Tag: middle east

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.

Wall Street Journal: Romney Should Be a Neocon, but Hide It in Debate

Would you buy a foreign policy from this man?

Imagine a world in which the Iraq War had gone exactly as marketed. The United States invaded in March 2003. The Iraqis, with the help of Ahmed Chalabi, rapidly transitioned to become a stable, liberal democracy allied with the United States against Iran. The marvelous and smooth transformation had ripple effects throughout the region: a handful of Arab states followed suit, and the United States had drawn down to under 30,000 troops in country by September 2003, setting up a basing agreement with the new Iraqi government to stay indefinitely. Few American lives were lost, the swamp of terrorism was drained, and an oil pipeline has just been completed running from Iraq to the Israeli port city of Haifa.

Imagine, at the same time, that opponents of the war, despite having gotten every major judgment about the prudence and consequences of the war comically wrong, had been vaulted to positions of power and prestige in foreign affairs commentary. Meanwhile, the war’s proponents, despite their support for a strategy that yielded huge strategic dividends for the United States at a low cost, were banished to the wilderness, heard from sporadically on a few blogs and at a think tank or two.

It would be strange, wouldn’t it?

And yet that situation is roughly analogous to the one in which we find ourselves today, except in real life the war was an enormous disaster, just as its opponents predicted, and the proponents of the war are the ones in denial about its implications. Foremost among the salespeople for war who have yet to come to grips with the facts are the members of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board.

But hey, let’s let bygones be bygones: they’ve got some advice for Mitt Romney in his upcoming foreign policy debate.

First, the good news: Even the editorial board of the Journal seems to understand that speaking openly about their plans for more wars would be bad politics. Accordingly, the Journal doesn’t “expect Mr. Romney to offer an explicit defense of the Bush Doctrine” and they worry about the implications of Obama charging Romney with wanting to get the United States into a third (and fourth) Middle East war. This is in keeping with the previous assurance of Bret Stephens (pictured above) that Romney wouldn’t start any new wars. Romney should deny wanting any more wars while doing a number of things that make them inevitable.

Second, the bad news: Instead of suggesting that Romney actually trim the neocon sail a bit, the article suggests Romney continue his strategy of wheeling out a fog machine and saying “leadership” and “strength” instead of discussing details. The American people who tune in Monday night deserve to hear some specifics. Not the level of specifics that would satisfy the people who think about international politics for a living, sure, but some specifics. Instead, while suggesting that Romney “offer[] a serious critique of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy that doesn’t descend to clichés,” the article suggests clichés but not seriousness.

This blends with the ugly news: like an insular clique of Bourbon royalty, the neocons at the Journal appear to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing about strategy over the last 10 years. To the extent their suggestions do go beyond clichés, they are a reminder that Bush-era neoconservatism still lies at the center of their world view, and the world view of the Republican establishment. A few examples:

  • The war in Iraq, we are informed, had “already been won when Mr. Obama became president.” Mission accomplished? Come again?
  • Obama turned that win into a loss by failing to secure “a viable alliance with Baghdad and a bulwark against Tehran.” When you have allocated yourselves 1,608 words, you may want to show your work about how this could have happened.
  • Another Obama failure is that he allowed Israel to have a partially independent defense strategy. He should have “provide[d] Israel with reassurances that it needn’t consider its own military options” on Iran. If Israelis should just rely on the United States to defend them from the most important threats facing their country, why does Israel have such a powerful military in the first place?
  • Obama’s “policies of premature military withdrawals [in Iraq and Afghanistan] have increased rather than diminished the chances that we will be at war in the Middle East again.” How? In which countries?

One could go on. But more broadly the piece suffers from the flaw that has characterized the whole foreign-policy discussion in the election: the idea that the outside world begins at Algeria and ends at Afghanistan. The sprawling essay says exactly nothing useful when it comes to the most important foreign policy challenges facing the United States: the prospect of a European implosion, the wreckage of our war on drugs in Mexico, and preventing American entanglement in a prospective World War III in Asia.

The essay closes by invoking Robert Gates’s invocation of Ronald Reagan, who said that he had lived through many wars but none of them began because the United States was too strong. Gates and the WSJ’s editorial board probably ought to think a little harder about whether the United States blundered into any costly quagmires as a function of its overweening strength and insulation from the costs of its strategic choices. The answer is obvious.

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