- By Marc Lynch
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).
He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements.
I’m back from two weeks without regular internet access, at least until I head up to the American Political Science Association meeting in Toronto later this week. Those who follow my @abuaardvark twitter feed know that I was able to maintain a tenuous grip on the news and the online debates thanks to my courageous (but increasingly creaky) blackberry, but wasn’t really able to comment on much (140 characters really not enough to say much). But I did manage to compile a list of the top ten things I would have blogged about had I been closer to civilization. Many of them I expect to come back to in more depth as I dig out from under the rubble of my backlogged email, semester-beginning responsibilities, and whatnot. But here’s what would have been and may soon be:
- The Afghanistan Strategy Debate. This really seemed to pick up after I left – including Obama’s attempt, likely in response to the emerging questions, to articulate a strategic rationale back on August 17th. Kudos to CNAS’s Abu Muqawama and Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel for providing central nodes of this debate. My sense right now: The pro-escalation side probably has the better of the tactical argument, in terms of the best response once the U.S. decides upon the strategic necessity of combatting the Taliban "insurgency". But the anti-escalation side probably has the better of the strategic argument: U.S. vital interests in Afghanistan to justify the expense remain vague, the arguments made for the costs of "losing" the counter-insurgency war in Afghanistan are relatively far-fetched (please, no more "credibility of the West" or "flytrap" arguments), the critical "safe havens" argument suffers from the profound weakness of the availability of alternative safe havens all over the broader region, and the costs of waging such a war successfully aren’t being taken sufficiently seriously. But a close argument tilts towards the status quo, and won’t stop the enormous momentum already built up in the US government towards the escalation strategy. Sunk costs and credibility considerations probably weigh more heavily than they should. The main impact of the debate will at best be to force the administration to more sharply calibrate its goals and its commitments – which may matter in the future – rather than to actually derail the current strategy right now.
- The Afghan election. I’m shocked, just shocked, that this does not seem to have been the game-changing, legitimacy-establishing moment of our dreams. How could this possibly be? Early claims on both sides (mainly Karzai and Abdullah) have been inflammatory and risk pre-emptively undermining the legitimacy of whatever outcome emerges. Karzai’s early claim of 70% of the vote sounded alarmingly like an Ahmedenejad moment, while Abdullah’s recent statement that he would not accept the legitimacy of any outcome in which Karzai won with 50% in the first round raises the stakes. Holbrooke’s team, including some first-rate strategic communications and elections people, might have been better prepared to establish a legitimating frame for the elections. As it is, the trickle of reports of fraud and low turnout, combined with the rhetoric of the candidates’ camps, has thus far shaped the public perception of the elections.
- Middle East peace talks. Israel accepted a settlement freeze! Or maybe it didn’t! Obama will launch an American peace plan in September! Or maybe he won’t! I’ll wait and see.
- The Fayyad plan. More interesting than the latest gossip mill on peace talks and the settlement battles was West Bank Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s release of a 55 page document outlining a pathway towards a Palestinian state in 2011 through internal institution building. I’ll be talking about this in more detail next week, both for what it does offer and what it doesn’t.
- Admiral Mullen’s strategic commmunication. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs just released a blunt three page article challenging the military’s new conventional wisdom on strategic communications. His bottom line — that words matter less than deeds — is no different from the top-line recommendations of dozens of reports on public diplomacy over the last few years. Everybody says that deeds matter more than words. But words do also matter — nothing speaks for itself, framing matters, and failure to engage in the public rhetorical battles would be disastrous. I suspect that his real target was the "strategic communications" industry which has grown up remarkably in Pentagon circles over the last half decade. That really does need to be reined in, a I’ve written about often over the last few years and as Obama’s Pentagon and some parts of Congress have already begun to do. I’ll definitely have more to say about this!
- The Rendon Group screening of journalists. Is anybody surprised by the revelation that the DoD was using a contractor to screen journalists for their coverage? I mean, next thing you’ll say is that they were paying to plant pro-U.S. "good news" stories in the Iraqi press. I’d guess that this is only the tip of the iceberg. It will be interesting to see how the Obama Pentagon responds to this legacy – on his Twitter feed, the Pentagon’s new strategic communications guy Price Floyd says that screening journalists like this is "not appropriate and doesn’t happen." So what is appropriate, and what does happen?
- The death of Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim. It’s been a long time coming, and it finally arrived just as the tensions between Nuri al-Maliki and the remnants of the UIA came to a head over the formation of a new coalition. I’ve been listening to scuttlebutt over what would happen to ISCI and to Iraqi Shia politics after Hakim’s passing for so long that I’m genuinely curious to see what happens next. More later.
- Khaled Meshaal to Amman. To attend his father’s funeral, on purely humanitarian rather than political grounds (emphasizes the Jordanian Palace). But given the long, contentious history of Hamas-Jordan-Muslim Brotherhood-Fatah relations, this could potentially be a significant opportunity to reshuffle the deck.
- Saudi assassination attempt. The failed hit on Mohammed bin Nayef, son of the long-serving Saudi Minister of the Interior, has consumed the Saudi media over the last few days. A lot of questions continue to swirl about what really happened, with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula now claiming responsibility. This isn’t especially new, as the Saudis have been going after AQ hard ever since the spring 2003 terrorism campaign by AQAP. But it does suggest that AQAP may have more successfully reconstituted itself than had been thought– perhaps in a Yemeni safe haven, which would put a spotlight at last on the intense instability and conflict which has recently rocked Yemen (virtually unnoticed in the West).
- Brett Favre, cancer unto locker rooms. As a long-time Packer fan, I was thrilled when Brett Favre finally left Green Bay — in his usual, classy style. I had been rooting for his departure for years, especially as he stifled the development of Aaron Rodgers. Even when he had his revival in his final season in the Wisconsin, I knew — knew! — that it would end with him throwing a stupid interception in the final game of the season. You’re welcome, New York Giants. Then he went to the Jets, where I knew — knew! — that he would tank in the final month of the season and rip the team apart in the process. And now, I hear that his presence is dividing the Vikings locker room. You think? I predict he will help the Vikings early in the season, and then his act will wear thin, "injuries" will mount, he will point fingers at other members of the squad, and by December the early promise will be a distant memory. As a Packers fan, this is all good. You’re welcome, Minnesota!
Regular blogging may now resume!