What We’re Reading

In this new (regular) feature, we will be providing a round-up of what we at The Smoke-Filled Room have been reading that seems interesting and especially germane to the problems of contemporary political science. We’ve noticed that other blogs regularly include links to interesting content they’ve found on the web, and we’ve decided to shamelessly follow that example. Like good academics avoiding our own work, we have eclectic reading habits, as you will no doubt come to see. So, what we’re reading this week:

  • Albert Hirschman lived a more interesting life than most social scientists. “In dealing with events during the difficult period between 1935 and 1938, Hirschman… decided to fight in the Spanish civil war against Franco with the very first Italian and German volunteers, some of whom were killed on the battlefield. For the rest of his life, Hirschman remained entirely silent about this experience, even with his wife, though ‘the scars on his neck and leg made it impossible for her to forget.’ Returning from the war, he worked closely with the anti-Fascist Italian underground, carrying secret letters and documents back and forth from Paris.”
  • Patrick Cockburn provides an excellent account of the war in Syria, which “no one” is winning, in the London Review of Books.
  • Jeffrey Lewis decides to pivot from a technical topic, the overhyped threat of electromagnetic pulses, to questions of threat inflation and isolationism. “One of the criticisms of the Bush administration’s preemptive doctrine was its ‘unilateralism.’ Well, unilateralism is just isolationism on steroids.”
  • Jane Mayer, Human Rights Watch’s John Sifton and Ross Douthat offer their thoughts on President Obama’s National Defense University speech.
  • Check out the funky cover art on this old CIA study of the 1962 China-India War.
  • Boiling over: Sweden finally has to deal with two decades’ worth of inadequate immigrant integration policies. Colin Freeman with a nice take in The Telegraph.
  • Shikha Dalmia blames the harassment faced by women in India (“eve teasing”) on “free-floating male libido with no socially acceptable outlet.”
  • On the naming of American bases: “Fort Lee, in Virginia, is of course named for Robert E. Lee, a man widely respected for his integrity and his military skills…[yet] he was responsible for the deaths of more Army soldiers than Hitler and Tojo.”
  • Turkey’s Parliament is debating a bill to restrict the selling of alcohol. Domestic critics have suggested that the bill’s supporters are pushing an Islamist agenda. However, as Marya Hannun points out, this is not dissimilar to alcohol sale restrictions in Texas. As some of the supporters of the bill point out, it is also not dissimilar to alcohol sale restrictions in Sweden. Coincidentally, Swedish restrictions, which have progressively loosened over time, are directly related to the strong influence of religious temperance movements upon the Swedish Social Democratic Party, which  dominated Swedish politics for most of the 20th century. So perhaps the Sweden comparison is not one Turkish pro-restriction politicians should make.

(Democratic) Peace in the Middle East?

Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by Michael Poznansky, Ph.D. Student in Foreign Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics, University of Virginia

The Middle East is in trouble. If the ongoing civil war in Syria, fears of nuclear proliferation in Iran, and a tenuous cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hamas were not enough, Egypt has recently passed a constitution instantiating the precepts of Islamism. In a recent article in the New York Times, John Owen suggests that proponents of Islamism—a brand of political Islam forged by the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1920s—are thriving in the new Middle East, espousing an alternative to the secular tradition of Western liberal democracy. In this post, I explore the future of Egypt’s regime and its impact on any potential democratic peace with the U.S. In the remaining space, I address three issues: (1) the state of the Egyptian regime and its implications for democratic peace; (2) what history and theory can tell us about analogous situations; and (3) how these lessons inform the future of U.S.-Egyptian relations.

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An Organizational Explanation for Anti-American Protests

Apparently, colleagues of mine at MIT reacted to the most recent anti-American protests in the Middle East as any person would: by opening up statistical software packages. While my first instinct was to look at other’s work, theirs was to see whether existing data held predictive power to identify where protests erupted to date. Nick Miller and Chad Hazlett, writing on the Foreign Policy website, find “countries’ wealth, growth rate, unemployment, age structure, state capacity, civil liberties, democracy level, and the percentage of the population that is Muslim were all utterly unhelpful in predicting where protests would occur.” Instead, they argue for an organizational explanation: “Accounting for all the variables listed above, we find that protests occur most frequently in countries that had any reported demonstrations during the Arab Spring movement (a measure of recent mobilization), have an Islamist political party, and/or have organized radical militant organizations.” They admit that none of these variables are causally identified; in other words, it is possible or even likely that other unobserved variables lead to the emergence of both Islamist political parties and anti-American protests. But I still think it’s an interesting finding that these measures of organizational presence dramatically outweigh the explanatory value embedded in huge social factors like wealth, youth population, and regime type.

Essentialism Goes Both Ways: More on Islam and the West

I received an interesting comment on my last post about the recent protests in the Islamic world. Instead of commenting there, I wanted to expand my response into a brief follow-up post because the comment brings up some points that are essential to understanding my argument.

It’s true that we shouldn’t support people who are using this film as a pretext to inflame sentiments against Muslims, or the US. But in your post, why haven’t you considered the reasons WHY so many ordinary people could be easily mobilized by such messages? (I’m going to leave out the US side of things, because deploring extremists on both sides without considering the massive imbalance of power is a little silly). We shouldn’t ignore the sordid history of US intervention, war, and destructive policies in the region which very clearly contribute to resentment against the US.

This is not an anti-US policy screed, but rather the reasonable idea that we should take seriously the reasons large masses of people feel massive anger and resentment toward the US, and not write them off as the misguided masses exploited by political opportunists. As far as I can tell, this post was about how Bad Extremists Are and how we’re all the same – ok fine, but don’t you think you could consider the context a little bit more? Otherwise those are just empty platitudes.

The commenter’s point, as I understand it, is that my post was slightly vacuous in the sense that it “merely” deplored the existence of extremists, be they Islamic or Western. This is a fair criticism. What I wish to highlight in response also answers the commenter’s initial question. Political entrepreneurs on both sides of the world take advantage of publics by promoting false, often unnecessarily provocative narratives for the sake of political support. My argument in last week’s post emphasized this point.

On the other hand, one could argue that circumstances make publics in the Islamic world more susceptible to feel resentment toward the West and, by extension, more susceptible to be taken advantage of by political entrepreneurs. Moreover, one could argue that this resentment is legitimate and can be traced directly to actions of the United States over the past half-century or so. This would be the equivalent to the commenter’s recommendation not to “write off” the reasons behind these protest. However, arguments about legitimacy and blame miss the point.

Actions cannot be justified by motives that trace guilt to a generalization. This was the error of the attacks of September 11th, this was the error of the invasion of Iraq. My argument is that the type of thinking that leads to violent action occurs in both worlds and needs to stop. To address this, we need to realize that the problem is fundamentally the same for both sets of people. Contextualizing Islamic violence, while understandable and fair normatively, does little to further the cause of peaceful resolution.

It is, of course, wholly unfair to blame the entire Islamic world for isolated events in the Western world. This is essentialism at its worst. But essentialism goes both ways. It is similarly unfair to blame all Westerners for fostering the conditions that have made so many Muslims angry at “the West.”

When the Ayatollah Khomeini first issued a fatwa against Salman Rashdie, Suzannah Lessard wrote in the New Yorker about the effect of the threat on the Western socio-cultural zeitgeist:

The terror we feel when we put ourselves in Salman Rushdie’s shoes is a new kind. As far as we know, never before has an international lynch mob of millions called for the blood of someone like him—someone who is not a leader or an official, someone who until now was probably unknown to most of the people calling for his death and of whom they still know little…

20 years later, this is no longer a “new” kind of terror. It’s a familiar one. Terror, anger, resentment, protest, and violence for reasons false or unknown to the actors involved. Even worse, we in the West now have extremists hoping to incite violence of our own. Instead of responding to extremism as Salman Rushdie did–with a puzzled distance–we have seen many Western leaders respond with opportunistic rhetoric that has only made matters worse.

If we wish to move past this “clash of civilizations”-type of thinking, we need to recognize the danger of political entrepreneurs who continue to antagonize for political benefit. Surrounding conditions will change but political entrepreneurs will remain, ready to take advantage of those who may be susceptible. The only remedy is to stop the type of sweeping generalizations that led to the “Innocence of Muslims” video and the protests that followed.

For more on this clash of civilizations, follow William on Twitter.

The West or Islam: a False Choice

Violent extremists have exploited these tensions [between the West and Islam] in a small but potent minority of Muslims. The attacks of September 11th, 2001 and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians has led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights. This has bred more fear and mistrust.

So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. This cycle of suspicion and discord must end.

– Barack Obama, Cairo, June 4th, 2009

I’m a big fan of the maxim “if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all.” Often, as a political scientist and, especially, as a contributor to a politics blog (and ardent Tweeter), this is easier said than done. This week, however, has been a bit of an exception. As Americans mourned the eleventh anniversary of the attacks on September 11th, protests over an anti-Islamic extremist film grew into violent riots in Egypts, an attack on the American consulate in Benghazi killed the US Ambassador to Libya and three others, and, in a still-developing story, protesters attempted to storm the embassy in Sana, Yemen.

Although I have some thoughts on the ongoing politicization of these effects and the American reaction to them at home, it has been difficult–personally and professionally–to cultivate a cogent response to the events themselves. Overreaction to events such as these has become the mode and, as such, our response should be measured. But how measured? How should we as Americans interpret national security crises in the post-9/11 era that seem removed from traditional great power politics?

I’m not sure. I do know, however, how we shouldn’t respond. These attacks, by small groups, seek to divide two parts of the world that have more similarities than differences. If the lesson of the Cold War was that ideological differences do not make conflict among humans and the states that represent their interests inevitable, the lesson of the post-9/11 era should be that religious or cultural differences similarly lack such teleological effects. In 2012, after the Arab Spring, the Western and Islamic worlds are more similar than 2009 when President Obama spoke in Cairo and more similar arguably than at any other point in history. The structural forces pushing and pulling toward conflict that drove the behavior of states in eras past do not apply.

In the blogosphere, perhaps the aforementioned maxim could be changed to “if you don’t have something good to say, blog about somebody who does.” Thankfully, Dan Nexon at The Duck of Minerva does a great job of highlighting the dynamics underlying the false choice between the two worlds presented before us:

We should be sophisticated enough, I submit, to recognize that anti-Islamic extremists and militant jihadists want some of the same things: they want to polarize politics along religious lines. This is a dangerous and reprehensible goal. At the same time, the particular means at stake in this specific action-reaction chain are morally distinguishable.  In short, both frames contain truth and neither should be allowed to triumph over the other…

…there are individuals and movements, both in the United States and the Middle East, who aim to collapse multiple sites of difference, conflict, and cooperation into a single pivot point: the ‘American-led West’ against ‘Islam.’ What we’re seeing now in the fallout of the attacks is what has been going on for a long time: numerous officials, regimes, movements, and individuals struggling to advance or avoid this kind of polarization.

The politics of this struggle are hazardous for everyone involved.

In brief, as we react to and process these attacks, Americans should be wary of the voices of polarization and conflict at home and abroad. The choice between the West and Islam is a false one and the clashes that arise are avoidable, not inevitable.

For more of his thoughts on the attacks, follow William on Twitter.

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.

Reading Waltz in Tehran or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb



Forget for a minute about parsing the nuances of Iran’s controversial nuclear program—whether, for example, the officially ‘civilian’ program has a covert agenda aimed at developing nuclear weapons, how far along such a component might be, and whether this merits a pre-emptive strike by the United States or its allies. Forget that and stop agonizing. The sooner Tehran gets the bomb, the better. A nuclear-armed Iran would bring stability to the Middle East.

At least, that’s what one of the most famous theorists of International Relations (IR) has to say in the cover story of the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs. No one familiar with Kenneth N. Waltz’s work should be surprised with this analysis as the article strikes the same basic theme that the doyen of IR has been sounding for the last three decades, namely, that a balance of power is what keeps the peace in the international system. What is surprising is that the IR school of realism, with which Waltz is so closely associated, has advanced in recent years, but insights from this literature and from history are missing from the ongoing policy debate. Between blithe optimism and pre-emptive striking there are other ways of dealing with Iran’s controversial nuclear program, one that doesn’t require accepting a priori all of the assumptions on which Waltz’s analysis depends, and one that ought to include regional states beyond Israel, notably Washington’s Arab allies.

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