Yesterday was not a good day in American history

Yesterday was not a good day in American history:

  • We initiated a migration ban on seven Muslim countries, although no major terrorism plot against the U.S. since 9/11 has come from those countries. There are countries that have supplied terrorists in directed plots against the U.S. since 9/11, but they are not on the list. I’m guessing they have been excluded because there are serious financial and business consequences if we were to designate these countries similarly.
  • We stopped Syrian refugees coming to the U.S. even though there are zero incidents of Syrian refugees infiltrating the U.S. to conduct an attack. America’s ISIS recruits and their plots are overwhelmingly homegrown, not foreign infiltrators.
  • We proposed building a wall to stop illegal immigration, even though illegal immigration has been steadily declining for years. We’ve proposed no realistic solutions for the legal immigration of migrant workers or a path to citizenship for them. Walls never work and we could be spending our national resources on things that promote American good (education and health, cough cough, American first) rather than blocking out irrational fears.
  • We again brought up the idea of reintroducing torture, because we need to “fight fire with fire,” even though we know torture doesn’t work, thus justifying our actions by the lowest standard of our adversaries, undermining our principles, all to appear ‘tougher’ rather than ‘better’ than our adversaries. 

Regardless of whether one is a Republican or Democrat, or if these policies don’t come to fruition, it’s hard to understand how any of these policies are about putting America first, or “Making America Great Again.” We pride ourselves on phrases like “nothing to fear but fear itself” but it appears that we have nothing to fear but being insufficiently scared of things that are sometimes real but mostly imagined.

This morning, for the first time in my life, I cannot say that we are the home of the free and the brave, the ones that free the oppressed, that everyone has an equal opportunity, or that we will make the tougher, right decisions in the face of adversity. Even after the 9/11 attacks, and missteps in the War on Terror, I could say this. Today I cannot.

We say we want to “Make America Great Again” but somewhere along the way we’ve forgotten that what made America great was that we, Americans, were the world’s refugees, we were the earth’s oddballs that came together and created the best system of governance, invented the world’s advancements, worked harder than the rest, earned our place in the world, promoted and fought for the ideals of freedom and liberty at home and abroad, and worked to give everyone, American or not, an opportunity to make the best life for themselves, their loved ones and their communities.

America is great when we face our fears, don’t compromise our principles, lead by example, and make hard, short-term choices for the greater good of humanity. We know we are great, when others around the world want to emulate us, join us and befriend us.

We are not great because we tell ourselves we are. We are not great because of enticing deals, phony tough talk, or giving into our fears — fears increasingly fueled by bogus narratives. America is not the best country in world history because we said,” stay away, leave us alone, we can do all this by ourselves!”

We landed on the moon, won world wars, achieved standards of living never witnessed in human history, and rescued the downtrodden and the unfortunate from natural and man-made peril. We did all this because no one else could, no one else would, it wasn’t “America First,” it was “America the Beautiful.”

Many will see this through their own partisan lens (shocking!). I know and like many of the more responsible appointees coming into parts of the administration and I hope they can re-direct things soon. But the past week’s words and policies have consequences. America is “not safer” and definitely not “greater” by any of these new policies from the first week.

The pendulum will swing back, and I hope not too many Americans, particularly those in uniform that have carried the greatest sacrifice since 9/11, suffer the consequences of this past week’s tough talk.

President Trump may be the best thing for America in the end, not because he makes us great again, but because he makes us, as Americans, want to be great again in spite of him, not because of him.

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One Click at a Time: The Change Agents of the Middle East

The Arabic-speaking world, extending from Morocco in the east to Oman in the west, is changing rapidly. The Arab Spring was but the first chapter of this change. Despite ongoing violence in Syria, Libya, and elsewhere, in much of the Arab world the most powerful force for change is nonviolent activism. Millions of people are pursuing creative, peaceful ways to effect political change, even as both extremists and dictators, continue to assert their power using their proven means: violence.

 

Take the example of Aramram, a Jordanian WebTV platform. Its videos provide unprecedented civic education for young Jordanians, in easy-to-follow language. It also provides videos on economic issues.  In one of their programs called, “209 King Hussein Street,” named after the address of the Parliament building, they discuss every bill proposed or passed by the members of the parliament, acting as a Jordanian C-SPAN. While this doesn’t raise an eyebrow in America, for a country where most votes are cast to support one’s tribe or religious affiliation, this kind of civic education aims at fundamentally changing voting patterns and creating, for the first time, a state-based citizen, rather than a tribal citizen, with expectations of an accountable government. Aramram’s productions meet a hunger for such knowledge as their videos have been viewed millions of people and shared by hundreds of thousands. For a small country like Jordan, that is a significant percentage of the country.

 

Or take the example of Sami al-Hourani, a brilliant Jordanian medical doctor who decided to leave a fellowship at Stanford University to dedicate his time to a platform he created to help his fellow young men and women find opportunities around the world for training and fellowships. His website, Fursa, Arabic for opportunity, receives more than ten thousand visitors a day. His Facebook page is even more popular. He is not stopping there. Among other initiatives he created is Fadfid, which means vent in Arabic. He distributed blank pieces of white paper to young men and women in Jordan and asked them to list their grievances. He then translated these into charts and data, an effortless task for someone who started coding in seventh grade. His goal is to find creative solutions for these grievances, as he did with Fursa.

 

Like many of his peers who are providing a much-needed service, al-Hourani’s company is severely lacking in funding. He told the author on a recent trip to Amman that if things do not change for him in a year, he would have to go back to Stanford. The hundreds of thousands who rely on his service to obtain professional opportunities would join the millions of unemployed young men and women in the Middle East and North Africa region who constitute the highest regional unemployment in the world. Perhaps some would consider joining violent groups that promise change more forcefully. Although “CVE”, or countering violent extremism, is not their primary purpose, civic-minded innovators like Sami al-Hourani are providing services that meet the needs of the vast numbers of educated, unemployed Arab youth. Without an alternative, these young people are vulnerable to the lure of extremism. Don’t people like Sami al-Hourani deserve some of the vast funds the west is pouring into the Arab world in the effort to promote stability and counter violent extremism?

 

Stand-up comedian Fahad al-Butairi is another example of creativity and influence. Born and raised in, arguably, the most conservative country on earth, Saudi Arabia, Fahad is one of tens of thousands of Saudis who are also Western educated. To meet the needs of his fellow young Saudis for candid debates on the challenges they are facing, Fahad created political satire shows aimed at raising awareness among his peers. His videos went viral on YouTube, attracting millions of followers. In fact, his YouTube channel competes, and even surpasses at times, the viewership of well-financed conventional satellite television stations, which are mostly government owned, and often push a more conservative agenda. In his satire, he mocked political, social and even religious norms. For example in one episode, which was watched by over five and a half million viewers, he tackled the negative impact of the kingdom’s internal conservative rules and its severe gender segregation policies.

 

The Arabic speaking world has thousands of young men and women who are empowering their peers to be pro-active citizens, and  to push for meaningful change through peaceful means. In age of violence and disruption, these young innovators are  providing  the “ammunition” through the peaceful means of  information, knowledge,  and awareness to bring  about the essential transformation of  the Middle East into a region of  opportunity  and justice. The question is, when will policy makers in the US and the rest of Western world pay attention to these change agents who are impacting millions of their peers?

 

This blog post is drawn from a presentation the author made at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Competitive Soft Power and Engagement Seminar entitled “Arts, Culture, and the Media in the Contemporary Middle East: Competitive Soft Power and Engagement in the Arab World” held in Washington, DC on October 4, 2016.

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It All Started When He Hit Me Back

[Editor’s Note: This blog entry originally appeared on Michael Neiberg‘s personal blog and has not been edited in any way.]

In August, I had the great privilege of spending eight days studying Israeli and Middle Eastern security issues as a guest of Academic Exchange and the Yitzhak Rabin Center. The trip involved high-level discussions with Israeli and Palestinian government officials, journalists, business leaders, peace negotiators, and security specialists. What follows are a few of my impressions of the trip. I have not used the names of specific individuals with whom we spoke in order to preserve the honesty and frankness with which they spoke to us off the record.

Although the Middle East is habitually unstable, we may be living through the most revolutionary period in its history since 1967, maybe even 1948 or 1918. Across the Middle East, state authority is collapsing; the Shia-Sunni rivalry is replacing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the main driver of instability; non-state actors like ISIL, Hizbollah, and Hamas are becoming dominant players; Turkey is in turmoil; Syria is in civil war; the rise of Iran has triggered responses by most of its Sunni neighbors; and the loss of faith in a two-state solution for Palestine has sapped whatever optimism remains from the Oslo process.

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These changes have had some ironic and unintended consequences for Israeli security. First, they have left Israel with few serious state challengers in the region. Egypt and Jordan are allies with shared interests in deterring and preventing both terrorism and a spillover from the Syrian civil war. Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq are failed states that cannot threaten Israel’s existence, although the possibility exists of terrorist groups taking advantage of that failure, especially given Hizbollah’s exploitation of Lebanese territory.

The rise of Iran has created strange bedfellows for Israel. Traditional rivals like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States now have a shared interest with Israel in preventing an Iranian bid for regional hegemony. Israeli foreign policy therefore now looks more and more like what one might expect from a moderate Sunni state. As for the Sunni states themselves, one speaker mentioned that they treat Israel like a mistress. They enjoy the pleasures of the relationship, but prefer to do so in the dark or when they are out of town. Israel is also enjoying better relations with India, Brazil, Singapore, China, and even Russia, partly as a result of Israel’s booming tech sector and partly because warmer relations with Israel no longer compromise these nations’ dealings with Arab states.

Israel’s greatest threats come from non-state actors closer to home. Hizbollah (based in Lebanon) and Hamas (which runs the Gaza Strip) both have the means and the will to cause Israel great harm. Both have used rockets and terrorism to kill Israelis in recent years. Gaza presents a special problem. Hamas’s endemic corruption and Islamist ideology have led Egypt to close its border crossing with Gaza. International humanitarian support for Hamas has dried up, leaving 1.2 million people in Gaza with so few resources that the UN estimates that Gaza will not be able to support human life by 2020. Already hundred of thousands of people there lack regular access to electricity, sewage, and clean water.

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We visited Kerem Shalom, the main entry point for all supplies into Gaza and the self-styled ugliest place in Israel. It handles 900 to 1,200 trucks per day in a complicated ballet wherein Israeli and Palestinian drivers never see one another. All trucks are inspected and analyzed, then brought into one of eleven “neutral” areas where goods are offloaded. Then the Israeli drivers leave the neutral zone, allowing Palestinian drivers to enter and load the goods into their own trucks. As the director of the crossing told us, it is the first place of its kind built not with the hope of peace but the expectation of perpetual war. He knows most of the Palestinian drivers and workers by name, but, as he told us repeatedly, he operates from a position of zero trust. He was himself one of the families whose homes in Gaza the Israelis destroyed as part of Israel’s complete and unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. The memory obviously still caused him great pain, though his sense of duty to ease the suffering of Gaza (as long as it did not threaten Israeli security in the least) was quite evident.

The situation in the West Bank is a bit better than Gaza, but it is also tense. The various pieces of the jigsaw puzzle bequeathed by the Oslo process have createdthree non-contiguous areas. Area A is controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA); Area B is controlled for civil purposes by the PA, but security is Israeli; and Area C is fully under Israeli control. In a region where my enemy’s enemy is not necessarily my friend, the PA and Israel both fear and despise Hamas, but that shared interest has not brought them much closer together. Each side deeply mistrusts the other and the issues of Israeli settlements, borders, and the future of Jerusalem are just a few of the problems with no foreseeable compromise or agreement in sight. Each side can trace its history back centuries, can find defenses in international law for their positions, and can mobilize a great deal of emotion. As one veteran of years of negotiations between the two said, it is like being the parent of a child who says “It all started when he hit me back.”

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The PA is deeply corrupt, terribly inefficient in its governance, and unwilling to divorce itself from the violence often done in the name of the Palestinian people it represents. The unequal sharing of resources and security with Israel surely handicaps the PA, but the modernization and professionalization of the state that the Oslo process was supposed to usher in has clearly not happened. Municipal elections in October and the impending withdrawal of Mahmoud Abbas from the political scene could portend even greater instability. Should Hamas do well in those elections, the situation is likely to get significantly more tense.

Still, we saw some positive signs in the West Bank which, compared to Gaza, shows some promise. The parts of Ramallah that we saw showed a few signs of new construction and economic growth, including the modern hotel and lovely restaurant that hosted us. We also visited Rawabi, a truly inspiring planned community under construction about 25km north of Jerusalem. Once completed it will have 5,000 apartments, a central commercial area with high-tech employers, schools based on the Cambridge model, green spaces, water parks, mosques, a church for Christian residents, a 15,000 seat amphitheater, and even a winery. Everything about it looks to the future. The project developer has gone out of his way to hire women as engineers and architects. We all left Rawabi wishing we had money to invest or perhaps to buy ourselves an apartment. The sense of promise in Rawabi was contagious. The town’s motto reads “The Best Is Yet to Come.”

5But Rawabi faces enormous challenges. It cannot possibly make money for many years to come, so it depends on international aid, mostly from Qatar. Construction crews store six months of everything they need to keep building because Israel occasionally closes the one small road leading out of Area C to Rawabi. The PA hates Rawabi because it challenges the narrative of Palestinian victimhood and is independent of PA funding; the Israeli settler community nearby fears its growth; and traditional Muslims dislike its modern orientation. One can’t help but cheer for it and hope for its success, but the more we learned about the problems ahead, the less we academics were sure about the wisdom of investing our (admittedly hypothetical) capital, however much we were charmed by what we saw.

Rawabi also highlights the question of whether Palestine more urgently needs economic development or political stability. In an ideal world, of course, it would get both, but resources are limited. Rawabi’s supporters hope that by improving the economy and living conditions, Palestinians will be less likely to turn to groups like Hamas. Critics of this approach argue that political stability must precede economic development because without functioning schools, police, and civil administration, Rawabi and ideas like it are doomed to failure.

A further problem comes from the nature of Israeli society. Repeatedly we heard the essential dilemma expressed as the difference between Israel as a Jewish modern state or a modern Jewish state. The two need not be in conflict, but in reality they often are. Maintaining Israel as a Jewish state means restricting the rights of Arab citizens and resisting any incorporation of West Bank Palestinians (to say nothing of Gazans) into the polity. To make Israel a democracy means to many people risking changes to its essential identity. Recent court cases challenging the menorah as a state symbol and the Hatikvah as the national anthem highlight this tension as does the growth of political influence among the ultra-Orthodox.

6The following are seven general points of consensus among most of the speakers we heard:

 

  1. The Sunni-Shia rivalry across the region has largely replaced the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the main schism of the Middle East. It is being played out both as a state vs. state conflict and a proxy war through various militias and terror groups. Iran’s support for Hizbollah gives it a cheaper and easier way to deter Israel than a nuclear weapon, which may explain why Iran was willing to agree to the nuclear treaty.
  2. We may well be seeing the end of the Westphalian state in most of the region, though what will replace it is anyone’s guess. Arab states failed to give people either economic security or a sense of belonging that could supersede ethnic and religious identity. Even in Israel, the tensions of pluralism and the classic problem of balancing security and democracy is putting pressure on the state. The imposition of western models of governance in the region may at long last be ready to implode. To complicate matters further, “God is back in town” after a long period of essentially secular governance in the region, and the sacred cannot be compromised.

  3. Until or unless the state system does implode, improved Israeli relations with moderate Sunni states hold out the potential to reshape the region. Those states can offer to recognize an Israel that recognizes a Palestinian state. They may also be able to serve as a productive third party, as the Saudis have recently tried to do; they can also provide money and encouragement to fellow moderates. Still, there is a perception that states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar are playing the role of both the arsonist (in promoting extremist ideologies) and firefighter (in allying with Israel against Iran). 

  4. The international community has very little legitimacy in the region. No one trusts the UN, the EU has proven ineffective, and the USA gets decidedly mixed reviews. Some see the USA as a powerful and indispensable broker, while others are convinced that the USA has little real idea of what is happening in the region. Most thought the Iran nuclear deal a positive development, but thought the USA could and should have gotten more from it. The USA also inadvertently helped to create the Iranian problem by eliminating two of Iran’s biggest foes, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban.

  5. The situation in Gaza is a true tinderbox awaiting a spark that could come at any moment. The crisis is not far away there as conditions continue to deteriorate and no one comes to help. But a focus on Gaza may distract from the West Bank, where Israeli settlements and the lack of help from Arab states has made Palestinians ever more desperate and pessimistic.

  6. A majority of people on both sides still say that they want a two-state solution, but a majority among both majorities believes that the other side is not a reliable partner. Thus even though a two-state solution is still probably the best way forward, the chances of it succeeding continue to fade. Each successive setback only exacerbates the problem, further undermining the faith of people on both sides.

  7. US policy makes two false presumptions. First, it assumes that the people of the region want what Americans want, namely democracy, equality, and integration. But in the Middle East, where identities are still tribal, this assumption is flawed. The United States cannot expect to export Jeffersonian democracy to the Middle East, and it should stop trying. Second, Americans continue to talk about solving the problem when few people in the region have any hope that it can be solved. The goal now is to try to improve the quality of life for as many people as possible. Solutions are a bridge too far.

Despite the ubiquitous joy and energy in the country, it would be easy to leave Israel depressed about its future and the future of the region more generally. The improved relations with many of the states on Israel’s borders will likely last only as long as the states themselves do, and some of them may have short futures indeed. Most importantly, the essential problem of the Palestinians looms menacingly over Israel, even if (or perhaps specifically because) for many Israelis the status quo seems perfectly acceptable. Israel may be reduced to taking what unilateral action it can in the absence of reliable partners for peace, but even that will require political leadership that may be lacking.

Still, there are reasons for optimism. Israel is dynamic, democratic, and full of resources. The most important of those resources is its people, many of whom have a deep appreciation of the problems they face and a commitment to finding ways to improve the situation. There was also a sincere appreciation of the pain and suffering of the Palestinian people and an awareness that the two communities must find a way to live together or die side by side. Whether that determination will be enough is for the future to decide.

More photos can be seen at: https://goo.gl/photos/1irUohpD923Je9EP7

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Arts, Culture, Geopolitics: FX’s Tyrant

It seems like the events of September 11th, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Arab Spring have caused art to imitate life-–in this case, in the form of dramatic television series. FX recently premiered its own addition to this emerging genre with its new series about the fictional Middle Eastern dictatorship of Abbudin, and the Al Fayeed family that rules it. Based on an amalgamation of Saddam’s Iraq and al-Assad’s Syria, Tyrant follows the familiar story of a messy succession, after the demise of an ailing dictator.

Visually, the show draws you in, though if you’ve spent anytime in the region, you will recognize many of the major landmarks all superimposed into one, impressive landscape. In terms of cast, some fit the bill, others are a stretch. But that’s not what is going to keep most viewers coming back. Similar to other popular shows along the lines of Game of Thrones, Homeland, and the Tudors, Tyrant amps up tried and true story lines with graphic depictions of sex and violence. Where Tyrant stands apart, however, is in its relevance to the contemporary reality of the region. For example, it takes Jamal Al-Fayeed-–the heir apparent-–5 minutes of screen time to completely shock and awe you (and when I say you I mean me) with his physical and sexual brutality. However, Tyrant is not simply looking to get a rise out of the audience from this stunningly scary performance by talented Arab Israeli actor, Ashraf Barhom. If you’ve read The Devil’s Double–the gruesome story of Uday Hussain’s body double and the horrors that he witnessed during his compulsory tenure–you’ll know that Jamal’s character is the real deal.

Putting aside the sensationalist aspects of the show for a moment, Tyrant manages quite deftly to touch upon almost every major theme plaguing the region today. From the fall of regional dictators and the ensuing chaos to the events and associated grievances of the Arab Spring; from foreign fighters and the potential blowback following their return from Syria to the ever-present specter of “infidels, Zionists and the Muslim Brotherhood,” this show’s got it all.

What it also has is a fair share of judgment and caricature. For example, what’s the deal with the American Embassy official John Tucker’s character? The guy is portrayed as being in the pocket of the regime, while lavishly soaking up the luxury that comes with it. That’s it? That is all the representation the U.S. is getting in the entire pilot? Is this what we are doing in Syria? Is this what we did in Libya?

Likewise, at another point in the series’ pilot, ailing King Khalid Al Fayeed says to his son Bassam, newly returned from his self-imposed exile and quiet life as a doctor in American: “After everything I’ve given the people, they are still not satisfied. They say they want freedom, freedom to do what? To kill each other?” This line, while giving viewers a vivid sense of how dictators perceive the sectarian and civil strife that replaces their iron rule, depicts a simplistic and rather un-compelling dichotomy between the authoritarian security state and the bloodlust-driven break-up of a country. Some may be tempted to cite the ISIS demolition of the Syrian-Iraqi border as a real-life example of this. But what about the missed opportunities to create inclusive governments to replace fallen dictators and to spur indigenous efforts from within to confront the radical threat posed by jihadists and other would-be terrorists? But that’s probably a little more that FX is trying to bite off.

For some, this series will be as attractive and addictive as 24 and Homeland. For others, it will hit too close to home in light of the events going on today in capitals across the region. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to watch how the show’s creators continue to blend fact and fiction, while still keeping viewers engaged in a pass-time that at the end of the day is meant to entertain.

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