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Readings concerning U.S. foreign policy


The Future of the Arab Gulf Monarchies in the Age of Uncertainties by Mohammed El-Katiria. Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College (June 2013) 38 pages.

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

     The primary audience of the U.S. Army War College is members of the U.S. national security bureaucracy, weighted heavily toward members of the Department of Defense. The college’s web site says its students are officers from all branches of the military plus “senior civilians from key agencies throughout the U.S. Government.”

      With that said, Mohammed El-Katiria’s analysis of the Gulf’s future in the wake of the Arab Spring will add to that growing sense of unease shared among U.S. security managers. While the Gulf monarchies ostensibly appear composed, beneath that calm are deep, unresolved social, ethnic, political, and economic frictions. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are diverse but El-Katiria reminds us that they are all run by small, ruling families that ban authentic political parties. There are no checks and balances to control the powers of the ruling families who appointed themselves to key government positions and accrue many privileges, internal stability is undermined by fighting within the ruling families over plumb positions, and clear rules for leadership successions are lacking.

      The kingdoms’ autocratic dictates once tolerated by a non-politicized populace are no longer tenable. Economic and educational changes, coupled with the internet and social media, has resulted in a politicized youth. A 2011 survey found that 60 percent of the GCC youth considered democracy to be their top priority. El-Katiria argues that the Gulf has entered “a new era” where “socio-economic grievances” have “transformed into a growing political quest for liberties.” Bahrain and Oman has witnessed the most widespread protests and exercised the most brutal government responses in the Gulf, but similar dissent has appeared on a smaller scale in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. The ruling families seem ill suited to make the requisite reforms. Their default response to increase the size of cash handouts to its citizens to quite discontent has its limits. It’s a short term stratagem but not a long term fix for a frustrated youth seeking substantive social change. The “GCC are part and parcel of the Arab World,” El-Katiria notes, and “they cannot escape the influence of the revolutions and political transitions that follow them.”

      Enveloping the kingdoms’ internal tensions is the rise of political Islam. The election of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was correctly portrayed as a “horrifying scenario for the GCC rulers,” making the GCC’s support for the military takeover in Egypt unsurprising. But Egypt’s turmoil and Saudi Arabia’s support for Salafists in Syria poses only to exacerbate the Shia-Sunni split in the Gulf. The systematic discrimination by the state apparatuses against Shia citizens in most GCC countries, particularly in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, El-Katiria observes, “has structurally damaged the political legitimacy of the rulers and the social cohesion.”

       Iran stands as the most significant external threat confronting the GCC. Unceasing fears that the Islamic Republic may be building nuclear weapons has obscured the fact that “tensions between Iran and most GCC countries have historical, ideological, and geostrategic roots, which make their animosity a structural feature.” The monarchies’ immediate anxiety is Iran’s hegemonic regional ambitions. Such concerns are not unfounded: Iran’s Revolutionary Guards echoes the Shah’s ambition to be the “protector” of the Gulf and Ayatollah Khomeini’s aspiration to export a Shia-led revolution resonates among the monarchies today. But a serious lapse on El-Katiria’s part is not noting the dearth of hard evidence substantiating claims that Iran is behind the GCC’s domestic troubles; rather, the evidence shows the discontent arises from legitimate domestic grievances.

      El-Katiria advises that U.S. interests in the Gulf – the supply of oil and freedom of movement for the U.S. military – is best served by preventing the rise of any hegemonic power, meaning Iran but by implication, also Saudi Arabia. He warns the overthrow of any monarchy or a shift in support from the GCC away from the U.S. would severely disrupt U.S. military operations in the region, including Afghanistan. El-Katiria’s recommendations are predictable: increase U.S. military training and armament to the monarchies against Iran and “encourage” them to make substantial changes to their political system.

      El-Katiria is in an untenable bind: his readership needs a realistic assessment of the Gulf’s stability as well as advice on how to advance U. S. interests, as currently defined by U.S. security managers. He can’t – and doesn’t – explain why well entrenched, ruling families, lavishly supplied with U.S. weaponry, would voluntarily give up their wealth, power and privileges in the name of democracy and stability. It’s a quandary that resists a simple explanation. Similarly, his suggestion that Iran poses a seriously offensive threat to the GCC, necessitating the sale of more weapons to the monarchies, is not credible.

     Similar omissions in El-Katiria’s monograph are discussion that the monarchies face pending food and water shortages, dissipation of its oil and gas resources, and environmental degradation. The materialization of such troubles will exacerbate existing social tensions within the monarchies and inexorably will cause further social upheaval. El-Katiria’s critique of the GCC may unnerve his readership but he’s pulled his punches – the situation is worse than he writes.

Uncompromised: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of an Arab American Patriot in the CIA by Nada Prouty (Palgrave Macmillian, 2011). 282 pages.

Tuesday, December 13th, 2011

The basic facts of Prouty’s story are well known, thanks to a 60 Minutes story that aired in 2010: a Lebanese student who entered the United States at age 19, she joined the FBI and swiftly rose up through its ranks to investigate prominent terrorism cases. Seeking more action in the aftermath of 9/11, Prouty transferred to the CIA where she found herself in Iraq, clandestinely traveling about the country, identifying and debriefing Iraqi “assets.” She did this at considerable risk to her life, including a period of time when she was pregnant. But when the FBI Detroit’s office linked one of her family relatives to a Lebanese sheik purportedly associated with Hezbollah, Prouty’s world crashed down upon her. Accused of begin a Hezbollah mole, she was forced to plea guilty to criminal fraud based on a twenty year old sham marriage. Her U.S. citizenship was revoked but her deportation was “withheld,” an implicit recognition that the same terrorist groups in Lebanon she allegedly helped would have killed her for having worked for the CIA.

Uncompromised tells of the numbing unfairness of the FBI investigation and federal prosecution of Prouty and stands as a warning of how paranoia and xenophobia can twist the U.S. justice system. There was no evidence that she ever illegally passed intelligence or that she undermined U.S. national security. She was wholly vindicated by a subsequent internal CIA investigation. Public opinion and parts of official Washington rallied around her, resulting in what Prouty now calls her “redemption.”  Nine months after the 60 Minutes broadcast, her legal permanent residency status was reinstated.  Her U.S. citizenship application is pending.

Prouty stated during an interview on the Diane Rehm Show that she should have gone to trial. That probably was wishful thinking. Federal prosecutors had brow beaten her into submission through character assassination and intimidation. The New York Post took to calling her “Jihad Jane.” The lead prosecutor, Kenneth Chadwell, taunted her by declaring “in the post-9/11 environment, you could be found guilty by simply being an Arab.” He threatened to file fraud charges for each time over the past 15 years she had used her allegedly fraudulently issued U.S. passport. That would have constituted hundreds of separate criminal counts and exposed her to dozens of years in prison. Her husband was threatened with prosecution and the family’s financial savings were nearly exhausted. In the end, Proudy capitulated, agreeing “to any terms they set before me.”

Prouty’s plea agreement required her to admit that she illegally accessed an FBI computer system on Hezbollah when “she was not assigned to work Hizballal cases as part of her FBI duties.” She writes that the accusation was farcical as investigating Hezbollah was one of her principle tasks in the FBI’s anti-terrorism unit. But absent this concession, the prosecutor’s proclamations of exposing a Hezbollah mole in the FBI and CIA would have fallen flat.

Prouty also pled guilty to criminal immigration fraud based on her 1990 sham marriage. That the prosecutor achieved this conviction only after coercing her to waive the 10 year statute of limitations underscored the lack of evidence supporting any claims of espionage. Prouty admitted that when she was 19 years old she married solely to obtain legal permanent residency (eg. the “green card”) but insists that the FBI and CIA knew about it. Her claim rings true: the practice of fraudulent marriages in green card applications was so well known that the same year Prouty was married, the Oscar-winning movie Green Card came out, a romantic comedy about a sham marriage. It’s impossible to believe that both agencies’ background investigations would have failed to scrutinize her prior marriage.

Much of Uncompromised tells of Prouty’s journey from Lebanon to the United States. It was an immigrant experience warped by unique hardships. Growing up in the midst of Lebanon’s civil war was deeply unsettling for her and the Levant’s internecine battles were echoed Prouty’s home life. Her father was physically abusive and he valued only his son. She admits that the FBI became her “first real American family,” providing the stability and normality she coveted. At the Bureau, she was a workaholic and wholly devoted to protecting America from terrorist attacks. That is why, when her new-found family turned on her and she summarily was marched out of her office under armed guard, the pain she suffered was immeasurable.

The government’s case against Prouty was not evidence based but fueled by politics, personal ambitions, and anti-Arab fear-mongering. Uncompromised, along with her web site and a Facebook page, exposed such abuse and helped Prouty reclaim her reputation. This self-advocacy is understandable but it’s unfortunate that she devoted only two paragraphs on what the broader implications of her experience portends for Arab or Muslim Americans. That hardly was adequate in light of the systematic efforts to demonize Islam and Muslim Americans. Critics’ complaints that she was remiss for not trusting the U.S. justice system to prove her innocence could have been quieted by explaining that Chadwell’s abusive tactics were not uncommon, as American University law professor Angela J. Davis points out in her book Arbitrary Justice: The Power of the American Prosecutor. That power helps to explain why 95 per cent of all criminal cases in the U.S. end in guilty pleas.

It appears that the FBI’s distrust toward Arab Americans have not changed since Prouty’s redemption. Chadwell continues to rely on immigration-related errors to prosecute Muslims, dubious FBI tactics continue to fuel animosity toward Arabs and Muslims, and young Arab Americans are labeled suspected terrorists for purchasing too many cell phones at Wall-Mart. Prouty found redress because of the power of 60 Minutes; other individuals coming under the Justice Department’s scrutiny may not be so lucky.

The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda by Fawaz Gerges (Oxford University Press, 2011), 272 pages. Reviewed by John Feffer

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

Even after the death of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, the routing of his organization in Afghanistan, and the assassination of the leadership of the Arabian Peninsula affiliate, the U.S. government continues to promote the threat of al-Qaeda. According to the national security apparatus, al-Qaeda still maintains the capacity to regroup in Central Asia and to launch attacks on the United States from its redoubts in Yemen and Somalia. It still inspires jihadists all over the world with its anti-imperial rhetoric and its dreams of reestablishing a global caliphate. And it threatens all civilization with its efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction.

Most of this threat inflation is nonsense, as Fawaz Gerges points out in his new book, The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda. He reserves special scorn for al-Qaeda’s nuclear threat. “For a group that has never displayed any technical sophistication in its attacks, this would involve a monumentally steep learning curve,” he writes. “Even were al-Qaeda to acquire the technical sophistication to build a nuclear bomb – and here we enter the sphere of science fiction – it lacks the structural capacity to develop such a weapon, let alone the necessary ingredients.”

Thanks largely to the spectacle of 9/11, al-Qaeda acquired a mythic reputation. But as Gerges details, the organization basically got lucky. Intelligence services should have averted the attacks beforehand. The Bush administration’s decision to attack Iraq gave the organization another shot in the arm. But that’s as far as its luck has gone. Al-Qaeda’s persistent attacks on fellow Muslims – as traitors to the faith – alienated the organization within the Muslim world. Its message of transnational terrorism was never particularly popular to begin with, even among the bulk of jihadists, who preferred to wage their struggles within particular countries such as Saudi Arabia or Egypt.

As he debunks this central myth of al-Qaeda’s power, Gerges corrects the record on a number of other points. The organization, for instance, did not exist in any institutional sense until the second half of the 1990s, even though its origin is commonly traced back to 1988. Sayyid Qutb did not provide the spiritual inspiration for al-Qaeda, for he didn’t support war against the United States. And bin Laden himself was against the shedding of Muslim blood at first, initially withholding his support for fighting against the Egyptian and Algerian governments in the 1990s.

And perhaps most importantly, al-Qaeda was not the culmination of the jihadist struggle. It was the last dying light of the movement. “When bin Laden’s group burst onto the Islamic scene in the early 1990s, the jihadist movement had largely spent itself – jihadism had failed,” Gerges writes. “Al-Qaeda’s decision to internationalize jihad was less an indicator of internal cohesion and strength of jihadism than of its inner turmoil.” In other words, not only has the reputation of al-Qaeda been over-hyped, but so has the whole tradition of violent jihadism.

The election of Barack Obama has not substantially altered the U.S. approach to al-Qaeda. Although he promised to close Guantanamo, end torture, and pull out of Iraq, and although he did retire to noxious phrase “global war on terror,” the president has largely preserved the counter-terrorism narrative. Instead of extraordinary rendition, the United States now uses drones to identify and kill suspected terrorists (along with assorted other people). And al-Qaeda remains a number one priority. Although the organization even at its height only commanded a couple thousand fighters, possessed little in the way of conventional weaponry and zero weapons of mass destruction, and controlled no significant territory, the United States remains on a war footing comparable to the Cold War when we faced a Soviet Union that matched us in terms of conventional and nuclear armaments and possessed an ideology that was more globally influential than anything bin Laden ever touted. But fear – and the need to find a compelling reason to maintain the national security status quo – has kept the United States on a war footing.

And whatever al-Qaeda was its height, which was minimal, it is now a shadow of its former self. Even its only real successor organization, al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), is marginal at best. Gerges numbers its core operatives at between 50 and 300. It has no mass following. “It does not possess the material, human means, or endurance to sustain a transnational campaign, nor does it have the assets or resources to build viable alliances with Yemeni tribes and a social welfare infrastructure,” Gerges writes, and this was before the assassination of its leader, Yemeni-American Anwar al-Awlaki.

The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda is an important book, well-researched and fiercely argued. Its central message, that al-Qaeda poses only a limited, tactical threat – must be heard and absorbed by the entire U.S. national security apparatus. Until then, we will continue to fight against monsters that are largely of our own creation.


John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.

The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists by Charles Kurzman. (Oxford University Press, 2011) 204 pages.

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

Often heard following the 9/11 attacks was the scary prediction that if only one percent of the world’s one billion Muslims joined al-Qaeda, at least one million terrorists would soon be launching attacks against the U.S. and its allies. The subsequent years have shown that forecast to be pure hogwash, tinged with a little anti-Islamic bigotry. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2009 Country Reports on Terrorism, worldwide terrorist acts from 2005 through 2008 – excluding attacks occurring in war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan – averaged about 6,600 yearly, hardly the number you’d expect from a million person assault.

Nor has the United States been inundated by Islamist inspired terror attacks. According to Would-Be Warriors, 2010 Rand Corporation study, from 9/11 to the end of 2009, 46 publicly reported cases of domestic radicalization and recruitment to jihadist terrorism occurred in the United States. Only 125 persons were identified in the 46 cases and half of the cases involved only a single individual. The report’s author, Brian Jenkins, one of the toughest but fair-minded analysts on terrorism, also pointed out that “the volume of domestic terrorist activity was much greater in the 1970s than it is today.” That decade, Jenkins calculated, saw 60 to 70 terrorist incidents, most of them bombings, on U.S. soil every year—a level of terrorist activity 15 to 20 times that seen in most of the years since 9/11, even counting foiled plots as incidents.

Equally specious have been the repeated claims that while “all Muslims are not terrorists, all terrorists are Muslim.” The FBI’s publication Terrorism 2002 -2005 calculated that Islamic extremists accounted for only six percent of all terrorist acts on U.S. soil from 1980 to 2005; in contrast, Jewish radical groups accounted for seven percent, Latino groups 42 percent, and “extreme left wing groups” 24 percent, and “others” 16 percent.

This is not to dismiss the real threat that domestic terrorism poses to the United States or to minimize the tens of thousands of individuals killed or injured in worldwide terrorist attacks. But these figures plainly deflate the alarmist “Muslim as terrorist” hyperbola that continues to abound a decade after 9/11. The anticipated million man march of al-Qaeda suicide bombers was a delusion but continues in personalities as diverse as Sean Hannity, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Glenn Beck.

Charles Kurzman, professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wants to know why, if roughly one-fifth of mankind is Muslim and they all supposedly hate the West and embrace martyrdom, are there not more Muslim terrorists? The short answer is that the vast majority of Muslims – well more than 99 percent – reject al-Qaeda’s goals.  Kurzman points to numerous opinion polls evincing that the number of Muslims eager for a theocratic state ruled by Sharia law is a distinctly small minority.  Secularists number a fifth to half of the population in various Muslim majority countries and liberal Muslims – those supporting an Islamic government following democratic procedures – account for about half the populace, including in countries such as Saudi Arabia. A 2007 Pew Research poll found that majorities in 13 out of 14 Muslim societies agreed that religion should be kept separate from government policy.

Kurzman wants the American public to “turn down the volume on terrorism debates” and “put the threat of Islamist terrorism in perspective.” Given how the U.S. media immediately assumed that the slaughter in Norway was perpetrated by Islamists, he faces a towering, up hill battle. But Kurzman offers convincing arguments for those willing to listen. The surprising numbers of opinion polls that regularly monitor public attitudes in Arab and Muslim communities evince support for his views. They show that the vast majority of Muslims are repulsed by terror attacks against civilians and that such acts turn public opinion against al-Qaeda and its affiliates. He also introduces the idea of “radical sheik” to explain to why internet forums and young Arab musical groups laud Islamist attacks on the U.S. and the West. Young Muslims, he counsels, express sympathy for “Bin Ladin and his ilk as heroes of anti-imperialism and Islamic authenticity – without actually wanting these revolutionary movements to succeed.” This widespread “symbolic endorsement” of radical Islam, Kurzman points out, has “not translate into support for revolutionary goals or potential collaboration with terrorism.” Radical Islamists appear to have the upper hand in Muslim communities because so long as they use violence, “their visibility far outweighs their numbers.”

Kurzman makes the case that radical Islamists are under ideological siege and losing the war of ideas among Muslims. Socially conservative but non-violent Muslim televangelists attract thousands of more adherents than the barkers of revolutionary Islam. Eclipsing radical Islamist doctrine has been the evolving tradition of liberal, democratic Islamic thought that has sought to modernize Muslim majority countries while paying fidelity to socially conservative Islam. Kurzman’s critique of liberal and revolutionary Islam should be mandatory reading for anyone insisting that Islam inherently stifles creative political thinking or condemns its adherents to a backward, violent theology. Progressive Islamic opinion has been publicly stifled in the Arab world partly by the murderous attacks of radical Islamists but more so by repressive Arab governments that view such voices as threats to their hold on power. Facilitating such silence has been the U.S. and its Western allies. In the U.S., Kurzman points out, such silence has been enforced by ignoring or belittling the proponents of liberal, democratic Islamic thought. “Expert pessimism about the potential for Islamic liberalism,” Kurzman explains, “has a long heritage in the West.”

Kurzman is one of the few analysts to admit that there is little Washington can do to change the Arab world’s deep hostility toward the United States, absent a meaningful change in U.S. foreign policy – a nil prospect.  But most Muslims view the U.S. as a threat to their national security and religion yet still maintain positive attitudes toward American culture and society. Kurzman urges U.S. policymakers to take advantage of the latter. Published before the current “Arab Spring,” he suggests that Washington replace its traditional, narrow question of how a policy will affect U.S. “national interests” with how will a policy effect the groups and movements that share American values and care about democracy. Forging alliances with such groups in the long term will help to secure U.S. national interests and further isolate radical Islamists. Readers seeking insight into the political cross-currents emerging from the Arab Spring without fear mongering rhetoric over radical Islam would do well to read The Missing Martyrs.

The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris by Peter Beinart. (New York: HarperCollins, 2010). 482 pp. Reviewed by Mel Gurtov.

Sunday, June 26th, 2011

In this Council on Foreign Relations publication, Peter Beinart presents another in a long line of critics of American foreign policy who take aim at exceptionalism.  His critique falls into the “liberal” camp; it does not seek to follow in the footsteps of Noam Chomsky, Chalmers Johnson, or any other radical dissection.  But like them, Beinart directly addresses the question why U.S. leaders, regardless of party, persist in intervening abroad to spread American values and secure supposedly vital interests.

The analysis was completed as Barack Obama took office, so the George W. Bush administration is the most recent one discussed.  In addition, Beinart also devotes particular attention to the presidencies of Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson—not just to the decision makers, but also to the foreign-policy intellectuals who stood behind them and gave policy a veneer of establishment authority.  As Beinart sees it, hubris is the fundamental problem—an unstoppable virus to which, when it comes to foreign-policy adventurism, no U.S. leader is immune.  To a greater or lesser degree—he cites FDR and, somewhat strangely, Ronald Reagan (do Central America and the extraordinary nuclear-weapon buildup not count?) as having departed from the norm—all administrations played on the American people’s fears (of communism or terrorism), presumed that the “can-do” spirit would overcome all difficulties, and proceeded to use force abroad in places both important and insignificant to the national interest.

“A wise foreign policy,” Beinart writes, “starts with the recognition that since America’s power is limited, we must limit our enemies.”  The limitations of power, even a superpower’s power, are the pivotal element in his analysis.  If U.S. leaders recognized those limitations, he argues, our fears would not take over clarity of thinking and purpose.  What America needs is another George Kennan—someone who never allowed ideology or idealism to lead the country into crusades; someone whose area expertise created clarity about the enemy’s own limitations.  Evidently, Henry Kissinger need not apply.

Might greater humility about what the United States can accomplish abroad and a larger role for country and regional expertise undermine what the author calls “assumptions about American omnipotence”?  These changes are no doubt necessary.  But are they sufficient?  Examining Beinart’s analysis of the Iraq invasion in 2003 provides some answers.

Beinart’s case study is strongest when discussing Bush’s personal motives and Colin Powell’s beleaguered situation.  And Beinart is undoubtedly correct, as so many inside studies have determined, about the deeper forces that explain the Iraq invasion: the cockiness of US leaders; Bush’s idealism about spreading freedom and democracy; and a pervasiveness blindness to Middle East history and culture at the highest level.  Still, Beinart’s study of the Iraq war would be more compelling if he had delved into other domestic sources of US policy, such as bureaucratic politics (for example, the pressure placed on the intelligence community to mold its findings to conform with official policy, and groupthink in the decision-making process); the role of Middle East oil in US policymaking; Dick Cheney’s promotion of an expanded definition of presidential power; and the neoconservatism movement’s determination, well in advance of 9/11, to push a more militant, specifically Reaganesque, foreign policy (embodied in the Project for the New American Century and the “Vulcans” study group).  Beyond hubris and the hyped fears of terrorism that Beinart so well describes lay the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld team’s effort to firmly establish American hegemony in the Middle East.

Beinart’s conclusion is commendable: America’s real security depends, as FDR once said, on the success of the grand experiment at home.  President Obama’s June 22, 2011 speech on Afghanistan reflected this view, providing some hope that the extraordinary expenditures on two Middle East wars would be in some major part diverted to address the country’s array of economic and social problems.  But don’t hold your breath: Even if some diversion takes place, Pentagon spending will continue its upward path, arms transfers to repressive regimes such as Pakistan’s will go forward, and the prerogatives of presidential power will continue to be used to override legal and legislative barriers.  Thus, the beat goes on.

Mel Gurtov  is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Oregon and Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective.  He previously served on the research staff of the RAND Corporation (1966-71), where he was co-author of the Pentagon Papers.  He has published twenty books and numerous articles on East Asian affairs, U.S. foreign policy, and global affairs.

Egypt, Tunisia, Iran, and the United States: U.S. Congressional Research Service Reports

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

The U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS) is an often overlooked gold mine of information on U.S. policy on an array of topics, including foreign affairs.  A division of the Library of Congress, it offers analysis of issues for members of congress and their staff and is written by individuals knowledgeable in their chosen field. While some of its reports are classified, most can be found on line.

Reports issued by CRS’s division of foreign affairs are predictably stilted but their descriptive content is indispensable for those seeking data on U.S. foreign military and economic assistance, succinct histories of U.S. foreign relations, and summarizes of U.S. policy concerns toward select countries. It’s a bonanza of information collected in one place. The Middle East division has been particularly busy in recent months, having issued 12 reports in January 2011 and December 2010, compared to their monthly average of two. Issues include political reform in Oman, Bahrain, and Kuwait, U.S. relations toward Syria and Lebanon, background reports on Hezbollah and Hamas, and U.S. foreign aid to Israel.

The most recent releases are Tunisia: Recent Developments and Policy Issues and Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations. The 13 page Tunisia report was written soon after President Ben Ali fled the country and highlights following the Tunisian uprising the “potential implications for Congress related to the oversight to U.S.-Tunisian bilateral relations and assistance.” It offered the understated prediction that “many analysts believe the events in Tunisia could affect political stability in other countries in the region with authoritarian-leaning, Western-backed regimes.”

The 28 page report on Egypt, released January 18, 2011 at the rise of the Egyptian rebellion, presents an overview of Egypt’s political structure and parties and U.S.-Egyptian relations, including a chart showing U.S. aid to Egypt from 1948 to the present.  It recognizes the tension between some U.S. policy makers advocating an “orderly” transfer of power from Mubarak to new leadership that insures “Egypt’s peace with Israel, U.S. access to the Suez Canal, and general bilateral military cooperation” and others wishing to see in Egypt “a genuine democracy even if it empowers the Muslim Brotherhood.”

CRS also issued in early January 2011 Iran Sanctions, a report detailing the evolution of international sanctions against Iran.  It succinctly reviews the myriad of U.S. sanctions legislation, U.N. resolutions, and action by other countries against Iran.  It outlines the policies that target Iran’s energy sector, restrict its ability to make or import gasoline, and isolate Iran from the international financial system. The report states that by “all accounts,” sanctions is “having a growing effect on Iran’s economy” by intensifying “the effects of Iran’s economic mismanagement and key bottlenecks.” But the CRS study concedes that a “consensus [opines] that sanctions have not, to date, caused such an Iranian policy shift.” It suggests that the White House and Congress may be promoting Iran’s domestic opposition by “emphasizing measures that would sanction Iranian officials who are human rights abusers, facilitate the democracy movement’s access to information, and express outright U.S. support for the opposition.”

The report’s author, Kenneth Katzman, is prominent among Washington’s Middle East foreign policy establishment and a long time Iran watcher, having started his career at the CIA’s Middle East analytic section and authoring one of the earliest books on Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. He has written an extensive series of fact laden CRS publications on Iran, with one title, Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy Responses, periodically updated. Glenn Greenwald, however, considers him a neocon whose opinions “reveal the grotesque indifference and banal evil that characterizes much of America’s war-loving Foreign Policy Community.”

Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War by Andrew J. Bacevich. New York: Metropolitan Books (Henry Holt and Company), 2010. Reviewed by James Roth.

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

Every US president since President Truman, says Andrew Bacevich, a retired U.S. Army colonel and now a Boston University history professor, has endorsed “the American credo,” a belief that it is up to “the United States – and the United States alone – to lead, save, liberate, and ultimately transform the world.” It is a creed that requires no proof, accepted on faith, and must express itself in practice. This is Bacevich’s third book within four years critiquing American power and this time he explores the rules by which the American creed is expressed.

The rules, characterized as a “sacred trinity,” are “an abiding conviction that the minimum essentials of international peace and order require the United States to maintain a global military presence, to configure its forces for global power projection, and to counter existing or anticipated threats by relying on a policy of global interventionism.” (Emphasis in original). The credo and trinity have been remarkably resilient in the face of misadventures in Cuba, Vietnam and now Iraq and Afghanistan but Bacevich concludes they “constitute the essence of the way that Washington has attempted to govern and police the American Century…. From the era of Harry Truman to the age of Barack Obama, that consensus has remained intact.  It defines the rules to which Washington adheres; it determines the precepts by which Washington rules.”

The book’s title therefore carries a double meaning: Washington rules the world (or tries to), and it follows rules. Much of the book is devoted to the ways in which Washington has failed to rule the world and how it has failed to learn from its failures; but primarily, it is about the changing meaning of the rules.

Bacevich persuasively argues that Washington is now engaged in a state of permanent war.  This has be said by others but Bacevich adds a novel twist by suggesting that since the Korean War, the rules by which the Pentagon played changed from seeking to win wars to that of avoiding defeat, usually by dragging out the conflict for an indeterminable time.  It was during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that permanent war became firmly established. “Not even the most hawkish proponents of American global leadership,” Bacevich observed,”  – not Allen Dulles or Curtis LeMay, not Maxwell Taylor or McGeorge Bundy – had ever proposed committing the United States to a policy of war without foreseeable end.  Yet over the course of George W. Bush’s presidency, open-ended war became accepted policy, hardly more controversial than the practice of stationing U.S. troops abroad.”

Bacevich concludes that such conduct simply won’t work.  The credo cannot be fulfilled by military means, and the heavy reliance on military operations threatens national bankruptcy and diverts resources of all kinds from productive domestic projects.  The credo itself is suspect, given that it requires a certain American exceptionalism and will inevitably collide with the aspirations of foe and friend alike.

A serious weakness in the book is Bacevich’s insistence on seeing the conduct of war only as a product of decisions by politicians and military brass, principally the latter.  He levels severe criticisms at some popular figures, including a withering critique of Gen. David Petraeus and his counterinsurgency handbook. But nowhere are economic factors mentioned.  In a discussion of Eisenhower’s farewell address, the corporate side of the military-industrial-complex equation gets short shrift, and it never comes up again.  The military requirements of corporate globalization never figure in his account.

Another short coming of the book is the absence of any discussion of the geopolitical significance of the Middle East and of US interests in the region. The discussion of Iraq focuses wholly on the conduct of the war with no comment on the economic and political reasons for going to war.  This omission is inexplicable, particularly when Alan Greenspan admitted in 1997 that the prime motive for the war against Iraq was oil. The absence of such questioning avoids discussion of potentially overwhelming contributing factors in the development of a policy of permanent war. Similarly, not taking into account the diverse and fractured cultural and political-economic features in the Middle East sidesteps discussion of one of the most influential considerations in determining why military forces will not succeed there.

The absence of a broader context precludes a full recognition of why the US has become so dependent on the military to conduct its foreign relations. But the value of Washington Rules lies in illuminating the personalities that shaped U.S. security policy and built the institutions that carried out that policy and which today sustains the Washington consensus for permanent war.


James Roth is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Regis University in Denver, Colorado

The Third Lebanon War – Council on Foreign Relations (July 2010); Drums of War: Israel and the “Axis of Resistance” – International Crisis Center (August 2010).

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

Lebanon traditionally has been the Middle East venue where the proxies of outside powers have wrought destruction; now there is apprehension that it may be the local from which a region-wide, Middle East conflagration will erupt. This concern prompted the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) to issue a “contingency planning memorandum” for the next Lebanon war. Authored by Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt and Israel as well as the first commissioner of the short-live Israeli Baseball League, it suggests that Washington pressure Israel not to attack Hezbollah. An Israeli-Hezbollah war, he concludes, “would hold almost no positive consequences for the United States.” Kurtzer doubts that the Obama Administration could resist pro-Israel pressure so he also advises that providing more advanced U.S. weaponry to Israel could induce Israeli restraint. He warns that Israel could strike swiftly and without warning, providing almost no time for U.S. sponsored “preventive diplomacy.”

The cause of Israeli-Hezbollah tension is the large quantity and enhanced quality of missiles that Hezbollah has acquired since the 2006 war. Secretary of Defense Gates described Hezbollah as possessing more missiles than most governments, which, if not misleading, Kurtzer says has “breached the limits of what Israel considers acceptable behavior.”

The International Crisis Center (ICC) concurs with Kurtzer’s prediction but forecasts a wider war embroiling Israel, Syria, Hezbollah, Lebanon, and perhaps Iran. It too recognizes that Hezbollah’s robust missile inventory underlies current tension but its in-depth analysis offers a more complex portrait of events. In contrast to Kurtzer, who views Hezbollah’s missiles only in terms of a threat to Israel, the ICC interprets the missile build-up as part of the dynamics of deterrence. Hezbollah, according to the ICC, can now retaliate to an Israeli strike by inflicting serious harm on a wide swath of Israeli civilians. The report finds that officials “from both Israel and Hizbollah privately share the conviction that the ability to inflict widespread damage represents their most effective means of deterrence.” But this stability is precariously fragile. The ICC quotes a Hezbollah official’s observation that “the new paradigm of ‘mutually assured destruction’ adds to the uncertainty. It could deter Israel from attacking, for fear of the fallout. Or it could prompt it to do so, out of concern that Hizbollah’s capability might rise even further.”

Whether the next war is sparked by premeditation or a miscalculation, Lebanese civilians and the country’s infrastructure will not be spared. It will likely include an Israeli attack on Syria to stop it from supplying weaponry to Hezbollah and perhaps to topple the regime. The fear of an unrestrained Israeli attack has caused so called “axis of resistance” – Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria, and Iran – to intensify their security ties, creating something echoing a mutual defense agreement. Not surprisingly, these moves only deepen Israel’s sense of peril. The ICC report is both sobering and chilling. It and Kurtzer offer some worthwhile recommendation to ameliorate the growing risk of war; unfortunately, past history suggests that such counsel may fall on deaf ears.

The East Moves West; India, China, and Asia’s Growing Presence in the Middle East by Geoffrey Kemp (Brookings Institution Press, 2010) Reviewed by John W. Garver

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

Kemp provides a solid and comprehensive survey of relations between China, India, and Japan and the countries of the Middle East.  Greatest attention is given to the three major East Asian powers (with Indian being included here in “east”), but summaries  are also provided for policies of South Korea, Indonesia, Pakistan. The strength of Kemp’s analysis is that he considers the policies of the three Asian giants (China, India, Japan) side-by-side rather than in isolation.  Kemp provides an encyclopedic account of the elements of this East Asia-West Asia interaction:  China-Saudi Arabian relations;  Japan-Indian ties;  China-Israeli and India-Israeli ties,  South Korean-Iran links;  Iran-Pakistan-India interactions; China’s ties to the small Persian Gulf states; etc. Virtually every conceivable aspect of the East-West Asia relation is at least adumbrated.  Current efforts to develop railways, roads, and pipelines to tie various regions together are also surveyed and placed in the strategic context of efforts by various countries to claim a share of the wealth to be had by bringing Central Asian energy resources to global markets.  Security links of China, India, and Japan with the Middle East countries are surveyed, as is the security policies of each of those three countries toward the Indian Ocean.  The book would work well as a text in a course on Asian international relations.

It will be no surprise that Kemp finds demand and supply of oil and gas to be the key driver of the emerging East Asia-West Asia relation.  The current and projected future energy relation is analyzed in considerable detail, as are the efforts of China, Japan, and India to secure energy from the Persian Gulf region.

The organizing theme of the book is that, driven by the energy imperative, the relation between West and East Asia is growing more important, diverse, and thick, with all three East Asian powers seeking to expand ties with oil rich West Asia.  Kemp’s major analytical concern is prognostication about the future evolution of the China, Japan, India relation toward West Asia/ the Middle East in their mounting struggle for energy.  A premise of Kemp’s argument is that Western influence in the Middle East is declining and will continue to decline as the energy-hungry East Asian powers struggle to meet their energy needs from the Middle East.

A major sub-theme is whether the three East Asian powers will be able to individually or collectively fill a vacuum left by possible U.S. withdrawal from the Persian Gulf.  Kemp argues that the United States is currently in the midst of a debate similar to Britain’s in the late 1960s that led ultimately to withdraw from “east of Suez.”  Now the United States, confronted with lengthy, costly, bloody, and seemingly unwinnable wars and nation-building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with mounting domestic demands and fiscal problems, may well decide to withdraw and leave the Persian Gulf region to its own devices.  Kemp does not predict this outcome, but rather speculates about its consequence.

Kemp considers unlikely some sort of China-Japan-Indian concert to maintain peace and stability in the Persian Gulf.  Historical memories and current conflict of interests are too great for that.  An “Asian balance of power” between the three with the East Asian powers choosing regional partners and building up positions and capabilities in the regions, is a possibility.

Kemp considers India to be the most likely winner to supplant the United States as a provider of security assistance to the Persian Gulf countries.  India (unlike China) has a long and rich history of security involvement in the Middle East, has historically been viewed as a benevolent and non-interventionist power, and currently is rapidly developing military and security ties with the smaller Persian Gulf states. It is building the force structure and multilateral organizations to give it a preeminent role in the Indian Ocean.  India also enjoys the great advantages of proximity and “expatriate” dominance in the Persian Gulf economies.  If and when the U.S. decides to withdraw from “east of Suez,” Washington (and perhaps Tokyo too) could support India as the new cop on the block, rather like Nixon supported Iran in that role during an earlier era.  Kemp does not discuss this, but one wonders if China’s advocates of multi-polarity would prefer Indian to U.S. domination of the Gulf.  Kemp’s discussion also casts a new and interesting light on the India-Iran-China relation.  In maneuvering for influence in a post-U.S. Gulf, Beijing and New Delhi would recognize Tehran as a major player.  In fact, Beijing’s current policies are probably intended, in part, to build capital in Tehran against that future day.

John Garver is professor of International Relations at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology and the author of China and Iran: Ancient Partners in a Post-Imperial World (Univ. of Washington Press: 2006)

Engaging the Muslim World by Juan Cole (Palgrave MacMillan: 2008) 247 pp. + index. Reviewed by Rex Wingerter

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

The late Edward Said  lamented  years prior to 9/11 that America and the West were adopting a “devil theory of Islam,” where behind every explosion hid a worldwide Islamic conspiracy.  Since the attacks, the theory has emerged full blown.  Juan Cole views such Western fears to be indicative of “Islam Anxiety,” a condition where the Muslim world is viewed “solely in a cultural and religious context and not understanding the social and economic dynamics that drive its tensions with the West.” Engaging the Muslim World is tendered as an antidote to this angst. A history professor at the University of Michigan and a recognized top expert on the Middle East, he’s been offering his insights for some time on his well-known web log Informed Comment.com.

The first chapter bluntly explains why Americans need to take a fair-minded approach to Islam: oil.  A resource found largely in Muslim-majority countries, Cole warns that these oil producing countries soon will tire of America’s threats and demonization and sell their product to non-American buyers. The result will be dangerous resource wars between and among oil suppliers and consumers. “Petroleum makes the world go round,” he notes, “which means that, increasingly, Muslims will make the world go round.” Assuring the continued supply of oil to the U.S., in his view, is best served by improving friendly relations with the Muslim world.

Seeking to shatter anti-Muslim stereotypes, Cole points to public opinion polls showing that most Muslims don’t hate our freedom after all. Nearly 60 percent of Saudi Arabians think democracy is the best form of government and four-fifth of Iranians view the American people favorably. His knack for invoking comparisons also is an effective pedagogical tool:  the 4 million displaced Iraqis resulting from the U.S. invasion would be proportionately equivalent to the entire populations of California and Michigan. Similarly, the estimates of the number of Iraqi deaths range from the entire population of Pittsburgh or Cincinnati to imagining that “a death ray had mown down everyone in Ohio.”

Cole’s critiques of “radical Islam” will be heresy for readers accustomed to mainstream U.S. punditry. He dismisses the idea that Islamic fundamentalist groups are powerful and pervasive in Muslim societies. The September 11th attacks did not herald the beginning of the Islamic revolution but symbolized “the flailing about of a dying organization of aging revolutionaries banished to camps in the rugged waste-lands of failed states.” Heretical nor not, his thoughtful insights and arguments are compelling.

Arab attitudes toward U.S. leadership – distinct from their attitude toward the American people – are poor.  Approval rates in Egypt for President Obama only reach 37 percent. This, advises Cole, is on account of “American Anxiety,” a condition where Muslim-majority countries fear that Washington seeks to cripple and destroy their religious identity and control their resources. Opinion polls support his theory: 79 percent of those questioned in Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan, and Indonesia believe that America seeks to “weaken and divide the Islamic world.” A similar percentage in those countries believe the United States wants “control over the resources of the Middle East” and about 64 percent believed Washington wanted to spread Christianity among them.

Such disquiet is understandable based on how the U.S. helped to overthrow Mosaddegh in Iran, perhaps placed Saddam Hussein in power in Iraq, and has propped up authoritarian regimes through the region. But the emphasis in Engaging the Muslim World is less on U.S. policy machinations and more on highlighting the confusing complexity of the Middle East. This is where Cole shines, deftly describing the histories and intricacies of individual countries. He disputes accusations that Wahhabism, the fundamentalist strain of Islam that dominates Saudi Arabia, is the cause for the Kingdom’s repressive political policies by pointing out that the co-religious State of Qatar is much less repressive. Pakistan and Afghanistan are shown to have their own factious, domestic agendas that often are distinctly different, if not contrary, to American efforts to fight Taliban insurgents. Iran’s political history makes it highly unlikely that it will halt its uranium enrichment efforts but similarly unlikely to embark on a campaign of regional conquest. Cole also touches on Lebanon, Syria, Hamas and Hizbullah with equal craftsmanship.

Little is said about Israel, except to contend that the Israel/Palestine conflict significantly undermines U.S. interests in the Middle East. Many would pause at his claim that the conflict’s equitable resolution would resolve 90 percent of U.S. problems with the Muslim world. But the suggestion that Israel’s return of the Golan Heights to Syria and the Shebaa Farms to Lebanon would vacate Hizbullah’s justification for militancy makes sense.

Many will cast Cole as an apologist for Islamic fundamentalist violence. Others will dismiss as naïve his call for mutual understanding and cooperation between North Atlantic and Muslim countries. But if Cole does at times sound like a defender of the Muslim world, it’s because he is one of the few knowledgeable voices that eschews fear mongering and offers a clam, reasoned approach to explaining the Muslim and Arab worlds. At a time when the Obama Administration appears to be adopting “Bush-lite” policies toward the region, such a perspective is sorely needed.

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