Posted by: samer | February 18, 2011

The Revolution Has a Soundtrack

My article for the Arab American Institute:

Music and politics have always gone hand in hand. FromBeethoven’s 3rd Symphony (originally titled “Bonaparte”) to Public Enemy’s Fight the Power, artists have used music to echo the hopes, dreams, and frustrations of the people. The Arab world is no exception; it’s no coincidence that the Egyptian revolution of 1952 coincided with the rise of Arab greats such asAbdel Halim HafezUmm Qultum, and Mohammed Abdel Wahab. Umm Qultum rose to fame partly through songs inspired by the political revolution of Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Famed composer Mohammad Abdel Wahab produced a number of Arab nationalist songs in his time, including Watani Habibi Al-Watan Al-Akbar (My Beloved Homeland is the Greater Homeland), a soaring ode to the growing pan-Arab consciousness, sung by Abdel Halim Hafez, Warda Al-Jazaira, and Najat Al-Saghira.

As revolution once again convulses the Middle East, its artists and musicians are not far behind. Though many of the old greats have been revived for the occasion – including Umm Qultum and a number of Abdel Wahab songs –artists are taking advantage of their governments’ disorganization (or outright collapse) to create a safe space to produce new works of their own.

One of these emerging groups is Arabian Knightz, a hip-hop group in Cairo that recently released the revolutionary anthem, Rebel, which describes both the hardships and the determination of the protestors.“Mubarak’s government has always told us we can’t sing about certain things,” they explained in aninterview with the Los Angeles Times, “But…in Tahrir, we could rap about it. We could spark the revolution in people.”

Another immensely popular song, Amir Eid’s Sout Al-Horeya, features a music video filmed on the scene at Tahrir Square. Dozens of protestors – some wounded but all radiating hope and energy – sing along to the catchy melody, demanding rights and freedom.

Of course, the upsurge of new revolutionary music is by no means limited to Egypt. Algeria’s flourishing hip-hop scene, alive since the country’s devastating civil war, has produced a number of scathing critiques on the state of their country. Lofti Double-Kanon’s single, Khalli Nahder (Let Me Speak), expresses the frustration of living under suffocating repression. In neighboring Tunisia, rapper El General’s song Reyes Lebled (Head of State) landed him in prison, for speaking on behalf of all Tunisians asking Ben Ali to leave.

Though these artists may not set the pace of the revolutions sweeping through their homes, they may well frame its narrative. “Music is a revolutionary force,” writes Wided Khadraoui, editor of the popular North African blog Live from the Casbah, and though music alone does not cause people to topple their governments, it is a natural embodiment of one of their deepest desires: the yearning for a voice.

Posted by: samer | February 16, 2011

A Middle East Déjà Vu

My article for RightWeb:

(Pictured: Mohammed Mossadeq during his post-coup trial)

As if out of nowhere, hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets, fueled by poverty, hunger, and anger at their repressive autocratic government. Though the regime was hailed as a beacon of stability in an otherwise volatile region, its collapse was as unexpected as it was rapid. The police quickly lost control, the military refused to fire on protestors, and within the scope of a few days the old order came crashing down. The West, while outwardly supportive of the people’s democratic aspirations, worried about the loss of a stable Middle East ally which had developed historic military and intelligence coordination with Israel.

The description above could serve as an account of events leading up to the overthrow of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak. However, it also tells the story of the great Iranian uprising. Not the 1979 revolution that ushered in Ayatollah Khomeini and his cohorts—the feared replay of which has caused much handwringing among some neoconservatives and their Likud counterparts—but rather its 1951 precursor, which ended in 1953 with a U.S.- and UK-backed coup to restore “stability” to the region. In many ways, the West’s uncompromising prioritization of its strategic interests over its stated guiding principles was directly responsible for the later outgrowth of a virulently anti-American political philosophy in Iran. Though Egypt’s revolution may not resemble Iran’s in 1979, the way the U.S. responds to the ousting of an unpopular—but western-friendly—dictator could go a long way towards creating the conditions for a similar outcome.

The Legacy of Mossadeq

Though largely forgotten in the West, the CIA-orchestrated coup that ousted democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq is ingrained in the collective consciousness of the Middle East. Back in the early 1950s, the Iranian public had grown weary of their stagnant economy, rising unemployment, and most of all, the painfully imbalanced oil concessions that siphoned much-needed public money into foreign hands. Previous attempts to address the issue, even entreaties by the Shah himself, were rebuked by the British. Frustrated by their powerlessness, Iranians rallied behind an emerging leader who promised to address the issue by nationalizing the country’s oil resources. His successful election and appointment as prime minister worried Iran’s western allies, who feared that his nationalist populism would not conform to their strategic regional objectives.

Almost immediately, the U.S. establishment went into propaganda overdrive. Analysts and press outlets warned of Soviet ties to the new “radical” government under Mossadeq, whom they accused of harboring secret “communist leanings.”[1] Galvanizing U.S. fear of Soviet encirclement, politicians and diplomats warned that the new government, though democratically elected, would almost certainly evolve into a Soviet satellite. This fear-mongering campaign culminating with John Foster Dulles’s warning President Eisenhower that “a communist takeover is becoming more and more of a possibility.”[2] Spurred by a perceived need to counter radicalism and secure regional stability, Eisenhower gave the go-ahead for Operation Ajax which—through a combination of bribes, blackmail, and staged protests—set the stage for a coup to oust Iran’s democratically elected president and return the Shah to power.[3]

In retrospect, Mossadeq now appears to have been little more than a “progressive liberal.” But fogged by the fear and paranoia of the time, the U.S. government chose to handle him as an existential threat to U.S. regional influence. The United States has been paying for this mistake ever since, as scholars on Iran almost unanimously agree that the interference and subsequent dismantling of Iran’s democratically elected government played a significant role in the widespread anti-Americanism that later characterized the 1979 revolution. Unless the Obama administration is very careful, the United States may very well make the same mistakes again in Egypt. And like 1953, there may be no second chances for decades to come.

Operation Ajax Redux?

Though the Obama administration’s outward handling of the Egyptian uprising bears little resemblance to the subversion of Operation Ajax, Egyptians by and large have viewed the U.S. position with skepticism. And for good reason. Initially lukewarm to the very idea of protests, Obama and his team begrudgingly evolved from uttering statements supporting “our friend” Mubarak, to calls for “reform,” to vague requests for an eventual transition.[4] In a pattern similar to his response to Tunisia, Obama explicitly refrained from celebrating the people’s uprising until they had already won. For many observers both in and outside Egypt, U.S. policymakers appeared to be hedging their bets, staying on good terms with Mubarak in case he weathered the storm while refraining from the type of overt statements of regime support emanating from Riyadh and Tel Aviv. Reports from practically all news sources—including the New York Times,[5] the Washington Post,[6] and the BBC[7]—highlighted Washington’s schizophrenic posturing.

A significant part of the seeming confusion within the Obama administration came from the diverging viewpoints within the Washington establishment, with many hardliners echoing a similar refrain from the days of Operation Ajax.[8] “Experts” and analysts sounded the alarm on the grave dangers that lurked behind the democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people. They no longer warned about communism as in the days of the Cold War. Instead, in line with the fears of the day, they raised the specter of violent Islamism. “Mubarak is bad,” Ali Alfoneh wrote for an American Enterprise Institute briefing, “but those who will replace Mubarak will be worse.”[9] Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy expressed his concern that “this hopeful moment … may give way to a darker era.”[10] Lila Gilbert of the Hudson Institute warned that the loss of Mubarak would create an “uncertain future” for Egypt’s Christian community.[11] James Phillips at the Heritage Foundationwarned of plans to “transform Egypt into an Islamic state that is hostile to freedom.”[12]

Unfortunately, this patronizing assessment of Egyptian domestic politics did not only come from the right. Chris Matthews declared he was “ashamed as an American” for putting pressure on Mubarak, whom he referred to as “the George Washington of peace over there.”[13]

Scapegoating the Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood has been the target of much of this fear-mongering. According to its many detractors in the West, the group is simply a Taliban-in-waiting, hoping to use its electoral strength to destroy democracy in the interests of instituting sharia law. Clifford May of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies ominously asked, “Do the Egyptians demonstrating in Tahrir Square appreciate how threatening the Muslim Brotherhood is to the freedom they hope to win?”[14]

In reality, contrary to being the monolithic menacing organization depicted in western media, the brotherhood is actually a loose coalition of groups with widely divergent political and religious goals. The Muslim Brotherhood renounced violence in 1928 and explicitly endorsed democracy as its ideal political system.[15] It is probably better known in the Arab world for its compromises with Arab dictators than its attempts to undermine them. There are few objective indications that the Muslim Brotherhood is predisposed to violent fundamentalism. In addition, the brotherhood has received lavish financing and support in past years from the United States[16] and the United Kingdom,[17] and it continues to enjoy U.S. support as part of the March 14 Alliance in Lebanon. And yet, elements of western discourse remain saturated with depictions of the Muslim Brotherhood as violent, disingenuous, secretive, and sinister.

The future role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian politics belongs to the Egyptian people and no one else. Forcing them to decide otherwise, particularly at this early stage in the nation’s transformation, would compromise their freedom of choice as well as the democratic values that the United States ostensibly advocates.

Evidence suggests that the political leanings of the Egyptian demonstrators were solidly secular. Any objective on-the-ground analysis in Egypt would doubtless confirm that the Muslim Brotherhood did not control the pace or direction of events. Their initial refusal to take part in the demonstrations, their minimal impact once they did participate, and the largely secular nature of the protestors all point to a very different political trajectory in Egypt’s future. As’ad Abou-Khalil, a professor and well-respected political blogger, breaks down the demographics into the following categories: “15 percent Muslim Brotherhood, 5 percent various Arab nationalist and progressive parties, and 80 percent who belong to no parties at all.”[18] Hardly a resounding endorsement of the brotherhood.

Why then all the handwringing? Perhaps, as some have speculated, the specter of the brotherhood is merely a way to arouse fear and suspicion in order to maintain—as in the case of Mossadeq in 1953—sufficient influence and control to ensure the fulfillment of western strategic interests.[19] As the events in Iran demonstrated, such short-term thinking is almost certain to backfire in the long run.

Had U.S. policymakers earnestly respected the aspirations behind the uprising, they would have been more vocal in their support for the demonstrators, rather than uttering weak endorsements for “stability “and “adherence to international commitments” (aka the Camp David Accords). Ironically, the fear of the brotherhood has led U.S. policymakers to state that the best way to safeguard the democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people is to delay elections and consolidate state control within the military. Considering that such a position involves shuffling players but leaving the status quo intact, it is unlikely to find much traction with the Egyptian public.

Worse, the hypocrisy of supporting democracy within narrowly-defined terms and conditions undermines the legitimacy of U.S. foreign policy in the entire region. As nearby countries erupt in a similar fashion, Washington’s encouragement of Iranian protesters is drowned out by their silence on similar events in Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, and Algeria. In a recent press briefing, Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley was asked why the United States was supporting demonstrations in Iran but not elsewhere. His disingenuous response: “Well, actually, in the other countries there is greater respect for the rights of the citizens.”[20]

Full Circle

Perhaps the greatest irony of the U.S. response to the Egyptian uprising can be found in Obama’s recent acknowledgement of the U.S. government’s errors in 1950s Iran. In his Cairo speech, for the first time a president explicitly acknowledged that “the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government” and pledged a new beginning in relations with the Muslim world. The American Enterprise Institute followed up by admitting that Mossadeq was little more than a “secular nationalist,” and WINEP conceded they may have been “on the wrong side of history.”[21] With the conflated threat of nationalist populism fading from the U.S. collective establishment’s imagination, so too was the once solid justification for interference in Iran’s political structure. Presented with a déjà-vu, the United States still can’t seem to get it right.

Indeed, although many in the Obama administration were sympathetic to the Egyptian cries for liberation, their cautious approach produced a backwards response. They remained tepid as nonviolent protestors were beaten and killed. They appeared complacent about the ascension of decidedly anti-democratic figures such as Umar Suleiman and Hussein Tantawi.

Egyptians have also resented western support for members of Mubarak’s administration in the transition government, which includes old guard figures such as Tantawi, Imad Al-Din Adib, and Ahmad Abu Al-Ghayt. As Wael Ghonim, the now-famous Google executive arrested for helping plan the initial demonstrations, has written: “Dear Western Governments, You’ve been silent for 30 years supporting the regime that was oppressing us. Please don’t get involved now.”[22]

Despite arguments from figures like Elliott Abramsthat the revolution is narrowly focused on domestic policy,[23] it would be naïve to assume that Egyptians are not watching U.S. reactions very closely. The sheer volume of protestors calling Mubarak an agent of the Americans and of Israel reaffirms that U.S. actions in Egypt will have consequences for decades to come. If conservative pundits are so worried about a reply of Iran 1979 and liberal Democrats are keen to avoid another Mossadeg-like disaster, then both factions need to stop promoting the same failed policies that produced those results.

[1]Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men, Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons Inc, (2003), p. 6.

[2]Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men, Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons Inc, (2003), p. 85.

[3]Donald N. Wilber, Clandestine Service History: Overthrow of Premier Mossadeq of Iran, March 1954,

[4]Kareem Fahim, Mark Landler, Anthony Shadid, “West Backs Gradual Egyptian Transition,” New York Times, February 5, 2011,

[5]Helene Cooper, Mark Landler, David E. Sanger, “In U.S. Signals to Egypt, Obama Straddled a Rift,” New York Times, February 12, 2011,

[6]Marc A. Thiessen, “How Obama Lost the Egyptian People,” Washington Post, February 15, 2011.

[7]Jonathan Marcus, “Does the US really want Mubarak to go?” BBC World News, February 5, 2011,

[8]Peter Nicholas and Christi Parsons, “Obama’s advisors split on when and how Mubarak should go,” Los Angeles Times, February 10, 2011,,0,5447678,full.story.

[9]Ali Alfoneh, “The Egyptian Military’s Coming Collapse,” American Enterprise Institute, February 4, 2011,

[10]Robert Satloff, “Recent Developments in Egypt and Lebanon: Implications for U.S. Policy and Allies in the Broader Middle East,” Testimony prepared for delivery to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, February 9, 2011,

[11]Lila Gilbert, “An Uncertain Future for Egypt’s Christians,” Weekly Standard Online, February 7, 2011,

[12]James Phillips, “Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood Lurks as a Long-Term Threat to Freedom,” Heritage Foundation, February 8, 2011,

[13]Scott Whitlock, “Chris Matthews Rips Obama’s Handling of Egypt Crisis: ‘I Feel Ashamed as an American,” NewsBusters, February 4, 2011,

[14]Clifford D. May, “Pyramid Scheme,” Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, February 10, 2011,

[15]Essam El-Errian, “What the Muslim Brothers Want,” New York Times, February 9, 2011,

[16]Ian Johnson, “Washington’s Secret History with the Muslim Brotherhood,” New York Review of Books, February 5, 2011,

[17]Mark Curtis, “Colluding with Extremists,” New Left Project, March 8, 2010,

[18]As’ad Abou-Khalil, “Breakdown of Protestors,” Angry Arab News Service, February 7, 2011,

[19]As’ad Abou-Khalil, “Operation Ajax in Egypt,” Angry Arab News Service, February 7, 2011,

[20]Philip J. Crowley, Daily Press Briefing, Bureau of Public Affairs: Press Relations, February 14, 2011,

[21]Mehdi Khalaji and J. Scott Carpenter, “America and the Iranian Political Reform Movement: First, Do No Harm,”Washington Institute for Near East Policy, February 3, 2011,

[22]Wa’el Chonim, “Ghonim,” Twitter

[23]Elliott Abrams, “Egypt Protests Show George W. Bush Was Right About Freedom in the Arab World,” Council on Foreign Relations, January 29, 2011,

Posted by: samer | January 18, 2011

The Case for Syria

My article for RightWeb:

In late December, with Congress away on recess, Robert Ford was appointed the new U.S. ambassador to Syria, filling a six-year vacancy. Shortly thereafter, condemnations poured in from those critical of U.S. efforts to engage Syria. President Barack Obama was criticized for “sending the wrong message” amounting to “a major concession to the Syrian regime.”[1] Pundits and commentators expressed concern that such “appeasement” would compromise the influence and authority of the United States in the Middle East.

Five days later, the unity government of Lebanon collapsed after the resignation of 11 members of the pro-Syrian opposition bloc. Though the ensuing competition for power is widely expected to further empower Hizballah and undermine the Special Tribunal for Lebanon—two serious setbacks for U.S. regional policy—Washington finds itself lacking the necessary connections to alter the situation.[2]

Lebanon’s unraveling and the undiminished influence of the Syrian state clearly demonstrate that U.S. attempts to isolate Damascus have failed. Syria continues to occupy an important strategic position in the Levant, and it sits at the crossroads of a number of U.S. interests. Direct and honest engagement, which Ambassador Ford will hopefully foster, is the only way to satisfy U.S. foreign policy goals, rein in violent extremism, and encourage political reforms in that country.

A History of Hostility

During the past decade, U.S. relations with Syria have been primarily characterized by mutual distrust and antagonism. Washington’s hostility toward Damascus has been fueled in part by concerns that the Syrian government has supported violent political factions in both Lebanon and Palestine, interfered in the democratic functions of Lebanon, and actively undermined the stability of the new Iraqi state. In response, a number of prominent analysts and regional experts have called for direct engagement as the only effective means to reform the Syrian state. However, the continued isolation of Syria plays to interests of powerful groups with significant political leverage, including neoconservative and other rightwing “pro-Israel” organizations, their allied politicians, and Saudi backers.

Wonks at institutes like the  Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs (WINEP), and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies have been amongst the most fervent hawks on Syria. Other parts of the “Israel lobby,” like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, have also used their connections in Congress to prevent engagement with Damascus.

Rightist factions in the United States have been targeting Syria since well before the 9/11 attacks and the election of President George W. Bush. Back in February 2000, for example, David Wurmser published an article for the American Enterprise Institute entitled, “Let’s Defeat Syria, Not Appease It,” which called on the Israeli and U.S. governments to assist Lebanon to “take matters into their own hands, and Syria will slowly bleed to death there.”[3]

That same year, Wurmser and other likeminded ideologues assisted in the production of a strategy document co-published by Daniel Pipes‘ Middle East Forum and Ziad Abdelnour‘s U.S. Committee for a Free Lebanon that helped clarify the central role that hardline views of Israeli security have played in rightist anti-Syria advocacy. The study, entitled “Ending Syria’s Occupation of Lebanon: The U.S. Role?” called for the United States to force Syria from Lebanon and to disarm it of its alleged weapons of mass destruction. It also argued that “Syrian rule in Lebanon stands in direct opposition to American ideals” and criticized the United States for engaging rather than confronting the regime. Among the document’s signatories were several leading neoconservative figures—many of whom would be given posts in the Bush administration—including Elliott Abrams,Douglas FeithMichael Rubin, and Paula DobrianskyRichard Perle,Jeane KirkpatrickMichael Ledeen, and Frank Gaffney.

No More Waiting

For many years, a shared conviction of the anti-Syria hawks had been that Syria would eventually recognize that to succeed and advance, it needs the blessing of the West. They in effect decided that there was no point in engaging the Assad regime. Instead, they opted for active enmity while awaiting the fall of the Baath.

However, following the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in the wake of Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri’s assassination in February 2005, conservatives saw a prime opportunity for “regime change” in another “rogue state,” and launched an intensive international political campaign with the ultimate goal of overthrowing the Assad regime in Syria.

Shortly thereafter, WINEP featured an article by Dennis Ross—now a Mideast adviser in the Obama administration—which was entitled “U.S. Policy toward a Weak Assad.” The article argued that Washington should “avoid engaging with the Syrian leadership” in expectation of its imminent collapse.[4] Ross lamented President Bashar Al-Assad’s failure to recognize “the immediate value of cooperating with the United States,” and recommended that the United States passively enable regional forces to take down the Syrian leadership.[5]

In line with this advice, the Bush administration recalled its ambassador to Syria. It also began using Lebanon as a staging ground to empower Bashar Al-Assad’s purported enemies, particularly the Lebanese Maronite establishment, which they hoped to leverage as a counterweight to the overwhelming Shi’a support for Syria’s Lebanese ally Hizballah.[6]

The Bush administration’s heavy-handed approach failed to take into account the complexity, nuance, and local dynamics of the region. Instead of compelling Syria to change its policies, it produced a backlash that severely undermined U.S. regional goals. As local parties realized that strong relations with the Syrian state provided far greater security and benefits than adherence to American expectations, the pro-western coalition formed during the Cedar Revolution quickly disintegrated. Within a short span, the largest Maronite party—the Free Patriotic Movement—switched sides to join the pro-Syria opposition, followed by a number of smaller groups, ultimately ending with the defection last year of Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party, the darling of Western diplomats.[7]

Meanwhile, the Syrian government entrenched itself and flourished, adapting to the sanctions imposed by the Syria Accountability Act of 2004 by developing new domestic industries (producing an annual growth rate of five percent since the implementation of sanctions), powerful support and influence in Lebanon, and key strategic capital with both Iraq and Iran.[8]

Facing Multipolarity

The anti-Syria groups and the western diplomats who followed their lead failed to recognize a growing new reality in regional and global power dynamics—namely, the ascension of alternative poles of power and influence. In the Middle East, as elsewhere, the U.S. “unipolar moment” had passed. Though the Syrian state undoubtedly suffered as a result of its cool relations with the West, it left the regime with no alternative but to ally with other outsiders, forming a formidable opposition bloc consisting of Iran, Syria, and powerful actors in both Palestine and Lebanon.

As Steven Weber and Bruce W. Jentleson have noted in their recent book The End of Arrogance: America in the Global Competition of Ideas, it can be “perfectly rational for challengers to seek to route around American power (rather than confront it directly). The ultimate goal is not to win a conflict per se; it is to create a world in which American power is increasingly less relevant to what happens.”[9]Syria and its current allies have found an alternative power hub to rally around, and the consolidation of their power has strengthened, not weakened, Syria’s bargaining hand. The failure of U.S. policy in Lebanon, despite the uniquely favorable circumstances created by the “Cedar Revolution,” is clear evidence that Syria’s regional power matters more than the distant might of the United States.

Meanwhile, Syria has found itself in a pivotal position in almost all Middle East political crises. “Start with Syria” was the advice of negotiator Aaron David Miller to the incoming Obama administration, and with good reason.[10] Control over Syria’s border with Iraq is pivotal for peace and stability in that fragile country; Syria’s strong relationship with Iran provides the most accessible avenue to influence the Iranian government; and the authoritative position commanded by Damascus in Lebanon and Palestine are an essential factor for eventual peace with Israel. According to a number of Syrian sources, all of these components are open for negotiation, along with a number of the domestic reforms requested by Washington and a number of international bodies.[11]

Obama and Engagement

With the coming of the Obama administration, advocates for engagement anticipated that a new era of negotiation and careful deliberation would replace the stubborn entrenchment that had typified relations during the Bush Administration. Obama summarized his position succinctly: “There are aspects of Syrian behavior that trouble us and we think that there is a way that Syria can be much more constructive on a whole host of these issues. … [B]ut, as you know, I’m a believer in engagement and my hope is that we can continue to see progress on that front.”[12]

Immediately after taking office, the Obama team began serious discussions with Syrian leadership on the long list of U.S. demands, including tightening the border with Iraq, ending material support for Hizballah and Hamas, and re-entering peace negotiations with Israel. While the opening of communication channels has undoubtedly been a positive step forward, it still lacks a fundamental component of comprehensive engagement: mutuality. U.S. demands are still held as preconditions for eventual compromise, rather than as part of a meaningful dialogue. Though the Obama administration did open communication channels with Damascus, it has yet to abandon the unilateral bias of the previous administration.

This approach fails on two fundamental levels. First, it operates on the assumption that U.S. support and acceptance are sufficient benefits to incentivize change, a notion that has been clearly falsified by the emergence of opportunities afforded by alternative power centers. Second, and more importantly, it relies on different rules for each party, an approach which fundamentally undermines the Washington’s own projection of strength and resolve. As Weber and Jentleson note, “it is no longer possible for a presumptive world leader to propose the legitimacy of one principle … for his or her own country, [and] another for everyone else’s.”[13] They rightly identify that success must be based on “binding Americans to the same principles and rules that they ask others to observe, and redressing unbalanced bargains.”[14]

Remarkably, rightwing organizations have leveraged the failures stemming from insufficient engagement into an argument for scrapping engagement altogether. In June 2010, the American Enterprise Institute held a conference on the subject, condescendingly titled “Bashar’s Syria at Ten: Does the Eye Doctor See Straight?”[15] Its panelists, moderators, and keynote speakers all extolled the many benefits of “enforced isolation” in accelerating the downfall of the Assad regime. A similar conference at the Hudson Institute the previous year covered the same topics, and produced the same conclusions.[16] More recently, the appointment of Ambassador Ford had the blogosphere in a frenzy over the “legitimacy” such a move affords to a state ostensibly on the verge of collapse—a common refrain since the younger Assad assumed power over a decade ago.[17]

Instead of dictating terms, the Obama administration must learn from the mistakes of the past and capitalize on its tentative steps forward by embracing a policy of comprehensive engagement. As many prominent individuals within the Syrian government have repeatedly suggested, the Syrians would likely prefer strong relations with the West over its current ties to the “rejectionist front.” Their present alliances are borne of necessity, not underlying ideology. But it is only through a serious consideration of the Syrian state’s immediate requests—the easing of sanctions and banking restrictions, facilitating the return of the Golan Heights, and greater cultural and business interaction—as well as those of Western policymakers, that the United States has any hope of bringing the “rogue state” back into the fold.

[1]Aaron Blake, “Republicans Denounce Obama’s Recess Appointments,” Washington Post¸ December 30, 2010,

[2]Mark Lander and Robert F. Worth, “Lacking Leverage, U.S. Grasps for a Solution in Lebanon,” New York Times, January 12, 2011,

[3]David Wurmser, “Let’s Defeat Syria, Not Appease It,” American Enterprise Institute, February 25, 2000,

[4]Dennis Ross, “U.S. Policy toward a Weak Assad,” Washington Quarterly, Summer 2005,

[5]Dennis Ross, “U.S. Policy toward a Weak Assad,” Washington Quarterly, Summer 2005,

[6]Stephen Zunes, “The United States and Lebanon: A Meddlesome History” Foreign Policy in Focus, April 26, 2006,

[7]Lamis Andoni, “Hariri Rally ‘marks March 14’s end,’” Al-Jazeera, February 15, 2010

[8]World Development Indicators, “GDP Growth Rate: Syria”, World Bank.

[9]Steven Weber and Bruce W Jentleson, The End of Arrogance: America in the Global Competition of Ideas, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, (2010). p. 135

[10]Bret Stephens, “The Syria Temptation,” Wall Street Journal, March 6, 2009,

[11]Newsweek, “In a Corner,” Newsweek, February 17, 2010,

[12]AFP, “Obama for closer ‘engagement’ with Syria,” AFP, July 11, 2009,

[13]Steven Weber and Bruce W Jentleson, The End of Arrogance: America in the Global Competition of Ideas, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, (2010), p. 21.

[14]Steven Weber and Bruce W Jentleson, The End of Arrogance: America in the Global Competition of Ideas, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, (2010), p. 105.

[15]AEI Events, “Bashar’s Syria at Ten: Does the Eye Doctor See Straight?” June 10, 2010,

[16]Hudson Institute Events, “Syria: Challenges and Opportunities for the New Administration,” March 26, 2009,

[17]Aaron Blake, “Republicans Denounce Obama’s Recess Appointments,” Washington Post¸ December 30, 2010,

My Book Review for Nations & Nationalism:

Nasar Meer, Citizenship, Identity and the Politics of Multiculturalism: The Rise of Muslim Consciousness. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. 248 pp. d55.00 (hbk)

A novel approach to understanding Muslim identity in Britain, Citizenship, Identity and the Politics of Multiculturalism: The Rise of Muslim Consciousness seeks to understand the ever-evolving interactions of British Muslims with British society, the international community, and with its own sense of identity. As increasing attention is paid to the ‘‘Muslim question’’ across the Western world, Meer’s work is a refreshing insight into the complex relationship between liberal national identities and the sense of ‘‘other,’’ making a powerful argument in the process that continued Muslim discrimination and racialisation are inhibiting a stronger cohesion of British Muslims into a wider social framework. Meer utilizes the Du Boisean concept of ‘‘double consciousness’’ to make a strong argument that minority (in this case: Muslim) subjectivities are both shaping and being shaped by normative racialisation practices.

Chapters 1 and 2 contextualise the central argument by framing the social operations of citizenship within a context of ‘differentiated universalism,’ rather than the ‘false universalism of traditional citizenship theory’ originating in ‘the myth of homogenous and multi-cultural nation-states’. W.E.B. Du Bois’s theory of minority social formations is rooted in a Hegelian dialectic to ‘illustrate how our sense of self is necessarily constructed in a social context that is continually subject to implicit power relations’. Meer emphasizes the concept that a society that levies requirements on a minority population without reciprocal rewards creates a ‘sort of veil from behind which they must look out at dominant society, while those in front of it do not see the minority as full and legitimate co-members of their polity’, an adaptation of Du Bois and a clever inversion of the popular symbol of Muslim differentiation.

Chapters 3 and 4 trace the roots of British race relations and their present implications for Muslim identity. Meer highlights the problem of so-called ‘involuntary’ identities, which he argues are based in a ‘logic invoked . . . through the operation of a normative grammar of race’ since ‘all groups are socially constructed, and it is clear that people tend to associate with those with whom they perceive to share some affinity’. The various manifestations of ‘competing accounts of religiously informed Muslim identities’ are explored, as well as the ways in which they interact and interplay. In turn, the strong backlash against Muslim communities represent a fusing of religion with ‘issues of community identity, stereotyping, socio-economic location, political conflict, and so forth.’

Chapters 5, 6, and 7 apply the previous concepts in three ‘multimethod case studies’ on the issues of Muslim schools, anti-discrimination legislation and public and media discourses on British Muslims, respectively. Drawing on a wide range of sources and expert opinions, these case studies serve to highlight both the similarities with past racial struggles, as well as their idiosyncratic complexities. In the process, the argument unveils many inconsistencies and double-standards prevalent in the British system, exposing the ugly effects of a normative grammar of racialising Muslims.

Overall, Nasar Meer presents a succinct, thoughtful and nuanced argument, using a variety of sources and drawing on both theory and practical application to make a powerful case for greater Muslim inclusion in the wider British community. Though sometimes taking the form of a polemic more than academic exploration, the book challenges its readers to think critically about many assumptions that are often taken for granted in political discourse over Muslim integration into Western society, and provides a compelling narrative for the rise of Muslim consciousness, its long-term implications, and its lasting external effects.

The application of Du Bois’s theories on Black minority consciousness in America is cleverly adapted to a very different circumstance, highlighting many fundamental truths in the process. Despite an unnecessary detour into an abstract and somewhat long-winded critique of Hegelian dialectics, the theory is ultimately grounded through a variety of case studies that provide concrete examples of Muslim identity-formation in process, and each example is responsibly considered from a variety of angles, while acknowledging potential criticism from alternate interpretations.

Ultimately the strongest aspect of this book, and the value it presents in the emerging field of multiculturalism studies, is Meer’s ability to transcend the specifics of Muslim-British discourse to draw significant parallels from other minority struggles, particularly the discrimination faced by Jews at the turn of the 20th century. Reconsidering the current battle as part of an ever-evolving process of identity formation, rather than a new and unprecedented threat, provides the reader with an opportunity to understand the context of the situation in far broader terms. While the argument is more than likely to generate significant debate, there is little question that the theories put forward have significantly advanced the arguments for plurality, multiculturalism, and mutual understanding.


London School of Economics and Political Science

My article for RightWeb:

There is a tendency among right-wing think tanks in the United States involved in Middle East policy to employ “experts” from the region to bolster their pro-war advocacy campaigns. One of the more infamous cases is that of Ahmad Chalabi, the darling of the neocon crowd during the lead up to the invasion of Iraq who, after his return to Iraq, leveraged his wealth and connections to become a major political figure there, often to the embarrassment of his erstwhile comrades.

More recently, there has emerged a cadre of high-profile individuals from the Greater Middle East who, unlike Chalabi, have turned against Islam and embraced their lives in the West. In doing so, they have adopted views strikingly similar to some of the more hawkish factions in U.S. politics. Notable examples include Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Wafa Sultan, and Nonie Darwish, all known for their vociferous condemnations of Islam, their affiliations with prominent neoconservative organizations, and the anger they have aroused from both Arabs and Muslims worldwide. Though the research and analysis produced by these self-styled “apostates of Islam” often has limited scholarly value, they have played an important role in providing a purportedly moral justification for Western military campaigns in Muslim countries.

Adopting the Clash of Civilizations

The background of many of theses apostates, including the three mentioned above, follow a common pattern. As natives of Arab or Muslim countries, they have each experienced pivotal events that shaped their perspectives on their countries of origin and religion. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali emigrant who once served in the Dutch House of Representatives and now works as a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute[1], was raised in war-torn Somalia, where she was subjected to the appalling practice of female genital mutilation. Wafa Sultan, the Syrian-American author of A God Who Hates: The Courageous Woman Who Inflamed the Muslim World Speaks Out Against the Evils of Islam, grew up in Syria where, in her words, “the tentacles of the Saudi octopus” had nurtured religious fanatics who murdered her university professor.[2] For Nonie Darwish, the Egyptian-American founder of Arabs for Israel, it was the death of her father, killed by an Israeli parcel bomb while organizing Palestinian resistance in Gaza, and the pressure put upon her to take revenge. [3]

These traumatic experiences helped convince these women that Islam was immoral and dangerous. They abandoned what they perceived to be a “backward culture” in favor of the “enlightened values” of the West. Hirsi Ali abandoned religion altogether. Darwish converted to Christianity. And Sultan asserts that “I even don’t believe in Islam, but I am a Muslim.”[4]

These “crusaders against Islam” are also often characterized by a Manichean worldview pitting the West against Islam. They tend to broadly portray Islam as a homogenous system of highly conformed practice, wherein singular experiences can be extrapolated to explain the broader culture. All three borrow language from Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations thesis to depict the collision between these “opposing forces.” Sultan has stated that “the clash we are witnessing around the world is … a clash between freedom and oppression.”[5] Hirsli Ali describes “the clash of values between the tribal culture of Islam and Western modernity.”[6] And Darwish refers to Islam as “an attack on civilization itself by haters of civilization.”[7]

These apostates also frequently adopt a certain presumptuous arrogance in their statements about Islam and its adherents that non-Muslim westerners would likely find difficult to pull off. Hirsi Ali, for example, has spoken repeatedly of “the tragedy of the tribal Muslim man” who has fallen prey to “the grip of jihad,” claiming that “the only difference between my relatives and me is that I opened my mind.”[8]Sultan has claimed that the Crusades were simply the logical reaction to “Islamic religious teachings.” And Darwish has frequently spoken of the “culture of death” in the Middle East.[9]

Adopted by the Right

The hawkish right in the United States has heavily promoted the writings of these women, who have subsequently joined the ranks of neoconservative organizations like the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for Security Policy, and the Middle East Media Research Institute. Unsurprisingly, these groups share many of the views of their new pundits: an unapologetic defense of all things “western,” a perceived moral duty to protect the civilized West against Islam, and a willingness to use all means necessary to achieve this objective. Commenting on this pattern,’s Glenn Greenwald has pointed out that those keenest to “help” the oppressed people of the Middle East are also those most eager to bomb countries in the region.[10]

These apostate Muslims and their neocon colleagues have developed tight, symbiotic relationships. Rightwing institutions provide platforms and legitimacy, allowing otherwise little known individuals to rise to positions of international prominence. None of these so-called experts have produced serious scholarship or careful analysis of actual political effects, aside from personal or anecdotal experience. And their main value, at least in terms of political discourse in the United States, appears to be that, as former insiders, they can provide a sheen of legitimacy to the Islamophobic tendencies of their rightwing supporters.

A similar phenomenon can be seen with the growing prominence of Western-born Muslims who, although not apostates, promote hawkish U.S. policies toward the Middle East. One such figure is Zuhdi Jasser, a Wisconsin-born practicing Muslim who is a member of the neocon-led Committee on the Present Danger (CPD) and founder of the group American Islamic Forum for Democracy. Jasser is quoted on the CPD website, saying: “Only freedom-loving devotional American Muslims can lead an effective counter-jihad from within the Muslim community. The future of American liberty and the free world as we know it depends upon the moral courage of anti-Islamist Muslims.”[11]

The Militarist Agenda

The views expressed by these apostates tend to bolster some of the more hawkish U.S. Mideast policies. For example, Hirsi Ali’s August 2010 article in the Wall Street Journal, entitled “How to Win the Clash of Civilizations,” advocated a “divide-and-rule” strategy to protect “our civilization” from destruction. She goes on to praise “The greatest advantage of Huntington’s civilizational model of international relations … [is that] it reflects the world as it is—not as we wish it to be. It allows us to distinguish friends from enemies.”[12] In earlier article, she called for a continued military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, implying that any withdrawal would have “jihadis dancing in jubilation.”[13]

Nonie Darwish has railed against the willingness of Western countries to “appease … and assimilate” Muslims, since “all mosques have an anti-American and an anti-peace message” based in a “culture of jihad, tribalism and terror.”[14]

Even more alarmingly, Wafa Sultan has publicly stated that “1.3 billion Muslims … have to realize they have only two choices: to change or to be crushed,” implying that the “pressure” may have to take the form of “atom bombs.”[15]

Comments like these are given more weight because of the identities of the sources. By vilifying the aspirations of the societies they’ve left behind, their discourse takes on an air of “truth to power,” safe from charges of neo-colonialism or western exceptionalism. Their hyperbolic pronouncements have consistently been used to buttress conservative arguments for war by creating a pretense that “people from the region” support such actions. Publications advocating tougher, more aggressive policies in the “war on terror” often rely on narratives provided by these figures, in ways reminiscent of Chalabi’s “intelligence” on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Amir Abbas Fakhravar’s claims of impending Iranian collapse.[16]

There is a certain paradox in the effort to rely on indigenous opinions to justify policies, while ignoring the overwhelming condemnation of such perspectives by the vast majority of the indigenous people themselves. And yet, these figures are repeatedly held up to mirror and confirm the predetermined opinions of war-hungry organizations eager to validate their destructive agendas.

The New Face of Orientalism

Early this year, David Frum, a speechwriter for President George W. Bush who famously coined the “Axis of Evil” phrase, hosted a posh gathering in northwest Washington D.C. to honor Ayaan Hirsi Ali for her “strength,” “courage,” and “intelligence.”[17] Though attendees were limited for “security reasons,” Hirsi Ali was surrounded by fellow neocons, discussing topics from the “liberation of Iran” to the “religious extremism” behind the Gaza flotilla.[18] The respect afforded by militarist ideologues to Hirsi Ali and her compatriots is palpable, based almost solely on the ability of these figures to validate simplistic perceptions of the Muslim world as violent, backward, and dangerous.

Just as diehard Cold Warriors viewed all socialist countries as a single, threatening entity, these apostates and their rightwing supporters have reified the Islamic world into an undifferentiated mass. They conveniently lump the disparate strains of Islam, the competing visions of Muslim identity, and the blurred and fluid boundaries of the Middle East, into a single—and threatening—unit. But in reality, the “Muslim world,” if such an entity can be said to exist, would encompass not only the Deobandis of Pakistan and the Wahhabis of the Gulf, but also Sufi mystics in Konya, Druzes in Lebanon, Shafi’i in Indonesia, and countless others.

Additionally, this monolithic view leaves little room for positive developments, such as the creation of democratic institutions in 23 Muslim countries. And it seems to have blinded these apostates to the injustices that have resulted from U.S. military interventions.[19] This view also fails to account for the many actors and organizations throughout the Greater Middle East who may disagree with Western policies for reasons not derived from religion or culture, such as the secular PFLP in Palestine or the Free Patriotic Movement in Lebanon.

As The Economist notes in its review of Hirsi Ali’s autobiographyInfidel (Free Press 2007), the lives of “Muslims [are] more complex than many people in the West may have realized. But the West’s tendency to seek simplistic explanations is a weakness that Ms. Hirsi Ali also shows she has been happy to exploit.”[20]

The Irony of Demonization

There is an irony underlying the careers of these recanted Muslims—namely, that the very same western policies they refuse to condemn often spur the resentment they ascribe as cultural backwardness or religious fervor. The anger and protestations of Muslims are often more rooted in rational considerations than Western militarists are willing to admit. Muslims, like any other group, possess layered identities, any aspect of which can be aroused in anger. As M. Junaid Levesque-Alam of the Crossing the Crescent blog explains, “When three planes hurtled into national icons, did anger and hatred rise in American hearts only after consultation of Biblical verses?”[21]

Indeed, the very existence of icons such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Wafa Sultan, and Nonie Darwish falsifies to a great extent the notion of a monolithic Muslim world. Their ability to react and rebel against their environment, as well as the variety of Muslim responses to their work, demonstrate the diversity of thought and opinion within Muslim society. Portraying Muslims in a simplistic and negative light may be a useful tool to build popular support for military campaigns. But in the long term, ignorance and stereotyping will only serve to undermine any policy objectives in the region. A more thoughtful foreign policy would be one that is grounded in dialogue, interaction, and the drive for understanding—not demonizing and finger-pointing. The sooner the U.S. public confronts this reality, the sooner peace can be achieved in the Middle East.

[1]American Enterprise Institute, “Scholars & Fellows, Ayaan Hirsi Ali”, American Enterprise Institute,

[2]Wafa Sultan, A God Who Hates: The Courageous Woman Who Inflamed the Muslim World Speaks Out Against the Evils of Islam, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009.

[3]James Langton, “Life as an Infidel,” The Guardian, May 13, 2007,

[4]Asra Q. Nomani, “Wafa Sultan,” Time,,9171,1187385,00.html.

[5]Asra Q. Nomani, “Wafa Sultan,” Time,,9171,1187385,00.html.

[6]Ayaan Hirsi Ali, “Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations,” New York: Free Press, 2010, p. 79.

[7]Nonie Darwish, “Now they call me infidel: why I rejected the jihad for America, Israel, and the war on terror,” London: Sentinal, 2006, p. 197.

[8]Pankaj Mishra, “Islamism: How should Western intellectuals respond to Muslim scholars?” The New Yorker, June 7, 2010,

[9]Hesham Hassaballa, “A Lost Opportunity,” AltMuslim, March 13, 2006,; Jim Holstun, “Nonie Darwish and the al-Bureij massacre,” Electronic Intifada, June 26, 2008,

[10]Glenn Greenwald, “John McCain on the Evil, Barbaric Iranians,”, June 12, 2010,

[11]Quoted from the website of the Committee on the Present Danger, “M. Zuhdi Jasser, MD.,”

[12]Ayaan Hirsi Ali, “How to Win the Clash of Civilizations,” Wall Street Journal, August 18, 2010,

[13]Ayaan Hirsi Ali, “Cut and Run Won’t Do,” The Australian, November 4, 2008,

[14]Renee Taylor, “Exclusive: Cruel and Usual Punishment: The Terrifying Global Implications of Islamic Law,” Family Security Matters,

[15]Garibaldi, “Wafa Sultan is Better Known as Wafa Stalin,”, December 2, 2009,

[16]Laura Rozen, “Iran Hawks Reorganize,” The American Prospect, November 13, 2006,

[17]Pamela Paul, “The Party, in Exile,” New York Times, June 13, 2006,

[18]Pamela Paul, “The Party, in Exile,” New York Times, June 13, 2006,

[19]Philip N. Howard, Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, New York: Oxford University Press, Inc. (2010).

[20]The Economist, “A Critic of Islam: Dark Secrets,” The Economist, February 8, 2007,

[21]M. Junaid Levesque-Alam, “Robert Wright and the Koran: Grappling with the Wrong Religion,” Foreign Policy in Focus, September 15, 2010,

My article for the Balkans Project:

This December, Albania and Bosnia will join Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro in theEU’s free travel zone after a tortuous process of reform, liberalization, and review. Though proponents of Balkan-EU integration are celebrating the latest development, many have noticed the glaring absence of the only remaining West Balkan state: Kosovo.

Though originally tracked for “visa dialogue” in late 2009, Kosovo has yet to begin travel liberalization talks with the European Commission, despite an enormous effort to satisfy EU demands. In response to requirements set forth by the Commission, Kosovo has adopted stronger readmission policies, reintegration mechanisms for forced returnees, enhanced border security measures, and a digitized civil registry to fill in the gaps left from Serbian withdrawal.  Despite these advances, however, the Commission has determined that Kosovo is “not ready” to advance further on visa-liberalization talks.

Some observers have noted that Kosovo has faced far greater hurdles than their neighbors, or other states engaged in similar negotiations such as Ukraine and Russia. The European Stability Initiative, a noted policy institute, has identified a number of ways in which the EU has singled out Kosovo, including the refusal to lay out a roadmap similar to those used by other Balkan states, more emphasis on Kosovo’s internal security, and higher expectations for readmission procedures.

These policies have raised a number of questions regarding the EU’s motives for delay. Though additional hurdles are clearly in place, the reasons for their implementation remain elusive.  Though the obvious answer might relate to Kosovo’s nebulous recognition status (five of the 27 EU member-states have refused to recognize its independence), the ESI points out EU dialogue with Taiwan as proof that such objections are hardly sufficient.Others simply point to a lack of interest in Kosovo, Western disdain for Kosovars traveling in Europe, and other tenuous charges.

However, the stringent EU demands are almost certainly related to the fact that Kosovars represent the fifth largest group of asylum-seekers, the largest from Europe by far, and the per-capita world leader. EU members fear that fully liberalized travel with Kosovo will drastically increase the number of illegal residents, and require Kosovo to develop a robust readmission and reintegration process to compensate.

Despite these concerns, the ESI convincingly argues that travel liberalization will in factpropel these objectives forward, rather than hamper them. Instead of expecting Kosovo to improve its ability to reabsorb expelled Kosovars unilaterally, a roadmap to integration offers the state an incentive to continue its already significant progress in building more robust readmission mechanisms. This in turn would produce a safer, more stabilizing environment for potential asylum-seekers to remain in Kosovo. In addition, Europe stands to gain significant regional influence if it is perceived as actively promoting the interest of Kosovo, rather than passively rejecting them. This influence could prove invaluable in dampening the continued strife between Kosovo and Serbia.

With the integration of other West Balkan states relatively settled, Kosovo possesses a unique opportunity to demonstrate its willingness to cooperate with the EU, and present its case convincingly. As the ESI notes, “It still has a steep hill to climb…the moment to climb is now.”

Posted by: samer | December 1, 2010

Book Review: Battles to Bridges

My book review for Foreign Policy in Focus:

Two characteristics of U.S. public diplomacy stand out in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks: the creativity, resourcefulness, and range of the various strategies employed, and their complete and utter failure. In her groundbreaking analysis of the U.S. government’s attempt to “improve its image” in response to widespread global resentment, R.S. Zaharna has ably identified the fundamental flaws and weaknesses of U.S. public diplomacy. In her book, Battles to Bridges: U.S. Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy after 9/11, she cogently argues that U.S. public diplomacy has failed to produce a grand strategy suitable for the age of networked communication.

Zaharna first traces the re-emergence of public diplomacy, from the “wake-up call” of 9/11, through the various strategies employed by each successive public diplomacy appointee, including Radio Sawa, Hi! Magazine, Al-Hurra TV, and other high-budget, high-profile initiatives. She then considers the failure of each project as a product of their consistent shortcomings: the attempt to avoid questions of policy, the lack of presidential involvement, the over-reliance on Cold War communication strategies, and a resistance to external opinion.

Though policymakers have vociferously called for “dialogue” and “communication” with the Middle East and other foreign publics, the policies themselves have steadfastly remained moored to an “information campaign” ideology, which stresses carefully crafted content delivered en masse through traditional one-way outlets: television, radio, and print. Foreign audiences were quick to criticize, dismiss, and lambast these attempts as ignorant, propagandistic, or pompous, thus undermining the goodwill the programs were intended to foster. These strategies demonstrate an unawareness – or an unwillingness – to open real communication channels and engage in a more relational approach with their intended audiences.

Zaharna amply demonstrates how U.S. public diplomacy efforts “wield” soft power, spending their political capital on information programs promoting pre-set agendas, while NGOs and transnational advocacy networks are able to “create” soft power by networking all players into a common framework, fostering cooperation and breaking down the us-versus-them dichotomies.  The International Campaign to Ban Landmines, for example, utilized a fully networked relational strategy to “establish credibility, identity, and a master narrative,” successfully convincing 156 states to ban all anti-personnel landmines.

In the author’s view, “those who master connective, relational and networking strategies will have the edge in the global communication era.” In this battle the United States has fallen significantly behind, faced with an “impossible task of trying to operate between a public demanding change and an organization fighting back change.” In order to reassert itself globally, U.S. public diplomacy must integrate all its efforts into a new grand strategy, one that encourages cooperation, dialogue, and mutuality. Policymakers must learn to trust and respect global audiences enough to incorporate their opinions and concerns into a shared discourse. The control of information must give way to coordinated messaging, and diplomacy needs to shift from a “product” of the U.S. government to a “process” of mutual understanding.

In the “war of information,” U.S. policymakers have categorically failed to “out-communicate” their opponents, primarily because “the idea of fighting an information battle is a relic of the Cold War period… out of sync with the prevailing political and communication dynamics of the international arena.” Though the United States can never hope to unilaterally win, it is dangerously close to losing. Zaharna provides a well-reasoned prototype for a new grand strategy, laying the foundation for an evolved communication dynamic targeted at an increasingly networked audience. Its call for less control, more openness to criticism, and more respect for foreign audiences may be a bitter pill for U.S. policymakers to swallow, but it may well be the only hope for their future success.

Posted by: samer | November 24, 2010

The Real Middle East Lobby

My article for RightWeb:

A covert organization, deeply embedded in the American political establishment, is actively working to undermine a rational Middle East policy. With powerful lobbyists, a massive grassroots and campus presence, and seemingly limitless resources, this lobby aims to maintain American troops throughout the region, build up its weapons arsenal, and silence those attempting to assert their independence from its hegemonic rule.

This narrative seems strikingly similar to many of the talking points used by critics of pro-Zionist organizations operating within the Beltway. However, for Mitchell Bard, a former editor for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), it is the definition of what he terms the “Arab lobby.”[1]

In his 2010 book The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance that Undermines America’s Interests in the Middle East, Bard alleges that while critics of U.S.-Israeli relations focus on the purported influence of Israel-aligned organizations, the real threat to U.S. interests in the region is—and has been for decades—a covert alliance of anti-Semitic Washington insiders, Palestinian activists, oil and weapons companies, Middle Eastern dictators, and Arab-Americans who, Bard believes, have “manipulate[d] public opinion and foreign policy, often beyond public view, in ways that have gone largely unnoticed and demand greater scrutiny.”[2]

Although lauded by the usual suspects like the neoconservative outlet Commentary and Alan Dershowitz, the book has been panned by mainstream critics, who argue that it is conceptually flawed, factually dubious, and colored by starkly ideological views. For instance, according to Newsweek, the book inappropriately confuses oil interests with pro-Palestinian movements, and degenerates into “a litany of examples of AIPAC outflanking the pro-Saudi and pro-Palestinian lobbies.” Newsweek added that the book should have been “written by a real historian, not a lobbyist disguising truthiness as actual fact.”[3]

However, lost in much of the conversation surrounding the book itself is a complex dynamic regarding Middle East power and influence in Washington. In fact, elements of the so-called Arab and Israel lobbies work in tandem to advocate militarist U.S. foreign policies. Standing in opposition to this formidable alliance—and playing no role in the “Arab Lobby”—are various Arab civil society groups and their allies in Europe and the United States, who are working to reduce the U.S. military presence in the region.

The New Boogeyman

Characterizations of the “Israel Lobby”—such as Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s depiction of a “loose coalition of individuals and organizations who actively work to steer U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction”[4]—are often prone to criticism for oversimplification and excessive generalization.

Nevertheless, there is increasing acknowledgement among observers that the disproportionate political influence of U.S.-based organizations and individuals ideologically committed to Israel has led to an unbalanced U.S.-Israeli relationship that is hurting both U.S. interests and Israel’s long-term security.

In response, a growing chorus of largely right-wing actors—including the likes of Bard, Daniel Pipes, and Steven Emerson—have sought to divert blame by conjuring an opposing boogeyman. Borrowing a tactic from the Walt and Mearsheimer playbook, these ideologues conflate a number of different political and economic groupings under the same heading: the Arab Lobby.

It makes little sense to lump together the energy and arms ambitions of states such as Saudi Arabia with organizations working to demilitarize the Middle East. Still, there is one component of this heterogeneous cluster that bears serious consideration, especially insofar as it appears to encourage U.S. militarism in the region in much the same way Israel’s hawkish supporters do.

The influence of the oil-producing Arab states is beyond doubt. The Saudi regime has leveraged its vast wealth to retain its power, build its military capabilities, and solidify its status as a regional power. In September, the Obama administration proposed the largest arms sales in U.S. history to Saudi Arabia, including $60 billion worth of fighter planes, helicopters, and other assorted weapons.[5]

Despite the rancor the proposed sale is causing in Congress,[6] there appears to be bipartisan consensus that the weapons will benefit U.S. interests. Much like the U.S. multi-billion dollar annual military aid to Israel, the weapons are intended to help maintain the status quo in the region.

Shared Interests & Coordinated Action

Neoconservatives present the dynamic between Arab and Israel groups as a zero-sum conflict that pits the lobbying power of Israel against the limitless pocketbooks of Gulf petro-states.[7] But the fact is, there is a lot of overlap between Arab and Israeli interests, calling into serious question some of the basic ideas behind the notion of an “Arab lobby.”

While in the past, notably in the 1980s, Israeli lobbying groups worked to stymie U.S.-Saudi arms deals, today the Saudi and Israeli governments frequently cooperate to maintain the current balance of power and secure steady U.S. military support. Eager to block the potentially destabilizing effects of Palestinian nationalism, the Saudis have consistently pressured Palestinian leaders to give in to Israeli demands.[8] In addition, official Saudi media has been frequently criticized for its connections to the Israeli government, and several prominent Saudi sovereign funds have invested heavily in Israeli infrastructure.[9]

Israel, for its part, has supported current Saudi policy by silently acquiescing to the proposed arms sale,[10] a tremendous sea change from the days when Tom Dine and AIPAC battled to prevent Reagan administration weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. Even more telling, Israel has covertly assisted Saudi Arabia on a number of military initiatives against Iran, Yemen, and other regional states.[11]This cooperation results from shared policy objectives aimed at constraining Arab populism and Iranian ambitions, and bolstering U.S.-sponsored “stability.”

The Real Division

If Saudis and Israelis appear more prone to cooperation than antagonism these days, the actual fault line of the lobbying conflict is not found in ethnicized lobbying arms connected to state geopolitics, but rather between pro-militarist forces and populist movements in the Middle East and their Western supporters. The fundamental error of Mitchell Bard’s conception of the Arab Lobby is the association of disparate—and diametrically opposed—groups under a single umbrella, based on little more than a common language.

A far more accurate depiction of the battle over Middle East influence would place both Saudi Arabia and status quo forces in Israel on one side, advocating a steady import of advanced weapons, the perpetual presence of U.S. troops, and the stifling of democratic aspirations of oppressed majorities. On the opposing side would be activists and isolated politicians opposed to foreign occupations, militarization, and outside influence in the Middle East.

Of course, the homogenization of Arab political players is a common enough occurrence, but this particular conflation not only fails to take into account shared Arab and Israeli interests; it also delegitimizes other anti-militarist movements by fabricating an association that simply does not exist. Rather than sharing objectives, Saudi-led oil interests remain separate and distinct from organizations working toward greater popular empowerment and rights, including Palestinian national groups, human rights organizations, and opposition political parties.

Despite pronouncements in support of Arab causes emanating from media outlets in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other aligned states, these propagandistic proclamations should not be mistaken with actual strategic priorities. Though oil interests have paid lip service to Palestinian causes, they have been far more supportive of Israel’s vision of the Middle East. As Mitchell Bard’s book notes, the Saudis “never want to get involved [with supporting Palestinians] because they believe they are already in an ideal position.”[12]

The Other “Lobbies”

The so-called Palestine Lobby wields no significant power, nor has it had much success in its efforts to improve relations with the U.S. policy establishment. Unlike other components of the “Arab Lobby,” Palestinian activists are not well-funded or well-connected, do not employ entrenched lobbyists, and cannot hope to match the lobbying power of their opponents. These activists tend towards grassroots advocacy in their quest for greater balance in U.S. relations with the Israelis and the Palestinians—in fact, they are one of the few groups with legitimately anti-militarist ambitions in the Middle East. Tellingly, some factions of the pro-Palestinian movement have reserved their bitterest complaints not against Israel or the West, but other Arab states.[13]

There is no Arab Lobby, at least not one that reflects Bard’s vision. As wealthy Gulf States advocate for their own objectives, they have little time or patience for rabble-rousers attempting to “upset the boat.” Israel is not a danger to Saudi Arabia, nor vice versa. But the governments of both these states along their supporters, in the pursuit of their ideological and material interests as well as encouragement of continued U.S. military intervention, pose a danger to civil society throughout the region.

Jewish organizations working for a demilitarized Middle East—such as J-Street, Israel Policy Forum, and Jewish Voice for Peace—should be similarly disaggregated from their more militarist counterparts. J Street in particular has been vociferous in its condemnation of the Israeli occupation and the use of overwhelming military force in Gaza. It should be noted, however, that J Street continues to support U.S. efforts to maintain “Israel’s qualitative military edge” as “an important anchor” for the peace process.[14]

Moving Forward

A naive depiction of competing ethnic factions—Jews against Arabs—fails to provide a framework for understanding the diverse, cross-cutting goals of Arab-based organizations and their competing interests. The drive to militarize the Middle East stems from shared interests of entrenched powers, be they Israeli or Arab. The unfortunate victims of their militarized agendas and oil-influenced policies are the people of the region, from dispossessed Palestinians to discriminated Shi’a of Yemen.

The predilection of the U.S. government to flood the Middle East with ever-increasing supplies of weapons is closely linked to the lobbying efforts of hawkish “pro-Israel” groups and their right-wing Arab counterparts. The spiraling violence these policies have engendered continues to represent a serious liability to U.S. foreign policy objectives, comprehensive peace settlements, and of course the lives and livelihoods of besieged Arab populations.



[1]Mitchell Bard, The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America’s Interests in the Middle East, New York: Harper, 2010.

[2]Mitchell Bard, The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America’s Interests in the Middle East, New York: Harper, 2010.

[3]R. M. Schneiderman, “Review of The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America’s Interests in the Middle East,” Newsweek, September 3, 2010,

[4]John J. Mearshiemer and Stephen M. Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

[5]Dana Hdegpeth, “Saudis may get huge arms deal,” Washington Post, September 14, 2010,

[6]Viola Gienger, “Saudi Arms Sale Prompts Questions from U.S. House Panel Leaders,” Bloomberg, November 4, 2010,

[7]Mitchell Bard, The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America’s Interests in the Middle East, New York: Harper, 2010, p. 179

[8]Helene Cooper and Mark Landler. “Leaders Call for Peace as Mideast Talks Begin,” New York Times, September 1, 2010,

[9]James Drummond. “QIA and Israeli Group Invest Jointly in Fund,” Financial Times, August 12, 2010,

[10]Nathan Guttman, “Israel Quietly Accedes to Huge Saudi Arms Deal, The LargestEver,” The Forward, October 27, 2010,

[11]Jones, Clive. Britain and the Yemen Civil War 1962-1965: Ministers, Mercenaries, and Mandarins: Foreign Policy and the Limits of Covert Action.Portland: Sussex Academic Press, 2004,p.135.

[12]Mitchell Bard, The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America’s Interests in the Middle East, New York: Harper, 2010, p. 348.

[13]Yossi Alpher, “Plenty of blame to go around over the failed peace process,” Daily Star, October 22, 2010,

[14]J Street, “The US Israel Relationship and Foreign Aid,”,


Posted by: samer | November 15, 2010

Book Review: The End of Arrogance

My Review for Foreign Policy in Focus:

The continuing failures in Afghanistan and Iraq have seriously eroded public perception of U.S. military dominance. The U.S. economy has been transformed from the “engine of economic growth” into the source of the global financial meltdown. American failures to address key global issues such as poverty, disease, and global warming have tarnished our image as protectors of the weak; our inability to protect our own citizens from unexpected disasters has become an international embarrassment. By all accounts, America’s unipolar moment has passed.  A powerful new book by Steven Weber and Bruce W. Jentleson discuss that reality’s corollary: if Americans can no longer expect to wield unchallenged authority on the global stage, what comes next?

The End of Arrogance: America in the Global Competition of Ideas argues that with the rise of new powers advancing competing world views, the United States must learn to adapt. Five core American ideas that once dominated the global landscape – peace is better than war, hegemony is better than balance of power, capitalism is better than socialism, and western culture is better than the rest – are now hotly contested, and  reopened for debate. Weber and Jentleson make a compelling argument for a tough reanalysis of the way we present ourselves to the rest of the world, and the ways other players challenge our American ideology.  Though we retain a decisive military and economic advantage over other states, we are rapidly losing the war of ideas, as alternative models based on alternative ideologies have stepped up to compete.

In order to stay competitive – and relevant – America must come to terms with a “Copernican” reality in which it no longer occupies the center of its own universe, but instead recognizes competing bodies with their own gravitational pulls. Weber and Jentleson rightly contextualize this competition of ideas as a marketplace, rather than a war. In the contest of competing ideologies, leaders must satisfy the needs of their constituents, adapt to rapidly changing circumstances, and continue to evolve ahead of competitors. There are no permanent winners in a marketplace, and like many once-unchallenged corporations, America has failed to keep up with the times.

For the authors, the solution to America’s rising obselescence lies primarily in a doctrine of “mutuality,” the idea that our primary objectives should serve shared interests, not only selfish ones.  In other words, it is no longer feasible to hold one standard for a domestic constituency and another for global populations. Each must be treated with the same respect, dignity, and autonomy.

Though Weber and Jentleson are often too happy to propose grand theoretical solutions without specific policy recommendations, their primary contribution lies in framing the questions, not directing the answers.  Overall, the argument is a well-reasoned, well-researched wake-up call to Americans to fundamentally reassess our place in the world, and the means by which American might and influence can be used to promote solutions to globally recognized needs. Shedding American exceptionalism is the only way to remain relevant on a global stage. Otherwise, we may soon find ourselves on the receiving end of something arguably worse than international mistrust: global indifference.

Posted by: samer | November 1, 2010

Turkey’s Central Place in Energy Geopolitics

My article for the Balkans Project:

Recent events have clearly demonstrated the growing importance of Turkey as a regional power in the Balkans, Middle East, and Eurasia. Its military prowess and rapid economic development are widely recognized. The Summer 2010 edition of Turkish Policy Quarterlyhighlights another, often over-looked aspect of Turkish power: energy geopolitics.

Though lacking any meaningful quantity of fossil fuel resources or significant energy-producing infrastructure, Turkey has successfully leveraged its geographic location and relative political stability to assume an integral position within the global energy network. Increased global demand, rising prices, and a lack of stable transportation alternatives have enabled Turkey to regain significant regional authority and renegotiate its relationship with global players. Although Turkey has become indispensible in addressing global energy problems, its newfound attention also carries a number of implications for its relations with both local actors and global players. The articles in the most recent edition of TPQ highlight the many ways in which the evolution of regional energy policies will directly affect Turkey’s internal development and foreign relations, for better or for worse.

The concept of Turkey as an “Energy Corridor” connecting the East and West was a common theme throughout the journal’s articles, a fitting position considering that countries west of Turkey consume 50% of global oil and natural gas supplies, while countries to its east produce 70% of it. Increased Western pressure on Russia has created strong incentives to identity alternate energy routes from Asia to Europe. To fulfill this role and ensure a diverse array of suppliers and delivery routes, Turkey has actively wooed its neighbors on all sides. The Ceyhan-Haifa and Aleppo-Kilis pipelines require the cooperation of various Middle East players. The Nabucco line, if completed, will run directly through the Balkan Peninsula to reach consumers in Austria, and the South Caucasus and the Karacabey-Komotini pipelines have necessitated friendlier relations with the Eurasian and Greek communities, respectively. The construction and maintenance of these pipelines requires strong communication and economic interdependence, and as the strongest local player, Turkey finds itself well situated to achieve this.

From this perspective, Turkey’s warming relations on previously cold borders is not only an act of shrewd political maturation but also simple economic necessity. Though historically a strategic ally of the Western powers, Turkey has increasingly turned toward other major players in an attempt to broaden its options and better fulfill its regional ambitions. Indeed, Turkey’s frustration with the EU and the United States extend beyond rising Western Islamophobia and tensions with Israel; it also highlights many obstacles confronting further pipeline development on Turkey’s western borders. Infighting within the Council of Europe over proposed transportation routes, and the lack of political capital to further develop cross-state infrastructure, has stalled many of Turkey’s most important potential outflows, causing a reorientation toward regional consumers outside the Western sphere of influence, such as Syria, Iran, and Russia. Though eager to retain strong ties with its traditional Western allies, Turkey is finding little support for its attempts to supplement its domestic energy capabilities with nuclear power, and no compensation for the opportunity cost of forgoing partnerships with “undesirable” neighboring states like Syria and Iran. Of course, this reorientation poses problems of its own, and many analysts have begun to worry about increasing dependence on Russian energy outflows, and its entanglement in contentious international issues such as border demarcations between Armenia and Azerbaijan.  By entering into the field of energy production and distribution, Turkey may well be opening the door to the very same destabilizing factors that have affected its neighbors.

Turkey therefore finds itself perched between a number of different players, straddling the middle of a global energy game between suppliers and consumers. By situating itself at the center of the energy distribution conversation, Turkey has assured itself some level of involvement, though it remains to be seen which side, if any, will prove to reap the most benefit. As Stephen J. Flanagan and Samuel J. Brannan note in their contribution to the journal, Turkey is currently situated at a crossroads of its future face and direction, and its eventual orientation will have significant consequences for energy distribution across the globe. Turkey retains the ability to either facilitate or hamper access to cheap energy supplies, and an unwillingness to recognize Turkey’s regional concerns and ambitions may significantly impact future energy security, wealth distribution, and global influence for decades to come.

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