Monthly Archives: January 2012
There are important differences between Syria and other Arab Spring countries but they all share one thing in common – failing repressive governments. This is particularly true of Syria and I believe we are seeing the beginning of the end. It probably will not come any time too soon but before long the Syrian state will either fail or radically revise itself, and I doubt the latter. The Syrian regime is telling itself and the world a story: it’s a story of foreign backed troublemakers causing problems for the Syrian government and stirring up revolt. The Syrians claim to be opening up more liberal possibilities similar to Jordan and promising reforms. Moreover, they claim that outsiders are trying to destroy the country and that the strength and power of the protest movement is exaggerated by a hostile press. It is true that Syria has initiated some limited reforms, but it is all far too little and transparent.
The story will just not hold. The regime has slowly been coming apart and its political structures seem to be weakening. Other Arab nations have lost confidence in Syria and have little influence with the executive leadership of the country. One reporter claimed that the military was weakening and losing its will to fight the protest movement. There are more reports of Syrian soldiers deserting the army. Syria could certainly produce enough troops to put down resistance but to what end?
One thing that allows Syria to hold on is the support of various elite groups. These groups depend on and have been rewarded by the leadership of the country. Benefits and privileges flow to these groups and they will continue to defend their interests. There also seems to be evidence that the Baathist party is weakening and if this continues then the jobs they provide will disappear and thus further debilitate the regime. There is considerable economic pressure on Syria and it appears as if it will continue. Like most authoritarian regimes Syrian leadership has awarded sweet contracts to individuals for public utilities such as telephones and the operations of power and electricity. This way elites are rewarded and maintain their allegiance to the authoritarian leadership. But social unrest has interfered with trade and market exchanges with other countries such as Turkey. Increasing economic pressures could lead to more rapid decline in Syria.
Assad, like many of his counterparts, has accommodated religious groups because he fears religious extremists. He even claims that the dissidents are motivated by extremism and religion. But most analyses of Islam in Syria explain that the Muslim Brotherhood is not very powerful and certainly not as organized as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Apparently religious extremists are hard to find and the average person is far more oppressed by the Syrian regime than any religious group. Peter Harling of Foreign Affairs has argued that resistance is broad based and cohesive and increasingly sophisticated. He believes that the resistance has been contained so far by violence and thuggish behavior but that will not last long.
The international community seems confused and even though the Arab League began acting decisively they have not been doing so recently. There does seem to be a consensus supporting regime change but no one knows how to go about it. The US does not want to intervene directly and is even hesitant to lead from behind. There is also the problem of those groups and states that support the Syrian regime such as Hezbollah and Russia. Russia fears the rise of religious extremists and is supportive of forceful military action against protesters, and they also fear democracy advocacy by the United States. Syria has not suffered or been isolated as severely as it could have been because of its close associations with Russia and China both of which have protected Syria from more severe circumstances.
Harling is also pessimistic about any opposition in exile. Such groups often play an instrumental role in positive regime change. They often lead the way forward and act as a liaison between their oppressed kinsman and the modern world. Moreover, they can also play an important role in the reconciliation process when the time comes. But the Syrian diaspora seems to be squabbling over minor issues and competing for recognition.
The Syrian leadership still seems to be operating under the assumption that the troubles will all go away, or that it will endure for a while and then slowly disappear. This could be true but it seems unlikely. A military defeat does not seem likely and neither does international intervention. The outcome is, I believe, in the hands of the protesters.
The issue of a two state solution continues to loom large in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Quite a number of people, including me, think it is the only answer. But it still remains an abstraction and even though there are numerous documents and plans for instituting two states reducing those documents and plans to actual shovel-ready projects has remained elusive. Actually calling for a two state solution has become a “shibboleth”, a “cliché” that sounds good but is increasingly empty of content. I see two lines of argument emerging in this discussion. The first is that the two state solution is not workable and will disappear. The second is that the two state solution is the only answer and will continue to develop. Let’s take a closer look at each of these alternatives.
The two state solution is not workable
We begin by pointing out that this call for a two state solution has been droning on for years and nothing has happened. This in itself is pretty good evidence that it probably never will happen. Moreover, the Palestinian insistence on the right of return and continued problems over settlement development make the two state solution even less attractive. Both sides are going to have to pay a price for two state solution, and as of now neither seems to be lowering its asking price. Israelis insist on recognition and Palestinians continue to remain firm with respect to their demands pertaining to refugees and settlements. We might even ask whether or not it’s time to start talking about alternatives, according to this perspective, because no progress is evident on any of the issues that divide these two groups. The attempts by the Palestinians to have the UN declare a Palestinian state has been one response to this conundrum.
Others see the Israeli government as moving toward increasing radicalization and away from a peace process that would result in two states. The composition of the Netanyahu government is one example. This is an interesting divide in Israel because while the leadership in Israel has become more recalcitrant and radicalized, the general population has made significant movement toward acceptance of the Palestinians as neighbors. Additionally, as settlers plant their flags in East Jerusalem and the West Bank they intertwine their economies with the Palestinians and make a two state solution even more difficult. In sum, the facts on the ground created by both Israelis and Palestinians are not conducive to the two state solution.
The two state solution is workable
Here the argument changes course. It begins with the notion that even though progress is
slow the two cultures are intertwined and tied to each other in such a manner as to make two states inescapable. If one accepts this point then it’s a small leap to the conclusion that Palestinian recognition of the Jewish state of Israel is not so necessary. Two states can be developed in the interest of peace and democratic expressions, and “official” recognition of Israel as Jewish can come later. This might hold true for the issue of refugees also. The Palestinian claim that they will never give up the right of return might be mitigated when faced with the reality of their own state.
Then there are all the arguments pointing to a parade of horrors if the two state solution is not implemented. The two state solution, as the quarrel goes, must be implemented because the one state solution is so unacceptable and probably means the end of an Israeli majority. A one state solution with all of its conflicts about identity, national recognition, cultural preferences, and political complexities is so unacceptable that a two state solution is the only viable alternative.
Part of the founding narrative in Israel was that it had returned to its homeland which was a “land with no people.” This just simply was not true, and all of the arguments about who is at fault notwithstanding, there were people living in the land of Israel who were displaced and must be dealt with. The Palestinians are a people – even if many aspects of their political nationality have been recently constructed – and must wiggle out from under the weight of the Israeli presence. A state of their own is one solution to this problem.
The clarity and distinctiveness of the Jewish nature of the state is important in Israel. Of course, there are many future arguments and problems to be solved with respect to just how Israel expresses itself as a Jewish state and remains democratic. But from a philosophical level Israel is simply not Israel if it doesn’t devote itself to Jewish particularity (again, recognizing the difficulties with respect to the meaning of “particularity”). The only way for Israel to retain its Jewish nature is by ensuring that the Palestinians have a state of their own in order to allow its particularity to flourish.
The Republican horror show continues. And although it is great entertainment, we should not forget the most stirring success of Karl Rove and the Republican Party which is to convince voters to support issues contrary to their own interests. The clear goal of every candidate in the Republican primary is to favor the powerful and hold the subordinate classes in check. Corey Robin in a recent book on “The Reactionary Mind” has argued and illustrated convincingly that the conservative mind is fundamentally reactionary and animated by a desire to hold the subordinate classes down. Throughout history superiors – the state, owners, church, or hierarchical institutions – have regularly resisted very much improvement in the lives of those without power. Robin uses conservative and reactionary interchangeably and he is talking about the likes of slaveholders, Catholics, fascists, Burke, Ayn Rand, Scalia, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Irving Kristol, and George W. Bush, and Mitt Romney.
To listen to Romney, Paul, and Gingrich you would think the conservative mind is becoming isolationist again. In the 1960s if you mistrusted the government and home schooled your children you were a liberal hippie. In the year 2012 if you mistrust government and home schooled your children you’re probably a conservative isolationist. It is the role of government that currently most defines liberal from conservative. Clearly other issues weigh in but the role of government is oppressive and a drain on your individual freedom if you’re of the conservative mind (thus, keep your children home), or a transformative and moral force for those with a more liberal turn of mind. The sad truth is that the most important question is not about the role of government but about what government does well and what it does not.
This collection of primary candidates have taken some pretty extreme positions from advocating bombing Iran, privatizing Social Security, eliminating controls on big oil, allowing Wall Street to grab whatever it wants, and extending constitutional rights to zygotes. As outgoing Congressman Barney Frank once quipped, “these conservatives believe that life begins at conception and ends at birth” because they afford more rights to an unborn fetus than a fully developed human being.
Mitt Romney is thoroughly committed to destroying the safety net and any sense in which government can play a role in leveling the field of inequality amongst people. He will eliminate President Obama’s health care program and once again send about 1 million young people into the world with no coverage. And it should be noted that the cost of medical care including office visits, medications, surgeries, and diagnostic exams is all pegged to a financial market that includes insurance companies. Prices are artificially inflated because the dollars are available to pay such prices. Hence, anyone without insurance who gets sick and needs medical attention is asked to pay prices based on an economic system that he or she does not participate in. Without Obama-like controls insurance companies will deny coverage at will and return to hiking premiums.
Even though the subordinate populations have gathered under the banner of economic reform, equality, rights, labor, and sometimes even revolution in every instance they have either been legally or illegally thwarted. Mitt Romney is a natural extension of this sort of leadership. Rather than working with government to find a proper and affordable role, even rather than the pragmatism of Reagan and Goldwater conservatism, these Republican candidates would rather retreat from extending opportunities to others by “fooling” the public into thinking that Obama has committed grave ideological sins (e.g. “socialism”, “liberalism”, or a “decline in social values”) rather than a serious effort to solve problems and help people.
Curiously, traditional conservatives used to believe that human beings were born into a society or culture that was responsible for shaping and fashioning attitudes and values. This society that people were born into became an inheritance that was valued and worth saving. Such original conservatives were open to change, as long as their institutions stayed intact. The only quarrel there should be between liberals and conservatives is what changes are worthy. But don’t underestimate the importance of this difference between ideological purity and pragmatism. The Republican Party has become increasingly apocalyptic as it tries not simply to have better ideas than Obama but to convince us that Obama is inauthentic (“not a citizen”) and dangerous. Tea partiers and paleoconservatives are talking about revolutionary change because the country is in such “trouble.” This is not the healthy argument of a contestatory democracy but a call for Revolution.
Change is coming to the Middle East in the form of the “Arab Spring.” At least that is what we keep hearing about. An immolation in Tunisia, a corrupt leader in Egypt, and an oppressive Syrian state are all crumbling under the weight of non-viable political systems. Successful democracies are a pipedream in many countries but the creaking in clanking of structural change continues. One country seems to be immune from these changes and has found a package of promises that continues to satisfy citizens.
Saudi Arabia, as a protection against social upheaval, has handed out billions of dollars in economic aid in order to head off discontent. It remains the case that many Saudi citizens are frustrated about unemployment, housing, and health services but the economic handouts have softened the blow. But there is nothing so strong, nothing that cements a society more than religious coherence and the successful spreading of obligation. The Saudi leaders, their voices ringing out from the minarets and mosques, regularly remind their people of their godly duties, which include allegiance to the house of Saud. The message is clear: the present Saudi leaders have returned civil obedience and purity to the land by reminding the people of their obligation to God. They warn the country against chaos and glorify themselves as the voice of Islam. The rhetorical strategy is very effective. Any call for demonstrations or suggestion of civil disobedience is characterized as a conspiracy and as a violation against Islam.
The Saudis also use the Sunni-Shia divide as a weapon in their cold war against Iran. They are convinced that Iran wants to increase its penetration into other societies and see the Arab spring as an opportunity for Iranian influence. The Iranians on the other hand have tried to use pro-democracy movements to advance their own position, even though their intentions may be less than honorable. Saudi anti-Shiite religious traditions are an effective policy against Iran and other threatening countries.
When the bonds of religious commitment loosen and citizens begin to ask questions and engage in debate and challenge conventional wisdom, the Saudis deploy their third foreign-policy strategy which is to tighten security. If God and oil are not enough, then security must be.
A group of activists called for a “digital day of rage” in Saudi Arabia and the goal was to gather momentum for democratic processes in the underground digital world. But above ground, in the real world, Saudi security forces were repelling the few demonstrators that showed up for the day of rage. A few petitions were passed around but to no avail and the Saudi government responded by invoking criminalization of any criticism of the King.
These three strategies of God, oil, and security are working fairly well for the Saudi’s at the moment. So far anyway, they have held off the weather by pushing back the Arab spring. To the credit of protesters looking for more individual freedom they have maintained their digital activism. The underground web networks are serving an important function to a population denied most basic freedoms. The Saudi leadership will have none of it. They continue to use oil money and religious doctrine to prevent protest. Democracy advocates have a difficult path ahead of them. They must face a wealthy government that tailors economic payoffs that would make Tony Soprano blush with envy. Tight security and an aggressive police force certainly cause citizens to think twice about real protest.
The prospect for revolt in Saudi Arabia is slim. The structural conditions do not exist to stimulate real mobilization and real protest. It is not a society that has developed trade unions, activist student populations, or other protest movements that can possibly play a role in leading revolt. Moreover, because of oil money most Saudi citizens do not suffer economic deprivation. So the cycle continues – security protects the oil money which is anointed by God.