A Reply to Kristof: Come Visit My Class at UConn

Dear Mr. Kristof,

I was sad to read your dismissal of political science. While you had a few useful thoughts, much of it was dated and ill-informed. I think you need to learn about political science in 2014.

So please, come to my undergraduate class on recent events in Egypt and Syria. OK, officially it is Contemporary International Politics (POLS 3402). We meet TuTh, 9:30-10:45 am in Storrs, CT. [TuTh is academic jargon for Tuesday & Thursday.] Not far from New York at all. If you email me, I’ll send you the room number.

In this class we discuss political change in Egypt and the war in Syria, real-world events. We read ACTUAL political scientists (and others) who have written in academic journals, blogs, and mainstream publications. We talk about violence, civil war, military intervention, dictatorship, democracy, gender, refugees, and many other issues you would understand without a poli-sci decoder.

I very much look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Prof. Jeremy Pressman

Politics and Pathologies in Israeli National Security Decision Making

Yesterday in The Atlantic I wrote about the politics and pathologies in Israeli national security decision-making, with a specific focus on the National Security Council.

Here’s how it starts:

Imagine this: Israel strikes Iranian nuclear facilities, destroying some and damaging others. Iran fires missiles back at Israel and “activates” Hezbollah on the northern border. Hamas, deciding this is an opportune moment, starts shooting its own rockets into the southern and coastal areas of Israel.

This is an entirely plausible scenario. It’s also one that Israel expects. What’s less clear is whether Israel has thought through the rest of the implications of a strike on Iran: the impact on the economy; the length of time citizens will need to be mobilized for military service; the reaction of its friends, allies, and neutral states; and how it will coordinate a multi-tiered response on all these fronts.

Follow the link for more.

Was Taksim Inevitable?

The events unfolding in Turkey over the last few days are very telling. I’m not on the ground there, but plenty of people who are have been tweeting and posting on Facebook their experiences and impressions. It’s too early to convincingly declare the implications of the protests, but there are some larger processes at work here that are important to think about that, I think, will inevitably have some effect.

The AKP has been in power since 2002. No government—in a democratic, authoritarian, or mixed system—can be in control for that long without generating some frustration, resentment and opposition among the public. This is especially the case when the party in power pursues a specific political-ideological-economic agenda, bound to cause some dislocation and alienation.

The AKP has certainly done so. When it first came to power, analysts and pundits debated whether the party, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself, were really moderate, reformed Islamists or simply disguised fundamentalist Islamists of the Welfare/Virtue/Felicity Party and Necmettin Erbakan kind.

I argued that both were Islamist, but just had different ways of expressing it in policy. Where Erbakan was belligerent and bulled his way forward, Erdoğan was more politic—and in doing so managed to get a lot more done than his predecessor, including removing the military’s ability to intervene in civilian politics.

With the Turkish Armed Forces no longer a serious threat (of its own volition, in addition to being forced out), other parties more a cardboard cutout than a serious political opposition, an economy that was already growing before it came to power, and broad support across different segments of the population, the AKP won an increasingly large share of the popular vote over three elections, culminating in about 50% of the vote in the 2011 poll.

This allowed the AKP to implement its foreign and domestic policy agendas, which were, in fact, tied together by a broader economic plan. Erdoğan’s own populism and ego increasingly came to the fore, engendering a detached approach to the average Turk (even while he displayed deep concern for and emotional attachments to Palestinians and Syrians) and underlined by expanding authoritarianism, shrinking tolerance for criticism, and a sense of infallibility.

All this came to a head in the case of the construction plans for the Taksim Square area. Hugh Pope’s description of the protests highlights the variation of motivations behind them.

At the moment there’s no serious contender to take advantage of these wide-ranging dissatisfactions; and anyway, Turkish politics has long been marked by the inability of a single party to represent a variety of interests (until the AKP). But perhaps one or more might arise before the next election, riding the momentum of the protests—if it can be maintained.

Depending on how events in Syria unfold—if more refugees stream into Turkey, more shells strike it, or more bombs target Turks—Erdoğan’s room for maneuvering might be further constrained.

On the other hand, Erdoğan might make some concessions here and there and be able to ride things out, weakened but not in danger. Especially if he’s able to move into a strengthened presidency, the protests will become more a footnote to him than a warning or something to be taken seriously. This could still, though, have an effect on the party’s ability to maintain its dominance.

Either way, we should think about the Taksim/Gezi protests as part of a long-term process. Turkey’s political, social, and economic structures are still changing, and the insertion of such a dramatic event could well alter their trajectories—either by the government consciously accounting for the protests, or by the government trying to ignore them and then having to account for the consequences of it.

Scoring Balmer on Syria

Here is a quick scorecard of Crispian Balmer’s analysis of who is winning the Syrian civil war.

Opposition wins: (or leaning opposition)

German intelligence five months ago
Senior Israeli official
Barbara Walter, UCSD
Jonathan Eyal, Royal United Services Institute

Assad wins: (or leaning Assad)

German intelligence today
Ahmed, anti-Assad activist

Mixed:

Peter Harling, International Crisis Group
James Fearon, Stanford

(Though I think the article is more back and forth than this list appears.)

 

Israel-Syria Tension

Dan Byman and Natan Sachs offered many insights about Israel’s alleged attacks on Syria. Three follow-up questions/comments:

1. If Assad’s fortunes decline and he becomes desperate to attack Israel to divert attention from his problems and/or to try to unify Syrians, does it really matter whether Israel has attacked recently? Isn’t Israel already an all-purpose bogeyman given the last 65 years?

2. I think we should be more careful about the context in which we talk about quiet borders. Yes, Israel’s border with Hezbollah has been quiet since 2006 when compared with before. Yes, the Israel-Syria line in the Golan has been quiet. But in the last decade, Israel attacked an Islamic Jihad camp in Syria, bombed Syria’s nuclear facility, and hit weapons 3x (so far) during the civil war. The authors also note “the Assad regime tried to create a crisis by pushing Palestinian refugees living in Syria to return to Israel to divert attention from the crackdown.” Is that quiet?

Moreover, when one mode of attack gets quiet (e.g. fewer border skirmishes), others may heat up. Israel and Syria did not fight in the Golan in the 1980s but they both contributed to a violent mess in Lebanon next door. Hezbollah may not be launching missiles at Israel but it may have poked Israel via drones and allegedly organized an attack that killed Israelis in Bulgaria. Quiet in one aspect or area of the relationship may only be part of the full picture of relations.

3. The authors would like the United States, “to coordinate allied interventions so together they make it more likely that Bashar’s regime will fall and Syria will return to stability.” Does that have to be overt coordination or could it be done in private?

 

 

Why Israel Struck in Syria

This weekend’s Israeli strike on Syrian targets is being given lots of attention by Western media and other analysts. As was the case with the January election, the tendency is to make assumptions and use Western prisms to explain Israeli behavior and from there assume many things about possible American behavior. This is normal to some extent, and the lack of complete information and Israel’s (relative) silence on the matter do make it necessary to guess. But a better sense of the history and decision-making processes behind Israel’s actions would lead to a more accurate explanation of the strikes.

First and foremost, the Israeli strikes on Syria are about preventing Hezbollah from obtaining “game-changing” weapons. In the most recent attack, this meant stopping Fateh-110 surface-to-surface missiles sent by Iran. Israel’s ability to maintain a decisive qualitative edge in military technology, resources, and ability to control the timing of any fight over its enemies is its own red line. If the Syrian civil war endangers this ability, then Israel will become “involved,” but it will remain a limited and specific involvement.

To the extent that there are always messages inherent in the foreign and security policies of states, yes, this was a message to Iran that Israel takes its red lines seriously and will act to reinforce them. But Israel has a long standing security posture that is very aggressive, relies on prevention and carrying the fight to others’ territory, and requires limited actions and reprisals designed to avoid escalation (though that certainly has happened at times). The strikes on Syria are only part of this historical pattern.

That pattern was seriously debated among Israel leaders at the beginning of the state. David Ben-Gurion, the towering figure of early Israeli politics (though he was physically short in stature) represented the more militarist position, arguing that military attacks on enemy targets were simply important tools of statecraft and even necessary. Moshe Sharett, the professorial-looking counterpart to Ben-Gurion, argued for a policy of moderation, contending that even limited strikes would lead to escalation and condemn Israel to years of fighting and undermine prospects for peace.

Ben-Gurion did not just defeat Sharett in that debate, but he succeeded in inserting his preference for limited attacks and counter-attacks into Israel’s security doctrine. The aim, he argued, was to degrade the enemies’ ability to attack Israel and let them know Israel would act to defend itself. It was also, in the form of larger assaults (1956, 1967), about getting the jump on its enemies before they would be able to harm Israel. With a small territory and population, Jerusalem’s believed that Israel simply could not withstand an invasion or an extended war.

In the first years of Israel’s existence, this military doctrine was represented by limited on-the-ground incursions into neighboring states. Ariel Sharon’s Unit 101 was created in 1953 for this very purpose, to strike swiftly at military targets and then slip back into Israel. Unit 101’s horrific attack on the Palestinian village of Qibya, in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank, in which many civilians were killed, let to its disbandment and incorporation into other special forces units. (This is also demonstrates some of the problems with even limited military actions.) Later, air strikes supplemented this strategy.

The growing threat of non-conventional weapons and the advances on weapons technology, particularly missiles and air defenses, has prompted Israel to modify this security posture to include a variety of other tactics, including a more active presence in other countries and hitting supply and transit routes and targets. But these, too, are mostly updated version of older policies.

Even more necessary is to avoid the temptation to use the Israeli strikes as the basis for arguing for American military intervention in Syria, whether by imposing a no-fly zone, ground troops to secure Syria’s chemical weapons, or some other action. This was especially the buzz on Twitter Saturday night when word of the attack came out.

But Israel’s abilities, goals, and responsibilities are very different from America’s. Israel has the ability to conduct limited and concise attacks on specific targets, and to engage in a brief war; but it doesn’t have the capability—and it’s doubtful it has the popular or political will anymore—to sustain a drawn-out presence in a neighboring country. Its goal is to prevent weapons and technology from reaching its primary enemy in this specific arena, namely, Hezbollah (the Syrian military is no match for Israel). It doesn’t see itself as responsible for everything else, including interfering in the succession process being played out so violently, protecting civilians from the horrific atrocities being committed against them, and influencing the outcome of the civil war and, from there, the region. All this is reserved for later consideration or others to deal with. Jerusalem defines its responsibilities, rather, as its immediate security needs and the near-term future effects of its actions.

Washington’s abilities are much greater, its goals are much broader, and its responsibilities are much bigger. Comparing Israel to the US under these conditions isn’t helpful for understanding America’s actions thus far or its capabilities for doing more. Adam Elkus tweeted a series of important ways that Washington can learn from the Israeli experience, but it’s about thinking in specifics, rather than too-general policy ideas.

Any analysis, then, that assumes Israel was acting to send a message to Iran, or that the strikes demonstrated the foolishness of the American position on imposing a no fly zone or other form of military engagement are flawed because they ignore the bases for Israeli policy.

Syria: Forks in the Road

Marc Lynch’s thoughtful post on how Syria has affected the narrative of the Arab “Spring” had me thinking about what might have been in Syria. I hope scholars eventually will work to address these questions – well, the first four anyway:

1) Had the protests stayed largely peaceful in Syria, would Asad be gone by now?

2) Exactly how much did outside aid for armed rebels undermine non-violent mobilization?

3) Did the Libya model cause elements of the Syrian opposition to put too much emphasis on the idea of external intervention and (wrongly) set their strategy with the expectation that such military intervention would come?

4) If/when Asad falls and if he is replaced by a regime that is not ruling over a fragmented country, acting as a brutal dictatorship, or executing ethnic cleansing, will the Arab Spring narrative shift toward a “positive” direction again?

5) Can we say enough times that “These revolutions…will continue to unfold for many years to come”?

The Anti-Chemical Weapons Norm Is Not in Danger

The cruel violence of the Syrian regime should not have surprised anyone, nor should the fact that it continued to engage in it without concern for the ambiguous threats issues by the US and others. Regimes like Bashar al-Asad’s have nothing to gain and everything to lose by compromising and giving up some of their power.

Now that the regime may have used chemical weapons against the opposition, some analysts and advocates are calling it a “game changer,” arguing that American credibility is on the line, requiring the United States to intervene. And if it doesn’t intervene after the small-scale use of chemical weapons in Syria, Jonathan Tobin asks, how can we trust Washington’s promises to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon?

Others have rightly pointed out the absurdity of calling for intervention now, after the regime has tortured and killed tens of thousands of Syrians with conventional weapons and methods. To this, Max Fisher responds that more is at stake now—namely, the norm against the use of chemical weapons in the international system.

But if we are going to think about what constitutes a “red line” that might trigger a more direct military intervention in Syria, I’m not sure that strengthening the anti-chemical weapons norm is a good enough reason: because the norm against the use of chemical weapons is not endangered of being undermined by what happens in Syria.

Since World War Two very few states have used chemical weapons. The US used them in Vietnam. Evidence suggests Egypt used some in the 1960s during its involvement in the Yemeni civil war, while Libya used some in a 1987 conflict with Chad. Iraq used it against the Iranians during the Iran-Iraq War, and also against the Kurds in 1988. Beyond this, there is little evidence that many states have considered using them in many circumstances.

The reason is because the norm against the use of chemical weapons is very strong. The Chemical Weapons Convention, with 188 member-states, is the most formal representation of this. But consider, too, what a norm is. It is a “standard of appropriate behavior for actors with a given identity,” which incorporates a logic of appropriateness—a sense that specific behaviors are required as some sort of baseline for states to participate in international political life. The overwhelming majority of states want to be recognized as “good citizens” of the world.

Customary practice, the norm of sovereignty, and the laws of war have all entrenched the use of violence under particular circumstances. In the case of conflict, good citizenship requires controlling levels of violence, and that means that violence must based primarily on the use of conventional weapons. Indeed, the evidence suggests states are increasingly moving to control “excess” violence toward this end.

When it comes to chemical weapons—or nuclear or biological weapons—the exceptions to the norm proves the rule. Even a cursory glance at those states that have used them indicates that their interest in violating the norm is specific to their conditions, leaders, and motivations. If the US doesn’t intervene immediately in Syria because of the use of chemical weapons, no state that wouldn’t already be thinking of it will look at Syria and believe that Washington doesn’t care about chemical weapons, and therefore decide to use them. What matters are the particular regime dynamics at play in a given place and time.

This isn’t an argument against intervention or against considering the need to maintain the norm as a reason for intervention. It’s to say that intervention is a big deal, and we need to be careful about why we might go in. And if we’re thinking about implications and comparisons, instead of focusing on the use of chemical weapons at this point in time, I think the lesson is rather very strongly about the need to deter mass killing near the beginning, before regimes come to believe they either have impunity to attack their own citizens or feel cornered enough to try anything.

One Sunni Imagination: The US-Shia Alliance

On a long drive in Jordan, a Jordanian of Palestinian descent – let’s call him Amr – shared his grand theory of Middle East politics. His perspective would make Vali Nasr proud because for Amr, the basic divide in the Middle East is the Sunni-Shia divide (though with an American-Zionist twist).

On a personal level, Amr, a pious Sunni, expressed only disgust for Shiites, deriding them as false Muslims. Yet Christians and Jews were okay.

In the region, he lamented the rise of Shiism and, in particular, the rise of Iran, the heart of the Shiite world. Iran, already in control of Iraq, is seeking control of other Arab states as well, such as Bahrain and Yemen.

The pivotal Sunni-Shia moment was the hanging of Saddam Hussein on December 30, 2006. Saddam was not hanged on just any day but rather at the start of Iraqi Sunnis celebrating Eid al-Adha (the Feast of the Sacrifice), a major Islamic holiday. In Amr’s eyes, this was done as an intentional slight to Sunnis and to demonstrate a marked shift of power in Iraq, from Saddam’s (Sunni) rule to the post-2003 (Shia) regime.

Saddam’s last words were especially important: “Down with the traitors, the Americans, the spies and the Persians.” Not only were his executioners merely agents of neighboring Shia Iran, but by pairing “Americans” and “Persians” he also asserted that Iran was acting in concert with the United States.

Yes, while it might sound odd to American ears, Amr argued in the course of the discussion that Iran was working with the United States. After all, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq handed the country to Iran.

An Iran-US-Hezbollah-Israel alliance against the Sunni world.

When Sunni Iraq had a nuclear program, Israel bombed it in 1981. The United States invaded in 2003 to end Iraq’s alleged nuclear pursuits. Yet with Shia Iran, Israel and the United States have taken no military action despite years of complaining about Iranian nuclear research.

The United States was perfectly willing to intervene militarily in Libya against Muammar Qaddafi, a Sunni. But despite intense pressure, Washington has held back on the question of intervening in Syria where the regime is dominated by Alawites, a Shia offshoot. Israel, too, seems to favor the maintenance of the Asad regime.

In Egypt, the United States abandoned a Sunni, President Hosni Mubarak, and has accepted the rule of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. While one might think the Muslim Brotherhood is a Sunni organization, Amr sees it as under the control of Iran. That explains Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s visit to Egypt and the general warming of ties between Egypt and Iran after decades of tension. When Morsi and Shafiq were in the presidential run-off (2012), Washington and especially then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, made sure that Shafiq lost.

In Lebanon, why has Israel not killed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader? The Israeli Mossad can hit leaders all over the world but cannot find a leader right next door? The answer must be that Israel and Hezbollah are cooperating.

Amr’s story, interesting in its own right, reminds us that political theories need not be un-done by inconvenient facts. Perhaps because of our human tendency to fit information to our pre-existing worldview, contrary information gets ignored, manipulated, re-defined in a way that does not challenge our core approach. So the fact that Israel and Hezbollah fought a war in 2006; that Israel attacked a Syrian nuclear site in 2007; or that the vitriol between Iran and Israel/US is regular and heated matters little for Amr’s grand theory.

Somehow I think that even if Israel or the United States bombed Iranian nuclear facilities tomorrow, Amr would find a way of accounting for that seeming anomaly without altering his basic theory.

The story also helps make clear the difficulty for the United States in the region. In general today, the United States is excoriated both for what is seen as too much involvement (e.g. Iraq 2003+) or too little (e.g. Syria today). Washington has been so involved for so long that any action or non-action is interpreted in a nefarious manner. With stories like this one, I don’t imagine the challenge of U.S. foreign policy will change anytime soon.

The Resurgence of American Diplomacy in the Middle East

When President Barack Obama announced his trip to Israel, there was widespread speculation for the motivations. I thought it was a grab-bag of reasons, including for domestic political purposes, to connect (finally) with the Jewish-Israeli public, to improve personal relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and to talk about Iran and Syria.

On these grounds the visit has already been a success. But it seems the trip was about American regional diplomacy at least as much as it was about the American-Israeli relationship. This makes sense: In his second term Obama is looking to shape his legacy, and can now be more proactive—as opposed to reactive, as he was at the onset of the Arab Awakening—in foreign affairs without having to worry about re-election. It’s clear now that the point of the visit was to set the conditions for an improvement in the U.S. position in the region.

For some time analysts have been convinced that the U.S. is on its way out of the Middle East, retreating or simply impotent in the wake of the Arab Awakening. But this argument rests on a consideration of American hard power only, reads Obama’s hesitation in his first term into his second, and ignores Obama’s own modus operandi.

To understand Obama’s foreign policy we need to look at the preference he’s had for engaging with Republicans on domestic policy. Here he’s adopted a patient, low-key role. His habit has been to let other prominent individuals or groups engage in public battles over a given issue, and at some moment near the end move quietly in to offer suggestions—not orders or demands—to both sides of a dispute. In this way, he persuades them that butting heads has not worked, but that compromise will.

Obama’s trip to Israel was an exercise in in this type of American soft power. First, during his time in Israel, he charmed Netanyahu, a man with whom he previously had very tense personal relations. Having created space with its leaders, Obama then gave a stirring speech to Israeli students at the Jerusalem Convention Center. He highlighted the Jewish connection to the area, bore witness to the Jewish/Zionist struggles over time (including their contemporary security concerns), and called on them to act now in the name of Israeli Jewishness and democracy, and justice for Palestinians. These themes were echoed in a shorter speech at Yad Vashem. His visit to sites of memory and identity in Israel also validated Jewish-Israelis’ Zionism.

While critics argue that this is pandering or represent the usual ignoring of Palestinians, connecting with Israeli public opinion is important. No final agreement will be ratified in Israel unless politicians know enough Israelis (particularly Jewish Israelis) are on board with it. Given the skepticism of the Palestinians and the peace process more generally among that cohort, laying the groundwork isn’t just good politics, it’s essential.

Second, at the very end of his trip, Obama brought together Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan through a phone call that, for all intents and purposes, settled the most outstanding of their immediate disagreements (an Israeli apology for and compensation over the deaths of Turkish citizens killed during the attack on the Mavi Marmara in 2010).

It’s not clear that Obama promised either of the two anything specific, but what he did do was remind Netanyahu and Erdoğan that the region is at a critical moment, and that the two countries have common interests that trump these kinds of disputes. Like a mediator, he made sure that they knew all of their interests—including that of the United States—required coordination, even if it didn’t include full agreement on all issues.

Third, Obama appears to have convinced the Israelis that the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority in the West Bank really is their only partner for peace, particularly as Hamas’s regional stature continues to rise. To this end, the Administration has managed to unblock $500 million in aid to the PA, which Congress had previously frozen, at the same time that Jerusalem has decided to resume transfer of tax revenues to the PA, also frozen after Mahmoud Abbas asked the United Nations General Assembly to grant the Palestinians non-observer member state status.

Finally, Obama has publicly discussed bringing the Arab states more directly into the peace process. This will provide political cover for the PA to make unpopular decisions about concessions during talks. But tying the Arab states to the negotiations further isolates Iran, and also gives them a stake in the outcome.

The conventional wisdom is that the Israelis and Palestinians aren’t interested at this point in resolving their conflict, and that the Arab Awakening, Syria, and Iran are forcing the White House to wait on events more than seek to manage them. But Obama’s trip to the region has demonstrated that this isn’t true.

Certainly there is a long way to go before Israelis and Palestinians make peace, before Saudis and Israelis overcome decades of hostility, or even before Israelis and Turks return to full normalized relations. But even still, it’s clear that Obama is preparing a network to support Washington’s leadership vis-à-vis Iran and Syria, and to better respond to the Arab Awakening.

He’s done all this quietly, by lowering expectations beforehand, and by convincing Israelis, Palestinians, Turks, and Arabs that they share common goals. This is the essence of persuasion. Obama’s ability to project American hard power in the region might be fading, but that’s not the case with American soft power.