Opinion

The Great Debate

The key to understanding the ‘Arab Spring’

The United States has been unable to develop a clear national policy about the Arab Spring largely because Washington does not fully understand what’s happening in the Middle East.

The term, “Arab Spring” is itself misleading. The changes over the past 20 months have produced a fundamental transformation of the region – but not in the way most outside observers anticipated: They reflect the replacement of the dominant Arab national identity by a more Islamic identity.

This change has been evolving for more than 40 years and did not begin in January 2011 with the demonstrations across the Middle East.

The Middle East today is less Arab and more Muslim. It was clear from the start of last year’s protests that the successor governments would be less Arab nationalist and secular, and more Islamic.

The widespread use of “Arab Spring” helped conceal this reality. The term brought to mind the changes that had swept through Eastern Europe with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Numerous, but inaccurate, parallels were drawn between the Eastern Bloc and the Middle East.

from Ian Bremmer:

G-zero and the end of the 9/11 era top 2012 risks

In a video for Reuters, Ian Bremmer discusses the biggest risks facing the markets in 2012 and says the next phase in the Middle East and the post-9/11 environment pose the greatest uncertainty:

Top Risks of 2012

As we begin 2012, political risks dominate global headlines in a way we’ve not experienced in decades. Everywhere you look in today’s global economy, concerns over insular, gridlocked, or fractured politics affecting markets stare back at you. Continuation of the politically driven crisis in the eurozone appears virtually guaranteed. There is profound instability across the Middle East. Grassroots opposition to entrenched governments is spreading to countries such as Russia and Kazakhstan that were thought more insulated. Nuclear powers North Korea and Pakistan (and soon Iran?) face unprecedented internal political pressure... Read the full top risks report here.

from Ian Bremmer:

Turkey ascendant, Palestine in tow. Whither Israel and the U.S.?

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.

If President Obama thinks he's having a tough month, he's got nothing on Israel's Bibi Netanyahu. In Tel Aviv, hundreds of thousands of Israelis are protesting the cost of living. In New York, the Palestinians are readying a statehood resolution at the United Nations. In Ankara, the Turkish government has expelled the Israeli ambassador from the country. And in Cairo, an Egyptian crowd is taking the job on themselves, attacking the Israeli embassy.

Of all of these events, though, Turkey is the biggest worry. Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has steadily escalated an anti-Israel tack for over a year now, most recently by accusing Israel of behaving like a "spoiled child." More directly, Erdogan has also proclaimed that the Turkish navy will stop the planned start of gas drilling explorations off the Cyprus coast by an Israel-Cypriot consortium. That's tantamount to threatening armed conflict. Why is Turkey so ascendant in Middle East politics, to Israel’s dismay? There are three very good reasons:

1. The U.S. is playing less of a role in the Middle East.

Under President Obama, the U.S. has become a “taker” not a “maker” of foreign policy there. Simply put, this Administration has spent less time on the Middle East peace question than any other since the creation of the Israeli state. With all the issues facing Obama at home -- joblessness, a tanking economy and his own re-election, to name a few -- and all the more pressing international issues, like winding down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and dealing with the euro zone and China -- Israel has taken a political backseat. As NATO allies like Turkey fill the void and create their own regional strategies, Israel, being in the most unnatural geopolitical position there, has had the hardest time establishing its own power center.

from Ian Bremmer:

The coming Palestinian statehood

By Ian Bremmer
The opinons expressed are his own.

 

As violent protests rock the Arab world, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israeli government has tried to keep a low profile. It has largely succeeded. That’s about to change.

This year’s upheaval in North Africa and the Middle East is not quite finished. As President Saleh recovers from injuries suffered during an attack on Yemen’s presidential palace, the country remains plagued with protests and crackdowns. Libya’s Qaddafi clings to power, Syria’s Assad copes with surges of public anger, and Egypt’s zigzag path toward democracy reminds us how hard it is to fill the hole left behind by a castoff autocrat.

Israelis have watched closely from the sidelines to better understand what all this turmoil means for their future. As the dust begins to settle, it has become clear that they have plenty to worry about. Populism is taking root in the Middle East, a region where ordinary people have been forced for years to scream in unison to make themselves heard. Now they find that they have the power to bring about change. In response, Arab leaders—the newly elevated, those clinging to power, and even those simply facing a more uncertain future—are now listening to public opinion much more closely.

Syrian dissidents unite to oust Assad

By Ahed Alhendi
The opinions expressed are his own.

Twenty years ago, I was a school kid chanting with my peers, “Our leader forever, the father, Hafez Assad!” Back then, I could not have imagined that one day I would see his statues destroyed all over Syria by the people — a sight now common within the country.

Most of those demonstrating in Syria are young people who were taught to love and adore our only president, and later his son, Bashar. As young Syrians, we have always treated the Assads as something of a holy family. We all were forced to join the Baath Party Pioneer Organization at the age of six and we grew up soaking in the Assads’ propaganda — the school system, the single TV station, the official newspaper; they all had a picture of Assad as their logos.

Now, the voices of freedom are sounding louder than the engines of armored vehicles and the whistling of tanks shells. Bashar Assad thought that the military would intimidate and quiet the protesters, but the shout “Bashar must go!” is only getting louder.

Does everyone have a price?

DUBAI/

On Monday I went to Bloomingdales, the Gap and Starbucks but passed on a visit to Magnolia Bakery. Instead I  stopped by the St. Moritz bakery where you can order hot chocolate and sit by a video of a cozy winter  fire that overlooks the indoor ski slope and is just around the corner from the largest candy store in the world, which happens to face an aquarium that occupies an entire wall on one side of the world’s largest shopping malls. This by the way is opposite of what claims to be the world’s largest candystore whose mission statement is to make every day “happier’. Earlier, while exploring the watery depths of the bright Pink Atlantis Hotel (one of the white elephants of the property crash of 2007) I knew it was really the last kingdom because the fish swam around two cracked thrones and other kitschy stone artifacts.

Dubai is utterly overwhelming, the kind of  dystopia that blogger Evgeny Morozov sees in Huxley, a consumeristic paradise where mind-numbing shopping replaces real thought. Most of the I had no idea where I was except that my passport had been stamped Dubai  and many of the mall-going women were shrouded in black. After a few hours I sank into a state of ennuie. Given boatloads of oil money in the 1970s and the chance to build a whole new city, who on earth would decide to build a series of shopping malls?

It’s not like the developers didn’t have ambition, what with the architecture that demands superlatives — the gondolas, medieval stone houses and soaring illuminated sky scrapers and islands built in absurd never-before-seen configurations. But why not build a museum with, say, the most incredible collection in the world or a university with the finest research laboratories? With so much money why build this Disneyland? And what about the workers who make up most of the population?

Why democracy will win

LIBYA/

Philip N. Howard, an associate professor at the University of Washington, is the author of “The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy:  Information Technology and Political Islam”. The opinions expressed are his own.

The Day of Rage in Saudi Arabia was a tepid affair, and Libyan rebels have suffered strategic losses. Only two months ago, popular uprisings in Tunisia inspired Egyptians and others to take to the streets to demand political reform. Will the tough responses from Gadaffi and the Saudi government now discourage Arab conversations about democratic possibilities? It may seem like the dictators are ahead, but it’s only a temporary lead.

Ben Ali ruled Tunisia for 20 years, Mubarak reigned in Egypt for 30 years, and Gadaffi has held Libya in a tight grip for 40 years. Yet their bravest challengers are 20- and 30-year-olds without ideological baggage, violent intentions or clear leaders. The groups that initiated and sustained protests have few meaningful experiences with public deliberation or voting, and little experience with successful protesting. These young activists are politically disciplined, pragmatic and collaborative. Where do young people who grow up in entrenched authoritarian regimes get political aspirations? How do they learn about political life in countries where faith and freedom coexist?

Let them eat oil

OIL-BIROL/INDONESIA/

By Erik Mielke, who is a partner at Namir Capital Management LLC, a New York-based investment management firm that invests in emerging markets. The opinions expressed are his own.

The winds of change are forcing fundamental political and economic shifts across the Arab world. But one area of economic reform is likely to be brought to a stop as regimes respond to popular protests with populist measures. These initiatives include extending and expanding the region’s massive energy-price subsidies. For the rest of the world, this matters tremendously. One additional barrel consumed in Tehran or Riyadh is effectively one less barrel for the export market, and that means higher global oil prices.

Fueled by petrodollars and subsidized oil, energy consumption has been rising rapidly throughout the region. In the 10-year period to 2009, oil consumption in Middle East and North Africa rose by 50%, or 2.7 million barrels per day, second only to China’s rate of growth. In the same period, the region’s oil production only rose by 2.5 million barrels per day. The net result was a decline in oil exports from the world’s key producers.

America, Iran and a terrorist label

Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Who says that the United States and Iran can’t agree on anything? The Great Satan, as Iran’s theocratic rulers call the United States, and the Islamic Republic see eye-to-eye on at least one thing, that the Iranian opposition group Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) are terrorists.

America and Iran arrived at the terrorist designation for the MEK at different times and from different angles but the convergence is bizarre, even by the complicated standards of Middle Eastern politics. The United States designated the MEK a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 1997, when the Clinton administration hoped the move would help open a dialogue with Iran. Thirteen years later, there is still no dialogue.

But the group is still on the list, despite years of legal wrangling over the designation through the U.S. legal system. Britain and the European Union took the group off their terrorist lists in 2008 and 2009 respectively after court rulings that found no evidence of terrorist actions after the MEK renounced violence in 2001.

The U.S. war in Iraq is over. Who won?

The end of America’s combat mission, after seven and a half costly years, has raised questions that will provide fodder for argument for a long time to come: Was it worth it? And who, if anyone, won?

It’s too early to answer the first question, according to U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a man of sober judgment. “It really requires a historian’s perspective in terms of what happens here in the long run … How it all weighs in the balance over time remains to be seen.”

For a sizeable group of Middle East experts, the second question is easier to answer than the first. “So, who won the war in Iraq? Iran,” says the headline over an analysis by scholar Mohammed Bazzi for the Council on Foreign relations, a New York-based think-tank. His argument: “The U.S. ousted Tehran’s sworn enemy, Saddam Hussein, from power. Then Washington helped install a Shi’ite government for the first time in Iraq’s modern history.

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