Tag Archives: middle-east

Dune, Economics and Podcasts!

Loyal Followers!

The Falcon Files made friends this weekend with the great folks over at Geek Progress and the result was some great conversations on Political Economy, the Middle East and Dune. Click here to give it a listen and be sure to visit some of there other works.


Quick edit: It seems some people have had a problem with the links working and I’ll look into that. In the meantime here is a the site: geekprogress.com.




Casus Belli, Syria & Chemical Weapons

url  Our international system rests on two pillars: states are sovereign, and they shall not, for the most part, attack each other.  Both of these are reflected in the U.N. charter which recognizes two exceptions: an attack in accordance with U.N. Security Council resolution or in defense of one’s self or collective.  The U.S. is now faced with either abiding by these laws or abandoning them for a possible unlawful intervention in Syria.  For all its disregard for law, including the recent use of chemical weapons, the Syrian regime has not given up its own sovereignty.   As a matter of international law the conflict continues to be an internal despite the violent spill over into Turkey and Lebanon.

The first exception to the rule covers any intervention supported by the Security Council.  The U.S. had such a mandate in Libya, Afghanistan, Somalia and the most recent Gulf War.  Due to a likely veto from Russia and China that deals with any Syrian intervention there is little possibility for U.N. sanction.

The second exception applies to defense of self or the collective.  Under this ruling Jordan, Turkey, Israel, Iraq or Lebanon could respond as could their allies in NATO.  Legally this is a very grey area. Despite the occasional skirmish on Turkish or Israeli borders this may not have created a justification for war.

Some may argue that states have a right to self-defense in the form of a preemptive attack.  However, this theory has a troubled past not the least of which is due to the U.S. justification of the Iraq war, not to mention it relies heavily on proof of imminent threat and intent. There doesn’t seem to be any sign of intent from the Assad regime and these are historically hard to prove.

The U.S. will likely compile an argument based on the chemical weapons usage and horrors taken place within Syria, of which there are many, and argue the adverse impacts on the region.  As in the case of Kosovo, this argument produces a war that is unlawful, but justifiable nonetheless.  This argument is made even more murky by the fact that Syria has never signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, and thus may not be held to a law they never signed.

The Obama administration must also wrestle with U.S. law as well as international.  The Constitution divides power between the Executive and the Congress which has the ability to declare war, raise taxes to support war and set the rules for war.  The Justice Department decided in 2011 that the President could launch attacks into Libya as long as “such use of force was in national interest” and the duration “would not trigger Congressional approval.” The argument that Syria now threatens regional stability is certainly plausible but may not be enough to sway Congress.

When we feel passionate about a conflict it is easy to dismiss these laws as unnecessary constraints on American power.  However, international law has a value more than its codification of normative values.  The slope between war and peace can be very slippery and the treaties, laws and institutions act as road signs and brakes on that slope allowing us weigh the enormous costs of war.  By following international law we could slow the slide to war and build a legal, moral and truly international force.

Why Egypt won’t be another Syria

imagesThe removal of the Muslim Brotherhood and pro-Morsi supporters took a violent turn as security forces killed at least 525 people and injured almost 4,000 people nearly all of whom are Morsi supporters.  People who saw the assault have reported  bulldozers smashing camps and security forces opening fire on unarmed citizens.  One protestor is on record stating:

“Some onlookers were standing at the surrounding buildings, terrified by the unfolding deaths. Others smiled at the thought that the sit-in, which paralyzed their everyday lives for over a month, was coming to the end.”

Despite these last few tumultuous weeks and the “Day of Anger” scheduled today Egypt will mostly likely avoid spiraling into a civil war. First off, Egypt is held hostage to foreign influence such as aid from the U.S. and other Gulf States all of whom funnel billions of dollars into Egypt.  It’s unlikely that those external forces would allow one of the most populous countries in Africa and the Middle East to fall into civil war.  Without that outside support its unclear if the military could sustain a civil war like the Assad government, which is propped up by military aid from Iran and Russia.  It’s true that arms have been smuggled into Egypt from Libya using Bedoin underground channels but these are mostly rifles and small arms, not the heavy artillery one would need to combat the Egyptian military for a prolonged length of time.

Second, up to now all signs point indicate that General Abdul Fatah el-Sisi has no interest in actually governing. Instead he is more concerned with the material perks of power, not the day-to-day running of a country such as the dispersal of public goods and managing a hard hit economy.

Lastly, Syria is run by a minority sect while Egypt is mostly Sunni and doesn’t have the deep Sunni/Shite tensions that plague other Middle East states such as Iraq and Syria.  Even the killings of Coptic Christians doesn’t seem to be stirring the embers that would ignite a full-blown civil war.

The conflict now is less of a civil war and more of a propaganda war where the Muslim Brotherhood has gained the world’s sympathy and the military might be pushed by public opinion to allow for more liberal forces to enter the political debate.  If the Muslim Brotherhood can maintain its non-violent stance then Abdul Fatah may back down thus ending one of the most violent crackdowns in history.  However the military must find a way to save face and realize that they cannot eradicate the Brotherhood with violence.

Benghazi and the Raven: America’s Policy Omen

Quoth_the_Raven22wDetail   One long and fateful night in a place few Americans could find on a map, four people were killed and ten others were injured.  While this could describe an attack anywhere from Afghanistan to the Horn of Africa, it happened in Benghazi.  Political hearings and investigations ran wild with conspiracy, but the attack does raise some interesting questions…why Benghazi and why do we seem so intrigued? Will this continue to haunt U.S. foreign policy like the Raven in Poe’s poem?

To the first question, we may never know exactly but the nature of Gaddafi’s overthrow and the state of Benghazi itself may offer some clues.  Unlike Egypt or Tunisia, Libya’s Arab Spring took a violent turn as rebels and government forces battled for control. Upon his ouster several armed groups, that are mostly civilian led, with heavy artillery were left to control certain areas.  These groups include the Abu Ubaidah militia, who acted as police and military in Benghazi at the time of the attack.  It’s worth noting that Abu Ubaidah is a sub group of the larger Ansar al Sharia–a Salafist Jihadist organization. While Egypt was able to have a peaceful overthrow largely due to the military’s refusal to shoot its own people, Libya was thrown into violence and then flooded with weapons from the west. Certainly overthrowing Gaddafi was a worthwhile endeavor however flooding a country with weapons is tricky as you don’t control who gets them and in the chaos that follows and the strong often take control.

To the second question, the answer is largely partisanship. Simply put the Republicans need a foreign policy platform to run on and their recent contributions to the debate have been less than inspiring. But this doesn’t get to the bottom of the puzzle as CNN has reported that the CIA is trying to keep a lid on any of their secrets from ever leaking out.

Benghazi is the Raven of the post-Bush era counter-terrorism wars and continues to rap on the doors of foreign policy as symbol of dread.  It’s not a perfect analogy but much like the Raven in Poe’s poem it reminds us our past and present.  To understand why lets review the basic points of the Benghazi attack:

  • Predictions of stability in Libya now look more dubious as political turmoil rises not just in Libya but throughout much of Middle East
  • Libya remains unable to quell challenges to internal stability as the escape of 1,100 inmates  illustrates
  •  As Joshua Faust notes this wasn’t a diplomatic embassy that was attacked but a CIA outpost that was center to a heavily secretive CIA operation

Therein lies the omen of the Raven as this indirect “lead from behind” tactic has its own risks and flaws.  It should come as no surprise that the CIA was so heavily involved in Benghazi, after all this is post-Bush era strategy of fighting wars without a heavy “boots on the ground” presence. Instead of having a large military force the outpost was working with intellengence and building relationships on the ground, thus the use of the CIA. Stereotypes aside, CIA outposts are not heavily guarded, most having very light security; they rely more on obscurity than imposing military forces.  Once that obscurity is blown so too is there best and first line of defense and the risk of this tactic came rap rap rapping on their door.

In a fluid and strategic environment we have put many of our military and intelligence personnel into dangerous and often unstable parts of the world. Many of them serve in isolated posts similar to Benghazi but even well fortified bases are vulnerable to attack from an enemy with good intelligence, some basic weaponry and a willingness to wage a war of attrition. This was the tactic of another group, in another war.

Neither Benghazi nor the more recent events in Yemen are proof that the indirect approach is invalid, instead they point out the difficulties in shaping that strategy.  Adapting tactics and means to a rapidly changing political landscape can prove difficult and making one without a shared political vision is harder. To be sure, this approach still better than previous theories of war that proved to be temporary fixes with long, difficult commitments from which we tried to extract ourselves.

The “lead from behind” approach remains the better of the U.S.’s current alternatives, but that Raven will remain as reminder of the costs of its risks and possible failures.

Dune: What SciFi Can Tell Us About Why Nations Fail


The Science Fiction masterpiece written by Frank Herbert was largely based on the Bedouin and Arab cultures throughout the Middle East and the extractive political economics that drive conflict today. For those of you unfamiliar with the story here is a brief description….

On the desert planet Arrakis, there is a very precious commodity called the Spice.  This commodity is only found on the inhospitable planet and is necessary for interstellar travel.  The intergalatic trade guild, CHOAM, requires it and uses a baron from another planet to extract it. There are two warring families the Atreides and the Harrokens, both competing for the rights to the spice and the native inhabitants are the Fremen, tribal nomads who have learned to survive the harsh environment.  The Emperor sides with the Harrokens, Paul Atreides father dies and Paul is exiled, where he allies with the Fremen. From there they wage war and Paul eventually becomes their just ruler.

It borrows much from Islam such as Hajj and Jihad (the Bulterian Jihad against sentient machines) and Paul Atriedes character is clearly modeled after desert prophets like Jesus, Moses and Muhammad. Furthermore off shoots of of Islam develop including Zensunni and Zenshia which are hybrids of Zen Buddhism Sunni Islam and Shia Isalm respectively.

The Arab language is very prevalent throughout the book, such as the Aba, a loose robe worn by the Fremen and is typically black, can be loosely translated to the Abaya, the traditional female dress for centuries. Some have argued that the word Arrakis, the planet of Dune is derived from the Arabic word Raqs meaning to dance, however this is only true in some dialects and seems to be a remote possibility.

From a economic development stand point, Dune represents an excellent example of extractive economics.  While the spice is a valued commodity and arguably the most important export in the galaxy as it is required for travel, the Arrakis natives remain improvised.  The largest threat to their lives seems to be a lack of water, something that could be easily traded for given the balance of trade. All technology on Arrakis had been built around saving water, even the dead were drained and their fluids given back to the tribe. They are shocked to hear that Paul comes from a planet where water falls from the sky into giant pools of water that surround land. A student of economics would ask why something that has low demand in once place, Paul’s planet, and has such a high demand in another is not being traded?  Why is it that people with access to such an amazing natural resource like spice, are deprived of something that could be traded so cheaply?

The answer comes down to good governance and self rule something James Robinson and Daron Acemoglu discuss here. By establishing extractive institutions such as the Baron or Western Oil companies, you have stymied development and laid the ground work for corrupt governments.  The Fremen are unable to capitalize on the trade imbalance simply because they are not governing themselves, the trade guild governs them with no interest in building an economy only extracting a commodity. This is similar to economics of Egypt under Hosni Mubarak who was supported by western powers for decades while the economic opportunities of the Egyptian people crumbled.

Some would argue that the spice lead to a paradox of plenty, or a resource curse where natural resources are more of a curse than a blessing to a nation’s economy.  Primarily OPEC countries are used to make this argument by comparing their GDP with their vast resources in oil, but little is taken into account of the extractive institutions that plagued the region for many years. Without examining institutions that govern whether it be interstellar empires, western oil companies, or corrupt governments we cannot understand the struggles of people today.

Whether Frank Herbert foresaw the debates of transparency or the political uprisings in the Middle East today, we will never know as he is dead. However, Dune remains one of the best examples of Arab culture and political economy in Science Fiction today.