Normative Narratives


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Conflict Watch: In the Push for Liberal Democracy in the Middle East, Time May be the Greatest Enemy

Well that might be a bit of an overstatement, but the passage of time continues to undermine the goals of the “Arab Spring”. Protracted Social Conflict theory identifies “grievances” or human rights abuses, as the root cause of social conflicts. Paul Collier takes the theory one step further, arguing that over time legitimate grievances are hijacked by opportunistic forces seeking wealth and/or power.

These theories have almost perfectly explained what has transpired over the past 2+ years in both Syria and Egypt:

Syria:

In Syria, peaceful protests for basic freedoms and liberal democracy (starting in March 2011) were met with violence from the Assad regime, sparking a civil-war. Over time, legitimate grievances were hijacked by opportunistic Islamic extremists who wish to setup an Islamic Syrian state.

Even internationally recognized factions of the Syrian opposition have become fractured. The Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the political arm of the Syrian opposition, has agreed to attend the “Geneva 2” peace talks, while the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the military arm of the Syrian opposition has refused to attend.

All the while, the moderate opposition has become increasingly marginalized and disillusioned:

“The ones who fight now are from the side of the regime or the side of the thieves,” he said in a recent interview via Skype. “I was stupid and naïve,” he added. “We were all stupid.”

Even as President Bashar al-Assad of Syria racks up modest battlefield victories, this may well be his greatest success to date: wearing down the resolve of some who were committed to his downfall. People have turned their backs on the opposition for many different reasons after two and a half years of fighting, some disillusioned with the growing power of Islamists among rebels, some complaining of corruption, others just exhausted with a conflict that shows no signs of abating.

“It’s undeniable that a lot of your early activists are disillusioned,” said Emile Hokayem, a Syria analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, adding that in revolutions, it is often “your most constructive, positive people who are engaged early on who find themselves sidelined.” 

Disillusioned activists say that early on, euphoric at being able to protest at all, they neglected to build bridges to fence-sitters, or did not know how. Homegrown fighters desperate for help welcomed foreign jihadists, and many grew more religious or sectarian in tone, alarming Mr. Assad’s supporters, dividing his opponents and frightening the West out of substantially supporting them.

With a ruthless foresight, following the playbook of his father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, Mr. Assad’s forces cracked down early and hard on the civilian, educated opposition, erasing the space where a middle ground could have emerged. They used heavy weaponry on rebel supporters to an extent that shocked even their foes, while pursuing a deliberate and increasingly successful strategy of persuading Syrians and the world that their opponents were a greater danger.

The fracturing of the opposition has played into Assad hands (the regime still enjoys political and military unity). Assad’s narrative of fighting “terrorism” has become a self-fulfilling prophecy; as Western aid has lagged, the opposition has become increasingly unorganized and radicalized. Moderate Syrians who favor liberal democracy represent a decreasing proportion of the Syrian opposition. The Syrian humanitarian crisis has become an after-though of the violent civil war.

Egypt:

The Egyptian revolution began in January of 2011 with protests which toppled former dictator Hosni Mubarak. Who you believe “hijacked” the Egyptian revolution depends on your take of what transpired this past July. Was the military takeover a coup or did it represent the will of the people? Are these two answers mutually exclusive, or is there some middle ground in which both arguments have merit? The world many never come to consensus answers to these loaded questions.

One thing, however, is certain; as in Syria, Egyptian moderates who revolted for liberal democracy have become increasingly marginalized. The power players in Egypt are Islamic extremists (who have become more violent since the ouster of Morsi) and Mubarak-era loyalists:

A leading Egyptian social democrat fears the elite that thrived under former President Hosni Mubarak will once again dominate politics in elections promised by the army after it overthrew Islamist President Mohamed Mursi.

The 2011 popular revolt against Mubarak raised hopes for an end to decades of corruption and nepotism, but political turmoil since then has dimmed aspirations for genuine democracy.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which came out on top in every national vote in Egypt after Mubarak’s fall, may yet be allowed to contest next year’s parliamentary election via its Freedom and Justice Party, or by running candidates as individuals.

But even if the Brotherhood chose to take part, its electoral dominance might be over in a reshaped political landscape, where both state and private media condemn it as a terrorist organization – and lionise the police and military.

Liberals have failed to build popular new parties and look ill-placed to exploit the Brotherhood’s plight. This could allow a comeback by the “felool”, or Mubarak-era remnants.

“The terrorist attacks going on make the situation more difficult,” Abul Ghar [Liberal Activist] said, adding that the violence made it easy for any government to take anti-democratic actions.

These anti-democratic actions include a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, restrictions on protests, as well as further entrenching the Egyptian army’s role in politics (which is enshrined in a draft of Egypt’s new constitution).

Both of these situations are eerily similar. In both cases, revolution started as a legitimate push for rights, freedoms, and liberal democracy. In both cases, the party in power (the Assad regime in Syria, the “deep state” in Egypt) have claimed the opposition are “terrorists” (and used this claim as a justification to strengthen their grip on power in the name of security). In both cases, these claims have become self-fulfilling; over time, those favoring liberal democracy have become marginalized as those who seek power dominate the fight over the future of their respective countries.

The implications for global governance are clear. In the future, we cannot afford to allow the combination of the passage of time and power-grabs to marginalize those who seek basic human rights and a dignified life. We must instead–as a global community–muster the political will and economic / military resources to support legitimate factions before it is too late.

Failure to do so entrenches the wrong ideas–that the international community cares more power-politics/national sovereignty than about people/human rights (concerns the R2P was supposed to address), and that democracy simply cannot work in certain regions of the world.    

Hopefully it is not to late to achieve the goals of the Arab Spring in Egypt and Syria, although admittedly I see no end in sight to these particular conflicts. Going forward, we must do all we can to prevent similar situations from arising in the first place.


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Conflict Watch: The End of Team America World Police (Part 4?)

The first time in a while I have been able to talk about America scaling back it’s direct military presence in remote areas of the World. Obama hinted at the limits of American intervention at his speech at the UNGA last month. However, burying our heads in the sand and pretended threats don’t exist is not an option either. It seems the U.S. has a plan which allows it to remain a global security presence without relying on American “boots on the ground”.

Original Article:

Here on the Kansas plains, thousands of soldiers once bound for Iraq or Afghanistan are now gearing up for missions in Africa as part of a new Pentagon strategy to train and advise indigenous forces to tackle emerging terrorist threats and other security risks so that American forces do not have to.

“Our goal is to help Africans solve African problems, without having a big American presence,” said Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee Magee, a West Point graduate and third-generation Army officer whose battalion has sent troops to Burundi, Niger and South Africa in the past several months, and whose unit will deploy to Djibouti in December.

“Africa is one of the places,” President Obama said at a news conference three days after the commando raids, “that you’re seeing some of these [terrorist] groups gather. And we’re going to have to continue to go after them.”

But with the United States military out of Iraq and pulling out of Afghanistan, the Army is looking for new missions around the world. “As we reduce the rotational requirement to combat areas, we can use these forces to great effect in Africa,” Gen. David M. Rodriguez, the head of the Africa Command, told Congress this year.

Missions that were once performed largely by Special Operations Forces, including the Army’s Green Berets, are now falling to regular infantry troops like members of the Second Armored Brigade Combat Team here at Fort Riley, nicknamed the Dagger Brigade.

“We’re never going to teach them anything about Boko Haram they don’t already know, but we can help them develop their capacity as a military,” said Maj. Bret Hamilton, 38, an Iraq and Afghan war veteran who led the team in Niger.

Before deploying, the troops in Kansas receive six days of cultural training and instruction from Africa-born graduate students at nearby Kansas State University. “The soldiers trained are able to ask about things not in their books,” said Daryl Youngman, an associate professor at the university who oversees the instruction.

Some Africa specialists say that if the goal is to build a cadre of regional specialists, this training seems lacking. “There needs to be a concentrated effort for these forces to have sustained regional language training and expertise,” said Lesley Anne Warner, an Africa analyst with CNA’s Center for Strategic Studies in Alexandria, Va., who has studied the regional brigade concept. “Not having such training defeats part of the rationale for having regionally aligned forces.”

For the South Africans, it was a chance to learn tactics and techniques that American troops refined in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the Americans, it offered an opportunity to gain new insights on African counterinsurgency.

“When the tire meets the tar, that’s when you actually learn the most lessons,” Brig. Gen. Lawrence Reginald Smith, the South Africa force commander there, said in a telephone interview. “What we bring to the table is knowledge of the indigenous people and the rebels who come from those people, including how they act.”

Obama, in referring to “places these groups go”, was talking about how terrorist groups tend to fill the governance-void, buying goodwill through essential services in exchange for a base of operations. Africa certainly has governance and public service delivery issues, making it an ideal place for extremists groups to try to setup shop.

Initially, this program will not be a scaling back of American military expenditure, but rather a shift from fighting to training. In the long run it will allow America to allocate less resources into military programs without compromising our national security and/or that of our allies.  While there may still technically be “boots on the ground”, it is much more desirable to have Americans training on ally grounds then fighting in enemy territory. 

It would be nice if American troops had language and cultural sensitivity training beyond the 6 days currently being allocated to troop preparation, and perhaps in time more resources will be invested into this aspect. However, language training is a long term task, and generally is outside the pay-grade of the average American soldier. With English as a primary language globally, it makes more sense to have African’s learn English and act as translators then expecting our troops to learn a new language (and expect them not to demand greater compensation for such training). The economic benefit of our troops knowing African languages is virtually non-existent; the economic benefit of teaching African’s English (which many will already know) goes beyond just the training of soldiers and can have a meaningful impact on their earning potential for their whole lives.

This is certainly a long term project, but one which alongside preventative peace-building projects I believe will lead to a more secure Africa. With peace being a prerequisite to sustainable human development, I believe this is a worthwhile project for America to pursue, in both our own and African economic / security terms. It is also a mutually beneficial relationship; America brings in our military expertise and advanced weaponry, while the Africans train us on the local realities we would otherwise not know about.