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Entries in Egypt (25)


We need to talk about Egypt

Nice piece by Roula Khala in the FT on the unfolding crisis that is Egypt’s economy.  To no one’s surprise, the Muslim Brotherhood has proven rather inept at economic management – much less reform.  One can hope that the learning curve, while steep, is rapidly surmounted, but there’s always the temptation of long, out-of-power revolutionary types to imagine that “now is our time to prove there is an [INSERT NATIONALITY HERE] way of doing things!”

Over time, genuine economic development forces convergence:  there are a few models out there (centralized socialism, oligarchic capitalism, state-run capitalism, big-firm capitalism and entrepreneurial capitalism) and there are pathways from one to the other (e.g., Russia from centralized socialism to oligarchic capitalism, China from centralized socialism to state-run capitalism, Japan from state-run capitalism to big-firm capitalism, Singapore from state-run capitalism to entrepreneurial capitalism, America from big-firm capitalism to a hybrid of that +  entrepreneurial capitalism (i.e., industry sectors dominated by a handful of go-to-market options, surrounded by a sea of entrepreneurial small firms)).  But everyone ends up running the same pathways – to wit, state-run China dreams of achieving its own Goldilock-style mature capitalism by “going global” in the direction of big-firm capitalism, pursuing “indigenous innovation” in the direction of entrepreneurial capitalism, and splitting the difference with domestic-led consumption (basically, the US model).

So no, there isn’t anything new under the sun; there’s just the same old game of hopscotch.

The fundamental flaw of the MB in power to date, according to Khalaf:

Mr Morse, an Islamist, has yet to understand that politics and the economy cannot be managed separately.  A lack of political consensus is destroying his chances of taking difficult austerity measures, including cutting a costly subsidies bill and raising taxes, all of which are required by the IMF.

The IMF only matters here because of a $5B loan agreement on the table.  Yes, Mr. Morsi can try to sell Egypt to China for a similar amount, but there he might find that the new neo-colonialism practiced by Beijing (you sell us raw materials and we sell you finished goods) isn’t the great liberation it’s made out to be for a country with such massive underemployment (and no serious material wealth).  It’s hard to follow the China model unless you’re China, which means it’s not really a model at all.

Khalaf preaches an IMF programme (oops, went Brit there for a few strokes) “accompanied by substantial funding from an international support group made up of Western powers and Middle East oil states.  

Me?  I would hope Egypt might split the difference and go for a bigger international support group that includes rising Eastern economies.  Because if it’s just the West and oil-rich sheikhs making demands, that gives Morsi the ideological “out” of resistance.  So including China and India et al. in such things would be a nice way of evening out the demands, the message, and sense of us-against-them.


Civilization = bad connectivity principle, but dream = good

Trio of stories (2 FT and 1 NYT) on evolving ideologies of Russia (old leader), Egypt (new leader) and China (new leader).

Putin is floating a unique Russian civilization idea - likely as his legacy signature concept in governance.  The purpose is setting the long-term course of how Moscow handles the federation's many nationalities.  For now, a trial balloon, but already the blowback is sensed and it's building.  These nationalities naturally feel like they're being told to assimilate or find themselves a bit lost in Russia's future - as defined by Putin et al.

Morsi in Egypt is now revealing a similar bias on his effort with the constitution.  He wants to make it so Islamist that Egypt's many minorities are reacting badly, seeing no good space for themselves in Egypt's future on this basis.

My point in raising both issues:  when you argue civilization and, on that basis, identity (typically tied to religion), then you're saying, "This is how we're going to run this place and this is how we're going organize our connectivity with the outside world - by requiring this sort of homogeniety at home."

Problem is, the self-limiting nature.  If you want connectivity, you want to promote diversity.   That attracts the bodies and minds and the money.  This is an old concept, as in back to Amsterdam and the Dutch when they built up their global nets.  England picks up this vibe and does similarly.  The US gets the DNA via New Amsterdam-cum-New-York.

When you don't care about identity/religion on this level, you take on all comers, meaning you're open for business with everyone.  That's how you succeed.

Third cite:  Xi Jinping in China resurrecting "Chinese dream" notion as part of his reform/progressive agenda.

That "dream" apes the US version, which is centered on success and the pursuit of happiness.  

Why good?  It says your identity is more about success than comformity and homogeniety.  You'll work with anybody, because the dream trumps the exclusionary identity.

So, my point:  if you go the civilization/religious identity route, you scare off connectivity and globalization (or certainly retard it), but if you go the "dream" route, you choose pragmatism over such identity.  Your identity is simply your culture of success.

I think both Russia and Egypt will learn the limits of this approach, and it will be a painful process. But these are natural growth patterns.

China, I think, risks the other pathway:  the cult of success makes it harder to promote morality.

So it's the old choice:  preserve the identity and the attached morality, or risk both by opening up and prioritizing success.

Why I always advocate the latter:  It simply works better on raising income, and when you raise income, it's a virtuous cycle, as the people become even more tolerant and open, seeing the value in this path.

Meanwhile, if you choose identity over success, you makes less money and achieve less, and you tend to trigger a vicious cycle, as the outside world becomes more evil in your eyes ("Why won't they do business with us on our terms?")

But this is why China succeeds where Russia (and I fear Egypt) will not.


Delivering a PPT in the PNT


Was approached by a group at the Joint Staff a while back to present to a working group focused on a particular operational theater.  The group regularly hosts speakers for an audience of about 75 flags, officers and senior civilians, with VTC to a large number of overseas commands.  Audience also had a number of foreign senior officers.  

The sponsor had asked to discuss near- and mid-term issues that could prove disruptive to security issues under their purview.  Because my current brief is more long term, I saw this as a chance to brief a number of Wikistrat sims.  So the bulk of the brief was on four sims we've done over the past couple of years now.

Little bit nervous going in, because it was a significant audience in terms of hierarchy, so a good test of the product line - as it were.  Unlike a pitch where you talk about the methodology and the company, this was a pure product presentation.  Not a demo, but actual product that had to stand on its own - as in, nowhere to hide behind hand-waving.

Joel Zamel was there as well to answer questions on the company and methodology.

I did 28 slides at a podium.  Couldn't move around due to the VTC cameras.  Also had to finger a screen to advance the slides (tap, tap, tap).  All in all, a terrible set-up for somebody like me, and I often feel like I underperform in those situations (I don't get complaints; it just doesn't feel as gloriously un-self-conscious as the perfect set-ups - for me - do).  But for whatever reason, it worked great and I got my head around the delivery and banged out about 30 mins of presentation, followed by another 30 or so of Q&A that felt even better.  Audience was really great.  Really interesting questions and super engaged.  What you expect from that level of crowd.  So you give what you get (e.g., my humor was above average), as the best audiences always get the best briefs.  It's just how it works.

Still, you just never know going in.  I tend to be pretty quiet right up to the point, because it takes a lot of energy. And yes, some nerves on the product. But the material was received very well, which was very gratifying. Big league audience in the bowels of the Pentagon and Wikistrat - at only three years old - comes off as top flight. We fielded a lot of powerfully positive comments and feedback. Extremely validating.

Follow-on lunch inside the Building with a crew of USA younger officers who are all elite something or other in some prestigious fellows program.  Most had seen me give my current standard globalization brief at Belvoir during my regular lectures there.  That was a really nice discussion.  Decent bisque, too.

Only really hard part was getting up at 0400 to fly there and back on same day, but nice to be back home for a movie with the kids at the end of their school week.

All in all, it felt like a genuine milestone.

You know, we run a lot of training simulations at Wikistrat.  Really pretty much nonstop.  And one of the things I'm always preaching throughout the community is that everything needs to be of high-enough caliber that, if I'm standing in front of a senior audience of serious operators and policy types at the Pentagon or some COCOM, I sound like the real deal from stem to stern. That's really the first threshold. Everybody knows we can do it fast and far less expensively, so the only remaining question is, Is the quality as good as anybody else's out there?

And that test was passed today (actually yesterday) - with flying colors.

And that is no small achievement. 

So the community should feel very proud of itself and what it is accomplishing.

Because the quality is only going to keep improving.  I'm seeing that elevate with each sim.  Less correcting work for me as Chief Analyst, and more time to really work the synergizing write-up, so elevation across the board, as well as product I can stand in front of - inside the Pentagon and with a senior audience - and deliver without a hitch.


Good piece on US concerns: Libya v. Egypt

Appears in NYT.

The one thing that's been clear about the Arab Spring to date:  it is a process of Sunni empowerment that comes with a great deal of identity politics.  America is now experiencing some payback for all those decades of supporting dictators who kept a lid on that identity.  in the past, I felt we did that in deference to the volatility generated by similar dynamics among the Shia in the decades after the Iranian Revolution.  But that was a conundrum-like choice:  we deeply angered half of the Middle East out of fear of the other half.

Now the Shia half seems back on its heels.  We might have imagined a tipping point with the re-Shia-ization of Iraq, but that seems rather puny right now with Syria almost literally coming apart and Iran still in internal lockdown against domestic opposition and external lockdown over the nuke program (those dropping oil exports . . .).

Yes, we now get a chorus of experts saying, "Aha!  I told you the Arab Spring was a disaster!"  But it's like that quote I gave Esquire back when it started:  the Arab Spring is like a kidney stone.  Sure, it's no fun passing it, but if you think it's going to stay in that kidney forever, just getting bigger, that's no answer either.  So yeah, passing it will hurt, but what's the alternative to trying to get it done quickly?  Pretending it's never going to come?

But the major (for me, at least) theme remains:  globalization has arrived in the Middle East, and it has triggered a lot of social and political tumult.  Large chunks of the population (mostly young) do not see a future they like, while Africa is booming and Asia keeps getting richer and a middle class blossoms across Latin America.  The Arab world is still losing - dramatically - at globalization.  As the region ages demographically from a mean age of about 22 to 32 across this decade and the next, the lack of jobs will be magnificently destabilizing.  That youth bulge is not being served, and when you can't produce the jobs (the MB's real problem now), you - those who pretend to rule - have to indulge the anger.

That's what we're seeing now: the Sunni Islamists in power are no more clued in than the secular dictators who preceded.  They are, however, more willing to indulge the populism.  This can go on for a long while.  It just can't go anywhere in terms of progress, because global investors will want none of this uncertainty.  Frankly, it's why China greatly prefers Africa.


Sign of the times: Morsi's first big foreign stop = China

Nice WSJ story on this seminal example of south-south ties.

The "bamboo network effect:  Increase your trade with China and you increase your trade with China's network and the world at large.

But the trick for an Egypt:  awfully hard to follow in China's wake, so you tend to import more from China than you sell it.

China's challenge:  demographic aging means it needs to shift some portion of manufacturing (within overall processing trade network) to cheaper labor sites as China's labor gets more expensive.

Some of that shift China wants to direct inward to its interior provinces.  Some will go to SE Asia, experiencing a big demo dividend.  Some will go to India, which experiences an even bigger one.  Some to Middle East - still more, and some to Africa - the biggest demo dividend out there.

You say it's international corps that will make all these decisions, and that's true, but increasingly those corps are Chinese.  Plus, think about who's got the cash in the system for that FDI.

If you're developing and want to emerge in globalization today, you're reaching out to China - not the West.


Morsi will continue to surprise


Egypt: you knew it was going to come down to this

A Muslim Brotherhood candidate versus a holdover from the old regime.

This is the essential question for the Egyptian public: stick with what they know or let the Islamists try to do better with the economy.

In the end, you want them to choose the Islamists, because the same old, same old won't work any better than the Mubarek version did. The trick is, the military needs to let this experiment run itself out.

Yes, there are many in the West that see a Muslim Brotherhood taking over the Middle East.  This sort of overwrought hysteria is not useful.  We've seen several would-be national liberation movements link up regionally over time, but as any of them get actual opportunities to rule, expect them to be total nationalists who completely backburner any alleged transnational solidarity.

This is not a new dynamic (nor a new misdiagnosis by the strategic community in the West): we've seen it throughout history.

But, in the end, letting the Islamists try-and-either-fail-or-succeed is essential to the Arab Spring process, and since that dynamic is overwhelmingly characterized by the empowerment of Sunni masses, that means the MB now face their moment in the sun.

Again, the Brotherhood can either meet this overwhelmingly economic challenge and succeed (the Erdogan dynamic in Turkey) or they can go all social conservative and self-destruct just like the GOP here in the fiscally f--ked-up States.


Wikistrat post @ CNN-GPS: Ten Roads to Israel-Iran War

Editor’s Note: The following piece, exclusive to GPS, comes from Wikistrat, the world's first massively multiplayer online consultancy.  It leverages a global network of subject-matter experts via a crowd-sourcing methodology to provide unique insights.

Either Israel and the United States are engaged in a brilliant psychological operations campaign against Iran or the two long-time allies really are talking past each other on the subject of Tehran’s reach for a nuclear bomb. Either way, all this Bibi Netanyahu said, Leon Panetta said chatter is producing some truly jangled nerves over in Iran on the subject of Israel’s allegedly imminent attack on that country’s nuclear program facilities.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu keeps publicly implying that his nation can’t wait on Iranian events for as long as the Obama administration – with its looming embargo of Iranian oil sales to the West – would like. Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta keeps tripping over his own tongue, saying one day that America is doing its best to keep Israel’s attack jets grounded and the next offhandedly remarking to reporters that Tel Aviv is inevitably going to pull that trigger sometime this spring.

Again, as psyop campaigns go, this is brilliant, because it not only keeps the Iranians nervous and guessing, it forces them out into the diplomatic open with all manner of implausible counter-threats that reveal their increasing desperation.

Stipulating all this brinkmanship - coordinated or not - this week’s Wikistrat crowd-sourced analysis exercise involves imagining the range of possible pathways to an Israel-Iran war.  We don’t offer odds here. We just try to cover a wide array of possible vectors toward the trigger-pulling point.

Read the entire post at CNN's GPS blog.


Van Creveld tuned into Iran v. Turkey

Temp Headline Image

CSM op-ed, by way of WPR's media roundup.

As readers will attest, I've been saying this for a long time myself, both here and in columns and posts for other sites, but felt kinda odd that no one else was picking up on it. Knew I wasn't making it up.  Just wondered why the real lead being buried by MSM.

Well, this is one credentializing op-ed from Martin Van Creveld and somebody else.

Check it out.  I don't agree with all of it, but it's a powerful piece.

My annotated rundown:

[SUBTITLE] Many analysts say the Middle East is the focus of a geopolitical power struggle between the United States and Iran. That misses the primary thread of events – namely, the ongoing soft partition of the Arab republics between Turkey and Iran, with Turkey the stronger power.

What's not said: the power Turkey wields is entirely "soft," meaning the attraction of its culture, politics and its economic heft.  Turkey is not threatening with hard power, nor reaching for nukes - none of what Iran does. Instead, it's primary attraction is its success in growing and keeping happy an expanding middle class.

This is primarily China's soft-power attraction, so when we seek to counter it with a military "pivot" to East Asia, we don't look strong but weak.

During the last decade many right-wing American and Israeli analysts have described the geostrategic struggles unfolding in the Middle East as a new “cold war” pitting the United States against Shiite Iran. They have warned of an Arab “Shiite crescent” – stretching from Lebanon to Iraq – connected to Iran via ties of religion, commerce, and geostrategy . . .

Van Creveld puts Iraq too easily in Iran's camp - at least the Arab portion. I don't think it's such a done deal by any stretch, and we've seen plenty of reports that say the Turkish attraction is greater there on a lot of levels.

Back to the argument:

What this view of the Middle East overlooks is the fact that both the US and Iran are mired in internal political and economic difficulties. Simultaneously, inside the region, both are being outmaneuvered by an ascendant Turkey.

I don't think the US is being "outmaneuvered," just outperformed and out-clevered - if you will. Turkey, as a "young" rising power, has the strategic imagination required for the task, whereas the US strategic community is mired in a plethora of 20th-century concepts, many of which are so outdated as to be laughable. Turks just see the region with clearer eyes than we do.  No great mystery there.  Iran, thank Allah, is just as mired in the past.

Moreover, Western observers have missed the primary thread of events – namely, the ongoing asymmetric Turkish-Iranian soft partition of the Arab republics. Concomitantly, the American position as regional hegemon is vanishing. Today, only the Arab monarchies and Israel continue to look to the US as their primary patron.

I believe this to be true, but again, Turkey is winning and Iran's grip is tenable - see Syria.

Following the US withdrawal from Iraq, KRG officials bemoaned their need of a regional patron to protect them from dominance by Baghdad. Landlocked Iraqi Kurdistan also needs a conduit to export its oil to the West. The only country that can fulfill both roles is Turkey. That is why KRG officials, instead of supporting their ethnic brethren inside Turkey, have often sided with Ankara against the Kurdish separatist PKK.

This was made obvious to us when Enterra did its development work in the KRG.

Should more pipelines leading from Iraqi Kurdistan to the Mediterranean via Turkey be built, the result will be the de facto creation of an Iraqi-Kurdish buffer state. 

And frankly, the KRG is the nicest part of Iraq in terms of combined hydrocarbons and arable land.

In the southern part of Iraq, the situation is just the opposite. There, a Shiite Arab buffer state, buttressed by Iran as a bulwark against Turkish, American, or Saudi encroachments, is being created. The last two weeks’ events have removed any doubt that Prime Minister Maliki is “Iran’s man” in Baghdad. 

Again, I differ here on writing off the south, but point taken.

Yet despite this de facto partitioning of Iraq over the last month, Turkey and Iran are not challenging each other’s spheres of influence. Thus, Iraq has reverted to its traditional position as the Poland of the Middle East.

Cool analogy.

In post-Arab Spring North Africa, too, Turkey and Iran have essentially partitioned the resurgent Islamist movements between themselves. The Turks support the victorious “moderate” Islamists from Tunisia to Egypt. Iran backs the Salafist spoilers, even though they are Sunni.


Key point:

Since North Africa lacks indigenous Shiite populations and the “moderate” Islamists have now emerged as the main players in the region, it is Sunni Turkey, along with Qatar, that appears to be the rising political and commercial patron in North Africa.

Not arms, but soft-power backed by serious wealth accumulation.

Next arguments about Turkey and Iran synching their approaches to Israel-Palestine problem strikes me as weak. Van Creveld and his guy are interpreting Turkey's reorientation away from quasi alliance with Israel and a reorientation toward Iran's hard line.  I see nothing of the sort, but rather Turkey proving its Islamist credentials as it openly seeks regional leadership.  Israel here is just the litmus test.

Van Creveld and Pack see a clear struggle between the two powers in Syria, but again with an eye to soft partition, as they put it:

In a fragmented post-Assad Syria, Turkey will support the Sunnis, while Iran will remain the patron of the Alawites. Moreover, both will surely find a way to protect their strategic and financial interests in whatever regime emerges.

Strong finish on a point I have railed incessantly - our obsession with Iran's nukes blinds us to everything else going on in the region:

Throughout 2011, the continued Western obsession with the Iranian nuclear menace prevented policymakers from grasping the most salient dynamics at play in the new Middle East. Those who, like Mohammed Ayoob, have warned that “Beyond the Arab Democratic Wave” lies a “Turko-Persian Future” have been mostly ignored.

The Arab Spring has vastly weakened the Arab states, leaving them open to fragmentation, increased federalism, and outside penetration. With hindsight, 2011 may come to represent as sharp a rupture in the political landscape of the Middle East as 1919 did.

True to my "new map" approach: globalization, entering the Arab world, creates fragmenting tendencies (remapping, as I have long described it), and the two states seeking to take advantage represent polar opposites on adapting themselves to globalization's many challenges: Turkey embraces and is stronger for it, Iran does not and in its fight to keep it out becomes decidedly weaker (here our sanctions do help). Toss Qatar in the same basic globalization camp as Turkey.

Van Creveld and Pack view all this in terms of great power control over weaker states, and yes, we will witness plenty of these dynamics in the initial remapping process, but Turkey won't "own" the Middle East any more than China will "own" SE Asia.  Ultimately, as globalization takes deep root and economic opportunities arise, states will gravitate according to market power, not pol-mil influence.  Turkey will be prominent because of its significant market size (just like China in East Asia or India in South Asia or the US in the Western Hemisphere), adhering to my general principle that what rules in globalization is not supply (especially of hard power) but demand (the ultimate soft attractor).


Esquire's Politics Blog: So, How's That Egyptian Revolution Coming Along?

Egypt has just concluded voting for its new parliament — the first round, anyway — with surprisingly large turnouts and little-to-no serious violence. And that should make us all pretty happy, right? Alas, there's a lot of angst out there in the mainstream media and the blogosphere on all the issues that get lumped together in the big, mournful vibe of who killed the revolution? As usual, America's incredible impatience with progress, along with our unrealistic expectations about "new faces" dominating political outcomes, are fueling this growing sense of pessimism. But, in truth, the revolution is going along just fine.

Herewith, some whining you'll be hearing in the coming days — and the truth behind it....

Read the entire post at Esquire's The Politics Blog.


Being realistic on Iran's long-term influence in Iraq: it will lose out to Turkey and China and Kuwait

Story in WAPO gets the Iran-is-winning crowd all jacked up: Iraq is condemned for not siding with the anti-Assad movement in Syria and actually offering support to the regime! This is spun as clear evidence of Iran's influence, when there are a host of pragmatic reasons why Baghdad isn't so interested in having the Arab Spring topple the dictator Assad.

Some analysis that's far more nuanced and realistic is found in the NYT Sunday ("Vacuum Is Feared as U.S. Quits Iraq, but Iran's Deep Influence May Not Fill It," by Tim Arango).

The best bits:

As the United States draws down its forces in Iraq, fears abound that Iran will simply move into the vacuum and extend its already substantial political influence more deeply through the soft powers of culture and commerce. But here, in this region that is a center of Shiite Islam, some officials say that Iran wore out its welcome long ago.

Surely, Iran has emerged empowered in Iraq over the last eight years, and it has a sympathetic Shiite-dominated government to show for it, as well as close ties to the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr. But for what so far are rather obscure reasons — perhaps the struggling Iranian economy and mistrust toward Iranians that has been nurtured for centuries — it has been unable to extend its reach.

In fact, a host of countries led by Turkey — but not including the United States — have made the biggest inroads, much to the chagrin of people here in Najaf like the governor.

“Before 2003, 90 percent of Najaf people liked Iranians,” said the governor, Adnan al-Zurufi, who has lived in Chicago and Michigan and holds American citizenship. “Now, 90 percent hate them. Iran likes to take, not give” . . .

So big surprise: those who deliver economically achieve real standing. Iran simply cannot do this, because it's economy is broken - just like its "revolution."

Now to address the conventional wisdom: 

A standard narrative has it that the Iraq war opened up a chessboard for the United States and Iran to tussle for power. One of the enduring outcomes has been an emboldened Iran that is politically close to Iraq’s leaders, many of whom escaped to Iran during Saddam Hussein’s government, and that is a large trading partner.

Yet the story is more nuanced, particularly in the Shiite-dominated south that became politically empowered after the American invasion upended Sunni rule. It has been other countries — most powerfully Turkey, but also China, Lebanon and Kuwait — that have cemented influence through economic ties.

The patterns were established soon after the American invasion. Shoddy Iranian goods — particularly low-quality cheese, fruit and yogurt — flooded markets in the south, often at exorbitant prices, said Mahdi Najat Nei, a diplomat who heads the Trade Promotion Organization of Iran office in Baghdad. This sullied Iran’s reputation, even though prices have since plummeted, creating an aversion to Iranian goods that lasts to this day, Mr. Nei said.

This has made it difficult for Iranian businesspeople to make investments in southern Iraq, said Ali Rhida, who is from Iran and is building an iron factory on the outskirts of Najaf. “The real problem is with the mangers of the economy in Iran,” he said. “After the fall of the regime, many Iranian companies came here but they screwed it all up.”

As always, the real winners are the ones who deliver opportunity. Iran makes demands and delivers burdens.

“Investment from Iran has almost stopped,” said Zuheir Sharba, the chairman of Najaf’s provincial council, referring to a phenomenon that has more to do with Iran’s anemic state-run economy than it does to Iranian ambitions. Speaking about Americans, he said, “They were coming, but they’ve stopped.”

Mr. Sharba continued: “We wish that American companies would come here. I wish the American relationship was that, instead of troops, it would be companies.” Mr. Sharba is a cleric, and he spent 14 years in Iran in exile during Mr. Hussein’s government.

Our failure at economy-building staring us in the face.  Why? We became obsessed with the notion that government-building equates to state-building, when it's economy-building that triggers the locals to make their own state happen. We acted like the Gorbachev here: imagining politics determines economics, when we should have played it like Deng, understanding that you start with the economics and let the politics slowly evolve.

Yes, Iran can make trouble, but who cuts the deals?

While Iran may be flagging in the battle for hearts and minds, it is still able to create trouble. A rise this summer in American troop deaths in southern Iraq at the hands of Iranian-backed militias raised alarms in diplomatic circles and became the core of the argument put forth by those who want a longer-lasting American military presence to counter Iran’s clout.

But the troublemaking does not extend to the more important arena of commerce, officials say. “Because of the political sensitivities of Iran, many people say Iran is controlling the economy of Iraq,” said Sami al-Askari, a member of Parliament and a close confidant to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. “No, the Turks are.”

Mr. Maliki once lived in Iran, and he surrounds himself with aides who have close ties to Tehran. Yet even these relationships have not translated into economic or cultural influence that could endear Iran to the Iraqi public at large. “I’ve yet to meet an Iraqi who trusts the Iranians,” said Joost Hiltermann, the International Crisis Group’s deputy program director for the Middle East.

But the mythology dies hard in Washington, so eager are we to crap on ourselves and see "loss" in everything right now. It's silly and it's childish, but that's what we are right now.

Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East analyst at the Congressional Research Service in Washington, said that because of numerous small projects — particularly related to religious tourism in Najaf, including a large underground toilet facility, and some construction projects in Basra — “a lot of these myths get perpetrated” about Iran’s influence in the south. “In the aggregate, it doesn’t add up to much,” he said.

Atmospherics trumping reality. Iran is a master at spewing this nonsense and we are adept at swallowing it, much like Ahmadinejad's diatribes and threats against Israel.

The Saudis know better and so do the Turks.  Given the choice, I choose Turkey, which, BTW, is really "winning" in Iraq - and that's just fine by me.

Will we Americans ever grow past this pathetic need to view all interventions in such black-and-white terms? I have great faith in the Millennials. The Boomers were raised in a Manichean childhood, and it permanently ruined their strategic thinking.


Time's Battleland: Globalization at the barrel of a gun

Careful where you aim that weapon, buddy!

That phrase, with its powerful imagery, was often tossed at me following the publication of my 2004 book, The Pentagon's New Map. In it, I argued that globalization's expansion was, and would continue to be, the primary cause of unrest and conflict in the world, as connectivity - in all its forms - extended itself into the non-integrated regions and triggered rising expectations (as in, "If the Indians and Chinese are getting richer, then why do we continue to submit to this incompetent government that keeps us unduly disconnected from all that opportunity?").

Read the entire post at Time's Battleland.


Esquire's The Politics Blog: Obama's Middle East Speech Text, Decoded Line-by-Line

Expectations couldn't have been lower for President Obama's Middle East speech on Thursday, and yet it was a work of "realist" beauty that recognized: a) how little influence America actually has over these types of events, and b) where we stand at the beginning of what is likely to be a long process of political upheaval and — hopefully — economic reform that addresses the underlying issues driving the entire region. Yes, Obama took a pass on Palestine and Israel (his historic referencing of Israel's pre-'67 borders is the Mideast equivalent of a "world without nuclear weapons"), but he's got several touch points in the coming days (the Netanyahu meeting, another speech, Netanyahu's speech to Congress) with which to address that, so this was more of a broad-strokes laying out as to what America stands for, and what it's willing to do amidst its current fiscal realities. And — again — it was a great mix of stated idealism, expressed in long-haul terms, and political pragmatism that recognizes the here-and-now realities that must temper any sense of America coming to anybody else's immediate rescue.

Obama's was a well-crafted message — one that reassured both the world and Americans that this administration knows its limits and its responsibilities to history. It was, in a word, presidential.

And now, so you don't have to sit through it again, a little deconstruction of the most compelling sections excerpted (from the prepared remarks) at length....

Read the entire post at Esquire's The Politics Blog.


How the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt cracks under pressure - naturally

This is pretty much how I always expect it to go in these situations:  the long-oppressed opposition party finally has its chance at the brass ring and - booyah! - it starts fracturing over how to do it.  This is usually how the single party - realized or just self-actualizing - falls apart.  It's how I would see the Cuban Communist Party falling apart after the Castros depart. ["Falling apart" here also meaning birthing new parties.]

WSJ story on leader of one of the more moderate factions within the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood deciding to break from the party and declare his own presidential campaign.  "More moderate" is defined as:

. . . a positive relationship with the West, more rights for women and religious minorities, and democratic reform within the party's top-down leadership structure.

But here's the real rub:  Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and his faction believe the MB must split into two groups -a political party and a religious organization with attendant charities.

Since Dr. Fotouh, 59 years old, is effectively breaking the MB's promise not to field a candidate, many in the group are calling for him to resign because the group won't support his candidacy.

Despite the fears triggered by his announcement, I think this is a good thing.  If we want the Nelson Mandela-like figure, he will necessarily be of the group and simultaneously above the group.  The MB is the most organized party, so it's not odd that compelling figures will arise from it, but they need to do so as Fotouh seems to be doing, by forging a special, above-it-all path.

Obviously, a very early reading, but that's my suspicion.  The MB was the ONLY party to turn to - in opposition - under Mubarak, but now that he's gone, factions not only emerge but they break off and form new parties.

But no, I don't expect Egypt to pick some perfectly secularly leader.  I think that's unrealistic and - in some way - unwise.  But they do need the above-the-party-type figure, and maybe this guy is it.

Yes, I know I will be immediately bombarded by THE quote or action from Fotouh's past, but none of that will impress me.  The only thing that will count is what he does now.  Mandela was a figurehead for a Soviet-sponsored national liberation movement in my PhD diss - totally on the OTHER side.  Then the ANC got its chance, and Mandela made the most of it, and South Africa is South Africa today and Mandela is a near saint.

If you want the Egyptian Mandela, this IS the most logical source-path.


WPR's The New Rules: Ten Assumptions About Egypt Worth Discarding

There's a lot of trepidation mixed in with the joy of seeing one of the Arab world's great dictators finally step down. With Americans being so down on themselves these days, many see more to fear than to celebrate. But on the whole, there's no good reason for the pessimism on display, which is based on a lot of specious assumptions that need to be discarded. Here's my Top 10 list.

Read the entire column at World Politics Review.


CIA wrong . . . by almost entire day! Mubarak steps down

This train keeps rolling!

Elvis, we are now told, has truly "left the building," as Mubarak has handed power to the senior military council.

So the journey along Wikistrat's 1-2-3-4 scenarios is complete:  explosive rip of initial protests shakes everything up but triggers no Tunisia-like fall, then the steady drip of protests, strikes, defections, etc, pushes Mubarak into a number of "slips", none of which placate the mob.  Eventually, the military steps in (apparently Leon Panetta's prediction was dead-on and just a few hours off) and takes the Turkish path (assuming temporary rule but promising the much-desired free elections).

The table has been run.

We've been saying for a while that this was our preferred exit glidepath:  Mubarak stops being useful the minute the military decides it can assume the same role - that of the stabilizer that will safeguard the necessary transition.  My only concern, all along, has been that the elections come no faster than planned (and there are some on the democracy side who are already arguing that more time is needed), so, if the military sticks with that clear marker, that's a decent stretch, maybe not enough for everybody to compete to their full capacity, but long enough for it to work.  Since the Egyptian military is coming through this so nicely, I think it's clear that they have the political capital to slow things down (once the celebrations cease), convene the talks necessary for some sort of interim government (hopefully not so inclusive that the infighting starts prematurely, because it would be better for that to await the campaign), and work with that government to set the rules for the election.  One way to prevent any dangerous struggle would be to rule out anybody from the unity cabinet (or whatever it's called) from running for president.

Anyway, nice ending to a utilitarian stretch of unrest (not too violent, deaths in hundreds, but gets the job done with just enough time lapsed so it doesn't dissolve into chaotic-like conditions), and you have to wonder if the opposition movement in Iran doesn't get jacked back up in response.

Now the quasi-negotiating dynamic is between mob and military (which should be a lot more relaxed, one hopes, given the latter's standing), so we see if the army is smart enough to lift the emergency rule ASAP as a signal that things are going to be different and that they are committed to the implied path of democratization. With enough of an immediate freedom agenda, it's possible that the elections could be set for a year from now, which would probably make everybody happy enough - again, if the political climate was immediately altered and altered profoundly in the direction of liberated activity, freedom of the press and assembly, self-organization and the like.  Across that year, then, you'd see all manner of economic aid, along with political support from the usual array of ambitious characters, so giving everybody that length of time to adjust could work well.  The trick, in my mind, is not letting anybody who sits at the big interim table to simultaneously run for president.  One hopes there's enough solid personages to cover both dynamics (interim and campaign).

But again, very positive stuff for the West at a time when we really needed some good news and are surprised to get it (Tunisia, Egypt - so far) from the Middle East/North Africa.


Mubarak teases again!

So the big military council meeting, if it did indeed happen without Mubarak (as reported), still resulted in the army deciding that they preferred the Big Man stay in office through September.

I will admit, I still like this path best, despite the obvious risks.  I don't want him gone in a heartbeat, because that scenario favors the most organized (Muslim Brotherhood), and his continuing presence will keep them careful through the election.  Getting somebody solid in there, that the military can live with, is the best hope for this democratization process to actually unfold and take hold.  Too fast and furious and we probably get a restoration within a year.

Back to the Wikistrat paths:  we start with Explosive Rip, Mubarak makes some weak moves, we head into the Steady Drip of protests, and now the military has spoken (Suleiman is the interim, but elections to happen and happen freely).  

Again, I know everyone is impatient, but this gives the world and the opposition some time to get their stories straight.  The one narrative of "crazy MB waiting to take over and thus you need a strongman" is old and established.  The new narrative of Mubarak's many abuses and the rise of the stable middle class, etc., that one needs to be established in people's minds.  We have reached a real tipping point and a good one, but so many ways to screw it up.

I think so long as the protesters maintain themselves on some very public level, and continue to prompt progress and keep the whole deal firmly in the media's eye, this can work out nicely still.

LATEST CNN AT 1000:  Army giving out food to protesters, Suleiman described by gov officials as "de facto president," and Mubarak and Missus skip Cairo for resort town Sharm el-Sheikh.  Sounds like internal exile.

Again, this is proceeding pretty nicely, by my way of thinking.  We've had the back and forth, but it looks like the military has made its call and - for now - it's a good one.


CIA says Mubarak may step down tonight

Image from Mike Nelson.

Panetta on the Hill says Mubarak may transfer power tonight in speech.

Trigger seems to be the military:  some big Council meet WITHOUT Mubarak, leading general to say - sotto voce - that the people's demands will be met very soon.

Given the shenanigans of the past couple of weeks, and the growing sense that Mubarak would try some tricks, the longer he stayed, I think this is a good thing, so long as the September elections stay as scheduled. I think if Suleiman takes himself out of any contention, then his interim shtick should work out, now that the military have had their intervention.

This is the most benign form of a military move, so good news - if it works.


WPR's The New Rules: "Guiding Egypt into the Axis of Good"

While there remains a ton of things that can go wrong with the unfolding revolution in Egypt, there's a strong case to be made that America, despite its low popular standing there, has been handed a gift horse whose mouth, as the axiom puts it, is best left unexamined.  Because most of America's concerns center on security issues, I'll frame the argument for why this is the case in tactical, operational and strategic terms, and then finish on the most relevant grand strategic note -- namely, the new Axis of Good that may result. 

Read the entire column at World Politics Review.


Podcast archive for Vantage Point radio appearance 31 Jan 11

Find the one-hour segment here.

First segment audio a bit bad.  Did it over Skype and needed to listen on my headphones so no feedback, so later chunks better.