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”?