Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

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

Weekend Reading: The Failure of January 25, Beirut’s Barbershops, and Zajal In Lebanon

by Steven A. Cook Friday, January 30, 2015
A barber shaves Mohamed Ali from south Lebanon sheltering at a school in Beirut (Jamal Saidi/Courtesy Reuters). A barber shaves Mohamed Ali from south Lebanon sheltering at a school in Beirut (Jamal Saidi/Courtesy Reuters).

Wael Eskandar argues that the death of Egyptian activist Shaimaa al-Sabbagh last week at the hands of security forces represents the complete failure of the January 25 revolution. Read more »

Saudi Arabia: How Do You Know?

by Steven A. Cook Monday, January 26, 2015
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah arrives at Heathrow Airport in west London October 29, 2007 (Dylan Martinez/Courtesy Reuters). Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah arrives at Heathrow Airport in west London October 29, 2007 (Dylan Martinez/Courtesy Reuters).

During one of my last semesters in graduate school, I was a teaching assistant for a course called “How Do You Know?” The goal of the class was to expose students to the way different disciplines in the social sciences, humanities, and hard sciences evaluate evidence. It was a terrific course. The students loved it and the instructors loved it. I hope the University of Pennsylvania still offers it because many of the people writing about Saudi Arabia after King Abdullah’s death on Friday morning (Saudi time) should enroll. It may not help, however. In too many instances commentators, be they declared “experts” or run-of the-mill pundits, are not dealing with any evidence at all. They are just repeating rumors or making up deep-sounding pronouncements after apparently crash-watching David Lean’s 1962 movie Lawrence of Arabia, which, by the way, had nothing to do with the al-Saud family, but rather their Hejazi rivals, the Hashemites. Here is my advice: Let’s everyone step back from their metaphorical desert tent, take a deep breath, sip some cardamom coffee, munch on a date, and understand—as best we can—what has and what has not happened in Saudi Arabia. Read more »

Weekend Reading: After the Uprisings, Egypt’s Despotism, and Yemen’s Meltdown

by Steven A. Cook Friday, January 23, 2015
A Houthi fighter shouts slogans as he takes part in a demonstration to show support to the Houthi movement in Sanaa (Khaled Abdullah/Courtesy Reuters). A Houthi fighter shouts slogans as he takes part in a demonstration to show support to the Houthi movement in Sanaa (Khaled Abdullah/Courtesy Reuters).

Karl Sharro presents a satirically “simple” diagram of the Arab uprisings and their aftermath.

Amro Ali looks at how the citizen contributes to the sustainability of despotism in Egypt. Read more »

Turkey Jerky

by Steven A. Cook Tuesday, January 20, 2015
Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan walks down the stairs in between soldiers, wearing traditional army uniforms from the Ottoman Empire, as he arrives for a welcoming ceremony for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (not pictured) at the Presidential Palace in Ankara (Adem Altan/Courtesy Reuters). Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan walks down the stairs in between soldiers, wearing traditional army uniforms from the Ottoman Empire, as he arrives for a welcoming ceremony for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (not pictured) at the Presidential Palace in Ankara (Adem Altan/Courtesy Reuters).

Since the outbreak of the Gezi Park protests, which began in May 2013, there has been an inordinate amount of commentary in the newspapers of record, opinion magazines, policy journals, and blogs about Turkey. The vast majority of it has been overwhelmingly negative. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have responded in a fairly typical fashion: They have sought to mint nationalist political gold from this bad press. In a calculated effort to derive the most political benefit from a cascade of critical editorials and articles, the Turkish government has vowed to fight what it considers to be an international smear campaign. The Turks deserve a lot of criticism, but to be fair, there is also a good deal of it that is either the result of malign intent or ignorance. Read more »

Weekend Reading: Dogging It In Cairo, Lebanon’s Pretty Good Year, and Rethinking Syria Before The War

by Steven A. Cook Friday, January 16, 2015
Dogs trot outside a mausoleum at the El'arafa cemetery located in the City of the Dead, near Cairo (Ahmed Jadallah/Courtesy Reuters). Dogs trot outside a mausoleum at the El'arafa cemetery located in the City of the Dead, near Cairo (Ahmed Jadallah/Courtesy Reuters).

Adham Elsherif presents a short, English-subtitled film on life in Cairo through the eyes of street dogs.

Elias Muhanna argues that, despite its troubles, Lebanon had a better year in 2014 that expected. Read more »

Ankara on Paris: Disturbingly Equivocal

by Steven A. Cook Monday, January 12, 2015
French President Francois Hollande is surrounded by head of states including (LtoR) Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Council President Donald Tusk, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, King Abdullah of Jordan and Queen Rania Al Abdullah as they attend the solidarity march (Marche Republicaine) in the streets of Paris (Yves Herman/Courtesy Reuters). French President Francois Hollande is surrounded by head of states including (LtoR) Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Council President Donald Tusk, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, King Abdullah of Jordan and Queen Rania Al Abdullah as they attend the solidarity march (Marche Republicaine) in the streets of Paris (Yves Herman/Courtesy Reuters).

I have been reluctant to comment on the attacks in Paris. As with a whole host of people who have popped up on television to make sense of last week’s violence, terrorism and European Muslim communities are not my areas of expertise. There has also been so much excellent written commentary on the topic that even if I were inclined to write, I would not have much to add. That said, I find the Turkish leadership’s response to the events in France striking. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu took part in the solidarity rally in Paris on Sunday, but among the near universal denunciation of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and subsequent killings at the Hyper Cache market, the Turkish reaction was disturbingly equivocal. In a public statement after the assault on the magazine, the foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu declared, “Terrorism and all types of Islamophobia perpetuate each other and we stand against this.” It is hard to disagree. Islamophobia, of which there is much in Europe and the United States, is bad, and terrorism is bad. Both are scourges that need to be fought, albeit in different ways. And while Davutoglu was more direct in his condemnation, cloaked in Cavusoglu’s outrage against anti-Muslim bias and terrorism, the foreign minister was saying something else entirely: The people targeted specifically in the Charlie Hebdo attack were Islamophobes who brought Cherif and Said Kouachi on themselves, producing a cycle of more Islamophobia and thus more violence. More broadly, Cavusoglu was signaling that the West is to blame for terror because it is irredeemably anti-Islam. Read more »

Weekend Reading: Fighting Assad And ISIS, The Islamic State Before The Islamic State, and Libya’s Draft Constitution

by Steven A. Cook Friday, January 9, 2015
A man holds a bandage to his head at a field hospital after being injured in what activists said was an air strike by the forces of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus January 4, 2015 (Badra Mamet/Courtesy Reuters). A man holds a bandage to his head at a field hospital after being injured in what activists said was an air strike by the forces of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus January 4, 2015 (Badra Mamet/Courtesy Reuters).

Ruslan Trad interviews Abu Ibrahim al-Raqqawi, a Raqqa-based Syrian activist fighting both the Assad regime and ISIS.

Kevin Jackson investigates a jihadist caliphate that existed prior to ISIS. Read more »

How To Get Egypt’s Generals Back On Our Side

by Steven A. Cook Tuesday, January 6, 2015
Army soldiers take their positions with their armoured personnel vehicles during clashes with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi in the Cairo suburb of Matariya November 28, 2014 (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters). Army soldiers take their positions with their armoured personnel vehicles during clashes with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi in the Cairo suburb of Matariya November 28, 2014 (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters).

This article was originally published here on ForeignPolicy.com on Monday, January 5, 2015.

Almost as soon as the nasheed, a religious chant, begins, an improvised explosive device destroys a military vehicle in the distance. The scene repeats again, in super-slow motion. The nasheed continues, encouraging jihadists to raise up their swords, fight for god, and make their way to paradise. In the next scene, terrorists assault a small military outpost nestled amid palm trees, shooting their way through the rubble and killing a soldier who returns fire. A tank comes into view, its turret swinging wildly, raking the area with machine gun fire ineffectively, and then beating a hasty retreat. The footage then shifts to the gruesome aftermath: a burned-out tank, a disabled armored personnel carrier, and dead, mangled soldiers. Read more »

Killing “The Death of Sykes-Picot”

by Steven A. Cook Monday, January 5, 2015
Fireworks explode during New Year's celebrations at Martyrs Square in downtown Beirut (Jamal Saidi/Courtesy Reuters). Fireworks explode during New Year's celebrations at Martyrs Square in downtown Beirut (Jamal Saidi/Courtesy Reuters).

Happy New Year! Devoted readers of this blog will know that I generally loathe the annual end- and beginning-of-the-year roundups, lists, retrospectives, and prognostications. “Lame” is the only way to describe them, which is pretty lame when you think about it. There are a few exceptions to this, of course. I always look forward to my buddy Marc Lynch’s best political science books on the Middle East—though it is often a reminder of how far behind I am on my reading—and I enjoy David Brooks’s “Sidney Awards,” named after Sidney Hook. I also dislike New Year’s resolutions and almost never make them, this year being an exception: In 2015, I will refrain from trolling Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It is not that he is not deserving of criticism, but he is such an easy target. It just does not seem fair. Truth be told, I do not think I can top likening him to the Turducken as I did on Thanksgiving in Politico. Read more »

Holiday Reading

by Steven A. Cook Monday, December 22, 2014
Issa Kassissieh, an Israeli-Arab Christian, wears a Santa Claus costume as he poses for the media in Jerusalem's Old City, during the annual distribution of Christmas trees by the Jerusalem municipality (Ammar Awad/Courtesy Reuters). Issa Kassissieh, an Israeli-Arab Christian, wears a Santa Claus costume as he poses for the media in Jerusalem's Old City, during the annual distribution of Christmas trees by the Jerusalem municipality (Ammar Awad/Courtesy Reuters).

It’s the holiday season so there will be light blogging in the next week or so.  Here is what Team Cook is reading:

Steven Cook – Inventing Iraq: The Failure of Nation Building and a History Denied by Toby Dodge. Read more »