Middle East scenarios (well, not really…)

On January 30, I made this presentation to a Herzliya Conference panel entitled “Short-Term Scenarios for the Middle East” (short-term being defined as the next three years). I didn’t actually present any scenarios, for the reason explained in my very first sentence. But I did ask what I think will be the most salient questions (except for Iran, which I’m not touching). Among the panelists was Ed Djerejian, former United States ambassador to Syria and Israel. I’ve always found him to be a feisty good sport, and he stood by the quote of him that I brought. But the session was run by Chatham House rules, so you only get my side of the story. (Other panelists: Sir Mark Allen, Riad al Khouri, and David F. Gordon. Moderator: Shmuel Bar.)

Short-term scenarios are obviously more dangerous than long-term ones—dangerous, that is, to whoever formulates them. Consider that a year ago at this conference, Husni Mubarak was under siege but clinging to power. Bashar Assad was claiming that he had nothing to worry about, and the London School of Economics was still proud to have Saif al-Islam Qadhafi as an alumnus.

It’s been a humbling year for prognosticators, and in this age of the internet, it’s easy to go back and retrieve embarrassing predictions. I allude to those that exaggerated the power of the Facebook youth, downplayed the appeal of the Muslim Brotherhood, or described the Salafis in Egypt as a “tiny minority.” Some people have been so stung by their own predictions that they’ve vowed to abstain from making them again. Tom Friedman of the New York Times did that three weeks ago: “The Egyptian uprising is the equivalent of elephants flying…. If you didn’t see it coming, what makes you think you know where it’s going? That’s why the smartest thing now is to just shut up and take notes.” Whether Tom will keep his New Year’s resolution remains to be seen. But it’s now commonplace for chastened analysts just to admit that “no one knows” what will be in the Middle East.

That’s actually preferable to another approach: discounting the short-term altogether, especially as it looks so messy, and taking comfort in the long term. Ambassador Djerejian and I go back a long way, so he won’t mind if I quote something he said last September (at min. 4:30) to make my point. (You see, Ed, you’re not in office any more, but I’m still stalking you.)

I think in the long arc of history, what’s happening in the Arab world is akin to what we, the United States, stand for, both in terms of our values and our national security interests. But in the short term, there are going to be some detours, some bad actors are probably going to come to power in some of these countries, extremists will try to hijack this popular uprising. But I think in the long term, the fact that they are going to have broader political participation, more viable uncorrupt economies, is a good thing, and we have to support these movements.

Now I’m not going to pick on Ed. What he said reflects the Washington consensus: while the short-term is unpredictable and full of bumps, things will stabilize in the long term, and to our advantage. In this approach, short-term scenarios full of detours and bad actors can be disregarded, since long-term trends will correct for them—and these trends smile upon us. The most irresistable one is the spread of freedom, conceived in the American way.

I happen to believe that if things go awry in the short term, there will be hell to pay later, and I’m not alone. I respect the long-term scenario-building of the National Intelligence Council. But there’s a reason they redo their 15-year projections every five years. Still, I’m not going to burden you with short-term scenarios. That’s partly because, as long as I’ve been studying, following, and living in the Middle East, the crucial events have been flying elephants or, if you will, “black swans”—developments beyond all but the most far-fetched scenarios. Instead, I’ll pose a few questions about the future. Your answers are the scenarios.

  1. Is the “wave of revolutions” over? We’re now a year into events, and there seems to be a pattern. The wave hit the presidents-for-life in the so-called “republics” hardest. It swept some of them away. But the monarchies seem to have weathered the storm. When I was at The Washington Institute in November, I attended a session with the Tunisian Islamist guru Rashid Ghannouchi, and he said this: “Today, the Arab world is witnessing revolutions, some of which have succeeded and some of which are about to succeed. The republics have almost completed [this process], and next year it will be the turn of the monarchies…. The young people in Saudi Arabia do not feel they have fewer rights than those in Tunisia or Syria.” When the Institute published this, the Saudis went ballistic, and Ghannouchi claimed his remarks had been distorted. But he said it, and presumably people are thinking it. The answer to this question is especially important to everyone who depends on Persian Gulf oil.
  2. Is there an alternative to Islamism? Islamists are taking every ballot box by storm, usually by a margin twice that predicted by the “experts.” There are those who believe this advantage won’t last. Elliott Abrams last week wrote that “time is part of the antidote to extremism,” and anticipated that Islamists would mellow during that time and do worse in the second and third free elections. But if so, someone else will have to do better, so who might that someone else be? Who has the formula for beating the Islamists at what is becoming their game? The answer to this is especially important to Israel: Islamists may be prepared to play with the West, but to them Israel is forever unclean.
  3. Is the map of the Middle East going to change? We’ve already seen some map changes result from the ballot box: the split between the West Bank and Gaza was prompted by an election, and the split of Sudan into two, by a referendum. What about Libya and Syria? And Iraq? In 2016, the Sykes-Picot agreement, which drew the map of the Middle East according to British and French interests, will be a century old. It survived decolonization. Can it survive democratization? (For those who like the 1989 analogy to the “Arab Spring,” I remind them that 1989 changed the map of Europe.) The world wants to see democracy in the Middle East, but it doesn’t want the map to change. There may be a contradiction between these two desires.

So instead of the customary three scenarios, I’ve asked three questions. Your answers are your scenarios—short-term ones, because we’ll have answers to all three questions within the next three years.

And that brings me to my last point. President Obama has often mentioned the imperative of being on the “right side of history.” He’s said that on Egypt, “we were on the right side of history.” Qadhafi, he said, was on the “wrong side of history.” And the Middle East, he said, “will be watching carefully to make sure we’re on the right side of history.” The danger here is the assumption that events unfold in accordance with certain laws, and the most we need to do is position ourselves. This thinking provides an excuse for inaction—the belief that there is a predestined path to history, from which there are, at most, “detours.”

But there is no “long arc,” because people have choices they’ve yet to make, and those choices will affect outcomes. On the three questions I’ve asked, there may be policies that the United States, Europe, and even Israel can implement, to tilt the odds in favor of certain scenarios and against others. And since we too have to live with the consequences, why not? Let’s hope that, despite having plotted the ‘long arc” of the “right side” of history, we haven’t entirely given up on making it.

Smear intifada

Electronic Intifada, a death-to-Israel website run by Ali Abunimah, says that in my Herzliya Conference speech, which I posted two weeks ago, I “called for ‘the West’ to take measures to curb the births of Palestinians, a proposal that appears to meet the international legal definition of a call for genocide.” According to the site, “Kramer proposed that the number of Palestinian children born in the Gaza Strip should be deliberately curbed, and alleged that this would ‘happen faster if the West stops providing pro-natal subsidies to Palestinians with refugee status.'” The usual suspects, Philip Weiss and M.J. Rosenberg, have jumped on the bandwagon. Being accused of advocating genocide by people who daily call for Israel to be wiped off the map of the Middle East is rich.

In my speech, I made no such “proposal.” The full quote:

Aging populations reject radical agendas, and the Middle East is no different. Now eventually, this will happen among the Palestinians too, but it will happen faster if the West stops providing pro-natal subsidies for Palestinians with refugee status. Those subsidies are one reason why, in the ten years from 1997 to 2007, Gaza’s population grew by an astonishing 40 percent. At that rate, Gaza’s population will double by 2030, to three million. Israel’s present sanctions on Gaza have a political aim—undermine the Hamas regime—but if they also break Gaza’s runaway population growth—and there is some evidence that they have—that might begin to crack the culture of martyrdom which demands a constant supply of superfluous young men. That is rising to the real challenge of radical indoctrination, and treating it at its root.

I didn’t propose that Israel take a single additional measure beyond the sanctions it now imposes with the political aim of undermining Hamas. And I didn’t call on the West to “deliberately curb the births of Palestinians.” I called on it to desist from deliberately encouraging births through pro-natal subsidies for Palestinian “refugees,” which guarantee that Gazans will remain both radicalized and dependent.

The Electronic Intifada claims that “neither the UN, nor any other agencies, provide Palestinians with specifically ‘pro-natal subsidies.'” This is a lie: UNWRA assures that every child with “refugee” status will be fed and schooled regardless of the parents’ own resources, and mandates that this “refugee” status be passed from generation to generation in perpetuity. Anywhere in the world, that would be called a deliberate pro-natal policy. Electronic Intifada: “Kramer appeared to be equating any humanitarian assistance at all with inducement for Palestinians to reproduce.” Appears to whom? A pro-natal subsidy is a national or international promise to support the yet-unborn, not humanitarian assistance to the living. The pro-natal subsidy in Gaza is the unlimited promise of hereditary “refugee” status to future generations.

(Stopping pro-natal subsidies isn’t an original idea, and I credit Gunnar Heinsohn for making a much more detailed case for it, in his January 2009 Wall Street Journal Europe article, “Ending the West’s Proxy War Against Israel: Stop funding a Palestinian youth bulge, and the fighting will stop too.” He also coined the phrase “superfluous young men.”)

Of course, Palestinian extremists and their sympathizers are quick to throw the “genocide” charge against Israel, and so are some Israelis. The late Tanya Reinhart once accused Israel of “slow genocide” against the Palestinians—which, if it were Israel’s policy, must be counted its most dismal failure, since population and life expectancy in the West Bank and Gaza have grown by an astonishing rate since 1967. The rise didn’t all result from Western subsidies (Heinsohn calls them “unlimited welfare”), and employment of Palestinians in Israel played a crucial role as well. But now the responsibility lies primarily with the West. I will leave the final word to Heinsohn (who, by the way, heads an institute for comparative genocide research):

As long as we continue to subsidize Gaza’s extreme demographic armament, young Palestinians will likely continue killing their brothers or neighbors. And yet, despite claiming that it wants to bring peace to the region, the West continues to make the population explosion in Gaza worse every year. By generously supporting UNRWA’s budget, the West assists a rate of population increase that is 10 times higher than in their own countries. Much is being said about Iran waging a proxy war against Israel by supporting Hezbollah and Hamas. One may argue that by fueling Gaza’s untenable population explosion, the West unintentionally finances a war by proxy against the Jews of Israel.

If we seriously want to avoid another generation of war in Gaza, we must have the courage to tell the Gazans that they will have to start looking after their children themselves, without UNRWA’s help.

Overnight addendum: I’m amused by my sudden overnight promotion to Harvard preeminence (by bloggers—why not?), but I have to disappoint. I’m not a “Harvard prof” (Rosenberg) or a “distinguished Harvard professor” (Richard Silverstein). My own homepage records that I’m presently a visiting scholar at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center (in the National Security Studies Program). The purpose of visitorships is to facilitate joint research between Weatherhead faculty and non-Harvard colleagues; a visiting scholar must hold a regular academic appointment somewhere else. I enjoy my Harvard research and library privileges. But I’ve never taught at Harvard, I’m not there now, and I don’t use the Harvard affiliation as an identifier on this Sandbox blog. For that, I rely solely on my permanent affiliations. So my rapid promotion at Harvard is really just a stunt by demagogues to attract attention, and the wild exaggeration is of a piece with all they produce. (Still, it was flattering…)

Further update: The directors of the Weatherhead Center at Harvard: “Accusations have been made that Martin Kramer’s statements are genocidal. These accusations are baseless.” Full text here.

More commentary:  Harvard Crimson editorial:

The blogosphere clearly overreacted in perpetuating the genocide meme created by Electronic Intifada and others. While the 1948 U.N. Convention does delineate “measures intended to prevent births” as a form of genocide, Kramer was not advocating an ethnic cleansing of Gaza’s citizens, but rather a shift in the average age of their population with the intention of, in his opinion, benefiting them in the long run. Considering the content of Kramer’s speech, labeling his policy as “genocide” is unfair, and steers the debate away from his actual argument.

Although we disagree with Kramer’s politics, creating a thriving marketplace of ideas among academic Fellows at Harvard can only benefit the University as a whole. Indeed, a major goal of the Weatherhead Center is to promote “vigorous, sustained intellectual dialogue” within the Harvard community, and a diverse view like Kramer’s will certainly foster the sort of debate the center seeks to promote. Although we question Kramer’s judgment, we refrain from questioning his continued presence at the Center and the legality of his statement in light of the U.N. Convention on Genocide. We encourage the blogosphere to follow suit.

Article by Jeremy Patashnik in the Harvard Political Review: 

Kramer’s remarks were not softly worded, and there are plenty of good reasons to reject his conclusions, but to call his proposal genocidal is, quite simply, absurd. This is not merely a semantic question of hyperbole gone awry. When M.J. Rosenberg, and others, label legitimate ideas as morally repugnant without rationally refuting them, it creates an environment of hyper-political correctness where people become afraid to share new–sometimes controversial–ideas for fear of being branded “radicals”…

It’s good that Kramer’s remarks have caused controversy. If people disagree with him, they ought to make their opinions known, and Kramer should, in turn, defend the ideas he put forth. Much of what Kramer said deserves to be rejected, but there are also parts that can contribute to the ongoing dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps ending pro-natal subsidies is morally unpalatable, but that doesn’t mean a discussion of how Palestinian population growth affects the conflict shouldn’t enter into the picture. Rosenberg does this important topic a disservice by irrationally branding ideas he doesn’t like “genocide.” Political correctness serves its role in society, but when it’s taken too far, it inhibits creative thinking.

Update, 2018: Read “A Controversy at Harvard,” my retrospective on this affair.

Superfluous young men

You get six minutes at the Herzliya Conference to say something memorable (and there is a clock ticking away at your feet, facing the audience). So I made a memorable argument for the role of population growth in radicalization, a clip of which is embedded below. It’s memorable—but not at all original. I first encountered the idea (and the phrase “superfluous young men”) in the stimulating work of Gunnar Heinsohn (here is one example of many). My discussion of the Palestinian angle isn’t original either. See Heinsohn’s “Ending the West’s Proxy War Against Israel: Stop funding a Palestinian youth bulge, and the fighting will stop too” (here).

There is also one error in my popularized recycling of his thesis. Heinsohn’s rule of thumb is that when 30 percent or more of the total male population is between 15-29 (fighting age), violence ensues. In my talk, I added that I would put it higher, at 40 percent. But that 40 percent should be of the total adult male population (15-64). I doubt that in any of the countries of the region, the 15-29 range accounts for 40 percent of total male population. Heinsohn is right.

An excellent compendium of demographic data on age structure in the Middle East, and a valuable discussion of it, may be found in the Stanford Center for Longevity’s “Critical Demographics of the Greater Middle East: A New Lens for Understanding Regional Issues” (here).

Update, February 22: See my rejoinder to critics of this presentation. It’s entitled “Smear Intifada.”

Update, February 23: The directors of the Weatherhead Center at Harvard: “Accusations have been made that Martin Kramer’s statements are genocidal. These accusations are baseless.” Full text here.

Update, 2018: Read “A Controversy at Harvard,” my retrospective on this affair.

Text of speech as delivered: I’m going to try to pull the focus back a bit. Our panel title implies that indoctrination is the key to radicalism. If we could shut down the jihadi websites and silence the radical preachers, if we could get the Saudis to stop funding extremists and fix the textbooks, the radical fever would subside.

But there are other views. There are those who say that the heart of the problem is despotic governments. If there were more democracy, and less Western backing for kings, emirs, and presidents for life, the radical fever would subside.

Others say that the heart of the problem is America’s unconditional support for Israel, and U.S. military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the U.S. were to take its armies out of these lands, if the U.S. were to force Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian territory, the radical fever would subside.

Now as between these three explanations, you might prefer one to another. I myself have had a running debate with people who think that anger at Israel drives Al Qaeda or recruitment to Al Qaeda. Typical is this view, expressed last week, by a noted, prominent analyst: “We can separate Al Qaeda from the vast majority of Muslims by advancing a just and lasting peace that Palestinians accept.” I don’t know what the Palestinians would accept, and I think the vast majority of Muslims are already separated from Al Qaeda. But in places like Yemen and Afghanistan and Somalia, where Al Qaeda is most deeply entrenched, a “just and lasting” peace for the Palestinians wouldn’t make a shred of difference.

But the indoctrination explanation and the lack-of-democracy explanation also underestimate the problem, by suggesting that our policies can go far to change the dynamic. They can’t, and let me explain why.

The societies in which radicalism thrives differ from ours in many ways, but one way is crucial. The median age in Germany is 44, in the United Kingdom it is 40. In the United States, it is 37. In Israel, it is 29, in Turkey it is 28. That’s for perspective. In Iraq, it is 19. In Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Gaza, the median age is 17. Where the median age drops below 20, Islamist radicalization takes place on a massive scale. The biggest radicalizer is fertility that hovers at 6 or 7, and masses of economically superfluous young men of fighting age, between 15 and 29.

A German demographer, Gunnar Heinsohn, has a rule of thumb, that when 15- to 29-year-olds make up more than 30 per cent of the population, violence ensues. I would put it higher, at 40 percent—which is exactly where it stands in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and Gaza. If the state can’t control these young men, someone else will; if society can’t offer dignified pursuits for the fourth and fifth and sixth sons, someone else will. And it isn’t just the frustration of poverty; it is just as much the shortage of status. Osama bin Laden lacked for nothing, but his father, Saudi Arabia’s biggest contractor, married 22 times and had about 55 children. Osama was number 17. Radical Islam is a way for the superfluous sons to enter history.

So radical Islam answers a demand among frustrated young men, it doesn’t create it. How should that affect the West’s approach to the problem? First, let us not delude ourselves about the prospects of counterradicalization techniques. Afghanistan and Yemen will almost double their populations between now and 2030. What will 28 million more Afghans and 20 million more Yemenis do? What about the nearly 80 million more Pakistanis who will be added by 2030? This explosive growth will drive radicalization through another generation at least, and push it into Europe and America through emigration.

Second, there is hope. By 2030, these societies will have passed through the youth bulge. Fertility is already falling, in some places steeply. And when it falls, the radicals will lose their pool of recruits. A present example is Iran, where a revolt is brewing against the agenda of Ahmadinejad and the hardliners. It is also a place where fertility has dropped from 7 to below replacement, below 2—as steep a drop as China’s. Aging populations reject radical agendas, and the Middle East is no different.

Now eventually, this will happen among the Palestinians too, but it will happen faster if the West stops providing pro-natal subsidies for Palestinians with refugee status. Those subsidies are one reason why, in the ten years from 1997 to 2007, Gaza’s population grew by an astonishing 40 percent. At that rate, Gaza’s population will double by 2030, to three million. Israel’s present sanctions on Gaza have a political aim—undermine the Hamas regime—but if they also break Gaza’s runaway population growth—and there is some evidence that they have—that might begin to crack the culture of martyrdom which demands a constant supply of superfluous young men. That is rising to the real challenge of radical indoctrination, and treating it at its root.