State of the Union

The Arab Spring: A Reality Check

A few days after the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt in early 2011, I published in TAC a somewhat bearish analysis of the prospects for liberal democracy in the Arab world with the headline, “Don’t Party Like It’s 1989“.

In particular, I dismissed the popular western narrative that attempted to draw a historical analogy between the Arab Spring and the collapse of Communism and rise of elected governments committed to political and economic freedom in Poland, Hungary, and the former Czechoslovakia.

I applied a different historical analogy. The 1848 revolts led by liberal movements in Europe had produced a political backlash from conservative forces and ignited a wave of nationalism. My point was that we should be ready for a long period of political upheaval that may not necessarily end with a clear victory for the “good guys” in the emerging narrative. This was a work in progress.

At a time when the major media celebrated the fall of Mubarak as a “revolution,” this sense of skepticism was rejected both by neoconservatives on the right, who argued that pro-democracy protests in Egypt and elsewhere represented a triumph of George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda, and by liberal democracy promoters on the left, who explained that the problem with Bush’s strategy was its reliance on American military power. The left assumed that the end of military regimes in the Middle East would be followed by similar challenges to authoritarian monarchies in the region, and demands for free elections, individual liberty, free press, religious freedom, women’s rights, free markets, international peace, and, well, you name it.

That many young students and professionals who text, use Skype, and have Facebook accounts were among the demonstrators in Tahrir Square, and in fluent and idiomatic English expressed what sounded like liberal principles on CNN and Al Jazeera, only raised the expectations among members of the elite in the West that these were the intellectual and political descendants of Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel. Spring was indeed in the air, and anyone who doubted it was out of step with the reigning Come-the-Revolution Zeitgeist.

But two years after the Arab Spring began with the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor, it seems that the Zeitgeist has changed dramatically. In November, The New York Review of Books, an unofficial organ of American liberal intellectuals, ran a cover story with the headline, “This Is Not a Revolution“. Not to mention the numerous op-ed, magazine commentaries, and books that have played around ad nauseam with the notion that the “spring” has turned into “winter.” That’s what happens when you rely on the wrong political weather forecaster.

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The Party of Silicon Valley?

Nate Silver had an interesting piece yesterday which concludes based on statistical evidence (as opposed to wishful thinking) that President Barack Obama and the Democrats had won the support of “80 or 90 percent of the best and the brightest minds in the information technology field,” who reside and work in the San Francisco Bay Area and its peripheries. Some of the numbers that Silver provides:

  • Obama won the nine counties in the Bay Area by margins ranging from 25 percentage points in Napa Valley to 42 percentage points in Santa Clara (and its Silicon Valley) to 71 (!) percentage points in San Francisco. Overall the difference in percentage points between Obama and Romney in the Bay Area was 49 percent compared to 22 percent in California.
  • Republicans have been losing every county in the Bay Area by double-digit margin since 1988 with the margin of loss continuing to grow with each election.
  • Among employees who work for Google, Apple, and eBay Obama collected between 89 percent to 97 percent of the itemized political contributions this year. Silver also refers to a study that indicates that between the two presidential candidates, Obama raised 83 percent of the funds among the ten American information technology companies featured on Fortune magazine’s list of the 50 most admired companies.

Add to these figures the fact that Obama, according to a report on CNBC, carried eight of the ten richest of the counties in the nation, including Fairfax and Ludlum in Virginia, and it becomes clear that Romney’s former chief strategist Stuart Stevens still doesn’t get it, having made the case this week is that Obama and the Democrats had won thanks to the support of the underclass and minorities and by promoting a liberal agenda.

As I noted on this site, one of the minority groups that Obama won were Asian Americans whose median annual income is higher than that of whites in this country, and that Democrats are trending very well among educated and relatively affluent voters like these precisely because of the more liberal positions they advocate on social-cultural policy issues like abortion, gay marriage, and drug legalization.

Indeed, as Silver noted in his analysis, libertarian Republican candidate Ron Paul raised about $42,000 among Goggle workers, much more than the $25,000 that Romney collected, concluding that “perhaps a different kind of Republican candidate, one whose views on social policy were more in line with those of the Bay Area and the cultures of the leading companies there, could gather more support” among the Silicon Valley types.

It does indeed make a lot of sense for Republicans and libertarians to start promoting a “Silicon Valley Republican” brand that in theory could start attracting young, educated, and affluent voters into the GOP. But my guess is that such a strategy would face many obstacles.

While the libertarian agenda on social-cultural issues like drug legalization and gay marriage was advanced on November 6, there is no evidence of any growing support for libertarian economic positions in general, and among members of the “creative class” in places like the Silicon Valley or Fairfax County in particular. For example, I doubt very much that many of these voters share the more skeptical libertarian view on climate change or care a lot about the future of the Fed.

In any case, I am also very skeptical that the Republican Party is going to suddenly change its positions on abortion or drug legalization (although we may witness less ideological rigidness on gay rights). Liberal Democrats are better positioned now to push for more progressive legislation on these issues, while young voters now associate the Republican brand name with xenophobia, religious intolerance, gay-bashing, and war-mongering. In that context, a Silicon Valley Republican sounds to many of them like an oxymoron.

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Huntsman (or Zakaria) for State

The guys at MSNBC allege that Senator John McCain’s campaign against the nomination of UN Ambassador Susan Rice as the next Secretary of State and his entire pre-occupation (obsession?) with the Benghazi thing is driven in part by racism. As someone who was accused of racism and misogyny after bashing another African-American female and foreign policy professional named Rice (“You probably hate your mom,” emailed an angry reader of a column in which I proposed that Condoleezza Rice was kind of an intellectual light-weight. See some of the reactions here). I beg to differ.

No. McCain is not a racist but a cranky old man (there I said it) who sounds like a parrot on crack when he goes on and on calling for arming rebels, changing regimes, bombing countries, and then invading them. I suppose that this is the point in which I need to state that McCain was a war hero (he was) and that we should thank him for his service (we should). But let me remind you that General Douglas MacArthur was fired from his job by a U.S. president; which brings me to my next point, that Republicans should retire McCain as their leading spokesman on foreign policy and national security, a position that has to involve more that just reading editorials from the Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal on the Senate floor (I think).

But personally I do no think that Susan Rice would be a great choice for SoS and not because she is “unqualified.” Like Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski her main selling point is that she is an intellectual with advanced degrees from Ivy League institutions. But unlike those two and more like her namesake, she has never authored any groundbreaking book or article that tried to advance new ideas about America’s role in the world.

While I must admit that I have never followed her career closely, my impression is that Rice comes out of the liberal interventionist foreign policy wing of the Democratic Party which is the intellectual twin sister of neoconservatism on the political right (which explains perhaps why Robert Kagan has come to her defense).

Indeed, Rice was a driving force behind the Obama administration’s decision to take military action to oust Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi from power, and as Maureen Dowd suggests in the New York Times (quoting Senator Susan Collins), Rice’s initial insistence that the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was not perpetrated by Al Qaeda terrorists may have been driven by her concern that that “would destroy the narrative of Libya being a big success story.”

My guess is that if nominated to the job, Secretary Rice would go out of her way to placate McCain and other Republican critics by burnishing her humanitarian interventionist credentials, including by promoting “doing something” in Syria and elsewhere.

In any case, it does not make sense for Obama to pick-up a major fight with the Republicans over her nomination. And the idea of John Kerry getting the job instead of her is making me drowsy already, recalling what comedian Bill Maher said about Mitt Romney: “Ambien takes him when it cannot fall asleep.” What a bore, indeed.

So here is my idea. In the spirit of bipartisanship and a lot of common sense, President Obama should nominate another Republican Mormon who ran against him for president in 2012. Jon Huntsman would be perfect for job of the top U.S. diplomat. The former Ambassador to China and Singapore who is (supposedly) fluent in Mandarin and has some business experience is just the kind of person we need now at a time when the U.S. is shifting its strategic priorities from the Middle East to East Asia and responding to the rise of China as a geo-strategic and economic power.

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‘I Like to Be in America’

“Puerto Rico,
You lovely island . . .”
“I like to be in America!
O.K. by me in America!”
(From West Side Story, “America,” lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)

With much of the focus by Republicans on “demographics” and as conservatives review their positions on immigration and attitudes towards American Hispanics post-election disaster, they should be paying more attention to one historic vote that took place on Election Day 2012.

A majority of the electorate of Puerto Rico voted on that day to follow in the footsteps of Hawaii and Alaska in achieving full American statehood and becoming the 51st state.

Congress will still have to admit Puerto Rico before it can become a state, and it is doubtful that the Republicans who now control the House of Representatives would support a move that would probably result in Democrats winning two more Senate seats and increasing their numbers in the House.

After all, while the residents of the Atlantic Ocean island are not allowed to vote in U.S. presidential elections, close to 85 percent of stateside Puerto Ricans did vote for Barack Obama on November 6th. You do not have to be a political expert to presume that Obama’s margin of victory on the island would have been as wide as among Puerto Ricans in New York.

So expect the issue to become a central debating point in Washington and certainly among Hispanics, with Democrats pledging to support Puerto Rican statehood if they take the House in 2014.

More than 3,700,000 people live on the island that came under U.S. control in 1898 and an even larger number of Puerto Ricans (more than 4,600,000) reside in the 50 states and DC. As the second largest Hispanic group in the U.S., Puerto Ricans represent a significant electorate bloc.

And in the aftermath of the 2012 election, just as the party tries to recover from Mitt Romney’s abysmal performance among Latino voters, GOP opposition to admitting Puerto Rico into the union could help Democrats in promoting their Republicans-hate-Hispanics narrative even if GOP lawmakers suddenly declare their support for comprehensive immigration reform that until recently many of them decried as “amnesty” or if party activists draft Senator Marco Rubio to run for president in 2016.

For what it’s worth, the 2012 Republican Party platform did express support for the right of Puerto Rico to be admitted into the union and President Obama has yet to state his position on the issue. But according to a recent FOX News Latino report, most GOP House members are opposed to the idea, and with conservative House Democrats in decline, it is more than likely that Democratic members will back statehood if politicians in Puerto Rico decide to push the issue.

In any case, while Republican politicos will face an electoral dilemma — whether opposing statehood for Puerto Rico would antagonize Latino voters — conservative intellectuals will have to consider whether admitting a state whose official language is Spanish and one that would immediately become the poorest American state (with a median household income of about $18,000, half that of Mississippi, currently the poorest state) squares with the movement’s traditional principles that reject multiculturalism and bilingualism and discourage economic dependency on government largesse.

That stateside Puerto Ricans are a culturally segregated community that is largely poor (with the average income of its members lower than that of Cuban and Mexican Americans) raises the specter of an additional 4 million Puerto Ricans that will be in position to use their new political power to promote a distinct cultural identity and to squeeze more cash transfers from Washington.

At the very least, the dilemmas involving Puerto Rico’s prospects for statehood make it clear that the notion of winning the hearts and minds of Latino voters goes beyond making compromises on the issue of illegal immigration or picking Hispanics to run for political office.

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Disseminating American Ideals

Americans are once again surprised to learn that the rest of humanity doesn’t always share their hopes and dreams — or even their basic set of values. Hence, in the aftermath of the massacre in Afghanistan of 16 people in the hands of an American soldier, some pundits have been trying to resolve what they consider to be a paradox of sorts.

While the accidental burning of Qurans by U.S. government employees in Afghanistan last month triggered violent protests outside NATO that took at least 29 lives, the intentional mass murder of Afghan civilians, including nine children in Kandahar on March 11, have led to a few mostly peaceful anti-American demonstrations.

That most Afghans seemed to have supported the February 2006 decision by a judge to execute an Afghan aid worker for converting to Christianity or that many Pakistanis refused to condemn the assassination of leading politician Salman Taseer by his own security guard who disagreed with Mr Taseer’s opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy law, are two other examples of incidents that have dramatised the wide gap between what we tend to regard as the American secular tradition and the continuing powerful role that religion tends to play in the lives of Afghans, Pakistanis and other people who, on paper at least, are considered to be America’s allies in the war against terrorism. Read More…

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The Reality of American Power: Why Robert Kagan Is Wrong

As a life-long hypochondriac, I was laughing out loud when reading the tragic-comic inscription on the tombstone located in the cemetery in Key West, Florida: “I Told You I Was Sick!”

I could imagine the poor guy confronting family and friends and insisting to no avail that what he had was more than just the common cold or the seasonal flu.

“You are not sick” is the kind of reassuring message that Robert Kagan is sending to the nation’s foreign policy hypochondriacs aka “declinists” in his new nonfiction book The World America Made, contending that America is in tip-top military and economic health and ready to take care of the rest of the world. He recalls that the same kind of hypochondriacs had complained that America was really, really in decline in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

But, as the sad case of our late Key Westerner demonstrates, even hypochondriacs do get sick. In the same way, great powers do decline, both in relative and absolute terms. Hence American global economic power started to decline relative to rising economic players like Japan and Germany in the post-1945 era, and relative to China and India more recently. Read More…

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What Happens After an Iran-Israel War?

Notwithstanding the neverending stream of all those based-on-reliable-intelligence-sources analyses, it is doubtful whether these same analysts would be willing to bet whatever is left of their 401K retirement accounts on their predictions that Israel will — or will not — attack Iranian nuclear sites this year.

And while research institutions have conducted interesting exercises to try to figure out the military, diplomatic and economic repercussions of a confrontation between Israel and Iran, the dictum that no military plan survives the contact with the enemy applies also here — in addition to the unintended consequences, blowbacks and the proverbial ‘black swans’ that are bound to show up even in the unlikely scenario under which Israel achieves all or most of its military goals.

If I can put my ten cents worth of strategic thinking, it seems to me that the ousting of Saddam Hussein and the American fiasco in Iraq helped tip the balance of power in the Persian Gulf and the Levant in the direction of Iran and its allies. And that made it more likely that Israel and other Sunni Arab players that regard the Islamic Republic as a threat to their core national interests would use all their available resources to deprive Iran from having access to a military instrument that would allow it to formalize the new regional balance of power.

In his magisterial study of the 1812-1814 military campaigns in Europe, Russia Against Napoleon, historian Dominic Lieven suggests that while Tsar Alexander recognized that France would never be able to control Europe, he also concluded that the price of adhering to Napoleon’s Continental System would have undermined Russia’s position as a great power and that the Russians had no choice but to use the full power of their military to prevent that from happening.

My guess is that Israel, as well the Saudis and their Arab-Sunni allies, know that it would be possible to contain a nuclear Iran — in the same way that Russia could have embraced a cost-effective strategy to contain Napoleon’s France. But as long as Israeli leaders believe that they have a realistic option of blocking Iran’s nuclear program — and by extension, of setting major constraints on its ability to assert its position as a regional power — they will probably use their military capacity. The Saudis and their Gulf partners would probably cheer them behind close doors while publicly condemning them.

But as quite a few Israeli and American military experts have warned, a military strike on Iranian facilities would not achieve the declared Israeli goal of ending Iran’s alleged nuclear military program and the expected costs in terms of Israeli casualties could be very high.

Moreover, if Iran gives the green light to its Shiite Hezbollah allies in Lebanon to attack Israel and mobilize the Shiites in Iraq and the Persian Gulf to retaliate against American and Saudi targets, Tehran would be in a position to strengthen its regional power. The ayatollahs would also be able to exploit an Israeli attack to ignite Iranian nationalism and win support even from those Iranians who actually oppose the ruling clerics and would like to see them removed from power.

And while the Obama administration insists that it wants to apply peaceful means to get Iran to freeze its nuclear enrichment program, it is not clear that Washington and its Europeans allies would succeed in coming up with a diplomatic formula that would be acceptable to Iran and to Israel (and its supporters in Washington) or that the Americans would be able to prevent Israel from taking military action against Iran. Those of us who believe that an Israeli military attack would not serve American and Israeli interests and may actually help consolidate the power of Iran in the Middle East and that of the clerics in Teheran should also recognize that President Barack Obama — who probably agrees with these assumptions — is not in a position for a diplomatic confrontation with Israel during a presidential election year. Read More…

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Impressive Show for Anti-War Republicans: Is Neoconservatism Now Outside Republican Mainstream?

Imagine if Ohio Representative and anti-war activist Dennis Kucinich had come in second place and won 23 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire Democratic primary in 2008 — after taking a close third place in the Iowa caucuses. The New York Times‘ headlines would be proclaiming “A Huge Victory for Anti-War Democrats,” and Fox News pundits would be warning that the Democratic Party was being taken over by “anti-American appeasers” and “secret Muslims.”

But Kucinich ended up winning only 1.35 percent of the New Hampshire primary vote in 2008. Chicago Senator Barack Obama who was a critic of the Iraq War did get 36.45 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary in the Granite State that year. But his foreign policy views had never amounted to a coherent anti-interventionist agenda.

If anything, when it comes to foreign policy, it is former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman and this year’s Republican presidential candidate who is calling for a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan that sounds today like candidate Obama did in 2008 when he was urging an end to the war in Iraq.

You can describe both Huntsman and Obama as “realist internationalists” in the tradition of Republican President George H. W. Bush and Democratic President Bill Clinton. They have never pretended they that they were waving the anti-war flag; but still, they were critical of the neoconservative let’s-invade-the-world agenda. Read More…

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Another War That Nobody Wants

Reports that members of the European Union (EU) were planning to impose an embargo on Iranian oil as part of a U.S.-led strategy to force Teheran to end its alleged nuclear military program should not have come as a major surprise. Iran has been developing surface-to-surface missiles with a maximum range of 2,000km, that equipped with nuclear weapons could put France and its European partners — as well as Israel and U.S. bases in the Middle East — within its range.

Or to put it differently, if Iran with nukes is indeed a strategic threat, it is the Europeans more than the Americans who should be worried about it.

Some Europeans were hoping to pursue once again their all-too-familiar approach of free riding on U.S. military power — counting on the United States and/or Israel to attack Iranian nuclear facilities (Win I for Europe) while allowing European nations that depend heavily on Iranian oil to continue doing business with the Islamic Republic (Win II for Europe). They could have then distanced themselves from the American and/or Israeli action while facing no disruption in the flow of Iranian oil into their economies (Win III for Europe).

But as the Obama administration has already demonstrated in Libya, with the U.S. military overstretched (hence, the plans to shrink it) and the American fiscal house in a mess (while the Europeans continue to maintain their expensive welfare programmes), the Americans were not going to allow the Europeans to do more free riding on their military power in the Middle East — which is (and that includes Iran) in Europe’s strategic backyard. Read More…

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Ron Paul and Israel

He will probably not be elected as the next Republican presidential nomination. But Representative Ron Paul from Texas has a good chance of winning next month’s Republican primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire and could emerge as a leading power broker in the presidential nomination process next year while continuing to exert influence on his party’s agenda.

That will probably come bad news to some Republican Jewish activists and to neoconservative pundits that have been accusing the most influential libertarian lawmaker on Capitol Hill of being an “anti-Israeli.”

The Republican Jewish Coalition, which hosted a presidential-candidates forum in December, decided not to invite Paul to the event, explaining that Paul was “a virulent and harsh critic of Israel during his tenure in Congress.”

I had the opportunity to serve as one of Paul’s foreign-policy advisers during the presidential campaign of 2008 and recall the 76-year-old former physician and Christian Baptist who has been representing the 22nd district from Texas in Congress since 1979 as someone with deep knowledge of Jewish history and an admirer of Israel who follows with great interest the political and economic developments there. Read More…

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