The Vulgar Marxism of Middle East Analysts

Nov. 29 2018

If economic growth and development can take hold in the Middle East—goes an argument heard often from policymakers, pundits, and even casual observers—the region’s problems will evaporate. To Steven A. Cook, this argument is simply a variation of Karl Marx’s belief that there is “an underlying economic cause for every political phenomenon.” Cook notes that the Egyptian protestors who began the 2011 uprising did not simply demand bread, but “bread, freedom, and social justice”:

Despite mounds of evidence [to the contrary], the U.S. policy community has been generally slow to recognize the shortcomings of [its] half-baked economic determinism. The reasons for this are both obvious (there is a glaring need for economic development in the Middle East) and mundane (foreign-service officers have a fairly good sense of what they need to do to help countries develop their economies). . . . U.S. officials have devoted resources to economic development in friendly countries in the region . . . because they tend to believe in the “fat and happy” theory of politics. If people benefit from the system, they are unlikely to rise up against it. [But] this is not always true. Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria are cautionary tales of countries that experienced (uneven) growth and [then] became unstable. . . .

Take, for example, the case of Turkey under the Justice and Development Party (AKP). President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been successful for so long because he . . . has a vision that encompasses a broader spectrum of issues in addition to prosperity. And, of course, it helped that Turkey clocked high economic growth for a good portion of the 2000s. But the other components of AKP’s transformative agenda—allowing people to live their religious identities more freely, the establishment of Turkey as a regional power with broader ambitions, and an uncompromising nationalism, to name a few—were also critical to the party’s longstanding success. . . .

The counterexample to Turkey is Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. . . . From the perspective of U.S. policymakers at the time, the fact that Mubarak appointed an economic policy team of self-declared reformers who were empowered to pursue neoliberal policies was a positive development that would finally put Egypt on track for sustained growth and stability. [But] Mubarak’s failure to articulate a positive, moral, uplifting future that Egyptians could believe in meant it was hard to rally anyone to his defense at the first sign of trouble. The folks who tell you that the economy is paramount would have predicted a different outcome.

You have 2 free articles left this month

Sign up now for unlimited access

Subscribe Now

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at Foreign Policy

More about: Egypt, Karl Marx, Middle East, Politics & Current Affairs, Turkey

Hizballah Is in Venezuela to Stay

Feb. 21 2019

In a recent interview, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mentioned the presence of Hizballah cells in Venezuela as further evidence of the growing unrest in that country. The Iran-backed group has operated in Venezuela for years, engaging in narcotics trafficking and money laundering to fund its activities in the Middle East, and likely using the country as a base for planning terrorist attacks. If Juan Guaido, now Venezuela’s internationally recognized leader, is able to gain control of the government, he will probably seek to alter this situation. But, writes Colin Clarke, his options may be limited.

A government led by Guaido would almost certainly be more active in opposing Hizballah’s presence on Venezuelan soil, not just nominally but in more aggressively seeking to curtail the group’s criminal network and, by extension, the influence of Iran. As part of a quid pro quo for its support, Washington would likely seek to lean on Guaido to crack down on Iran-linked activities throughout the region.

But there is a major difference between will and capability. . . . Hizballah is backed by a regime in Tehran that provides it with upward of $700 million annually, according to some estimates. Venezuela serves as Iran’s entry point into Latin America, a foothold the Iranians are unlikely to cede without putting up a fight. Moreover, Russia retains a vested interest in propping up [the incumbent] Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro and keeping him in power, given the longstanding relationship between the two countries. . . . Further, after cooperating closely in Syria, Hizballah is now a known quantity to the Kremlin and an organization that President Vladimir Putin could view as an asset that, at the very least, will not interfere with Russia’s designs to extend its influence in the Western hemisphere.

If the Maduro regime is ultimately ousted from power, that will likely have a negative impact on Hizballah in Venezuela. . . . Yet, on balance, Hizballah has deep roots in Venezuela, and completely expelling the group—no matter how high a priority for the Trump administration—remains unlikely. The best-case scenario for Washington could be an ascendant Guaido administration that agrees to combat Hizballah’s influence—if the new government is willing to accept a U.S. presence in the country to begin training Venezuelan forces in the skills necessary to counter terrorism and transnational criminal networks with strong ties to Venezuelan society. But that scenario, of course, is dependent on the United States offering such assistance in the first place.

You have 1 free article left this month

Sign up now for unlimited access

Subscribe Now

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at Foreign Policy

More about: Hizballah, Iran, Mike Pompeo, Politics & Current Affairs, U.S. Foreign policy, Venezuela