Threats and Promises

Do Obama’s red lines with Iran and others really mean “or else”?

Have you had it up to here with supposed allies who issue ultimatums to Washington? Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, seems to come up with a new one whenever he's in a bad mood. Last week's was: Hand over all the prisoners in the main detention facility in Parwan within a month. And what about the Pakistanis? In the aftermath of the NATO raid that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, the military leadership ordered the C.I.A. to close the Shamsi airbase it uses to launch aerial drones -- this from a country whose military we train and finance, and whose pockets we deeply line. And it's not just the allies: Iran has threatened to close the Straits of Hormuz if the West doesn't suspend its program of sanctions.

Remember when it was the United States that was issuing all the ultimatums? Those were the days. Right after 9/11, according to Bob Woodward's book, Bush At War, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage handed a list of seven demands to Pakistan's intelligence chief -- cut off support to al Qaeda and the Taliban, give the United States overflight and landing rights, etc. -- and Pakistan complied. President George W. Bush gave the world a clear choice: stand with us, or stand with the terrorists. And remember when British Prime Minister Tony Blair, America's closest ally, said that he could only join the U.S. war effort in Iraq if the allies got a resolution at the United Nations authorizing the use of force? Bush decided against seeking the resolution, and gave Blair the same choice: in or out. And Blair went in.

So what's gone wrong? How come the United States is suddenly on the receiving end of so many ultimatums? Conservatives know the answer: Because we're weak, of course. Because Barack Obama insists on engaging countries that only understand force. Iran rattles its sabre because it knows Obama will never use the supreme sanction of war. Karzai threatens us because -- well, that's different.

Afghanistan is our ally. So is Pakistan. They don't issue ultimatums because we're weak; they do so because they're weak. The only way either Karzai or Pakistan's military leaders can shore up their fading support at home is by standing up to Washington, which needs them and therefore cannot afford to call their bluff. Come to think of it, the same is true of Iran, which surely knows that blocking oil shipments could provoke a devastating retaliation. But it's the best card they've got.

Historically, of course, the ultimatum is a tool of the strong against the weak: open up the gates or we'll raze your city, rape your women, and enslave your men. But nowadays, powerful countries wish to be seen as rule-abiding, and are less inclined to shake their fist at weaker states. The ultimatum has become largely a tool of the weak -- a form of asymmetric warfare. Stop violating Afghanistan's sovereignty, Karzai seems to be saying, or we'll do something suicidal. After all, he's also threatened to join the Taliban if the West continues to press him to reform his government. He might never carry out any of these threats, of course: The ultimatum is issued publicly because it is aimed at the domestic public as much as it is at the adversary. But the power he has over the West is the power to harm Western interests -- even if that means harming himself.

It's an infuriating situation. You'd like to be able to say, "Fine: join the Taliban for all I care." You'd like to tell Pakistan's Gen. Ashfaq Kayani to get lost. But, as both leaders know, it's not in the U.S. interest to call their bluff. So the White House instead dispatches Sen. John Kerry to talk one or both of them off the ledge. There's really no good alternative: Even the Republican candidates for president, who uniformly scorn Barack Obama for failing to credibly threaten Iran with war if it doesn't end its nuclear program, have very little to offer on Afghanistan or Pakistan.

The real reason the United States has been the target of these vexing ultimatums is that over the last decade it has meddled deeply with the sovereignty of brittle states, which in turn react with intense resentment. The solution is to stop provoking this form of asymmetric warfare. By accelerating the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, Washington will put an end not only to the insoluble relationship with Karzai but also to its dependence on Pakistan, whose hinterland serves as a staging area for attacks on American troops in Afghanistan. The United States has already muted its neuralgic relationship with Iraq by withdrawing its troops there altogether. And one of the side-benefits of the White House's planned pivot to Asia is that the United States will have less frictional relationships with allies like Japan and South Korea than with Afghainstan and Pakistan.

In these matters, Barack Obama is, of course, the consummate grown-up. He neither issues ultimatums nor takes the bait when others do so. He is elaborately respectful of the sovereignty of other states (except, perhaps, when he authorizes drone strikes). At some deep intuitive level, Obama believes that he can persuade adversaries that their true interests lie in cooperation. But his presidency has offered him an education in the limits of this principle, domestically as well as abroad. He has learned that congressional Republicans don't actually want to cooperate for the greater good, and so he has belatedly started to issue demands -- extend the payroll tax cut, or else.

You can be too forbearing, as you can be too peremptory. Engagement does not work if it's one-sided. Indeed, Obama now seems to have applied this lesson to foreign affairs: According to the New York Times, the president has responded to the Iranian ultimatum with one of his own: the United States will treat any attempt to block the Straits as a casus belli. Unlike Iran, the United States delivered this message privately: The goal was to clarify the consequences of Iran's action, and to give them a chance to quietly back down, rather than to bully them into compliance.

If you deliver a threat in private, does that make it a diplomatic demarche rather than an ultimatum? Maybe; I won't quibble. It still comes with an "or else" attached. And if the threat to Tehran has the intended effect, perhaps it will embolden our ever-cautious president to try out this tactic elsewhere -- in Egypt, for example. Over the last week, Egypt's military government has engaged in a crackdown on civil society unprecedented even during the long rule of Hosni Mubarak. The time has come for Obama to tell Egypt's rulers that he will withhold some of the $1.3 billion in military aid, and then more, if they continue to send Egypt back towards autocratic rule. He should convey this threat privately, of course. And he should be prepared to make good on the "or else."


Terms of Engagement

The Dog That Didn't Bark

Algeria looked ripe for revolution. What happened?

What's wrong with Algeria? Over the last year, the fever that is the Arab Spring has overtaken one country after another. Monarchies like Morocco or Jordan have been able to focus popular discontent on the government rather than the head of state; oil sheikdoms like Qatar or Kuwait have bought social peace. But no autocratic republic, no matter how brutal, has been able to resist the storm -- except Algeria. Here is a country where strikes and demonstrations were routine long before 2011, where newspapers openly mocked an enfeebled leader, where security forces and pro-regime thugs confronted rioters amid the first stirrings of the Arab Spring. A year ago, Algeria might well have been voted most likely to overthrow its ruler. But it hasn't. In fact, the mass protests petered out. Why? Why elsewhere, and not Algeria?

Very few Americans visit Algeria, or study it, or know much about it. You probably didn't know, for example, that Algeria is the biggest country in Africa -- bigger even, than undivided Sudan, which was always said to be roughly the size of Western Europe. Most of it, of course, is the Sahara Desert, though with 35 million people Algeria is also the second-largest nation in the Arab world (behind Egypt, of course). Algeria has the world's fourth-largest reserves of natural gas. It has $150 billion in its sovereign wealth fund. Are you feeling a bit ashamed yet that you don't more about Algeria?

Algeria was, like Tunisia and Morocco, a French colony. But France ruled Algeria as an overseas extension of la patrie, and would not, or could not, part with it. French rule in Algeria ended with the horrendous civil war of 1954-1962, a struggle whose atrocities were famously memorialized in Gilles Pontecorvo's film Battle of Algiers. The anti-colonial war brutalized Algerian society and left in its wake a legacy of revolutionary rhetoric, and revolutionary posturing. Algeria became an avant-garde autocracy -- the Cuba of the Maghreb. The state wrapped itself in the flag of revolution.

But then something remarkable happened: Chadli Benjedid, a president installed by Algeria's shadowy military leaders, decided to give democracy a try. After winning re-election in 1988, Benjedid promulgated a new constitution and submitted it to a national referendum. The constitution eliminated all reference to socialism, removed restrictions on freedom of speech and legalized unions and political parties. In a matter of months, as John P. Entelis, the rare American Algeria expert, writes in the current issue of The Journal of North African Studies, "the Algerian political system had been fundamentally transformed from a single-party authoritarian state to a multiparty, pluralistic nation of laws."

For the next two years, Algeria carried out an experiment in democracy which the Arab world had never seen before, and has not seen again until now. An Islamist party, the FIS, won an overwhelming fraction of seats in local elections -- and the vote was allowed to stand. Entelis says that the FIS espoused a moderate brand of Islam, like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood or Tunisia's Ennahda (though other accounts claim that the FIS sought to discredit the state and undermine the constitution). But in January 1992, citing the fear of an Islamist takeover, the military annulled the election and overthrew the regime. The West, equally frightened of political Islam, offered little criticism. The FIS did pose a threat to the secular Algerian state; but the military also exploited that threat in order to re-impose its authority over the state, as the Turkish military would do the following year after a moderate Islamist party came to power through election.

Turkey got a second chance with the election of the current ruling party, the AKP, in 2002; Algeria never did. The failure of liberal meliorism reignited Algeria's habits of revolutionary polarization. The military hunted down the FIS leadership and the rank-and-file; the party splintered, with some joining the state and others embracing terrorism. For the next six years, both sides engaged in a mutual slaughter which left as many 200,000 dead -- the worst spasm of violence in Algeria's convulsive history. The civil war of the 1990s traumatized the Algerian public far more deeply than the war against France had done. The uprising against France had fostered an image of national solidarity; the civil war turned Algeria's activists and reformers against one another and shattered the state's revolutionary legitimacy.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, first elected in 1999, brought the war to an end. Bouteflika advanced some mild social reforms and tolerated far more freedom of the press than was available, for example, in Tunisia. He was re-elected in a relatively free election in 2004, and was given credit both for seeking to modernize the economy and for seeking to tame the power of the security and intelligence apparatus. He permitted Islamists, who had come to terms with the civil state, to operate openly, and to run for office. Nevertheless, as Bouteflika continued to consolidate power in his own office, jailed opponents, and undermined the independence of parliament and the judiciary, he came to be seen as a "liberal autocrat" in the mold of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. And with high unemployment and rising costs, by 2011 Algerians were as deeply alienated from the state as Egyptians or Tunisians. The chief difference was that they expressed their frustration more openly, through strikes and public criticism of the regime, which Bouteflika, like his predecessors, tolerated within limits.

When the Arab Spring blossomed last January, Entelis says, Algeria's opposition -- human rights activists, Islamists, Trotskyites -- seemed ready to overcome the deep mutual suspicions that had long separated them, and had been exacerbated by the civil war. He thought, and Algerian activists hoped, that 2011 might be the fulfillment of 1992. Last January, in between the protests in Tunisia and Egypt, riots in Algiers over food prices and unemployment led to the death of five protesters and the wounding of 800. Demonstrations spread to major cities across the country.

Bouteflika responded with force, but also with conciliation. In February, the regime lifted the emergency law that had been imposed in 1992. In April, Bouteflika went on the air to announce constitutional reforms designed to "strengthen democracy," including a new electoral law. In May, the government announced that it would boost subsidies on flour, milk, cooking oil, and sugar -- on top of a 34 percent increase in the salaries of civil servants announced earlier in the year. Algeria, it turned out, belonged to a category of its very own -- more flexible than neighbors like Libya or Egypt, but also wealthy enough that, like the Gulf sheikdoms, it could use payoffs to blunt social anger. Instead of gathering force, as happened elsewhere, the mass protests in Algeria subsided.

Algerians remembered their own past all too well. Despots like Syria's Bashar al-Assad warned that protest will unleash extremism -- and then consciously provoked precisely the violent response they had warned of. But in Algeria, political dissent had boiled over into fratricide in very recent memory. A relatively moderate form of Islam had degenerated into terrorism; indeed, one remnant of the FIS ultimately signed on with al Qaeda in the Maghreb and remains a threat to the state, if a distant one. And so while Algeria's tradition of protest permitted a degree of activism forbidden elsewhere, the fear that it would boil over, leading the military to respond with murderous force, acted as a check on public resentment.

The Bouteflika regime is itself engaged in a battle for supremacy with le pouvoir, as Algerians call the security and intelligence apparatus, with the ultimate prize being control over Algeria's oil and gas revenues. Entelis argues that the reactionary forces within le pouvoir have recently gained the upper hand. Meanwhile, Algeria's ruling elite seems more divorced than ever from Algeria's restive public. Deeply fearful of the domino effect of the Arab Spring, the regime sided with Muammar al-Qaddafi during the Libyan civil war, and was the last country in the region to recognize Libya's National Transition Council, rendering its "revolutionary" credentials yet more threadbare. Secular and Islamist opponents have called on Bouteflika to replace his current prime minister in advance of parliamentary elections this May. But Entelis says that he doesn't expect either evolutionary or revolutionary change. Algeria has tried both, and both failed.

Algeria's story reminds us of the danger of looking at events categorically. Because the same grievances have given rise to protest across the Arab world, and because that protest has taken a very similar form from one country to the next, we tend to expect the outcomes to resemble each other as well. But they won't, because different histories have shaped different political cultures in each of these places. Algeria also forces us to recognize the weight of the past. History is not destiny: Had the military chosen not to step in, Algeria might well have groped its way to democracy. Turkey went one way, Algeria another. But history shapes expectations and fears, conditions the response to new events. All of us, whether we know it or not, carry our past within ourselves.