The defining characteristic of Syrian politics, ever since the country gained independence, has been paranoia. While its leaders have lived in fear of military coups, Islamist revolts, and Western meddling, its citizens have dreaded arbitrary arrest, indefinite imprisonment, and torture at the hands of the state.
PBS Frontline's new documentary, "Syria Undercover," provides a ground-level look at the paranoia that has seized the country during the current uprising, which has dragged on for the past eight months, at the cost of more than 3,500 lives. The two-part series tracks correspondent Ramita Navai as she travels around Syria to meet with the protest organizers and defected officers that have emerged during the revolt - at one point, she hides in a protest organizers' safe house while militiamen loyal to President Bashar al-Assad ransack an apartment next door. It also features insights into what motivates the Assad regime from New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid. "This was Syria of the Assads," he wrote, in an exclusive essay for PBS. "[R]endered in their image, haunted by their phobias and ordered by their machinations."
At 1 pm, I will help moderate an exclusive live chat with Navai and Shadid about the current state of the Syrian uprising. Please tune in using the chat module below!
Over the weekend, Marc Lynch explored how Jay-Z and Kanye West's rap alliance on their album Watch the Throne represents a blueprint for U.S. hegemony in a changing world. But left unexamined was the line from their recent album that most directly relates to foreign policy: On the track Murder to Excellence, Kanye raps, "It's a war going on outside we ain't safe from / I feel the pain in my city wherever I go / 314 soldiers died in Iraq, 509 died in Chicago."
Kanye's numbers, which are from 2008, are broadly accurate. The Chicago Police Department reported that there were 510 homicides in the city, while the casualty count website iCasualties confirmed that 314 U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq that year (why Kanye discounts the eight fatalities from other U.S. coalition partners is a conversation for another day). But to paraphrase a popular saying: There are lies, damned lies, and Kanye West's statistics.
The real problem with Kanye's math is that he ignores the deaths of Iraqis, who would presumably still be alive if the United States hadn't decided to invade the country. The Brookings Institution's Iraq Index estimates that 6,400 Iraqi civilians lost their lives in war-related violence in 2008.
That figure still underestimates the violence in Iraq, because it only counts civilian deaths related to the Iraqi insurgency. "Earlier in the war, we did tend to count individual acts of criminal murder, as they reflected a deterioration of law and order which had implications for the insurgency," said Brookings Institution fellow Michael O'Hanlon, the author of the Iraq Index. However, by 2008, the main sources of information regarding Iraq discounted non-insurgency related homicides.
But Kanye wasn't entirely wrong to compare the violence in Iraq and Chicago. If one compares war-related deaths in Iraq and Chicago homicides in 2008, there is a remarkable similarity between the rates of violence. According to the U.S. census, Chicago's population was 2.7 million in 2010 -- down from 2.9 million in 2000, as residents continued to relocate to the suburbs. With 510 homicides in the city, that means one Chicagoan was killed for every 5,294 people living in the city.
Now, let's compare that to the civilian casualties in Iraq. The World Bank reports that Iraq had a population of approximately 31 million in 2008. With 6,400 Iraqi civilians killed in war-related violence, that means one Iraqi was killed for every 4,844 citizens of the country - a more dangerous environment than Chicago, but not by much.
It should come as no surprise that it was dramatically more dangerous to be a U.S. soldier in Iraq than a Chicago resident or an Iraqi civilian in 2008. According to the Iraq Index, U.S. troop strength in the country averaged approximately 150,000 for the year. If the United States suffered 314 casualties in 2008, that means one soldier was killed for every 478 soldiers in Iraq.
Kanye, of course, is arguing on Murder to Excellence that Americans should be less concerned with political developments in Mesopotamia and more concerned with the deterioration of their own cities -- a fairly conventional point in today's political environment. But if he can fit the statistics above into verse, he'll truly deserve the rap throne that he's so keen on claiming.
I have a feeling that this exchange, released in Al Jazeera's Palestine Papers, is going to be making the rounds in Ramallah for some time. "SE" is chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, and "YG" is Yossi Gal, then a deputy director general in Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
SE: How have you been?
YG: Not too bad, can't complain, how about you?
SE: I'm lying, I've been lying for the last weeks.
YG: Between jogging?
SE: No, no, lying, lying. I was in Cairo, I was in Jordan, I was in America. Everybody is asking me what is going on Israel, what is Olmert going to do?
YG: And you are telling everyone we are on the verge of success.
SE: And I always tell them this is an internal Israeli matter, a domestic Israeli matter and I keep lying. If somebody sneezes in Tel-Aviv, I get the flu in Jericho, and I have to lie. So that's my last week -- all lies.
YG: As a professor of negotiations, you know that white lies are allowed now and then.
SE: I'm not complaining, I'm admitting -- and sometimes I don't feel like lying.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Lebanon's current political upheaval resembles a mirror image of the strife that overwhelmed the country from 2006 to 2008, when Hezbollah and its allies embarked on a two-year effort to topple the government. But this time, the tables have turned: It's Hezbollah that has mustered the votes to form a government, which will reportedly be headed by former Prime Minister Najib Miqati. Meanwhile, Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his allies are on the outside looking in, left to express their displeasure through street protests and acts of violence.
Lebanon's political ground rules hold that the president must hail from the Maronite Christian community, the prime minister must be a Sunni, and the speaker of parliament must be a Shiite. A parliamentary majority, therefore, is theoretically able to elevate political figures that have little support within their own community.
But the recent reversal of fortunes has shown that the reality on the ground is somewhat different, and that the only real law in Lebanon is sectarian solidarity. Back in 2008, Hezbollah was appalled and outraged that the ruling coalition would consider replacing its resigned ministers with Shiite figures that had little support in their own community - now they're preparing to bring to power a Sunni prime minister that can count on only token Sunni support. Meanwhile, Hariri, who had defended the democratic legitimacy of the government when he had a solid parliamentary majority, now denounces the election of a new opposition-friendly government as "virtually a coup d'état."
All signs currently point toward chaos: The new Miqati government, once it is established, will vote to discontinue government support for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is expected to implicate Hezbollah members in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. But as Elias Muhanna pointed out in FP last week, it's hard to see what the opposition gains from this maneuver. As the recent protests have shown, Miqati doesn't have the credibility to convince his community that the tribunal's indictments are flawed. And after he moves to disrupt the investigation of a murdered Sunni leader, his already meager support among his own community will likely fall further.
Hariri and his allies may be tempted take some solace in this dynamic. They will point to this fact as evidence that Hezbollah still needs them, and will therefore be forced to compromise. The situation, however, is not nearly so sanguine: Lebanese politics has a tendency to return to equilibrium only after no small degree of bloodshed and lost economic opportunity. Once again, it is the Lebanese people who will bear the cost of their fundamentally tribal and dishonest political system.
JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
As protesters overwhelmed former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's security forces in Tunis, the regional office of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), the George W. Bush administration's signature democracy promotion organization, watched as its mandate was fulfilled in the most unlikely of places.
It is, to say the least, an awkward bit of symbolism. MEPI defines its mission as "develop[ing] more pluralistic, participatory, and prosperous societies." And in the country where it is based, the Tunisian people proved themselves to be uniquely and spectacularly unhappy with their regime.
But according to current and former democracy promotion advocates in the U.S. government, the decision to base MEPI's offices in Tunisia was made because the embassy had enough free space to accommodate its staff, and the country was thought to be stable enough to not interfere with the organization's sometimes controversial work.
Scott Carpenter, a former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bush administration who oversaw the creation of MEPI, said that the Ben Ali regime was "constantly paranoid" about the organization's presence in the country, and never allowed it to undertake significant democracy promotion programs. As a result, "we were doing a lot of stuff very, very quietly - not to say covert, but very quietly," Carpenter said.
The Ben Ali regime's hostility to any efforts to open up the political system was attested to by other Western diplomats who served in Tunis. Alan Goulty, who served as the British ambassador in the country from 2004 to 2008, said that the government would constantly raise the specter of terrorism to discourage any contact with Tunisian opposition figures.
"There was one explosion in 1987 of a bomb, where a British lady was wounded and lost her leg," Goulty said. "I lost count of the times that Tunisian officials, 15 years later, reminded me of that incident to justify their claims that the Tunisian opposition, whatever form it took, was terrorist."
In theory, the European Union should have had considerable economic and political leverage to convince the Ben Ali regime to liberalize. Trade between EU member states and Tunisia in 2009 was in excess of $20 billion - by comparison, total U.S. imports and exports to the country were valued at around $800 million. The EU association agreement with Tunisia also provided a ready-made avenue for discussion human rights and political liberalization. In practice, however, EU efforts in the country were anemic at best.
"Frankly, the EU always pulled its punches [on democracy promotion], because of the need to operate unanimously," said Goulty. "And a different approach was taken by [our] Mediterranean partners, principally France and Italy, who believed that the best way forward was to get close to the regime and further one's economic interests."
In fact, the primary contribution that the United States made to Tunisia's recent unrest was neglect. As U.S. relations with the other North African states improved over the past two decades, the relative importance of Tunisia as a U.S. ally in the region declined. U.S. diplomats may not have had much success promoting liberalization in the country, but the national security implications of the fall of Ben Ali's regime raised steadily fewer concerns in Washington.
David Mack, currently a scholar at the Middle East Institute, served as the deputy chief of mission of the U.S. embassy in Tunisia from 1979 to 1982. "If you go back to the time when I was there, our relations were disappearing with Libya, we had poor relations with Algeria, and strained relationships in many parts of the Muslim world," he noted. "But the reality is that today Tunisia plays a smaller role overall in U.S. strategic political calculation."
However, diplomats insisted that Tunisia's apparent stability under Ben Ali did not cause them to underestimate the population's grievances with his regime. A prescient June 2009 cable released by WikiLeaks criticizes the "sclerotic" regime, which it says has "lost touch with the Tunisian people." The same memo complains that "make it exceptionally difficult for the US Mission to conduct business" and meet with regime opponents.
Those who spent time in the country seconded that assessment. "The place was so sterile -- you just feel people's fear, and the complete lack of dynamism in the society," said Carpenter. "Within the State Department we used to refer to it as ‘Syria with a smile.'"
PHILIPPE MERLE/AFP/Getty Images
Last week, I had the opportunity to moderate a panel titled "The World Economy in the Next Ten Years," sponsored by the Chazen Institute at Columbia Business School. The discussion, a whirlwind tour of the world economic system, was great fun -- and provided useful economic evidence to back up Foreign Policy's own Nov. 30 event, which focused on the political "rise of the rest." The Chazen Institute has posted the videos of each speaker online, but let me give a quick rundown of what caught my attention as the most important and attention-grabbing points of the discussion.
FP contributor Arvind Panagariya reminded the audience that -- despite the debate over whether India or China will be Asia's preeminent economic giant - India is still an extremely poor country. It currently ranks in 165th place in the GDP per capita among countries worldwide, just above Mongolia and below countries such as Iraq and the Republic of Congo. But that's about to change rapidly: India could grow at a 10 percent clip over the next 15 years. This rapid growth means that, by 2025, the combined size of the Chinese and Indian economies could equal the U.S. economy.
Shang-Jin Wei, the director of the Chazen Institute, argued that China's unique demography might hold the key to the country maintaining its torrid growth rates for the next decade. He pointed out that there are now 115 men in China for every 100 women, meaning that approximately one out of every nine Chinese men is unable to find a spouse (excluding the possibility of gay marriage or polygamy, presumably). He proposed that this competition for China's scarce supply of brides encouraged men to accumulating the wealth necessary to attract a mate. That's not just pop sociology: Wei cited data that showed workers in regions with skewed sex ratios were more likely to take dangerous or unpleasant jobs, and more likely to launch privately owned businesses.
But while the future is rosy in South and East Asia, it looks less bright in Europe. Charles Calomiris, a professor of financial institutions at Columbia University, predicted that the current economic crisis would cause "the end of the Eurozone as we know it." He painted a scenario where Europe's weak economies, starting with Greece, were unable to repair their dismal fiscal situation without abandoning the euro.
John Coatsworth, the dean of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), discussed Latin America, which he suggested was essentially poised to split in two. The South American countries, which have successfully diversified their trading partners by establishing new relationships in Europe and Asia, would witness "the retreat of American leverage and capacity" to the levels that existed in the late 1800s. These countries, he argued, will enjoy rapid growth and exhibit growing independence from the United States on the international stage. Meanwhile, the countries of Central America and the Caribbean would be unable to break from their dependency on the United States -- and consequently experience slower growth rates as the U.S. economy limps along.
If you visit the website of al-Akhbar, the leftist Lebanese daily that published dozens of classified State Department cables related to the Middle East before they appeared on WikiLeaks, you'll be greeted by the image above. The site has been hacked, and the hackers specify that al-Akhbar's decision to release the WikiLeaked cables was the reason behind their actions. Judging by the picture of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz in the bottom left, it's the material related to Saudi Arabia that truly raised their blood pressure.
The only question is: What particular cable did they find embarrassing? Was it the account of raunchy Saudi Halloween parties? The Saudi foreign minister's proposal for an "Arab force" to combat Hezbollah? The Saudi monarch's advice that the United States "cut off the head of the snake" in Iran?
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah probably refrained from expressing at least half this sentiment in his meeting today with President Obama: On June 5, he reportedly told French Defense Minister Hervé Morin that "There are two countries in the world that do not deserve to exist: Iran and Israel."
The scoop comes from Georges Malbrunot, a French journalist with Le Figaro. Malbrunot, a respected Middle East correspondent who spent four months as a hostage of the Islamic Army in Iraq, goes on to report that two sources, from diplomatic and military circles, have confirmed the story. He suggests that the anger directed as Israel was the result of the IDF raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla, which occurred just days before this outburst. (Hat tip goes to the eagle-eyed correspondents at Friday Lunch Club).
Update: Of course, the White House statement following the Obama-Abdullah meeting reaffirmed both leaders' sincerest hope that the current round of proximity talks will lead to "two states living side-by-side in peace and security."
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
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