Marc Lynch

The Gift

How the Arab Spring turned out to be a win for al Qaeda.

The unprecedented closure of 19 U.S. embassies in response to a communications intercept that allegedly featured al Qaeda leaders planning major operations against American targets has rekindled old debates about whether the terror organization is effectively dead, or stronger than ever. That isn't the right question to ask, though -- and misses what really must happen in the Middle East to weaken al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda's terrorist attacks are only one aspect of its grandiose aims. The organization aspires to lead a mass movement of Muslims toward its Salafi conception of jihad. Its problem, though, is that few Muslims actually care for such a rigid, esoteric, and extreme ideology. Al Qaeda has thrived during periods of war and high tension -- such as the post-9/11 war on terror or the first years of the American occupation of Iraq -- where it could plausibly present itself as the standard bearer of a broader Muslim agenda.

The crudeness of early American "global war on terror" rhetoric played right into al Qaeda's hands. The jihadist movement benefited enormously from the lazy conflation between its own marginal views and those held by more popular, mainstream organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood -- or at the extreme, with Islam itself. Washington began to get better at countering al Qaeda's messaging in the last few years of President George W. Bush's administration: It started to recognize the divisions within the Islamist world, and to leverage them in order to deprive al Qaeda of its broader Islamist cover.

The early Arab uprisings offered a glimpse of precisely how al Qaeda could ultimately be defeated. The successful popular uprisings against authoritarian secular regimes left little space for a would-be revolutionary vanguard. That Islamists of various stripes participated in those uprisings should be seen as a slap in the face to al Qaeda's claims to leadership. While bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and many Salafi-jihadist writers tried to put a brave face on it, the reality was that al Qaeda struggled enormously to justify its stances in the early days of the Arab uprisings.

Had the revolutions led to successful democratic transitions, the blow to al Qaeda could well have been fatal. Its own base would have remained committed to the cause and local groups could have carried out occasional attacks -- but it would have likely found itself increasingly unable to win over new recruits or spread its ideas into the broader population.

But of course, the transitions didn't go that direction. Egypt stumbled from disaster to disaster, the Libyan state struggled to consolidate its authority in the face of powerful militias, and even Tunisia succumbed to profound polarization between secularists and Islamists. Poor governance and weak institutions allowed sympathetic extremist groups to regroup and take on novel public roles in countries such as Yemen, Libya, and Tunisia.  Above all, Syria allowed al Qaeda to play a major role at the heart of the region's new political battle lines -- precisely what it had been denied in the popular uprisings of early 2011.

The failure of most of the Arab uprisings has therefore been an extraordinary gift to al Qaeda. It has restored the potency of the terror organization's arguments, while the distraction or disintegration of state security agencies has given it more space to operate. The shift to armed insurgency in Syria galvanized its moribund global jihad. The spectacular collapse of the Muslim Brotherhood badly weakened its most powerful Islamist rival. It has found unprecedented new opportunities to reposition itself within the turbulent, hyperactive new Arab politics.

Al Qaeda's revival should not be exaggerated, though, and it wasn't inevitable. When denied the mask of generically popular causes, it remains a fringe movement with very limited appeal to broader Arab and Muslim publics. Its core has been battered and largely destroyed, and it now is comprised of highly variable local affiliates and unpredictable lone wolves. There should be no going back to a Middle East policy built around combating violent extremism or to the unhelpful rhetoric of the "global war on terror." The answer to al Qaeda's new challenge should instead be a renewed commitment to resolve the various urgent political challenges that have allowed it re-entry into the political field.

While Yemen and Libya get most of the attention in the U.S. debate about a resurgent al Qaeda, the chaos in Egypt and Syria have actually been its two greatest force multipliers. Egypt's military coup has likely finished off the idea that Islamists could achieve their moral or political aspirations through democratic political participation for a generation. Even before the coup, the Muslim Brotherhood's disastrous experience in power had already soured many Islamist-oriented Arabs on democracy. Jihadist denunciations of the emptiness of the promises of democracy now practically write themselves.

The Egyptian military's crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was al Qaeda's strongest competitor in the arena of Islamist politics, is also a boon to the jihadist movement. A weaker Brotherhood -- which has lost confidence in its own ideas and leaders -- will be a much weaker firewall against the more extreme groups. The crude anti-Islamist rhetoric that has seized Egypt since the coup, which equates the Brotherhood and al Qaeda as terrorists, blurs the line between the two groups to al Qaeda's benefit. These effects could be mitigated by a political deal that allows the Brotherhood to remain invested in public life -- but if Egypt's new regime pushes ahead with efforts to fully crush the Brotherhood, as now seems likely, the effects will be even more profound.

Syria has been al Qaeda's other lifeline to relevance. The flow of foreign fighters attests to the fact that its calls for jihad, which had worn thin following its setbacks in Iraq, have a new resonance today. Many observers are rightly worried about how the Syrian jihadist insurgency has strengthened its Iraqi counterpart, about the prospect of the emergence of a jihadist emirate akin to Iraq's Anbar Province in the mid-2000s, and about the likely terror threat when foreign fighters return from the Syrian front to their homes across the globe. And that's not even to mention the future uses of the advanced weapons pouring into the current jihad.

What is less often appreciated, however, is the extent to which the Syrian jihad has helped bring al Qaeda's ideology into the mainstream of the Arab world. Its struggle against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has given it a major role in a cause that is now central to Arab concerns. The anti-Shiite venom in the Gulf media and across so much of Arab social media validates its ideological stances. Saudi Arabia's increasingly prominent role as the opposition's foreign sponsor will do nothing to improve these trends: Riyadh will no doubt attempt to use the sectarian and Islamist dimensions of the Syrian jihad to simultaneously intimidate its own Shiite population, wage its unending regional campaign against Iran, and coopt the Islamist networks that might otherwise turn their guns on the kingdom.

Egypt and Syria have therefore helped to galvanize a movement that had been facing profound, nearly existential challenges. The emergence of local movements, such as the Ansar al-Sharia branches across North Africa, attest to the ability of Salafi-jihadists to learn from their mistakes and adapt to new opportunities. Al Qaeda and like-minded movements have not had a better opportunity to appeal to a broader Arab audience since the first years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

The Middle East has changed dramatically over the past several years -- and al Qaeda has changed, too. But the new environment should not force the United States into misguided overreactions or to exaggerate the new threats. We shouldn't jettison hard-earned lessons about the intricacies of intra-Islamist politics any more than we should assume that old assumptions still hold. We don't need new wars on terror right now.

Instead, we need to prioritize fixing the broken political systems that have allowed for al Qaeda's resurgence. Helping to stabilize Egypt and find a political solution on Syria would do a lot to weaken the terrorist threat. So would stabilizing Libya, completing Yemen's transition, opening up Iraqi politics, keeping Islamists around the region inside the political process, and pushing the Gulf states to step back from their sectarian incitement. None of this would prevent al Qaeda's affiliates from plotting terrorist attacks, but it would help put the organization's hopes of leading the Islamist world back on ice.

BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

Marc Lynch

Performance Enhancing Debate

How the Ryan Braun scandal explains Egyptian Revolution punditry.

Last week, Milwaukee Brewers slugger Ryan Braun accepted an agreement with Major League Baseball on a 65-game suspension without pay for his all-but-acknowledged use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). His suspension marked a stunning reversal of fortune for Braun and his defenders. As an outspoken Brewers fan whose kids had to quietly take down several posters from the walls, this was devastating news. But for a Middle East-focused Foreign Policy columnist, the Braun saga offers some important lessons.

First, the background. Two years ago, in the midst of an outstanding season for which he would later win the Most Valuable Player Award, Braun failed a drug test. He immediately challenged the results as "total B.S." His teammates, those who knew him and his case the best, offered strong and vocal support; most famously, his friend Aaron Rodgers (the Green Bay Packers' MVP quarterback) bet his annual salary on Braun's innocence (he isn't going to pay up).

And then, unlike all the many players before him to protest their innocence in vain, Braun become the first player in Major League Baseball history to win an appeal against alleged PED use, by successfully pointing to problems in the chain of custody in the damning urine sample. The volume of banned substances in his urine sample was irrelevant, he argued, if the sample could have been compromised during the testing process. What's more, events over the following year seemed to strengthen his case. Under presumably intense doping scrutiny the following season, he actually improved on the previous year's MVP performance. Braun, it seemed, really was the exception to the rule.

And then he wasn't. Braun became entangled in the ongoing Biogenesis case which appears to incriminate a vast range of MLB players. At first, the renewed focus on Braun's case looked like a vendetta by the league over its previous defeat -- and, let's face it, that's probably part of it. But the case for supporting Braun collapsed when he agreed with MLB to accept the suspension. Now his defenders feel hurt, used, and abused. So why did we believe him in the first place? After all, there is overwhelming evidence of rampant PED abuse in professional sports, and a depressing array of disgraced stars from Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens to Melky Cabrera and Alex Rodriguez offer testament to abuse and deception by the very best players. (And that's only baseball.)

What does any of this have to do with foreign policy or the Middle East? Well, political science should have a field day: There are some great pieces to be written about how rampant PED abuse illustrates how difficult it is to overcome the incentives of self-interested actors to cheat, given the absence of perfect information or consistent enforcement. I'd love to see an analysis of the limited deterrent power of selective punishment of high-profile stars like Braun, Cabrera, and Rodriguez. A constructivist case could probably be made about how the rules against PED use failed to be internalized into normative behavior among hyper-competitive players who see the rules not as moral standards but as technical obstacles to be circumvented more or less effectively.

But what really struck me about the Braun case was how it illustrates some of the endemic problems of political analysis and public policy discourse. For instance, if you've spent five minutes following Egypt, you've probably already been worn down by the relentless insistence that it just can't be compared to any other cases. There are a million (well-rehearsed) reasons why Egypt's coup cannot be compared to other historical coups because Egypt is different. Previous efforts to support insurgencies aren't relevant to Syria because Syria is different. Just like Braun's case was unique ... until it wasn't.

Everybody thinks that their own case is unique, and of course it's true that every case is unique in a million little different ways. But there are also broad patterns and mechanisms which seem to play out repeatedly across lots of those unique cases. There has also been a lot of noise about how only Egyptians, or perhaps those with deep familiarity with Egypt, should comment on Egypt. As someone deeply committed to area studies, I'm all in favor of substantive expertise. But Middle East Studies and foreign policy analysis could also stand more Nate Silvering.

Indeed, in his famous study of expert political judgment, the psychologist Phil Tetlock found that subject experts often make worse predictions than generalists: bogged down in details and personally invested in one side of the argument, subject experts can be blind to general patterns that best explain and predict the outcomes. For Egypt, that means being open to the comparative lessons of previous coups even if none of their situations exactly duplicates Cairo circa June 2013. For Syria, that means supplementing detailed knowledge of that case with serious attention to Stathis Kalyvas on the political economy of civil wars, Paul Staniland on political order in wartime, Zachariah Mampilly on rebel governance, Fotina Christia on alliances within rebel groups, Idean Salehyan on external support for rebels, among many others. In other words, instead of listening to Zack Greinke and Aaron Rodgers -- even if they had the most information about the case -- I should have paid more attention to the dismal lessons of Bonds and Clemons.

Another lesson might be the need to be constantly attuned to the dangers of motivated bias. When I analyze Middle East politics, I strive as hard as I can for analytical rigor and objectivity. But when it comes to baseball and my home city, I'm an unapologetic fan. I fervently wanted to believe Braun was innocent, which affected the way I processed information about his case. I wanted the Milwaukee Brewers to win, I wanted their best player to be an honest and upstanding human being, and I wanted my kids to be able to believe in their hero. And then, once I had staked out a public position defending Braun from his legion of critics, I wanted to be proven right.

That sort of approach is completely understandable for sports fandom. But it also permeates policy analysis, with less healthy results. I'm not talking about the dismal pundit's practice of starting with a pre-cooked conclusion and then just searching around for arguments to support it. I'm talking about the powerful psychological pressures which we all face to welcome supporting information and reject inconvenient facts. Most people are typically less skeptical consumers of desirable than undesirable information, accepting supportive evidence without question while subjecting conflicting news to intense, skeptical scrutiny. People invested in a position all too easily talk themselves into best-case assumptions about its benefits and avoid scrutiny of its risks (think: the Iraq debate circa 2002). Common sense, as Duncan Watts recently pointed out, is a lot less sensible than it appears and can very easily reinforce these biases.

These kinds of biases are far more difficult to confront than are straightforward deception or disagreement, because they are sincerely held. Many Egyptians, for instance, genuinely believed that the June 30 Tamarod uprising was an urgently needed democratic revolution to save the transition from the despised Muslim Brotherhood. They weren't just saying that to cover for a military coup. That commitment then shapes their indignant response to outside analysts calling the events a military coup, their reaction to new developments, and their treatment of dissenters from within their own ranks. The developments of the last few weeks, with the military firmly in charge, violence against pro-Morsy protestors, and resurgent state nationalism, caused some of those supporters to feel the same betrayal and despair which Braun caused me. But many others have only become more entrenched and intense in their beliefs.

Which beliefs are right? Braun's admission of guilt resolved the steroids debate. But few of our political and analytical debates ever produce such a clear resolution. Scholars are still arguing about the causes of World War I or the end of the Cold War, to say nothing of the incommensurable narratives about most of the Middle East. Who was "right" about Egypt, for instance? Every side of that debate feels vindicated by events, with nobody able to authoritatively adjudicate the disagreements. There will not be consensus over whether Egypt's crisis was caused by the failure to establish legitimate political institutions or by the pathologies of the Muslim Brotherhood for a long time.

Most analytical disagreements can only be resolved, even in retrospect, through counterfactual analysis. Would the invasion of Iraq have worked out if Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Bremer hadn't made such disastrous earlier decisions? Nobody agrees. Would Egypt's transition have gone more smoothly had the Muslim Brotherhood chosen to not run a presidential candidate? Impossible to say. Would Syria's Bashar al-Assad have quickly crumbled had the U.S. led a military intervention in early 2012? We'll never know. Did the Arab uprisings marginalize al Qaeda? It depends. Critics of President Barack Obama's Syria policy often argue, for instance, that history will judge him poorly. It probably will, if they are the ones writing those histories; histories written by those opposed to intervention will likely judge him more kindly.

So what to do about this? Braun's case might teach us all to do better, but it probably won't. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman warned, "knowing your biases is not enough to overcome them." For that, you need a systematic process with built-in checks against the various forms of bias which creep into analysis. For example, to protect against motivated bias, it's good to be more skeptical of information and arguments with which you agree than with which you disagree. To avoid epistemic closure, it's good to make sure that you pay attention to information and arguments from diverse perspectives. But protecting against these biases is not so simple as "rational Bayseian updating" would have it: as Chuck D (or Alexander Hamilton, or Malcolm X, if you prefer) warns us, if you don't stand for something you'll fall for anything. The real lesson of Ryan Braun might, rather dismally, be that we're doomed to keep repeating these mistakes... and that most participants in public debate are just fine with that.

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