What’s at stake with Syria? Reputation, Credibility, and Future Deterrence

The seemingly imminent intervention in Syria has recently been the talk of the town. As a nation, we appear overwhelmingly divided over whether a military response to President Assad’s use of chemical weapons is warranted. Public opinion on the why of intervention appears just as divided as on the question of whether we should act or not. Only a small number of arguments have focused on the long term credibility of the US deterrent, which, it has been argued, underwrites current levels of global stability. Moreover, insufficient attention has been paid to the cost to US reputation and credibility through the lens of existing theory or empirical evidence. Yet, it is this very long-term calculus which is necessary to determine whether it is  in America’s interest to intervene in Syria.

Undoubtedly, the administration must clarify its objectives in Syria before it can begin to discuss strategies. I argue that rather than focusing the debate on whether we can or should remove Assad or protect civilians, we should be focusing on whether we can deter the future use of chemical weapons and protect civilians from chemical weapons. This was the original red line, this was the reason we are even discussing intervention, so this should be the focus of any US response. Towards this end, all US military action has to do to be effective is impose high enough costs on the Assad regime so that the benefits gained from using chemical weapons are offset by military intervention, and be public enough that the costs incurred by Assad are transparent. Moreover, if intervention is about punishment and deterrence, it does not necessarily have to be aimed at military targets or erode Assad’s warfighting capabilities.

Assuming that this is the goal of intervention, the long-term implications of the US decision on intervention can be understood by extending the metaphor of the repeated “entry-deterrence” game, which models a monopolistic firm attempting to deter the entry of competitors into a market (see, for example, work by Tingley and Walter, 2011 available here). The idea behind the model is that by incurring the short term costs of punishing players who attempt to enter the game (for example, sacrificing profits by undercutting competitive prices), the firm builds a reputation for credibility, signaling to other potential players that any attempts to enter the market will bring higher costs than benefits, thereby deterring subsequent entry attempts. The monopolistic firm, by incurring short term costs for punishing competitors, sends a credible signal that it will punish players in the short term in order to preserve long-term benefits.

While the metaphor of monopolistic firms does not apply to the US, which is not trying to maintain a monopoly on the right to use chemical weapons itself, the logic of the game is identical: by setting red lines and threatening military action, the United States is attempting to deter the entry of other actors into a “forbidden market” (the use of chemical weapons). By failing to invest in reputation early, the United States is signaling that it will not act as a barrier to entry into this market. Even more damaging, by clearly stating the red line and then failing to carry out threats, the US signals not only that it will not act to deter when it remains silent, but that it will not act to deter even when it says it will. This not only increases the risk of the use of chemical weapons by other regimes in the future, but also increases the risk of interstate conflict in the future by increasing the belief that the United States will not carry out its threats.

Experimental evidence on reputation-building in these situations indicates that players who invest in their reputation early reap larger profits than those who do not (see figure 7 in Tingley and Walter, 362). This is because the credibility of their deterrent threat is established early, implying fewer attempts to enter the market by other players. Thus, in the lab at least, the long-term benefits of US military action have been established. This raises a number of important questions. First, how much do we (publics as well as politicians) discount the future? Are we willing to accept long term costs to save in the short term, especially if future costs are highly uncertain? Second, we must ask ourselves whether the United States should continue playing the role of the globe’s monopolistic firm (policeman) in an era where it is clear that no other actor has the capacity to overcome the barriers to collective action that it faces. Certainly, Americans have reason to be weary of war and wary of leaders who advocate for it, however we must always consider the potential long-term consequences of action (and inaction). The question we as Americans must ask ourselves is this: what do we picture our role to be on the global state in the future? Moreover, we must ask ourselves whether the chemical weapons taboo is worth enforcing. The answers to these questions are what should determine our decision to intervene.


5 Political Scientists on the Crisis in Egypt: Consequentialism over Idealism

In the aftermath of the July 3rd military intervention that removed the elected Islamist government from power, the political crisis in Egypt shows no signs of abating. The events which led to the second military intervention to oust a civilian government in just two years is the culmination of a severely flawed process of political transition which utterly failed to account for the consequences of an idealistic and misguided rush to electoral politics. The reason, it appears, is the persistent inability to understand the strategic dynamics of political transitions and the continuing insistence on courses of development grounded in a “logic of appropriateness” that seems to equate electoral institutions with democracy. While this is a continuing fault of policymakers and activists, the academic record is somewhat stronger on this ground, despite the fact that it is largely ignored. While structural theories of democratization continue to be the vogue for the international community, it is the process-based accounts of democratization, emphasizing strategic choice, that provide the keys to understanding the failure of Egypt’s political transition of the past two years.

In 1999, Robert Bates remarked:

A major reason for the relatively democratic outcomes [in Southern Africa] is that the new regimes left the former repressors in possession of a political hostage; the private economy… Should the [retreating] tyrant and his followers own industries or banks, should they control capital, physical or financial, should they, in short, possess economic power, then those seeking their political surrender should respect their rights (1999, 83-4).

Bates’ comment, which forms the core of his explanation for successful democratization in South Africa and Namibia, constitutes an argument that successful transitions cannot lead to the replacement of one ruling group with another, for democracies are never born of revolution, but rather that successful transitions must seek to incorporate elements of the old regime into the new. This argument is also made by Adam Przeworksi in his strategic-choice account of democratization, Democracy and the Market (1991). Przeworksi’s account of transitions identifies splits within two opposing camps and predicts that successful democratic transitions are born of alliances between reformers within the old regime and moderates within the opposition, against their hardliner and radical counterparts. In both formulations, democracy is impossible without participation of the old regime.

In the Egyptian transition, this did not happen. The coalition underpinning the old regime, a combination of military and commercial power, fractured in February 2011. As a result, the military overthrew the civilian commercial elite and extended their hand to the opposition. However, the second stage of the transition caused the collapse of the process. The opposition insisted on the punishment and marginalization of the old regime, and increasingly after the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral victory, the moderate opposition. While in revolutionary contexts, such as Iran in 1979, moderates find themselves without an ally owing to revolutionary bloodshed, Egypt experienced little revolutionary violence; the military continued to play a dominant role as powerbroker and members of the old regime retained their economic “hostages;” Egypt did not experience a true revolution. Two years later, facing a similarly intransigent challenge from the Brotherhood, “Reformers” and “Moderates,” the groups responsible for the ousting of Mubarak, united once again to oust a hardline regime that was as authoritarian in tendency as that of Mubarak.

If Egypt is to successfully complete its transition towards a more democratic form of rule, the Muslim Brotherhood, as Przeworksi’s “Radicals,” can have no leading position carrying the state forward. This is where the conclusions of Przeworksi clash with the liberal ideals of international democracy activists arguing for a greater role for all Egyptians in the path forward. As Przeworksi argues, democratization is possible only if “(1) an agreement can be reached between Reformers and Moderates to establish institutions under which the social forces they represent would have significant political presence in the democratic system, (2) Reformers can deliver the consent of the Hardliners or neutralize them, and (3) Moderates can control the Radicals” (1991, 68). In the Egyptian context, only condition (2) was fulfilled. Rather than tread carefully to ensure equitable representation and guarantees for vulnerable groups and to protect a centrist “core,” impatience both within the Egyptian secular opposition along with international observers (especially in the United States) led to an emphasis on a rush towards participation before the scope and terms of contestation had been decided upon. The “Radicals,” representing a more unified bloc than the disorganized “Moderates,” gained control of the process and progressively sidelines moderates, manipulated electoral rules, and mounted an attack on a judiciary which largely carried over from the old regime. This attempt at consolidating power was doomed from the outset. Participation was opened before the basic institutional infrastructure of the system could be determined, and an under-informed electorate was pressured to support a constitution that was ill suited for the promotion of meaningful democratic politics. Constitutions should not be selected through majoritarian politics.

Such an observation dovetails nicely with the core arguments of Robert Dahl (1971) and Samuel Huntington (1968), both of whom argued that institutions of contestation must precede the expansion of participation. Such a trajectory of political development characterizes early democracies, such as Britain and the United States, along with certain colonies, most notably Mauritius, and even such repressive regimes as South Africa. In fact, in 1984, Huntington, in a rare moment of forward-looking insight, predicted that South Africa was on a path towards democratization. In 1999, Bates’ remarks validated this observation. By gradually expanding participation, newcomers to the system, “invaders” in the parlance of evolutionary game theory, cannot destabilize the system due to their small numbers in an already consolidated system. Instead, they must accommodate to the equilibria already specified by the system in place. By collaborating with remnants of the old regime, coalitions of compromise were required and radical politics eschewed.

What does this imply for Egypt? First, Przeworski and Bates both explain the trajectory of Egyptian political development from February 2011 through July 2013. The failure of the “Moderate”-“Reformer” alliance took the form of demonstrations against military rule and the demand to turn politics over to the opposition before the constitution was written led to the emergence of “democracy without guarantees” and an attempt to monopolize the system by the radicals. In turn, this attempt threatened the power and privilege of the military and the economically powerful remnants of the old regime. In response, these remnants (Ar: fulul) manipulated the economy and eventually intervened outright to depose the Muslim Brotherhood. However, this leaves Egypt in much the same position it was in two years ago, with a military regime facing a decision about where to go next. The solution being pushed by many in the liberal camp would entail an essential repetition of the process which failed previously. Perhaps the Brotherhood has learned its hard lesson, but I suspect their reaction to a second chance would be an attempt to cut a narrow deal with the military at the expense of the rest of the population. An Islamist-dominated process in Egypt, because of its polarizing tendencies, is doomed to authoritarianism.

If Egypt decides to follow the policy prescriptions stemming from the conclusions of Huntington, Dahl, Przeworski, and Bates, then Egypt’s future would entail a strongly managed transition negotiated by leaders of the moderate opposition and the military. They would decide on the ultimate form of the state and write a constitution that would establish the institutions necessary to ensure such a state, and then would impose it on the rest of society. Elections would only be held after the imposition of a new constitution. Entry into the system would be somewhat guarded so that no group could enter the system and undermine it from within, leading to the prohibition on participation of some forces, notably the Brotherhood, during the transition. This is not to say that individual members of the Brotherhood should be barred from participation, which would push them towards renewed radicalism, but rather that the organization must be politically demobilized and individuals remobilized in other frameworks specified by a new constitution. One solution would be a constitutional clause mandating separation of religion and the state (Turkey), another would be a ban on religious parties, which is currently being considered by the interim administration. The remnants of the old regime would have to be integrated into the new state and their basic privileges protected alongside new rights and protections for groups composing the moderate opposition. Finally, the new process must guarantee the rights of individuals rather than groups.

Such a prescription is not a panacea, and it will undoubtedly be received with discomfort, if not outright revulsion, by pro-democracy activists and policymakers. In fact, outspoken voices across the globe have been advocating precisely the opposite, demanding the reincorporation of the Muslim Brotherhood! Moreover, the violence that has gripped Egypt in recent days has gravely damaged the cohesion of a moderate coalition and increased moderate sympathy for radical positions, once again polarizing Egyptian politics. Furthermore, it has lent credence to a false narrative that equates Mursi supporters with pro-democracy activism, leading liberals to support the continuation of a process which has done nothing but undermine political liberalization in Egypt. While this violent repression has served little constructive purpose, the alternatives being advocated, ranging from the reinstatement of Mursi to reconciliation and reincorporation of the Brotherhood, will not put the country on track to democracy. The only solution is to begin again with closer attention to the possible consequences of constitutional decisions and recognition that constitutions reflect the interests of their writers.

The consequences of the rush to elections and universal inclusion have made themselves felt in Egypt and beyond. Similar transitions are in danger in Libya and Tunisia. Unlike the others, however, in Egypt the military is ideally situated to manage a transition to political democracy due to its corporate identity, cohesion, and general dislike of civilian politics. While they would be, as Barbara Geddes argues in her analysis of authoritarian breakdowns (2004), the most suited force to lead a state to democracy, the generals must not succumb to the pressure of idealists to exit politics until a new system is in place, as this would be just as damaging as a decision to remain in politics in the long term. Simultaneously, they must not antagonize those inclined to support their intervention by continuing their offensive against Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations. For as the continuing stalemate, marked by mutual recriminations, reveals, the Egyptian state cannot get on without the military in an active stewardship role in the short term, even if they cannot prosper under military rule in the long term.

Barack Obama has Nothing to Gain from Promoting Middle East Peace

There has been a lot of talk the past few weeks about President Obama’s visit to Israel, both in government circles and the media. The gist of the chatter is quite similar across the board; Obama should take this opportunity to renew efforts towards achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. This is certainly a noble endeavor, I mean, who doesn’t want peace? But when we start examining the deeper content behind these calls to Obama, it quickly becomes clear that “peace” means very different things to different people, both domestically and abroad. Not only is the topic contentious in America’s domestic politics, but it has the potential to further destabilize an Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has been quietly seething in recent months. It appears a third intifada is closer today that any time since the end of the second, and neither Israel nor the Palestinians are in any position to renew good-faith negotiations that could actually lead anywhere. Obama would be wise to avoid pushing either side back towards the negotiating table; nothing constructive can result from such action.

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The Rise of the Israeli Right: An International Politics Explanation

It is undeniable that since the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 Israeli politics has undergone a dramatic shift to the right, manifested by disappearing support for the peace process, an expansion of Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank, and a more antagonistic policy towards Israel’s Western allies. Populist politics has become a winning strategy and the Israeli center-left of Rabin has been decimated while the religious and nationalist right have enjoyed unprecedented electoral success. The Peace Process is dead and it’s not just the Palestinians’ fault. A recent alteration to the ruling party’s platform has removed even the token nod to a two state solution. This phenomenon has not gone unnoticed (see articles here, here, and here). However, existing explanations tend to focus on electoral fortunes of right-wing parties. Of course, electoral outcomes are exactly that, outcomes, and do not explain the rise of the right and Israel’s increasingly aggressive policies; they are merely its political manifestation. In order to truly understand the rise of the right, we must turn to theory. As it turns out, we do not need to search very far, but theories of domestic politics do not get us quite as far as theories of international politics. Changing conditions in the international system, combined with an appeal to theories of rational choice, do an excellent job explaining why the Israeli right has enjoyed such a meteoric rise (for example, see Gourevitch’s Second Image Reversed or Putnam’s Two Level Games). A severe and growing imbalance of power between Israel and the Palestinians combined with Israel’s successful escape from the consequences of an anarchic international system characterized by the self-help imperative suffices to explain the changing shape of Israel’s domestic political landscape. Continue reading

The Benefits of Instability: Continued Unrest in Sinai

It is not often that conflict and instability are promising signs, but depending on one’s perspective, the deepening conflict in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula is potentially a positive development. While other events within Egypt suggest a startling continuation of a domestic status quo, notably the continued limits on journalistic freedom, ongoing protests in Tahrir Square, and accusations of corruption being thrown at the new president and his family, none of this speaks directly to concerns about Egypt’s future role in the international community. And it is precisely this role with which Egypt’s most important strategic partners, notably the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, are the most concerned. Israeli sources continue to cast villainous barbs at the Muslim Brotherhood and Mursi while the West has engaged in an unproductive level of hand-wringing over their future relationship. At the same time, however, Hamas and Gazan Palestinians have admitted frustration and disappointment at the “Islamist” government’s continuation of Mubarak-era policies effective placing Gazan Palestinians under an Israeli-American siege, which is seen as collaboration by a majority of Arabs both in and out of Egypt. Continued unrest in Sinai and the responses favored by the major state actors involved suggest that a set of structural conditions is pushing these states to work together to face common threats in ways that most pundits and “experts” did not expect.

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The first, most basic problem with the Sinai Peninsula is its endemic level of unrest. Despite  the state’s attempts to claim political legitimacy, Egypt has consistently failed to institutionalize any type of stable system in Sinai. They are physically incapable of penetrating much of Sinai’s mountainous terrain and urban dwellers in the few cities in the North complain of arbitrary rule through coercion that makes life both insecure and highly uncertain. In fact, it is plausible to suggest that this failure to institutionalize in Sinai has been a major factor that created room for the puritanical Islamist Salafi movements, currently labeled “jihadi militant organizations” by Egyptian armed forces, to insinuate themselves into the power vacuum. While a wide variety of Islamist movements including the Muslim Brothers, Hamas, and Hezbollah are often labeled “terrorist organizations,” this obfuscates the main sources of their popularity: institution building. In Lebanon, Hezbollah and its forerunners responded to the needs of a poor and marginalized Shi’i population; in Palestine, Hamas provided social welfare services that an increasingly corrupt PLO was unwilling or unable to provide. Similarly, Sinai urbanites in towns like el-Arish and Sheikh Zuwayd link their support for Salafist organizations to the security that these groups have provided. Though many residents concede that it is not a perfect system, especially due to the strict attempts to regulate social conduct, they appreciate that no one will be harassed unless they are doing “something wrong.” While in the West we may have strong opinions about what constitutes “wrongdoing,” the point is that the Salafists have removed the high level of uncertainty generated by [perceived] random exercise of violence by the state.

The major concern expressed by pundits and politicians regarding the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in Egypt was that ideology would trump other political concerns. The accusation, by conservatives in both Israel and the US, was that Egyptian Islamists would find common cause, working to overthrow their secular opponents and establishing an Islamic Republic echoing the Iranian Revolution. A Brotherhood-Salafi alliance was also predicted and security officials in Israel expressed concern that armed groups in North Sinai may be given space to grow. This was especially a concern vis-à-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict, largely due to the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideological cousin, Hamas, ruling Gaza right next door.

Besides the rhetoric of Islamist ideologues, intensified by the populism of democratic elections, there appears to be little cause for concern regarding these alarmist predictions thus far. Instead of a conflict between Islamists and secularists, the dominant security cleavage that appears to be emerging is one between states and non-state actors. Contrary to early predictions, tensions between the Egyptian state and Hamas do not appear to be abating, and in fact may be getting worse. In the aftermath of a militant attack on an Egyptian police station near the Sinai-Gaza border, the Egyptian blockade has once again been re-imposed and efforts to destroy the smuggling tunnels into Gaza have been renewed and are currently proceeding at a pace unheard of during the Mubarak regime. There appears to be a fundamental contradiction between aiding Palestinians in Sinai and attempting to stabilize the Egyptian state; President Mursi’s administration has definitively chosen the latter.

The ongoing military operation targeting various non-state forces under the guise of “anti-terror” operations as well as tentatively promising signs of a space opening for Israeli-Egyptian security cooperation further reinforce this state/non-state actor cleavage. The intelligence failure that culminated in the police station attack was an embarrassment to the Egyptian security apparatus, not in their failure to anticipate the attacks, but in the reality that Israel provided advanced warning that was categorically ignored by Egyptian intelligence. Not only did Mursi radically overhaul the North Sinai security team, replacing his own Defense Minister and Chief of Staff in addition to the unpopular governor of North Sinai, but he also rebuked his own party, the Muslim Brothers, for their claim that Israeli intelligence was responsible for the attack, an accusation about as realistic as the charge that they were behind a series of shark attacks in Sinai last year. In reality, Israel has proven itself to be a credible partner for continued security cooperation. This is aided by the simple fact that Egypt and Israel, both targets of non-state actors in Gaza and Sinai, continue to share common security interests.

Compounding this effect is the lack of clear information regarding who these “terrorists” in Sinai are. While most authorities concluded that the attackers were Palestinian militants from Gaza, Egypt has taken the opportunity to target Egyptian Islamists in Sinai despite scant evidence of their involvement in any of the cross-border violence. Moreover, this has continued even as the Islamists have responded to the crackdown with violence of their own, often in the form of reprisal attacks. Furthermore, the link between these Salafist groups and Gaza is tenuous, sustained more through family connections than ideological or operational linkages. On the other hand, Bedouin tribes in North Sinai are intimately involved in the smuggling operations that utilize these tunnels. The movement of weapons, narcotics, and even human beings across the Sinai border has been a source of friction between the Bedouin facilitating the trade and Salafists in el-Arish attempting to impose order, to the extent that there have even been reports of clashes between the two groups. Rounding out the trifecta of non-state actors are the avowedly militant jihadist groups, whose numbers have been reinforced by prisoners that escaped during the Revolution, which have been able to find refuge in Sinai’s insurgent-friendly geography. Little is actually known about these groups and what their actual numbers are, since state forces have taken to conflating all non-state forces with these groups.

Reports coming out of Sinai are inconsistent regarding the state’s approaches to these various issues; articles have suggested that the state is eager to cooperate with the Bedouin against the Salafi jihadists, while others suggest the Bedouin have been targeted by security forces. Of course, these reports need not be mutually exclusive. However in the absence of any consistent system of militant identifiability in Sinai, the question remains, what do these groups have in common that is making them targets of the Egyptian military and why do they form the basis for Israel-Egyptian cooperation? Furthermore, why might an attack launched by Palestinians lead to a crackdown against Egyptian Islamists? The answer is best expressed by raison d’état and the struggle between the state and powerful non-state actors that has come to define Middle Eastern conflict since the Camp David accords. In spite of similar ideological leanings, Mursi’s government does not seem any more inclined to cooperate or negotiate with non-state forces than Mubarak’s was. While friction with Hamas seems to be inevitable in the face of continued Palestinian agitation in the Sinai, it seems to have provided the Egyptian state an opportunity to popularize its attempt to consolidate power against the backdrop of a “war on terror.”

These developments make the Iranian model of regime-formation appear even less likely in the Egyptian case; simply put, the comparison does not contain a high level of realism. Neither Mursi nor the Brotherhood seems committed to exporting their revolution and providing aid to resistance movements across the Middle East.  In this case, it is perhaps Saudi Arabia, not Iran, that provides a good model for understanding the relationship between Islam and International Relations: Islam operates as an important principle in domestic politics and public relations, but is subordinated to pragmatism in the realm of national security producing a state that is quite conservative and irrevocably tied to the United States despite moral claims of value incompatibility. Too, Saudi Arabia provides an informative model for balancing powerful non-state actors that plague Egyptian national security priorities: Saudi Arabia is no less hostile to these groups than Egypt, despite their largely conciliatory strategy for dealing with them. This is not to say that Egypt will inevitably turn to this model, just that the new Egyptian government will only succeed once it realizes the economic and strategic limitations on its ability to pursue an ideologically loaded agenda.

This, of course, does not suggest that relations between Israel and Egypt are likely to get any better in the near future. On both sides of the border the public brinksmanship and mudslinging continues. However, it appears that with every passing day, both governments are realizing that their shared insecurities necessitate a closer level of cooperation. Although this may be bad news for Egyptian residents of Sinai, who have continued to suffer under arbitrary and often violent Egyptian rule, for the US and Israel, it should be taken as a promising signal that despite the face-lift, neither the basic security interests of the Egyptian state nor the strategies Egypt has adopted to pursue them have transformed as radically as had originally been feared.

In Syria, NATO Faces its Toughest Test

The debate on whether or not NATO should intervene in what is quickly becoming the Syrian Civil War continues as the violence across the country escalates. In Washington and London, it appears as if legislative and public opposition has convinced executives to limit their support for President Assad’s opponents to statements of support and condemnations of government massacres of civilians. But the question as to whether or not NATO, as an alliance, will take action depends on one’s definition of NATO. Indeed, more so than in Libya or even Afghanistan, the course NATO decides to take in Syria may very well determine the future of the alliance.

In more ways than one, NATO has already intervened in Syria. From an early stage, Turkey has been giving refuge and aid to Syrian civilians fleeing the fighting and Ankara also hosts the opposition Syrian National Council. More recently, Turkey has deployed tanks and anti-aircraft weapons on the border after Syria shot down a Turkish F-4 Phantom on patrol, representing a dangerous escalation between the two countries. While NATO central command has condemned the attack, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has stated that he does not expect the situation to escalate despite the incident qualifying as grounds for Turkey to invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter, which reads:

The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

While this type of incident was certainly not what the authors of the North Atlantic Treaty had in mind when NATO was established, neither were the attacks of September 11th, which provided the grounds on which the US invoked Article 5 to call its allies into action in Afghanistan despite their deep-seated reluctance. If Turkey follows suit and invokes Article 5, will the United States keep to its alliance commitment or will it leave Turkey hanging?

It may help to take a step back and consider what, exactly, NATO is as an organization. Consider the UN Security Council: its 5 permanent representatives are the victors of World War II: the US, the UK, France, Russia, and China. Other important world powers, notably Germany and Japan, have been left off of this list. But the Cold War necessitated a new collective security arrangement among the Western allies. NATO was the result, with the US, England, and France incorporating their clients, including notable non-North Atlantic states such as Greece and Turkey, in their fight against communism.

The Cold War may be over, but NATO remains. So what, then, is NATO? This is a question that has weighed on the alliance since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Some might argue that it is an institution to cement US military dominance over Europe while others might claim that it is a way to allow European states disinterested in investing in their own defense to free-ride off of US military power. On one hand, however, intervention in Libya, spearheaded by European states including Italy and France, challenges the first notion. On the other hand, intervention in Afghanistan — where, according to numerous accounts, the US pressured European states to participate in combat operations much to the chagrin of their parliaments and publics — challenges the second. But they have something in common: both very much presuppose a Western-dominated club focused on the global interests of its principal members. While Turkey and Greece were key buffer states between the Mediterranean and the Soviet Union, and thus integral America’s Cold War strategy of containment, their place in the future of the alliance is unclear.

Moreover, it is likely that the abandonment of these allies would result in the rest to express serious concerns about their own membership and perhaps even lead to their departure from NATO. They would see such an act of abandonment as the US presupposing, and often demanding, a commitment to its own interests while failing to consider those of its allies. Will the US and Britain come to Turkey’s defense if open hostilities break out between Turkey and Syria, or even more provocatively, Turkey and Syria’s regional backer, Iran? This is certainly a pressing question, but it reflects an alliance cleavage that is quite familiar to us.

Israel’s involvement complicates matters further. While Jerusalem has kept quiet, Israeli media sources have called for aid and arms for Syrian rebels. But it remains unclear just how far Israeli support for Assad’s opponents runs. In January, a high ranking Syrian defector, General Hussam Awak, reported that Iran dispatched an armored brigade of Revolutionary Guardsmen to fight alongside pro-government Syrian forces. Other reports suggest Hizbullah fighters are doing the same. While both are implacable enemies of Israel, this alliance has not led to increased strategic cooperation between Israel and Turkey. Quite the opposite, relations between Israel and Turkey are at the lowest point in their diplomatic history, souring after an incident in which Israeli troops stormed a Turkish vessel attempting to break the Israeli blockage of Gaza. This incident resulted in the deaths of 9 Turkish citizens, with each side blaming the other for its aggression. With Turkish rhetoric against Israel at an all-time high, on must wonder whether Netanyahu’s hawkish government will decide to go to war, an outcome for which it has been calling for quite some time, on Turkey’s behalf. If the answer is no, then a Turkish invocation of Article 5 would be met by intense diplomatic efforts to prevent the US from going to Turkey’s assistance, an outcome that would almost certainly result in attacks against Israeli civilian targets. Arguments regarding the nature of the pro-Israel lobby aside, with presidential elections six months away, there would be intense pressure on the Obama administration to consider Israel’s security concerns over those of Turkey.

The problem is that Israel is not a member of NATO, merely a close ally. And if a non-NATO member can successfully lobby the US or any other European state to ignore its alliance commitments, what does this mean for the future of the alliance? This is an exceedingly difficult question to answer. Not only is it far too early to tell whether Syria and Turkey will be able to escape the classic “spiral model” of military escalation, Israel’s attitude towards escalation with Syria remains unknown. The US has often pressured Turkey to uphold its alliance commitments, especially regarding US actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Will the United States find a pretext dismiss its own and what will that mean for the future of the alliance? While this discussion has raised many more questions than answers, it is clear that the Syria conflict is much more politically complicated than anything NATO has faced in the post-Cold War period.

Political Opportunity of Another Sort in Sinai

You know, it’s a good thing that these Americans were taken by the Bedouin; there’s no chance they will be harmed. Maybe if they were taken by someone else, you would never see them again. But we never worried that these Americans were you, since no one traveling with Bedouin would ever be taken, only with Egyptians.

This was the prevalent attitude among the Bedouin of Dahab, a group of Arabs descended from the great nomadic tribes of Arabia and who form a distinct social group in Egypt, in our discussions the morning after the kidnapping of two American tourists. Bedouin members of the Terabin tribe seized the tourists at gunpoint near the town of Nuwayba in South Sinai, Egypt on May 30th. And that seems to be the way it goes out here, where the rule of law is tenuous, a sense of balance and honor regulate politics more than any formally defined law, and the state struggles to make its presence felt outside of a few towns dotting the coast.

For the third time this year, foreign tourists have been taken by Bedouin gunmen, to be used as leverage to secure the release of detained members of their tribe. And in every case, the resolution was quick and the tourists were released unharmed, claiming fair treatment from the Bedouin. In this most recent incident, one of the hostages told reporters they were being treated “extremely well.” This may be confusing to an American audience, familiar with the tragic endings to various hostage situations in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as in Lebanon in the 1980s, leading them to ask “What is the point?” Are Americans being explicitly targeted? And if so, is it because, as some in the United States would claim, they resent our freedom and our success? And more immediately, is this phenomenon actually connected to the bloodier violence that is reported from North Sinai and the Gaza Strip? This claim has been made by reporters from sources such as CNN  and ABC, who have taken to disingenuously describing the Sinai and its inhabitants as “lawless” and “notoriously dangerous,”  even insinuating an al-Qaida connection where none exists.

While it certainly makes for a better story, I am afraid to say that reports coming from international media sources are not only inaccurate but grossly sensationalized. These events have no place in the American “Clash of Civilizations” narrative of the War on Terror, as some sources, citing an al-Qaida presence in the Peninsula, would have us believe. Nor, as CNN reported, does this have any connection to the often brutal human trafficking that occurs in the North across the Israeli border, undertaken by a different tribe faced with a different set of political pressures and economic incentives. But this sensationalism, in itself, is an integral part of the story.

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