Nothing to Stand On

Apr 27 2014

In the United States, most people would probably agree that media coverage of elections overwhelmingly focuses on day-to-day horserace politics, setting aside relatively little time to discuss the substance of candidates’ platforms. If you’re not sure that’s true, just think of the knee-jerk headlines about the potential impact of Chelsea Clinton’s pregnancy on her mother Hillary’s prospects for winning the presidency in 2016. Clinton, of course, isn’t even a declared candidate yet, so we’re a ways off from having any platform to evaluate, but even when all the hats are in the ring, the attention will mainly be on campaign tactics rather than the issues forming the candidates’ visions for the country’s future.

The United States can function this way because it is secure, stable, and has a relatively tidy balance between two parties that are bigger than any individual candidate. That is, most voters can make a simple decision based on the historical platforms of the Democrat and Republican parties, without having to care that much about the person who is actually running for office. But what if this balance didn’t exist?

The Middle East has had a flurry of elections recently, spanning from Algeria to Afghanistan. Some have been in the form of popular votes, like we are used to, while others have been parliamentary procedures to form new governments. What is similar across the board is that most candidates in these races don’t really have policy platforms.

In Egypt, the frontrunner for president, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, has coyly withheld any specific details of his electoral platform, with some experts speculating he will not discuss it until he has already won.

Algeria’s 77-year-old president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who can barely talk or move after a suffering a stroke last year, easily won re-election in April despite hardly running a campaign and rarely appearing in public. This wasn’t due either to his popularity or even to vote rigging, but to the fact that the country doesn’t have an established succession mechanism, and the main political factions haven’t had time to line up viable alternatives.

Afghanistan’s presidential election last month managed to attract the same voter turnout as the last U.S. election (58%), an incredible accomplishment considering the Taliban had threatened terrorist attacks on polling stations. Here too, though, there’s not really such thing as political platforms. Rather, citizens vote according to their ethnic identity.

In the midst of a civil war that has killed as many as 150,000 people and displaced millions, Syria’s Bashar Al Assad recently announced a presidential election set for this June. An editorial by *The National*, asked: “On what platform does Mr Al Assad intend to stand? Stability? Law and order? Peace and prosperity? His regime has done more to destroy these things in Syria than any foreign enemy has ever managed.” More likely his platform will continue to be “opposing extremists,” which is as good as saying, “No Hope, No Change.”

Other states, like Yemen and Libya, are so weak and fractured that political platforms are an unaffordable luxury. Instead there are caretaker transitional governments just struggling to hold things together and maintain some semblance of legitimacy. Both are attempting “national dialogues,” an ongoing series of meetings and conferences aimed to bring people together to discuss a framework for future governance and contribute to the drafting of a new constitution.

Iraq, which held parliamentary elections on April 30, is on the surface more unified under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, although analysts are warning that without a change of leadership or policy to become more inclusive, a political fracturing may be imminent. Violence has been spiraling out of control for months, and sectarian tension is on the rise. As a result, says the Economist Intelligence Unit, campaigning has become mostly about sectarian affiliation, and policymaking has become ineffective.

The absence of campaign and political platforms throughout the Middle East paints a picture of a region just trying to hold itself together at the seams. Visionary leadership is sorely lacking, and those leaders who have been able to secure the tightest control have not been able to convert stability into growth or development.

Sisi, Egypt’s presumptive next president, may receive a hero’s welcome for his role in deposing Mohammed Morsi and preventing the Muslim Brotherhood from taking the country down a bad path, but without a stated vision for the next few years, there’s little hope for accountability. You can’t blame a leader for breaking campaign promises if he never makes any.

One exceptional case in the region has been Iran, where President Hassan Rouhani ran on a clear platform of improving relations with the West as a means to end crippling economic sanctions. Though it’s still unclear how successful that strategy will be, the fact that he had a platform gave the Iranian people something meaningful to vote for. They voiced their will for the policy they wished their country to pursue, and now they will be able to observe it in action and determine whether they are happy with the result.

A vote for Sisi, on the other hand, is only a negative statement: that voters don’t want to go the direction the Muslim Brotherhood was taking them. The positive side-the policies the country will pursue now instead-will be determined privately by Sisi.

He may end up leading well. For example, the president of Burma, Thein Sein, was put in power without any specific policy mandate, and he chose to pursue an aggressive process of political and democratic opening, unilaterally moving to end decades of oppression and isolation. Egypt’s citizens would be incredibly fortunate to get a surprise like this from Sisi, although it would be better still for them to be allowed to choose that path for themselves, and then decide who is best suited to carry it out. In democracy, ‘what you see is what you get’ is far preferable to pleasant surprises.

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Sep 30 2013

“Have a nice day!” “Thank you. Khodahafez.” This, according to a Twitter account belonging to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, is how the first direct talks betwen U.S. and Iranian leaders since 1979 concluded on September 27. President Obama ended the 15-minute phone with the Persian equivalent of ‘goodbye,’ which translates as “God go with you.”

Since Rouhani stepped in for former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in August, a stunning transformation has occured in Iran’s diplomatic stance toward the West–one that is moving so quickly that Iran itself can’t seem to keep up. It is a widely-noted irony that Rouhani’s Twitter account has become such an important tool of his diplomacy when, for now at least, Iran’s citizens are still denied access to Twitter and other social media sites.

In a year marked by overwhelming violence in the Middle East and tinged with a melancholy acceptance of the world’s political impotence to resolve the region’s numerous crises, the sudden softening of tensions with Iran seems too good to be true. To many Israelis, it’s even downright suspicious. It was just over a year ago that the two nations appeared to be on the verge of an armed confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program, and now Israel’s leaders are warning that Rouhani’s gestures are only a tactic to divert attention away from what they believe to be Iran’s goal: joining the fraternity of nuclear-armed nations.

That remains to be seen, and it’s natural to say that words are not enough–that Iran must make real, tangible actions to back up its friendlier tone (and tweets). But in what has essentially been a three decade-long war of words, a change in rhetoric is significant in and of itself.

It’s worth remembering that Israel and Iran have not historically been enemies, nor have they engaged in open hostilities. The idea that Iran could pose an existential threat to Israel has been based almost solely on rhetoric since the 1979 revolution, especially Ahmadinejad’s firey and provocative statements over the past decade. But despite all of that, the conflict between the two countries is not marked by the scars of violence and terrorism like other disputes in the region. “In the back of the historical memory of the Israelis, when you speak about Iran, Iran is considered to be a good friend of Israel,” said David Menashri, an Israeli expert, in an 2012 CNN article.

While Iran’s political trajectory is still ultimately decided by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, it shouldn’t be taken for granted that Rouhani, known to be a moderate very different from Ahmadinejad, was elected with strong support from the Iranian people. This sends a signal to Khamenei as well as the rest of the world, that Iran is under internal pressure to take its diplomatic strategy in a different direction. Yes, Iran will insist on the right to develop its own advanced technologies, especially nuclear energy, and Khamenei will never let go of the Islamic revolution that first put Iran at odds with Israel and the West. But he may come around to the idea that the global community is willing to cooperate with an Islamic Iran, and that such an arrangement would be preferable to isolation and harsh sanctions that have seriously harmed Iran’s economy.

The reason that shift of position may just be possible now is due in part to President Obama’s Middle East strategy, which has been characterized as “measured and cautious” by supporters, and “leading from behind” by detractors. Either way, it’s been a consistent show of restraint compared to predecessors, and as a result, Iran has every reason to feel more secure against the threat of outsider influence and threat of regime change these days. Even the world’s current number one pariah, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, has managed to stave off international intervention in his three-year-long civil war. At the same time, the region has seen home-grown revolutions in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia come to the brink of devolving into civil wars of their own. No rational policymaker would be pushing for a major revolution in Iran right now.

Khamenei’s belief that the West and Iran are ideological and mortal enemies, and that the U.S. is always secretly working to engineer a revolution could be characterized as paranoia, were it not for the CIA’s recent admission of its role in Iran’s 1953 coup that overthrew the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. Exchaning pleasantries is one thing, but restoring diplomatic trust with such a history will be a long process.

The potential benefits of investing in an improved relationship are certainly worthwhile, though. Driven to isolation, and labeled by former President Bush as a member of the “Axis of Evil,” Iran was forced into a positon where it had to pretend to be crazy enough to build–and use–a nuclear weapon. Under Ahmadinejad’s strategy, this was seen as the only way to be treated respectfully by the international community, but it put the whole region, and the world, on edge. It also pushed Iran toward building a closer alliance with Russia and China, who have been working to consolidate a coalition with the power to work outside of the rules imposed by the U.S. through global institutions like the UN.

Iran’s sudden turn will not immediately satisfy Israel, nor will it sufficiently alter the political landscape to find a meaningful resolution in Syria, but there’s nothing to lose by welcoming the friendly gesture and showing that the door really is open for it to rejoin the international community. The West will have to be prepared to take concrete actions to show good faith as well, though, because just as we have skeptics here, Iran has its own influential players who believe the U.S. will stop at nothing to keep them isolated and vulnerable.

“I don’t believe this difficult history can be overcome overnight ,” President Obama told the United Nations. “The suspicion runs too deep.” But a phone call and some tweets are a good start.

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Occupy the World

Jul 08 2013

The Occupy Wall Street movement feels like a long, long time ago now.  The protest camps have long been removed from New York’s Zuccotti Park and D.C.’s McPherson Square, although the “99%” rallying cry is still heard from time to time.  The movement may have sealed its own fate when it defined itself as a leaderless, multi-issue protest, resulting in a lack of focus and, ultimately, irrelevancy (No one has even updated Occupy D.C.’s Wikipedia page to note that it’s been gone for well over a year).  Its most enduring legacy appears to be the #Occupy hashtag on Twitter that is often quickly adopted by youth-led protests that pop up around the globe.

One recent entrant, #OccupyGezi, rose to prominence on Twitter to label an outbreak of protests in Istanbul, Turkey, that quickly spread to the country’s other major cities in June.  In late May a small group of protesters gathered in Gezi Park to rally against government plans to build a shopping mall on top of one of the city’s few green spaces.  After an excessively forceful response by police, more people came out to the nearby Taksim Square in support of the protesters, escalating into a large scale movement voicing grievances against the Turkish government and its Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  After twelve days of the protest, the Square was raided by riot police firing rubber bullets, water cannons, and teargas to disperse the crowd.

Meanwhile in the Western hemisphere, Brazil faced its largest protests in decades as 1 million citizens took to the streets of several cities with a range of complaints including government corruption, poor public services, high taxes, and excessive government spending on preparations for hosting next year’s World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.  In true ‘Occupy’ style, the movement is leaderless and has no clear set of demands.  Like the demonstrations in Turkey, Brazil’s revolt began with an isolated protest (in this case, against an increase in city bus fares) that sparked something much larger after police intervened with excessive force.

If you’ve been following international news the last few years, a couple of unrelated protests on separate continents hardly raises an eyebrow, especially since they’re more in the mold of the inconsequential Occupy movement than the Arab Spring protests that shook up the Middle East.  But what makes these cases interesting is that both countries are fairly successful democracies with strong economies and popular elected leaders.

In a piece about Turkey that could just as well apply to Brazil, William Dobson writes for Slate, “In the last two years, we have become so accustomed to seeing people rise up against their governments (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, the list goes on) that we expect them to share the same goal—toppling their government. But that’s not what most of the people in Taksim Square were clamoring for. They are in no hurry to throw out the system. The truth is that as countries go the system in Turkey has worked pretty well.”

Turkey has drawn international praise over the past decade as Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (Known by its Turkish acronym, AKP) have enacted successful policies that have earned decisive reelections and approval ratings well above 50%.  Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff was just elected in 2010 and is expected to be a strong favorite for reelection in a country that continues to display a vibrant and innovative participatory democracy.

Where the similarities between the two countries and the recent protests break down, however, is in the personalities and responses of their elected leaders.  Brazil’s President Rousseff responded sympathetically to the protesters, acknowledging their grievances and vowing to meet with representatives to discuss reform options.  Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan, on the other hand, labeled protesters as terrorists and thugs, blamed them for hurting the economy, and vowed to counter demonstrations with even larger crowds of his own supporters.

Turkey and Brazil demonstrate how democracy is not a single, easily definable concept, but rather comes in different strengths and varieties.  Brazil’s “participatory democracy” gives citizens ample opportunity to voice concerns even between election cycles.  Although still widely popular, Rousseff could face stiff competition in the next election if she fails to show an adequate response to the protests.

Erdogan, on the other hand, has little to fear from the demonstrations, and observes a strict “majoritarian” view of democracy.  Under this system, citizens get to vote in free elections, but that’s where their invitation to participate ends.  The winner of the election leads the country as he sees fit, without regard for minority interests, and Erdogan has been in power so long that he and the AKP have drifted closer to authoritarian style rule.  Despite promising to uphold Turkey’s secular laws, Erdogan, a devout Muslim, has recently begun invading peoples’ private lives by passing restrictions on alcohol consumption and arguing that women should bear at least three children.  Dobson argues that Erdogan is the authoritarian equivalent of a rock star, even more successful than the late Hugo Chavez in that he has taken on the role of dictator while also winning international acclaim for his democratic reforms and economic policy successes.

It’s too early to close the book (or finalize the Wikipedia pages) on “Occupy Gezi” and “Occupy Brazil,” but already they may tell us something about democracy in the United States, and why its own Occupy movement failed.  Our democratic republican form of government is certainly more majoritarian in nature than Brazil’s, or most countries’ with a parliamentary form of government, for that matter.  Politicians here can, to an extent, ignore protest movements, particularly those that refuse to produce leaders who can seek to build influence within the two-party system.  However, unlike Turkey, civic participation extends beyond just voting every couple of years, and we have two (some will say ‘arguably’) viable choices in parties.  A question worth asking, then, will be whether the U.S.’s middle-ground position on this democracy spectrum is the most desirable style of governance.

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Give Transparency Another Try

Jun 06 2013

May is the start of the summer Hollywood blockbuster season, but for political news junkies the best popcorn show in town was the endless stream of scandals erupting in Washington. First, the neverending investigation of the September 2012 attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi somehow picked up steam again. Then the IRS clumsily broke the story that it had improperly targeted Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status for extra scrutiny. The kicker appeared to be the revelation that the Department of Justice secretly acquired phone records for over 100 Associated Press reporters as part of an investigation into a national security leak. But this seems to have given way to a drip, drip of fresh stories about federal investigations of even more journalists, sparking a fierce discussion in the press about the Administration’s attitude toward the First Amendment.

The spectacle of outraged politicians and journalists, and Congressional oversight hearings that jumped between topics so quickly that they were sometimes hard to follow, was certainly entertaining to watch (if that’s your thing). But like any other summer blockbuster, the May scandals were mostly a barrage of deceptive special effects lacking a plot to string them all together.

What we had were not really White House scandals at all, and, contrary to what President Obama’s critics on the right said, or wished, they did not uncover any pattern of abuse of power or come anywhere close to Watergate or the Iran-Contra affair. As Ezra Klein of the Washington Post put it, “…Absent more revelations, the scandals that could reach high don’t seem to include any real wrongdoing, whereas the ones that include real wrongdoing don’t reach high enough.”

If anything, the hysterics of a handful of Republicans who started talking about impeachment before knowing the basic facts of the cases somehow managed to look worse than the President in what would have been a very challenging few weeks for him if they had shown more restraint.

The more reasonable critics argued that, even if Obama was not directly involved or knowledgeable of things like the IRS scandal, he shares responsibility for setting a tone that allowed the behavior to continue without drawing the proper level of scrutiny. This is not an impeachable offense, but it may be a valid critique of his management style.

Where those detractors went wrong is in saying that the President set a hostile, offensive tone against his “enemies.” Columnist Jonah Goldberg, for example, said of Obama that, “He’s made it clear that people who disagree with him are fevered, illegitimate, weird, creepy, dangerous, stupid, confused, ignorant, or some other adjective you might assign to a revamped version of the Seven Dwarfs.” I don’t blame him for feeling this way, but I don’t think that’s the message coming from the President.

Instead I see a defensive stance from the Executive Branch, a vain attempt to control the flow of information in a political and media climate so volatile that–no joke–even the President requesting a Marine to hold an umbrella over him during a rainy outdoor press conference sparks a firestorm of angry tweets and blog posts.

The Obama Administration developed a reputation for being tight-lipped going all the way back to the 2008 Presidential Election, where the candidate earned the moniker, “No-Drama-Obama,” for the disciplined, leak-devoid nature of his campaign. But some of this anti-leaking tone is also a result of the decade-old War on Terror.

With operations in Iraq finished and those in Afghanistan winding down, the War on Terror has evolved into the nebulous, borderless, mainly covert war that it always sounded like. Drones have replaced boots on the ground, and the lines between military and CIA operations often remain a blur. The counter-terrorism strategy employs a broad umbrella of secrecy over everything from drone policy to handling of detainees, and has long incurred criticism from the left.

At the same time, the Administration has earned the dubious distinction of having indicted twice as many individuals (six) for leaking classified information to the press than all previous administrations combined, and has alarmingly gone so far as to consider at least one journalist a co-conspirator in a criminal leak investigation.

Explanations for why this has happened are not all sinister in nature. Rather than any top-down policy, some experts argue that the investigations were pursued by separate prosecutors working independently. It has also become easier to track down the sources of leaks electronically. But the underlying reason there are so many leaks to begin with could have something to do with just how much information is classified these days.

The culture of secrecy in Washington is routinely justified on the grounds of national security, and this is usually a legitimate explanation. But it may have also inadvertantly set an example for other federal agencies that, when the public and the media cannot be trusted to correctly interpret certain information that could reflect poorly on the Administration, it is okay to keep it secret in order to avoid confusion. As the past month has shown, such thinking ends up causing more harm than good.

Contrary to claims made by President Obama, Eric Holder, and others, this administration has never impressed anyone with its efforts to promote transparency. Obama’s May 24 speech at the National Defense University, covering a huge swath of foreign policy and beginning to define an endgame for the War on Terror, was an important step in the right direction, and one that felt a couple years overdue. With the bulk of the goals set forth at the War’s outset now realized, it’s time to refocus on fully restoring the open, democratic society that the 9/11 attack disrupted. The questions will be whether this administration has the right temperament to shift in that direction over the next three years, and whether the people are patient and trusting enough in their government at this point to allow it to do so.

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