Tag: middle east

Confused about the Middle East? So Is the United States

Since the Arab Spring, many Middle Eastern countries have fallen into political chaos like dominoes. This week’s explosion of conflict in Yemen is just the most recent example. Though many of these conflicts are based on local grievances, they are being exacerbated by the involvement of the region’s larger states, and by the United States.

America’s leaders denounce intervention by unfriendly states like Iran. Yet the United States ignores or even enables such actions by U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia. In doing so, America is simply contributing to the mess in the Middle East. Washington should back off and refuse to get more deeply involved in further Middle Eastern conflicts.

Yemen’s conflict is nothing new; the Houthi rebels have been active in Yemen for more than a decade, and captured the capital in January, forcing President Hadi to flee south. This week, as the rebels finally reached the southern city of Aden, Hadi fled, and apparently appealed to Saudi Arabia for help in combatting the Iranian-backed insurgency.

Yesterday evening, that help arrived in the form of a massive Saudi air campaign and a reported 150,000 troops. The Saudi efforts are supported by a number of other GCC and Arab states, as well as U.S. logistical and intelligence support.

But like everything in the Middle East today, this conflict isn’t as clear cut as it seems. The Houthis are indeed aligned with Iran, and probably receive monetary support. But they also represent a sizeable fraction of the Yemeni population, and many of their policies – such as opposition to U.S. drone strikes in Yemen – are widely popular. Even more confusing, the Houthis are also adamantly opposed to Al Qaeda, and have spent substantial time and resources fighting AQAP fighters inside Yemen.

This conflict fits with a broader pattern of post-Arab Spring clashes in the Middle East, conflicts which are complex and local in nature, but which are treated as simply proxy wars or sectarian conflicts. The fear that Iran might make gains in Syria, in Iraq, in Libya and elsewhere drives Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to respond militarily, increasing tensions and conflict.

The U.S. response to this complex reality has been to reflexively back traditional U.S. allies. But in doing so, American policy has become confused, contradictory and overleveraged. We’re working towards similar goals as Iran inside Iraq, opposing them in Syria and Yemen, all while trying to reach a nuclear deal before the March 31st deadline. How this mess of policy contradictions is supposed to produce viable results is anybody’s guess.

Yemen has a long history of instability, and any military solution to the crisis will likely fail to produce a long-term solution; it will just paper over the problem. It’s not even clear whether the reinstallation of the Hadi government would be best for U.S. interests: though a Houthi government is unlikely to allow U.S. drone strikes against al Qaeda, they might prove more effective at fighting the group than the government has.

America should stop reflexively backing traditional U.S. allies in the region, and refrain from deeper involvement in these conflicts. Instead, we should think more clearly about when (and whether) the United States should be involved in Middle Eastern conflicts, and about how such actions fit our overall strategic goals. Because one thing is certain: further U.S. intervention in the Middle East would be an exceedingly bad choice.   

Middle East and North Africa: A Fatal Attraction

Last week, President Obama addressed the nation to proclaim that the U.S. and an unspecified coalition were going to once again ramp up our military operations in Middle East and North Africa (MENA). This time, the target is the Islamic State, the group terrorizing Iraqi and Syrian citizens.

Just what is the economic condition of that troubled MENA region? This is a question that must be addressed by anyone who is looking over the horizon. After all, the state of an economy today will have a great influence on post-war prospects tomorrow.

My Misery Index allows us to obtain a clear picture of the current economic situation. The Index is the simple sum of the inflation rate, unemployment rate and bank lending rate, minus per capita GDP growth. I calculated a misery index for the countries in MENA where sufficient data were available.

As the chart shows, many of the countries in MENA are, well, miserable. Indeed, a score of over twenty indicates that serious structural economic problems exist. To correct these problems, thereby reducing misery, major economic reforms (read: free-market reforms) must be implemented. But, even if the respective governments approve such changes, it is unclear whether they can be implemented. To put a bit of color on that conjecture, consider that only 13 of the 21 countries in MENA reported the four pieces of economic data that are required to calculate my Misery Index. The regional governments’ inability to produce reliable economic data is a canary in a coal mine. When it comes to MENA, most of the countries have been singing for a long time. The region is, by and large, miserable.

Obsession with Syria Obscures Other Middle East Problems and Pertinent Lessons

The Obama administration and most of the U.S. foreign policy community have become so obsessed with Syria that other important developments around the world are receiving inadequate attention. In a piece over at the National Interest Online, I describe some of the key trends in South Asia and East Asia, two regions that are more important than the Middle East to long-term U.S. security and economic interests.

Crucial events include India’s growing financial woes, the simmering tensions between China and its neighbors over territorial disputes in the South China and East China Seas, and Japan’s increased willingness (in large part because of its problems with China) to boost its military spending and adopt a more confrontational stance toward Beijing. 

I also note that Syria is hardly the only source of worry in the Middle East itself. The renewed sectarian violence next door in Iraq is escalating at a frightening pace, Sunni-Shiite tensions in Bahrain are moving from a simmer to a boil, Libya is imploding, and Egypt is perched on the brink of civil war. The problems in Iraq and Libya hold pertinent lessons for those Americans who are eager to embark on a war against Syria. After all, those were Washington’s last two military crusades to oust odious dictators. And to be blunt, they have not turned out well.

Since the early spring, the level of bloodshed in Iraq has reached alarming proportions. And much of the violence reflects bitter sectarian divisions similar to those that make Syria such a fragile political entity. Iraq after the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein has not turned out to be the peaceful, democratic, multi-religious society that George W. Bush’s administration touted as the goal of U.S. policy. 

The situation in Libya is even worse. Overthrowing Muammar Qaddafi has led to an awful aftermath. The horrifying September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans was an early symptom of the chaos that has made Libya a thoroughly dysfunctional country. Today, a growing number of militias (many of which have rabidly Islamist orientations) have established small fiefdoms throughout the country, and the national government in Tripoli becomes increasingly impotent. Libya’s oil production has plunged, and with it the government’s principal source of revenue. 

Given the dismal outcomes of Washington’s last two military ventures in the Middle East and North Africa, one would think that proponents of a crusade in Syria would be sobered by the experience. But warhawks such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Representative Peter King, and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol appear to have learned nothing from those debacles. More prudent figures in Congress and the broader foreign policy community need to overrule their wishes.

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

The following headlines were on a magazine cover I saw over the weekend: 

  • “Why People are Mad at Washington” 
  • “Less Zip in Business” 
  • “Republican Split” 
  • “New York on Brink Again” 
  • “Mideast War Jitters” 

With, perhaps, the exception of the headline about New York, one could easily conclude that the magazine is a current issue. However, that’s not the case. The cover actually belongs to the June 21, 1976 issue of U.S. News & World Report.


My parents kept it because that was the day I was born. Evidence, I believe, that God has a sense of humor. I can’t help but wonder though: will headlines in another 37 years be that much different?

Kick Egypt off the Foreign Aid Dole

The United States has spent decades attempting to micromanage the Middle East. The result is a long series of disastrous failures. Egypt is the latest example.

Almost everyone in Egypt now blames America—despite almost $75 billion in financial assistance to Cairo over the years. Instead of backing away, President Barack Obama is digging America in deeper. The administration is ignoring U.S. law by continuing financial aid.

The United States turned Egypt into a well-paid client during the Cold War after Egypt switched sides and later made peace with Israel. But the case for continuing subsidies has disappeared.

The law requires halting assistance. If what happened in Cairo was not a coup it’s time for an update to George Orwell’s 1984. In fact, it appears that the military planned its takeover for months. 

The Egyptian military is a praetorian institution which has been the foundation of dictatorship for a half century. Egyptian military officers are pampered apparatchiks who control as much as 40 percent of the economy. They always have served power and privilege rather than democracy and liberty. 

Moreover, foreign “aid” has subsidized Egypt’s catastrophic economic failure. Like government-to-government assistance elsewhere, American subsidies have discouraged economic reform. 

As for political influence, Cairo long ago realized that it could count on receiving Americans’ money irrespective of its behavior. Egyptian governments have never listened to Washington’s advice regarding either economic or political reform. That hasn’t changed since the coup.

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns visited Cairo a couple weeks ago and activists on both sides refused to see him. The top military leader met with him, but ostentatiously ignored Burns’ pleas. 

Even if the money theoretically brought influence, the Gulf States have promised Egypt at least four times as much as Washington. Why should Cairo listen to America?

The military already is well-funded domestically, and much of America’s assistance goes for prestige weapons, such F-16s. Nor does Washington need to pay the generals not to break the peace with Israel. They know that conflict with Israel would be suicidal. 

Unfortunately, the liberal opposition is living an illusion if it believes that security forces which backed dictatorship for six decades now represent liberal values. As I point out in my new Forbes online column:

[I]t will not be long before those who advocate democracy and liberty find themselves in the army’s cross-hairs. Literally, given the military’s penchant for using live ammunition against protestors. Democracy advocates who subvert democracy should expect nothing less.

Finally, America’s reputation is on the line internationally. The Muslim Brotherhood may be no friend of liberty, but political Islamists are far more dangerous if excluded from the political process. And the coup will resonate beyond Egypt. To work so hard to avoid applying the law in order to support a coup against the man who won the first free presidential election in Egyptian history will make a mockery of any future pronouncements about America’s commitment to democracy. 

Washington’s best hope is to disengage, leaving Egyptians to decide their own future. That would respect the rule of law in the United States. It also would restore a degree of leverage, if Egypt’s military actually values Washington’s cash and support. It is time to halt American assistance to Egypt.

A Middle East Aflame Needs Economic Freedom

The small Persian Gulf kingdom of Dubai is an oasis in a region aflame. Even NATO member Turkey has been inundated with protests. 

The region’s best hope for the future is greater economic opportunity. It’s an issue that I recently discussed with businessman Waleed Moubarak of Alghanim Industries.

The Emirate of Dubai is one of seven kingdoms which make up the United Arab Emirates. The latter is a kingdom, not a democracy, which is reflected in its human rights record. However, the country is doing better on economics. Overall the UAE comes in at number 11 on the Economic Freedom of the World Index.

Dubai’s oil has run low, which may be the key to its recent success. Moubarak argued that Dubai was “forced to develop” because it “doesn’t have the oil resources that its neighbors do.” 

As I explain in my latest Forbes online column:

One of Dubai’s most important steps has been to set up more than a score of free zones, covering financial, auto, internet, media, gold, and other services.  Additional zones for auto parts, carpets, flowers, maritime, and textiles are planned.  The areas offer tax exemptions, full foreign ownership, and free capital repatriation. 

Among the most important innovations within the Dubai International Financial Center are independent commercial laws and common law courts.  The DIFC attracts judges from common law jurisdictions elsewhere, such as Great Britain, Hong Kong, and Singapore.  The system offers legal predictability and stability, essential to attract substantial foreign investment.  Two years ago Dubai allowed businessmen outside of the zone to rely on DIFC courts.  Apparently Abu Dhabi intends to create a competing financial free zone.

Moubarak and Alghanim also are involved in Injaz, an international charity which, Moubarak explained, seeks to train Arab youth to “give them a skill set to go out and succeed” so they don’t have to settle for “the traditional goal to get in government and get a sinecure.”   It is a wonderful objective.  He added:  “Injaz, in a small way, tries to change that mindset and to give the Arab youth a sense of the possibilities that the private sector has to offer.” 

The Middle East is filled with human potential that is being squandered.  The region needs democracy and human rights.  It also needs economic freedom and entrepreneurship.   We all have a stake in the Mideast finding the way to peace and prosperity.

Democracy Versus Autocracy in Kuwait: Where Is Real Liberty?

KUWAIT CITY, KUWAIT—This small Gulf nation was largely unknown in America before Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded more than 20 years ago. The United States intervened to drive Iraqi forces out. Kuwaitis remain grateful to Americans and emphasize their friendship with the United States.

Although a monarchy, Kuwait has an elected parliament and a generally free media. It regularly invites foreign analysts and journalists to observe its elections. I am making my second trip this year.

Tremors from the Arab Spring are being felt here. The parliament elected in 2009 faced charges of corruption and lost popularity, and was dissolved at the beginning of the year. Elections were held in February.

All very democratic.

The new legislature was dominated by anti-government activists and, more important, Islamists. Top of the latter’s agenda was making Sharia the basis of all laws, imposing the death penalty for blasphemy, and closing Christian churches. Not very good for liberty.

The Kuwaiti emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, said no to all three. Liberty was protected only because Kuwait was not a genuine parliamentary system where elections determine the government.

The constitutional court then reinstated the previous parliament on technical grounds—that it had not been properly dissolved. The members were no more popular than before and the body soon was properly dissolved. But the emir unilaterally changed the voting system from four votes to one vote per district—from which ten MPs are chosen. Public protests and a large-scale boycott ensued.

Nonetheless, the election was held on December 1. Turnout fell—to about 40 percent, compared to 60 percent in February—but the conduct of the poll received general praise from outside observers. The vote elevated a number of unknowns to parliament.

The government claimed success, but the opposition, which ranges from liberals to Islamists, organized 15 demonstrations involving thousands on Monday night. The police responded with force and injuries resulted. The opposition promised more protests, including a large rally promised for Saturday. The emir met with members of the royal family. My friend, political scientist Shafeeq Ghabra, told me that Kuwait was at a “political crossroads,” with the public determined to “deepen democratization.”

No one knows there this will end. The main opposition leader Musallam Al-Barrak, until this election the longest-serving MP, emphasized the protestors’ commitment to the emir. He told me the situation in Kuwait was different than elsewhere in the Arab Spring: “We want to have an elected government. That does not mean we are against the ruling system.” However, the driving force behind the protests is the youth movement—an incredible 70 percent of the population is under 29. Some of them, at least, seem less than enamored with monarchical rule, with or without a parliament.

As the current political crisis—a word now used by some—plays out, Kuwaitis may find themselves with something closer to a popularly elected government. Unfortunately, however, experience shows that this may not make them freer.