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News, opinion, and analysis from some of the world’s most prominent think tanks


We are on hiatus. While we are still dedicated to aggregating, synthesizing and producing high-quality foreign policy-related materials, work and personal obligations have left us unable to continue updating TankThoughts as frequently as we would like. We will do our best to maintain a social media presence, update our weekly calendar and produce the occasional write-up. However, we cannot make any guarantees. We hope to be back to producing more content in the near future.

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01. April 2015 by Will Houstoun
Categories: Uncategorized | Comments Off

Replacing Hard Power With Soft Power: The U.S.’ New Approach to East Asia

March 9, 2015

Speakers:

Claudia Rosett, Journalist-in-Residence, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies

Shihoko Goto, Senior Associate for Northeast Asia, Woodrow Wilson Center

Since the end of World War II, U.S. engagement in East Asia has been largely defined by bilateral, strategic partnerships in the region. Over the years, it has worked militarily with South Korea in order to counter the threat posed by the DPRK, utilized defense contracts in order to protect Taiwan’s independence, and facilitated Japan’s peaceful rise through its security commitments.

However, this security-oriented approach to East Asia is now rapidly changing. On the one hand, the U.S.’ security posture in the region is changing as a result of current and projected budget-cuts. Under the new fiscal reality brought on by 2011’s sequester, military commanders will soon be forced to reduce their capabilities and reduce the number of forward deployed soldiers and ships in the region.

While the sequester was never meant to become law, its implementation has left many analysts fearing that its fiscal constraints will hurt U.S. interests in East Asia. As Ms. Rosett articulated, the drawdown in U.S. forces is coming at a time when the country’s chief rivals in Asia, China and Russia, are increasingly using their economic and military might in order to unilaterally achieve their interests. She argues that the withdrawal of U.S. hard power is fueling an “era of opportunism,” in which emerging world powers will feel obliged to use any means necessary in order to procure their unilateral interests, knowing there will be no hard response from the U.S. or its allies.

In order to maintain and protect its current and future regional interests, Ms. Rosett argues that the U.S. must be committed to increasing its military presence in East Asia. By simply allowing China to unilaterally establish its own air defense identification zone and by failing to challenge Russia in Ukraine, she worries that the U.S. is inadvertently losing the trust of its regional allies, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea – all of who are involved in territorial disputes with China. Unless the U.S. takes a more assertive posture in the region, Ms. Rosett believes it will risk ceding its long-term influence and interests.

In this modern and globalized world, however, traditional military power may not be the only means through which the U.S. can maintain influence around the world. As Ms. Goto points out, even as the U.S.’ military posture contracts, the country can still maintain strength and relevance in East Asia through its economic ties. With Pacific trade now totaling more than $20 trillion dollars annually, there is a shared interest between the U.S., China, Japan, the ROK, Australia, and pretty much every country in East Asia and the Americas, in maintaining stability in East Asia.

Because of this shared economic interest, Ms. Goto argues that the U.S. can effectively maintain its influence in East Asia without having to rely on a robust military presence. Particularly, should the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) be passed, it will bind the U.S., Japan, Australia, and many of South East Asia’s emerging markets under a shared set of economic, diplomatic, and maritime laws and values. In the near-term, the TPP will lower tariffs and trade barriers, opening up Asian markets to U.S. businesses, enforce intellectual property rights, and erode the control that state owned enterprises have in many developing countries. In the long-term, the TPP has room to expand beyond its current 12 members, having already garnered interest from China, South Korea, and Taiwan.

Having been described as a “21st century trade agreement” by the Obama Administration, the TPP rethinks how the U.S. asserts influence and protects its interests abroad. Rather than relying on costly, military capabilities, the TPP enforces stability by highlighting and enshrining in law, shared, global interests. While the U.S.’ physical show of strength may be declining in East Asia, the TPP ensures that its tacit, economic might, continues to be felt and respected throughout the world.

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09. March 2015 by Will Houstoun
Categories: Defense, East Asia, Economics | Comments Off

Yemen’s Houthi Takeover: Where is the Country Heading?

February 10, 2015

Host: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Speakers:

Ms. Nadwa Al-Dawsari, Executive Director, Sheba Center for International Development

Ms. Laura Kasinof, Author of Don’t be Afraid of the Bullets: An Accidental War Correspondent in Yemen

While many media outlets have been quick to define the Houthi takeover in Yemen as the latest instance of sectarianism and Iranian meddling in the Middle East– similar to Hezbollah’s takeover in Lebanon in 2008– this analysis is shallow, incomplete, and fails to highlight the role that GCC/Western-backed policies have played in sowing political discontent throughout the country.

Ever since the Arab Spring came to Yemen in 2011, the government in Sana’a and its Arab and Western backers have failed to address local grievances. Instead the government pushed ahead with their own policies, hoping that local tribes and civic leaders would simply conform to their vision. This approach was, from the start “a recipe for disaster,” according to Ms. Dawsari. While the reform process forced Ali Abdullah Saleh to give up his formal position as President, many of his military and political allies were allowed to retain their positions and thus keep Saleh’s hold on power intact.

Without real and substantial change in the political hierarchy, the reform process in Yemen never had much of a chance for success.

While Yemen has “never been a cohesive state,” according to Ms. Kasinof, the calls for secession in the South have increased following the failed attempt to enact meaningful government reforms. For years, Southern cities such as Aden and Ta’izz have functioned as pseudo autonomous states and been ruled by a local, tribally enforced justice system. The fact that business and civil life is continuing as per usual in these commercial centers even after the government’s collapse only underscores just how detached the central government had become from large swathes of the country.

On the other hand, the Port of Aden is just one such example of an economic hub that could benefit greatly from government assistance and targeted foreign investment. Despite being the largest, natural deep-water port in the region, the port has failed to become a global hub largely because it lacks the necessary, modern infrastructure and investment. The government – both before and after the reform process – has failed to capitalize on this natural resource and instead kept resources primarily oriented towards the country’s north where basic services – such as electricity – are still not fully provided.

While this exclusion of the country’s South has for a long time cost the country economically, this most recent wave of disenfranchisement and discontent is now threatening the country’s security and political stability. Historically regarded as “outsiders” in Yemen’s tribal culture, the Houthi’s unilateral takeover is evoking a strong response from the country’s tribal leaders – some of whom are threatening armed opposition to the takeover. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda elements within Yemen are garnering support by depicting this takeover in sectarian terms, depicting the Shi’a, Iranian backed Houthi rebels as a threat to the country’s majority Sunni population.

Should the conflict continue to escalate, both Ms. Dawsari and Ms. Kasinof are worried that Al Qaeda and some of the country’s Sunni tribes – two sides that have historically opposed one another – will form a partnership in response to a perceived common threat. Such a partnership would not only give Al Qaeda a greater foothold in Yemen, it will also erode the South’s stability, as divisions in the tribal community between those who do and do not support armed opposition will threaten the legal and social framework that tribal leaders have managed to establish.

In order to protect and ensure Yemen’s future stability, the country’s various tribes and leaders must reach a political solution; one that addresses the needs and concerns of the entire country. If this standoff turns violent, the only potential winners are Al Qaeda or Iran. Either way Yemenis will lose out. While 2011’s revolution failed to bring meaningful change to Yemen, one must hope that this time positive change can be achieved.

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12. February 2015 by Will Houstoun
Categories: Government, Middle East | Comments Off

NATO’s Challenge: Maintaining a Tactical Advantage in a Rapidly Changing Security Landscape

January 30, 2015

Host: Center for a New American Security

Speakers:

General Jean-Paul Palomeros, Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, NATO

Honorable Robert Work, Deputy Secretary of Defense, U.S. Department of Defense

While the past decade has been largely defined by sustained engagement in the Middle East, NATO is now facing an array of global threats: China’s rising military prowess threatens to redefine the norms of East Asia, Russia’s incursion into Ukraine is stoking old Cold War tensions, and the Middle East is continuing to experience heightened instability and conflict from non-state actors. Although NATO recently concluded its 13-year combat mission in Afghanistan, Deputy Secretary Work believes that the alliance is only now beginning to experience “the most volatile and…complex” security environment in the alliance’s history.

In addition to the kinetic threats, NATO is being forced to rethink how the conflicts of the future will be fought and won. In particular, Gen. Palomeros views new cyber threats as a “a game changer” for the alliance; both the Islamic State and Russian military have utilized new technologies in order to manipulate information and reshape local conflicts in their favor. In this new form of warfare, Gen. Palomeros believes that North American and European forces have “no leading edge or advantage” and instead must rapidly adapt and innovate in order to succeed in this new security reality.

In particular Gen. Palomeros called on European countries to enhance their security posture, emphasizing that each NATO member must pledge at least 2% of their annual GDP to maintaining and enhancing their defense capabilities. As has been demonstrated by recent events in Ukraine, European powers were neither prepared nor capable of challenging Russia’s advancements into Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.

On the other hand, Mr. Work was slightly more optimistic, stating that the U.S. and NATO still maintained a marginal technological edge over other global powers. He did however concede that this edge was quickly “eroding,” as for the past 13 years, China, Russia, and other powers have been able to study and emulate the capabilities that the U.S. and NATO have utilized in Iraq and Afghanistan. Further, observers have formulated ways to check and counter these capabilities, such as developing long-range ballistic missiles capable of targeting aircraft carriers, formulating access-denial strategies, and interrupting satellite and cyber communications.

Inspired by Eisenhower’s “New Look” policy, Mr. Work wants to change the way the U.S. military works and engages around the world, relying less on manpower and conventional forms of strength and instead work on developing new, more strategic forms of enforcing U.S. strength. While there is no one-single strategy that will allow the U.S. to succeed, Mr. Work seems committed to the notion that, in the future, the U.S. and NATO must rely on persistent innovation and technological advancements in order to maintain NATO’s defense and security superiority.

Unfortunately, both the U.S. and Europe’s strategic capabilities are not only threatened by potential enemies, but also by budgetary constraints. In light of sequestration, Mr. Work is attempting to steer the U.S. military towards making more targeted research and development investments, specifically citing the desire to develop unmanned naval vehicles, more agile and advanced nuclear capabilities and precise and long-range ant-ship technologies while also relying more on small special operations units to carry out missions in the future.

While Mr. Work remained committed to the U.S. priorities outlined in the most recent Quadrennial Defense Review, he noted that the U.S. and NATO must remain flexible and adaptive in order to succeed in a dynamic global environment. Even in a time of constrained resources, innovation, cooperation, and shared-risk are key to driving progress and ensuring future prosperity.

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30. January 2015 by Will Houstoun
Categories: Defense, East Asia, Europe, Technology | Comments Off

Myanmar: Creating Economic Opportunity in a Nexus of Political and Social Upheaval

January 23, 2015 

Host: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Speaker: Stephen P. Groff, Vice President, Asian Development Bank

Endowed with a wealth of natural resources, surrounded by affluent neighbors, and now emerging from political and economic isolation, Myanmar (also known as Burma) seems to have all the necessary components to become a major political and economic force in rapidly developing Southeast Asia.

This simplistic assumption though – that affluent neighbors and an abundance of resources will equal national success – fails to underscore the challenges that will inevitably surface as the country transitions from a centralist, military controlled, government and economy into an open, democratic, and free market society. While there is ample need for international investment in the country’s beleaguered infrastructure – only about 40% of the Myanmar’s roads are paved and 70% of the population lacks access to consistent electricity – reforming the country’s economic landscape is just one of several large-scale challenges currently facing Myanmar.

Currently ranked 150th out of 166 countries on the Human Development Index, Mr Groff described Myanmar as suffering from a “historic underinvestment in education and health.” Further, years of centralized leadership have left the country divided; with affluent and educated businessman and state owned/supported companies thriving in the country’s urban centers while its rural population largely languishes in poverty. Given this scenario, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and other international institutions must work in a socially divided environment.

A key challenge now facing the ADB and other international institutions is not so much finding capital to invest in the country’s development and generating economic growth, but instead is finding a way to share that growth and open up the country’s economy to the local, largely undereducated and impoverished, population. In order to promote greater accessibility and inclusivity, Mr. Groff described the ADB’s recent focus (from 2012-14) as being focused exclusively on building up the country’s human and governmental capacities.

Rather than just bringing in trained workers from abroad, the ADB is working with local NGO’s and companies to develop programs that will teach local residents technical skills and will allow them to work in the country’s new economy and also empower them to make decisions regarding political and economic decisions. As Mr. Groff explained, the country’s history of military dictatorship has resulted in inexperienced local leaders and officials who, in the past, never had to make decisions or analyze policies. With the decision making power no longer in the hands of just a few military commanders, local leaders need to learn how to lead. While addressing this problem may be a time consuming process, it is crucial for social, economic, and political reasons that the country possess the capacity and skills to utilize and manage its resources as its people see fit.

While Mr. Groff warned that reforming the country is a “nonlinear process,” and will undoubtedly be met with challenges, it is also the best hope for instilling long-term stability and prosperity. With presidential elections scheduled to take place later this year, the democratic process is underway and the Burmese people are already beginning to shape their own future. The goal now, both politically and economically, is to involve all of the country’s people and create opportunity for all, rather than the select few.

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23. January 2015 by Will Houstoun
Categories: Economics, South Asia | Comments Off

The Global Energy Landscape in 2015

January 8, 2015

Host: The Atlantic Council

Speaker:

Amos Hochstein, Coordinator for International Energy Affairs, U.S. Department of State

For the past several months, since October of 2014, global oil prices have been plummeting. With crude oil now trading at below $60 dollars a barrel, Mr. Hochstein speculates that the world may be experiencing “the early days of a new reality.” The advent of new technologies and the development of shale natural gas among other renewable energies, have quickly transformed the global energy landscape, creating a more diverse market of energy producers and transforming long-time energy importers – such as the United States – into energy producers and exporters. Although many of these new sources of energy, particularly natural gas, have yet to be tapped and exported, the mere fact that they exist are reshaping the global energy outlook and having an immediate effect on the energy market.

In the Americas, the boom in U.S. and Canadian production is already leading to new policy approaches in Central America and throughout the Caribbean. While many Caribbean countries have long relied on Venezuela to provide them with cheap energy in return for diplomatic and humanitarian support, there is now potential to redraw the region’s energy landscape. With Venezuela now struggling to meet its fiscal needs, its cheap energy is quickly  evaporating and an opening for the U.S. to establish a presence in the Central American energy market is taking shape.

With Vice President Biden spearheading this initiative, Mr. Hochstein is optimistic that U.S. companies will soon be able to start investing heavily in redeveloping the Central American and Caribbean energy landscapes and establishing power-plants and grids that not only run on locally produced energy but also promote interconnectivity and energy access throughout the region.

Similarly, in Europe, Mr. Hochstein sees both potential and a dire need to rethink and redraw the continent’s energy landscape. Over the past decade, the EU, Ukraine, and other Eastern European countries had become overly dependent on Russian oil and gas. In March, many European leaders condemned Russia’s annexation of Crimea but very few could back up their rhetoric with action, largely due to how dependent they were on Russia for energy and economic stability. Further, as the crisis in Ukraine intensified, Russia continuously used its energy suppliers as tools to exert economic pressure on Ukraine and the EU. There is now a broad recognition throughout the EU and Eastern Europe that countries must diversify their energy portfolios in order to ensure their future security.

In 2014, Ukraine was spared an energy crisis only because its neighbors, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland, were able to reroute their own Russian produced energy into Ukraine. The EU and the rest of Europe, according to Mr. Hochstein, needs more protective measures like those demonstrated around Ukraine. By promoting further interconnectivity, the EU can both strengthen its energy security and promote competition by opening itself up to new energy sources like Azerbaijan and Croatia, which in turn would force Russia and other pre-existing energy suppliers to compete on a more level playing filed.

In the volatile, global energy market, promoting efficiency, accessibility, and sustainability are crucial to assuring future prosperity. With this fact in mind, Mr. Hochstein is wary of the potential harm that shifting energy trends may cause in 2015. In particular, he is worried that the increased use of natural gas, although a cleaner form of fossil fuel than oil or coal, will have a more damaging impact on the environment than current fossil fuel usage, simply because global energy consumption is growing. However, while the shift to natural gas does not solve the world’s looming energy problems, it does provide a wealth of new opportunities around the globe for future prosperity, cooperation, and technological advancements. For better or for worse, 2015 will mark the beginning of a new era for U.S. energy and energy around the world.

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09. January 2015 by Will Houstoun
Categories: Economics, Energy, Europe | Comments Off

Exploiting Historical Tensions and Highlighting Sectarian Divisions: ISIS’ Role in the Sunni-Shi’a Conflict

December 16, 2014

Host: The Stimson Center

Speakers:

Mr. Joseph Bahout, Visiting Scholar, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Mr. Omar Al-Nidawi, Director for Iraq, Ggryphon Partners LLC

When the Arab Spring began in 2011, leaders around the world hoped that the movement would dispose of the Middle East’s longstanding societal and sectarian divisions and give birth to a new, inclusive and more democratic Arab identity. These hopes however, have failed to become  reality. Instead, the opposite has happened: the prolonged civil war in Syria has exacerbated regional and sectarian tensions, challenged the notion of statehood in the Middle East, and given a new sense of prominence and legitimacy to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other radical militant throughout the region.

Now, rather than looking to a new future, citizens in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and throughout the Middle East are being forced to acknowledge and confront the longstanding division between the region’s Sunni and Shi’a Muslim populations.

The swift rise of ISIS, the group’s ability to garner foreign support, and the ease with which it has entrenched itself in Iraq speak volumes about how effective sectarian rhetoric and politics are in the Middle East.

This strategy of highlighting sectarian divisions in order to achieve political goals actually has a long history in the Middle East, and has been used prominently in the prolonged proxy-war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. According to Mr. Al-Nidawi, ISIS is not  creating sectarian divisions, but is rather building on the sectarian narratives and geopolitical rivalries that came before it.

Following the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2010, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) – the group that would eventually become ISIS – was weakened militarily and strategically. But sectarian politics spearheaded by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, allowed the group to maintain influence amongst the country’s Sunni population. By replacing Sunni military leaders with his own personal allies and suppressing Sunni and Kurdish political leaders in parliament, PM Maliki’s policies acted as a catalyst for ISIS’ success in western Iraq, according to Mr. Nidawi. Maliki’s sectarian policies played right into ISIS’ narrative that Iraq was being corrupted by Shi’a oriented, “Iranian influence.”

In Syria too ISIS has been largely reactionary. The group was not instrumental in instigating the initial civil unrest that brought about the revolution. Instead, Mr. Bahout argues that the group was simply opportunistic as it pointed to Hezbollah’s support of the Assad regime as justification for its own involvement in Syria. Like in Iraq, the group is posing itself as the representative of Syria’s Sunnis and defender against Shi’a oppression.

So far, ISIS’ success has relied almost exclusively on its ability to construct a narrative: that it is fighting against a corrupting “other.” Whether it be the Shi’a group Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon or Iranian influence in Iraq, ISIS has managed to garner resources and recruit fighters from all over the world by portraying itself as the champion of Sunni Islam.

In order for there to be lasting peace in Syria and the wider Middle East, an alternative narrative must be presented. However, both Mr. Bahout and Mr. Al-Nidawi are skeptical that any meaningful change can develop in the near-term. The problem facing Syria, Iraq, and the wider Middle East is not so much ISIS itself, but the ideology that the group represents and its ability to resonate with people throughout the region. Changing this narrative will require time as well as a serious and continuous effort from all regional actors. Leaders must stop relying on divisive politics in order to gain influence. Only by establishing a history of partnership and inclusivity can lasting peace be attained.

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17. December 2014 by Will Houstoun
Categories: Middle East | Comments Off

The Product of Nuclear Negotiations

November 20, 2014

Host: The Hudson Institute

Speakers:

Mr. David Albright, President, Institute for Science and International Security

Dr. Hillel Fradkin, Director, Center on Islam

Dr. Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

On November 24 a year-long negotiating process will reach its deadline, and Iran and the P5+1 will be forced to make a decision: either extend negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program or terminate the process entirely. While the U.S. and its European partners succeeded in forcing Iran to the negotiating table by applying heavy economic pressure, it remains to be seen whether Western led sanctions can yield actual results.
Neither the threat of increased sanctions nor President Obama’s offer to increase U.S.-Iran cooperation have succeeded in altering Iran’s position. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has been consistent in defending the country’s position, that it has “a right to enrich uranium.” On this point the P5+1 has been willing to compromise; they have acknowledged Iran’s right to domestically enrich uranium. The question now is: after making one concession to Iran, what else is the P5+1 willing to compromise on and how far will negotiators go in order to reach a deal?
The major issue now facing negotiators is not “whether Iran should be allowed to enrich,” since it is, but “at what capacity should it be allowed to enrich?” However, Mr. Albright is concerned that negotiators are getting too caught up debating the capacity of Iran’s nuclear program while ignoring the program’s focus. While negotiators may be able to reach an agreement on the number of centrifuges that Iran is able to operate, Mr. Albright argued that there should be “no deal until Iran addresses its past nuclear research.” Most importantly he argues that the U.S. and its allies need to know the extent to which Iran pursued and studied nuclear weapons. Without this key bit of information there will be no way of telling just how compliant Iran has been in scaling back its program.
This argument was further supported by Dr. Fradkin, who acknowledged that Iran is already “a threshold nuclear state.” It is the P5+1’s duty to find out just how close to the nuclear threshold it is. Without uncovering this information there is no way to assure the region and world that Iran is developing its program peacefully. Without this assurance, Iran’s continued nuclear activity will only push Saudi Arabia and other regional powers to assume the worst, develop their own nuclear capabilities, and potentially send the region into a new arms race.
In the end, however, Iranian scientists cannot unlearn what they know, and Iran will from here on out be a nuclear threshold state. Therefore, the goal of negotiations is not to eliminate Iran’s nuclear capabilities but to keep their nuclear program in check, have it heavily monitored by the IAEA, and limit the country’s breakout time to roughly one year. While some politicians in the U.S. have been hopeful that Iran’s new “reformist minded” President Rouhani would be more eager to go against the Supreme Leader and strike deal with the U.S., Dr. Takeyh argues that these thoughts are misguidedly “trying to manipulate factional politics in a government of consensus.” Although Rouhani is certainly different than past Iranian leaders, the U.S. has been too eager to paint him as an outlier in Iranian politics. The reality is that he is a “center-right” leader who, like the rest of Iranian politicians, is largely in line with the Supreme Leader’s policies. While he may have demonstrated pragmatism in the past, President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Zarif, and the rest of Iran’s negotiators have largely stuck to the Supreme Leader’s agenda and have been unwilling to make any meaningful concessions.
With neither side budging, the vast majority of experts expect for the negotiations to be once again extended. Although talks have yet to yield any tangible indicators of progress, all the parties involved have invested too much time and effort to simply walk away now. In Iran Rouhani ran on the platform that he would strengthen the country’s economy. In the U.S. President Obama cannot afford to deal with another escalating crisis in the Middle East. Whether this mutual desire for a deal will result in a mutually palatable agreement remains to be seen.
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21. November 2014 by Will Houstoun
Categories: Energy, Middle East | Comments Off

Beyond Negotiations: the Cost of Unilateralism in Israel & Palestine

November 18, 2014

Host: The Brookings Institution

Speakers:

Dr. Tamara Cofman Wittes, Director, Center for Middle East Policy

Dr. Natan Sachs, Fellow, Center for Middle East Policy

Mr. Khaled Elgindy, Fellow, Center for Middle East Policy

This past summer, a sustained conflict between Israel and Hamas effectively doomed Secretary Kerry’s most recent attempt to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict. Dr. Wittes and pundits around the world asserted that, “the Oslo process had come to an end.” As both sides left the table, it appeared that mediated discussions had exhausted themselves. Despite overwhelming support for a two-state solution amongst Israeli and Palestinian citizens, political leaders on both sides are unwilling to negotiate in good faith and make the concessions needed to bring about a lasting deal.

However, in the wake of John Kerry’s failed talks, things have only gotten worse. Absent of hope for a negotiated solution, both Israeli and Palestinian citizens have seen increased fermentation amongst their political bases and violent unilateral actions are quickly becoming the new norm. This week’s brutal attack at a synagogue in West Jerusalem was only the most recent in a series of spontaneous attacks that have inflamed the sectarian and ethnic dimensions of the conflict. While the violence has not divided the communities along sectarian and ethnic lines to the degree seen in neighboring Syria and Iraq, it is clear that an unambiguous hate for each parties’ respective “other” is increasingly driving the conflict. The fact that this most recent attack was carried out by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a group that—until now—had refrained from using violence since the second Intifada, demonstrates just how quickly sentiments on the ground are changing.

In response to the most recent synagogue attack, Mr. Elgindy is “not one-hundred percent convinced” that the PFLP is to blame. Rather, he believes the group may be taking advantage of the situation in order to “reassert itself and gain stature” amongst a Palestinian base that is increasingly misrepresented by its two most powerful political factions, Hamas and Fatah.

Even as Mahmoud Abbas meets with PM Netanyahu, Secretary Kerry, and King Abdullah in Amman to discuss the recent violence, Mr. Elgindy is skeptical that the leaders will be able to make any meaningful progress. As he stated, “negotiations aren’t the problem…there is no process to speak of…[negotiations] need to be rooted in something.” At this point, negotiators from either side know each other’s positions; the problem is that neither side able to act. On the ground, Mr. Elgindy sees a “huge and growing” gap between the Palestinian public and the Palestinian Authority (PA)—which lacks the power and resources to develop institutions and policies at the local level. It is for this reason that he believes Palestinians are increasingly turning to spontaneous attacks and the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement—as these movements are immune to any leadership body.

A similar attitude is seen amongst Israeli politicians, whom Dr. Sachs described as being “not eager at all to change the status-quo,” largely due to the country’s growing right-wing/nationalistic fervor. The recent violence is only further stoking this sentiment. National news stations have been emphasizing the religious rhetoric espoused by Mahmoud Abbas and right-wing politicians have been quick to carry out politically motivated visits to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif —a contested religious site that sparked the Intifada in 2000.

This growth in Israeli nationalism is occurring at the same time that Palestinian nationalism and identity are suppressed. In 2009, when the Arab League designated Jerusalem its “Arab city of the year,”almost all its cultural events were berated and suppressed by Israeli activists. Since then, Israeli authorities have continued to carve out and segregate areas of Jerusalem by building walls and constructing large-scale settlement projects. As U.S. mediation becomes increasingly ineffective in curtailing Israeli actions, the Palestinian people are finding themselves less and less capable of responding to this suppression.

While Mr. Elgindy believes that the ongoing civil wars in Iraq and Syria have so far scared the bulk of Palestinian’s from enacting large-scale resistance or carrying out a third Intifada, it is clear that the people feel that they are being pushed into action.

 

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19. November 2014 by Will Houstoun
Categories: Middle East | Comments Off

Establishing New Norms for a New Generation: Prospects for Afghanistan’s Coalition Government

November 14, 2014

Host: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Speaker:

Mr. William Maley, Foundation Director, Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy

In little more than a decades time, the social framework and culture of Afghanistan has changed. Large sums of international investment – facilitated and protected by the 2001 U.S. invasion – have given rise to, what in Mr. Maley’s opinion is “one of the freest media environments in the world.” In addition, a combination of multinational companies and local entrepreneurs have succeeded in building a vast network of mobile phones that are allowing the country’s young population – 70% of which are under the age of 25 – to connect and converse on a wider scale than ever before seen.

However, while signs of social progress, cohesion, and stability have instilled a sense of optimism about the country’s future, the country’s political history have others worrying that this stability will not be able to survive once NATO forces withdrawal from the country at the end of the year.

Although many foreign observers applauded the Afghani citizens for turning out in such large numbers for this year’s presidential elections, the process was marred by numerous reports of electoral fraud. Even now, after the two leading candidates Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah agreed to overlook the disputed elections and form a coalition government, Mr. Maley and other experts are concerned that continued political corruption will delegitimize the government in the eye’s of its citizens and make the country more susceptible to fragmentation and renewed insurgency.

As the country emerges from conflict, Mr. Maley warns that the new government cannot continue with Hamid Karzai’s “neo-patriarchal” style of government; there is a “different social reality…leaders will need to come to terms with.” He additionally warned that, while President Ghani’s time at the World Bank left him well equipped to lead Afghanistan’s economic and infrastructural development, he may not be ready to take on the country’s political and economic elite. However, the doling out of two 15-year sentences to two heads of the Kabul Bank may exemplify a new and more just culture in Kabul.

Regardless, reforming the judiciary is just one of several initiatives that Mr. Maley believes will be necessary in order to uphold local and international confidence in Afghanistan’s future. On the local level, Mr. Maley urged the new government to address corruption and work to decentralize the government’s power and grant greater authority to local leaders. While there are some concerns that this may lead to a federalist system of government, current policy initiatives are rendered ineffective due to various ministries being unable to act at the local level. The government needs to be more capable at enacting policies and shaping perceptions at the most local of levels. The only way to put aside self-serving politics and shape perceptions at the local level is by working from the bottom-up. Government ownership should start with the country’s people, not its leaders.

Mr. Maley further argues that the only way the Afghan government can fight back local insurgencies is by maintaining a favorable perception among the country’s citizens. For this reason, continued international aid and development are crucial to maintaining stability. The more change that citizens see enacted on the ground, the more favorably they will view the government and the more they will resist Taliban narratives that wish to revert the country back to a more traditional form of governance. In this sense, the country’s partnership with the U.S. will continue to be important – largely due to the U.S.’ international convening power. However, for the country to succeed within the region, Mr. Maley believes it should pursue close ties with influential regional partners like China, which – in addition to funding numerous construction projects in Afghanistan – is currently facing its own security problem in Xinjiang Province. With both countries sharing mutual security and economic interests the potential for strong, regional ties increases.

With local and international opportunities abound, the new government in Afghanistan has an opportunity to shape Afghan culture, values, and politics for generations to come. That effort though must start at the local level.

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14. November 2014 by Will Houstoun
Categories: Economics, Government, Middle East | Comments Off

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