Middle East Notes and Comment: Muscle Bound

The December edition of the newsletter of the Middle East Program, Middle East Notes and Comment.

Included in this issue:

Muscle Bound: President Trump’s new National Security Strategy seeks to build American strength, but it should have focused on building agility.

Blessed Bling: Cheap Asian imports are disrupting the market for semi-precious stones in the Gulf.

Maghreb Security Conference: The CSIS Middle East Program hosted a full-day conference examining counterterrorism in North Africa.

In the Media: Commentary in the media by program experts on President Trump’s Jerusalem announcement and shifting dynamics in the Yemen crisis.

Muscle Bound

By Jon B. Alterman

A lot has changed in the Middle East and around the world in the last 15 years. A lot has happened in the United States as well. Reading President Trump’s new National Security Strategy, almost all of the emphasis is on the latter. The country would have been better served if more of the emphasis were on the former.

The biggest issue facing the United States today is not that it has fallen into decline. Instead, it is that its institutions are being tested in a rapidly changing environment. It often seems like our adversaries are innovating faster than we are. They are small and fast and willing to fail often, in the hopes of occasional victories. The U.S. government is big and slow and intolerant of failure. The president’s new strategy prioritizes building strength rather than agility, but given the strength we already have and the world that we are facing, greater agility is the more urgent need.

It is not surprising that after a campaign that stressed “America First,” the new strategy would be largely focused on the United States and its supposed weakness. Still, the most fundamental security changes are occurring outside the United States.

An obvious change is in cyber, where the president’s strategy is refreshingly—and surprisingly—open about how hostile and low-cost disinformation campaigns “with a troubling degree of deniability…can undermine faith and confidence in democratic institutions.” The Trump administration is still discovering the extent of Russian meddling in U.S. domestic politics, it is unclear how much it knows about the influence Russia had on the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, and efforts elsewhere remain an even greater mystery. While the president’s strategy notes the importance of cyber, it is vague on what safeguards the United States needs to put in place, let alone what offensive capabilities of its own the United States should seek to develop. Can the United States deter aggressors in the cyber realm, or should it seek to do so? The problem is clear, but it requires agility and direction to confront.

Another obvious change, left less clear in the document, is the rising capacity of non-state actors to shape what used to be known as “international relations.” One no longer has to be a nation to play on that field. The document mentions “jihadist terrorists” 31 times, but it limits discussion of international criminal syndicates to drug cartels, and never confronts the sway that businesses have on the conduct of diplomacy. The average American is far more likely to feel the impact of the latter two than the former. Most terrorist groups are small and poor. A number of criminal networks and several companies have economies that exceed those of many countries. All three groups have their diplomats, they have their intelligence services, and they have their armed forces. They can wage war and make peace. Alongside these groups, peer-to-peer networks are using communications technology to shape politics within countries and between them. They can spread ideas but have no clear leadership and no return address.

The United States became the predominant power in the world in the last 75 years largely through prioritizing bilateral relations with other states and investing in a rules-based international order. In the years to come, nation-state relations will be important, but relations with groups other than states will be more important than ever before. We have hundreds of years of experience doing the former, and we’re much worse at doing the latter. Thinking of non-state actors principally as a problem of terrorism both misjudges the issue and leads toward heavy-handed responses that treat the problems but don’t do much to solve them.

Crucially, the document also glosses over the ways in which Americans spread what we consider to be universal values around the world—through private voluntary organizations, through welcoming foreign students here and sending our own abroad, and through tourism that exposes foreign visitors to American society. The so-called “soft power” of the United States has been a tremendous boon to U.S. national security, but the new strategy is more oriented toward keeping people out than letting them in, and shoehorns the positive side of the U.S. agenda into the work of the State Department—while current policy seeks to decimate the department’s budget.

Where the document does see external change is among U.S. adversaries—not in what they do, but in the administration’s resolve to confront them. Iran appears 12 times, yet the strategy is virtually silent on strategies to change Iranian behavior. In point of fact, despite its oil wealth and its tentacles to non-state actors around the Middle East, Iran’s gross domestic product (GDP) is somewhere in the neighborhood of Maryland’s. The country is not a near peer of the United States. There are many signs that Iran is hostile but few that it is irrational, and a more robust strategy would have included more ideas about how to change Iranian behavior rather than promise to confront it.

Russia and China also feature strongly in the document, as “revisionist powers” that “[aim] to weaken U.S. influence in the world and divide us from our allies,” and have “expanded its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others,” respectively. The strategy seeks to overwhelm these countries with military strength, yet their own strategies anticipate this. We are playing precisely the game their strategies are designed to defeat.

The document is almost backward-looking, and it is natural to want to return to approaches that won the United States dominance in the twentieth century. Yet, they seem unlikely to deliver the same results in the twenty-first. The world was much neater, the threats were more finite, and the interests were easier to assess. A more effective strategy would have concentrated on how the world has changed, not how we have returned. It would have set new goals. It would have sought to inspire more than it sought to reassure. It would have sought to hone speed and effectiveness, rather than merely build the overwhelming advantage in power that the United States already enjoys.

Blessed Bling

By Aaron Christensen

Half a millennium ago, ships laden with precious stones sailed from Arabian ports to the shores of China, and India’s Mughal emperors imported Persian turquoise. Now, the winds of trade have changed, as gemstones real and fake flow from East Asia to the Gulf. For the Gulf’s booming religious jewelry market, worldly profits are not the only thing at stake.

The Prophet Muhammad is said to have worn a stone ring, giving gems a special place in Islamic tradition. Today, the practice is most common among some Shi’ite men who believe certain stones bring blessings such as protection, pardon, or romantic success. Rings accessorize the fatigues of Iranian paramilitary commander Qassem Soleimani and the business suits of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In Shi`ite holy cities, merchants do a brisk business hawking smooth Iranian turquoise and milky Najafi quartz to pilgrims.

A globalized marketplace has threatened traditional gem miners and cutters with cheap—and sometimes fake—imports. Jewelry from China, Thailand, and India has recently flooded Middle Eastern markets, piquing concerns that mislabeled or even synthetic gems are passing for pricey local specimens. In some markets, merchants are accused of selling painted glass from China, undercutting the price of gemstones. Yemeni jewelers complain that profiteers are importing cheap stones from overseas and re-exporting them as coveted “Yemeni agates.”

Jewelry wearers who fall prey to bad luck or ill health can increasingly argue that the fault lies not in their superstitions, but in the provenance of the gems that they purchased. Even scrupulously honest jewelers will be facing a new challenge.

This article is part of the CSIS Middle East Program series Mezze: Assorted Stories from the Middle East.

Maghreb Security Conference

On December 4, 2017, the CSIS Middle East Program hosted a full-day conference examining security in North Africa. The conference featured senior Maghreb government officials, current and former U.S. government officials, and leading scholars. Over the course of the day, speakers and participants engaged in conversations on evolving threat environments in the Maghreb, regional governments’ counterterrorism strategies, and potential markers for success in fighting terrorism. Congressman Gerry Connolly (VA-11) delivered the closing keynote address, calling for greater U.S. attention and resources to the Maghreb region. You can watch videos from the conference HERE. We will release a report distilling key takeaways from the conference in early 2018.

In the Media

President Trump’s foreign policy tends to be “instinctual and not rational” and rooted in “his delight in defying conventional wisdom.” Jon Alterman in The Washington Post on the president’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, 12/10/17.

“It will be telling if other countries follow the U.S. lead on these issues or not.” Jon Alterman on the PBS Newshour website on how Trump’s Jerusalem announcement might affect the U.S. role as a principal sponsor of Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations, 12/6/17.

In the Palestinian view, “this represents Israel getting something for nothing and that the U.S. isn’t serious about resolving this conflict.” Jon Alterman in U.S. News & World Report on Trump and the troubled history of Jerusalem, 12/6/17.

“This is really a time for the United States to explore whether we can put this conflict behind us, or at least get on the road to a resolution.” Jon Alterman on PBS Newshour on Ali Abdullah Saleh’s death as a potential turning point in Yemen’s crisis, 12/4/17.

“I think the important thing now is to test the proposition…that reconfiguring the players creates the possibility of finding a resolution to the conflict.” Jon Alterman in The Los Angeles Times on dynamics in Yemen after Saleh’s death, 12/4/17.

Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program