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

So What about Tunisia?

Government Faces Legacy and Aspirational Challenges

Perhaps it was too much to expect, that Tunisia could overturn a decades long autocratic state, create inclusive political space and a responsive and inclusive economic strategy, and fight off external security threats, all in ten years. Regardless, one thing is clear, the majority of Tunisians are committed to peeling back years of political and economic decay and restructuring their society to be more inclusive and equitable, but how?

There are many analyses of where Tunisia is headed – it even comes up during US wine tastings of Tunisia’s finest (another one of those pesky Muslim countries that grows and enjoys wine!). And there is consensus on the key issues, but the how to get there and who will have to make the sacrifices engender a great deal of debate.

As I noted in my recent blog on Morocco, forming a national strategy is a bit easier when you have a king who reminds his citizens about their obligations towards each other and responsibilities within the context of government serving the people. Yet, even King Mohammed VI has expressed frustration with officials and cultural luddites that see the past as the only guide to the future. And he is giving the Parliament, civil society organizations, and NGOs plenty of space to figure out how democracy will work in Morocco and the burdens of not delivering.

So it is with Tunisia. Everyone is rooting for its success, but it is still fighting past demons of inequitable political and economic empowerment, structural discrimination against women and youth, entrenched elite power networks, and lack of robust economic growth to generate badly needed employment. Among the recent reports of note was published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace authored by Maha Yahya, after extensive research in the country. The report came out before the most recent government shake-up so it is useful to compare the recommendations in the report with the latest policies espoused by the government.

The major concern expressed in the report was the “The spreading disillusionment and alienation of large swaths of Tunisia society and their burgeoning misgivings about their prospects for a democratic and stable future.” Both the political and economic spheres are characterized as out of touch with young people, beholden to elites tied to the old regime, not rigorous in developing inclusive strategies to promote prosperity in the inland areas, and lacking long-term strategies to ensure equitable participation in the political and economic life of the country.

Relying on various polling data, Ms. Yahya points out that in 2014, 50% of Tunisians point to corruption, especially in the health services and police, as widespread, and close to 70% believe that the government is not proactive in combating corruption.

Similarly, it is not surprising that 80% of those 35-49 believe that strong economic growth should be the country’s first priority. Less than 9% of rural youth and 31% of urban youth expressed any confidence in the political system, while more than 80% believe that their local imam and religious organizations are credible. This has serious consequences. “In the 2014 elections 80% of 18-24 year olds did not vote in the parliamentary elections and largely abstained from the presidential election.”

As Nabil Fahmy, former Foreign Minister of Egypt recently noted, “Domestic social and sectarian grievances are still very much a part of Tunisian politics. The Tunisian government must tread carefully, and it cannot assume that all of its citizens are satisfied with the new arrangements.”


The primary recommendation made in the Carnegie study is that “Tunisian political elites need to rebuild the bonds of trust between the citizens and their state, strengthen democratic institutions, and uphold the principles of equity and social justice enshrined in the constitution.”

Voters waiting their turn. cartercenter.org

Voters waiting their turn. cartercenter.org

Regardless of the overarching concern with border security and counterterrorism, the country needs to continue to build on the 2012 National Council of Social Dialogue to build “a common platform for dialogue on basic principles among political parties, civil society organizations, and the private sector, and for reflecting the basic concerns of Tunisian citizens.”

The government has committed to far-ranging economic and political reforms, which need to be defined and sequenced with special attention to addressing regional disparities. An innovation in the MENA that definitely has applications throughout the region is the country-wide use of technology to link state and citizen. While Jordan and others have instituted some e-government programs to promote transparency and communications, the Tunisian goal is more robust and has the potential to generate effective bridges between youth and decision-makers.

It was recently pointed out by a former government minister that the country is moving to equip its people with 21st century technology, for example, promising internet access throughout the country by 2020, but the government is narrowly focused on issued defined in the 20th century using laws and institutions based on 19th century or before models…not, he fears, the most effective equation for success.

Some hard facts…the global economy is undergoing traumatic transitions wherein two-thirds of many jobs will disappear, reflecting increased computer-driven capabilities; and all countries are searching for strategies to prepare market-relevant workers. Put building walls and threatening companies aside. The disruption of digital technologies is here to stay. Some countries will remain competitive with human capital as long as the costs are competitive with new technologies, and that won’t last long.

The former minister suggests three points of impact on countries. First, the widespread availability of Internet, either as a government policy or as a result of market forces, will diminish the isolation of rural areas and forge bonds for mobilization and action that can be used for many purposes. Secondly, digital education will provide equality of access not only within a country but to the world of global classrooms, changing the way we value and accredit education and skills acquisition. National education policies will of necessity need to incorporate these opportunities. Also, for many reasons, technology will lead to greater government transparency as administrations forgo paper and rely more on computer-based cashless transactions, hopefully reducing at least one channel for corruption. All of these will change the forms of government structure and services in the coming generation and require a 21st century constitution reflecting the digital ties between state and citizens.

As Tunisia struggles to implement the pledges of the new government, it faces tremendous entrenched interests, from political and economic elites to trade and other unions protecting their turf. Exhorting Tunisians to do more with less will not save the day in the short term. If and how Tunisia succeeds may point the way ahead for other MENA and African countries.


image from shutterstock.com

What’s not working in the World Economic Order

I just spent three months working in Jordan and two weeks in Lebanon. Watching the spectacle of the US presidential politics from a distance has had a sobering effect on my usual quick retorts to questions about US politics even though I’ve been at it for several decades in this part of the world. Arabs of all political stripes are alarmed by both presidential candidates, one because she is well-known and carries a great deal of baggage, and the other because his posturing is both alarming and invigorating as there is still a mystical glow around hard-charging leaders in this part of the world, as elsewhere.

It shouldn’t be surprising, I suppose. The chaos that now engulfs the MENA region has much of its origins in the upheaval of autocratic regimes that once provided stability so prized by international investors and Western leadership. The irony is that today, many in society long for the law and order days of the old regimes, as long as they aren’t the targets of repression and human rights violations. And there is symmetry in their yearning in the populist rumblings across Europe and the US.

Indicative of the seismic shifts that are going on are challenges to the ‘economic order’ that has guided free market policies since the heydays of Reagan and Thatcher. Rob Rowden writes in Foreign Policy about a article by an IMF economist that takes direct aim at two cherished principles of its Washington consensus for countries in financial crisis: the need fiscal austerity during economic slowdowns and the deregulation of financial markets.

Commonly referred to by its critics as ‘neoliberalism,’ the IMF author criticizes these tenets for not achieving higher growth rates as promised, in fact, Rowden points out, “fiscal austerity and increased financial openness have often exacerbated economic inequality, which itself could become a drag on future economic growth rates.”

To be fair, the IMF article also notes that other principles promoted by the IMF have been more successful in addressing issues of growth, stability, and capital fluctuations. Rowden writes, “Most strikingly, the article infers that three policy prescriptions long advocated by the IMF’s critics — regulation of some capital flows, Keynesian fiscal stimulus policies, and effective economic redistribution — all have more merit than the IMF has long contended.”



An especially relevant point in the article for developed economies is that the financial crisis of 2008 demonstrated the weaknesses in the IMF’s prescriptions in dealing with economic inequality, stabilizing financial markets, and reviving economic growth. Most levels of GDP growth are still failing to measure up to levels before the crisis, hence the stagnation that is feeding the middle class angst among Europeans and Americans, benefiting non-traditional political candidates like Donald Trump.

As the FP article notes, “Today, in a time when Thomas Piketty’s critique of worsening economic inequality is a best-seller, leading U.S. presidential candidates rail against free trade deals, right-wing anti-immigrant parties win elections across Europe, and even the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development calls on its members to put the brakes on austerity, it’s clear that the political center, which has favored neoliberal policies for the last 30 years, is no longer holding.”

For the US, the challenges of addressing economic inequality, lower growth rates, and the resulting depression in job quality and compensation, have brought out a strong anti-establishment fervor among the fast-fading white majority as well as conservative ethnic groups who see their share of the economic pie turning sour. Globalization, represented by the IMF’s Washington Consensus, is a convenient target for those who want to return to or move towards a new golden age. The lack of logical discussions in this age of turbulence has resulted in pithy pitches to damn trade deals, erect barriers, punish corporations, and target immigrants. It is hardly a basis for sustainable policies but nevertheless the reality being faced in the US and abroad as the current world order has failed to deliver its promises.

As the Foreign Policy article concluded, “The cynics who provide comfort for those delusions are as dangerous as the extremists.” It is a rough road ahead that will not be mended easily.

From Here to Where and Mostly not There Yet

From time to time, pundits in and outside the Arab world take on momentous themes and begin the process of analyzing, synthesizing, and opining so thoroughly that readers may begin to believe that these issues resonate with Arab masses. Such is the recent imbroglio about the legacy of the Sykes-Picot agreement.

I’m in Jordan, having just passed through National Independence Day, the 100th Anniversary of the Great Arab Revolt, the anniversary of King Abdullah’s coronation, the dissolution of the Lower House of Parliament and upcoming elections, and several notable birthdays. There is little or no public interest in discussing Sykes-Picot even though it is in many ways directly linked to Sherif Hussein bin Ali’s move to overthrow Ottoman rule. What is on their minds is the same agenda since the Arab Uprisings emerged in late 2010 – economic opportunity, personal dignity enshrined in human and civil rights protections, government and private sector accountability, and derivatives from these core issues.

As my friend Rami Khouri has argued, there is plenty of blame to go around as to why the Arab world, which once had once of the highest education rates in the developing world, has gone astray in terms of its human, social, and economic development. He writes, “So by all means let us recall Sykes-Picot and its consequent tumultuous century, but let us also summon honesty and integrity in analyzing all the regional and global factors that have led to today’s horror shows of stunted, staggered and shattered Arab statehood. We did this to ourselves, to be sure, but not only by ourselves; we had considerable assistance from many others in the region and the world. This was one of the world’s first global joint ventures in deviant political behavior.”

I have talked to dozens of people here about “who to blame” for the current state of disarray. Beyond half-hearted references to the Israel-Palestine conflict, respondents mentioned economic issues, transparency in public and private sector transactions, and political accountability as the common obstacles that eroding Arab countries today…themes consistent with the Arab Uprisings. Regardless of their positions on Syrian refugees, a very complex topic in Jordan, the bottom line is that Arabs I spoke with from Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon, and Jordan look at the governance in their countries and the region as sources of the most significant obstacles to development.

Their responses varied from a country’s inability to stand up to external pressures, inability to agree on internal priorities in a consistent program, weak institutions, meddling by neighboring troublemakers that siphons off needed domestic investments, weak and corrupt government institutions that should protect citizens, to the deeply held feelings that nothing can be done anyway.

jordan flagJordan is a test case worth assessing. With its access to its Syrian and Iraqi markets greatly diminished by road closures caused by Daesh, Jordan is suffering mightily. Saudi Arabia has negotiated a new investment agreement and there are ongoing negotiations with the EU that could boost exports. But months are passing, refugee numbers are increasing, personal savings are dwindling, and costs are building across the board. Citizens are troubled by the opaqueness of their futures as the economic situation continues to decline and political solutions seem like more words on paper. International donors are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into Jordan but the lower and middle socio-economic classes do not have a sense that prosperity is any nearer. Much of the funding is directed toward increasing employment for Jordanians and Syrian refugees but any significant change in the next year is elusive.

Without open borders and greater market access, significant direct foreign and national investments in Jordan will not find opportunities for projects to generate the hundreds of thousands of jobs needed in the coming years. Looking across the region, a similar profile emerges – lack of stability in Lebanon, reduced growth expectations in the GCC and Algeria, continuing security pressures on Tunisia and Morocco, and Egypt’s reluctance to open public space to competition in business and ideas, not to mention chaos in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, make the glimmer of a silver lining even more remote.

None of these conditions can be attributed either directly or indirectly to the false legacy of Sykes-Picot. Without a new social contract among a country’s citizens and with their governments, one based on mutual respect and shared commitments to resolve common challenges, prospects will remain difficult to divine, even as the pundits continue to blame others for the Arab present.


[Photo property of  Irregularwars.blogspot.com]

The Best Intentions Do Not Always Make Great Policy

To Fix Its Middle East Policy, US Must Support Assets while Confronting Challenges

If you think the label “silly season” only describes tsunamis whirling around the national elections, you’re missing an important contest among US think tanks to frame policy options for the next administration. What’s interesting about the exercise is that it doesn’t matter who wins, since the same realities, domestic and foreign, face whoever is elected.

Options and solutions proposed by think tanks, in any case, reflect their particular points of view, priorities, and insights into what the previous administration has done right or wrong, or didn’t pay enough attention to, or ignored at America’s peril. And this is especially clear with countries where our interests diverge, such as China, and more intriguing with those countries where the US has shared interests, such as the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). What is also clear from past administrations is that the MENA region is where good intentions regarding countries from Morocco to Iraq often fail to deliver consistently sound and actionable policies.

The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) recently launched its foray into this tangle of good intentions with the analysis, “Reset, Negotiate, Institutionalize – A Phased Middle East Strategy for the Next President.” It is well-reasoned and documented, enumerates feasible steps, and clearly focuses on protecting what remains of America’s alliances in the region without jeopardizing our ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

That said, whether it’s CNAS, SAIS, CSIS, AEI, CEIP, or any other of the more than 100 foreign policy think tanks in Washington, DC, almost any position on an issue can be found. For example, the recent GCC Heads of State meeting generated pro and anti Saudi Arabia and pro and anti Iran articles, providing support for obviously opposing views, all reflecting someone’s definitions of America’s national interests in the region.

And then there is the question of priorities – when will Morocco, for example, receive the same attention as the UAE or Qatar? All are allies and have important regional roles to play in promoting stability and security, yet it seems that unless  a country or a region is in triage, it has to speak up loudly and visibly to be heard.

Secretary Kerry Greets King Mohammed VI

Secretary Kerry Greets King Mohammed VI

Morocco is an excellent case in point. The only mention of Morocco in the CNAS report is as the host for the talks to constitute a government in Libya. Absent from the only map in the report is everything west of the Levant. No mention is made of the growing threats to North Africa, and Morocco in particular, from Daesh and other extremists, nor is there any commentary on the flow of fighters from the region to the Syria-Iraq war zones and back.

Yet Morocco has steadfastly support America’s interests throughout the region, and for this, Daesh has issued numerous threats against the country. Morocco plays a key role in Jerusalem through King Mohammed VI’s role as head of the Jerusalem Committee. It also has the most robust security service cooperating with the EU and the US in combating terrorists who have already caused great damage to Europe’s sense of equanimity and attitudes towards immigrants fleeing combat zones.

Morocco recently became co-chair of the Global Counterterrorism Forum, and the country’s special counterterrorism bureau recently intercepted jihadists intent on bringing chemical weapons into Europe through Morocco. What more can be asked of our ally? If the report is an example, without being more proactive, the US is in danger of a growing breach with our friends.

It is in this context that King Mohammed spoke out at the recent GCC-Morocco Summit about the impact of not respecting old and tested friendships. “There have been new alliances which may lead to disunity and a reshuffling of roles and functions in the region. In fact, these are attempts to foment strife and create chaos, and no country would be spared. It could have serious consequences for the region, even the world at large.”

The king then went on to detail how Morocco was diversifying its “partnerships at political, strategic and economic levels,” to include Russia, China, and India. He believes that the GCC and Morocco and Jordan “Are facing conspiracies which seek to undermine our collective security. They want to destabilize the few countries which have managed to safeguard their security, stability and political systems.”

So when think tanks look at the MENA region, it may be more impactful to think beyond conflicts in the Levant and Gulf to also address threats to America’s interests at the other end of the Mediterranean. For example, the CNAS report recommends that as a first step, the next president make a trip “focused on America’s closest regional partners,” starting with the Levant and the Gulf, “and possibly Egypt,” clearly aimed at damping down instability in Iraq and Syria.

Yet the conflict and chaos that drive these priorities are inexorably moving across the region and will metastasize if not confronted with a robust US and EU led strategy in partnership with friends like Morocco.

While Putin Ponders, Obama Scrambles, China Projects

The last several weeks have given pundits and analysts alike a veritable treasure trove of events to test their hypotheses about trends in the Middle East. With the announced withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria turning out to be much less than what the West would hope for, and Obama’s confessions to Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic magazine about his foreign policy challenges, there was plenty of fodder on the table.

On top of all of this, as some would call it, is the raging theater of the U.S. presidential campaign, which does little to reassure allies and foes alike about where the U.S. is headed under various scenarios of a new administration.

As usual, differing perspectives are offered by the “experts” with little reluctance to second guess either the great Russian bear or the reluctant American president – the former quite resolute in his vision of the “new world,” while the latter dithering as to how the U.S. can discharge its role as a super power while asserting its role under some form of international consensus and collaboration. Added to the mix is the continuing saga of “one belt one road” push by China on land and on the sea to solidify its own vision of economic hegemony abroad and unchallenged military influence in its neighborhood.

President Obama has had to face realities in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan turning his “less is more” posture on its head with revelations of U.S. marines in forward positions in Iraq, the military extending and broadening the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, and hard choices to be faced regarding some form of deeper involvement in Syria and Libya. There are no hopeful signs of clarity emerging from the Democratic and Republican candidates for president who are content to duel over who is more qualified by raising voices, making charges against opponents, and ambiguous doomsday statements, not to mention the hell they will raze upon America’s enemies.

Putin continues to roll onward, dictating the tempo of peace in the Crimea and Ukraine, intimidating bordering states in the Balkans, and calling for restraint in the recent Armenia-Azerbaijan flare-ups. No one doubts that Russia has literally saved the Assad regime while simultaneously pummeling foes and promoting negotiations over Syria’s future. Russia’s boots on the ground commitment has given it the dominant voice in Vienna; John Kerry’s can only operate at the margins, prodding Russia into ensuring the territorial survival of a Syrian state, but at what cost?

Then, China’s Foreign Ministry named Xie Xiaoyan as its special envoy to the international negotiations over Syria. He had previously served as ambassador to Iran, the African Union, and Ethiopia, so he knows the territory well. His appointment runs counter to the typical Chinese hands-off behavior and may herald its attempt to be involved more deeply in Middle East affairs. China’s relations with Iran are still evolving and are closely tied to the One Belt One Road initiative that can only become more beneficial to both parties. Mutual economic interests may have more long term results than today’s political diplomacy.

Ironically, several analysts have suggested a causal link between the declining economic fortunes of China and Russia with their aggressive behavior over the past 30 months, including the upswing in defense spending and posturing. Given that both, and many of their clients, have the luxury of a longer horizon than U.S. governments, there is little to suggest that America can outwait either of its competitors or in this case “adversaries.”

Others have suggested that, were it not for the continuing tensions in the South China Sea and the Chinese perception that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is aimed at curtailing its ambitions in Asia, the natural alliance is U.S.-China versus Russia. Yet it can’t be reassuring to hardliners in Beijing who interpret American actions through at pre-WWII lens when the US Trade Representative’s website states that “TPP is a platform for engagement and growth in the Asia-Pacific Region. It solidifies relationships with our allies and firmly establishes the United States as a leader in the Pacific.”

This is not to say that Russia, the U.S., and China cannot find mutual interests as they have over Iran and North Korea. With many Middle Eastern heads of state headed for Moscow and Beijing to protect their interests, no one seems interested in coming to the U.S., not even Benjamin Netanyahu, to try and sort out how to best guarantee a place on America’s list of preferred allies. The narrative for 2016 is far from decided.

Red Lines of Dubious Value – Mostly, Better Not Draw Them

I have used the expression ‘red line’ before in reference to defining constrained topics in media and political discourse in Morocco. That got me thinking about how often, aside from President Obama’s now infamous red line on chemical agent use by Syria, that red lines have influenced foreign policy, or not.

A quick Wikipedia search brought up a most interesting coincidence. The phrase first arose as a result of Western machinations in the Middle East after World War I. It first appeared in English in the “Red Line Agreement” of 1928 when the oil companies with the connivance of the governments of the UK, US, and France, were dividing up the last vestiges of the Ottoman Empire. “At the time of signature, the borders of the empire were not clear and to remedy the problem an Armenian businessman named Calouste Gulbenkian, took a red pencil to draw in an arbitrary manner the borders of the divided empire.”

This is the same Calouste Gulbenkian who is credited with opening up Iraqi oil fields to the West though his part ownership in a company he helped form called Royal Dutch Shell! As you would expect, the phrase caught on quickly and became part of the UN’s lexicon. Of course France has its own name for this concept, the “yellow line” (franchir la ligne jaune). I wonder if it has variants in China, Russia, and other hot spots?

But I digress. My favorite variation of this expression is President Bush 41’s statement addressing Saddam Hussein in August 1990 that the United States had “drawn a line in the sand” in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula to protect Saudi Arabia, free Kuwait, and maybe see Saddam on his way. Little thought was given by his speechwriters to the image of “lines in the sand” indicating nothing to people who see shifting sands, erasing lines, daily.

assadThen the now infamous “red line” by President Obama in what many consider a failed Syria policy regarding the use of chemical weapons by Syria, which Senator John McCain observed was “apparently written in disappearing ink,” due to the perception the red line had been crossed with no action.

In Geneva, we hear the Syrian government calling President Bashar’s future a “red line,” asserting that his fate should be decided by the people of Syria, without any intention, it seems, of saying how that should happen, or when, or who will participate.

Speaking of red lines, what about the curtailing of the use of barrel bombs on civilians; the targeting of hospitals and schools in Yemen and Syria; the wholesale destruction of religious and cultural heritage sites; and red lines around non-existent safe zones that have yet to materialize.

Invoking red lines does not prevent actions and activities that further undermine the stability and security of the MENA region. Who will draw the red lines for Iran’s increasingly belligerent behavior, echoing its counterpart in North Korea? What is the use of red lines when it comes to separating an increasingly belligerent Israeli government from stripping Palestinians of even more land and reducing their access to their own neighborhoods? Are there red lines limiting Palestinian attacks on Israeli citizens, regardless of their motivations?

With the useless use of “red line” as a concept and a reality, one could anticipate that the wordsmiths for the world’s leaders would try to move beyond rhetoric to focusing on sustainable solutions. But, to coin a phrase, “words speak louder than actions” in diplomacy surrounding issues in the MENA region, and possibly the South China Sea, the Korean Peninsula, and other examples where fatigue undermines resolve to engender order through resolution.

Although there is no strategic progress in more meaningful diplomatic discourse on the horizon, a good start would be to avoid provocative and vacuous rhetoric and admit that sometimes problems will not be resolved as easily as holding a referendum, or swapping notes, or drawing a red line.

Sowing Democracy – a Messy Affair

Can the US get it right?

I’ve just read an article by Stephen M. Walt* in Foreign Policy, “American Values Are to Blame for the World’s Chaos – Why trying to spread democracy, liberalism, and human rights always backfires.” It appeared just two days before we celebrate America’s Independence Day, perhaps our most beloved national holiday, and started me thinking about how liberal values become part of a country’s political culture, and if there are better questions we might ask to get the right answers for advancing liberalism.

Stephen M. Walt

Stephen M. Walt

While on the topic of liberal values, I took part in a discussion last week in which a professor from the UK called out multilingual/multicultural programs in North Africa as a tool by which ruling classes maintain power. Her thesis is that multilingual programs divide people by social and ethnic background, affecting their economic advancement. She made this claim despite the fact that officially sanctioning one’s native language, in this case Amazigh, has been a long-standing demand across the Maghreb.

I rebutted her charges against “neo-liberalism” on historical and factual grounds, indicating that the issue of “identity” tied to language/culture expression was far more salient in countries such as Morocco that are still integrating complex national identities. And so it was quite interesting to find neo-liberal Stephen Walt, for whom I have tremendous respect, taking a one-way-street view of democracy promotion.

His basic thesis, with which I don’t disagree is, “the moral appeal of these basic liberal principles [democratic government, rule of law, freedom of expression, market economies] does not mean that they are a sound guide for the conduct of foreign policy.” He goes on to claim that “In fact, the past two decades suggest that basing a great powers foreign policy primarily on liberal ideals is mostly a recipe for costly failures.” My contention is that, in the 21st century, most countries believe that they are able to make choices about governing without reference to liberal values promoted by the “Washington consensus.” Moreover, with the erosion of the US as the global hyper-power, countries perceive more options for circumventing even the most stringent condemnation by other nations, short of outright warfare.

Furthermore, looking at neoliberal values only from the US perspective alleviates receiving countries from responsibility and accountability for their actions, positive and negative. It is true “that liberalism does not translate its moral absolutes into clear, effective strategies for bringing them about.” It is as guilty of this charge as any political ideology that posits “truths” and not tactics. And besides, there is the nagging reality that one size does not fit all and so neo-cons and neoliberals need to do much more homework in order to recognize where opportunities for and obstacles to their democratic agendas occur.

Taking the Plunge – Democracy Lite

There are lessons to be learned in various post-World War II democracies illustrating that liberal values are still critical to the functioning of tolerant, progressive systems of government. Morocco, which is working towards a parliamentary democracy, is a good illustration of the road forward for integrating liberal values into a traditional society that has honored the family over the individual, cooperation over competition, and consensus over innovation.

Morocco-US relations, full of firsts

Morocco was the first country to recognize the US in 1777

Morocco’s receptivity to liberal values begins with the articles of faith often heard in any discussion of Morocco’s relations with the US: first country to recognize the nascent republic; first US Treaty of Friendship and Commerce, still in force today; first multilateral treaty in which the US agreed to help fund a lighthouse in Tangier; first US Free Trade Agreement in Africa, and other hallmarks including the first Strategic Dialogue in North Africa, and other defense and security ties.

So can we learn anything about advancing democratic values by looking at our relationship with Morocco? And the corollary query, can Stephen Walt’s thesis be clarified by understanding the path Morocco has chosen if we agree that it is a liberalizing society?

Interestingly, Morocco’s only colonial experience was with France, which originated human rights as a contemporary political concept. It has historically been a kingdom, ruled by elites appointed by the ruler or pledging fealty to the sovereign for some six hundred years or more. Its transition to the 21st century has not been without difficulties as traditional interests and networks resist change and have little interest in sharing power. Yet it is changing. Initiatives stem from a visionary king working to empower civil society and citizens to challenge “business as usual” and remake politics and governance into tools that promote human and economic development.

There are three parts to this equation if forces supporting constitutional democracy are to succeed: continued clear messaging in support of liberal values from a well-respected king; growing cadres of civil society and political participants who utilize constitutional reforms to promote power and resource-sharing at all levels; and benefits accruing to the population from a more receptive, responsible, and accountable government.

Morocco's Parliament

Morocco’s Parliament

How does this fit with Walt’s thesis? Well, turns out his real target is “perfecting these [liberal] practices at home instead of trying to export them abroad…[if so] people in other societies will want to emulate some or all of these practices, suitably adapted to local conditions [emphasis added].” And here is the rub: even if the US were the paragon of liberal values, would others follow this pied piper of democracy and rule of law? Since the end of the 20th century, it is apparent that there are no pure models of neoliberal values, and each country will move to its own rhythm in reaching new social contracts defining relations between government and citizens.

It is important for the US to show that, despite our own uneven progress, these values are worth striving for and are the true measure of closing the gap between a country’s aspirations and its achievements. The Morocco-US relationship illustrates that when liberal values are shared across a range of political and economic activities, and are promoted by a trusted leadership without forcing concepts that are antithetical to the local culture, the outlook is worth supporting and encouraging.


* Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

A Tale of Two Cities…well, Actually Three Countries

Finding the Middle Path in Politics is Fraught with Challenges yet Better than No Discourse at All­­­­

When Driss El Yazami, the chairman of Morocco’s National Human Rights Council (CNDH) spoke recently in Washington, DC, he was asked about the so-called Arab Spring and its impact on human rights protections. He was quite candid in his response. “The core issue is about identity; it is about dignity. It is the loss of the connection between one’s identity and one’s dignity that is at the heart of today’s unrest.” He believes that human rights protections derive from the value that governments place on their relationship with their people. Human rights protections are a conscious effort by governments to have a social contract that applies to all people in the country.

This is the rationale behind the CNDH’s campaigns for migrant rights, the end of military trials for civilians, enhanced rights for the mentally ill, and eliminating child labor, to list several of their most recent efforts. And Morocco has earned praise for its continuing human rights reforms, largely as a result of the government adopting CNDH’s recommendations and turning them into legislation. Mr. El Yazami contends that this is the characteristic of democracy that goes beyond elections. It is a space where all opinions can be heard and debated without fear and with respect for differing perspectives and the outcomes of the debate.

Keeping Faith with Tunisia

In the past few months, Tunisia has garnered extensive praise from the international community for its “National Dialogue,” which weathered a very difficult drafting of a constitution and installation of a transitional technocrat government leading to presidential and parliamentary elections in late 2014. The contentious constitutional process avoided the poor outcomes that have plagued Egypt and Libya where significant disagreements have produced unsatisfactory conclusions. It should not be taken for granted, however, that the transitional success of the National Dialogue means that there is unity in Tunisia’s political landscape.

Human rights advocates are concerned that political expediency will mar steps needed to genuinely move Tunisia forward. As Yasmine Ryan writes, “…ignoring deep structural inequalities will only lead to further instability. Add to this the desperate need for major reforms to the judiciary, security forces, the education system, and decentralization, among others—and Tunisia’s challenges can sometimes seem insurmountable.” And the questions of national identity and defining with some precision the relationship between the state and religion continue to be unresolved, promising more contentious maneuvering as the elections approach.

Amna Guellali, director of Human Rights Watch for Tunisia and Algeria, remarked in an article in World Policy Journal  that contradictions and vague definitions in the constitution “could have grave consequences for the country.” It is in this gap between the constitution and how the enabling legislation is drafted, finalized, and implemented that human rights protections face their greatest challenges. One compelling example is the potential contradictions in the role of the government as “the guardian of religion” and “protector of the sacred,” while also ensuring “liberty of conscience.” Given that the first article of the new constitution states that Tunisia’s religion is Islam, there are understandable concerns about how this will play out. Without a national independent body akin to CNDH that can shed light on inclusive steps towards real democracy, the task of defenders of human rights is more difficult as the economic and social development needs of Tunisia will dominate the agenda of any incoming leadership.

And In Algeria, the Same may not Hold

It is difficult to have a forward-looking discussion about human rights reforms in a country    with such an opaque political process. John Entelis, writing in Muftah, notes “Riots and protests have been a regular feature of Algerian political life” and mentions that critics have pointed out that there is no timeline for implementing reforms announced since 2011. Some see reforms as a mouse caught “between the president’s office and the military-industrial complex, between executive authority and the country’s powerful intelligence services.”

The run-up to the presidential election this week has seen the withdrawal of candidates, boycott calls from Islamic and leftist parties, and the virtual campaign for Bouteflika’s re-election run by surrogates who are assuring Algerians that reform is his priority – once he is returned to office. “One pro-government politician went so far as to declare, ‘I will vote for him [Bouteflika] dead or alive because he has done so much for the country.’”

How much-needed human and social development challenges will be addressed after the elections has yet to be discussed. “It is a testament to the extreme disconnect between the country’s formal political structure and its civil society that the overwhelming majority of ordinary Algerians have been completely unaffected by the virtual absence of presidential authority…” With the debate yet to begin on a new constitutional amendment providing for the office of Vice-President and the installation of that person, human rights has little visibility within the debate over the new power balance that will emerge with Bouteflika’s departure. As James D. Le Sueur wrote in a monograph for the German Marshall Fund, “Politically, Algeria has managed to weather the storm brought on by the Arab Spring through swift and deliberate police presence meant to suppress real calls for reform.” It is hard to imagine a meaningful national dialogue in Algeria on identity and dignity emerging any time soon.

Unclear Prognosis for Human Rights in the Maghreb

Laudatory as the results of the Tunisian National Dialogue are, its new constitution exemplifies the challenge of closing the space between values and politics. As Tunisians prepare for end-of-year elections, the priority given to human rights may become clearer as candidates address voters concerns about social and economic inequalities. Morocco has its plate full with recommendations from the CNDH as well as judicial reforms, a new civil society framework, and reducing economic disparities to address through the end of this year. In Algeria as well as Libya, where basic rule of law has yet to be established, internal dissensions, power moves among various players, and uncertainty among the populace as to their countries’ future stability will have a major impact on the importance given to human rights under new governments. It will be a long year ahead.

The Core of Democracy is not Elections – It’s Rule of Law and Civil Society

*Pundits wonder why democracy is failing judgment based on mistaken assumptions*

It’s hard not to look at the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and the broader collection of emerging states without disappointment at what has happened to the democratic impulse that held so much promise at the end of the last century. Whether one is assessing the color revolutions in the former Soviet Union, the Arab Spring, the growth of democratic practices in Latin America, or Central Asia, the verdict is the same—why has democracy failed to grow deep and sustainable roots?The issue of the future of democracy has been addressed in several recent articles that should be required reading for anyone interested in something more than sound bites about freedom and progress. The core issues these articles address are: what are the ingredients that make democracy enduring and what are the factors that slow or inhibit its growth at a time when “people power” seems to have replaced the ballot box as a leading edge of change?

A major criticism directed at the “democracy now” crowd is their over-reliance on elections as the primary vehicle for expressing and managing change. The key question this bypasses is how to determine what people really want—is it a constitution that describes power sharing and the process of getting there, or is it a bill of rights that guarantees basic civil and human rights to the broadest possible number of citizens in a country?

In the MENA at least, where elections are an event rather than a reliable indicator of democratic values, the clear preference of the majority of Arabs, based on anecdotal and polling evidence, is to have their rights, with less concern about who can guarantee them, which goes to the longevity of the former leaders of Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria in the present, and others. Democracy/elections are perceived as a way to better determine distribution of economic benefits. This should come as no surprise, considering the lackluster progress in promoting democratic participation in governments, the weak mobilizing and educating roles of political parties, and the general sense of malaise when it comes to making institutional political reforms.

Resetting Assumptions about Democracy

In thinking through the future of democratic governance, a review of the indicators in the Freedom House Index, Freedom in the World, and the Fund for Peace’s Failed States Index, demonstrates the complexity and singularity of the process of effective and equitable self-government. Rankings that are high on stability do not necessarily line up with those that reflect public participation in political space. Speaking to the brief attention span of reporting on political change, Anne Applebaum wrote “the creation of democratic institutions—courts, legal systems, bills of rights—is a long and tedious process that often doesn’t interest foreign journalists at all.”

In a similar vein, Stephen M. Walt wrote about the confusion between “a democratic government and a liberal society.” His point is that “democratic procedures do not guarantee that human rights will be protected, that individual differences will be tolerated and respected, or that public institutions—to include the press and intelligentsia—will not be corrupted or compromised.”

Reflecting on the source of much of the conflict within today’s emerging democracies, Walt writes that “Most importantly, a liberal society emphasizes toleration…” He raises a critical question in this regard, which goes to the heart of raising a liberal democracy today: “But it is much harder to convince a population to prize individual rights over collective identities and local traditions—and to impart in these citizens a sense of toleration for those who are different and for ideas that might seem dangerous or distasteful.”

Struggling for Clarity in the Democracy Debate

While the term democracy invokes a paradigm of responsible civic participation, it is difficult to balance the image with the reality. As Paul Pilar points out, “We should not apply the label of democracy where it does not belong.” In deciding how best to spend US democracy-promotion funding, it would be worthwhile to look at those countries that are growing the credibility of elections as well as focusing on capacity-building for civil society.

Civil Society Summit in MoroccoMorocco is a useful case in point. It not only has successfully held local and national elections that international observers have judged free and fair, it also continues to invest heavily in advancing its civil society capabilities. In the late 1990s, the late King Hassan II, sensing the shift in public sentiment towards having a greater role in governance, undertook two important reforms. He allowed the largest party in Parliament to nominate the Prime Minister, and he opened up opportunities for an empowered civil society as an antidote to bickering political parties. Over the next fifteen years, especially under his son King Mohammed VI, civil society continues to evolve as a potent force in defining political, human, economic, and social development priorities—quite separately from the political parties. More than 40,000 NGOs are currently registered in all areas of the country.

King Mohammed encouraged this activism by convening a year-long civil society dialogue under the National Committee for Dialogue on Civil Society. During the past year, the committee held 18 meetings that drew nearly 10,000 civil society activists, stakeholders, and officials who shared their perspectives on proposed legislation related to the forward status of NGOs. According to El Habib Choubani, the Minister for Parliamentary Relations, the goal of the effort is “to create a legal arsenal that can guarantee the freedom to create organizations” and ensure the “independence of civil society activity and governance.” Rather than treat civil society as adversaries or passive partners, the dialogue seeks to further the goal of the 2011 Constitution to enable civil society to play a major participatory role in the political life of the country. These efforts reflect the essence of building a liberal democracy—knowledge, access, power, and respect.