Tag Archives: Middle East

Egyptian Chaos: a European Problem

Europe’s role could be crucial to the stabilisation of Egypt. Adding political action to the provision of financial aid, the ‘Old Continent’ could help the country find the stability lost due to its serious economic drift.




[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hilst Europe attempts to define a role in the Mediterranean, Egypt again finds itself at the centre of international attention due to its political instability, resulting from the fall of Morsi. After the gains of the 2011 revolution were progressively mobilised by the Muslim Brotherhood, due to their victory in the presidential elections, the country’s internal situation progressively deteriorated. This resulted in a coup carried out by the military which seems to have found, for the moment, the support of the population. At this point its western neighbours are presented with a dilemma that is not easy to resolve. It is a matter of understanding which are the real demands of the Egyptian people and which is the correct approach to ‘communicate’ with an Egypt in continuous evolution.

The Egyptian uprising helps to challenge a paradigm rooted in the West, that of electoral infallibility, according to which electoral results are a fundamental-and therefore immutable-element of civic life. As seen in Gaza in 2006, however, in the political realities in which democracy begins to take root, elections often yield results which are opposite to those expected-or rather, hoped for. In a sense, what is happening today in the Middle East previously occurred in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. If on one hand this opens up legal dialogues, on the strength of which there is no reason to boycott a government which has legitimately come to power, on the other there are numerous voices which contest the electoral result due to hypothetical pressures or ‘financial patronage’ exerted by the Muslim Brotherhood. It seems clear, however, that room for reflection is very limited and that it is instead necessary to act as soon as possible in order to facilitate a process of transition with as little trauma as possible. It is in fact in the common interest that the region finds its own equilibrium.

In this sense Europe’s role could be crucial to the stabilisation of Egypt. Adding political action to the provision of financial aid, the ‘Old Continent’ could help the country find the stability lost due to its serious economic drift. An economy which, moreover, is characterised by structural elements which make internal change difficult. Among them, the importance of the tourist industry, which is now affected by political instability; a strong tradition of high public subsidies, which do not, however, generate positive outcomes in terms of employment; and an elevated degree of military control over the economy. These factors result in very limited opportunities for an imminent recovery. Europe, on the other hand, could have a more incisive role through the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), created in 2008 by the Barcelona Process and driven by the French, and which in recent years has been found to be a very effective card in relating to the Arab Spring. To find a greater influence in the region, however, the UfM requires renewed confidence and momentum in terms of its capacity for action.

Looking closely, in contrast, what one perceives is a sense of disorientation experienced by western governments, which appear unable to understand the path along which Egypt is directed. Of course, this understanding is far from easy to achieve, and the regional scenario certainly does not make the picture clearer. In fact, the situation in Syria is becoming progressively more explosive, and risks being the subject of a bitter clash between the West and Russia, which has seen Damascus as its only decisive partner in the Middle East since the late seventies.

Ultimately, signs of openness towards a more secular Egypt, which is crucially able to equip itself with a stable and credible democratic system, are coming from the West. To date, however, it is precisely this choice of mediation which seems to be the greatest challenge faced by Cairo. In such a scenario, marked by the fluidity and succession of events, the questions of Europeans are, perhaps, identical to those of Egyptians themselves.


Original Article: Il caos egiziano: un problema europeo

Translated by Lois Bond

The Syrian Conflict: Time to Start Thinking Outside the Box

As the conflict drags on, and as more people continue to suffer, it is time to start putting new ideas on the table, and partitioning Syria is certainly one of the suggestions that could work.




[dropcap]A[/dropcap]n end to the violence and conflict in Syria is not in sight, far from it. The UN estimates that around 100,000 have died in the conflict so far and the number is set to rise as both the Assad regime and the rebel movement refuse to end the bloodshed. Many suggestions have been put forward which aim to bring an end to what has been the bloodiest out of all the Arab Spring uprisings. Some believe that arming the rebels is the answer. The supporters of this claim are the UK Prime Minister David Cameron, the French President Francois Hollande and the USA. Russia, on the other hand, has put forward a diplomatic solution which aims to bring both sides of the Syrian conflict to the negotiating table. Britain, France and the USA favour a diplomatic solution as well, however they claim that Assad will never join the negotiations when he is winning on the ground, thus the need to arm the rebels to create a stale-mate.

However in this article I will argue that both of the above proposals are unlikely to reap any substantial results and therefore out of the box thinking is required.

An argument against arming the rebels

There seems to be a consensus among many, that if President Assad was removed from power, Syria would go back to normality and a start of a new and bright era could begin. However, such a view is obscured by a shallow thinking: Assad is bad, rebels are good. Over the last few months, such a view has suffered a great dent, due to the grotesque and vile actions by some of the rebels- atrocities against the Syrian minorities, such as Christians, inhumane treatment of enemy soldiers, harsh treatment of civilians in rebel held areas, among other despicable incidents. Some argue that these actions are only committed by an extremist minority who do not represent a more liberal faction fighting Assad.

Such a claim in itself provides two reasons for why arming the rebels would not work. Firstly the claim correctly points out the fact that the rebel movement is deeply fractured. There is a civil war, in the civil war. There have been many reports of rebel groups fighting each other and murdering fellow generals. Secondly, this leads to the natural conclusion that if Assad were to fall right now, the conflict in Syria would not end. It would simply shift from rebels fighting Assad and fighting each other, to rebels fighting each other to a greater extent. If weapons were provided to the opposition, these would eventually be used to kill fellow opposition groups, thus leading to more bloodshed. Even if the Arab Spring in Syria began with Syrians wanting more democracy and freedom, right now the conflict has become a sectarian and religious war, between Shias, Sunnis and hardened Islamists. Iraq should be the perfect example of how getting rid of a dictator for its own sake does not lead to positive results. Despite over 10 years since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq is still plagued by sectarian violence, almost on a daily basis. Syria is even more diverse than Iraq, therefore there is a grave possibility that the violence would be enhanced.

Further reason to doubt the appeal of arming the rebels are claims that the people living in rebel held areas are deeply dissatisfied with the opposition movement, mainly due to the implementation of strict Sharia laws, which the majority of Syrians are not in favour of. Furthermore, there is a strong possibility that, if these rebels were to win, they would initiate mass atrocities against Assad supporters as part of their revenge. This has happened in Libya after the fall of Qaddafi.

Diplomacy as an end in itself is unlikely to work

Undoubtedly supporting Assad in this conflict would also be unthinkable, given the scale of destruction and deaths that have endured over his watch. For this reason some suggested that negotiations ought to take place where both sides agree to a ceasefire and a transitional government, eventually leading to proper democratic elections where the Syrian people will be able to decide how and who should govern the country. In principle this is a viable idea, certainly more so than the plan to arm the rebels. In practise, diplomacy is unlikely to work, since the rebels and their Western backers have set a pre-condition that Assad should step down. Understandably Assad and his support will never agree to such a condition, firstly because he is winning on the ground, and secondly because the rebels and the West have no political legitimacy to ask him for such a move.  Only the Syrian people have the legitimacy to remove their current leader, yet, as well documented, many Syrians continue to support Assad. To have a legitimate transitional government and legitimate future elections, Assad has to be a part of them, to allow the people the chance to once and for all decide whether they want Assad in or out. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the opposition will agree to this move, therefore breaking down any prospective positive outcomes from negotiations

Partition Syria

Unless either the West or Russia decide to end the conflict with a comprehensive victory for their respective sides (a move which is unlikely to occur), the stalemate between Assad and the rebels looks to continue. There is a dangerous possibility that Syria may turn into a new Afghanistan and Iraq, with violence and bloodshed continuing for decades. To prevent such an outcome, Syria may have to be partitioned into some parts that will be governed by Assad, and other parts governed by certain factions of the opposition. For now, Assad will never agree to such a plan when he is winning on the ground, when Russia continues to show undisputed support and when the West is so indecisive. Even if Assad were to win the civil war (which is unlikely as it is hard to see the Western powers allowing this to happen), the extremist rebels would continue to cause a nuisance as they would continue to receive financial and military support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Partitioning Syria would look similar to the Russia and Chechnya situation, where technically Chechnya is part of Russia, but has a status of a republic and some limited independence, with their own leader.

Heavy negotiations would need to take place among the Syrian players to arrive at a common outcome and nobody is suggesting that this would be a simple procedure. However, as the conflict drags on, and as more people continue to suffer, it is time to start putting new ideas on the table, and partitioning Syria is certainly one of the suggestions that could work.


Photo Credit: World Shia Forum

Obama & Reagan: Foreign Policies in Comparison

Unlike Reagan’s prompt reaction to the events of 1983 in Beirut, the supposed passivity of the current American president, shown following the attack in Benghazi, is needed to orientate himself in a situation undergoing progressive, and above all, unpredictable change. In fact, preventative actions of a military nature would worsen the perception of the U.S. presence in conflict areas and in those which are most geopolitically sensitive.




[dropcap]A[/dropcap]fter the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi and the killing of Ambassador Stevens, President Obama responded with a resolute but cautious approach, in line with the foreign policy choices of his first term: “The United States condemns in the strongest terms this outrageous and shocking attack … No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”

The voluntary preference for the term “act of terror,” and not “terrorism,” shows to what extent the strategy in presidential foreign policy, specifically in the Middle East and North Africa, is focused towards a path which diverges from that of the previous Bush administration, with both linguistic and cultural discontinuities. Behind such language there also lies the undeniable need to put into perspective a constant, and often exploitable, reference to the “Islamic” matrix of the attacks. The will to not concede to the easy temptation of military intervention further confirms the overall tendency towards caution and reflection.

A different reason for this behaviour is to be found in the additional aim of reaching a stabilisation of the political situation in the Middle East and a complex re-evaluation of the image of the United States. The current U.S. president has acted in awareness of America’s political limits in such a context, and has favoured an approach which is more pragmatic than the traditional idealism typical of U.S. foreign policy. The American presence in Middle Eastern and North African affairs during the 20th century has resulted in increased tensions, particularly post-9/11and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq ordered by Bush. Anti-American sentiment, demonstrated by terrorist actions against sensitive U.S. targets, has grown in the last decade: it is one of the greatest problems faced by Obama, who was also elected for his promise of comprehensive normalisation.

Even the recent trip to the Middle East, described by the press, unsurprisingly, as a “maintenance trip“, showed Obama’s approach to be particularly tentative, almost reflexive, and his reluctance to take more incisive action, by virtue of a high-profile repositioning away from typical frenzied American interventionism.

The title of Fawaz Gerges’ essay, which appeared in March in Limes, effectively sums up  widespread opinion on the so-called Obama doctrine: “Barack the Cautious.” Gerges’ words underline Obama’s pragmatism in the Middle Eastern context, focused on maintaining the status quo by avoiding ideological excesses and encouraging a calmer atmosphere. According to Gerges, this approach is the result of a deliberate American disengagement from the Middle East, in favour of the Pacific. Michele Basso, however, wonders just how realistic this outcome is, and alternatively to what degree a pivotal role in crisis contexts is still a determining factor for America, thus confirming Washington’s presence, albeit in a “softer” manner.

In many respects the same policy of re-evaluation and American outplacement came to be implemented, albeit with different strategies, by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. The stated objective was to regain credibility among Middle Eastern countries as well as to encourage a process of pacification, however in a strategic framework strongly influenced by the 1982 Westminster Address. Reagan’s doctrine was based on the idea of facing the Soviets at a global level in low-level-intensity conflicts, that is, those not directly fought between the two superpowers, also supporting guerrilla groups and opponents of philosocialist or pro-communist regimes wherever necessary. This aspect of Reagan’s foreign policy, imbued with an anti-communism which was as superficial as it was simplistic, had a positive influence in the direct conflict with Moscow in the long term, but greatly tarnished the image of Americans in other contexts. The U.S. invasion, often maladroit in essentially local matters, such as conflict between Israel and Palestine, or between Iraq and Iran, led to a tightening of international relations, particularly in Lebanon, Iran, and Central America. The American intervention in Lebanon in support of Israel against the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which had exploited the civil war to undermine the Israelis, was considered an act of interference. The reaction to this “reintegration” in the area was very violent with a long series of attacks and abductions of hostages that characterised the entire Reagan presidency. The most shocking episode, which was in a certain sense similar to that of the embassy in Benghazi last year, was in October 1983 in Beirut, which saw the death of more than 200 Marines. The attack, then claimed by Hezbollah, led to a ramping up of American political choices at global level.

Reagan’s reaction was therefore quite different from that of today’s commander-in-chief. The then Republican president showed no reluctance to talk of “terrorism”, condemning the attack and planning a military response, which resulted in the Urgent Fury mission in Grenada. Despite the facade of a reasoning which concerned the defence of civilian and military Americans in the country, where there had been a resounding advance of the philosocialist regime, in so doing Reagan expressed the will for a muscular politics which would restabilise the predominant role of the United States.

Such a modus operandi seems to have been abandoned by Obama, who has always refused military involvement akin to that of the Reagan era. According to Del Pero’s reading, the re-elected president has initiated a policy of “low cost interventionism”, characterised by a general caution, “approaching passivity,” dictated by the pledges established by President Obama himself in electoral campaigns. Observers within the international community are currently reflecting on the validity of this approach with respect to issues in the Middle East and wonder about the need for the U.S. to play a more decisive and incisive role.

At the same time, one should not forget that the president has not completely abandoned the instrument of interventionism: for example, the uses of drones in war zones or in operations like the one that led to the killing of Bin Laden.

In its results, such behaviour does not appear far removed from Reagan’s more aggressive approach, as the escalation of anti-Americanism in the Middle East and in neighbouring regions does not appear at all diminished. At this time the greatest doubt is found in asking whether Obama’s current foreign policy is an almost obligatory and voluntarily considered choice to change the balance of power in ever-changing contexts, especially in light of the great political and cultural upheavals of recent years. It is highly likely that the American president’s supposed passivity is needed to orientate himself in a situation undergoing progressive, and above all, unpredictable change. In fact, preventative actions of a military nature would worsen the perception of the U.S. presence in conflict areas and in those which are most geopolitically sensitive.


Original Article: Obama e Reagan: visioni e scelte strategiche a confronto 

Translated by Lois Bond

Photo Credit: isriya


The ‘Arab Spring’ Backfire

Egypt looks set for a battle between religious fundamentalists and secularists, with the military seemingly also attempting to pull strings. 




[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen the ‘Arab Spring’ began, with Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia, many Western countries and their overzealous administrations were quick to jump on the democracy bandwagon; quick was the change of discourse – away from decades of tolerable autocratic alliances, to outright denunciations of their friends of the past. Fair enough, dictatorship seems a much outdated concept with no place in the modern world; the evolution of political science has left no scope for debate in this regard. Yet, championing the cause of democracy so fervently was a mistake – the administrations of the Western world showed little tact and forward-thinking in their actions, as it has been made evident following the ousting of Mohammed Morsi.

The vehemence of external support empowered the people to act, perhaps not physically, but certainly psychologically. Concessions made by leaders in the Middle-East and, in certain cases, their deposition, meant that something which bore vague resemblance to democracy was born. The world rejoiced at the apparent demise of despotism. However, to revisit the self-immolation of Bouazizi, this almost completely missed the point. The man did not light himself on fire out of some uppity desire for democracy or political representation – this is a yearning of the intelligentsia. The masses, out in the past few weeks in Tahrir Square, belong to what would be categorised as the working class and their primary concern is often directed by necessity over want. In other words, people like Bouazizi would have appreciated the luxury of a vote, but they are much more inclined towards their own sufficiency. An end to corruption and a fair chance to make an honest living are what the masses desire; this was proved when the Egyptian military ousted the democratically elected President, to the rejoice of a nation. As Fraser Nelson of the Daily Telegraph identifies, what the people of the Middle-East needed was not democracy but instead capitalism.

In truth, democracy is nothing but a quixotic concept in the context of the near future of the Middle-East. Stability is needed before democracy can be introduced. William Hague’s insistence that stability comes from democratic institutions is correct, but not in a situation as complex as that particular region. By starting the democracy bandwagon too early, the Western powers have enabled the Egyptian public to recognise their true potency. They have learnt that laws can be broken, that the constitution can be changed, whenever they so desire. Stability is becoming an object shrinking in the distance.

Now, Egypt finds itself in a difficult place, as do America and the UK. To call the military junta it is now dealing with a consequence of a coup d’état would rescind approximately $1.6 billion of aid to Egypt and plunge it further into instability. Simultaneously, these administrations fear that Egypt is to return to its past of a political battleground between corrupt military leaders and staunch Islamists. Whilst its generals maintain they want nothing for themselves, their actions suggest otherwise: the Egyptian military already rejected a draft constitution, fundamentally because it suggested an elected civilian authority to control the armed forces. Effectively, Egypt has slipped out of the control of the Western powers; its fate rests, and power lies, in the hands of its military. The US and UK may look on and observe, but they missed their chance; whole-hearted intervention may well have been practiced a few years before but with the economic downturn and memories of past failures, both the UK and the US were reluctant to intervene in a region crying out for the establishment of a genuine capitalist system.

As for the future of Egypt? It looks set for a battle between religious fundamentalists and secularists, with the military seemingly also attempting to pull strings. What’s to stop them usurping another legitimate President? It’s a dire situation that’s just screaming out impasse.


Photo Credit: Diariocritico de Venezuela

Mali: Intervention, Invasion, and Invention

Broadly, it may be that intervention is a limited and fundamentally flawed approach, but to say that some invented Western Empire marches on Africa to secure its dominance is to simplify a complex internal crisis, and to ignore the appeals of the Malian government for help.


Mali Islamist Militants


Ten years since the West’s intervention in Iraq and in the midst of a new French and British presence in Mali, it is right to emphasise that failing to appreciate the complexities of any international conflict is always costly. Deciding whether or not to commit to military intervention requires extensive deliberation and patience. Whatever one decides, there must be no doubt as to the seriousness of the implications, no question as to the responsibilities assumed as a consequence. Interventionists are often urged to keep these warnings in mind before they choose to support a foreign military conflict, but it should be remembered that this counsel must also apply to those opposed to intervention.

Not long after the French intervention in Mali, a number of voices on the left denounced what they saw as a provocative invitation to Islamist violence and a failure to learn from the West’s intervention in Iraq ten years ago. However, it is arguably these voices that appear to be repeating past mistakes. Opposition to the Iraq War, while vociferous, never received the scrutiny and interrogation it truly deserved, and since it so frequently characterised itself solely in terms of what it was against, it is crucial to keep in mind what the anti-war movement was for.

Broadly speaking, we can infer that many of those opposed to the Iraq war would have preferred the continuation of Saddam Hussein’s rule over Western intervention. There was little and remains little to suggest that his regime could have been toppled from within the country, and in any case, this was not a hope articulated by some within the anti-war movement at the time. In particular, we should note that George Galloway, one of the most prominent members of the Stop the War Coalition, openly praised the dictator and the operations of insurgent forces in Iraq. The Stop the War Coalition’s erroneous unease around efforts to thwart fascism in Iraq and elsewhere have been disappointing, but by failing to offer a credible approach to the tangible dangers of the Islamist influence in Mali, some are perpetuating the notion that to be anti-war is to abdicate responsibility for the consequences of non-intervention. The impact of intervention is important and deserves continuous scrutiny, because this impact is severe and often bloody, but the potentially destructive impact of inaction in the face of the dangers present in Mali are not receiving the attention they deserve.

It would be in error to say that alternatives to intervention do not exist. Here at The Risky Shift, Alex Clackson has identified a number of suggestions, including the provision of development aid and increased support for domestic governments. However, a deeper misunderstanding often characterises opposition to intervention. There is a tendency among many, particularly on the left to locate intervention by the West in general and, in the case of Mali, France and Britain in particular, in a neo-imperialistic/colonialist narrative. Journalist John Pilger has gone so far as to say that ‘A full-scale invasion of Africa is under way,’ which he compares to the Scramble for Africa of the nineteenth century. This is a limited and ultimately ahistorical view of the kind of Western intervention we have seen in the region.

The sovereignty of Mali is not under threat from ‘the West’ but from several Islamist groups including Ansar Dine and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), both of which demand the imposition of Islamic law throughout the country. It is also worth noting that it was Mali’s interim president Dioncounda Traore who requested military aid from France in January of this year to counter these groups. Broadly, it may be that intervention is a limited and fundamentally flawed approach, but to say that some invented Western Empire marches on Africa to secure its dominance is to simplify a complex internal crisis, and to ignore the appeals of the Malian government for help.


Photo Credit: Magharebia

Iran And The Bomb: Coercive Diplomacy In, Arms Race Out

Talk delivered at A Nuclear Iran: The Start of a Middle Eastern Arms Race?, Public Conference, King’s College London, February 12, 2013, London, United Kingdom.



In order to address to the talk’s question, I will try to present the Iranian issue from a systemic point of view, framing it in the broader context of the international system and assuming Iran as one of the many actors belonging to it.

According to Matthew Kroenig and other strategic advisers such as Dov Zakheim, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nuclear Iran would trigger an arms race in the Middle East, as a product of the security dilemma put in place.

The security dilemma asserts that both strength and weakness in national security can be provocative to other nations. If a nation is too strong, this can be provocative since most means of self-protection simultaneously menace others.” On the other hand, if a nation is too weak, “great dangers arise if an aggressor believes that the status quo powers are weak in capability or resolve.”

A frequently cited example of the security dilemma is the beginning of the World War I. Supporters of this viewpoint argue that the European powers felt forced to go to war by feelings of insecurity, despite not actually desiring the war. However, the only case in which an arms race could occur is the so called “first world”, a theoretical place formulated by Robert Jervis in his seminal article “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma”, published in 1978. In defining the security dilemma, two variables are pillar: on the one hand, offensive weapons and policies; on the other hand, defensive weapons and policies.

In the aforementioned first world, offensive and defensive behaviour are not distinguishable, but offense, conceived as the situation in which it is easier to destroy the other’s army and take its territory than defending its own, has an advantage: in this hypothesis, the security dilemma is “very intense”. The environment is “doubly dangerous” because even status quo states will behave in an aggressive manner and there will arise the possibility of an arms race. Consequently, chances of cooperation between states are low.

Iran, differently, is already seen as the threat by the whole region and from external actors, so its behaviour and weapons are very distinguishable: for that this case does not fall within the first, rather in the third case stipulated by Jervis. In the latter one, no arms race should occur: offensive and defensive behaviour are distinguishable but offense has an advantage. In this third world, the security dilemma is “not intense”, even if security issues do exist and an aggression might take place at some future time. As a result, status quo states are free to follow different policy than aggressor.

Accordingly, the inherent peril of a nuclear arms race in the region seems to be, from a theoretical point of view, quite unlikely. Adding the presence of the US as the hegemonic power in the region, capable to guarantee a good degree of security to Saudi Arabia and its other satellites, such a possibility is completely out of question. In addition, Israel already holds the nuclear bomb since 1979, and despite the perception of threat that its presence caused in the region, an arms race has never occurred as well.

As Hobbs and Moran have recently argued, Saudi Arabia’s political and strategic context does not favour the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Indeed, from a security perspective, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States based on the “oil-for-arms” commitment continues to be well-working since the 1940s. On the other hand, the US strategic umbrella over this country has been reinforced after the events of the last years, such as the fall of the pro-Saudi Mubarak regime in Egypt; protests and instability in Bahrain and Yemen; the collapse of the pro-Saudi government in Lebanon; and civil war in Syria, which have made Riyadh one of the pillar allies of the US in the region.

By this token, justifying a preventive attack against Iran as the only way to stop the possibility of an arms race would be a strategic mistake, since it is not necessary and, additionally, it would bring more instability to the area. Given this explanation, two other policy choices remain on the table: allowing Iran to pursue its nuclear ambitions, and then deter it; conversely, forcing Iran to dismiss any pretension over the nuclear, through the so-called coercive diplomacy.

Rational Deterrence Theory

First and foremost, it is worth recalling that the debate over the possibility of nuclear proliferation and the related threat to regional stability has already been discussed by Kenneth Waltz and Scott Sagan in 1981, and renewed by the same scholars in 2002.

Waltz has always sustained the idea that nuclear proliferation should guarantee peace and stability, basing this assumption on the historical record of the Cold War confrontation and the following nuclear rivalry between India and Pakistan. As a result, in the last article by Waltz published on Foreign Affairs last year, nuclear asymmetry is conceived as destabilizing given the objective gap in military power and capabilities between Iran and Israel. In addition, such a strategic shortcoming is worsened by the ideological rivalry, that’s an irrational aspect that could be worked out only by the logic of deterrence. In fact, following this argument, once Iran obtains its own nuclear weapons, itself and Israel shall be strategically balanced, and no other country in the region should have the incentive to acquire further nuclear capability, leaving the region more stable than today.

If a first sight the rational logic suggested by Waltz seems to be correct and attractive, it is worth considering that the realm of international politics is quite complex and security concerns are not the only characteristic that states are affected by. As Sagan pointed out as early as 1981, states pursue nuclear weapons building because of three major considerations: security, domestic dynamics and international norms.

Aside from the security concerns already discussed, domestic considerations such as the existence of parochial but powerful political groups or individuals (such as the nuclear energy establishment, the military complex and populist politicians), and the concurrent influence of international norms and shared beliefs on national leaders (such as the Iranian establishment pretension to be a regional power with global aspirations), are not elements of the Waltzian equation and as such they alter the balance with unpredictable consequences.

Indeed, as Sagan himself recalled, the Cold War’s “nuclear peace” should not be deduced as the general rule or as an excuse for inaction with either arms control or non-proliferation; instead it remains an exception to celebrate and wonder about, given that even the World War II ended up with a nuclear bombing. Furthermore, considering the nuclear bomb inherently peaceful weapons since their possessors have never fought against each other, as Waltz and John Mearsheimer assert, represents a historical mistake.

In fact, Pakistan’s development of nuclear weapons has facilitated its strategy of engaging in low-intensity conflict against India, making the subcontinent more crisis-prone. As the political scientist Paul Kapur has shown, as Islamabad’s nuclear capabilities have increased, so has the volatility of the Indian-Pakistani rivalry. For example, in 1999 Pakistan sent conventional forces disguised as insurgents across the Line of Control in the Kargil district of Kashmir, triggering a limited war with India.

The historical record suggests that competition between a nuclear-armed Iran and its principal adversaries would likely follow the pattern known as “the stability-instability paradox”, in which the supposed stability created by mutually assured destruction generates greater instability by making provocations, disputes, and conflict below the nuclear threshold seem safe.

Finally, critiques against Waltz’s argument come from Stephen Walt, a neo-realist scholar labelled as “defensive” (as Waltz itself is): he doubts the contemporary validity and workability of deterrence because such a strategy could work well once both sides are endowed with survivable forces – namely, the second strike capabilities – that make each of them unwilling to launch the first attack for strategic calculations.

Coercive diplomacy

If deterrence and containment seem to be infeasible and probably unsuccessful, while allowing Iran to acquire its nuclear arsenal too risky a move, the last resort in the hands of the United States, in order to maintain stability in the Middle East is coercive diplomacy.

Despite the choice of attacking Iran is strategically flawed, ruling out any possibility of deterrence, it remains the last resort that President Obama currently takes in consideration. To date the only peaceful way to deal with Iran’s advancing nuclear program is called coercive diplomacy, also known as the diplomacy of threats. The theory of coercive diplomacy, elaborated by the political scientist Alexander George, aims at getting a target, a state, a group (or groups) within a state, or a non-state actor – to change its behaviour through either the threat to use force or the actual use of limited force.

Coercive diplomacy is a diplomatic strategy, that relies on the threat of force rather than the use of it. Force must be used to make diplomatic efforts at persuasion more effective, in order to demonstrate resolution and willingness to escalate to high levels of military action if necessary. There are five types of coercive diplomacy and the so-called “carrot and stick approach” seems to be the most useful.

In fact, such a strategic choice is based upon a twofold requirement: making both credible promises and credible threats simultaneously. In this case, the difficulty is heightened by several other factors: the long history of intense mutual mistrust between Iran and the United States; the U.S. alliance with Iran’s archenemy, Israel; and the opacity of Iranian decision-making.

In order to make credible threats, the US should voice them publicly and unambiguously, while U.S. policymakers should emphasize that an attack on Iran would benefit greatly the United States. Still, American policymakers could stress that a strike would severely affect Iran’s nuclear effort, serving as a powerful warning to other potential proliferators, strengthening the United States’ global reputation for resolve, and possibly even triggering an Iranian revolution. Finally, if threats are dispatched confidentially by third parties close to Tehran, such as China and Russia, might have more credibility.

Conversely, making credible promises would need a deal proposal, according to which Iran would agree to stop building warheads and to refrain from enriching uranium above the 20 percent level, and allowing  inspections of its nuclear facilities. In return, the United States would accept a limited Iranian enrichment program, promise not to try to overthrow the regime, and suspend sanctions imposed in response to the nuclear program. Ideally, the United States might also restore normal diplomatic relations with Iran.

History and Coercive diplomacy: the case of the Cuban missile crisis

The strategy of coercive diplomacy has been successful applied in history, namely in the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Indeed, by considering the current situation like a Cuban missile crisis in “slow motion”, Graham Allison has figured out a showdown in which the current US president will be forced to choose between ordering a military attack or allowing a nuclearized Iran, as happened to Kennedy in the final Saturday. Then, the US President chose for a third way, a secret promise to withdraw US missiles from Turkey within six months after the crisis was resolved.

According to Alexander George, three factors contributed to preventing escalation. First, Kennedy limited his demands to removal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba, while further demands would have increased Soviet resistance. Second, Kennedy limited the initial means of coercion to a blockade. The blockade did not involve the use of force, and bought Kennedy time to try persuasion with the Soviets. Finally, both Khrushchev and Kennedy followed important operational principles of crisis management. Kennedy in particular sent clear and consistent signals to the Soviets, acting to slow the pace of the crisis, and signaling his strong preference for a peaceful resolution.

Unfortunately, today the situation is much more complicated given the presence of a third nuclear party, Israel, and its domestic perception of threat. Accordingly, the key is the Israel behaviour. If Israel will contribute to reduce the likelihood of a unilateral attack, then U.S. policymakers will be able to implement a successful strategy of coercive diplomacy.


Photo Credit: Luciapro

Time For Palestine To Join The Arab Spring

Palestinians must decide whether they want to continue living in dire conditions under a brutal Israeli regime or take the plunge, join the Arab Spring and strive for the opportunity to achieve justice and freedom for themselves.


Palestine flags


As uprisings continue to sweep the Arab region, from the North African country of Tunisia all the way to Syria and Bahrain, it is rather astonishing that the Palestinians have not jumped on the bandwagon and joined the Arab Spring movement. After all, it would have been a timely opportunity to join the momentum of those revolutions that continue to strike the region in hope of achieving freedom from brutality. It would have also put the Western nations in a difficult situation. Western Europe, together with the United States, has been very supportive (at least in rhetoric) of the Arab Spring, playing a crucial role in overthrowing Gaddafi and continuing to be an important player in the Syrian civil war. It is well known, however, that the West-especially the United States-shows undeniable support towards Israel. This was witnessed during the last Israeli attacks on Gaza when the United States blamed the Palestinians for the conflict. For this reason, a Palestinian uprising would put the United States in a peculiar position. Could America really continue to show full support to the Syrian rebels and Egyptian civilians, who are once again demonstrating on the streets against their current leader Morsi, yet deny the Palestinians the opportunity to protest against the many grievances: Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the ghetto-like Wall that separates Gaza from the rest of humanity, the illegal settlements, the unfair treatment of Palestinians living in Israel, the shootings of Palestinian children on the Gaza border, the lack of food and clean water due to the Israeli blockade and against the constant threat that Israel will strike again any minute. While western nations are notoriously known for their hypocritical stance when it comes to their foreign policy in the Middle East (which usually reflects their own national interests), the denial of the Palestinian right to rise up against Israel would set in stone what the majority already fear: the West’s lack of concern for human rights of others.

Though the Arab Spring started in 2011, the uprisings are still in full swing and therefore it is not late for Palestine to join the movement. It would be essential for the Palestinians to carry out a peaceful protest (i.e. no rockets from Hamas and no killings of Israelis), but nevertheless a protest that sends out a clear message that they will not back down until some progress is made. This would deny Israel their usual defence: that Palestine is an aggressive region and poses a threat to Israeli national security. This protest should not be about borders, or about a potential creation of the Palestinian state, but about a simple desire to be treated like human beings rather than caged animals. The majority of the international community already support the Palestinians. Not only has Palestine been granted the status of an observer non-member state at the UN, but the reports by the United Nations continue to condemn and criticise the inhumane actions of Israel. If Israel were to retaliate with violence and force against a peaceful uprising by the Palestinians, the Jewish state would risk more alienation from the international community and more disapproval from the general public around the world. A nation cannot continue to survive with a long queue of enemies.

In 2011, the Arab populations took the leap of faith. Many knew that their uprisings could lead to brutal response from their dictators. Some were aware that perhaps they would not survive to see the end of authoritarianism in the Middle East. Yet as the saying goes, when you have nothing, you got nothing to lose. The Palestinians have suffered to the point of near-total submission. However they must use the inspiration from their fellow Arabs who made the decision that enough is enough. Emiliano Zapata, a leading figure in the Mexican Revolution against the dictatorship in 1910 said that “it’s better to die upon your feet than to live upon your knees”. The Palestinians must now make the choice between whether they want to continue living in dire conditions under a brutal Israeli regime or take the plunge, join the Arab Spring and strive for the opportunity to achieve justice and freedom for themselves.


Photo Credit: Joi

Libya, Two Years After Gaddafi

A monopoly over the legitimate use of violence- the hallmark of a sovereign state- must be regained by the Libyan government. Security issues should be the priority, as they prevent every other sector of the society from progressing.


Libyan protestor Gaddafi


As the second anniversary of the Libyan revolution approaches, threats of protests from angry citizens have prompted the Libyan government to announce a plan to reinforce security and surveillance capabilities around Tripoli and other cities.

Though the odds of an armed uprising remain relatively small, renewed calls for change have found enough resonance amongst the population to incite a response from the government. Prime Minister Ali Zaidan’s announcement came as a response to calls for a ‘second revolution’ from citizens in Bani Walid, Benghazi and Tripoli. Additionally, various civil society groups aim to organize protests against the government’s slow progress on reforms. The rise of critical voices points to growing dissatisfaction amongst Libya’s citizens and the myriad of challenges the government faces.

Perhaps the biggest issue remains one of basic security. Armed militias continue to escape the control of the government and High profile incidents such as the September attack on the US consulate in Benghazi only highlight the government’s inability to cope and provide the basic provision of security within its borders.

Armed militiamen continue to roam freely the streets of many Libyan towns, often demanding special treatment because of their ‘services’ during the war.

Strategic cities such as Benghazi-Libya’s economic hub and the bastion of the revolution- provide a stark example of broken institutions and lawlessness. Benghazi has witnessed a rising tide of kidnappings, bombings and assassinations, often targeting government and security officials. The lack of basic security hampers the ability of local authorities to provide basic social provisions such as garbage collection. Though symbolically integrated within the national security apparatus, armed militias outman and outgun local police and continue to control key parts of the city. Arrests are seldom made out of fear of reprisal attacks and kidnappings.

The town has historically been wary of centralized control from Tripoli. The inability of the government to meet the expectations of its citizens has renewed calls for a return to a federalist arrangement. This would significantly weaken the government and could set a precedent for other regions to do the same.

Security problems are not exclusive to isolated hamlets or destroyed cities like Benghazi. Tripoli has had its fair share of violence. Assassination attempts on government and security officials are common occurrences. The General National Congress (GNC) has been stormed by protesters and militiamen on a number of occasions, and its president Mohamed Magarief survived an assassination attempt on 4 January 2013.

The violence during the revolution already had a serious impact on the stability of the region. Many experts point to the flow of weapons and fighters from the Libyan conflict towards Mali as a major cause in the security deterioration in the Sahel. Despite having closed all borders, the Libyan territory continues to be a transit hub and the home of Islamist militants active in the region. The attackers of a gas facility in neighboring Algeria are reported to have crossed from Libya and to have benefited from the inadequate security provisions on the border.

As Libyans prepare to mark two years of rule without Gaddafi, the government faces the immense task of rebuilding a nation after a civil war that destroyed vital infrastructure and addressing the aspirations of the Libyan people at the same time. Avoiding a popular backlash or renewed violence requires greater action on the security front and a rapid application of political reforms.

The monopoly over the legitimate use of violence- the hallmark of a sovereign state- must be regained by the government. Security problems should be the priority, as they prevent every other sector of the society from progressing.


Photo Credit: شبكة برق | B.R.Q

Food & International Security: Wasted

Globally there is a disproportionate lack of post-harvest food loss related scientific literature, practical research, development projects, funding for agricultural research and extension programs and public attention. Despite this, both governments and the market have failed to address this crucial issue.




Water wars are set to become more widespread in years to come. This is especially relevant to the Middle East, because so many fresh water sources straddle international boundaries. Israel-Palestine negotiations often stumble over the issue of sharing water, and in the past both Jordan and Syria have identified threats to their water supply as a crucial factor in deciding whether they will go to war with Israel.

This situation is expected to worsen: the number of ‘water-scarce’ countries in the Middle East “grew steadily from three in 1955 to eight in 1990”. Now twelve of the world’s fifteen water-scarce countries are in the Middle East and North Africa.

Agriculture is the cause of “70% of all global freshwater withdrawn worldwide”, and this is set to rise, especially as meat consumption in Asia rises. The Middle East is no exception – agriculture is “the main cause of depleting water resources in the region”.

Much of this is in vain – estimates of global food waste have been as high as 30 or 50%. Stuart argues that if 25% of the world’s food is unnecessarily wasted (assuming that between a third and a half is wasted, but that it is not realistic to cut down on all of it), this represents a loss of “approximately 675 litres” of water, “easily enough for the household needs of 9 billion people using 200 litres a day”. The executive director of SIWI said that reducing food waste “is the smartest and most direct route to relieve pressure on water and land resources”. It is thus essential that the world addresses its food waste, if it wants to avoid water wars in the future.

Land is also a great source of conflict. Here too, reducing food waste would alleviate the pressure by liberating vast swathes of agricultural land for other uses. McKinsey Global Institute estimate that ““reducing food waste at the point of consumption in developed countries by 30 percent could save roughly 40 million hectares of cropland”. Their report examines resource productivity opportunities in energy, land, water, and materials that could address up to 30 percent of total 2030 demand” – reducing food waste is considered the third most important measure.

Food scarcity is also linked with conflict. It has been suggested that recent food price spikes played a role in triggering the Arab Spring. Actually, these food spikes were primarily driven by commodity speculation in futures markets rather than by supply-demand factors – similar in behaviour to inflated housing prices. However, in the long-term food prices have been driven up by food waste, which both creates an artificial scarcity by taking food off the market, and places strain on scarce resources which act as agricultural inputs, driving food prices up. In a world where 925 million people are undernourished, it is vital for both humanitarian reasons and security that food waste be addressed.

Finally, reducing food waste is vital to addressing climate change, itself a threat to international security, through its harmful effects of increased droughts, degradation of agricultural land and likelihood of environmental disasters. Stuart estimates that in the UK and US, assuming that consumers waste approximately 25% of their food, “10 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions” comes from “producing, transporting, storing and preparing food that is never eaten”. Moreover, the FAO states that “considerably less energy and other inputs are required to conserve food than to produce an equal quantity of food”. For instance, “the total energy cost of good grain storage practice is about one percent of the energy cost of producing that grain”. Weaning ourselves off fossil fuels has obvious significance for international security related to oil.

Reducing food waste is also generally economically desirable compared to productivity increases. For instance, in the UK it has been estimated that “increasing the proportion of a farmer’s crop that gets into the supermarket by just 5 per cent can increase the farmer’s profit margins by up to 60 per cent”.

Despite all this, globally there is a disproportionate lack of post-harvest food loss related scientific literature, practical research, development projects, funding for agricultural research and extension programs and public attention.

Both governments and the market have failed to address this issue. Governments have focussed development programmes excessively on productivity increases. The market’s uneven development creates inadequate investment in post-harvest infrastructure in developing countries, and the power of retailers within developed country supply chains enables them to profit from pushing food waste onto suppliers and consumers.

Iran has been the first to address food waste as a geopolitical issue. We must all wake up to the geopolitical significance of food waste: our future security depends on it.


Photo credit: Bobolink

Addicted to Oil Cash, and Seeking Help (Part 1)

Two of the Middle East’s most corrupt governments have signed up to a cutting edge anti-corruption initiative.  In part 1 of a 2 part series, Iraq oil expert Ahmed Mousa Jiyad explains Iraq’s commitment to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.


oil field oil wells


Of the 32 countries in the Middle East and North Africa, only 2 have signed up to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, the worldwide scheme initiated by civil society organisations with oil company involvement which “aims to strengthen governance by improving transparency and accountability in the extractives sector.”

Incredibly, the MENA region governments who have signed up to this “resource curse” beating plan are Iraq and Yemen, two of the most corrupt and unstable governments in the region. But EITI is an excellent idea, and has already had a major impact in Nigeria where major anti-corruption investigations have been boosted by its reports.

In the first of a two part series, I spoke to Iraq oil expert Ahmed Mousa Jiyad who has reviewed Iraq’s first EITI report after the country won “compliant status”- the seal of approval from EITI that oil and gas revenue flows are transparent. But a deeper analysis of the conditions required for EITI to be truly effective show that the scheme is not the silver bullet that will end the “resource curse” – at least not until there is full disclosure and a healthy civil society with sufficient access to information, two things Iraq and Yemen currently lack.

RT: If the recent US SEC law, proposed EU law and the EITI cover all International Oil Companies (IOCs) operating in Iraq, is there any chance for corruption to remain in Iraq’s oil and gas sector?

AMJ: The enforcement of the above mentioned modalities would surely work as both a deterrent and a punitive measure against corruption. However, the three of them are not sufficient to ensure what I call the “Transparency Value Chain” (TVC) which is peculiar to the “Extractive Industry” in Iraq and I would claim to all other developing countries.

The concept of the TVC basically aims to trace and account for all “resource and cash flows” pertaining to this industry. And these flows fall in three categories, firstly, payments by IOCs. These cover two main items, cash payments to the host country- such as signature bonuses and all other fees like corporate income taxes etc, and secondly  investment (in the related contracted project.)

The first items could be controlled and accounted for with a good degree of transparency and verification, though Iraq’s Report for 2010 did not cover them properly. But there is difficulty and resentment on the part of IOCs regarding their actual investment in the related activity.Without full disclosure of investment there can be no comprehensive and meaningful transparency.

The second category is resource flowcharts and revenues, which covers two items. The first is the export of resources (say oil) and the generated export revenues. The parties involved here, in Iraq’s case, are SOMO (Iraq Oil Marketing Company) and all International Crude Oil Buyers-ICOBs. All export revenues are in US Dollars, and currently should be deposited in the Development Fund for Iraq (DFI) accounts at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York  (FRBNY) which confirmed total export revenues in 2010.

The second item in this category is the domestic use of resources and generated revenues. The parties involved are the Ministry of Oil (MoO) through its Regional Oil Companies (ROCs) which deliver oil and gas to other entities such as refineries, power plants, industry etc. The MoO provides very aggregate data on the produced oil and gas from ROCs and their allocation to export and for domestic use (only Refineries, Power plants and flared gas) but no revenues are provided for.

While the first item is subject to confirmation by all reporting entities and thus easy to reconcile and account for all export revenues, the second item is not. So a comprehensive modern and functional metering system is critically needed to insure the material balance of petroleum between all producing ROCs and receiving entities. Without such a comprehensive modern and functional metering system the transparency in the petroleum sector would be compromised. (Lack of metering was a critical factor in energy sector corruption in Nigeria- RT.)

The third category of resource and cash flows covers payment by Iraq to IOCs, which can be done easily, since each IOC is contractually obliged to prepare and present annual work programmes and corresponding budgets. Moreover, IOCs are obliged to submit “invoices” on actual expenses to MoO for auditing, approval and payment purposes.

The significance of knowing and accounting for IOC investment is to use such information in the verification and reconciliation process of “payment” that Iraq will make to these IOCs once the process of investment recovery and payment of remuneration fees begins.

According to the service contracts (type of oil contract currently in effect in Iraq) the payment of dues to the IOCs might be in kind- crude oil. Such payment in kind would be technically and statistically included in oil export shipments, but no export revenues would result from them.

Unless a special category in oil exports data and terminology is created to cover this payment in kind and cater for its accountability, there will be too many discrepancies in the reported data on oil revenues. Such payment in kind had started already in 2011, and it is expected to increase significantly in volume and value in the years to come.

It is worth recalling that each of these contracts has duration of more than twenty years. Therefore, it is vital to create the capacities and make the necessary preparations as early as possible to cover these items fully, properly and effectively.

For a country such as Iraq, especially in its current conditions, it is vital to have all three flows under the watchful eyes of transparency.

RT: In the last report, Open Oil claimed that signature bonuses amounting to over $1 billion were not documented. While some of these are the form of a loan, another bonus was altered to be simply a payment. Can they do that?

AMJ: Technically and contractually it is incorrect to claim that the Report for 2009 did not account for or document the signature bonuses. The reason is simple: no signature bonuses were due in 2009.

According to the service contracts of the first and second bid rounds, the related signature bonus has to be paid within one month from the “effective date” of the related contract. This implies that all signature bonuses from the 11 contracts resulting from the first two bid rounds were paid in 2010.

The 2010 Report confirms and accounts for all $1.65 billion paid by IOCs and received by MoO. But the Report did not cover what I call “Bid Round Related Payments,” which include four types of payments.

Moreover, the Author and the Reconciler of the 2010 Report, PwC, (PricewaterhouseCoopers) was not successful in producing a good and coherent report. The PwC Report suffers from many flaws, inconsistencies and shortcomings. I was asked to give opinion on the Report, which I did, and communicated my assessment to Baghdad and others within my professional network.

Ahmed Mousa Jiyad’s verdict on the PWC report can be found here.

Looking ahead

As Ahmed Mousa Jiyad can attest, some progress has been made in shining a light on Iraq’s energy sector, but much more needs to be done. As mentioned at the beginning of the article, in order for any transparency initiative to be successful there must be a fairly free society so that people can access information, hold officials to account and affect change. This is a problem in Iraq, where the media have been increasingly under siege: according to Reporters Without Borders, Iraq ranks 152 out of 179 in the press freedom index. As we will see in the next part of this series, finding a role for civil society in the EITI process has been a stumbling block in Yemen.


Photo Credit: Loco Steve

Israel’s Creative Strategic Depth

While the capabilities Israel employs vary and evolve, strategic depth will continue to be a core concept in regards to any present and future conflicts. As such, it will be interesting to follow the development of Israeli strategic depth, minding perhaps a possible expansion into cyberspace.


Israeli Air Force Kfir Reconnaissance combat


The question of Israel’s strategic depth as a significant element of its decision making process has long been prominent among Middle-East strategists and researchers. Being of a land mass so small it can be easily overlooked in its entirety on a map, Israel’s leaders continuously envision themselves as surrounded by arrayed enemy forces on several fronts. Among Israel’s security-conscious crowd, it has become commonplace to hear that ‘Israel can never afford to lose any of its wars’. This is for the exact same reasoning, as even the most seemingly insignificant loss of territory might put enemy forces within a bullet’s distance of Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv or any other major population centre.

In order to deal with this unfortunate reality, Israeli strategists have – at times – attempted to expand its strategic depth to include an adversary’s territory. Truly, a linchpin of any military campaign is to “take the action to the enemy”, often meaning across the border. While arguably this can be applied to many modern militaries, it holds especially true for a country with a small stretch of land between its borders and its cities. This strategy was tested several times in the past, and can in part explain why the Israeli Defense Forces places such an emphasis on maintaining a superior and costly air force, or allegedly maintains a substantial array of ballistic missiles.

Additionally, this can also explain why Israel is one of the only nations to actively pursue open military operations on foreign soil outside the scope of full-fledged war. While espionage and subterfuge are often cited as a mainstay of any nation, most nations choose to exercise such actions with extreme caution rather than flare. Why is it then that we hear so often of acts of aggression attributed directly to Israel?

Several notable examples come to mind. The bombing of the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981 pushed the Israeli’s air force’s operational range to its extreme limit. A second such strike was reported in 2007 against the Dir-a-Zur nuclear reactor undergoing construction in Syria, again signalling that Israel’s strategic reach is much farther than its size. Multiple reported strikes against targets in Sudan further underlined Israel’s willingness to operate against its foes in different theatres. Even covert actions, such as the Mabhouh assassination in Dubai in 2010 allegedly performed by Israeli operatives once again expanded the field of engagement.

Israel’s opponents often portray it as the aggressor due to sheer malice or due to it having dark designs on the Middle-East. Conversely, these acts are potentially carried out to prevent its enemies from attempting to encroach on its physical strategic depth in a creative brand of active deterrence, thus avoiding bloody wars for survival that may or may not drag actual strategic military assets into play. While this is a highly contested statement debated in many circles, one can reason that a possible motivation behind risky actions that attempt to cement Israel’s strategic depth is to deter its foes from triggering actual war or substantially altering the unique regional balance.

Interestingly, perhaps we can now see this mode of operation as spilling into cyberspace. Substantial activities in this field have recently been attributed to Israel and the United States, notably the aggressive malware known as Duqu, Stuxnet and Flame. Although it is doubtful that the original intent behind these cyber-operations was to have them exposed as they eventually were, perhaps such future deliberate endeavours are worthwhile to consider. While deterrence in cyberspace is a concept still very much up for contemporary debate, many argue that at least some degree of conflict between aggressors can and will take place there.

So perhaps an interesting twist on an existing strategic formula would be to attempt and extend Israel’s strategic sphere of influence into cyberspace. Already we are seeing the first signs of escalation that will likely continue in the near future. With fresh cyber-attacks against Saudi and Qatari oil interests alongside American banks attributed to Iranian hackers – potentially with state sponsorship – it is becoming increasingly clear that Stuxnet served as a catalyst for future online engagements. It would be curious to see an Israeli joint cyber command (not unlike the United States’ relatively new CYBERCOM) issuing a declaration – as the air force has done before – claiming that it can strike wherever and whenever it is required. However, this will need to be occasionally corroborated with actual, relatively high-profile operations.

The essential drawback to such a strategy is that cyber weapons are sometimes portrayed as effective for precisely one deployment. There is some degree of logic in that; when a cyber weapon is employed, the vulnerability that had allowed it to operate will likely get immediately shut down in upon identification of the attack (e.g the Stuxnet 0-day vulnerabilities). However, as hackers today are still commonly attacking high-profile targets using relatively simple hacking tools, it is not inconceivable to draw a strategic line in the sand with relative ease.

To conclude, while the capabilities employed vary and evolve with time as do the threats, strategic depth will continue to be a core concept in regards to any present and future conflicts involving Israel. As such, it will be interesting to follow the development of Israeli strategic depth, minding perhaps a possible expansion into cyberspace.


Photo Credit: Flavio~

Terrorism is Terrorism? How Communication Exacerbates the Definitional Problem

Why is terrorism so difficult to define? {Department of War Studies, King’s College London}


riot balaclava terrorist[dhr]

A definition of terrorism is arguably one of the woolliest concepts of modern discourse. Its manifestations arrive from a complex mosaic of compounding issues that affect any real brevity in assessing it. Since 9/11 it has been promoted to the forefront of most political agendas and yet no definitional consensus has followed. In the second presidential debate for example, Mitt Romney lambasted President Obama for not calling the attack on the US Embassy in Benghazi a terrorist incident, of which Obama took 14 days to finally call it such. The interim Libyan leader in comparison described it as an act of criminal violence. Politicians and subsequently media organisations have been careless, imprecise and sloppy in labelling incidents as acts of terrorism. This essay will therefore, scale back from the larger definitional debate and acknowledges that issues will be omitted. However, by arguing that terrorism is wrapped up in political motivations and rhetoric in tandem with the rise of modern communication, ultimately has a greater impact in understanding why terrorism is so difficult to define.

A Definitional Overview

To argue with clarity, the first logical step is to assess why terrorism is so important to define. Since 9/11 the word ‘terrorism’ has increasingly become intertwined in today’s society, and is synonymous in creating powerful images of violence, self-sacrifice and catastrophe. However, are we any closer in understanding what constitutes it? There are many academics and professionals who not only struggle to grapple with a definition, but utterly refute any notion of needing one. Walter Laqueur, perhaps the most prominent in this category, argues that a definition “does not exist nor will it be found in the foreseeable future.” Additionally, Jeremy Waldon and George Fletcher, in separate works, acknowledge that there are too many questions and not enough answers. Both seem to deviate from any real conclusion and believe the best possible course in understanding terrorism – is to know it when you see it.

The British Ambassador to the United Nations also shares this argument. In a post 9/11 speech he shunned the attempts of a definition by stating, “let us be focused about this: terrorism is terrorism… What looks, smells and kills like terrorism is terrorism.” However, if terrorism is taken as a transnational issue and not a single state-centric paradigm, to simply say every terrorist attack has characteristics that are obvious in all instances and consistently the same, is not only trite, but affects any sort of successful counter-terrorism strategy. Therefore, if terrorism is a global affair encompassing many different countries, a definition is vitally important to understand and ultimately combat it.

It is fair to argue that a definition is imperative in combating terrorism. However, coming to that conclusion is not an easy feat. Alex Schmid has become a cornerstone in the definitional debate and arguably places significance on “anxiety-inspired methods” which are implied on victims “generally chosen… (targets of opportunity).” He interestingly includes state-actors within his definition, which further adds weight to the necessity for a classification, because it can separate who or what are committing the acts. In a direct response to Schmid, Weinberg et al conclusively found no room in their definition for psychological effects and place politics as the primary reason behind terrorist strategy. Bruce Hoffman also asserts the importance of politics and views it as the key tool in understanding terrorists modus operandi. However, viewing a terrorist group in the sole constraints of politics reveals only a partial picture, as ignoring religious or ideological motivations limits the scope of analysis. John Horgan moves away from the idea of politics by putting explicit importance on the psychological use of ‘terror’, which in his words “removes part of the mystery” in understanding terrorism.

The use of terror is vitally important in assessing an attack because, as John Mueller identifies, it breaks down the moral criminal code that almost all populations abide by. Thus, understanding the potential method and targets not only helps polarise state and non-state actors but also allows a better degree of understanding of what the potential aims of a group are. There is arguably not one definition to use and it is fair to say that the scattered academic radar adds more uncertainty to how terrorism is defined. Nevertheless, if a definition is used, it does enable a set of parameters to be implemented allowing terrorist activity to be assessed.

The Misuse of ‘Terrorism’

The understandable academic ambiguity around the manifestations of terrorism is one that will continue, however, it is arguably not the basis of why terrorism is so hard to define. The way the word is used in its entirety by political apparatuses and influential individuals has a far larger footprint in misguiding the real meaning and use of terrorism. Ian Lustick’s thought provoking book ‘Trapped in a War on Terror’ portrays this argument and crucially identifies how terrorism became the Bush administrations political foundation. Patriotic fist pumping speeches that hark back to old veteran sentiments helped legitimatise policy-making decisions and misalign people’s perceptions of what terrorism actually is. There is perhaps little to dispute with this argument especially when assessing Bush’s clay footed notion of fighting a ‘War on Terror.’

Other hazy statements seem to be in abundance when terrorism is assessed and the idea of an attack to have a ‘look and feel of terrorism’ seems to be the optimum phrase when there is no uniformity concerning a violent attack. The blurry platitudes imposed by state echelons is unrelenting and is further compounded by the systematic use of “apocalyptic alarmism” whereby a top down smothering of scare tactics is employed – specifically in the United States. Homeland Security for example, not only portrays the threat of terrorists having the capability of CBRN weapons but also the ability to use those weapons “from home and abroad.” The imprecise and often inaccurate statements seem to have other motives. Fred Kaplan, in The Guardian, believes “policies will gain maximum support if they are linked to the war on terrorism.” Therefore, if terrorism is bound up in political drives for public support it begs a very serious question whether it is possible to separate truth from fiction and thus provide an accurate definition.

Communications Unique Role

Government’s apparent manipulation of the subject nature of terrorism is compounded by mushrooming nature of globalisation and the subsequent rise of modern technology, which in Manuel Castells words has created a “new communication space” where “power is decided.” The expansion of ideas to previously untouched parts of the world and the connection of disparate communities to their home nation has created a complex dichotomy that Sir Richards labels as a “global network of grievances.” The rapid expansion in technology, and the explosion of social media sites has arguably transformed opinions and debates into a virtual, informational space. This, allows people to move “rapidly and seamlessly” within a virtual world. David Betz has aptly labelled this as Web 2.0, in which all vectors of society can interact simultaneously, and subsequently, the public are no longer passive spectators but an active cog in the informational world.

Modern technology has therefore now provided an unprecedented platform to move messages horizontally across an archipelago of national and international borders. If the message is incorrect or misleading it can have exponential consequences by smattering the population with distorted information. In that respect, a political message is increasingly becoming a media message and has the ability to influence all spheres of society instantaneously. However, on the other hand, the role of modern technology also means people can circumvent not only traditional state controls but also contrived information. This is evident with General Sir David Richards’ summary of technology where he argues modern communications “are way beyond the state’s ability to control without threatening all the other functions of that state.” However, this works on both feet and allows governments to wield a certain degree of autonomy in the use of modern media processes. Therefore, as David Kilcullen argues, the ends and means of developing sources of information have a paucity that makes it very hard to distinguish origins or accuracy.

A government message is thus now instantly input into the media and the subsequent outlets play a significant role in shaping how it is defined. If terrorism is put through these many different communication filters, the outcome is a kaleidoscopic mesh of compounding definitions. They are connected to public opinion, leader personality and the usual platitudes around foreign policy. John Horgan therefore argues, to assess terrorism in its definitional entirety; a movement away from the media process is vital. However, with governments increasingly using the term in its haziest context and media being completely associated with political issues, this arguably is not possible and subsequently affects coming to terms with a definition of terrorism.


To conclude, this essay has focused on a very selective variety of sources and is not by any means conclusive in bringing the definitional debate to a finish line. It has specifically focused on the US government’s role due to its unique place in combating terror and an investigation into other nations could lead to a very different argument. However, misinformation imposed by any government can arguably filter down into everyday life and is further exacerbated by the role of modern communications. This ultimately gives a larger footprint and further muddies the water in trying to come to terms with an accurate definition of terrorism.


Photo Credit: bixentro

Fracking, Energy Independence, & The New International Security Landscape

If fracking is really to produce the sort of oil independence that the USA could only have dreamed of just a few short years ago, we must begin to prepare for the possibility of a new superpower isolationism and the manifold effects that withdrawal may bring.


oil fracking fields america


Recent developments in energy technology will have a profound effect on Western reliance on imported petroleum. This in turn will likely reduce incentives for a weary America to project its power on oil-rich trouble spots in the Middle East. Planners must be ready.

Fracking is set to change the world. That much is clear. To what extent, though, and how, is uncertain. The most violent debates centre around its effects on the environment. But what about the global security environment? Many worry the process itself will cause dangerous earthquakes and there are too many unknowns. Equally, this swiftly developing technology could produce seismic shifts in the way horizon scanners and strategists approach the landscape of international security in the coming decades; it will also bring uncertainty about the motives of key international actors on the world stage. As is often the case, the questions hang on America’s role in world affairs, and what we can expect its military to do or not do. Fracking may be removing some of the half-certainties we had in this regard.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing to give it its full name, is the use of water to crack open pockets of hydrocarbons in previously unreachable places below the ground. It has been used up until now to extract natural gas in enormous quantities, but the last two years have seen spectacular developments in America’s ability to extract ‘tight oil’ from its shale reserves across the country.

The practice is highly controversial ecologically; those against cite massive water consumption and pollution, induction of tremors, and the disincentives it provides to curb fossil fuel consumption as existential dangers to the planet.

Regardless, the industry is moving so quickly that some last month predicted energy independence for the USA by 2035. Though others doubt the totality of these claims, even cautious forecasts see American imports of oil and petroleum products from the Middle East plummeting by the middle of this century.

We could be witnessing momentous changes in the way the world’s superpower approaches its relationship with the region that has shaped its military power projection – and arguably the entire global security landscape – in the latter decades of last century and the first decades of this.

The debate over the role played by oil in America and Britain’s decision to invade Iraq has played out tirelessly (and rather tiresomely) since before a single soldier was on the ground in 2003. Although only the most credulous observer could have believed Donald Rumsfeld’s avowal that “the Iraq war has nothing to do with oil, literally nothing to do with oil” was said in whole-hearted good faith, the issue remains obscure. What matters here is the question whether America would have been so keen to invade if those such as VP Dick Cheney’s Energy Task Force had not had to worry about securing oil supplies in far flung corners of the world.

Operation Desert Storm was fought explicitly to protect the oil fields of Kuwait and neighbouring Saudi Arabia from falling into hostile hands. That America and its allies have waged war, invaded countries, propped up dictators, toppled dictators, deposed democratically elected leaders, spent billions fortifying whole peninsulas with garrisons, air and naval bases explicitly to secure its oil supply should be news to no one. Even landlocked, oil-bereft Afghanistan’s 1979 invasion by Soviet forces was seen by strategists in US as a geostrategic play for priceless access to the Persian Gulf, furthering incentives to fund the mujahedin resistance.

The implications of these interventions have rippled out across history. Just before Suez came Operation Boot (which is what we called it this side of the Atlantic) / Operation Ajax (the American’s designation) – a covert mission to overthrow Prime Minister Mossadeq of Iran who had just announced the nationalisation of the Anglo Iranian Oil Company. The MI6 / CIA action reimposed the Shah upon Iranians, whom he tortured and murdered in their thousands, likely precipitating the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia from 1990 to 2003 under Operation Southern Watch was one of the founding grievances of al-Qaeda, and America’s effective guarantee of the entire Arabian Peninsula against any – and especially Iranian – threat continues to shape the balance of power in the region. If Washington starts to feel that, with ample oil and gas on its own shores, the cost and ill-will bred by its involvement in MENA is no longer outweighed by the benefits, a total disengagement from the area would be welcomed by many. But the permutations of that isolationism are not easy to envisage, what with India, moreover China, becoming ever more thirsty for energy imports.

The possible effects of the fracking revolution are not limited to the USA’s involvement in world affairs, of course. The enormous bilateral trade in oil and arms between Britain and the Saudis is testament enough to that.

Moreover, the unique value of oil, to producers and developed consumers has contributed to the outbreak and prolongation of many recent conflicts. Mary Kaldor, Yahia Said, and one of the worlds foremost experts on the topic, Terry Lynn Karl give a superb rundown of the ways they see oil shaping conflict in the introduction to their excellent edited volume “Oil Wars.” In it they describe the multitude of linkages between crude exports and conflict. In their thesis, ‘new oil wars’ have been produced by the calamitous effects of reliance upon oil exports on economy, state institutions and governance; hollowed out petro-states blighted by patrimony and factionalism that descend into civil conflict. They regard Iraq between 2003 and 2009 as paradigmatic of an ‘old oil war’ – military intervention to secure future access and supply to foreign oil fields – and the state collapse of a ‘new oil war’.

British Petroleum, France’s Total Elf Fina and the Dutch Shell turn up in the histories of many civil wars in the post cold war epoch, from Casanare in Colombia to Cabinda in Angola. The risks to personnel, financial investments and reputation are enormous when engaging in active conflict zone, and can only be taken when value of possible rewards are great and range of viable alternatives small.

Yesterday, the suspension on fracking in the UK was lifted. Perhaps the UK is never likely to see an ‘unconventional oil’ bonanza on the scale of the US. However, we must now envisage increasing domestic oil production along with imports from countries such as Canada – with whom we share warm relations– diminishing the strategic importance of areas historically far more troublesome for Britain.

Yesterday also saw the announcement of the £2.2m compensation package awarded to Libyan dissident Sami al-Saadi for the alleged complicity of MI6 agents in the kidnapping of him, his wife and young children from Hong Kong and his subsequent torture by Gaddafi’s security forces in Tripoli. It would appear that this episode was another in the unedifying series that many have linked to Tony Blair’s ‘deals in the desert’ with Libya in 2004 and 2007. The other most notorious being the 2009 return of convicted terrorist Abdelbassett al-Megrahi, one of those responsible for the atrocity at Lockerbie in 1988. The accords on sharing military and security intelligence (though not necessarily prisoner release) between London and Tripoli were not unrelated to a new found willingness of Gaddafi to allow BP back into business in Libya where it had seen all assets appropriated in 1974.

The pressure of the national interest of securing affordable energy supplies – on which the functioning of the economy and all services rely – exerts a heavy force on leaders and shapes developed country’s strategic stance towards the rest of the world. If fracking is really to produce the sort of oil independence that the USA could only have dreamed of just a few short years ago, we must begin to prepare for the possibility of a new superpower isolationism and the manifold effects that may withdrawal bring. An Iran emboldened in the Arabian peninsula and new gatekeeper of the Persian Gulf in China may be the first of the new realities we would need to make sense of, and perhaps begin worrying about.


Photo Credit: Marcellus Protest

Operation Cloud Pillar: Deterrence, Not Ballots

The road to Operation Cloud Pillar was paved not by the ballot box, but by strategic failures of the Israeli government. Rather than present a clever political manipulation of patriotic fervour that is inherent in high-stakes warfare, Netanyahu’s dereliction of deterrence may actually cost him dearly in January’s elections.


Benjamin Netanyahu


Benjamin Netanyahu is something of an enigma. Though every opinion poll published both before and after national elections were called augured his re-election as Israel’s Prime Minister, Netanyahu (or ‘Bibi’- his Israeli moniker), took the political gamble of a lifetime. Following a deluge of rockets on Israel’s southern cities from the Gaza Strip and the breakdown of the Middle-East’s worst kept secret- a truce between Hamas and Israel- Bibi ordered the assassination of Ahmad al-Jabari, the head of Hamas’ military wing.

Naturally, things have since gone from bad to worse. Whilst norms and ‘red lines’ are being re-written daily, perhaps the greatest misconception regarding the conflict is its origins. Just why did Israel’s Prime Minister order the attack?

Because this is the Middle-East, conspiracy theories abound. The current cynic’s claim is that, with elections on the horizon, Bibi sought to monopolize public debate, engendering a patriotic surge and paving the way for his re-election. Indeed, the Israeli Labor’s party prioritisation of a socio-economic agenda has all but disappeared from national discourse. It has also been argued on this website that international factors, such as Palestine’s bid for statehood at the United Nations, precipitated the need for drastic Israeli action.

The problem with this analysis is that it is myopic, favouring baseless speculation over reality. It is true that many Israeli offensives have been closely followed by elections: from Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996 to the last tit-for-tat offensive in late 2008- Operation Cast Lead- and many more, bombs usually pre-empt ballots.

However, starting a war before an election has frequently backfired, literally blowing up in the face of the incumbent government. Following Cast Lead, the ruling Kadima Party lost power, whilst in 1996 then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres undid his rosy showing in the opinion polls by ordering the bombing of Lebanon.

These operations have something else in common: the subsequent elections were both won by then-leader of the opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu. Bibi, for all his many faults is a political mastermind, with scant desire to fall into the traps of his predecessors.

Rocket fire from the Gaza Strip declined sharply after the previous government launched Operation Cast Lead, which was a classic manifestation of Israeli deterrence policy. Strategically, the goal of deterrence is conflict management, rather than resolution; by inferring unacceptable costs on the behaviour of a belligerent, a state successfully projects a deterrence equation, limiting the strategic toolbox of the enemy. In order to ensure that the threat is real, states have to ‘make good’ their promises of unpalatable response; deterrence constantly needs ‘topping up’ if the opposing actor errs into the arena of unacceptable norms.

From its inception, Israel’s response to non-state terrorism based in nearby states has been to simply ignore the terror group and punish the state, forcing it to reign in the hostile actors. For this reason, I’m constantly bemused by so-called ‘Israel advocates’ claiming Israeli responses to terrorist acts are not ‘disproportionate’, because disproportionate response is the foundation of Israeli deterrence equations. The goal is not to ‘bomb your way to peace’, but to coerce nearby states and state-like entities into compliance, so a relative ‘quiet’ takes hold. In layman’s terms, Israel’s message is: ‘If you hurt me, I will hurt you ten times harder, so don’t hurt me’.

Whilst those of us on the left constantly lambast his administration for its right-wing reactionary stances, Netanyahu’s nationalist bombast obscures the truth: Bibi’s administration has rejected Israeli disproportionate deterrence policy. After five Israeli tourists were killed by a suspected Hezbollah bomber in Burgas, Bulgaria, I argued that Israel must learn that ‘excessive restraint begets further bloodshed’. Netanyahu agreed, promising that ‘Israel will respond forcefully to Iranian terror’. However, his bark was bigger than his bite: no tangible Israel response was forthcoming.

The most obvious manifestation of this ‘speak big, do nothing’ approach was on Israel’s southern borders. Under Netanyahu, when rockets were launched from Gaza, the Israeli Air Force targeted the rocket crews, not the governmental apparatus of Hamas. Rather than opt for massive retaliation, forcing Hamas to reign in the rocket crews, Netanyahu’s preference was for dialogue and negotiations, leading to several rounds of ‘truces’ which brought relative quiet.

However, Bibi’s restraint gamble unravelled rapidly. The number of rockets fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip increased substantially in recent weeks, suggesting that Hamas was either unwilling or unable to constrain smaller, more radical fellow travellers. Netanyahu was dragged back down the path of deterrence and disproportionate response, kicking and screaming all the way in the face of Israeli public uproar over perceived government inaction. Here lie the origins of Israel’s latest game-changing assault: ‘Operation Cloud Pillar’.

Four days into the operation, Netanyahu retains a preference for limited ‘surgical’ strikes over the strategic employment of disproportionate force. In the first four hours of Cast Lead, over 100 targets including police stations and bureaucratic offices were hit in Israel’s opening salvo, killing approximately 140 Palestinians. By contrast, the first four days of Cloud Pillar has witnessed around twenty Palestinian deaths.

However, every rocket erodes the legitimacy of surgical restraint. Hamas proved that they too are capable of game-changing tactics: for the first time since 1991, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (where I am fortunate/unfortunate enough to live) were struck by rocket attacks. At the time of writing, the Israeli Defence Forces were subsequently granted permission to call up 75,000 reserve troops and close off the roads surrounding the Gaza Strip.

Thus, the road to Operation Cloud Pillar was paved not by the ballot box, but by strategic failures of the Israeli government, which lead to public uproar. Rather than present a clever political manipulation of patriotic fervour that is inherent in high-stakes warfare, Bibi’s dereliction of deterrence may actually cost him dearly in January’s elections. For those of us on the left, we are once again faced with the stark reality of a region where excessive force delivers quiet, whilst restraint begets clumsy, last-minute regressions to well-trodden strategic norms, of which Operation Cloud Pillar is increasingly looking like another example.


Photo Credit: Abode of Chaos

Good Luck President Obama, You Need It!

Most of Obama’s policies are completely unchanged from those of his predecessor. The War on Terror continues, the drone program has expanded, relations with western Europe remain strong whilst those with Russia remain hostile. But what of the second term?


President Obama looking serious


“The best is still to come” was the soundbite which has resonated from Obama’s victory speech last night. Time will tell if this is the case, but the facts are that the US public has overwhelmingly supported the status quo in this time of economic trouble. The President remains in office, the Democrats keep the Senate and the  Republicans keep the House of Representatives. In that respect nothing has changed. But with no future election to worry about, will Obama’s foreign policy change from the Bush spillover which dominated his first term?

In 2001 George W. Bush faced one of the most dramatic changes in international affairs since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Faced with two falling towers and thousands of dead Bush was faced by a US public desperate for answers, for justice and for vengeance. The result of this was the first term of the War on Terror, 2001 in Afghanistan, 2003 in Iraq. Wars that were supposed to be short interventions to create a change in the Middle East became festering pools of suffering for almost a decade. Tens of thousands died across the Middle East, and by his second term Bush was desperately trying to hold together a mission that was going from bad to worse.

Obama inherited that mission. Bush’s surge in Iraq had already stabilised the country ready for a withdrawal Obama only had to keep on target. However, the ongoing mission to attempt to stabilise the Middle East, destroy the leadership of Al-Qaeda and mend relations damaged by the 2003 invasion of Iraq remained the same.

What Obama faced in taking office was a battle between his lofty ideals and promises and reality. His compromise was pragmatic, driving towards aims slowly and cautiously and making no significant and unbalancing changes to the foreign affairs of the second term of Bush.

What did change was so gradual the world’s population at large barely noticed it. There was a shift from the Middle East to the Pacific with troop deployments in Australia and a new agreement with Japan over Guam and further military cooperation. Although this shift has been slowed by the Arab Spring and the continued fighting in Syria, it is symbolic enough to prompt China’s own challenges for the South and East China Sea. There were significant defense cuts which have placed an emphasis on less of everything, but a greater emphasis on technological and training superiority. Obama has orchestrated a gradual lean to a more impartial role in the Middle East than under Bush, one aided by his faux-pas with Nicholas Sarkozy and the intervention in Libya against a secular dictator on the side of Islamists as well as liberals. More generally there has been a shift away from democratic transition by pressure or force and towards a focus on stability. Transition is now pushed towards supporting stable governments and pushing them towards liberal reform. Again, the Arab Spring was an unexpected reversal of this trend. And, of course, Osama Bin laden is dead.

However, most of Obama’s policies are completely unchanged from those of his predecessor. The War on Terror continues, the drone program has expanded exponentially, relations with western Europe remain strong whilst those with Russia remain hostile. But what of the second term? What of 2012-2016?

Well the answer is: Probably much of the same, but don’t expect the US foreign policy world to look the same in 2016 to 2008. The track of Obama’s presidency has been a gently-gently turn from Bush’s policies to Obama’s, and the US should look very much like Obama’s legacy by the end of the next four years. A turn from the Middle East to East Asia, from military intervention to diplomatic and economic pressure, from antagonism of Muslim states to partnerships based on the national interest of influence.These policies have already proved fruitful and will continue to do so. Japanese support for military bases was prevented from collapse just long enough to actually step up cooperation important to limit China’s expanding Pacific potential. Sanctions in Iran have its economy on the verge of collapse and popular support of Ahmadinejad beginning to turn against him. The intervention in Libya and support for the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions has given Obama political capital there not seen for decades. Despite the Benghazi attacks popular support is actually for the US as militant groups were forced out of Eastern towns across the country by anti-extremist protesters.

That said, just like the Arab Spring revolutions, the 9/11 attacks and the fall of the Soviet Union, sudden and unexpected events can throw the best plans into disarray. How Obama deals with potentially disastrous events could change his foreign policy dramatically.

  • Afghanistan: Withdrawal in 2014, if too soon, could devastate the region and NATO’s influence.
  • Syria: The conflict must be restrained to the country to avoid regional collapse.
  • Iran: Although sanctions are working, should Iran turn to desperate measures or should Israel overplay its hand things could turn very dangerous.
  • Yemen: A potential second Afghanistan/Somalia. Though the risk is smaller should the state collapse, the threat of a new front could give extremists a valuable new refuge.
  • South/East China Seas: The competition between the South-Eastern/Eastern Asian powers over the seas is not a battle the US can involve itself in overtly or risk facing backlash. However it is one which needs to be carefully monitored and one where soft power could be at its most important.
  • West Africa: The continued rise of Bokko Haram, Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQM) and other extremist Islamist groups in this region could be a new front in the most need for intervention but with the least popular support for it. So far the US has only been able to give token support for these states, but as things go from bad to worse in Mali this cannot be expected to be the end of the conflicts.

Congratulations Barack Obama, but I don’t envy you in the four years to come. You will face a hostile House of Representatives and a demanding public. You will face the challenge of keeping North Africa on your side and yet still combat Islamic extremism, of limiting China without antagonising it, of realising your potential without ceasing to be pragmatic. Good luck President Obama, you need it.


Photo Credit: US Army