Reaction to Reactions to Reflections on the Arab Uprisings

In Jay Ulfelder’s reactions to Marc Lynch’s reflections on the Arab Uprisings, I was struck by Ulfelder’s discussion of motivated reasoning. Ulfelder’s notes a problem: “When we try to forecast politics in real time, we tend to conflate our feelings about specific events or trends with their likelihood.” I want Egypt to become democratic after Mubarak’s fall so, gasp, my deeply-informed analysis says Egypt is likely to become democratic. [Or insert your own favorite example.]

Ulfelder proposes a solution, or at least a coherent mitigation plan:

Whenever we’re formulating an analysis or prediction, we can start by ask ourselves what result we hope to see and why, and we can think about how that desire might relate to the conclusions we’re reaching. We can try to imagine how someone with different motivations might view the same situation, or just seek out examples of those alternative views. Finally, we can weight or adjust our own analysis accordingly. Basically, we can try to replicate in our own analysis what “wisdom of crowds” systems do to great effect on a larger scale. This exercise can’t fully escape the cognitive traps to which it responds, but I think it can at least mitigate their influence.

Sounds reasonable.

But what if the extrinsic motivation is the main guide to how we select or interpret the factors that point us toward our conclusion? In any given political situation, scholars can point to a myriad of factors or draw on a wide range of historical precedents. How do we know which tradition is most relevant and which variables to consult? If we want the process to conclude with democracy, that suggests a certain way of looking at the problem.

In other words, maybe the scientific (analytical) process is hopelessly tainted by our own preferences and hopes. Perhaps “feelings” and analytic outcomes co-vary more than we like to admit.

Back to Normal Political Instability

Jay Ulfelder (@jay_ulfelderasks if the present level of political instability is the world boiling over or just getting back to normal. I was surprised to see that his answer is the world is getting back to normal. According to Ulfelder, over the last decade, observed (actual) political instability has been noticeably below the predicted level of instability. The drop from 2000 to 2010 looks especially steep.

Which led me to wonder: Why was I surprised? Are the Arab Spring or events in Ukraine having an outsized impact on my perception of the level of political instability? One possibility is that in contrast to a data set that codes all cases of different types of political instability we, and the media upon which we rely, only focus on a few big illustrations.

So we may be significantly below predicted levels of political instability but a few “celebrity” or much-covered examples may distort our perception of the global total. Maybe no matter what you tell me about the relatively low level of political instability in 2011 – both compared to predicted levels for 2011 and to historical annual rates as high as 4% – I will remember the wave of Arab uprisings and the fall of long-time dictators like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.

This does raise a question, as Rex Byrnen noted:

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In my mind, our media-influenced perception is actually a weighted perception; we care about or pay attention to some places more than others, a potential explanation for my initial surprise.

Questions on Hamid’s Egypt

Three questions in reaction to Shadi Hamid’s detailed analysis of Morsy and Egypt:

1. “The Brotherhood’s priorities, for now, are rather simple — to survive and get to the next elections.” Won’t that always be the Brotherhood’s priority? In fact, isn’t that the priority of every party in power everywhere?

2. Is Khairat al-Shater a “revolutionary” or “pragmatic”? What does it mean to call him both?

3. How much does it matter what is in the new Egyptian constitution? Would a constitution in Egypt that Islamists liked act as a real constraint on liberals? For the Brotherhood, would it (could it) function as a blueprint for the Islamization of the Egyptian state (and society writ large)?

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”?

Message to US: Stay out! Rush in!

For years the United States has been pilloried for endless meddling in the Middle East. But now that the Obama administration has been more reticent to get involved, the critique has flipped and staying out is painted as the wrong choice.

Take this headline in the Christian Science Monitor: “Support for jihadists in Syria swells as US backing of rebels falls short.” Though less dramatic than the headline, the article suggests there is a causal relationship, with a “local Aleppo commander” asserting current US policy “has opened the doors for jihadist Islam, not for moderates.”

The argument about Syria is something like this: too few US weapons prolongs the war, allowing Assad to survive for longer. A longer war allows jihadists to flourish in Syria.

As I have written before, I am skeptical of deep US involvement in Syria. I just do not hear supporters of greater military intervention answering the hard questions of how we know it would work out for the best. And given that the dominant meme in the Middle East is about an overbearing American colossus, I am not sure why Washington should be looking for more fuel to feed that fire. It has not worked out so well in the recent past (see al-Qaeda, Iraq, Afghanistan).

Moreover, we could quickly hear a different narrative: anti-US extremists flooded Syria because the post-Assad regime came to power on the back of the United States. Or, chaotic Syria, perhaps with sectarian bloodletting, as a failed state in the heart of the Middle East is fertile ground for extremist training and development. I could be convinced otherwise, but someone is going to have to make – not simply assert – a strong case.

There are, after all, reasons why Syria would be an attractive battleground even if the United States did not exist. A minority regime rules over a Sunni majority. That minority regime is in trouble. Syria has a great geographic location for serving as base for influencing and interfering in other countries.

Extremists surely see this as an opportunity after decades of hostile, repressive rule in Damascus. US policy be damned, I expect they would have given it a go.

If the United States had a pathway to a stable, post-Assad order, maybe that would help. I don’t see it, at least not yet. Do you?

A New Purpose for Turkish Foreign Policy?

For a short period of time, Turkey appeared to many to be a model for the rest of the Middle East. It’s “zero problems” foreign policy had warmed relations with its Arab and Iranian neighbors, the Kurdish opening was putting to rest concerns over its own democratic credentials, and its economy was growing fantastically.

I’ve argued before that the Turkish model was always over-stated and less applicable to the Arab states than assumed. And not surprisingly, Ankara has been struggling to find a coherent foreign policy framework since the collapse of strong relations with Israel, the Arab Awakening, and the renewed emphasis on Iran’s nuclear program.

Under these circumstances, any country would have a hard time constructing a clear regional strategy. It hasn’t helped that Turkey’s Prime Minister has been reactive rather than proactive. Growing concerns about the economy, the repression of Kurdish activists in conjunction with a more violent response to re-emerging PKK attacks, and the suppression of media criticism and other human rights violations have exacerbated these weaknesses.

Still, the continuing uncertainty of the Arab Awakening has provided Turkey with an opening to refocus its foreign policy, provided it can resist outsized rhetoric and adopt realistic policies that account for the difficulties of existing conditions. In particular, Turkey can play a leadership role in working to stabilize emergent systems and play a role in post-regime transitions.

The first instance was Turkey’s role in Libya. After some hesitation and uncertainty, Ankara worked quickly to establish good relations with the Transitional National Council and help shepherd it into power. It provided about $300 million in aid to the TNC at a crucial moment at its origins and worked to unfreeze around $3 billion in Libyan assets for the rebels to use. It also hosted a meeting of the Libya Contact Group, putting itself near the center of political and diplomatic efforts in the country.

Now in Syria it has been working to find an acceptable new government in preparation for the moment when the Asad regime is overthrown. In the spring it hosted the Friends of Syria, an international meeting convened to deal with the Syrian civil war. Most dramatically, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has now called for Syria’s Vice President, Farouk Sharaa, to lead a transitional government once Bashir Asad is gone.

Sharaa is no outsider, and his credibility is questionable. It’s also not clear that the Syrian opposition trusts or wants him (though there are now reports that it would consider him). But at least Turkey is working to take on a greater role in preparing for what comes next.

The Syrian opposition remains fragmented and many potential problems are obvious. And at the regional level it’s too early to call this a new trend in Turkish foreign policy. It’s also not clear how many more similar opportunities will be available.

But I think Ankara is finally doing what I’ve argued it needed to do a long time ago: work constructively within existing conditions to prepare for what comes after regimes are removed, and adopt a less aggressive leadership role while recognizing its limitations under existing conditions. It’s also a smart move because it compensates for Turkey’s reluctance to intervene more directly in the Syrian civil war, and for its less than sympathetic treatment of Syrian refugees. And the credibility Turkey creates with the new governments provides many post-Asad benefits, including economic, political, and security ones.

Turkey is starting to deal with its own political problems, particularly as the AKP prepares for some kind of leadership transition, and this could prove distracting to its foreign policy. But hopefully Turkey has learned from its past mistakes and will continue its regional efforts along a clearly laid out framework.

America In or Out of the Middle East?

Michael Cohen (at Foreign Policy) and Matt Duss (at the American Prospect) have pieces out today that capture well the dilemma the United States faces in the Middle East. Both reference the newly-emerging political systems in several regional countries, and note the problems these democratic (or part-democratic) systems pose for Washington’s ability to manage, much less control, events there.

Both also appropriately note that American analysts too often perceive of regional events, and America’s abilities and interests there, only in terms of “us” (Michael’s word), without considering the agency and actions of local actors. Their big difference appears to be in that Michael considers the US more “impotent” in the region than not, forcing it “to try and shape events around the margins,” while Matt believes the US can play a bigger role in shaping outcomes, just a very different one from the past (by “model[ing] liberal democratic practices”).

I certainly agree that it makes no sense to think the US can control events in the region; the historical record, as I’ve argued before, demonstrates that Washington’s ability to achieve outcomes there is conditioned on the decisions and willingness of regional actors.

And it’s also certainly true that changes in both the Middle East and in the world as a whole are creating new dynamics in which the United States will be more constrained in its ability to do what it wants, however slowly this might happen.

In the Middle East it’s obvious that Washington’s leadership is highly constrained: Israel under a rightwing government views its foreign policies through a very narrow lens, often ignoring American and world concerns and pressures. (For the record, this was a pattern already evident before Benjamin Netanyahu came to power a second time.) The Arab states whose authoritarian regimes have been toppled or made more inclusive have to worry about their own internal politics, while the regimes that remain in place have to worry about their own security and power. Iran hasn’t given any indication of a readiness to engage with the US (and by extension, Israel) in a constructive manner. And a host of inter- and intra-state conflicts and challenges continue to wrack much of the region, some more violent and problematic than others.

But I’m not convinced the US is as helpless as many have indicated. I’m not sure Michael or Matt would use that term to describe Washington in the Middle East, but one gets the sense that the sheer ambiguity of regional developments and inability to predict even the near future in the region causes considerable doubt among many.

The international system remains an American-centric one: as some institutionalists argue, the world’s main security, political, and economic structures were constructed by the US, and continue to run on American support in one way or another. Everybody still expects the US to exercise leadership.

The problem is that that leadership has been timid, ill-informed, and hostage to the vagaries of domestic American politics. These conditions downplay a more forceful American foreign policy in favor of a more reactive one, which is one in which the US loses the ability to protect its interests and position.

At the same time, many analysts have been telling Washington that it needs to work in tandem or directly with the democratic forces at play in the Arab world (though there seems to be less interest in Israel’s own democratic structure and a blind spot regarding flaws in Turkey’s democracy). Of course the US should encourage democracy in the region—it would be morally obtuse to expect it of ourselves but think it’s not relevant for others.

But these arguments often portray a choice for the US as one between this reactive, “gentler” policy and a more militarized and militant one in which force is the appropriate instrument. This is a false dichotomy, and again, it diminishes the agency that the US can exert on its own behalf.

It might be ironic that Obama has been demonstrating some of this needed resolve toward Israel. But even here, more American assertiveness is needed, particularly on the more difficult issue of the peace process. It’s become, since the George W. Bush presidency, a negative thing to talk about the US throwing its weight around. It certainly can be a negative thing (for example, when the argument is that the US needs to invade more countries), but it doesn’t have to be.

The global institutions are in place for the US to exert a much more vigorous role in working to manage successful transitions to peaceful, democratic, and prosperous systems around the world; to manage threats to global peace and security; and to push friends, allies, and others to resolve their conflicts without violence. It certainly can’t do all or any of this on its own, and our expectations should be tempered; but the US needs to start trying harder toward such ends.