A New Diplomatic Rift Between Jordan and Syria

by Curtis Ryan | published May 29, 2014 - 10:27am

On May 26, Syria’s ambassador to Jordan, Bahjat Sulayman, received a terse letter from the Jordanian government informing him that he had been declared persona non grata and had 24 hours to leave the country. The expulsion of the Syrian ambassador may have seemed sudden or startling, but it had been brewing for quite some time. What is more surprising, in fact, is that it didn’t happen sooner.

Ambassador Sulayman had been an outspoken and even harsh critic of the Hashemite Kingdom and its policies throughout his tenure as the Asad regime’s representative in Amman. What angered many Jordanians, however, was not the question of policy differences, but that the ambassador was a vocal and dramatically undiplomatic diplomat. He was viewed by many Jordanians across the political spectrum -- ranging from the Royal Court to the Muslim Brothers -- as routinely hostile and insulting to his host country. While some leftist and nationalist opposition figures protested Sulayman’s expulsion in a letter published the very same day, most Jordanians seemed to welcome it as long overdue.

Yet the timing of the move is still interesting. If one is to risk the wrath of an angry and violent Asad regime by expelling its ambassador with seemingly little warning, then doing so at the outset of massive multinational military exercises in Jordan seems like the prudent strategy. As Jordan expelled the Syrian ambassador, it also began hosting the fourth annual Eager Lion joint military exercises (May 25 to June 10) with over 12,000 troops from 22 nations participating, including 6,000 from the United States.

The themes of the exercises include joint operations, border security and counter-terrorism -- all pressing issues for Jordanians very concerned with the dangers of the Syrian war spilling over (even further) into Jordan itself. The security fears are so deep that last year, after the conclusion of the annual military maneuvers, the US left behind Patriot missile batteries, F-16 jet fighters and several hundred military personnel to bolster Jordan’s border with Syria. This US presence was seen as vital by many in the regime, but remains very unpopular with many in the opposition.

Even as Jordan attempts to secure its borders and its own domestic security, hundreds and sometimes thousands of new refugees arrive every day. The kingdom already hosts perhaps 1,300,000 Syrians, of whom at least 600,000 are in refugee camps. But fears remain that Jordan may have to contend with still more domestic security problems, whether emanating from pro-Asad forces or from militant jihadis returning from the Syrian fighting. Jordan’s official stance on the Syrian war has been to call for a negotiated political solution that leaves Syrian territory intact. But the kingdom has been charged with hosting officials from the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and even with training and arming the opposition, or at least allowing others (such as the US and Saudi Arabia) to do so within Jordanian borders. I am not aware of confirmation of the latter charges, but the regime in Damascus, and its now former ambassador, believes them.

Yet what is just as striking about this diplomatic rift is that it highlights the degree of diplomatic continuity between Jordan and Syria. Throughout the Syrian civil war, and despite all the issues and concerns noted above, Jordan and Syria have maintained diplomatic relations. And so far, that remains true even with the ouster of this particular diplomat. Jordan expelled one diplomat, but it has not broken ties with Syria. It has not expelled other diplomats or closed the Syrian embassy. On May 28, for example, hundreds of Syrians (but not 1.3 million Syrians, mind you) proceeded to the Syrian embassy in Amman to vote in the sham election organized by the Asad regime. So the diplomatic rift amounts, so far, to another difficult bump in the road, but not yet an outright break between the two countries.

Jordan remains in a hazardous position between dramatically different pressures: from Syria to stay out of Syrian affairs, and from its allies -- the US, Saudi Arabia, and others -- to do more to aid efforts in support of the opposition. The SNC, for example, no doubt hoped that Jordan would break relations with Syria and turn the embassy over to the opposition. So far, that hasn’t happened. If it were to occur, it would count as a game changer. For the moment at least, Jordan is not willing to take this risk.

The kingdom will try to maintain diplomatic ties all around (including to both government and opposition in Syria) and simply survive the maelstrom of the Syrian war. And for now at least, Jordan is open to Syria sending a more diplomatic diplomat to continue the always delicate dance of Jordanian-Syrian relations.

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Seven Places You Didn't Know Were Part of the Middle East

by George R. Trumbull IV | published May 27, 2014 - 3:21pm

1) Guantánamo
Simultaneously the closest and most talked about disclosed site of the “war on terror,” the US detention camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba represents not just an artifact of security policies at home, but also a pattern of collaboration by authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. No close US ally in the Middle East has roundly criticized the camp for the simple reason that the outsourcing of arbitrary punishment corresponds well to the political goals of unjust regimes in the Middle East and North Africa. These regimes are often happy to point to torture at Guantánamo as a factor in the radicalization of jihadis. Indeed, many “foreign fighters” captured in Iraq after the US invasion have cited Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib as the reason why they took up arms. But Middle Eastern regimes are not so keen to advertise their role as way stations (“black sites”) in the US torture network -- and their own decades-long record of severe abuse of prisoners in custody. The presumptive leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is but one jihadi notable who was tortured in Egyptian jails in the 1990s.

2) Marseille
2013’s European Capital of Culture, the vibrant, pulsating port looms more as an embodiment of a particularly Provençal Mediterraneanism than as part of the landscape of the Middle East. Its large community of North Africans (as well as Muslims from outside the region), however, has made it an entrepôt for the discussion of politics, the formation of immigrant culture expressions, and the articulation of an increasingly diverse diasporic identity that can transcend national or ethnic divisions. The emergence of self-consciously “Maghribi” forms of popular music and the interplay of explicitly post-colonial and non-national voices with French literature attest to a sense of North African-ness more present, and more possible, in Marseille than in the region itself. Moreover, authoritarian regimes in the region look with concern on the potential emergence of non-national transpolitical cultures, while the French extreme right offers worryingly popular messages, both coded and overt, of white supremacy.

3) Crimea
Not all sovereignties matter equally in the international political system. The 1991 US-led invasion of Iraq preserved Kuwait independence, but ushered in decades of regional instability. Meanwhile, even the mention of Palestinian sovereignty, however truncated, has ended countless rounds of fruitless “peace talks.” Iraqi Kurdistan has, in its push for autonomy and local control over day-to-day governance, pushed the boundaries of the very definition of national sovereignty, a process beginning now, too, in Syrian Kurdistan. The Russian-sponsored violence in Crimea, the sham referendum and the global vacillation between hand wringing and apathy in response rang far too familiar for many in the Middle East, and may have offered an alarming model for incipient regimes. From the perspective of the Middle East, Crimea was less an aberration than the extension of a familiar geopolitics in which not all sovereignties weigh the same.

4) Lampedusa
Italy’s (and Europe’s) doorstep, the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa has witnessed cycles of migration originating in, or departing from, North Africa. The migration politics of Lampedusa rely as much on unpredictable European Union policy. While Brussels sanctimoniously criticizes conditions in North Africa and further south, it scarcely attempted to ameliorate conditions for those who arrived in Lampedusa before its closure, or at other ports of arrival, at times forcibly sending them back or simply refusing entry. Italy’s clearance of the migrant camps in Lampedusa in 2013 did little to inaugurate a substantive conversation between the EU and North Africa about migration politics. Open or closed, the Lampedusa migrant camps reveal an EU profoundly uncomfortable with African and Middle Eastern migration.

5) Ethiopia and Eritrea
America’s and Western Europe’s close alliance with the oppressive regime in Ethiopia, pursued in the guise of regional security, resembles the apologetics and support for similar regimes in the Middle East -- some of them now toppled. Support for oppressive regimes in the Horn of Africa emerged first in the context of the Cold War, but now has reemerged as part of the “war on terror.” Addis Ababa coerces voters to the polls, tramples on minority rights, subjects citizens to surveillance and invokes anti-terrorism laws to stifle journalistic freedom. Indeed, it is precisely the rhetoric of combating terrorism that turned the gaze of Western powers back to Addis Ababa. Well-armed and militarily experienced, Ethiopia serves as a bulwark against the spread of Somali instability -- or so Washington hopes in the face of evidence that Ethiopia’s ham-handed intervention in Somalia may not prove salutary in the long term. Ethiopia’s 2006-2009 intervention largely worked not to quell violence in Somalia but to push it further south and, increasingly, into ethnic Somali communities in Kenya. Moreover, Ethiopia’s central location has proven irresistible to global interests intent on stanching the Somalia wound, launching drone attacks in Yemen, and keeping an eye on an increasingly erratic and opaque Eritrea.

6) Afghanistan
From its origins as an articulation of Orientalist political consciousness, the term “Middle East” has usually excluded Afghanistan -- and, to a large extent, with good reason. Whether the region does include Afghanistan may be beside the point; especially after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the history of Afghanistan indicates the failure of regionalism to generate a comprehensive understanding of specific parts of the world. In an America in which Central Asian studies remains rudimentary, and in which India dominates South Asian studies, foreign policy has perhaps overestimated the aspects of Afghanistan that most resonate with perceptions about the Middle East. Under President Barack Obama, Afghanistan is seen as little but a theater of drone warfare and a dumping ground for jihadi detainees. A more coherent and successful policy toward Afghanistan would have to acknowledge its imbrication in multiple, complicated regional politics.

7) China
The May 23 bombing in Urumqi notwithstanding, the restive Muslim Uighurs in Chinese-occupied East Turkestan have largely declined to borrow the tactics of Islamist insurgents in the Middle East. The extent to which Uighurs share a global “Islamist” ideology remains unclear. Nevertheless, the People’s Republic of China has adopted with alacrity the war-on-terror discourse to legitimate the continued suppression of Uighur particularism. To acknowledge Uighur separatism as genuinely historically constituted and locally specific risks creating space for an indictment of broader Chinese imperialism in Western Asia -- whether in Tibet or East Turkestan. Instead, Beijing has parroted the language of a vague, undifferentiated network of global terror to deflect attention from real Uighur complaints. The Middle East-ification of Uighur dissident movements provides efficient cover for attempts at extirpating them.

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Please Explain This Map

by Chris Toensing | published May 24, 2014 - 11:54am

In early May the website Vox made a small splash on the Internet with “40 Maps That Explain the Middle East.”

Vox is perhaps the most prominent of the new sites devoted to “explainer journalism,” a genre of primers that combine key data with brief analysis, often in attention-grabbing, multi-media formats. Vox was co-founded by Melissa Bell and Ezra Klein, late of the Washington Post, and former Slate blogger Matt Yglesias (fun picture here! scroll down), the three of whom lured a posse of young-ish writers to join the staff, including, from the Post, Max Fisher, who compiled the “40 Maps.” The motivation for starting Vox, according to Klein, was to ameliorate the “anxiety” that he imagines readers must feel when approaching major news stories for the first time. “There’s a problem in journalism,” he says in a YouTube promo. “We call certain topics that we cover the vegetables, or the spinach, as if they’re gross, and people should be reading them, but they’re not going to want to.”

“Explainer journalism” has drawn some fire for condescending to its audience, assuming as it does that readers don’t read regular coverage, at least not carefully enough to comprehend the story. As James Hamblin puts it at The Awl, “An explainer is an article that breaks down an important topic into just the things you care about and need to know. It’s unlike all other kinds of articles in that way.”

Other critics complain that the genre is rather insulting to journalists as well, implying that old-school reporters are too lazy, jaded or unskilled to convey what readers need to situate daily news in proper context. Says Democracy’s Nathan Pippenger: “This issue is even more sensitive when it comes to foreign affairs, since many old-fashioned print journalists (like Daniel Pearl and Anthony Shadid) have died in war zones in order to bring what Klein calls ‘vegetable’ stories to American readers.”

These objections notwithstanding, some might think that Vox is doing a service, explaining the background to current events in easily digested bite-size form. (MERIP might not exist, after all, if the corporate media was not often derelict in its duties.) Alas, early offerings with regard to the Middle East suggest otherwise. Yousef Munayyer, for instance, has thoroughly debunked a set of maps that purport to explain the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

The adjacent map depicting the geographic distribution of Arabic dialects is equally misleading to the point of misinformation. This map, which seems to have been compiled (or perhaps just lifted) from Wikipedia, is downright inaccurate in several places.

Chris Stone is associate professor of Arabic at Hunter College. Before he began his doctoral work, he lived in Yemen for three years, teaching English in the Peace Corps. It would be bad enough, he says, “if the map claimed just one dialect for Yemen, but to claim that all of Yemen and coastal Somalia speak the same dialect is patently absurd.” Yemeni dialects differ in pronunciation, cadence, vocabulary, idiom and syntax -- not to the point of being mutually unintelligible but certainly to the point of requiring occasional translation. The dialects spoken in northern Egypt and the areas marked olive green for Levantine likewise vary considerably, sometimes from valley to valley and village to village.

In Sudan and South Sudan, respectively, the map identifies Nubi Arabic in orange and Juba Arabic in deep beige. The first reference is a flat-out mistake: Some of the Nilotic peoples in the north of Sudan identify as Nubians, and they may speak the distinct language called Nubian as well as an Arabic similar to that spoken in Khartoum. Nubi is an Arabic-based creole spoken in a few East African port towns. Meanwhile, according to MER editor Khalid Medani, who is from Sudan, there’s a missing dialect -- Nuba Arabic, “a creole spoken in the Nuba Mountains in central Sudan. It is a mix of Arabic and Nuba not Nubian. Folks often get those two confused.” Juba Arabic is also a creole, Medani continues, “spoken by the Nilotic Dinka, Nuer and Shilluk, especially in Juba where it is the second vernacular.” The Dinka, Nuer and Shilluk are not Arabs, by the way -- more on that in a minute.

Surely the oddest error of fact appears in mustard yellow for Judeo-Arabic, which the map locates (solely) in central Israel. Indeed, linguists do speak of such a thing as spoken Judeo-Arabic, in which Arab Jews sprinkle ancient Hebrew and Aramaic terms. Judeo-Arabic, however, normally refers to a written language, namely, classical Arabic written in Hebrew script. More to the point, while there were small communities of Arabic-speaking Jews in Palestine before the creation of the state of Israel, the large majority of Israeli Jews of Arab origin hail from other Arab countries and, if they still speak Arabic, they speak the dialect of those countries. “Jews from Morocco, Iraq and Yemen speak the same Arabic dialect?” Stone queries. “I smell ideology.” (Incompetence seems just as likely, since all of the information in this paragraph is in the Wikipedia entry for “Judeo-Arabic languages.” Maybe that entry needs an “explainer.” Or maybe the title does, since the plural is right there in the third word.)

We could list some more inaccuracies.

A bigger problem with the map is that the uninitiated Vox reader might think that Arabic is the only or most important language spoken across these swathes of bright color. Berbers in blue North Africa would beg to differ, as would Kurds in the greenish-yellow lands of North Mesopotamian Arabic, Armenians in Lebanon and several other religio-ethnic communities, among them Hebrew-speaking Israeli Jews. And the Dinka, Nuer and Shilluk speak their own languages as the first vernacular, thank you very much.

The map’s cardinal sin, however, appears in the explanatory sidebar: “Something to look at here: where the dialects do and do not line up with present-day political borders. In places where they don’t line up, you’re seeing national borders that are less likely to line up with actual communities, and in some cases more likely to create problems.” In other words, Arabs are fighting other Arabs because of differences in dialect.

Sorry, Vox, this notion is cataclysmically wrong. Leave aside the map’s implication that the conflict in Israel-Palestine is about the fact that Palestinian Arabs in the Galilee speak a different variety of their native tongue than the Judeo-Arabic speakers to their south. Forget the idea that the Syrian civil war might be a clash of North Mesopotamian, Iraqi and Levantine dialects. And don’t ask why civil strife continues to afflict central Iraq despite its uniform dark green dialectical hue. Again, we’ll be charitable: Smart and patient Vox readers can refer to other maps in Fisher’s series and figure this stuff out for themselves.

But there are some other places where dialects do not line up with borders on the map and there is sometimes violent conflict. One is the boundary between Morocco and Western Sahara. Nowhere in the “40 Maps” is there any clue as to the roots of this conflict in Spanish colonialism, the expansiveness of Moroccan territorial claims, the 1975 Green March, Sahrawi nationalism, the Moroccan Arab-Berber settlement of Western Sahara in violation of UN resolutions, the UN’s failure to enforce those resolutions, and French and US coddling of their client state in Rabat. Iron-deficient Vox readers are left to surmise that the conflict is about types of Arabic.

As for the two Sudans, indeed, the border between the state controlled by Khartoum and South Sudan, which became independent in 2011, roughly corresponds to the boundary line indicating where different sorts of Arabic are spoken. But to suggest that the long civil war between north and south, or the decision of South Sudanese to secede, has to do with dialectical distinctions is to enter the realm of the ridiculous. South Sudanese developed their Juba Arabic creole to cope with their northern rulers and do business with the northern merchants who set up shop in southern cities. Differences in dialect were a byproduct of conquest and conflict -- not the cause thereof.

Again, we could go on. But why?

The kicker, as Stone says, is the map’s assumption of an “inverse relationship between linguistic unity and ‘problems.’ Have the authors of the map not heard of India, where we are not only talking about a vast number of dialects, but actually different languages? What about Switzerland?” In the end, this map reinforces the old Orientalist saws that Middle East conflict is understandable chiefly in terms of ethnic identity and that primordial ties are uniquely constitutive of politics (and certainly not the other way around).

If we can muster the energy, we may scrutinize a few more of the “40 Maps,” cursory inspection of which reveals more amazing feats of interpretive malpractice. Probably not, though -- we should stay focused on our own efforts to go behind the headlines.

We do, however, have a question for Vox: What good is “explainer journalism” if one fortieth of one piece requires 1,068 words of third-party explanation to correct just a few of its errors, without yet rendering it legible? (We’re not counting the words spent explaining explainers, or our editorializing here, just the “spinach” about the map itself.)

Please explain.

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Stay Off the Street

by Jillian Schwedler | published May 21, 2014 - 8:31am

In a recent Slate article, Anne Applebaum makes the case that Egypt’s presumptive president-to-be ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi should look to India, Brazil or South Africa, rather than the United States or other industrialized states, for examples of how to “do” democracy. She rightly notes that Sisi’s argument that Egypt isn’t ready for democracy is an old standby for authoritarian regimes. Based on research published by a London-based think tank (for which she serves as executive editor for a project called Transitions Forum), Applebaum argues that “in countries with high levels of poverty and inequality, democracy can help balance the demands of wildly divergent ethnic, religious and political groups.” She sees Egypt as just such a case.

In a passing reference, Applebaum notes that one feature of democracies is that they “allow public protests.” What a strange comment, and yet I didn’t detect even a note of irony. Why strange? Because, for months, the Brazilian government has been doing anything but allowing protests. As it gears up for the World Cup in a few weeks (and for the Olympics in 2016), the Brazilian government sees the widespread protests in the country as threatening and destabilizing, rather than as legitimate expressions of the aspirations of the nation’s people.

Crushing protests isn’t exactly an idea that Sisi has yet to get behind -- he’s already doing it. Apparently, it’s OK to crack heads in a democracy like Brazil…. Is that why Applebaum wants Sisi to look to Brazil as a model? 
But there is a larger question: Why don’t we see protests like those in Brazil as a routine form of democratic expression, and thus an expected feature of any healthy democratic society? One part of the reason is that the Western media frequently portrays protests in non-Western countries as threatening and destabilizing. It is not always that Westerners don’t see the validity of the demands of the thousands in the streets and the hundreds being arrested in a given place. We may even feel for them and root for them from a distance. But our deepest concern with these protests is often less about the substantive claims than about the danger such protests might represent for us.

In the case of Brazil today, it’s about the supposed perils for tourists who plan to attend the World Cup, perhaps the greatest spectacle in global sports. As Brian Phillips argues in Grantland, attention to violent incidents in Brazil in recent months has less to do with understanding political dissent or local politics than with drawing spurious connections between isolated acts of violence and the safety of international tourists. Two unrelated beheadings have drawn considerable attention, but, as Phillips rightly says, images of violence and protest raise undue hysteria about risks faced by visiting soccer fans. (And, he points out, beheadings are unusual but not unknown in the US in recent years.) There is clearly a code at work, he argues, one that works on several levels, but the basest of which tells the visitor, “Hey, this could happen to you!” The risk that any soccer fan will be beheaded, or even be caught up in protests where citizens are expressing anger over housing demolitions or horrible labor conditions, is realistically zero. But the stories feed the fear that “it’s not safe down there.” You are safe at home, “in your protective bubble of law and security, outside of which is madness.” If the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is ultimately seen as “safe,” it will be because the regime will long since have exported all the laborers it had imported to do the dirty -- and deadly -- work of constructing the stadiums and infrastructure for the matches. The perception of safety will not be generated democratically, however.

I study protests in my own research, so I couldn’t help but notice that Applebaum reduces “democracy” to representative assemblies selected through periodic elections. To be sure, this view has circulated for centuries and has been touted in places like the Federalist Papers and by innumerable political scientists from Samuel Huntington to Adam Przeworski.

Nonetheless, this definition has deficiencies so serious that one might question its proponents’ commitment to real democracy. By real democracy -- what many call substantive democracy -- I mean routine citizen engagement in a wide range of democratic processes. Rulers and theorists alike often dismiss that definition of democracy as either impractical or foolish. Impractical because in larger societies, substantive, daily engagement in democratic practices is simply not possible for logistical and procedural reasons. If everyone gets to voice an opinion, deliberations could go on forever. Foolish -- and this is the more important point -- because most citizens are simply not capable of thinking about, or even comprehending, the complexities of routine political processes. Versions of this view appear in the Federalist Papers, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Max Weber’s “Politics as a Vocation” and Joseph Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, to name a few ur-texts of modern political theory. The late James Schlesinger, defense secretary under Presidents Nixon and Ford, infamously noted that the US and Saudi governments shared the view that democratic institutions were “not appropriate” for Saudi Arabian society. But the view of American citizens in the standard cant isn’t much better. Democratic participation is almost always reduced to voting, and representation is practical as well as safer, because it severely limits the regular participation of ignorant everyday citizens. You can participate by voting every few years, more if you vote in local and municipal elections.

The debates around representative (read: elitist) versions of democracy are too many to summarize here, and I don’t wish to suggest that there has been no substantive dissent from the dominant view.

But the fact is that, in democracies, many citizens view protests as naïve and ineffective -- a last resort for use when other options have been exhausted. In non-democracies, protests may be the only form of participation available, and while massive gatherings can threaten regimes, smaller protests are routinely crushed. Instead, I want us to think of protests as a substantive and essential form of democratic political engagement, in all parts of the world (even in non-democracies).

In the West, the average citizen may view protests as both fruitless and nettlesome. Despite the significant numbers of protesters on the right (Tea Partiers, hounders of women and doctors at abortion clinics, and so on), many Americans still think of “activists” who protest as pot-smoking hippies straight out of the Sixties. Protests are cast as creating problems for law-abiding citizens, particularly when they (temporarily) restrict freedom of movement by car. In 1995, none other than the Washington, DC-area spokesman for the American Automobile Association characterized a rush-hour bridge blocking by workers and union organizers active in the Justice for Janitors campaign as “transportation terrorism.” And while traffic delays frustrate all of us, the political elite in the US is even less comfortable with the idea of widespread protests as a routine part of politics. The cantors of democracy fear protests because they represent unpredictable moments, when scripts and narratives cannot be easily controlled, and when the disconnect between citizens and those who purportedly represent them are made most stark.

In non-democratic contexts -- and democracies and non-democracies form a continuum not two distinct poles -- protests are threatening not only to authoritarian regimes, but to Western governments and foreign interests that do business with those regimes. Westerners fear protests when we are traveling in exotic locations, particularly when brown people are protesting. Indeed, at least since the 1979 revolution in Iran, one of the archetypal images of “the Middle East” in the American popular imagination is teeming masses of brown people who are angry at us for reasons we don’t quite understand.

So the overall message seems to be: Sisi can find models of “democracy” that allow him to continue smashing protests. Protesters should keep pushing against authoritarian regimes, but Westerners should stay away from scary places like that. And protesters in Brazil should just go home and be happy that their country is hosting the World Cup.

For the rest of us: Stay home, where it is safe. And even then, stay off the street.

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Introducing the MERIP Blog's New Guest Editors

by The Editors | published May 20, 2014 - 3:25pm

We hope you have been enjoying the relaunch of MERIP’s blog, which aims to complement our time-honored long-form analysis in Middle East Report and Middle East Report Online with a more spontaneous, ongoing conversation. MERIP’s blog is produced by our staff (Chris Toensing and Amanda Ufheil-Somers) with help from rotating teams drawn from our editorial committee. So, in addition to other contributors, you will see more from four of our editors in particular over the next few months:

David McMurray is associate professor of anthropology at Oregon State University and a returning member of our editorial committee. For MERIP he has written primarily about North Africa and labor migration. He is author of In and Out of Morocco: Migration and Smuggling in a Frontier Boomtown (2001) as well as numerous articles about migration and music. He recently completed a year of fieldwork in the northern Moroccan town of Nador.

Mezna Qato is Ibrahim Abu-Lughod Fellow at the Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia University. Her Oxford dissertation was about the social history of Palestinian education in Jordan. She has written widely about the challenges before the Palestinian struggle for self-determination. She is also author of an expansive socio-historical map of Palestinian refugee and exile communities as part of the Civitas research collective. She’ll be blogging about Palestinian movements and momentums, schools and students, and archive dilemmas.

Jillian Schwedler is professor of political science at Hunter College (City University of New York). She was chair of MERIP's board of directors from 2001-2009. Her first book, Faith in Moderation (2006), is a comparative study of political Islam in Jordan and Yemen. Her current research interests center around contentious politics, protest and dissent, and consumer culture. For MERIP she has written mostly about Jordanian politics and democratization or lack thereof in the Arab world. She will be blogging about protests, consumer culture and things that annoy her.

George R. Trumbull IV is associate professor of history at Dartmouth College. His first book is An Empire of Facts: Colonial Power, Cultural Knowledge and Islam in Algeria, 1870-1914 (2009) and he is at work on a second manuscript entitled Land of Thirst, Land of Fear: A History of Water in the Sahara from Empire to Oil. His interests include Islamic Africa and the history of resources, particularly water. For MERIP he has written about water and Red Sea piracy, among other topics. He will be blogging about North African politics and environmental questions in the region more broadly.

China's New Silk Road Strategy

by Haiyun Ma , I-wei Jennifer Chang | published May 20, 2014 - 3:14pm

In the current issue of Middle East Report, we write about the strategic logic of China’s increasing investment in teaching Middle Eastern languages, particularly Arabic, Persian and Turkish. A key goal of the push for Middle Eastern language competency is to help rebuild the Silk Road that China stood astride in centuries past.

The ancient Silk Road bridged China and the Middle East via Central Asia and facilitated rich commercial, political and cultural exchange. After a long interlude, the Silk Road is back. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the formation of the Central Asian republics in the 1990s provided China with an opportunity to restore this channel of communication. In 1990, the People’s Republic commenced construction of the Eurasian Land Bridge, a highway and high-speed rail line that traverses eastern Russia and ends in Rotterdam. A second such land bridge connects Rotterdam to the port of Lianyungang in the northeastern Jiangsu province. And still a third is planned to go through Turkey, with a branch ending in Egypt.

Beijing intends the new Silk Road to be much bigger and better than the old. Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke of an overland “silk road economic belt,” as well as a “sea silk road,” during visits to Kazakhstan in September 2013 and Indonesia in October 2013, respectively. These proposed routes are meant to transform bidirectional east-west exchange into multi-directional networking.

In order to promote this networking, the People’s Republic has built two exposition platforms in the northwestern part of the territory it controls. One is the annual China-Arab States Expo, headquartered in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and established in 2013. The China-Arab States Expo is aimed not only at “sustaining friendship, deepening cooperation and joint development” but also at achieving an “increase in mutual political trust and strategic consultation.” Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries are the key Arab players.

The second platform is the annual China-Eurasia Expo, which was launched in 2011 at the Xinjiang city of Urumqi in 2011 as a way to boost trade with China’s western neighbors, as well as foster cooperation in infrastructure, electricity, real estate, mining and refining, textiles, agriculture, technology, finance and tourism, among other areas. Among the participating countries are Turkey and the Turkic countries of Central Asia. Turkey’s importance to the project is self-evident: It has considerable influence in the capitals of the Turkic states as well as among the Uighur population in China.

In addition to the land bridges, another planned route leads from Kashgar in southwestern Xinjiang province to the port of Gwadar in Pakistan. Pakistani President Nawaz Sharif’s 2013 visit to Beijing finalized the proposed economic corridor.

This south-south route will greatly shorten the time and distance of transport of Middle Eastern oil and gas to China and reduce the risks associated with the east-west sea route -- whether piracy or interdiction by rival naval powers in the Indian Ocean. The Chinese investments in the Gwadar port and the Kashgar-Gwadar railway are meant to make the flow of energy from Saudi Arabia and Iran more stable and secure. For Iran, meanwhile, the Kashgar-Gwadar linkage, together with the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline that should be finished soon, will increase access to the rising energy markets of China and India. Hossein Dehqan, the Iranian defense minister, went so far as to call China a “strategic partner” during an early May visit to Beijing.

But, of course, these grand plans do not exist in a geopolitical vacuum. The progress of Chinese-Iranian ties is hindered somewhat by China’s continued desire not to offend Washington, at least not too grievously. On April 29, Iran canceled the contract for a Chinese state-owned oil company to develop the South Azadegan oilfield on the grounds that the firm has done “no effective work” since receiving the bid in 2009. Iranian officials blamed US sanctions, which penalize third parties for doing business with Tehran as the dispute over the Iranian nuclear research program drags on.

In many ways, moreover, the Chinese visions of silk roads for the twenty-first century are a response to another “new silk road” plan, one hatched in India. Once crucial difference between China’s plan and India’s is that the latter has the full backing of the United States. It surely helps India’s case that New Delhi markets its plan as a way to rescue Afghanistan from poverty and chronic political instability. While she was secretary of state, Hillary Clinton endorsed the Indian “silk road” as providing “credible alternatives to insurgency” in the South and Central Asian arc of crisis.

The road ahead for China’s new Silk Road strategy may not be uniformly smooth.

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On Memes and Missing Girls

by Jillian Schwedler | published May 16, 2014 - 9:37am

Michelle Obama tweeted a photo of herself on her official account last week using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, joining the Twitter campaign on behalf of the hundreds of schoolgirls, most of them Christian, who were kidnapped a month ago by the Nigerian Islamist group, Boko Haram. The purpose of the kidnappings remains unclear, but at least two girls have claimed to have converted to Islam, and at least 130 appeared in a video wearing, as the Guardian put it, “Islamic-style dress.” The group’s leader Abubakar Shekau, indicated a willingness to release the girls in exchange for jailed militants.
It is hard to imagine that the First Lady and her handlers did not foresee the explosion of memes that would follow her tweet. A meme, for those who don’t know, is an idea (e.g., an image, behavior or style) that spreads within a culture from person to person, often being altered along the way and creating a wide variation on a theme. For example, after last week’s episode of Game of Thrones, fans circulated alternative endings to the character Tyrion’s speech.

Similarly, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held up a cartoonish diagram of a bomb during the September 2012 meeting of the UN General Assembly -- attempting to represent the grave danger posed by Iran obtaining nuclear weapons -- the image went viral as a meme because it provided a ready-made platform for Internet mockery: a powerful person holding a sign. Sure enough, the First Lady’s entreaty on behalf of the missing girls inspired many responses. Some posed demands or questions of their own, while others sought to redirect attention to the many deaths caused by US policies over which President Barack Obama has some control. Prominent in the latter regard were statements related to drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, which have taken the lives of some 5,000 individuals, including as many as 245 children.

I welcome any attention to global humanitarian issues like mass kidnappings of girls, particularly since Africa is perhaps the part of the world that Westerners find easiest to ignore. One brilliant post this week displayed a link that purported to contain five photos related to the reported rifts among the rapper Jay Z, his superstar wife Beyoncé and her sister, Solange Knowles. The chipper and gossipy tone of the text was juxtaposed with images of the kidnapped girls, burned-out cars, and other scenes of conflict and devastation in Africa. It is heartbreaking when so many care more about a celebrity spat than they do about the dire circumstances of people elsewhere, particularly but not only people of color and in parts of the world that don’t seem to immediately concern us.

Thus, it is with some reticence that I raise concern about why this particular issue has caught fire on the Internet. Instead of seeing a growing concern about a part of the world we blithely ignore, I see people fueling a panic about the abduction of girls by Islamist militants. Unquestionably, the kidnappings are a terrible crime. Who, indeed, can object to a plea on their behalf? The question is not whether the crimes are deserving of a response, but why the deaths and disappearances of so many others receive little or no attention. Further, it always seems to be girls or women who are in need of urgent rescue, particularly when Islamist militants are involved.
Narratives about saving girls, it seems, resonate even more when they are about saving girls from radical Muslims. Laura Bush's ongoing campaign to "save” Afghan girls and women from the Taliban never seems to lack an audience. This campaign, of course, goes back to the late 1990s and has involved the Feminist Majority Foundation and prominent liberal women as well. Indeed, the broader question of how “Islam” treats women brings liberal do-gooders together with the right wing like no other (cf. Maher, Bill).

Meanwhile -- and just to give one example -- there is no mass Twitter campaign on behalf of Afghan girls maltreated by US allies (not to speak of the US bombs falling on wedding celebrations and the like). On May 13, a string of tweets also revealed -- or reiterated, since the information had been repeatedly published in mainstream media -- that an Afghan “torturer in chief,” Haji Gulalai, is living in a pink two-story house in southern California with what Afghan officials see as the blessing of the United States. Gulalai had ties to the CIA while torturing victims in Afghanistan, and his brutality was so extreme that US allies and UN officials sought to rein him in. He disappeared in 2009, but somehow managed entry into the US, despite a significant record of human rights abuses that should have given the responsible officials pause.
The Afghan National Directorate of Security -- the US-funded agency responsible for much of the torture in Afghanistan -- has a history of torturing schoolgirls, as journalist Matthieu Aikins (@mattaikins) reminded his followers on Twitter on Tuesday. In a July 2012 article for Newsweek, Aikins reported on how he caught the NDS and the Afghan police torturing schoolgirls into giving false confessions. Yet today, the lead “enhanced interrogator” lounges beside a pool in California, and no one seems to care or notice.
The critical responses to Michelle Obama’s plea, particularly those that have attempted to shift the attention toward the children and adults killed by US drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, have invited a backlash of their own. One set of voices from within Africa, including Nigeria, implore that attention not shift away from the Nigerian girls’ plight, which is real and urgent. The hashtag originated in Nigeria. A similar critique expresses frustration that the drone critique is complicit in focusing world attention yet again on the Middle East and undercutting the very rare attention given to the needs of black women, or people of color in general. On the other side is the argument that Westerners demanding that their countries intervene in a domestic issue in Nigeria will not only not help, but will likely make things worse. Still others push back, noting that solidarity has a value in and of itself, and that many Westerners of color have been deeply disturbed by the kidnappings and have welcomed the possibility of drawing global attention to the issue, even if that happens through what some disparagingly describe as “slacktivism.”

This online “debate” has gotten a bit nasty, as the various sides argue over whether an important message has been hijacked by another (important) message and why, and whether outside (particularly Western) attention to the issue will ultimately prove productive or counterproductive.
I fear that these tensions are suggesting that we must make a choice: whether to draw attention to atrocities elsewhere or to sit on the sidelines out of fear of inadvertently advancing imperial projects (i.e., revisiting the notion that white men must save black women from black men, to slightly alter Gayatri Spivak’s famous phrase). Why do we have to make that choice? Can’t we agitate on behalf of these girls while also demanding more responsible foreign policy from the United States? And can’t we advocate for these girls while also noting that yes, the concerns of people of color are wrongly ignored on a daily basis, domestically and internationally? Can’t we point out that drones kill thousands, including hundreds of innocent children, but that governments should be held accountable even while we condemn radical groups for atrocities like mass kidnappings?

Why do we have to elevate one cause over another? I am happy at the attention the #BringBackOurGirls campaign has attracted but concerned that this story captures our attention in a way that the presence of a torturer living a leisurely life in America does not.

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Indyk vs. Indyk

by Jamie Stern-Weiner | published May 12, 2014 - 10:31am

Israelis and Palestinians share responsibility for the collapse of Middle East peace talks. That was the message delivered on Thursday by US special envoy to the peace process Martin Indyk, in a speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP). Israel issued tenders for 4,800 settlement units during the talks, he noted, while on the Palestinian side, accession to international treaties and reconciliation with Hamas had been “unhelpful” to US efforts to rescue an already faltering process.

More generally, Indyk argued, the parties’ lack of any “sense of urgency” made it impossible to bridge the gaps between them. Israeli politicians and their constituents were in no rush to abandon a “comfortable status quo,” while Palestinian officials found it “easier” to “appeal to international bodies in their supposed pursuit of ‘justice’ and their ‘rights’” than to “make the gut-wrenching compromises necessary to achieve peace.”

As a diagnosis of the talks’ collapse, Indyk’s speech flattered Israel. As unnamed “senior American officials” -- Indyk apparently among them -- had explained to veteran Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea earlier in the week, the negotiations were not derailed by “both sides.” The “primary sabotage,” they insisted, “came from the settlements.” Far from lamenting the Palestinians’ evasion of necessary compromises, the officials listed Palestinian President Mahmoud ‘Abbas’ many concessions, including on issues at the core of the conflict. Whereas Indyk’s speech credits Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with having displayed a measure of “flexibility,” the officials made clear that Netanyahu at most, and at the last minute, and only in reference to his own extremist positions, budged an “inch.”

We did not, as Indyk suggests, need another six months of talks to “define” what those positions were. Leaked internal documents from previous rounds, published by Al Jazeera three years ago as the Palestine Papers, delineate them with painful clarity. They show that Israel’s terms for settling the conflict have remained consistent for more than a decade: annexation by Israel of the major settlement blocs, on approximately 9 percent of the West Bank; and a nullification of the Palestinian refugees’ right of return.

Spying an opportunity, Secretary of State John Kerry adopted these terms as his own and sought to impose them upon the Palestinians. Exhausted and wholly dependent on American and European aid, the Palestinians put up little resistance. Indeed, whereas Palestinian objections to Israel’s annexation of the settlement blocs derailed previous negotiations at Annapolis in 2008, this time around the blocs barely figured on the agenda. The reason, as confirmed by the American officials interviewed by Barnea, was that their fate had been decided. Indeed, according to Israeli President Shimon Peres, ‘Abbas acquiesced in “the establishment of settlement blocs” already in 2011. Picture Kerry’s dismay when Netanyahu, presented with an agreement awarding Israel permanent control over the choicest chunks of the West Bank and limiting the implementation of the right of return to a level acceptable to it, rejected his state’s own long-standing demands as insufficient and insisted, instead, on “complete control over the territories…forever.” No wonder Indyk has threatened to quit.

It merits emphasizing what the Kerry process’s derailment does and does not represent. Indyk’s speech is illuminating in this respect. The equivalence he posits between Israel’s settlement construction and Palestinians’ signing of international treaties makes sense only in the context of negotiations conducted outside the framework of international law. The contemptuous scare quotes he wraps around Palestinian “rights” and “justice” recall President Bill Clinton’s furious response when Palestinian diplomats at Camp David in 2000 insisted on their legally recognized borders as the baseline for negotiations: “This isn’t the Security Council here,” he fumed. “This isn’t the UN General Assembly…. I’m the president of the United States.”

The rationale behind this dismissal of the law is straightforward. There exists an overwhelming international legal and political consensus on resolving the conflict that repudiates Israel’s position on all the core issues in dispute. As former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak observed, “on the matter of borders, the entire world is with the Palestinians and not with us.” The US has been unwilling to pressure Israel to accept this international consensus, and so the US-led peace process has been defined, since its inception in the early 1990s, by a rejection of international law as the basis for resolving the conflict.

The Kerry process was not, then, a valiant if over-ambitious attempt to realize the two-state solution as understood by the overwhelming majority of the international community. Nor does its collapse -- whether temporary or permanent -- demonstrate the impossibility of achieving a two-state solution. That was never on the table, because the forces that would be required to put it there -- mass Palestinian resistance backed by an international solidarity movement -- have yet to materialize. Indeed, while misleading as an account of the talks’ failure, Indyk’s speech at WINEP is nonetheless revealing of the limits of what the “success” of any process led by the US could mean. His is the lament not of violated principle, but of opportunism frustrated.

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Washington Gets “Less Crazy”

by Chris Toensing | published May 9, 2014 - 1:27pm

Yesterday the New America Foundation (NAF), a center-left think tank located one block north of big, bad K Street, hosted a discussion about the 1948 war, the expulsion of Palestinians from what would become Israel, the new state’s imposition of a draconian military regime upon the Palestinians who managed to stay inside the armistice lines, and all that this painful history implies for the present and the future.

The event, moderated by Lisa Goldman, director of NAF’s Israel-Palestine Initiative and a contributing editor of +972, featured MERIP editor Shira Robinson and Palestine Center executive director Yousef Munayyer. The trio focused heavily on Robinson’s new book, Citizen Strangers, a social history of ‘48 Palestinians under Israeli military rule. A big takeaway of Robinson’s book is that the tools and tactics of the post-1967 occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip were developed inside Israel’s de facto borders during the new state’s first two decades of sovereignty. Among her broader arguments are the twin propositions that Israel is now and always has been built on a foundation of Jewish racial privilege and that Israeli state policy is consciously aimed at perpetuating that state of affairs.

Such ideas are neither new nor especially radical (outside the United States), though Robinson articulates them with exceptional clarity and thorough archival documentation. No doubt the likes of yesterday’s discussion occur all the time in Haifa, Jerusalem and Ramallah, in the Arab world, in Europe and in the classrooms of non-Zionist Israeli Jewish professors. And the Palestine Center, the Institute for Palestine Studies and other Middle East-focused organizations in Washington have been hosting similar events for decades, as have the Institute for Policy Studies and the handful of genuinely left-leaning multi-issue think tanks in the US.

But for the discussion to take place at a multi-issue think tank like NAF is remarkable.

The president of NAF is Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former Princeton professor and State Department Policy Planning head who is probably the doyenne of liberal internationalism in the United States. Slaughter is well known now for advocating armed intervention in Syria; in the 2000s, along with John Ikenberry, she headed a series of workshops directed at generating a US grand strategy that would be less belligerent than the Bush administration’s blood-and-soil nationalism but still marketable in the heartland. Among the ideas this task force adopted was a “concert of democracies,” a term coined by Clintonite policy intellectuals to refer to a new global institution that could, when necessary, circumvent the UN and act in its stead. NAF board members include James Fallows, Francis Fukuyama, Walter Russell Mead, Daniel Yergin and Fareed Zakaria. NAF-sponsored wisdom, in other words, is about as conventional as Washington wisdom gets. The foundation’s blog is literally named In the Tank. (NAF does have a Middle East Task Force that is on the liberal side of the spectrum and has done some worthy and interesting work. The initiative run by Goldman is based in the foundation’s New York office.)

Despite this overall positioning, Goldman facilitated a frank and forthright conversation devoid of the throat clearing and flushed faces that often afflict public airings of Israel’s dirty laundry in the US. All three participants simply told it like it is. There was no nod to “balance.” There was no ritual obeisance to the need for US leadership in Middle East diplomacy and no obligatory reference to the two-state solution as “the only game in town.” In fact, the two-state solution was spoken of as a sort of artifact, one of some historical interest but no relevance to the real questions of Palestine. As Munayyer put it, “Solution to what? What is the problem?... The two-state solution is a solution to a problem that Israel has, primarily.” Instead, the discussants clearly, patiently and persistently pointed out that the central problems are the settler-colonial origins of Israel, the lack of equal citizenship and equal rights under the law between the river and the sea, and the fact that 67 percent of Palestinians are refugees, many of them stateless.

So what is to be done? Well, as Robinson said, “I wouldn’t want to be considered a problem, so I wouldn’t treat someone else as a problem.” (Here she may have been channeling former MERIP editor Moustafa Bayoumi, who titled his terrific book on Arab Americans, How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?) A genuine solution has to start with a fundamental rethinking of the relationship between the Israeli state and the peoples under its control.

It is certainly noteworthy that such honesty is trickling into the Washington mainstream. This development is an indicator of how quickly and completely the arbiters of permissible debate realized the bankruptcy of Secretary of State John Kerry’s half-hearted attempt to revive the Oslo process. Kerry’s own blunt diagnosis of why his attempt failed played a major role. In all likelihood, yesterday’s event would not (or could not) have taken place at an “idea incubator” like NAF five years ago.

Meanwhile, outside official Washington, the BDS movement is attracting more and more attention. There is an ambient sense that younger generations, Jews and non-Jews, will not be able to tolerate the contradictions inherent in “the only democracy in the Middle East” insisting on being a “Jewish state.” The needle of the sayable-inside-the-Beltway is twitching in response.

Is it progress? Here one is reminded of Chris Rock’s cutting riff on the notion of “progress” in US race relations. What has happened, he says, is simply that “white people have gotten less crazy.” To call the integration of lunch counters “progress” is to imply that segregation was just a lower level of social achievement rather than an unfathomably cruel and stupid injustice.

“Progress” in acceptable-in-Washington discourse about Palestine invites the same sort of circumspection. It is not just that this discourse lags 20-25 years behind the facts on the ground. It is not just that the gap between what can be said in Washington and what the White House will do can be yawning. It is that the human cost of this “progress” is so very high and will almost certainly continue to mount.

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MER 270: China in the Middle East

by The Editors | published May 8, 2014 - 10:40am

For immediate release May 8, 2014

Middle East Report 270   Spring 2014


“Will China dominate the twenty-first century?” So asks the title of one of the latest entries in an expanding canon on the subject. The question is of particular concern in Washington, because its premise is that the post-World War II “American century” is coming to a close or perhaps already over. A corollary question is whether China covets the US role in the Persian Gulf and the surrounding region. The spring 2014 issue of Middle East Report zooms out to look at the historical and geopolitical aspects of Chinese ties to the Middle East and then zooms in to look at the economic, cultural and human interactions.

It was not always the case that Chinese-Middle Eastern relations were refracted through the prism of links to the West. Cemil Aydin lays out the often forgotten history of West Asian fascination with East Asia, and vice versa, while Shuang Wen recounts Muslim activist meetings in Meiji Japan. Chinese ties with Africa, as Engseng Ho demonstrates, also have both a rich history and potential to reshape today’s world.

A key reason for Middle Easterners’ interest in communist China was Maoism and its solidarity with Third World countries under various degrees of Western domination. Mohammed al-Sudairi, Afshin Matin-Asgari and Kamran Ali write about Maoist influence in the Arab world, Iran and Pakistan, respectively.

Today, with Mao long gone in both body and spirit, China offers Middle Eastern states a model of neoliberal economics without political reform, as well as the tantalizing promise (as yet unrealized) of a counterweight to the West. Kyle Haddad-Fonda reports on the frustrations of Arab diplomats in Beijing. Haiyun Ma and I-wei Jennifer Chang show how the study of Middle Eastern languages in China tracks with the strategic interests of the Chinese state.

The commerce at the heart of those interests has led to migration and new types of social and cultural interchange. Jacqueline Armijo visits the sprawling DragonMart in Dubai. Roschanack Shaery follows traders in the market town of Yiwu, China back home to Lebanon, where she also finds Chinese cultural diplomacy in full swing. Jessica Winegar traces the “moral panic” occasioned by the increasing number of Chinese in Egypt. Daniel Large examines China’s relations with the two Sudans.

Also featured: Kevan Harris sends his fly-on-the-wall observations of Immanuel Wallerstein’s lecture tour in Iran; and more.

Subscribe to Middle East Report or order individual copies online here.

Middle East Report is published by the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP), a progressive, independent organization based in Washington, DC. Since 1971 MERIP has provided critical analysis of the Middle East, focusing on political economy, popular struggles, and the implications of US and international policy for the region.

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