Monthly Archives: August 2011

The Syria puzzle

With news in Libya quickly unfolding, I figured I would shoot this out as quickly as possible (I wrote it yesterday).  I think it’s likely that the Assad regime in Syria will take advantage of the upcoming chaos and coverage of Libya to crackdown even harder on dissent while the world is distracted.

In many ways, Syria has defied common wisdom and the expectations of scholars.  Much of my graduate school work involved working with researchers at Yale and the World Bank on projects designed to help understand the conditions under which civil conflicts were likely to take place across the world.  During the upcoming semester, my students and I will look at proposed causes of civil conflict in my class, International Conflict and Cooperation.  Here are some quick thoughts based on my earlier background on some ways to think of the Syrian conflict.

Certainly, amidst all the surprising developments in the Middle East this year, none has been more surprising to me than Syria’s uprising.  While Tunisia and Egypt erupted in protest and, ultimately, revolution, early attempts by Syrian dissidents to mobilize the population abjectly failed to gain any traction in February.  Given the past willingness and ability of the Syrian government to crush any challenges to the rule of the Assad family and Baath party rule, I would have given the likelihood of a mass movement breaking out as almost zero.  And I would have been wrong…

In the area of “civil conflict studies,” many different variables have been investigated for their connection to the outbreak of civil conflict, but a few particular ones stand out. First and foremost, civil conflicts tend to occur in poorer countries. Syria would seem to fit this description, with average income (about 4800 dollars per person per year) ranking in the lower half of the world.

However, the reasons for the the connection between poverty and civil conflict are poorly understood.  One theory by researchers Fearon and Laitin connects lower income and conflict with poor “state capacity” — meaning that a poor country would have a hard time maintaining the competent, well-armed security forces needed to maintain civil order.  Syria’s security apparatus has been notoriously oppressive, however, and its recent inability to repress local protests attests despite killing and jailing thousands of civilians speaks more to the resilience of the protestors than the impotency of the security forces.

Another variable studied in civil conflict literature involves the “level of democracy” in a country.  Findings show that countries that are somewhere in-between democratic and autocratic tend to witness more violent conflict.  The most likely reason for this is that very democratic countries allow for alternate channels to express discontent short of mass protest and armed conflict, while very repressive governments are able to intimidate or break up any opposition before it becomes a threat to stability.

The most unstable countries are, thus, those that permit enough freedom for opposition to arise, but not enough freedom for such groups to feel like they can operate through political channels.  Egypt and Tunisia seemed to be classic examples of a countries in which this was the case and why each was ripe for revolution.

Syria, however, has never permitted the type of speech and organization that the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes tolerated.  Unlike in those cases, social media and outside news outlets were quickly banned when protests began.  Although there was some liberalization in the early years of President Bashir al-Assad’s tenure, Syria remains one of the most repressive places in the Middle East.  Countries with repressive security forces and a government willing to use them tend not to experience a lot of conflict.

What, then, does explain events in Syria?  The factor from “civil war” studies that sticks out in my mind as best accounting for the Syrian uprising considers whether or not a country is “ethnically polarized.”  Ethnic polarization suggests a certain degree of political tension will exist in any country with more than one large ethnic group.  Places like Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland, and Kenya have witnessed conflict involving ethnic polarization in recent years, while even peaceful little Belgium may breakup into separate ethnic enclaves.

No grievance motivates would-be revolutionaries across the world as much as the feeling that their “in-group” is being repressed by someone else’s “out-group.”  As many news reports have appropriately pointed out, Syria’s “out-group” is the 12% of the population of Alawites (an offshoot of Shi’ism, as I pointed out last week) that control public life and are perceived as governing “over” the country’s majority Sunni population.  In this sense, the causes of the Syrian uprising are probably more comparable to the causes of earlier protests in Bahrain (where majority Shi’ites were fed up with Sunni domination) than the causes of the Egyptian or Tunisian revolutions.

While civil conflict research is somewhat inadequate to the task of explaining how the Syrian uprising started, it has even less to say about which factors determine whether mass movements are successful or not.

Earlier this year at a discussion panel that was occurring just as the Libyan civil war broke out, I asserted the obvious truth that the winning side is usually the one with bigger guns and more of them.  The Libyan conflict seems to be coming to an end, as the “big guns” of NATO air power pave the road to Tripoli for that country’s rebels.

Unfortunately, no such aid will be forthcoming to Syrian dissidents, who have been amazingly resolute in pursuing mostly peaceful protests.  With most of the guns and an increasing willingness to ignore the pleas of the international community, it would only seem a matter of time until the Assad regime murders its way back to stability.  On the other hand, the bravery of the Syrian opposition has done nothing but surprise me this year.

Our Saudi partnership – distasteful, indespensible

Every semester when I teach my geography class I ask my undergraduates the same question when we reach the topic of Saudi Arabia.  First, I explain how there is no semblance of democracy, no movie theaters, a government that practices beheadings and other nasty punishments for criminal offenses (including adultery, of course), and how women are forbidden to drive and must ask permission to do just about anything in their daily lives.  However, I also explain that the “Saudi System,” which melds Sharia law with monarchy, has existed longer than our own – ever since 1740 when the House of Saud, fighting a centuries long battle for control of the Arabian peninsula, aligned itself with the fundamentalists cleric Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahab.

The question I ask is this: Do we have a right to criticize Saudi Arabia for their lack of democracy and disregard for what we consider human rights?

Usually the large majority of students say no, it is not our place to criticize (their cultural relativism actually kind of surprises me each time). When I ask whether our country should maintain close ties with the government of Saudi Arabia, however, the reaction is far more mixed.

Our partnership with the Saudi royal family is one of the most distasteful aspects of U.S. foreign policy.  Sadly, it’s also one of the most important relationships we have.  Politics can make for strange bedfellows, and there are few examples of countries with such diametrically opposed visions of the world with so many common interests.

The most obvious common interest involves oil.  As the United States’ second largest source of imported oil and with almost 20% of the world’s proven oil reserves, the centrality of Saudi Arabia to our still fossil-fuel driven economy is indisputable.  As the leading country in OPEC, Saudi Arabia has generally been more accommodating to Western countries than other members, and has pushed for higher oil quotas and lower prices on numerous occasions, including this year.  Still, in today’s world of fungible oil markets, a close relationship is not necessary for the Saudis to pump oil or for us to buy it.

Forces beyond oil have forced Washington and Riyadh into one another’s arms again and again.  Historically, the United States and Saudi Arabia found common cause in anti-communist efforts during the Cold War.  Efforts to counter Soviet influence were replaced by containment of Saddam Hussein in the nineties.  Last, after the rise of Al-Qaeda, both countries have cooperated extensively in “the war on terror.”

The major foreign policy goal of the Saudi government is to promote the interests of  Sunni Moslems (about 80% of Muslims) throughout the Middle East.  Just as our foreign policy is inexorably tied to our self-image as champions of democracy, the Saudi’s view their country, the home of Mecca and Medina, as the rightful center of the Sunni Islamic world.

The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have continue to have a strong relationship because in pursuance of its identity-driven agenda, Saudi policy strongly opposes two groups that have tended to develop strong anti-American sentiments: namely, Shiites, who make up about fifteen percentage of Muslims, and violent Salafists, or “Al Qaeda types.”

Many were surprised this week when the Saudi government openly criticized the Syrian government for its bloody crackdown against its own people.  While the two governments have been cordial at times in the past, the Syrian government represents a dictatorship of minority Alawites (an offshoot of Shiism) who rule over a mostly Sunni population.  There is little doubt who the Saudis would ultimately like to see prevail in the present Syrian conflict.

Saudi assertion of Sunni interests in the region translates into opposition against the Shiite-based, politicized terrorists of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Saudi fears of Shiite empowerment in Bahrain also led to military intervention to protect the Sunni monarchy.  While the Shiites of Bahrain were justified in rising up against a Sunni establishment bent on maintaining a soft apartheid type system, it can be argued that Saudi intervention on behalf of the government served American’s interest by preserving stability in the country that is host to the US Fifth Fleet.

Most of all, the Saudi self-image as the defender of Sunni Islam contributes to a continuing rivalry with Iran, which, in turn, lends itself to cooperation with the U.S. in opposing Iranian influence.  According to last year’s wikileak-ed documents, Saudi officials even privately suggested the U.S. consider bombing Iranian nuclear facilities.

The Saudis not only see themselves as Sunnis, but also Salafi. Not just Salafi, but the sole legitimate voice of the Islamic tradition of Salafism.

Also known as Wahabism (which is considered an insulting and idolatrous term by practitioners), Salafism is the conservative school of Islam that is most associated with Shariah law and the restoration of the ancient Muslim empire known as a caliphate.  It is the official religious tradition of Saudi Arabia and the belief system most associated with Moslem terrorism.

The Saudi government insists, however, that they represent the voice of peaceful fundamentalism. The Al Qaeda types of the world, of course, view the Saudi royal family as a group of corrupt sell-outs eager to deal with infidels.  Saudi efforts against these militant Islamist they call “Qutbist” are fundamental to their sense of legitimacy as a Salafist state.  It also means that their biggest enemy is our biggest enemy.

This is particularly important these days as their southern neighbor, Yemen, continues to fall into civil war.  Amidst the chaos, Islamic groups associated with Al Qaeda have literally raised the Al Qaeda flag over several towns.  Americans, having witnessed multiple attempted terrorist attacks over the last several years originating from Yemen, need be concerned.  The Saudis, however, have just as much at stake with Al Qaeda at its doorstep, and will need to be increasingly active in its efforts to restore order in the country.  Diplomatically, intelligence-wise, and perhaps even militarily, we will again find their support useful.

In discussing cooperation with the Saudi’s, I haven’t even mentioned other issues like Libya, Iraq, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, all of which find Saudi Arabia playing a generally constructive and moderate role.

It might be a tough pill to swallow.  It might make us feel like hypocrites to continually cozy up to a country with such different values.  But as long as we stay involved in the greater Middle East, we need them as much or more than they need us.

The New Peace Dividend

I have intentionally held off on writing for longer-than-usual because I wanted to see how things were going to play out with the recent debt negotiations.  The result?  An agreement that gave John Boehner 98% of what he wanted and left President Obama looking like a bit of a  “loser” to many on both sides of the aisle.

Under the circumstances of imminent economic crisis and a Republican Party ready and willing to drive the economy off the cliff, the administration had few options but make up for earlier missteps by doing as much damage control as possible and swallowing the least distasteful “Satan Sandwich” it could get. The bill consists of (primarily future) spending cuts totaling 900 billion dollars and appoints a “Super Congress” that would seek additional measures to find an additional 1.5 trillion dollars.  These sound like big numbers, but the cuts are spread out over a decade and only represent about 20-25% of the budget deficit.

The most startling, and underreported outcome of the negotiations, however, involves the military budget.  Over one-third of the agreed spending cuts come in the form of cuts to the military budget.  Some of these cuts in military spending are “cheating,” in the sense that they involve already anticipated reductions in spending on Iraq and Afghanistan.  An interesting situation has emerged in which Democrats, unable to obtain federal revenue through increased taxes on the wealthy, have come to see the progressive goal of reduced military expenditures as the-next-best-thing.

The situation becomes even more interesting in November, when the bipartisan Super Congress is required to submit its budget recommendations.  If the Super Congress fails to submit its recommendations or Congress fails to approve them, than an additional 1.2 trillion dollars in spending cuts will be automatically triggered.  About half of those cuts will be taken out of the Pentagon’s budget.

What’s more likely to happen is a small-scale replay of the last month’s negotiations.  Republicans will demand cuts and refuse to negotiate on revenue beyond “closing tax loopholes” (closing loopholes is expected to magically create revenue in the same way “eliminating waste” in governments creates big savings).  Democrats, desperately looking to avoid more cuts in social programs, will attempt to mine the military budget for savings.  Since the consequence of not coming to an agreement would mean even larger cuts to the military, reticent Republicans will acquiesce to Democrat demands for large defense cuts.

Something has changed over the last year, however, and many Republicans won’t be as reticent as they use to be when it comes to cutting defense.  The newfound Republican “softness” on defense is direct consequence of divisions within the Tea Party.  The Tea Party is mostly a movement of socially conservative southerners and Midwesterners, but a libertarian streak is still evident in views on foreign and military policy.  That libertarianism can manifest itself as nativism, but also a sort of quasi-isolationism that views the Jefferson’s warning about “entangling alliances” with approval.

The last “peace dividend” occurred after the Cold War ended in the early nineties. Federal spending on the military remained relatively flat, and declined as a percentage of GDP from over 5% in 1990 to 3% in 2000.  The surplus that existed on Clinton was made possible, in part, because of this piece dividend.  Since 2001, defense spending has increased to almost 5% of GDP again as the U.S. has committed itself overseas to the “war on terror.”

Proponents of current levels of military spending, however, find themselves in the eye of the perfect storm.  The end of the Iraq War, the start of a draw down in Afghanistan, the killing of Bin Laden, and a general war weariness among the American people after a decade of conflict have greatly diminished public support for military operations abroad. Deadlock between the parties coupled with an increasing Republican ambivalence toward military budgets means large, future cuts are almost inevitable.

Will the reduction in military expenditure hurt American’s security?  If reductions are done intelligently, no.

For the present, the biggest threat to Americans continues to be Al-Qaeda inspired terrorist groups in Pakistan and Yemen (which I think I’ll write about next week).  The biggest successes against Al Qaeda have come through the judicious use of Special Forces and unmanned droned as well as the on and off cooperation of foreign governments.  The legacy of the hundreds of thousands of troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan is much less clear.

In today’s world, a big military is not necessarily one that makes us secure.  It can even work against our security. When the United States has to cut deals with questionable governments, such as the gilded apartheid regime in Bahrain, enemies quickly paint us as “hypocrites” (within Islam, this is a particularly poignant charge).  At the same time, the very reach of the U.S. military paints, for many, a picture of a global Goliath.  And let us not forget that the original, most important, grievance expressed by Al Qaeda towards the United States revolved around the continued U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia.

The next decade will represent a period of retrenchment by the United States.  While the U.S. defense budget is still likely to exceed that of the rest of the world combined, sizable cuts are in store.  Even if a successful terrorist attack occurs against Americans, it will likely not be of the scale of 9-11 and is unlikely to provoke a similar response.  As the threat of Al Qaeda gradually recedes as a result of its increasing unpopularity, new boogeymen, real or imagined, will eventually rise.  For the next few years, however, those “isolationists” pressing for a retreat of the United States from its global presence will be playing a strong hand.  And that’s not a bad thing.