Decline Is Not a River in Egypt

Why does the Arab world still think America is all-powerful?

I was fortunate to spend last week in Cairo and Dubai speaking with academics, policy analysts, public officials, journalists, and activists from various Middle Eastern states. As someone who is interested in how U.S. policymakers and pundits debate, describe, and defend the role of the United States in the region, my trip provided an informed -- though admittedly selective -- window into how engaged citizens perceive U.S. foreign policy. In particular, four points stood out.

First, there is a broad desire for political leaders to actually lead -- either individually or cooperatively, through regional bodies like the Arab League -- on major regional issues, from the Palestinian situation to chronic water shortages. On Sunday, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi warned: "Everyone should remember, the peoples of the region are different than before. The leadership in the region is different." However, few people held out much hope for this new leadership for three complimentary reasons:

1) There is tremendous skepticism of all forms of state authority, regardless of religion, ideology, or how the leadership came to power. As a young Egyptian activist noted: "This is an era of suspicion, and we don't trust our own leaders."

2) The most plausible contenders for assuming a greater leadership role were Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. However, it remains to be seen whether the political leaders in those countries are up to the challenge -- with particularly acute disappointment over Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's habit of overpromising and underdelivering.

3) The pathology of helplessness and abdication of responsibility from past and present political leaders in the Middle East is hard to overstate. Many people seemed to believe that they possessed little agency over their personal and political trajectories, while acknowledging that this was a soothing excuse for inaction.

Second, there is a broad acceptance and understanding that the United States should have a continued role in the region, particularly regarding development and diplomacy. Leading foreign policy thinkers from the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) repeatedly demanded immediate foreign aid and argued that the United States should implement a Marshall Plan for Egypt in return for its decades-long support of Hosni Mubarak. In addition, they believed that the White House could produce billions of dollars of unconditional aid within the next few months. Given that the FJP experts had all lived or studied in the United States, it was surprising how little they knew about the appropriations process or the limited appetite for increasing the foreign aid budget.

(For all of its attention in domestic politics, no one was aware of the potential impact of the so-called fiscal cliff on the U.S. ability to sustain its commitments around the world. It seemed implausible that American officials would allow such a thing to happen, or that the United States could run out of money.) 

Third, to broker diplomatic outcomes to enduring conflicts in the Middle East, many ascribed a level of power and influence to the United States that would make even the most ardent of neoconservatives wince. For example, although few believed President Obama would make a serious effort to facilitate an Israel-Palestine peace agreement, most believed he could so quickly if he prioritized the issue, since Tel Aviv supposedly takes direct orders from Washington.

On Syria, dozens of people explicitly said that the United States (not the Arab League, Gulf states, or the European Union) bore direct responsibility for the suffering of civilians caught in the civil war. This blame was framed with versions of the same question: "If Libya, why not Syria?" Nine days into the Libya intervention, deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough famously observed: "We don't get very hung up on this question of precedent. Because we don't make decisions about questions like intervention based on consistency or precedent. We make them based on how we can best advance our interests in the region." 

When I attempted to translate the Obama administration's careful and deliberate decision-making over Libya, it was dismissed as a hypocritical excuse for inaction. Moreover, President Obama's only "red line" on Syria -- "a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people" -- was perceived as self-serving and irrelevant to the needs of the Syrian people. In the words of an Arab-language media executive: "All Obama cares about in Syria is WMD, WMD, WMD. To us, this sounds just like Bush in Iraq."

When pressed for specifics on what exactly President Obama should do with regards to Syria, absolutely no one thought the United States should intervene militarily, including via no-fly zones or safe zones. Allegedly, the United States should work with the UN Security Council, (despite the failed efforts to do just that over the past 18 months) to endorse an UN-sponsored mediation effort -- exactly what long-time diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi is doing today. If this route failed (as it is), then the proposed "Plan B" was a UN Security Council resolution authorizing a limited military intervention to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian services, but not to support the armed opposition. A former foreign minister said that President Obama could compel Moscow and Beijing to change their votes on such a resolution "if he wanted."

Finally, nearly everyone raised the issue of the U.S. use of drones to conduct targeted killings. The bad news -- from the perspective of the Obama administration -- was that even those with a general understanding of U.S. drone strikes were not aware of their corresponding justifications by American officials. When I would describe the (rhetorical) justifications, many were surprised that the United States had made any public defense of drone strikes. Roughly half the people accepted that the United States needs to use drones, but virtually everyone believed that it is impossible to discriminate between militants and civilians. In short, the narrative that U.S. drone strikes cause civilian casualties was much more pervasive than the rationale for targeted killings. In addition, no one was aware that the United States received either the explicit (in the cases of Yemen and Somalia) or tacit (Pakistan) consent of the governments where the attacks occurred. It was widely assumed that the United States acted as an aggressor state without any permission.

Beyond the impact that drone strikes have on perception of the United States, I was struck to learn that targeted killings are the lens through which many view all counterterrorism activities. The very word "counterterrorism" was derided as an excuse for the West and tyrannical rulers (most notably Bashar al-Assad) to use violence against legitimate political protesters. Several military and intelligence officials hoped that President Obama would transition to treating terrorism as more of a law enforcement issue, rather than hewing to what many viewed as a drone-first, ask-questions-later strategy. That said, these same people acknowledged that they hoped to expand their own drone fleets, if only they had the money to do so.

The overarching theme was that the previous, longstanding U.S. strategy of achieving its national interests in the Middle East via bilateral relations with authoritarian rulers has been rendered obsolete. The Arab uprisings, specifically their demands for social and political justice, demonstrated the need for U.S. policymakers to take into account (and not just rhetorically) the aspirations of the majority of the people. If the United States hopes to secure its enduring interests -- assuring reliable energy supplies, countering the rise of regional hegemons, sustaining a close relationship with Israel, and facilitating an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement -- it must make this strategic shift. But few thought that it would.

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National Security

Dempsey's Paradox

The world is getting less violent. So why do we feel so threatened?

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has leveraged his authority to tackle some tough questions. Much like his predecessor, Adm. Mike Mullen (and the former vice chairman, Gen. James Cartwright), Dempsey has not shied away from controversial topics, ranging from what the Israeli military could do to Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program (delay "probably for a couple of years") to the growing scourge of sexual assaults in the military (which "deeply scar our profession"). You might question some of what Dempsey says (I have), but he deserves credit for raising the public profile of critical issues to a degree that is rare among his civilian counterparts.

One of his favorite and oft-repeated issues is the security paradox, which he expanded on in a public speech in October:

We live in an era where we're at an evolutionary low in violence.… State-on-state conflict is far less likely than it has been in the past. The problem is that other kinds of conflict, other kinds of violence, are exponentially more likely as technology spreads, as the information age allows organizations and individuals, middleweight nations, if you will, to have capabilities that heretofore were the purview of major nation-states. So it's a paradox … -- large conflict is less likely … but the chance of violence and those using violence for ideological and other purposes is exponentially greater.

It is worth unpacking this observation, because it presumably underpins his remarkable claim that the world is more dangerous than at any point since (at least) 1952. As Dempsey declared in April, "I believe I'm chairman at a time that seems less dangerous, but it's actually more dangerous." However, recent data about armed conflict trends to paint a very different picture and has important implications for the proper role of the U.S. military in preventing, mitigating, or responding to such violence.

The marked decline in human violence was made prominent by Harvard University professor Steven Pinker, whom Dempsey has quoted directly. In his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Pinker draws on a seemingly inexhaustible survey of research to demonstrate that "violence has been in decline for long stretches of time, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful time in our species' existence." This trend applies to interpersonal violence, criminal violence, pogroms, and war. (The one form of violence that has increased substantially is self-inflicted. According to the World Health Organization, global suicide rates increased almost 50 percent for men and 33 percent for women between 1950 and 2000. Framed another way, for every one person who is killed by another person, two more kill themselves -- for a total of 1 million global suicides each year.)

The drastic drop in violence seems counterintuitive given the unrelenting news coverage that promotes and sensationalizes terrorism, ethnic violence, and deadly riots around the world. As Pinker notes, "We tend to estimate the probability of an event from the ease with which we can recall examples, and scenes of carnage are more likely to be beamed into our homes and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age." The statistical evidence that Pinker summarizes, however, shows that people have never been less at risk of dying at the hands of another person than today.

Dempsey is also correct that the number of armed conflicts -- and particularly state-on-state conflict -- has trended toward a historical low after reaching a zenith in 1992. Armed conflict is defined by the Uppsala Conflict Data Program as a "contested incompatibility which concerns government and/or territory where the use of armed force between two parties, of which at least one is the government of a state, results in at least 25 battle-related deaths [per year]." In 1992, there were 53 ongoing armed conflicts around the world. By 2010, this number had fallen to 31, though it increased to 37 in 2011. Moreover, for the past 67 years, the great powers have not fought wars directly against one another, in the "longest period of major power peace in centuries," according to the Human Security Report Project.

When armed conflicts do erupt, they are far less bloody than in the past. Among all state-based armed conflicts, the number of battle deaths has fallen dramatically. After peaking at 596,086 deaths in 1950, there were 153,485 in 1975 and 92,485 in 2000. To put it another way, in the 1950s there were 65,000 deaths per conflict/per year; now there are less than 2,000.

Dempsey also claims that the information age and the spread of technology increases the likelihood of organizations or individuals using violence. There is just one (big) problem with this argument. If his logic is correct, the world should have witnessed a growth of all forms of conflict as lethal technologies and modern communications expanded over the centuries, but in fact the opposite has happened. The number of ways to kill a person is innumerable, and over time such innovations have been adapted and improved upon to create increasingly lethal weapons. At the same time, thanks to railroads, the telegraph, transoceanic cables, telephones, airplanes, and the Internet, communication is now near instantaneous. Why would this trend reverse itself now?

Perhaps most importantly, the vast majority of all deaths have nothing to do with armed conflict. The latest Global Burden of Armed Violence report offered this snapshot from 2004 to 2009: "At least 526,000 people are killed each year as a result of lethal violence. This includes an estimated 55,000 direct conflict deaths, 396,000 intentional homicides, 54,000 so-called 'unintentional' homicides, and 21,000 killings during legal interventions." The latter category consists of deaths of civilians by law enforcement and state security forces in routine policing. In short, just over 10 percent of all deaths are the result of armed conflicts, political violence, and terrorism.

Given that levels of violence have fallen across virtually all categories (with the notable exception of suicides) and 90 percent of all lethal violence is not related to armed conflicts, this raises a larger question: What is the role of the U.S. military in preventing violence? The U.S.-led alliance system, based on its unmatched conventional military assets and reliable second-strike nuclear weapons capabilities, have likely deterred some interstate wars, though deterrence is inherently difficult to prove. Through theater security cooperation plans, regional combatant commands claim that their military-to-military engagement and soft-power activities "shape" the regional order -- though I've never seen data to support this widely-held claim.

There are targeted countries where U.S. military, intelligence, and capacity-building efforts played some role in marked declines in violence. For example, between 1991 and 2010, the homicide rate in Colombia fell from 83 per 100,000 people to 33.4. Over the same period, the United States spent upwards of $10 billion in Colombia on military, police, judicial, and development assistance. Although correlation is not causation, the massive influx of funds into the security sector likely played a role. On the other hand, there are many more instances in which civilian policymakers deployed the U.S. military into conflicts and exacerbated (at least in the short term) political instability and armed violence within those regions (see the U.S. intervention in Iraq).

Not only have humans never been less at risk from dying at the hands of another human, but we know more and more about what early risk factors make individuals more likely to use violence and which preventive efforts are most effective at reducing criminal violence -- by far the leading of all non-self-inflicted deaths. It boils down to four major prevention strategies: developmental (interventions in early development when criminal potential is identified), situational (reducing opportunities to commit crime and increasing the risks of criminal activities), community (fostering positive social conditions and institutions), and criminal justice. If policymakers were interested in protecting people from "the chance of violence," as Dempsey terms it, they might want to divert their time and resources away from aircraft carriers and into these preventive programs.

At the end of the day, despite Dempsey's security paradox warnings, the U.S. military plays a minimal role in preventing, responding to, and addressing the vast majority of lethal violence in the world. Yet the United States remains structured, funded, and predisposed to seek military, rather than developmental or diplomatic solutions to many foreign-policy challenges, including reducing the likelihood and severity of all forms of lethal violence. In an April 2009 exchange about how to deepen cooperation between the Pentagon and the State Department, Gen. David Petraeus acknowledged: "Sir, again when it comes to the conflict prevention, that one I have to put my thinking cap on and figure out."

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