“You can observe a lot just by watching.”
Fair warning: This won’t be brief.
This isn’t about Paris (or Brussels, Mali, Beirut, Baghdad, or Ankara.) But it is about what they have in common and why they are lumped together in the grisly 3rd Q 2015.
We’ll forgo Paris and Brussels and focus instead on a visit earlier this month to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to participate in the second annual Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate, where TMR went ‘eavesdropping along the Gulf.”
The colloquium is the creation of the Emirates Policy Center and its enterprising president, Dr. Ebtesam Al Ketbi. In partnership with the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Washington-based Atlantic Council, more than 200 scholars, global strategy and security experts, politicians, NGO leaders, journalists, military officers, diplomats, and business executives from 40 countries gathered for three days of wide-ranging conversations about the global implications of political turbulence in the Middle East and North African region.
As you might expect, there was much discussion about U. S. policy in the region, and candid observations on the condition of relationships between the U. S. and Gulf Cooperating Council (GCC) countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE -- and other states in the region.
Had this colloquium been held two weeks later – after Paris and the Brussels lockdown -- conversations would have focused more on challenges faced by a congregation of nations in vanquishing the violent tactics and malevolent ideology of ISIS (ISIL, Daesh, Da’ish)) and less on the miscalculations of U. S. policy and subsequent mistrust of the Obama administration.
I suspect that if participants were asked to name the most salient takeaways from three days, nine panel sessions, and countless sidebar meetings, the master list would be longer than the vast hallways at the opulent Emirates Palace, the conference venue.
• Relationships between the governments of the GCC and the U. S. administration are at an all-time low. Trust in the Administration is non-existent along the Gulf.
• Optimism for improvement in those relationships is negligible. There is widespread disdain for President Obama and scant optimism about future prospects arising from the 2016 presidential election.
• There is no ‘Spring’ in Arabia. The region is rife with violent extremism, a by-product of multiple civil wars that provide the soil in which the ideology and tactics of ISIL/Daesh flourish.
• Iran is the 800-pound gorilla in the Middle East living room. Fear of Iran’s motives and intentions is existential and contempt for the JPCOA is pervasive.
• The intersection of sharp declines in oil prices and rising costs of production is putting huge pressure on fiscal policy in many countries in the region, leading several to begin drawing down from their sovereign wealth funds. This comes at a time when the ‘youth bulge’ is creating unprecedented demand for economic development and job creation.
• “To the curious incident of the dog in night-time.” Our meetings began on Halloween, the date on which Russian Metrojet #9268 blew up shortly after takeoff from Sharm el-Sheikh. To the best of this eavesdropper’s knowledge, there was little discussion about the incident and no speculation about whether it might have been an act of terrorism. Initial reports suggested mechanical failure, but given its location, the ostensible growing concern about ISIL, and the composition and expertise of those gathered in Abu Dhabi, it seemed remarkable that it wasn’t an important part of sidebar conversations. As Sherlock Holmes would have remarked, “That was the curious incident,” the dog that didn’t bark.
• You say potato and I say potahto: What we say matters. It’s well beyond time to bury “Islamofacism. It is the moral and rhetorical equivalent of the N-word for Muslims, maligns a religion to which more than 1.5 billion have been drawn, and confers religious bona fides on those ‘violent jihadists’ who practice a corrupt, bastardized version of the teachings of Muhammad. For the best thinking on this very important question about the relationship between ISIS and Islam, TMR recommends following the writing of Dr. Will McCants, senior fellow at Brookings Institution and author of “The ISIS Apocalypse.” http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/experts/mccantsw
• Beware of imprecise metaphors: As tempting as it may be to cite Samuel Huntington, Islam and Christianity are not engaged in a ‘clash of civilizations.’ Nor is there a theological battle amongst the Abrahamic religions. ISIL and Al Qaeda and their offshoots are not ‘civilizations’ any more than Bloods and Crips are ‘communities.’
There’s more, so let’s move on.
U. S. and the Region
U. S. policy in the region is universally denounced while attitudes about America and Americans remain positive.
“The GCC countries no longer trust the U. S.”
“America is in decline”
“The U. S. has handed over Syria to Russia and now is going to hand over Yemen to Iran.”
“America is exiting from the Middle East . . . and is pivoting to Asia.”
Despite some rancor in remarks during opening panel sessions, personal conversations were collegial, animated, and always instructive. Collective regional ire about the Obama administration’s policies doesn’t carry over to relationships with American people.
To put recurrent anti-Obama remarks in some historical context, TMR asked several participants from the region: “Which American president’s policies have you supported?” Responses were halting and inexplicit.
Of course, there was blanket bewilderment about the announcement of adding fifty Special Operations Forces in the Syrian conflict. Despite former National Security Adviser and Marine Corps Commandant, Jim Jones’ efforts to shine the best light on a shift in U. S. strategy for Middle East conflicts -- from 'shock-and-awe' to coalitions and partnerships -- this landed like a dull thud on a mostly dubious audience. On the Syria question, per se, his disapproval was quite clear to all, including more than a few American participants who found the criticism a bit gratuitous.
The “U. S. agreement” with Iran (sic) sits atop the list of grievances for the GCC and their neighbors, as much for its putative bolstering of Iran’s goal of regional hegemony — anathema to Saudi Arabia — as it’s ‘favoring’ a Shi’a regime.
Dr. Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, offered the most diplomatic expression of this concern in his opening remarks with the judicious observation that it was [their] hope that “Iran would spend its newfound funds in ways that will benefit the broader region . . .” – a nuanced reference to Iran’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas, its proxies in the region, and other issues not addressed in the JPCOA.
The two most ardent supporters of the agreement were Drs. Murhaf Jouejati and Mohsen Milani – Syrian and Iranian-born, both distinguished professors in American universities -- whose perspectives while unpersuasive to most regional participants were an important balancing element in the discussions.
In an effort to peer over the horizon, the closing panel on opening day focused on “Strategic Shocks and Global Futures,” with experts from China, Russia, GCC, NATO, and the U. S.
Ken Pollack -- Brookings Institution scholar and convener of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Strategy Task Force Working Group on Security and Public Order – provided a preview of the Council’s forthcoming report that will spell out why Daesh “cannot be dealt with ‘in isolation,’ but must be understood as an outgrowth of civil wars in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.”
Pollack, a long time student of academic literature on civil wars, confirmed how these arenas of disorder with porous borders create a vacuum into which everything and everyone within reach is drawn in. And despite the irrational exuberance of at least one presidential candidate who declared, ‘I would bomb the [excremental expletive deleted] out of [ISIS],’ it turns out that civil wars must be ended before internal order can be restored and sustained.
Jessica Matthews, Distinguished Fellow and former president of the Carnegie Endowment, proffered the notion that the greatest ‘strategic shock’ on the horizon was the ‘repricing of carbon,’ a policy gaining a strong popular support in Europe.
Beyond implications to oil-producing/energy dependent economies, Matthews reminded participants that the ‘genesis of the Syrian conflict resulted from a seven-year drought,’ a thought that put the geostrategic aspects of climate change in its proper global security framework. As she responded to one critic, “This isn’t about pollution . . .”
Order and Power in the Digital Age
Experts from China, Italy, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Sweden, UAE, and the U. S., debated the role of digital technologies in affecting the power of the state and the challenges to stable governance.
“Cyber has the capacity to erode the power of the state to exercise its primary fiduciary responsibility . . . to control the violence and to protect its citizens from internal and external threats.”
“Digital technology is a ‘force multiplier, and is a critical piece of hybrid warfare; this benefits non-state actors and especially those that are supported by state actors.”
Brookings Institution’s Thomas Wright initiated a conversation about the distinctions between digital technology and social media-generated ‘networks’ versus earlier forms of ‘community,’ which were dependent upon human interaction. It was agreed that despite the velocity and reach of social media, it is the glue of ‘real’ communities that makes them effective in sustaining societal change – a reality made apparent in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
Russian Academy of Sciences scholar, Vitaly Naumkin, suggested that because the Internet has enhanced both sub-national and supra-national units, the integrity and durability of the Westphalian model is under new and significant pressures.
And just as the conversation was honing in on the ‘usual suspects’ in digital warfare, such as mounting damage wrought by hackers, the Atlantic Council’s Barry Pavel suggested that it is in the next stage of digital technologies – 3-D printing, artificial intelligence, robotics, internet of things -- where we will experience another historic inflection point with even greater impact than that of the Internet itself.
Extremism and Terrorism: Global Mapping, Patterns, and Strategies
The most contentious moment in these sessions came during the closing panel, moderated by the noted French scholar, Gilles Kepel, professor at Sciences Po Paris, and the author of several landmark treatises on Islam and the modern Arab world, including “Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam.”
Lady Pauline Neville-Jones, Conservative member of the House of Lords and former UK Minister for Security and Counterterrorism, ventured an observation about the manifest religious roots of violent jihadism – an outgrowth of Jihadist-Salafism and Wahabism – which provoked considerable protestations from Muslim leaders. While Neville-Jones’ primary goal was to suggest the need for Middle East and western powers collaboration on strategy formulation, the effect of her remarks was divisive.
There was much discussion about women in jihad, and the rising numbers from European countries who have joined ISIL. Three women panelists led an energetic conversation about gender equality and gender identity giving special attention to UN Security Council Resolution 1325 – “a landmark international legal framework that addresses not only the inordinate impact of war on women, but also the pivotal role women should and do play in conflict management, conflict resolution and sustainable peace,” a growing focus in the study of jihadism and its eventual eradication.
U. S. Institute of Peace president, Nancy Lindborg, noted that while narratives about violent extremism have morphed from nationalism to religion, it is the underlying struggle for power and control, and not theology, that is the causal agent in these conflicts.
Africans have a saying, “To know there you must go there,” a truism borne out by this eavesdropping expedition.
On one hand, these discussions framed the reality of ‘the long war,' a one and perhaps two-generation conflict characterized by complexity, ambiguity, animosity, hostility, odium, and violence on a grand scale. Near-and-middle term prospects for resolution are reason for pessimism.
At the same time, conversations with young, emerging leaders from the region provided a basis for optimism. Many have been educated and trained in the United States, England, France, and Germany, and have a sophisticated understanding of global politics and the challenges facing polities in the Gulf and the Levant. It is this generation of leaders who have the capacity to break the strangleholds that have held back their societies from full participation in the promise of the 21st century.
In a place where T. E. Lawrence could once observe “The fringes of their deserts were strewn with broken faiths,” there are good things happening and good people leading the way. Being partners in that cause seems a fitting challenge for us all.