Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

Weekend Reading: Overplaying Sectarianism in Yemen, Iraqi Cinema, and Peacemaking in Oman

by Steven A. Cook Friday, April 10, 2015
A Saudi border guard patrols near Saudi Arabia's border with Yemen, along a beach on the Red Sea, near Jizan (Faisal Al Nasser/Courtesy Reuters). A Saudi border guard patrols near Saudi Arabia's border with Yemen, along a beach on the Red Sea, near Jizan (Faisal Al Nasser/Courtesy Reuters).

Abubakr al-Shamahi’s blog post on the misuse of the terms “Sunni” and “Shia” in the context of Yemen remains as pertinent today as it was when he published it a year ago. Read more »

Neither Shocked nor Awed: The Arab Reaction to the Iran Deal

by Guest Blogger for Steven A. Cook Thursday, April 9, 2015
Saudi King Salman attends the opening meeting of the Arab Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters). Saudi King Salman attends the opening meeting of the Arab Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

My research associate, Amr Leheta, wrote this terrific post on the Arab reaction to the framework agreement between the P5+1 and Iran. Enjoy!

“The Nuclear Agreement…A Strategic Earthquake in the Middle East” read one headline in a London-based, pan-Arab newspaper on April 4. In the article underneath, published a couple of days after the announcement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) regarding Iran’s nuclear program, the editorial board of Al-Quds Al-Arabi wrote the following: Read more »

No Way Out

by Steven A. Cook Wednesday, April 8, 2015
Turkey's Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu addresses members of parliament from his ruling AK Party (AKP) during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara (Umit Bektas/Courtesy Reuters). Turkey's Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu addresses members of parliament from his ruling AK Party (AKP) during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara (Umit Bektas/Courtesy Reuters).

This article was originally published here on the American Interest’s website on Tuesday, April 7, 2015. 

It is eight weeks before Turkey’s general elections, the end of a stretch that has lasted a little more than a year during which Turks will have gone to the polls three times to elect their Mayors, President, and now legislators. The extended electoral season, made difficult by Turkey’s polarization, has not dampened the Istanbul-Ankara elite’s appetite for rank speculation, however. In years past, much of this chatter centered on parties and politicians who were going to save Turkey from whatever crisis of governance had befallen the country. There was the businessman Cem Uzan and his Youth Party in 2002; the dream team of Ismail Cem and Kemal Dervis, who were going to lead the New Turkey Party to victory also in 2002; Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the man to reverse the slide of the Republican People’s Party into the party of Izmir and certain Istanbul neighborhoods; and, of course, Abdullah Gul, the man to wrest control of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) from Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Uzan, however, was convicted of fraud in the United States and now lives in France, the New Turkey Party received a paltry 1.2 percent of the vote, Kilicdaroglu has presided over one defeat after the next, and Gul moved quietly from Ankara’s Cankaya Palace to Istanbul, where he seems to be enjoying retirement. So much for saving Turkey. Read more »

Washington and Cairo: Goodbye My Love, Goodbye

by Steven A. Cook Monday, April 6, 2015
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi attends the opening meeting of the Arab Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters). Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi attends the opening meeting of the Arab Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).

Last Tuesday afternoon the National Security Council announced that the Obama administration was releasing the long-delayed shipments of M1A1 tank kits, Harpoon missiles, and F-16 fighter jets to the Egyptian armed forces. The decision proved to be immediately controversial and was swiftly denounced on social media as “back to business as usual” with the Egyptians. It certainly seems that way. Reportedly, the administration based its decision on Egypt’s own deteriorating security situation, which has coincided with wars raging in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. The regional political environment may be novel, but the White House’s rationale—security—is reminiscent of a time in the not so distant past when Washington only raised Egypt’s dismal human rights record in a perfunctory way. The most important things then (and now) were keeping the Suez Canal open, the Islamists down, and the peace with Israel secure. Yet for all of the apparent continuities in Washington’s approach to Egypt’s president, from Hosni Mubarak to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, it is not back to business as usual, and that’s not because the administration will be cutting off Cairo’s access to cash flow financing—a credit card for weapons—in fiscal year 2018. Rather, it is not business as usual because business as usual is not really an option. Read more »

Weekend Reading: Iran and Us, Idlib and Assad, Libya and the Abyss

by Steven A. Cook Friday, April 3, 2015
Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif gestures as he speaks during a news conference at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne on April 2, 2015, after Iran nuclear program talks finished with extended sessions (Brendan Smialowski/Courtesy Reuters). Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif gestures as he speaks during a news conference at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne on April 2, 2015, after Iran nuclear program talks finished with extended sessions (Brendan Smialowski/Courtesy Reuters).

Read the full text of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the framework agreement between the P5+1, the European Union, and Iran regarding the Iranian nuclear program.

Aron Lund considers the strategic value of Idlib to Syria’s anti-Assad rebels. Read more »

The Weirdness of Ross Douthat’s Pax Americana

by Steven A. Cook Monday, March 30, 2015
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani addres a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House (Gary Cameron/Courtesy Reuters). U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani addres a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House (Gary Cameron/Courtesy Reuters).

Way back when before the 2008 presidential elections, some Democratic Party foreign policy operatives put together a series of seminars near Jacksonville, Florida at a place called White Oak Plantation. From what I understand, the idea was to bring some folks together to work through the difficult and complex issues facing the United States in the post–George W. Bush world. A few friends who work on Asia, Europe, and international economic issues took part in what sounded like a series of interesting weekends. To my knowledge, the people behind the White Oak meetings never organized a discussion on the Middle East because—according to a buddy of mine who attended one of the sessions—they did not feel the need to; they said they could just read about the region in the papers. I remember feeling the professional slight on behalf of all my Middle East expert colleagues everywhere and a little surprised. Although there were exceptions, the Bush team as a group did not distinguish themselves with a firm grasp of the history, politics, and culture of the region. Surely, I thought, the people preparing and hoping to lead the country for the next eight years—at least—would want to avoid making similar mistakes. Then again, there is the widely held perception that for all that Middle East analysts know about the region, policy recommendations are not their strong suit. So why not rely on what foreign correspondents and columnists have to say? Their record cannot be any worse, right? All of this came to mind on Sunday morning when I cast my gaze upon Ross Douthat’s Sunday column in the New York Times, “The Method to Obama’s Middle East Mess.” Read more »

Weekend Reading: Wahhabism and ISIS, the Yemeni State, and the State of Yemen

by Steven A. Cook Friday, March 27, 2015
A boy sits at the site of an air strike at a residential area near Sanaa Airport (Khaled Abdullah/Courtesy Reuters). A boy sits at the site of an air strike at a residential area near Sanaa Airport (Khaled Abdullah/Courtesy Reuters).

Lorenzo Kamel examines how the Wahhabi establishment in Saudi Arabia attempts to differentiate itself from the ideology of ISIS.

Jay Ulfelder finds that recent events in Yemen challenges traditional conceptions of the state and the international system. Read more »

Who’s Afraid of Negotiations?

by Guest Blogger for Steven A. Cook Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Then-General Khalifa Haftar speaks during a news conference at a sports club in Abyar, east of Benghazi May 21, 2014 (Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Courtesy Reuters). Then-General Khalifa Haftar speaks during a news conference at a sports club in Abyar, east of Benghazi May 21, 2014 (Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Courtesy Reuters).

My intern, Alex Decina, wrote this terrific post on the current state of play in Libya. I hope you find it interesting and useful.

Last Thursday could have been an important day for Libya. It could have marked the beginning of the end of the brutal civil war that has rocked the country for several months. It could have been the day divergent factions came together in spite of their political differences to form a unity government, one that could bring Libya forward. Since last week, the country’s two competing governments—the General National Congress (GNC) in the western city of Tripoli and the House of Representatives (HoR) in the eastern city of Tobruk—and their respective allies have been meeting in Morocco for what the United Nations hopes is the final phase of negotiations. If they can put this conflict behind them, Libya might see light at the end of what has been a very dark tunnel. While these negotiations show more promise than previous talks in Ghadames and Madrid, and the UN remains optimistic as it tries to push forward a unity government, they will likely still fail. The rival parties have shown time and again they are not above prolonging Libya’s violence to vie for political leverage and complete supremacy over each other. Without significant pressure, they will avoid resorting to compromise as a political solution. Read more »

Netanyahu Has the Last Laugh

by Steven A. Cook Monday, March 23, 2015
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures to supporters at party headquarters in Tel Aviv (Nir Elias/Courtesy Reuters). Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures to supporters at party headquarters in Tel Aviv (Nir Elias/Courtesy Reuters).

Wow. Just wow. The river of commentary about Israel’s recent election and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just keeps flowing. As I sat down to write this another piece popped into my inbox. Never has so much time been spent and ink spilled on what was a largely inconsequential event. Netanyahu called the election in order to consolidate his political position and he did precisely just that. The only places Netanyahu lost were North Tel Aviv, Twitter, and the editorial pages of most Western newspapers of record. For those who believed that a victory for the Zionist Union—a party list consisting of the Labor Party and Hatnuah, or “The Movement”— would produce a political dynamic conducive to a peace settlement with the Palestinians are either reality-denying optimists or simply do not understand the conflict. No matter the outcome of last week’s election there would be no peace deal because there is no deal to be had. The underlying structure of the conflict in which Israelis and Palestinians cannot satisfy the minimum requirements of peace for the other suggests prolonged stalemate. In the meantime, the annexation of the West Bank proceeds apace. Read more »