What have we learned since 9/11?
Nearly fifteen years after 9/11, the United States is still entangled in an ongoing battle against extremist terrorism. Though our opponent has changed in strategy and name, the core of the conflict has remained unchanged. Despite this relative consistency, professors and students alike remain dishearteningly naive about the region of the world that has engulfed United States foreign policy for over a decade.
Knowledge about the Middle East has not grown much in the nearly fifteen years since 9/11, despite the fact that citizens have the information at their fingertips. In his 2011 essay “What Our Students – and Our Political Leaders – Don’t Know About the Middle East,” Adam Garfinkle elaborates on the American tendency to either paint the Middle East with a broad brush or to ignore the region altogether, as well as the necessary steps to being able to understand the region in the wake of terror attacks both in and out of the Middle East.
Reform over Engagement
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Brussels, many Western politicians and pundits have used increasingly combative rhetoric to describe the Islamic State and what can be done to counter it. A true solution to the problem, however, will require more than simply increasing Western engagement. It also demands sustained reform from within the Muslim community generally and the Arab world in particular.
Omar Said Ghobash, the UAE ambassador to Russia, explains what this reform could look like and why it is both difficult and absolutely vital. In his September 2014 essay “Winning the War of Ideas in the Arab World: A View from the UAE,” he analyzes the weak points of extremist ideology and how pragmatism and religious faith can help defeat ISIS.
Syria: How did we get here?
The recent announcement of a cease-fire agreement in Syria has boosted tentative hopes for a peaceful resolution to the nation’s five-year civil war. Yet the grinding conflict has resisted all efforts at mediation up to this point, and many skeptically assume that the latest round of promises will be quickly pushed aside. A complex situation has only been aggravated by competing geopolitical claims, ethnic and sectarian tensions within and across borders and the rise of the Islamic State.
Many pundits have wondered how the West, particularly the United States, allowed the situation in Syria to escalate so catastrophically. In his June 2012 essay, “How Washington Lost Syria,” FPRI contributor Gary C. Gambill described the origins of the conflict, detailed the missed opportunities that might have avoided bloodshed, and prophetically explained why a negotiated settlement is so elusive.
Jordan’s Role in the Syrian Conflict
In the past month, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey have all signaled a degree of support for ground operations in Syria, nominally to combat the Islamic State. This would represent a risky escalation and the further internationalization of the conflict, though it might also finally bring the war to a close and destroy the threat of ISIS. The Kingdom of Jordan will be the linchpin of these efforts to cobble together a ground coalition due to its strategic location on Syria’s southern border.
Jordan’s King Abdullah now faces a series of critical junctures, each more treacherous than the next. Director of FPRI’s Middle East Program, Tally Helfont, described the King’s options and how Jordanians have approached the Syrian crisis in the past in her July 2012 essay, “Jordan’s Quandary Over Syria.”
Progress on North African’s Democratic Prospects?
The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi after his vegetable cart was seized by police in December 2010, triggered massive protests across Tunisia, and eventually the rest of North Africa and the Middle East, against authoritarian rule. These uprisings, known as the Arab Spring, were hailed in the West as a significant step toward the region’s democratization. Four years later, how close to the democracy is the region really? In his December 2011 essay, North Africa’s Democratic Prospects, FPRI Senior Fellow Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, discusses the potential for genuine political change in North Africa. He examines each country individually, and the many challenges they may face in the democratization process.
Military Action & Countering Militant Ideology
The Obama administration recently announced the creation of a coalition comprised of both Western and Middle Eastern countries to combat the Islamic State. This decision was largely driven by the organization’s recent military victories and territorial acquisitions, along with their dangerously radical view of Islam. Although airstrikes and the arming of opposition groups may be effective in combating ISIS in the short term, is a purely military strategy truly effective in the long term? Is there a more efficient, and less costly, way of combating radical Islamists?
In his November 2013 essay, Competing Visions of Islam: From Osama bin Laden to Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, FPRI’s President Alan Luxenberg discusses the contention between moderate and radical views of Islam. He asserts that the propagation of more liberal visions of Islam by key religious and political leaders, such as King Mohammed VI, can help stem the growth of jihadism throughout the region.
ISIL and Sectarianism
Whether you refer to it as ISIS, ISIL or simply the Islamic State, the jihadist organization lead by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi has sought to upend the reigning configuration of the Middle East. Having secured control over large swaths of Syria and Iraq, the movement is doggedly worked to expand its holdings and violently establish an Islamic Caliphate. Many attribute the threat posed by ISIL to long-standing tensions between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. Although Al-Baghdadi’s rise to power came as a surprise to most, these sectarian tensions have been known for quite some time. In The Geopolitics of the Sunni-Shi’a Divide in the Middle East, FPRI Fellow Samuel Helfont incorporates both history and geopolitics to provide a better understanding of the divide between Islam’s two largest groups.
Conflict and Collateral Damage – The Moral Dimension
After discovering that three of its citizens had been kidnapped and murdered, Israel began cracking down on the Palestinian terrorist organization, Hamas, in what it dubbed Operation Protective Edge. On July 17th, the conflict escalated, as the IDF launched a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip—its first incursion into the territory since 2009’s Operation Cast Lead. Reports of a high number of civilian casualties have subjected Israel to strong condemnations from around the world. Such responses raise an important discussion about moral standing of collateral damage. In Risk, Military Ethics, and Irregular Warfare, Colonel Tony Pfaff sheds light on moral decision-making in ethically complicated conflicts. He argues that rather than applying morality through a set of rules, as conceived by the Just War tradition, irregular operations—like the one underway in Gaza—call for morality to be achieved by balancing of risk. Read more here.
Afghanistan’s Stability after the American Exit
Although the U.S. and the international community have helped make Afghanistan a more secure country over the past decade, there is a great deal of concern in Washington that the government of this conflict-prone nation will be unable to maintain stability following the withdrawal of U.S. troops. With the recent release of five senior Taliban leaders from Guantanamo Bay, U.S. critics ponder the likelihood of terrorist reengagement in Afghanistan. It is only fitting, therefore that we take a look back at the April 2013 article by Andrew Garfield and Alicia Boyd on “Understanding Afghan Insurgents: Motivations, Goals, and the Reconciliation and Reintegration Process” which gives us a more comprehensive understanding of what Taliban insurgents seek to accomplish.
Arming the Syrian Opposition?
President Obama’s address to West Point’s graduating Class of 2014 received a decidedly mixed response. The speech was simultaneously hailed as a much needed reset of a largely ineffective foreign policy and derided as an empty preservation of the status quo. One of the most noteworthy components of the speech dealt with Syria, though in a decidedly cryptic manner in which the President announced his desire to “help those who fight” in the conflict. For some, this was viewed as the long-awaited decision to militarily aid moderate forces against Bashar al-Assad regime. Gary C. Gambill in his article, Arms for Peace in Syria?, discusses the logic behind the arming the rebels—revealing that the President’s motivations may be different from what most think. Read more here.
Tukey and Iran: Friends or Foes?
For some time, Middle East observers have been curious about the ebb and flow of the Turkish-Iranian relationship. Rapprochement has been succeeded by animosity, which in turn has been succeeded by olive branches, and then further misunderstandings. Mutual interests, and mutual competition for that matter, between the two countries go beyond bilateral relations, bleeding over into many of the regional conflicts taking place throughout the region. Whereas the two countries saw eye to eye on Gaza, as seen through the Mavi Marmara incident, they have often diverged on Syria. Gallia Lindenstrauss and Yoel Guzansky looked at the evolving Turkish-Iranian relationship in April 2011, in their aptly titled Middle East Media Monitor article, The Rise and (Future) Fall of a Turkish-Iranian Axis. To access the full article, click here.
Where is Egypt Headed?
Egypt, having been our primary ally in the region for several decades, is now on uncertain footing vis-à-vis the United States. The country has devolved into barely bridled chaos, with renewed protest, threatening what little stability it has achieved in recent weeks and months. Questions about governance, the viability of democracy, and minority rights are but a few of the issues currently plaguing the country, its citizen, and even its allies. Many now find themselves wondering, where is Egypt headed?
Ambassador Daniel C. Kurtzer asked this same question, Where is Egypt Headed?, in November 2008, discussing what was, at that time, the most pressing and uncertain issue in Egypt: the succession. Of course we now know that Mubarak did not pass on the presidency to his son Gamal, and yet this essay by Ambassador Kurtzer still provides several prescient analysis points that warrant a second look. He argues, for example, that “In many respects, the U.S.-Egypt dialogue on democratization is really a “duologue” of two independent monologues, stemming from two very different political cultures, in which neither side is clearly listening to the other.” Likewise, Kurtzer suggests that “it would be wise for Egyptians to undertake their own internal assessment of the value of political liberalization, not one choreographed or coming under pressure from the outside.” To read the article, in its entirety, click here.
Time to Rethink American Foreign Policy in the Middle East?
While many in Washington policy circles are currently considering this very question, it seems appropriate to take another look at Walter McDougall‘s iconic July 2009 essay on U.S. Foreign Policy Traditions and the Middle East. Here is a teaser: “…It is my assigned task to provide the overarching context of American foreign relations in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. My most telling message is that the strategies and methodologies—the ends and means of America as a world power—were all contrived to surmount crises and challenges elsewhere in the world. They had no initial relevance to Islamic cultures or Middle East geography, but had somehow to be applied to Middle Eastern policies once they had pushed themselves onto the American foreign policy agenda. That is why I shall have nothing more to say on the Middle East until the very end.” The article, in its entirety, can be accessed here.