Thomas Friedman is often the target of intense criticism for overly simplistic takes on international relations, the Middle East, business, and society. But he also should be commended when he does right, and this weekend he used his NYT column to direct his readers to a fascinating report on the interface of climate, food prices, and political instability in the Middle East. In short, weather events, food prices, and local-regional political dynamics all intersect with each other to unhinge previously solid dictatorships. Even skilled autocrats long skilled at playing the Middle Eastern game of divide-and-rule, pan-Arab nationalism, and suppression can be unhinged by interaction effects larger than any one country.
The report dovetails with longstanding work by Jack Goldstone, Peter Turchin, and others on demographic-structural causes of political disorder. How do these process act on situatons like the Arab Revolt? Anne-Marie Slaughter, in using the metaphor of "stressor," is exactly on target:
Crime-show devotees will be familiar with the idea of a “stressor”—a sudden change in circumstances or environment that interacts with a complicated psychological profile in a way that leads a previously quiescent person to become violent. The stressor is by no means the only cause of the crimes that ensue, but it is an important factor in a complex set of variables that ultimately lead to disaster.
To recognize deeper forces is to take nothing away from the brave men and women who struggled to overthrow Middle Eastern dictators. It also doesn't suggest that the politics, culture, sociology of the Middle East are just the deterministic products of macroprocesses.1 But one problem with traditional explanations of political unrest is that they do not explain how a solid (yet steadily eroding) authoritarian structure suddenly dissolves. We can see the drip-drip-drip of steadily growing entropy. Yet Hosni Mubarak's Egypt, though dysfunctional, was no Zimbabwe. And guess who is still in power? Likewise, what Friedman dubbed "Hama rules" worked for the elder Assad. Assad Jr. can't seem to hold it together.
One way is to look at social and political divisions and try to predict who can win a mobilization race. Many political analysts looking at Arab states ought to have bitten Jay-Z and said "we don't believe you, you need more people," instead of believing that secular-liberal movements with thin bases of support were going to come out on top. That this was going to happen, to continue the Jay-Z metaphor, was as believable as Mobb Deep's street credibility after Hova put Prodigy on the Summer Jam screen. The other method is to look at political contagion. When enough people individually decide to disobey El Jefe, the macrosocial pattern that results collapses the regime. But why they decide is still contested.
Another way is to look at larger patterns created by the interaction of the human and natural worlds. There is a certain determinism, as John Sheldon observed, in rejecting geopolitics and other natural influences on politics out of a fear of....determinism. it's a determinsm of the kind that rejects the causal influence of the very structures that human civilization both grew with and substantially changed. The intelligence community recognizes the importance of the possible political impact of larger natural-social processes: that's precisely why they shell out the dough for Global Trends. I can't really improve on Tuchin's explanation of why the "determinism" accusation falls flat:
W]hen students of dynamical systems (or, more colourfully, ‘chaoticians’ such as Jeff Goldblum’s character in the film Jurassic Park) talk about ‘cycles’, we do not mean rigid, mechanical, clock-like movements. Cycles in the real world are chaotic, because complex systems such as human societies have many parts that are constantly moving and influencing each other.
The ability to appreciate and integrate the moving parts and how they enable Malthus to trump Mubarak is an important (and underreported) element of 21st century security policy analysis. Note that I'm probably preaching to the choir here--the website I am blogging on also hosts a center that tackles these issues.
1. A side note: though I defended political science from what I viewed as unfair attacks, I do agree that political science could use some improvement. Political science has a problem with complex causality. As Kindred Winekoff pointed out, political science (particularly international relations) falls short in recognizing that social outcomes are not interdependent of each other. This is perhaps why those inclined towards war studies and military history often find American political science frustrating. Barry Watts (full disclosure: former professor at Georgetown) skewered Robert Pape's Bombing to Win because it lacked the proper instruments to measure the full strategic effect generated by strategic bombing.
Though it's an unscientific intuition, I suspect that the policy-inclined often are frustrated with how reductionist political science can be in looking at the messy, complex real world they've observed in their own practice. This explains the popularity of pop-sci "butterflies and hurricanes" bastardizations of complexity science among policy circles. People are looking for a language, vocabulary, and knowledge base that resonates with their own experiences. This isn't to say reductionist models aren't useful---reduction is inevitable. But how much does matter for the problem you're trying to explain and how you intend to use the explanation you generate.
How does any of this indicate that the geopolitical position of the U.S. has been weakened? The U.S.'s antagonists are quite literally fighting for their lives....regional democratization is underway -- albeit not in the way they had expected -- and the broader transformation of the region is proceeding in a direction that is amenable to the U.S.'s long-term interests. The Middle East is less engaged in proliferation than it was a decade ago, Tehran's intransigence notwithstanding. There are fewer security dilemmas in operation than at any point in decades...the frictions that many believed had developed between the U.S. and its NATO allies over Iraq appear to have been transitory rather than permanent.
Dan is also correct that, contrary to recent analysis, the Russians, Chinese, Brazilians, and other external powers also still sit on the periphery of Middle East power relations. This structural realist line of analyis doesn't address the societal changes Mishra describes, but his argument is unconvincing on that level as well. The postcolonial wave has been a consistent challenge globally for US foreign policy since the 1950s, but it never posed a overwhelming threat to American power in the Middle East. Why? Its effects are not uniform across states, and always remain vulnerable to national, regional, and extra-regional dynamics. This isn't to say that people do not share strong political commonalities or even necessarily weak civilizational ones. But in the case of the Middle East, the regional challenge to American influence never really emerged. In fact, as the Cold War deepened and post-colonial fervor hit its height the United States actually increased its power and alliances in the Middle East.
If Nasser and the forces he unleashed could not drive the US out, it's highly unlikely that the Arab Spring will. Had the idea of Arab unity been able to seriously mobilize a preponderence of power, it would have succeeded in its recurring series of projects aimed at regional unity. Yet whether in the confused strategy of the Arab states that lost the 1948 Israeli war of independence or the failure of the United Arab Republic, we've never seen a cohesive force able to really dispel external influence. One can take a constructivist explanation, as Michael Barnett does, or a standard neorealist explanation oriented around anarchy and the balance of power to figure out why. Either way, Mishra does not convince as to why today's upheaval is different.
This sort of talk unfortunately obscures the real issue: the variable shape of American involvement in the Middle East and how highly contingent that involvement really is on American perception of value. The US is not going to "withdraw" from the Middle East--we're yoked to it for cultural and economic reasons that cannot simply by wished away. But so are a host of other powers that nonetheless have different postures in the region than we do. In the absence of a Soviet strategic threat to the Persian Gulf and Iran's declining strategic position, how long the United States chooses to maintain its current network of alliances, political relationships, and force deployments will likely depend, as Dan has said, on both domestic opinion and policymakers' conception of costs and benefits.
Plainly put, the US intervenes in the Middle East to sustain and sometimes modernize US alliances structures and political relationships. It also sporadically intervenes to try to change the Middle East's domestic and cultural spheres, with varying degrees of success and failure. Though American intervention is mainly political and economic there is also a heavy military dimension. The former is unduly ignored and the latter is often unfairly blamed for America's problems in the region. The larger point: political and strategic relationships do not sustain themeselves. They have be constantly refreshed and defended, The US can skimp on that cost in the hope that clients and partners will, on their own, pick it up at the expense of competing domestic priorities. But it will find that those costs---like a rent bill--do not pay themselves. The Arab Spring, Iran, and emerging 2nd wave jihadist challenges pose political and diplomatic costs. The political-military "landlord" (to continue an awkward metaphor) also must be paid in Asia too, if the post-Vietnam American policy there is to be sustained.
Sometimes the bill can be paid by other actors, but not necessarily in the way the US desires. We are seeing a dramatic example of this in the South China Sea. Japan and China are engaging in a kind of conflict that was prevented in the past by the US' postwar policy of keeping Japan from becoming a threat to China and providing stability for Japanese economic and political development. American policies of dual containment in the 1990s against Iran and Iraq came as a consequence of the failure of attempting to play both against each other in the 1980s--a failure that prompted direct American military intervention to protect economic interests.
Right now, the US is willing to pay the costs of the current policy. But external shocks in other regions and further economic disruptions may shift this calculus. We should not also rule out nationalism as a possible factor in American policy shifts. In the past, as Dan notes, isolationism was originally expressed as an American feeling of superiority over a morally corrupted world dominated by European power politics. The popularity of the recurring "Muslim rage" concept plays on an traditional American idea that the blame for American failures to transform the societies of others should be laid at those societies themselves. So while we shouldn't bet on anything more than near-term US retrenchment (a different thing than decline) in response to current economic realities, retrenchment that leads to a different conception of achieving American interests shouldn't be conclusively ruled out in the early 21st century. But contra Mishra, that would have more to do with factors external to the Middle East than Frantz Fanon 2.0.
I spent all last week traveling around a country in the Middle East that rhymes with "Shmisreal" getting a feel for how leaders and analysts there see the Arab Spring. In general, our Shmisraeli friends remain pessimistic about what has thus far taken place and the trends they see going forward. By contrast, I spent the past eight months looking at the Middle East as part of a team that included Bruce Jentleson, Melissa Dalton and Dana Stuster, and although we identified some real near-term concerns for the United States, we also indentified several potentially positive trends for the United States.
Please do me a favor and provide some meaning for my life by downloading the paper here.
The bottom line is that the United States can accept a lot more risk in the region than it has done over the past decade. (Aside from that whole "invading Iraq" thing, of course, which entailed more risk than many of us were comfortable with.) Reduced U.S. dependency on the states of the Gulf as well as the return of politics to the Arab world should both be positive trends for U.S. interests -- so long as U.S. policy makers play their cards right.
Again, read the report here.
[The United States] gave Egypt’s military $1.3 billion worth of tanks and fighter jets, and it gave Lebanese public-school students a $13.5 million merit-based college scholarship program that is currently putting 117 Lebanese kids through local American-style colleges that promote tolerance, gender and social equality, and critical thinking. I’ve recently been to Egypt, and I’ve just been to Lebanon, and I can safely report this: The $13.5 million in full scholarships has already bought America so much more friendship and stability than the $1.3 billion in tanks and fighter jets ever will.
I am more than sympathetic to arguments that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East must go beyond military partnerships, but this Tom Friedman op-ed is nonsense. First off, no where in this op-ed is there any discussion of U.S. interests in the region, which are, according to the president:
That $1.3 billion in annual military aid? That is the price the United States pays to ensure peace between Israel and Egypt. For three decades, it has been a fantastic bargain.
Second, I am a proud graduate of the American University of Beirut, but do you know who else counted the AUB as their alma mater? The two most innovative terrorists in modern history, George Habbash and Imad Mughniyeh. U.S. universities and scholarship programs are nice things to do and sometimes forge important ties between peoples and future leaders, but they can also go horribly wrong and do not necessarily serve U.S. interests. There is certainly no guarantee a U.S.-style education leads to greater tolerance or gender and social equality.
Third, I'm glad Tom Friedman is traveling, but after a few weeks (days?) in Cairo and Beirut, he can "safely report" nothing about the relative effectiveness of U.S. activities in Egypt and Lebanon.
Fourth, the military aid we give to Egypt does not come out of the International Affairs budget, so it's not a simple matter of moving some cash around. Tom Friedman will want to speak to the U.S. Congress about this. I was wrong about this! See this Congressional Research Service report (.pdf) for more. Also, Gulliver wrote in to add that "ISA (which includes Foreign Military Finance – particularly the earmarked Israel and Egypt money – and International Military Education and training) is a separate budget line to the humanitarian aid and educational exchange stuff. Congress specifically appropriates that money and would have to be the ones to change it."
Fifth, in 1975, Lebanon was arguably the best educated and most cosmopolitan population in the Arabic-speaking world. I don't need to tell the guy who wrote this book what happened next, but for the rest of you, I'll just say that only in a twisted way did it involve "transforming [Lebanon] into what it should be and can be."
For the past several months, I've been working on a big project related to U.S. policy toward the Middle East at the Center for a New American Security. (My research partner is Duke's Bruce Jentleson, whose research I have long admired.) During that time, I've had the opportunity to interact with a wide array of former and current U.S. policy makers as well as the kinds of na'er-do-well academic specialists on the region whose work I have always found to be thought-provoking. One thing virtually everyone can agree on is the dilemma in which U.S. policy makers find themselves: in a region that is rapidly democratizing, the United States is over-invested in the least democratic institutions and regimes in the region.
Where things get tricky is when one tries to decide what to do about that. The principle problem is one that has been in my head watching more violent crackdowns in Bahrain and Egypt: the very source of U.S. leverage against the regimes in Bahrain and Egypt is that which links the United States to the abuses of the regime in the first place. So if you want to take a "moral" stand against the abuses of the regime in Bahrain and remove the Fifth Fleet, congratulations! You can feel good about yourself for about 24 hours -- or until the time you realize that you have just lost the ability to schedule a same-day meeting with the Crown Prince to press him on the behavior of Bahrain's security forces. Your leverage, such as it was, has just evaporated. The same is true in Egypt. It would feel good, amidst these violent clashes between the Army and protesters, to cut aid to the Egyptian Army. But in doing so, you also reduce your own leverage over the behavior of the Army itself.
At some point, of course, the United States has no choice to cut all ties to a regime or institution. We are not, I feel strongly, quite there in either Egypt or Bahrain. But as I hear of more and more of my friends in the region beaten with crowbars and pelted with rubber bullets by the forces charged with protecting the citizenry, it's fair to wonder whether or not the United States is using the leverage it has to its greatest effect.
The photojournalist Bryan Denton has been a friend for several years, and this past year has been a career year for him. Those who followed the reporting of C. J. "Chris" Chivers from Libya probably also know of Bryan's photographs. Bryan and I caught up a few weeks ago at the wedding of some friends, and I convinced him, late one night, to answer a few questions for the blog. What follows is some pretty incredible testimony from one of the bravest men in the business.
What a year! I hardly know where to begin, given all that you and your cameras have seen over the past 10 months. Let's begin with something you didn't see -- Egypt. After living in the Middle East for all these years, you missed the kickoff to the Arab Spring!
Ha, I wish I had been able to be there. I was stuck for most of February on a small base in southern Helmand Province, embedded with U.S. Marines on an assignment that had taken some time to get set up so I couldn't get out of it. I was leaving Beirut for this assignment on January 29th, just as Egypt's protests were beginning and I remember having goosebumps as I watched al-Jazeera in the airport with virtually everyone else on my flight to Dubai, in total silence. I knew, after Tunisia, and based on the size of the protests I was seeing on TV, that the region was changing in a way no one had called or could have foreseen. Sitting it out in Helmand was tough, but I came back just in time to be in position for Libya, once the revolution there really got under way, and the borders opened.
Man, Libya was an entirely different kettle of fish from Afghanistan. As someone who has always tried to make myself as small as possible while under fire, I do not envy any 6-foot, 8-inch combat photojournalist trying to cover high-intensity conflict. Talk us through the beginning of that campaign. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced as a photojournalist?
I think in the beginning, myself and most of my colleagues thought that Libya's revolution was going to be more tear gas and rubber bullets than a conventional war, including combined artillery, armor and airpower. Virtually no one I know, myself included, even brought body armor into Libya in late February/early March, and I, despite my time spent in Afghanistan over the past years, was in no way prepared for the level of combat that kicked off in early march. I don't know if anyone was.
Most of us had been in Benghazi covering the aftermath of that city's uprising for about a week when Qaddafi forces attacked the city of Brega on March 2. We'd spent the previous two days documenting the rebels as they were in the very beginning stages of starting to think about some kind of self defense force, as many of them were calling it. Mostly, it was young students washing 14.5mm ammunition that had long been in storage, putting it into links, and then spending their mornings learning to line up in formation. On March 2, I was at one of these training camps when news broke that Qaddafi loyalist forces had attacked Brega, and the camp emptied out as men took to the road. It was as if all of Benghazi had decided to fight that day, with hundreds of cars full of men and boys, mostly unarmed, heading towards Brega. By the end of that day, the rebels had repelled what in retrospect was a small probing force of about 45 trucks, simply through sheer numbers of bodies on the road. Qaddafi had begun using airstrikes though, and I remember going back to Benghazi that day thinking that the revolution in LIbya had now become a military conflict.
I have always been pretty gung-ho, but what followed in the coming days, as the rebels continued to push west, bouyed by what they saw as a victory at Brega, and their destiny, along the coast was a hard introduction to a kind of fear I hadn't felt before while working. They encountered relatively light resistance up through Ras Lanuf and into Bin Jawad on March 5, where there was a day-long celebration by rebels and some residents. I had bought a bottle of Jameson with me that I was planning on cracking open once we arrived in Tripoli, and at that time, I was convinced that was going to be in a week or two tops. The next morning, March 6, we woke up to an entirely different reality.
Qaddafi troops, not in trucks, but in tanks and aided by loyalists in Bin Jawad had begun to push back against the rabble/horde of mainly unarmed rebels. The force had come from Sirte, the garrison town that is now under siege, and they were firing 122mm and 107mm rockets, T-72 tank main gun rounds, mortars, Qaddafi's airforce was dropping unguided iron bombs on groups of rebels massing on the road—which at the time was all the rebels really knew how to do, and Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters were straffing rebel positions. I had four of the most harrowing close calls of my career that day, all within the span of about four or five hours, as did a number of my colleagues. By the end of the day my fight or flight mechanism was completely shot, and I was the closest I've ever been to all out panic — it took a lot to keep my composure.
What compounded the fear most was the realization that many of the things I'd taken for granted while embedded with U.S. troops, like a robust Medevac chain, advanced communications and situational awareness tools, and all the other goodies that I'd grown accustomed to were absent. Our access was total and completely unfettered, which I think is why most of us braved it through those days ... the pictures, if you could muster the courage, were amazingly dramatic, but for the most part, and this became a theme throughout the Libyan conflict, we were working in the blind, and basing decisions with very real deadly consequences on very little information, if any at all.
The conflict turned nasty quickly. But the rebels improved over time. You had previously spent a lot of time with seasoned U.S. troops in Afghanistan and know the difference between well-trained regular units and the kinds of citizen militias that were fighting in Libya. Talk the readership of this blog through what you were able to witness in terms of battlefield learning and innovation.
The learning curve for the rebels was most certainly steep. I think the best way I've heard them described was by Chivers, who referred to them as "accidental combatants," a term I've always thought was pretty prescient. They were engineers, lawyers, students, unemployed youth, and I don't think at the outset, they anticipated such a long grinding conflict that would take so many of their lives, and require so much innovation in the field. There wasn't a lot, if any combat experience within their collective ranks at the beginning, and everything they did — especially in the early days, was learned through a school of pretty hard knocks. No place better illustrated this than Misrata — which was under siege for two solid months. By the time we arrived there in mid April, it was like a mad scientists workshop of urban warfare tactics. They'd taught themselves how to move between buildings by knocking out "rat-holes" dug through multiple walls along the frontline, and had turned downtown Misrata — essentially a circular network of roads that link up at various roundabouts—into a virtual maze by blocking off streets at various points with shipping containers and sand berms. In the beginning, they built these fortifications by putting a brave sole in a bulldozer or forklift, and having him brave blistering machine gun and RPG fire in order to build them in place, when they lost enough people and bulldozers, they started welding steel plates onto the bulldozers. Electricians and steel workers who had worked in the oil industry perviously were now working in make-shift weapons workshops, mounting all kinds of things onto the backs of pickup trucks as rebel units filtered in for refits or repairs, suggesting tweaks here and there. From an objective point of view, watching a civilian population it was awe inspiring to watch. In April, maybe two out of five rebels in Misrata had a weapon, and most of them were fighting from their neighborhoods.
No amount of training can give a man absolute belief in his cause. Most American troops I've spent time with in Afghanistan, where politics and fighting are constantly happening side by side, and often times at odds with one another, fight as much for each other as they do for their country. A lot of the soldiering I've seen, in a variety of places, relies on brotherhood more than rank to hold a unit together. In Misrata, what they may have lacked in training was replaced by this sheer will and belief in their cause and the notion of their city as a cohesive family unit. One thing Americans haven't had in over a hundred years, thankfully, is the experience of fighting over our own physical land. Fighting for something physical, like your life, or your house, rather than something almost existential, like your security changes the dynamic completely.
I remember this one day, in the hospital, a rebel came in badly burned. I was talking to his friend later who said that he'd been been in Birwaya, west of the city, when a Qaddafi forces tank had begun pushing on their position. According to his friend, the man had charged the tank with a grenade and a molotav cocktail, and in the process of trying to climb onto the moving tank to drop the grenade in the hatch, the molotov cocktail had exploded and engulfed him in flame. Perhaps not the smartest of tactic if self preservation is concerned, and there were plenty of similar cases of negligence in handling weapons that come along with an untrained fighting force, but the belief one has to have in their cause to charge a tank with a grenade? You can't buy, train, or equip a soldier with that ...
This has been a very tough year for photojournalists. First, at the end of the last year, Joao Silva was horrifically wounded in southern Afghanistan. Then several journalists -- including your friends Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington -- were killed in Libya this past spring. What effects have these events had on you as a professional? And is there anything readers of the blog should know about these men and the other men and women who put themselves in harm's way to bring us the news here in the United States?
It has been a brutal year for our group, which is a small one. Joao Silva's wounding in Afghanistan, as well as Tyler Hicks' and Lynsey Addario's capture in Libya in March — both of whom I was working with just days before they were captured -- had me very rattled before the loss of Chris and Tim. More than any others, Tyler, Joao and Lynsey have been my mentors in covering conflict through the early years of my career in places like Georgia and Lebanon. I was lucky enough to get my start in this business by working alongside them, looking up to them both as photographers, and as individuals, and as a novice, they've often helped me gauge the safety of situations. What each of those three went through, before Chris and Tim passed, was chilling in that I think for the first time I really understood that this work potentially has serious consequences, no matter how much experience you have. Tim and Chris' deaths didn't really confirm this any more than it needed to be, but I still think about both of them a lot and haven't been able to shake the sadness knowing that both of them somehow ran out of luck, together, in Misrata, at such bright times in their lives.
None of us are immune, and we live and die by the choices we make in the field. I think Chris and Tim both knew this better than most. Both were brave in their reporting, but mostly to me, what I think about, is how thoughtful they both were. Tim I only met in Benghazi, but over two weeks or so working around him and talking over pictures in the evenings, I was in awe of how he could freestyle incredibly sensitive narrative jazz into a visual record based on what he was seeing. In an industry known for its large personalities, he traveled almost directly from the red carpet at the Oscars to the western gate of Ajdabiyeh, and arrived with no pretense or posturing. I, like most I imagine, met him and knew immediately that he was someone genuine and special, and am sad that I didn't get the opportunity to know him better.
Hondros I'd known since 2008, when we had both covered the war in Georgia, and we had hung out in Afghanistan, New York and Egypt several times in the intervening years. Chris took his work quite seriously, and I was always struck by his ability to look at situations in a very un-stylized way and let what was actually happening come through the image. It sounds easy, but it's not, and he was one of the best in the business in my opinion. His last set of photographs from Misrata, of rebels storming a building on Tripoli street, are as terrifying as they are a perfect example of his dedication to his work — especially knowing that he went back out to keep working after taking a break to file them.
Along the same lines, we spoke at length last weekend about risk mitigation in combat -- a subject I also discussed with Chris Chivers recently. Tell us about your philosophy for managing and mitigating risk in your work. What steps do you take to report what you need to report while doing so in as smart and safe a way as possible?
After March 6, which I wrote about above, I knew that covering the war in Libya would require a significant rethink in terms of managing risk if I was going to continue to cover it on a long term basis. I was extremely lucky to have had the chance to work with Chivers on my second trip, which included our Misrata reporting. I had some idea about what I was doing, but Chris (Chivers) can look at a battlefield, through all the light and noise, and see it as a three dimensional and dynamic entity. As we probed the front in Brega, and later, the frontlines in Misrata, and the Western Mountains, we came up with a system that both of us were comfortable with. As soon as we were within range of artillery, we wore our body armor and kevlar if we were outside or driving, and would only travel to the frontlines if there was news or a specific story that would justify the risk. Once there, we would do our reporting, get the material that we needed, and then get out.
Artillery was probably the single greatest threat during much of our time reporting together, and there were instances on the road to Brega early on that had led us to believe that the teams directing Qaddafi's rockets, mortars and artillery were striking pre-registered targets on the map such as intersections, or key installations — many of which were occupied by rebels, so hanging around at these positions just waiting for something to happen was potentially quite dangerous.
What was amazing was that by not simply chasing the noise, as I watched many photographers do — it's a natural reaction for many, including myself — we were able to do what was, in my opinion, some of the better reporting, particularly from Misrata, on the gears and moving parts of the rebellion.
I always end these interviews with something related to food and drink. You and I have together polished off several bottles of Laphroig on the balconies of Beirut. Where are the three best places in the Middle East to sit down with your photojournalist peers and swap stories over a cold beer or glass of Scotch?
A great part of this year and the last has been drinking less to be honest. Afghanistan and Libya are both fairly booze-free zones for me. I'm realizing that I need to start exercising more, and living healthy if I want to keep doing this job. That said, when in Beirut, one can never go wrong going for a cocktail at Kayan in Gemayze, or on my balcony as you mentioned, particularly if there's something on my BBQ. I was just in Sidi Bou Said in Tunisia as well, and that place nearly gives Beirut a run for it's money.
For those of you in New York City, an exhibit of Bryan's photos will be running from 20 October until 19 Novemberat the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. The rest of you can follow Bryan on Twitter at@bdentonphoto.
Understatement of the Year? Fouad Ajami on the United States after 9/11:
America ... wasn't brilliant at everything it attempted in Arab lands.
I am off for a week's vacation on the family farm in East Tennessee and will be away from the blog during that time, so I wanted to highlight a few reading suggestions while I am away.
1. I took a little good-natured teasing for suggesting over Twitter that I can often find policy-relevant research in the American Political Science Review and the International Journal of Middle East Studies, but this month's IJMES really does have a great roundtable discussion that will be of interest to those studying the Middle East from a policy perspective and, specifically, what is taking place in the "Arab Spring."
In Foreign Affairs a few months back, Greg Gause wrote:
Scholars did not predict or appreciate the variable ways in which Arab armies would react to the massive, peaceful protests this year. This oversight occurred because, as a group, Middle East experts had largely lost interest in studying the role of the military in Arab politics.
A number of scholars do, though, take the study of Arab militaries quite seriously. And this month's IJMES features a roundtable discussion on "Rethinking the Study of Middle East Militaries" with short essays by Yezid Sayigh, Roger Owen, Robert Springborg, Oren Barak and others. I highly recommend policy-interested scholars of the region check it out.
[Warning: what follows has nothing to do with the topics normally considered on this blog. Proceed at your own risk.]
2. I am getting a little tired of political journalists and their thumb-nail deep understanding of trends within and strands of evangelical and fundamentalist Christian thought in America. Even as good an article as Ryan Lizza's profile of Michelle Bachmann -- which I enjoyed -- left something to be desired in its treatment of Francis Schaeffer and evangelical theology. Most treatments of the religious beliefs of Bachmann and also Rick Perry that I have been reading over the past few weeks are clumsy at the least and intolerant and ignorant at the worst. Watching Bachmann on Meet the Press on Sunday, for example, I was shaking my head in disbelief as the candidate advanced her "understanding" of "economics," but once David Gregory started grilling her on her theological beliefs, I started considering the whole exchange unfair, uninformed and inappropriate.*
If political journalists are going to start writing about the theological beliefs of people like Bachmann and Perry, they should first take the time to study evangelicalism and fundamentalisms within American Christianity in a serious way. One great, pithy (just 224 pages!) introduction to the subject, even if it is a bit dated, is George Marsden's Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. Another great book, which is really a criticism of evangelical anti-intellectualism and should be read by believers and non-believers alike, is Mark Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Reading these books -- or, at the very least, the first book -- will better equip Americans of all trades and political stripes to speak intelligently about the evangelical and, in cases, fundamentalist beliefs of some candidates for the presidency.
I suspect that as many of these politicians have been as influenced by John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones as by R. J. Rushdoony and J. Gresham Machen, and it's important for political reporters to know the differences and similarities between them all if they are going to start throwing out names and ideas as being relevant to the election.
*Look, I realize that it's the politicians who have opened to door to a discussion of their faiths by making such a big deal out of them in front of prospective voters. But last Sunday, it seemed as if David Gregory was telling Michelle Bachmann she was theologically wrong, and it just struck me as terribly unfair. For one brief moment, such did Gregory's line of questioning bother me, I found myself actually rooting for Bachmann.
Each year, around this time in the (lunar) calendar, Western newspapers are usually filled with stories about the latest exciting Ramadan soap opera everyone is watching. Nothing happens during Ramadan, the story goes, so most reporting on the Arabic-speaking world is of the human interest variety.
It's worth pausing to consider, then, how remarkable this year has been and continues to be. I woke up this morning to images of Hosni Mubarak in a cage, on trial in Egypt. This is a stunning image for me to see, so I can only imagine the effect it has on 83m Egyptians and about 250m other people in the region.
Elsewhere in the Arabic-speaking world, meanwhile, violent civil wars and upheavals continue to press for the fall of the Qadhdhafi regime in Libya, the al-Asad regime in Syria, and the Saleh regime in Yemen. If I had to place my bets, I would bet all will ultimately and bloodily be successful.
Remarkable. Ramadan mubarak indeed.