On May the 6th, I will be presenting a paper at the “Trump’s America” conference hosted by the Clinton Institute at UCD.
I will be part of a panel focusing on US foreign policy.
The abstract of my presentation is below:
Could President Trump represent a major break with the tradition of US democracy promotion in the Middle East? Wilsonianism has long represented one of the most influential approaches in the tradition of US foreign policy. The focus of Wilsonianism has been on the advancement of US values abroad, especially of liberal democratic values. Accordingly, US foreign policy rhetoric has commonly referred to the promotion of US values to describe and justify US international behavior. Evidence from the 2016 US presidential campaign and President Donald Trump’s first months in office indicates that this may no longer be the case, especially with regard to the Middle East. Many commentators have consistently argued that the new president has completely dropped the Wilsonian aspects of US foreign policy; therefore breaking with more than 100 years of US foreign policy.
In this paper, I will:
1) maintain that Trump’s departure from Wilsonianism may be a temporary phenomenon likely to change during his time in office. To make this argument I will present historical evidence of similar dynamics playing out during the George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s administrations.
2) identify the key reasons, at both the national and systemic levels, that could explain Wilsonianism’s past, present, and future resilience as a core approach to US foreign policy.
According to some estimates, crude oil sales accounted for 85 percent of Gulf governments’ revenues in 2014. Oil prices have fallen from a peak of $145 per barrel in 2008 to below $30 a barrel in 2016.
As a result, there has been increased talk across the Arab Gulf states of the possible introduction of income taxes in order to cope with low oil prices.
In a recent piece
“Taxation may prompt a rewrite of the ‘Gulf social contract.’ Scholars have used this phrase to describe an unwritten agreement between Gulf citizens and their governments. This unwritten agreement basically stipulates that Gulf citizens — including the merchant and elite classes — will agree to delegate the running of the state to the ruling families so long as governments refrain from taxing them. The concept of taxation, at least understood by Americans, is that it should equal democratic representation. It is unlikely that this concept will apply to the GCC’s vision of taxation, which will take a more security focus at a time of heightened instability. Today, the GCC remains one of the world’s last clusters of states that have successfully, and without descending into chaos, resisted the spread of democracy around the world that has swept Latin America, Eastern Europe and large parts of Asia and Africa since the end of the Cold War. That is not to say that the Gulf states are completely uninterested in citizen participation. In fact, all six countries have taken steps toward citizen empowerment in various fields, but these come with a caveat: this empowerment should not impinge upon the so-called ‘sovereign state portfolios,’ such as the ministries of interior, defense, foreign affairs and intelligence.”
The rest of the piece can be seen here
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In this article on The Telegraph, many experts at the War Studies Deparment, King’s College London, offer their answers to the above question.
Here is my contribution:
Political transition in the Middle East
Jonathan Hill, a reader in postcolonialism and the Maghreb, believes that democracy is important for the Middle East but fears that it gives a voice to those hostile to the West.
“The West has to be seen to support it yet democratisation is a difficult and unsettling process, and also provides opportunities to groups and figures which are suspicious and hostile to the West.”
Eugenio Lilli, a researcher, agrees with Mr Hill.
“Unless these demands for freedom and economic opportunities are earnestly addressed, the Middle East will remain a region exposed to the risk of cyclical waves of unrest. Meanwhile, the failed uprisings created the enabling environment that, in turn, led to the rise of serious threats. Peaceful popular protests have been replaced by bloody conflicts among armed groups and militias in Libya, Syria, and Yemen.
The terrorists’ narrative, holding that change in the Middle East can be achieved only through violence has gained new currency. Tellingly, old (al-Qaeda) and new (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) extremist organisations have intensified their activity across the region.”
To read the entire article click here
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Ask a person if all men should be free and the likely answer will be “yes”.
Move the conversation from the theoretical to the empirical, from the general to the specific, and you will be surprised by the kind of different answers you may receive.
In recent conversations on the outcome of the popular uprisings that have upset the Arab world since early 2011, I have been repeatedly confronted with the argument that some people, for cultural, religious, or whatever reason, “are not ripe for freedom.” Supporters of different strands of this argument use the current examples of chaos in post-Qaddafi Libya, violence in post-Mubarak Egypt, disorder in post-Saleh Yemen, and protracted armed confrontation in post- (?) Assad Syria to prove that some people, especially in the Arab world, are not ready to be “free”. It seems to me that hidden behind many of these arguments is the legacy of the XVIII century concept of the “white man’s burden”, according to which the “better” people should encourage the “lesser” people to develop socially, politically, and economically until the latter can eventually take their own place in the world.
Nevertheless, if one accepts the assumption that some people are not ripe for freedom, freedom will never be achieved;
for one cannot arrive at the maturity for freedom without having already acquired it; one must be free to learn how to make use of one’s powers freely and usefully.
The first attempts will surely be brutal and will lead to a state of affairs more painful and dangerous than the former condition under the dominance, but also the protection, of an external authority.
However, one can achieve reason only through one’s own experiences and one must be free to be able to undertake them.
To accept the principle that freedom is worthless for those under one’s control and that one has the right to refuse it to them forever, is an infringement on the rights of God himself, who has created man to be free.
Those are not my words but Immanuel Kant’s (the above excerpt is cited in Michael Bakunin’s Etatism et Anarchie, ed. Arthur Lehning, 1967). Kant’s remarks are especially interesting because of their context. In fact, the German philosopher wrote them during the so-called Reign of Terror (end of XVIII century) in defense of the French Revolution. Kant was defending the Revolution against those who claimed that the violence unleashed during the Reign of Terror showed that the masses were unprepared for the privilege of freedom.
I cannot help being impressed by the contemporary relevance of Kant’s words.
I believe that no rational individual should condone violence and terror. However, the same rational individual should not be too quick to condemn the violence that often occurs when long-subdued people rise against their autocratic oppressors and take the first difficult steps toward freedom.
It seems to me that when we look at the popular uprisings in the Arab world we are quick to condemn the violence associated with the upheaval but we easily forget what triggered such violence in the first place. Autocrats generally seize and maintain power through violence. Unfortunately, a certain level of violence might be the only way for oppressed people to take that power back from them.
That said, there remain several unresolved vexing issues.
In order to prompt a debate on the topic, let’s narrow down the concept of freedom to political freedoms, and in particular to those political freedoms generally enjoyed in a sound form of democratic government.
Some questions immediately come into the mind:
1) What if democratic institutions bring to power elites or groups that are not committed to democratic values? Or, at least, to the kind of democratic values that we cherish in the West? Put in other words, what if political freedom becomes license to opt for destructive radicalization?
2) Could we expect autocratic leaderships to be credible mid-wives for countries undergoing difficult processes of democratic transition? How do we value the establishment of democratic institutions and practices (a parliament or elections) in terms of achieving political freedom?
3) Is there any factual ground to the argument that a specific culture or religion makes people more or less “ripe” for political freedom?
4) What does history tell us about the path that western societies followed to free themselves from their own oppressive autocrats? Was it a peaceful or a violent one?
Let’s the discussion begin…
Comments on this week’s news on Egypt and the Islamic State
1) Egyptian President Sisi’s speech at the United Nations
The “Egyptian exception” has been described as alive and well. The international community does not seem seriously interested in promoting democracy in the North African country. Egypt’s geostrategic importance, Egyptian President Sisi’s promises to restore stability and crack down hard on terrorism, and the domestic backing for Sisi’s strongman style are convincing many world leaders to accept him and even deal with him enthusiastically, regardless of the repressive and undemocratic aspects of the Egyptian president’s regime. The prospect of a Mubarak Redux, with all the negative implications for Egypt’s long term stability, seems very real.
2) Making the enemy stronger?
For months, the two arguably most radical groups in Syria, the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and the Islamic State, has been competing for influence in the country. On several occasions, Nusra Front fighters have engaged in armed confrontations with Islamic State militants. Now, there is the risk that the US-led international military intervention may push these two radical groups back together. The other day, in fact, Al-Nusra Front leader Abu Mohamad al-Golani strongly denounced the airstrikes and warned about the possibility of retaliatory attacks against Western countries. According to Reuters, Nusra Front is now coming under pressure from its own members to reconcile with Islamic State and join forces to fight what they describe as a “crusader” campaign against Islam. Is the international military intervention unintentionally strengthening further the radical anti-Assad front in Syria?
3) On the strategy to fight the Islamic State
Hassan Hassan on the pages of the Guardian reaffirms what I have been arguing for weeks:
“Legitimacy for the fight against Isis cannot be achieved by simply having Sunni countries involved in it, but, rather, by addressing the true reasons that drove tens of thousands of Syrians to rise up against the regime.
Regardless of who is involved in the campaign, the perception is that the allies have overlooked the acts of the Assad regime over the past three years and quickly assembled a major international coalition against a group that the Syrian rebels have been fighting since last summer. Unless the strategy against Isis shifts to a broader one that appeals to the local communities, the fight against it is doomed.”
Hopefully, world leaders will listen…
It seems to me that more than three years of political and social upheaval, the forced removal of two presidents (Mubarak and Morsi), thousands of deaths, and continued blatant violations of human rights have done nothing to change the Obama administration’s perception of Egyptian politics.
During the early stage of the 2011 uprising, after violent clashes between demonstrators and Egyptian security forces had left hundreds injured and dozens dead, US President Obama said:
“The United States will continue to stand up for the rights of the Egyptian people and work with their government in pursuit of a future that is more just, more free, and more hopeful.”
Mohammed ElBaradei, a former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a prominent Egyptian opposition figure, replied that “the American government cannot ask the Egyptian people to believe that a dictator who has been in power for 30 years will be the one to implement democracy.”
The other day, despite the recent release of a Human Rights Watch report suggesting that senior Egyptian officials, including Egypt’s current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, were implicated in what the report deemed the “widespread and systematic” killings of peaceful protesters, the US State Department reaffirmed that the Obama administration still believes that President el-Sisi is leading a democratic transition in Egypt.
Apparently, contrary to what ElBaradei and the Egyptian people have understood too well – that is that leaders who disregards human rights and democratic principles cannot be expected to lead democratic transitions – the US administration still clings to the hope that such transitions could actually occur and could even serve the US national interest.
On this last point I suggest to read this article by Michelle Dunne on “Egypt, Counterterrorism, and the Politics of Alienation”