As U.S. influence in Asia falters, allies increasingly look to themselves

US President Barack Obama and former Chinese President Hu Jintao begin a working dinner,  Jan. 18, 2011.  (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
US President Barack Obama and former Chinese President Hu Jintao begin a working dinner, Jan. 18, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

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Peter Apps is the executive director of PS21 and a veteran reporter. He tweets @pete_apps

Three years after the Obama administration announced its “pivot to Asia,” American allies in the region are looking somewhat unconvinced.

While no one disputes that managing China and its multiple neighborhood conflicts remains on Washington’s radar, this effort is often overshadowed by other priorities. In particular, the Middle East and confrontation with Russia — both historic preoccupations that had been expected to subside — keep on emerging at the top of the agenda.

The result is relatively simple. Those countries in Asia most worried by China — Japan, India, the Philippines, Vietnam, Australia and others — are increasingly banding together. They worry they may need to be capable of taking matters into their own hands regardless of what the United States might do.

It’s a phenomenon that manifests itself in multiple different ways. Japan and Australia, for example, may collaborate on a new submarine — including sharing highly classified information. In another sign of new regional alliances forming, India has also invited Japan to take part in its “Malabar” naval war games, designed to showcase India’s naval strength in the Indian Ocean.

After Congress blocked President Barack Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal last month, Singapore’s foreign minister told an audience in Washington that the United States was losing its levers of power in the region.

“The choice is a very stark one,” K. Shanmugam said. “Do you want to be part of the region or do you want to be out of the region?”

The deal passed through Congress soon thereafter.

This is not, whatever critics might say, a world without American leadership. It’s more complicated than that — and America is still an important player.

Washington remains the dominant naval power in Asia even against the backdrop of a growing Chinese fleet. And, crucially, it remains without doubt the single-most important partner for each of its regional allies. Even India, historically dedicated to a “non-aligned” position between East and West, has moved much closer to Washington under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Malabar military exercises will also involve the United States.

But it is a world where American leadership is pulled in multiple different directions. The United States must deter both Russia and China from attacking its treaty allies — and so sparking a major war — without simultaneously antagonizing them so much that conflict becomes more likely.

Much of Washington’s military and diplomatic focus, meanwhile, remains on the Middle East: the war against Islamic State, the Iran deal and — for Secretary of State John Kerry in particular — the Israeli Palestinian peace process. These distractions are understandable and in many cases unavoidable — although Kerry in particular has a reputation for being not interested in Asia, which some analysts say has been harmful to relations. China, in contrast, remains resolutely focused on its immediate neighborhood.

And at the same time that America’s military dominance is being challenged by other powers, its own spending is beginning to slip.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, U.S. defense spending is now 20 percent below its peak in 2010 — although still 45 percent above its 2001 levels.

Asian countries, by contrast, have been on a major spending spree in recent years. Australia grew its defense budget by 6.7 percent in 2014 alone. South Korea and India saw their spending rise 2.3 and 1.8 percent. In January, Japan announced its largest defense budget since World War Two.

How closely these countries will coordinate their defenses — and how tightly the United States is wrapped into that system — remains to be seen. For China — whose 9.7 percent spending increase last year tops any other country in Asia — the greatest worry is that its potential enemies coalesce into a formal NATO-style structure, although this seems unlikely for now. More ad hoc relations, for example, between India and Vietnam or the Philippines and Japan, are growing by the year.

In Washington, some current and former officials, as well as analysts, worry that the United States may simply lose its ability to shape events in the region — while still risking being dragged into a conflict if one, or more, of its allies end up fighting China.

While few believe anyone in Beijing or elsewhere would wish for such a conflict, China has clearly signaled its intention to boost its clout in its immediate neighborhood. China’s various construction projects on disputed South China Sea islands — as well as an increasingly assertive posture by its naval and air forces in the region — will likely continue and intensify.

This trend goes well beyond China’s immediate neighborhood. From Sri Lanka to Afghanistan, analysts now talk of a “new great game” in South Asia as China jostles against India, in particular.

The Middle East, paradoxically, may provide some indication of how this could go. For all Washington’s ongoing focus on the region, many of its allies — particularly the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia — increasingly question its commitment there. They, too, are ramping up their defense spending: Saudi Arabia’s 17 percent increase last year was the greatest hike worldwide.

As a result, the United States has increasingly struggled to influence and control its allies in the region. The Saudi-led campaign against Iran-linked Houthi militia in Yemen, for example, seems out the West’s realm of influence. The same goes for the multiple regional powers backing different groups in Libya.

Asia’s confrontations will, for now, almost certainly remain bloodless and largely contained offshore and to the economic, business and cyberspace spheres.

But whatever Washington does, its grasp on the region — like so many others — is slowly faltering. It may or may not be an Asian century — but in Asia at least, it will be regional powers that increasingly call the shots.

This piece originally appeared on on July 31, 2015.

PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

What Washington is missing in the Iran deal

Mass demonstration in Tehran during the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
Mass demonstration in Tehran during the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

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Negar Razavi is an anthropologist and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as a global fellow at PS21. She tweets @razaraz.

Most reactions in Washington to the historic nuclear agreement (or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) between Iran and the P5+1 have frustratingly ignored how it affects the lives of ordinary Iranians, who have disproportionally paid the price of confrontation with the U.S. but who will also ensure the long-term durability of this agreement.

In the U.S., opponents of the deal conveniently gloss over the role the Iranian people played in electing a pro-deal president, as they frame this agreement as a Chamberlain-esque defeat to the “evil mullahs”. On the other side, supporters downplay any gains this deal will provide the people of Iran as they focus on the robust “invasiveness” of the inspections regime and engage in dispassionate discussions about the implications of the deal for regional allies.

But we in the Iranian-American community who have maintained our connections to contemporary Iran cannot afford to ignore what it means for our families and friends inside the country.   As 1.5 or 2nd generation Iranian-Americans, we have lived the painful history of confrontation between the U.S. and Iran in deeply personal ways. And we have watched tensions between these governments reach frightening new levels over the past decade.

Many of us who regularly travel back to Iran have also had to bear witness to the deteriorating conditions facing ordinary Iranians as a result of expansive international sanctions, growing isolation, and recurring threats of military strikes from abroad. For me personally, it has been very painful to see my family and friends inside Iran struggle with serious financial problems, health concerns exacerbated by the slow importation of needed medicines, and the dramatic increase in violent, poverty-driven crimes in the cities that have left no family untouched.

So while experts and political figures in D.C. politely discuss “centrifuges” and “timelines”, many in the Iranian-American community will think of their grandmothers worried about paying for food and fuel as prices continue to soar. When we hear “snapback sanctions” tossed casually around the Hill, we are reminded of all those talented young Iranians being prevented from connecting to the rest of the world.

Conversely, when Americans question why Iran will continue to comply with this deal, we think of the 18 million people who elected President Rouhani largely on the promise of getting this deal done and ending Iran’s global isolation. We will show them how videos of the millions dancing and celebrating the deal on the streets serve as reminders to Iran’s leaders that they must answer to their people moving forward.

In the end, it may be easy for many in Washington to forget that this agreement—and the years of confrontation that preceded it—has had and will continue to have a direct impact on people in Iran. But those of us with ties to both societies know that the people celebrating this historic deal in Iran do so because they paid the biggest price for it and will subsequently hold their leaders accountable if they fail to deliver what they promised. In turn, we in the U.S. cannot afford to ignore the Iranian people now or marginalize their concerns as we debate this deal.

PS21 is a non-partisan, non-ideological, non-governmental organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

PS21 Insight: What the SCOTUS Jerusalem passport decision means

US Secretary of State Kerry looks out at the Old City in Jerusalem.
US Secretary of State Kerry looks out at the Old City in Jerusalem.

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  • Zivotofsky v. Kerry case fundamentally about relationship between executive and legislative branches
  • The decision reaffirmed the President and State Department’s autonomy in international affairs
  • But it could also have ramifications for the US-Israeli relationship
  • Will the ruling affect US foreign policy?

Last month the US Supreme Court ruled that Congress cannot force the State Department to issue passports that recognize Jerusalem as a part of Israel, concluding the twelve-year-long case Zivotofsky v. Kerry. The decision sparked a conversation on the status of Jerusalem, a question that remains one of the most sensitive sticking points of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Below is a selection of comments from the Project for the Study of the 21st Century.

Dr. Nikolas Gvosdev is a Professor of National Security studies at the US Naval War College and a member of PS21’s International Advisory Group.

Milena Rodban is an independent geopolitical risk consultant and a Global Fellow at PS21.

Dr. Hayat Alvi is a Professor of Middle East Studies at the US Naval War College and a Global Fellow at PS21.

Please credit PS21 if you wish to use any of the material below. If you wish to contact us to speak to any of our advisors or global Fellows, please e-mail

The decision confirmed the status quo and reaffirmed the President’s sole authority to formally recognize foreign nations.

Gvosdev: The decision itself is part of a long chain of precedents (especially the 1935 Curtiss-Wright decision) where the Supreme Court has reaffirmed that the President, as head of the Executive Branch, acts as the sole organ for the United States in foreign policy. The Congress, using its legislative power and budgetary authority, can set and define the parameters of Presidential action, by giving or withholding permission or funds–but what this decision reiterates is that Congress cannot tell the President how he must use or exercise his powers in any given specific case.

Rodban: This ruling changes little in deciding that the executive branch is the sole part of government to have power over recognizing foreign entities. That had already been the default setting of the US government.

But that doesn’t mean Congress is powerless in the realm of international affairs.

Gvosdev: If Congress…wants to vest in the legislative branch the power to recognize countries and their territories, it is free, in theory, to pass a law that would vest that power in general in the legislature.  Having given that authority to the President, however, Congress cannot demand that its preferences be substituted in place of the chief executive’s in terms of specific actions taken or not taken by the President.

This is critical because in other areas the Congress seems eager to dictate to the President how he ought to carry out policy. Congressional authority, for instance, is absolutely necessary, given the parameters of the U.S. Code, for the President to have if he wishes to send arms to Ukraine. Congress can grant him the authority to do so, but they cannot compel him to act. (It is true, however, that Congress can use its authority to “hold hostage” other parts of the President’s agenda if he does not wish to acquiesce to their preferences on this or other issues).

Alvi: Decision making that directly affects foreign policies – and particularly those policies that are very fluid and politically loaded and highly sensitive, such as the status of Jerusalem – allow the President of the United States room for maneuver and flexibility as changing circumstances dictate.

That does not mean that Congress has no recourse or its own room for maneuvering and responding. Congress holds the power of the purse, that is, funding foreign policy courses of action, as articulated in Article I of the Constitution. In addition, Article I, section 8, states, “Congress shall have the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations; to establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization …”. However, that does not mean that the President has no authority or power to engage in political discourse that has impacts on said issues. Obviously, cases arise that have no precedence due to their uniqueness, as in the case of Jerusalem/Israel. There is nothing wrong with the Executive taking certain stands on issues that have significant political ramifications, and that requires interactions between the Executive and Legislative branches on a case-by-case basis.

Additionally, it’s likely that the ruling will have an adverse effect on an already weakened US-Israeli relationship.

Rodban: The Israeli leadership, and indeed the public, are used to the American administrations speaking out of both sides of their mouth on the status of Jerusalem, which is of course a final status issue. (Negotiations being paused as they are, no movement is expected on even the simplest of disagreements between the Israelis and Palestinians, let alone the final status issues that are the very contentious factors in their ongoing conflict.)

By speaking out of both sides, I of course refer to consecutive US administrations vehemently arguing that Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and remain undivided. Obama said this himself in his spirited 2008 address to AIPAC, for example, but the administration’s tune became far less vehement, as it subsequently avoided stressing that Jerusalem was Israel’s capital, and instead repeatedly claiming the status was undecided. The big issue here is that Obama’s two statements were mutually exclusive with the assertion that Jerusalem’s current status is not final, and that all options are open in negotiations. If all options are open, then dividing the city is likely to be at the top of the options list. If the US argues that it will not be divided, then there are in fact very few options, and really only the one: if half of it is already in Israel, and it will never be divided, then all of it will remain part of Israel, right? Seems pretty decided to me…

Given tense relations between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations, which are worsened still by perceptions that the US is no longer as strong an ally of Israel as it once was (evidenced by reports that the US is caving on many aspects of the Iran nuclear negotiations), any issue that can be used to support the assertion that Obama is not a close ally are likely to exacerbate tensions. The biggest effect will likely be among American Jews who may sour on the Dems ahead of next year’s elections. The administration’s continuing vacillation on the issue of Jerusalem will cause journalists, particularly Israeli ones, to question all the nominees, to see what they will commit to, but a single statement will no longer be accepted by an Israeli public that’s heard US administrations try to have it both ways for decades.

Alvi: The caveat in all of this is the special U.S.-Israeli relationship, and specifically how this relationship affects U.S. domestic politics, as well as U.S. foreign policy making relative to the Middle East region.  Perhaps the U.S. State Department should allow passports to say, “born in Jerusalem, Israel/Palestine”, but that comes with its own set of problems, emotive reactions, and a host of more lawsuits, to be sure.

And it could have ramifications beyond the Middle East as well.

Alvi: What happens when a citizen of Crimea wants his/her passport to say, “born in the Russian Federation”?  Or, in the near future, an Iraqi or Syrian Kurd who shares U.S. citizenship wants the passport to say, “born in Kurdistan”?  Or, even more menacing, a U.S. citizen born in Mosul wants to say, “born in the Islamic State”?

PS21 is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the commentators’ own.

PS21 Report: What Would a Hillary Clinton Foreign Policy Look like?


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  • Likely a more assertive, “American exceptionalist” foreign policy
  • Personal relationships with other leaders more central than under Obama
  • Like all White House incumbents, would have limited bandwidth. Other appointments important
  • “Asia pivot” would continue to be challenged by Mideast, Europe events
  • Mideast peace process seen “unfinished business” by Clintons
  • Gender less important than persona, reputation 

On Thursday, June 4, 2015, PS21 held a discussion on “What would a Hillary Clinton foreign policy look like?”. It will hold a further discussion later in the year on a likely Republican approach to foreign affairs.

A full transcript of the event can be found here and video here.


Participants were speaking as individuals rather than as representatives of institutions.

Ali Wyne (moderator): PS21 Global Fellow. Member of the adjunct staff, RAND Corporation

Ari Ratner:  PS21 Governing Board Member. Fellow, New America. Former State Department political appointee 2009-12

Leigh O’Neill: Policy Director, Truman National Security Project

Warren Strobel:   Chief Diplomatic Correspondent, Reuters

Key Takeaways

American foreign policy tends to oscillate between a more muscular, approach and a more modest pullback. A Clinton presidency — or, for that matter, a Republican one — would likely see a more assertive approach than that pursued by the Obama administration.

Ratner: In many respects, she’s just a tougher person, I say that with pride and it’s no criticism of the President, but Hillary is tough. That’s a very commendable quality in a leader and it’s something that will serve America well on the global stage if she ends up being president. 

In some ways a broader, less nuanced and more ideological approach. In August 2014, Clinton told The Atlantic: “Great nations need organising principles and “don’t do stupid stuff” is not an organising principle (this appeared to be reference to one of Obama’s reported foreign policy mantras).” 

In her most recent book Hard Choices, Clinton said she was more persuaded than ever before that it was America’s duty and roll to lead in the world.

Strobel: I think it’s fairly clear from Clinton’s history and her rhetoric that she’s an American exceptionalist which is the mainstream… of US foreign policy. She says America has a unique role to play and the world is better off because of that. 

A tougher line on selected issues, a broader approach on others.

O’Neill: It’s a balance of what she’s going to have to inherit and deal with and wants to push forward herself. I don’t think there’s any question she would be tough but also open to resolving some of these major questions. 

Strobel: I think there will be a slight course correction towards a more muscular attitude on things like Syria. She’s said that and she writes that. I think there will be a lot more personality in foreign policy.

I think she’ll bring the soft diplomacy stuff to bear, a lot of the economic stuff. I think it’s harder for the president to do soft diplomacy — women’s issues, Internet freedom, etc. It’s easier for a Secretary of State to lead on those issues than the president who is much busier. But I do think that will be part of that doctrine.

As Secretary of State, Clinton travelled more than 1,000,000 miles, further than most others. The nature of the period threw her to the front on multiple foreign policy issues. In particular, she often prioritised going to a place and meeting people in person.

With foreign leaders, her personal relationships may be more important than in the Obama administration.

O’Neill: I think she deserves a lot of credit for being able to recognise that it would take star power, genuine star power to arrive in some of our partner nations and supposing friends and repair relationships (after the Bush administration).

Her influence on major policy issues under Obama, however, was limited. 

Strobel: She was Secretary of State under Obama, an administration in which who was Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense frankly didn’t matter that much. I’m exaggerating a little for effect but… it’s really about five people who really make most of the major foreign policy decisions: Obama, Ben Rhodes (speechwriter now Deputy National Security Advisor), Susan Rice (National Security Advisor), Dennis McDonough (White House Chief of Staff), Valerie Jarrett (senior advisor).

That’s not to say Hillary was inconsequential Secretary of State. It is only to say it’s very difficult to have a huge impact in this administration if you’re Hillary Clinton.

Should she reach the White House, however, she will face many of the same pressures.

Ratner: the President has a very limited bandwidth for what they can do in the world and make the strategic framework at the highest level. There will be lots of efforts through social media — as there is with President Obama — to reach out to a diverse cross-section of people and it certainly true she will pursue personal diplomacy more. That’s the type of leader she is. But she’ll be taken up with a lot of things.

There will almost certainly be a considerable crossover between domestic and foreign policy.

Ratner: There is an old saying that politics stops at the water’s edge. That’s certainly not true anymore. The fundamental principle that she talked about, the sense of crisis, collapsing faith in institutions is something you see not only quite startlingly in this country, you see it in many countries around the world. The first part of foreign policy — and you saw this at the State Department — is that we need to get our own house in order politically, economically, restore that sense of opportunity and progress that’s been the guiding principle of our nation since its inception. How we look to the world is much more important than whether we have one additional F-16 or naval carrier.

She will probably bring across many of her previous colleagues at State. Michele Flournoy is widely seen front runner for the Pentagon, although Ashton Carter may stay in role initially. There is less clarity over State. 

Ratner:  It will matter who her Secretary of State is and the Secretary of Defense. The reality is from State Department she had a very talented team. I’m talking about people well above my level like Jake Sullivan, who is probably going to be her National Security Adviser.

She will likely pursue a somewhat tougher approach with potential adversaries such as Iran or Russia.

 O’Neill: There is a tremendous amount of continuity in that she knows the world. She understands the actors. She understands the context, she understands the characters and not just the relationship bilaterally but also the need for contacts, the character of the state and how to be effective

 I think the underlying theme is: of course you talk to your adversaries. Maybe not directly. Maybe there is a timing and sequencing issue depending on the context but you can’t just will things to happen as the US. We tried that for years. It did not work.

I don’t think there’s any question that she would be tough but open to resolving some of these major questions.


Again, personal relationships will be key. 

Strobel: It’s funny. Obama was elected to office in large part on the basis of his personality and his personal history, charisma. People loved him all over the world. Over time, it has become clear he doesn’t have close personal relationships with almost any other world leader. That’s just not how he operates. I’m not saying they hate each other, but he just doesn’t build any bonds with selected leaders.

Two things stand out (from Clinton’s time at State): her breadth of travel and knowledge of leaders, even at the local level and NGOs. Her network is amazing. She compares very favourably in some ways to John Kerry in the sense that Kerry has a reputation for not always connecting with his staff and not empowering people.

 The next president will inherit a complex world. In Asia, relations with China are struggling. There may or may not be a deal with Iran but the rest of the Middle East is in a poor state. The “reset” with Russia has headed in an entirely unpleasant direction. Many of America’s allies have real worries but also have their own confrontations — and may bring with them real dangers.

 Ratner: One of the difficult thing she’s goings to have to balance is not only how to engage our adversaries but our alliances. A lot of wars have got started by smaller states dragging in bigger states. She’s really going to have to strike the right balance. It’s very difficult.

There is some truth in the reality that the US is in a weaker position than it was, certainly during the last Clinton administration, by most measures you can look at. I think she will be tougher in a lot of ways, especially public diplomacy. But the country as a whole is in a weaker position than we would like it to be.

In a 2007 Foreign Affairs article, Clinton was an early identifier of the growing importance of the China relationship. The Middle East, however, will continue to take a very large volume of time. She may also, some suspect, put a higher priority on the Middle East peace process — perhaps the most important takeaway from her husband’s presidency.

 Strobel: I don’t know but I strongly suspect that for Secretary Clinton and President Bill Clinton that is unfinished business. They came into office not really knowing much about foreign affairs, frankly. They made a few mistakes early with Somalia — though that was carried over from Bush 41. They made some mistakes dealing with other issues that over time they grew and they put a huge effort into Israeli-Palestinian Peace and ultimately the Camp David accord.

I think that is formative for her and that she would try to restart the Middle East peace process in a serious way.

While it might be an issue in the election, gender may be less of a factor when it comes to international relationships. Persona may be more important.

 O’Neill: Of course she’s tough. She’s beyond gender. She’s Hillary Clinton and she did not get that by being sugary sweet all the time. That’s not how it goes. I think, by far, all the accumulated experiences she has had it deserves to be said that she is the most qualified. I think she understands how to be effective.

Ratner: I hope the country is ready. The country should be ready. The question of whether she will be challenged because she’s a woman is an interesting academic question — but she still Hillary Clinton. If I’m Vladimir Putin, I’m way more scared of Hillary Clinton than I am Marco Rubio. She has a lot more credibility, of course, a lot more temper and knows what she’s doing a lot more than Jeb Bush might.

Report compiled by Peter Apps. Transcript by Christopher Stephens

Why Iraq is America’s best hope in the Middle East

Iraqi children gather around as U.S. Army Pfc. Shane Bordonado patrols the streets of Al Asiriyah, Iraq, August 4, 2008 (Department of Defense)
Iraqi children gather around as U.S. Army Pfc. Shane Bordonado patrols the streets of Al Asiriyah, Iraq, August 4, 2008 (Department of Defense)

Payam Ghalehdar is a US foreign policy expert and adjunct lecturer at the University of Duisburg-Essen as well as a Contributing Analyst at Wikistrat. Follow him on Twitter: @PayamGhalehdar 

The current unprecedented depth of turmoil in the Middle East caused by the Syrian civil war, the rise of ISIS and the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not only a major challenge to the regional order: it also has wide-ranging consequences beyond the Middle East. For the United States, such dire times make strong relations with local partners all the more important.

Because of Barack Obama’s wariness of unilateralism and military intervention, the US is in need of reliable regional allies that help work towards safeguarding its interests in the Middle East: preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, ensuring global market access to oil, and dismantling terrorist networks. Among the potential candidates for a closer relationship to the US, there is one country that tends to be overlooked: Iraq. Despite its precarious state of affairs, Iraq, of all countries, has the rare potential to be a reliable US partner capable of introducing durable stability to the conflict-ridden region. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, recognizing Iraq’s redeeming features will go a long way towards moving the Middle East out of its current predicament.

Relations between the United States and its traditional allies in the Middle East have become increasingly strained. With Saudi Arabia, the United States’ most important Arab partner in the region, differences over US policy towards the handling of the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war, and, above all, the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran have caused considerable friction in the bilateral relationship. Advocating a much more comprehensive and indiscriminate support for anti-regime forces in Syria, the Saudi leadership has not only grown frustrated with Obama’s reluctance to get embroiled in the Syrian conflict but also made US attempts at finding a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions more complicated–especially due to Saudi Arabia’s insistence on its own nuclear deterrent in case the Islamic Republic should not entirely scale back its nuclear program.

With Israel, the United States’ single most important partner in the region, relations have similarly cooled down. Differences over Israel’s West Bank settlements, Israel’s ambiguous stance towards a two-state solution, and the Israeli government’s vehement opposition to a nuclear deal with Iran–which found expression in Benjamin Netanyahu’s much-discussed address to the US congress in March–have shown that the country that once was a reliable US partner acting in close concert with different US administrations has become an intransigent actor engaged in a range of policies detrimental to Obama’s designs for the Middle East.. The results of Israel’s parliamentary elections do not provide any comfort either. If anything, Netanyahu’s new and potentially more radical coalition will make things worse, not better.

Former US Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Blair House, Washington, D.C., March 5, 2012 (DOD)
Former US Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Blair House, Washington, D.C., March 5, 2012 (DOD)

Bilateral differences should by no means prompt the United States to abandon its traditional allies in the region. Yet these recent frictions provide an opportunity to assess and reconsider how US long-term strategic interests can be sustained by forging ties with new partners in the region. While the nuclear negotiations with Iran have prompted some to deem a large-scale rapprochement between the two rivals to be in the offing, with one commentator even arguing that Obama is “determined to make his Iran-first inverted Nixon doctrine a reality“, surprisingly little has been said about Iraq’s potential to become a stable and reliable US ally.

To be sure, Iraq’s current predicament makes any reference to Iraqi stability and reliability look delusional. Optimists who thought the recapture of Tikrit in April would herald the demise of ISIS have been disappointed by more recent events in the country. The fall of Ramadi, the regional capital of the Anbar province, not only testifies to ISIS’ continued ability to engage in military offensives, giving ample reason to doubt a foreseeable completion of the US-led anti-ISIS intervention, it also reflects how deep the Sunni-Shia divide runs. Yet, when assessing whether Iraq can serve as a reliable US partner in the Middle East, present conditions must be balanced against future prospects.

Unlike many other Middle Eastern states, which a recent study aptly calls “corrupt basket cases teetering on the edge of chaos“, there are unique redeeming features that distinguish Iraq from many of its regional neighbors. First and foremost, Iraq’s political system is capable of accommodating its various constituent ethnic and religious groups. Its 2005 constitution not only establishes a system of government that is “republican, representative, parliamentary, and democratic” (Art. 1), it also defines a set of individual rights and freedoms of which other Middle Eastern countries can only be jealous. While critics will rightly point out that there is a notable gap between such constitutionally guaranteed rights and what the actual reality of Iraq looks like, the inclusive nature of Iraq’s system is not wholly irrelevant in practice: with all its problems and shortcomings, the admittedly brief period of peace in post-invasion Iraq between 2007 and 2009 has shown that the resilience of Iraq’s national identity, which is pluralist in nature and includes its various religious and ethnic constituent groups, can trump sectarian fault lines, facilitating political reconciliation unknown to the regimes of traditional Middle Eastern US partners.

Furthermore, if moderate Sunnis are once again encouraged to work with the central government rather than acquiesce in ISIS’ rule, the benefits of having Iraq as a regional partner comprise an improvement of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Iraq’s two powerful neighbors. Jockeying for more influence in the region, both countries have a stake in Iraq, but support Iraqi communities only along the sectarian divide. A strong and unified Iraq with a power-sharing arrangement between Sunnis and Shiites would alleviate Iranian and Saudi fears of a neighboring Iraq dominated by a hostile government, dissuading both regional powers from further fueling tensions both in Iraq and in their own bilateral relations.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki shakes hands with US President Barack Obama, April 2009.
Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki shakes hands with US President Barack Obama, April 2009.

Supporting Iraq and forging a stronger relationship with its government are in the US interest. American pressure on Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s former prime minister, to step down was the right first step and has paved the way for a new and more inclusive government under Haider al-Abadi’s leadership. More needs to be done to help empower Sunni moderates and to live up to Iraq’s constitutional promise of inclusiveness and reconciliation. The stakes are high. If Iraq falls apart, splitting along sectarian lines, the chances of a full-blown regional war will rapidly increase. If, however, the United States provides the political support needed, Iraq may become a stable and reliable US ally and make a hardly modest contribution to lifting the region out of turmoil and chaos.

Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

DC June 4 Event: What would a Hillary Clinton foreign policy look like?


Location: Thomson Reuters Conference Room, 1333 H Street, Washington DC

Time: Thursday 4th June, 6.30pm

Even with more than a year to go, Hillary Rodham Clinton is by far the presumptive Democrat contender for 2016. If she does win the White House, what do her years at the State Department tell us about what her foreign policy might be like?

PS21 pulls together a uniquely qualified panel to discuss:

Moderator: Ali Wyne: PS21 Global Fellow, Member of the adjunct staff, RAND Corporation

Ari Ratner: State Department political appointee 2009-2012, Fellow New America

Warren Strobel: Chief diplomatic correspondent, Reuters

Leigh O’Neill:  Policy director, Truman National Security Project

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What now for Libya?

Tripoli, Libya's capital city, sits on the Mediterranean coast.
Tripoli, Libya’s capital city, sits on the Mediterranean coast.

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Patrick Bury is a private security specialist since 2011 as well as a PhD Candidate at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute and PS21 Global Fellow. 

The increasing number of migrants perishing in the Mediterranean over the past fortnight has finally brought the deteriorating situation in Libya into the spotlight of the Western media, resulting in an increase in the EU’s naval presence off the Libyan coast.

On 24 April EU leaders held an emergency meeting in Brussels, during which they agreed to triple the budget for the EU’s border control forces in the region to €120 million. The United Kingdom has announced that HMS BULWARK will shortly begin patrolling off the Libyan coast, with the capability to deploy two smaller patrol boats and refuel three Merlin helicopters that will based in Malta and Sicily. Germany, France and Belgium have also offered ships and aircraft to bolster the EU’s presence. It appears that the EU’s main objective will be the interdiction of trafficking vessels – the majority of which are departing from areas around Tripoli controlled by the one of Libya’s rival governments – before they reach international waters, thus giving EU ships the legal basis to force such vessels to return to Libya.

However, any lasting solution will be dependent upon the Libyan state’s ability to control its own borders. For this to have a chance, the increasing intensity of the factional infighting currently wracking the country – which, with over 1,000 battle casualties caused in the past two years can be described as civil war[1] – must be brought to an end.

As part of the ongoing negotiations process between the broadly Islamist General National Congress (GNC) based in Tripoli and generally more conservative and secularist House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk, on 28 April the head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), Bernardino León, released the third draft agreement for political transition. This draft is based on progress made at previous rounds of talks held recently in Algeria and Morocco, which León himself acknowledged: ‘This draft will not meet all the expectations of all the parties, particularly with regard to the distribution of competencies among the different institutions.’

The same day, the GNC dismissed the draft out of hand, stating it was ‘not balanced and does not respect the Supreme Court ruling [which declared the June 2014 elections to choose the HoR void], neither does it meet the aspirations of the revolutionary fighters for a political and balanced solution to the Libyan crisis.’ Addressing the UN Security Council the following day, León reacted to the GNC’s statement by saying that another draft is in the process of being drawn up, and will based on comments on the third draft from both sides that must be submitted by 3 May. After this, another round of talks is scheduled to take place in Morocco ‘in the coming couple of weeks’, according to León. The ultimate goal is the creation of a consensus government of national unity before the beginning of Ramadan in mid-June.

This may prove optimistic.

A demonstration in Bayda, Libya, July 22 2011.
A demonstration in Bayda, Libya, July 22 2011.

While the dialogue between Libya’s two rival legislatures has continued, the past two weeks have witnessed heavy clashes around Tripoli, fighting and airstrikes in Benghazi and Derna to the east, and in the south. The loose alliance of militias comprising Libyan National Army (LNA) and ‘Operation Dignity’ forces – both of which support the HoR-appointed government of Abdullah al-Thinni – have continued to increase the military pressure on the various militias comprising the broadly more revolutionary and more Islamist ‘Libya Dawn’ alliance that supports the GNC.

Indeed, the confidence of the Dignity bloc in an outright military victory is growing: on 13 April the LNA’s commander-in-chief, General Khalifa Haftar, told journalists that the Dignity bloc was now ‘betting on a military solution’ to the current political crisis. Haftar elaborated that while he would abide by the decisions of al-Thinni’s government, it was not clear how the rival political blocs could reach a deal. He also warned that if the peace talks do not succeed, ‘then the military solution is a must because it is decisive.’

Haftar’s comments were supported by a similar statement a couple of days later by the LNA’s commander in the northwest region, Colonel Idris Madi. Taken together, both comments are the clearest indication yet of LNA/Dignity forces’ pursuance of a military strategy to wear down the Dawn alliance while the political negotiations proceed.

This strategy certainly appears to be succeeding. On 15 April pro-LNA militias in the eastern Tripoli suburb of Tajoura clashed with Misratan and Tripoli-based Dawn militias, while the LNA has also advanced in numerous other areas in the northwest region. Clearly, the military initiative lies with the Dignity bloc at present, especially as Misratan Dawn forces have been diverted to besiege Islamic State in the Iraq and Levant (ISIL) forces in Sirte. Thus, the temptation to continue the fighting, in the hope that the Dawn alliance may fracture further – perhaps with the all-important Misratans staying out of the fight – remains strong for some in the HoR camp.

Indeed, many Libyans remain pessimistic about the talks. The first and most obvious reason is that the security situation on the ground reached a critical point at the start of the year with the increasing presence of ISIL affiliates in Tripoli, Sirte, Derna and the southern Fezzan region. The increasing confidence and belligerence of these groups, as evidenced by their mass executions of Christians and attacks on oil facilities recently, has underlined to the Libyan populace that those individuals once responsible and powerful enough to potentially bring peace to the country may no longer be in a position to do so. They argue that the ongoing political engagement is a potential distraction, rather than a solution, to the current situation, and rightly question whether those at the table will prove able to rule in the loose alliance of militias – many with their own local, tribal and economic agendas – if an agreement is reached.

A second reason to question real impact of the negotiations is a perception that there is no way to reconcile the situation in Libya without one of the rival governments being viewed as ‘losing’, encouraging both sides to pursue their own diplomatic, military and economic agendas while paying lip-service to the talks. The al-Thinni government has provided clear examples of how it intends to strengthen diplomatic ties independently of the negotiations. Most significantly, on 14 April al-Thinni confirmed that his government had asked Russia to provide military equipment, and to restart work on contracts won during the Gaddafi regime.

Libyan Prime Minister al-Thinni and US Secretary of State Kerry address reporters, August 2014.
Libyan Prime Minister al-Thinni and US Secretary of State Kerry address reporters, August 2014.

This announcement represents a radical departure from Libya’s immediate post-revolution position of entirely marginalising Russia for its prior relationship with Gaddafi. It should also be viewed as a blow to the West, which, due to its refusal to lift the current UN arms embargo on Libya until a unity government is in place, has slipped rapidly from a position of diplomatic authority – and potential economic strength – to one of worrying weakness. In fact, during a meeting in Moscow on 15 April, al-Thinni went so far as to accuse the West of destabilising Libya by supporting the Islamist bloc, calling on Russia and China to support his government in the face of Western inaction.

Many Libyans sympathise with his statements, arguing that the HoR was elected as a result of a democratic process and that the international community should promote decisive resolution of the crisis by providing military assistance, rather than prolong the crisis by delaying such support. A day later, following a meeting in Beijing between al-Thinni’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hassan Sagheer, and his Chinese counterpart, Zhang Ming, China announced it will train 150 Libyan police officers and provide substantial food and medical aid.

Nevertheless, al-Thinni’s courtship is unlikely to bear fruit. China and Russia are both permanent members of the Security Council, and thus are highly unlikely to break the arms embargo they have imposed; if they were going to subvert their status they would only do so for an issue that matters much more to them than Libya. Western states know this too, and al-Thinni’s gamesmanship is thus likely to fail as well. The US and UK in particular know that the UNSMIL process is the best chance Libya has of restoring political stability, and they will only shift from this policy if something really radical happens. It is noteworthy that US officials told a delegation from the HoR on 16 April that they should adhere to the dialogue process.

Meanwhile, representatives of both the HoR and the al-Thinni government have continued to court regional support. On 22 April, Haftar arrived in the UAE to discuss the provision of further military aid. The visit came on the heels of another to regional ally Jordan on 13 Apr, during which King Abdullah II promised to provide training and material support to the LNA. However, the fact that Libya has become a proxy for regional powers like Qatar, Turkey and Sudan on the GNC’s side, and Jordan, the UAE and Egypt on the HoR’s is not surprising given the strong support many of these nations gave to revolutionary groups in the early days of the rebellion against Gaddafi. Indeed, as outlined in this excellent recent analysis of the Libyan revolution and its aftermath, these groups’ competing visions of Libya’s future is at the core of the current crisis.

While the political bodies that claim to represent them are ultimately likely to agree a deal, it will take a strong international backing – and possibly more than that – to ensure that the armed groups on the ground obey the ceasefires and disarmament programmes agreed in conference rooms outside Libya. Libya’s problems are complex and manifold – a good example of a ‘wicked problem’ – and will need united and enduring international support, which has so far been lacking, to be overcome.

[1] Doyle, Michael W., and Nicholas Sambanis. 2000 (D&S2000). International Peacebuilding: A Theoretical and Quantitative Analysis. American Political Science Review 94 (4):779- 801

Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

The 21st Century Clash of Christian and Islamic Cultures

Dome of the Rock
Dome of the Rock

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David Murrin is the author of Breaking the Code of History, the culmination of decades of personal research across a wide range of disciplines. David compellingly argues that human behaviour is not random, but determined by specific, quantifiable and predictable patterns fuelled by our need to survive and prosper. He has called this cycle The Five Stages of Empire, which due to its fractal nature is applicable to empires, all the way down to the cycle of the individual. According to David, to resolve the issues confronting us today we cannot merely study the past. The human race will need to understand this precise algorithm of behaviour that has caused us to re-enact the same destructive cycles in ever-greater magnitudes, in order to change our future. He is also a Global Fellow at PS21.

The inclusive regions of Christianity and Islam

To better understand the current situation in the Middle East, one has to understand the 1500 years since the appearance of Islam and its interaction with the older Christian Religion.

Both Islam and Christianity are what Breaking The code of History (BTCH) defines as inclusive religions, i.e. beliefs that one can join by choice, rather than exclusive religions that are only conferred by birth right. As such, historically, they were both able to spread their message and expand their influence across the Mediterranean, independent of demographic expansion, by displacing other religions.

They became the foundations of two great empire cycles that have risen and fallen with mutual exclusivity. This derives from the fact that they both shared the Mediterranean basin as their home, so when one has been strong, the other has been weak, with a synchronicity that has lasted for 1500 years.

Today, after many centuries of global dominance by the Western Christian Super Empire, America, the last of a great series of Christian empires, is in decline. Once more, synchronous to that process, the Islamic world is in ascension. Hence the wars in the Middle East and Islamic extremism in the West are not about a few violent radicals; rather, they are part of a much more profound clash of civilisations that has spanned centuries.

The timing of such power shifts seems always driven by the decline of the dominant empire that creates a power vacuum into which other young and aspiring empires seek to expand. Thus it is America’s decline as the last of the Western Christian Empires that is dictating the rate of expansion and change in the Middles East, allowing the region to follow its own expanding cycle.

The implications of this long term power shift are that time is not on the side of the West in its struggle against Jihads’ terrorism. The West faces a multi-decade challenge that requires both short-term risk mitigation and long term solutions focused on the integration of its Islamic population.

The Arab Spring

This is a somewhat misleading description of current events, which seemingly only has meaning in the Chinese culture where they view spring as a time when energy rises. But where does this energy derive from? And where will it lead the Middle East in the decade ahead? Most importantly, what strategy should the West follow to maximise its own outcomes?

Using traditional geopolitical analysis, it appears that the region continues to devolve into the quagmire of war with multiple actors and an uncertain outcome. However, if we stand back and view the region using the perspective of Breaking the Code of History and the Five Stages of Empire Model—during which the empire goes through a process akin to the human life cycle of birth, maturity, and decline—then the current situation and future prognosis become much clearer.

A more accurate term for the “Arab Spring” would be the Regional Civil War of the Islamic Middle East, in which the Islamic system is identified as being in a similar phase of its cycle to that of the Western Christian Super Empire in its late stage of regionalisation.

In the majority of systems, the end stage of regionalisation has been marked by a massive youthful demographic bulge that seeks the most effective and broadly representative values and leadership. The English Civil War (1642-51), the American Civil War (1861-65) and the Chinese Civil War (1927-50) are clear examples of this process. In each case, the challenger to the incumbent powerbase represented a much broader enfranchisement of the general population. As a result, its power ultimately prevailed, and the new militarised, polarised society then marched out into the world on its path to empire.

The energy of such a civil war questions all aspects of a society’s internal working and leadership of the challenging system. This is paralleled by the sub-civil war within the Sunni powers that has created the wave of civil unrest in Egypt and Libya and now also Syria.

These revolutions represent the sweeping aside of old regimes with centralised leadership and narrow power bases that were linked to the western construct. Their replacement will be a leadership that characterises a new Sunni Islamic identity and pride in a Darwinian process that is sweeping through the region.

This regional civil war has actually been going on for longer than we realise. However, it has only come to our notice since its expansion has threatened the West, coincidental with the end of the Cold War. The conflict has gone through a number of stages.

Women protest in Tehran
Women protest in Tehran

Stage 1: The Iranian Revolution and Challenge

The Shias of Iran rose up against Western control and created an Islamic Shia state. Once consolidated they then went to war with Sunni Iraq which commenced Iran’s bid for regional control. However, with only 15% of the region’s population, to be successful, they had to win relatively quickly before the more numerous Sunni population mobilised. Thus, the Shias have lost their first-move advantage and are now effectively on the defensive surrounded by more numerous and motivated Sunnis–hence their pact with the US and continued need for developing nuclear weapons to ensure their survival.

Stage 2: Mobilisation of the Sunni population

The vanguard was the rise of the Jihadists, who were then followed by a second phase of broad-based mobilisation against narrow dictatorships. These revolutions washed away the old cold war dictatorships and sought to replace them with a new mechanism of leadership consistent with the process of a regional civil war.

With 85% of the region’s population, it is inevitable that, at the end of the regional civil war, Middle Eastern power will be consolidated by the Sunnis rather than the Shias–much as once happened with the first caliphate, 100years into its lifespan. Thus, the final outcome of this regional civil war process will ultimately be an Islamic Middle East, governed by a single new Sunni regime. The Sunni leadership challenge falls into two categories: Jihadists and Islamic democratic nations.

The Jihadists

The Jihadists first appeared back in 1923 in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood. Today, the most prominent of these groups are Al Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, Al-Shabab and Boko Haram. Collectively, they represent an extreme religious group able to mobilise and polarise the youth in the region to fight with little fear of death. But how is that possible?

One of the key patterns in past regional civil wars is that the victor always has an ideology perceived to provide the greatest enfranchisement for the majority. This excluded the Catholic monarchy in the English Civil War, the plantation-driven South in the American Civil War and the Chinese nationalists in their civil war.

Similarly, the Jihadists provide enfranchisement for the lowest of their fighters in their connection to God, by giving them a cause so righteous in their own minds that their lives are of little consequence. Before Western readers recoil in shock at this prognosis, we should remember that it was Protestant fundamentalism that won the English Civil War, an abiding belief in democracy and freedom that won the American civil war, and Chinese communism with its concept of equality that won their struggle.

Quite simply, Islamic fundamentalism–much as it did when the followers of Muhammad swept out of the desert in the 7th century–has the ability to unite more disenfranchised followers than any other belief system currently in the Middle East. Its success is just a question of organisation, effective leadership and lack of opposition.

As so often seen in history before, challengers to established systems and empires are always perceived as barbarians. In reality, due to the very nature of the relative position on the empire curve of the challenger and the hegemon, the capability gap is always much smaller than appreciated.

Take ISIS for example. It has fought Hamas in Syria and is gaining ground. Hamas is an Iranian-trained group who were able to give the Israeli army a tough time in Lebanon. Thus we must conclude ISIS should not be underestimated as an organisation that comprises a strategic vision, significant financial resources, and battle-hardened forces.

For years, the West underestimated the organisational capability of Al-Qaeda and now is shocked that ISIS is so well organised and funded. In addition, ISIS has now absorbed the resources of the Iraqi army and created the first Jihadist state, something that neither the Taliban nor Al-Qaeda ever achieved.

Our conclusion is that without effective western intervention, ISIS is most likely to ultimately dominate the Jihadist group. That will, in all probability, not only unite Syria and Iraq into a caliphate, but also expand across the region. If by any chance this prognosis is wrong, then we should expect another Islamic Sunni offshoot to take its place, just as ISIS sprung from Al-Qaeda.

That caveat aside, it is important to remember that the expansionary process at this stage of empire is not linear and thus we should not be surprised at the speed of ISIS’ success and consequential expansion at this stage for the war. It is possible that their success will continue at the current stunning pace, rapidly upturning the current Middle Eastern order.

Islamic Democratic Nations

This group may yet play a critical role in the resolution of the regional civil war. Turkey is a prime example: in its desire to lead the region, it has been transforming itself from a secular democratic society based on the Western model into an Islamic democracy under President Erdogan. In time, Turkey’s democracy will become more similar to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Although they have been in direct competition in the past, this might bring the two nations together in an alliance against the Jihadists in the region. A potential third element to this alliance could come from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt who have renounced violence and seek to gain political power through democratic means.

However, the West should temper its expectations that Western democracy might be cloned in the Middle East, as it is inevitable that Islamic democracy will appear to be very different from secular Western democracy. If an Islamic Democratic ideology group win the regional civil war, it will, in all probability, result in the formation of a Middle Eastern Union.

US soldiers in Iraq
US soldiers in Iraq

The Future

The West faces a long multi-decade struggle against the forces of the rise of the Middle East on two fronts: the domestic and the geopolitical.

Domestically, Western nations with significant Islamic minorities will have to enact long term policies of integration and de-radicalisation in conjunction with short-term risk mitigation security strategies that will require increased resources and measures that will unavoidably reduce individual freedoms.

On the geopolitical front, the first stage for the West is to understand the processes in this regional civil war, and to then seek to obstruct and minimise the success of the Jihadist groups and encourage the rise of the democratic nations. The one process that acts in favour of the West is that–as groups like ISIS become successful and develop a nation-state–they will then become vulnerable to the conventional means of warfare in which they are vastly disadvantaged.

Next, they would be exposed to Special Forces units in a long-term program of attacks against their key infrastructure. However, the real challenge after the Western failures in Iraq and Afghanistan will be to mobilise public support to deploy sufficient and swiftly successful resources against ISIS.

In terms of prioritising threats to the West, even if the Middle East became a Jihadist Empire, it would take well over a decade of economic growth to develop an industrial military complex that could be a threat to the West on a conventional basis. During that time, China’s rise to power will have become the major conventional military threat to the West.

When China becomes more assertive in the region, which side will the Middle East support? Because of its oil, neutrality will not be an option. We would expect a democratic Islamic Middle East to side with the West. But what if the Jihadists dominate the Middle East? Would it react like Afghanistan did to Russia, or ally with China against the West?

Project for the Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

Millions in US military equipment lost as Yemen heads down Syria’s path

Protestors in Sana'a, Yemen, during the Arab Spring.
Protestors in Sana’a, Yemen, during the Arab Spring.

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Hayat Alvi, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at the U.S. Naval War College. She specializes in the Middle East, South Asia and Islamic Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @HayatAlvi

The recent evacuation of U.S. special operations forces in Yemen is a troubling trend for American involvement in the Middle East and North Africa, following the July 2014 evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, Libya. The U.S. government claims that these evacuations are temporary, but American personnel are unlikely to return any time soon.

Given the way things are going in the region, and the expansion and overflow of conflicts from one country to another, there is no way that the United States can return to solid footing in Yemen or Libya in the next few years. In fact, Yemen is likely to turn into its own version of the Syrian civil war, complete with sectarian dynamics and inter-militia rivalries.

For the United States, this is cause for serious soul-searching. U.S. foreign policies relative to the Middle East have resulted in declining U.S. influence, increased militarization throughout the region, and the precipitation of failing states since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. In Yemen, U.S. support for its long-time dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has been based on narrow counter-terrorism interests with no regard for how this support would affect Yemen’s economy, human rights record, or other aspects of development.

Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2011 “Arab Spring,” every regime that the United States has supported in Iraq, Yemen and Libya — including Saleh’s — has resulted in a failed state, with no rule of law and a collapsed economy.

The reportedly hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of U.S. weapons, equipment and supplies falling into enemy hands in Iraq, Syria and now in Yemen are more than just signs of strategic failure. Rather, they’re part of a long list of recent embarrassments, including the poor performance of U.S.-trained Iraqi military personnel when Islamic State invaded Mosul last summer, and the Islamic militant army’s confiscation of U.S. military weapons and supplies in the Iraqi territories it has occupied.

The United States and its Western allies have yet to appreciate the logic that militarization, airstrikes and drone attacks are not quick-fix elixirs to the complex problems in the Middle East. The United States lacks cohesive, comprehensive, long-term strategies for the entire region, and also for individual countries. Islamic State, by comparison, has a long-term strategy that is “light years ahead of its enemies,” according to BBC News.

The United States has unmatched military prowess for invasions and interventions, but fails miserably in post-campaign policies and strategies. It continues to have faith in supposed “allies” in the region, who usually end up undermining the very national interests that the United States is pursuing. This is because the United States fails to take into account that each state and non-state actor in the region — from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to Iran and even Shi’ite militias operating in Iraq — has its own interests and agendas that frequently do not align with the United States. Western powers cannot keep up with these growing complexities, especially in Yemen.

The situation in Yemen has the potential to further destabilize the Persian Gulf region. With the United States inadvertently working side-by-side with Iran to fight Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Iran and its proxies are emboldened and empowered. The coup by the Shi’ite Houthi tribe in Yemen is a major coup for Iran, and in many ways, it’s a coup within the region. These Iran-Saudi and Shi’ite-Sunni power struggles will continue to have diverse and violent repercussions, especially as Islamic State expands its franchises, as it has recently done in Libya and Tunisia.

In Iraq, the scale has tipped almost entirely in favor of Iran and its proxies — including equally violent and brutal Shi’ite militias. This power shift, along with the Houthi push in Yemen, will likely drive greater Iranian-backed movements and mobilizations in other countries, such as Bahrain. U.S. General David Petraeus was right when he warned, in a recent interview, that the real threat to Middle East security and stability is the increasing empowerment of Iran and its proxies.

The Sunni pushback will also grow. The hatred and violent bloodlust that many Shi’ites and Sunnis have for each other is only intensifying. They will bring down the region together in the process, while pursuing genocidal agendas and scorched earth tactics along the way. There will be no winners.

This piece originally appeared on on March 24, 2015.

Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

Assessing the New US National Security Strategy


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Ali Wyne is a contributing analyst at Wikistrat and a global fellow with PS21. Follow him on Twitter: @Ali_Wyne

There is much to recommend the Obama administration’s new national-security strategy, which National Security Advisor Susan Rice launched at the Brookings Institution early last month. Released a little over four years after its predecessor, it identifies five “historic transitions underway that will unfold over decades”: the transition of power between states, the diffusion of power from states to non-state actors, a tightening nexus of global economic interdependence and technological change, the development of a new regional order in the Middle East and dramatic shifts in global energy production. Every subsequent national-security strategy should take a page from this latest document and open with a brief overview of the major trends driving world order: a strategic U.S. foreign policy will, after all, continuously discern, respond to and, where possible, mold those trends.

An undercurrent, if not a theme, of the administration’s new strategy is the growing importance of economic strength as both a pillar and an instrument of U.S. foreign policy. The document states that “America’s growing economic strength is the foundation of our national security,” advocates “a model of American leadership rooted in the foundation of America’s economic and technological strength,” and stresses that America’s “first line of action is principled and clear-eyed diplomacy, combined with the central role of development in the forward defense and promotion of America’s interests.” The document also reaffirms the administration’s determination to finalize negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which, if successful, would place “the United States at the center of a free trade zone covering two-thirds of the global economy.” The United States should continue to make geoeconomics a more central pillar of its foreign policy: with its economic recovery, trade initiatives, push for greater North American integration and opening to Cuba (and, by extension, the Americas), it is well-positioned to do so.

The new strategy also frames the Americas and Africa — with a combined population of roughly 1.8 billion and combined output of some $8 trillion — as centers of growing economic promise instead of chronic political dysfunction and humanitarian risk. America’s postwar foreign policy has often neglected them, tending alternatively to seek out strategic opportunities within the trilateral framework of North America, Western Europe, and East Asia. The opening to Cuba and plummeting oil prices give the United States to boost its trade and investment linkages to a region where it has underinvested since 9/11, at least relative to its Asian competitors. Meanwhile, Trade Africa, the Power Africa Initiative, and the African Growth and Opportunity Act will help the United States boost its economic engagement with a continent that boasts six of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies.

Still, the new strategy does not offer the clearest sense of the administration’s priorities. While it is neither realistic nor sensible to orient America’s “entire foreign policy around a single threat or region,” it is possible and prudent to establish hierarchies, especially given the multiplicity of America’s economic challenges, the frailty of its recovery from the global downturn that began in late 2008 and the well-documented wariness of the American public to pursue a proactive foreign policy. President Obama notes in the preface that because “our resources and influence are not infinite,” “we have to make hard choices among many competing priorities.” Beyond reaffirming the administration’s view — one that is widely shared within the nation’s foreign policy establishment — that nuclear terrorism remains the greatest threat to U.S. national security, the document identifies eight “top strategic risks” to U.S. national interests and five pillars of an agenda for “reinforcing, shaping, and where appropriate, creating the rules, norms, and institutions” of a new world order. In neither category, however, does it appear to rank them; nor does it comment much on the relationship or interaction between the eight risks, which are largely functional, and the five pillars, which are regional.


Because it does not order the administration’s priorities more sharply, the new strategy perhaps unwittingly what may well be its signature foreign-policy initiative, the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific. While the document does call it one of America’s “historic opportunities” and includes its advancement as one of the aforementioned five pillars, it does not describe the rebalance with as much force as its architects did. In an influential November 2011 essay, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argued that “[i]n a time of scarce resources…we need to invest them wisely where they will yield the biggest returns, which is why the Asia-Pacific represents such a real 21st-century opportunity for us.” The subtitle of her piece asserts “[t]he future of politics will be decided in Asia.” To give one other illustration, former U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon called the United States “a Pacific power whose interests are inextricably linked with Asia’s economic, security, and political order in a November 2012 speech. America’s success in the 21st century is tied to the success of Asia.”

When the Obama administration officially unveiled the rebalance in January 2012 via the Pentagon’s Defense Strategic Guidance, some observers argued it was trying to wash its hands of the Middle East; with the one-year anniversary of Crimea’s absorption into Russia approaching, they have extended their critique by arguing that the administration insists on discussing 21st-century geoeconomics while Vladimir Putin is far more interested in 20th-century geopolitics. Amid growing world disorder, an increasingly vocal segment of the commentariat supports a U.S. strategic posture that accords equal or at least comparable priority to the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the Asia-Pacific. While intuitive, this proposition is misguided.

In the Middle East, the optimism that accompanied the “Arab Spring” a little over four years ago has largely morphed into despondence. The depredations of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq and Syria have understandably captured the most attention, but Libya and Yemen’s security situations continue to deteriorate. As NATO brings its military campaign in Afghanistan to an end, moreover, observers fear a revival of the Taliban.

While it makes sense for the United States to participate in a targeted counterterrorism campaign to keep ISIL and other terrorist outfits at bay, ideally with Arab countries assuming an ever-growing share of the burden, the region’s chaos precludes a broad, coherent U.S. approach. Government repression, terrorist activity, popular unrest, and resurgent tensions—between Saudi Arabia and Iran, for example—are among the factors that make the Middle East’s evolution nearly impossible to understand, let alone shape. The United States would do well to observe a variant of the Hippocratic Oath administered to every aspiring doctor—first, do no harm. America’s experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade a half caution against the presumption that heavy U.S. involvement in a given theater will advance America’s national interests.

In Eastern Europe, Russia’s long game in Ukraine poses a vexing challenge to U.S. foreign policy. Russia dials up the pressure when it discerns a window of opportunity to encroach further upon its neighbor’s sovereignty, but below the threshold that would trigger a sustained military response by the United States and its European partners. So long as Russia can manage these cycles of escalation and détente, it reasons it can continue to notch small territorial gains that may, over time, allow it to alter fundamentally the strategic balance between Russia and NATO in Russia’s western periphery. There is little doubt that Russia’s behavior over the past year has proven inimical to its national interests. At home, the precipitous fall of the ruble, massive outflows of capital and collapsing growth reinforce its demographic decline; abroad, its relations with much of the West continue to deteriorate and its dependence on Chinese largesse seems poised to increase indefinitely. Meanwhile, the prospect of a Eurasian Union, which Putin has repeatedly cited as a principal aspiration of his foreign policy, continues to recede. Paradoxically, though, Russia’s extant and emerging weaknesses shield it from external pressure. Beyond enjoying over 80% popular approval at home, Putin has likely concluded he is in a protracted struggle with the West — the United States, in particular — to defend Russia’s honor and national interests. Russia’s woes seem more likely to encourage his defensiveness than induce a course correction.


The uncomfortable reality, though, is that for reasons of both geography and history, Ukraine’s fate is far more essential to Russia’s place in the world than America’s.  It is NATO’s European members, moreover, that should be the principal bulwark against Russian revanchism, not the United States.  However much of a challenge Russia’s current behavior poses to U.S. foreign policy, neither an open military confrontation between the two countries nor a decision by Russia to abandon further areas of bilateral conception would advance U.S. interests.

The new strategy should have stressed that none of the developments in either region — the Middle East or Eastern Europe — alter the growing strategic centrality of the Asia-Pacific to world order: on current trend lines, it will account for an ever-growing share of the world’s people, output, and military spending. The rebalance, moreover, is rooted not only in the region’s opportunities but also in its dangers: while the security threats in the Middle East and Eastern Europe may be more vivid, the Asia-Pacific is far from idyllic. Consider North Korea’s nuclear exports, the potential for a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, the variety of great-power tensions (China-India, China-Japan, and Japan-South Korea, for example) and the potential for territorial disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea to escalate. Moreover, as Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner explained last May, the region also confronts “nontraditional security threats such as natural disasters, human trafficking, and the drug trade.”

Beyond reaffirming the centrality of the rebalance in U.S. foreign policy, the new strategy should have elaborated more on its plans for rejuvenating liberal world order. While it expresses “confidence that the international system whose creation we led in the aftermath of World War II will continue to serve America and the world well,” it concedes that that system confronts “undeniable strains.” From time to time observers sound alarms about an emerging illiberalism, an authoritarian axis, or a Beijing Consensus. The systemic challenge to liberal world order, however, is not so much the existence of a compelling alternative as it is the prospect of internal erosion. It took horrific convulsions — among them two world wars, which collectively killed 80 million people, and the worst macroeconomic downturn in the history of the modern industrial world — to produce today’s environment. Who would want to risk comparable or even worse catastrophes to make it more inclusive and equitable?

Second, given how significantly the prospect of great-power war has diminished, today’s leaders lack an existential impetus for advancing liberal world order. Third, growing disorder has not undermined human progress; allowing that that progress varies considerably from region to region, most trends suggest the world is becoming safer, healthier and wealthier in the aggregate.  Today’s leaders may well find this duality — between growing disorder and growing progress — tolerable. As such, the United States should consider how it would adjust its foreign policy should liberal world order erode indefinitely. Part of strategy involves leveraging current trends; another part, however, involves hedging against possible futures. To that end, the National Intelligence Council should play a larger role in shaping future national-security strategies.

The United States is likely to remain indefinitely the world’s preeminent power, even though its margin of preeminence may continue to diminish. If, moreover, as much of the West would likely agree, a rejuvenated liberal world order is the likeliest vehicle for expanding the gains in peace and prosperity that have occurred in the postwar era, it is hard to imagine a country other than the United States with the capacity to organize such an undertaking. Paradoxically, though, the frequency and certainty with which the new strategy avows the centrality of U.S. leadership betrays a growing insecurity among Americans — citizens and policymakers alike — about their country’s prospects for exercising influence in the world. Some observers interpret President Obama’s call for “strategic patience” as a euphemism for his desire to withdraw the United States from world affairs and evade difficult policy choices. The intensity of the reaction is both another expression of that insecurity and a demonstration of misguided nostalgia: the United States has never been able to “dictate the trajectory of all unfolding events,” even when, in the immediate postwar era, it is widely believed to have exercised hegemony.

Few would deny that the emerging landscape is daunting. The United States must prepare its foreign policy for a world where its economy will no longer be the largest in absolute terms; where disorder may well be an enduring feature of the strategic environment, not a passing aberration; where a dizzying, growing array of nonstate actors exercises ever-growing influence; and where its signature postwar achievement, liberal world order, erodes indefinitely. These novelties do not, though, and need not, support the oft-painted picture of a United States in terminal decline; instead, they reinforce the imperative of strategic adjustment.

As Paul Kennedy concluded a quarter century ago, “the only serious threat to the real interests of the United States can come from a failure to adjust sensibly to the newer world order.”

Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

To defeat the Islamic State, look to the Bolsheviks

ISIS militants set off 21 car bombs in Ramadi, Iraq on March 11, 2015.
ISIS militants set off 21 car bombs in Ramadi, Iraq on March 11, 2015

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Jack Goldstone is an expert on revolutions at the Woodrow Wilson Center and George Mason University and a global fellow at PS21. He is the author of “Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction.” Follow him on Twitter at @jgoldsto.

President Barack Obama has laid out his goal in the Middle East: to degrade and defeat Islamic State. Yet remarkably little progress seems to have been made.

Why has it proven so difficult for the world’s greatest power and its regional allies to succeed against an estimated 30,000 radical extremists?  The answer can be found by examining the situation the Allies confronted in Russia after World War One.

Then, as now, a relatively obscure revolutionary group with a threatening ideology seized control of a strategically important region. A war-weary United States agreed to limited participation in an allied effort to dislodge the radicals, providing several thousand troops and supplies. Allied nations, including Britain, Canada, France and Australia, joined the effort. After five years of fighting, however, the radicals were able to consolidate their control and continued to pose a threat to Western interests for many decades.

That territory was the Russian empire; the years of fighting stretched from 1918 through 1922, and the revolutionary group was the Bolshevik (later Communist) Party.

Among all the groups that opposed the tyranny of the Russian tsars, the Bolsheviks were the most extreme. They promised a new social order that would empower workers, end the tyranny of religion and existing elites, abolish all private property and usher in a new era for mankind. Originally a small minority in the opposition, even among the communists, the Bolsheviks’ ruthless strategic vision propelled them to mastery of all Russia. They had seemed near exhaustion, after fighting a fierce civil war against White Russian reactionary forces. The allied forces had just triumphed in World War One. Yet it was the Bolsheviks who emerged victorious.

Relying on a “Red Terror,” including gruesome tortures and mass executions, the Bolsheviks defeated both domestic opponents and the allied international forces. They won because of their intense determination, cohesion and ideological support, while allied forces were hamstrung by divided objectives, little desire to continue fighting after years of draining war and lack of public support at home.

Though today’s forces in the front-line countries of Syria and Iraq may be capable of defending regions of their territory, trading tactical wins and losses with Islamic State, they are not capable of mounting the sustained military offensive necessary to rout Islamic State and recover the territories this radical group controls. For that, an allied force including the United States, Turkey, Iran and other powerful nations, including European countries and the Gulf nations, is needed.

Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Bolsheviks, speaking at a meeting in Moscow.


Only a multipronged offensive coordinated with strong air and ground forces can grind down the resourceful and well-equipped forces of Islamic State. It would likely draw on Iraqi forces backed by Iranian arms, troops and expertise from the east; Kurdish forces backed by Turkish arms, troops and expertise from the north, and Sunni Syrian forces backed by Gulf money and armaments from the West.

Yet the prospects that such a coalition could act effectively are slim. Washington and its European allies are exhausted from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Already suffering from long recessions and vast spending on overseas military expeditions, their publics show mixed enthusiasm for a renewed fight in the Middle East, even against an enemy as frightful as Islamic State.

Moreover, as in 1918, the key allies are divided on their objectives. Iran will only support a campaign against Islamic State that promises to maintain the authority of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey and Saudi Arabia will only support a campaign that promises to remove Assad from power. The United States has therefore tried to mount a campaign against Islamic State with no explicit strategy for Assad’s future. This has gained only tepid support from key potential allies.

Disagreements over Syria strategy do not end there. As the sudden resignation of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the debate over a proposed new authorization for the use of U.S. forces against Islamic State suggest, disagreements over Washington’s role in fighting Islamic State exist even within the U.S. government.

By contrast, support for Islamic State is growing locally and internationally. Just as the Bolsheviks cited foreign intervention in Russia’s revolution as proof that Western capitalist states were bent on exploiting hapless Russians, so Islamic State points to U.S. bombing strikes and drone attacks to persuade Sunni Muslims in Syria, Iraq and around the globe that Western infidels are seeking to undermine and oppress their religion.

Not only have the Sunni populations forced out of power by Shi’ite leaders in Iraq and Syria rallied to Islamic State’s banner, so, too, have disgruntled Sunnis and radical groups in other countries, including Europeans, Australians, Canadians, Egyptians, Palestinians, Tunisians and Chechens.  In Libya and Nigeria, local jihadists have sworn allegiance to Islamic State.

Indeed, anywhere that Sunni Muslims feel oppressed or excluded, Islamic State’s program to build a powerful, defiant Sunni state in the Islamic heartland has magnetic appeal. Islamic State can bide its time and recover from tactical reversals. In the long run, it will be gathering its forces and seeking to increase its funding and arms for the days when it will march on Baghdad, mount terror attacks on Western nations and their Middle Eastern allies (including Turkey and Saudi Arabia), and undermine what it sees as the apostate state of Iran.

Can anything be done to overcome the divisions among the potential allies? It will be extremely difficult. Nations with highly divergent interests would have to cooperate in a sustained campaign. Many analysts say Assad is content to leave Islamic State in control of parts of Syria, as long as he holds the key Damascus-Aleppo corridor and the coast. Meanwhile, Assad’s brutality and U.S. air strikes are driving ever more Syrians to support Islamic State.

Thus the only way to bring Syria’s powerful armed forces into the fight against Islamic State is to remove Assad from power. Syria’s military and elites could be promised that, if they replace Assad, they will be fully supported in their efforts to rebuild Syria. They would have to agree, however, to an inclusive regime that respects and incorporates the nation’s Sunni majority, not just a revived Alawite oligarchy.

Iran would have to accept Assad’s departure and in addition promise to support a regime in Iraq that respects and incorporates Sunnis, something it has notably failed to do over the past decade. Turkey would have to put aside its conflicts with its Kurds and its enmity to Iran, both of which it has treated as more important than defeating Islamic State.

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States would have to cooperate with Iran, while reining in their own citizens who provide financial support to Sunni extremists.

Russia would also have to be assured that its naval base at Tartus in Syria would be maintained by a new Syrian regime. Otherwise, Moscow will likely act as spoiler and supply Assad with sufficient weapons and aid to maintain his rule.

Bolshevik forces marching on Red Square.
Bolshevik forces marching on Red Square

In 1918-1920, the Western allies won many victories against the Bolsheviks, defeating the Red Army in Estonia, Odessa and Siberia. Yet the allied forces were never able to follow up with a successful drive into the heart of Bolshevik power.

The Bolsheviks held onto Moscow and most of European Russia and waited out the Allies’ declining resolve. In the early 1920s, one Western ally after another withdrew its forces from Russia, leaving the Bolsheviks to build their state over the following decades.

Something similar seems the most likely outcome in the Middle East today.  The deep divisions among potential allies and the lack of public support for yet another war in the Middle East will likely doom efforts to overcome the more committed, cohesive and determined forces of Islamic State.

The Islamic State, like the Bolshevik regime a century earlier, is a rising revolutionary power. It has gone from being just another terrorist group to master of a region larger than Lebanon or Israel, with a population of more than 2 million, tens of thousands of armed fighters and financial resources in the billions of dollars.

Unless the major powers of the region — Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia — can unite and sustain a multipronged campaign against Islamic State, we shall have to deal with a major source of terrorism and war in the region for many years to come.

This piece was originally published on on March 11, 2015. 

PS21 is a non-ideological, non-national, nonpartisan institution. Any opinions are the author’s own.

London Discussion: South Asia Geopolitics from Afpak to Sri Lanka


Friday, March 13, 2015 from 6:45 PM to 9:45 Canary Wharf, east London. Attendees will be sent exact location.

London Discussion: South Asia Geopolitics from Afpak to Sri Lanka

From the US withdrawn from Afghanistan to this year’s general election in Sri Lanka, South Asia’s geopolitics are in play in a way not seen in decades. In an evening discussion in London, PS21 will be taking a long look at a region where the great powers of China and India, Russia and the West have played off each other for centuries. Where do we go now? Who is really taking the lead? And what risks might that bring with it?

This event will be followed by a curry buffet and drinks for those who wish to attend. Likely food cost £15

chair: Peter Apps, executive director, PS21

Amjad Saleem: humanitarian and geopolitics consultant, now based in Colombo. Global fellow at PS21

Omar Hamid, former Pakistani government official and head of Asia-Pacific risk at IHS

Rahul Roy Chaudhury: senior fellow for South Asia, International Institute for Strategic Studies

Sign up for the event here.