Thursday, October 30, 2014

An unsettled Sinai poses a threat to regional stability

For many years I had friends who either lived in or visited Israel who would occasionally make a trip to the Sinai, often because they wanted to visit Egypt without the expense of flying to Cairo. Fortunately, everyone I know who made the trip into the southern sands of this region returned unharmed, but this was not a guaranteed outcome. This has been a violent, lawless area of the Middle East in recent years, and the brutal murder of more than 30 Egyptian soldiers by terrorists operating in the Sinai over the weekend was a stark reminder of this reality.

Internal instability in Egypt has no doubt helped to fuel the spread and enthusiasm of Islamic fundamentalist terror groups in the area. The period following the so-called "Arab spring" has seen a series of events which have made the political landscape in Egypt particularly hard to read, with the balance of power shifting back and forth, sometimes violently, between the army and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and its allies. Terrorist groups have clearly taken advantage of this disequilibrium both strategically and tactically, with devastating consequences. Their targets have included both Israeli and Egyptian forces, demonstrating that their goal is to sow chaos and create more space (literally and figuratively) in which to operate. 

In the wake of this most recent assault, the terrorist who carried it out may have also scored a victory by provoking the government of Egypt into declaring a 3 month state of emergency across a large section of the peninsula. This move on the part of the Egyptian government is not surprising, and in the face of such a bold and bloody attack a robust response is surely warranted, but the declaration of a state of emergency also plays neatly into the terrorist narrative about the authoritarian nature of the Egyptian state.

If such entities are allowed to proliferate and gain influence unchecked they could continue to stymy the emergence of a stable (let alone democratic) government in Cairo, in part by providing an excuse for the continuation of de facto rule by the army. Furthermore, any gains they may make in controlling more territory in Sinai provides them with a safe haven from which to launch attacks against both Israel and Egypt. Their ambitions are not limited to murdering Israeli or Egyptian forces in the Sinai - in the long run these groups pose a threat to the national security of the United States and Europe as well. For these reasons, and many more, I suspect that the impact of this recent attack will ripple well beyond the Sinai. Exactly how, when and where we see the effects is hard to know, but one way or another it's not hard to imagine that the deaths of these Egyptian soldiers will not influence Egyptian, and possibly regional, policies when it comes to pushing back against Islamist terror groups.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Monday, October 27, 2014

A moral blizzard at the height of the Cold War

The revelation by the media that the United States had employed hundreds of former Nazis in efforts to procure intelligence on the Soviet Union reveals a disturbing chapter in American history. As the New York Times reported  today with an excerpt from author Eric Lichtblau's forthcoming book,The Nazis Next Door: How America Became a Safe Haven for Hitler’s Men, the US government went to extraordinary lengths to recruit and protect former Nazis, at one time even stymieing a request from within the Justice Department for information on  individuals with ties to Nazi Germany who were being protected by the FBI.

During the Cold War leaders in the West were justifiably afraid of the Soviet Union and what it might do as it attempted to spread its ideology and influence across the globe. The brutality of the Soviet military was no secret and it was clear that Soviet leaders were willing to go to extraordinary lengths to exercise control in Eastern Europe. It also appeared to many in the American political and military establishment at the time that there existed a credible threat of nuclear conflict, not to mention the chance of another land war in Europe. Taking into account, as well, the fear that Communism was spreading into Latin America and the perception that the ideology might be gaining adherents within the United States, it is not surprising that leaders in the American military and law enforcement would seek to use whatever (and whomever) they could to keep the country safe.

Despite this, the idea that the US would not only seek to employ former Nazis, but to protect them from capture and prosecution, is morally repugnant. I realize that in the world of national security ethical considerations are sometimes set aside in the name of protecting innocent lives. At the same time, for the United States, not merely another western democratic nation, but one that has consistently held itself up as a beacon of liberty and respect for human dignity, to have prevented these men from facing justice, is deeply disturbing.

I have not yet read Mr. Lichblau's book, but he has done the world a great service in exploring this sensitive issue. The leaders who gave these repugnant wretches the opportunity to reinvent themselves as heroes of the Cold War may have been misguided, but those they protected were inhuman. Many of them may have evaded justice in their own lifetimes, but they will not escape the judgment of history or those who read this new book - Mr. Lichtblau has seen to that, and for this alone the world owes him a significant debt of gratitutde.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

In "World Order," Henry Kissinger describes a world divided

A review of World Order by Dr. Henry Kissinger 

Readers of Henry Kissinger’s new book, World Order, will find a volume that is both descriptive and prescriptive, as they follow the author along on his exploration of the regional dynamics and cultural forces which have shaped the political development of individual countries and the relations between them, across a broad swath of the globe. Delving into the origins of the Westphalian system, the author provides an engaging explanation of how and why this particular system of diplomacy and political development was well-suited to Europe in the period following the Dark Ages, embraced by a world in which the desire to expand and control territory was countered by the fear of one’s own neighbors attempting the same. As the author notes, the importance of the Treaty of Westphalia can be found in the fact that, "The state, not the empire, dynasty, or religious confession, was affirmed as the building block of European Order. The concept of state sovereignty."

This key idea - the view of the state as its own, independent body, not subject to the whims or dictates of a larger power - comes up repeatedly throughout this book, and serves as a foil against which the author looks at other international systems and concepts of the nation state. Structurally, it's a useful starting point for English-speaking readers in the West who are likely to come to this volume with a greater degree of familiarity with the main ideas underpinning this system, in practice if not in name.

As the author goes on to explore other concepts of political self-identity and points of friction between various nations and empires, having this explanation of Westphalian ideals as a reference point is very useful. This is certainly the case as he looks at the rise of China, Iran and Russian as individual states and of the Ottoman Empire as the embodiment of a distinct, religiously-inspired enterprise, possessed of an intensely monolithic worldview.

In light of this I think his analysis of the evolution of these political entities is useful in at least two ways: it reminds us that conflicting world views have pretty much always existed between different groups, and that inevitably, cultural misunderstandings will occur when one or more such group comes into conflict. Furthermore, given the tension that exists today between the U.S. and Russia (as well as Iran and China) knowing a little more about how the leaders of these countries see the world and their place in it, can only be a good thing.

That being said, I could not help get the feeling as I read the book that the author has essentially divided nations into two camps, the first composed of those which have traditionally seen themselves as one nation among many, part of a larger system that benefits individual countries by placing the long-term stability of the collective body ahead of parochial interest. Such nations, as the author sees them, have sought to maintain a regional balance of power by checking the aggression of neighbors and attempting to avoid conflicts that threaten to fundamentally alter the system so as to provide one nation the chance to dominate all the others. The other camp is the province of nations or empires who are unfailingly convinced of their own superiority in virtually every sphere of life, and act accordingly on the world stage. Although wars are certainly fought between nations in the first group, the goal is not the complete destruction of the enemy;  for nations in the second category, nothing short of ceaseless expansion, influence and control will satisfy.

The author also divides nations into another dyad, separating those for whom practical interest of the country come first, from those which place values and ideals at the center of their own foreign policy. It is the second group which Kissinger seems most critical of, outlining the evolution of American diplomacy in the early twentieth century and portraying President Woodrow Wilson’s desire to achieve a new world order based on the idea that all future armed conflicts might be prevented through dialogue as na├»ve. One of the flaws that the author sees in this way of looking at the world is that it produces its own kind of absolutism, requiring every other nation (even those with a decidedly imperial outlook, in this case Germany) to completely embrace this new model.Kissinger points to this attitude on the part of Wilson as particularly damaging,  suggesting that it inadvertently led to an extension of hostilities in WWI as the American president held out for the complete surrender of the Kaiser before he would seriously engage in a peace process with Germany. Kissinger is even more critical of the long-term impact of Wilson’s diplomatic idealism, writing: 

“The concept of transcending war by giving each nation a state, similarly admirable as a general concept, faced analogous difficulties in practice. Ironically, the redrawing of Europe’s map on the new principle of linguistically based national self-determination, largely at Wilson’s behest, enhanced Germany’s geopolitical prospects.” 

Given this, and many other examples one could draw from reading World Order,  it’s hard not to get the impression that Kissinger sees foreign policy which acts solely on the basis of ideology, and without concern for history or context, to be quite damaging. I am inclined to agree that these other two elements should be considered, but I do take issue with the idea that we cannot let our better angels serve as signposts, if not guides, in how we conduct ourselves in the world.

This friction can be seen today in many places, but one spot on the globe where this tension between systems has persisted at a structural level is the Middle East. Kissinger describes the imposition of the Westphalian system on this region as particularly insidious. I am inclined to agree that some of the problems which have persisted in the last 100 years in this area can be traced back to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and to the European instinct to construct new states, sometimes based on historical claims and often out of whole cloth, following the end of World War I.

These events set up a major tension between the idea of secular states and the previously dominant notion of a vast world-wide caliphate, or Islamic state, previously under the guidance and protection of the Ottomans. Furthermore, the introduction of this system flew in the face of political norms the Ottomans had established in their own relations with Europe, which had emphasized the subordination of European rulers, including royalty, to the Sultan. Kissinger sees this conflict playing out today between Israel and its neighbors, writing:

 “The conflict of two concepts of world order is embedded in the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Israel is by definition a Westphalian state, founded as such in 1947(sic); the United States, its principal ally, has been a steward and key defender of the Westphalian international order. But the core countries and factions in the Middle East view international order to a greater or lesser extent through an Islamic consciousness.” 

This is an astute observation, but it begs the question as to how this view can help advance the cause of peace. This is not Kissinger's question, per se, but it is one of mine – explication has value to be sure, but is there a useful or positive takeaway from seeing the conflict through this lens? After all, the idea that Israel, a technologically advanced democracy which maintains good relations with the West, embraced a different founding ethos than other states in the Middle East, is not all that surprising. Later Kissinger writes:

 “…the issue comes down to the possibility of coexistence between two concepts of world order – through two states – Israel and Palestine – in the relatively narrow space between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.”

 This idea fits neatly with the overarching theme of the book, and Kissinger has identified one root cause of this conflict and its apparent intractability, but it also leaves out any mention of the complex and often violent history between Israel and Palestinian terror groups over the past 60-odd years, not to mention the constraints that leaders have faced on both sides, imposed by their respective peoples. True, Kissinger has not set out to provide a lengthy treatise on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but differing worldviews are not, in my opinion, the one key obstacle to peace. The divide between how Israelis and Palestinians see the world is worth considering, but there are far more significant factors preventing peace, including continued attacks orchestrated by Hamas and Hezbollah, not to mention an extraordinary level of dysfunction within the Palestinian political leadership.

One place where I think Kissinger could have done more was in his exploration of the influence of non-state actors on both individual societies and international relations. He does not ignore their presence or their role, but as a reader I would have liked to have had a more thorough examination of how these groups are interacting with the other political systems he describes in the book. Kissinger plays around the margins of this topic, noting the role that Afghanistan played as a safe-haven for Al-Queda and mentions the growing influence of ISIS and the broader threat is poses, but does not offer substantive suggestions as to how this threat can or should be addressed.

Overall, Kissinger has written a useful, interesting book that looks at different ways nation-states and empires have developed over time.  By devoting pages to India, China, Russia, the US and Europe, he presents an overview of the main actors on the world stage at the moment, and provides a succinct summary of the evolution of political thought within each of them. Ultimately the picture that emerges from his prose is one of a world divided, where the principle entities are tightly bound by occasionally misguided, if well-intentioned, ideas about their own identity and role to play in the world. It is in these miscalculations that folly (or worse) lies, Kissinger would have us believe, and I think he is at least partly correct. It is not hard to see how inherently different worldviews contributed to friction between the Ottoman Empire and Europe from the Great Britain in the 17th century onward, between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War or between America and Iran today – the question I had after reading this book, though, was how terrorist groups and other movements may influence such ideological conflicts today in ways that could have a very real outcome in this young century. Each nation and alliance of nations will surely continue to make foreign policy in ways that furthers their own interests, but more and more these non-state actors may influence that decision making. But perhaps that is a topic better addressed in Kissinger’s next book. 

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Will natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean contribute to peace, or fuel conflict?

This past week I attended an event at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University on the potential impact of the discovery of new natural energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean. Entitled, "Energy, Peace and Conflict in the Eastern Subterranean," the panel included Sir Michael Leigh of the German marhsall Fund, Dr. Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and
Dr. Brenda Shaffer of the University of Haifa, and was moderated by Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou and Dr. Payam Mohseni of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. 

One of the points that emerged from the panelists comments was that while there has been speculation about the ways in which these sources of energy might bring opportunities for better relations between countries in the region, in the short term the opposite is actually more likely to happen. In fact, several of the speakers highlighted the potential for conflict over access to natural gas reserves, and not only between Israel and its neighbors, which has received some attention in the media, but in the waters surrounding Cypress, which Turkey apparently claims as part of its own exclusive economic zone, a position which does not sit particularly well with many Greek Cypriots.

This part of the world is no stranger to conflicts over territory or access to resources, and if history is any guide, I am inclined to agree with these experts that providing another potential point of conflict is not likely to help usher in a new era of peace and cooperation any time soon. In the long run, as Dr. Shaffer notes in a policy brief she authored in 2012, there is the potential that closer economic ties might help reinforce gains made in the political arena between Israel and its neighbors. But this seems a long way off, and even if economic cooperation could help bolster successful diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinians, there is the Sisyphean task of achieving success in the peace process itself.

That being said, I do believe strongly that the establishment of a real and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians will require not just a cessation of hostilities, but an attempt at normalization of relations, including around issues of trade and economic development. In this sense, I agree with Dr. Shaffer's analysis that in the long-run, the discovery of these natural gas fields could contribute to the maintenance and stability of peace.

As for possible disputes between Israel and Lebanon (or Israel and Egypt, for that matter) or Turkey and Cypress about who has the right to explore and extract natural resources in the eastern Mediterranean. it's hard to imagine that either side in any of these situations, will budge. Perhaps the best we can hope for in the short term is that the extraction of natural gas in this area will proceed with minimal conflict between the countries involved - this in and of itself would be a significant achievement and perhaps set the stage for better relations between regional neighbors down the road.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Can Jewish life return to Beirut?

For anyone truly familiar with the history of the Middle East it is no surprise to hear that Jewish communities once flourished across the region from Jerusalem to Aleppo and Baghdad to Tehran. It's not a story that gets much attention in the mainstream press, but the loss of Jewish communities in so many places in the Middle East and North Africa where they had flourished, in some cases, for more than a thousand years cannot be ignored.

Given that this narrative is not often in the headlines, I took note when I saw a piece published on the Foreign Affairs website by Adam Rasmi, entitled "Lebanon's Jewish Renaissance." In this article, Mr. Rasmi sounds an optimistic note about a possible revival of Jewish life in the country. I like his optimism, and while there was a time when Lebanon was a relatively cosmopolitan, tolerant country, those days seem long gone now.

As the author notes in his article, the Jewish community did not do all that well during the turbulent latter half of the twentieth century in Lebanon, and today there is an excellent argument to be made that the country is essentially a failed started, with large sections of its territory under control of Hezbollah. Anyone who doubts the influence of this terror organization need only go to northern Israel, as I have done several times, and look over the border to see the flag of Hezbollah - not that of the government of Lebanon - flying on village rooftops. Even though there are people mentioned in his piece who want to draw a distinction between hatred for Israel and Anti-Semitism, the idea that Hezbollah believes the same is ridiculous. In fact, it is quite clear that Hezbollah has no problem targeting Jews or Israeli civilians - given this, I can't imagine anyone who is Jewish would be eager to live in a country partly controlled by  this terrorist organization.

In his article Mr. Rasmi makes a good point that investing in the Jewish community and reopening of the synagogue in Beirut has important symbolic value, especially at a time when ethnic and religious minorities in the region are under threat, including Kurds, Christians and others. It also serves to remind the world that Jews have an ancient and continuous connection to the Middle East, something which is all too easily and often forgotten.

That being said, Mr. Rasmi notes that fewer than 200 Jews call Lebanon home today, and I've seen estimates that there may be fewer than thirty. I think that from a practical perspective we are also unlikely to see Lebanese Jews returning en masse from abroad to Beirut and other former communities. There are many reasons for this - for one thing, from the outside, Lebanon hardly strikes me as the sort of place where many people would want to live as a member of a very small minority community.  Furthermore, with tension always at a low boil between Israel and Lebanon, I frankly doubt it would take much for Hezbollah and other troublemakers to incite violence against Lebanese Jews when and if there is another war with Israel.

I'm personally glad to see that there are a few people thinking about the Jews of Lebanon in a current context, and Mr. Rasmi deserves kudos for drawing attention to their noble efforts, but I can't help feeling that the rebuilt synagogue is likely to become a museum at best, and a target for those who hate Jews and Israel, at worst.

Perhaps in a more tolerant environment the renovation of the synagogue could serve as a rallying point for understanding, but it's hard to imagine such a scenario any time soon.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A bipartisan conversation on foreign aid and national security

Earlier today I had the opportunity to attend a program entitled "Americas Global Leadership: Impact on New Hampshire," featuring Senator Kelly Ayotte (R- New Hampshire) and former Secretary of Homeland Security and Pennsylvania Governor, Tom Ridge.  The event, which was organized by the US Global Leadership Coalition and co-sponsored by a variety of local partners, including the New Hampshire Institute on Politics at St. Anselm University, The New England Council and the World Affairs Council of New Hampshire, drew a diverse crowd of elected officials and military veterans, as well as civic and religious leaders.

In a wide-ranging conversation Senator Ayotte and Governor Ridge made the point that there are both practical and moral reasons for the U.S. to help other nations in their time of need, especially when it comes to providing support for vital infrastructure and strengthening civil society. Along these lines, I though Governor Ridge made an excellent point when he suggested that if a member of Congress had raised the idea of sending aid to bolster public health infrastructure in West Africa a few years ago, they might very well have drawn the ire and scorn of critics - and yet today, he said, that person might be regarded instead as farsighted in light of the ongoing Ebola crisis, a disaster in which weak public health systems abroad now pose an indirect threat to the United States.

Given the very real challenges the U.S. and its allies face today, from ISIS to Ebola to how to approach Russian aggression in the Ukraine, I was somewhat heartened to hear from these two leaders, who chose to come to Manchester and address serious questions of how America acts and is perceived in the world, and to see them do so under the banner of a nonpartisan organization. Perhaps if more people were willing to engage in discussions like the one I heard today, discussions that focus on the issues themselves, instead of engaging in hyper-partisan shouting matches, we might be able to get more done, both in this country and beyond.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Nonprofits are vital to the health of any civil society

Earlier this week I was at a dinner in Boston where the American Jewish Committee was honoring a local philanthropist and among the speakers was Brandeis University President Fred Lawrence, who noted in his remarks the important role that nonprofit organizations play in bolstering civil society. It was just one sentence, but immediately it struck me that this is not only true, but an important idea that is often overlooked.

When the public turns its attention to societal ills, the media focuses in on the issue at stake and it's usually elected officials who feel the heat. If we are lucky, and our better angels prevail, we can muster bipartisan support for a thoughtful, thorough solution, and in the best cases, elected officials work in partnership with the public to address the problem at hand. Often though, it takes more than just media attention or political leadership to solve deeply rooted problems.

To maintain a healthy civil society, any nation needs certain things, among them a free press, accountable government and respect for the rule of law. In the evolution of our own democracy in the U.S., nonprofit organizations (and the informal groups that proceeded the creation of non-profit status) have also played a pivotal role in nearly every important movement that helped to shape American society as we know it today, from the fight to end slavery to the battle over women's suffrage, environmental preservation, and the civil rights movement.

Around the world today there are plenty of places where leaders are struggling with difficult problems, including much of the Middle East and North Africa. Many of these challenges revolve around human rights, security and economic development, which, at the macro level, require action by governments and international bodies. At the same time it's hard to imagine that these places might not also benefit from greater activity by non-governmental organizations which could help build institutions and set positive norms, without having to woo an electorate. Such an effort would not be without danger - history has shown that community leaders can be just as vulnerable to danger as elected officials - but in a political environment that is either too repressive or too chaotic to allow ideas about human rights or democracy to find a place in government, sometimes it's the nonprofit organizations and the people who lead them who can make a difference.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Senators lead the way in Middle East security as a bipartisan issue

At this moment media coverage of the Middle East is largely focused on the very real threat posed by ISIS and the massive humanitarian crisis taking place in Syria. With a significant increase in Western involvement in Iraq and Syria, as well as Turkey's decision to play a role in combating the terror group, it’s not surprising that these stories are the focus of attention, but there are other serious issues in the region which also need to be addressed, including the aftermath of this summer’s war between Israel andHamas. 

For this reason I was glad to see that Senator Kelly Ayotte (R) of New Hampshire and Senator Robert P. Casey Jr. (D) of Pennsylvania co-authored a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, highlighting 3 key areas relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which need to be addressed, and demonstrating that the security of the United States and its allies in the Middle East is not a Democratic or Republican issue, but clearly bipartisan.

One of the things I really liked about this letter is that it acknowledges the difficult, yet vital, balance which needs to be struck between providing humanitarian aid to Gaza and maintaining the security of the State of Israel. This is an important idea, and one which is not given voice often enough, in my opinion. I don’t think there is anyone who could look at Gaza today and say that there is not a desperate need for assistance, yet at the same time, it would be utterly foolish to expect that Hamas is the solution to this problem. 

As the Senators adroitly note in their letter, “Ultimately, we must seek Gaza’s demilitarization.”
They go on to write that it is the Palestinian Authority which should lead the way in both the West Bank and Gaza – it’s the right idea, but a difficult one to imagine happening any time soon, given that Hamas ran the PA out of Gaza by employing considerable violence not that long ago. Nonetheless, I agree that ultimately it would be to the benefit of both Israel and the Palestinians if Gaza were not under the control of Hamas.

Finally, the Senators address efforts by the Palestinian Authority to circumvent the established peace process by going directly to several international bodies, such as the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, to seek some form of de facto recognition from the international community.

This is not a new tactic, but it is one that I think has the potential to do great harm to the prospects of peace in at least two ways, first of all it demonstrates a lack of confidence in the peace process itself, which I think sends a terrible signal not only to Israeli negotiators, but to the many nation states which have put considerable time and effort into trying to keep this process alive. Secondly, this kind of activity draws energy, attention and resources away from the actual peace process itself.

History has taught us again and again that there are no simple or easy solutions in the Middle East – centuries worth of competing ideological, religious and political claims all often conspire to thwart even the most clever and altruistic attempts at bringing peace – but a crucial step in working toward this goal lies in clearly identifying the particular challenges we face at this moment. By focusing on the importance of encouraging good governance in Gaza, the need to limit Palestinian Authority efforts to circumnavigate the established peace process, and highlighting the threat a resurgent, rearmed Hamas poses to Israel, I believe that Senators Ayotte and Casey, along with 86 of their Senate colleagues have helped to do just this.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.