotts and the falling out with the Ford administration. Looking at Israel’s traditional regional allies, Israel’s relationship with Turkey is at an all-time low, its ties with Egypt are the most strained they have been in the post-Camp David era, and Jordan is too preoccupied with its own internal problems and the wave of refugees coming over the border from Syria to give Israel much cover on anything. While Israel does not have to worry about military threats from Arab states, it is looking at a long-term stream of diplomatic pressure from Islamist governments and less cooperation from Arab states on repressing non-state actors who threaten Israel.
In Europe, Israel faces an uphill battle as well. There is generally a lot of sympathy in European capitals for the Palestinians, but Europe’s indignation over settlements is real as well. This was driven home by the lopsided UN vote on Palestinian statehood, in which the Czech Republic was the only European country to vote with Israel. New allies Cyprus and Greece, to whom Israel has pinned such high hopes, both voted to grant Palestine non-member state observer status, and stalwart Israeli ally Germany abstained due to its anger over repeatedly being dismissed by Israel over the issue of settlement expansion. This all comes on the heels of the surprising European support for Operation Pillar of Cloud, which indicates that while Israel faces a tough audience in Europe, it has some wiggle room.
Then there is the United States, which has given Israel military aid for Iron Dome, constantly goes to bat for it in the UN including last week, was unwavering in its rhetorical support during military operations in Gaza, and also has been pleading with Israel to halt settlement expansion. The U.S. is unlikely to put heat on Israel like Europe does, but it has repeatedly expressed its displeasure with settlements and is very clear that it sees settlement growth as an obstacle to peace.
Given all of this, what is Israel’s most sensible course of action? Is it to loudly announce that it is going to “punish” the Palestinians for going to the UN by building thousands of more homes in the West Bank? Or is it to look at the big picture, realize that settlements are not just an excuse trotted out by anti-Semitic Europeans and Israel-hating leftists but are actually causing Israel all sorts of problems, and come up with some other way to deal with what it views as Palestinian intransigence? Israel went in the span of weeks from being viewed sympathetically due to Palestinian rockets indiscriminately targeting Israeli civilians to being denounced and having its ambassadors hauled in on the carpet over settlement expansion and being threatened with all sorts of countermeasures by the West. Please, someone make a cogent argument for me how this is somehow a brilliant strategy and how Netanyahu is ensuring Israel’s future existence, because from where I am sitting it is counterproductive, dangerous, and unwaveringly stupid. It’s all fine and good to constantly claim that Western views don’t matter and that Israel has the right to do what it wants, but that is the equivalent to burying your head in the sand. The fact is that Israel cannot exist on its own, it needs allies given the neighborhood in which it lives, and settlements are actually a problem for Israel’s allies. That’s the truth, and pretending otherwise is fiddling while Rome burns.
It has become clear to me over the past few years that contrary to the popular myth that the problems between Israel and the Palestinians stem from 1967, the parties are still fighting over 1948. Significant segments of Palestinians, with Hamas leading the way, simply will not concede the legitimacy of Israel, plain and simple. Concurrently, the constant refrains from the right about Palestinians not needing a state of their own because they have Jordan or the tired old canard that there is no land to give back to the Palestinians because it belonged to Jordan and to Egypt (always smugly spouted as if this is some brilliantly clever argument) is a vestige of 1948. Everyone loves to point out that Hamas doesn’t care about settlements, and that the PLO was founded in 1964, and both of these things are true and speak to the challenges that Israel faces that have absolutely nothing to do with settlements. But – and this a big one – settlements exacerbate the situation enormously, particularly with Western countries. Even ceding the argument that Palestinians of all stripes are never going to accept Israel in the pre-1967 borders and that Arab states will never want to make peace with Israel, Israel should then be doing everything it can to make sure it has the West on its side. You want to know what the best way to foul that up is? Proudly declaring that you don’t care what anyone else thinks and that you are going to build settlements wherever and whenever you like, and that doing so is not in any way an obstacle to a two-state solution and that in fact the blame rests solely with the other side. I am sick and tired of watching Israel’s supporters, of whom I am most definitely one, ignore the glaringly obvious facts that are right in front of their faces. Settlements are a huge problem, case closed. If you think that the benefit to expanding Israel’s presence in the West Bank outweighs everything else, then I respect your argument and at least you are going into this with eyes wide open. Pretending that settlements are an ancillary side issue though is willful blindness, and if that’s what you really think, then your powers of observation and analysis are sorely lacking.
November 30, 2012 § Leave a Comment
The current constitutional crisis in Egypt pitting President Morsi against the secularists and the courts has been dominating the news, and it got me thinking about how in some ways Egypt’s transition was set back irrespective of who won the presidential election just by dint of the fact that Egypt kept its presidential system in the first place. I wrote about it for the Atlantic, and here is a teaser:
As the battle lines, both literal and figurative, take shape between the Muslim Brotherhood on one side and secularists and liberals on the other, some are pointing out the naïveté of those who assumed that the Muslim Brotherhood would ever act democratically, while others are trying to locate Morsi’s actions in the context of overreaching in an effort to save Egyptian democracy. While Morsi’s motives will continue to be debated, his actions illuminate a larger question about what happens when you mix a presidential system with a fragile transitional state.
Presidential systems have their pros and cons, and both of these are enhanced when dealing with a state that has weak political institutions and a history of conflict. On the one hand, because a president is directly elected, he can be viewed as a unifying figure who stands above politics and is concerned with the good of the nation as a whole. If the president is seen as a credible and non-partisan figure who is directly accountable to voters in a way that parliaments are not, then a president can help paper over divisions that exist in society and within the political class. One of the reasons that George Washington was viewed with such awe by his contemporaries is precisely because he was seen as a figure above politics, and as such he was uniquely able to heal divisions that had been exposed by the American revolution and set the United States on the path to democracy.
Yet a presidential system also carries with it significant dangers for transitional states. A president is bound to come from one of the groups vying for power, and he can be expected to privilege that group above the rest. When this happens, it fractures a country and worsens any divisions that already exist, as the conflict now involves the institutions of the state as well, and it generally destroys any real chance for democracy to take root. In a polarized society, a presidential system might also create a problem of dual democratic legitimacy, where some people turn to the president for leadership and others turn to the parliament or the courts, fostering ever greater splits in a country already segmented into distinct groups.
To read the whole thing and find out why I think this applies particularly well to Egypt and Morsi, please click over to the full piece at The Atlantic.
November 28, 2012 § 7 Comments
Friend of O&Z and frequent guest poster Dov Friedman – who tweets from @DovSFriedman – is back today with thoughts on Egypt and President Morsi, and whether focusing on the Islamist character of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood risks missing the forest of authoritarianism for the trees of Islamism. Bonus points for relating the debate over Morsi to the debate over Turkey and the AKP and making sure to cover the Ottomans portion of this blog, which has been lacking as of late due to Gaza and the upcoming Israeli elections. Without further ado, here’s Dov:
In The New Republic on Monday, Eric Trager criticized those who bought into the idea of Mohamed Morsi as a moderate during the Egyptian uprising. The timing of the piece makes sense, as Morsi expanded his already considerable power last Thursday in a constitutional declaration. Trager was among the analysts consistently skeptical of the supposed moderation and democratic potential of the Muslim Brotherhood. Yesterday’s piece served to remind observers that not every analyst bought into last year’s dominant narrative. As evidence, Trager provides excellent detail about the Muslim Brotherhood’s “cultish” structure and immoderation:
That’s because the very process through which one becomes a Muslim Brother is designed to weed out moderates. It begins when specially designated Brotherhood recruiters, who work at mosques and universities across Egypt, identify pious young men and begin engaging them in social activities to assess their suitability for the organization. The Brotherhood’s ideological brainwashing begins a few months later, as new recruits are incorporated into Brotherhood cells (known as “families”) and introduced to the organization’s curriculum, which emphasizes Qur’anic memorization and the writings of founder Hassan al-Banna, among others. Then, over a five-to-eight-year period, a team of three senior Muslim Brothers monitors each recruit as he advances through five different ranks of Brotherhood membership—muhib, muayyad, muntasib, muntazim, and finally ach amal, or “active brother.”
I encourage you to read the whole thing.
The problem with Trager’s analysis is that the facts marshaled fail to support the hypothesis—it uses evidence of ideologically conformist Islamism to support a claim about Morsi’s authoritarianism. Of course this may be correct, but it is not inherently so.
This same conflation occurs in the conversation about Turkey, the AK Party, and Prime Minister Erdoğan. At its most benign, the error manifests itself as The Economist’s insistence on calling the AK Party “mildly Islamist.” The same misdirected criticism turns quite noxious at times. Look no further than Daniel Pipes or Andrew McCarthy in National Review.
As Istanbul-based independent journalist Claire Berlinski has argued, it would be more appropriate—and more helpful—if The Economist called the AK Party “mildly authoritarian.” Put differently, AK Party acts increasingly authoritarian in ways unrelated to its Islamist roots. Critics’ focus on Islamist identity diverts their attention from the main problem: alarmingly anti-democratic developments under Erdoğan’s rule. So they may snarl at last year’s education reforms or the current project to build a mosque in Taksim Square, but they miss Erdoğan’s systematic crackdowns on free speech, press, and association.
I cite Turkey as an example because the decade of AK Party rule has contained policy approaches that confounded critics. In the early 2000s, Kemalist and secularist critics invoked fears that AK Party would impose a radical ideology on the country. Erdoğan and President Gül stymied criticism by pursuing, among other policies, EU accession—the centerpiece of Kemalist and liberal dreams for Turkey. When the AK Party did pursue some conservative domestic policies, the earlier conflation of Islamist identity and anti-liberalism robbed opponents of clarity in their criticisms.
Similarly, the early moments of AK Party’s authoritarian creep coincided with a period in which Turkey’s foreign policy was becoming deeply internationalist and aligned with the West. In 2007 and 2008, Turkey spearheaded mediation efforts between Israel and Syria, and between Serbia and Bosnia. In 2009, Istanbul hosted the Alliance of Civilization. In 2010, a former Turkish MP served as president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. At the same time, in 2010, the government levied punitive fines on Doğan Holding, an AK Party critic. By 2011, Turkey already imprisoned journalists in alarming numbers. Erdoğan and other government officials have filed suit and won judgments against individuals who “insult” them. The Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials mutated in recent years from legitimate investigations to score-settling efforts to crush opposition voices. Here again, arguments about Erdoğan’s nefarious Islamism were easily brushed aside, and—worse—masked some crude anti-democratic domestic developments.
Yesterday in The Atlantic, Trager expanded upon the previous day’s post and broadened the argument. He argued that Morsi’s domestic power grab suggested that after the Brotherhood’s domestic power is consolidated, Morsi would construct a conservative Islamist foreign policy. As evidence, he pointed to a series of distressing statements by top Muslim Brotherhood officials.
Prime Minister Erdoğan has also made distressing statements of late, as Michael has discussed in previous posts. He’s called Israel a terrorist state and claimed that rocket fire is a legitimate means of resistance. Turkey observers recognize that while these statements are odious—and likely detrimental to Turkey’s foreign policy standing—they may also serve a more complex purpose than simply representing the Prime Minister’s foreign policy beliefs.
I note these pairs of similarities to make a relatively simple point. The number of world leaders with Islamist backgrounds has increased in the post-Arab Uprisings world. Funneling analysis of their domestic and foreign policy actions through the lens of their radical Islamist ideology may, at times, inhibit the ability to understand not only why these leaders act in particular ways but also how these leaders may act in the future. A strict focus on their Islamist identities may also overlook actions that are deeply problematic but do not naturally fit into a discourse of Islamist creep. This has certainly been the case with Turkey.
Trager is very knowledgeable about Egypt, and thus I defer to him and other analysts to continue informing those of us for whom Egypt is an interest but not a specialty. However, nuance in interpreting not only what has happened but also why it has happened remains crucial.
November 15, 2012 § 1 Comment
After I analyzed the Israeli decision making calculus on Gaza on Monday, Zack Gold, who is an astute Middle East analyst and tweets from @ZLGold, rightly took me to task for neglecting to examine the Egypt angle. I asked Zack if he’d be willing to write a guest post filling in the large gap that I had left, and between now and then Israel has launched Operation Pillar of Cloud in Gaza and Egypt has responded, making Zack’s post all the more timely. In addition, I argued in the Atlantic that Egypt is likely to be more active in pressuring Israel over the Palestinians, but Zack has a different view contrary to mine and comes at it from an interesting angle, and I like to air as wide a debate as possible here at O&Z. So without further ado, here is Zack on the Egyptian reaction to Israel’s operations in Gaza.
The recent flare-up in tit-for-tat violence between Israel and Gaza, and especially the launch of Operation Pillar of Defense yesterday, has had me watching for reaction across the border in Egypt. Michael wrote a post on Monday on the likelihood of a wider Israeli operation in Gaza. I agreed with many of his points, but I was surprised that a post on Israeli policy towards Gaza didn’t take into account the reaction of a post-revolution Egypt. Michael graciously invited me to write a guest-post on the topic.
The theory that Israel lost its strategic depth on the Gaza front with Egypt’s January 25 Revolution, and the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, is two-fold. First, a democratic leader of Egypt will have to be more responsive to public opinion; and whether Islamist, liberal, revolutionary, Nasserist, Muslim, or Copt, pretty much the only thing that all Egyptians agree on is animosity towards Israel.
In addition to the pressure from the street, it was likely that any Egyptian leader not from the ancien régime would view Gaza differently than had Mubarak. This is not because Mubarak was an American-Zionist stooge, but his regime viewed Hamas in the same light as he viewed his most powerful opposition: the Muslim Brotherhood. That Egypt’s post-revolutionary president, Mohamed Morsi, hails from the Brotherhood is all the more reason to assume the Egyptian government would not sit still during a major Israeli operation in Gaza, as Mubarak’s had during the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead.
So the Israeli government has gambled that Egypt will not react as a changed nation or decided that even if it does the reaction is worthwhile because the threat from Gaza is too great. More worrisome would be that Operation Pillar of Defense is a short-term political decision: acting against an immediate threat to the homeland, right before an election, in a way that may damage longer-term strategic interests.
As of this writing, Egypt has not acted in the tempestuous way one might expect. It is possible that—the Israeli operation so fresh—the Egyptian government has been able to issue harsh statements, to recall its ambassador, and to call for discussions at the United Nations, but not had enough time to plan a more thorough response. Indeed, the “street” has not even had a chance to mobilize yet: small gatherings of leftists and revolutionaries have rallied and marched in Cairo, but the Muslim Brotherhood has called for nationwide demonstrations this afternoon (a public holiday) and tomorrow.
At the same time, there are several reasons the Egyptian government may not react as expected. First is the issue of proximity. Unlike Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s response to Cast Lead, it is difficult for Morsi to be a champion on the “Arab street” when his actions will have important consequences for his own nation. He may refuse to utter the word “Israel,” and his Muslim Brotherhood seeks to quietly diminish relations, but the Egyptian president has continued to stand by the peace treaty. Max Fisher speculated that Egypt could open up the Gaza border: breaking the blockade and allowing in necessary aid. But opening the border is a two-way street, which could allow a portion of 1.5 million Palestinians to flow freely across the border: giving Egypt more responsibility for Gazans’ wellbeing.
An overflow of Palestinian refugees would also exacerbate Egypt’s own economic woes, which also limit its actions towards Gaza. At the very moment the situation unfolds across the Gaza-Israel border, in Cairo the government is sitting down with IMF officials to negotiate a much need $4.5b loan. Egypt just secured $6.3b from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, but that money will be tied to IMF approval. Not to mention the $1.5b annual contract with the Americans. In addition to government loans and grants, Egypt needs private investment. But if Egypt breaks its post-revolutionary commitment to maintain the peace treaty with Israel then investors are less to risk whether it will stand by other commitments.
Finally, post-revolutionary Egypt is still struggling to make the transition to a post-revolutionary system. Morsi is also held back by the Egyptian military and interior ministry, which are “chasing ghosts” in the Sinai: smugglers and Salafi jihadis with links to Gaza. Indeed the Egyptian president’s first attempt to change the status quo was cut short by the August 5 attack that left 16 soldiers and guards dead near the border with Israel and Gaza.
Morsi is trying to raise Egypt up as a regional powerbroker, but he is stunted by domestic problems. For now, it seems, Morsi has settled on statements and for calling on others (namely the United States and the United Nations) to halt the violence. As he meets with members of his cabinet and security apparatus—and as Egypt’s population mobilizes in support of Gaza—it has yet to be seen if Egypt’s first post-revolution president will act any differently from his pre-revolution predecessor.
August 13, 2012 § 2 Comments
The big news in the Middle East over the weekend was new Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi’s sacking of the twin leaders of the SCAF, defense minister Hussein Tantawi and chief of staff Sami Anan, and annulling the SCAF’s previous constitutional declaration that gave it wide ranging legislative and executive powers. For some analysis about what all of this might mean, try Marc Lynch or Issandr El Amrani or my friend and fellow Georgetown compatriot Hesham Sallam. I have my own thoughts, but I’d instead like to make a wider point about what this tells us about American influence. One of the most notable aspects of what happened yesterday is that the president of Egypt got rid of the defense minister, chief of staff, and service heads with one fell swoop, yet the U.S. had absolutely no hint that this was coming. To give you a sense of just how much of a surprise this was, remember that last month Hillary Clinton met with Tantawi separate from her meeting with Morsi while in Egypt, and I’d wager that the meeting with Tantawi was the one that contained a more in-depth and far-ranging discussion. A couple of weeks ago Leon Panetta was in Egypt and he met with Tantawi as well and afterward said that “it’s my view, based on what I have seen and the discussions I’ve had, that President Morsi and Field Marshal Tantawi have a very good relationship and are working together towards the same ends.” Doesn’t sound like a guy expecting Tantawi to be forced into early retirement just two weeks later, does it? It also doesn’t sound like a guy particularly eager for such a step to be taken.
I do not mean to suggest that Egypt has any obligation to run its policy by the U.S. before doing anything, since Egypt is a sovereign state and has the right to do whatever it likes in this regard. It is certainly curious though that Egypt receives $1.3 billion annually from the U.S. in military aid, not to mention the fact that the U.S.-Egypt relationship is largely built on military to military ties and security issues, and Morsi did not feel the need to even give the U.S. a heads up that this was coming down the road. I understand the need to keep a move like this quiet before it happens, but there’s no way this was a snap decision; it’s not like Morsi woke up yesterday morning and just felt like replacing Egypt’s entire military leadership. That the administration or DoD did not know about this beforehand – and David Ignatius is clear on the fact that they did not – says a lot about the limits of American influence these days. Clinton and Panetta just wasted a whole lot of time for nothing, and irrespective of whether Morsi did this on his own or whether it was the result of an internal military coup (after all, Tantawi and Anan were both replaced by other SCAF members), the shadow of the U.S. should be long enough that either Morsi or other senior officers would have told someone here what was about to go down. It’s tough to imagine the U.S. having zero inkling of a complete turnover of Egyptian military leadership five or ten years ago, and I think this isn’t just about Morsi but about the Egyptian military as well.
Egypt is not the only place where the limits of U.S. influence are strikingly apparent. Israel is awash in speculation that Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak have made the decision to strike Iranian nuclear facilities this fall, despite the fact that the U.S. has sent a parade of officials to Jerusalem – including Panetta on that same trip two weeks ago - pleading with Israel to give sanctions some more time. Again, as with Egypt, Israel has every right to do what it wants, particularly when it has legitimate fears about Iran, but compare this to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, during which U.S. influence with Israel was so strong that it was able to convince Israel to sit tight as Saddam Hussein launched 42 Scud missiles at Tel Aviv and other Israeli populations centers. Of course, Israel has not yet launched an attack (and I plan on writing later this week about why I remain skeptical that it will), but the fact that it is being so openly contemplated and Israeli officials are saying nasty things to the press about American knowledge and intelligence capabilities demonstrates the depths to which U.S. influence with Israel has fallen. Israel is contemplating a strike despite not having the weaponry to completely eliminate Iran’s nuclear program and despite U.S. public and private assurances that it will not tolerate Iran producing a nuclear weapon, and that tells you all you need to know about waning American sway.
Power can be measured in lots of different ways. From a military/resources standpoint, the U.S. is doing perfectly fine. But power consists of many other things as well, such as persuasion or being kept in the loop. On these other measures, this weekend highlighted pretty clearly that U.S. influence could use some real strengthening.
August 1, 2012 § Leave a Comment
There were two articles published yesterday on the topic of Israel’s security in the wake of the Arab uprisings that arrived at polar opposite conclusions about the behavior Israel should expect from new Islamist governments. One was authored by me in the National Interest and I argue that massive economic crises and the renewed focus on quality of life issues that comes with elections have created a situation in which Israel’s Arab neighbors have too much on their plates to be thinking about causing trouble for Israel (the argument is longer and more nuanced than the one sentence summary, so please click over to the National Interest and read the whole thing). Writing in the Daily Beast at Open Zion, Benny Morris comes to the opposite conclusion, arguing that Israel is now “the most dangerous place for Jews in the world.” Looking at recent developments in the region, Morris sees things as follows:
But for Israel the “Arab Spring” represents a dramatic, abrupt tightening of the noose. The takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas; the ongoing takeover of Egypt by the Brotherhood, traditionally an advocate of Israel’s destruction; the gradual subversion by Islamists of Hashemite control in Jordan; the Hizbullah dominance of Lebanon; and the current overthrow of the Assad regime in Syria all represent a tightening of the siege.
As Jeremy Pressman breaks down in a thorough fashion at Mideast Matrix, the reason Morris and I view Israel’s security situation so differently is because I am looking at material interests and capabilities and Morris is looking at ideology. For Morris, ideology outweighs every other consideration, and Islamism is a monolithic entity, the same in Iran as it is in Egypt. No matter what else is taking place, Morris sees Islamic fundamentalists joining hands to jump at the opportunity to destroy Israel. As Pressman rightly points out, Morris’s argument is difficult to test since Islamists are not actually controlling Egypt (the military is still very much running the show), Jordan, and Syria at the moment, but there is a reason that he and I differ over how to view emerging Islamist governments in Arab states, and it has to do with how one views ideology and ideological states.
There is something ironic for me about the fact that I am downplaying the role of ideology here since the thrust of so much of my non-blog writing is about how ideology is often a controlling variable in a variety of situations. My dissertation argues that ideology operates as a constraint on successful democratic transitions, and I have theorized that the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia was pushed out the door so quickly because the military and regime softliners did not see an emerging ideological threat (although their calculation was incorrect). In the case of new Arab Islamist governments looking to confront Israel, however, ideology is not a particularly important factor, which Morris does not grasp because he fails to distinguish between variants of ideology and their purpose.
Morris looks at Iran, which is an Islamist regime dedicated to Israel’s destruction, and assumes that every other Islamist government is going to behave in an identical fashion. The problem with this view is that while the Muslim Brotherhood is indeed very hostile to Israel, it misses some extremely important context. The Iranian regime is one that uses ideology as a source of legitimation; it’s argument for existing is that it governs a revolutionary state, the aim of which is to spread the Islamic revolution beyond its borders. Despite its parliamentary and presidential elections, it makes no real pretense to legitimating itself through democratic institutions and is run by unelected and unaccountable officials. Ideology is both its primary purpose and primary source of legitimacy, and thus if it does not act to carry out its ideological mission at all times, it endangers its very existence; when ideology is used as a source of regime legitimacy, fealty to the ideology is crucial for the regime to maintain its rule. In this sense, ideology becomes its primary interest to be advanced and it can take precedence over material concerns.
Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood (to the extent that the MB actually controls anything) is theoretically also an Islamist state, but its relationship to ideology is not the same as in Iran. The MB government in Egypt does not use ideology as its source of legitimacy even though it is an ideological movement. The MB ran for office in free and fair elections and campaigned on a host of promises to improve the economy, eliminate corruption, and increase transparency. In other words, it subjected itself to the people’s will as a way of creating legitimacy and it appealed to a host of material, rather than ideological, concerns. Not only does the MB not need to justify everything it does from an ideological perspective, it would be devastating to its long term prospects if it did. When it comes to confronting Israel, the MB will do so in a number of lower grade ways since it is a popular stance and also fits in with the party’s ideology, but it is not going to launch a war at the expense of its economic and political goals.
I do not mean to downplay in any way the hostility that the Muslim Brotherhood and other related Sunni Islamist groups harbor toward Israel. I do not view the MB as a benign reformist movement (or even necessarily a democratic one at heart rather than out of convenience) and the Israeli government is correct to be vigilant in not letting down its guard. This is not the same thing though as being on constant alert for invading Islamist armies willing to sacrifice their entire existence for a chance to kills Israeli Jews. Ideology is an extremely powerful force, but in order to understand how and why, it is necessary to get a handle on the different ways that ideology operates to shape events rather than taking a Manichean worldview that sees every situation involving Islamists as identical. Iran presents a real danger to Israel arising from its ideological worldview, but new Arab Islamist governments do not.