Wednesday, August 30, 2023

East Meets West: The Rise of Far-Right Religious Nationalism in Israel and the United States

Demonstrations against crippling Israel's Supreme Court

In 1975, Dr. Ralph Coury wrote an article entitled, "Why Can't They Be Like Us?"  Published in the first issue of the Review of Middle Eastern Studies, edited by Talal Asad and Roger Owen, Coury offered a critique of the Orientalist view that, for the peoples of the MENA region to "modernize," they needed to accept the culture and values of the West.  Thankfully, this perspective, propounded by classic Orientalist texts and the modernization theory of the late 1950s and 1960s, has been thoroughly debunked.

Nevertheless, it may be important to revisit this approach to understanding the MENA region by turning Orientalist and modernization theory on their heads.  In 2023, the decline of civic nationalism in the West and MENA region and the concomitant rise of politicized religion in the two regions has been pronounced.  An argument can be made that each of the 3 Abrahamic religions have developed an intolerant and violent form of xenophobic religious nationalism which completely contradicts the messages of their prophets. 

What then is happening to traditional forms of religion which encourage the ideas of brotherhood/sisterhood, tolerance, respect for cultural, religious and ethnic diversity, and an emphasis on social justice?  Perhaps we can find some answers by comparing recent political developments in Israel and the United States.  Israel’s Crisis Has a Distinctly American Flavor

Let's begin by recognizing that neither Israel nor the United States is comprised of a majority of citizens who accept religious nationalism. The problem is that sizable numbers of Israelis and Americans do reject civic nationalism (or what they call secular nationalism).  

All too often viewed through the eye of religion, this form of nationalism constitutes a political commitment more than a religious one.  In fact, it really has little to do with religious belief. Rather, politicized religion is a cover for reconstituting society along far right-wing lines.

What are the religious nationalists' goals in their respective societies? First and foremost, they seek to eliminate the constitutional rules of the game which constrain their ability to impose a new system of governance.  This means undermining or eliminating those institutions which stand in the way of their goals.  Hence, Netanyahu's far-right government's attack on Israel's Supreme Court and the MAGA effort to subvert the US Constitution through the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 to deny Joe Biden from being sworn in as presidento

Second, it's critical for far right religious nationalists to develop their hegemonic project by claiming that what they doing is to implement the Word of God.  Using interpretations based on fear and anxiety, they seek to take control of the public sphere.  Secular schools need to be closed and replaced by religious academies.  Socializing a new generation of youth according to their view is critical. 

Third, the far right seeks to suppress what they consider to be non-traditional understandings of the family and sexual identity. The idea of same sex marriage is rejected as is rights afforded to the LGBTQ+ community.  Laws legitimizing same sex marriage and offering protections to non-heterosexuals are thus targeted for elimination.

Fourth, both forms of religious nationalism situate women as second class citizens.  There are no female rabbis in the far right religious nationalist movement in Israel nor female pastors in far right evangelical churches in the United States.  Even in the more traditional, but not evangelical, Southern Baptist Convention, women were recently forbidden to hold positions of authority in the church, much less remain, as some have, as pastors.

Finally, liberal democratic governance is rejected.  In its place, authoritarianism becomes the new norm.  Far right religious  nationalists won't admit that this is true. Indeed, they argue the opposite. "We the People," who are divinely chosen, are the majority and thus democracy is being practiced on a daily basis as we implement God's Will.  Appeals are thus made to a majoritarian form of rule which the privileged majority imposes. 

This political ideology constitutes a form of religiously based populism.  It legitimizes what it claims to be a form of democratic governance by arguing that it is following God's laws.  As such, religious nationalism can;t be challenged because its mission stems from a higher power.

Religious nationalism has been able to make greater inroads in Israel because it is favored by demographic change. The ultra-orthodox community which provides the special base for the religious nationalism has been growing much faster than Israel's secular center right and center left.  Educated in religious schools, ultra-orthodox youth are taught that God has given the Land of Israel to the Jews, including the West Bank of the River Jordan where Palestinians seek to establish an independent state.

While demographics favor the far right religious nationalists in Israel, the opposite is true in the United States.  The Caucasian population is declining as is church attendance.  Many youth, both in religiously observant and secular families, refuse to accept the dictates and sociocultural constraints of religious nationalism.  Thus, the future of the movement is much mores in doubt in the United States than in Israel.

The problem with each of these movements is their ethereal approach to social, economic and political reality.  Far right religious nationalist may want to build a "Torah state" in Israel.  However, such a state doesn't address the sharp rise in income inequality in Israel. Neither does it address the discontent of secular Israeli society which rejects the idea of a pseudo-religious polity.

Further, the policies of the current far right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have both infuriated and demoralized many secular Israelis.  Already we see some making plans to leave the country.  There already is a huge Israeli Diaspora, much of which doesn't want to live under the type of society being constructed by the far right religious nationalists. 28% of Israelis considering leaving the country amid judicial upheaval — poll

Equally ominous, Israel's economy has been adversely affected by the policies of far-right religious nationalists.  Considerable portions of Israel's technology sector, a major engine of growth, no longer view Israel as having a favorable investment climate, especially if the Supreme Court loses much of its authority under Netayahu's plan to strip it of many of functions.  Investment funds by Israeli entrepreneur's are being moved to other countries. Moody’s warns Israel faces ‘significant risk’ of political and social tensions that will harm its economy, security

What are the domestic challenges facing far-right religious nationalism?  A core problem is that the cultural wars of right-wing religious nationalism exclude any focus on the economy.  As the current economic crisis in China demonstrates, authoritarianism and a vibrant market economy don't mix.  Under the type of religious nationalist state advocated by Netanyahu and his far-right ministers, foreign direct investment (FDI) will decline and young, innovative tech entrepreneurs will be less willing to work in Israel.

In the United States, the need to develop a skilled work force which possesses the technical abilities required of the 21st century isn't a goal of the Christian nationalist right.  Christian nationalists focus on limiting the role of the federal government and circumscribing its ability to legislate.  We see this process currently playing itself out in the 2023 House of Representatives which has failed to pass any legislation addressing important issues, such as climate change, infrastructure development, health care reform or financially securing entitlements.

The far-right Christian nationalists also pose a threat to the security of Israel and the United States.  Apart from appropriating territory from Palestinians living on the West Bank,  religious nationalists in Israel show relatively little interest in the rest of the MENA region. Because many ultra-orthodox are exempt from serving in Israel Defense Force, many lack n understanding of serving in the military and respect for what s considered an important part of an Israeli's civic duty.

In the United States, religious nationalists likewise reflect an insular and isolationist world view.  Many public opinion polls indicate that religious nationalists oppose military aid to Ukraine and seem to have little concern about Vladimir Putin's illegal invasion and attempt to eliminate it as a sovereign nation-state.  In this context, international security and financial alliances fall by the wayside.

Finally, we may look to parallels between Iran and Israel.  In Iran, women have been protesting the forced wearing of the hijab (head scarf) by the so-called Islamic regime in Tehran.  In Israel, even religious women have expressed criticisms of Netanyahu's attack on Israel's Supreme Court. Many have argues that the rights they have as religious Jews, were curtailed before the Supreme Court intervened to declare the laws null and void. Women Will Be the Biggest Victims of Israel’s Judicial Reforms

Globalization is viewed as posing a threat to traditional norms and customs in many countries. It has been reinforced by neo-liberal state policies which have focused on individual achievement and profits to the detriment of promoting a national civic consciousness.  

Those who feel left out by processes of globalization have chosen to rebel. Far-right religious nationalists feel they have been excluded from what they consider an aloof and secular political culture. In some, the response has been the rise of an insular and intolerant form of politics, frequently cloaked in a politicized form of religion.

In summary, the question Ralph Khoury raised decades ago has now become a very different one.  Politcal developments in the West parallel, rather than differ from, political developments in the MENA region.  Sadiq al-'Azm's article in the journal Khamsin, "Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse," also from the 1970s, springs true - there is much more in common between the "East" and "West" than many observers are willing to recognize. Authoritarianism comes in many forms - xenophobic religious nationalism is just one of them.

Indeed, it is important to recognize that the far-right Christian nationalist movement in the United States constitutes a strong supporter of Israel.  However, there is a major contradiction inherent in this support.  Based on the belief that the Return of the Messiah - Jesus Christ - will occur in the Holy Land, only true Christians will survive the Second Coming of Christ.   

In both Israel and the United States, the civic and secular center-right and center-left will need to engage in outreach to those who feel left behind by the rapid changes wrought by globalization. Those both in and out of power need to bring clerics and lay people together who reject far right religious nationalism to develop a new form of social democracy in which cultural diversity isn't swept under the carpet but occupies a central focus of national political discourse.  

Unless trust can be reestablished in liberal democracy, especially its social democratic variant, where citizens feel a meaningful connection to the polity and those elected to positions of authority, religious nationalism will continue to resonate with significant portions of the populace in Israel, the United States and elsewhere. Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America

Monday, July 31, 2023

Will Authoritarianism and the Climate Emergency Destroy the Middle East?

A section of the Euphrates River 
The front page headline of the New York Times was ominous: "A Climate Warning from the Cradle of Civilization."  The lengthy article on Iraq's extreme heat and water shortages shows that the Fertile Crescent is the "poster child" for the damage that the global Climate Emergency is inflicting on the Middle East.  A Climate Warning from the Cradle of Civilization

Extreme heat, torrential rains and droughts which have plagued the world this summer have been conclusively linked to the continued burning of fossil fuels.  All the Earth's regions are negatively affected by the intensifying Climate Emergency. But no other region is more susceptible to  the impact of climate change than the Middle East. It is experiencing rising global temperatures at rates much higher than other areas of the planet.  Iraq's temperature rise, for example, is 4-7 times the rate of other regions.

What is being done to protect the MENA region from the Climate Emergency?  The answer is basically nothing. Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states possess extremely large sovereign wealth funds. The largest producers of fossil fuels, especially oil and natural gas, they boast about the progress theyr have amde with their Green Energy initiatives domestically, such as the UAE's carbon neutral city, al-Masdar, and Saudi Arabia's huge solar energy farms.

However, as OPEC members - and in Saudi Arabia's case an OPEC+ partner with Russia - Arab oil-producing states produce the largest percentage of the world's fossil fuels.  Despite their promises to transition to Green Energy in the future, by the time they do the damage to the Earth's environment will be irreversible.

Authoritarianism and the Climate Emergency Many studies have analyzed the threats from climate change confronting the Middle East. They also offer many proposals to confront the Climate Emergency.  However, almost none focus on the manner in which authoritarian rule continues to prevent any serious efforts to confront global warming (or what UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres now calls "global boiling").  The key point is that all the suggested initiatives in the world can be proposed.  If the state refuses to act on them, they remain simply words on paper.

The authoritarian state in the MENA region constitutes a particular variant - what we can call the "kleptocratic state."   To paraphrase Sarah Chase, the authoritarian who rule them are the "thieves of state."  Authoritarian rulers and the elites who support them lack any legitimizing ideology, civic consciousness, and do little or noting to improve the lives of the populace at large.  Indeed, the only element that unites them is their crony corruption and the use of force to repress any dissent directed at their rule. It is no wonder that one of the largest expenditure of the kleptocratic state is on its security services.

The Problem of Water Security Many countries in the Middle East are running out of water. Yemen is the most prominent but Iran and Iraq are also confronting serious water insecurity.  Not all of the problems are directly caused by global warming. In Yemen, Qat, a mild addictive plant which many Yemeni men chew, has taken over a third of all agricultural land and consumed large amounts of water.  

In Iraq and Iran, the state has failed to develop a national water policy which would include promoting water conservation in the agrarian sector. Indeed farmers still use irrigation methods which dare back to ancient Mesopotamia which waste enormous amounts of water. In neither country has the Ministry of Agriculture developed policies which would conserve water much less sent agronomists to the agrarian sector to help farmers conserve water.

When asked by a New York Times reporter what the Iraqi government was doing to address Iraq's severe wager crisis, the Ministry of Water's director in the city of al-Nasiriya in the south responded by saying Iraq has no money.  "Maybe next year," he said.  This disingenuous reply belies the fact that Iraq is the fourth largest oil producer in the world . It recently signed a $27 billion contract with France TotalEnergy.  

Dies Iraq truly lack funds to confront the Climate Emergency?  The long list of foreign oil companies operating in Iraq suggests otherwise: BP,  China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), China National Offshore Oil, China National Petroleum Company (CNPC), Dragon Oil, Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation (EGPC), Eni, ExxonMobil, Gazprom, Inpex, Itochu, Japan Petroleum Exploration Company (Japex), Kogas (Korean Gas Corporation), Lukoil, Pakistan Petroleum Corporation, Pretamina, PetroChina, Petronas, Rosnoft, Sinopec (China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation), Sonogol, TotalEnergy, Turkiye Petrolleri Anonim Ortagligi (TPAO), and United Energy Group (UEG).

The problem is that the Federal Government in Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil engage in such massive corruption that much of Iraq's education, health, electricity infrastructure and other social services continue to deteriorate.  With one of fastest going populations in the MENA region and  experiencing some of the most severe consequences of the Climate Emergency, one would think that the state would be actively involved in addressing the challenges facing Iraq.  

Thus far, that has not been the case. Much is published in official circles about new oil drilling contracts but almost nothing about Iraq's existential threat from climate change. Lack of water and desertification have led Iraq to lose 40% of its agricultural land, an area about the size of the state of Florida. Dust storms have intensified health problems and disrupted daily life including flights in and out of Iraq. 

Iran running out of water as well. Water insecurity will plague KSA and Gulf states by mid-century. Two Iranian provinces will run out of water this coming September displacing 2 million people. Iraq has been experiencing a severe drought since 2007 and suffers from dams in Turkey and Iran which have reduced water in both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.  In Iran, Some Are Chasing the Last Drops of Water

Egypt is highly vulnerable to a number of climate induced threats. These threats include heatwaves, sea level rise, increased salinization of agricultural land near the Mediterranean Sea and desertification.  If not confronted, the Climate Emergency will have a devastating impacts on the country's economy, food security as well as people's health and well being.  As the Mediterranean's water levels rise, the two branches of the Nile which empty into the sea have become increasing saline, rendering 17% of Egyptian farmland no longer suitable for agriculture.

Egypt's new capital east of Cairo

Despite hosting the United Nations COP27 Summit in Sharm al-Shaykh, there is little evidence that the 'Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi regime has developed any initiatives to combat the Climate Emergency.   
The  Sisi regime claims it lacks funds to confront the Climate Emergency. Nevertheless it is building a lavish and very costly new capital to the east of Cairo which has failed to attract many new inhabitants.  Egypt Is Spending Billions on a New Capital That Egyptians May Not Visit

The capital seems to have been developed to attract and benefit the wealthy,. However, few well-t0-do Egyptians  purchased the new high end apartments in the would-be capital.  The new capital will leave the poor and lower middle classes to struggle with Cairo's traffic congestion, poor municipal services and highly polluted air.  Meanwhile, the al-Sisi regime has failed to curtail its exploding population which requires housing that eats into precious agricultural land. How Sisi Ruined Egypt 

The proposals for Egypt to confront the Climate Emergency are bizarre.  A Brookings Institution report argues that Egypt should increases its natural gas exports to Europe and somehow, through this process, become a key player in the production of Green Hydrogen.  The problem with this approach is that it says nothing about what the state should be doing to help its citizens now, not in the future, to stave off the ravages of the Climate Emergency.Action in Egypt—Challenges and Opportunities.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian military skims off huge amounts of revenue as part of its corrupt business practices.  It produces consumer goods, food items, collects highway tolls and benefited from unreported fees derived from foreign firms which have invested in Egypt.  It is telling that it is illegal to report on or publish the military's annual budget.  

While the Brookings Report cited above emphasizes the need of the private sector to play an important role in combatting the Climate Emergency.  However, it is difficult for entrepreneurs to develop new ventures if they don't have wasta, namely close ties to the governing elite. This political bias thwarts the efforts of many creative social entrepreneurs from trying to create new firms. 

One exception that proves the rule is Sharikat Karam li-l- Ta'qa al-Shamsiya (Karm Solar Power Company).  Founded by youth, the firm was denied access to Egypt's electric grid when ot started in 2011.  However, Karm Solar;s founders persisted and is now an established energy company in Egypt.  It was able to provide many Egyptian farmers with solar panels which has had 2 very positive results.  First, farmers now have enhanced pumping capacity to access water deeper in the ground.  Second, they no longer need to use polluting diesel fuel which is expensive and often doesn't arrive on schedule. Karm Solar Energy Company

What the Egyptian case points to is the failure of the state throughout the MENA region to mobilize youth to combat the Climate Emergency.  In the Youth Social Entrepreneurship and Sustainable Development Program which I have directed, I have met youth social entrepreneurs from Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Pakistan, the UAE, Egypt and a number of other MENA region countries. Many have excellent ideas about fighting the devastating effects of climate change but have been stymied because they receive no support from the state. Youth Building the New Iraq: The 2020 Iraq Public Leadership Program

If we realize that youth constitutes a large demographic in the MENA region, we quickly see a huge human capital resource going to waste.  In Iraq, where youth comprise 70% of the population under the age of 30, there are thousands of well-trained engineers and other professionals who all too often are unable to find employment after graduate from university.  

Taking jobs in the construction industry or driving taxis after receiving a university degree not only underscores the lack of the state's interest in its youth demographic, but a failure to use youth to address pressing problems like desertification and training farmers how to more efficiently use water for their crops. The Ministry of Agriculture could help ameliorate the irrigation crisis facing farmers by training local youth to help famers in their region.  

The Impact of Excessive Heat Excessive heat is already reducing productivity in advanced industrialized states. Farming, construction, delivery services, infrastructure repairs and many other aspects of daily economic life are facing problems as workers are unable to spend time outdoors at certain times of day.  This means that agriculture in particular will see a significant drop in output saddling countries of the region with even greater food insecurity.Heat Is Costing the U.S. Economy Billions in Lost Productivity

In Iraq and other MENA region, the pressure of excessive heat on the health care infrastructure has increased dramatically.  Cases of heat strokes and, due to dirty polluted water, Typhoid, Hepatitis A and Cholera are on the rise.  Ambulances lack the necessary air conditioning when taking patients to emergency rooms. Hospitals won't be able to keep up with the demand for health services  

Many MENA region countries are dependent on tourism.  Egypt and Tunisia are two of the poorer countries that rely heavily on tourist revenues.  Visiting the ancient monuments and tombs of the Pharaohs in Upper Egypt will  be much inviting given extreme temperatures. 

With global ocean temperatures rising (recently reaching a 100 degrees in the Atlantic Ocean along the Florida coast), swimming in the Mediterranean Sea will not be as attractive as in the past.  Turkey and Greece, including the islands of Rhodes and Corfu, will most likely also see fewer tourists given the wildfires which have battered the forests of both countries.

Other states seek to attract tourism as well. Saudi Arabia has invested an enormous amount of funds into developing its tourist sector as apart of Muhammad Bin Salman's Vision 2030. Tourism is a key part of the Crown Price's goal to diversify the economy as make it less dependent on oil. Tourism in the Saudi Arabia primarily targets wealthy tourists by offering luxury hotels and accommodation when they visit the kingdom  Saudi Arabia is world’s second fastest growing tourism destination: WTO

However, excessive heat will make it impossible for humans to go outdoors during much of the day.  Will Saudi Arabia under these circumstances still attract the large number of tourists required to make this sector profitable and provide the return on investment the Bin Salman regime expects?

Climate refugees As sub-Saharan countries struggle with drought, drought and torrential rains from cyclones and other storms, more and more people will migrate north seeking to enter the European Union. This will only create more problems in countries like Libya and Tunisia which are already increasingly unstable - Libya with its civil war and Tunisia with opposition to the dictatorial rule of President Kais Sa'id.  

Sub-Saharan migrants expelled from Tunisia

Recently, Sa'id encouraged Tunisians to attack sub-Saharan migrants, many of whom have lived in Tunisia for years. The president tried to blame Tunisia's increasingly serious economic problems on the migrants which led to many being physically assaulted and forced to leave the country.  

While not facing the same levels of political instability as Libya and Tunisia, Morocco has also seen ever larger numbers of migrants entering the country as they try to enter Spain across its northern border. Security forces have responded with violence as Sudanese and other African migrants have tried to enter Spain's north African enclave of Mellila. 

Meanwhile there is rising hostility to the over 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey.  The Syrian civil war was one of the first indicators of what the MENA region's future might look like.  As the Euphrates River has been drying up in the forst decade of this century, both due to an extended drought extending back to 2007, and Turkey damning the river's waters within its own boundaries, 175 villages had to be evacuated.  The flow of displaced persons and their demands for state assistance to help them resettle was one of the key factors that led to the Syrian civil war and Syria's status today as a failed state.

The Political Context The MENA region not only has the dubious honor of being ruled almost exclusively by authoritarian regimes, but regimes which lack any legitimating ideology and are devoid of any civic commitment to the people they rule.  One of the key developments which will need to occur soon is that youth - and members of the older generation who support them - must find ways to pressure the state to move beyond corruption and confront the existential crisis facing he countries of the region. 

MENA region states have within their power the ability to affect the Climate Emergency in the short term.  Following the example of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression of the 1930s who founded the Civilian Conservation Corps to restock forests with tress and develop local infrastructure, similar youth organizations coud be developed in the MENA region. 

Such organizations could plant trees and foliage in urban areas to mitigate the impact of dust storms on the cities' residents.  As we know in Cairo and many other MENA region cities, roofs of large buildings are where many people live and frequently use the area to raise chickens and other livestock.  Building owners could be paid a stipend if they allow these areas to be populated by bushes and other foliage and have building employees or those living on the roofs attend to them.  

Morocco is one of the few MENA region countries which has confronted the Climate Emergency.  Because it is poor and lack hydrocarbon resources, it has developed some of the largest solar farms in the region.  These solar farms are particularly efficient because the sun is used to heat large tubes containing salt water during the day which allows energy to continue to be produced for 3 hours after the sun sets.

Noor Ouarzazate Solar Plant - largest  in the world

While Morocco's efforts in developing Green Energy are commendable, little effort has been made to subsidize placing solar panels on the homes and apartment buildings of residents of the MENA region.  Interestingly, solar panels began to be placed on buildings in central Baghdad in the early 1980s but stopped after the Iran-Iraq War intensified later in the decade.  The cost of installing solar panels throughout the region would not be prohibitive and could be funded by the World Bank.  Wind energy also can thrive in many areas of the MENA region given the windy climate.

Israel is one of the MENA region countries that developed policies to deal with an arid climate decades ago.  It os famous for example for saving water through the use of drip agriculture.  More recently, it has developed heat resistant grapes for its wine industry and begun to grow crops in shaded areas.

Israel uses woven protection covers to shied crops from heat

Unfortunately, the current far-right and extremist nationalist Netanyahu government seeks to annex the West Bank of the River Jordan to preclude the possibility of an independent Palestinian state ever being developed.  Even Arab states who signed the Abraham Accords during the Trump administration have withdrawn from interaction with the Netanyahu regime, as has Saudi Arabia which is considering joining the Accords.  

Based on Israel's illegal efforts to seize more Palestinian land and populate the West Bank with Israeli settlements, the possibility of other countries, such as neighboring Jordan which is running out of water, cooperating with Israel to benefit from its climate mitigation strategies has been precluded.

The Role of the International Community The international community must help those with civic consciousness and commitment to be successful in their efforts to develop projects designed to combat climate change. This must involve the carrot and the stick. The World Bank, Western foundations and NGOs should provide youth social entrepreneurs with the funds they need to establish companies like Karm Solar. The United States and European Union should withhold funds from countries like Egypt which engage in massive human rights abuses but still receive large sums of foreign aid.  Time is not on the side of the MENA region.  Senate Democrats urge Biden to withhold $320 million in military aid to Egypt over Human Rights Abuses

Friday, June 30, 2023

How is the War in Ukraine Affecting the Middle East?

Russian arms at the Dubai Arms Fair in 2023

What impact is the war in Ukraine having on the Middle East?  How have key states in the Middle East affected the progress of the war?  What do these developments tell us about the future of the MENA region and the role and influence of the United States in it?

One key takeaway from the Ukraine's war and its impact on the Middle East is the lack of any support by the countries of the region for United States policy towards the war.  There have been no condemnations of Putin's invasion of a sovereign country and the attempt to overthrow a duly elected government.  Indeed, a number of the regions' countries have shown a predisposition towards Russia in the war.  

The foreign policy posture by MENA region states underscores their authoritarian nature and natural disposition to support a dictatorial regime rather than a democracy.  A defeat for Putin in the war - not an unlikely scenario - might encourage citizens in MENA region countries to act more vigorously to promote democracy.  Of course, the threat of democracy is what keeps repressive rulers in the Middle East up at night.

Another takeaway is the declining influence the United States has in the MENA region. Even the United States' closest ally, Israel - who some would argue is a 51st state - has refused to vigorously oppose Putin's brutal invasion or supply Ukraine with meaningful arms, e.g., fighter jets which would allow Ukrainian forces to challenge Russia's dominance of the air.

Other supposed American allies - Turkey, Saudi Arabia the UAE and Egypt - have also been very equivocal in their foreign policy positions towards the war.  President Erdogan has benefitted enormously from the war.  At the beginning of the conflict, Turkey sold large numbers of Bayrakdar mini drones to Ukraine.  These low flying drones were critical in devastating tank columns sent across the Russian-Ukraine border to seize Kyiv.

As is well known, southern Russia and Ukraine serve as the "breadbasket" to the MENA region and much of Africa. Erdogan's role in helping to broker a deal between Putin and Ukraine to allow grain shipments to travel through the Black Sea and then through Turkey's Dardanelles Straits was critical to preventing widespread hunger in countries which regularly import Ukrainian and Russian wheat,  fertilizers and other agricultural products.

Turkey has also become a place of (temporary?) exile for many Russian oligarchs.  Becase a number of prominent oligarchs have died to Russia under mysterious circumstances, large numbers of oligarchs have travelled outside Russia in an attempt to protect their physical safety and their wealth.  Russian yachts dot the Istanbul harbor. 

Despite being a member of NATO, Erdogan has yet to directly criticize Putin for his illegitimate and brutal invasion of Ukraine. Instead, Erdogan has in effect declared his "neutrality" and offered his services as a mediator to bring the war. to an end.  Of course, Putin hasn;t taken him up on his offer because that would force him to negotiate with Ukraine and derail his effort to place the country's under Russian control.

Another supporter of Putin's war is the United Arab Emirates.  On February 23, 2022, A day after the invasion began, the United States and its Western allies asked the United Nations Security Council to demand an immediate withdrawal of Russian troops.  Russia vetoed the resolution but the UAE, together with India and China, abstained on the vote  

In February, 2023, Russia was welcomed at a UAE arms fair where it was allowed to exhibit a wide variety of military arms and equipment.  Eight Russian arms manufacturing firms were exhibiting at the fair, including the Kalashnikov Group and Rosoboronexport.  In 2022, trade between the UAE and Russia increased by 68%. Despite claiming to be "neutral," the UAE has decidedly supported the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The UAE is on team Russia in war against Ukraine

The UAE has benefitted from the Ukraine war in unexpected ways.  A flood of Russian oligarchs have made Dubai their new home in the hope of evading Western sanctions on the Putin regime.  One Dubai real estate firm saw a 100% increases in property sales during 2022. Real estate merchants have received hundreds of millions of dollars in commissions in selling properties to oligarchs such as Roman Abramovich,  former owner of the Chelsea Football club.  

That thousands of Ukrainians have been killed as a result of Putin's illegitimate war, often in the most brutal manner, means nothing to those UAE merchants who are profiting from the deaths happening far beyond their shores. Villas by the sea: Rich Russians fleeing sanctions are pumping up Dubai’s property sector

In neighboring Saudi Arabia, realtions with the Putin regime have changed from hostility duo to its support for the Bashar al-Asad's brutal dictatorship which is propped up by the kingdom's enemy Iran to a warm relationship since 2017.

Saudi Arabia, historically a staunch ally of the United States, has recently cooperated with Russia to sustain high oil prices through the so-called OPEC+ agreement between the two states.  Together the 2 states are the largest producers of oil in the world.  Saudi Arabia, along with other Arab states, such as the UAE, continue to purchase large amounts of refined oil from Russia and often resell it in the international market. Russia is the largest exporter of natural gas to Saudi Arabia.

Although Saudi Arabia voted with he majority of countries in the United Nations against Russia's annexation of 4 regions in Ukraine and another resolution calling on Russia to end the war the kingdom has invested millions of dollars in the Russian economy since the war began through its Kingdom Holding Company.  

Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has moved to develop cooperation with Russia on arms purchases.  In March 2022, six internationally sanction arms companies were allowed to exhibit weapons systems at World Defense Show in Riyadh. This track record demonstrates considerable Saudi political and economic suport which helps Putin continue to pursue his brutal war in Ukraine.

Finally, there is the important impact of the Ukraine war on Iran.  Its hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi, has been unable to improve the country's economy.  Growth is stagnant, inflation is increasing and the rial has lost much of its value.  One of the key problems is that Iran is suffering from United Nations and Western sanctions and has been cut off from the international banking system and other critical sectors of the global economy.

The war in Ukraine, however, has allowed Iran to find new political support from Russia.  In return for delivering its Shahed-136 drones and other UAVs to Russia, Putin has provided Iran with discounted oil supplies and fighter aircraft. The Shahed costs about $20,000 and is used as a "suicide" aircraft designed to destroy civilian infrastructure and housing.  While the Ukrainian air defenses have been very successful in shooting down these drones, each effort to bring a drone uses precious anti-aircraft missiles.  Thus, waves of Shahed drones have enabled Russia to deplete Ukraine's air defense system.

 Although this project began prior to the invasion of Ukraine, Russia is also helping Iran build a nuclear reactor which will facilitate development of its nuclear weapons program. Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon, especially its parallel development of ballistic missiles able to carry a nuclear warhead, have a high probability of prompting an attack by Israel. That Putin is helping Iran circumvent its international isolation due to its nuclear weapons program and human rights record, constitutes a destabilizing factor in the MENA region.  

Egypt represents another untrustworthy US and Western ally in the MENA region.  Leaked Pentagon documents indicate that Egypt was planning in 2023 to send 40,000 rockets to Putin as well large amounts of artillery shells to be used by the Russia armed forces in Ukraine.  Only when the United States discovered this plan did Egypt abandon these efforts.  Perhaps Egypt thought it might receive Russian grain if it assisted Putin, in light of the struggle it's having with acquiring grain to feed its population which has added to the country's high inflation rate.Egypt agreed to supply arms to Ukraine after US talks: Report

That the country which is the second largest recipient of American foreign aid, after Israel, was ready to ignore international sanctions against the Putin regime should lead American leaders to rethink its support of the 'Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi regime.  Egypt is a key sources of intelligence in the MENA region. However, if it is to work against the international community in supporting Putin, it should face consequences for such behavior.

The United States and the West should be concerned with developments in the MENA region following Putin's invasion of Ukraine. That the three most powerful countries in the region - Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - have come to Putin's rescue is disconcerting. Ironically, the US' "turn to the East to confront China - has led to a significant decline in its influence in the Middle East.  

Apart from China's doing an end run around the United States (see my May 2023 post: "Will China Become the New Hegemon in the Middle East"), Russia's ties to Iran, Turkey Saudi Arabia and the UAE have not only allowed him to more effectively pursue his invasion of Ukraine but pose serious problems for the MENA region's future relationship to the United States and the West. Will China Become the New Hegemon in the Middle East?

As I argued in my May 2023 post, it is clear that the MENA region will no longer remain a primary sphere of United States influence. New thinking is needed.  Resurrecting the idea of a League of Democracy, which John McCain proposed in the 2008 presidential elections, could create an international coalition which could act in tandem to prevent authoritarian regimes like Russia and China from further destabilizing the MENA region.

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Will China Become the New Hegemon in the Middle East?

Joe Biden meet with Xi Jinping, November 2022

Much ink has been shed over China's success in reestablishing diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Middle East's most antagonistic powers. China's role in MENA region politics hasn't just been limited to bringing two antagonists together to reestablish diplomatic relations.  Since 2005, China has invested $273 billion in the region, more than any other country. Do developments in the first 2 decades of the 21st century point to China becoming the main power in the MENA region?
Should we be rushing to anoint it regional hegemon?

There is little doubt that China represents a major component of the economic fabric of the MENA region.  Further it supplies weapons to several countries in the Middle East. In 2017, the People's Liberation Army built its first regional base in Djibouti.  In 2013, China launched its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which is designed to provide funds for infrastructural development to the countries of the Global South.  BRI is helping Egypt develop a new (highly over budget) capital east of Cairo and it built a metro in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

Analysts have failed, however, to consider what constraints domestic developments in China itself might place on its desire to play a more central role as a political and economic power broker in the MENA region.  I would argue that, under the rule of Xi Jinping, China, is shooting itself in the foot.  Xi's policies, together with structural changes over which he and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have little control, suggest that China may very well face a decline in its global power in the decades to come.

Leadership How has China achieved the position of a global superpower today?  If Mao deserves credit for seizing control of China from Chang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang, he doesn't receive high marks for developing the Chinese economy after 1949.  Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution were ideologically driven policies which severely cramped China's economic growth.

It was Deng Xiaoping's decision in 1978 to open the Chinese economy to market forces which led to China's economic miracle reflected in growth rates which reached between 6 and 8% per year. Reacting to Mao's lengthy rule, the CCP adopted a policy of two terms for the Party Secretary. While China remained an authoritarian state, state policies became more pragmatic and less ideological in orientation.

Under current president and party secretary, Xi Jinping, the pendulum haas swing back to a Mao style rule. If Mao had his little Red Book, Xi has his 14 Points which every Chinese citizen must learn by heart.  Xi seeks total control over the CCP, the state apparatus and the economy. China Puts Spymaster in Charge of Overseeing Western Businesses

Fearful that the prosperous entrepreneurial class has attained too much power and present a challenge to his rule, Xi has cracked down on private enterprise.  The result has been the disappearance of a number of prominent business men, the arrest and trail of others on charges of corruption and tax evasion, and the moving of many businesses out of China to safe havens like Singapore and the United States.

Xi's hostile policies towards private enterprise have slowed and even, in many instances, reversed, foreign investment in China.  Xi ignores the fact that it was China's economic growth and large market which attracted foreign capital and catapulted China into its position as a global power. China’s Fading Recovery Reveals Deeper Economic Struggles  

Structural change China is experiencing an aging population.  Workers are harder to come by and thus wages have been pushed upward.  The main incentive for foreign capital to invest in China was not just its large market, but its large workforce and low wages.  As wages have risen, many foreign firms were already leaving China and moving to Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and Malaysia where labor costs are lower.  Even before Xi's intervention in the Chinese economy, foreign capital was beginning to turn negative on producing its products in China. China’s Shrinking Population Is Deeper Problem Than Slow Growth for Its Economy

Much of China's rapid economic growth was based upon the expansion of its housing market.  However, that market has now been saturated.  Many Chinese can't afford the cost of new apartments, leaving large numbers of housing projects sitting empty throughout the country's major cities. That many large cities face thousands of empty apartment buildings indicates the distorted nature of China's economic growth which has been powered by housing and infrastructure.

A critical issue which has not received adequate attention is China's looming water crisis.  As a 2022 report from the Lowy Institute noted, approximately half of China's aquifers are too polluted for farming or industrial use. and 80-90% of its groundwater is unfit for drinking. The Himalayan glaciers are rapidly melting.  Because waters from the Himalayan mountains feed China's Yangtze River, this development poses a major threat to water security. Water security will require much more focus on domestic rather than foreign affairs by the Xi regime. Water scarcity challenges China’s development model

Chinese youth Xi's authoritarian style extends to youth who have been exhorted to adhere to the "9-9-6" work schedule, i.e., 9 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week.  Xi has also stipulated that young Chinese should be limited in the number of hours they spend each day on social media and playing video games.

Given an aging population, educated youth have become an ever more important component of China's workforce.  It is clear, however, that Chines youth c=don;t want to become the "economic shock troops" for Xi's ultra-authoritarian order. In fact, large numbers of youth have created an ingenious response to the "9-9-6" protocol.  It is, in effect "lying flat," namely prone on a couch or bed for large parts of the day involved in leisure activities like consuming social media or reading.

Given the example of large numbers of Russian youth - the best and the brightest of its rising professional, technocratic and scientific class - who have fled Russia as a result of Putin's invasion and war in Ukraine, Xi's threat to forcibly seize Taiwan is not well received by the next generation.  Indeed, one result of Xi's authoritarianism may be to lead young Chinese with needed skills to leave the country and take up residence in the West. China’s Young People Can’t Find Jobs. Xi Jinping Says to ‘Eat Bitterness’

What makes matters worse is the high unemployment rate among Chinese youth. Even students university degrees are having great difficulty finding employment. One problem is that universities have been graduating students with degrees which don't match China's needs. The outcome is a souring on the Chineses economy by its youth 1 in 5 Young Chinese Is Jobless, and Millions More Are About to Graduate

Competition with the West With the United States building an International coalition to deny China access to cutting edge technology in the manufacture of semiconductor chips, China will lag behind the West in developing in producing this critical resource.  Xi's efforts to extend China's influence in the South China Sea through building military bases, often on artificially created islands, his bellicose language and posture towards Taiwan, his repression of Hong Kong democracy demonstrators, and his crackdown on private enterprise, including foreign firms, is one reason why the United States has become more concerned with China's foreign policy intentions .

Based on denying China access to the latest chip technology, its weapons systems will be less effective and thus less desirable to countries like Saudi Arabia. We also need remember that Chinese arms have not been used in any large scale conflict since the Korean War.  Thus, there is still much doubt about how effective it really is compared to American and European weapons.  This consideration means the United States, European (and possibly Israeli) weapons systems will remain the default source of arms for most MENA region states. Investors Have Soured on China’s Stocks, Renewing Fears About Economy

Negotiating the complexities of MENA region rivalries and conflict It is one thing for China to facilitate Saudi Arabia and Iran reestablishing diplomatic relations.  It is quite another for it to create a balance in which its is able to maintain close realtions with both countries.  Muhammad bin Salman sees close ties with Iran as a means of extricating Saudi Arabic from the disastrous war in Yemen and reducing its dependency on the United States which it views as an unreliable ally.  

However, the recent rapprochement between the 2 enemy states should be viewed more as a latter day Molotov-von Ribbentrop Pact, namely a temporary policy of convenience which will not last.  It is only a matter of time before renewed tensions emerge putting Iran and Saudi Arabia at loggerheads.

Iran continues to develop weapons grade uranium. It possesses 6 times the amount allowed under the 2016 JCPOA nuclear agreement. Israel has vowed that it will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons,  especially with Iran having developed ballistic missiles which could carry a nuclear warhead. Iran nuclear: IAEA inspectors find uranium particles enriched to 83.7% Published

What if Israel attacks Iran in a preemptive strike against its nuclear facilities? Would China come to the aid of Iran? Almost certainly, China would condemn the Israeli attack but, I suspect, do little more. Would such lack of support anger the Tehran regime and undermine its relationship with China?

If the Yemen civil war erupts again, and Saudi Arabia is drawn into the conflict leading the pro-Iranian Houthi forces to repeat their shelling of the kingdom, would China intervene to support MBS' regime?  Again, little more than verbal support for Saudi Arabia could be expected.

If a renewal of the Yemen war brought Saudi Arabia and Iran to blows, what policy would China follow? While it would probably seek to mediate the conflict, it would find itself immersed in a conflict which is stoked by a larger regional rivalry.  Xi's regime would be drawn into a web of conflicting interests with little possibility for reaching any long-term solution.

Finally, what if Saudi Arabia acquires nuclear weapons?  In light of China's current assistance to help the kingdom develop what is said to be a peaceful nuclear program, many observers, including the United States, think the program is ultimately aimed at developing nuclear weapons. As an ally of both Iran and Saudi Arabis, how would China preclude what could be a catastrophic war between the two Gulf powers? Inside Saudi Arabia’s Global Push for Nuclear Power  

Is the Concept of a Regional Hegemon Outdated? The United States has been criticized, both in the MENA region and elsewhere, for "withdrawing" from the region.  Putting aside China entry into the region's politics, can the United States sustain its traditional role as a hegemon given the massive changes affecting the Middle East?

In the Israeli-Palestine dispute, the United States has lost almost all its historic influence in affecting the crisis.  In Saudi Arabia, MBS is developing a new type of authoritarian rule which rejects traditional Sa'ud family and tribal rule in favor of a model which characterizes Russia and China.  The US still has influence through its arms sales to Saudi Arabia, but much less ability to influence MBS' decision-making and policies.

The United States has been unable to prevent the reversal of democracy in Tunisia, the one success story which emerged from the Arab Spring. In neighboring Libya, civil strife still prevails, despite NATO intervention in 2011 to help overthrow the Qaddafi regime. The Biden administration has had little success in changing 'Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi's intolerance towards dissent as Egypt's prison population continues to grow.

In short, it is no longer possible for one power to play the role of hegemon in the Middle East.  The spread of political repression, corruption, civil strife and failed states presents a level of challenges that no one superpower can effectively move the region in ways which accord with its national interests.

In the 2008 presidential election, John McCain proposed the creation of a "League of Democracies." While not my preferred candidate, McCain did have a good idea. The United States, Canada, European democracies and democracies from other parts of the world need to create an organization which can use both the carrot and the stick to promote democracy and civically minded leaders who seek to raise the standard of living of their citizens, not line their own pockets.

While this proposal may seem naive, let's remember that Western support of repressive authoritarian regimes has been  an abject failure. Having a League of Democracies promote social democracy which affords citizens a decent standard of living and personal freedoms would give them hope in the future and go a long way towards ending the rising level of conflict that consumes the MENA region.

Sunday, April 30, 2023

Sudan and the Crisis of Failed States in the Arab World

Fighting in the Sudanese capital Khartoum

The Arab world is well known for its "democracy deficit."  This problematic state of affairs may be soon surpassed by an even more dubious distinction, namely the crisis of failed states.  Across the Arab world, Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Lebanon are all failed states.  Given the intense fighting between two rival generals in Sudan, we may soon see the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa join the list. It is not a stretch to envision Tunisia joining the list as well.

Why are so many Arab states unable to preserve their sovereignty and national security? More ominously, does the Arab experience suggest that the problems the region is facing are spreading to other regions of Africa and South Asia as well? The answer is that the problems undermining political authority in the Arab world are larger than the region. Thus, an analysis of the region helps us comprehend a larger dynamic which is affecting much of the Global South.

In explaining failed states in the Arab world, we need to focus on three stages: the collapse of secular ideology, the onset of foreign direct investment (FDI), and the development of neoliberalism accompanied by massive corruption and criminality. 

The collapse of secular ideology  The legacy of colonial rule demonstrated that the collaborative neo-colonial regimes which Great Britain, France and other European powers established after ceding independence lacked legitimacy. Despite the pretense of democratic elections, these post-WWI regimes were dominated by landowners and merchants and incipient industrialists which did little or nothing to improve the conditions of the mass publics over which they ruled.

The military and single party coups which began after WWII promised revolutionary change, especially under the banner of Pan-Arabism.  Despite high hopes, the Pan-Arab slogan of "unity, democracy and socialism" failed to materialize. As Egyptians noted, with their ingrained sense of humor, all Jamal 'Abd al-Nasir (Nasser)'s revolution accomplished was to spread Egypt's poverty more evenly.

The Pan-Arab social contract offered political stability and economic security in return for political quiescence.  University education would be free and college graduates would be guaranteed a government job. Citizens would receive monthly food rations at minimal cost. Transportation would be subsidized.  To undermine Islamist movements and appear more modern to the West, gender equality was emphasized, although women remained second class citizens.*

The Pan-Arabist Social Contract was short lived.  Repression  of dissent, the institutionalization of the military in nationalized industry, the defeat in the 1967 war, and the struggle between Egypt, Syrai and Iraq for control of the Pan Arabist movement all delegitimized the ideology.  The slow growth of the state public sector prevented regimes from continuing to provide social entitlements, except through accumulating large debts.

The onset of foreign direct investment (FDI) Following the disastrous June 1967 Arab -Israeli War, Egypt found itself cut off from Suez Canal and sizable tourist revenues, while bearing the burden of residents forced to leave the Suez Canal and move west to Cairo and other urban areas.  When Jamal 'Abd al-Nasir died in September 1970, his Vice-President, Anar Sadat, replaced him.  

Sadat, as is well known, put Egypt on a very different foreign policy and domestic trajectory than that of al-Nasir.  He terminated military ties with the Soviet Union, released Nasir's arch enemies, the Muslim Brothers, from jail (so they could attack the left-wing of the Nasserite movement), and proclaimed his al-infitah - the "Open Door" policy to the US and the West.  The Open Door was an attempt to attract foreign investment to Egypt to overcome its sluggish economic growth.

At the Eighth Party Congress of Iraq's Ba'th Party in 1974, Saddam Husayn moved away from the socialism and "anti-imperialism" which characterized the party's ideology since it seized power in 1968, and began to seek foreign investment in the Iraq's economy.  When I arrived in Iraq for a two month stay in May and June of 1980, my minders at the Ministry of Information took me to a number of Western projects, such as a steel mill being built by San Francisco based Bechtel Corporation and France's Creusot-Loire engineering conglomerate.

Syria waited longer to seek Western FDI.  Between 2000 and 2010, Syria's legal system underwent significant change, offering tax holidays and other market-based incentives. During the first decade of the 20th century, there was sharp uptick of FDI which reached a peak in 2009.  The primary countries which invested in Syria were Russia and Germany.  The main areas of FDI were telecommunications, banking and electricity sectors.

The rise of the corporate-criminal state Pan-Arabism slipped from Arab collective memory during the 1970s and 1980s.  As globalization spread, Arab elites in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere became increasingly involved with foreign capital. The standard of living and general well-being of mass publics became an afterthought.  State subsidies for food and transportation, and benefits such as government employment based on a university degree, declined as Arab states sought to lower national debt to increase their attractiveness as investment targets.

Arab leaders of the 1990s lacked the experience of having participated in the anti-colonial struggle of the inter-war and post WWII eras.  In Tunisia, for example, Habib Bourguiba had ruled as an autocrat. Still, he allowed the formation of government controlled labor unions, promoted women's rights and allowed state-supervised civil society to form. After he was deposed in 1987, his successor Zine al-Din Ben Ali established an incredibly corrupt regime.  In is no coincidence that the Arab Spring began in Tunisia when a frustrated vegetable and fruit vendor, Muhammad Bouazizi, immolated himself when he no longer could afford the daily brides in the town in which he lived to conduct his business and support his extended family.

The Arab Spring uprisings quickly spread from Tunisia to Egypt, Syria, Libya and Yemen.  Only Tunisia experienced any meaningful transition to democracy with Ben Ali's ouster.  Nevertheless, the inability of successive governments to improve Tunisia's economy. combined with the spread of corruption. allowed President Qa'is Sa'id to seize power in 2020, restructure the constitution, and centralize power in his hands.  In effect, Tunisia has once again become an autocracy.

Shorn of ideology and befitting from lucrative contacts with foreign corporations, an ever widening gap has developed between political elites and the citizenry at large. During the Arab Spring, the Syrian and Egyptian regimes used the argument that the opposition was comprised of radical Islamists and therefore needed to be repressed.  The violent strife which accompanied the Arab Spring led to a large number of displaced persons. In Syria, half of the population has been affected by the ongoing civil war.

The large influx of refugees into neighboring countries has caused additional political turmoil. Over 4 million Syrians moved to Syria.  However, it was the influx of over 2 million Syrians into Lebanon which has pushed it the verge of fiscal collapse.  The storied Lebanese banking system, has run out of funds. The result has been that depositors can't accessing their bank accounts, leading to attempts to "rob" banks to obtain their funds.

Th extent of corruption in Lebanon's political elite became manifest after a huge amount of ammonium nitrate, over 2700 hundred tons, which had been illegally stored in Beirut's post for 6 years, exploded in August 2020. The explosion destroyed a large part of the city, killing 218, injuring 7000 and displacing over 300,00 residents.

Despite determined efforts of Lebanese judges, all efforts to investigate the crime and bring those who caused it to justice have failed.  The political elites from a wide variety of confessional groups - Christian and Muslim - and Hizballah, which controls the most seats in parliament and half the cabinet ministers, have stymied all attempts to move the investigation and trials forward.

Egypt -a Proto-Failed State? Egypt represents the archetypical military-corporate state.  It is a bifurcated state.  On the one hand, there is the Egyptian government appointed by General 'Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt's dictatorial ruler. This consists of the usual array of ministries with limited budgets. On the other, there is the military-financial complex in which military officers and business elites close to the al-Sisi regime enjoy all the benefits of Egypt's wealth while leaving millions of their fellow citizens in abject poverty. Egyptian Armed Forces, Inc.: the Middle East's New Janissary Corps

The great gap in wealth is combined with spatial segregation. The military-financial elite lives in upscale neighborhoods or in gated communities and socializes in exclusive clubs. There is minimal interaction between the elites and the populace at large.  Indeed, only those Egyptian's who possess al-wasta (political influence) have any hopes of entering the elite's ranks. 

Just like the Rapid Support Forces and the national army in Sudan, and the all powerful militias supported by Iran in Iraq, the Egyptian military is deeply compromised by its control of Egypt's economy.  This control is symbolically codified in an Egyptian  law which makes publishing the military's budget a crime.  Estimates are that the military controls at least 1/3 of Egypt's economy.  Egypt’s Military Now Controls Much of Its Economy. Is This Wise?

Meanwhile, the Sisi regime has done little to generate the jobs needed for a rapidly growing population, now almost 108 million. University graduates are frustrated and angry because they can't find employment based on their merits.  Instead, they see youth who have wasta receiving the premium positions.  

Poverty is a major problem in Egypt with almost 30% of the population suffering from low incomes, access to food and shelter and healthcare.  The war in Ukraine has raised the cost of living because Egypt imports most grains which it needs to feed its population.  Thus, current statistics surely underestimate the current rate of poverty.

Despite building one of the largest solar farms in the south near the border with Sudan, Egypt has done little to address another serious problem, that of global warming.  The rising sea level of the Mediterranean is beginning to push its waters up the two tributaries of the Nile River.  The resulting salinization of the water and soil is adversely affecting agricultural production in these regions.  Ironically, Egypt was given the presidency of the United Nations' COP27 Meeting which was an international embarrassment in light if its having ignored to date its domestic environmental problems.

Egypt is also facing a dangerous threat to the south where Ethiopia has built the Grand Renaissance Dam on the Nile River which will hamper the flow of critically needed water resources downstream.  Egypt has declared the dam to be a national security threat and warned of possible military action to attack it if Ethiopia begins to fill the lake behind it.  

However, Egypt is doing little to modernize its agrarian sector and teach farmers how to better allocate water used for irrigation. It could make better use of the model developed by the Egyptian firm, Karam Solar, which provides solar panels to farmers which enables them to avoid use polluting and expensive diesel fuel and allows them to access and pump water from deeper in the ground to use for irrigating their crops.

Like most MENA region autocracies, the Sisi regime lacks an ideology and hence any meaningful legitimizing mechanism. The military-financial elite demonstrates no civic consciousness. Its only goal is increasing its profits and wealth.  This state of affairs has engendered considerable dissent among the educated classes.  Unable to tolerate any criticism, the Sisi regime has arrested large numbers of Egyptians, resulting in an estimated 60,000 prisoners held under horrific conditions in its infamous prisons. COP27 shines spotlight on Egypt's political prisoners

One reason the Egyptian political class has been able to weather a number of storms, including the ignominious defeat in the June 1967 six day war, Anwar al-Sadat's assassination in 1981 of threats from radical Islamism and the 2012 Arab Spring uprisings has been the cohesion derived from its social base. 

As Leonard Binder documented years ago in his study, In a Moment of Enthusiasm: Political Power and the Second Stratum in Egypt, the Free Officers movement which led the July 1952 coup which overthrew the monarchy under King Faruq was rooted in a rural middle class of notables and middle level landowners. This social stratum has provided the social base of the al-Nasir (Nasser) and subsequent regimes.

Will the military-financial elite be able to rely upon oppression to maintain its current grip on power and prevent Egypt from becoming a failed state?  While Egypt's elite did successfully negotiate the Arab Spring uprisings, the toppling of President Husni Mubarak notwithstanding, it is doubtful that it can sustain its rule if it continues to ignore the serious challenges facing Egypt.

Sudan had its own uprisings in 2019. However, its military-financial elite was not about to allow power to flow into the hands of democratic leaders who might expose and break up its corrupt hold on the country's economy. Even though the military-financial elite in Egypt is still largely unified politically, it too could experience schisms developing within it if pressures from below emerge, such as large scale protests demanding a change in the authoritarian status quo. Meet Sudan's web of warlords, foreign backers and their tangled alignments

Foreign powers, whether from Russia or China, or from the West, will continue to pressure MENA region states which possess critical economic resources, whether oil, natural gas, gold, other precious metals, or agricultural products. Any hope for a move towards democratization of MENA region nation-states seems unlikely indeed.


 *Although it should be noted that, when I visited Baghdad in May and June of 1980, the majority of physicians in the capital were female. 

Monday, March 20, 2023

What is the Legacy of the United States' 2003 Invasion of Iraq?

"Shock and Awe" - Baghdad March 20, 2023
Twenty years ago today, the Bush Administration launched the United States invasion of Iraq.  What is the legacy of the invasion?  Was it justified and what was its impact on Iraq?  What are the lessons learned by the invasion and toppling of Saddam Husayn's regime?

To begin, there is no question that Saddam Husayn was one of the world's most notorious war criminals and guilty of massive human rights abuses.  It is estimated that Saddam killed 3 million Iraqis during his rule between 1968 and 2003.  This is equal to 15% of Iraq's population, and doesn't take account of all the Iraqis killed due to Saddam's invasion of Iran in September 1980 and seizure of Kuwait  in August 1990 which killed thousands of Iraqi troops and innocent civilians.

The Bush administration's invasion of Iraq was an illegal operation.  The United Nations dod not authorize the attack.  The time in which to remove Saddam from power was in March 1991 when a majority of the Iraqi population rise up against Saddam.  

The uprising (Intifada) in the Kurdish north and the Arab south at the time would have deposed Saddam had not the United States intervened to allow Iraqi helicopter gunships to take to the air and suppress the Intifada.  Had Saddam's regime been toppled, while United States were in Iraq, would have prevented the brutal United Nations sanctions of 1991-2003.  The sanctions destroyed the Iraqi education system and the professional middle classes.  In short, the first mistake made by Bush the Elder was not to end Saddam's regime in 1991.

The 2003 invasion was based on a lie.  The CIA and Bush administration knew that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Unfortunately, Saddam refused to admit Iraq had no WMD because he was afraid if he did Iran would consider Iraq as weak and be encouraged to invade and overthrow his regime.

The US occupation was initially directed by General Jay Garner, someone who had some knowledge of Iraq and the Arab world.  However, he was considered to "pro-Arab" and soon repealed by an arrogant official, Paul Bremer, who had no experience in the Arab world and was ignorant to navigate complex situation of a country which had suffered 2 major wars and the mist severe sanctions regime ever imposed on a nation-state in the modern era.

Bremer who was appointed to head the new Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in 2003.  As CPA Administrator, his first decisions began a long list of destructive policies.  The dissolution of Iraq's 400,000 man strong conscript army (separate from Saddam's Republican Guards or Special Republican Guards) included large number of soldiers who were battle trained, having fought in the 8 year Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) and Gulf War (1991), created the basis for the insurgency which Saddam had planned if US forces were successful in deposing him.

Now that large numbers of soldiers were unemployed, even if they received salaries for a period after having been released from military service, were available for mobilization against US forces. According to a study of the impact of the army's dissolution, the firing of 400,000 troops had a negative impact on an estimated 10 million Iraqis, taking into account the families which these soldiers salaries had supported.

By the fall of 2003, an insurgency was underway, even if Bush's Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, continued to deny its existence. Not only did the insurgency include ex-Ba'thists but also former conscript army members who were paid to fight and kill American troops.  Ominously, it also began to attract radical Islamists and members of al-Qa'ida who saw in Iraq an opportunity to take up arms against the United States. 

The second consequential decision Bremer took was to fire all members of Iraq's Ba'th Party, not taking into account those who were forced to join to maintain their government employment (when included a large segment of the Iraqi population).  This decision deprived Iraq of large numbers of critically needed professionals for the reconstruction of Iraq, whose economy and infrastructure had been destroyed in two wars of bombing of Iraq and the United Nations sanctions regime.

Beyond the CPA's forst 2 decisions, other problematic decision were being made in Washington, DC, primarily by Vice President Dick Cheney and members of the Defense Department, especially Assistant Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz and his assistant, Under Secretary of Policy Planning, Douglass Feith.

The Bush administration's cooperation with Iraqi exiles who had maintained close ties to the so-called Islamic Republic of Iran was. mind boggling.  Had not George w Bush included the Tehran regime as one of three countries who comprised the "Axis of Evil" (the other 2 being Saddam's Iraq and North Korea). Why then would the United States invite someone like Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) to visit Paul Wolfowitz in Washington and become a post-2003 power broker in Iraq?

The Bush administration's policies also laid the foundation for the extensive corruption which plagues Iraq today.  Because there was no banking system in 2003, cash in US dollars was flown into Iraq and distributed in large bundles to finance reconstruction projects.  Under these circumstances, huge amount of funds disappeared.  When the amount estimated about $16-18 billion could not be accounted for, George Bush finally agreed to appoint a Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGAR).  

His choice for the position was a friend, Stuart Bowen, who he had know for years. Little did he know that Bowen woulds take his job very seriously. To Bush's chagrin, Bowen discovered massive corruption in both the awarding of contracts for reconstruction projects and further lost funds for many projects once completed. 

Bowen also discovered that many projects were never in Iraq's interests but were intended instead to maximize the profits of American corporations such as Halliburton which they realized.  Others were never completed. Key projects, such as repairing and expanding Iraq's decrepit electric grid, were avoided.  Instead, projects such as a hospital with expensive medical equipment which was difficult to maintain and service which, in any event, was never completed. In short, the bold statements about rebuilding Iraq after the 2003 invasion bore little fruition.

Paul Bremer also contributed to undermining confidence in  democracy in Iraq - one of the purported goal of the toppling of Saddam - by trying to fix the outcome of the first elections held in post-Saddam Iraq in January 2005.  When Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani learned of Bremer's efforts, he intervened to prevent his machinations.  Throughout Bremer'd tenure as CPA Administrator, al-Sistani refused to meet with him.

One of the Bush administration's last but more egregious decisions was to appoint the arch-sectarian Nuri al-Maliki as Iraqi prime minister in 2006. This decision would lead to al-Maliki's alienation of Iraq's Sunni Arab population which set the stage for the seizure of Mosul and much of North Central Iraqi in June 2014.

Ironically, the most effective American policy in Iraq was not initiated by the Pentagon but by middle rank officers in the field. What came to be known as the Commander's Emergency Response Program (CERP) was based on a simple idea.  Whenever there was an uptick in violence in an Iraqi town or urban quarter, middle range officers would take money in safes on their bases which had been confiscated from Ba'thists attempting to flee the country in 2003 and use it to put local residents to work in the areas experiencing conflict.

One US Army captain told me that he avoided using small bulldozers and employed shovels instead so that he could give the maximum number of men jobs sand a salary.  Work included repairing sewer and water lines, refurbishing schools, building simple sports centers, and cleaning up the neighborhood.

The United States should have used Saddam's massive human rights abuses to mobilize an international coalition under United Nations auspices to remove Saddam from power and bring to trial in an international court.  However, to single out Saddam would have laid the Bush administration open to the question of why other dictators the US supported were also not removed from power.

Ultimately, the removal of Saddam was not about establishing a true democracy in Iraq.  It seemed instead to be mostly concerneed with intimidating neighboring Iran and Syria, and giving US energy corporations access to high quality Iraq oil.  If there were the true reason for the invasion, they both present one of the worst failures of US foreign policy in modern American history.