Why does Yemen Matter?

In Yemen, the pressure is on both sides to move toward a negotiated settlement.

There are several different views in the U.S. on the Yemen War depending on who is making the pronouncement. One views the U.S. as supporting a naive and destructive effort by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to restore the previous Yemeni regime. A second asserts that Yemen matters because of its geostrategic importance to the U.S. A third holds that the war is a mistake because it is a regional conflict between Sunnis and Shias that can have no positive outcomes for U.S. interests in the Middle East.

Bruce Riedel, writing in Brookings and elsewhere, has attempted to provide the basic facts about the Shia Houthi rebels, who are of course Yemeni, and why we are enmeshed in a conflict that goes back at least several generations. In a series of recent articles, he describes their origins and brings us up to date on how a seemingly backwater breakaway movement seeking autonomy in Yemen has become a surrogate of Iran in its sectarian warfare against member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

One key indicator of the strategic nature of the conflict was U.S. President Donald Trump’s  reference to Tehran’s role in Yemen, in remarking that the Iran nuclear agreement placed “no limits at all on its [Iran’s] other malign behavior, including its sinister activities in Syria, Yemen, and other places all around the world.”

In Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s follow-up to the US withdrawal from the deal, he mentioned Iran’s role in Yemen. “In Yemen, Iran’s support for the Houthi militia fuels a conflict that continues to starve the Yemeni people and hold them under the threat of terror,” Pompeo said. “The IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] has also given Houthi missiles to attack civilian targets in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates and to threaten international shipping in the Red Sea.” As one of the 12 conditions for restarting nuclear talks with Tehran, he noted, “Iran must also end its military support for the Houthi militia and work towards a peaceful political settlement in Yemen.”

Yet this Iranian assistance to the Houthis is seldom a news headline. Most often, reporting on the conflict highlights the humanitarian costs, with little effort to provide information on the contenders’ incentives to keep fighting. According to the United Nations, more than 10,000 people have been killed and over 53,000 injured in the conflict. This is in addition to 3 million who fled their homes along with countless others who are “living with the threat of mass starvation and disease, including the world’s worst cholera outbreak.”

With the news that US Special Forces are engaged in the southern border of Saudi Arabia assisting allied troops to locate and destroy missile sites aimed at targets in the kingdom, it is vital to take a broader look at the conflict, avoiding images that feed retribution rather than reconciliation, and dissecting efforts to bring about a negotiated settlement to the war.

As one commentator noted about Senate hearings on the U.S. presence in Yemen, “Senators certainly should be asking these tough questions, yet their narrow focus resulted in a missed opportunity to ask equally important questions about the opaque U.S. mission to fight terrorism in Yemen, which the Trump administration has conducted with growing intensity.” The same article pointed out that the Houthis are but one of the terrorist groups operating in Yemen: “In late 2017, United States Central Command (CENTCOM) assessed that the Islamic State’s Yemen presence had doubled in size over the last year and that it uses the country as a hub to direct attacks against America and its allies.”

The troubling challenge of accepting a scenario in which the U.S. is a “bad actor” is the means by which the Houthis spread their mission. Just as with areas under the control of extremists in Iraq and Syria, the Houthis have adopted their tactics to bludgeon local communities into supporting militant positions, down to inculcating young people with an intense hatred for the U.S. and its allies.

Every day, according to sources on the ground and interviews conducted in liberated areas, as well as confiscated schoolbooks, classes for local youths and Houthis begin with a chant called al-sarkha, with the goal of recruiting child soldiers. It goes: “God is great, death to America, death to Israel, damnation to the Jews; Islam is the answer.” It is repeated in schoolbooks, on flags, graffiti, stickers, and other media. To Houthi leaders, as with militants of past generations, Zionism and the U.S. are the key culprits manipulating Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who would otherwise be incapable of managing the war.

It is with this vivid scenario in mind that we need to balance the competing claims: The Gulf Arabs are determined to restore the previous Yemeni government, while the other side, led by Houthis trained in Iran, wants to set up their own emirate in what is now northern Yemen and southern Saudi Arabia. Since Iran has become the enabler of the Houthi rebellion, the war has become an existential issue for Saudi Arabia in the spiraling conflict between Sunnis and Shias.

Negotiated Settlement

The pressure is on both sides to move toward a negotiated settlement, perhaps by offering and financing an autonomous Houthi area in northern Yemen. The most recent UN resolution unfortunately calls for disarming the Houthis and leaving occupied areas before talks begin. A new resolution is needed that takes into consideration the physical and psychological obstacles to overcome. Former neighbors, now at war, need strong social, economic, and humanitarian support to put the past behind them.

GCC members have already begun the process of pledging aid to rebuild Yemen. Yet the path forward is not simply to disarm and join hands. As Osamah al-Rawhani, program director of the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, said, “The international community could show its serious commitment to achieve peace in Yemen by working towards a new UN resolution that pressures all sides to bring this conflict to an end.  Yemenis have suffered for so long.”

The longer the situation on the ground is not addressed effectively to stop hostilities, the more likely a generation of young Yemenis and Houthis will grow up to mistrust and label their counterparts as enemies. This has long-term consequences for Yemen, the Middle East, and U.S. stability and security objectives to protect the homeland and America’s allies abroad.

The Trouble with Black and White Perspectives

I spent a year in Yemen in 1974 as U.S. Peace Corps Training Director. It was a remarkable place, historically, culturally, and socially. It was the prototype of Arab tribal society. Since then, having worked in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Arab world, I saw first-hand the contributions expatriate Yemenis played as shopkeepers, domestic help, semi-skilled labor, and builders of the local economy.

Looking today at the Houthi forces and their tactics of inculcating their ideological messages is difficult to reconcile with the gracious and accommodating people I experienced then. Usually, youth are enlisted as flag bearers, carrying on the customary role allocated by resistance movements to inoculate the young and marginalized into their ranks. When the al-sarkha is chanted, it reflects the creed of those who believe that a movement need only be in opposition to be credible. Often guided by an ephemeral vision of victory over an oppressor, it provides little in the way of a substantial prospect for peace and prosperity. Victory is all that matters.

When I lived in Yemen, it was a romantic location beyond description, with no running water, intermittent power, few Yemeni English-speakers, and the seeds of coming conflicts being sown daily. Much like Mali and the Western Sahara, there were pockets of tribes that resisted any central government role, demanding autonomy, and a fair share of the country’s few resources.

How a seemingly remote, inter-tribal conflict turned into the awful and desperate situation that is Yemen today can largely be attributed to external forces: Saudi Arabia and Iran being the most recent. They have infused their Sunni-Shia confrontation into the fiber of the life of Yemen, disrupting any opportunity for the initial agreements arrived at through a national dialogue to bear fruit. Iran enabled the Houthis to acquire the arms and discipline needed to join with former president Abdullah Ali Saleh to overthrow the democratically elected government and put an end to any aspirations for national reconciliation. They quickly took over some 70% of the territory, and, with an ISIS insurgency in the southeast of Yemen, ensure that the country would be damned into instability for some time.

This is not to excuse or justify the reactions of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the Arab Coalition battling the Houthis. Those transgressions are well publicized, if sometimes exaggerated. Those Arabs will eventually go home; there really is nothing to keep them in Yemen. What is of concern is how the Houthis are changing the character of the Yemenis, so that retribution trumps reconciliation and coming generations are imbued with norms that are hardly conducive to compromise and innovation.

As recounted in a recent publication,  “The Houthis originally sought an end to what they observed as efforts to marginalize Zaydi communities and beliefs; but their aspirations amplified both in magnitude and resolve in the wake of the 2011 uprisings (Yemen’s Arab Spring) and government collapse, and embraced a broader populist, dissident message to counter the establishment.” As the civil war wore on and control of territory and people moved back and forth between the combatants, the Houthis undertook re-education of the people and youth under their control both to reduce dissident voices and to build a generation of committed fighters.

They dusted off educational methods evolved from Mao’s China and Fidel’s Cuba to more recent versions adapted by Iran and Da’esh, to foster a behavioral outlook filled with an acute anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism. This view encourages youth to rage against the U.S. and Israel as the primary evil attacking Yemen by manipulating Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Arab countries and European allies.

But extremist ideology is only one part of the complex threat from this distant conflict. Yemen has a geopolitical prominence as the southern entrance to the Red Sea. The Houthis continue to threaten maritime transit of naval forces, oil tankers, and freighters. The threat to freedom of navigation and the world’s oil and commercial goods transiting the Red Sea via the Bab al-Mandeb Strait cannot be ignored.  Ironically, this is also not in Iran’s interests if it were ever to resume commercial shipping through the Suez Canal.

Iran has a long-term stake in stoking the Yemen conflict, both as the weak southern border from which to attack Saudi Arabia to expanding its footprint on the Arabian Peninsula. It continues to gain strength throughout the region via local militias trained and mobilized by Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Additionally, the Arab Federation for Human Rights found that the Houth­is have planted more than half a million anti-personnel mines in different parts of Yemen, not to mention mines in sea lanes.

These challenges — radicalized youth, aggression against Yemeni and Saudi civilians, missiles used against a range of land and sea targets, and the fundamental issue of what will happen to this lost generation of Yemeni young people who could be the next terrorist threats to the US and Europe — argue for a more concerted effort to reduce the violence, support revised and realistic UN efforts for a national reconciliation, and provide the ingredients for long-term, inclusive and sustainable solutions.

The U.S. must bring its influence to bear on Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the Arab Coalition, as well as Russia, to bring the parties to the table with few preconditions.  Unfortunately, according to a UN report in January, “the UN Panel of Experts suggested that neither side’s leaders have suffered enough to make them compromise—in sharp contrast to their civilian constituents.”

There is never a fortuitous time for taking risks for peace. The international community must recognize that further delay at peace-making will only wreck more lives, spread even more catastrophe among the civilian populations, and harden positions beyond compromise. The time is now for responsible actions that lessen threats emanating from the Yemen war and its consequences for the youth and people of that country.





The Devil is in the Details – Lebanon Gets Boost for Infrastructure Development at Paris Donors Conference

The Paris IV conference brought together more than 40 countries and institutions to address the need for funding infrastructure projects in Lebanon. The result, as reported in numerous media accounts, is a commitment to some $11 billion in support, mainly in the form of soft loans and concessionary financing for more than 250 projects presented by the government of Lebanon. While some may see this as a ringing endorsement of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s efforts to draw attention to the needs to stabilize Lebanon’s economy, whether or not Lebanon is up to the task of managing the commitments has yet to be determined. However, the financing will not come about without hard lessons ahead for Lebanon’s patronage and political wasta system.

According to Chris Jarvis, IMF head of Mission in Lebanon, the funding is conditioned on at least two major steps: the development of a management system to handle the funds, and a clear accountability system that ensures that funds are managed and “really contribute to growth in Lebanon.”

Hariri’s game plan has a number of triggers to attract international investors, particularly the use of Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) that wed government planning and seed funds with investor expertise and control. The danger is in the low level of expertise in the public sector in negotiating PPPs, which can lead to unjustified risk-taking and risk-allocation by government agencies.

Reuters reported that “Jarvis also pointed out that following the IMF’s proposed measures are fundamental to reduce the government’s budget deficit, which includes raising the VAT rate, reintroducing taxes on petroleum products, and raising electricity tariffs to cut down on the subsidy bill.

“We think stricter structural reforms are very important, especially in stepping up anti-corruption efforts, and improving the electricity sector, so that people get a better supply of what they’re paying for.”

A similar concern was raised in an Asharq Al-Awsat story that “The donors would be very strict in following up the Lebanese performance and how to deal with these funding plans, which will last for six years, including two years devoted to the study of the hundreds of projects submitted, and four years of execution. The discussions revealed a key demand to adopt a ‘follow-up mechanism’ to ensure that the government is serious about implementing two issues: reforms and fighting corruption.”

The donors are well aware of the challenges to Lebanon due to many political shocks of the past decade, the continued security challenges, and the burden of support more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees. “The small Mediterranean country’s debt-to-GDP ratio is the third-highest in the world at 148%, and annual growth is projected at around 2% for 2018. Among the major donors was the World Bank, which pledged $4 billion in low-interest-rate loans. Saudi Arabia reactivated a $1 billion line of credit and France pledged $492 million in low-interest-rate loans and $183 million in grants.” The United States committed some $110 million as a grant.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri spelled out the desperate situation, pointing to the impact of Lebanon’s status on the region. “It is not the stability of Lebanon alone. This is the stability of the region and, therefore, of our world,” Hariri said, warning that a collapse in Lebanon could ricochet throughout the Middle East and Europe. Syria’s war has hindered land exports to Jordan, Iraq, and oil-rich Gulf Arab countries. And as The Washington Post added, “Rampant corruption has taken another kind of toll, hollowing out infrastructure and basic services, with frequent water and electricity cutoffs.”

The hard road ahead will only prove more difficult if Lebanon does not adopt needed reforms to make its economy and government more efficient. With a mix of grants, concessionary loans, market loans, and guarantees, having a robust and transparent management system is paramount if Lebanon is to achieve its badly needed economic targets. Estimates are that the first phase of study and initial projects will take four plus years and cost $10 billion, with a total of $17 billion needed over the following seven years.

French President Macron, the host of the conference stressed that “The delivery of the funds is also tied to a series of measures that include public-spending cuts and an assault on corruption. This conference only has a sense if it’s accompanied by your will and your courage, and a precise monitoring of the follow-up,” Macron said in his closing comments. “It only has a purpose if it’s accompanied by a profound transformation.”

Lebanese officials maintain that the private sector would finance around 40 percent of the program, while any grants and loans received would be used for the remaining 60 percent. Yet some view these soft loans – with an interest rate of around 1.5 percent over a period of 20 to 30 years – as an extra layer of debt. Not great news if not properly managed.

Up next is the Brussels conference scheduled later this spring, which will focus on the Syrian refugee crisis.

Russia Benefits from Lack of US Leadership in the Levant

One can argue that America’s absent leadership from the quagmire of Libya to the ongoing shame of civilian casualties in Syria, through to border tensions between Lebanon and Hezbollah and Syria, to the gradual erosion of Iraq’s sovereignty, is a strategic choice by the Trump Administration, in some ways mirroring the Obama posture of light-handed engagement in the region. When one throws in the downturn with Turkey, the weaknesses of our overtures with Egypt and the GCC, and the absence of depth of State Department experts dealing with this convulsive part of the world, then Trump’s genius may be that letting Russia get bogged down, as it did in Afghanistan, will in the long run be the winning hand…but don’t count on it.

The election this weekend in Russia is seen as potentially significant if there is low voter turnout, indicating to some the unhappiness with Russians with its overseas adventurism. Independent polling being what it is in Russia, we may never be able to analyze the election in depth, but it is quite clear that the Kremlin is concerned that its foreign policies seem reasonable and necessary to protecting the motherland.

As Al Monitor reported, “In the Syrian conflict, the tables have been turning quickly. The sense that things aren’t working out properly is strong in Moscow, with even staunch advocates of Russia’s Syria policies now wary and calling for policy updates. Moscow has been cautious not to take any radical steps before the March 18 election day to dodge possible risks. But Russia’s plans to amend its strategy are underway and will have been implemented once Putin receives his fourth-term mandate.”

What this means in Syria and beyond is not clear as the conflict there is a muddle of competing agendas among regional actors, militias, government forces, and assorted non-state actors seeking to move resolution of the war to their advantage. While some players, such as Russia and Iran, are quite clear about their goals, sway over the Assad government and large slices of the reconstruction pie, others, including Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon’s government, put security at the top of their lists.

It was only three weeks ago that, according to Real Clear Defense.com, that only a phone call from Russian President Putin to Prime Minister Netanyahu prevented a large-scale Israeli engagement with both Syrian and foreign forces as a “lesson” about Israel’s resolve. In reality, it mirrored the long-standing US role in cautioning Israel to stand down, now it is Russia that “has the ability to limit Israeli freedom of action.”

The article went on to say that “At a minimum, without strong American leadership to deal with the Iranian threat in Syria, Israel must stomach the presence of Russia as a major power. Indeed, Russia offers little help in solving the Israeli security dilemma. After all, Russia’s involvement in Syria enabled the Iranian expansion that presently undermines Israel’s security.”

It is troublesome that Russia has generated its own arms race in Syria, going beyond what Hezbollah has amassed from Iran in Lebanon, including advanced surface-to-air missile systems and stealth aircraft. This last engagement made it clear that Israel must think twice before continuing its overflights over Syrian territory. As the article indicates, it is even more worrisome that “Russia has only a marginal interest in limiting Iranian expansion along the Golan, as evidenced by multiple violations and Iranian abuses under Russia’s watch.” Thus while Israel continues to rattle its sabers at Hezbollah in Lebanon, the country with the most to benefit, Iran, continues to collaborate with Russia when its interests are at stake. As the article ruefully concludes, “American cannot cede its leadership role to Russia, particularly while Moscow continues its partnership with Iran.”

With America’s eyes now focused on North Korea, and with the dearth of expertise at the State Department and conflicting signals from the Department of Defense and National Security Council, there does not seem to be any hope of righting the US position any time soon.

So in some ways, if the US was as agile as Russia in influencing elections through social media, there would have been some opportunities for mischief despite the overwhelming odds of Putin’s reelection. As the Washington Institute for Near East Policy opined, “While Putin is assured a victory, the Kremlin appears concerned about its longer-term political future, leading it to rely more on military mobilization and anti-Westernism to bolster its domestic legitimacy and slide back to its authoritarian past. This means the Middle East will likely remain an arena for competing with the West and expanding Russian influence.”

Much like President Bush 43 pulled out a victory in the 2010 mid-term elections by calling up fears of impending foreign policy crises, Putin has adopted this strategy to overcome “a deteriorating economy, growing poverty, and little government interest in development…” Despite its weak economic health, Russia, like Iran, expects to be well compensated for its Syrian adventures, and has extended its reach as the dynamic outlier to Turkey and Iran as well.

It is no wonder that almost every Arab head of state has made the pilgrimage to Moscow in the last two years, giving Putin the leverage to keep US interests out of the region. As the article concludes, “Following the election, Moscow will likely treat the Middle East even more as a privileged sphere of influence similar to the post-Soviet space, with an increasingly aggressive, expansionist, and anti-Western posture all but assured.”

Yet Russia lacks control over its convenient “friends” Turkey and Iran that have their own interests that for hundreds of years have resisted Russian encroachment. One possible liability from this strategy is the lack of control that Russia has over the non-state actors, aside from its own, one the fighting in Syria is in remission. “Senior US officials believe that up to 80 percent of the Syrian army is made up of foreign fighters, many of whom are loyal to international forces, including Hezbollah and other Shiite militias with ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units (PMU),” according to the Middle East Institute.

There are no straight lines given the proliferation of arms, agendas, and alliances of convenience. As David French noted in the National Review, “It’s imperative that the American people understand the risks, understand the administration’s vision, and approach these potential confrontations with their eyes wide open. We should not stumble into war.”

Another Election in the Middle East – Why It Matters in Lebanon

Lebanon is bracing for its first parliamentary election since 2009, having extended its term twice since the in the absence of the security and consensus needed to proceed. While no one expects a shake-up in the results based on a new electoral law that may enable newcomers to win several seats, there are strong currents building that may alter future “election results as usual” predictions.

Currently, the Amal-Hezbollah-Free Patriotic Movement is considered the front-runner to secure the largest number of seats, not a majority, but more than enough to have its veto over any Parliamentary actions. But there are cracks in that alliance as well as the new electoral format does not assure them of all of the seats in districts in which they may have a majority of the population. In some districts, the outcomes will depend on real contests among candidates appealing to voters directly rather than through pre-ordained party lists.

Other variables that will influence the results will be the level of voter enthusiasm for Hezbollah’s continued foreign adventures on behalf of Iran, pressures to include more women candidates, participation by Lebanon’s millennial and independents, and pressure from regional actors such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.

As an article in Lawfareblog recently pointed out, “It is not yet clear how much or how little the new law will affect Lebanon’s elections—a robust debate is already underway. Neither is it clear how the foreign powers aligned with various Lebanese political actors will react to significant shifts in Beirut.  What is clear is that the new electoral law—which many Lebanese welcomed enthusiastically—might disrupt almost 9 years of status quo.”

The specter of a war with Israel, as a result of overreach by Hezbollah or Israel also plays on the minds of voters. From Hezbollah’s continued role as a surrogate for Iran in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere to flare-ups due to miscalculations or probing of Israel’s defenses by Iranian-backed forces along the Syria-Israel border, the majority of Lebanese remember all too well the price they paid for Hezbollah’s adventurism in 2006.

Let the Women Speak

Lebanon is one of the few Arab countries that has not made a concerted effort to ensure greater participation of women in Parliament through mandatory allocations of seats or requiring parties to field women candidates.

As Annaharnet wrote recently, “Despite a comparatively free press, different religious groups, and women in high-ranking positions in the corporate world and the job market, Lebanon ranks shockingly low when it comes to female representation in politics, and politicians have been unsuccessful in acting on a movement to establish a quota for women in parliament.”

When Lebanon’s new government was announced in December 2016, it was criticized for its lack of women members. Even the Minister of State for Women’s Affairs is a man, Jean Oghassabian, such is the reality of balancing the sectarian membership of the government. Yet the Minister has been active in moving forward with promoting the participation of women at all levels of government. “Keeping women from public life is not only a loss for women. It is a loss for the parliament,” he said. In cooperation with the UN and EU, his ministry is working to bring more women into the election process.

On the other end of the spectrum is Rima Fakhry, a senior member of the political bureau of Hezbollah, who told AP in an interview that “the women’s movement considers that women should reach decision-making positions; for them, it is in parliament. We differ with those movements. Hezbollah doesn’t see the role of a lawmaker suitable for a woman in Lebanon. For us, a woman is a woman. She must work to fulfill the main goals she exists for. These are not different from those of men. But the difference lies in the details. She has a home. She is a mother and must bring up future generations. This takes a lot of the woman’s time.”

Hearing from the Outliers

Among various independent groups and coalitions that are maneuvering to join the election process are those who believe that transparency, an end of nepotism, and a greater emphasis on rule of law, providing services such as waste management, clean water, quality education, and respect for human rights are essential. Politics as usual in Lebanon avoids talking about issues except in very general terms. The lack of political platforms from legacy candidates representing the existing power structure may create vulnerabilities in some districts.

As one analyst remarked, “Elections in Lebanon are not based on a clear scientific, ideological, and political track, as much as being founded on the absence of real awareness, which justifies why several candidates disregard presenting their electoral programs and plans, based on which they will be later held accountable.”

Another electoral expert Abdo Saad asserted that “No candidate or political party has ever presented a political program while running for elections in Lebanon because voters do not hold those candidates accountable for their actions, but rather base their judgments on political and religious dependence.”

As with the US electoral map where literally less than 10% of seats not held by incumbents are real contests, the majority of seats will go to party surrogates whose victories will result from affiliations rather than policies. This has not dimmed the enthusiasm of those activists who believe that time in on their side as Lebanon is caught in regional cross-winds that make its role as a multicultural, multi-sectarian, independent, and tolerant country even more critical.

What’s At Stake in Lebanon’s Survival?


 Speculation continues to swirl around ‘what’s next?’ after Prime Minister Hariri’s return to Lebanon and the ongoing discussions among key players in and outside Lebanon. So it may be worthwhile to take stock of what’s at stake if Lebanon, as imperfectly as it operates, would become a failed state, i.e. looks more like Libya without even a modicum of central government authority and returns to a civil war with outside parties holding their contests for regional power inside Lebanon.

Of course the first question is survival as what? The status quo is certainly untenable with Hezbollah acting as a state within a state, Parliament divided among those who support an independent and secure country and those who welcome outside intervention, and those reluctant to stand for fear of losing their piece of the pie that is Lebanon. Add to that over 2 million refugees of uncertain status and the price of stability becomes astronomical.

Lebanon has never been a fully free and independent country, capable of defending its territory and preserving its institutions. But it certainly has been more free than it is today. Its survival depended on balancing the interests of national and regional players, whose agendas, often in competition, usually benefited from Lebanon’s role as a dynamic center of culture, business, tourism, and political discourse.

In broad terms, most analysts draw a direct line between Black September in Jordan, pushing Palestinian forces in exile to Lebanon, whose state within a state status precipitated the civil war and birthed Hezbollah, resulting in continuous and blatant foreign meddling that characterizes the current political morass. No wonder I go silent when asked to explain “what’s going on over there?”

The consequences of destruction and disabling 

Those who care about Lebanon want a free, independent, secure, and stable country that enjoys territorial integrity and a functioning government providing adequate services to its people. Yet, none of these qualities are assured in the current context where very little is certain except obscure outcomes. But we can point to what is on the doorstep if the regional competitions between Sunni, Shia, and Israel are not resolved without destroying Lebanon as collateral damage.

A failed state in Lebanon brought about by willful acts or unintended consequences of regional powers will have catastrophic outcomes – none of which support US interests or those of Israel, America’s primary ally in the region. To note only a few:

  • Instability along Israel’s northern border, which will require Israeli boots on the ground – an occupation army will yield no good outcomes over time.
  • War against Lebanon will make Christians, the backbone of the country’s social, economic, and cultural integrity, targets of opportunity for militias looking for scapegoats.
  • Lebanon which represents, one of the few successful bulwarks against radical Islam in the region, will be lost.
  • And the destruction and occupation of Lebanon will exert enormous pressure on our other ally, Jordan, which is also threatened by Syria and Iran.

The US cannot give a blank check to Israel to defend itself/attack Hezbollah as a proxy for Syria and Iran without considering consequences to America’s own safety and security, and its relations in the region. Consequences in the US of Lebanon’s failure cannot be overlooked. Heightened tension and warfare in the region will ratchet up domestic threats to the US, seen as the enabler of Israel’s disregard for Lebanese and Muslim lives.

Nor can the US stand by while Gulf Arab countries hammer Lebanon over the reality of Hezbollah’s paramount position in the government. Among the many unanswered questions emerging from the current crisis with Saudi Arabia are the many ways in which the Kingdom can undermine Lebanon through economic means, such as withholding funds from the Central Bank, cutting Lebanese imports, or deporting Lebanese workers or limiting their remittances, which are so crucial to Beirut’s budget.

To diminish the threat of state failure in Lebanon, the target of Saudi ire, Hezbollah, must decide if it is a Lebanese party or Iran’s proxy. It cannot be both. An accommodation, outlined in previous agreements and resolutions, to resolve its military status, now that its political role is demarcated, is central to returning Lebanon to a neutral position of disassociation that is its historical role. It is the ultimate win-win for the region.

The Saga Continues – Lebanon’s Stability Compromised by Regional Intrigues

Since Michael Hudson penned his opus on Lebanon, “The Precarious Republic,” I have been addicted to looking behind the curtain to try and understand goings-on in that sliver of a country, endowed with incredible beauty, and multiples of people who claim it as home. The book was written in 1968, that’s 50 years ago, yet the core facts resonate today – Lebanon is a multi-sectarian home to affinity groups that lack a central defining identity as “Lebanese,” always adding a hyphen for their sect, tribe, or religion.

When I first went to Lebanon in the early 70s, this was apparent in the Palestinian, Armenian, Syrian, and other peoples one routinely met in the cabarets and alleyways of Beirut. The World Lebanese Cultural Union was pushing to have Lebanese abroad included in the political life of the country, and Israel routinely bombed “guerilla” havens to remind the country that it had an obligation to protect Israel’s border. Newspapers flourished, each subsidized by a regional power broker or a local one with enough money to literally give away their opinions. It was heady and crazy at the same time. The seeds sowed for Lebanon’s coming traumas were real, constant, and obvious to anyone who took the time to push past the reality show and ask “what’s next?”

Well, it’s show time…Lebanon is deep in crisis, with deepening domestic fault lines being exacerbated, as usual, by external actors who think that Lebanon is the school playground for beating on rival gangs.

The Prime Minister resigning as a “hard shock” to the nation; the Maronite Patriarch visiting the King of Saudi Arabia; Hezbollah’s Secretary-General appealing for calm; the President calling on the PM for clarity; and conspiracy theories and realpolitik crashing headlong into the Mediterranean, only to end up floating on the polluted shoreline. What are we to think, what are we to hope about resolving this latest mess before Lebanon is caught between the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Israel vise or the Saudi Arabia-Israel-Hezbollah-Iran conundrum?

First reality check, Security for Israel at any cost is not a sustainable security. While Hezbollah and Lebanon may be relatively easy to attack, the consequences to regional stability are quite complex. The resulting high number of civilian casualties, widespread destruction of infrastructure, and deterioration of the Lebanese central government’s authority will actually exacerbate threats to Israel’s security, further destabilize the region, and leave the main protagonists, Syria and Iran, backed by Russia, unscathed.

Israel may thunder all its wants at Lebanon for its legitimate as well as its contrived agenda, the bottom line is the same – Lebanon cannot change its internal reality, it is in an impossible situation. Hezbollah outguns the LAF but doesn’t want another civil war, since that would distract from its self-defined role as a defender of Lebanon’s territorial integrity. Israel’s war messages give Hezbollah greater credibility in the minds of the local Lebanese and Arab people.

Second reality check, Hezbollah has to decide, is its future in a multi-confessional Lebanon or is it truly an Iranian proxy that will allow hundreds, perhaps thousands of Shia and other Lebanese to die for Iran? The Saudi distemper towards Hezbollah corresponds to Hezbollah’s disregard for solidly endorsing a policy of disassociation from regional conflicts. It is time for the party of God to calculate where it should be placing its bets and realize that it has a very good deal in Lebanon but only if it is committed to the country’s independence and territorial integrity.

If war comes, the likely humanitarian crisis, which has already resulted in Lebanon hosting 1.5 million Syrian refugees in addition to the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, Iraqis, and others in the country, will add large numbers of internally displaced Lebanese to the mix, resulting in a fragile state teetering on becoming a failed state…just what the region doesn’t need.

Is there Synergy between Trump’s Foreign and Domestic Policy Tracks?

Administrations generally base foreign policy on a set of principles reflecting worldviews that include domestic considerations, historical precedents, and a desire to have a legacy that will endure beyond the end of their tenure. With the end of foreign policy bipartisanship in the 80s, collateral damage from pendulum swings after Vietnam, the rise of insurgencies sparked by non-state actors, and a growing disaffection between Congress and whatever administration was in power, defining core US interests became murky and inconsistent from one term to the next.

No region has been immune to these inconsistencies, with the possible exception of NATO-linked Europe. And the Trump Administration has made it clear that even a ‘principled’ foreign policy will not interfere with its definition of national interest.

Which brings me to the point of this blog. It complements an earlier one that listed challenges confronting the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) regarding obstacles to growing the kind of political and economic institutions central to long-term stability and security. Whatever the homegrown definition of democracy guiding each country, at some point an accountable relationship between citizens and government (the social contract) evolves as a touchstone for measuring its development.

Given the challenges outlined previously, it is not clear if a US foreign policy, or rather policies, consistent with the ‘American First’ national interests defined by the Trump Administration, can be defined with any certainty. Early indications are that what we have so far are muddled, regardless of the country or region. This may reflect the “art of the deal” approach to keeping an opponent off guard, a determination that offers should not be set in concrete until the other side’s hand is exposed, or any other feints in a negotiator or card player’s handbook.

In any case, the choral approach of everyone on the same page is still emerging in the Administration so in that absence, I’ll suggest some ideas for how debates about our domestic policy could enrich options perceived by those across the table from us.

Tying together domestic and foreign policy lessons learned

Let’s begin by recognizing that I believe that an integrated strategy on our part is essential – combining ‘all of government’ attention to shaping approaches that clearly calculate the odds of success and results of failure in achieving our objectives. Domestically, this should be applied to issues ranging from upgrading our infrastructure to facing domestic terrorism. Internationally, upcoming steps on resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict will be instructive in this regard: do we adopt a piecemeal approach or a comprehensive settlement? I argue that what we can learn domestically can be applied to relations with our counterparts and help generate strategies that integrate as far as possible all sectors of governance in a national consensus on next steps…the new social contract.

Why should the promotion of economic growth and equitable distribution of wealth and opportunities, certainly on President Trump’s national agenda, be avoided in conversations with other countries? If American voters see these as vital to our country’s future, why would we think these goals are foreign to foreigners? For example, enabling economic growth through increased competitiveness of our products and services can serve as an example of a benefit of better governance by other countries. Technical assistance focused on advancing models of teamwork, efficiency, and accountability in government programs using US funds can be a step in that direction. Of course, how this messaging is accomplished will, by necessity, be informed by lessons learned from generations of US assistance programs.

Job creation is another overlapping goal of the US and its partners. If the readouts of Trump’s talks with industry leaders are accurate, the President is learning that young and jobless Americans need to be educated in marketable skills that enable them to be active in our transitioning economy. The only difference with our overseas partners is the perceptions of their youth that some jobs are unsuitable for them…even though their parents may complain about the high price they pay for maintenance and technical support services at home and at work. No, I take that back…many American youth are also allergic to jobs that require manual labor, operating machinery and computers, and vocational skills that are the backbone of imported and immigrant labor.

As we look forward to a robust commitment to building infrastructure across this country, we can share those experiences with others. For example, when the US provides economic assistance to build the partner country’s economic capacity, we should insist on a few conditions. The first would be to limit the effect of “wasta” or influence through engendering merit-based recruitment and advancement. Another useful condition would be to align donor programs to minimize redundancy, promote efficiencies of scale, and thereby have additional capacity to address issues. A third factor in which we have experience is the promotion of small and medium-sized job creating enterprises through enabling services from financing to legal and marketing resources. While some of these factors are already in play, frankly, we don’t have a great results to date.

Another area in which the Trump administration may create replicable patterns is the recruitment and use of foreign labor. Just as the US has become addicted to legal and illegal immigrants to handle the jobs that Americans resist, the same is true throughout the MENA region. Tens of thousands of South Asians are working in countries where few labored previously. Countries are caught in a bind between jobs that citizens will do versus what foreigners will do at much less cost and often more diligently. It is a dilemma that may not have any solutions, in the US or abroad.

Finally, one quality of American business that should become a key component of the Trump foreign assistance program is to redefine what we lump under ‘transparency.’ American companies with US contracts here and abroad should be models of integrity in business dealings and support that value with their counterparts overseas. When we look at the sums mentioned for the proposed US infrastructure program, many still remember the obscene abuses of contractors rebuilding Iraq, supplying forces in Afghanistan, and myriad other examples that trouble our procurement processes.

If we are unwilling to behave within the bounds of propriety (however defined), then why do we expect it of our partners? The President would be wise to establish a proactive IG corps to monitor and assess infrastructure initiatives, which will incorporate broad private sector participation, as a good faith commitment to US taxpayers. If we insist on a similar transparent approach with our partners, including public bid processes, regular auditing and reporting, and incentives tied to better outcomes, then we will have made ‘America First’ a model for international cooperation that has extensive benefits for both parties and brings more stability and prospects for economic growth.

While these ideas may seem a bit faded, in this time of transition, fresh thinking about formulating and implementing domestic policy can help influence how we re-imagine foreign policy. Sharing lessons that we learn as we retool the American dream, can be both a humbling experience and potentially make a significant contribution to how the US moves ahead in these challenging times.



What’s Going to Happen in the Middle East?

It’s been more than three months since my last blog on my home page.

Much has transpired in Washington, DC where I live and in US relations with the Middle East, from where I am writing. Contradictory statements and actions of the Trump Administration, on Syria for example, have observers puzzles as to the strategic thinking that support of statements and policies. From the White House to the NSC, the State Department and the US UN Ambassador, the Defense Department and the various official spokespersons, it is hard to find a thread on which to build an unencumbered understanding of this administration’s priorities. As it is becoming obvious to many, “American First” is not a policy; it is a point of reference for a tribal zero sum view of the world, not to mention the administration’s attitude towards its domestic critics. Throw in Congressional reluctance to be drawn into a lock step march on President Trump’s initiatives, and the brew certainly becomes toxic.

So here I am in Lebanon after a week of meetings with the country’s political/sectarian leadership, a weekend in Jordan catching up with friends, and back for more meetings and participation in the Lebanese Diaspora Energy conference of Lebanese from around the world. Of course it would be great to say that the country is on track to getting its act together and mobilizing its tremendous human capital…can’t say that, not even close. The bickering over the electoral law, in which each sect seeks to protect its own prerogatives, is just another indicator that this “democracy” has yet to evolve into institutions that support the state regardless of the political environment. Lebanon, as the eminent professor Michael Hudson wrote in 1968, is still the “Precarious Republic” splinted into multiple competing identifies of which “Lebanese” is not always even in the top three!

True, some compromises were made in accommodating competing demands in electing President Aoun and allocating ministries, yet the core question remains…who are the Lebanese who share a national identity? Unfortunately, while there are signs of less partisan attitudes among Lebanese youth and urbanites, this varies by class, background, and education. What remains is a country in a form of paralysis that is just enough to numb without destroying basic functions but not elastic or strong enough to take steps that reduce the inability to act consistently for the national good.

So what have I learned so far on this trip and what are the implications for US policy? Much of the analysis has not changed from earlier commentaries. Regrettably, countries from Mauritania to Iraq and the Gulf have structural and cultural barriers that inhibit much needed change. Witness the challenges that Saudi Arabia is facing in implementing Vision 2030. Issues decades in the making will not be resolved in months or even a few years. Among the most intractable are:

  • Uneven governance, wealth inequality, un- and underemployment, environmental degradation, and for countries with limited economic resources, inadequate public and social services in health, education, sanitation, water, and power, among others. In those states, particularly the Gulf oil monarchies that can buy solutions for infrastructure needs, the challenges of national employment and adequate market-based education still loom large.
  • Tied to this is the concept of leadership at the national and local levels. How is leadership determined and political priorities set? Is power-sharing between national and local governments on the agenda? Morocco and Jordan are among the few working on decentralization strategies to empower local communities. Maybe you have to have limited resources to be innovative and spread decision-making!
  • In their political systems, from political parties and real separation of powers, to Rule of Law and electoral politics, most of the Arab world gets poor grades for implementation.
  • The all-pervasive specter of corruption, from low level purchasing of goods and services to opaque government procurement processes, has not diminished. While some progress has been made, it is still an obstacle for international firms and investors and well as citizens.
  • Gender and youth inequality that robs the countries of productive roles from the majorities of their populations.
  • The negative consequences of multiple identities: religion, ethnic, tribal, and social differentiators,
  • The lack of coherent and integrated economic growth strategies with achievable results that benefit the economy broadly, supporting emerging and existing middle class citizens, and that deal with the presence of large communities of foreign workers who take jobs that locals disdain.
  • The interference of external factors such as regional politics, crises, and competition among the US, Russia, China, and others for influence.

Remedial Actions and Possible Initiatives

These do not represent all of the challenges in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region to becoming more engaged in citizen-centric and rule of law policies. But, as a checklist of potential areas for where the US can be useful, it’s a sufficient start. Of course, what will happen with US foreign assistance was a major question in both countries. The US supplies much of the weapons and supplies, and well as training for the Lebanese and Jordanian military. That will likely continue as Syria and ISIS are targeted by this administration.

In a companion blog, I will look at the administration’s political calculus on foreign assistance, which as of now seems muddled aside from supporting those who fight against “terrorism.” Hopefully, this will lead to some doable initiatives that both build on best practices and serve US interests in the always challenging MENA region.

What we don’t know, can hurt us

Thanks to Carl Cannon, Washington Bureau Chief of Real Clear Politics (@carlcannon) for helping me find a voice to help me write about the survival of democracy abroad and here at home. His January 18 Morning Note continued his previous day’s look at what Washington, Eisenhower, and JFK said during their transitions in and out of office. It has great relevance today.

Overseas, the regression in democratic governance in the Middle East, North Africa, and Africa is daunting. Presidents-for-life, fragile and failing states, civil strife, security concerns trumping human rights, and growing polarization and wealth inequality are some of the more obvious trends making regional stability and security precarious. What then are the consequences if America does not promote nation-building, if it is content to let bilateral relations with Russia and China shape the interests of many countries, and if our foreign relations can be reduced to transactions and zero-sum calculations?

It is also interesting that those critical of the new Administration’s perceived tolerance if not preference for strong leaders abroad, gloss over the support that America has given to authoritarian leaders throughout our modern history to promote security and trade relations. More troubling is not examining the potential erosion of constitutional checks and balances when Congress, the Executive, and the Supreme Court are controlled by a single political party, headed by someone who takes umbrage at those who disagree with him.

As one of the “Western” democracies, we have institutions that are guarantors of America’s national democratic values including human rights, justice, equality before the law, access to basic social and educational services, protection of minorities, and relatively open participation in the country’s political space, values built on collaboration and tolerance (although I would prefer respect…). I’m not sure that anyone can define these anymore to the satisfaction of all Americans.

During the campaign, I described Mr. Trump’s foreign policy statements as chauvinistic, for “displaying aggressive or exaggerated patriotism.” Whatever the topic, he knew instinctively that he could rally and attract supporters by strong and often provocative statements.

On the other hand, reading Carl Cannon made me think about evocative statements that call us to higher standards of thinking and behavior, which seem to be absent in the incoming Administration.

JFK said, “”Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” No weaknesses in that vow, as Kennedy concluded: “And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: Ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”

Cannon notes that today, “Benefiting from half-a-century’s worth of hindsight, however, most presidential scholars now consider Eisenhower’s farewell address more substantive than Kennedy’s speech.”

General Eisenhower and Prime Minister Churchill at the Rhine. Image from Shapshooter46

Looking back at the wars in the 20th century, Eisenhower said, “Despite these holocausts America is today the strongest, the most influential and most productive nation in the world. Understandably proud of this pre-eminence, we yet realize that America’s leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment.”

He went on, “Throughout America’s adventure in free government, such basic purposes have been to keep the peace; to foster progress in human achievement, and to enhance liberty, dignity and integrity among peoples and among nations…To strive for less would be unworthy of a free and religious people.”

Eisenhower laid down a challenge saying, “Any failure traceable to arrogance or our lack of comprehension or readiness to sacrifice would inflict upon us a grievous hurt, both at home and abroad.” He spoke of the need to find balance in our political sensibilities. “Down the long lane of the history yet to be written America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.”

He concluded, “We pray that peoples of all faiths, all races, all nations, may have their great human needs satisfied; that those now denied opportunity shall come to enjoy it to the full; that all who yearn for freedom may experience its spiritual blessings; that those who have freedom will understand, also, its heavy responsibilities; that all who are insensitive to the needs of others will learn charity; that the scourges of poverty, disease and ignorance will be made to disappear from the earth, and that, in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.”

For a warrior turned public servant, wise words borne of a life of deep experiences that evoke us to a higher ground.


Image of Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy from FinnCamera

National Values and Nation-Building – Out of Sync Concepts?

There have been several papers lately on issues such as governance, democracy, national values, citizenship, and related topics, mostly analyzing the disruptions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Some astute observers have noted that we have similar concerns in the United States given the fault lines that became more obvious as a result of the 2016 presidential elections. The common thread is that political societies are constantly evolving, and technology is providing the means to accelerate and mobilize forces for change that are challenging how people are governed. The notion of “consent of the governed” is altering notions of the relationship between a government and the people.

In this blog, I want to look at “civic education,” the process by which citizens become acculturated to a country’s values and its political system. 

I first became conscious of the importance of civic education in my eighth grade “civics” class, as it was then called, which looked at the United States and how it pursued its interests at home and abroad. There was no discussion about the correctness of the national values on which these interests were based. It was assumed that our values were the best model for any country to emulate. This experience focused my interest on wanting to make the US better understood in the world by engaging in programs that facilitated cross-cultural dialogue. As a son of immigrants, the US for our family was and still is something unique and full of promise. That hasn’t changed in the following 50+ years, and neither has the need for America having an open discussion about its priorities and interests.

Definitions of civic education have common elements. A recent paper by CSIS says “Civic education in schools and beyond teaches citizens how to vote, what their community needs are and what values it holds, and what the social compact between elected officials and their constituents means in practical terms.” A study of civic education in the Arab world conducted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace listed these characteristics, “This education for citizenship has three main components: knowledge of civic concepts, systems, and processes of civic life, including education for human rights and democracy; skills of civic participation; and students’ general disposition, including a sense of belonging to the state and shared values and ethics.”

The Arab Spring has challenged the notions of citizenship from a top-down perspective as young people and others feeling marginalized threw down the gauntlet to redefine their country’s social contract between the government and citizens, demanding accountability, economic opportunity, transparency, and political inclusion. How this still rings true today, with even more urgency, is underscored in a joint paper from the Atlantic Council and Brookings Institution as part of the Middle East Strategy Taskforce series. The paper, “Real security: Governance and stability in the Arab world,” argued, among other points, that governance was in the process of being redefined and the core issue was one of restoring social trust through dialogue and resolving conflicts at all levels.

One of the key elements raised by several of the panelists is that the process of reconstructing the social contract to achieve sustainable governance is a decentralized, bottom up approach based on local sensibilities and priorities. This means investing in civil society, civic education, and building out the political space for decision-making by local officials.

There are programs that can be helpful. NGOs such as Civitas and Street Law, enable young people and communities to proactively learn how democracy works, the roles of government and citizen, major influences shaping a country’s civic values, and many other topics. The CSIS article is clear that programs that work in one country will not necessarily work in another – an important caveat for those who think that democracy and governance programs can be implemented without thorough consideration of local sensibilities.

It also notes that what is critical in states going through transitions, whether through elections or post-conflict, is “rebuilding trust in the government and educating the voter base on what to expect…Civic education combats disillusionment among voters and opens a dialogue between government officials and citizens.” The importance of building trust with youth cannot be overstated, as they have “unprecedented access to information” but very low rates of participation in their countries’ political space, which is monopolized by traditional players.

Easy to be deceived by data.  fairobserver.com

Easy to be deceived by data.

The National Democratic Institute recently published a blog on the potential negative impact of social media on democracy. It builds on this point with the observation that “Social media and the Internet have had a drastic effect on the surprise results of yesterday’s election in the United States, driving the spread of information—and misinformation—at times bringing voters together and, perhaps more often, pushing them apart….It’s important to recognize that this is not a uniquely American trend.” A study  across 26 countries indicates that more than half of Internet users use social media as a primary source of news, and more than 25% call it their main news source. Percentages may be even higher in developing countries with high Internet penetration.

The long-term challenge is to protect the government-citizen interaction from malicious and misleading attacks from external and internal foes. As NDI points out “Creating and protecting safe platforms on the web for genuine political discourse will require collaboration among a host of actors. Governments, technology companies, media outlets, the academic community and organizations around the world must come together to develop policies and practices to aid civil society and citizens in addressing this problem, and build norms and standards for democratic governments to support an open Internet.”

Protecting this valuable suite of tools for promoting democratic values in the coming years will require significant efforts to shield political discourse from those who would damage a country’s transition to a stronger national consensus on its key values. The need for inclusive dialog for countries in transition can have no better starting point than a refresher course on a country’s national values and social contract.


Large image:Flickr.com