Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

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

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 »

Weekend Reading: Wasting Capital on a New Capital, Jihadism in Tunisia, and Israel’s Election

by Steven A. Cook Friday, March 20, 2015
A model of a planned new capital for Egypt is displayed for investors during the final day of Egypt Economic Development Conference (EEDC) in Sharm el-Sheikh (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters). A model of a planned new capital for Egypt is displayed for investors during the final day of Egypt Economic Development Conference (EEDC) in Sharm el-Sheikh (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).

Khaled Fahmy criticizes the Egyptian government’s plan to invest money in building a new capital rather than fixing Cairo’s endemic problems.

Simon Cordall investigates the social and intellectual appeal of jihadism in Tunisia. Read more »

Weekend Reading: Egypt’s Invest-A-Thon 2015

by Steven A. Cook Friday, March 13, 2015
(L-R) U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Jordanian King Abdullah, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meet on the sidelines of the Egypt Economic Development Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh (Brian Snyder/Courtesy Reuters). (L-R) U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Jordanian King Abdullah, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meet on the sidelines of the Egypt Economic Development Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh (Brian Snyder/Courtesy Reuters).

Watch the latest advertisement for the 2015 Egypt Economic Development Conference held in Sharm el-Sheikh from March 13 to March 15.

Former Deputy Prime Minister of Egypt Ziad Bahaa-Eldin writes that the high expectations surrounding the conference poses five challenges for the government. Read more »

Ahmet Davutoglu: Only in New York

by Steven A. Cook Friday, March 6, 2015
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (C) stands at a conference table at the outset of his meeting with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at U.N. Headquarters in New York, March 5, 2015 (Mike Segar/Courtesy Reuters). Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (C) stands at a conference table at the outset of his meeting with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at U.N. Headquarters in New York, March 5, 2015 (Mike Segar/Courtesy Reuters).

With all the hubbub over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s visit to New York City this week was almost entirely overlooked in the United States. Turkey’s opposition press—or what is left of it—is pretty much convinced that Davutoglu is not visiting Washington because he is not welcome here. That seems unlikely. No matter the discord between Washington and Ankara over the fight against the Islamic State, how to deal with Egypt, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and Turkey’s rollback of civil and political rights, the Turkish prime minister (regardless of who holds the position) is important enough to rate a meeting. Read more »

Weekend Reading: Erdogan and Davutoglu, Egypt’s Prisons, and Negotiating with Assad?

by Steven A. Cook Saturday, February 21, 2015
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is seen during the filming of an interview with the BBC, in Damascus (Sana Sana/Courtesy Reuters). Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is seen during the filming of an interview with the BBC, in Damascus (Sana Sana/Courtesy Reuters).

Ismet Berkan examines how Turkey’s upcoming parliamentary elections might affect the relationship between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Read more »