Hope Trumping Experience: A return to Obama politics?

The Washington Institute writes:

After numerous postponements, the upcoming Fatah General Cconference could inject energy into the aging movement and stabilize its ranks, but not if the internal elections exclude large constituencies or come across as rigged.

Bollocks. Fatah’s internal strife goes to the very core of its purpose. It doesn’t know whether it wants to achieve a Palestinian state alongside Israel or instead of Israel. Well, to clarify, it knows full-well that it wants the latter; the division arises because its ageing leadership knows the later option is impossible, but has never mustered the courage to state that publicly at the same time as putting polices in place to make it happen. In short, it has long played both hands, and lost badly. Fatah’s younge cadres haven’t yet realised they can’t destroy Israel—they’ll continue hurling themselves against that brick wall until they, too, grow old and a bit wiser.

The older, senior and ever-so-slightly wiser heads will continue losing ground for as long as they are two-faced. That’s bad for them, for the Palestinians, for Israel, for the wiser Middle East and for the West. If only the West had the strategic vision to use its considerable leverage to force their hand..!

Another dilemma

Here’s a dilemma, one that is similar to many Middle Eastern countries. Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy, effectively has the control of (or has the veto over decisions in) Lebanon. US aid to, military sales to and business with Lebanon effectively helps Iran consolidate control. But the only real tool at America’s disposal is to no longer deal with, sell to or aid Lebanon—sanctions. While this will be a blow to Lebanon’s economy, it will further consolidate Iranian control over the country.

What should the US do?

This is what someone at the INSS thinks:

Hezbollah currently has the advantage over its enemies in Lebanon. Its power and rule – direct and indirect – over events in the country are undisputed. At the present time, there is no political or military power able to challenge Hezbollah in Lebanon. Its power, however, can also be its weak point. Realization by the new United States administration that aid to Lebanon in effect constitutes aid to Hezbollah could lead to reconsideration of economic and military aid to Lebanon. This is likely to have a negative impact on the country’s economy and the stability of its institutions, and in turn could well arouse widespread unrest against Hezbollah and strengthen the opposition to it – with an emphasis on the radical Sunni element. This is currently a remote possibility, but developments in this direction are also liable to bring about a conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, should Hezbollah decide that such a conflict will be useful in the Lebanese theater. At the present time, Hezbollah is acting very cautiously and is unwilling to risk escalation with Israel or the destabilization of Lebanon. From Hezbollah’s perspective, its leading interest now is fortifying the Assad regime in Syria and strengthening the Iranian axis stretching from Tehran to Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut.


An article about possible Iran policies in a Trump Administration in Foreign Policy includes, as an aside, a devestating indictment of Obama’s Iran policy, in the context of the nuclear deal:

But if Iran’s economic prospects have fundamentally improved since the completion of the nuclear deal, its political outlook has not. Although the White House lobbied for the JCPOA by arguing that the deal would help empower moderate forces within Iran, nothing of the sort has occurred: the JCPOA has not significantly strengthened Iran’s reformists, and elections in recent months have only served to further entrench the country’s conservative status quo. Tehran’s anti-American animus also remains intact, and high-ranking Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have warned against the normalization of ties with the United States. The meaning of these developments is clear. Although Iran has profited handsomely from the nuclear deal, it has no interest in a more pacific relationship with the country principally responsible for making that deal possible.

What the agreement has succeeded in doing, however, is reinvigorating Iran’s global ambitions. After laboring for years under international sanctions and with limited means to make its foreign policy vision a reality, the Islamic Republic is now undertaking a landmark expansion abroad. From its deepening military footprint in Syria to its renewed push for engagement in Latin America, Tehran is unmistakably on the march.

The article is worth reading in full.

On not learning history’s lessons

An article from Mike Doran, effectively summarising his new book, and applying it to Obama’s Middle East policy. I’ve bought the book already, and am looking forward to getting into it—it’s next in my pile!

Over the last five years, President Obama has tacked away from the U.S.’ historic allies in the Middle East – Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – to create a space for the Russians and the Iranians in the regional security architecture. The Iranian nuclear deal was supposed to usher in a new era in U.S.-Iranian relations. Instead, it has spawned a Russian-Iranian alliance that is well on its way to building a corridor of subservient states stretching from Tehran to Beirut.

Obama is not the first American president to make such a gamble on a longstanding adversary. In 1953, when President Eisenhower assumed office, he, too, sought to stabilize the Middle East by co-opting the leading anti-Western power of the day – Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt. Believing that the association of the U.S. with Zionism and British imperialism was poisoning American relations with Middle Eastern Muslims, Eisenhower worked to prove to Nasser that the U.S. would help him achieve his nationalist goals, even if those came at the expense of British and Israeli interests.

Sixty years ago, when, at the climax of the Suez Crisis, Britain, France and Israel launched coordinated attacks against Egypt, Eisenhower’s opposition to his allies was extreme and they buckled under the pressure. Eisenhower’s policy handed Nasser the victory of his life, and the Egyptian leader repaid America by becoming more radical, more anti-Western and more pro-Soviet.

Eisenhower came to realize that Israel was the U.S.’ truest friend in the Middle East and that courting adversaries is a very risky business.

Unsolicited advice

People never hesitate to offer unsolicited advice to the US president. But, understandably, in early November every four years, the advice comes thick and fast. This article, from veteran journo Michael Totten, about US Middle East policy is a good summary of my own feelings.

But, as it happens, I provided my own advice two years ago! I had a quick re-read, and I still think it holds true (except back then, well before primaries season and the emergence of Trump populism—indeed, even Western neo-populism/anti-establishmentism—I was predicting a Clinton victory).

The limits of largesse

This article from al-Monitor provides the current score in the Great Game between Iran and Saudi Arabia. If you’re a supporter of Western interests, it doesn’t make for fun reading:

Saudi Arabia is losing influence throughout the Fertile Crescent to its rival Iran. While Riyadh’s position versus Tehran has been in decline for some time, the trend is accelerating.

The Saudis have many things going against them, most of which I outlined in this post last year. 

They are in a losing battle for Sunni hearts and minds because they don’t provide a pragmatic option. That is, the Saudi model is one of Wahhabi Islamism, but they are out-Islamicised by pretty much everyone on the Sunni Islamist continuum. So if the Saudis want to win hearts and minds, they have to offer something else. To date, they’ve offered largesse, which is good for a while, but it has its limits. An alternative – one which would ultimately be good for Saudis – is increasing individual rights and official accountability. But these would likely bring down the regime. It’s a dilemma for Wrsyern policy makers. 

Coming up Trumps

On occasion, this blog wanders from its raison d’être to discuss something other than the Middle East. This is one of those posts (though I’ll see if I can sneak the Middle East somewhere in here…)

Over the last few months, I have been predicting in conversation with friends and colleagues that Trump will win the US election on Tuesday. I’ll say at the outset that I hope I’m wrong. I think Clinton is the better choice. But I thought I’d put my thoughts on the record. If I prove to be wrong, good! If I prove correct, then, well, at least it’s here, on the record, before Tuesday’s vote.

The short answer as to why I think Trump will win is to point to the Brexit vote earlier this year. There, the experts confidently predicted that the no vote would prevail. The experts, the academics, the politicians, the establishment, and the world financial system, gravely warned British voters against voting no, predicting all manner of bad things, from societal schisms to economic disasters, should the no vote prevail. But it did. And nothing too much bad happened.

In so many places around the world (though particularly in the West), the people are rejecting the establishment. In recent weeks, the rejection of the establishment has been an increasing subject of commentary (Foreign Affairs has even dedicated the entire November/December 2016 edition to the subject). Populism is back, and people like Trump are very cleverly riding the wave. That, in essence, is why I think Trump will win. (There’s more to it than that, of course. It is human nature to be stubborn. All those well-meaning people that told the British that they’d be mad to vote no reinforced, in my mind, the British decision to vote no. The same thing is happening in the US. People all over the world and in the US, the intelligentsia, the celebrities, the this, the that – everyone is describing anyone who wants to vote Trump an idiot. All that’s going to do is convince a whole bunch of people to vote Trump in defiance.)

But what’s more interesting than the fact I think Trump is going to win (as a factor of the growing popularity of populism in the world) is why populism is so popular. 

It is, in large part, a function of what might be called the ‘Internetisation’ of our world. The choice, ease and sheer volume of information constantly competing for our attention—on the Internet, on the TV, on our phones—has had a major impact on our political culture. Not only do we have increasingly short attention spans, we decreasingly read long articles. Because there is so much available information, the time we have to absorb it is much more limited than it was in the past. We are therefore less willing to engage with material that doesn’t capture our attention in the first few seconds. Hence the power and popularity of Facebook videos of cute animals, and people doing dumb or inspiring things—they capture our attention in ways that words on a page never will. The irony of having more information is that our coping mechanism is not to become more efficient but to dumb ourselves down. 
More importantly, the Internetisation of our world gives us an increasing ability to select the sources of our information (think of how many choices our parents and grandparents had). And because human nature is what it is, we purposefully, if unconsciously, decrease our exposure to arguments that challenge our views. 

Self-selecting our news sources comes with political ramifications; because our views are constantly re-affirmed, they incrementally shift further and further away from the centre. Whether we are naturally inclined to move left or right, the end result is the increasing rejection of the mainstream and the establishment, and the increasing shrillness of commentary on both sides of the political divide.  

We have been moving away from political consensus since the 1960s, but the tsunami of technology and information over the past two decades has exponentially accelerated that movement. For centuries, the plebs have been happy to be ruled, provided the establishment did so with integrity or results. (To a large extent, the Arab Spring happened because of the failure of the establishment to rule with integrity or results.) But these days we are less willing to tolerate the absence of these qualities. A misdemeanour that a decade ago could be swept under the carpet today marks, if not the end of a career (O’Farrell), then a significant backward step (Sinodinos, Dastyari).  

To this we can add the effects of the global financial crisis. The problem is more than simply saying the rich are getting rich and the poor more disgruntled. If it was all just about rich and poor, we would expect to see a general shift to the left. But the establishment is being abandoned in both directions.  The problem is that the establishment got us into this problem, and doesn’t seem to know how to get us out of the financial doldrums. The world lacks a credible successor to the two great economic theories that ruled the globe post-WWII. The first was the period until the 1970s, governed by protectionist or highly-regulated economics that spiralled in the 1970s because they failed to allow for innovation and became too constrictive (The great oil shocks in the 1970s had the same effect as the global financial crisis). The second, until 2008, was market theory, which failed because economies were built on endless supplies of credit and the outsourcing of jobs to lower paid countries. At a certain point neither were able to sustain the creation of greater increases in prosperity for greater numbers of people. 

As of yet there’s no widely accepted economic theory to replace these two, which provides political space for the anti-establishment. ‘The establishment got us into this mess, and they don’t have the solution to get us out.’ Anti-establishment types with dangerous economic solutions start to look acceptable. 

The mainstream parties haven’t helped the situation—or themselves. The Liberals primarily defend businesses. Fuelled by the idea that the rising tide lifts all boats, the Libs have been focused on creating space for big business to make big money. But the tide has been out for some time. The average, aspirational Australian—Howard’s Battlers—decreasingly sees the Libs as representing their interests. 

The workers’ party has been more obtuse. Labor’s internal tension between its progressive and working class wings isn’t new, but as its leadership increasingly bangs on about marriage equality, environmental catastrophe and refugees (chasing the ever-moving-left progressive vote), they decreasingly speak for the Battlers. This is not to say that Australia’s working class are anti-gay, climate change-sceptics or anti-refugee. They aren’t, but neither are these issues their priority. Their priority is job security and affordable housing for themselves and their children. 

Both parties pay lip service to these ideas, of course. But if you look at their respective efforts in Parliament and elsewhere, it becomes clear that the priorities for most of the Australian public are not being addressed by those who claim to represent them. Ironically, as the establishment parties have chased votes right and left, they decreasingly represent the centre’s values, which allows for more rejection of the establishment, a self-perpetuating cycle. 

This is not a peculiarly Australian event. The same has happened in most Western countries.

Into the political vacuum has stepped the protest parties, known in Australia as the ‘cross benchers’. Each protest party speaks to the core concern of a handful of people. And since so many people have drifted from the mainstream, there are enough single-issue voters to elect a menagerie of parties.  

As everyone in the establishment knows, these parties are all heart and no consequence, which is easy when you’re in opposition. But from the Greens to One Nation, if they ever took power, these protest parties would drive our country into the ground. Unfortunately until our mainstream parties win back the hearts and minds of ordinary Australians, these protest parties will continue growing in influence. 

Unfortunately, the response by the establishment parties to the Internetisation of our culture is also one of populism. A symptom of our cultural drift from the political mainstream is absolute rejection of those with which we disagree. Eager to placate the drifting faithful, recent opposition policy in this country—instituted by Abbott and continued by Shorten—has been to block the passage of legislation for the sake of blocking. It’s a sure (or almost sure, Mr Shorten!) way to quickly bring down a government, but in doing so it prevents government stability. And stable government, be it of the left or right, is what is good for this country, even if the anti-establishment types don’t realise it. (And the childish, obstructionist tactics increase mainstream disgruntlement with the establishment—another self-perpetuating cycle.) 

(To consider again American politics, the reason that Clinton is a much better candidate that Trump is because she personifies the establishment. And even if she barely inspires, the fact is the establishment run the country. She will provide stable government.)

An additional facet of having so much information available to us, alongside the rejection of the establishment and a move away from the centre is the willingness and ability to uncover the misdemeanours of our political elite. We’ve always suspected, here in Australia, that our political elite take too much advantage of their ‘entitlements’. The difference between then and now, is that now we know that they take money from Chinese business interests, and now we know they have a Gold Coast holiday on the pretext of meeting someone up there, whereas before we only suspected. The public is more willing than ever to be annoyed at the establishment, and is more able than ever to find the cause of such annoyance.

The problem is, this situation can’t readily be fixed. How do we get the public to once again accept the establishment, given it was the technology-driven surplus of information that drove this rejection in the first place? Conversely, a party leader that refuses to drift from the political centre will be rejected by their party faithful even if they stay faithful to the aspirations of middle Australia.  

The shrillness of political debate has amplified the increased readiness to reject without compromise ideas that do not conform to our own. Is there some way to convince people to listen to and reason with ideas that aren’t their own? Is there some way to convince our politicians to be more receptive and more respecting of the other side? We could ask for ‘leadership’, but in this Internet-driven 24/7 news cycle, leaders aren’t electable anymore.

It’s sad, it’s annoying, and it’s probably going to get worse. 

If you don’t know where you’re going…

…it’s easy to get there. Theres’s more evidence that the US doesn’t have a strategic vision for the Middle East – it’s talking with Turkey about Raqqa’s future

Rather than having a strategic view, the US sees every problem in isolation, and so looks for options or a partner to deal with that specific problem, with little or no thought as to how that will affect the big picture (or why those options or partners are presenting themselves as possibilities).

Some have argued that the US’s strategic vision is to balance Iran (i.e. the Resistance Bloc) with the Saudis (i.e. the Status Quo Bloc), thereby letting them fight it out and reducing the US’s footprint in the Middle East. But if that were the case, then there would be no reason to bring Turkey into the mix. Turkey is part of the Sunni Islamist continuum (it would like the Sunni Islamists to form a bloc, and has been frustrated in these efforts). The Sunni Islamist continuum is at odds with both the Status Quo and Resistance Blocs.

By allowing Turkey in the room regarding Raqqa, the US is showing it either has little understanding of the region’s strategic situation, or no strategic vision (or both).

Hamas elections: Manoeuvring within the Big Picture

Way back in October 2014, in my first post, I laid out the Middle East’s big picture – how the rise of a nascent Sunni Islamist bloc was wedging the long-established Status Quo and Resistance Blocs, which adequately explained both the political dynamics of and violence in the Middle East.

In the tail end of that first post I wrote a little bit about the dilemmas facing hamas, which had a foot in more than one camp. A new article in the Cypher Brief (I didn’t come up with the name!) describes the next stage of this dilemma, but with the added description of the tensions within hamas.

In short, the article confirms the assessment at the heart of that first post (and this entire blog), but it’s a worth a read because it shows how movements within the Middle East are attempting to navigate its choppy waters.