Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Monday, November 26, 2012

Did Hamas win?

"Streets in Gaza city erupted after jubilation after the cease-fire." That was the caption of the photo in the New York Times. The question is, what did Hamas achieve to merit such jubilation?

Well, to be honest, not much. Hamas managed to show fellow Gazans that it still had some fire in its belly -- though the death of the head of Hamas' military wing, who was killed by Israel, meant that Hamas actually had to attack Israel full force, lest it lose credibility and show weaknesses to its rivals. In responding with violence, Hamas managed to prolong its rule over Gaza by reaffirming its commitment to anti-Israeli resistance and also attracting sympathies from fellow Palestinians in the West Bank. Beyond that, as James Traub of Foreign Policy noted, the centrality of Hamas weakened an already weak Palestinian Authority under President Abbas. 

At the same time, however, the war was a disaster for Hamas. The hope that the Arab Spring would prove beneficial for Hamas has been proven false. Hamas' political counterpart in Egypt, despite having explicit sympathy toward Hamas, refused to get involved militarily. Israel also managed to destroy a significant numbers of Hamas' missiles and wreck its smuggling tunnel -- though the extent of the damage is still unclear. Moreover, it is apparent that the terms of the ceasefire itself is still under dispute, with both sides signing the ceasefire without ironing out the terms beforehand. To put it bluntly, Hamas has duping its supporters, declaring that Israel had given up concessions while, in reality, Israel didn't.

In fact, Israel is the major beneficiary of this battle, thanks to the Iron Dome Missile Shield. Not only was IDMS fairly successful in protecting Israel from incoming attacks, but by taking live fire, the Israelis were able to monitor IDMS in action, paving the way for continued refinements. Going forward, IDMS will only become more capable and effective. And sooner or later, the regular missiles that Hamas and other militant groups used to launch toward will no longer pose the same kind of threat that Hamas used to pressure Israel. 

Moreover, the Iron Dome received such good press that it will also be commercially beneficial for Israel, with South Korea is looking forward to purchase some batteries. It can also be argued that the success of the Iron Dome itself makes it unnecessary for Israel to invade Gaza, which risks more lives, bad press, and for Benjamin Netanyahu, an unknown factor in his otherwise smooth ride toward reelection.

Whether the ceasefire holds depends on whether Egypt is an honest broker. Egypt has to simultaneously assure Israel that no rockets will enter Gaza and keep open the commercial links between Egypt and Gaza. There are concerns about whether Egypt can and will do this. After all, should Hamas really get cut off from its weapon suppliers in the region, Egyptian President Morsi would take a lot of heat domestically.

Still, the risk for Egypt is great: should the ceasefire fail, both Israel and Hamas can and might place blame on Egypt, and that would undermine Egypt's credibility and sink its goal to position itself as a diplomatic heavyweight in Middle East. And Washington, Tel Aviv, and surprisingly, Riyadh, which abhors the emergence of what it perceives as an Iranian client in its backyard, would also put heavy pressure on Egypt to make sure that none of the rocket parts can be smuggled for Hamas, despite Egypt's likely sympathy toward Hamas.

In addition, Morsi's controversial decision to grant himself more power at the expense of the Egyptian judiciary has already sparked demonstrations, protests, and legal challenges. The last thing he currently needs now is another distraction on Egypt's eastern border that would bring international pressure and might embolden his domestic opponents. Morsi likely prefers Hamas to lie down, and he might be inclined to maintain Egypt's position as honest power broker, meaning that Egypt will try to keep the commercial route open while halting the delivery of Hamas' rockets.

If that is the case, that the ceasefire holds and Egypt really does what is expected, then Hamas is the loser. It will be more difficult for Hamas to replenish its rockets. Added to these troubles, Hamas could suffer a massive loss of revenues, as it procures considerable profit (60% of its operating budget) from its ability to tax smuggling networks. Not surprisingly, this does not look good for Hamas. There is a good chance that everything will be back to the status quo, except now Israel is even more wary and skeptical of Hamas, as it discovered so many missiles managed to find their way into Gaza, and more secure, because of the IDMS.

So did Hamas win? If the definition of winning is to stay in power, then yes. Hamas has lived to see another day. Yet Hamas' "victory" came with a heavy price. Pyrrus probably summed it well: "If we are victorious in one more battle..., we shall be utterly ruined."

Monday, November 19, 2012

Behind the Rhetoric: Why Everybody Loves Israel

Walter Russell Mead, as usual, wrote an interesting analysis, in light of Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil's visit to Gaza, that is worth quoting here:

Egyptian support for Hamas has thus far remained strictly verbal. There have been no hints of military aid. The strong rhetoric and visit from the prime minister can be read as frantic efforts by Egyptian politicians to keep other Arabs from asking why Egypt’s Islamists are so passive when their neighbors are under attack. Rather than jumping into the fray, Morsi and Qandil are making lots of angry noises to retain their Islamist credentials while avoiding a confrontation with Israel that would inevitably end in a crushing defeat.
The last Egyptian who led his country into a war against Israel for the sake of looking tough was Nasser; the result was exactly the kind of horrible, stinging humiliation that the Muslim Brotherhood does not need — and would certainly get if Israel and Egypt were to clash. It’s important to remember at times like this that the ferocious rhetoric of Israel’s enemies is in part simply a reflection of their weakness and impotence before the Jewish state. They cannot actually bite, and so they bark and bark and bark.

WRM is right. Egypt is simply not ready for a war against Israel. Its economy is in shambles, and just a couple of days ago, the European Union finally agreed to send US$6.4 billion in aid. War would strain the economy at a time when Egypt doesn't need any more distractions. At the same time, even if President Morsi is willing to send troops, the Egyptian army is simply unprepared, having been purged and demoralized in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.  Yes, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood does not need a beating in a war against Israel that could harm their domestic political standing.

More importantly, at a strategic level, it is not in the interest of Morsi or other Arab leaders to support Hamas and attack Israel.

First, there's the question of Hamas itself. It is true that Hamas has a common ideological background with the Egyptian Ikhwanul Muslimin. Despite this, however, they have different goals and agenda.

Consider this: Hamas has a tenuous grip on the Gaza strip. Fatah looks at every means possible to undermine Hamas' power, and at the same time, Hamas tries to make sure that they are not upstaged by a more radical Palestinian factions, notably Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade. Thus, it is in Hamas' interest to maintain radical rhetoric on Israel and turn a blind eye on more radical groups' rocket attacks to Israel to let off steam. In spite of Hamas being Sunni, it enjoys good cooperation with Iran, which is seen as the biggest threat to Israel; and in spite of the rumored split with Iran over the crisis in Syria, apparently the military linkage still holds.

Second, Hamas' close link with Iran makes Saudi Arabia, another of Iran's arch-nemesis, nervous, because Saudi Arabia is more concerned about Iran, which Saudi Arabia sees as a hostile revisionist Shiite power, than about Israel. Despite Saudi Arabia's aggressive rhetoric toward Israel, Saudi Arabia sees Israel as a necessary, valuable evil: to balance Iran, and to serve as a nice bogeyman to its restless citizens.

Besides, Saudi Arabia realizes that it has little to fear from Israel. Israel, as the dominant power in the region, is a status quo power, more interested in preserving the current power arrangement than in changing it. And should Israel cause too many problems for the region, Saudi Arabia knows that the United States can be counted on to hold Israel back.

For the Egyptian Ikhwanul Muslimin, it is in their interest to stay in power and to show their very nervous neighbors, notably Saudi Arabia, that they are responsible enough to maintain the regional status-quo, and that means not spoiling for a fight with Israel and not making too many deals with Hamas, which is seen as a proxy of Iran.

Third, it is in the interest of Saudi Arabia and other Arab states to maintain the Israel-Palestinian problem, because it continues to bring to light the "right to return" question. As long as the "right to return" question remains salient in the region, all the Arab countries can place blame for the neglect of Palestinian refugees on Israel. Israel will never accept the "right to return" principle, because it will cause a demographic nightmare, straining the already scarce resources while shifting Jews to minority status in Israel.

Should both the Palestinians and Israelis make an agreement on the status of refugees, assuming that Israel's position prevails--that none of the refugees return to their old homes--the refugees in turn would move on, continue to settle where they currently reside, or disperse throughout the region, and that in turn, would cause demographic problems for Arab countries.

In Jordan, for instance, there are approximately 2.7 million Palestinians and another 2 million living in Jordan's refugees camps. Considering that the population of Jordan is only 6 million people, if these 4.7 million Palestinians were absorbed into Jordan, they will have an ethnic majority in the country. These Palestinians, in turn, will likely demand to have their voices heard, something that the current Arab regimes, including Joran, have loathed to give, and will likely want greater political power. In Jordan, for instance, these millions of Palestinians only have six representatives in the 120 seats parliament.

Fourth, actually Iran, perversely, also loves Israel. Years of economic mismanagement, except during Khatami's interlude in 1997-2005, coupled with international sanctions has badly damaged Iran's economy. The issue of Israel serves as a very nice distraction to its population, away from the theocracy's own failed economic policies. It justifies Iran's massive spending in its military and nuclear program, and more importantly, allows the Mullahs to paint any voice of dissent as the Zionists' fifth pillar.

Therefore, in a very strange but logical sense, we can say that everybody (at least those in the ME/NA) loves Israel. Far from being an unwanted presence in its neighborhood, Israel plays an invaluable role, one that's prized by both Arab and Persian countries.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Advice for the Democrats

President Barack Obama waves to supporters after his victory speech at McCormick Place on election night November 6, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. Obama won reelection against Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Photo: Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images / SF

Election night in Chicago, after Obama's victory speech. Photo: Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images / SF.

My colleagues Yohanes Sulaiman and JD Hamel have offered their thoughts on the recent U.S. elections, focusing in particular on the plight of the political right. Here, in this post, I focus on the elections and America's left, including the Democratic Party. Viewed properly, our three pieces complement each other. Regardless of your political persuasion, I hope our pieces give you a sense of what has just happened and where the future is headed in American politics.

Let's begin with the obvious: it's been more than a week since America's elections, and the Democrats and their liberal supporters are still rejoicing in the results. The democrats retained the presidency and picked up seats in the Senate. They pulled out a win despite the sluggish economy, a torrent of negative ads from the right, and a never ending slush fund, from Sheldon Adelson, the Koch brothers, and network of shady conservative Super PACs, that backed right-wing candidates and causes. As I see it, the odds should have been stacked against the Democrats, and Obama especially, on November 6.

Barack Obama's bid for reelection probably should have gone the way of George H. W. Bush. Both men struck major foreign policy successes--the low-cost defense of Kuwait in the first Persian Gulf War for Bush, and the death of Osama bin Laden for Obama--yet found their administrations overtaken by economic stagnation and difficulties. In fact, so successful was the first Persian Gulf War that Bush's approval rating soared over 90 percent, much higher than Obama's ever was in his first term. Yet Bush lost his reelection bid in 1992, in the "it's the economy, stupid" vote, while Obama avoided avoided Bush's fate as a one-term president. Why?

It was a combination of what the Democrats did right and what the Republicans did wrong. On the one hand, Obama supported policies more in line with American policy preferences. Americans trusted Obama to pursue and execute these policies. Further, his campaign did a good job of identifying and targeting voters--using a variety of tools--possibly inclined to vote for Democratic candidates, including Obama himself.

As for the republicans, they endured a host of self-inflicted difficulties and setbacks. Here are several to consider.

1. Mitt Romney was a mediocre at best candidate. He really didn't offer a good reason for centrist democrats and independents to vote for him. In particular, he presented few specifics on his domestic, foreign, and economic policies, and didn't set forth any new ideas. He campaigned much like John Kerry did in 2004. Both believed that the American electorate was so fed up with the incumbent president that it was sufficient to pound the message that they were against Bush and Obama rather than clearly highlight what they stood for.

2. The Romney campaign waged an ineffective ground game, investing little effort in knocking on doors and other forms of person-to-person outreach.

3. There was way too much talk about abortion and rape, not only from Todd Aiken and Richard Mourdock but also from Romney and Paul Ryan.

4. Yes, the demographics shift, which tells us that the U.S. has a slowly shrinking Caucasian population relative to Asian and Latino and African Americans, also mattered. Election results show that Obama handily won all three ethnicities, which more than offset his declining vote total among white citizens.

5. The final straw, and arguably the most humorous part of the entire campaign season, was the polling fiasco. In the run-up to the elections, the conservatives deluded themselves into thinking the polling data from a host of organizations--data which predicted an Obama victory--were biased and that Romney would win. Dick Morris, George Will, Sean Hannity, and Charles Krauthammer were among an army of conservatives who fit this description. Indeed, some conservatives took the initiative to create a web site called "unskewed polls," which, as the name suggests, aimed to unskew the so-called liberal polls. The problem is that these polls weren't skewed; they reflected the demographic and party ID realities in 2012 America.

It wasn't just conservative pundits and conservative citizens who believed in a Romney victory, Romney himself was ultra-confident that victory was his. Reports indicate that Romney was "shellshocked" at his electoral defeat. In retrospect, it's clear he really did believe that. It's why he played it very, very conservatively down the stretch. If you recall, he canceled all media appearances, did not field questions from the media while on the road, and gave an odd performance in the third presidential debate, in which he essentially rubber stamped many of Obama's policies. Romney believed the election was his to lose, and so he didn't want to risk making any gaffes in the campaign's final weeks. Of course, he was wrong; Obama held the lead in the last few weeks. What Romney did, in effect, was create an out-of-sight out-of-mind campaign at a crucial moment. Conservatives argue that it was Hurricane Sandy that contributed to this. And while I agree that Sandy did the Romney campaign no favors, Romney's play-it-safe approach was well in motion before Sandy made national headlines.

As you might expect, the left is relishing in these factors and events. They are enjoying the soul searching and teeth gnashing on the right, which is in the very nascent stages of trying to hash out where the Republican Party and the conservative movement more generally should go in the future. Certainly, it was a big win for the left, and there's some justification for a little celebration.

That said, though, the liberals and Democrats ought not rest on their laurels. Despite the big win and the right's major screw-ups, and despite the apparent demographic trends, the left is by no means guaranteed future political success at the polls. Here are a few reasons for some caution:

1. Barack Obama was a very unique candidate. His race, age, and oratory skills make him an inspiring figure unlike any other in the Democratic Party right now. I suspect many Americans primarily casted their vote for him, Barack Obama, rather than for his policies or for the Democratic Party. If that's the case, what happens when Obama leaves office? Will that negatively impact the election chances for the 2016 Democratic nominee for president? And in the absence of Obama on the ballot, will House and Senate democrats in 2016 struggle to capture and hold seats in Congress

2. Gerrymandering might nullify the putative pro-left demographic changes in some house races.

3. In 2014 (and 2018, 2022, and so on), when the youth fail to vote in the same numbers as they did in 2008 and 2012, as usually happens in so-called off-year elections, the Republicans will gain a distinct advantage.
Hence, the Democrats shouldn't get complacent. First, they need to fix the economy by working to ensure continued growth and reduced unemployment. Without progress on these fronts, the Democrats will feel the heat at the polls in 2014 and beyond. At a certain point, and that point is approaching, the Democrats will be the party that takes the brunt of the criticism--from the right, left, and centrist voters--for the state of the American economy.
Second, the Democrats ought to find issues that naturally fit with the party platform and also speak to a wide range of people. I suggest climate change. This is an issue, if articulated better, can be sold to young people for sure, but also centrists and those who lean to the right. For example, I would think a wide swath of people agree that it's a good idea for the U.S. to wean itself off of fossil fuels so as to reduce the leverage that strongmen and theocrats, in Russia and Iran and Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, have over the world. Moreover, the neocons and liberal internationalists, who heartily support democracy promotion, should realize that high gas prices allow the world's bad guys to insulate themselves from internal pressure for reform.

There is also a moral dimension here, one that should be highlighted. Namely, we have a moral responsibility to protect and conserve all of the wonderful natural wonders and resources that mother nature or God has granted to America. There is no good reason to be greedy, to wastefully use up the precious raw materials and resources, and there is no reason to despoil the earth.

Plus, given the recent spate of devastating storms and disasters, like Hurricane Sandy, which respected scientists have linked in various ways to changes in the climate, it might be a good time for Democrats to push climate change toward the top of their policy agenda. In a practical sense, it is an awfully good idea to begin the process of putting in place a comprehensive climate/energy/infrastructure plan that keeps people and cities safe and secure. And in a political sense, with climate change an increasingly topical and resonant issue for Americans across the political spectrum, Democratic politicians might find that they finally have enough support to get something done.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Post-election Republicans: What now?

To be honest, I was surprised when Brad asked me to write "the conservative's take on Obama's victory." It is one thing to be the self-appointed in house-conservative, but quite another thing to be "representing" the American conservatives, especially when you are not a US citizen in the first place! Still, let me take a stab on it.

It cannot be denied that many of us were shell-shocked, seeing that the conservative projections went wrong. Most famously, of course, is Karl Rove's meltdown on Fox News:

Mitt Romney was so confident that he prepared only a victory speech.Of course, once he lost, the circular firing squad began. First, Romney's entire campaigning strategy was questioned, with many alleged improprieties exposed. The campaign was apparently "flying blind" during the election thanks to a botched vote-tracker system and an ineffective up get-out-to vote operation.

Despite those problems, however, one thing is clear: unlike Paul Krugman's boasts, the Democrats did not win an overwhelming victory (I can dissect so many problems with Krugman's arguments, but I better waste my time on something more productive and constructive, like playing Civilization IV or Ragnarok Online). Obama was elected on a very small margin of victory almost equal to Bush in 2004 (Bush won with 3,012,171 votes in 2004 while Obama won with 3,010,363 -- that number might change, though, as votes are finalized).

Moreover, while the Democrats picked up several seats in the Senate, the Republicans still control the House. The Democrats also only managed to win the Senate because some of the Republican candidates simply self-destructed, notably Akin and Mourdock. The Republicans also hold 30 gubernatorial mansions and almost wiped the Democrats out in the South.

Considering the fact that Obama is an incumbent (and by being an incumbent, he has the bully pulpit and thus starts with many advantages) and has a subservient media beholden to him, covering up all his missteps (Bush would have been tarred and feathered over the unmanned drones, the ongoing war in Afghanistan and the entire Libya and Benghazi fiasco) and ready to pounce on every Republican's missteps, it is actually a surprise that his margin of victory was not larger.

Still, a win is a win, and the Republicans and conservatives have to adjust their strategies.

So what the Republicans should do?

First, follow what Jennifer Rubin advocates: broaden the appeal to minorities, such as African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans. A point that's often ignored is that there are many minority supporters of social and fiscal conservativism. George W. Bush tried to broaden the base even further, and it is a shame that the Republican Party didn't follow through; instead, the issue of immigration reform became an albatross on the Republicans' neck. While there are concerns that embracing immigration reforms would alienate Republicans' supporters, I think these concerns are overblown, especially if the immigration issue is tackled carefully.

Second, prevent Obama from controlling the narrative, a task that is hard due to the MSM's bias for the Democrats. Boehner clearly realized that, and thus avoided the "one term president" remark. Instead, he extended an olive branch. Republicans ought to compromise when necessary, but also stick to their guns, notably on budgetary issues, unless the national Republicans wish to share the Californian Republicans' fate, or worse, contribute to something akin to California's disastrous blue model.

Third, avoid self-destructive primaries and do not back undisciplined candidates. While primaries are important, the Republicans need to remember and obey Reagan's Eleventh Amendment. After he won the Republican nomination, Romney could not easily move back to center because he was pushed too far to the extreme. This in the end simply became fodder for the Democrats' firing squad. It would also be wise for the candidates to be better prepared. Governor Perry's disastrous performance, for instance, could have been avoided.

Fourth: mobilize the base effectively. While money helps and is always nice to have, this election shows that base-mobilization remains critical. Republican must find ways to reenergize the base.

Fifth, and actually more importantly, the Republicans also have to help the Tea Party to mature as a political force in American elections and governing. The Tea Party has received a bad rap in the past few elections due to their predilection of supporting bad candidates. And, of course, it has been unfairly caricaturized and stereotyped by the media. For now, this is a flawed asset for the Republicans, but has to be cultivated and reformed nevertheless, because Tea Partiers have fire in their bellies and the enthusiasm to vote.

What should we expect?

Be ready for a really rough second term. Do not expect the Democrats to steamroll the Republicans. The Republicans lost, but only barely. They still control the House. Moreover, with all the vitriol during the election, it would be stupid to expect the Republicans to simply roll over and play dead. The base is outraged and unwilling to compromise, and the Republican leaders will listen to the base.

The market realized that, and thus the Dow plunged last Wednesday. There are expectations that it will be much harder for the two parties to compromise for the next four years.

Therefore, unless Obama wishes his second term to be even more difficult than his first, he should learn to compromise and engage the Republicans.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Perils of Leading From Behind

Critics of Barack Obama's so-called doctrine of "leading from behind" claim that such an approach to foreign policy risks making America appear weak--in terms of power, resolve, and credibility--to the rest of the world.

They might be right, they might be wrong. Clearly, most of these critics launch their verbal and written attacks through the lens of partisan politics. The right-wing of U.S. politics has a political incentive to articulate what they see as weak spots in the current president's foreign (and domestic) policies. Whether these criticisms are grounded in reality is irrelevant; the game is to degrade the president's approval. And actually, because of the combination of scant media fact checking, a large presence of low-information voters, and a polarized electorate, there are few mechanisms to deter groups/individuals from putting forward criticisms are more myth than truth.

(Of course, these political maneuvers aren't the sole domain of Republicans. They work both ways in American politics: just as the right engages in exaggeration, worst-case assessments, and tall tales when it's the opposition party, so does the left when it's the party out of power.)

To this point, there has been little evidence that "leading from behind" has fundamentally altered the perceptions of the U.S. What it has done, though, is create opportunities for other countries to advance their interests and goals. Specifically, it has effected an opening for countries like Russia and China to seize the leadership mantle in world politics.

The latest example of this occurred this week. After weeks of America's refusal to step up its involvement in the Syrian conflict, China has recently put forward its own plan to resolve the hostilities. According to Reuters:
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a regular news briefing that under the "new proposal there are constructive new suggestions such as a ceasefire region by region and phase by phase, and establishing a transitional governing body".
He said it was "an extension of China's effort to push for a political resolution of the Syrian issue".

Sure, China's Syria proposals could be relatively innocuous, maybe even helpful. In a larger, international context, that would be a good thing. But over the long-term, if this situation continually repeats itself, the U.S. could very well suffer considerable harm to its strategic interests and position in the world.


On the one hand, U.S. might find itself squeezed out of its dominant place in the world, having to share leadership responsibilities and duties with countries like China. That, in turn, means that the U.S. will be in a far worse position to defend and advance all the things that are important to Washington and American citizens. On the other hand, as foreign countries assert themselves in international politics, they will seek ends that at times fit with America's worldview and at times run counter to it, the latter of which can jeopardize U.S. interests and values.

So as an example, when China acts as an obstructionist force at the UN or when it cobbles together a proposal that in effect advocates "peace through dialogue"--both of which shield and prop up Bashar al-Assad, the brutal Syrian government and security forces--it's less likely that freedom, democracy, and human rights win the day in Syria. And it's more likely that Syria remains a basket case, a home where conflict, repression, state-sponsored terrorism, and Iranian influence thrives.

Certainly, an economically struggling U.S. has to pick and choose carefully when and where it flexes its power. And leading from behind can carry benefits, such as burden sharing. But as noted above, there are serious downsides as well. A second term Obama administration, or a first term Romney government, needs to think very carefully about employing "leading from behind" as standard practice in American foreign policy.