The new order of engagement

The CNAS crew in Washington DC have put together a report a new report on future US policy towards the new dictator-unfriendly Middle East.

Two observations stand out.

1 - People have become important.

The report notes;

"A new Arab public sphere has been developing in the Middle East since at least the mid-1990s. While the region remains divided by state boundaries, a shared political dialogue – enabled by diverse media, ranging from Al-Jazeera to Twitter – has emerged in which the people of the region have the freedom to voice their desires and frustrations in ways they could not two decades ago.

...The monopoly over information once enjoyed by regimes has been lost to new technologies and media. No longer can ministries of information shape what publics know and do not know about the world and their condition relative to other peoples."

The simple fact is that; any international actor looking to engage in the politics of the Middle East, or wider Muslim world, will have to figure out how to talk, and listen, to the people. Much like the same actor would have to do at home. It will no longer be possible to force a pliant local dictator to push through policies that local people don't believe to be in their interest.

2 - Islamists, and their followers, can't be avoided

Whereas only a couple of years ago, the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom could declare they would not be speaking to Islamists, confident in the belief that their refusal to speak to a political group would render it insignificant. Today, not talking to a group that generates popular support is likely only damage your own significance.

"Thus, the protection of U.S. interests requires the United States to interact with parties and leaders that only a few years ago were dismissed as radicals."

And, in case anyone thought any of that was easy, an article today in the Guardian about engagement and divergence between Islamist groups shows just how complex the political environment is.

Anyway, make Ex's day and download the report Strategic Adaptation: Towards a New U.S. Strategy in the Middle East here.

The point of foreign policy

Londonstanis original blogging home, Abu Muqawama, has a fascinating post by Adam Elkus on the "domesticisation of European national interest".

The bit that caught Londonstani's eye was this:

"By proposing the idea that domestic and international security threats were inescapably linked, Blair and others did not internationalize the national interest. Rather, Blair domesticated the international."

The idea being that instead of striding onto the world stage to address domestic concerns, as they claimed, policy makers were bringing the international arena onto the domestic stage.

At first glance it might seem like arguing over shades of grey, but for a country that's in a period of cost-cutting and retrenchment it goes to the heart of a question that the UK has failed to settle for close on a century; what's abroad actually for?

While you're at it, have a look at the Aaron Ellis' post at Tory Reform Group mentioned by Adam.

Networks and counternetworks

Author Jonathan Liddell has been in Homs reporting on the Syrian regime's assult on the city. His dispatches - describing how medics and the wounded are being targeted - adds to the harrowing picture of events unfolding in Syria.

The printed edition of the Guardian has a side bar by Liddell titled: "How I made it into Syria undercover". Londonstani is unable to find this smaller piece in the online edition, so it's worth copying out a small portion of it for a little closer attention:

"The Ba'ath part and the mukhabarats (security agencies) - a grid that has dominated the life of the country for decades. Society had in these past few months put in place a counter-grid, almost as effective, made up of civilian activists, notables, religious figures, and, more and more armed forces... This counter-grid resists the other one, circumvents it and is even starting to absorb it in part."

For those interested in political activism or social change, the idea of identifying and connecting networks (or grids) is something that comes up time and again. Politicians running for office and writers rely on endorsements as much as underground urban music promoters in the UK rely on informal networks to get the word out and sell tickets.

There is often reference to networks of some sort or another in the thinking of activists from Martin Luther King to Gandhi to Omar al Mukhtar. While thinkers like Saul Alinsky have focused specific thought on identifying and connecting networks.

While a range of actors, activists and agitators seek to multiply effects by utilising networks, there are, in Londonstani's experience, two notable exceptions; al-Qaeda inspired extremism and Western public diplomacy.

At first glance, AQ seems to be all about networks and alliances; AQ in the Islamic Meghreb, al Shabab, utilising "lone wolves" etc. But all of those examples are tactical alliances with like-minded organisations. And, without a doubt, harnessing networks for tactical benefit has served AQ well. However, AQ is limited in utilising networks to accomplish its ultimate aim of world wide conflict by the rigid nature of its ideology. AQ is fantastic example of the "strength through unquestioning unity" school of thought, which means there is a very definite limit to how much it will allow its ideology to adapt or be influenced by the ideas or needs of potential allies, collaborators and the general public.

Londonstani, although not an expert in AQ ideology (you need to look to people like Will McCants or Thomas Hegghammer for that), sees the group's "Vanguard" ideology as rooted in the idea that effective action can only be accomplished by elite groups who drag the masses along with them.

Public diplomacy by the likes of the US and UK largely seems to avoid engaging with networks of civil society, media and business actors in places where they want to have an impact. (Arriving with an army to talk to rebels about how to help remove a dictator is not quite the same thing). However, one possible model to look at is the way international aid organisations like Oxfam, Amnesty and the ICRC spend much time and resource identifying those with similar aims to them and working them.

Either way, identifying, assessing and engaging with networks in order to make things happen is not the easy way of getting things done. But it is the most effective. If you don't think so, just look at AQ's (lack of) mass popularity across the Muslim world.

Anne-Marie Slaughter and a new approach to foreign policy

Since 2009, Londonstani has been working on developing and applying communications strategies in the UK and abroad. While most of his time is spent on the nitty gritty of making things happen in places like Pakistan, Londonstani is also very interested in the theory behind the practice.

However, there doesn't seem to be much out there about building, maintaining and leveraging influence in a rapidly changing world. What thinking and discussion does exist on this tends to be American. Which isn't  surprising in light of the events of the past 10 years. But consider the UK for a moment. Britain has the advantage (and liability) of historical connections and associations, the English language - which ties together entertainment and information (BBC, Reuters). Add to this a relatively large global investment footprint as well as a domestic culture that is globally connected. Also, there are a number of UK thinkers and practioners who operate in this area; very competent people like Robin Brown (@rcmb), Aaron Ellis (@thinkstrat) and Emrys Schoemaker (@emrys_s). Last but not least, the UK has been trading on its soft power for several decades, and is quite good at it.

The aim of this blog is to collate and, where possible, add to discussions about developing realistic, successful policies and methods in the new global environment. It's in that vein that Londonstani thought readers, particularly British ones, might be interested in a recent discussion between high-profile US figures on exactly these issues. 

Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning at the State Department, wrote an article back in July titled The New Foreign Policy Frontier. In it she argued that diplomacy is no longer just government-to-government, but also government-to-society and society-to-society. This new dynamic (or dynamics), she points out, opens up the potential for groups or individuals, not necessarily connected to a government, to undertake actions that affect countries in a way previously only governments could.

Equally clever person Dan Drezner (@dandrezner), professor of international relations at Tufts, took Anne-Marie to task over the point that micro-level, non-governmental initiatives - networked or not - had questionable impact on the general scheme of things. And that what networked interaction there was, had been there for a long time anyway.

Leaving the details of the discussion aside, the central point - are we moving from an era of the big men of state to one where "regular" people impact international relations - is one that Londonstani has had on-and-off with journalist and diplomat friends since 2003.

Al Qaeda's 9/11 attacks are often cited as the ultimate example of a game-changer enacted by a small group of people without government ties. But the reason Londonstani started thinking about this in 2003 is because that was when he, as a young reporter, noticed that the dynamics of how people in the Middle East see themselves and the world had fundamentally changed. 

As the US geared up for war against Saddam many US-allied Arab nations had tacitly fallen in behind the US, but continued to express public opposition to the impeding war. Egypt under Mubarak was a tightly controlled information environment. State media organisations reinforced for Egyptians a worldview of their leader as an Arab champion and their country as a bulwark against US designs in the region. These were messages that had first been inculcated at school by the government education system.

Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab news channel made plain that the collective deception would not hold. In early 2003, US warships started passing through the Suez Canal, and al Jazeera set a camera up on the banks of the international waterway. As state television showed Mubarak fulminating about Arab solidarity, the highly popular news channel showed US warships passing through Egyptian territory on the way to invade Iraq. At about the same time, Egypt was showing triumphant military marches on state television during its annual war commemoration. Predictably, the contrast between bluster and compliance brought out demonstrators on to the streets asking, "Where is the Egyptian army".

This isn't to say that new media technology changed the way the world works. It's just a new way of disseminating information. And information has been the key to social and political change for a long time. In fact, Egypt has seen it all before. During British rule in Egypt the likes of Ahmed Lutfi el Sayed were distributing leaflets calling for revolution. In the 1970s, Ayatollah Khomeni was using taped speeches to build support and turn people away from the shah. As today, technology was making it possible for people to connect with each other and unite around a common cause. 

It seems to Londonstani that this discussion should be less about the world changing and more about changing the methods of those who try and deal with it. Anne-Marie seems, in essence, to be arguing that it's no longer possible (for whatever reason) to do deals with important men in foreign places and expect them to enforce your agreement on their own people. Londonstani would argue that approach never actually worked. If you take the long view of history, Western powers' dealings with Iranian shahs in the era of capitulations had an influence on the evolution that led to relationship the West and Iran have today. In more recent times, Israel and the West's dealing with the autocratic and corrupt PLO leadership has been a factor in the support Hamas can command.

What has changed is powerful peoples' ability to manipulate emotions in order to maintain their privileged positions. The tools they used grew accustomed to using don't work anymore.

So, the question is if you do decide that government-to-society or society-to-society connections provide the more stable relationships, what tools can you use, and how do you use them?

 

UPDATE: Anne-Marie responded to this post via twitter:

To , the question u pose at the end of your piece is EXACTLY my research agenda. Look forward to more convo"

Definitely...

 

US Public Diplomacy and Islamists

US scholar of public diplomacy, Philip Seib, wrote on the Huffington Post a couple of days ago:

"Those designing U.S. public diplomacy must quickly recalibrate their work to better reach the newly empowered and assertive mass publics."

Seib suggests:

"A key element of U.S. public diplomacy is the reflection of American political values in outreach efforts. These values are not antithetical to the tenets of Islam, and so that is where public diplomacy programs should focus. Those designing cultural, educational, and business-related ventures should themselves be familiar with the Quran and other elements of Islam and should involve clerical and lay Muslims in the project creation process. This will help avoid the accidental cultural clashes that can be interpreted as purposeful assertion of anti-Islamic policy."

Londonstani agrees in principle with Seib on this, but would suggest digging a little deeper in the search for an approach. 

Often, Islamists (which encompasses many different trains of thought) are cut from a very similar cloth to their domestic opponents. Looking at Pakistan; the head of a network of madrassas is the theological equivalent of a feudal landlord or industrialist. All are looking to nurture a solid constituency based on patronage. Often the religious overlaps with the temporal. Sometimes the supporters of the most avowedly secular parties act like religious devotees. Egypt; Mubarak's cronies displayed the same xenophobic, small minded, despotic, socially conservative tendencies that their liberal opponents feared they might face from the Muslim Brotherhood.

Better than focusing immense effort on one particular area of study, (which might be axed at will in the next round of cuts) Londonstani feels that governments would be better served by looking at their bureaucratic structures and figuring out how to build up institutional knowledge of how Arab and Muslim societies work.

Amnesty - behind the lines in the Arab Spring

Amnesty released a report looking at the popular uprisings against oppressive rule in the Middle East (let's not forget Iran had an uprising too) aka Arab Spring.

The report - Year of Rebellion, The State of Human Rights in the Middle East and North Africa - was released accompanied by a statement from Amnesty which makes some good points:

With few exceptions, governments have failed to recognize that everything has changed,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s interim Middle East and North Africa Director. “The protest movements across the region, led in many cases by young people and with women playing central roles, have proved astonishingly resilient in the face of sometimes staggering repression.”

But what has been striking about the last year has been that – with some exceptions – change has largely been achieved through the efforts of local people coming onto the streets, not the influence and involvement of foreign powers.

Amnesty, true to its human-rights-first agenda, makes the following recommendations:

Reform security forces

Ensure laws comply with international standards

Reform the justice system

End Torture and other ill-treatment

End incommunicado detention

Uphold the rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression

Release prisoners of conscience

End enforced disappearances

End impunity

 

Now, you might be reading this thinking, "Yeah, that's the typical unrealistic, bleeding heart, tree-hugger, humanitarian, pie in the sky wish list that I'd expect from a bunch of crusties (thanks to the mayor of London for the phrase)". But, you'd be mistaken.

Amnesty's demands to Arab governments are always pretty much the same, which is the point. Slowly and steadily, Amnesty and other groups like it, have advanced these aims through contact with civil society groups. Londonstani doesn't think it's too much of a stretch to say that, in the end, engagement and capacity building with activists on the ground had a much bigger impact than the decades of government-level engagement with the former regimes carried out by Western governments. Which went a little something like this:

"please repeal your illegal emergency laws. 'No', you say? OK then."

"We will cut your aid if you keep jailing democracy activists. Not really!"

"We will be angry if you blatantly rig elections. What's that you say? Your people are a bit thick and naturally disposed to voting in terrorists? Ok, fine, but at least try and be a bit subtle about it."

What is that you are telling your people as you accept huge amounts of money from us? That we are plotting to overthrow you and let the Israelis fly the Star of David over the pyramids? Naa..Naaa. Naaa.. Can't hear yoooou...Naa Naaa"

Yup, human rights activists get regime change done. Who'd have thunk it. Nuff said.

 

* Wanna know what was going through the minds of your average way-past retirement age Egyptian official while they were having their terminally boring meetings with Western officials? This...

Defence review - US style

There are many, many people more qualified to talk about last week's US defense strategic guidance than Londonstani (particularly a certain East Tennessean). From a UK perspective, what struck Londonstani was the similarities, and differences, to the UK defence strategic review last year.

(Well, that and the fact that the US is talking about "savings" that would swallow the total UK annual defence budget several times over)

Differences:

1 - The US's review was actually strategic, in that it addressed a changing environment (Chinese power and Arab Spring) and how to re-position itself in order to address it.

2 - Related to the first point, the US is talking about alliances with new powers (ie India) to help it achieve its aims.

Similarities included:

1 - The fact it's supposed to save money

2 - The rebalancing away from the infrastructure of large-scale deployments to more special operations type stuff.

There was also a third - slightly more stretched - similarity. Both US and UK approaches to defence in the future include significant elements that you wouldn't - strictly speaking - consider to be in the "defence" sphere of government. The US talks quite specifically about India serving its economic (and therefore security) aims in the region. While the UK version spoke of a £3.8 billion increase in aid from the development budget.

There is actually no sensible way to discuss where you stand in the world today (and tomorrow) without discussing China and the global economy. (Simon Tisdall at the Guardian thinks its all about China)

So it that sense, Londonstani feels, its definitely a good thing that foreign/defence matters are taken out of their boxes and looked at in their wider context - in terms of causes, effects and potential solutions.

Actually, China itself provides a useful example.

Londonstani has spent the last 2-1/2 years being based out of Pakistan, which - in case anyone missed it - is a key Chinese ally on the quiet. Sometime before that, Londonstani spent a fair amount of time living and reporting from Sudan - another Chinese ally. (In fact, one project involved looking exclusively at China's role in fueling the Darfur conflict)

In both cases, China's influence is due to its economic clout rather than its military strength. In both cases, wealthy decision makers in the host country do personally well out of the alliance. (Londonstani once met with an ex-Pakistani official who used to work at a regulatory body who was aghast at how a recent trade pact with China was potentially ruinous for the country but was passed because of the pockets it would line in Pakistan.)

The point here is that Chinese influence will not go away, in fact it will probably grow, but that in itself will probably cause challenges for China itself. In Pakistan for example, a market increasingly tied up by China, consumers murmur about the inflated prices and low quality of the goods they get.

For the US, and even more so for the UK, meeting the challenge will involve doing business in places like Pakistan, engaging publics and projecting soft power (particularly relevant to the guidance's point on the Arab Spring). This will involve more than than one department of government, and a number of non-government actors.

As a little aside, Londonstani can't resist mentioning Paul M. Kennedy's comment in his The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery*:

"For maritime strength depends, as it always did, upon commercial and industrial strength: if the latter is declining relatively, the former is bound to follow. As Britain's naval rise was rooted in its economic advancement, so too its naval collapse is rooted in its steady loss of economic primacy. We have come full circle."

To see what people much more clued up on this sort of thing have to say read Adam Elkus here, David Barno here, and a whole bunch of clever people.

*Taken from J.E. Peterson's Defending Arabia, 1986 (Chapter 3; Postwar Policy: British Retreat and Imperial Vestiges)