Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Future Developments in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The basic story of current Israeli-Palestinian relations is, I’m sure, familiar to most of you by now. The Palestinians think Israel isn’t a sincere bargaining partner. In their view, Israel claims to want negotiate a peace deal, but is unwilling to make concessions to get a fair and just deal done. In fact, the only deal Israel is interested in pursuing, the Palestinians believe, is one in which the Abbas government concedes to all of its demands. Meantime, Israel won’t deal with the Palestinians as long as Hamas is a legitimate, legal player in Palestinian politics. This is a problematic stance, because Hamas isn’t going away anytime soon. It won national elections in 2006, and, despite declining approval numbers since then, still counts a sizable contingent of Palestinians as supporters. As a result, because of the beliefs and actions on both sides, we’re left with a political stalemate, just like we’ve had for decades.

This stalemate wouldn’t be an issue if both sides were satisfied with the status quo. But that’s not the case. Yes, Israel is fairly comfortable with the military balance of power as well as the amount of territory under its control. But the Palestinians, on the other hand, seek change (political recognition, territorial compensation, etc.) and are frustrated in their inability to achieve it: violence hasn't produced the desired results and will never do so because of Israel's preponderant military power; and the peace process, the primary mechanism to resolve the conflict, has long been dead. Right now, this sense of frustration is deepening and intensifying as the spirit of the Arab Spring has started to hit home, motivating the Palestinians to strive for what they see as their right to self-determination and freedom.

Going forward, it looks like the Palestinians will take unilateral diplomatic action. According to Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority: "this September, at the United Nations General Assembly, we will request international recognition of the State of Palestine on the 1967 border and that our state be admitted as a full member of the United Nations." The Palestinians will make this diplomatic push so as to acquire the requisite international legitimacy to galvanize support for their goals.

Abbas wants to cultivate the image that Palestine is a peaceful law-abiding nation-state, one that’s willing to work through existing world bodies and play by the rules of the international community. In fact, his UN idea should be viewed as part of a diplomatic and political overhaul that the Palestinians are formally and informally implementing. For example, they are allowing and even encouraging relatively peaceful protests against Israel. And, of course, Fatah and Hamas have settled their differences and agreed to form a unity government of technocrats. Abbas knows this overall approach means more countries will listen to and be sympathetic to what he and the Palestinians have to say. Violence only limited their support around the world and thus hurt their cause. But a new and improved image gives many countries just looking for a reason to ditch Israel a reason to do so.

And Abbas might not stop there. He intends to use recognition by the UN as a springboard for further diplomatic action. In his words, "Palestine’s admission to the United Nations would pave the way for the internationalization of the conflict as a legal matter, not only a political one. It would also pave the way for us to pursue claims against Israel at the United Nations, human rights treaty bodies and the International Court of Justice."

Some of Abbas’s ideas, at least for now, are wishful thinking. In order to gain official recognition from the UN, the Security Council must approve all prospective candidates. And that’s not happening. Based on recent statements from Barack Obama, the U.S. will veto any effort by the Palestinians to reach statehood unilaterally. So statehood, UN membership, and ICJ prosecution, these are just dreams that won’t be fulfilled soon.

But just as important, Abbas will get a strong show of support for the Palestinians in the UN General Assembly, and that can act as a very powerful symbolic gesture with various implications. Let’s look at some of them.

1. Not only is the U.S. against the Palestinians seeking statehood through the UN, Obama has been feverishly trying to line up international support against such action. He hasn’t been very successful so far. Indeed, British Prime Minister David Cameron has threatened to back the Palestinians’ effort at the UN if Israel doesn’t come back to the bargaining table. But even worse for the U.S., if the Palestinians go ahead with their UN plan and do receive widespread support in the UN GA, the decline of American global influence will be clearly visible for all to see. If the U.S. can’t marshal enough support to protect the interests of its best friend, then are there any countries that Washington can defend diplomatically?

2. More international support for the Palestinians will give them leverage in negotiations with Israel. Which is exactly what the Palestinians want. They want to negotiate a deal from a position of strength. Keep in mind that, in the end, despite all the blustering on both sides, this where and how the conflict will be resolved: at the bargaining table, via negotiations, and likely with intensive efforts from a host of international actors.

4. Lastly, given the long history between both sides, it is very easy to be pessimistic about the state of Israel-Palestinian relations. But perhaps the threat of going to the UN might jump start the talks and finally get something done. Maybe Israel will fear the possibility of losing too much bargaining leverage and initiate talks sometime before the fall. It's possible. But unfortunately, so is the likelihood that Israel will feel like it's under siege from the entire international community. If that happens, hardliners in Israel will become even more empowered, Israeli policy positions will become more inflexible, and Israel will pursue its own unilateral measures to enhance its security.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Why is it so difficult to fix the Israeli-Palestinian Problem?

In this post, I am not going to go back to the distant history of Israel, nor will I talk about the origin of modern Israel. In fact, these histories are largely irrelevant, used only to justify the inflexible attitudes of all actors in this drama. Instead, and more importantly in my view, when thinking about resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we need to talk about the constraints facing the leadership in Israel, Palestine, the Arab states, and the United States.

First, let us talk about the Israel-Palestinian relations. Basically, the Israelis don't mind a Palestinian state around them, and polling since Oslo actually shows a growing acceptance of a two-state solution. Trade between Israel and Palestine was increasing after the Oslo agreement, until suicide bombings committed by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad frayed the trust, causing the Israelis to elect the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996. Having been elected under the promise of more security, Netanyahu simply ignored the Palestinians and imposed check points, etc., to improve Israel's security, and in turn caused massive economic hardship among the Palestinians, further poisoning the atmosphere. 

On the Palestinian side, years of oppression and discrimination by the Israelis caused a massive distrust to Israel government. Yasser Arafat's misguided support for Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1991 further worsened the situation, as many Palestinians workers in the Gulf Coast states were expelled, depriving the population of a significant income and increasing the poverty rate. While trade improved after Oslo, massive corruption and economic mismanagement by Arafat and his cronies in the PLO ensured that the economic growth remained low and the wealth gap between the elites of the Palestinian Authority and the rest of the population widened.

At the same time, Arafat faced a major challenge, especially from Hamas, which was seen as more responsible, thanks to their social services, such as free health care. In order to distract people's attention from his economic mismanagement and to prevent the Hamas from taking over the nationalistic banner, Arafat became belligerent and even, according to Mahmoud Zahar, a leader of Hamas, ordered, or most likely agreed with other Palestinian factions, to launch attacks on Israel, including using suicide bombers.

These developments in essence was the cause of the impasse in the negotiations. The Israelis couldn't trust the Palestinians anymore, because to the Israelis, they believed they bent backward to give the Palestinians many things, including even giving up part of their spoils of victory from the 1967 war. The attitude of the Israelis then shifted, as they cared less what the Palestinians did or wanted and ramped up their focus on national security.

A quick look at the composition of Israel's parliament (Knesset) can be pretty illuminating for those who want to understand the Israeli politics. At this point, Benjamin Netanyahu's center-right coalition controls 66 seats, leaving 54 seats for the opposition. Netanyahu's Likud, however, is not the largest party in the parliament. That position belongs to Kadima, a party created by Ariel Sharon before he suffered an incapacitating stroke. Kadima in essence is a "catch-all party," getting its support from conservative members of the left-wing Labor party and liberal members of the conservative Likud party. Kadima's position on the peace process is right in the middle of Labor's idea of a complete unilateral pullout and Likud's consolidation of strategic outposts to ensure Israel's security. 

Netanyahu's coalition is basically based on parties that opposed a unilateral pullout, which also includes parties who want to create a "Greater Israel," or what we would call them, the far right parties. With the coalition controlling 66 out of 120 seats in the parliament, Netanyahu's option to give concession is severely limited. Moreover, his alternatives are limited: there are no other parties that Likud can ally with to withstand defections. This is basically a logrolling coalition, hoping to survive by going to the extreme position to keep everyone on board.

At the same time, Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of Palestine Authority, is also not in the mood to give concessions. The Palestinians population loathes the PA due to its corruption and mismanagement. In fact, Hamas' electoral victory in 2006 was a protest vote, as a rebuke to the PA, not because people loved Hamas. With economy still in doldrums, mostly due to corruption and Israel's blockade on the Palestinians, Abbas can only rely on his nationalistic credentials, which are pretty much nil.

Abbas needs to show to the Palestinians that he has guts, that he is willing to stand for Palestinians' rights against the Israelis. His rapprochement with Hamas is based on this calculation, that he can pressure the Israelis to give the kinds concessions. The problem is that the domestic politics of Israel prevents Netanyahu from giving concessions.

This brings us into the third set of actors, the Arab States. I may be playing with fire here, but frankly, I don't think the Arab states are really concerned about the Palestinians. Had they really cared, they would have offered residency to the refugees, allowing the refugees to improve their economic lot. The problem with such a policy is that the Palestinians don't share any tribal ties with and loyalty to the Arab states. The autocrats would rather share their power with trusted members of their tribes. Moreover, a huge influx of Palestinians would alter each country's demographics, causing both political and economic instability. Therefore their policy is to keep the Palestinians in the refugees' camps, stoking their anger toward the Israelis.

Of course, many Palestinians still have the desire to return to their ancestral land. Such desire, however, is always there, at least in part, because their current condition is so wretched. Had the Palestinians been allowed to work and prosper in other states, I'm not so sure they would demand the rights to return.

Finally, the United States has a very horrid record in reconciling both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt's argument is correct to some degree, that the Israel Lobby in the U.S. is important in shaping American policy toward the region. They, however, are incorrect in specifying what kind of impact the Israel Lobby has. The Lobby's biggest problem is in creating an incentive for every single politician in the U.S. to take a completely pro-Israel position. Instead of the Lobby dictating the US foreign policy, what happens is that the U.S. politicians try to become "more Catholic than the Pope" in trying to solicit campaign funds from Jewish people, groups, and organizations.

Another cause of the US' horrid track record is the ego and (in)attention of the presidents. Bill Clinton's attention to the Israel-Palestinian problem was driven by his desire to get international recognition and a Nobel Peace Prize, causing him to rush negotiations, and this weakness was exploited by Arafat. George W. Bush had the potential to solve this problem, but he was distracted by the Iraq war and by a romantic vision of Israel as the bastion of democracy, making him unwilling to push the Israelis too far. Furthermore, it didn't help that he was distrusted by the Palestinians and the rest of Arab world.

I don't buy the argument that Obama is anti-Israel. I think he simply doesn't care about Israel. For Obama, what's really important is his domestic agenda and his image. He didn't give attention to Israel in his first year because he was preoccupied by the health care debate. Now, he is only involved to fend off the fallout from Mitchell's resignation and to prevent a highly embarrassing vote in the UN General Assembly.

How to cut the Gordian knot that has troubled the region for decades? The Arab Spring actually creates the opportunity to fix the Palestinian problem once and for all. The Arab Spring took out or destabilized the autocrats that rule the Arab states. In fact, this is one of the main reasons why Abbas is pushing the issue of Palestine. So the Arab Spring doesn't hit him, Abbas distracts the population by using Israel again as a pinata.

What the U.S. has to do is engage the youth generation that finds a freedom after this wave of revolution stabilizes. Obama needs to start talking in substance, no longer in poetry. He has to show sufficient leadership to helping Tunisia, Egypt, and other countries in their transition from authoritarian to democratic rule. At the same time, the U.S. must pressure Arab states to increase the economic opportunities for the Palestinians.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Update on Iran

In a very interesting new development, Ahmadinejad is not going to Vienna to preside over the OPEC meeting. Surely, regardless of what the official press release said, this camera-loving president did not cancel the trip based on his own volition. Rather, I'd argue that the trip was blocked by the volatile conditions in Iran.

Ahmadinejad's recent sacking of the Ministers of Petroleum, Social Welfare, and Industrial and Mining was done as a response to parliament's demands to streamline the Iranian cabinet. Keep in mind parliament has the right to discuss which ministry to downsize and then vet prospective members of the new cabinet. And Khamenei's faction within parliament saw this "streamlining" as a way to impose control over Ahmadinejad's cabinet. Ahmadinejad thus attempted to bypass the parliament integrating these three cabinets under his direct leadership, in essence taking out the ability of Khamenei's cliques to impose people who they want on three most useful ministries in the next election. Not surprisingly, the parliament cried foul and the spat is still ongoing today.

In the light of Ahmadinejad's attempt to raise the stakes and prevent the meddling of Khamenei's cliques on his cabinet, Ahmadinejad's decision to forgo his usual ego-boosting trip is understandable. He might have lost control over his cabinet had the Iranian parliament, supported by Khamenei's blessings, decided to use his absence to impose changes on Iran's cabinet. At the same time, Khamenei might have raised the stakes further had he believed that the purpose of Ahmadinejad's trip was to increase his profile.

Reactions to Obama's ME Speech

Our own Dina El-Gebaly, a CWCP Fellow, has conducted three interviews to give us a better idea of what Egyptians thought of Obama's ME speech from last week. 

(1) A reaction to Obama’s speech by Mr. Alsherif Wahdan. He is a civil engineer / project manager and also a fund manager in private equity and real estate funds.

DEG: Were you aware that Obama was giving a speech yesterday?
AW: Yes, I was.

DEG: Was Obama’s speech was necessary?
AW: Yes, I think it was a good idea. Egypt needs international and U.S. support economically and politically.

DEG: What did you think of Obama's speech?
AW: I think it was good. I do not know how the U.S. plans to implement an entrepreneurial program in Egypt and Tunisia, but I am all ears and eyes!

(2) A reaction by Mr. Mohamed Moussa. He works as business development and marketing director in a multinational, working in the field of environment.

DEG: Were you aware that Obama was giving a speech yesterday?
MM: I was aware he was going to give a speech, I listened to it.

DEG: Was Obama’s speech was necessary?
MM: The speech was very important and I think it was necessary.

DEG: What did you think of Obama's speech?
MM: The speech wanted to express that the United States is loyal to its values, and that it supports democracy and freedom, which is very important and essential at this stage. Besides, it's very good to remind all parties that the United States is still committed to solve the Arab Israeli conflict.

(3) A reaction by my friend Tamer Badereldin, Chairman & CEO of a publicly traded company, as well as co-founder and Chairman of the Entrepreneurs Business Forum (EBF); the first local NGO to focus solely on the promotion of Entrepreneurship in Egypt.

DEG: What did you think of Obama's speech?
TB: It wasn't necessary for us, but I think that it was aimed to reengage the different stake holders in the Middle East, as well as reassure Israel of U.S. support. (elections are coming up after all). I believe that the United States found itself possibly out of the game after years of using the Mubarak (and other Arab regimes) to legitimize its role as peace broker. The Arab regimes accepted the status quo and acted out of a stance of weakness. Now the Arab people are saying enough!! The leaders are gone, and Israeli acceptance in the region depends on the Israelis appeasing Arab popular opinion. As the Arab Spring grows, and the Arab populations are free to seek their own destiny, it is clear that a new player has joined the game, and I believe that Obama was trying to engage that new player by [making] some promises as well as defining the rules of the game in hopes that the Arab people will engage the United States as the 'middle East peace broker' and not seek a solution outside the United States' scope.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Reaction to Obama's Speech

Brad made a quick and interesting analysis on Obama's speech on Middle East and I concur with many of his points. There are some things that I want to add, though.

First, let us talk about Israel. I think that's a stupid topic to bring in. It is true that Obama had to do or say something in light of George Mitchell's resignation as U.S. envoy and the arrival of Bibi in Washington. Still, it was horrible timing. Like Brad mentioned, it was before Bibi's speech in Congress, but I would go further by saying that it was tacky.

By arguing about the need to go from the 1967 lines, Obama put Bibi on the spot, likely causing him to be defensive. It is true that Israel shares the blame for the collapse of the peace talks. On the other hand, it is not a good idea to publicly force an agenda on a guest, especially a leader of a close ally.  The U.S. should not do that to a guest, unless the visit is specifically to address those issues. Instead, Washington should use this visit as a opportunity to talk, to understand more about Israel's viewpoints, and then try to reach an agreement. Why try to impose its own terms on Netanyahu?

Second, Obama seems not to understand that the Jasmine Revolution is not about Israel. The revolution happened because people were tired of old gerontocrats who were completely out of touch from the rest of population. He scored some points earlier in the speech by skewering Iran and Syria, though people would obviously ask why he did not mention Bahrain and Saudi Arabia at all.

Talking about Israel distracted the entire speech. The take home point is not whether the U.S. supports the Jasmine Revolution, but the talking heads will all mention the Israeli-Palestinian problem, which exactly what happened. The Egyptians think that for Obama, they are just chopped liver, an introduction to the main show, which is about showcasing Obama's desire to get a second Nobel Peace Prize as the Messiah of the Israel-Palestinian peace effort.

Obama would have done better by briefly mentioning that he hoped recent developments in the Middle East would also bring a positive impact on Israeli-Palestinian problem, then change the subject, and move into what the U.S. would do to foster the developments in the Middle East, aside from throwing general scraps as usual, such as debt forgiveness. Debt forgiveness never works if the politicians remain idiotic and keep fattening their wallets while at the same time refusing to engage in a painful reform to make their economy more efficient.  Does anyone remember moral hazard?

If Obama hopes that his speech will rescue his moribund popularity in the Middle East, then he is in for a rude awakening. He had messed up greatly from the beginning of the revolution. He alienated publics for not doing anything to support them in the early days of revolution. Then after the dictators were toppled, the US still does nothing in concrete to assist them. Just watch Al Jazeera to see how the U.S. is completely in a world far away from the problems on the Arab street. People on Arab streets see how the U.S. seems to be gung-ho to bomb Qaddafi to kingdom come to ensure that precious oil keeps flowing from Libyan refineries, while at the same time, America fails to realize that there's a massacre in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain!

He also alienated the autocrats for throwing Mubarak under the bus.

At the same time, he angers the Israelis, as Obama seems to be more interested in getting fawning receptions in Cairo, Benghazi, and other places. The Israelis will believe that the easiest thing for Obama to do so was to simply portray Israel as the irresponsible ones. In a year or two, there still will not be any progress on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, because the Israelis don't think Obama is a honest broker. The Palestinians will keep stonewalling because they believe that Obama will do everything to get Israel to make concessions. What a great plan to keep them engaged! When the peace talks continues to stall and the revolution fails to fix people's lives, everyone will be back at the Israeli pinata anyway.

To sum it up, Obama's speech completely missed the mark. Instead of showcasing America's desire to see the Jasmine Revolution be successful, the speech will be remembered as Obama's attempt to force Bibi Netanyahu to bow to his wishes.

It's no wonder that when the Fox Network contacted Mark Regev, Netanyahu's spokesman, he "sounded as though he had been slapped in the face."

There's Something About Iran

A funny thing happened on Iran's way to regional dominance. Instead of being able to manipulate regional turmoil, Iran now seems to be rudderless, pulled into an internal dispute of its own between the mercurial President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei (the link goes to a Taiwanese animation explaining the dispute in a simple way while at the same time lampooning the parties in this dispute).

It is easy to blame Ahmadinejad as the one starting the current conflict. His insistence on installing his cronies to the cabinet while at the same time trying to get rid of Khamenei's lackey from the very important position of the minister of intelligence triggered Iran's current leadership crisis. Still, this does not explain everything - the problem lies on the structure of the Iranian leadership itself.

So what happened?

Well, for one, there's a leadership succession crisis going on. Similar to China, Iran developed a very distinct way to ensure that it does not have an all-powerful executive that will overthrow the ruling clique and dominate the system: a term limit for the presidency, a Supreme Leader who retains the last word in several key important ministries, and a "Guardian Council" (council of clerics) who vet candidates and laws lest they threatens the ruling elite.
Even though in theory such system creates a stable theocracy, in practice this does not always work, as the president (or any head of government) has the ability to control the bully pulpit and he will gain all the benefits from any popular economic policies. Thus, in the previous flawed election, Ahmadinejad was still able to rely on the support from the rural poor who had benefited from his populist economic policies.

Still, based on the violent reactions of the conservative leadership to the election, it is not too far-fetched to argue that the reformists did win the election. Real winners won't terrorize their opponents, they will simply let the electoral results speak for themselves, as dictators and autocrats have a very interesting habit of showing off how much people love them.

The Green Movement complicated the picture as the movement was comprised of not only the secular protesters, but also reformist clerics, signalling that there was a split within Iranian religious leadership. It was not surprising that the response was vehement on the street. People not only felt robbed of their votes, but they also saw some openings since the clerics were split on this issue. Mousavi was not a lightweight: he used to be Ayatollah Khomeini's premier during Iraq-Iran war and he also backed by Mehdi Karroubi, Mohammad Khatami, and Rafsanjani, three of the most powerful reformist clerics. As a result, people were emboldened, since their revolt would not be able to be construed as an attack on the theocracy - the clerics were important actors in the demonstration!

Not surprisingly, Khamenei threw his support behind Ahmadinejad, even though as early as 2006, there were signs that Khamenei had become wary of Ahmadinejad due to the latter's ambition. It was a marriage of convenience, Ahmadinejad needed to have the conservative elite united to back him in order to prevent further erosion in clerical support, while Khamenei needed Ahmadinejad's backings to solidify his position within the clerical caste by getting rid of the reformists once and for all.

After the Green Movement was decimated and its leaders arrested, both Ahmadinejad and Khamenei then went back to their squabbles. Ahmadinejad is not content with being a two-term president, he wants to keep dominating the Iranian politics while Khamenei wants to limit Ahmadinejad's influence as he fears that the Theocracy can easily be controlled by the office of the president should the president get the opportunity to do so.

The Jasmine Revolution that struck the Middle East gave Iran mixed blessings. On one hand, it allows Iran to expand its influence, since now many of its external enemies are preoccupied with domestic problems. On the other hand, though, it shows something unsettling, that people are not dependent on religious leadership to get rid of their bad secular rulers. In fact, the take home lesson from the Jasmine Revolution is that as long as leaders keep a state's means of violence in their pocket, chances are slim that the government will be overthrown.

Not surprisingly, Ahmadinejad was trying to consolidate his power at the Revolutionary Guard and the Ministry of Intelligence. Iran's Revolutionary Guards are not a united political entity. Theoretically, they reported to the Supreme Leader Khamenei, but in reality through Abadgaran, their political arm, they also have influence in Iranian politics. Ahmadinejad himself is a member of Abadgaran and at the same time a head of Basij, the Guard's militia units, and thus he does have some independent bases of support apart from Khamenei. Even though the Revolutionary Guard's official newspaper launched a criticism on Ahmadinejad not too long ago, such criticism should not be seen as a reflection of the Revolutionary Guard's policy.

On the other hand, Khamenei still commands the loyalty of some people in the Guard and he also can rely on the clerical faction, which stands to lose the most should Ahmadinejad be successful in extending his political influence. Khamenei himself is skilfully using the clerical faction, notably through the important Friday sermons. Still, in the long run, Khamenei's influence will diminish as the clerical group remains divided, Ahmadinejad remains ambitious, and people grow tired of what they see as a country completely dominated by an out-of-touch religious leadership and that undermines the legitimacy of theocracy itself.

Therefore, for Iran's leadership, current squabbles between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei is far more important than the Jasmine Revolution. This squabble may set the fate of the Theocracy itself.

Rapid Reaction to Obama’s ME Speech

Yesterday, Barack Obama gave a much-hyped speech on current events in the Middle East. Here is a quick reaction to it.

I thought his offering of debt relief, trade, and economic assistance to Egypt and Tunisia was important. Economic stability, and preferably economic progress, must accompany any political reform. In particular, it is essential the economies in both countries are strong enough to give people hope in the reform processes, confidence in the state, and reduce the likelihood of people turning to extremism and radicalism out of sheer desperation. I also thought Obama made a brief but nice case for women’s rights. It was nice to hear Obama acknowledge that the Internet, social media, bloggers, and civil society play vital roles in 21st century world politics.

Otherwise, unfortunately, with his heavy emphasis on banalities like freedom and self-determination, Obama’s speech seemed like a warmed-over presentation largely derived from George W. Bush’s 2005 inaugural speech. The main differences between the Obama and Bush speech are that (1) Obama situated his conversation in the specific context of today’s Middle East and (2) he made a greater effort to highlight the non-military ways the U.S. can support and encourage the proliferation and democracy.

Additionally, I question the timing of his speech. First, as many in the region have pointed out, including our own Dina El-Gebaly, Obama gave his speech on the equivalent of a Friday in the U.S. Here in the States, public speeches and statements are usually given on Fridays in order to hide or bury the content. For on Fridays, people are busy and preoccupied with personal business: making plans for the weekend, traveling, visiting friends and family, and so on. News consumption, so goes the conventional wisdom, is not high on Fridays. This principle similarly applies to the Middle East. But there, the weekend starts on Friday, which means that Thursdays–the day Obama delivered his speech–are not an especially good time to dispense important information. Obama likely did not reach as many people as he could have had he given his speech a different day.

Second, why give this speech before Netanyahu’s address to Congress? Quite frankly, by going first, Obama’s speech, in the end, will probably be overshadowed by Bibi’s. The media will shift their attention to what Netanyahu has to say. And if there are sharp policy differences in the two speeches, the media will fixate on current and future U.S.-Israeli relations.

I also wonder which audience Obama intended to target with this speech. If he sought to target peoples in the Middle East, then he probably did not move them very much. From an American perspective, with a consideration and appreciation of its national interests, it makes sense that the U.S. pressures some countries (say, Iran) for reform more than others (like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Pakistan). For overseas observers in the Middle East, this does not make sense at all. Instead, it renders America’s appeals to freedom seem hollow and makes Washington seem hypocritical. To these people, Obama’s speech did not resolve this problem. He put little pressure on Bahrain, failed to mention Saudi Arabia at all, and did not insist on Assad leaving power in Syria. And just as important to most people in the region, he put little pressure on Israel to come to the bargaining table with the Palestinians.

It is unlikely Obama aimed to speak to the region’s autocrats. Because he spoke so little about them, and because he did not offer any sticks or carrots to change their behavior, the speech remarkably treated the autocrats as an afterthought. Obama essentially left the rogues gallery alone.

With its long review of events of the last few months, perhaps as an effort inform an audience, it seems as if the speech might have been directed at Americans. After all, people in the Middle East do not need the history lesson; they were there for it all! Some were witnesses and some were direct participants. Ultimately, maybe the real reason the speech was given was to reassure wary Americans that the White House is on top of the situation and that the U.S. still matters in a changing Middle East.

So what did you guys think of Obama’s speech? Thumbs up? Thumbs down?

I am particularly interested to hear what our Egyptian followers thought of it. I followed Twitter throughout the day and read comments from dozens of Egyptian bloggers, political activists, and political enthusiasts. Some claimed that many Egyptians were unaware Obama was giving a speech on the Middle East. And those who knew about it reportedly were uninterested in what Obama had to say. The political activist Gigi Ibrahim called his speech "useless." Furthermore, many Egyptians seemed angry at Obama, which I was surprised to hear. Do you think these views are representative of Egyptians? Let us know.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Israel and the Uprisings

There has been much talk in the U.S. about how the Obama administration needs to do a better job getting out in front of the democracy movements in the Middle East by formulating a coherent strategy. Sunday’s violence in the Middle East shows us that these sentiments apply to an even greater extent to Israel. After all, Israel is directly impacted by the uprisings. Look at a map. The geopolitics of Israel’s neighborhood are shifting right under Israel’s feet. Its neighbors are presently undergoing regime change (Egypt) or experiencing political unrest (Syria, and to lesser extent Lebanon). All of which only places additional pressures and insecurities on Israel. Let us briefly focus on Egypt and Syria.

Israel will no longer have the same cozy political and economic relationship with Egypt. Let us not forget that Hosni Mubarak was despised in part because of the perception that he constantly kowtowed to Israel’s (and by extension Washington’s) interests, thereby making Egypt a passive and weak player in the region. A more democratic and politically engaged Egypt will likely be increasingly assertive on foreign policy issues. In fact, the revolutionaries, government leaders, and political factions have stated that they would like to see Egypt recapture its traditional position of leadership within the region. While most actors in Egypt claim that they will respect the peace treaty, there is widespread consensus on maintaining a much more independent position vis-a-vis Israel.

Already, Egyptian officials helped to seal a reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah, and they are now working both sides to implement it. Moreover, Egyptian citizens have been very vocal in expressing their pro-Palestinian views. Even during the revolution, the crowd in Tahrir was not shy about voicing their thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And over the weekend, in a show of support for the Palestinians, who were commemorating the so-called Nakba Day (essentially, a day of sadness for Israel’s independence, the plight of Palestinians), hundreds of Egyptians attempted to close in on the Rafah border crossing, but were stopped by the military. And there have been several protests at the Israeli embassy in Cairo, including one on Sunday that triggered a violent crackdown. Lastly, news about lower than market gas deals under Mubarak to Israel has surfaced. Egyptian officials have promised to review these deals and possibly request Israel to pay a higher price. As expected, Israel is already finding these changes both frustrating and annoying.

Syria is a different story, with its own set of complexities. On the one hand, it appears obvious that President Bashar al-Assad took advantage of the weekend’s mood in the region to deflect the attention away from his own internal rebellion. He authorized and likely instigated the movement of pro-Palestinian groups to the border with Israel, knowing full well that a confrontation and trouble would occur and that those things would dominate the headlines. And that precisely is what happened. In the meantime, unfortunately, Assad gained a free hand, out of the world's eye, to ramp up his systematic attempts to hound, intimidate, arrest, imprison, torture, and even kill Syrian citizens who dared to call for a better government.

And keep in mind, and this goes for all the region’s dictators, defending the Palestinians (and criticizing Israel) is generally good domestic politics. It is the one major issue that Middle Eastern governments can consistently count on to generate and sustain public support. And so by using violence against people gathered at the border, even if they were troublemakers with malign intentions, Israel plays right into Assad’s hands. He can now easily and effectively pull out the Palestine/Israel card as a means to bolster his somewhat shaky position in power.

On the other hand, and this at first might sound very strange, Israel does not want Assad to leave power. The strongest pro-Syria advocate in the U.S. is Israel, which wants Washington to continue with its policy of engagement. Why? Although Israel and Syria are not on good terms, there has not been a direct, hot war between both countries for decades. Fearing the worst once Assad is gone, Israel believes, Syria will be even much more openly hostile toward it. And escalating tensions raises all sorts of national security risks and dangers.

As should be obvious, a complete set of recommendations is beyond the scope of this blog post. But I do have three points that Israel should consider.

1. Israel should not maintain support the old regional status quo. To the Arabs, this means that Israel is in favor of authoritarianism, police states, repression, torture, and so on, in their countries. This is not the side to join. Israel should fully embrace and encourage freedom in the region, for several reasons.

One, it is the right thing to do.

Two, why would Israelis want to give the Palestinians another reason to stir up anger and resentment against them?

Three, the idea that a more democratic Egypt or Syria makes for a more dangerous environment for Israel is pretty suspect. A democratizing Egypt will make life more difficult for Israel, but that is probably it. There are too many moderating forces to prevent Egypt from lurching in a radicalized direction, one of which includes the enormous aid package from the U.S. And as for Syria, really, the relationship cannot get much worse. The truth is that Syria poses an indirect existential threat to Israel. Syria, along with Iran, provides significant support to Hamas and Hezbollah, two groups that have been in direct military conflict with Israel for years. It strains credulity to think that a democratic Syria will threaten, harass, and inflict more damage on Israel than it already does.

2. There is quite a bit of chatter among bloggers that pro-Palestinian groups will likely import many of the successful tactics employed by the revolutionaries in Egypt and Tunisia. In particular, as a way of effecting policy changes in the Netanyahu government, we might see the rise of large-scale peaceful protests on Israel’s doorstep. If this is true, Israel will need to figure out a way to protect its interests while dealing civilly with the protesters. In such cases, using force only inflames and agitates the Palestinians, exacerbates the conflict, and puts Israel in a morally indefensible position.

Furthermore, Israel must revise how it deals with aggressors armed only with rocks and sticks, which is what its military faced on Sunday. Clearly, Israel can handle these situations without resorting to force. And using force in these cases is a disproportionate response. It probably violates international law, puts Israel in a morally untenable position, and in the end reinforces the existing perception in the region that its leaders are trigger-happy and vengeful. Is this the image that liberal, democratic Israel wants to project to the rest of the world?

3. Since Israel defines Hamas as a terrorist organization, it is understandable that Israel does not want to make any deals with a unity government filled with Hamas members or sympathizers. And it is Israel’s sovereign right to make that decision. But Israel will have to be prepared for the consequences. And here, I am not just referring to the usual round of violence, protests, and heated rhetoric that accompanies the longstanding conflict. Rather, if substantial progress toward political agreement is not made soon, the Palestinians plan to press the issue at the United Nations this fall. Specifically, what they want, and are likely to get, is worldwide recognition of statehood. Should this happen, how will Israel respond?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Egypt's Transition to Democracy: The Prognosis

My last post on Egypt listed and described the major political players. Here, in part II, I explore the probable relations among these actors, as well as the kind of politics that will likely emerge as a result of these interactions.
At least at this point, it seems safe to say that the Islamists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), will be the main power brokers in the legislature. Compared to other groups in Egypt, the MB has strong advantages in political skill, savvy, and organizational infrastructure. Right now, it is the faction best positioned to attract and mobilize its supporters at election time.  There is a temptation to automatically assume MB members in the legislature will join together with the Salafis to produce an Islamic bloc. But I suspect the MB—after waiting so long to play a meaningful role in Egyptian politics—will make decisions that are more grounded in pragmatism than in some sort of religious unity, which leaves the prospect of such a bloc questionable at best. It is very possible that the MB will find other partners that offer greater political benefits to a coalition. And besides, keep in mind, because of religious differences, there are many members of the MB who hold unfavorable views of the Salafis.
Where does the military fit? Let us assume that Egypt continues in a democratic direction. In this case, consistent with new democratic rules and laws, the military will have to cede formal political power to elected bodies (president, legislature). That said, at a minimum, the military will still wield informal political power, likely by overseeing government functions and processes behind the scenes. It has way too many political and commercial interests to back out of politics completely. Additionally, I do not doubt that there is some mixture of tradition and entitlement involved as well. After all, although the military has not formally been in power for decades, military men have been in charge and they have made sure that the military as an institution reaped all kinds of perks. And over time, from one president to the next, the military has only expanded its tentacles into more parts of the state apparatus. Thus, the military likely expects to be heavily involved in the state, and will seek to do so, if for no other reason than that is how business has been conducted for the past 60 years.  
The MB clearly recognizes the looming presence of the military. For instance, over the last few months, MB members have slavishly supported almost every move by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). There has been speculation that the MB and military have formed a tacit, if not explicit, agreement to forge a political alliance, though both sides have dismissed such talk. What we do know is that the MB will need the military much more than the military will need the MB. The MB knows full well that it will need the approval and backing of the military to be successful. Arguably, without the support of the military, even if it won free and fair national elections, the MB would be seen as illegitimate and unfit to govern. The military, by contrast, as a powerful and immensely popular institution, can, and will if necessary, protect its interests on its own.
Lastly, please note that there are many details on Egypt’s new democratic politics that need to be figured out. Most importantly, we still do not know if Egypt will opt for a presidential or parliamentary system. Some have argued in favor of a presidential system, at least for the next several years, to ensure there is a strong actor guiding Egypt’s transition. Others, however, fear that a presidential system, with considerable power vested in the executive branch, will inevitably lead back autocratic rule. The MB, on the other hand, knowing that it is in a good position to dominate the legislature, supports a parliamentary system.
Future Politics
Overall, I am optimistic about politics in Egypt. Why? The presence and role of dual forces—the military and the revolutionaries—will keep the extremists in check and help to steer the transition in the right direction. First, I believe the military can be a very productive player in Egyptian politics. Certainly, there are reasons to doubt the military. It had a checkered role in the revolution. Last month it employed rough and tough tactics against demonstrators in Tahrir Square. Moreover, many Egyptians have complained that the military failed to stop the recent violence and bloodshed between Muslims and Christians. And given its commercial interests and the other benefits it received from the old regime, we have to question if it really does support substantive political reform.
But to fully understand the military and its role in Egypt moving forward, we have to move away from the small details of specific events and get into the big picture analysis of how it operates. That is, we must figure out its motives. This is how we will best get a feel for how the military will act and behave in the future. In short, the military is a self-interested actor. This sounds damning, but it is not. By pursuing its own desired interests, the military will act in way that is mostly good for Egypt. Let us look at two factors that underpin this logic.
Two, the military values its image and standing among Egyptians. The military is very mindful of how it and its actions are perceived. Despite some disconcerting actions taken by the military over the last few months, there is no evidence that any of that was instigated by senior military officials. And immediately after each incident, the military has profusely apologized and announced investigations to figure out what precisely happened. These are good steps, as is the military’s push for unity during these uncertain and turbulent times. In general, the military sees itself, and in turn is widely seen as, the vanguard of the nation, the main defender against internal and external threats. This is a role the military relishes, as it gives it legitimacy and political power, putting it at the apex of the Egyptian state. The military is not inclined to jeopardize such an exalted position. With this in mind, going forward, we will likely see the military supporting most of the public’s preferred policies and political goals and objectives.
The other actor that triggers my optimism, of course, is the bloc of pro-democracy reformers, demonstrators, and revolutionaries. This group consists of educated, informed, and politically moderate Egyptian citizens. They are activated, energized, and highly motivated. After the ouster of Mubarak, the revolutionaries have kept the pressure on authorities; they have not rested on their laurels. They have continued to hold protests, convened meetings and conferences, and begun to outline plans for Egypt’s political future. This is the kind of revolutionary spirit that will be necessary to check unbalanced power in the government, hold officials accountable, and stymie the rise of radical and fringe elements in Egyptian society. Yes, they will need to overcome the obstacles inherent in organizing new political groups and parties. But already, leaders have started to emerge, people are starting to coalesce around democratic ideas and institutions, and the stirring of progress is underway.
Things to Keep an Eye On
1.  The Military: There are a number of worst-case scenarios we can hypothesize about. Just offhand I can think of two situations—the rise of extremists to power, and empowered groups that infringe on the military’s interests–that could provoke a nasty, perhaps brutal, response from the military. A full description and explanation of both situations in beyond the scope of this blog post. It is sufficient to say both are possible. But for now, my main concern is that the military will try to take advantage of its position in Egypt by bending various rules and institutions to serve its interests. In particular, such actions could lead to rampant corruption, a rise in income inequality, an erosion of transparency, and ineffective and weak institutions, among other things. And if enough damage is done to the political system, even if done unintentionally, the country’s transition to democracy could be stillborn, leaving Egypt to linger in a proto-democratic state for years.
2. As stated in part I, it will be important to note salient trends in public opinion, especially views on political parties, candidates, and ideas. Simply put, the people matter again in Egyptian politics, and we have to take into consideration what they think and believe. It seems obvious that Egyptians would want a seamless move toward political and economic reform, but real world events and crises can shift their attitudes. For example, if the security vacuum continues in various Egyptian cities and towns, leaving crime and violence at unacceptable levels, will Egyptians still support democratic reform? Or will they go the way of Russia in the 1990s? Remember, Russians saw a clear distinction between law and order on one hand and democracy and liberalization on the other, and eventually sided with more security and less freedom.
3. How will the NNP do at the ballot box? It could exceed expectations by doing well in rural areas, which is where the old NDP strongholds are and where Mubarak is still held in high regard.
4. Sectarian feuds and violence: The recent violent street battles between Muslims and Christians has caused quite a bit of concern and alarm, rightfully so, and led Egyptians to search for reasons for these occurrences. Sectarian hatreds have been ruled out. Instead, most point to simple thugs and religious fanatics or counterrevolutionaries as the main culprits. The first group needs little explanation. Regarding the counterrevolutionaries, they are seen as agitators who are aiming to stir up enough chaos and instability to trigger a backlash against the reform movement in general and the revolutionaries in particular who created the current conditions in Egypt.
If we take a step back, we realize these events are not surprising. Egypt is now a democratizing country that just overthrew the old order. This means a host of rules, norms, and institutions are new and weak or yet to be established. It literally is a period of transition for all parts of the state, with many state institutions, including the security apparatus, not functioning optimally nor working in an efficiently coordinated manner with other parts of the state. As a result, it is the perfect environment for criminals, gangs, and hoodlums to wreak havoc. It is also ripe times for demagogic political or religious leaders to sew trouble. Furthermore, we should expect power-hungry members from the old guard to attempt to claw their way back into leadership positions, using whatever means necessary.
Undoubtedly, there will be hiccups along Egypt’s path to democracy. The key is to detect problems immediately and deal with them directly before they spiral out of control. I think that is what is happening now.  There have been widespread calls for unity and an end to sectarian strife. Many Muslims have publicly defended Christians. There is now an ongoing and much-needed debate on minority rights and religious equality. The military has claimed it will quickly handle sectarian violence. All of this is a good sign of a country coalescing rather than breaking apart.
5. After years of repression and abuse of power, it is understandable that Egyptians want Mubarak, his sons and wife, and many of his cronies to be punished for their crimes. They ought to be held accountable for their actions. It is part of what it means to be a law-based society. Additionally, such moves represent a symbolic dismantling of the old corrupt and ruthless authoritarian regime. Yet the revolutionaries, governing elites, and the military should resist the urge to exact revenge against the old guard, especially former NDP officials. Witch-hunts will do nothing but cause unnecessary internal divisions, bad blood, and other negative consequences. As a cautionary note, just think back to the decisions made by Iraq's leaders after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The Sunni Ba'athist party was disbanded and its officials were purged from Iraqi politics. Meantime, ordinary Sunni Iraqi citizens were effectively publicly demonized and pushed to the margins of society. The result? Sunni Iraqis felt politically targeted and physically threatened, which only radicalized them: some formed ties with al-Qaeda and took up arms against the Iraqi state. As we can see, the stakes on this issue are high. Let us see how Egypt's leaders proceed.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Al-Qaeda and bin Laden

We can safely say 2011 has not been good for al-Qaeda (AQ). First, AQ witnessed the people-power movements throughout the Middle East, which have damaged the organization’s credibility and relevancy on a number of levels. Let us look at some examples. These pro-democracy uprisings showed that Muslims prefer to live in freedom rather than in a harshly repressive politico-religious straightjacket. Egypt and Tunisia debunked the AQ-propagated myth that political change can only occur through violence. Moreover, the uprisings are the biggest series of events in the region in decades, yet AQ was only an observer, a bystander.  It contributed nothing to the ouster of Mubarak and Ben Ali. Even worse, the leaders of AQ did not foresee the uprisings nor were they prepared to address them. The best AQ could offer has been a few dated, rambling and incoherent statements that appeared to be composed before the fall of Mubarak.

And now, with the fall of bin Laden, AQ has suffered another major blow.  Sure, as Yohanes has correctly pointed out, bin Laden has farmed out an increasing number of roles and responsibilities to subordinates over the last few years, which suggests that he probably was not in charge of AQ’s daily political, financial, and tactical plans at the time of his death. This observation should not lead us to underestimate the meaning of bin Laden to AQ. He is irreplaceable. Bin Laden had the skill and charisma to recruit people into the organization and inspire his followers into committing violence and destruction.  Plus, under bin Laden, AQ popularized suicide terrorism, which is the ultimate form of loyalty and sacrifice to the organization and to Osama himself.  Additionally, I question whether any potential replacement to bin Laden possesses his ambition and his ability to think strategically. These characteristics are not easy to find in people.      
The death of bin Laden leaves AQ a demoralized, insecure organization. Certainly, if only for symbolic reasons, it is tough for a group to lose its founder and leader. But its members—no matter how high or low in AQ’s hierarchy—now know with certainty that they are not safe or free from the long arm of America’s military forces.  As long as bin Laden was alive and on the run, AQ members could delude themselves into thinking that their crimes were free from punishment. Bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. special forces punctures that idea.  And the so-called “treasure trove” of intelligence gathered at the scene of the firefight only places the lives of more and more AQ members, including Ayman al-Zawahiri (AQ’s no. 2 man and likely successor to bin Laden), in extreme peril.
But even before this calendar year, trends were not working in AQ’s favor.  On the one hand, AQ badly miscalculated America’s response to 9/11. According to terrorism expert Peter Bergen (one of only a few Westerners to interview bin Laden on multiple occasions), bin Laden viewed the U.S. response to the embassy bombings in 1998, which consisted of the Clinton administration lobbing a few missiles in Sudan, as a likely sign of how American would respond to the 9/11 attacks. In short, he anticipated a weak and half-hearted response from the U.S. Instead, what he and AQ got were sweeping anti-terror measures that included a massive military occupation of two countries, enhanced intelligence gathering mechanisms, widespread freezing of AQ assets, and greater diplomatic efforts to bring other countries into the fight against terrorism.  
On the other hand, AQ badly overreacted to America’s military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. By ordering indiscriminate and lethal bombings in both countries, AQ killed not only innocent Westerners but also innocent Muslims. As a result, it began to be awfully difficult for AQ to situate itself as the vanguard of Muslims worldwide. More and more Muslims saw AQ for what it was: a violent and self-interested group of Islamic fanatics. Over the course of about seven years, from 9/11 to 2008, Muslim support and approval for AQ significantly declined in almost every Muslim country.  AQ could no longer claim to speak and act for Muslims. Indeed, AQ became a pariah in Muslim countries.
So where does all of this leave AQ? I do not think AQ will be out of business anytime soon. There are still enough motivated jihadis in its ranks to cause way too much death and destruction. And besides, there are a host of things that AQ superiors, like al-Zawahiri, might decide to do to keep AQ alive and well. For example, from a purely self-preservation perspective, it would be smart for AQ to temper the violence and form a political wing, which just might give the organization a chance to become a part of national politics in the Middle East—much like Hamas and Hezbollah have done over the last decade. This strategy could enable AQ to rebrand itself and provide an avenue for AQ to entrench its roots in societies in ways it never did before. Hence, I think it is a bit premature to proclaim the death of AQ, as many foreign policy pundits are now doing. 
But AQ is no longer the organization it was in 2001. Its power, potency, relevancy, and credibility have all been severely harmed. And by now, AQ is not even the most dangerous and threatening terrorist organization. That designation likely belongs to Hezbollah, a group that has a noxious combination of thousands of militants, more than enough weapons, political clout in Lebanon, and financial and military backing from troublemakers in Iran and Syria.  Hassan Nasrallah, have magnified their power over time. Going forward, let us see if AQ has the skill or capacity to apply this principle to its own conditions.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Ding dong, Osama is Dead. Now what?

The death of Osama bin Laden today is a welcomed breath of fresh air in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theatre for the U.S. in general and the Obama Administration specifically. Osama’s death vindicates America’s sacrifice of time, resources, and effort in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It also provides the Obama administration a huge political boost after being hammered left and right on the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, the administration’s ineffectiveness in the Middle East, high oil price, and various other domestic and international headaches.

The biggest temptation for the Obama administration, which it has to avoid, is to gloat and hang the “mission accomplished” banner. While we cannot underestimate the impact of Osama’s death on global terrorism and al-Qaeda in particular, it is also dangerous to overestimate the impact of his death.
First, let us talk about the impact of Osama’s death. It, of course, will have a devastating impact on Al Qaeda’s morale. No longer will it feel invulnerable, as they now know their top leader can be killed by the US. Sure, Osama had prepared the organization for his eventual demise by developing a cell-based system, which prepared the organization for his ultimate demise by granting subordinates some freedom of action. That said, it cannot be denied that his ability to escape from being captured by the strongest nation on earth was his biggest appeal. Everyone loves the “David vs. Goliath” tale, especially as long as David prevails. Now that “David” is dead, al-Qaeda will have more difficulties in finding new recruits or replacing Osama with someone else as charismatic or as influential as he is. It is not far-fetched to argue that the al-Qaeda will be finished as a major player in global terrorism.
Now the bad news: The death of Osama will not eliminate Obama’s headache in Afghanistan. The Taliban in essence is a local independent entity working together with al-Qaeda, and so Osama’s death may be a blow to the Taliban’s morale, but not as much as if they lost Mullah Omar. Worse, Osama’s death may actually lead to two things: the Taliban might increase its assertiveness in order to show the U.S. that they are not badly impacted by Osama’s death; and the U.S. public might heighten its expectation that America’s military involvement in Afghanistan will end in near future. The public’s mood on Iraq soured rather quickly because it expected a quick end to the conflict after the stunning defeat and capture of Saddam Hussein. Osama’s death may create this kind of euphoria, which could be dashed very quickly as the Taliban keep causing trouble in Afghanistan, regional politics remain at flux, and Karzai’s government remains ineffective.
One other reason to be cautious is that the only reason why the Pakistani Intelligence Agency was willing to help the U.S. to kill Osama is that al-Qaeda is not that important for them. It is one thing for the Pakistani Intelligence Agency to sacrifice Osama, but it is a vastly different matter for them to sacrifice the Taliban’s top leaders such as Mullah Omar. For Pakistan, Osama is just another pawn to sacrifice in their cosmic struggle against their real enemy, India. Now that they delivered Osama to American hands, there will be expectations that the U.S. will pull out and will leave both Afghanistan and Pakistan alone. On the other hand, it would be simply irresponsible for Obama to just pack up and leave Afghanistan, even though it is highly probable American public demands for Obama to leave Afghanistan will keep increasing. To be sure, the discord between the US and Pakistan on the matter of Afghanistan will not be over any time soon.
The second piece of bad news is that the U.S. and other nations may find very fragmented global terrorist movements that are no longer controlled or answerable to Osama. While Osama’s demise may be a death blow to Al Qaeda’s network, it will free up local terrorist organizations. No longer do they need to follow or to get input from Osama.
Following Indonesia’s experience, after the arrest and execution of SM Kartosuwirjo, the charismatic founder and leader of the Islamic State of Indonesia (NII), the movement collapsed and many of its remaining leaders went into hiding. After a few decades, the movement had split into many factions that have their own interpretations of the original teachings of Kartosuwirjo, how to commit Jihad, and how to build a relationship with the government. Such fragmentation on a global level may cause harmful effects due to its unpredictability: each faction will command huge resources, and may pursue actions that Osama might reject in the first place, such as building a link with global criminal organizations that may not share the same faith but possess a similar interest in survival (not dissimilar to Peru’s Shining Path rebels). Some factions may even join up with the unsavory states, like North Korea for instance. Such combinations will create long term problems that the U.S. may not have the will to tackle.
Therefore, it is very premature for Obama to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden. Should Obama believe that by killing Osama he may coast to victory in the 2012 election and all his foreign headaches will disappear, he will find himself experiencing a rude awakening not dissimilar to George H.W. Bush after his victory over Saddam Hussein in 1991.