Morris, Koplow, and Israel’s Security Today: Ideology vs. Capabilities

Michael Koplow and Benny Morris come to opposite conclusions about how the Arab “Spring” affects Israel’s national security. Why? Because Koplow rightly privileges economic and military capabilities while Morris turns to ideology as the master variable.

Koplow concludes that, “the states on Israel’s borders [are] content to let the status quo remain despite the upheaval in their internal politics.” Yet Morris explains, change in the Arab world “represents a dramatic, abrupt tightening of the noose.” Moreover, “The lynchpin of the siege, offering the most palpable and immediate threat to Israel, is of course Iran…”

A central argument for Koplow is that neighboring Arab states lack resources to launch a war. Serious economic difficulties make war with Israel less likely. Egypt, Jordan, and Syria lack the resources to fund a war. Egypt and Jordan would further worsen their economic situation with the resultant loss of U.S. aid.

Not only do these states lack their own resources but they also lack an external patron. There is no Soviet Union to counter-balance Israel’s superpower ally in Washington.

Contrast that with Morris’s piece. The coming to power of Islamists in Egypt, their growth in Jordan, and their likely victory in Syria spells trouble for Israel. They reject Israel and will act militarily consistent with their anti-Israel beliefs.

For Morris, then, ideology is paramount. Islamism’s general hostility toward Israel is determinative. Islamism is so powerful that Morris would say Islamists would willfully ignore the huge imbalance in forces and economic risks and try to take on Israel anyway on the battlefield. His enemy is monolithic and irrational.

In terms of how the world works, I am much more sympathetic to Koplow in this case. I tend to be skeptical of putting too much emphasis on culture, ideology, and religion.

Historically, perhaps Morris would point to Israel-Hamas or Israel-Hizbollah battles to prove his point. Yet both are more like non-state actors than governments. The fact that they have often been deterred from attacking Israel even in smaller doses (e.g. rockets) and have never launched a conventional offensive says a lot about the importance of capabilities and balance of forces even with a hostile ideology.

Meanwhile, no neighboring Arab state has moved air and ground forces against Israel since 1973. That is curiously absent from Morris’s stylized Arab-Israeli history. For the most recent 60% of Israel’s history (1973-2012), it has faced serious violence but not a conventional military attack.

If Islamist politicians take full control in Egypt (roadblock: the armed forces), Jordan (roadblock: the monarchy), or Syria (roadblock: Asad regime), we may get a better test of the Morris-Koplow disagreement. Until then, I’m with Koplow.


Tomorrow Israel Won’t Be Thinking About the Palestinians

Israelis will not be thinking very much about the West Bank, the settlements, the Palestinians, or the peace process in the near future. Short of major changes in conditions, none of these will occupy the attention of Israelis.

It is not a new or startling conclusion, but it is reinforced by the panels and discussions here at the Presidential Conference in Israel. This is all the more telling given this year’s theme of “Tomorrow”–a consideration of what the near future holds for Israel.

I attended a good panel on the future of the tent protests in Israel. Chaired by journalist Orly Vilnai, it was composed of Tamar Hermann (who writes on Israeli public opinion), Daphni Leef and Itzik Shmuli (two of the young leaders of the social protest movement), and Avi Simhon (who was on the Trajtenberg committee that examined the protests and made recommendations to the government on how to address its concerns).

It was a very passionate and exciting panel. But the emotions were focused on how to proceed from here, and how the government is and should be reacting. The Palestinians and the peace process weren’t mentioned until near the end, when Leef was asked about this issue’s place in the protests.

Her response was telling. She said she was the wrong person to ask about the issue, and that you couldn’t fault the protestors for coming out in support of the particular issues they did. In one of the more poignant statements of the conference, she said people came out thinking “only of their pain.” Given the demands of the protestors, it seems reasonable if not obvious to conclude that this refers to the rising cost of living, wealth disparity, and so on–the things that directly affect the average citizen. The settlements or Palestinians do not.

Hermann provided broader context. Despite the passion surrounding the tent protests, the majority of Israelis are satisfied and content. They see, she said, how bad things are in other countries. And they see what they have here. Moreover, the middle class simply isn’t ready to take up the cause of the social protests (or, it seems obvious, the peace process and the occupation). They are afraid to rock the boat, and without them, change isn’t going to happen.

Hermann also defended the importance of politicians being involved in thinking how to change socio-economic conditions, noting that it is a political issue that will have to be dealt with at that level. As has been said many times already, in the political arena the occupation is even less popular as an issue for action or holds less interest than the social protests.

Few of the other panels dealt with or are scheduled to deal with the Palestinians. There are sessions on the future of Israel’s borders, and of the Arab Spring’s impact on Israel, and general ones on how Israel should think about the future. But for a conference built around the issues of the future, there is remarkably little–apart from the by now seemingly obligatory statements on the importance of the peace process here and there–discussion focused on the peace process and its components.

For good or ill, it doesn’t bode well for any change in that sphere.

Normalizing American-Turkish Relations

Last night, before I read the Council on Foreign Relations’ Task Force report on US-Turkey relations, I had a lengthy Twitter conversation with Michael Koplow, Steven Cook (the director of the report), and Laura Rozen. It turns out I agree with much of the report’s recommendations; but in some ways I don’t think it goes far enough.

Koplow is right to warn that the US should be careful about tying its interests and policies too closely to Turkey. But I think the American-Turkish relationship can be made stronger, and closer, without letting Ankara drag Washington along to places it would rather not go.

Turkey and the US have a long history of tense moments in their relationship, and it would be fair to say that most of them involved American insensitivities to Turkish interests. In the 1960s it was over Cyprus (particularly US President Lyndon Johnson’s outright threat that he would not defend Turkey from the Soviet Union over the island) and Turkish poppy production (which the US wanted banned). In the 1970s it was again Cyprus, lack of US diplomatic support, an American arms embargo, and consistent criticism over Turkey’s domestic policies.

The 1980s were better, but the end of the Cold War and bipolarity in the early 1990s prompted many in the US to question whether Turkey (like Israel) was still a strategic asset. Such questions were soon put to rest with the 1990-1991 Gulf crisis and war, and the turn by many US analysts to recognizing Turkey’s regional importance.

This turn was the beginning of a series of regular “discoveries” of Turkey’s importance. Located in the middle of several strategically important and/or volatile regions, Ankara was argued to be key to US and Western policy. Simon Mayall, writing in 1997 for the Institute for National Strategic Studies, best represents this view:

[i]n a bipolar world Turkey had had the luxury of an uncomplicated security policy in which, broadly speaking, it aligned with the West, opposed the Soviet Union, and ignored the rest….In the new security environment, Turkey’s geographical position and its military strength now made it a European, Balkan, Middle Eastern, Near Eastern, Caucasian, Mediterranean, Aegean, and Black Sea power. Sharing borders with Greece, Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, Turkey’s control of the Bosphorus Straits and the Dardenelles also made it a Black Sea neighbor of Russia, the Ukraine, Romania and Moldova. Turkey’s ethnic roots lay in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Balkans, influencing its interests, concerns, and sympathies. Its Muslim identity demanded a community of interest in the Middle East, through Pakistan, and across to South East Asia. None of the immediate and demanding post-Cold War issues of Bosnia, the Middle East Peace Process, Iraqi sanctions, Operation Provide Comfort, Trans-Caucasus separatism, Russian activities in the ‘Near Abroad,’ CFE flank issues, NATO enlargement, Cyprus, Central Asia, and energy pipelines could be discussed without reference to Turkey.

Today, some of these issues have passed from importance, and others have been resolved. But think of how we might replace those that have with: Iran, the Arab Spring, Afghanistan, Syria. Add in Turkey’s growing economic strength, a dynamic AKP government, and concerns over a decline in US influence in the Middle East, and Turkey remains no more or less important to US interests and policy than when it was so discovered to be in the 1990s.

My point is not that Turkey shouldn’t be considered relevant: it clearly is. Instead, I would argue that the American-Turkish relationship needs to be normalized. Rather than regularly highlighting its position and what it can do for US interests, make the relationship like the American-British one: treat Turkey like a brother, not the strange cousin we invite for supper every once in awhile. Don’t speak of its indispensability every few years; make it a standard assumption.

Ties should be strengthened, in the manner set out in the CFR report. But these should be routinized, made mundane. Not only will this enhance the American-Turkish relationship, by creating a set of expectations and norms on both sides; it will also help reduce the over-heated rhetoric coming from US analysts and Turkish columnists and politicians that we heard in the 1990s and in the wake of the Arab Spring. These create false expectations, and subsequent disappointment, and waste time.

A normalized relationship will help sensitize Washington to Turkey’s needs and interests, particularly while Turks themselves figure out their foreign policy directions. It will allow the US to call upon Turkey when it needs to, without having to make it seem like a major favor. And it will construct an underlying, stabilizing platform in the relationship—and by extension in other arenas, like NATO and Europe.

The benefits for Turkey are clear: a healthy, stable relationship with the world’s most powerful country; a status as an understandable “regular” country among more American policymakers and the public (this is, in my view, one of the most critical recommendations of the CFR report); and the ability to disagree with friends over differences of opinion without having to suffer a negative backlash.

Clearly the two countries will continue to disagree over issues, and—again, similar to Israel—there will be different expectations given their different locations and positions in the international system. Canada and the US have had severe disagreements over issues (softwood lumber, Iraq), but that relationship remains strong and healthy. Much work remains to be done, on both sides; but it’s certainly a goal worth pursuing.

MacQueen and Pressman Present at Melbourne Conference

Prof. Benjamin MacQueen (Monash) and Prof. Jeremy Pressman (UConn), both bloggers here at Mideast Matrix, presented papers at a conference held at the University of Melbourne, “The Middle East in Revolt: the First Anniversary.” MacQueen’s paper dealt with the (democratic) transitions literature and its potential application to Egypt and Lebanon. Pressman talked about the Obama administration’s response to the Arab uprisings. 


Can Clinton create a new reality?

Listening to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton say Syrian President Bashar al-Asad’s days are numbered, I share some of the skepticism in the blogosphere. Clinton was clear yesterday:

But if I were a betting person for the medium term and certainly the long term, I would be betting against Assad.

Yet there are no guarantees; sometimes coercive regimes survive. See China, 1989. Or Iran, 2009. Repression can work.

I do not think Clinton is unaware that brutality can be effective. I don’t chalk up this statement or others like it to naive or misplaced optimism. Rather, I think she hopes to use words to re-shape the reality. If she, and other international and Syrian opposition leaders say it, maybe they will make Asad’s fall more likely to happen.

It points to a deeper difference about how the world works. Is reality dictated by material factors or can we change the world by how we talk about it? Are perceptions reality? What do you think?

Regime Security Dynamics in Syria

Tony Karon recently wrote that Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime won’t leave power willingly because of fears of a sectarian backlash from the Sunni majority. This is certainly part of the explanation. One can think even broader, and more comparatively, to understand contemporary conditions in light of the historical record. This record demonstrates that regimes do not leave power willingly or easily, and that counter examples are more likely outliers and not useful as a basis for expecting changes in behavior.

In addition to the issue of a set of narrow groups to depend on for support, the literature on regime security provides a framework for understanding the dynamics of authoritarian regimes in “recent” states, including Syria.

In the late 1970s, Michael Hudson wrote a seminal book on Arab politics, in which he argued that Arab regimes, lacking the institutionalized nature and long historical acceptance of Western states, do not have legitimacy from their populations (or from other Arab states).

Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid defined legitimacy as a “people’s voluntary acceptance of their political community and its structures of power.” That Arab leaders came to power through force or imposition, and remained in power by these same mechanisms, contributed to such a lack of this legitimacy toward the regimes. This, in turn, contributed to their sense of insecurity, and they worked to forestall threats based on these conditions.

In 1991, Steven David built on this understanding of regime security to argue that developing countries’ decisions on alliances depended on the threats they perceived not only from other countries, but also from threats emanating from domestic sources. He argued that “it is the leadership of the state and not the state itself that is the proper unit of analysis for understanding Third World foreign policy.”

Simon Dalby pointed out in 1997 that “security as conventionally formulated is about the protection of a political community of some sort,” but that new definitions of security need to account for the fact that such political communities can no longer be identified solely as states. The Assad regime is a definitive political community, with its own narrow base of support and sense of togetherness in the face of a wider Otherness among the rest of the Syrian population.

I’ve argued elsewhere that regimes under these types of domestic pressures have three options: they can engage in limited liberalization of the economy, limited liberalization of the political system, or repress/coerce. The first two are constrained efforts, since any large-scale reforms will endanger the regimes further by opening up space to contest their illegitimacy.

We should, then, have applied the lessons of Bahrain and Libya to Syria in the first place. If the Arab Spring has taught us anything, it’s that many of the regimes did not succeed in overcoming the legitimacy deficit. Algeria, Morocco, and Jordan were successful in heading off an intensification of protests by providing some forms of the first and second options. Since Syria never tried this option, and moved immediately to repression and violence, let’s now realize our mistake and re-think the dynamics of regime security in Syria to better understand the options the regime itself perceives.

If all of this is true, that leaves foreign military intervention of some kind to stop the horrific violence the regime is committing against its citizens—which is what Steven Cook and Daniel Byman have argued. As with other places where mass murder is perpetrated, the international community will have to decide what price should be paid to halt such atrocities.