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Understanding Arab-Islamic Politics: Advocating the Case of the Political Culture Approach (A)

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The chronicles of human history are mainly the struggle between despotic, oppressive governments, on the one hand, and freedom from tyranny and the aspiration to achieve civil rights and freedoms, on the other; between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, and liberal democracy.

In the words of Fukuyama, the twentieth century witnessed the world attacked by convulsions of ideological violence in the struggle of democratic liberalism, first against the remains of absolutism, and afterwards against Bolshevism and fascism. The end of the century witnessed the victory of Western liberal democracy. The world had not only reached “the end of ideology”, but also “the end of history.”

Thus, Marshall McLuhan’s vision, as early as 1964, regarding “the global village”, took on form and content with its outstanding expression being the tremendous spread of the social media and the communications and news networks. Society has reached “the Mac-World” as a cultural phenomenon. Moreover, the gaps between “high politics” – which deals with war and peace – and “low politics” which deals with social-economic issues and human welfare, are being progressively narrowed. This is the basis for the argument that the cultural borders between human societies have been blurred, and local cultures are now subject to the profound influence of the global culture.

However, is this the real situation? If “the end of history” has arrived, and democracy is victorious, why are there still so many wars between states, and so many tyrants threatening to bring about the destruction of humankind? If the cultural borders between human societies have become blurred, why is there an increase in fanatic nationalism? Why have ethnic conflicts and separatist uprisings multiplied?

Why is there still a First, Second, Third and even a Fourth World? Why is the division between the North and the South in effect and even more intense? And above all, why is Huntington so right in his analysis that in every place where Islam and Arabs are found, violence as well as internal and external wars are likewise found?

Indeed, the world reality is far from the optimistic, globalization vision, and it is doubtful whether cultural boundaries have been blurred. Hostility, rancor, violence, and global dangers have not vanished. National and state interests have not only converged but have partly moved further apart. Unfortunately, Islam confronts and viciously fights all other world’s civilizations, and as Huntington refers to Islamic boundaries are borders of blood.

The end-of-history and the globalization approaches are based on two perceptions that are not necessarily accurate: first, has the state really become obsolete as a central focus of reference, and is it losing its power and its sovereign control? Secondly, has the growth in importance of cross-border economic forces and transnational players really diminished the significance of conflicts between states over territory? Has geo-economics replaced geo-politics? It is not only doubtful whether the world at the twenty-first century is more stable and quieter, but it is sure that Islamic religious ideology takes advantage of the power vacuum that has been created to control and to subdue the civilized world, and to bring it to the Islamic 7th century desert.

The data is crystal clear. Over 90 percent of world terrorism and over 70 percent of world violence is purely Islamic, and the countdown continues rising up. This is enough without any doubt to put Islam to where it belongs. In 2015 there were 452 cases of homicide bombings alone. All of them where Muslims. From September 11 to April 2016 there were more than 28,000 terrorist acts alone, in which hundreds of thousands of people victimized.

In the last 70 years 14 million Muslims were massacred by other Muslims. There is not even one state around the world that is not confronted by Islam, by Jihad violence and terrorism, or by Da’wah, the preaching to Islam and the diplomacy of deceiving the infidels, or by Hijrah, massive huge immigration and birth-rate demography. Isn’t it enough to label Islam to where it belongs? Islam has never been all over its 1400 years, even for one day, a religion of peace.  

The interesting phenomenon is that there is a broad consensus that there is a distinct Japanese, or Chinese, or Hindu, or African-Tribal cultures, and, a distinct Arab-Islamic culture of great power and influence. We even teach these characteristics as a variegated cultural difference on the anthropological level, however, at one and the same time, we deny the cultural difference on the political level and disavow its importance on the level of behavioral insight.

But in our understanding, the gaps between Western and Arab-Islamic culture are so deep and qualitative that it determines everything. There is ample scientific and empirical clear proofs that without understanding the cultural ideological spectrum there is a huge deficiency in the ability to qualitatively analyze the Middle East and Islamic world. The denial to use culture as a scientific tool on the racial grounds and as a part of politically correct approach is not only stupid but largely contributes to the lack of understanding in fact the large ignorance that determines our behavior.

The world may have turned into a small village in many aspects, but political culture, which is also influenced and shaped by religion, dictates gaps in behavior and attitudes and creates deep political differences, which are difficult to bridge over.

Indeed, the widespread use of modernization and technology does not necessarily blur the behavioral boundaries and certainly not the cultural ones. Such is the case of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The tremendous petro-dollar riches they have accumulated have not changed the traits of the traditional anarchistic tribal society as a pre-medieval community. The capacity to purchase every technological innovation and the state of the art of Western means has not at all changed their societies’ way of life and tribal-clan structure.

In the West, those who do not understand this cultural phenomenon are astounded and full of wonder at how these states perpetuate their traditional way of life, and at the same time, prevent Westerners from leading their regular way of life and demand from them consideration for their religious and cultural values while staying there.

A no less severe phenomenon is that Saudi Arabia has invested billions of dollars in buying many research institutions throughout the world, and finances universities and researchers in the West, just in order to glorify its own cultural values. It finances, in fact buys communications media outlets, public opinion and lawyers firms throughout the Western world. It spends billions of dollars in maintaining internet sites of high quality in English and Arabic, which are meant to uphold its own anachronistic tribal values and the features of traditional Islam. And it has worked to prevent antagonism against itself, as a society hostile to Western culture.

Above all, Saudi Arabia is Enemy Number One of the modern, democratic international system. It finances, aids, supports, and consolidates most of the fundamentalist Islamic terrorist organizations and groups throughout the world. Ultimately, Saudi Arabia aspires to restore the Islamic past to the future of modern, human society. Modern life and the Western technology that it uses have not changed Saudi society. The cultural structure has remained congealed in tribal anarchy; hence, the Western conception of change and transition to modernity has no chance either of flourishing or of even becoming established in Arab-Islamic political culture.

The central argument which we are expounding, is that there are wide gaps between various cultures, which are expressed in profound differences in ways of life and social structure, chiefly between Western political culture and Arab-Islamic political culture, and this influences patterns of political and behavioral activity. These gaps constitute a basis for flaws of thinking, distorted perceptions, and failures of policy. These factors, which are shaped and fostered in the various cultures, bring about strategic surprises and mental blindness (visual agnosia) and lead to the march of folly and disasters.

We may diagnose the phenomenon with the concept of “mirror image”. This expresses a personality system, which causes one to perceive an adversary’s thinking as matching one’s own. You look at your adversary and see his conceptions and mental images as matching your own set of values and beliefs. But in practice, you see yourself reflected in the mirror, and you attach to your adversary operational evaluations and defining positions that are exactly the same as your own.

Let’s take the issues of war and peace through the lenses of the “mirror image.”

You estimate that your conceptions, strategic definitions, and certainly your operational means, are your adversary’s as well. You and he aspire to peace, and you and he strive in the same direction and in the same trends by means of peace. And you are sure that you and he understand peace in the same parameters, and all that is needed is good will on both sides to end the war and to march into peace.

It is clear to you that your good will expresses the same boundaries as your adversary’s good will. Therefore, matters are absolutely understood by both sides, and the way to ending wars and establishing peace leads down the same path. You estimate that the political circumstances and the historical conclusions lead both you and your adversary to the same operational evaluations.

You and your adversary have arrived at the same situation after having tried everything, hence you both have the firm opinion that the shared aim in sitting down together for talks and discussions is to arrive at successful political arrangements, which you both understand according to the very same parameters.

And why is this absolutely clear and taken for granted? Because you and your adversary both understand that both of you have paid a high human and economic price, that you are both ripe for negotiations and political arrangements that will bring about peace and coexistence.

However, do both sides really aspire to peace in like manner? Do they both define the longed for peace in a symmetrical manner? Are they ready for an arrangement as a consequence of the same operational conclusions? Are they both politically exhausted and socially tired that their only conclusion is ending the war and reaching peace?

Our intention is to stress that “the mirror image” distorts the perception of reality, and muddles positions. From here the way is short to strategic surprises and shameful failures and national disasters, which might bring states to the verge of extinction.

We all know that the outer objective world is not the internal subjective world, still we do not translate it operatively in the political realm and we totally ignore the cultural dimension. We so much want to believe our adversary resembles us in our mutual aspirations and the means to achieve them that we literally erase behavioral boundaries and resist any other information to enter our minds.

But what if your adversary is different from you culturally and his conceptual definitions and political beliefs are different from you? What if what is for you moderate is in Islam the opposite? What if Bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are extremists according to your views, while they are moderate according to Islam? What if those who follow the Islamic commandments are moderate true believers according to Islam while their behavior and acts put them on the extreme line of the spectrum according to Western values and beliefs? What if to kill, to butcher, to slaughter, to decapitate, to terrorize and to hate the infidels and all other inhumane acts are totally unacceptable according to Western moral values, but are in fact part of Islamic commandments to its believers to follow?    

Indeed, we do not understand consciously and we do not want to contend conceptually with a problem so deeply unprecedented in history. This is not a nightmare that would fade away, rather this is a horrible plague, a contagious virus that spread all over the world aspiring to critically change it. We all watch and read and listen to the words clearly declared by Muslims: ‘we will win over you, we will subdue you, just because you love life, while we love death,’ and we still continue to ignore.

We all watch and read and listen to the voices clearly say that the is occupying the entire world and bringing it under Islamic rule, because it is the destiny of Islam to solely rule the world, and that the Shari’ah is the only constitution under which humanity must accordingly live and still continue to pretend everything is just find and the Muslims will accommodate and assimilate.  

The political cultural approach is a sensitive filter for understanding the deep gaps between the positions and conceptions of the parties. To illuminating the flaws and the lack of cultural insight one may consider the remarks of the Israeli journalist Doron Rosenblum, who related to the throwing of stones from Lebanon from the border toward Israel by Prof. Edward Said, the author of the notorious Orientalism:  

Perhaps the most famous intellectual today…to join the latest trend, in which masses from all the Arab states stream to the Lebanon-Israel border in order to spit, to curse, and to throw stones at Israel?… Why do the Arab masses really stream precisely to the place from where we withdrew to the last centimeter; precisely to the point where there is no occupation and no territorial claims; precisely to the place where we raised our hands; precisely there they stream to express their bottomless hatred [which has] no end or purpose; precisely to there of all places?… And in true astonishment one may ask, what are your intentions? Is it because of the past or because of the future? Or is it just because of hatred and inertia?

Doron Rosenblum, ignorant and lacking in insight as to the meanings of the cultural gaps, does not at all understand that precisely in the place where Israel had definitively withdrawn, it was transmitting a message of great weakness, and the reaction was total hostility and lack of inhibition by the Arab masses, intellectuals, and politicians. He does not understand that in Arab-Islamic political culture, weakness is not accepted as magnanimity in victory, but precisely the opposite: the continuation of warfare. He does not understand there is no quit pro quo in Arab-Islamic political culture and if you retreat and give up there is no mutual reaction from Arab-Islamic side. In the Middle East, everything is right and acceptable but weakness and failure. And Rosenblum does not understand that the stone expresses the cultural dimension in its ancient usage, disavowing by stoning to death.

The Free World leaders make their work easy: they fight against the symptom and not against the real issue. They declare fighting terrorism, Jihad, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, but not the ideological-religious sources that motivate them. That is why they fail time and again and Islam continues in its march of victory. Bernard Lewis has tried to explain this in his research, What Went Wrong.  

How is the cultural phenomenon expressed? Why is it so elusive, despite its being known and understood to scientific research? Norman Dixon in his Our Own Worst Enemy examined the psychology of failing leaderships. He directed attention to the phenomenon that the leadership invests its resources in two activities: denying objective reality by a wishful thinking approach, and rationalization of mistaken behavior when reality proves the leaders were wrong and their actions are proven mistaken.

Various scientific disciplines deal with national perceptions and images, how beliefs and values influence activity and leaders’ reactions. The concept of belief systems include terms such as “the image”, “the operational code”, “cognitive map”, that link between the actor’s psychological and operational environments. These are set of lenses through which information is received. Yet, the literature concerning misperception focuses on the psychological accounts of why individuals interpret the world in the way they do, rather the belief systems focuses of how the individuals see the world and act accordingly.

Robert Jarvis explains how misperceptions and misconceptions determine our behavior. People make decisions according to their interpretation of the information they get without studying and analyzing it. People stick to political based conceptions and ignore any contradictory information. Importantly, people with higher education are less open to change their political views, even less readiness to assimilate contradictory information.

Part of the explanation for this phenomenon is the “cognitive dissonance” approach, advanced by Leon Festinger, in his The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. That is, there is unwillingness to accept what may contradict one’s values, conceptions, positions, and beliefs. Instead of checking one’s own values and actions, a person’s mind is closed to any unacceptable development, and he refuses to admit his mistakes or his failed evaluations. From comes conceptual fixation and closed consciousness.

This also leads to visual agnosia, even willful blindness. People observe only what they want to observe. People believe in what suits their views and values and people tend to follow the optimistic side of human behavior. This is likened to a man’s reaction to threatening information that contradicts his conceptions and values, or that fundamentally contradicts his policy. The immediate reaction is refusal by way of disbelief that the threat will be realized, a phenomenon that leads to being unprepared. The problem is if we are all infected with this syndrome. Leaders are supposed to think in terms of the nation as a whole, and their responsibility is higher and more concrete. Leaders with a great deal of self-confidence will display more indifference to risks, and will not deploy to face threats and dangers. This might lead to war.

Those whose self-confidence and experience are low might sharpen crises and again be drawn into war as a result of failure to make proper responses. In any event, inaction on the part of leaders, or superfluous action, is a recipe for national disasters. Barbara Tuchman referred to this, pointing out that throughout history governments have taken positions opposed to the interests of their peoples. A leadership’s capacity to perform is extremely poor, and precisely those leaderships had an existential influence on the fate of peoples and states. Wars break out not necessarily because of failure to perceive a developing reality, but as failures of leadership, and their inability to analyze ongoing phenomena because of their aspiration to force their will on reality.

What characterizes political leadership is folly, closed minds, and stubborn blindness, which are a source of self-deception that does not learn from experience, as they continue to evaluate their own political path as correct, and practice a mistaken policy.20 Moreover, leaders aspire to invent the wheel anew, rather than basing themselves on orderly thinking, systematic policy, and long-range plans, preferring self-deception and conceptions determined in advance. Lastly, they totally disregard contrary signs and signals, and are incapable of pausing to examine the policy in effect in light of developing reality, out of the estimate that there is no alternative to their policy.

When we discuss the issue of culture, the political leadership has decisive influence. The manner of its behavior and conduct is not necessarily understood. Leaders, like society in general, do not act in accord with “logical”, defined parameters. This stands out particularly on the issue of contending with matters that are important to deal with as against urgent matters. Leaders are busy, first of all, with “the politics of oblivion”, which means not dealing with controversial, problematic matters, which resemble booby traps from the standpoint of the potential problems they enfold.

Second, when these problems reach their desks nonetheless, they seek to postpone dealing with them by a “policy of delay”. Third, when the problems pop up again, and dealing with them cannot be put off any longer, leaders adopt a “policy of committees”. They set up an investigating commission to examine the situation in the hope that the situation will change before it has concluded its work.

Fourth, when the investigating commission finishes its work and presents its recommendations, the leaders practice a “policy of file away and do nothing”, or set up a commission to implement the recommendations, which buries the matter. In any event, time is a variable of critical importance, and a major trait of their activity.

Why do we deal with these aspects? Because leaders continue not to learn, and stubbornly persist in not drawing lessons, even when strategic failure cannot be ignored and proves them wrong. This is the politics of permeability and closed minds, hence also, their inability to mold another policy, based on national interests and taking into account their own responsibility. National disasters are the next stop.

Tuchman quotes the historian of Philip II, king of Spain, who was “more closed minded than all the kings”, so that no failure of his policy could challenge his absolute faith that his policy was excellent. Indeed, unlike accidents, it must be understood that national disasters do not develop overnight, but as a consequence of a series of faults and mistakes in political assumptions. This involves events that are cognitively dissonant, that are ignored or the existence of which is denied; flaws of processing information or correctly dealing with it; and incapacity to control events.

The first duty of leaders is to examine whether it is possible to attain goals, and whether they are realistic. The more that they are not realistic the more leaders mislead their own people and present it with “surprises” and failures. What is not realistic will not be realized, no matter how splendid it is, and no matter how much it is defined as a historical breakthrough. What is important is to stay with reality, with the possible, and with what can be achieved, after deeply probing study and research, deliberation, and obtaining reliable intelligence. Anything that is not based on these foundations might end up as a national disaster.

The most responsible attitude for leadership is to know when to stop, to examine issues frankly, and to admit mistakes. Flimsy foundations of a policy will not stand in place, even if they are mended with splendid patches. What cannot be mended will collapse in disaster. On the other hand, leaders very much love to make reforms, and to declare a new national policy, or a revolutionary strategy that they have drawn up. The problem is that it is not enough to show that a certain situation is bad. It is necessary to be sure that the problem has been properly described, and that the solution proposed will lead to improvement of the situation.

For that reason, common sense, judgment, avoidance of comprehensive solutions that have not been properly checked must all be avoided, and always there must be a willingness to stop and examine the situation anew. Successful leaders are those who act responsibly, but who also admit failure. A major reason why leaders become irresponsible is because they become confused between the unreasonable and the impossible to achieve. What they perceive as unreasonable is not taken seriously in shaping policy.

Indeed, the most dangerous mental defects are laziness of thought, which means lack of readiness to contend with complex, unknown reality, and lack of operational patience, which leads to infatuation with theories that apparently explain everything, instead of practicing political judgment and taking national responsibility. The most important expression of this in the words of the ancient sages is, “Think first before you act.” There is nothing more important nor lesson more instructive for political leadership than this maxim. Indeed, intelligent, considered policy is expressed by “Think first before you act.” (Literally: “the end of an act begins with a thought”) Another insight is in the statement “Noah built the ark before the deluge.” Before the deluge, always before the deluge. Disasters have to be dealt with before they occur, not after they have taken place.

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Tunisia between Islamism and the ‘Delta variant’

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photo credit: tunisienumerique.com

On Sunday 25 July, on a day dedicated to celebrating the country’s independence, in a move that surprised observers and diplomats alike, Tunisian President Kais Sayed relieved Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, who had been in office since September 2020, of his duties. He suspended Parliament’s works and dismissed the Interior and Defence Ministers.

Mechichi, as well as the Speaker of Parliament Rachid Gannouchi, are members of the Islamist Ennhada party which, with 25% of the votes, holds the majority of Parliamentary seats and since 2011, when it returned to legality, has become a powerful political force that has attempted – without resorting to violence – to give secular Tunisia a progressive turn towards the most militant Islamism.

As is well known, Tunisia was the first Muslim country to be crossed by the stormy wind of the “Arab Springs” when, in December 2010, a young fruit and vegetable street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in a square in the centre of Tunis to protest against the corruption of President Ben Ali’s government, in power for 23 years.

The demonstrations that followed the young street vendor’s death led to the ousting of President Ben Ali in January 2011, who was forced into exile in Saudi Arabia with his entire family, as well as to the fall of Mohamed Gannouchi’s government and, in October of the same year,  to new elections which saw the success of the religious party, Ennhada, which had been banned by Ben Ali. This triggered a series of political innovations that led – in January 2014 – to the approval of a new constitution that, despite strong Parliamentary pressure from the most radical Islamists, can be considered one of the most progressive in the whole North Africa.

In the five years that followed, Tunisia – amid political and economic ups and downs – maintained a degree of internal stability that enabled it to dampen those Islamist pressures that, in other countries of the region, had turned the so-called “springs” into nightmares marked by unrest and bloody civil conflicts.

Ennhada was gradually integrated into a sort of ‘constitutional arc’, despite the protests of its most radical militants, and its most charismatic leader, Rachid Gannouchi, was even appointed Speaker of Tunis Parliament.

In recent years, however, the country has been afflicted by the problem of corruption of its entire ruling class, including Islamists. It is on a programme platform to fight this phenomenon resolutely and relentlessly that in October 2019 an eminent Law Professor, Kais Sayed, was elected President of the Republic.

In August 2020, President Sayed appointed Mechhichi, a moderate who had already been his political advisor, to form a technocratic government, “free from parties’ influence”.

The situation has seen the establishment of what the Tunisian media call the ‘government of the three Presidents’, namely Sayed (President of the Republic), Mechichi (President of the Council) and Gannouchi who, as Speaker of Parliament, tries to make the majority presence of the Ennhada Islamists in the legislative branch count.

The equilibria are fragile and are made even more precarious by the heavy social and economic consequences of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the country.

Since the beginning of this year, Tunisia has been in a state of creeping crisis: the political uncertainty caused by the perennial search for a difficult political and governmental has been compounded by ideological and personal tensions between the “three Presidents”, whose positions on the instruments with which to tackle the pandemic and the economic crisis have gradually exacerbated to the point of producing a situation of political and legislative paralysis that is completely unsustainable.

In recent weeks, the ‘Delta variant’ of the pandemic has caused a spike in infections, causing further damage not only to the population and the health system, but also and above all to the economy of a country that is seeing the possibility of boosting its gross domestic product with tourism disappear for the second year running. For decades tourism has been an irreplaceable source of livelihood and enrichment for large sections of the population. The pandemic crisis has acted as a multiplier of the economic crisis, with the progressive and seemingly unstoppable loss of dinar value and the increasingly acute disparity between the increasingly poor and the increasingly rich people.

The government’s approach to the pandemic has been nothing short of disastrous. While the World Health Organisation declared Tunisia ‘the most infected country in Africa’, the government saw the change of five Health Ministers in succession, each of whom proposed confusing and uncoordinated emergency measures (lockdown, curfew), which were completely ineffective in containing the spread of the virus and the high levels of mortality.

The often improvised and contradictory confinement rules have exasperated the population, who has taken sides with the two parts of the political front: on the one hand, Ennhada’s supporters, who are convinced that the technocratic part of the government is to blame for the health and economic crisis; on the other hand, the secularists, who accuse the Islamists of being the cause of everything and of playing the “so much the worse, so much the better” game to permanently destabilise the institutions and turn Tunisia into an Islamic State.

Ennhada itself has not remained unscathed by internal quarrels and divisions, between the ‘hardliners’ who want the party to return to its militant origins and those who prefer to ‘stay in power and rule’ who – as is currently happening in Italy – prefer to seek stability in the situation and maintain their power positions.

Last May, Abdellhamid Jelassi, the Head of the Ennhada “Council of Doctrine”, resigned accusing the party leader and Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Gannouchi, of delaying the date of the Congress in order to avoid his defenestration and the appointment of a successor closer to the original ideas of the movement and to the most radical tenets of Islamic doctrine which, according to the orthodox members, have been betrayed by “those who want to rule” for the sake of power.

It was in that situation of economic, political and social crisis that, invoking Article 80 of the 2014 Constitution, President Sayed dismissed the Prime Minister along with other Cabinet members and suspended Parliament’s works for thirty days.

Many people within the country and abroad, starting with Erdogan’s Turkey, shouted the coup.

In Ankara, the spokesman of the AKP, President Erdogan’s party, defined President Sayed’s actions as “illegitimate” and threatened sanctions against those who “inflict this evil on our brothers and sisters in Tunisia”, while the Turkish Foreign Minister more cautiously confined himself to expressing his “deep concern” over the suspension of Parliamentary activities.

It is significant, however, that on the national front, after the first street protests by Islamists and Ennhada supporters, which were immediately harshly repressed by the police, and after the closure of the offices of the Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera, which has always fomented Islamist demands, as well as the dismissal of the top management of the state TV, the “crowd” in the streets was dominated by demonstrators who favourably viewed the President’s initiative which, in their opinion, put an end to the activities of that part of the national government that proved totally unable of tackling the pandemic emergency and its negative social and economic consequences.

According to those who claim that what happened on July 25 was not a coup, President Sayed did not dissolve the Tunisian government: he confined himself to dismissing incapable Ministers and leaving those of the ‘technocratic’ wing in place, in the hope of producing a government turn while waiting for Parliament to reopen at the end of August.

The situation is in flux, but it seems to be moving towards stabilisation, which will be speeded up if the Mediterranean countries and the European Union move quickly to help Tunisia get out of the doldrums of the pandemic and economic crisis.

Helping the Tunisian authorities pragmatically to resolve the political crisis is also in the interest of all the countries bordering the Mediterranean, starting with Italy, not only for reasons of good political neighbourhood, but also to prevent a possible Tunisian chaos from triggering a new and uncontrolled migration push. This is what is currently happening in Afghanistan, where, following the ‘unconditional surrender’ of the United States and NATO allies, the Taliban are coming back, with the first consequence of a mass exodus of Afghans to Turkey via Iran.

According to the UNRHC, the United Nations refugee agency, thousands of refugees from Afghanistan are moving towards Turkey at a rate of 1,000 to 2,000 people a day: a phenomenon which could soon affect Italy, too.

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Politics by Other Means: A Case Study of the 1991 Gulf War

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War has been around since the dawn of man and is spawned by innate human characteristics. Often, when efforts at resolving conflicts fail diplomatically (be it at the nation or international level), war is what follows and seemingly the only other option. As Clausewitz, the famed Prussian military commander and military theorist, once said, “War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce” and, despite the horror and destruction of war, war is necessary for the conduct of foreign policy. War and physical combat allows for resolutions that cannot come about from any other way, once all legitimate foreign policy tactics have been exhausted. With the U.S. there are an abundant amount of examples showing how direct military conflict has solved a foreign policy problem. The 1991 Gulf War is a prime example.

               The Gulf War began in August of 1990, when Iraqi tanks rolled over the Iraqi-Kuwait border, claiming vast oil reserves and annexing the country. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had just come out of the Iran-Iraq War, an almost eight-year, prolonged war of attrition which ended with, “an estimated quarter of a million dead…over 60,000 Iraqis [as] prisoners of war…[and] had run up a debt of over $80 billion…[with] the collapse of world prices meant that Iraq’s oil revenues in 1988 amounted to $11 billion, less than half its 1980 revenue”. Not only this, but Iraq had been fighting what was essentially a civil war in Iraqi Kurdistan, which involved the use of chemical weapons against civilians. The hundred year plus dispute between Iraq and Kuwait about sections of the border with essential waterways leading to the Gulf, the economic hardships and falling price of oil, the U.S. severing ties with the Middle Eastern nation due to war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the fear of decreasing power and influence in the region, and the desire to attain the funding for nuclear weapons programs were all central factors in Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

               International outcry was swift and critical of Saddam’s actions. This was largely due to the fact that Iraq was now closer to Saudi Arabia and the threat of him and Iraq controlling a substantial portion of the world’s oil reserves was very real. Richard Kohn, a professor of military history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, discussed this with NPR, stating, “The stakes in 1990 and ’91 were really rather enormous. Had Saddam Hussein gotten control of the Saudi oil fields, he would have had the world economy by the throat. That was immediately recognized by capitals around the world”. Immediately following the invasion, on August 03, the United Nations Security Council demanded that Iraq withdraw from the country and, when Iraq did not abide by this demand, the UN “imposed a worldwide ban on trade with Iraq (The Iraqi government responded by formally annexing Kuwait on August 8)”. The U.S. too engaged and tried to push the Iraqis out of Kuwait by placing U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, utilizing this military presence as a deterrent.

Despite such action by the most powerful international foreign policy and diplomatic body in the globe, and diplomatic action on the part of the U.S. and other foreign nations, war still occurred in January of 1991, which eventually pushed Saddam out of Kuwait via aerial and naval bombardment and, by February, had armor and infantry troops rolling towards Baghdad. The question that remains is, was the war necessary to solving the situation in Iraq and did such military action further international foreign policy goals of the United States?

               War was the only other option that the United States could take when dealing with Saddam. The United Nations, the Arab League, and the United States had all vitriolically and openly opposed Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. When Iraq tried to open diplomatic channels to resolve the crisis (while not complying with the UN’s order and keeping troops in Kuwait), the U.S. requested that the Iraqis comply with the decree and pull out of Kuwait, following Margaret Thatcher and Britain’s line of thought that concessions to a dictator would strengthen the Iraqi influence and desire for more power.

               While the fact that the United States did not try to pursue a diplomatic avenue with Iraq in this matter is certainly an interesting method, it is also understandable. Giving in to Iraq’s desires and granting them concessions when they had flagrantly disregarded international law and violated the sovereignty of a fellow nation state (in addition to committing horrendous crimes against their own population), capitulating to the Iraqi government would have been a mistake. It would have solidified their power and their influence within the region and would have seemingly legitimized their standpoint.

               Not only would negotiating on such terms have legitimized their view and stance, but it effectively would have been negotiating with a terrorist. The former Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 1989 to 1991, Joseph C. Wilson, (who would later play a key role in the Plame Affair during the Iraq War), discussed how, “several hundred hostages were held by Saddam, 150 Americans as well as another 70 in our care to keep them out of Iraqi hands…There is no doubt that our personnel and our families were at risk, in considerable danger in fact,”. Hussein’s motivation for holding these Americans and others of varying nationalities (notably British) was most probably to utilize them as a deterrent to an attack from the West. Engaging in capitulation and trying to negotiate with someone who was essentially a terrorist (utilizing terror and violence, or the threat of such action, to attain a political goal) was not something that the United States nor the United Kingdom was willing to do under any circumstances.

               The United States, in this instance, was dealing with a terrorist and a dictator, a megalomaniac who was determined to reclaim what he believed was rightfully Iraqi territory and gain access to further wealth through illegal means. The potential of his army in securing what were important and essential global financial centers in the Middle East was serious and it is possible he was planning to invade Saudi Arabia at some point. Saad al-Bazzaz, the former head of both the Iraqi News Agency and the Iraqi Radio and Television Establishment in addition to being an aide to Saddam, alleged in 1996 that, “the Iraqi leader ordered the elite Republican Guard to be ready to launch an offensive…nine days after the invasion of Kuwait…The invasion plans called for four divisions, or 120,000 troops, to thrust into the desert to capture oil fields more than 180 miles away”. The fact that Iraqi troops also, in January of 1991, after the initial aerial bombardment, captured the small, Saudi Arabian coastal city of Khafji, lends credence to the idea that Saddam may have been planning something larger. al-Bazzaz also alleged that Saddam again began planning an invasion of Saudi Arabia while the Battle of Khafji was ongoing, but resorted to defense when it was apparent he would lose Kuwait.

               Upon the conclusion of the Gulf War, what did the U.S. gain? One of the most significant achievements in the aftermath of the conflict was that the United States was able to create a coalition of military forces (including those from Middle Eastern nations like Syria and Egypt) to side with other nations (former colonizers like France and the United Kingdom) who are often opposed to their conduct of foreign policy or have fraught relationships. As well, the State Department’s Office of the Historian notes, “Although Russia did not commit troops, it joined the United States in condemning Iraq, its long-time client state”. The Office goes on to describe how Secretary of State Baker and his staff went about gathering allies and were instrumental in assisting in diplomatic and coordination efforts for the eventual air and ground campaign. The U.S. gained improved relationships that bonded by the pursuit of an enemy and the removal of a foreign power from a sovereign nation and were further solidified in the UN’s policing of Iraqi airspace and nuclear deproliferation programs.

               Often, wars can be prevented and all out avoided through the use of diplomacy and foreign policy. The Vietnam War, the 1898 Spanish-American War, and the Chaco War of the 1930’s between Bolivia and Paraguay are prime examples of when diplomacy should have been utilized to the fullest effect and in which foreign policy officials and avenues for conflict resolution were not fully considered or utilized. However, in this instance, war was the only viable option for removing Saddam from Kuwait and returning the country to its rightful citizens. Negotiating or trying to work with the Iraqi government on the terms they had decided (meaning working with them in a foreign territory they have illegally acquired) would have given their actions an aura of legitimacy and possibly emboldened Saddam to further push the boundaries of international law. By giving Saddam an ultimatum and proceeding with physical combat and engaging in a war, war with Iraq was the correct decision when considering the person and government being dealt with.

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Middle East

Middle Eastern interventionism galore: Neither US nor Chinese policies alleviate

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A recent analysis of Middle Eastern states’ interventionist policies suggests that misguided big power approaches have fueled a vicious cycle of interference and instability over the last decade.

Those approaches are abetted, if not encouraged by US and Chinese strategies that are similar, if not essentially the same, just labelled differently. The United States has long opted for regime stability in the Middle East rather than political reform, an approach China adopts under the mum of non-interference in the internal affairs of others.

As a result, both the United States and China de facto signal autocrats that they will not be held accountable for their actions. This week’s US response and Chinese silence about the suspension of democracy in Tunisia illustrates the point.

The policies of the two powers diverge, however, on one key approach: The US, unlike China, frequently identifies one or more regimes, most notably Iran, as a threat to regional security. In doing so, US policy is often shaped by the narrow lens of a frequently demonized ‘enemy’ or hostile power.

The problem with that approach is that it encourages policies that are based on a distorted picture of reality. The Obama administration’s negotiation of a 2015 international nuclear agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program proved that amending those policies constitutes a gargantuan task, albeit one that is gaining traction with more critical trends emerging in both the Democratic Party and among Evangelists.

The recent study, ‘No Clean Hands: The Interventions of Middle Eastern Powers, 2010-2020,’ published by the Washington-based Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, suggests by implication that China has at the vey least allowed instability to fester in the Middle East that is fueled as much by destabilizing Iranian interventions as by similar actions of various US allies.

The study was authored by researcher Matthew Petti and Trita Parsi, the Institute’s  co-founder and executive vice president and founder and former president of the National Iranian American Council.

To be sure China may not have been able to influence all interventionist decisions, including the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but potentially could have at times tempered the interventionist inklings of regional players with a more assertive approach rather than remaining aloof and focusing exclusively on economic opportunity.

China demonstrated its willingness and ability to ensure that regional players dance to its tune when it made certain that Middle Eastern and Muslim-majority countries refrained from criticizing Beijing’s brutal attempt to alter the ethnic and religious identity of its Turkic Muslim population in the north-western province of Xinjiang.

Taking Syria as an example, Li Shaoxian, a former vice president at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, articulated China’s approach in 2016 as Chinese President Xi Jinping paid his first visit to the Middle East. “China doesn’t really care who takes the presidency…in the future—as long as that person could stabilize and develop the country, we would agree,” Mr. Li said.

To be fair, the Quincy Institute study focuses on the interventionist policies of Middle Eastern states and recommendations for US policy rather than on China even if the report by implication has consequences for China too.

A key conclusion of the study is that the fallacy of US policy was not only to continue to attempt to batter Iran into submission despite evidence that pressure was not persuading the Islamic republic to buckle under.

It was also a failure to acknowledge that Middle Eastern instability was fueled by interventionist policies of not just one state, Iran, but of six states, five of which are US allies: Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. The US allies, with the exception of Turkey and to a lesser degree Qatar, are perceived as supporters of the regional status quo.

On the other hand, the United States and its allies have long held that Iran’s use of militant proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen; its intervention in Syria and support of Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip; and its armament policies, including its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs, destabilize the Middle East and pose the greatest threat to regional security.

They assert that Iran continues to want to export its revolution. It is an argument that is supported by Iran’s own rhetoric and need to maintain a revolutionary façade.

Middle East scholar Danny Postel challenges the argument in a second paper published this month by the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies that seems to bolster the Quincy Institute’s analysis.

“The view of Iran as a ‘revolutionary’ state has been dead for quite some time yet somehow stumbles along and blinds us to what is actually happening on the ground in the Middle East. A brief look at the role Iran has played over the last decade in three countries — Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria — reveals a very different picture: not one of a revolutionary but rather of a counter-revolutionary force,” Mr. Postel argues.

The scholar noted that Hezbollah, the powerful Iranian-backed militia in Lebanon, and pro-Iranian armed groups in Iraq responded in similar ways to mass anti-government protests in 2019 and 2020 in Lebanese and Iraqi cities that transcended sectarian divisions and identified the Iran-aligned factions with widespread corruption that was dragging their countries down.

They attacked the protesters in an attempt to salvage a failed system that served their purpose and suppress what amounted to popular uprisings.

Do they really think that we would hand over a state, an economy, one that we have built over 15 years? That they can just casually come and take it? Impossible! This is a state that was built with blood,” said an Iraqi official with links to the pro-Iranian militias. A Hezbollah official speaking about Lebanon probably could not have said it better.

Iranian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal suppression of a popular revolt is no less counter-revolutionary and illustrative of the length to which Iran is willing to go to protect its interests.

“Indeed, for all the talk of Iran’s ‘disruptive’ role in the region, what the cases of Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon reveal is instead an Islamic Republic hell-bent on keeping entrenched political establishments and ruling classes in power while helping them quell popular movements for social justice, democratic rights, and human dignity,” Mr. Postel concludes.

“The idea that Iran is a revolutionary power while Saudi Arabia is a counter-revolutionary power in the region is a stale binary. Both the Islamic Republic and the Saudi Kingdom play counter-revolutionary roles in the Middle East. They are competing counter-revolutionary powers, each pursuing its counter-revolutionary agenda in its respective sphere of influence within the region,” Mr. Postel goes on to say.

Counterterrorism expert Matthew Levitt appeared to contradict Mr. Postel in a paper published this week that asserted that Hezbollah remained a revolutionary pro-Iranian force in its regional posture beyond Lebanon.

“Hezbollah’s regional adventurism is most pronounced in its expeditionary forces deployed in Syria and elsewhere in the region, but no less important are the group’s advanced training regimen for other Shi’a militias aligned with Iran, its expansive illicit financing activities across the region, and its procurement, intelligence, cyber, and disinformation activities,” Mr. Levitt said.

Mr. Postel’s analysis in various ways bolsters the Quincy Institute report’s observation that tactics employed by Iran are not uniquely Iranian but have been adopted at various times by all interventionist players in the Middle East.

The Quincy Institute study suggests further that a significant number of instances in the last decade in which Middle Eastern states projected military power beyond their borders involved Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar on battlefields that were as much related to competition for regional influence among US allies or the countering of popular movements as they were to rivalry with Iran.

“Iran is highly interventionist, but not an outlier. The other major powers in the region are often as interventionist as the Islamic Republic – and at times even more so. Indeed, the UAE and Turkey have surpassed in recent years,” the report said.

The report’s publication coincided with the indictment of billionaire Thomas  J. Barrack, a one-time advisor and close associate of former US President Donald J. Trump, on charges of operating as an unregistered foreign agent in the United States for the UAE, widely seen as another case and form of intervention by a Middle Eastern state.

By implication, the study raises the question whether compartmentalizing security issues like the nuclear question and framing them exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than discussing them in relation to diverging security concerns of all regional players, including Iran, will lead to a sustainable regional security architecture.

There is little indication that thinking in Washington is paying heed to the Quincy Institute study or Mr. Postel’s analysis even though their publication came at an inflection point in negotiations with Iran suspended until President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in mid-August.

That was evident in a proposal put forward this month by former US Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross on how to respond to Iran’s refusal to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support of armed proxies  as well as Mr. Al-Assad as part of the nuclear negotiation. Mr. Ross suggested that the United States sell to Israel the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a 30,000-pound mountain-buster capable of destroying hardened underground nuclear facilities.

Members of Congress last year offered legislation that would authorize the sale as a way to maintain Israel’s military edge as the United States moves to reward the UAE for its establishment of diplomatic reltions with Israel by selling it top-of-the-line F-35 fighter jets.

The administration is expected to move ahead with the sale of the jets after putting it on hold for review when Joe Biden took office In January.

The Quincy Institute and Mr. Postel’s calls for a paradigm shift in thinking about the Middle East and/or Iran take on added significance in the light of debates about the sustainability of the Iranian clerical regime.

Contrary to suggestions that the regime is teetering on the brink of collapse as the result of sanctions and domestic discontent, most recently evidenced in this month’s protests sparked by water shortages, widely respected Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour argues that the Iranian regime could have a shelf life of at least another generation.

Mr. Sadjadpour draws a comparison to the Soviet Union. “Post-Soviet Russia… didn’t transition from the Soviet Union to a democratic Russia, but it essentially became a new form of authoritarianism which took Communism and replaced it with grievance driven Russia nationalism—led by someone from the ancient regime and a product of the KGB, Vladimir Putin,” Mr. Sadjadpour argues.

“Likewise, if I had to make a prediction in Iran, I think that the next prominent leader is less likely to be an aging cleric—like an Ayatollah Khamenei or Ibrahim Raisi—and more likely to be someone who is a product of either the Revolutionary Guards or Iran’s intelligence services. Instead of espousing Shiite nationalism, they will substitute that with Iranian nationalism—or Persian nationalism,” he goes on to say.

An Iranian nationalist regime potentially could contribute to regional stability. It would likely remove the threats of Iranian meddling in the domestic affairs of various Arab countries by empowering Shiite Muslim groups as well as support for political Islam. Iranian nationalism would turn aid to groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon militias in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen into a liability rather than an asset.

Mr. Sadjadpour’s prognosis coupled with the Quincy Institute report suggests that the Biden administration has an opportunity to reframe its Middle East policy in the long-term interests of the United States as well as the region and the international community.

The nuclear talks are one potential entry point to what would amount to the equivalent of turning a supertanker around in the Suez Canal – a gradual process at best rather than an overnight change. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan may be another.

Concern in Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran about the fallout of the withdrawal suggests that stabilizing the greater Middle East in ways that conflicts can be sustainably managed if not resolved creates grounds for China, Russia and the United States to cooperate on what should be a common interest: securing the free flow of oil and gas as well as trade.

China, Russia, and Iran may be bracing themselves for worst case scenarios as the Taliban advance militarily, but the potential for some form of big power cooperation remains.

China scholars Haiyun Ma and I-wei Jennifer Chang note that in the case of Afghanistan “despite the Taliban’s advancement on the ground and its call for Chinese investment, the current military situation and the political process have not yet manifested a power vacuum created by the US retreat, which makes Chinese entry and gains…largely symbolic in nature.”

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