Brett Stephens starts his op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal with the following question:
Pop quiz—What does more to galvanize radical anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world: (a) Israeli settlements on the West Bank; or (b) a Lady Gaga music video?
You see where Stephens is going with this one, right? I mean, you don't really need to even read the rest of the column, the point of which is that Islamist outrage over decadent western culture is a more significant driver of conflict and anti-American sentiment in the region than Israeli settlements.
I have no idea if this is actually true. It seems to me that I have seen both empirical evidence and anecdotal evidence lending credence to the idea that outrage over the plight of the Palestinians is, in fact, a driver of conflict and/or anti-American sentiment in the Arabic-speaking world, but there may be more sophisticated research and analysis out there that proves otherwise. And Stephens leans heavily on the writings of Sayyid Qutb to support his arguments, which makes me nervous, because for all his talents, Stephens is no scholar of Islam, and a few things that should not be studied as a hobby include:
Many serious scholars have written very good work on Islamic fundamentalism, and for those wishing to learn more, allow me to recommend, among many other works, Marty and Appleby's multi-volume Fundamentalism Project and Hourani's single-volume, highly-readable Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1798-1939. The latter is a great primer on the intellectual roots of pretty much all the major ideas in the Arabic-speaking world of the 20th Century -- to include Arab nationalism and Islamism.
But I am not weighing in to either defend or attack Israeli settlements or to explain the intellectual history of the Arabic-speaking world -- two subjects I know just enough about to know that I should keep my mouth shut and let the experts do the talking. The purpose of this post is to highlight a key lesson of Middle East peacemaking: Leave Lady Gaga the hell out of it.
Brett Stephens may have read a few books on Islamist thought, but how many Arabic-language music videos has he watched? I ask because I have seen a lot (as they play pretty much 24-7 in 90% of the cafes and restaurants of the Arabic-speaking world), and I have also, this very morning, made a careful study of the oeuvre of Lady Gaga to determine which are more provocative sexually. The verdict? Lady Gaga is, in the words of my office mate (like Sayyid Qutb, an alumnus of the University of Northern Colorado!), "a brilliant art school trainwreck." She is a ridiculous mess who uses sex among many other provocations to entertain. And as I have well-documented soft spot in my heart for Italian girls from Westchester County, I feel I need to stick up for her.
Haifa Wehbe, meanwhile? Well, judge for yourselves, but whereas Lady Gaga is a Tisch School-trained provocateuse, Hizballah-supporting Haifa strikes me as a less sophisticated one-trick pony pretty much mixing sex with music with, well, more sex. Regardless, with music videos like this one, Stephens can hardly argue that Lady Gaga is the one importing sexual provocation into the Arabic-speaking world and stirring things up, can he?
And here is Her Gaganess for comparison.
And, back to Haifa.
By contrast, look at this tame video from Lady Gaga.
Uh... Crap. Okay, maybe Brett Stephens has a point. Dang. Me airing that last (in retrospect, NSFW) video might have just started a holy war in some internet cafe in Sana'a. Sorry?
UPDATE: There are some good and very funny comments below. Thomas Hegghammer even briefly weighs in to shake his head at Stephens's op-ed. Just so you guys know, I obey two simple rules when it comes to studying Islamist ideology (that I have borrowed from Will McCants): (1) Thomas Hegghammer's analysis is correct. (2) If you find yourself in disagreement with Thomas Hegghammer, refer back to Rule #1.
Laura Rozen's blog post on the Obama Administration's thought process concerning Israel raised a ruckus this past weekend, and Andrew Sullivan went off on Dennis Ross for allegedly being more sensitive to the delicate coalition politics Benjamin Netanyahu faces than to U.S. interests in the region. As this blog knows, I really try to avoid issues relating to Israel and the Palestinians for the sake of my personal health and well-being. But two points are worth drawing out here:
1. One of the criticisms you often hear of U.S. policy-makers in the Oslo era is not so much that they were too sensitive to Israeli concerns but that they were hyper-sensitive to Israeli politics while not paying anything resembling the same level of attention to Palestinian politics. So they were conscious of how the decisions of an Israeli prime minister might play on the streets of Tel Aviv but not as aware how a decision by Arafat might play out on the streets of Ramallah. I heard Rob Malley make this point at a talk at AUB in 2008, in fact. (A lecture which, miracle of the internets, you can watch here.) Being sensitive to the political realities facing an Israeli prime minister, as Ross allegedly is, is no bad thing in and of itself. But one should remember that another people, with an entirely seperate political reality, live on the other side of the Green Line. And a lesson learned from the 1990s is that you should pay close to equal attention to the dynamics of their political discourse if you hope to create an enduring peace.
2. It's worth going back and reading the way Netanyahu is portrayed in Ross's book The Missing Peace. Malley and others complain that Arafat is unfairly the villian in Ross's account, but Netanyahu is hardly a hero. In fact, Ross's repeated exasperation with Netanyahu is clear.
After Netanyahu was gone, President Clinton observed: "He thinks he is the superpower and we are here to do whatever he requires." No one on our side disagreed with that assessment. (p. 261)
Ultimately, Ross considered Netanyahu "a leader who had two legs walking in different directions" (p. 493). By that he meant that he may have wanted to make peace on some level, but his loyalty to his political base meant that he also made moves entirely counter to a lasting peace with the Palestinians. That strikes me as one way to interpret Netanyahu's behavior over the past few months. He opens the door to a Palestinian state, but then allows his coalition to make moves regarding settlements that undermine any process that might bring that state to reality.
I should say that I have little interest ever getting involved with U.S. policy regarding Israel and the Palestinians but very much respect Dennis Ross for stuff that has nothing to do with the Oslo process. He's managed to have a really successful career in this town while enjoying a happy marriage and raising three great kids. In the 202 area code, that's nothing to scoff at. And when I left a year-long fellowship at the pro-Israel Washington Institute (which is a great place to work, by the way) to go do my dissertation under one of the Palestinian negotiators during the Oslo era, Ross was among the most supportive of the move. So I like the guy, personally and professionally, even as I have been more than a little critical of decisons made by Ross and other U.S. policy-makers in the 1990s concerning Israel and southern Lebanon.
I had lunch with Amos Harel of Ha'aretz a few months ago in Tel Aviv, and he floated the idea of starting a blog on security issues in the Middle East that would reach a larger audience than his normal posts for Israel's newspaper of record. (Or is that Yedioth Ahronoth these days? I honestly don't know.) I normally enjoy the reporting Amos does with Avi Issacharoff, so I am enjoying their new blog, even if it reads less as a blog and more as just another section of Ha'aretz. Both guys are excellent journalists who would (and probably did) make the late Ze'ev Schiff proud. (Avi, in particular, earned kudos for physically protecting Palestinian families from crazy religious-nationalist settlers two years back.) The one thing that bothers me, though, aside from the format, is how isolated the discussion is. I mean, it's all about Israel and the Palestinian Territories. And that's fine, as that's the beat walked by Harel and Issacharoff. But it's less "the Middle East" and more "a slice of the eastern Mediterranean."
On a serious note, you wonder whether or not Israel's isolation in the region has made the perspective of its reporters increasingly blinkered. If I were the editor of Ha'aretz, I would send talented guys like Amos and Avi off to report from Washington or London or Tokyo for a year to get a more global view of security before returning home to report on the IDF and the territories. Have them do a fellowship at CSIS or RUSI or something. One of the things I thought was cool about Schiff is how plugged in he was with the policy debates taking place in Washington and Europe.
Another thing I would like to see -- and this is by no means the responsibility of any one journalist or newspaper -- is a good blog on Middle East security issues written by reporters from all around the region, with bloggers from Cairo, Baghdad, Beirut, Tel Aviv, the Palestinian Territories, Yemen, etc. all joining in. Is that too much to ask for? Some newspapers have tried to do this, but with budgets shrinking, what you end up getting is two or three English-speaking journalists trying to cover an entire region with little coordination and too few resources.
That having been said, I think Amos and Avi have perhaps chanced upon the most appropriate name for a blog covering security in the Middle East. Middle East Security Survey. Or: MESS. I plan to be a regular reader and look forward to their future posts.
P.S. Speaking of Israel, followers of my Twitter feed will know I saw none other than Tzipi Livni wandering around 7th Street NW in Chinatown yesterday. Lady Muqawama spotted her first and made me walk into the Anne Taylor store to confirm. I walked in, started scanning the store, and was like, "Not famous ... not famous ... not famous ... woah, hey, it's Tzipi Livni!" The AIPAC conference, of course, is going on right now, which you can follow here if it interests you. (I'm personally not that interested, honestly, for pretty much the exact reasons Jeffrey Goldberg C'87 lists here.) Now if any of you want to leave comments below, by all means do so, and feel free to tell me whether or not I should have either given Livni a big hug and kiss or arrested her for war crimes. But let's keep the discussion free of ugly anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim or anti-Arab slurs, okay? Because those are not cool.
I'm just back from a great conference at Wilton Park in the UK on how we can assess the effect of aid and development on counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. I'll have much more to say about this later. But depite my well-documented and mischevous antagonism toward those doing quantitative analysis in the field of security studies, allow me to once again highlight the work being done by Eli Berman, Jason Lyall, Jacob Shapiro, Joe Felter and Company. Eli's presentation on the effectiveness of CERP funding in Iraq was, for me, one of the highlights of the conference. And although the conference was governed by Chatham House rules, you can read the paper behind Eli's presentation here (.pdf). Again, I will have much more to say about this later.
For now, though, one thing that caught my eye was this report by Mark Perry (prolific author, father of Cal) in Foreign Policy on the case CENTCOM is apparently making to bring Israel into its area of responsibility. Briefly, there has always been a good argument for keeping Israel a part of EUCOM: what is the optic we send when a senior commander of U.S. troops in the region makes a visit to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt ... and then caps his trip off with a visit to Israel? Does that cause more suspicion among our allies -- Arab and Israeli alike -- than it is worth? And we can safely assume that EUCOM would resist such a move outright. With the establishment of AFRICOM, EUCOM's relevance has already been diminished. What would taking away Israel do?
But putting Israel in CENTCOM probably makes sense. Issues relating to Israel and the Palestinians affect quite a lot of CENTCOM's activities already, and it doesn't make sense to decouple what's going on with respect to the Middle East Peace Process and the command in charge of the Middle East. I worked on a review of CENTCOM strategy last year, focusing on the Levant and Egypt, and I confess -- and I am only speaking for myself here -- to having been frustrated in reviewing U.S. strategy concerning Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon without looking comprehensively at U.S. strategy toward Israel and the Palestinians. It doesn't make sense, right? So moving Israel and the Palestinian Territories over to CENTCOM is probably a wise decision, but I confess to not having fully thought out what the second- and third-order political effects would be.
Also, I liked what Bob Baer had to say about this affair in last weekend's Wall Street Journal.
And you people wonder why I never blog or write about Israel and the Palestinians? How the hell am I supposed to make sense of this?
The son of a leading Hamas figure, who famously converted to Christianity, served for over a decade as the Shin Bet security service's most valuable source in the militant organization's leadership, Haaretz has learned.
Mosab Hassan Yousef is the son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, a Hamas founder and one of its leaders in the West Bank. The intelligence he supplied Israel led to the exposure of a number of terrorist cells, and to the prevention of dozens of suicide bombings and assassination attempts on Israeli figures.
The exclusive story will appear in this Friday's Haaretz Magazine, and Yousef's memoir, "Son of Hamas" (written with Ron Brackin) will be released next week in the United States. Yousef, 32, became a devout Christian 10 years ago and now lives in California after fleeing the West Bank in 2007 and going public with his conversion.
Building off of yesterday's post on Hizballah and Israel, I need to tell you that the UN in southern Lebanon is complaining the Israelis have placed "spy gear" in southern Lebanon that is now causing suspicious explosions. The only thing cooler than spy gear, I say, is exploding spy gear.
What, though, is "spy gear"? Can you imagine the UNIFIL investigation?
What did you find, Pierre?
Looks like a case of spy gear, Jim.
I have several friends in the Israeli journalism community whose reporting I trust and admire, but when it comes to Hizballah, I am often wary of what is written from south of the Blue Line unless it focuses almost exclusively on Israeli operations. Sometimes the author is a little too sure of the conclusions he or she draws about Hizballah, something Beirut-based journalists like Nick Blanford and Mitch Prothero who report on Hizballah from north of the Blue Line and enjoy good contacts within the organization rarely do. (In case you are wondering, I cannot think of a single journalist in the Arabic language whose reporting on Hizballah's military activities I consider to be "must-read" and worth breaking out the old Hans Wehr. I suspect there are strong incentives for Lebanese journalists to not report on such activities.)
That said, I read and got something out of Ronen Bergman's op-ed on Israel's "Secret War" on Hizballah. Since 2006, Lebanon south of the Litani River has been turned over to the Lebanese Armed Forces and UNIFIL II, meaning it has been difficult for Hizballah to rebuild the kind of border defenses they used in the summer of 2006. (12,000 international soldiers, whatever their loyalties, kinda get in the way.) Most of their construction appears to have shifted just north of the Litani, while the villages of southern Lebanon appear to have been hardened and resupplied with caches of arms, food, water, etc. Smart people on both sides of the Blue Line tend to agree with this analysis, and it matches up with what I myself saw in southern Lebanon on multiple trips there between November 2006 and November 2008.
Since 2006, then, southern Lebanon has indeed been a kind of semi-demilitarized zone. At the very least, the hardened border defenses Hizballah built between 2000 and 2006 are no longer in place. Which, funnily enough, makes it a lot easier for Israeli commando teams to infiltrate southern Lebanon. And it seems to me that some kind of Israeli special operations raids are as good an explanation as any for those mysterious explosions that have been taking place in southern Lebanon lately. I cannot say for sure, of course, since the Israelis have no reason to acknowledge them and Hizballah has every reason to deny they are taking place, but such an explanation seems both plausible and probable.
I could spend several posts quibbling with things Bergman wrote in his op-ed, but I think he got the first half of his conclusion right:
In short, despite the fact that Hezbollah today is substantially stronger in purely military terms than it was three years ago, its political stature and its autonomy have been significantly reduced. It is clear that Nasrallah is cautious and he will weigh his options very carefully before embarking on any course of action that might lead to all-out war with Israel.
The second half, meanwhile, was more problematic.
There are some experts in Israel who believe that even Hezbollah's retaliatory role in the Iranian game plan is currently in question. Whether or not this is the case, all of this is being considered in Jerusalem as part of Israel's calculations about whether to strike Iran's nuclear facilities.
Danger, Will Robinson. One of things that bothered me about Bergman's op-ed and about some conversations I had with Israeli military officers last month is how, well, "cocky" they are these days.
"By all means, let the Hezbollah try," one officer told me two weeks ago when I asked if he was concerned about the possibility of warfare. "The welcome party that we are preparing for them is one that they will remember for a very long time." That sentiment is shared by many of his colleagues.
I recently read an excellent article by Richard Kohn that was recommended to me by a retired three-star I know and admire. Kohn writes that a decline in U.S. military professionalism -- especially the ability of U.S. officers to think strategically -- has been masked by the fact that "our military regularly demonstrates its operational effectiveness in battle." Like the United States, Israel can also be accused of letting operational brilliance be a substitute for sound strategy.
First off, both Hizballah and Israeli officers have been talking a lot of smack about how they would each bloody the other if 2006 were to be refought. And if -- Heaven forbid -- such a war were to be fought, I indeed think the Israeli military machine would punish Hizballah and the people and infrastructure of Lebanon to a horrific degree. If there is to be another war, the gloves would be off. But after the shooting stops and the Israelis inevitably go back across the Blue Line, what will have been accomplished in terms of Israeli policy aside from the further isolation of Israel within the international community? And from Hizballah's perspective, why on earth would you want to precipitate such a horrible conflict?
Second, one or two successful special operations raids into southern Lebanon should not should not should not inform your calculus as to whether or not you should attempt to strike Iranian nuclear facilities. Apples and freaking oranges. The former is a tactical exercise that carries with it moderate strategic risk. The latter is a strategic decision that carries with it enormous geopolitical consequences for you, your neighbors and your allies. I mean, how does the cabinet discussion go on that one? "Well, you know, we managed to send a seven-man team into southern Lebanon last night. Pretty awesome, yes. Who, then, is up for sending the entire IAF to Qom tonight? Anyone?"
Israelis are now realizing something I have long argued: that Israeli deterrence did not take the hit many said it did immediately after the 2006 war. It's doing quite well, actually. But the paradox of deterrence is that, in Schelling's words, "the power to hurt is most successful when held in reserve." Deterrence is, as John "The Warlord" Collins is fond of saying, a strategy for peace -- not for war. Like Bergman, I too feel Israeli deterrence vis a vis Hizballah is doing pretty well right now. But it all goes the way of the Dodo if one side or the other, like the Kinghts Hospitalier at Arsuf, gets restless enough to start something off without thinking through the endstate.
I'm blogging from Terminal Three in Ben Gurion Airport, where I left myself plenty of time to get through all the security checkpoints. The first time I visited Israel, in December 2006 on another research trip, I was extensively interviewed both on arrival and departure. I was strip-searched on the way out, and on the way in I sat in that waiting room they have in front of passport control for a good four hours before someone from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with whom I had a meeting that morning called and intervened on my behalf. An excerpt from one of the security interviews that time around:
Her: Have you ever been to Iraq?
Her: What were you doing there?
Me: Overthrowing the government.
[She looks confused.]
Her: Have you even been to Afghanistan or Pakistan?
Me: Yes, to Afghanistan.
Her: Well... what were you doing there?
Me: Overthrowing the government.
My entire passport, really, might as well read "DO NOT ALLOW INTO ISRAEL. EVER." From this summer's travels alone, I have visas from Morocco, the UAE, Lebanon and Afghanistan. So it was a surprise when I waited only 15 minutes in the waiting room on the way into the country before they came back with a stamped piece of paper and told me to have a nice visit. Neither my friends nor I could figure out how I had passed through security so quickly. On the way out this afternoon, meanwhile, I left plenty of time to make my flight and was, sure enough, stopped by a very pleasant woman who proceded to interview me for a full 30 minutes. She had noticed a tag on my carry-on with my name written in both Roman and Arabic script. I cheerfully told her why I had been in Lebanon, how much I enjoy Beirut and why I learned Arabic. I told her all about the people I had interviewed here in Israel and how I had met them. I told her about my friends in Israel, how I know them, and where I traveled while I stayed in the country. We had a debate about whether or not Baka, where I was staying, was a neighborhood in East or West Jerusalem. I told her about my job in Washington, the kind of research I do, and the origins of my last name. But you could tell it just wasn't adding up for her. Who the hell is this guy? I could see her asking herself. So she took my passport away with her, and I sat on my bags for 10 minutes. When she came back, she had a big smile on her face.
"Did you know you have a Wikipedia page?" she asked.
Ah, that explains it. They Googled me. How this blog -- and its name -- wasn't a giant red flag I will never know, but it's nice to know the security staff here in Israel are masters of the interwebs. They didn't even feel the need, after confirming my internet fame, to run my bag through the scanner.
Such is the collective authority of Sergey Brin and Larry Page, I guess.
One of the enlightening things about this trip to Israel has been to hear Israeli military officers and analysts describe alternatives to the Franco-Anglo-American concept of counterinsurgency warfare. Most people with whom I have spoken agree with Dan Helmer's argument that Israel never developed a coherent counterinsurgency strategy in Lebanon in the 1980s and 1990s. (Ironic, perhaps, considering Israel's pre-state history.) But that is not to say that military professionals and theorists have not been seriously thinking about ways to deter and punish non-state actors.
Casting aside all value judgements -- again, I know this annoys the readership that I usually, like a good little social scientist, write about insurgent and counterinsurgent forces without passing moral judgment -- I do not feel the way in which Israel has approached violent non-state actors like Hizballah and the Palestinian groups throughout its history has proven all that effective or would be appropriate for the United States as it considers alternatives to FM 3-24. But alternatives to population-centric counterinsurgency strategies do exist, and critics of the current U.S. and allied approaches might want to consider bringing them into the dscussion. Rather than allow us "COINdinistas" (©SNLII) to erect straw men, why not articulate alternate models already in development?