The absence of Iraqi voices from American discussions about Iraq over the last decade has long been a major shortcoming. The bookshelf of English-language books about the decade of war with Iraq overflows with accounts of Washington inter-agency battles, General David Petraeus, American soldiers in the field, General David Petraeus, and General David Petraeus. Some are excellent, some less excellent. But very few of them seriously incorporate the experiences, views, or memories of Iraqis themselves -- a problem of American-centric analysis which I termed "strategic narcissism."
And so, on Thursday, October 3, I'm proud to be hosting a really fascinating and hopefully important conference at the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University called "The Encounter." Each panel at the full-day event will include both Iraqi students who lived in Iraq during some of the years of the war and American students who served those same years in the U.S. military in Iraq (including several Tillman Military Scholars). The keynote lunch session will feature a discussion about American policy and the Iraqi experience between me, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Colin Kahl and the Iraqi historian Abbas Kadhim. The agenda is open-ended, and the discussions about how Americans and Iraqis viewed one another should be extremely frank and direct.
If you're in the Washington DC area, I hope that you'll be able to join us for all or part of this event at GW on October 3. I don't usually advertise GW events over here at FP, but I really feel like this one is special, and a long time in the making. An open, frank dialogue about the American experience in Iraq which incorporate diverse American and Iraqi perspectives should be extraordinarily interesting and productive. You can RSVP for the event here, and I look forward to seeing people there and sharing their feedback on the discussions.
So you want to read up on the issues surrounding Syria, but you aren't satisfied with the usual list of -- often outstanding, sometimes less so -- think tank reports, blogs and op-eds which usually get offered up? Well, here's a selection of some of the most useful books for making sense of what's happening in Syria now and what might be coming. They aren't going to give you the kind of immediate situational intelligence to make sense of current events, of course, or directly address the issues posed by the current policy debates, but they will leave you a lot more informed about Syria.
The very best book for all this is probably Patrick Seale's sadly out of print The Struggle for Syria: a definitive, highly readable account of an earlier era of regional proxy wars over Syria. I'm shocked that it doesn't seem to be available at an affordable price, but get your hands on it if you can. On current events, I'd start with Emile Hokayem's Syria's Uprising and the Fracturing of the Levant. Stephen Starr's Eyewitness to an Uprising is a nice read. Asad biographer David Lesch's The Fall of the House of Asad gives useful insights into the mindset of Syria's President. Some of the chapters in the recently published Middle East Authoritarianisms, edited by Steve Heydemann and Reinoud Leenders, are very insightful. There's also that The Arab Uprising book that some FP blogger wrote.
There's some good choices on Syria's political economy and the formation of the state. Heydemann's Authoritarianism in Syria is a fine account of the emergence of an authoritarian state in the period leading up to 1970. Bassam Haddad's Business Networks in Syria is really good on the political economy underpinnings of the regime. Nikolas Van Dam's updated version of The Struggle for Power in Syria gives a good sense of the nature of political conflict in Syria's history.
Thomas Pierret's new book Religion and State in Syria offers some unique insights into the role of the Syrian ulema, while Rafael Lefebvre's Ashes of Hama will be useful on the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood if it's ever released in the United States. There's also this "after-action report" by Abu Musab al-Suri on the reasons for the failure of the last jihad in Syria, courtesy of Will McCants. I'm quite enjoying Daniel Neep's new book Occupying Syria, on the role of violence during the French occupation; pity about the price tag. Lisa Wedeen's Ambiguities of Domination might not seem directly relevant to the current crisis, but there's really just no way I'm not going to recommend that you read it. Oh, and of course Hanna Batatu's 7,269 page Syria's Peasantry, the Descendant of its Lesser Rural Notables, and Their Politics doesn't just have a catchy title, it can also be used to kill zombies or hold up a collapsing wall.
Meanwhile, it couldn't hurt to have a look at Fanar Haddad's Sectarianism in Iraq to get a sense of how these antagonisms developed next door. Toby Matthiessen's brand new Sectarian Gulf might help make sense of just what the Saudis might be up to (hint: probably not promoting Syrian democracy). While you're at it, why not dust of your old copies of Tom Ricks' Fiasco and Nir Rosen's Aftermath for a reminder of just how often these things go according to plan. The Logic of Violence in Civil War by Stathis Kalyvas is pretty essential for all purposes in life; and if you like that one then have I got a list of relevant books on civil wars and insurgencies and international intervention for you!
Happy reading. There are many more, of course -- I'm sure you'll all quickly remind me of the ones I forgot! -- but this should at least be a nice start.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia issued an unusually rapid and strong endorsement of the Egyptian military crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood's sit-ins, calling on all Arabs to unite behind a crackdown on terrorism, incitement, and disorder. Bahrain, the UAE, and Kuwait rapidly backed his stance. But many of the most popular and influential Saudi and Kuwaiti Islamist personalities disagreed vehemently and publicly. Indeed, a popular hashtag quickly appeared on Twitter: "King Abdullah's Speech Does Not Represent Me."
YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images
The Middle East Channel Editor's Blog
How should analysts understand the combination of the June 30 massive popular mobilization and the July 3 military coup against then-President Mohamed Morsi? Should these events be understood as a continuation of the January 25 revolution, a second revolution, a straightforward military coup, or a restoration of the Mubarak-era order? Does the blame for the failure of Egypt's first popularly elected presidency lie with Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, with a recalcitrant opposition, with a resistant state, or with the deep problems which any transitional leadership would have confronted? Can a pathway toward a democratic order still be found?
Egypt's Political Reset, the latest in the POMEPS Arab Uprisings Briefing Series, collects 15 recent Middle East Channel and Foreign Policy essays written by academics grappling with these issues. The essays range widely across a diverse range of interpretations and analysis. They include historical comparisons and cross-national comparisons alongside close examinations of the Egyptian police, the military, the state, and the Muslim Brotherhood. These essays offer no analytical consensus nor a clear path forward -- and nor should they.
If a group of Middle East analysts had been asked two years ago to rank which Arab heads of state were most likely to still be in power by the end of June 2013, the Emir of Qatar would almost certainly have been ranked #1. And for good reason: relatively young and exceedingly energetic diplomatically, unfathomably wealthy, facing no real domestic challenges or grave international threats. My column this week, which despite my best efforts was not entitled "Game of Qatari Thrones", explores some of the mysteries surrounding his stunning decision to hand over power to his son Tamim.
The Emir's surprising move recalls many of the fascinating discussions and debates about the possibility of prediction in political science in the wake of the Arab uprisings. You'll recall that the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, and all which followed, spawned a tidal wave of indictments of political science and of area studies for failing to predict the mass mobilization. This never seemed exactly right. The predictive failure wasn't one of information: many, if not most, scholars of Arab politics over the 2000s catalogued the political, economic, and institutional failures of Arab regimes and the rising wave of popular protest. The analytical failure, such as it was, came from the (not unreasonable) assumption that the survival strategies which had kept those authoritarian regimes in power for decades despite their many failures would continue to work. That assumption was widely shared. As Charlie Kurzman and others have often pointed out, even the participants in protest movements are often surprised by their success. It is only in retrospect that the unthinkable comes to seem inevitable.
The Emir's decision to hand over power was arguably even more unpredictable than the Arab uprisings. As Jay Ulfelder, a political scientist who has worked for a long time on forecasting and prediction (including with the Political Instability Task Force), points out, the eruption of mass mobilization and its political outcomes can be modeled within a broad comparative universe. All sorts of data might go into the predictive analysis. But what would allow you to predict an intra-family decision behind closed doors for inscrutable reasons, other than actually being in that room? Even hearing the many rumors about the closed doors meeting doesn't really help, since rumors flow freely in a place like Doha and 99 out of 100 turn out to be bunk. At any rate, I'd love to hear more from Jay and others on the relative challenges of predicting leadership changes in the Gulf against, say, what might happen in Egypt on June 30.
This Week on the Middle East Channel
Speaking of Egypt's June 30 protests, the Middle East Channel posted several outstanding articles previewing the runup to those potentially fateful -- and potentially an overhyped fizzle -- protests. Nathan Brown returned from a week in Cairo extremely worried about the polarization and expectations in the days leading up to June 30. Tarek Radwan recounted the political road to June 30 and the thinking behind how it might unfold. Hisham Hellyer warned of the atmosphere which produced the horrifying lynching of four Shi'ite Egyptians. And over on the FP main page, Mohammed el-Baradei warned that Egypt is already a failed state and "you can't eat sharia."
Elsewhere on the Channel, Paola Rivetti and Farideh Farhi and Daniel Brumberg interpreted the politics of Iran's Presidential election; Aaron Zelin and Charles Lister presented one of the most detailed analyses to date on the emergence of the Syrian Islamic Front; Curtis Ryan examined Jordan's ongoing struggles with political reform and the controversy over its blocking of websites; Jake Hess went into Iraq to interview a leader of Turkey's PKK about the very tenuous prospects for a real peace agreement; and I talked to Mark Tessler about the evolution of Arab public opinion research.
Finally: POMEPS is hiring! If you want to work with us here at the Middle East Channel, along with a wide range of academic programming, check out this opportunity. Since it was originally posted last week the position has been upgraded to a full time position. If you're interested be sure to apply!
How reliable is public opinion survey research in the Arab world? What lessons should we draw from its findings for policy or for academic hypothesis testing? Has the proliferation of new research, of varying quality, improved the state of our knowledge? In last week's POMEPS Conversation, I talked to Shibley Telhami about his new book, The World Through Arab Eyes, based on a decade's worth of survey research in the region. In this week's POMEPS Conversation, I talk with the University of Michigan's Mark Tessler, one of the founders and leading scholars in the field of Arab public opinion research:
Tessler recently collected decades worth of essays based on survey research in the region into a book, Public Opinion in the Middle East. He has trained many of the leading figures in the younger generation of political scientists using such survey research in their work. I know that I've learned an incredible amount about how to evaluate such research from talking with Tessler over the years and reading his work.
Tessler is also the lead researcher for the ambitious Arab Barometer project, which has been doing in-depth, rigorous surveys of attitudes across the region in line with the other regional Barometer projects -- and, crucially, making the data openly available to academic researchers. They have resisted being driven primarily by U.S. foreign policy concerns, going deeper than "how do Arabs feel about the United States? How do they feel about Bush/Obama? What most explains how they feel about America?" The survey work and analysis which he's done with collaborators such as Amaney Jamal, Michael Robbins and Eleanor Gao has been crucial for our understanding of Arab attitudes towards democracy, religion, and much else. In this conversation, Tessler talks about how public opinion survey research in the Middle East has evolved over the decades, the new research vistas which this data opens, and the continuing problems which such research faces.
Remember, all the Middle East Channel's POMEPS Conversations with leading Middle East scholars can be found here, and you can subscribe to the podcast here.
Shibley Telhami has long been interested not only in what mass Arab publics think, but how their attitudes affect the foreign policies of Arab regimes and how they should affect American policy in the Middle East. His new book, The World Through Arab Eyes, offers a masterful summation of more than a decade of his systematic public opinion research across the Arab world. A few weeks ago I sat down with my former dissertation advisor in the latest episode of the POMEPS Conversation series to chat about the book, his decade of public opinion polling, and the rapidly unfolding changes in the patterns and impact of Arab public opinion.
Telhami's work is part of the last decade's broader move toward the systematic production of real public opinion survey research in the Middle East (such as, for instance, the Arab Barometer survey, which will be the subject of the next POMEPS Conversation). Many problems remain with such survey research, of course, from the challenge of asking politically sensitive questions in authoritarian regimes to the difficulty of generating representative samples to the risk of creating false narratives through the wording or sequence of questions. But Arab survey research has come a long way over the last decade and can no longer be breezily dismissed as "go[ing] so far away from home only to count the cats in Zanzibar."
The Arab uprisings have simultaneously made regional public opinion both more important politically and far less predictable. The uprisings shattered the false confidence that authoritarian regimes could simply ignore, manipulate, or crush inconvenient public attitudes. But it is less obvious what follows. The Arab uprisings might make governments more responsive to public opinion on foreign-policy issues, but the lesson of Mohamed Morsy's continued adherence to the Camp David treaty with Israel and the blockade of Gaza suggest that uncertain regimes might be even keener to continue domestically unpopular policies in order to maintain international support during difficult internal political struggles.
Meanwhile, Arab attitudes that followed fairly predictable patterns for years now seem radically in flux. Perhaps the most interesting question here is the long-term effect on regional public opinion of the Syrian war. Telhami's book expands on his influential concept of the Palestinian issue as the "prism of pain" through which Arabs tend to interpret regional and international politics. I wonder whether Syria has become, or might become, a new such prism of pain, giving meaning and definition to regional identities and divisions. When Israel launched its war against Hezbollah in 2006, most Arabs rallied to Hezbollah's side despite the sectarian divide or the best efforts of the Saudi media and its other regional rivals. Can anyone predict with confidence whether the same would happen today, given the intense (and well-cultivated) anger over Hezbollah's role in support of Bashar al-Assad? But while some celebrate this crystallization of regional battle lines hostile to Iran and Hezbollah, it seems unlikely that new identities birthed in the fires of sectarian jihad and regional proxy war will be tolerant or liberal.
There is a lot more in Telhami's new book to generate discussion, including his counterintuitive reading of the logic of "incitement" in Israeli-Palestinian relations and the relationship between the region's national and transnational identities. He also discusses Arab attitudes toward the United States in considerable depth -- a debate that I will be continuing with Amaney Jamal in Foreign Affairs this week, for those interested. For now, though, enjoy my POMEPS Convo with Telhami and check out his book.
The Middle East Channel Editor's Blog
My weekly column this week places Yusuf al-Qaradawi's call for a sectarian jihad in Syria into the broader context of the changing Arab political public sphere and the power politics of Sunni-Shi'a incitement. The long-running debate about whether Qaradawi's a "moderate or extremist" has always missed the point. More relevant by far is that Qaradawi has always been a political opportunist with an extremely finely honed sense for the Arab political mood, able to both reflect and to shape the views of the mainstream, not necessarily Islamist Arab public. That makes all the more disturbing his calculation that this is the time to join the sectarian stampede. But he's also not as influential as he once was, thanks to the rapid and dramatic shifts in Arab politics including the backlash against Qatar, the decline of al-Jazeera, the rising polarization against the Muslim Brotherhood, and the general proliferation of new voices and new media outlets. Qaradawi's problematic efforts to position himself within this turbulent new public and the new lines of regional division are a microcosm of the shifting Arab political debate. I look forward to comments and discussions.
Also this week on the blog, I reported on my conversation with former Tunisian Prime Minister and current Secretary General of Ennahda Hamadi el-Jebali, and reminisced about FP's departing editor Susan Glasser. Off the blog, I had some positive thoughts on the promotions of Susan Rice and Samantha Power (and doubts that this meant a major shift on Syria policy). solicited thoughts and comments for a meeting of an American Political Science Association Task Force on Publications, asking via Twitter for ideas about how the APSA journals could do better at public impact and engagement. There's a lot of good ideas out there, and I'm keen to collect more; I'm particularly excited about the efforts at the Monkey Cage and Duck of Minerva to work with publishers to temporarily ungate articles to let interested blog readers download them.
There was a lot of great stuff on the Middle East Channel this week:
- Quinn Mecham explored the problem of democratic accountability in Erdogan's Turkey
- Zaid al-Ali dug deep into the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court's thinking on the election law
- Robin Wright explored what we could learn even from deeply problematic Iranian elections
- Monica Marks reported on the politics of Turkish PM Erdogan's visit to Tunisia
- Tamara Wittes sharply explained why the crackdown on Egypt's NGOs matters and what Washington should be doing about it
- Danya Greenfield critiqued President Obama's big speech on drones, and what it missed about their role in Yemen
- Sinan Ulgen looked at Turkey's Taksim Square protests and Erdogan's dilemma
And finally, some of the week's Middle East highlights from elsewhere on FP: Hassan Hassan on Saudi Arabia and Syria's fractured opposition; Micah Zenko on the fatal flaw of the arguments for a limited Syria intervention; David Kenner on NDI and the Egyptian NGO trial; and reflections on Turkish democracy by Steven Cook and Michael Koplow; Mustafa Akyol; Whit Mason; and Justin Vela.
-- Marc Lynch, Middle East Channel editor
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